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US Papers Friday: Iraq's Basra Desertions
New NIE Sparks Controversy; MRAPs against EFPs; Veterans' Stories
By GREG HOADLEY 04/04/2008 01:53 AM ET

In today's papers, a new National Intelligence Estimate has arrived just in time for the Petraeus-Crocker hearings next week, and the Times and Post both size up the aftermath of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's recent Basra campaign, with the Times earning the best-read button for its look at Iraqi battlefield desertions in the Basra campaign and the implications of Maliki's response.

A new Pentagon report concludes found that the MRAP is effective against roadside attacks, the USAT writes, and the Monitor and Post both focus on Iraq veterans, with Jill Carroll's profile of a soldier-turned-activist-turned-candidate, and the Post's review of the new film "Body of War" that chronicles the story of a wounded veteran paralyzed from the chest down.

Over 1,000 Iraqi soldiers refused to fight or deserted their posts during the fighting last week in Basra, Stephen Farrell and James Glanz write in the Times, citing Iraqi security sources. The two add that among that were "dozens of officers, including at least two senior field commanders." A US military official confirmed that he thought the numbers of desertion were between 1,000 and 1,500. number To fill the gap, the prime minister, overseeing the battle from Basra, began quickly recruiting as many as 10,000 recruits from local Shi'a tribes, to the consternation of some in the Sunni tribal ("Awakening") forces who have alleged that the government is sandbagging against their demand that they be folded into the regular Iraqi security forces. According to a British military official, the PM brought 6,600 extra troops to Basra for the battle, in addition to the 30,000 stationed there. The Times reporters mention two officers in particular who were relieved of their command for having refused to fight, Col. Rahim Jabbar, and Lt. Col. Shakir Khalaf, citing an Iraqi military source in Basra who said Khalaf believed that Iraqi forces could not protect him from death threats he received for fighting. A US source estimated the number of deserting officers at "less than a couple dozen at most" while Iraqi sources put the number from a few dozen to 100. US sources seemed to brush off the suggestion that the desertions show that Iraqi forces are not seaworthy in heavy combat, suggesting that the bulk of the deserters were fresh recruits. On Thursday, PM Maliki said that “Everyone who was not on the side of the security forces will go into the military courts.”

As for those new tribal recruits, the prime minister promised a certain number of jobs in the security forces, allocated by tribe, as well as $100 mil in economic aid to Basra. The al-Halaf Tribe received 25 slots and sought more, the Times writes, and more powerful groupings were rumored to have an allotment of as many as 300 posts. Kudos to the Times for also interviewing a representative of the Fadhil Awakening Council (which the writers don't mention is based in a Sunni Arab enclave in eastern Baghdad), who said that four months ago he "presented 100 Sunni names for enrollment in the Iraqi police and had received no reply." Perhaps the Iraqi government will start enrolling more Sahwa fighters into the regular forces when they start fighting the Mahdi Army too.

Meanwhile, Muqtada al-Sadr issued a new statement accusing the government of continuing its arrest campaign against Sadrist forces, and calling for a million Iraqis to march to Najaf on April 9 to protest the US occupation. US airships bombed Basra at least twice Thursday; one strike in the al-Qibla district flattened a two-story house, killing three and wounding three, all of the same family, the Times writers report.

The Basra operations may have weakened the Iraqi prime minister's standing, Sudarsan Raghavan and Ernesto Londoño write in the Post, citing interviews with Iraqi officials and the US ambassador. "It was ill-advised and ill-timed," says Mahmoud Othman of the Kurdish Coalition, speaking of the Basra assault. "I think Maliki had a setback and America had a setback because Iran and Moqtada al-Sadr were victorious." Iran was involved in what was apparently a brokered settlement between Sadr and the Iraqi PM, and Iraqi officials alleged that the Mahdi Army fighters, who numbered as high as 15,000 in Basra, received arms from Iran during the fighting, a charge Tehran denies. Meanwhile, MP Basim Sharif of the Fadhila Party, important in Basra, did not condemn the operations but faulted the PM for not building support in the Parliament before the ground assault. Hussein Falluji of the Sunni Arab Tawafuq Front expressed admiration for the PM after taking on the Mahdi Army in Basra, saying "What is behind those militias is the Iranian influence," said Falluji, the Sunni lawmaker. "So willingness to comfort these groups and to try and end the state of chaos which Iran wants to sow in Iraqi society has made him stronger." (Not noted in the Post, but important to mention here that there is also a strong anti-government Sunni Arab trend that seems to have newfound respect, at least, for the Sadrists after the Basr fighting, and which views the Iraqi government as the key agent of Iranian influence in Iraq.)

Sadiq al-Rikabi, a Maliki advisor, said that the PM had planned the Basra operations for over six months but launched the charge on March 25 in response to deteriorating security conditions there. "Rikabi said the prime minister consulted his security advisers, his ministerial security committee and U.S. military commanders before dispatching troops," the Post reporters write. An unnamed Iraqi defense official said Iraqi forces were overwhelmed by the second day of fighting and would have been defeated if not for the intervention of US and British forces. Finally, US Amb. Crocker told reporters that he had been informed four days prior to the operation, adding "I had the understanding this was going to be an effort to kind of get down, show they were serious with additional forces, put the squeeze on, develop a full picture of conditions and then act accordingly," Crocker said. "I was not expecting, frankly, a major battle from day one. But then again it's not clear to me that they'd decided that's what they were going to do. The enemy has a vote in combat."

New NIE

In the Times, Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt describe the latest classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, writing that "The document provides a more upbeat analysis of conditions in Iraq than the last major assessment by United States spy agencies, last summer." The reporters cite officials who spoke anonymously after viewing the document who say that the document refers to a downturn in violence, citing on the Sahwa strategy and last year's Mahdi Army cease fire, as well as "slow but steady progress by Iraqi politicians on forging alliances between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq," in their words.

Karen DeYoung's report the Post focuses on the efforts of Democratic Sens. Kennedy and Levin, in a letter to Director of National Intelligence, Mitch McConnell, urging the DCI to release an unclassified summary of the NIE before the April 8 Crocker-Petraeus testimony. DeYoung doesn't try as hard as the Times writers to characterize the NIE's contents in one way or another, but somehow comes across suggesting that its contents may be slightly more pessimistic than what is suggested in the pages of the Times. The only clear references in DeYoung's article to the contents of the report are a note that sources said the document does not address last week's fighting in Basra, Baghdad and across the Iraqi south, as well as a quote from Sen. Biden, Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said: "The stuff that was positive, they emphasized. The negative, they stated, but deemphasized." Only four NIEs have ever been released as unclassified summaries, two last year about the situation in Iraq, another in 2002 about weapons of mass destruction that bolstered the case for war, and one last year that undercut the Bush administration's line on WMDs and Iran.

Siobhan Gorman has the NIE story for the Journal, writing that "several Democratic officials said the report was notable for what it didn't cover. It didn't delve into questions of how developments in Iraq would be affected by changes in the region. Earlier reports assessed the potential impact of changes, such as a decision to pull out U.S. troops." Gorman's report suggests that that backers of the Bush administration's Iraq policies seem to focus on the references to ostensible improvements in the Iraqi scene, while those opposed, particularly in the Democratic Party, focus on what it leaves out. "It's much less insightful than other, recent products and focuses narrowly on counterterrorism efforts in Iraq and the progress of the Iraqi leadership," said Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Homeland Security intelligence subcommittee. Some Dems also suggested that the timing of the report is suspect, coming only days before the Petraeus-Crocker hearings.

MRAP vs. EFP

A new Pentagon report concludes that the new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicle perform better against so-called EFPs, explosively formed projectiles, which had been among the most deadly roadside weapons against American forces, Tom Vanden Brook writes in USAT. In a phone conversation, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, MNF commander south of Baghdad, said that "I've had EFPs hit my MRAPs and the soldiers inside, in general terms, are OK," adding "We've lost 140 soldiers under my command since we've been involved in this operation . . . Many were the result of them being in uparmored Humvees or Bradleys or tanks. Underbelly IEDs, with significant amounts of explosive material, have been devastating. They cause catastrophic kills in those vehicles. Those same kind of attacks against MRAPs allow my soldiers to survive. I'm convinced of that." On Tuesday, Marine Gen. Robert Magnus reported to the Senate that no Marine had been killed or seriously wounded in an MRAP, and added in his testimony that Marines are "up to five times as likely to be injured in an attack on an armored Humvee than in an MRAP," Vanden Brook writes.

In a second article in today's USAT, Vanden Brook also cites a British consulting group's report that says the use of IED technologies is spreading beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans affairs

The thread of documentary films links two stories about American Iraq war veterans in two different papers today.

Jill Carroll of the Monitor profiles Army Capt. John Powers, an Iraq vet who, through the accident of participating in a documentary film about his troop, came to establish a charity and run for Congress. Powers founded the organization War Kids Relief, which supports Iraqi orphans. The captain and his troop had been involved with an orphanage in Baghdad's Adhamiya district during his 2004 tour, but they were asked by the nuns not to come around after they had received threats from insurgents. Spending time with Iraqi orphans had been restorative for Powers and his soldiers, he said, and the men were saddened by the loss of the contact with the children. Upon his return to the States, Powers eventually participated in a documentary film about his troop, and during the film's tour he decided to work in the humanitarian sector, especially after a Capitol Hill screening convinced him that policymakers were "out of touch" about Iraq, and a New York showing put him in touch with a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. Powers returned to Baghdad to run War Kids Relief, but is now running for Congress in Buffalo, in an effort to change policy.

The film "Body of War," produced and co-directed by talk show host Phil Donahue, along with Ellen Spiro, profiles Thomas Young, 25, who was paralyzed from the chest down after being hit by an AK-47 round after only five days in theater. Young enlisted on September 13, 2001. In the Post, John Anderson reviews the film, debuting this month, writing that the film is "ferocious" in its honesty about Young's condition, unabashed in its antiwar political orientation. Anderson also found a certain faux-60s folk background aesthetic a bit out of place, and wishes that the filmmakers had brought the disagreement between the Iraq veteran and his stepfather, an ardent war supporter, more to the fore: "Just as the son represents one disillusioned faction of the country, the father personifies another, a shrinking but intractable part of the American electorate that will never change sides on the war, in part because they so dislike the people who are saying it's wrong."

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