From Baghdad, Marc Santora reports on violence in Iraq coinciding with the Shi`a holy period of `Ashura. More than fifty Iraqis died in attacks yesterday. At least 23 Shi`a observers of the `Ashura traditions were killed in a bombing in Balad Ruz, near Baquba, and a roadside bomb killed at least 12 worshipers traveling in procession in Khanqin, northeast of the capital. Gunmen opened fire on minibuses containing Shi`a pilgrims in Baghdad, killing four. In `Adhimiya, a predominantly Sunni area, at least 10 civilians were confirmed killed by mortar shells, with the count expected to go much higher. Santora writes that security was tight in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, with thousands of police present, and US and UK jets and choppers overhead. Santora also reports that the official counts from Sunday’s extraordinary fighting near Najaf stands at 263 alleged Soldiers of Heaven fighers killed, 210 wounded and 502 arrested. A video released by the government shows prisoners being taken away in blindfolds, and another video shows stacks of bodies of militia fighters allegedly killed in the battle.
Filing from Baghdad, Ernest Londoño and Saad Sarhan also lead with the day’s violence, picking up on an attack that doesn’t make it into the Times report: in Baladruz, Diyala Province, a suicide bombing killed 17 in a Shi`i mosque where worshippers had gathered to observe `Ashura. They report that Iraqi officials are still piecing together details of the Soldiers of Heaven movement, including its beliefs, motivations, financing and leadership. One Iraqi official claimed that al-Qaeda in Iraq had provided funding. Others said that the group had planned to travel under cover of the `Ashura pilgrimages to Najaf to mount an attack on Tuesday on the Shi`i religious hierarchy there.
The sheer sophistication of the Jan. 20 attack at Karbala in which attackers posed as US soldiers to infiltrate security has led US and Iraqi officials to probe for an Iranian hand in the affair, James Glanz and Mark Mazetti write from Baghdad. US military and Iraqi government sources both have speculated that an Iraqi group alone could not have had the wherewithal or technical abilities required to make such an attack successful. Speculation centers on a putative relationship between elements within the Mahdi Army and the Iranian security apparatus. However, Glanz and Mazetti are careful to point out that US and Iraqi officials “offered no direct evidence of a connection” to Iran, and in an interesting choice of words, they write “The focus on Iran could be seen as convenient from the point of view of the Bush administration, which has been engaged in an escalating war of words with Iran.”
Jim Michaels submits a shorter piece for the USAT in which a US officer accuses Iran of supplying weapons to Iraqi militias. He quotes Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno: "We have weapons that we know through serial numbers ... that trace back to Iran." Iran has denied that it is arming Iraqi militias.
Helene Cooper writes in the Times that the appointment of Negroponte to the post of Deputy Secretary of State signals that “the debate over Iraq is increasingly becoming a debate over Iran.” Negroponte is known to share Pres. Bush’s aggressive views on US-Iran policy.
From Washington, Carl Hulse and Thom Shanker report that White House loyalists in the Senate are strategizing to avoid the approval of bills that would reject Bush’s Iraq escalation plan. As alternatives to the two bipartisan opposition measures under consideration, GOP Sens. McCain and Graham, and Independent Sen. Lieberman have drafted a bill that would force the Iraqi government to adhere to benchmarks and includes language supporting Bush’s troop increase. They have received support from Sens. McConnell, Cornyn, and Vitter. Senate GOP White House allies were also reportedly caucusing for the 41 votes necessary to prevent the bipartisan bills from coming to vote. Also on the Hill, Iraq Study Group leaders testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, disputing the White House contention that Bush’s proposed Iraq policy takes into account the Group’s conclusions. The Iraq issue also ran through Adm. Fallon’s confirmation hearing to become head of US Central Command, which includes most of the Middle East. Democrat Sen. Feingold has said he would soon introduce a bill that would withdraw funding for most US presence in Iraq after six months.
In some contrast to the Times report, Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray write in the Post that GOP strategy is “balkanizing” with no fewer than five bills competing for Republican votes and the GOP leadership unable to bring the Republican caucus to rally around a single bill. “Resolutions are flying like snowflakes around here," Sen. Specter quipped. In addition to the McCain-Graham-Lieberman bill mentioned above, Weisman and Murray report that Sen. Isakson has introduced a bill and Sens. Cornyn and Gregg are each considering proposals. The two reporters note “Democrats, who are united in their desire to stop the escalation, are regarding the Republican divisions with some glee.”
Murray also reports in the Post that Sen. Obama yesterday proposed legislation that goes farther than the anti-escalation measures proposed so far, which would require full US withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq by March 31, 2008. The bill would allow for a US presence for “counterterrorism” activities and to train Iraqi forces, and would allow for the withdrawal to be halted temporarily if the Iraqi government met “benchmarks” proposed by the Bush administration. She notes that Obama’s position contrasts with that of other Democratic presidential hopefuls Clinton and Edwards. In election season, one wonders if the Democrats can conduct their own Iraq debate without “balkanizing.”
In other coverage:
NEW YORK TIMES
Times editors print a staff editorial calling on the Bush administration to do much more for refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, especially those that have worked for the US as interpreters, guides, and contractors. They call for more slots to be opened to Iraqis seeking refugee status in the US, greater funding of UN relief efforts, and streamlined entry requirements for those who have been in the employ of the US in their occupied home countries.
On Page D1 of the Post, Griff Witte and Renae Merle file an important story: US auditors have found that faulty oversight of American spending in Iraq has resulted in fraud and abuse of public funds by several contractors in Iraq. The special inspector general for Iraq has released reports accusing such contractors as Parsons and DynCorp of over-billing for substandard or uncompleted work, leading to tens of millions of dollars of waste and fraud.
Zachary Goldfarb reports for the Post that Democratic leaders have agreed to President Bush’s proposal to create a bipartisan panel that would advise the president on counterterrorism and the war in Iraq. Democrats initially rejected the proposal when it was made clear that Bush expected to appoint all members of the panel. A compromise was struck when President Bush agreed to allow Democrats to appoint their own members on the body.
As Tony Blair nears the end of his tenure, David Ignatius reflects on the British PM: “When he leaves office as Prime Minister, probably this summer, his political legacy will be summed up in one ruinous word: Iraq.”
Adm. Fallon’s confirmation hearing to lead CENTCOM gets a write-up by Ann Scott Tyson and Glenn Kessler, who report that Iran policy figured heavily in the discussion, with Fallon revealing himself to be rather hawkish on the subject. On Iraq, Fallon said that a military solution could not be imposed on the country and that political progress had to accompany military operations.
WALL STREET JOURNAL
The Journal prints a staff editorial entitled “Progress in Baghdad” which supports the Bush administration’s Iraq plan and argues that Iraq is “inching in the right direction.” Journal editors dismiss criticism of Iraqi forces over the recent fighting near Najaf and point to “widespread reports” that militias are “fleeing” the capital in anticipation of a crackdown, and suggest that PM Maliki has the full support of the Iraqi parliament.
David Rivkin and Lee Casey contribute an op-ed on the constitutional issues at stake in the proposals to be debated in Congress, concluding that Congress has the authority to “cripple the president's ability to fight a war (accepting the political consequences), but it cannot supervise his own constitutional authority as commander in chief, effectively transferring those functions to Congress.”
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
John Hughes, former Monitor editor, contributes an op-ed in which he argues that “American preoccupation with Iraq and the Middle East is permitting China and Russia to extend their influence in other crucial areas of the world with little fear of US reaction.” He mentions recent Chinese and Russian diplomatic initiatives in Africa, Latin America, and India, and the two countries’ relationships with Iran. Hughes also predicts that “In order to avoid a political debacle for the Republican Party in next year's elections, Mr. Bush will almost surely slash the US troop presence in Iraq to a modest force by mid-2008.”