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US Papers Wed: Defense to Oversee Contractors
US, Iraqi Deaths fall; Contractors losing immunity?; Sayidia's shifting fortunes
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 10/31/2007 01:51 AM ET
It was yet another Blackwater day for Iraq coverage on Tuesday, with front page play in The New York Times despite news that U.S. and Iraqi deaths in September were the lowest since early 2006. As far as enterprise goes, the Wall Street Journal looks at the sad tale of Sayidia, a Baghdad neighborhood that remains a dangerous hotspot.

But the decline in violence reflects a tactical victory rather than a strategic one, reports Ann Scott Tyson for the Washington Post (page A14). She reports that attacks by insurgents and other fighters against U.S. and Iraqi forces, as well as civilians, has dropped sharply to levels not seen since early 2006, according to the latest report from the Government Accountability Office. Daily attacks have dropped from 5,300 in June to about 3,000 in September, mostly against U.S. forces. Attacks against Iraqi forces and civilians have also dropped, but not as much. While the drop in violence is good news, the Defense Intelligence Agency said the numbers may under represent intra-sect violence, such as battles between Shi'ite militias or attacks on Iraqi security forces in the south. Political progress is still stalled, but the security situation could finally be stabilizing. However, the report criticized the U.S. for "the lack of strategic plans" to guide U.S. and Iraqi efforts to stabilize the country. Efforts to build up Iraqi ministries, for example, are "plagued by unclear goals and objectives." Iraqi ministries have spent only 24 percent of their $10 billion budget for capital projects and reconstruction because they lack capacity to spend the money.

Gordon Lubold has the story for the Christian Science Monitor, with American officials crediting recent weapons finds, disruption of bombmaking cells, and the 2007 "surge" for the drop in violence. Lubold says the strategy is working ... at least for now.

It is too soon to know if the trend will last or whether the reduction of American forces in coming months, as planned, will undermine what remains a fragile security on the ground.

Nor does it signal that victory is imminent. Instead, the security gains present a "window of opportunity" that will stay open only if economic opportunity, government coherence, and stronger Iraqi security forces materialize in Iraq, says a senior defense official.

"If those things don't occur, then you'll begin to see things backslide on the military side," says the official, who asked not to be named in order to speak more freely.

Twenty-three troops died in October, compared to 120 in May. That's the lowest level since March 2006, when 27 troops were killed. It's one of the least deadly months for American forces in the war. Lubold tries to tread a fine line between optimism and caution with this story, and mostly succeeds, by quoting Brookings Institution scholar Michael O'Hanlon, who he describes as "both hawkish and critical of the war." (What does that mean?) Still, there have been more US fatalities in the first 10 months of 2007 than in all of 2006 -- 713 so far, compared to 704 last year.

Jim Michaels of USA Today adroitly sums it up in his leade: "The number of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq is headed for the lowest level in more than a year and a half and the fifth consecutive monthly decline." He has 27 troops killed in October, however, not 23 according to the Monitor, closely mirroring the stats from iCasualties.org.

New Rules for Contractors
John M. Broder and David Johnston have the Times' sole front-page story on Iraq today, and it's a doozy: All State Department security convoys in Iraq will now all be under the Pentagon's control. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates agreed to the new deal over lunch on Tuesday, ending weeks of wrangling over the status of the hired guns. This turf battle was exacerbated by Blackwater's involvement in the now infamous Sept. 16 shootout in Nisour Square that killed 17 Iraqi civilians. The Pentagon will now assert greater control over the companies' training, rules for the use of force, employment standards and movements around Iraq. That will make the troops happy, who generally loathe the contractors and accuse them of "cowboy" tactics. Commanders there insisted on the new measures "so they aren't blindsided by contractors running in and out of their battle space and potentially causing problems," said Geoff Morrell, spokesman for the Pentagon. Details of the new arrangement are being worked out still, but they're on a fast track, Morrell said. Both State and Defense have had their problems controlling their contractors. Blackwater is only the most notorious case. Defense has its own black eyes arising from its 130,000 contractors, some of whom are in charge of interrogating prisoners and transportation of fuel and ammunition. These new rules will apply only to private security contractors, however. The second part of the story deals with Democrats' frustration in Congress over yesterday's revelation of a limited immunity deal for the Blackwater guards involved in the Nisour Square incident. "It feels like they're protecting Blackwater," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. The Justice Department said the contractors could still be prosecuted despite the immunity deals, which were not authorized by federal prosecutors.

Karen DeYoung reports on the outrage of the Democrats toward the deal for the Post. One of the sources of outrage is that the kind of immunity deals offered are usually reserved for government employees, not private contractors. DeYoung puts the agreement between State and Defense over the new rules for contractors in the second part of her story instead of leading with it as the Times did.

Over there
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, things are heating up for contractors. Alissa J. Rubin of the Times reports that the Iraqi Cabinet sent draft legislation to parliament lifting the Order 17 immunity for foreign private security firms. Under the legislation, foreign security firms would have to have all their weapons registered by the Iraqi Interior Ministry, all their vehicles and aircraft with the appropriate Iraqi agencies and all foreign employees would need visas from the Foreign Ministry. This is going to be a major headache for firms like Blackwater, whose employees usually enter on DoD badges flashed at immigration at Baghdad International. Parliament is likely to make the law tougher and more restrictive. Not addressed in this story is if the one-two punch of the new rules from Defense and the Iraqi restrictions will discourage contractor companies from coming to Iraq in the first place. Sure there's money to be made, but the looming threat of Iraqi prosecution could turn off some of the cowboys. There were some security incidents. Three American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb southeast of Baghdad. In Samarra, militants attacked a building used by Iraqi and American security forces. And a car bomb exploded at a joint Iraqi Army and police checkpoint west of Samarra, killing four policemen and wounding eight.

Amit R. Paley has the story for the Post, and notes that the new law would not be retroactive. The Blackwater guys currently at the center of controversy need not worry about this piece of legislation, at least. Paley also has the news that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was able to fill some of the cabinet seats that have been vacant for part of this year. The Post has more on the security developments. At least 32 people died in attacks across the country, according to the Interior Ministry, but Paley provides no details beyond that. In addition to the three soldiers, a 27-year-old editor of a new weekly newspaper was killed over the weekend.

August Cole has the story of the rescinding of Order 17 for the Wall Street Journal, and does touch on the chilling effect it might have on security companies in Iraq.

The Journal's Philip Shishkin has a wrenching story of Sayidia, a formerly mixed and affluent neighborhood in Baghdad that is one of the holdouts in the steady march of Shi'ites gaining control of the capital. Formerly the only safe haven for Sunnis in western Baghdad, it's seen some of the worst Sunni-Shi'ite violence in the city. Shi'ite militiamen are pressing in two sides while Sunni fighters come into defend the remaining turf. The story of the neighborhood is a microcosm of what's happened in Baghdad.

Shi'ites, marginalized under Saddam Hussein, have been able to seize real estate, businesses and municipal services from Sunnis. A mafia-like network of Shi'ite militias has engineered the takeover of entire neighborhoods. Of the 51 members on Baghdad's City Council, only one is Sunni; the police are almost entirely Shia.
Speaking of the police, Shishkin gets one of the most laughable quotes from an Iraqi spokesman. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, denies the police are working with Shi'ite militias. "The police forces represent the government, and the government doesn't support one side against the other," he says. The whole story is well worth a read for its detail and narrative of a neighborhood that tells the story of the Iraqi civil war.

Fables of Reconstruction
Iraqi rebuilding is falling far short of the goals set for it, reports James Glanz of the Times. More than $100 billion has been devoted to the country's rebuilding (mainly from U.S. taxpayers and Iraqi oil money) but the country is still reeling. Electricity and oil output, while having made modest gains, is still below pre-war levels, almost five years after the invasion. This story is a bit of a roundup of several stories over the past couple of days, including the one from Tyson of the Post (above) and the Mosul Dam debacle from yesterday. But it has some extra details. For instance, about $19 billion has been spent on the Iraqi security forces. But "despite endless American press releases on Iraqi forces taking over responsibility for parts of the country, the (GAO) estimates that just 10 of 140 Iraqi Army, national police and special operations units were in fact operating independently as of September." Why? The dam itself gets some more details. Remember that grout solution the Iraqis came up with to keep the dam from collapsing? Well, the U.S. decided to help them out and contract five giant new grout-mixing plants around the dam. But the contractors -- who aren't named -- instead built cement-mixing plants, which never worked either. Even more puzzling, the contractors' plans showed they had the wrong type of plant in mind before they even started construction. So the result was essentially "shoddily built storage silos and other idle equipment."

IN OTHER COVERAGE

Christian Science Monitor
Leslie Sabbagh reports on the Blue Force Tracker system U.S. forces use in Iraq to keep tabs on their forces. (Disclosure: I worked on a story about this for TIME Magazine in 2004.)

USA Today
The Oscar season is upon us, and Iraq films are all the rage. Bruce Kluger takes a look at several of them and muses on the collapse of the time lag between event and movie adaptation. In World War II, because of its length, films were made while fighting was going on, but today, films are more critical. The truly critical -- and critically acclaimed -- films of Vietnam didn't come out until after the conflict was over. Not so with the Iraq war.

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