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US Papers Fri: Obama Victory Alters Politics
U.S. Approves Most SOFA Revisions: "Keep Your Euphoria To Yourself, Soldier"
By DANIEL W. SMITH 11/07/2008 01:59 AM ET
Most of today's news is understandably about how the incoming Obama administration may effect, and is already affecting, the situation in Iraq - notably, the status of forces agreement.

From Baghdad
The Washington Post’s Ernesto Londoño, Mary Beth Sheridan and Karen DeYoung report that, two days after the election of Barack Obama, Iraq's chief spokesman said with unusual forcefulness Thursday that his government will continue to insist on a firm withdrawal date for U.S. troops, despite American demands that any pullout be subject to prevailing security conditions.

"Iraqis would like to know and see a fixed date," spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said, and stressed that U.S. soldiers, in some instances, be subject to Iraqi law. Al-Dabbagh also spoke of the changing, and that by June, they would cease to operate unilaterally. "U.S. troops should be secluded to known camps," Dabbagh said. "The Americans would be called whenever there is a need. Their movement would be limited." Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Thursday night that top Iraqi officials were studying the document the Americans had given them. "Time is of the essence," he said.
Haider Abadi, a Shiite lawmaker who is a senior adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said Obama's stated goal of bringing American troops home relatively quickly is in line with the Iraqi government's vision. "He's been saying all along that he wants to withdraw U.S. forces within 15 months," Abadi said in a phone interview Thursday night. "That fits with the Iraqi proposal."

Months ago, Obama said he would like to withdraw American troops within 16 months of taking office, but as the security situation has improved, he has stopped citing that time frame.

Abadi said it remains unclear how Obama's election will ultimately affect the negotiations. "It can go either way," he said. The Bush administration, the lawmaker explained, might have refrained from making some potentially controversial decisions during the run-up to the U.S. election. Conversely, he said, "maybe the political will in Washington will be weaker" now that the election is over.
"They respect him and feel that he can be a good friend," Dabbagh said, describing Iraqi leaders' feelings toward Obama.

Similarly, but with more of a focus on Iraqi politics, Alissa J. Rubin of the New York Times writes that although Barack Obama may have been elected only three days ago, his victory is already beginning to shift the political ground in Iraq and the region.
Iraqi Shiite politicians are indicating that they will move faster toward a new security agreement about American troops, and a Bush administration official said he believed that Iraqis could ratify the agreement as early as the middle of this month.”
“Before, the Iraqis were thinking that if they sign the pact, there will be no respect for the schedule of troop withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2011,” said Hadi al-Ameri, a powerful member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a major Shiite party. “If Republicans were still there, there would be no respect for this timetable. This is a positive step to have the same theory about the timetable as Mr. Obama.”
Many Shiite politicians had been under intense pressure from Iranian leaders not to sign a security agreement. Iran, which has close ties to Shiite politicians, has feared the agreement would lay the groundwork for a permanent American troop presence in Iraq that would threaten Iran. But now, the Iraqis appear to be feeling less pressure from Iran, perhaps because the Iranians are less worried that an Obama government will try to force a regime change in their country.

In recent weeks Mr. Ameri, who spent years in Iran and leads the Badr Corps, a onetime paramilitary arm of the Supreme Council, was one of several senior party members who appeared to be reflecting Iran’s concerns with a reluctance to endorse the pact. Of course, given the volatile and fractious state of Iraqi politics, the security agreement could still be delayed. But with Iraqis believing that Mr. Obama, as president, would move faster to withdraw American troops, Iraqi and American officials said obstacles to a security agreement appeared to be fading.
“Iraqis are very relieved that Obama won, but this happiness or relief is accompanied by worry,” said Ali Adeeb, a lawmaker and a senior member of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s Dawa Party. “Because even if Obama calls for early withdrawal, there is still a need to rehabilitate the Iraqi security forces.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Gina Chon reports that the U.S. notified Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki it has accepted many of the changes proposed last week by the Iraqi cabinet in a draft security agreement between the two countries. Of course, it covers much of the same material, but the centerpiece is the nitty-gritty of the negotiations, and of the actual agreement.
Time is running out to conclude the pact. Because of major Muslim holidays in December, Iraqi lawmakers would need to approve a deal by the end of this month, although parliament could delay its break by holding emergency sessions.

...The U.S. agreed to changes aimed at giving Iraqi officials political cover, according to people familiar with the matter. For example, the U.S. agreed to delete a paragraph that said the Iraqi government could ask U.S. troops to stay beyond 2011 to train and support Iraqi forces. That clause had caused confusion and protest among some Iraqi officials, who saw it as a way for the U.S. troops to stay permanently. Even without the clause, the Iraqi government could still request U.S. training and support, and likely will do so.

The U.S. refused an Iraqi request to allow Baghdad to decide when troops should be considered off duty when determining whether they could be prosecuted in Iraqi courts. The issue of legal jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers has been one of the most contentious issues. Washington also rejected a proposal giving Iraq the right to inspect all U.S. shipments coming into the country, although it said Iraq could request to examine shipments.

The Iraqi side had requested more than 100 changes, most of them minor and cosmetic in nature. Substantive requests from the Iraqi government were aimed at silencing critics of the deal, who have charged the security pact could be a way for the U.S. military to stay in Iraq indefinitely.
There is a tiny uncredited article in the New York Times, mentioning some explosions on Thursday. Here’s the whole thing.
Three people were killed in Baghdad on Thursday as violence continued for a fourth day. Two improvised explosive devices went off simultaneously in a central Sunni and Shiite area during the morning rush, killing two people and wounding five. Also in central Baghdad, another blast killed one government employee and wounded five.
Other News From Iraq
James Hagengruber of the Christian Science Monitor tells of good things being done in a military camp in the southern city of Tallil, where average Iraqis are given access to international aid groups, such as Smile Train volunteers who treated about 100 children with cleft lips and palates. "This little facility allows us to leap ahead – years ahead – of what we would have otherwise been able to do," says Mike Bunning, a US State Department official there. "It's the step we have been unable to take. This camp has been a bastion of hope."
Camp Mittica has hosted volunteers ranging from teers ranging from the Italian plastic surgeons with Smile Train to a foundation aimed at helping people diagnosed with dwarfism to a team of agricultural experts from Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. The Texas team was at the site recently to help local dairy farmers set up the region's first modern milk and cheese production facility.
"There's very little security here – we don't need it," says Dr. Bunning, who is the medical officer for the Dhi Qar Provincial reconstruction team. "This works as a neutral zone where everyone can come together." Much of the article deals with the question of how much security is needed, and wanted by such groups.
Although humanitarian groups were abundant in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, the ensuing violence prompted most groups to flee the country. Apart from a small contingent from the United Nations and a handful of other groups, including Mercy Corps, few international organizations have returned, says Shirouk Hamid, an Iraqi who has worked with provincial leaders in Baghdad to rebuild the country's civil society.

"Iraqis were isolated for two decades. In one morning, they woke up and found the whole world was around them inside Iraq," says Ms. Hamid. "Of course it made a difference, but then everybody left."

Despite the danger, many homegrown organizations continued working to reconstruct their country and improve the lives of their fellow citizens, says Hamid, who helped organize a women's rights group. Violence has dropped – especially in the south – but not enough to prompt the return of aid groups.

Even in nearby Muthanna, one of the safest provinces, diplomats and construction workers still wear flak jackets and travel in heavily armored convoys. "Everybody says the security situation is improving, but you can see how the security measures and the fears are still here. You still have to wear this and this," says Hamid, pointing to the helmet and body armor she was required to don while visiting a construction site along the Euphrates River.

Hamid, who now advises the Iraqi government and US officials on water projects, says Camp Mittica is proving to be the ideal place for both sides to demonstrate goodwill while shedding five years of fear. A leap of faith is needed, she says, but outside aid groups will be received warmly by Iraqis. "They will protect anybody who offers them services," she says.
Stateside
Back to Obama’s effect on Iraq, Yochi J. Dreazen writes in the Wall Street Journal that his election will trigger a significant realignment of U.S. national-security priorities, with Afghanistan and Pakistan gaining in prominence as resources are redirected from Iraq. It covers the same issues as the previous stories – improving security in Iraq, drawdown of U.S. troops, etc., but with the focus on all this allowing more troops to be sent to Afghanistan.
U.S. policy in the two regions has been shaped by the Bush administration's decision to commit the bulk of the nation's military and financial resources to Iraq, where the ouster of Saddam Hussein set off a prolonged civil war, rather than to Afghanistan. The focus on Iraq left the Afghanistan mission chronically short of troops and money.

The New York Times editorial page runs a piece called “Keep Your Euphoria To Yourself, Soldier”, about Pentagon officials trying to block Stars and Stripes from covering the troops’ “plain and honest reactions to the election night news about their new commander in chief”. It’s short and entertaining enough to include it in its entirety(other than the fist paragraph, just paraphrased).
The boneheaded muzzling of the newspaper, which is protected by First Amendment guarantees against editorial interference, barred reporters assigned to do simple color stories from the public areas of military bases in order to “avoid engaging in activities that could associate the Department with any partisan election.”

Partisan? By that rationale, the civilian news media’s coverage of the spontaneous celebrations across the land on Tuesday night was an act of journalistic bias. It’s ludicrous that Pentagon brass feared men and women in uniform might be caught smiling, frowning or variously exclaiming “Whoopee!” or “Rats!” at voting results from the democracy they defend with their lives.

The good news is that Stars and Stripes found commanders in the Middle East and Europe that ignored the foolish directive, as if it were a premise for a “M*A*S*H” episode. When other commanders clamped down in Japan and South Korea, the paper properly took the ban as illegal under longstanding Congressional and military policies. Its reporters did their jobs until forced to stop.

By law, troops are allowed to express their political opinions in a nonofficial capacity. These days, they do so nonstop by name in blogs and newspaper letters. Even so, a Pentagon spokesman told the newspaper there’s no obligation to “assist with a story that chips away at the fundamental apolitical nature of the military.”

Inane is more apt than apolitical. The Pentagon should retreat from its head-in-the-sand posturing.

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