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Archive: January 2009
Daily Column
An Op-Ed by Staffan de Mistura, The CIA's Hunt for WMD Remembered
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/31/2009 10:18 AM ET
Iraq is still getting the headlines for now, and beneath, there continues to be writing worth reading. Writing stories the night before an election that are to appear in U.S. papers the next morning, when (due to the time difference) the elections have already taken place, isn’t easy. Whatever the wire stories end up being, they should still have a place.

From Baghdad
In the New York Times, Timothy Williams writes a standard eve-of-the-election article, but that’s not a bad thing. It serves a valid purpose, getting us up to speed, and sets up election day with some good imagery.
Instead of purple fingers, the indelible image for this year’s election may well be the tens of thousands of candidates’ posters glued to the nation’s blast walls. (In 2005, it was too dangerous for most candidates to reveal their faces.) The 12-foot-tall walls, built to contain damage by explosives, have now become the primary campaign forum for Iraq’s raw, young democracy.

On the eve of the vote, Iraq was at once fascinated by, and weary of, its democratic experiment. Polls show that three-quarters of people plan to cast ballots, but vote-buying appears to be widespread, rivals regularly tear one another’s posters from walls, and women have received death threats for running. At least five candidates have been killed, and there have been many assassination attempts.
The New York Times continues with a three-part collection of profiles of who’s running, entitled “The Candidates”. Each brief profile is written by a different Times journalist – Sam Dagher, Alissa J. Rubin, and Timothy Williams – and each highlights different element within the election. They’re short, so just read them.

Next are two stories about Moqtada al-Sadr, the guy who’s always termed a “fiery cleric” and who is nowhere to be seen these days. Both stories look at his status among Iraqis, his following, and his possible strategies for voting day.

Sudarsan Raghavan of the Washington Post writes that the election “will in part be a referendum on his influence over the country's majority Shiites and his professed transformation from guerrilla chieftain to religious leader,” and goes on to focus on the leader of one of the two “independent” parties which the Sadrists have openly supported in the election.

"We are optimistic," said Bassam Abdul Sadiq, leader of the “Free List”. "The movement of Sayed Moqtada Sadr will never become an absentee movement. This is a part of re-energizing their activity."

Back to Alissa J. Rubin and Sam Dagher in the New York Times, who explain the new direction of the Sadrists in the following way.
In many ways, it seems the movement is trying to regain its relevance and transform itself into something like the American lobbying group MoveOn — a group that candidates and parties seek out for support, but that is not a party itself.

Yet the movement wants to be “a kingmaker” in the current political process, said Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, the movement’s spokesman and political strategist. Given its wide appeal among millions of impoverished Iraqis, it has a good shot at doing so.
There’s no denying that his role has changed, but the question is exactly how? Al-Sadr has proven able to keep folks guessing in the past, and he is likely to in the future, as well.

In the Washington Post, Colum Lynch writes a review of the intrigue-laden "Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq", which chronicles ex-spook Charles A. Duelfer's decade-long hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, first as a top U.N. weapons inspector in the 1990s and later as head of the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group, which concluded in fall 2004 that Iraq had essentially dismantled its deadliest weapons program years before the U.S. invasion.

Lots of juicy details are promised about the final days of Saddam Hussein, and fresh allegations about the Vladimir Putin government's corrupt oil dealings with Iraq are included.
After he left the United Nations in 2000, Duelfer went to a Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he began working informally with a unit in the CIA's Near East division, the Iraq Operations Group, which was tasked with regime change. Duelfer assembled a list of more than 40 high-level officials who could help run Iraq following an invasion. He cultivated old contacts in the oil industry and the Iraqi government, meeting secretly with a top Iraqi official at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. He traveled to Vienna for OPEC meetings that included key Iraqi oil officials. But the plan to put together a team that would form the basis of a future government was shelved.
"Once U.S. forces were in Iraq, they used the lists as targets," Duelfer writes. "Those named would find their homes raided, and they would be thrown in jail. . . . We continued to make more enemies."

There is an op-ed in the Washington Post by special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Iraq Staffan de Mistura, who highlights the steps forward Iraq has made, but doesn’t sugar coat the current situation or the risks in Iraq’s future.

A few weeks ago, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq was reminded how bad things can still be in Baghdad when a 240mm rocket slammed into our compound, ricocheted off a tree and exploded, killing two employees and wounding several others. Dozens of Iraqis continue to die each week at the hands of merciless extremists. Conditions remain far from "normal." While life here is getting better, the security situation impedes the Iraqi people's efforts to escape the morass they have been in for many years, and it limits what we can all do to help.
He signs off with “The Iraqi people have suffered prolonged trauma of epic proportions. All of us must do whatever is possible to facilitate their progress on the road on which they have embarked.”

Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, no Saturday Editions.

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
U.S. Looks for Blackwater Replacements
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/30/2009 02:00 AM ET
Another strong day of Iraq news, all either election or Blackwater-related. Election activities in Mosul are featured in the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor.

Three candidates were assassinated Thursday, two days before provincial elections. One was killed in Mosul, one in Diyala and one in Baghdad. All three were Sunnis, but came from different parties, or “lists” – The Iraqi Islamic Party, The Reform and Development Party, and The National Unity List.

From Baghdad, Alissa J. Rubin covers the basics in the New York Times, but Zaid Sabah and Qais Mizher from the Washington Post writes a more thorough piece, with some analysis and context. The Post tallies the number of candidates slain so far as six, while the Times reports five.

The news broke yesterday in the Washington Post that the US State Dept. had been informed that the Iraqi Government will not renew Blackwater Worldwide’s license to work in Iraq. Incidents involving the company which resulted in the death of Iraqis caused much furor in Iraq, and Blackwater employees involved in one infamous incident from 2007 will go on trial in America early next year.

The State Dept.’s largest security contracting company (968 out of their total 1,290 contractors, according to a recent report) has worked in Iraq without an operating license for years, but after recently applying for one, the Iraqi government formally rejected it, and said they had to leave.

Two articles appear, both co-authored in Baghdad and stateside. They have pretty much the same information, but of the two, the New York Times’ James Risen and Timothy Williams have a fuller, better-formed story.
Security industry officials said the Iraqi government had made it clear that it would allow former Blackwater employees to work for either Dyncorp or Triple Canopy, as long as they were not personally involved in any controversies while at Blackwater.

Both Dyncorp, based in Falls Church, Va., and Triple Canopy, based in Herndon, Va., have submitted new contract proposals, according to several people familiar with the matter.
August Cole and Gina Chon write...
Iraq Ministry of Interior spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf said on Thursday that Blackwater won't be issued a license because it "acted inappropriately" and it wouldn't be good if such a company were allowed to continue to operate in Iraq. He said the ministry was still working on the precise date when Blackwater would have to end operations in the country.
More On Elections, From Baghdad
Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post writes gives us the lowdown on the the election, and how things are playing out so far. If you have a good understanding of what’s going on, there is nothing really that you’ve never heard, but Shadid’s strong writing effectively weaves the elements together.
In a country long bedeviled by questions of legitimacy -- over the American presence, the constitution, a de facto sectarian and ethnic system, and the excesses of security forces of dubious loyalty -- elections have now won an enthusiastic if grudging fealty, emerging as a true arena for contest in which nearly every sect, ethnicity and tribe in the country has staked its future.

...In this election, every incumbent party faces spirited opposition. In all, more than 14,400 candidates on 400 lists will vie for 440 seats on the provincial councils. The results will undoubtedly lead to a country that is more representative but also more fractious, and in that, maybe more turbulent.
He hits all the normal issues – disaffection with religious parties, Maliki’s power, the Kurdish land/power disputes in the north, the imminent rise in representation of Sunni parties, etc. and brings it all down to street level with quotes from men in a cafe who are old enough to have seen Iraq go through several transitions.

From Mosul
It’s no wonder that two major papers ran features about the power struggle in Mosul today. On the eve of provincial elections, there’s no province participating that’s a bigger wild card (another term could simply be “mess”) than Nineveh. The two articles highlight the same thing – that since Mosul’s Sunni Arab majority isn’t boycotting this time, they’re set to gain significant power.

The Kurds have pushed hard for control within much of Mosul in the past, but now seem to be concentrating on the expansion the “green line” which marks the KRG’s semi-autonomous territory into areas which surround Mosul. Minorities who live in villages in this area such as Christians, Yezidis, and Shabaks are often caught in the middle.

Jane Arraf of the Christian Science Monitor outlines the situation.
Here in volatile Nineveh Province, which borders the Kurdish region, the election could end up physically redrawing its boundaries. As the Shiite-Sunni rift that flared into sectarian war in 2006 has waned, concern by US officials is growing over Kurdish-Arab tensions, with recent flare-ups between Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and Mr. Maliki.

Following the Sunni Arab boycott of the 2005 vote, 31 of Nineveh's 41 seats have been held by Kurds, even though Kurds are a minority in the largely Arab province. Some Kurds on the provincial council, who will almost certainly lose their seats, made a move in December to have the elections stopped.
The New York Times’ Ian Fisher continues...
“Of course the Arabs have the majority here,” said Kisro Goran, 48, the deputy governor, who despite his second-rank title is the most powerful politician in Mosul and is overseeing the campaign for the largely Kurdish grouping Brotherly Nineveh. “We will not collect more than what we are. We are only one-third so we won’t get more than that.”

But he is equally frank that their real goal is winning rural areas outside the city — places where Kurds say they have a majority and that, they argue, should ultimately belong to the nearby autonomous enclave of Kurdistan. The Kurds have long been frustrated by the failure of international promises for a census and referendum to settle Kurdish claims, particularly in Kirkuk.
At times, fisher’s writing style is richer, and though both articles cover similar ground and even have some of the same characters, (you’ll certainly get to know a Sunni politician named Atheel Abdul Aziz al-Najaefi, the head of a group pledged to stop Kurdish annexation of further lands) both are worth reading.

USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Tens of Thousands Vote Early in Iraq, Women Vie for Votes
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/29/2009 02:00 AM ET
The other shoe seems to have finally dropped for Blackwater, in a move which demonstrates the growing confidence of a government, just as elections begin. A strong day of Iraq coverage, all around.

Ernesto Londoño and Qais Mizher of the Washington Post report that the Iraqi government has informed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that it will not issue a new operating license to Blackwater Worldwide, the embassy's primary security company, after multiple claims of excessive force being used by the company. Iraqi officials said that Blackwater employees who have not been accused of improper conduct will be allowed to continue working as private security contractors in Iraq if they switch employers.

In what Londoño and Mizher call “one of the boldest moves the government has made since the Jan. 1 implementation of a security agreement with the United States,” Iraq's Interior Ministry conveyed its decision to U.S. officials in Baghdad that Blackwater must leave the country as soon as a joint Iraqi-U.S. committee finishes drawing up guidelines for private contractors under the security agreement.

"When the work of this committee ends," Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said, private security companies "will be under the authority of the Iraqi government, and those companies that don't have licenses, such as Blackwater, should leave Iraq immediately." "We will work with the government of Iraq and our contractors to address the implications of this decision in a way that minimizes any impact on safety and security of embassy Baghdad personnel," spokesman Noel Clay said.
The United States was unable to persuade the Iraqi government to extend the immunity of its contractors past the expiration of the U.N. Security Council resolution on Dec. 31. No American diplomat has been killed during missions secured by Blackwater. The North Carolina company became widely despised by Iraqis after a string of incidents during which its heavily armed guards were accused of using excessive force. The deadliest was the Sept. 16, 2007, shooting in Nisoor Square, in central Baghdad, when Blackwater guards opened fire on Iraqis in a crowded street, killing 17 civilians, after the guards' convoy reportedly came under fire.

The U.S. attorney's office in Washington last month charged five of the men with voluntary manslaughter and using a machine gun to commit a violent act. The men entered not guilty pleas and are awaiting trial. A sixth guard reached a plea deal with prosecutors.
From Baghdad
Also in the Washington Post, Zaid Sabah a basic but informative article about tens of thousands of policemen and soldiers, prisoners and residents forced from contested towns writes cast early ballots Wednesday in provincial elections that will redraw Iraq's political landscape. Regular voting will be held on Saturday, but the aforementioned groups were given a chance to vote early, most substantially the security forces who will be out in full force to provide Saturday’s security.
There was scattered violence Wednesday. Assailants gunned down two policemen in Tuz Khurmatu, 40 miles south of the disputed city of Kirkuk, and a bombing killed a policeman in the northern city of Mosul. But attacks so far have been relatively few compared with the onslaught that preceded Iraq's elections in 2005. Sunni Arabs largely boycotted that vote, delivering disproportionate power to Shiite Arabs and Kurds in some provinces.
The Wall Street Journal’s Gina Chon writes that the election will test the resolve of both Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the voters he wishes to win over, covering an array of election-related issues which the Iraqi government and citizenship will be grappling with in the coming days - and beyond.

Chon begins with al-Maliki’s struggle to retain power, but moves on to election logistics, security and the ridiculously high number of parties/candidates. She finishes up with a short political tour around Iraqi provincial politics.

Sam Dagher of the New York Times reports on the close to 4,000 strong number of women running in the provincial election, and some of the history of how they have made the considerable push to get as far as they’ve gotten. Just appearing on campaign posters could be seen as a victory, but not one to be stopped at by the female candidates Dagher features.
In Basra, where until a year ago banners warned women that they would be shot if they wore too much makeup or ventured out of their homes without a veil, another female candidate, Ibtihal Abdul-Rahman, put up posters of herself last month... Some female candidates have had their posters splattered with mud, defaced with beards or torn up, but most have been spared the violence that has claimed the lives of two male candidates and a coalition leader since the start of the year. But on Wednesday, a woman working for the Iraqi Islamic Party was killed when gunmen burst into her house in Baghdad and shot her 10 times in the chest, according to an Interior Ministry official.

For many of the female candidates, the elections offer a chance to inject some much needed fresh air into councils that are plagued by deep corruption and dominated by men and big political parties that are often ultraconservative.
Dagher points out that the law regulating the provincial elections omitted the quota for women; it remains unclear whether the omission was deliberate or not. The law states, a little confusingly, that a woman will be chosen from winning parties after every three men. Fearless female candidates are featured, as one would expect.

To his credit, Dagher steers clear of both a Pollyanna-esque version of their struggle and also the tendency some writers have to portray females in Islamic countries as simply victims. The women featured have more than one point of view, and come across as actual people.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Tom A. Peter reports that within days, the US military will begin transferring 1,500 detainees – many of them suspected bombmakers, insurgents, and criminals – every month for the next year to Iraqi authorities. Iraqi courts will then decide who should be freed and who should stay in jail. As part of the status of forces agreement between the two countries, detainees must be handed over by Feb. 1. Peter writes that those decisions will have a profound impact on the future of Iraq and the fragile state of security.
While freeing many of the 15,100 detainees who remain in US custody is key to national reconciliation, it could also feed an insurgency that has largely been defeated. What's more, while Iraqi courts have made great strides, some international observers question whether the system that is notorious for torturing prisoners is ready for a massive influx of detainees.
"This is a complicated thing to do in the most sophisticated of societies, and I think the Iraqis will get there at some point, but I'm not sure that they're there now," says Judith Yaphe, a senior fellow at the National Defense University in Washington. "On the whole I would think that it's better to let the Iraqis deal with this, but you can't let up your guard."
Of the 15,100 detainees currently in US custody – down from a high of 26,000 in November 2007 – American officials expect the Iraqis will release between 9,000 to 10,000, while the remaining prisoners will face hearings. Many of those freed will benefit from an amnesty law passed by the Iraqi parliament that will pardon many for selected crimes committed before February 2008 – from weapon possession violations to planting a roadside bomb that did not kill or injure anyone.
"Anyone whose hands are covered in blood – with Iraqi or American, from criminal or terrorist attacks – will be sent to court," says Brig. Gen. Hussein Kamal, deputy minister of intelligence at the Ministry of Interior. A US diplomat remarked, "They have to be handed over to the Iraqi judiciary, knowing that the Iraqi judiciary does not respect their rights."

Aamer Madhani of USA Today writes that, as Iraqis head to the polls Saturday to elect provincial councils, which are the equivalent of state legislatures, there is rising anxiety about Iraq's unsteady economy — even more than security issues from years of war and sectarian violence. On a day with so much other news, a story like this gets somewhat buried, but economic challenges, though less sexy than explosions, are of importance.

The falling price of oil has a huge effect on Iraq’s economy. Madhani reports that “the original budget figures were based upon forecasts that oil prices would stay above $80 per barrel, a conservative estimate at the time considering prices had peaked at $147 a few months earlier. On Wednesday, the price for a barrel of oil was $42.”

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Iraqi Candidates Pitch "Change", In the North, Ethnic Strife Flares
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/28/2009 02:00 AM ET
As would be expected, most of today’s coverage is election-related. Even so, there is a nice variety of strong reporting from Iraq. Also, US soldiers now have yet a new risk to be on alert for... care package born peanut-butter crackers.

From Baghdad
Campbell Robertson of the New York Times reports that, at a recent meeting with the Iraqi journalists’ union, Prime Minister al-Maliki made promises that the government would give plots of land to thousands of journalists, for a nominal price or possibly even free. Robertson points out that such a move would have scandalized their American counterparts, but among Iraqi journalists are largely supportive of the idea.

Payola for positive stories toward one group or another (from different Iraqi administrations to American PR firms hired by the Pentagon) have been part of the journalistic landscape in the country since the invasion in 2003, as have arrests with “vague” charges and other intimidation of newsmakers. Add to that the physical danger and financial uncertainty which journalists face, and a plot of land starts to sound pretty good to many.

“The resolution of distributing lands to journalists is part of several rights that the journalists should have,” said Moaid Allami, the president of the union. “These are social and legal rights to the citizen, to the journalist citizen.”

Being one of the American counterparts, Robertson writes of the conflicts of interest that such a program could cause. Some journalists are reported as opposing the move in the interest of journalistic freedom, but this population is certainly the minority of who Robertson spoke to, and many Iraqi journalists are lobbying hard for it. He also brings up the point that this isn’t the only promise that al-Maliki is making, right before the election, and that not everyone believes it will actually happen.

Election News From Iraq
USA Today’s Aamer Madhani writes of the disillusionment many Iraqi voters feel with religious parties elected in the 2005, due to corruption and lack of services and jobs provided (not to mention sectarian violence and strife), and how this might favor secular parties in this week’s election.
The election campaign that is coming to a close in Iraq might be most notable for the relative absence of two words: "Shiite" and "Sunni."Instead, they have spent most of their time appealing to voters as agents of change who can address the needs of all Iraqis. That strategy reflects a hunger among the Iraqi public for politicians who can deliver basic services in a country where clean water and an end to continual blackouts have replaced security as the top issues.
"The Iraqi people are tired of Shiite and (Sunni) Islamists who just cheat and steal from the Iraqi people," Khalaf al-Alayan of the Sunni National Dialogue Council. "They want a government that does something."

"I hope the election results this time will bring us leaders who meet the needs of Iraqi society: electricity, security, better hospitals," said Hazem Jaber, a 39-year-old shop owner in Baghdad's Shiite Karrada district. "Very few of the government officials we have now have met the aspirations of the Iraqi people."

As has been the case with a few of his other recent articles, Madhani is fun to read and employs a fluid mix of information and a snappy writing style – “When Iraqis head to the polls, they'll pick from a roster of names as long as a small-town phonebook,” “It often seems as if every flat surface between the northern city of Mosul and the southern port of Basra is covered with campaign posters.” A graph with explanations of four major parties and their slogans are included at the bottom.

The New York Times’ Timothy Williams and Suadad al-Salhy report that the annual Shiite pilgrimage to Karbala, the burial place of Imam Hussein, one of the sect’s most important figures, has run into a scheduling conflict of a contemporary sort: Saturday’s provincial elections.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make their way each year to the shrine in Karbala in memory of Imam Hussein, whose small force was surrounded by a vastly superior army and massacred in the city during the seventh century. Shiites have been making the annual trip to Karbala for years, although just how long is unclear. The processions were regularly banned during Saddam Hussein’s rule, but have since become a key element of Shiite identity in Iraq.
The net results of the election and the pilgrimage coinciding are expected to make both more difficult. Many are loathe to miss the religious observance for the election, and the curfews and vehicle bans which will be in place for election security are likely to wreak havoc with traveling pilgrims.
Under those restrictions, which will begin Friday evening and end on Sunday, airports will be closed and people will be prohibited from crossing provincial borders. Walking from Basra to Karbala requires crossing at least three provincial borders.
A spokesman for the Iraqi Army in Basra said, on Tuesday, “We haven’t received any orders to prevent people from walking, and we cannot force them to vote.”

Ernesto Londoño of the Washington Post files from Qaraqosh in Nineveh province, where the upcoming provincial elections have exacerbated tensions along the ethnically mixed frontier between the traditionally Arab parts of the country and its Kurdish autonomous region in the north. Qaraqosh is a good place from which to illustrate some of the area's problems, as it is home to about 40,000 Assyrian Christians, but bridges Mosul and the autonomous Kurdistan region. This places it right in the middle of land disputes between the KRG and the central government in Baghdad.
The power struggle has made battlegrounds of places such as Qaraqosh, Iraq's largest Christian town, which lies about 15 miles southeast of Nineveh's capital, Mosul. Sherbel Issou, Qaraqosh's senior priest, prides himself on having kept his flock largely unscathed by war. But in recent months, as the rhetoric has sharpened and campaign promises have begun sounding like calls for battle, residents of the disputed areas are feeling squeezed.
"We're the land in between," Issou said. "When there's a battle, it's people like us who get caught up in the front lines. We provide security for the people in this town. But we can't seal the town off to everybody."

The approaching current election brings up memories of the last one.
After the 2005 elections, non-Kurds in several villages in northern Iraq said the militia's soldiers had prevented them from voting. In Qaraqosh, residents awoke on Election Day thrilled by the prospect of casting votes. "We waited from morning until noon," Issou said. But the ballots never came. Later, Issou said, town leaders discovered that ballot boxes earmarked for Qaraqosh had been taken to a neighboring town and stuffed with ballots marked for Kurdish candidates. "So much for freedom and democracy," he said, laughing.
Londoño addresses the last years’ displacement of Mosul’s Christians, but the range of the article is broader than Christian-related topics. They’re just caught in the middle of the larger Kurd/Arab issues.

Chris Joyner of USA Today writes of a frightening new risk of war which the U.S. military is mobilizing to combat with bold non-linear internal PSYOPS.

In other words, the Defense Department is warning troops to beware of peanut butter crackers in care packages from home, as the federal investigation of a salmonella outbreak continues. To this end, reprints of an American Forces Press Service article warning of the risks will be reprinted in base newsletters and posted to bulletin boards around the globe.

Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said servicemembers are being told to discard treats containing peanut butter. She advised the public to just leave out the suspicious snacks. "Please be mindful that these crackers can be dangerous," she said.
No reports of military personnel affected by the outbreak have surfaced.

In a small New York Times “World Briefing”, John F. Burns mentions that an independent tribunal established under Britain’s Freedom of Information Act ordered the government to publish the minutes of two cabinet meetings held on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The government has 28 days to appeal.

Christian Science Monitor,Wall Street Journal, no Iraq coverage.

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Crash in Iraq Kills 4 U.S. Soldiers
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/27/2009 02:00 AM ET
Diyala’s old problems are hampering election preparations, and the non-specifics of two downed U.S. aircraft make up the main news items for the day. Plus, the MEK and opinions on Obama’s Iraq policy and the election.

From Iraq
The New York Times’ Alissa J. Rubin writes of how fair elections are threatened in Diyala province. Compared to some of the recent epic articles about political complexities in areas like Anbar and Basra, Rubin’s piece is short and simple. That’s because the problems facing Diyala aren’t ones of burgeoning democracy mixed with tribal tradition – or other such imponderables. Diyala is easier to understand because familiar terms like “sectarian violence” and “insurgent” still apply as major issues.

Unlike much of the rest of the country, a patchwork of campaign posters does not cover the province’s concrete blast walls. “Most neighborhoods are still closed. So for Shiite neighborhoods, that means you can only find posters for Shiite candidates, because Sunnis cannot enter, and in the closed Sunni neighborhoods you find only posters for Sunni candidates,” says a member of the Diyala Provincial Council’s security committee. A council member questioned says “About 30 percent of the province is still under the influence of Al Qaeda.”

The article reads like one written in Iraq two years ago.
In the Ghatoon neighborhood of Baquba, the provincial capital, where Al Qaeda fought house-to-house battles with Iraqi and American soldiers in 2006 and 2007, three families who recently returned to reclaim their homes were murdered last week, strongly discouraging other refugees from returning anytime soon, a law enforcement official said.

Ms. Khadori and Mr. Bachilan (the two quoted above) said that some people who were running — about 10 to 15 — are suspected of having ties to the Islamic State of Iraq, the most violent wing of the insurgency, responsible for numerous kidnappings, beheadings and forced expulsions.
Also in the New York Times, Sam Dagher reports that, in the largest loss of life for American forces in Iraq in four months, four American soldiers were killed in a crash involving two helicopters in northern Iraq. Though the military command in Baghdad said that the cause was unclear but that it did not appear to be “enemy action,” an insurgent group called the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order has claimed responsibility for downing two helicopters with rockets.

A leaflet distributed by the group reads “We bring you the joyous news of downing two helicopters belonging to the American enemy with the Sadeed rockets.” The group promised to post a video of the attack later on the internet.

Dagher goes into the history of helicopter accidents and also enemy activities which have brought them down, which total 70, according to the U.S. military. He fills it out at the end with some recent budget figures released by the Iraqi government, and their connection to international oil prices.

For some reason, Jay Solomon of the Wall Street Journal doesn’t explain how the State Department’s decision keep Iran's largest opposition group, Mujahedin e-Khalq, on its list of terrorist organizations applies to Iraq. Those paying attention to such things know that the MEK’s presence at a camp in Iraq has been a major issue in the world of US/Iraqi/Iranian relations.

On the Wall Street Journal’s “Review and Outlook” page, warnings are given to President Barack Obama not to pull too many forces out of Iraq too soon, for fear of upsetting current security gains.

Though some of the example given are put a tad simplistically, (It is said that, “After Saturday's local elections, the majority Shiites will willingly share power with Sunnis,” and American GIs are said, not to contribute to the safety of elections, but that they can “make sure these elections come off smoothly and are accepted broadly as legitimate.”) the article is pretty straightforward.

The editorial page of the Washington Post writes that, despite President Obama’s suggestion that elections may not be constructive in countries where there is no "freedom from fear" or where the rule of law and civil society are undeveloped, “Iraq may be about to prove him wrong.” Upsides of the electoral/political process are explored, and some hope is offered.
Mr. Maliki has gravitated toward a secular nationalism: His coalition is called State of Law. Once dismissed as hopelessly weak, the prime minister has grown so strong that some accuse him of plotting to construct a new Iraqi autocracy. For the moment, that seems unlikely, given the balances built into Iraq's new political system. But Mr. Maliki's platform does augur an Iraq that will be relatively secular, that will assert its independence from Iran and that will remain allied with the United States in the fight against al-Qaeda. If that prospect is advanced this weekend, Iraqis -- and their American partners -- will have elections to thank.
Christian Science Monitor,USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Some Fear "Iron Hand", Problems With Detainee Transfer From US Custody to Iraq?
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/26/2009 02:32 AM ET
A slow day for Iraq material, just two news items and an opinion. As the election looms, there is fear over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s tactics for gaining influence over important tribes, and more fear for Iraqi prisoners being transferred to Iraqi custody. Also, an opinion (by an Iraq veteran) on the US military’s decision not to award the Purple Heart to victims of PTSD.

From Baghdad
Allissa J. Rubin of the New York Times saves Iraq from print obscurity, with her piece on how busy al-Maliki has been, in actively widening his support and popularity, to gain power for his party in next Saturday’s provincial elections.

Many see his support of tribes to gain their support back as similar to the tactics of Saddam Hussein, who lavished tribal leaders with gifts and money, in order to hold onto power and gain cooperation. As Rubin writes, “Few have as much to gain or lose from the provincial elections” as al-Maliki. She traces his past as an early Dawa convert and his escape into exile, to his return to Iraq in 2003. She writes a thorough, yet very understandable past and present profile. Writing about al-Maliki never gives much of a feeling for what he is like personally, and this is no exception – nothing much in this respect can really ever be seen. What she covers, and covers well, is where he came from, and where he seems to be going.
Dawa controls only one province, Karbala, and wants to gain seats, if not control, in several more. So Mr. Maliki is turning to the tribes for support, a tactic that Saddam Hussein used as well. The tribal councils have angered the Kurds as well as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which wants to maintain its grip on nearly every southern province. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq has an armed wing, as do the Kurds and the Sadr movement; Dawa does not.

A look at one southern province, Qadisiya, exposes the battle lines. The Supreme Council is vulnerable there. Many local residents are dissatisfied with services. The poor areas of the provincial capital, Diwaniya, are thick with trash, and in rural areas many school buildings are made of mud and lack even rudimentary plumbing and water. Mr. Maliki is popular because he has visited there and brought in reconstruction projects.

The tribal councils in Qadisiya, organized by a member of the Dawa Party, Fadil Mawat, receive $25,000 each to rent and furnish an office. There are 16 councils in this province alone. Each member may hire five or six people into the police force and give jobs to 20 others, Mr. Mawat said.
Many have strong opinions on the matter.

“The country is being militarized,” said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of Parliament. “People think he has overreached.”

Hadi al-Ameri, a leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, said “That’s why there is a crisis of confidence now; it might not be realistic, but a person who has been bitten by a snake is afraid every time he sees a rope.”

USA Today’s Andrea Stone reports that starting Feb. 1, the U.S. military will release up to 1,500 detainees a month to the Iraqis, as part of the security agreement that went into effect Jan. 1 to give the Iraqi government more authority. Sounds good, only many Iraqis fear their own prisons more than the US-run ones.

"We are afraid if the Iraqi forces took him. The treatment there is very bad," a woman said, during a recent visit with their two preschool children. She said she has a brother-in-law in an Iraqi prison who has been beaten and must pay bribes for food and showers. The detention center here, operated by the U.S. military, is better, she said.
Last month, the monitoring group Human Rights Watch reported widespread abuses in Iraqi prisons, such as beatings, electric shocks and forced confessions. "The Americans tortured five or six people, but (Shiite) militias killed thousands" in Iraqi jails, said Agahad Shalal, a member of the local council, whose office is next to Abu Ghraib.
It is pretty straightforward reporting, with good information (mostly from American sources).

In the New York Times, Iraq veteran Tyler Boudreau, author of Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine (worth a long glance) writes a thoughtful op-ed on the U.S. military’s controversial decision not to award the Purple Heart to those who suffer from post-traumatic-stress-disorder.

The distinction usually cited is that no blood has been shed, yet minor physical wounds, much less damaging, can merit the award. In the beginning, Boudreau vacillates back and forth a bit, as anyone who really thinks about it ought to, and it serves to follow his thought process, as someone who knows more about war than your average writer.
Why, I asked myself, if a combat wound is a combat wound no matter how small, shouldn’t those people suffering from the “invisible wounds” of post-traumatic stress also receive the Purple Heart? Difficulty of diagnosis is one of the central justifications the Pentagon has given, citing the concern that fakers will tarnish the medal’s image. Spilt blood cannot be faked.

But this seems an unconvincing argument not to honor those who actually do suffer from post-traumatic stress. For example, the possibility of fakers has not prevented the Department of Veterans Affairs from awarding disability payments to service members who have received a diagnosis. Why should the military itself be different? The distinction, I suspect, lies in the deep-seated attitude toward psychological wounds.
He comes to the reasonable conclusion that, if perhaps the Purple Heart isn’t appropriate, than some other decoration should at least be established. Yes, the tradition of the Purple Heart should be honored, but shouldn’t those also be honored, who are scared for life in other ways?

Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, no Iraq coverage.
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Daily Column
Iraq Election Highlights Ascendancy of Tribes
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/25/2009 02:00 AM ET
A security incident, and a less-than-democratic sounding election environment in Anbar.

From Baghdad
American soldiers fatally shot an Iraqi couple in their home in Hawija, near Kirkuk, early Saturday after the wife reached for a pistol hidden under a mattress, American and Iraqi officials said. The couple’s 8-year-old daughter was wounded, and was taken to the hospital. Police identified the man as Dhiya Hussein, a former colonel under Saddam Hussein who U.S. authorities had held for about a year following the U.S. invasion in 2003, and who said was now wanted for running an assassination cell for insurgents in the region.

The New York Times’ Timothy Williams writes a bit more information about the incident, (including speculation that it was some sort of a Special Operations mission, due to the soldiers reportedly having beards) but Anthony Shadid and Qais Mizher of the Washington Post include the angry reaction by locals.
In the angry aftermath, 40 cars carrying hundreds of people converged on the family's funeral later in the day, said Fadhil Najm, a neighbor. He said the mourners shouted, "Death to America! Death to killers of women!" as they buried the bodies.
More Anthony Shadid, with a feature story on page one of the Washington Post, that the election is highlighting the continued power of tribes, and how, as the sub headline says, they are “coddled, cultivated”.

For a basic feeling of the dialogue he follows in Anbar province, the following is fairly telling.
...the conversation in the tribal guesthouse in Anbar province was the equivalent of a stump speech. "If anything happens to any of our candidates, even a scratch on one of their bodies, we will kill all of their candidates!" bellowed Hamid al-Hais, a tribal leader and party boss whose voice was like his build -- husky, coarse and forceful.
Shadid says that the results of next Saturday's ballot may say less about the campaigns themselves than about the political geography of Anbar, where tribes, “courted by the U.S. military, enjoy more power than at any time since the Iraqi monarchy was toppled half a century ago. Here, the new Iraq looks like the old one, imbued with politics that might be familiar to Gertrude Bell, the British diplomat and adventurer who drew the country's borders after World War I.”

This is all pretty dramatic so far, but as per usual, Shadid weaves drama and subtlety into an effective story. Well worth reading, for a flavor of the complexity and paradox of the coming election.

Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, no Sunday Editions.
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Daily Column
Marines Propose Iraq Withdrawal, Shift to Afghanistan in '09
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/24/2009 2:40 PM ET
Only two articles of original Iraq material today, and nothing from the Washington Post, which is noteworthy.

From Baghdad
In today’s only filing from Iraq, Sam Dagher of the New York Times runs down three news items in a fairly short article.

First, he reports that gunmen killed eight people, at least six of them members of the same family, on Friday at a house on the outskirts of the town of Balad Ruz in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad. The early-morning attack occurred in an area called Ma’amel which has a Sunni Arab majority, and was the scene of several sectarian killings in 2006 and 2007. It isn’t yet know whether the victims are Sunni or Shi’a, or whether the past killings have any relevance.
The killers’ motives were unclear, but the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said a preliminary investigation had indicated that some of the women might have been prostitutes.

...Among the dead were a mother and her two sons and three daughters, all from the Abdul-Monim family. Two other women were also killed, but their relationships to the family were unclear. A child from the Abdul-Monim family was badly wounded.
In Wasit Province, a leader of an Iranian-backed Shiite militia group was arrested Friday by a “quick-reaction force” from the Interior Ministry, and handed over to American troops (even though, as Dagher points out, primary responsibility for security in Wasit was transferred to the local government in October).

Lastly, according to the Associated Press, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Friday that Iraq and Turkey would soon form a joint command center, based in North Iraq, to coordinate efforts in fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the P.K.K., and would focus on sharing intelligence.

The Wall Street Journal’s Yochi J. Dreazen reports that the U.S. Marine Corps is proposing to completely withdraw from Iraq later this year and shift 20,000 Marines to Afghanistan, boosting the Obama administration's plan to devote significant new resources to the Afghan war.

Gen. James Conway, the top Marine commander, said Friday that the combat portion of the Iraq war was effectively over. "The time is right for Marines in general terms to leave Iraq," he told reporters. "A building fight taking place in another locale -- that's really where Marines need to be."

The combination of improved security in Iraq and ever-heightening activity in Afghanistan (and even over the border into Pakistan) have made eyes shift eastward, and President Obama’s campaign promise to pull combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months seem to be making everything line up. General Odierno is left warning of the security’s fragility again, and wanting to keep troop levels steady, but whether anyone is listening is questionable. Dreazen gives that part of the equation only a sentence, and devotes the rest to Afghanistan.

Gen. Conway said most of the 20,000 Marines likely to deploy to Afghanistan will head to the south, a Taliban stronghold at the heart of the country's booming narcotics trade. U.S. commanders there say the Taliban run shadow governments and drug revenue allows them to replenish supplies. "When you've got those two elements you've got the potential for a long-term insurgency," Gen. Conway said.

That’s pretty much the article. If you know the concept, you won’t be surprised by anything. The quotes which support the idea’s gaining momentum act as a confirmation.

Washington Post, no Iraq coverage.
Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, no Saturday Editions.

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at
Daily Column
US Ambassador Advises Against Too-Quick Withdrawal
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/23/2009 01:41 AM ET
Not a great deal of original Iraq-related news. Upcoming elections and a stern warning from the departing U.S. ambassador are the subject material for the day.

From Baghdad
The most interesting piece of reporting comes from Jane Arraf, on the front page of the Christian Science Monitor, who follows Mohamed al-Rubeiy, a secular candidate in Baghdad who is running in Iraq’s provincial elections which will be held on January 31.

He says his campaign was inspired by Barack Obama’s, and he feels he is working in the latest style in American politics into the traditional Iraqi style. As with President Obama, one of his greatest advantages is dissatisfaction with the status quo, in this case, with many of the large religious parties who swept the 2005 election.

There has been a backlash," says Adnan Pachachi, a former Iraqi foreign minister and now a member of parliament. Mr. Rubeiy is affiliated with his party. "There has been so much corruption because the religious parties got people who were not qualified to run the ministries.... It's really been a bitter disappointment in some places because they say we voted for them and they did nothing."
An Iraqi government-funded opinion poll recently found that nearly one-third of voters surveyed listed improving local services as their biggest priority. Almost half preferred secular over religious candidates.

Rubeiy is one of more than 4,400 candidates competing for 440 provincial council seats in 14 (out of 18) Iraqi provinces. The vote, with its much larger participation by Sunni parties than the last election, is expected to redraw Iraq's political map in many places and pave the way for a redistribution of power in national elections at the end of the year.
There are two stories about departing U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, and the warnings with which he leaves the new American administration. On Thursday, he spoke against a rapid withdrawal of troops from the country, saying Iraq was not yet capable of handling its own security. Both Timothy Williams of the New York Times and Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post write retrospectives of Crocker’s career, and flesh out his warnings with some details about the current situation.

Both articles have the same function, and the same form. Shadid’s is longer and more in-depth, which recommends it.
Al-Qaeda, he said, was waiting for an opportunity to regroup. "If we were to decide suddenly we are done, it would certainly work to use that space that that opened up to do just that," he said of the group, which he described as "incredibly tenacious."

"Almost anything is possible here," he added.

Crocker said he expected to depart Baghdad in two weeks, when he will retire. "My plan is not to have a plan," he added.

At the time of posting, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

Daily Column
"Retail Politics", Obama Holds Meeting about Iraq, Rove on Bush
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/22/2009 02:00 AM ET
As the election gets closer, another attack on a party official. Also, what an open election in Iraq looks like, President Obama sends a message on the first full day of his reign, and kudos for former president George W. Bush by a guy who seems to know him.

From Baghdad
The New York Times’ Sam Dagher reports on a car bomb which targeted the convoy of Ziad al-Ani, the Iraqi Islamic Party’s assistant secretary general and dean of the Islamic University. Four bystanders were killed and 10 people who included guards of Mr. al-Ani were wounded. As makes sense, Dagher focuses the article on other violence that appears to be connected to the coming provincial elections on January 31, which has included assassinations of candidates and party officials.

The Sunni-led IIP has been campaigning aggressively in recent weeks, and Sunni parties, many of which boycotted the last elections in 2005, stand to gain significant power in the election. Dagher writes of some of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s campaigning, and ends with a short roundup of some of the other violence around Iraq on Wednesday.

Election news from another angle, as Ernesto Londoño hits the front page of the Washington Post telling of a new kind of Iraqi campaign – one where the candidates are visible. Aside from examples like the one above, improved security is allowing for a multitude of posters, t-shirts and radio jingles, what Londoño terms “retail politics”. It's the main piece of Iraq reportage for the day, and is worth reading.
This brand of retail politics marks a dramatic shift from campaigns conducted in 2005, the last time Iraq held elections nationwide. Amid growing violence at the time, most candidates ran largely faceless campaigns under the umbrellas of established parties defined by sect and religion.

While most of the established parties remain in the game, a staggering number of new faces and coalitions are jockeying for support at a time when American influence here is waning and dissatisfaction with the Iraqi government runs deep.
With more than 14,000 candidates competing for 440 seats on provincial councils in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces, keeping track isn’t easy. Londoño points out that, amid all the new and intense campaigning, dissatisfaction with the politics which followed the last election is leaving many less than excited about voting in this one. He even includes heckling from a town-hall style appearance by candidates.

In the New York Times, Peter Baker and Thom Shanker report that, on his first full day in office, President Obama gave his national security team on Wednesday a new mission to end the war in Iraq, nearly six years after United States-led forces invaded, but he held off ordering a troop withdrawal right away to hear concerns and options from his military commanders.

“I asked the military leadership to engage in additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq,” Mr. Obama said after the meeting, which included Gen. David H. Petraeus.
The meeting on Wednesday served mainly to brief Mr. Obama on the state of affairs in Iraq. He heard from Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of forces in Iraq, who participated by secure videoconference from Baghdad, and the departing United States ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker. The session did not focus on specific withdrawal proposals but instead featured a broad discussion of the political climate and security situation, according to senior officials.

Among the topics were the challenges as Iraq moves through a series of critical elections this year and the required changes to the location, size and mission of the American military force under a new agreement between Washington and Baghdad, the officials said. General Petraeus also weighed in on the regional implications of Iraq.
Among those present were Adm. Mike Mullen, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, national security adviser Gen. James L. Jones, and White house chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

Former senior adviser/deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush and weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal Karl Rove writes a tribute to his old boss. Mr. Bush has traded DC’s brisk inauguration weather for warmer climes, while “in a last angry frenzy, his critics again distorted his record, maligned his character and repeated untruths about his years in the Oval Office.”

Rove raves about the things Bush did right, from providing funds to combat AIDS in Africa (which, it must be said, his detractors don’t mention much) to spending restraint (!) - “domestic nonsecurity discretionary spending”, that is. He begins, though, with Iraq.
The world is safer without Saddam Hussein in power. And the former president was right to change strategy and surge more U.S. troops. A legion of critics (including President Barack Obama) claimed it couldn't work. They were wrong. Iraq is now on the mend, the war is on the path to victory, al Qaeda has been dealt a humiliating defeat, and a democracy in the heart of the Arab world is emerging. The success of Mr. Bush's surge made it possible for President Obama to warn terrorists on Tuesday "you cannot outlast us."
Rove ends with a comparison to another war, and another president.
I remembered the picture I carried in my pocket on my first Air Force One flight eight years ago. It was an old black-and-white snapshot with scalloped edges. It showed Lyndon Johnson in the Cabinet Room, head in hand, weeping over a Vietnam casualty report. George Christian, LBJ's press secretary, gave it to me as a reminder that the job could break anyone, no matter how big and tough. But despite facing challenges and crises few others have, the job did not break George W. Bush.
In response to the death of thousands, some might have welcomed a picture of their president weeping over an Iraq or Afghanistan casualty report as a sign of humility and compassion for those he put in harm’s way, instead of constant statements like this one that he was right.

Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

Daily Column
Iraq Accuses Iranian Group of Plotting Attack, Baghdad Bombings, Saddam's Yacht
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/21/2009 02:00 AM ET
Today, two out of the four Iraq-related articles are about folks in Iraq doing just what so many Americans were doing yesterday - watching the U.S. presidential inauguration on television. The Iraqi government accuses Iranian opposition group Mujaheddin-e Khalq of planning a suicide bombing, and Baghdad is again the site of a spate of small explosions.

From Baghdad
Gina Chon of the Wall Street Journal writes that, though a large number of American troops intently watched the inauguration, Iraqis in general didn’t pay it much notice. The election in November was a huge event for Iraqis, but it seems that the swearing-in ceremony hasn’t the same meaning. Iraqis are quoted showing indifference or skepticism that it matters much who occupies the White House. Still you wouldn’t have known it from watching last night’s Iraqi news channels, who made the gala event the highlight of the evening news.

Aamer Madhani of USA Today focuses solely on the U.S. troops taking time to watch the inauguration of “their new boss”. His quotes from the soldiers are pretty bland, but understandable given that “officers and soldiers who cited Army policy that prohibits them from commenting on the strategic decisions of the higher command,” would not offer opinions on Obama's timeline. Still, Chon got a few good ones.
Minutes after the speech, a non-commissioned officer removed President Bush's photo from a wall display in the battalion's tactical operations command center and replaced it with a photo of their new commander in chief.

In his address, Obama offered few new specifics about how he will handle America's two wars. He thanked the troops for their courage and sacrifice, and pledged to "responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan."
The Washington Post’s Ernesto Londoño reports that this week, the Iraqi government accused the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK of planning a suicide attack against Iraqi troops, a possible prelude to decisive government action to close the group's camp in Iraq and expel its members.

The MEK was started as an Iranian anti-Shah rebel group in the 1960’s, and was later supported by Saddam Hussein, in the Iran/Iraq war. The group is considered a terrorist organization by many, and the American military’s protection of them within Iraq’s borders since 2003 has been a sticking point with the Iraqi government, many of whom have close ties to Iran. Many in the Iraqi government seek to have them expelled from their country, and critics say that these latest accusations (which were offered with no proof) are a ploy to make this happen.

Alissa J. Rubin of the New York Times writes that violence rose in Baghdad on Tuesday ahead of provincial elections on Jan. 31, with five people killed in two separate bombings. She continues her brief rundown of Tuesday’s violent incidents as follows.
Elsewhere in Iraq, a colonel in the border police was assassinated when a bomb exploded in his car in the southern city of Basra. In Mosul, about 160 miles north of Baghdad, gunmen killed a well-known real estate agent and the police found the body of a civilian who had been shot to death.

Over all, violence has declined precipitously in Iraq since 2007, but the Iraqi and American militaries have predicted that there would be an increase in attacks around the elections.
Also, she mentions that Saddam Hussein’s luxury yacht would be towed from Greece to Basra after the resolution of a legal dispute over its ownership, according to The Associated Press.
The 269-foot yacht is fitted with swimming pools, salons, a secret escape passage and a rocket-launching system.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh spoke of efforts to sell the yacht. “We have received several offers, but we were not satisfied with the prices offered.”

Christian Science Monitor, no Iraq coverage.

Daily Photo
GIs to Watch Inauguration From Abroad, Ayatollah Al-Sistani Urges Iraqis to Vote
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/20/2009 02:00 AM ET
As is likely to be the case for the next few weeks, most of the Iraq coverage has something to do with the upcoming provincial elections. The ones that don't have to do with the aftermath of the last American election - with soldiers watching Obama's inauguration and two opinion pieces defending Bush in his final hours as chief executive.

From Iraq
On the front page of the New York Times Sam Dagher reports from Ramadi on tribal rivalries in Anbar province and the race for power and influence in the new Iraq. “In Anbar,” he writes, “it appears that the ancient tribal way of doing business is on a collision course with the new ideal of democracy.” It is a worthwhile look into what democracy is beginning to look like in parts of Iraq. It is a good sister piece to Anthony Shadid’s story about the southern provinces in yesterday’s Washington Post.

The crux of it is that the tribal power structure of the area was significantly reshaped by the Awakening movement. Having largely boycotted the 2005 elections, Sunnis found themselves underrepresented in government. The tribl leaders who formed alliances with the U.S. military and became the Awakening forces not only improved security, but gained a new wealth and power through, among other things, lucrative contracts for rebuilding. To many of them, elected office is seen as a way to get an even larger piece of the pie.

But Anbar, poor and lawless even under Mr. Hussein, is different from many other parts of Iraq. It is overwhelmingly Sunni, so the fights are not ethnic or sectarian but between competing tribes. When the Americans began paying former insurgents and tribal leaders to help enforce security, they favored some tribes over others, in many cases displacing the old for upstarts. That fostered a general peace layered over an angry tribal instability that many fear could turn lethal, in the elections or after.
Dagher goes further than questions of security - from the dreams of at least one Sheikh of turning Anbar into “another Dubai”, to major parties skimming heavily from reconstruction money (making such dreams less possible).

From Baghdad, Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post reports that Iraq's most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, urged Iraqis to vote in provincial elections this month, the first since 2005, even if they were disenchanted with the performance of the politicians they elected last time.

"His eminence urges all residents, men and women, to participate in the coming elections, and stresses not to boycott it despite not being totally satisfied with the previous electoral experience," a statement from Sistani's office said.

Much of the article is devoted to the use of religious symbols or sites in campaign material, which has been banned. Shadid writes that everyone from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq to the Communist Party is doing it. Sistani has repeadedly said, that he does not back any particular party, and "stands at an equal distance from all candidates." An interesting analogy is included.
Sistani's officials say the ayatollah's support in the 2005 elections was necessary. At that time, the state's institutions were being created, in particular the constitution. This time, they argue, the politics are more mundane, the equivalent of choosing a board of directors. His help was needed to form the company, they say, not to name managers.
A small uncredited New York Times piece appears on Sistani’s statement as well. It gives the basic info and reads like a wire report. At the end, it focuses a bit on a poll which the Iraqi government has been quoting every chance they get.
The ayatollah’s approval of the vote came as a poll released by the government-financed National Media Center found that nearly three of four Iraqis said they intended to cast ballots. The center said respondents were randomly selected from a variety of faiths and ethnicities, but it did not provide other details about how the poll was conducted.
Aamer Madhani of USA Today files from Baghdad’s Camp Liberty on a few of the U.S. troops stationed overseas who will be eagerly watching president-elect Obama’s inauguration on television. One named Angel Richardson said that her parents, who lived in Memphis when Martin Luther king Jr. was assassinated in 1968, have stressed to her the significance of Obama's rise to King's legacy and urged her to cherish the moment. She seems ready to.

Obama’s promise to withdraw all combat troops within 16 months is written about, and more than one soldier weighs in. Richardson says, "I think it is going to be hard to do it in 16 months, but we'll see. Once he sees the situation on the ground,
At outposts in Iraq and throughout the world, many troops plan to carve out a little time for inauguration-watching parties at their unit headquarters, chow halls and recreation centers. There are about 260,000 troops deployed overseas. That includes about 142,000 in Iraq and 30,000 in Afghanistan.

Televisions on operating bases will be available so troops can watch the inauguration, Army spokesman Paul Boyce said. It will be 8 p.m. in Iraq and 9:30 p.m. in Afghanistan when the swearing-in takes place.
In the Wall Street Journal, columnist William McGurn writes “Bush’s Real Sin Was Winning in Iraq”, and the title pretty much gives it away.

He lists several quotes by Obama, other Democratic politicians, and the New York Times which doubted the “surge” strategy which, given today’s security improvements, sound completely ridiculous to many. He writes that those who oppose Bush will never forgive him for “winning” the war. The premise is dramatic in a Limbaugh-esque way, but seems a little forced, since there wasn’t too much love between Bush administration supporters and detractors to begin with.

Marc A. Thiessen, chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush, writes an op-ed piece from the same viewpoint, but with a bit of finesse (a quality which McGurn appears to be unaware of). In it, he compares the end of Bush’s term with the end of Harry S. Truman’s. Both presidents left the White House with low approval ratings and both “imperfectly” led an unpopular war (Korea was Truman’s Iraq). History ended up on the side of Truman, says Thiessen, and he predicts the same for Bush.

He calls Iraq a “unified and free country”, which may be something of an overstatement, and writes “If his successor does not squander that victory, a free Iraq will one day be to the Middle East what a free South Korea has been to Asia.” Many other comparisons, unrelated to the two wars are made, and the point is made that polls from any particular time needn’t have much to do with the far view of history.

Christian Science Monitor, no Iraq coverage.

Daily Column
Obama Inspires African Iraqis in Politics, The "Political Dance" in the South
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/19/2009 02:00 AM ET
USA Today has an article today about black Iraqis in the country's southern provinces drawing confidence from the rise of Obama, marking both Martin Luther King Jr. Day and tomorrow’s presidential inauguration. The New York Times and the Washington Post both cover the assassination of a political leader up north, but the main piece, in the Post, brings us back to the politics of the south.

From Baghdad
With provincial elections less than two weeks away, the second killing of a political leader since Friday occurred in Ninewa province as a suicide bomber described as a teenager stormed into tribal leader and National Dialogue Front deputy Hassan Zaidan al-Luhaibi’s guesthouse, killing al-Luhaibi and wounding four others. It is not known yet who is responsible, but the list of those with grievances against al-Luhaibi could be considered extensive. He was a former Baathist military leader under Saddam Hussein who fought against Al-Qaeda in Iraq in recent years, and was a vocal advocate of a strong central government in a province where there is a power struggle between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Both articles published are about comparable, but Sam Dagher of the New York Times paints a more complete portrait of al-Luhaibi, and has more information in general.

In the Washington Post, however, Ernesto Londoño and Zaid Sabah give a more concise, and sometimes clearer explanation of the politics surrounding al-Luhaibi and the situation in the area.
The attack occurred amid bitter competition between Sunni Arabs and Kurds for control of Nineveh province, one of four that includes areas claimed by both Arabs and Kurds. The outcome of the elections scheduled for Jan. 31 is expected to influence the fight over the disputed areas. Because Sunnis boycotted the 2005 elections in Iraq, it is widely expected that Kurds will lose ground in Nineveh and other provinces with large Sunni Arab populations.

Lihebi was not a candidate, but he was directing the campaigns of his party's candidates in Nineveh, according to lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq, the party's chief. "Our platform calls for Iraq's unification and for a rejection to sectarianism," Mutlaq said. "That's why many sides in this country will target our project. Because it goes against their agendas."
Anthony Shadid has a front-page feature in the Washington Post entitled “The Political Dance in Iraq’s South”, which describes the factions battling for power, as the elections draw close. As is often the case, Shadid tackles a wider scope than most writers, and thus the piece is fairly dense and not skimming material. If read in its entirety though, it packs a punch, and is rife with imagery and symbolism.

Featured prominently is the contest in Iraq’s mostly Shi’a south between the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Dawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and of course, the Sadrists, who are given just a passing nod. The following observation is offered.
Though the Supreme Council has matured, it still exudes the air of the clandestine organization it was in exile. While Sadr's men are often confident in a street-savvy way, and Dawa's are sometimes cerebral, even aloof, the Supreme Council's officials tend to look at any question with squinting suspicion. They still push an unabashedly Shiite message, even as Iraq haltingly recovers from sectarian war.
One of the major disputes is that of making the south its own federal province, akin to the Kurdistan region in the north, championed by the Supreme Council. Dawa, holding the reigns in Baghdad, is less excited about a movement that could prove to draw power away from the central government. Al-Maliki’s popularity in the south gained considerably after showing his forces could control violence in Basra and later in Amara, but... interviews, people often draw a distinction between Maliki and the Dawa party, making for an irony: Maliki's success has made him more of a national figure, less partisan in a way, frustrating the party's attempt to translate his popularity into its success. Since 2005, Dawa has controlled just one southern province, Karbala.
His “tribal support councils” have helped his standing some, but many liken these to payoffs given to tribal leaders by Saddam Hussein to keep their populations at bay. Also covered is the return to power of some of the same tribes which were built up by the British after WWI, and which Hussein supported.

Discontent with the big parties, particularly the religious ones, are stated by more than one Iraqi interviewed, including Abu Moneim Tamimi, a Basran manual laborer.
"We'd like to vote for someone who doesn't have to put blast walls around his house," Tamimi said. Only independent candidates don't, he added -- technocrats and secular candidates, whom he termed intellectuals. Those people should rule, he insisted. Jaafar Abdullah, a cousin, shook his head, dismissing what he deemed naivete. "But the independents don't have their own gangs behind them that can kill."
A US Leader Inspires
Aamer Madhani of USA Today reports from Zubayr, a small town in the south of Iraq with a large population of Iraqis of African decent, where, “for many years, the black residents of Zubayr say, they have lived a second-class existence in Basra province, an area where Africans were first brought as slaves about 1,500 years ago. They hold no political office, often live in crippling poverty and are still sometimes referred to as ‘slaves’ by other Iraqis.”

Madhani writes that black Iraqis who are part of the Free Iraqi Movement who, inspired by president-elect Obama’s success, are deciding to put forth eight candidates in the provincial elections. Their hopes of winning aren’t high, says Madhani, but that’s not the point.

"We heard Obama's message of change," said Jalal Chijeel, secretary of the political party. "Iraq needs change in how they see their own black-skinned people. We need our brothers to accept us."
On Tuesday, the Free Iraqi Movement will host some of the 2,500 black Iraqis who live in the neighborhood to watch Obama's inauguration speech.They'll have a feast where candidates will mingle with potential voters, and they plan to perform a traditional dance they inherited from their East African ancestors.
Though a positive development for those interested in racial equality, Madhani doesn’t leave us with a simplistic and inappropriately feel-good article. He points out the continued discrimination which black Iraqis face. "My life has not been very different than my father's,” said one. “I do not expect my sons' lives to be much better."

Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, no Holiday Editions.
Daily Column
Maliki Orders a Police Chief Replaced, Local Council Rejects the Decision
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/18/2009 02:00 AM ET
Other than predictable and passing mention of Iraq in multiple articles about the Bush/Obama transition, there isn’t too much. The Times takes the lead with the kind of story that’s never likely to get near the front page, but nevertheless is solid and relevant election reporting. Add two opinion pieces in the Post, and that’s this Sunday’s original Iraq coverage.

From Baghdad
Timothy Williams and Mudhafer al-Husaini of the New York Times give us an election update, focused on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ordered replacement of a police chief in Wasit province, and the subsequent rejection of that order by the local provincial council.

The chief, Maj. Gen. Abdul Haneen al-Amara, is charged with failing to enforce election laws, stemming from an incident on Dec. 20th, when a Dawa party official reported seeing police officers in Wasit tearing down campaign posters of one candidate, and replacing them with those of another candidate. The other candidate was Chief al-Amara’s cousin.

Williams and al-Husainini write of the Amara tribe’s (of which both cousins are a part) representation in the Interior Ministry, of late at odds with al-Maliki. They don’t really address what might be next, the local council having rejected the replacement, but quote Chief al-Amara as saying “We’re military officers and obey orders,” and he denyies that the firing was political, so it sounds as though it will go through.

They continue with some of the 45 cases of campaign violations which the Iraqi High Electoral Commission says it has uncovered. Allegations we’ve heard before are of bribes and using religious symbols in campaign advertisements, but they mention a few others, as well.
In Baghdad, many candidates are handing out gifts to potential supporters, including coupons for free meals for families at popular restaurants, food baskets and leather-bound diaries with the candidates’ names on them. There are also allegations that tribal leaders are getting cash payments to deliver blocs of votes to parties or candidates.
Washington Post op-ed columnist David Ignatius writes a tribute to US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker who leaves his post at the end of this month, and who Ignatius calls a hero of his.

In the article, Crocker’s time in the 1980’s as a political counselor in Lebanon is highlighted as a major forging experience, both personally and in his career. Crocker is interviewed, and though he shies away from giving his views on the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, he is not shy in giving President Bush (who nicknamed Crocker "Sunshine," because of his sometimes-gloomy assessments of the political situation in Iraq) much credit for the surge.

Continuing this final point, but in a different vein, Peter Beinart (a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who writes a monthly column in the Washington Post) entitles his opinion piece “Admit it: The Surge Worked”. This title sounds as though it’s a pro-Bush “told ya so” article, but it is far from it. Beinart writes that, for their own sake, Democrats should give the surge a substantial amount of credit for the current peace in Iraq, even if they cringe at giving Bush the satisfaction. They are so used to disagreeing with Bush, that, in their automatic dismissal of any decisions made by their opponents, “they are a little like the Bushies themselves.” is conservatives who have been proven wrong again and again. Politically and intellectually, the right is discredited, and the arguments of its rump minority in Congress will be easy to dismiss. Liberal self-confidence is sky-high. That's why it's important to admit that Bush was right about the surge. Doing so would remind Democrats that no one political party, or ideological perspective, has a monopoly on wisdom. That recognition can be the difference between ambition -- which the Obama presidency must exhibit -- and hubris, which it can ill afford.
Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, no Sunday Editions.

Daily Column
Post Editors Bid Farewell to Bush; Will Maliki Draw Votes for Da'wa Bloc?
By GREG HOADLEY 01/17/2009 01:57 AM ET
Today's Iraq-datelined news is led by the assassination in Babil Province of Haitham Kadhim al-Husaini, a candidate with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Da'wa Party in the upcoming provincial elections, while the Post features a front-page profile of the Iraqi PM, suggesting that al-Maliki's electoral list may gain ground in the polls. In an otherwise slow Iraq news day, Post editors issue a strangely contradictory farewell pronouncements on outgoing US President George Bush's national security policies.

Gunmen ambushed the car of a prominent leader of the Iraqi Prime Minister's Da'wa Party in Babil Province on Friday, Sam Dagher writes for the Times. Haitham Kadhim al-Husaini, a Da'wa candidate for the Babil provincial council was killed and four others were reportedly injured. The Times article says the four wounded were "other party officials," while the Post reports below that the other victims were "guards." Al-Husaini was a district commissioner in the Jabala (Jbala) sector of Babil Province whose wife and four children were killed two years ago in the intense sectarian violence that seized the mixed Jabala area, about 25 miles south of Baghdad. Dagher segues into the intensifying electoral rivalry between Maliki's Da'wa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) in southern Iraq. Prominent ISCI MP (and Shi'a cleric) Jalaluddin al-Saghir on Friday denounced accusations by Da'wa supporters that the ISCI had plotted to oust the prime minister in a sermon. Meanwhile, leaders in the Sadrist current, which has not formally entered the provincial election contest with its own candidates, "urged followers on Friday to vote for two lists that it said were made up of independent candidates," Dagher writes, without specifying which lists. In Baghdad, Ali Mohammed Muslim, identified as a senior Sadrist activist, campaigned Friday in Sadr City on an anti-corruption platform.

Saad Sarhan reports on the assassination of al-Husseini in the Post, citing a local police spokesman who said that the Da'wa leader's car "was riddled with bullets," adding that the "guards fired back, but the assailants escaped."

Prime Minister Maliki's endorsement of the Da'wa-party-led "State of Law" list in the upcoming polls "has effectively turned the contest into a referendum on his rule," Amit Paley argues in a Post front-page feature. Paley cites "interviews with more than 100 Iraqis across the country" that show "broad support for Maliki," Though the Da'wa Party is historically a religious party, Paley writes that the PM's rhetoric has shifted since his days as a less prominent MP, to rely more on secular appeals, adding that Maliki's ostensible support of centralized government in Iraq has led to rifts with his erstwhile allies in the Kurdish and Shi'a political parties, and mentions in passing that "Sadrists blame him for military campaigns against them." Paley adds that Da'wa campaign aides hope to capture at least two governorates in the south, and also "believed the coalition could also win a majority of seats in Baghdad, Najaf, Basra and Dhi Qar provinces." Worth a full read for several quotes from Iraqis expressing their support for the PM and his party, although one comes away still wondering just how deeply the PM's support will run in the January elections. The notoriously reclusive prime minister did not agree to be interviewed for the article, Paley notes.

As Pres. George Bush prepares to step down, Post editors fire a parting shot with an editorial evaluating the 43rd president's national security policies. The eds both chastise the president for the 2003 war and its consequences, while oddly praising him. Bush is faulted for rifts with European allies over the invasion, the absence of WMDs, and "disgracefully bad planning," adding:

Though relations with Europe have been significantly repaired, Iran exploited the divisions in Western ranks to make mischief in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- and to advance its bomb-building.

But, as matters in Iraq now stand, there is a decent chance of a reasonably pro-American incipient democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East. This would be a major accomplishment, and one that would cast the invasion, the failures of the early years of occupation and the painful loss of more than 4,000 American lives and many thousand more Iraqi lives in a different light than that in which they are seen by most Americans now. It would also vindicate his unpopular decision to stabilize Iraq with more U.S. troops rather than abandon it to civil war and possible genocide -- an instance in which Mr. Bush's self-assurance and steadfastness paid off.

Recalling journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi's "farewell kiss" to the American president from the Iraqi people, one wonders if President Bush will be seen "in a different light" among Iraqis in a few years' time -- or not.

Daily Column
Illegal Election Tactics, Family and Lawyer Fear for Shoe-Throwing al-Zaidi
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/16/2009 02:00 AM ET
Today, we have two small stories in USA Today, and one each in the Times and the Post. US withdrawal from Baghdad is teased without much of a punch-line, electioneering continues without much restraint, and al-Zaidi continues to be held. Baghdad Withdrawal?
An article in USA Today by Tom Vanden Brook has a big headline (like the one above) about the pullout of American military forces from Baghdad being close, according to a US general, but there isn’t anything more specific at the heart of it than said Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond remarking “"If conditions do not change, I anticipate there would be a reduction of coalition forces in Baghdad at some point."

Vanden Brook gives information supplied by Hammond, that “Militants mount about four attacks per day in Baghdad, a reduction of about two-thirds compared with last year.” Of those four attacks, he says, three target “coalition troops”, and one targets civilians.

From Baghdad
Also in USA Today, Aamer Madhani reports on “iffy and illegal” tactics being used by candidates, as provincial elections approach. Like the last article, it is brief, but there is more substance and it is written in an engaging fashion.

Iraq's campaign is taking on a rough-and-tumble feel: Candidates are showing they aren't averse to exaggerating their credentials or engaging in some old-fashioned buying of votes. Questionable tactics have included vandalizing rivals' posters, voter intimidation and disobeying a law that prohibits using religious identification to win votes, according to the U.S. military and the Iraqi election commission.
"To be frank, there is still not enough legal coverage of the political process in Iraq," Sachhit said.

Other examples are included, such as the killing of two candidates, and Madhani reports hefty fines for such violations being handed out.

The New York Times’ Timothy Williams looks into a name we haven’t heard in a little while, Montadar al-Zaidi, the infamous shoe-throwing journalist whose well-being many are continuing to fear for.

Williams gives us a rundown of the events which immediately followed al-Zaidi’s arrest, which we know, but continues with the repeated unsuccessful attempts by journalists and others to get more current information. In the month that has passed, only his lawyer and brother have been granted one visit each to al-Zaidi, and there seems to be a current blackout of information, and of access.

During a telephone interview, Abdul Sattar al-Biriqdar, the spokesman for the High Judicial Council, which administers Iraq’s court system, said Dhiyaa al-Kinani, the investigating judge, had not been aware that Mr. Zaidi’s lawyer and family members had repeatedly sought to visit Mr. Zaidi in prison.

At first, Mr. Biriqdar denied knowing Mr. Zaidi’s whereabouts, but later he said Mr. Zaidi was at an Iraqi detention center in the Green Zone operated by the Baghdad Brigade, a military unit that answers to the prime minister’s office. Mr. Biriqdar said anyone who sought to see Mr. Zaidi would be permitted to do so.

But during a recent visit to the complex, an Iraqi Army guard told a reporter who requested a visit to leave immediately. The guard also said it was “dangerous” to seek to meet Mr. Zaidi.
In an obvious reference to al-Zaidi, Washington Post Op-Ed Columnist Charles Krauthammer entitles a piece “Exit Bush, Shoes Flying”, in which he speaks of Bush’s lack of popularity, as he departs the U.S. presidency, but speaks of his vindication by incoming president Obama’s continuation of some of the old administration’s policies, especially concerning Iraq.

Krauthammer refers to Iraq as a success.
What remains is an Iraq turned from aggressive, hostile power in the heart of the Middle East to an emerging democracy openly allied with the United States. No president would want to be responsible for undoing that success. In Iraq, Bush rightly took criticism for all that went wrong -- the WMD fiasco, Abu Ghraib, the descent into bloody chaos in 2005-06. Then Bush goes to Baghdad to ratify the ultimate post-surge success of that troubled campaign -- the signing of a strategic partnership between the United States and Iraq -- and ends up dodging two size 10 shoes for his pains.
Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, no Iraq coverage.
Daily Column
Pentagon Draws up Quicker Withdrawal Options; Remembering Bush, Blair
By GREG HOADLEY 01/15/2009 01:54 AM ET
Property market got you down? Today's papers' best Iraq-related read comes on the front page of the CS Monitor, exploring the tough situation of many displaced Iraqis, who often had to sell their homes at a fraction of their former values, but who are now priced out of their old neighborhoods as home values rise again. The Times catches word that Pentagon officials are drawing up a quicker-exit option to put on the Obama administration's Iraq policy menu, while the Monitor notes that Tony Blair's new Medal of Freedom from President Bush this week lacks a certain luster among British critics of Blair's decision to back the 2003 Iraq war.

Many displaced Iraqi homeowners were dealt a double-blow by the housing market in their country, writes Tom Peter in the Monitor. Fleeing deteriorating security conditions in their neighborhoods or the threat of direct violence, Iraqi families often let their properties go at fire-sale prices. Now, property values are rising, and displaced families find that they cannot buy their way back into their old neighborhoods. "For example, in Ghazaliya, a neighborhood in western Baghdad, houses used to go for between $60,000 and $76,000, then they dropped to between $42,000 and $51,000, and in some cases went for as little as $25,000. Today, some houses go for as much as $102,000," Peter writes. Many returning displaced must make drastic lifestyle changes or become renters in a society where the majority of Iraqis lived in a home that they or family members owned before the war. The Iraqi government is mulling some assistance for families in such circumstances, but it doesn't appear to be much beyond what is in the offing for Iraqis in other categories of displacement. Worth a full read.

Anticipating that President-to-be Barack Obama may find current plans too slow, Pentagon planners are drawing up new accelerated withdrawal options for US forces in Iraq, Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker write in the Times. Military officials said that the incoming president had not requested the new timetables, but that the Pentagon was taking its cues from Obama's public statements. The existing plan shown to Obama in December includes "withdrawing two brigades, or some 7,000 to 8,000 troops, over the next six months," the Times reporters write, but US military officials have not provided further specifics, apart from noting that "the plan does not set forth as fast a withdrawal as Mr. Obama pledged during the presidential campaign, when he repeatedly promised to have all combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of his taking office, or by May 2010." The Times Pentagon sources and Obama transition officials wouldn't go much further on any details of the new reported withdrawal plans. Brooke Anderson, national security spokesperson for the Obama transition said the new president would meet with top military commanders to "to make a determination to how we move forward to safely redeploy our combat brigades in 16 months." Meanwhile, "Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said Mr. Gates intended to make sure that Mr. Obama, once he is commander in chief, gets to hear directly from all of the senior military officers with a stake in the Iraq and Afghanistan missions before making any decisions," the Times reporters add, noting that some commanders are wary of a rapid withdrawal from Iraq, but that the Obama plan to increase American forces in Afghanistan requires a shift in resources away from Iraq.

What will be the final word on the American invasion of Iraq in the history books? In a Monitor series speculating on the Bush legacy, Howard LaFranchi cites a few analysts, some of whom suggest that historians will look kindly on the Bush administration's decision to invade. While Harvard professor Joseph Nye suggests that the Iraq war asserted American "hard power" at the expense of US "soft power," Georgetown Prof. Robert Lieber suggests that America's relations with its allies have not been damaged by the war, and ex-Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson says that the Bush legacy on Iraq was saved by the 2007 "troop surge." While Lieber laments "loss of life" and "the hit to America's reputation caused by poor prewar planning and the ineptness of Iraq's new government," he also warns that the war has "freed Iran to become the dominant actor in the region." LaFranchi's piece makes no direct mention of the humanitarian cost to Iraq of the invasion and aftermath and indeed includes no Iraqi voices.

In the Monitor, Ben Quinn notes that President Bush's decision to award former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair with a Medal of Freedom has been received with "a chorus of disapproval" back in Britain, especially by critics of the former PM's decision to back the US invasion of Iraq. "Poodle of honour" read one national headline, Quinn writes. The Monitor reporter also notes that as the Israeli assault on Gaza proceeds, Blair's effectiveness as a Middle East envoy on behalf of the so-called "Quartet" appears compromised by his association with President Bush's policies in the region.

Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, a household name for challenging then-Defense Sec. Donald Rumsfeld over the number of American troops required to occupy Iraq, and now Barack Obama's nominee to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, has promised to modernize the claims and records processes at the administration, Ann Scott Tyson writes in the Post. Sen. Daniel Inouye praised the retired general for his candor during the fellow Hawaiian's confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Veteran's Affairs: "He told the truth, and in doing so took a position contrary to the administration," Inouye said. "His honest assessment that more troops would be needed cost him his job, but it is the surest measure of his fitness to serve as a Cabinet member."

Joel Auerbach writes in the Post that retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jonathan Scott Gration, who flew 274 sorties over Iraq during and after the first American Gulf War, could be President-elect Obama's pick to head NASA. A son of missionaries who spent his boyhood in Congo, Gration would be the first NASA chief from outside the "space community."

Daily Column
Report Details Iraq Contract Failures, US Army Suicides
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/14/2009 01:59 AM ET
The New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today come through with one Iraq-related story each. Lately, that’s not bad. Female candidates, oil infrastructure rebuilding, and U.S. veterans all get the short end of the stick.

From Baghdad
Alissa J. Rubin and Sam Dagher of the New York Times report that, a little more than two weeks before Iraq’s provincial elections, there is widening anger that the published version of the election law has only a weak provision to set aside seats for women. 25 percent of seats in Iraq’s 18 provincial councils had been guaranteed in earlier versions of election law, but after several changes, it has changed.

“We’ve been told it was a mistake, but this is not good enough,” said Maysoon al-Damluji, a woman from a secular bloc in Parliament, where a 25 percent quota remains in effect. “We’re trying to be sure that women get not less than 25 percent of the seats.”

The wording of the election law is unclear. The Times article seems a bit unclear at first glance, as well. It makes sense, but readers may have to retrace a few paragraphs.
The final version of the law ended up with vague wording saying there had to be “a woman at the end of every three winners.”

...In an attempt to resolve the confusion, the electoral commission has announced that in each province it will award the third seat any party wins to one of its female candidates. At first blush, that would seem to ensure even more seats for women, but the approach applies only to parties that have multiple candidates and win multiple seats. That may work in more populous provinces, according to one commission member and to the commission expert. But in other provinces, some parties that win seats may consist of only one or two local leaders — and they are rarely women.
The second part of the article focuses on violations of election law which bans use of religious leaders in campaign material, with the following decidedly non-vague quote.
“His eminence stressed that he does not support any political entity,” said Mr. Haydari, referring to a meeting he had with Ayatollah Sistani a few days ago. “His exact words were ‘I do not support any political entity.’ ”
The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus writes that a $722 million contract to rebuild Iraq's oil and gas production facilities was marked by multiple changes, cost overruns, failure to meet schedules and lack of oversight, according to a new inspector general's report.

The article doesn't have as many details as Pincus usually provides, but it doesn’t really need to. Unfortunately, we’ve read it all before. Due to alarmingly consistent shoddy oversight and shoddy work, SIGIR reports of reconstruction contracts tend to have no choice but to be worded similarly. On this one, where the name of the contractor goes, just fill in “former Halliburton subsidiary KBR” and where the nature of the work contracted is to be stated, fill in “oil infrastructure rebuilding”. The other terms - “waste”, “millions”, “incomplete” – stay the same.
The report disclosed several instances in which KBR either failed to provide adequate cost information or supplied questionable cost reports. Bowen also took the Corps of Engineers and the Joint Contracting Command to task for changing the prime contract officer, who supervised the work, 13 times over three years.

The KBR contract was based on costs plus a fixed fee and carried cash rewards based on performance. Although KBR did well in the areas of health and safety measures as well as property management, it was penalized in areas such as cost-overrun forecasts and project schedules. As a result, an evaluation board awarded the company $6.5 million out of a potential $25 million.
From Fort Lewis, Washington, Gregg Zoroya of USA Today adds to the articles in recent months about suicide among members of the U.S. military returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It has less facts and figures than most, but has more of an emotional range - to its credit. This is due to Zoroya’s focus on one such veteran of the war in Iraq, Josh Barber, who was found in his truck “wearing battle fatigues, earplugs and a camouflage hood on his head” – and with a lethal self-inflicted bullet-wound.

After serving in Iraq, he was diagnosed with depression and PTSD, but his wife feels that he was not provided with adequate treatment. She shared his medical records with USA Today “to provide a cautionary story about a soldier forced out of the service despite psychological illnesses caused by war.” It is well worth reading.

"My husband fell through the cracks," Kelly Barber says, adding that she also is haunted by the idea that she could have done more to save him. "My husband's death shouldn't go in vain."

The suicide note he left for her read: "I love you. Please do not blame yourself. Sorry."

Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, no Iraq coverage.

Daily Column
Cleric's Ascent to Local Strongman Shows Shift, Bombings in Iraq as Biden Visits
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/13/2009 01:59 AM ET
Still not a great deal of Iraqi coverage, with the usual complete absences in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Baghdad explosions and Sen. Biden are reported on in the New York Times, and al-Qaeda’s past dominance/Iraq’s new power struggles are covered in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

From Baghdad
Timothy Williams of the New York Times reports that a series of bombings around Baghdad killed eight people and wounded at least 29 others on Monday morning, a few hours before Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. arrived in the Iraqi capital for an unannounced visit, and met with President Jalal Talabani.

Williams points out that most of the bombs seemed to target Iraqi police and army convoys, the trend for some time now. He lists the circumstances of several bombings in some detail, giving a good overall idea of the kind of incidents which most frequently occur. Sticky bombs are a running theme. According to the US military, an American soldier was killed in a non-combat-related episode on Sunday in the city of Samarra, but they gave no further details.

On Monday, the Iraqi government also released a national poverty survey of 18,144 families conducted during 2007 by the World Bank, the Iraqi Ministry of Planning and the Kurdish Regional Ministry of Planning, which found that “most of the families lacked indoor plumbing and that about half the homes were infested with insects or rats”.

Elsewhere in Iraq
Next are two articles which explore the past dominance of groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq, the role of the Sons of Iraq, and the new power struggles which have arisen.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Tom A. Peter files from Yusufiyah, and begins with...
Three months before Amin al-Qaraghouli walked into a meeting of tribal sheikhs here and blew himself up, killing 23 people, he was in jail for planting roadside bombs. He was freed after local elders backed his claim that he had abandoned his violent past. The Jan. 3 attack in this town of dirt roads and mud-brick buildings 25 miles southwest of Baghdad was the worst suicide bombing in months and a deadly reminder that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) remains within striking distance.
Peter poses the question “As US withdraws, will Al Qaeda in Iraq find new openings?”, and though he cites examples, as above, that its presence remains, the answer is mostly “no.” Though some locals in Yusufiyah are still protecting members of al-Qaeda, they have been mostly stamped out by the SOI, and the size and general presence of the Iraqi security forces, though flawed, bodes well.

If violence does return in Iraq when the US leaves it is likely to look different, if for no other reason than because many of the key players from the insurgency were killed or captured during the surge, says a senior lecturer at Cambridge University who specializes in war and insurgencies.

Peter ends with an unsettling local solution in Yusufiya.
While the growth of tribal influence may provide a counterbalance to sectarian politics, it could also lead to a rise in violent civil disputes. The Yusufiyah bombing reveals frustrations within the local SOI group, the country's community policing program that arose from the Awakening Movement.

From now on, Mr. Qaraghouli, the deputy, says if the SOI know someone is guilty of murder they will skip the court and execute the alleged killer themselves. He admits this type of vigilante justice could create enduring bloodshed. "We will risk hate and fighting forever. It will affect the future of our sons," he says, undeterred.
On page one of the Washington Post, a second look AQI, SOI, and new power structures within Iraq. The most impressive article of the day, by Anthony Shadid, is about the rise of power of a Sunni cleric in the northern city of Thuluyah.

The subject, Nadhim Khalil and others (both for and against him) tell of his past as an al-Qaeda allied insurgent involved in sectarian violence and his transformation into what he has now become – a strong-talking cleric/SOI leader with great power and influence in the area, who aspires to be a member of parliament.
He heads a council of 10 tribal leaders established last year by Maliki, the prime minister's tentative but far-reaching attempt to cultivate rural support. He said he meets with the U.S. military every two weeks. Each Tuesday, he gathers a council in Thuluyah with the mayor and heads of the police, city council and army to review security here.
What changed since his al-Qaeda days, you ask?
Khalil's analysis is blunt: He used to be on the losing side. His formula is simple: With God, guns and money, he is now the authority in town.
"I'm sure the Americans will leave after a little while, and there's nothing I achieve by killing them now. I could kill them anytime, anywhere, and so what?" he asked. "In the beginning, the thought was that you could achieve your goal with weapons, but honestly? That investment has shown no return. That company has shown no profit."

He doesn’t seem like the kind of person you’d want as an enemy.

Shadid, with the extended story of Kahlil’s rise to prominence, tells the story of how power throughout parts of Iraq is playing out, and it is not all comforting.
Definitely worth a full read.

Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

Daily Column
Iraqi Lawmakers Delay Naming a New Speaker, Opinion: PTSD and the Purple Heart
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/12/2009 02:00 AM ET
Again, we have just one news story each in both the New York Times and the Washington Post, plus one opinion piece. One of the news articles deals with how things have recently changed for US troops on the streets of Iraq, and the other is about parliament politics and also claims by Baghdad’s security spokesman that a recently-captured insurgent leader has ties to Iraqi political figures.

From Baghdad
Ernesto Londoño makes it on the front page of the Washington Post with a report on how the new restrictions placed on U.S. troops by the status of forces agreement are affecting day-to-day operations. Londoño follows an operation at midnight on New Year’s Eve in Sadr City, just when the new rules were taking effect. He effectively and often subtly illustrates how difficult it is for both sides to make such a transition, both in appearance and in actuality.

The American troops have a mission to get information from an informant, and wake an Iraqi officer up to ask him to accompany them. The officer comes along, covering his face so as not to be recognized while working with Americans. The mission itself, gathering evidence against “bad guys” demonstrates several relevant points – namely, that US troops now must make their case to Iraqi judges in order to get arrest warrants, instead of just simply arresting suspects en-masse.
U.S. troops this year are being forced to rely on their Iraqi partners more than ever, particularly in detention operations. The American military is in the process of emptying its detention facilities to comply with the new requirement that bars the U.S. government from holding suspected criminals who have not been charged by Iraqi authorities. "We used to detain people for their intelligence value only," in some cases, said intelligence officer Capt. Dominic Heil, 25, of California's Napa Valley. "We can't do that anymore."
Some of the changes being made by the US troops are shown to be substantial, others seem to be more to give the impression of change. Raids are now called “cordon and knocks” and as part of the plan for them to withdraw from populated areas by July, Londoño writes...
American military officials have taken some steps toward that end, closing down large bases and outposts occupied only by U.S. troops. But they have no imminent plans to shut down dozens of inner-city bases like the one in Sadr City, which they call a joint security station. A handful of Iraqi officials work alongside Eifler's unit. Like other security stations in Baghdad, it is overwhelmingly populated, and unmistakably controlled, by Americans.
The New York Times’ Alissa J. Rubin reports that the Iraqi Parliament delayed the selection of a new speaker on Sunday and of claimed ties to Iraqi politicians to a recently captured leader of Ansar al-Sunna.

The first three paragraphs make a good follow-up yesterday’s piece by Sam Dagher about the turmoil within Tawafoq, the largest Sunni coalition within parliament. Rubin writes of the arrangement that allots the position of parliament speaker to a Sunni party, under a power-sharing plan intended to give representation to Iraq’s major sects and ethnicities, in place for the past three years. As the time to choose is at hand, different Sunni parties are pushing for their own members to fill the post.

The rest of the article deals with an announcement by Baghdad security plan spokesman Qassim Atta al-Moussawi, that the “general commander of armed forces for Ansar al-Sunna in Iraq,” an insurgent group, believed to be allied with al-Qaeda. Thayer Kadhim Abid Salman al-Surawi, was captured Dec. 18, the spokesman said, and added that he had confessed to several crimes. There isn’t much commentary offered, but there isn’t much information to go on, beyond the announcement itself.
Mr. Moussawi said that Mr. Surawi also admitted that he had connections to some Iraqi political figures, suggesting that some Iraqi politicians had had ties to violent extremists. “We have the names of those helping this terrorist. They work inside Iraq and unfortunately some of them are part of the political process,” Mr. Moussawi said. “Their aim is to shake stability.”
The New York Times editorial page calls the Pentagon’s recent decision not to award the Purple Heart to soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder “reasonable and well considered”. The article treads lightly, so as not to be insensitive to those who have sustained PTSD as a result of wartime experience, and gives kudos to the military for its efforts to move away from the “suck it up” attitude and treat victims of PTSD. Still it agrees with what has been the main criterion for awarding the Purple Heart in the past - bloodshed.
Those looking for absolute fairness in this distinction will never find it: a soldier who cowers or blunders into harm’s way will receive his medal just as surely as his quick-thinking, unscathed buddy will not. A soldier whose lacerations heal completely will wear the same medal as someone who has lost a limb or been paralyzed for life.

None of this relieves the military of its duty to fully honor those whose injuries are unseen. A Purple Heart may not be the answer — not until, perhaps, advances in brain science bring full objectivity to the diagnosis of mental injury. But PTSD sufferers surely deserve medical care every bit as diligent and excellent as what their fellow veterans receive for more visible injuries.
Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.
Daily Column
Iranian Fronts Buy From US Companies, Infighting Within Iraqi Sunni Coalition
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/11/2009 02:00 AM ET
Another light, light day in Iraqi coverage. Being Sunday, we only have print editions for the New York Times and the Washington Post, both of which include one story each.

The latter includes a story about Iranian front companies operating in Dubai or Malaysia getting their hands on sensitive bomb-making parts which U.S. officials say are used in IEDs in Iraq. The former has a political story from Baghdad on troubles within Iraq’s main Sunni coalition party.

On the front page of the Washington Post, Joby Warrick reports that in the past two years, Iran has acquired numerous banned bomb-making materials from U.S. companies -- including circuit boards, software and Global Positioning System devices -- that are used to make sophisticated versions of the improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that continue to kill U.S. troops in Iraq, according to documents released by the Justice Department and a new Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) study.

In an increasingly globalized economy, the “end user” of such items are becoming increasingly hard to determine. Iranian front companies based in Dubai used to be the method of choice to mask the true nature transactions with American companies, allowing the technology to be shipped to Iran. Examinations of unexploded bombs have confirmed the presence of circuit boards, timers and other parts of U.S. origin, federal officials say. As restrictions are strengthened, schemes become more elaborate, and there is a trend to move the “locations” of the Iranian companies eastward, often to Malaysia.

"The schemes are so elaborate, even the most scrupulous companies can be deceived," said David Albright, president of ISIS and co-author of a forthcoming study of black markets for weapons components.

Warrick provides several examples, and gives a fairly in-depth view of the practice. He begins with the following.
The Iranian businessman was looking for high-quality American electronics, but he had to act stealthily: The special parts he coveted were denied to Iranians, especially those seeking to make roadside bombs to kill U.S. troops in Iraq.

With a few e-mails, the problem was solved. A friendly Malaysian importer would buy the parts from a company in Linden, N.J., and forward them to Iran. All that was left was coming up with a fake name for the invoice. Perhaps a Malaysian engineering school? "Of course, you can use any other company as end-user that you think is better than this," the Iranian businessman, Ahmad Rahzad, wrote in an e-mail dated March 8, 2007.
"Without doubt, it is still going on," said one former U.S. intelligence official who investigated Iran's networks.

From Baghdad
The New York Times’ Sam Dagher writes a story that goes beyond the normal scope of Iraqi political coverage, and gets into some of the nitty-gritty of infighting which can take place within the oft-confusing world of Iraqi parties and coalitions. The Iraqi Parliament "plunged into a fresh crisis" on Saturday, he says, when members of the main Sunni Arab coalition fell into bitter infighting over choosing a new Parliament speaker.

In late December, Sunni parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani resigned his post in a fit of anger, then changed his mind, only to find that significant support had been garnered for his removal. Since then, there has been much heated debate on who should be his replacement. The highly influential position had been assigned to a member of a Sunni party as part of a quota system, designed to create a balance of power between different groups in Iraq, and to make Sunni parties feel they have a strong voice in the government.
But disagreements over the choice led to more walkouts from the main Sunni political coalition, Tawafiq, on Saturday, weakening the bloc before crucial provincial elections scheduled for the end of January and raising the possibility of street protests by outraged Sunnis. The dispute may also keep Parliament from passing any legislation until a speaker is chosen and confirmed/

Tawafiq had been given until Friday to come up with a new candidate for the post. On Thursday, Iyad al-Samarraie, Tawafiq’s head and a senior leader in one of the bloc’s main parties, the Iraqi Islamic Party, said in an interview that he had been nominated for the position. Accusing the party of trying to force its coalition partners into accepting Mr. Samarraie, four Sunni deputies, including Taha al-Luhaibi, said Saturday that they would leave Tawafiq.
It is too early to tell whether the disputes have weakened Tawafiq, as the headline reads, but Dagher lays it out in as clear a fashion as possible. Enough quotes are included to provide the reader with a little characterization of the debate – always helpful in such a story.

“The Islamic Party wants to take all decisions,” said Mr. Luhaibi, accusing the party of presuming to speak in the name of all Sunnis. “It’s the dictatorship of the one party.” Sheik Khalaf al-Olayan, a Sunni Arab tribal leader who belongs to Mr. Mashhadani’s Iraqi National Dialogue Council Party (within the Tawafiq coalition) said, “This position is ours, and we get to nominate the speaker,” said Sheik Olayan, referring to the party. “There could be demonstrations and even clashes. Everything is possible.”

“Their insistence on these sectarian and ethnic quotas will only fuel tensions on the street,” said Maysoun al-Damaluji, a lawmaker who identified herself as a secular and liberal politician. “I feel that the Iraqi people are fed up with this.”

Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, no Sunday Editions.

Daily Column
Opinion: Funding for NGO Accused of Shortchanging Veterans Should Be Cut Off
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/10/2009 01:58 AM ET
The biggest Iraq news today is that there almost isn’t any. For the second time this week, the editors of the New York Times deemed it unnecessary to include original Iraq coverage. We are left with one Washington Post news story, and an opinion piece, both of which find fault with government efforts to manage entities with a connection to Iraq.

Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post reports that the State Department may have violated federal regulations in turning over management aspects of its multibillion-dollar private security contract in Iraq to other contractors, the department's inspector general concludes in a report released yesterday.

DeYoung writes an article of straight information, rather informative for those who are familiar with the topic, but which will send casual readers to the funny pages. According to the report, a closer watch is called for on expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan, says the State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
The report, produced by a regional IG office established last year to keep closer watch on expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan, says the State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security had been "highly effective in ensuring the safety" of diplomatic personnel in Iraq. There have been no casualties among U.S. diplomatic and civilian officials protected by contractors under the bureau's supervision.
"However," it says, "the rapid rise in use and scale of private security contractors has strained the Department's ability to effectively manage them." Department efforts, the IG found, were "undermined by frequent staff turnover, understaffing, increased workload, and the lack of standardized operating policies and procedures."

The report says contractors, not government agencies, had been hired to keep track of government equipment supplied to security contractors in Iraq, and that is a conflict of interest that has been pointed out before – restated more simply, private contractors keeping watch over private contractors.
There is no mention of the indictment last month of six Blackwater guards in a 2007 shooting incident in Baghdad that left at least 14 Iraqi civilians dead. The incident led Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to change procedures for guarding diplomatic convoys and to calls to cancel Blackwater's contract when it is due for review this spring. An umbrella Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract covers the State Department's relationship with the three companies, each of which is capped at $1.2 billion in payments over a five-year period, with annual reviews, for services in Iraq and elsewhere. The current contract was first signed in 2005.
The Washington Post editorial page goes out on a limb today, and decries the actions of the National Veterans Business Development Corp., who have been found to have squandered most of the $17 million in federal funds it has received since 2001, instead of helping to fund veteran entrepreneurs, its stated goal. A measly average of 15 percent actually going to the cause wasn’t low enough, so last year, they lowered it to 9 percent. Apparently veterans aren’t screwed over enough by the US government, so the private sector has chipped in.

The obvious argument is that government funding should be cut off.

Equally troubling -- or, as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) put it, "appalling" -- were revelations about how money was squandered on lavish perks -- like more than $2,400 each for two occasions at a ritzy D.C. steakhouse (no info on how many people that fed), for which no justification was provided. Or stays in luxury hotels ($380 per night for Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas). Officials with the group dispute some of the report's findings, argue that they are on the right track with new leadership and say that they want to work with Congress to take any needed corrective actions.
Wall Street Journal, no Iraq coverage.

Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, no Saturday Editions.

Daily Column
For One Night Only, GIs in Iraq Get Beer With Their Football
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/09/2009 02:00 AM ET

Another almost non-existent day of Iraq coverage. The Wall Street Journal continues its longstanding lack of almost any original Iraq reporting, and the New York Times and Washington Post give us a single story each.

From Baghdad
Timothy Williams of the New York Times writes, in effect, a listing of targeted violence in Iraq, as eight Iraqi soldiers and two civilians were killed Thursday in three separate attacks in which insurgents used roadside bombs to target the Iraqi Army.

Two roadside bombs exploded simultaneously in Diyala, as an Iraqi Army convoy was on its way to help a local police station in Jalawla that had come under mortar fire. It was not stated whether the bombs, which killed six soldiers and wounded three others, were suspected to be related to the mortar attack.

The one bit of analysis/context included is as follows.
Although the majority of Diyala’s population is Sunni, the provincial council is dominated by Shiites because Sunnis boycotted local elections in 2005. But as new provincial elections, scheduled for Jan. 31, are approaching, tensions between Sunnis and Shiites have increased.
Other roadside bombs on Kirkuk province and Mosul are mentioned as well.

The Washington Post’s Ernesto Londoño reports on a one-night waiver just issued by Gen. Ray Odierno, allowing U.S. troops to consume beer during the Super Bowl.

Normally, under the military’s General Order No. 1, members of the military are barred from consuming alcoholic beverages, and those caught doing so can face reduction in rank and pay and, in extreme cases, a court-martial. The order also prohibits service members from proselytizing and having sex with Iraqis. Odierno asked commanders to "exercise discretion and good judgment in enforcing these guidelines and restrictions."

Londoño speaks to some service members who would not be accurately characterized as complaining about the decision, and he confirms Odierno’s status as a football fan. According to the waiver, "Consumption of alcoholic beverages pursuant to this waiver is limited to two 12-ounce beers per individual.”

Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.
Daily Column
'John Doe' Letters Sent to Fallen Troops' Families, No Purple Heart for PTSD
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/08/2009 02:00 AM ET
A focus on the U.S. military pushes the number of Iraq-related stories up a notch from the past week. There is a rundown of the Iraqi political and security situation, religious observances throughout the country, reaction to a mistaken heading on a letter sent to thousands of fallen soldiers’ family members, and other news.

An Iraq Update
Jane Arraf gets us up to speed on the main issues facing Iraq, with a feature in the Christian Science Monitor. The material covered isn’t much of anything that those who follow Iraq closely will be unaware of, but rather a general taking stock of where the country is, and what some of the main problems it faces are.

Deaths are down, violence is down, but neither is gone and with the current political infighting, future stability is anything but a foregone conclusion. Arraf goes down the following list of questions, pondering each.
How Safe Is Iraq?
Will President-elect Barack Obama accelerate the US withdrawal?
What role will the Sons of Iraq play this year?
Has the political situation improved?
How volatile is the rift between Arabs and Kurds?
How is the Iraqi economy doing?
How does Iran factor in?
Iraq being Iraq, questions beget questions.

From Baghdad
The New York Times’ Sam Dagher writes of the observance by millions of Shi’a of Ashura, which marks the death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussein and in the year 680 in battle in Karbala against the army of the caliph, which he points out, “embodies the schism between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam.”, and “continues to this day to play a central role in shaping Shiite identity”. Security was extremely tight. Multiple checkpoints surrounded important shrines, and the government went as far as to ban women from an entire neighborhood in Baghdad, for fear of a female suicide bombing attack at the shrine located there. There was also a call from Moqtada al-Sadr for followers to carry out attacks against US soldiers in retaliation for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

Dagher describes the rites and traditions of Ashura which took place across Iraq, including the following ones in Karbala.
On Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of men and women thronged the area around the shrine, beating their chests and foreheads in mourning. Some men and boys expressed even greater fervor in more extreme rituals, beating themselves with chains and cutting their scalps and letting the blood flow.

In one of the most spectacular rituals, the Twarij run, thousands dashed two miles to the shrine from an area outside the city center, to symbolize their rush to heed Imam Hussein’s last cries for help in battle.
These descriptions are culturally interesting, but won’t be any different from similar Ashura stories from years past. The change is the security which surrounded the observances – on Baghdad’s nearly deserted streets were 30,000 policemen, and on Najaf’s were nearly 20,000.

Stateside, Military Matters
There are two similar short reports on the 7,000 letters sent by the Army's Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operation Center to family members of soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan which were mistakenly addressed “Dear John Doe”. They were apparently intended to contain specific names, but for some reason, the placeholder above was never filled in with those names.

Ann Scott Tyson of the Washington Post points out that the Army called it “a printing error by a contractor”.

The Army’s chief of staff, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., will be sending 7,000 personally addressed letters of apology.

“Whether it’s a computer error or a human error does not matter; it is an error we find unacceptable,” said Army spokesman, Paul Boyce. “A family member should receive nothing other than personal, sincere and heartfelt communication.”

Both articles contain angry quotes from the letter’s recipients, but Mr. Boyce told the New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller that, as far as the Army knew, none of the recipients had expressed anger over the mistake.

Also in the pages of the New York Times, Lizette Alvarez and Erik Eckholm report that the Pentagon has decided that it will not award the Purple Heart, the hallowed medal given to those wounded or killed by enemy action, to war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because it is not a physical wound. They include points of view from both sides of the debate, making it clear that it is a feel-bad situation all around.

There are people who have returned from wartime service with very real and very debilitating health effects, yet for many who have “had shed blood by an instrument of war at the hands of the enemy of the United States,” (that’s the distinction, according to a spokesman for the Pentagon-supported service group, the Military Order of the Purple Heart) it is not only hard to see, but hard to prove. Some see it as lessening the meaning of the medal, which of course, doesn’t feel so good to veterans who suffer from it, and the cycle continues.

Gordon Lubold of the Christian Science Monitor writes of “Defense Spending as Stimulus?”. He writes that, although the Defense Departments “long budgetary heyday” may be nearing an end, as the Iraq war is drawing down and recession pressures wind up, experts aren’t predicting a drop in spending anytime soon.
...a de-escalating war in Iraq won't immediately curtail expenditures needed to keep troops and equipment whole. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a New Year's Eve request to Congress, asked for an additional $70 billion to pay for war costs. At the same time, ramped-up military operations in Afghanistan under Mr. Obama will cost the US government more.

Perhaps the biggest reason defense spending won't fall anytime soon is that it would be too hard for congressional lawmakers to justify cuts to defense during a recession, and lawmakers will instead seek to retain and renew defense contracts – and keep thousands of people in their jobs.
Another reason, says Lubold, is a controversial budgetary maneuver called "supplemental funding," in which costs for war operations are counted separately from the normal baseline budget. “As equipment such as trucks, planes, and other gear failed, these supplementals have been used to bankroll new weapons systems to replace the dilapidated gear.”

Lubold crosses into the editorial world a bit, though, with the statement "Supplemental funding has been like candy to a child, and lawmakers and the Pentagon itself would like to see the Pentagon be weaned off it.”

In Other News
John Shwartz of the New York Times writes that an Iraqi-born resident of the United States who was ordered to cover a T-shirt with Arabic script before boarding a plane in New York has received $240,000 in a settlement with two officials of the Transportation Safety Administration and JetBlue Airways. Raed Jarrar was made to sit in the back of the plane, cover the shirt, and told that “wearing a shirt with Arabic script to an airport was like going to the bank in a shirt that said ‘I am a robber’.”
The settlement, made public Monday, was reached last month, said Aden Fine, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, who represented Mr. Jarrar. The size of the settlement “should send a clear and strong message to all T.S.A. officials and airlines that they can’t discriminate against people for how they look or for the ethnic content of their speech,” Mr. Fine said. Neither the Transportation Safety Administration officials or JetBlue admitted having done anything wrong, and the settlement agreement states that it “is not an admission of liability or fault or wrongdoing or responsibility.”
In the Times’ “Arts, Briefly” section, compiled by Dave Itzkoff, a "master plan" is announced, intended to restore the ancient city of Babylon, after years of neglect, misuse, and haphazard reconstruction. The “The Future of Babylon” project was announced in a news release by the World Monuments Fund, which will collaborate with Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.
Babylon endured numerous restoration and reconstruction projects during the reign of Saddam Hussein; it was heavily plundered after his fall (a recovered artifact is above), and used as the site of an American military base. The Babylon project, financed by a $700,000 grant from the State Department, will map the city’s archaeological sites, develop conservation plans and pursue possibilities for tourism and education.
Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

Daily Column
Trial Date Set for Blackwater Guards, "This Time, Iraqis Hear and See Candidates
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/07/2009 02:00 AM ET
One must still scour the pages of print editions for mention of Iraq, often finding nary a word (despite much going on in Baghdad surrounding both elections and the observation of Ashura).

What we have are two small pieces about developments in the ongoing criminal case against five former Blackwater security guards and a story in the Times about elections.

Five former security guards for Blackwater Worldwide pleaded not guilty in federal court here on Tuesday to manslaughter and other charges stemming from an infamous 2007 incident in Baghdad in 2007 which 17 Iraqis dead. A sixth guard has already pleaded guilty to manslaughter and is expected to testify against the other five. Del Quentin Wilber of the Washington Post covers it, as does The New York Times’ James Risen, both with similar, short articles.

Each contain a basic sum-up of the info which has been reported before, (and which all in Baghdad are well aware of), with most of the new information being just the not guilty plea, and the announcement that the trial date has been set. Though Iraqi news sources are generally reporting that the trial has been “postponed for a year”, these stories simply say it has been set for either “next January” or “Feb 1st” (depending on the article), without commentary on the date.

Wilber, in the Post, writes a bit about Tuesday’s proceedings, and what can be expected in the near future.
The guards did not speak during their arraignment on 14 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 20 counts of attempting to commit manslaughter and one count of discharging a firearm during a crime of violence. They will face a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years if convicted of the firearms charge.

In coming months, defense lawyers are expected to file numerous motions challenging the evidence and whether the government can bring criminal charges in the case. U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina scheduled a hearing for Feb. 17 on some of the legal issues.
Risen’s article is tiny and contains no specifics about what happened on Tuesday, but adds that federal prosecutors have indicated that they plan to charge another former Blackwater contractor in a separate case, connected to the 2006 killing of an Iraqi bodyguard working for Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi.

From Baghdad
Timothy Williams and Suadad al-Salhy of the New York Times report on the whirl of campaigning being done throughout Iraq, as provincial elections approach. A major difference from the elections in 2005 which is focused upon is many candidates’ willingness to make themselves known, and even have their likenesses put on posters, which seem like they cover “every square inch of blast wall in Baghdad.” This was largely avoided in 2005.

Iraqi elections can be hard to understand, and things change fast. Willliams and al-Salhy do a good job condensing both a general idea of the political world in which they exist, and what’s at stake.
The elections are part of a series of votes scheduled in Iraq this year, including parliamentary elections and a referendum on the withdrawal of American forces. Taken together, they are expected to shape the political future of Iraq as it emerges from an extended period of sectarian violence and continues to wrestle with such basic questions as whether it will be a single nation or several.

...Provincial councils are roughly the equivalent of state legislatures in the United States, and the balloting for them is expected to correct underrepresentation in local governments among Sunni Arabs, particularly in areas where there has been heavy insurgent and sectarian violence, including Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala and Nineveh Provinces. Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the 2005 provincial elections.

There is widespread fear, however, that the vote may set off a new round of clashes. At least one candidate has been assassinated by political rivals and a number of opposition candidates have been arrested, several of whom are being investigated for terrorism-related charges in Diyala.
Another focus of the article is something that is on the lips of many Iraqis, that the elections “could prove to be a referendum on the religious parties that have dominated Iraqi politics in recent years.” The dissatisfaction with these parties, who many associate with the sectarian violence which has plagued the country, seems to be creating a swing towards secularism in Iraq, at least in regard to which parties the public might support.

Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, no Iraq coverage.
At the time of posting, USA Today’s print edition was not available.

Daily Column
The World’s Largest Foreign Mission is Open for Business!
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/06/2009 01:58 AM ET
A frightfully puny amount of original Iraq-related material, with the first day in recent memory without a single article even loosely making the grade in the New York Times. All we have today are two brief accounts of the opening of the US Embassy opening ceremony in Baghdad.

From Baghdad
The Washington Post's uncredited account of the opening ceremony for the $700 Million U.S. Embassy in Baghdad reads more like a Walter Winchell review of a society function than a news report, but perhaps that’s fitting. It is entitled “On the Tigris, America’s Monument to Humility”, which gives an idea of the tone.

After writing that “everyone that was anyone was there, the following was added.
Well, maybe not everyone. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, just back yesterday from schmoozing with the Iranians, skipped the event. He was also a no-show for the ceremony last week turning over the Green Zone to Iraqi control.

The Christian Science Monitor comes through with Tom A. Peter giving a few more facts (like that there was more than 300 feet of red carpet laid for the ribbon-cutting affair), and not being too dull either.
Just inside the gateway of the new United States Embassy in Baghdad, a US Army lieutenant colonel acted as the diplomatic equivalent of a Wal-Mart greeter, welcoming guests Monday afternoon to the dedication ceremony for the largest – and most expensive – American mission in the world.
The 104-acre compound, often called “hulking” or “ostentatious”, is completely self-sustaining, with its own water well and power generator. Peter adds that “It can also use city services if available.”

Well, sorry... but that’s it today.

New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

Daily Column
Suicide Bomber Strikes Near Baghdad Religious Shrine
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/05/2009 02:00 AM ET
Today, the Iraq-related headlines in US newspapers are about the a female suicide bomber who struck a crowd of Shi’a pilgrims in Baghdad, and ways the U.S. military is trying to boost recruitment - from video games to cutting down on once-stringent weight restrictions. Also, a “strange college campus” on an American military base in Iraq.

From Baghdad
Despite much-heightened security leading up to Ashura, the most sacred Shi’a holiday, a suicide bomber (some say a woman, some say a man) wearing an explosive vest infiltrated a crowd of Iraqi and Iranian pilgrims. The vest was detonated in the middle of the crowd, near Baghdad’s gold domed Imam Moussa al-Kadhim shrine, with heavy casualties. The Interior Ministry said 40 people were killed – 16 of them Iranians - and 72 were wounded. The U.S. military, whose casualty figures are routinely lower than the MoI’s put the number of those killed at only slightly lower, but the amount of wounded was exactly half. Witnesses said the explosives were packed with ball bearings to kill as many people as possible.

Of the two articles describing the incident, Sam Dagher and Mudhafer al-Husaini of the New York Times write about the Iranian casualties more prominently.
Most of the casualties were taken to Kadhimiya Hospital, where tearful Iranians who spoke no Arabic communicated in hand signals with the hospital staff to ask about loved ones. An Iraqi man who gave his name as Abu Fatima said his cousin Haidar had taken his 4-year-old son to visit the shrine for the first time. Father and son both died in the attack.

The office of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki issued a statement calling for an investigation into the attack. Mr. Maliki was on the second day of an official state visit to the Iranian capital, Tehran, where he met with Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hassan Ghashgavi, said Sunday’s attack was the product of the “wrong” policies of Iraq’s “foreign occupiers,” according to IRNA, the official news agency.
The Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid focuses on the sectarian divide, making it sound as though things haven’t improved much at all since the dark days when such bombings were more frequent.
By most accounts, sectarian tension has declined in recent months. As a sign of that improved atmosphere, Iraqi officials, at the urging of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, had reopened the Bridge of the Imams on Nov. 11, rejoining Kadhimiyah, the neighborhood around the shrine, with the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah, once an insurgent stronghold. The bridge had been closed since 2005, when a stampede, triggered by rumors of a suicide bomber, killed 800 Shiite pilgrims in one of the war's most horrific episodes.

Senior Interior Ministry officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they had opposed the decision at the time, and on Sunday, they blamed the bridge's reopening for this attack and another one Dec. 27 that killed at least 22 people near a car garage.
Also in the Washington Post, Ernesto Londoño and Susan Kinzie report that, in November, the University of Maryland University College became the first U.S. college to begin offering classes on the ground in Iraq, soon joined by a school from Texas.

They begin the article with a small description of how the experience compares and contrasts to college campuses where the soldiers hail from.
The classes, for service members only, offer students a sense of normalcy, a place where a professor calls them by their first name, where classmates debate ideas openly, where academic discussions often encompass the lives they lead in Iraq.

On a recent Sunday morning, several soldiers carrying rifles and textbooks made their way to a theater built for Saddam Hussein. Inside, professor Lisa Brooks was teaching the sleep-deprived service members about sleep and dreams. A voice on the Camp Victory loudspeaker interrupted: "Attention, please. There will be a controlled detonation in 10 minutes."
Seven UMUC professors and four staff members work with about 300 students, offering accelerated two-year, four-year, and master’s degrees in classes such as American government, math, cultural anthropology and macroeconomics. There are plans to expand the program, as part of a five-year contract.

Military Recruiting
Gordon Lubold of the Christian Science Monitor writes that, in an effort to boost recruitment, a new U.S. Army waiver program allows waiver program allows overweight enlistees to get in shape after they sign up.

To qualify, a special battery of tests must be passed for recruits to enlist, then they have a year to comply with the Army's physical requirements, measured by "body mass index." Lubold ponders the growing waistlines of Americans in general.
It's a big change from 50 years ago, when there was widespread fear that soldiers were "undernourished," says Linda Van Horn, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
The New York Times’ John Leland reports on an “urban” tool to boost recruitment – video games.

At the Franklin Mills mall in Philadelphia, youngsters try out free simulations and games in a $13 million video arcade “that the Army hopes will become a model for recruitment in urban areas, where the armed services typically have a hard time attracting recruits.” Mostly casual-clothed recruiters lurk, though players are not pounced on with “hard sells”. At a sign-in desk, visitors fill out information sheets and receive bar-coded photo identification cards.

Leland writes much of the article in a dry, but playful tongue-in-cheek style, not quite buying the recruiter’s claims that the aim is more akin to a public service announcement than about getting gamers to sign up, and adds statements like ”Or for more immediate full-contact mayhem, there are the outlet stores.”

Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.
Daily Column
SOFA Questioned after US Wounds Iraqi; Maliki in Iran; Our Robot Infantry
By GREG HOADLEY 01/04/2009 01:53 AM ET
The Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip takes center stage in news from the Middle East in both Sunday's Post and Times, each only printing a short dispatch on Iraqi affairs, both focusing on the same two stories: A shooting incident on New Year's Day by US troops left a civilian media worker gravely injured and raises questions about the legal status of US forces under the new US-Iraq security agreement that came into effect that same day, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is on an official visit to Iran.

In other news, Maryland state troopers decided that a Washington-area antiwar group was a white supremacist threat, and a military affairs commentator suggests that in the future, cool-handed robots will project American power where infantry troops now do the job.

The Biladi satellite channel disputes the official US military account of a shooting of one of its employees in central Baghdad by US forces last week, Ernesto Londoño writes in the Post. US forces issued a statement Saturday on an incident reported earlier on IraqSlogger, saying troops fired on Hadil Imad on Thursday after she behaved "erratically" and failed to heed multiple warnings, without giving further details. The 24-year-old member of the Iraqi channel's production team is in critical condition with serious internal injuries. Biladi issued a statement Saturday disputing the official US account and claiming that American forces shot Imad "in cold blood." As Londoño notes, the shooting occurred on the day that the US-Iraqi security agreement came into effect and has raised questions in Iraq over the extent to which US troops can be held accountable in the Iraqi justice system under the new agreement. While the US statement said troops followed "approved defensive measures," Londoño suggests that the incident may call into question the nature of the Iraqi "sovereignty" promised by American and Iraqi officials under the new agreement. "The agreement allows for the prosecution of U.S. troops under Iraqi law only in the case of premeditated grave felonies committed when the personnel are off base and off duty, and only after American officials certify that threshold has been met," the Post reporter writes. Meanwhile, Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki arrived in Iran on Saturday for an official visit, including a parlay with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Campbell Robertson touches on the Hadil Imad story in the Times, but reports only the US military statement without noting Biladi channel's reaction. Robertson goes a bit further than the Post report on the Maliki visit to Iran, noting that the Iraqi PM told Iranian state TV that Iraq would be an “axis for positive relations with Iran” and would not be a base for hostile operations against its eastern neighbor. After the meeting with Pres. Ahmadinejad, PM Maliki reportedly said that Iraq sought to “increase political and economic ties” in mutual interest with its neighbors, while the Iranian president reportedly added that “What is important for the Islamic Republic of Iran is Iraq’s independence, construction, security as well as development.”

In an article on Arab public opinion the Israeli operations against Gaza and the tepid and even anti-Hamas response of Arab regimes, Anthony Shadid writes in the Post that "Even in Iraq, beset by its own conflicts, the Palestinian issue echoed in sermons Friday." 'It is a shameful stance that Arab countries have,' Nadhim Khalil declared in a sermon in Thuluyah, a conservative Sunni town north of Baghdad," Shadid writes. IraqSloggers' Amer Mohsen noted the increasing Iraqi concern for the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza last week.

The Post's Lisa Rein and Josh White note that Maryland State Troopers' secret surveillance of domestic groups, including anti-war activists, was more widespread than originally reported, noting that "The DC Anti-War Network, which opposes the Iraq war, was designated a white supremacist group, without explanation."

With precious little time remaining to wax sarcastic on President Bush while he still holds the office, Times columnist Frank Rich writes opines that "Bush’s first and last photo-ops in Iraq could serve as bookends to his entire tenure. On Thanksgiving weekend 2003, even as the Iraqi insurgency was spiraling, his secret trip to the war zone was a P.R. slam-dunk. The photo of the beaming commander in chief bearing a supersized decorative turkey for the troops was designed to make every front page and newscast in the country, and it did. Five years later, in what was intended as a farewell victory lap to show off Iraq’s improved post-surge security, Bush was reduced to ducking shoes."

Finally, John Pike contributes an op-ed to the Post that welcomes, with a surprising degree of blithe optimism, the possibility of wide deployment of robotic military machines that the director says represents the future of American land warfare. "Within a decade," Pike writes, "the Army will field armed robots with intellects that possess, as H.G. Wells put it, 'minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic.' . . . These killers will be utterly without remorse or pity when confronting the enemy." With reference to US operations in Iraq, Pike suggests that, "that's something new," explaining that, "in 1947, military historian S.L.A. Marshall published 'Men Against Fire,' which documented the fundamental difference between real soldiers and movie soldiers: Most real soldiers will not shoot at the enemy. Most won't even discharge their weapons, and most of the rest do no more than spray bullets in the enemy's general direction. These findings remain controversial, but the hundreds of thousands of bullets expended in Iraq for every enemy combatant killed suggests that it's not too far off the mark," continuing "Only a few troops, perhaps 1 percent, will actually direct aimed fire at the enemy with the intent to kill. These troops are treasured, and set apart, and called snipers. Armed robots will all be snipers. Stone-cold killers, every one of them." Since the deployment of expendable machines will substitute financial costs for American human casualties, Pike suggests that the robo-armies could eradicate genocide by lowering the cost of US armed intervention into such crises. Pike doesn't take up other less cheery implications of lowering the cost of military action as the technology spreads.

Daily Column
Suicide Attack Kills 24 in Yusufiya, Shoes on the Road
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/03/2009 01:59 AM ET
As everyone knows that the SOFA is in effect and the Green Zone has been handed over, the only thing from Iraq reported on today is a suicide bomber’s blast, likely connected to the next big event – provincial elections.

From Baghdad
In Yusufiya, south of Baghdad, at least two dozen tribal leaders who were meeting at the house of an influential Sunni sheik were killed and as many as 42 others were wounded Friday after a member of the tribe snuck in a back entrance and detonated an explosive vest. Reports which could not yet be confirmed put the numbers as high as killed at 30 and wounded at 110. Mohammed Abdullah al-Qaraghouli, the Sunni tribal leader who hosted the event, was among those wounded.

Both articles about the incident were simple and straightforward, but Timothy Williams and Riyadh Mohammed of the New York Times have more information, and give the better overall description of the political environment in the area and the event itself.
Around 1:30 p.m., after lunch, some of the tribal leaders lingered, drinking tea, while others began to leave, said several guests, who would speak only on condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation.

It was about then that one of the tribe’s members, Amin Ahmed Edan Hasoon, who is well known in the neighborhood, entered the yard without being searched by guards, guests said. Moments later, he detonated an explosive vest he was wearing.
Anthony Shadid and Saad Sarhan of the Washington Post wrote that “Friday's gathering was convened to foster reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite tribes in a region once so violent that residents had nicknamed it the Triangle of Death.”

Throughout Iraq, there fear of renewed violence as campaigning hits full swing for the elections which are to be held at the end of January.

Iraq Related?
The Washington Post picks up a Miami Herald story about shoes, in which “thousands of work boots, bath slippers, tennis sneakers, beach sandals and even roller skates all inexplicably materialized Friday morning on the Palmetto Expressway, disrupting traffic for hours.”

Multiple anti-war or anti-Bush demonstrations have recently occured worldwide, in which people have used shoes to reference Iraqi journalist Montadar al-Zaidi’s actions, last month. There is really no evidence to suggest a link, but without any signs of an accident, it crosses one’s mind.

Jonathan Gurwitz, an editorial board member of the San Antonio Express-News, writes an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled “You Can’t Earmark Bravery or Budget Patriotism”, in which he tells of “The Warrior and Family Support Center” at Fort Sam Houston, where wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are cared for, after receiving treatment at the nearby Brooke Army Medical Center. What the army was providing, Gurwitz says, was not sufficient.
Les Huffman, a commercial developer, walked in one day in late 2006 and was overwhelmed -- by the spirit of the military personnel, by the devotion of the staff and volunteers, and by the obvious need for more space.

...In short order they created a nonprofit organization -- the Returning Heroes Home -- pulled together a board of directors, made a proffer to the Army, and started raising money. They sought input from the wounded soldiers, staff, doctors and rehabilitation specialists for the design.

The nonprofit raised $3.6 million in cash contributions and another $1.5 million worth of in-kind contributions that included 275 tons of limestone, computers, audio-visual equipment and more. More than 5,000 individuals, businesses and foundations donated in one way or another.
Gurwitz uses the piece to call for private citizens to pitch in where the government falls short in caring for its veterans, and he chastises the government for doing so. As one person within the article reads, "t is an obscenity that a government that can find billions in no-bid contracts for Halliburton . . . cannot find a few million dollars to bind up the wounds of its heroes."

Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, no Saturday Editions.

Daily Column
A Focus on Violence by G.I.’s Back From War
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/02/2009 02:00 AM ET
Most eyes are still on the Green Zone, but there is some good coverage of what January 1st meant in Iraq. The U.S. military’s response to elevated numbers of criminal behavior among returning veterans is also looked at.

From Baghdad
In the Washington Post, Anthony Shadid writes a “Letter From Baghdad”, in which he ponders the country that Iraqis find themselves in, how it got there, and where it might be leading. It is a far-reaching retrospective, and not an overly rosy one.

It begins with the invariable contrast between today’s security situation with the worst days of the insurgency. He quotes an Iraqi merchant who verbalizes a conclusion that, according to Shadid, seemed inescapable. "The war has ended," said the man.
The war in Iraq is indeed over, at least the conflict as it was understood during its first five years: insurgency, communal cleansing, gangland turf battles and an anarchic, often futile quest to survive. In other words, civil war -- though civil war was always too tidy a term for it. The entropy, for now at least, has run its course. So have many of the forces the United States so dangerously unleashed with its 2003 invasion, turning Iraq into an atomized, fractured land seized by a paroxysm of brutality. In that Iraq, the Americans were the final arbiter and, as a result, deprived anything they left behind of legitimacy.
Shadid gives examples of how things have shifted, for security, politics, and attitude on the street. It is all analysis, but analysis based on much experience, and he does a good job giving the reader a feeling for how many Iraqis perceive the changes and direction that lay ahead, and just what it feels like there.
This war's end feels more truce than treaty, more respite than reconciliation. There is no revival or renaissance, no celebration. It manifests itself most in the simple lifting of a siege.
He introduces an Arabic word which people he speaks to are using, “ghamidh” -- mysterious and unclear. Shadid calls Iraq of today both “the day after” and “the day before.” Says one Iraqi, "We want to know how this turns out.”.

The most interesting of the three articles today about the some of the Green Zone having been formally handed over to Iraqi control on Thursday is by the Washington Post’s Amit R. Paley, who goes beyond the press conference statements.
The handover of the Green Zone from U.S. to Iraqi control Thursday presented such a powerful symbol of the waning American presence in Iraq that it would have been nearly impossible for both sides not to mark it with a formal ceremony. They did, but the ceremony wasn't much. A podium was set up in the middle of a dirty street. Five small balloons and some tinsel decorated a seating area. The American ambassador and the top commander of U.S. troops didn't show up. Neither did Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Paley points out that the there is no national consensus among Iraqis over whether or not the security agreement signed between both countries does enough to assert Iraqi sovereignty, but that things like today’s handing over of the former Republican Palace of Saddam Hussein from the U.S. State Department to Iraqi control was a powerful symbolic event. Change that surpasses symbolism was seen at the checkpoints, where a more relaxed attitude was reported by Paley, but as far as the real extent of the change, he makes it clear that all is not clear. Iraqi and American officials announced Thursday that U.S. soldiers would continue to help maintain security in the area for at least the next 90 days despite the formal transfer of control. Then they will reevaluate the arrangement. USA Today’s Aamer Madhani reports briefly on the ceremony and gives the basic lowdown on the Green Zone handover.

Timothy Williams of the New York Times reports on some incidents of violence in Mosul and Kirkuk on the day of the handover, and adds that the Basra airport, too, had been handed over from British control to the Iraqi government. The article then mostly rehashes yesterday’s Times Green Zone story.

The New York Times’ Lizette Alverez and Dan Frosch report from Fort Carson, CO, on the Pentagon’s response to nine slayings and the sharp rise of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault perpetrated by some of the base’s returning veterans, after returning from Iraq. Alveraz has written thoughtfully on veterans’ issues before, and continues to with this piece.

Following some prodding from a Colorado senator, the base commander began an investigation into the recruitment, medical and service records, as well as their personal histories, to determine if the military could have done something to prevent the violence. Now, the secretary of the Army, Peter Geren, says he is considering conducting an Army-wide review of all soldiers “involved in violent crimes since returning” from war.
Focusing attention on soldiers charged with killings is a shift for the military, which since the start of the war in Iraq has largely deflected any suggestion that combat could be a factor in violent behavior among some returning service members. Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, the Fort Carson commander, said, “If they had a good manner of performance before they deployed, then they get back and they get into trouble, instead of saying we will discipline you for trouble, the leadership has to say, Why did that occur, what happened, what is causing this difference in behavior?”

The inquiry, the general added, is “looking for a trend, something that happened through their life cycle that might have contributed to this, something we could have seen coming.”
The nature of the war in Iraq and the high level of deployment is named as a factor.
While most soldiers returning from war adjust with minor difficulties, military leaders acknowledges that multiple deployments strain soldiers and families, and can increase the likelihood of problems like excessive drinking, marital strife and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The article delves into some of the politics within the Pentagon, particularly concerning shifts in how mental health and treatment are viewed.

Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, no Iraq coverage.
Daily Column
New Rules for a New Year, Green Zone (Much of it) Reverts to Iraqi Control
By DANIEL W. SMITH 01/01/2009 02:00 AM ET
It is a big day in Iraq for both Iraqis and the many thousands of others who, for now, call it home. The status of forces agreement takes affect, and long-awaited changes are afoot. Also, Iraq opens more oil fields to bidding.

From Baghdad
In recent days, there have been several stories detailing the changes that were to be made on Thursday morning, as 2009 rolls around and the SOFA is made a reality. The more restrictive rules placed on US military operations and the counterbalance of Iraqi forces taking more responsibility have been discussed at length, and possible effects have been weighed. Specific issues, such as the US troops’ arrest and detention rights have been delved into a length, and the process as a whole (including how much power the Americans are really giving up) has been given its fair share of ink.

Today, it all starts, but there isn’t really any more information about it all than there has been in days past. Thus, it makes sense that both articles about the transition appearing on its eve are written around the biggest actual event taking place, (also the most visible and symbolic) US military and State Department personnel moving out of large parts of the Green Zone, and turning them over to the Iraqis. Neither outshines the other(except that the Times piece gives a more vibrant description if the Green Zone as it has been), and both provide the same basic picture.

Ernesto Londoño of the Washington Post gives ample space to one notable building of which the keys are being handed over, the lavish former Republican Palace of Saddam Hussein. It was used by the US military after the invasion of 2003, and was later the site of the U.S. Embassy.
When the clock struck midnight on Wednesday, the U.S. returned the palace to the Iraqi government and relinquished formal control over the Green Zone, a heavily fortified six-square-mile enclave on the Tigris River where key U.S. and Iraqi bureaucracies are situated. The handover is a sign of the shrinking footprint and influence of the United States in a country where it has lost thousands of lives and spent billions of dollars. For many Iraqis, the handover represents a significant step forward in their gradual reassertion of dominion over their own affairs.
"This is the end of the world as we know it," says one US sergeant, and an Iraqi soldier says "The U.S. will be here just as observers. It's a matter of pride." Londoño points out that, though much is being altered, it may not be quite so cut and dry as all that.
U.S. officials said they will try to make their presence in the Green Zone less conspicuous in coming days. But they will remain in charge of issuing badges that grant varying levels of access into the area. They said they will not immediately dismantle a vast security apparatus that includes hundreds of Peruvian and Ugandan guards, body-scanning machines, bomb-sniffing dogs and surveillance cameras.
The New York Times’ Campbell Robertson and Stephen Farrell continue these thoughts, reporting on which parts of the Green Zone may be opened up to the rest of Baghdad and who can pass through the area.
Several committees have been set up, consisting of both Iraqi and American officials, to study and administer these matters, though it appears that little will be done immediately.

...So while Iraqi soldiers now stand at checkpoints, Americans are still watching from nearby, and intelligence about a possible terrorist attack has made the checkpoints more stringent than usual this week, an Iraqi military spokesman said.

Plans to shrink the zone or open major thoroughfares, which could go a long way toward reducing Baghdad’s strangling traffic, are promised but could be months away. Americans have been moving out of buildings since 2006, though it has not been decided in many cases who is taking their place.
The fact that American soldiers will not be manning checkpoints in the same capacity anymore induces a sigh of relief for some, but is a source of worry in others who fear it may not continue to be as stringent. One Iraqi official said, “The American forces only deal with badges,” he said. “They have no friends. The Iraqis have friends.”

Robertson and Farrell also write of the significance of the Republican Palace’s transfer, and give sort of a mini retrospective on the Green since 2003, and the cultures which have taken hold within it, both foreign and Iraqi.

Times coverage continues with Campbell Robertson, this time paired up with Abeer Mohammed, reporting that Iraq announced on Wednesday that it would begin a second round of bids to license international oil companies to develop 11 oil and gas fields or groups of fields. The long term goal, said Iraq’s oil minister, Hussain al-Shahristani at a news conference, is to produce 6 million barrels a day, up from the current 2.4 million. “There are about 78 oil and gas fields in Iraq, but only 15 of them are under operation,” he said. br
The same 35 foreign companies that qualified to take part in the first round are involved in this one, said Ahmed al-Shammar, a deputy minister, but it is possible that more companies could be added. Mr. Shahristani said he hoped the contracts in the second round would be signed by the end of 2009. He also said the ministry was planning to announce more licensing auctions in the future.
The article also covers the postponement of shoe-throwing correspondent Muntadar al-Zaidi’s trial, due to an appeal filed by his lawyer, then finishes up with examples of continued violence in Iraq’s Diyala and Ninewa provinces.

Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, no Holiday Editions.


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