The Times' Deborah Sontag and Lizette Alvarez start what looks like a massive multimedia series on veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have returned home and committed murder or been accused of it. Combining slideshows, charts and audio interviews, the two reporters paint a wrenching portrait of men suffering PTSD and who snap, with deadly results. The story of Matthew Sepi, a 20-year-old Iraq combat veteran, leads the package. He allegedly killed a gang member and wounded another with an AK-47 in a seedy part of Las Vegas as he was tormented by nightmares of an Iraqi civilian his unit had killed. He said the gang members had "ambushed" him, he fled and when the police caught him, he asked "Who did I take fire from?" He admitted that he "engaged the targets." The detective said he shook and cried. "I felt very bad for him," said Detective Laura Andersen. In all, the Times found 121 cases of veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan killing -- or being charged with it -- after their return from the war. In most cases, combat stress combined with alcohol abuse, family discord and other problems led to the tragedy. More than half of the killings involve guns, and about a third of the victims are spouses, girlfriends, children or other relatives. The Times research stretches from 1995 to the present day, and they found an 89 percent increase in killings by veterans since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the veterans involved had no criminal history. (Which is why they could get into the military in the first place.) It's a great and massive story, and a great tee-up for the series, which should get tons of attention.
Meanwhile, back in Iraq, Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Steven Lee Meyers report that Iraq has finally passed a bill that softens the de-Ba'athification process, allowing some former officials from Saddam Hussein's party to take government jobs. Backers said it would allow thousands of low-level Ba'athists back into public life. The Bush Administration hopes this will heal some of the rifts between the new Shi'ite-dominated government and Sunni Arabs who used to run Iraq. But of course, things aren't so simple. Serious disagreement arose in the hours after the bill was passed about what the law actually would do. It might force thousands of other former party members out of jobs they currently hold. One member of the de-Ba'athification committee said up to 7,000 Interior Ministry employees could be forced to retire. Members of the Sunni bloc in parliament complained it would still keep a number of technocrats out of jobs, while members of Moqtada al-Sadr's bloc praised it because of the strong restrictions still in place. It's not made clear why current job holders would be forcibly retired, though.
Joshua Partlow and Michael Abramowitz have the story for the Post, calling it a "significant achievement for the divide legislature." In Kuwait, President George W. Bush praised the bill and said it was a sign of reconciliation. Bush also met with Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker for the first time in four months to thrash out plans for troop withdrawals this summer as the surge winds down. Bush said the military was "on track" to reduce its troop levels back to pre-surge levels of 130,000 by the middle of summer. But he cautioned that he might slow down the withdrawal if Petraeus says so. The general is set to give another report in March that will influence Bush's decision, and the new de-Ba'athification bill will influence that report. It's unclear how effective it will be in promoting reconciliation, the Post reports write. As the spokesman for the current de-Ba'athification committee said, out of 150,000 Ba'athists who were removed by CPA Order 1, about 102,000 have come back to work. About 3,500 people from the third-highest rank would not be allowed to come back, but could apply for pensions. And about 13,000 from the fourth rank would be eligible to return to work, but the spokesman said many would not. "Most of them are either working outside the country and they don't want to go back to Iraq, or they're afraid somebody will take revenge on them or they got involved with the militant groups," the spokesman said. "Because for two years, we have been demanding that they come to the de-Ba'athification commission, but there was no response."
Speaking of slowing down the withdrawal, Steven Lee Meyers of the Times has a separate story on that from Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. Bush said the decline in violence won by the surge was too hard-won to be "squandered." "We cannot take the achievements of 2007 for granted," he said. "We must do all we can to ensure that 2008 brings even greater progress for Iraq's young democracy." Back in Washington, Democratic leaders called for a change in strategy, noting that the surge, while militarily successful, has not resulted in political progress. (Guess they didn't see the memo on the new de-Ba'athification law.)
The Post's Ann Scott Tyson of the profiles Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who next month takes over from Lt. Gen. Ray T. Odierno as the No. 2 commander in Iraq, overseeing the day-to-day combat operations of the troops there. He's a man of his troops, prone to showing up in the heat of battle and earned a Silver Star for his work in 2003 as he lead the 3rd Infantry Division on its march to Baghdad. After that, he was rewarded with command of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan. He sounds like a prime candidate for the position. Good luck, general.
IN OTHER COVERAGE
New York Times
Noah Feldman, writing for the Magazine, notes that Iraq is falling off the political radar screen in the presidential contest. There are a number of reasons: war is a downer for a feel-good candidate and the differences among the candidates within their parties are minor (Democrats want to leave; Republicans want to stay). He goes on to lay out some on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand scenarios, eventually making Iraq look like Schrödinger's Cat.
A Times editorial echoes Feldman's piece, saying the war needs to be a pressing issue on the campaign trail, even as it fades. The editorial helpfully lays out the major candidates' positions, and then lays out the questions the public needs to ask and the candidates need to answer.
Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal and USA Today
No editions today.