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Archive: April 2009
Daily Column
New Gear Puts Snipers in Check in Iraq
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/30/2009 01:50 AM ET
Wednesday started out as a somewhat quiet day in Baghdad. By late afternoon, several car bombs and IEDs had gone off, turning it into another high-casualty day. Also, sniper attacks on US troops are way down (if you believe the Pentagon’s figures, there have been none all year) and a gizmo which pinpoints attackers is given credit.

From Baghdad
Five car bombs and one IED went of in mostly Shi’a neighborhoods, as has been the norm with recent explosions. Two of them happened in front of a Sunni mosque in al-Hurriya, adding to the commentary in each of the stories offered that the path is looking more as though it may be veering toward tit-for-tat sectarian violence.

Coming up with post-explosion facts is confusing enough in Baghdad when there is only one, but six occurring in varied neighborhoods makes it extra difficult, and at least small discrepancies can be found from one story to another. As Sam Dagher and Suada al-Salhy of the New York Times point out, accounts of the death toll varied, from at least 17 people to as many as 48.

What is clear, is that the two deadliest of the bombings, in Sadr City, caused demonstrations of residents, some of whom threw bricks at Iraqi Army forces stationed there. As is increasingly the case after bombings, crowds’ anger is directed toward Iraqi soldiers or policemen for not preventing attacks, and on Wednesday, soldiers fired in the air to try to keep order.

Theories of American involvement in the blasts were voiced by protestors, and in Ernesto Londoño and Qais Mizher’s story in the Washington Post, Ahmed al-Masudi Sadrist MP and political spokesman says that the bombings were “the work of Sunni extremists aided by Western intelligence agencies that want to create a pretext to delay the U.S. withdrawal.” A second, more interesting comment by Masudi speaks to a major issue in Baghdad security. "The security forces abuse residents," he said, referring to what he described as heavy-handed tactics. "Usually residents accept these measures if they are the price of security."

Both the Times and the Post stories spend a lot of time with the particulars of the different bombings. If you’re not familiar with Baghdad, they are competing laundry lists – but that isn’t really a complaint. It was a confusing day where blasts just kept coming, and both stories convey that.

As Charles Levinson of the Wall Street Journal writes, “The distinctive thud of car bombs continued through the evening.” He gives much less information about each, and offers more analysis.
If Iraq's Shiites lose faith in the country's security services, they could turn once again for protection to the Shiite militias that waged a vicious campaign of sectarian killing in 2006 and 2007.

More than 450 Iraqi civilians have died in attacks so far this month, according to Iraq Body Count, an independent group that tracks civilian dead based on news reports, continuing the steady increase in monthly casualties since January, when Iraq's government officially assumed responsibility for security in the country. Well-coordinated car-bomb attacks, once daily scourges in Iraq, had nearly disappeared until recently. As violence levels began dropping last year to record postwar lows, most insurgent activity was limited to small, isolated attacks with lone suicide bombers.
Tom Vanden Brook of USA Today writes about the dramatic decrease in US forces being killed by sniper fire, and the part played by a device called the Soldier Wearable Acoustic Targeting System, which pinpoints the location of en enemy who is firing a gun at them. It is a straightforward article with information supplied by the Pentagon, and it's just the kind of story they love to have written. If there is a big Pentagon refrigerator, this one will end up being clipped and magnetized onto it.

According to the US military, in 2007, there were 291 sniper attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, 92 last year, and none this year (though they are often reported in the Iraqi media). The $450 million effort the Army mounted after sniper attacks reached their peak in Iraq. The money has been used to buy similar devices as described above for vehicles, both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Soldiers had complained about the inaccuracy of earlier versions of Boomerang, the device that can be mounted on Humvees. Some of those soldiers lacked the training to understand its limitations, (Maj. Shawn) Lucas said. The Army is now issuing third-generation Boomerangs with improved accuracy, he said.

There are about 700 on Humvees, and thousands more are scheduled to be installed on Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, Lucas said. Commanders also have made urgent requests for better binoculars and infrared sights to locate snipers at night.
Christian Science Monitor, no Iraq coverage.

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Al-Maliki Continues to Say That Insurgent Leader Is in Custody, Shows New Photos
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/29/2009 01:50 AM ET
Today, there are two original stories about Iraq, one each in USA Today and the New York Times. Neither are big scoops, but both speak to issues that are very much in Iraqi news – the recent spate of suicide bombings, their Iranian victims, and the Iraqi government’s claims that it has captured Iraq’s number one insurgent.

From Baghdad
Aamer Madhani and Nadeem Majeed of USA Today write of the effect that two high-profile suicide bombings last week are having on the close and controversial connection between Iraq and Iran. Though the headline makes it sound as though there have been effects on Iraq-Iran relations, there actually haven’t been any official changes other than the Iranian government’s temporary ban on Iranian’s traveling to Iraq, the stated reason being a lack of security in Iraq.

One religious pilgrim that was currently visiting Iraq’s Shi’a shrines – which over 500,000 per year do – was not deterred from planning to go to Baghdad’s Imam Mousa al-Kazim shrine, which was bombed on Friday. Still, Madhani and Majeed write, crowds had thinned at the shrine, and businesses which depend on the religious tourism were suffering. "They want to tear the Shiites of Iraq and Iran apart," said Ridhaei, 64, of Tehran as he stood outside the Baghdad shrine.
Iran's evolving relationship with Iraq is one of the complicated aspects of the 6-year-old war in Iraq.

On one hand, Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and other military officers have accused Iran of being behind some of the most deadly attacks against American forces. But Iran is also one of Iraq's biggest trading partners and once served as the base for many of Iraq's Shiite political leaders in exile during Saddam Hussein's regime, when Sunnis dominated the country.
The New York Times’ Sam Dagher and Atheer Kakan report on the alleged capture of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the leader of the al-Qaeda-linked “Islamic State of Iraq”. There has been speculation about whether the government really has him or not. His capture and death have both been reported by the Iraqi government before, and doubt remains. On Tuesday, Iraqi defense officials released the first evidence so far, photos of a man who appears to be al-Baghdadi. US forces still say they cannot confirm his identity, and still seem to question his very existence.

There isn’t much to focus on other than the government statements on the arrest, and the government’s intel on the recent bombings in Baghdad, so Dagher and Kakan do just that, giving a sum-up of what has been said so far. They write that, in a BBC interview, Prime Minister al-Maliki (on an anti-Baathist kick these days) spoke of recent attacks being the result of coordination between al-Qaeda militants and Baathist outlaws, saying, “They agreed that Al Qaeda would carry out the suicide attacks, while the Baathists would do the remote-control bombs.” Afterwards, he was seen to be contradicted by Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf.
General Khalaf said that a string of car bombs in Baghdad on April 6 that killed about 40 people were the work of a Qaeda cell that included a police officer in Baghdad and that Baathists were not involved; in a statement shortly after the bombings, Mr. Maliki blamed the Baathists, in conjunction with Al Qaeda. Another Interior Ministry official said the police officer was captured while trying to get a car bomb into the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad on April 9.

Extremist Web sites have denied the arrest, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors claims and other statements by extremist groups. Reacting to the government’s announcement on Tuesday, a posting on one Internet bulletin board popular with jihadis warned Mr. Baghdadi’s followers to refrain from contacting him so that their communications would not be intercepted.

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

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
After Iraq's Civil War, Lessons in Civility
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/28/2009 01:58 AM ET
It is not a big day for Iraq-coverage. There are a few prominent stories picked up from wire services, but not much original work. Two out of the three stories deal with war technology, but most interesting is a piece about a school in Baghdad where, aside from arts, are taught how to counter having grown up in war by way of manners.

Stateside: High-Tech Warfare
Walter Pincus of the Washington Post reports from Washington on one way the U.S. military “stalks and kills its insurgent enemies these days,” as demonstrated by a recent U.S. airstrike in Diyala province, which the Pentagon said killed a group of al-Qaeda fighters

Says director of intelligence for U.S. Air Forces Central, Col. Eric J. Holdaway, "The problem we deal with now is . . . with enemies that not only hide amongst the population but also will open fire on our ground forces from amongst the population," he said. "So characterizing how they operate, trying to understand them, becomes even more important."

The goal is “to somehow get inside the minds of enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan with the assistance of airborne intelligence, which involves monitoring, tracking and targeting them.” Though the Diyala operation is set up as though the reader will hear details, it never happens, and there is a general vagueness that is unexpected from Pincus, who often piles on the details. What we hear is that Col. Holdaway talked to the press about the increasing use of unmanned drones to collect information and that the way that information is analyzed is developing, and there are a few notable points, but not really much for a reader to sink their teeth into.

An article about cyber warfare by David E. Sanger, John Markoff and Thom Shanker of the New York Times mostly deals with potential unpleasant dealings with Iran, China, and other countries. We are, though, given an example from Iraq, where American forces in Iraq wanted to lure members of Al Qaeda into a trap, and so hacked into one of the group’s computers and altered information that drove them into American gun sights.

President Obama is expected to expand a $17 billion, five-year cyberattack defense program that Congress approved last year. It is an expansive article, with plenty of information about ideas and programs in development. The Iraq example is a fairly uncommon one so far, as far the press knows.

From Baghdad
Jane Arraf of the Christian Science Monitor writes of Baghdad’s Peace Through Art academy. Aside from the strong focus on the arts given to teenagers and children who attend, classes are offered which aim to teach students from all backgrounds everything from dining etiquette to the art of conversation. “But the real lesson in a country emerging from civil war”, she writes, “is how manners can help Iraqis get along with one another.” It is a story that doesn’t have a huge body count, but it deals with the young people who are growing up, at times, surrounded by huge body counts, and some ways this environment is being addressed.

The academy was opened by the director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, Karim Wasfi, who brings the same energy and resolve to the school which he did to the orchestra, which somehow continued performing throughout the worst of Iraq’s sectarian violence. "After a year, your whole life is going to change," Wasfi tells parents and students at the recent opening of the center. "There is no politics here – no Sunni, no Shiite, no Christian.... This is a place to leave your problems behind."

The etiquette classes are really a way of learning some sort of healthy discourse – a way of dealing with others from the outside world. Arraf writes that, though the school is not specifically geared toward young people who have suffered trauma, it is clear to an observer that war’s effects are evident in the students.
Bilal Abbass, who plays the oud (similar to a lute), tells the class he was the only survivor among four friends gunned down in Dora three years ago. For a year after the shooting he stayed in his room. "For two years I couldn't really talk about it," he says after class. "I was psychologically broken." When he started playing music again a year after the attack, he composed a piece called 'The remainder of hope.' " Bilal, who wants to be a teacher and to travel, aims to learn from the class how to behave outside Iraq.
A tenth-grade girl tells of seeing corpses on the way to school in past years, and another says, "War changes people." "Most people think only of themselves. It's their right, but they should try not to think of themselves all the time."

USA Today, no Iraq coverage.
Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Exceptions to Iraq Deadline Are Proposed in Baghdad, Mosul
By WINSLOW WHEELER 04/27/2009 02:00 AM ET
The main story today is a UN raid in the early hours of Sunday which left two Iraqis dead, and which has caused quite an uproar, even among Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Plans for US forces to remain in some cities past the June 30 deadline are covered, and there is also a letter to the editor by President Talabani's son.

From Baghdad
An American raid in Kut left two Iraqis dead, and resulted in both street demonstrations and al-Maliki saying on government television station Al-Iraqiya that called the raid a violation of the security agreement and called for the American military to “hand over those responsible for this crime to the courts.” Part of the agreement is that US forces must obtain warrants for all detentions, and that all operations must be first cleared with Iraqi security forces, and that is the big question. The Times and the Post are both pretty comparable reading, and cover all the bases.

Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times writes that the Defense Ministry’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, said that two Iraqi Army commanders had been detained and accused of not informing their superiors about said operation.
That suggested that some Iraqi commanders knew of the raid in advance, though it was not immediately clear who authorized it and whether the American troops possessed an arrest warrant, as required under the agreement. The American military declined to answer any questions, referring repeatedly to its initial statement.

...A delegation of American and Iraqi officers later visited the raided house and the provincial council to express condolences and apologies. “It is really a tragedy, and I express my deep regret and apologies to all the families that lost victims,” Colonel Francey said at the news conference in Kut.
The Washington Post's Ernesto Londoño and Zaid Sabah describe the event.
The raid began about 1:30 a.m., when U.S. convoys pulled up outside the house of Capt. Muaamer Abid Naama al-Bidyree, who is assigned to the Interior Ministry's internal affairs office, relatives said. Bidyree was not home at the time, they said. While American soldiers were searching the house, which is split into several apartments occupied by members of an extended family, Bidyree's wife began screaming.

...In a statement, the U.S. military said soldiers opened fire on a man because "forces assessed him to be hostile." They did not elaborate. The woman, the statement said, "moved into the line of fire and was also struck by gunfire."
Charles Levinson and Nada Raad of the Wall Street Journal have a brief, nuts-and-bolts story. Al-Maliki's statements about bringing US forces to justice are portrayed to be likely for pre-election domestic consumption, rather than something he would actually follow up on. The other papers seem to agree.
It is unclear on what basis Mr. Maliki will claim jurisdiction over the U.S. soldiers who carried out the raid. The U.S.-Iraqi agreement says that on-duty U.S. soldiers aren't subject to Iraqi law; only U.S. soldiers who commit major and intentional crimes off base and off duty are subject to Iraqi law. Disagreements are to be resolved by a joint U.S.-Iraqi committee.

The prime minister's response to the raid comes a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Baghdad and reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Iraq amid growing concerns that the U.S. withdrawal could be a reason for a recent spike in violence. It also highlights the delicate balancing act Mr. Maliki is walking between trying to appear as a strong nationalist leader advocating for Iraqi sovereignty ahead of parliamentary elections later this year, while also working to hold on to security gains that the U.S. military has been instrumental in achieving.
As for those security gains, next there is a subject which has gotten a great deal of ink recently, possible exceptions to the June 30 deadline for withdrawing American combat troops from Iraqi cities. The US military has been talking about Mosul being a likely exception for weeks, and Diyala has been named as well – but there has been nothing concrete. Baghdad has now been brought into the equation, and though the story is that the two nations “will begin negotiating” the final points on Monday, specific bases are mentioned (including that US forces gave up control of “most” of Forward Operating Base Freedom in the Green Zone – everything except the swimming pool).

The spokesman for the Iraqi military, Maj. Gen. Muhammad al-Askari, said, “If there is a small group to stay in that camp to guard the American Embassy, that’s no problem,” adding, “The meaning of the SOFA is that their vehicles cannot go in the streets of Baghdad and interfere with our job.”

Says the US military’s top spokesman Maj. Gen. David Perkins, of the two cities which will be at the center of discussions, “For Al Qaeda to win, they have to take Baghdad. To survive they have to hold on to Mosul.”

While those principal Baghdad bases will remain, the United States military has been rapidly erasing its footprint everywhere else in Baghdad. The so-called troop surge added 77 small bases, known as combat outposts, patrol bases and joint security stations, spread throughout the city’s neighborhoods to get United States troops closer to the people. At the height, in 2007, there were nearly 100 such bases. All of them will have been turned over to the Iraqis by June 30, and many already have been, General Perkins said. He added that in many cases the Iraqis would choose not to use them for their own troops.

Nationwide, the American military presence is also changing quickly as June 30 approaches. A survey of northern and central Iraqi provinces by New York Times reporters confirmed that American troops had already withdrawn from all of the bases situated in the centers of major towns or cities, with the exception of Mosul.
Qubad Talabani, representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the United States (and son of President Jalal Talabani) , writes a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, finding fault with an April 18 op-ed by Scott Carpenter and Michael Rubin called “Kurdistan’s Troubled Democracy”, in which they questioned the democratic nature of how things are run in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Talabani fights back with “Democracy Thrives in Kurdistan", saying that Carpenter and Rubin “combined untruths, half-truths and faulty analysis in support of their conclusion”. Praises are sung for the KRG’s “best record on religious tolerance in Iraq, the most liberal press law in the country and a thriving civil society demonstrated by abundant and unrestricted activity by nongovernmental organizations”. (He doesn’t mention Amnesty International’s recent human rights report on Iraqi Kurdistan, but if Jalal Talabani was my father, I probably wouldn’t either.)

Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.
Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Twin Female Bombings at Shrine on 2nd Day Of Major Bloodshed, Clinton in Iraq
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/25/2009 02:00 AM ET
Here at the US papers roundup, we're always complaining that Iraq doesn’t get enough coverage, but that turns out to be preferable to what has to happen to make it, once again, a front-page story. Aside from the violence, Secretary Clinton visits Baghdad and Americans accused of being part of a fuel-stealing ring in Iraq are brought before a grand jury in Virginia. Also, the Pentagon has agreed to release photos of detainee abuse by US military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

From Baghdad
The two suicide bombers (mostly, but not exclusively, described as females) who killed upwards of 70 people outside Baghdad’s holiest Shi’a shrine ignited fears that the Iraqi capital could again spiral into a cycle of sectarian violence. Iraqi security forces appear overwhelmed, largely not having dealt with such large-scale bombings of civilians in the past year. Almost all of the 18 major bombings this month occurred in clearly-identified Shi’a areas, largely seen as an attempt by al-Qaeda in Iraq (whose allied-groups recently promised a new wave of attacks code-named ‘Good Harvest’) to reinvigorate instability and sectarian war in Iraq.

So far, there have been no clear retaliations on the part of Shi’a militias, as in years past, but fears are widespread that the now-quiet militias could get a lot louder if such bombings as Friday’s persist. More than one article likens Friday’s bombing at the Imam Musa al-Kadhim shrine to the Samarra shrine bombing of early 2006, given substantial credit for the sectarian bloodletting which followed.

In one of the stronger offerings, Ernesto Londoño and Aziz Alwan if the Washington Post write...
Friday's attacks ushered back the sights and sounds of the darkest moments of the Iraq war. Sirens wailed in a desperate chorus. Ambulance drivers navigated wildly through crowded streets and checkpoints. Bodies, some dead, some not, were piled by the dozens onto pickup trucks. Rifle-toting policemen at checkpoints kept their fingers on their triggers, warily scanning all who approached.

..."We were walking, and I heard a loud explosion," he (Ali Qaiz, 22) said, lying on his side as saline solution was administered intravenously into his bloodied right arm. "I was tossed in the air and blacked out." He regained consciousness, he said, as bystanders tossed him on the back of a truck with at least 20 bodies. In his view, the bombers' goal is obvious. "They want to bring the sectarian violence again," Qaiz said. "They want to destroy the Iraqi unity. Only innocent people were lost in the explosion."
The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers and Sam Dagher have harrowing accounts as well, but also focus as well on the Islamic State of Iraq, basically a coalition of al-Qaeda linked insurgent groups. The Iraqi government claimed on Thursday to have captured their leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, but many are skeptical of such claims.
Extremist Web sites denied his arrest, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors claims and other statements by terrorist and extremist groups. The American military command also said in a statement that it could not confirm “the arrest or capture” of the leader, who the American military believes to be a fictitious Iraqi figurehead of a movement that includes many foreign fighters.

A senior national police official on Friday bluntly cited the limitations of Iraq’s security forces and their equipment for detecting explosives, typically hand-held wands used at checkpoints that the official described as fakes.
Remarks that Charles Levinson of the Wall Street Journal gets from a member of the US military are worth reading, as they show why public affairs officers exist.
Lt. Col. Rich Morales, a commander of a battalion in southern Baghdad, comments on the bombings, "It is an anomaly, a few isolated incidents after which things return to normal almost immediately." Perhaps just a tad dismissive, but nothing objectionable. Then Col. Morales's executive officer, Maj. Kyle Hadlock, starts explaining things. "One reason for the surge in violence could be as simple as the weather." "Every year, around March and April we see a spike in attacks as it gets warmer, but before it gets too hot," and adds, "Just like you see more traffic tickets in Daytona during Spring break." I’m sure he would love that analogy after a bombing in his own neighborhood.

From Washington, Gordon Lubold of the Christian Science Monitor writes of the recent violence in relation to the US withdrawal. All the articles hit upon the issue, but that’s his whole show.
The wave of violence in recent weeks, coming as US troops have begun preparing for withdrawal, threatens to bring Iraq back to the front burner, after months of increased security coupled with Obama's focus on Afghanistan had pushed it back. "Numerous challenges still confront its leaders and its people," General Petraeus told a House panel. He said an Al Qaeda network that provides foreign fighters from Tunisia through Syria to Iraq has been "reactivated." Four of the most recent suicides were carried out by Tunisians, he said.

...While the Iraq withdrawal and the Afghanistan surge won't necessarily occur simultaneously, much of the deployment to Afghanistan is predicated on the draw down plan for Iraq. If Al Qaeda were to reemerge and pose a substantive challenge to Iraqi and US forces, Mr. Obama might have to reassess his thinking.
Back in Baghdad, the Times’ Sam Dagher returns with heartbreaking scenes from a Kadhimiya hospital, in an unwelcome visit to years past.
Attacks this deadly are not as common in Iraq now, but the scene was the same as in the darkest days of the sectarian war. “Lord, my whole family is gone, gone,” screamed an old man, barefoot, outside the hospital. He fell down on the sidewalk sobbing. A man from a nearby kiosk lifted him up, put his arm around him and walked him through the gate. “He lost 13 members of his family,” someone said.

Inside, the air was heavy with stories of sudden separation. At the door of the morgue, men shrieked as an elderly woman soaked in blood was sheathed into a plastic bag, then into a wooden coffin.
Dagher highlights the fact that nearly half of those killed on Friday were Iranian pilgrims visiting Iraqi holy sites. Iranian pilgrims also made up about 60 of those killed on Thursday.

The Washington Post’s Mary Beth Sheridan is ahead of the pack in covering the surprise visit to Baghdad on Saturday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Getting the story in by deadline for a story in Saturday’s paper meant not having many details about the visit, and most of the article rehashes the recent bombings to outline the security situation. Clinton’s remarks are from the “eve” of her trip. The plane landed, so Sheridan gets to have the Baghdad dateline.
Clinton flew into the Iraqi capital on an Air Force C-17 cargo jet for her unannounced visit. She arrived after two days of suicide bombings that left over 115 people dead in Baghdad and the northern province of Diyala. While the attacks have alarmed Iraqis, Clinton said she saw "no sign" they could re-ignite the sectarian warfare that ravaged the country in recent years. She described the bombings as "a signal that the rejectionists fear Iraq is going in the right direction."
In the ongoing torture and detainee abuse scandal/debate, both Ann Scott Tyson of the Washington Post and David Stout of the New York Times report that, in response to a lawsuit, the Pentagon will end a Bush administration legal battle and release of photos showing abuse or alleged abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. personnel. Both articles are comparable.

The photographs, to be released by May 28, include 21 images depicting detainee abuse in facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan other than the Abu Ghraib prison. The exact number of photos is unknown, but it is said to be in the “hundreds.” Civil liberties say the photos prove that abuse was not the result of the actions of a few bad apples, but rather a “systemic” problem, while a senior defense official says, "What it demonstrates is that when we find credible allegations of abuse, we investigate them."

In what the New York Times’s James Glanz calls “a confidence game that made a mockery of the United States military’s most secure compound in Iraq,” an indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Virginia on Friday accused a ring of Americans posing as contractors and their Nepalese drivers “used tanker trucks, forged documents and sheer brazenness to steal at least $40 million worth of jet and diesel fuel from an Army depot.”
Until they were caught, the dozen or so men in the ring operated an astoundingly successful con game in a war zone, the papers contend, apparently showing up in Iraq with nothing more than fake IDs and a talent for forging official requisition forms. Each time they filled up the tanker trucks at the depot in American headquarters near the Baghdad International Airport, the men would simply drive downtown and sell the fuel on the local black market, the court papers say.

The papers indicate that in 2007 and 2008 the ring sold at least 10 million gallons of stolen fuel (!?!), and probably far more, into a black market notorious for its connections with Iraqi insurgents. They are known to control large sectors of that market and to collect a hefty percentage of its profits.
Wow. Despite the serious nature of the allegations, after the rest of today’s stories, it is really is light, entertaining reading. Glanz writes that the indictment “contained elements of an international crime thriller and a Cheech & Chong movie.” The quote of the day is from an e-mail by one of the accused, being used as evidence - “I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t discuss the quasi legality of what we are doing to anyone.”

USA Today, no Saturday Edition.

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
New GOI Numbers of War Dead, AQI Leader "al-Baghdadi" Captured?
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/24/2009 01:58 AM ET
On the same day that the Iraqi government triumphantly announced the capture of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (not for the first time), three suicide bombs killed at least 80 people and left well over 100 wounded. One of the bombers, in downtown Baghdad, was a female, another in Diyala killed mostly Iranian religious pilgrims.

From Baghdad
All four papers covering it give the same overall commentary – As US forces continue to lessen their numbers in Iraq (though Ninewa and Diyala are brought up as exceptions) activities of an Al-Qaeda-linked insurgency are making a comeback. Of the al-Baghdadi capture, everyone mentions it, but all are careful to treat it with a grain of salt, due to previous reports of his arrest and death. US forces aren’t confirming anything, having often claimed he is a fictitious figure, invented to give the Sunni insurgency (which they characterize as being foreign-led) an Iraqi face.

Timothy Williams, on the front page of the New York Times, writes of the aftermath of the two larger bombings which surpass other papers in information and descriptive quality. The following concerns the Baghdad blast, where a crowd had gathered around a food distribution site that “was catering mainly to those displaced by the war”.
The woman stood out, the witnesses said, only because she began nudging her way through the crowd, which had been waiting patiently for the bags of flour, bottles of cooking oil and other staples that the police were handing out. The witnesses said she tugged the child, who looked about 5 years old, along with her. Once she reached the center of the crowd, she set off the blast, with explosives that the police believe she hid under her flowing clothes.
The second attack occurred in Muqtadiya, in Diyala province, and brought down the roof of a restaurant where a bus of Iranian religious pilgrims had stopped for a break. In both the Times and the Post, they are described simply as tourists. Though not incorrect, it might conjure up images of towels and suntan lotion to those not familiar with the fact that Iranian religious tourism to Iraqi shrines has continued throughout the war.

The third and smallest suicide bombing, also in Diyala, targeted Sahwa fighters. Ernesto Londoño and Aziz Alwan of the Washington Post write of the Sahwa, who the Sunni insurgency has labeled as traitors and has been consistently staging attacks against their members. They spend more time on big-picture analysis than the Times. After the Baghdad bombing, here is some local reaction.
"This is the ugly work of al-Qaeda members who are being released from American prisons," Muhammad Abdulla, 30, said just outside the cordoned-off area where U.S. and Iraqi troops were collecting evidence. "The U.S. is doing this on purpose to find an excuse to extend its presence in Iraq."

Other residents were quick to blame Iraq's police forces, an increasingly common reaction after bombings. "The National Police are not proficient and they are not doing their job properly," said Ali Omran, 50. A National Police officer who declined to give his name said he carried three of his slain comrades from the scene. "Their uniforms were drenched in blood," he said.
They mention a report released on Thursday, as does The Wall Street Journal's Charles Levinson.
According to an Iraqi government tally published by the Associated Press Thursday, 87,215 Iraqi citizens have been killed in violence since 2005. There aren't authoritative statistics for 2003 or 2004, according to the AP, which estimates that more than 110,600 Iraqis have died in violence since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Levinson also gives numbers of Iraqi dead in past months.

Tom A Peter of the Christian Science Monitor reports from Amman about the blasts, in an article which mostly discusses the reinvigorated insurgency, and its causes and implications.

Peter writes, “Earlier this month, AQI launched a coordinated strike detonating seven car bombs in Baghdad that killed at least 37 people,” as though it was an open-and-shut case, although who exactly is responsible for those blasts is not anywhere near universally accepted.

Al-Baghdadi is prominently featured early in the piece, but as the title reads, “New bombings in Iraq steal thunder from top insurgent's arrest.” The rest of the story quotes Western experts and US military, and deals with al-Qaeda in Iraq’s undermining the Sahwa and sectarian tensions causing the US to be “again caught between Sunni and Shiite”.
"The Sunni Arab population that AQI depends on for support increasingly has the feeling that we are walking away from them," says Patrick Lang, a Middle East expert and former US Army officer. "There's this feeling that the Maliki government is so Shiite that it intends to not treat the Sunni Arabs very well, and the United States is not showing any inclination to continue to support ."

Should the US take up arms against former Awakening members, it could create the perception that American forces had sided with the Shiites, some analysts warn. With strained relations between Iraq's three major ethnic groups – the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds – and no apparent road to a unity government, deeper conflict could still be brewing in the restive nation.
Also in the Monitor, Kyndra Rotunda (a professor of law at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and director of the AMVETs clinic) writes "US Soldiers are Heroes Not Terrorists", in which she faults a Homeland Security report that warns of possible criminal behavior in returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, including domestic terrorism. She isn’t having any of it.
According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 26.5 of every 100,000 white males between 18 and 24 commit homicide per year. The statistic for Iraq and Afghanistan war vets is much lower. Only about 16 per 100,000 committed (or were charged with committing) homicide. In the end, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans appear to be significantly less likely than the average American male to commit a homicide – much less to become a terrorist.
USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

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Daily Column
U.N. Report Lays Out Options for an Oil-Rich Iraqi Region
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/23/2009 02:00 AM ET
Today, the New York Times and the Washington Post are our only takers. Both cover the mosque bombing in Salah al-Din and UNAMI’s completion of a long-awaited report on Kirkuk, but each chooses a different one to highlight.

From Baghdad
The Washington Post's Ernesto Londoño and Zaid Sabah focus on the suicide bomber who burst into a mosque in Duluilah on Wednesday evening, detonating explosives near worshipers which killed at least five of them. "All the people in Duluiyah rushed to the mosque yelling and cursing al-Qaeda," said a spokesman for the local Sahwa.

Londoño and Sabah’s sources say that the bomber, roughly 20 years old, approached a police station near the mosque. "One of the shopkeepers realized he's a stranger and asked him to stop," a local police official said. "But he ran toward the mosque and blew himself up."

Timothy Williams of the New York Times dedicates only a few paragraphs at the end of his story to the bombing, but includes that at least 13 people were wounded, and his witness says that the bomber was a boy of about 12 years old. In this version too, locals became suspicious of the attacker when no one recognized him, but the police station is not mentioned.

Londoño and Sabah write...
Kamil al-Jubory, a tribal leader in Duluiyah, said al-Qaeda in Iraq had recently stepped up efforts to woo Awakening members. The U.S. military had stopped paying Sons of Iraq in recent months and transferred control of the groups to the Shiite-led Iraqi government. Many Sons of Iraq accuse the government of undermining the groups by arresting leaders and paying members late.

"Al-Qaeda started two weeks ago to intensify their efforts to reorganize themselves by convincing Awakening members and the people of the villages to join them, seizing on the frustration and the fear that hit them after the Iraqi government began to chase them," Jubory said.
Both articles briefly include that the U.S. military announced on Wednesday that a GI was killed in combat in eastern Baghdad, but that’s as far as the details go.

Williams’ centerpiece is the United Nations report that was presented Wednesday to senior Iraqi officials (neither of the newspapers have been able to get their hands on it yet) which proposes several options for Kirkuk Province, oft-referred to as a powder-keg for its staying power as a cause of Kurdish/Arab/Turkmen/Christian/anyone-else-you-can-think-of tension. It never fixes itself, so voting was postponed in January’s provincial elections. One of the options below supposedly builds in up to five extra years for residents to decide who the region goes to.
A member of the Iraqi Parliament who read the report said that one of the four proposed options was the creation of an independent or autonomous region run by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens. The budget of the region would be financed with a percentage of Kirkuk’s oil revenues, according to the United Nations plan.

A second option ...was for Kirkuk to become a special region, to be jointly administered by the regional and central governments. Under this proposal, a referendum would be held within five years to determine whether residents wanted Kirkuk to become part of the Kurdistan region or to be incorporated into the central state.
Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

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Daily Column
Can Iraq Go It Alone? Foreigners Filling Jobs That Iraqis Often Shun
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/22/2009 02:00 AM ET
A new US ambassador to Iraq is confirmed with little fanfare, the prospect of a G.I.-less Iraq is looked at as the question “Can Iraq Go It Alone?” is asked, and the point of view of people moving to Iraq to snag often low-paying jobs.

Hill Confirmation
Some in Iraq have been made to feel that they’ve been going it alone already, but I guess the US Senate figured that if even the Iraqi parliament could elect a speaker, then they’d better follow suit and confirm the most basic of positions in foreign relations – an ambassador. If you look carefully in both the New York Times and the Washington Post, you might find a paragraph or two in daily briefing sections committed to the confirmation of Christopher Hill to the post. The voting tallied in at 73-23, and critics said his record showed he was an ineffective North Korean diplomat, and that he lacked Middle East experience.

From Baghdad
“There is little ambiguity in President Obama's plan for an accelerated US withdrawal from Iraq,” writes Jane Arraf, in the beginning of her article in the Christian Science Monitor, on whether or not Iraqi forces are ready to tackle the country’s security challenges. The general answer by US sources she speaks to (some of them speaking freely and off-the-record) is just as clear – no.

"The question is can the Iraqis keep it down without us being here, and we would assess right now that they cannot," says a senior US military official, adding that Iraq's security forces "are clearly better than they were, but they still do not have the capability to be their own self-sufficient counterinsurgency force." The lack of intelligence-gathering capability, airpower, and budget shortfalls which threaten to severely limit possible Iraqi troop levels are all named as factors.

Arraf doesn’t speak to any Iraq officials, but the near-uniformity in opinion of the US guys she talks to (while, at the same time, stressing that "there are no current plans to keep American forces here past 2011"), makes its own point.
While the Iraqi Army has become relatively adept at conventional operations and has improved its planning and logistics, much of the drop in attacks over the past year has been achieved through counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations increasingly partnered with Iraqi troops but still led by US forces.

Already a hiring freeze by the Iraqi government has stalled plans to increase the size of its security forces from 615,000 to about 646,000.

Iraqi security forces still rely on the US for combat and logistical help, including close air support, communications, intelligence and surveillance, as well as clearance of roadside bombs and medical support.
In the other piece of original Iraq-related reporting today, the New York Times’ Timothy Williams and Tareq Maher have an interesting feature on the foreign workforce in Iraq. “These are not contract workers recruited by American firms like KBR or Halliburton to work at American military cafeterias or to pull guard duty on the perimeter of American bases,” they say, “but men and women who have come to work for Iraqi businesses that would otherwise hire Iraqis.”

As cleaners, cooks, and other positions which many Iraqis may not want to do, despite high levels of unemployment (for all you who think there’s no cultural common ground between Iraqis and Americans) foreigners from places like India, Uganda, Bangladesh, Nepal and Ethiopia are proving reliable - and what’s more – cheap. “Sometimes I hear loud booms, but I don’t care,” said Zahandwir Aloui, a 25-year-old waiter from Bangladesh. “I like working here.”
Since the 2003 invasion by United States-led forces, few foreigners have strayed outside the heavily secured Green Zone, with the exception of well-armed American soldiers, because foreigners had been targets of Sunni and Shiite militias, which carried out kidnappings and executions. Even though Baghdad is safer now than it was in the first few years following the invasion, most of the recently arrived workers say they do not go far from their workplaces.

Mr. Aloui, the waiter, who earns double what he would at home, lives in a room at a hotel next door to the restaurant (where diners are searched for suicide belts before eating). He says he knows almost nothing about Baghdad aside from the dozen or so steps between the restaurant and the hotel. He has been told not to walk the street alone.

And while he works as many as 15 hours a day, six days a week, for his $250 monthly salary, not including a $50 monthly bonus, the restaurant’s Iraqi-born waiters earn more than double that — even when they work far fewer hours.
The relevant issue of exploitation is brought up, as many of these low-wage workers have found themselves in Iraq with few prospects and needing to take what jobs are offered to them, even if it wasn’t quite what they were promised by the employment companies who brought them. It is worth reading, for a glimpse into an increasingly common part of everyday life in Iraq that many would not expect.

Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

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Daily Column
At Least 3 Iraqi Policemen Killed, 8 US Troops and 11 Others Wounded in Baqouba
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/21/2009 01:59 AM ET
An attack on US troops and embassy employees visiting a council meeting in Diyala province is the only item today, covered in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

From Baghdad
On Monday, a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest killed three Iraqis, including two employees of the U.S. Embassy's office in Baqouba. The blast wounded 19 people, among them eight American soldiers, two other embassy employees and three Iraqi policemen. It was a weekly council meeting which US forces regularly attend.

In recent months, it has been common for suicide bombers to infiltrate Iraqi security forces by wearing a uniform. Ernesto Londoño of the Washington Post reports it was a police uniform, while Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times that the bomber was dressed as an Iraqi special forces soldier. Either way, while standing near some other soldiers shortly after the US convoy arrived, he detonated his vest.

Both articles quote Diyala council chairman (or Baqouba city council chairman, depending on the article) Raad al-Dahlagi, who said, "Those Americans were on their way to meet with me," and, “It seems he was waiting for them to arrive.” The latter comment could be attributed to the fact that the meetings are held in the volatile city every Monday at 10:00, and, according to al-Dahlagi, the Americans attend each week.

Both articles give the same basic narrative, from outlining Monday’s attack, to seeing it as a part of a larger effort by a possibly re-invigorated insurgency. Both mention recent claims of responsibility for attacks on websites thought to be associated with al-Qaeda in Iraq and/or the Islamic State of Iraq.

Londoño has a better breakdown of the casualties, writing, “The wounded embassy employees are an American contractor and a British citizen employed as an interpreter and cultural adviser, a U.S. Embassy official said. The two slain employees were Iraqi contractors.” Myers has a few more descriptive details about what happened.
An Iraqi police major said that casualties would have almost certainly been higher had the armored vehicles not shielded many more people. The Americans opened fire immediately after the blast. “There was random shooting everywhere,” said Hamid al-Zaidy, who was on his way to the city’s electricity department when the explosion occurred. “I lay on the ground because the American forces were in a complete state.” In a statement, the American military command said that the soldiers exchanged fire with a gunman; his fate was not clear.
Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

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Daily Column
Critic of Maliki Elected, Iraq's Stock Exchange Goes Electronic
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/20/2009 01:36 AM ET
The main story today was the election of a new parliament speaker, after long last. It was covered in just two papers, along with a few stories about developments in the Iraq Stock Exchange. Other than that, there’s nothing Iraq-related.

From Baghdad
After almost four months of holdups, the Iraqi parliament again has a speaker. The Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party’s Ayad al-Samarraie, to the ire of many members of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party. Both articles covering it (and both headlines) stress that al-Samarraie is a critic of al-Maliki, and point to the possibility of future political clashes between them.

Timothy Williams of the New York Times suggests that al-Maliki indirectly addressed the election of al-Samarraie in a speech on Sunday.
Even as Parliament was voting, Mr. Maliki appeared before hundreds of uniformed commanders at the Interior Ministry and warned that factions within Iraq threatened national unity. As he has in recent days, he suggested that opponents — whom he did not identify — were seeking to undermine his government.

“Today we face a new war of subversion, sedition and suspicion,” he said. “We have to warn ourselves, myself and all you, of the sedition that was defeated in the battle and is being provoked in a certain problem here and another problem there.” A spokesman for Mr. Maliki did not respond to a call seeking his reaction to Mr. Sammaraie’s election as speaker, but a lawmaker who is a member of Dawa pledged to cooperate with him.
Charles Levinson of the Wall Street Journal, though having less specifics on what was going on in parliament, includes examples of recent security incidents (some of them reflecting unfavorably on al-Maliki) and lays out some brewing political turmoil.
His (Maliki’s) defenders say Mr. Maliki's growing number of critics in parliament are sore losers from January's elections. The parties increasingly at odds with Mr. Maliki, including Mr. Samarrai's Islamic Party, the Kurdish Alliance, and the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, known as ISCI, are seen as sectarian. Mr. Maliki, in contrast, has emerged as a national leader, pulling support from all of Iraq's sects.

...The parliamentary challenge comes as worry grows about Mr. Maliki's singular achievement: better security. On Saturday, Iraqi forces swept through the city of Fallujah, where insurgents have regained a toehold, according to security officials. Fallujah, the capital of Anbar province, until recently was a favorite government example of the security turnaround in Iraq.
Also by Levinson is a story about the Iraq Stock Exchange entering the electronic age, or at least five of its companies. Now, on the three days per week that the exchange is open, these companies’ numbers will no longer be hand-written on a wall, but will appear on a monitor. Instead of traders waiting 20 days to be able to resell stocks after buying them, they can do so in minutes.

Levinson features people both in favor of the new ways, and a few others more comfortable with the old.
Iraqi Securities Commission Chairman Abdul-Razzak al-Saadi hailed it as a step into modernity that would make trading faster, more transparent and more accessible to foreign investors.

Sanharib Boutros Anton, an 82-year-old retired railroad worker who has been playing the market since its inception in 1993, was simply baffled, and chose to sit out the day's trading. "I know this is a good thing and will help encourage investment from abroad," Mr. Anton said. "But I think I'll wait to trade on days when they use the old system."
USA Today’s Aamer Madhani covers the story as well, painting a picture of what it has been like at the ISX, and what the exchange’s place is (and could be) on the international finance scene.
Since the exchange opened in 2004, all trading has been done by brokers crowding around large erasable boards to buy and sell stock — akin to watching a professor scribbling on the board in a college classroom. Trading under Iraq's system has been colorful, as dapper men dressed in suits scream sale prices to their clients over cellphones, but it locked out all but a few foreign investors willing to take a chance on Iraq as it emerges from a longtime dictatorship and years of war.

...Iraq's fledgling stock exchange, which traded $270 million last year, is dwarfed when compared to the New York Stock Exchange's 8,500 listings of companies valued at $16.7 trillion through the end of 2008. ...Bartle Bull, a New York-based portfolio manager who recently helped launch a hedge fund that focuses on ISX stocks, said Iraq has great growth potential, even though the nation's security, while improved, will remain a long-term concern. "Other emerging markets have proven things don't have to be perfect for enormous wealth to be created," Bull said.
Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, no Iraq coverage.

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Daily Column
Baghdad Back to Old Ways, Iraq's Wobbles
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/19/2009 01:39 AM ET
On the cover of the New York Times there is a large photo of a Baghdad cockfight, as a feature about returning vice, though prominently placed, is the only Iraq-related news item today. The Washington Post has an opinion piece about the United States’ Iraq policy. In both papers, there are a few articles about the US military, but not ones that particularly pertain to Iraq, so are not included here.

From Iraq
Rod Nordland writes that, as nighttime curfews, religious extremists and prowling kidnappers are becoming less of an issue in Baghdad life, illicit pleasures, “or at least slightly dubious ones” are making a comeback. If the article was longer, it could be called a page-turner, but as it is, it is an interesting and voyeuristic view into a world that, as Nordland points out, is gaining prominence – even if it is generally not so openly talked about by Baghdadis.

In at least one park along the Tigris, young men and women openly show affection for one another. Liquor stores have been back for a while, but elbow-benders now have other choices than just taking liquor home to drink behind closed doors - nightclubs (mostly a kind of late night restaurant, patronized by men) are kept open later and later. Prostitution, though having never left Baghdad, is now more visible than it has been since pre-2003. Prostitutes are not seen on street corners, but young women are slowly beginning to be seen at the late night clubs.

Of the prostitutes, on which much of the article is focused, a police detective says, “They’re the best sources we have,” and that he would not enforce the law against it. “They know everything about JAM and Al Qaeda members,” he said, using the acronym for Jaish al-Mahdi or Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia. “If I had my way, I’d destroy all the mosques and spread the whores around a little more,” the detective said. “At least they’re not sectarian.”

Hanaa Edwar, secretary general of the Iraqi human rights group Al-Amal says, “It is terrible to see prostitution increased like this,” adding, “These are women from displaced families, poor people, people who have to sell themselves to get money for their families and children.”
She was incensed after she raised the subject before the Iraqi Parliament. “They were shocked and didn’t agree to open discussion on this issue,” she said. The shock, she said, was that she dared to mention the problem. Al Amal commissioned a report last year that surveyed prostitutes working on the streets in Baghdad. One was a 15-year-old girl who had been thrown out of school for dressing inappropriately, then took to prostitution, the report said. Another was an 18-year-old forced to become the second wife of an older man; she ran away and had no other way to support herself. One girl was 12.

Certainly, vice often has an ugly side. During a recent undercover operation in Karada aimed at a human trafficking ring, a pimp offered a plainclothes officer an opportunity to buy a young woman to take to Syria, according to a detective, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the sting.
Drug abuse is much less of a problem than in other cities, with occasional “illegal pills” being found by police. Nordland calls valium, an over-the-counter drug in Iraq, as Baghdadis’ drug of choice. There are some “uppers” which have become widely used by security forces for some time which he does not mention, but still – this is nothing like drug use faced by even the calmest of suburban American hamlets.

As Nordland puts it, “most people have had enough excitement these past six years just staying home.”

The Washington Post editorial page has some suggestions, sort of, for how the Obama administration can respond to incipient signs of trouble.

They didn’t go out on any limbs on this one, and it reads more like a general explanation of the security situation than a opinion piece. Slavishly sticking with Obama’s stated time line of pulling combat troops out of cities this summer is brought up, and the possibility of troops staying in Mosul is quickly addressed. If one looks, one can also find suggestions that the post of US ambassador to Iraq, empty since February, needs to be filled.
Mr. Hill's main focus, once he arrives, ought to be helping to ensure that Iraq's national elections, expected next January, go smoothly. Judging from January's results, elections may be the best way to defuse sectarian tensions and resolve disputes among feuding factions. Al-Qaeda and other extremists will try to disrupt the democratic process, while Iran will seek to manipulate it. Though the new administration has minimized the promotion of democracy as a goal, both in Iraq and elsewhere, it offers perhaps the best means of enabling the troop withdrawal that Mr. Obama has promised for next year.
Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, no Sunday Editions.

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Daily Column
Kurds, Arabs Maneuver Ahead of U.N. Report, 25 Years for Dutch-Iraqi
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/17/2009 02:07 AM ET
Yesterday, it was only the New York Times, today, it is mostly the Washington Post, for Iraq-related coverage. An explosion at an Iraqi military base in Habbaniya gets conflicting body counts, A US judge sentences a Dutch-Iraqi man to 25 years for crimes committed in Iraq, “smart prosthetics” for veterans, and Kirkuk is still Kirkuk.

From Baghdad
On Thursday, a suicide bomber wearing an Iraqi Army uniform made it through tight security at a large military base in Habbaniya, in Anbar province. The main focus of the story by Steven Lee Myers at the New York Times and also the Washington Post’s Ernesto Londoño was the sharp contrast between casualty rates reported by Iraqi officers on the scene (which reported 16 killed and as many as 50 wounded) and a statement by the Ministry of Defense (which left no one dead, and only 17 wounded. The Americans aren’t saying anything. Neither paper seemed to trust the ministry account (historically, not a bad call). Myers’ article is the more in-depth of the two.
Confusion often clouds accounts of attacks here, but rarely have senior officials offered such divergent reports about a death toll. ...Journalists were prohibited from entering the base and the hospital, which Iraqi and American officers visited after the wounded arrived.

One of the three officials who reported 15 deaths suggested that commanders were playing down the toll, perhaps reflecting embarrassment over the security breach. The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly and were contradicting their superiors.
Ernesto Londoño, again in the Washington Post, writes of ever-troubling and ever-disputed Kirkuk. The more things change in Kirkuk, the more they stay the same. Articles about Kirkuk read basically the same as they did years ago – Kurds say it is quite obviously a Kurdish City, while Arabs there aren’t so convinced (and the city’s Turkman population has their own ideas)

The are a few new developments. A UN report, about to be released, based on an analysis of the region's history, demographics, and election results, the United Nations is expected to suggest a power-sharing deal between Kurdish and Arab parties (a concept not unlike one recently suggested by the UN and refused by both parties). Also, a new Arab political group has just been formed, to strengthen the fight on their side, a group which “intends to deploy the paramilitary groups known as Awakening councils, or Sons of Iraq, to fight insurgent groups in villages in northern Iraq.” In January, the US military increased its numbers in the area from a battalion (about 900 troops) to a combat brigade (of about 3,200), if that says anything.

Londoño has written the “tension rising in Kirkuk” story before, but it still packs a punch.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Arab leaders have accused Kurds of encroaching in areas that are under nominal control of the Baghdad government. Maliki in recent months deployed troops loyal to the central government to stem the influence of the Kurdish regional government.

Hussein Ali Salih al-Juburi, a senior Arab political leader in Kirkuk, said local politicians decided to form the Iraqi Kirkuk Bloc to "strengthen the Arabs' position" on what he called "Kurdish intransigence." He said the group intends to deploy the paramilitary groups known as Awakening councils, or Sons of Iraq, to fight insurgent groups in villages in northern Iraq. Kurdish politicians in Kirkuk say they won't accept any deal that prevents the Kurdish regional government from annexing the city.
Del Quentin Wilber of the Washington Post writes that, in the first sentencing in a US court of a non-American for insurgent activity in Iraq, a federal judge yesterday handed a 25 year prison term to a Dutch national for conspiring to kill Americans in Iraq.

Wesam al-Delaema agreed to accept a 25-year sentence in exchange for his guilty plea, on the condition that he will serve his term in the Netherlands, where a Dutch judge will review his case and could reduce his sentence. Wilber includes interesting tidbits from the trial, including clothes and a bandage which helped al-Delaema be identified in films taken during insurgent operations.
Delaema pleaded guilty in February to conspiring to kill Americans in Iraq. He admitted traveling to Iraq in 2003 to be a member of the group Mujaheddin From Fallujah. But prosecutors and defense lawyers fought for two days over whether Delaema could be considered a terrorist as defined under federal sentencing guidelines.

Delaema, who grew up in Fallujah and became a Dutch citizen in 2001, was videotaped with other insurgents planting roadside bombs designed to kill Americans. In one video taken in the Fallujah area, a hooded Delaema can be seen brushing dirt away from an explosive device and then helping to rebury it.
As of April 1, 871 amputee patients wounded in combat had been treated in U.S. military facilities. Christian Davenport, again in the Post, writes of how one of them has become Walter Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s “bionic man”, with a set of high-tech battery-powered legs.

Army Lt. Col. Greg Gadson lost both legs above the knee after his convoy was hit in Iraq by an IED in 2007. Though Davenport only speaks of the state of prosthetics in an upbeat way (possibly giving the misimpression that problems for amputees have been swept away with this new gadget) the Power Knee really does seem promising. "It's radically different from any prosthetic available today," said Mike Corcoran, a certified prosthetist who has worked with Gadson through his rehabilitation.
The new prosthetics, sleek and silver and white, are lighter, more stable and quieter than their predecessors. And because they can predict movement as well as react to it, they are smarter, too, Walter Reed officials said.

Corcoran can wirelessly "log in" to Gadson's knees and tell, in real time, whether his gait is symmetrical, how long his strides are and whether he's walking up or down hill. With that information, Corcoran can adjust settings, giving Gadson a better fit and smoother ride. The legs even have an odometer in them, "so I know what he's done over the weekend. If I tell him to walk four miles and then see that he hasn't, he's busted," Corcoran said.
Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no original Iraq coverage.

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Perception of an Iraqi Crackdown on Sunnis, GI Found Guilty in Killing of Iraqis
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/16/2009 02:00 AM ET
Today, it’s the New York Times, and the New York Times only. In their coverage, sectarian politics impedes local governments, a crackdown on Sahwa is seen as a crackdown on Sunnis, another US soldier is found guilty in the killing of four Iraqis in 2007, and veterans putting war on paper.

From Iraq
Steven Lee Myers reports from Hilla that two and a half months after the elections, the 14 provinces that voted have only now begun forming provincial councils. Some provincials governments are not really functioning, as these councils are having a great deal of trouble agreeing on who should take key positions. These provinces include Babil, Najaf and Basra.

Myers writes a whirlwind of politics not quite coming together as one would hope. If you’re familiar with the situation in the provinces mentioned, you’ll get some specific news out of it. If not, that’s okay – particulars aren’t harped upon, and it the confusion and disarray, which is the point, is amply conveyed.

As always, holding meetings alone doesn’t a problem solve, and fundamentals like providing basic services to residents make all the difference.
Iraq’s provincial elections in January promised something still rare here: hope for the democratic political process. “The best election in the Middle East,” a party leader here in Babil Province declared. What has happened since then is something far more familiar to Iraqis: threats, intrigue, back-room deal-making, protests, political paralysis and, increasingly, popular discontent.
In Baghdad, Alissa J. Rubin and Rod Nordland write that the American military said Wednesday that it was closely following the arrests of 15 leaders of the Sahwa, or Awakening Councils, plus the threatened arrests of five others, but insisted that the detentions were not part of a deliberate Iraqi government campaign against these groups. Their ranks include many former insurgents.

The public perception that these arrests demonstrate a Shi’a-led government cracking down on the Sunni fighters in general, not just ones suspected of criminal activity, as the government and US officials claim.

“We don’t think it’s a systemic problem,” said Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer, chief of reconciliation and engagement for the American forces in Iraq, and the military’s top liaison with the Sons of Iraq, as it calls the Awakening Councils. “But with each individual arrest the perception is there that it’s an assault on the entire program.” He added, “We’re going to track very carefully that the right thing is being done, that the good guy is not being arrested but that the bad ones are.”

The big issues haven’t changed – lack of pay, mistrust, US forces trying to continue acting as a buffer as the Iraqi government becomes increasingly assertive, etc., but Rubin and Nordland do put the focus on what is most distressing to the fighters – the arrests.
The problem lies mainly with the process of issuing arrest warrants. Under Iraqi law, a warrant requires only two witnesses, and records are not centralized, Colonel Kulmayer said, so charges can easily be fabricated. Those doing so, he said, are “factions in the country that are trying to undermine the reconciliation.” He identified those factions as Shiite extremists and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which American intelligence has found to be a homegrown Sunni militant group with some foreign leadership.
Paul von Zeilbauer covers Wednesday's conviction of Sgt. John E. Hatley, who was found guilty of killing four handcuffed and blindfolded Iraqi men in Baghdad, shortly after arresting them in 2007. He is the third senior member of his Army unit to be convicted in the incident – one was sentenced to life in prison, the other plead guilty and got 35 years. The trials are being held in a military court in Germany. Von Zeilbenbauer’s article is brief, and to-the-point.
Military legal experts said the soldiers’ rank showed the frustration of fighting insurgents who blended in with the locals. “When the first sergeant of a company snaps, taking a sergeant first class and a senior medic with him, it’s a sign that they’ve just had too much,” said James D. Culp, a former Army trial lawyer.
Peter Applebome has a piece which covers veterans who gathered at Western Connecticut State University on Wednesday to talk about writing and war with Anthony Swofford, the author of “Jarhead.” They have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and all had different stories to tell, but “what they shared meant much more than whatever divided them.” It is a small, but effective story, about these young men and women who have seen things the students around them can only read about – if they care to.
...The bond, for those who came out in one piece and those who did not, was the war and the stories it threw at you — getting hit in the face by a soda can hurled by an Iraqi kid, sharing a hole in a mountain with four buddies and a dog named Dog, throwing rocks at Geraldo Rivera.

People have been writing about war since ancient times, and show no signs of giving up now, though now war can be blogged and Tweeted and turned into novels and essays. But for all the noise of the culture, the veterans here seemed to say, the wars are everywhere and nowhere, part of our life for almost a decade since 9/11 but now more background noise than front and center. You can shout, but you still won’t get heard.
Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, no original Iraq coverage.

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Hill Response to Plans Pleases Pentagon Chief
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/15/2009 01:58 AM ET
Other than continued stories which explore the early stages of implementing Sahwa-like programs in Afghanistan (but do no more than merely mention Iraq) there is hardly an utterance of the land between two rivers today. The New York Times and Washington Post both have one story each with original Iraq-related material.

From Baghdad
Alissa J. Rubin of the New York Times report that the Iraqi government has been on a nonstop campaign to convince the world that it is a sovereign state, a client neither of the United States nor of Iran. Rubin outlines some of the obvious challenges of downplaying much-needed and very obvious assistance (overt and non-overt) Iraq receives from both countries.

Walking the line between making two countries as deeply enmeshed in Iraq’s affairs as they are hostile toward each other is not an easy task, and Rubin quotes often from foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari. “How do you represent a country under foreign occupation?” he asked. “It was an extreme challenge, an uphill challenge.”
In most of the Middle East, being too close to the Americans earns leaders the scorn of Arabs who view the United States as a heavy-handed ally of Israel, a colonialist empire builder and anti-Muslim. In Europe, where many countries opposed the American invasion, the continuing presence of American soldiers coupled with Iraq’s unstable security situation meant that until recently many countries remained skeptical of Iraq’s independence.

It was not until last fall, when the United States announced a sure withdrawal and pledged no permanent bases in Iraq, that countries and international organizations began committing in any numbers to opening embassies and making official visits, Mr. Zebari said.
“Harder for Iraq to demonstrate to the world,” writes Rubin, “is that it is free of Iranian influence.” No matter how publicly Iraq tries to distances itself from perceptions of Iranian string-pulling, there is a mistrust and notion, throughout the Arab world particularly, that Iraq could end up being largely a puppet state of Iran. The best example of this is Iraq’s neighbor Saudi Arabia, which has refused repeated requests for meetings and invitations to open up an embassy in Iraq.
Mr. Zebari, well aware of Iran’s effort to wield its influence in Iraq, said he has been warning the Saudis lately that if they do not help fill the vacuum as the Americans pull back, then the Iranians will. “We are saying to them, they should be here: ‘Why do you complain about expanding influence?’ ” Mr. Zebari said. “They are here and you are not.”
The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe offers a brief article from Fort Rucker, Alabama, in which he writes that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Tuesday that he has been "pleasantly surprised" by the response from lawmakers to his plans for shifting billions of dollars in Pentagon spending. Of course, this means that they the response has been largely positive to his often sweeping moves to slash programs such as F-22 fighter jets and increase budgets for immediate needs in Iraq and Afghanistan such as counterinsurgency, maintenance, and special operations teams.
Over the next several days, Gates will speak to officers at the Army, Navy and Air Force war colleges, where he plans to present his broader vision for changing the military. Gates said that in particular he will stress the need to be ready for what the Pentagon is calling "complex, hybrid wars" in which adversaries meld guerrilla tactics with more conventional weapons such as antitank guided missiles.
“It seems to me that a number of the responses have been thoughtful, and have been willing to take this seriously and in the vein it was intended," Gates said.

Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.
Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Gen. Atta Seeks to Close Newspaper and TV Channel Over Alleged Misquotes
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/14/2009 02:00 AM ET
Today’s coverage includes news about threats to media freedom in Iraq, some security news, a little oil speculation, and also a comparison between Iraq and Afghanistan that could’ve been better researched.

From Baghdad
Rod Nordland and Sam Dagher of the New York Times report that the Iraqi military put local journalists on notice on Monday that their organizations could be shut down for misquoting officials, while the Iraqi government accused the news media of deliberately seeking to promote sectarian strife. There are no body counts in the headline or accompanying photos of burning vehicles, but this story, dealing with freedom of the press in Iraq is worth reading. There isn’t a great deal of analysis in the article, but the government moves toward shutting down a Baghdad bureau of a leading Arab newspaper and a popular Iraqi television station speak for themselves.

Military spokesman in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta claimed he had been misquoted by prominent Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, concerning the re-arresting of prisoners released from US-run prisons. Afterwards, Al-Sharqiya television station, often critical of the government, picked up the story. In response, Gen. Atta said he was filing a lawsuit to close the Baghdad offices of both organizations for “publishing false reports.” Nordland and Dagher point out that the official government newspaper, Al Sabah, also published the remarks attributed to Atta, but was not threatened with closing.

Also on Monday, the National Media Center of the Council of Ministers criticized local international news media for reports about recent arrests of Sahwa fighters, saying, “These attempts by some media to depict wanted persons as heroes targeted by security forces provoke hateful sectarian strife in order to damage Iraqi unity,” the government said in a statement, adding that such reports “make us wonder about the true goals of these campaigns and the groups behind them.”
In another development on Monday, an Iraqi cartoonist demanded an apology from the police in the Shiite holy city of Karbala for having confiscated two satirical drawings of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and other government officials. ...In one cartoon, Mr. Abed depicted Mr. Maliki as a frustrated mechanic struggling to repair a car. The license plate says, “muhasasa,” Arabic for the government’s ethnic and sectarian quotas. A road sign behind Mr. Maliki says, “The road is long.”
Ernesto Londoño of the Washington Post reports that the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda linked insurgent group, claimed responsibility on Islamic extremist web sites for Monday’s bombing in Mosul which killed five US troops, and another the following day which killed eight Sahwa fighters waiting to be paid in Iskandariyah. The group fancies itself a government, and appoints various officials, such as Ministers of Defense, Finance, and other “cabinet” positions.

Londoño gives a basic explanation of the group, and briefly describes the online messages which asserted that the recent attacks were part of "Plan of Good Harvest," a series of attacks against U.S. forces and their supporters in Iraq. He writes “The plan was announced on online forums last month and attributed to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the supposed leader of the Islamic State of Iraq. Some counterterrorism officials say they doubt Baghdadi is a real person.”

He also mentions Monday’s killing of a US soldier by an EFP (explosively formed projectile) near Karbala, and writes about the lawsuit against media organizations, as explained above.

In an uncredited business article in the Wall Street Journal, Royal Dutch Shell PLC is described as being in “advanced talks with China's two biggest state-owned oil companies on a possible joint bid to develop the Kirkuk oil field.” The details of the particular deal are unclear, so the focus is instead the eagerness of Chinese oil companies to gain ground in a region where Western companies have a long head start.
A joint bid in Iraq would mark China's latest effort to tap Iraq's rich energy resources. CNPC (China Petroleum & Chemical Corp.) in November signed a $3 billion oil-service contract with the Iraqi Oil Ministry to develop the Ahdab oil field in central Iraq. The deal, which revived an agreement signed with the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein and wasn't subject to bidding, made CNPC the first foreign oil firm to enter an oil-investment investment deal with the Iraqi government since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Lessons From Iraq
The Christian Science Monitor’s Anand Gopa reports from Meydan Shar, Afghanistan, in a story called “Lessons From Iraq? US Creates Local Militias to Fight Taliban”, in which some difficulties of creating Sahwa-like forces in tribal regions of Afghanistan are discussed. The article doesn’t contrast the two country’s situations as much as the name might imply, and when it does, the characterizations of events in Iraq betray a lack of understanding. Gopa seems to think that the Sahwa was a phenomenon which occurred exclusively in Anbar province, and that they were only fighting Al-Qaeda “outsiders” whose ranks included no local Iraqi insurgents.

USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

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Daily Column
Samarra: Still Divided by Walls and Bitterness, Green Energy for the Pentagon?
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/13/2009 01:55 AM ET
Only three original Iraq stories today, but all are worth reading. The two stories filed from Iraq deal with religious sectarian issues. The first covers Easter mass in a neighborhood where Christian community is trying to rebuild itself, and the second is concerns the rebuilding of the Samarra domed shrine, and the wall which exists between Sunni locals and Shi’a shrine guards, workmen, pilgrims, etc. The final piece is about efforts by the US military to reduce its oil consumption to save money and lives.

From Iraq
Jane Arraf of the Christian Science Monitor goes to an Easter service - interestingly, held in a mixture of Arabic and Aramaic - at the Chaldean church of St. Peter and Paul in Baghdad’s southern Dora district.

Dora was once a major stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and for the past two years, the Christians who did not flee the area had communion wafers quietly brought to their homes. Not so this year, and some parishioners expressed surprise at how many people showed up. Still, according to Bishop Shlemon Warduni, only about 500 of Dora’s Christians remain out of 3000, the population before violence of recent years. Nationally, more than 300,000 of Iraq's 800,000 pre-war Christians are believed to have left. At the service, security forces were on hand.
In a sign of the Iraqi government's desire to reassure Christians that they are welcome, an Iraqi police general brought greetings from the Minister of Interior. He and a leader of the volunteer security force, the Sons of Iraq, sat in the front row of the Dora church. "You are messengers of peace. Tell everyone that Christians want only peace," the Bishop Warduni told the security officials.

Young women in denim jeans and sequin-studded T-shirts knelt in prayer next to relatives with their hair partially covered with lace scarves. One of the congregants, Watha Shaba, who had been kidnapped three years ago, reverently unwound a cloth from the bishop's gold and silver scepter. A wide-eyed alter boy furiously rang a bell as incense filled the church.

From Samarra, the Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan appears on the front page, reporting on the uneasy coexistence near a building which, when bombed three years ago, was credited with being a major spark in the powder-keg of Iraq's worst sectarian bloodletting.

Raghavan does an excellent job of laying out the tensions which remain, despite the Iraqi government’s claims that Samarra is an example of how Iraqis are all now holding hands and singing. The ongoing sectarian bent within different parts of Iraq’s security forces is a focal issue of the article, and it is still one of the foremost issues facing the nation. His first two paragraphs sum the article up well, but the whole thing should really be read.
Fifteen feet tall, half a mile long, the walls wind like a concrete ribbon through the heart of this scarred holy city, the cradle of Iraq's sectarian war. Shiite pilgrims flow alongside them toward the shattered al-Askari mosque, a symbol of a resuscitating Iraq. Shiite national security forces -- and not a single local Sunni policeman -- patrol the area.

On the other side of the walls, shops lie shuttered; alleys are blanketed by silence. Padlocked red doors, built into the partition, prevent Shiite visitors from mixing with the city's mostly Sunni citizens. Here, Mohammed al-Saeed, a Sunni shopkeeper, fumes. "This wall is a sectarian wall," he said. "They don't trust us."
Also in the Washington Post, Steve Vogel writes of the $300 million (out of the $7.4 billion it received from the economic stimulus package) the Pentagon is using to accelerate existing programs for developing alternative fuels and saving energy. From portable, roll-up solar cell mats to a machine which turns trash into bio-fuel (there’s a picture of it, if you’re interested), the largest consumer of energy in the United States, the Defense Department, has turned its eyes toward greener battlefields. “What”, you say? “Have the military brass gotten soft and environmental on us?” The driving force is actually a very practical one.

"Every time you bring a gallon of fuel forward, you have to send a convoy," said Alan R. Shaffer, director of defense research and engineering at the Pentagon. "That puts people's lives at risk."
By some estimates, about half of the U.S. military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are related to attacks with improvised explosive devices on convoys, many of which are carrying fuel. As of March 20, 3,426 service members had been killed by hostile fire in Iraq, 1,823 of them victims of IEDs.

...Spurred by this grim reality, the Pentagon, which traditionally has not made saving energy much of a priority, has launched initiatives to find alternative fuel sources. The goals include saving money, preserving dwindling natural resources and lessening U.S. dependence on foreign sources.

"The honest-to-God truth, the most compelling reason to do it is it saves lives," said Brig. Gen. Steven Anderson, director of operations and logistics for the Army. "It takes drivers off the road." It is a very interesting article from several angles.

Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Arrests Deepen Bitterness, Newly Returned GIs Find Help With Transition
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/12/2009 02:00 AM ET
Two articles deal with the suicide bombing in Babil province which successfully targeted Sahwa fighters, and what it means. Also, how programs designed to transition US soldiers into civilian life are changing, in response to high levels of veteran suicide.

From Baghdad
In an example of how Sahwa fighters are increasingly being besieged from all sides, up to thirteen members were killed by a suicide bomber on Saturday, while they stood in line to collect their pay in Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad. Not only has getting their salaries proven difficult since the Iraqi government took over responsibility for their payroll from US forces, there have been a rash of arrests of their members and leaders, just as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia seem to be intensifying attacks against them.

Iraqi Army forces made a crowd of them stand outside a protected compound to wait for their pay on Saturday, leaving them vulnerable to the suicide bomber. Ernesto Londoño and Saad Sarhan of the Washington Post focus on Saturday’s events. After the attack (which they report killed eight Sahwa), a Babel Sahwa leader said, "Unfortunately, the government is not serious about dealing fairly with the Sahwa forces... They do not trust us, and we do not trust them now..." "The Americans have abandoned us believing al-Qaeda is finished," he said. "But, in fact, al-Qaeda is still here."

The New York Times’ Alissa J. Rubin gives a better overall understanding of the situation by putting her focus on the larger issue of mistrust caused by the recent arrest of Sahwa leaders. She uses the attack (reporting 13 killed) as an example of the ever-treacherous line they walk between the government and the insurgency, both of whom they feel (with reason) are after them. Also addressed is the line US forces seem to be walking, and how it is becoming more and more difficult to simultaneously support both the Iraqi government and the Sahwa.

An interesting part of the article lays out a theory of “a new strategy by Sunni extremists to get their most effective enemies (the Sahwa) off the streets.”
Former members of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the theory goes, secretly tell the government that the Awakening leader is himself a Qaeda infiltrator and should be arrested for past crimes. Under the Iraqi legal system, if there are two witnesses, the government can issue a warrant, detain a suspect and then investigate.
Christian Davenport of the Washington Post reports that the Pentagon’s evolving programs designed to help transition US troops from war to civilian life are branching out to generally come across as less pedantic (and possibly more helpful) to the soldiers who are forced to go through them. The spike in veteran suicides and increased studies showing large numbers of returning soldiers’ issues with anger management, alcohol abuse, etc. have caused the military to be more creative in facing these problems.

Said Capt. Tad Marinelli, commander of the Army Reserve's 352nd Military Police Company, "I think soldiers are kind of tired of hearing about it." Some even joked, "I'm going to kill myself if I have to go to another suicide prevention meeting."

A few examples are given of attempts to make the programs a little less square and more effective, but the reader doesn’t really get a good idea if it is being accomplished or not.

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

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Contractor Must Pay in Iraq Fraud, Court Rules, Iraqi Refugees Remain in Jordan
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/11/2009 00:59 AM ET
The deadliest incident for US troops in over a year occurred in Mosul on Friday. Also, a court decision opens gates to US courts hearing fraud cases against US contractors in Iraq. In Jordan, Iraqi refugees only remain, but continuing to arrive.

From Baghdad
Late Friday morning, a dump truck filled with about a ton of explosives apparently made it through several checkpoints and to the entrance of a Mosul Iraqi police headquarters. As the driver refused to follow orders, the vehicle came under heavy fire, but could not be stopped from detonating, as it passed near a US convoy. US military spokesmen say that 5 US troops were killed, and two wounded. Iraqi police officials say two were killed and up to 70 Iraqis were wounded (US sources put the wounded Iraqis at 20). According to a US military statement, two suspects were apprehended.

Ernesto Londoño and Dlovan Brwari of the Washington Post and Sam Dagher in the New York Times have the most information. The main difference between the two is that Dagher gives details of the blast and then goes on to list other violence around Iraq, while Londoño and Brwari flesh out the situation in Mosul a bit more (including animosity between residents and the National Police stationed there), and also the stated probability by American forces that they may stay in Mosul past the security agreement's June deadline. Charles Levinson, now writing for the Wall Street Journal files from Amman with less of a focus on the incident itself, and more of a general status of security in Iraq, hitting on the rising tensions between the government and Sahwa members and the ever-rising tensions between everybody in Kirkuk.

Iraqi Refugees in Jordan
Also in Amman, the Christian Science Monitor’s Ilene R. Prusher writes about the almost half a million displaced Iraqis who remain in Jordan, despite the overall decrease in violence in Iraq.

"An interesting trend is that there are still new arrivals from Iraq," says Rafiq Tschannen, the chief of mission in Amman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). "And contrary to the first arrivals, we see people going to live in villages instead of Amman, where the cost of living is high. These refugees have less money and they look to the cheapest villages they can find." ... "The actual number of people who we know of who went back to Iraq are 300 in Jordan, and 500 to 600 from Syria," he says. "But no one has exact figures of how many are actually here."

Prusher writes a very informative article for those under the impression that security improvements have brought everybody back home in Iraq. She looks at numbers from several different organizations (refugee populations, particularly in cases of mass exodus like Iraq, are hard to calculate with certainty and can vary widely). The concept of Jordan as the “first stop” for Iraqi refugees who fan out over the globe (when possible) is covered.

Two articles appear which report on a court decision that overturned a previous ruling that the False Claims Act (which makes it illegal for anyone to knowingly make a false claim for payment to the U.S. government) did not apply to many contractors operating early on after the invasion. In those care-free CPA days, American officials often used seized Iraqi cash and Iraqi oil revenues to pay contractors. Even if a contractor was later found guilty of defrauding the US government, prosecution was limited if the money they were paid with was not directly from the US government.

The large amounts of cash being thrown around after the invasion are credited by many as a major source of fraud and waste in the early days of the Iraq contracting free-for-all. Interestingly, the case at hand deals with a company called Custer Battles, which was found to have defrauded the US government in a contract to bring new post-Saddam era currency to Iraq. The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima has more information, but James Glanz of the New York Times is more clear and succinct, something the somewhat confusing subject material could use. Here, he explains the initial ruling, just overturned.
...Even though the company eventually won security and logistics contracts in Iraq worth tens of millions of dollars, Judge Ellis ruled that in this case, only $3 million paid for with a Treasury check was subject to the False Claims Act. That ruling posed a severe limitation. ...Judge Ellis said that fraud committed with Iraqi money was not subject to the act.

...The latest judgment overturned those rulings, although the appeals court said that several other objections by the company would have to be considered by Judge Ellis before he decided whether the damages should be paid. The appeals court also gave the plaintiffs the option of a new trial.
USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

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Daily Column
Spending on Wars, Veterans
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/10/2009 02:19 AM ET
Today, there isn't much to choose from. There is one report from Baghdad, and the rest of the Iraq-related material is about spending, either for the war itself (along with the other one looming in Afghanistan) or for the veterans who fight it.

From Baghdad
Jane Arraf of the Christian Science Monitor reports on the tens of thousands of followers of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who crowded into Baghdad’s rainy Firdos Square on Thursday “where Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled, along with his regime, six years ago.” Curiously, it is the only piece of original writing about the demonstration offered. She writes a “here’s where things are now” piece about the throngs of mostly young men who showed up, and some of the things that motivated them to do so.

"We were so happy when they brought down the statue, but now we want the occupation to end. The Americans are very tough against the Iraqis," said one of them.
Despite the recent bomb attacks, security has improved dramatically since Iraq pulled back from all-out civil war two years ago. For most people, a lack of jobs and essential services, including water and electricity, are now their main concerns. The drop in oil revenue has prompted major budget cuts by the Iraqi government, and long-overdue laws to share oil revenue and power have been stalled by political power struggles and a dead-locked Parliament.
Security inside the demonstration was provided by Sadr’s guards, but outside the perimeter, Iraqi police watched on. A message from Al-Sadr was read, and to punctuate its nationalist tone, demonstrators were asked to shake hands with the police forces.
As the rain stopped and the demonstrators flooded into the streets, hundreds lined up to shake hands and kiss the police officers on both cheeks – the traditional Arab greeting. ..."God unite us, return our riches, free the prisoners from the prisons, return sovereignty to our country ... free our country from the occupier, and prevent the occupier from stealing our oil," read Sadr's message.
The New York Times’ Lizette Alverez reports that President Obama announced plans on Thursday to computerize the medical records of veterans into a unified system, a move that is expected to ease the now-cumbersome process that results in confusion, lost records and delays. With a backlog of 800,000 disability claims, and medical records which have to be physically carried by the veterans themselves to their local VA centers, it sounds clearly like a system which could do with some reform.

Alverez explains some of the ins and outs, but does not address the recent public relations nightmare that the Obama administration went through last month, after a short-lived part of their VA budget which would have required veterans’ personal medical insurance to pay for some war-related procedures.

Mary Beth Sheridan and Scott Wilson of the Washington Post keep us up to date on war spending with an article about the $83.4 billion spending request made yesterday by Obama to fund his administration's strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan through the summer, in what officials promised would be the last such off-budget proposal to pay for the wars.
Administration officials and others have derided the use of emergency troop-funding bills, noting that they are not subject to usual budget ceilings and often have been rushed through Congress. Since September 2001, Congress has approved 17 emergency funding measures for the two wars, for a total of $822 billion, the White House said.

"We must break that recent tradition and include future military costs in the regular budget so that we have an honest, more accurate and fiscally responsible estimate of federal spending," Obama said in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that accompanied the request. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the special measure was needed because the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan had been funded through only half of the fiscal year.
"This will be the last supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan," Obama said, and urged lawmakers not to add "unnecessary spending" to the measure and to return it to him quickly. Though he is likely to face some opposition from some Democrats, Sheridan and Wilson say that he shouldn’t have to tough a time. Congressional staffers said the White House asked lawmakers to pass the bill by Memorial Day. If the request is approved, the total emergency funding for the wars in 2009 would be about $150 billion, compared with $171 billion in 2007 and $188 billion in 2008.

"I believe that there is very broad bipartisan support in the Congress for the decisions the president has made with respect to both Iraq and Afghanistan," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said. "The alternative to the supplemental is a sudden and precipitous withdrawal . . . from both places."

Washington Post op-ed columnist Michael Gerson backs up recent sweeping budget changes made by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, ones which will further focus the Pentagon on counterinsurgency versus enemies with traditional militaries. Gerson begins as follows.
Budgets are the coldest of documents -- flat, gray realms of numbers and projections. But when referring to the origins of the recently proposed defense budget, Secretary Robert Gates, normally precise and analytical, speaks with an intensity that comes close to emotion. "What started me down this road was Walter Reed," the Army medical center where wounded soldiers were treated in squalid conditions. "There was a set of assumptions through the first several years of the war that it would be over very soon. So don't spend on a facility that would be closed."
According to Gerson, some Republicans want to polarize the budget debate, and “in this case, the charge rings with irresponsibility. While the total defense budget should be larger in a time of war, it focuses resources and attention precisely where they are most needed: on our war fighters in Iraq, in Afghanistan -- and at places like Walter Reed.”

Kimberly Kagen, president of the Institute for the Study of War and Frederick W. Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute write an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, in which they argue that “Iraq has undergone a quiet transformation since Mr. Obama's first visit to the country as a senator in July 2008. We can no longer speak of Iraqi politics at a standstill, or a lack of political accommodation, or an unwillingness of the Iraqi government to take responsibility.” Things are coming along politically, they write, and the issues facing Obama and his military commanders are “fundamentally different” from those which faced Bush and his commanders in 2007 and 2008.

The Kagans do sound like they’re selling something, but hit all the issues in a confident way. They address the usual suspects – security, Iraqi political development, the peaceful election in January. They identify three major challenges in coming months as national parliamentary elections, budget constraints resulting from the low price of oil, and the threat of growing Arab-Kurd tensions in the north.

USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

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Daily Column
For the MEK, "The Party's Over", 7 Killed In Blast Near Shi'a Shrine in Baghdad
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/09/2009 01:53 AM ET
It’s not quite the media blitz that it was yesterday. First, it’s Arraf from Ashraf, then the Washington Post on the second bombing in the same area of Baghdad in two days. Stateside, there is a risk of “liberal backlash on war funding”.

From Iraq
The Christian Science Monitor’s Jane Arraf files from Camp Ashraff, the home of some 3,400 residents, including several hundred Westerners, “in the middle of one of the strangest episodes in the dramatic shift in relations between Iran, Iraq, and the United States”. The People's Mujahadeen or Mujahadeen e-Khalq (known as both the MEK and MKO) are a rebel group (of sorts) which have been in limbo for a long time, and seem to be staying (if not physically

During the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein supported the MEK at the camp as an anti-Iranian armed group, but after the US invasion of 2003, American forces disarmed them, but left them as they were. Tehran is pushing extremely hard to have them removed from the area near their border, and the Iraqi government is caught in the middle. Iraq’s national security adviser has announced that the camp will be closed, saying "They have to understand that the party is over for them," but there is the little problem of what to do with the people who live there. The MEK are now best described by the title of a section of Arraf’s story – “militarily irrelevant, but still symbolic”. She takes us inside, and who we meet aren’t quite who many were probably expecting.
Texas-born Elham Kiamanesh seems thoroughly American, but in the last decade she's spent working to overthrow the Iranian regime, this military camp with its tree-lined avenues and flower-filled parks north of Baghdad is the only home she's known.

"You can call me Ellie, that's my nickname," says Ms. Kiamanesh as she explains why she gave up normal life and her love of children to try to topple the government of a country she's never visited. Kiamanesh is one of some 3,400 residents, including several hundred Westerners, in the middle of one of the strangest episodes in the dramatic shift in relations between Iran, Iraq, and the United States.
(For some reason, Arraf’s report yesterday on President Obama’s visit didn’t post on the Monitor’s web site until long after the US Papers Roundup was posted. It held its own with the others, and delved into a subject the others didn’t.
There has been a deep strain of mistrust of Obama in parts of the traditionally conservative US military. Graffiti on some military bases still occasionally compares him to Osama bin Laden, echoing a smear campaign based on anti-Islam sentiment during the presidential campaign. Obama is Christian but his father was Muslim. But at Camp Victory on Tuesday, the troops gave their commander-in-chief a riotous welcome, with some of the female service members reaching out to hug him. )
Sudarsan Raghavan and Qais Mizher of the Washington Post were the only ones who thought a second bombing in two days, in the same part of Baghdad, next to Baghdad’s most important Shi’a shrine was worth reporting on. The bomb, tucked inside a plastic bag, killed seven people and injured more than 20 on Wednesday, as three days of high-profile bombings jarred a city that had gotten used to seeing things on the news other than smoke rising from car wreckage.
The assault occurred around noon in the capital's Kadhimiyah neighborhood, as worshipers made their way to the Imam Musa al-Khadim shrine. Witnesses said that women and children were among the victims and that Iraqi security forces blocked ambulances from entering the crowded area.

"People used carts to remove the wounded," said Um Ridha, 30, a teacher. The attack occurred a day after a car bomb detonated in the same neighborhood, killing nine people, including a woman whose son was rescued from a burning taxi by a man, who later handed the infant to his uncle, police said. On Monday, six car bombs detonated across Baghdad, killing at least 34 people. The violence came as President Obama made his first trip to Iraq since taking office.
Raghavan and Mizher also run down a few other items – that the Iraqi government would "review" the files of prisoners released from U.S. detention facilities to determine whether they were involved in any of the recent bombings, and the audiotape released yesterday by Saddam’s former deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who urged insurgents to continue their struggle against U.S. forces and Iraq's Shiite-led government, which he called illegitimate because "the political process is the main project of the occupier."

In the Wall Street Journal, Greg Hitt reports from Washington that President Obama plans to request new funding from Congress for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but “he risks a backlash from antiwar lawmakers.” Those fearing that Obama is leaving behind a big occupation force in Iraq are quick to call him on his campaign promises to end the war. His planned escalation of Afghanistan is cause for crinkled brows, too.
The emerging rifts present a new political challenge for Mr. Obama. As a senator, he voted against Iraq war funding bills. In his campaign for the White House, he criticized rivals Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and John McCain in the general election for their hawkishness on the issue.
Still, says Hitt, Democratic opposition isn't likely to block the legislation, since they have the support of many Republicans.
It should be an interesting, or at least tedious, four years.

New York Times, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

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Daily Column
Baathist Surfaces, Violence Against Baghdad Gays, Shoe-Thrower Sentence Reduced
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/08/2009 01:57 AM ET
Well, it was different than the last US presidential visit to Iraq. Not only were no shoes hurled at Obama, but on the same day, Montadar al-Zaidi’s sentence was reduced from three years to one. All the papers chip in on Obama’s limited Iraqi trip, the voice of Saddam Hussein’s former deputy shows up on a new audiotape, and an Iraqi gay subculture that had been outing itself a little bit is slammed back underground by a series of killings.

Obama in Iraq
President Obama’s visit in Iraq wasn’t extensive enough to breed very much variance in articles covering it, but there was some. Here are the facts: he showed up at a US base near Baghdad International Airport, didn’t leave, reportedly because of dust storms (so Iraqi leaders and Gen. Odierno had to come meet him) he was cheered by troops whom he praised, spoke of Iraqi leaders needing to reconcile, and said the next year and a half "could be a critical period," and that "It is time for us to transfer to the Iraqis. They need to take responsibility for their country."

None of the articles get too in depth but all are satisfactory – each gives the main info, framed within some interpretation of where Iraq is at now, and where it could be going. The recent spate of violence makes for a perfect backdrop for news articles.

In Baghdad, Ernesto Londoño of the Washington Post write the best overall story, hitting the situation on the ground in a way that actually reflected current events, opinion on the street, Iraqi leaders, US soldiers, and the particulars of the visit. It feels somewhat tailored, rather than thrown together. Also in Baghdad, Steven Lee Myers and Helene Cooper of the New York Times is the runner-up, getting everything they need to in the piece, but a little more predictable. The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Weisman in Istanbul and Yochi J. Dreazen in Washington cover the presidential visit, but focus largely on Iraq’s challenges on the ground, naming recent Sahwa problems and the ever-present Arab/Kurd disputes. Richard Wolf and Aamer Madhani of USA Today, back in Baghdad, is split between the precarious situation on the ground and Obama’s rock-star visit to the troops. The Christian Science Monitor’s Yigal Schleifer in Istanbul misses the boat, writing an article about Obama in Turkey, taking questions about the Iraq war (among other things). The story isn’t bad, but it is so completely trumped by the actual visit to Iraq that its yesterday’s news, today.

There is a small, uncredited report in the Wall Street Journal about footage of the president meeting US troops that went missing, shot by a CBS News crew acting as the pool for the networks.
A CBS executive said Pentagon officials required the network to hand the tape to a military courier, who was to ferry it to a CBS representative outside the secure military zone so it could be transmitted to all the networks. Hours went by; no tape. No one seems to know what happened. There was talk of sandstorms and a bungled handoff.
It arrived “minutes” before the 6:30 broadcasts. No theories (conspiracy or otherwise) are offered.

More From Baghdad
Rod Nordland of the New York Times writes of events related to some of that reconciling Obama was referring to, as a new audiotape of on-the-lam former deputy of Saddam Hussein surfaced, calling for Iraqis to topple their government and return the Baath Party to power. Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, whose face graces the US-distributed “deck of cards” and whose capture has a $10 million dollar bounty, has eluded capture these six years. American and Iraqi officials have made the case that Syria has provided sanctuary, and that al-Douri actively supports insurgent activity in Iraq.

Nordland effectively makes the story about the possibility for improved relations between former Baath Perty members and the government of Nouri al-Maliki. Things started to look positive some weeks ago, but chances seem to have plummeted. “The political process is the occupation’s main project, so attack it through all means available to you,” Mr. Douri said, addressing “jihadis” in Iraq.
He said a Baathist government in Iraq would seek good relations with the Obama administration and “put behind them what happened in the past.” The transcript of Mr. Douri’s broadcast, e-mailed to The Times by a Baathist-led coalition called the National Islamist Pan-Arabist Front, made no mention of a series of seven car bombs, six of them on Monday, that killed more than 40 people.

Mr. Maliki’s office released a statement late Monday blaming the Baathists, in conjunction with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, for the car bomb attacks. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is a homegrown extremist group with some foreign leadership. The prime minister offered no specific evidence to link the bombings to the Baath Party but noted that attacks had occurred every April 7 since Mr. Hussein was toppled.
In the Washington Post, Ernesto Londoño and Qais Mizher report that, after Al-Baghdadiya television correspondent Montadar al-Zaidi's lawyers filed a motion appealing the three-year sentence he received for his athletic use of shoes, a judge reduced his sentence to one year. That’s all the new information in the article, except for Montadar’s brother, Dirgham (an advocate and spokesman for al-Zaidi) saying that, because Zaidi spent nearly five months behind bars before his conviction, he could be released as early as this fall.

The New York Times’ Timothy Williams and Tareq Meher offer a well-written story about recent killings of men and boys thought to be homosexual, mostly in Baghdad’s Sadr City. As they point out, gay and lesbian populations have never been particularly safe in Iraq, but with all the other violence, it has been overshadowed. If up to 25 people were found dead with signs attached to them reading the word “pervert” in most countries, the news would have almost certainly been more widely-covered.

As militias in Baghdad lost the prominence they enjoyed in 2006 and 2007 (though nobody else really did), a subculture of gay young men could be sometimes recognized on the street, in coffee shops, or other establishments. “Three of my closest friends have been killed during the past two weeks alone,” said a young man named Besima, whose hair is longer than most males in Iraq, and who wears earrings and light-colored makeup.
Though risky, his look is one result of the overall calm here that has allowed Iraqis to enjoy freedoms unthinkable two years ago: A growing number of women walk the streets unveiled, a few even daring to wear dresses above the knee. Families gather in parks for cookouts, and more people have begun to venture out at night.

But that has not changed the reality that Iraq remains religious, conservative — and still violent. The killers, the police say, are not just Shiite death squads, but also tribal and family members shamed by their gay relatives. (And the recent spate of violence has seemed aimed at more openly gay men, rather than homosexuality generally.) Clerics in Sadr City have urged followers to help root out homosexuality in Iraqi society, and the police have begun their own crackdown on gay men.
Those said to have killed their gay relatives out of shame is a phenomenon equivalent to the “honor killing” of females, thought to have shamed a family by indecent behavior. The article is chock-full of jarring comments, from police saying they are engaged in a “campaign to clean up the streets and get the beggars and homosexuals off them,” to the country’s most influential and revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issuing a religious decree stating that gay men and lesbians should be “punished, in fact, killed.” He added, “The people should be killed in the worst, most severe way of killing.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Review and Outlook page applauds President Obama for his “near-about-face” on Iraq, since taking office. His praising the accomplishments of US troops in Iraq while in Iraq is seen as going against his past opposition to the war, and the Journal doesn’t mind a bit.
Prior to his Iraq visit, the President was asked by a Turkish student whether his Iraq policies were fairly close in substance to George W. Bush's. "Well, just because I was opposed at the outset, it doesn't mean that I don't have now responsibilities to make sure we do things in a responsible fashion," Mr. Obama replied. We'll mark that down as a "yes."

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Daily Column
At Least 34 Killed and 120 Wounded, Major US Military Budget Changes
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/07/2009 01:59 AM ET
Today, the big news in Iraq was the grouping of six explosions – all car bombs – which occurred across the capital. The second story, covered in three papers, deals with Defense Secretary Gates’ calls for “a dramatic change in the way we acquire military equipment.”

Baghdad Bombings
In writing about a car bombing in Baghdad’s Sha’ab district on March 26th, articles in both the New York Times and Washington Post included accounts of residents throwing stones at Iraqi security forces afterward for not preventing the attack, with some expressing that security was better when the Mahdi Army patrolled the area. Sha’ab is adjacent to Sadr City, where the same thing happened on Monday, after one of six car bombs shook the city, and further shook the confidence in the police and Army’s ability to protect its people after months of improved security. Other Shi’a neighborhoods were also targets. Who, if any one group, is responsible, is anyone’s (and everyone’s) guess, and no one is beyond suspicion. Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the Sahwa, Baathists, Iran, the Americans, you name it.

Anthony Shadid and Sudarsan Raghavan of the Washington Post write...
...The breadth and coordination of Monday's attacks -- six bombings detonated from one end of the capital to the other, most of them over a short burst of time -- bore the hallmarks of a campaign of violence reminiscent of those mounted during Baghdad's bloodiest days in 2006 and 2007.

...Many in the city took Monday's carnage as evidence that tensions between Iraq's Shiite parties and within Sunni communities have deepened, and that unknown new forces were at work. Survivors blamed groups that ran the political gamut of Iraq, testifying to a landscape arguably murkier than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The strikes called into question statements by Iraqi military officials that insurgents had lost their ability to strike with ease in the heart of the capital.
Both the Post article and the one in the New York Times give the same overall accounting of the events, similar quotes expressing anger at the attacks on civilian areas, and roughly the same analysis. Read either or both. The following is from
the Times’ Steven Lee Myers.
Anger coursed through the market after the bombing as residents gathered body parts in plastic shopping bags and confronted Iraqi security forces with shouts and stones. The Iraqi Army cordoned off the area, and soldiers opened fire at one point to control the crowds. An ambulance carrying a man wounded in the shooting struck and killed a woman on the way to the hospital.

Mohammed Abdul Khadim, a tribal leader standing near the market after the bombing, blamed the Americans for the attack. He said he wanted control of the area returned to the Mahdi Army, the fractured militia loyal to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr that Iraqi and American forces drove out last year.
“If only the Mahdi Army controlled the area like before,” he said, “it would be much better now.”

On Monday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced a major changes in the Pentagon’s budget. He ended or scaled-back programs aimed toward traditional enemies with large-scale military forces (China is always mentioned) such as the Air Force's F-22 and missile defense programs, and favored others which have been oft employed in the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as unmanned aircraft, intelligence gathering, and expanding the ranks of both the Marines and Special Operations.

Other than the basic counterinsurgency concept, Iraq doesn’t figure into the picture much (except to use Gates’ streamlining of MRAP production in 2007 as an example of a bold and positive move he has made before, and one which proved an effective boon to IED-weary soldiers). The articles by Gordon Lubold of the Christian Science Monitor, R. Jeffrey Smith of the Washington Post, and Elisabeth Bumiller and Christopher Drew in the New York Times each deal with partisan budgetary squabbling, traditional versus asymmetrical warfare, and Gates’ methods/personality. The Times article is the most comprehensive.

Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

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Daily Column
Abbas in Baghdad, Yazidis' Growing Clout, A Palace of Saddam Open to the Public
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/06/2009 00:43 AM ET
Today, we see the first coverage in 18 years of US servicemen returning to Dover Air Force Base, with a focus on the Army's Old Guard who performed the ceremony. Also, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas visits Baghdad, a minority turns out to have done well in one of north Iraq’s elections, and visitors walk through a once-luxurious palace.

Return of the Fallen
The ceremony held to welcome home a Staff Sgt. who served in Iraq and was killed by an IED in Afghanistan was the first such ceremony that the media had been allowed to cover since the ban instituted by George H.W. Bush in 1991. Christian Davenport of the Washington Post writes a story which centers not on the fallen soldier, nor his family (though they are briefly mentioned) but rather the Army’s Old Guard, who honor the returning dead with a ceremony of known as dignified transfer. Said one of them, "They're a fallen soldier, and they deserve the highest respect and honor we can give." Davenport writes of the discipline needed for members of the Old Guard.
The wind can whip cold across the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, freezing fingers that hold the flag-draped metal transfer case in which lie the remains of a fellow service member. You do not loosen your grip. You do not shuffle your feet. You do not grimace.

If you have to yawn, you do it through your nose. You swallow your coughs and sneezes, let itches go unscratched. Keep your mouth closed, eyes straight and the blinking to an absolute minimum. Those are the rules.
From Iraq
Campbell Robertson covers the state visit to Baghdad of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the New York Times. Leaders from several Arab nations have been making visits to Iraq in past weeks, often speaking of trade or, in the case of Jordan and Syria, the issue of large numbers of displaced Iraqis who live in their cities. Robertson points out that, aside from both embattled sides claiming support for each other, that Iraq is home to thousands of Palestinian refugees.

The 2,300 Palestinians who are stuck in refugee camps on the Iraq-Syria border are discussed, as are the approximately 11,000 Palestinians who reside in Iraq after Saddam Hussein brought them in, only to become targets of Shiite militias after the 2003 invasion.

Campbell Robertson and Stephen Farrell report from the Northern Iraqi city of Dohuk about the recent electoral success of one of Iraq’s religious and ethnic (though this is debated) minority, the Yazidis. It’s not something many folks understand, and they give as coherent view as a small article can, for anyone inquisitive enough to contemplate Iraq as made up of more than Shi’a Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds.

In Ninewa province’s election, only one Yazidi belonging to a Yazidi party won a seat on the provincial council, but Yazidi candidates who joined up with Kurdish parties eight seats. Only Sunni Arabs won more. Some Yazidis claim to be ethnic Kurds, some are adamant that they are not. Kurdish parties greatly benefit if they can claim Yazidis as part of their population, greatly increasing their numbers in the gerrymandering struggle of Arab-Kurd disputed regions of north Iraq.
But a group so small and so widely misunderstood does not survive for centuries, much of the time at the mercy of far larger forces, without learning how to play politics. And few in Iraq have played that game as well as the Yazidis, whose ability to exploit Iraq’s byzantine electoral rules yielded them nearly a quarter of the seats in the government of Nineveh, one of the country’s largest provinces.

...Yazidis, by most estimates, far outnumber Muslim Kurds in Nineveh, making the Kurds dependent on their support to bolster their claims to the region. And the Yazidis have largely given it; almost all of them who won in the election were members of Kurdish political parties. In exchange for that support, the newly victorious Yazidis are demanding a greater degree of Yazidi power in Kurdistan.
From Hillah, site of ancient Babylon, USA Today’s Aamer Madhani reports on a former palace of Saddam Hussein which has been open to the public since December, and which is proving exceedingly popular. It stands high on a hill, overlooking the famous ruins, itself having been damaged and looted. Curious families walk through its huge rooms, stripped of valuable objects, but impressive nonetheless.
Luay Hathem Raadi, 38, of Najaf and his family were among the hundreds of families picnicking in the gardens one afternoon, eating dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice) and roasted chicken before setting out on the long hike up the hill to the palace. Raadi said it felt strange to see his children, who are too young to remember Saddam's days in power, playing in the garden of a despot feared by millions of Iraqis. "Here we are enjoying a nice day with our families," Raadi said. "But it is in a place that represents our sadness and all our hard times."
John Kael Weston, a State Department Officer in Iraq, writes an op-ed in the New York Times about the fact that there is still no US ambassador appointed for the country, and the message it is sending. He makes his case by telling of a tribal Sheik in Fallujah he met, writing that “this influential man wondered aloud if Washington policymakers were purposely and deviously pursuing a strategy of silence.”
Of course, the sheik logically assumed that the United States would not leave its largest embassy diplomatically rudderless at such a crucial juncture. To our embarrassment, he assumed wrong: The United States has not had an ambassador in Iraq since Ryan Crocker left Baghdad on Feb. 13. The nomination of Christopher R. Hill, President Obama’s designated representative, remains tied up in the Senate. And the longer we go without an ambassador, the more a disservice — and a dangerous one at that — we do to our 140,000-plus troops and diplomats and to the Iraqi people.
Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, no Iraq coverage.

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Daily Column
Since the Invasion of 2003, US/Turkish Relations Strained
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/05/2009 02:00 AM ET

From Ankara
The only story that really even mentions Iraq today is an article by Kevin Sullivan in the Washington Post about Turkish citizens, anxiously awaiting Sunday night’s visit by President Barack Obama. Good relations with Turkey are said to be of great importance, due to its border with Iraq, and because the invasion of Iraq has proved the greatest rift between the countries in decades. The PKK is also mentioned briefly.

That’s really all the Sunday papers have to offer. It’s worth noting whenever the New York Times has nothing about Iraq at all in its Sunday edition.

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

New York Times, no Iraq coverage.

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Daily Column
US Attacks Sahwa Fighters, Ex-Blackwater Workers May Return to Iraq Jobs
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/04/2009 02:00 AM ET
Today, there is some interesting reading. The Sahwa drama plays on, and is also part of a story which looks at newly-forged relations between some of Iraq’s major factions. The fate of Blackwater employees in Iraq is looked at as well.

From Iraq
The Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid reports on the ever-changing alliances of Iraq, and how – amid troubling developments – well-entrenched divisions are also being bridged. Without sugar coating the big problems, Shadid shows that the expected demarcations of Iraqi politics aren’t set in stone.

Even as headlines of Sahwa fighters rejoining al-Qaeda are seen, influential leaders among them such as Abu Risha speak of alliances with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. As followers of Muqtada al-Sadr and Sunni leaders continue to blame each other for Iraq’s sectarian bloodletting, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi has just visited a Sadr city hospital and Sadrists are in talks with Ayad Allawi. According to Allawi, "Everyone is trying to reach out to everyone else”.
Allawi said he didn't foresee a deal until this summer, and some have predicted that alliances may eventually fall back along sectarian and ethnic lines. But the talks have consumed so much of politicians' attention that many believe parliament will set aside action on crucial legislation like revenue sharing and hydrocarbons until after the vote.

The negotiations seem to be building on coalitions between unlikely forces in provincial councils -- for instance, loyalists of influential Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq, who draws the backing of supporters of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, and Maliki's State of Law coalition.

...Maliki and Sadr have also agreed to work together, though many of the coalitions seem driven as much by pragmatism as ideology. While Sadr has allied with Maliki in Babil province, Sadr officials say they also expect to reach an agreement with their erstwhile foes in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in Maysan province.
Of course, the Kurds’ relations with al-Maliki (and Allawi, too) are covered. At the end, an Iraqi official calls al-Maliki “the ultimate opportunist” in all of this. Says the official, "He has no permanent enemies, and he has no permanent friends."

Also in the Post Ernesto Londoño and Qais Mizher cover events on Thursday night. An American attack helicopter opened fire on Sahwa fighters because, according to the US military, they were spotted placing a roadside bomb near an American base in Taji, north of Baghdad. One was killed, and two wounded. There is limited information available – most of it from a US military press release - but Londoño and Mizher seem to have worked a few late hours to piece together a more fully fleshed-out story than what first appeared last night on the Post’s website, with added quotes from Sahwa leaders and additional information that other news outlets don’t have.

The incident, along with the involvement of American forces in the operation last weekend in Baghdad which led to gun battles between Sahwa fighters and Iraqi security forces, is straining their relationship of many of the Sahwa and the US military. The Sahwa was largely a US project, and until recently, US forces bankrolled their salaries, and acted as a buffer between them and the Iraqi government, between which there is plenty of mistrust.

"The Americans are lying when they say the fighters were digging in the area," said one Sahwa fighter, in charge of the Sahwa-manned checkpoint said to have been attacked, adding, "This is an attempt to kill the Sons of Iraq and destroy this project." A local Sahwa commander named Salim al-Hatim claims that the attack was a mistake, and that American officials apologized on Friday.

Hatim said five Awakening members were manning a checkpoint 25 miles north of the capital on a main road that connects Baghdad and Mosul when a U.S. helicopter opened fire on them about 8 p.m. Thursday.

...Col. John Robinson, a U.S. military spokesman, said in an e-mail that the men "were clearly not operating a checkpoint at the time they were engaged" with 33mm rounds fired from an AH-64 Apache helicopter. "Evidence of an IED being emplaced was found and collected at the site on Friday," he added. Robinson said a U.S. battalion commander attempted to speak with the fighter's leader Friday but did not mention whether an apology was offered.
In the New York Times, Campbell Robertson has a ‘World Briefing’ on the attack that is indeed brief, but includes a quote by a Sahwa leader in Taji, who said the American attack was probably a mistake, “but if they were really planting a bomb that means that they got what they deserved.” Expect further developments.

The Times’ Rod Nordland reports that, although Blackwater Worldwide will no longer operate in the same capacity in Iraq, hundreds of Blackwater employees will likely stay in Iraq, having changed into a ‘Triple Canopy’ uniform. Triple Canopy is the company that won the contract with the US State Department after Blackwater was denied an operating license by the Iraqi government after high-profile incidents which left dozens of Iraqis dead.

“There is just no other way to do it,” said one Western diplomat, while Blackwater’s critics say they worried that “the same people might perpetuate what they believed was a corporate culture that disregarded Iraqis’ lives.” “They’re really all still there, and it’s back to business as usual,” said Susan Burke, an American lawyer who has filed three civil rights lawsuits against Blackwater on behalf of Iraqi civilians. Nordland does a good job of explaining the basics of how the whole security contractor world works, a mystery to most Americans (if not Iraqis).
An unresolved question is whether Blackwater, recently renamed Xe (pronounced zee), or any affiliated company will profit from the deal. Speculation inside the industry and the Iraqi government has focused on whether Triple Canopy might hire as a subcontractor a company called the Falcon Group, identified in a lawsuit brought by Ms. Burke as a Blackwater affiliate.

A Blackwater spokeswoman, Anne Tyrell, said that Blackwater had no relationship with Falcon Group, whose Web site describes it as an Iraqi-owned company with interests in security and reconstruction. “The people who provide security services abroad are independent contractors,” Ms. Tyrell said. “When their 60- to 90-day contracts with us expire, they can seek employment with whomever they choose.”
“It doesn’t matter who they are, what their names are, or what uniform they wear,” said Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, “as long as they are subject to Iraqi law and their company follows Iraqi laws.”

Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, no Saturday Editions.

Wall Street Journal, no Iraq coverage.

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Daily Column
In Mosul, General Raymond Odierno Talks About His Biggest Challenges
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/03/2009 02:00 AM ET
Today, there is only one offering of Iraq-related news, and it is the second day in a week that there isn't a thing in either the Washington Post or the New York Times. In the interview with the top US commander in Iraq, rate of troop withdrawal, Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Awakening are all covered.

From Iraq
The Christian Science Monitor’s Jane Arraf accompanies Gen. Ray Odierno to Mosul. It is one of the two cities he says may be exceptions to the security plan which mandates the withdraw of all US troops from city centers within three months. The other is Baquba, in Diyala province. Mosul is described by Arraf as “slowly reviving”, but she does highlight recent violence there.

"We've learned a lesson here over the last several years – that you have to clear an area, you have to have the force to hold it, and you have to allow the community then to rebuild itself,” he said. If you rush your way through that, then the community will fall back into an insecure state."

Arraf covers the main issues of the day with Odierno, and what he sees as his biggest challenges going forward. These include Iran, the troubled budget, and recent troubles between the Awakening councils and the Iraqi government. The latter, he addresses as follows, in his usual cautious style. "I watch it very closely – we understand how important this is to the Sunnis – this is one of those confidence-building measures of accommodation that will lead to reconciliation and so we'll have to continue to watch it." He adds that he expects the payment problems to be resolved in the next few days, making it sound like an accounting mistake.

Arraf also has him playing down reports (popularly, in Tom Ricks' "The Gamble") that he personally underwent a dramatic conversion from “a heavy-handed division commander whose troops hunted down Saddam Hussein to one who embraced a counter-insurgency strategy protecting the Iraqi population.”

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

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Falsehoods in 2005 Blackwater Shooting Unpunished
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/02/2009 01:22 AM ET
Today, we drop down below yesterday’s robust coverage of Iraq to just a few stories. The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today are the biggest contributors – not the usual case. One aspect of the ongoing U.S. military drawdown in Iraq is looked at, as are State Dept. reports which detail the reasons for not punishing false statements made Blackwater guards in an incident two years before the infamous Nissour Square shooting, and lastly, bad grades for US intelligence.

From Iraq
The Christian Science Monitor’s Tom A. Peter reports from Baquba that combat outposts (COPs) – located largely in Iraq's most turbulent areas and credited with playing a crucial role in turning the tide of the war – are now closing as US forces pull back to major bases ahead of a 2011 withdrawal. A key part of Gen. David Petraeus's plan to stabilize Iraq by moving troops into the neighborhoods they policed is now going by the wayside, as the withdrawal process vamps up. The removal of these small outposts will be “perhaps the most noticeable change as the US moves deeper into the sidelines,” says Peter, who writes an article worth reading.
While many US commanders lament the loss of the foothold within Iraqi communities that these outposts provided, among US soldiers the shift is largely seen as a positive move that will better facilitate handing over authority to the Iraqi military by reducing the presence of US troops and forcing locals to rely more on their own security forces. Still, as violence continues in Mosul and other parts of Iraq, there is concern about how the troubled regions will fair with a limited US presence.
"The biggest thing you're going to gain is that the people are going to be able to rely on the Iraqi security forces more and they'll have a better chance of winning the trust of the people," says Staff Sgt. James Clark, who just finished duty at a COP in Baquba.
In the north, (however,) there has been much speculation as to whether the withdrawal of US troops from cities like Mosul, the last major militant stronghold in Iraq, will provide an opportunity for insurgents to make a comeback.
Matt Kelley of USA Today drudges up to a heretofore unreported Feb. 16, 2005 shooting incident involving Blackwater guards and alleged false statements made as an apparent cover up. After wearing down considerable shoe leather, he writes that, according to newly-released State Department records, the top security official at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq refused to punish Blackwater security guards for making false statements about an unjustified 2005 shooting in Baghdad because he didn't want to lower the morale of security contractors. A Freedom of Information Act request was made by USA Today, and subsequently, the report was released, showing that investigators from the department's Diplomatic Security Service concluded that four guards were not justified in firing more than 70 bullets into an Iraqi's car.
The investigators' final memo in June 2005 said several guards "failed to justify their actions" and "provided false statements," including a claim that bullet holes in a Blackwater vehicle were from a passenger in the Iraqi car. The evidence showed a guard accidentally shot his vehicle, investigators concluded.
Here is a circle of non-divulgence for you.
State Department spokeswoman Grace Moe said in an e-mail that she could not comment on the 2005 incident because it was one of "fewer than 10" in Iraq the department has discussed with Justice Department officials. Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd also declined to comment.

The State Department told Blackwater to refer all questions to the department, said Anne Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for the firm's parent company, which in February changed its name to Xe Services.
John Frese, the embassy's top security official, responded to the investigators’ findings by saying that he would not punish anyone because "any disciplinary actions would be deemed as lowering the morale" security guards contracted by the State Department, Special Agent Matthew McCormack wrote.
Frese, who is retired, declined to comment when reached at his Wisconsin home because he thought it was "not appropriate" to talk about a 4-year-old incident.
Iraq makes a brief appearance in a New York Times article by Mark Mazzetti, about an inspector general report which criticized the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for, as Mazzetti writes, “bureaucratic bloat, financial mismanagement and a failure to end the turf battles among America’s spy agencies that led to disastrous intelligence failures in recent years.” Big problems remain, more than four years after Congress and the Bush Administration created the Director’s position, largely because of a 2002 National Intelligence Estimate which claimed that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling WMD.

Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, no Iraq coverage.

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at

Daily Column
Militants Show New Boldness in Cities of Iraq
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/01/2009 01:55 AM ET
Plenty of Iraq news today, and the news takes a trip around the country, figuratively and literally. The Basra handover is covered, as is continued (and reinvigorated) violence and a night train to Basra.

British Handover
On Tuesday, British forces formally handed control of the base at Basra airport to American troops, in a ceremony marking the end of British authority in Iraq. At one time, more than 46,000 British soldiers were stationed in the southern port city, but now less than a tenth of that number remain. By the end of may, all but a few hundred left to train the Iraqi Army will have gone home. Ge. Ray Odierno was on hand, and called the accomplishments of the British forces over the past six years “nothing short of brilliant.”

Of today’s three articles about it, Jane Arraf of the Christian Science Monitor writes the most in-depth Basra-centric account, while others contrast the yesterdays events with others in more violent parts of Iraq.

Basra’s security ups and downs under the Brits are covered, as are differences in how “heavy-handed” US and British forces are perceived as being in Iraq’s south.
The atmosphere in Iraq's second biggest city is dramatically different from when Shiite extremists controlled both the city and the port. Businesses have reopened, and life has returned to the streets.

Mr. Malaki's military operation, launched a year ago without consulting the US, would have failed to drive back the militias if General (Lloyd) Austin had not stepped in and persuaded him that he needed US air support and other help, military officials say.

...US forces arriving over the next several months are to focus on training and mentoring the Iraqi police and border security guards. Despite an agreement with the Iraqi government to remove all soldiers from Iraqi cities by this June, Iraqi authorities are likely to ask US forces to remain in Basra, where police have been heavily influenced by Shiite militias, officials say.
In a brief article, Sudarsan Raghavan at the Washington Post gives the basic lowdown, and then rains on the handshaking, back-patting military brass’ party.
The handover came on a violent day in northern Iraq. A suicide bomber driving a truck loaded with explosives struck a police station in Mahata, south of the city of Mosul, on Tuesday morning. The attack killed seven people, including four policemen, and wounded 38, provincial police said.
The New York Times’ Campbell Robertson and Sam Dagher do the same, but include more information on both Basra and struggling Ninewa province.
Along the waterfront boulevards of Basra, which is much busier and safer than it was last year, the transfer was met largely with indifference. Many people credited the improved security to the Iraqi Army, which led a major operation last spring to clean the city of militants loyal to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.
One resident noted “differences between the British and American forces. The Americans have been good at attacking militias, but bad at dealing with civilians; the British are easygoing with civilians, but too passive in facing up to extremists, he said.” “We need the two features in one army,” he said, adding, “I prefer the Iraqi Army.”

Up north in Mosul, they point out that since Thursday, at least 29 people have been killed and 85 wounded in violence in the city and its outskirts, leading right into the next offering.

Around Iraq
In today’s best example of hard news, Alisa J. Rubin of the New York Times reports that Iraqi and American security officials say jihadi and Baath militants are rejoining the fight in areas that are largely quiet now, regrouping as a smaller but still lethal insurgency. Rubin hits several aspects of this insurgency in this no-to-miss article, and not just in the re-worded phrases commonly used to describe Iraqi security that we read all the time.

She counts the dead of recent bombings in and around Baghdad at 123, one on a reopened street thought to be safe and three of them suicide bombings. Assassination attempts on Awakening members are on the rise, as is fear that other members are joining (or re-joining) insurgent groups. In interviews with 14 leaders of the Awakening movement, all said they believed that the jihadi presence in their areas had increased The arrest of an Awakening leader in Baghdad, charged with being a member of an armed wing of the outlawed Baath Party illustrates another focus f the article – the re-emergence of Baath elements. The thousands of detainees being released from US custody are another big issue.

“In most places there isn’t an insurgency in Iraq anymore,” an American military intelligence officer in Washington is quoted, but other officials, Iraqi and American, are more worried, says Rubin.
They observe jihadi and other insurgent groups activating networks of sleeper cells, which are already striking government and civilian targets. Insurgent groups linked to the rule of Mr. Hussein are also reviving.

Most of the latest attacks, at a time when overall violence is at its lowest level since the beginning of the war in 2003, have singled out Iraqis, but one development affects the Americans. A new weapon has appeared in Iraq: Russian-made RKG-3 grenades, which weigh just five pounds and, attached to parachutes, can be lobbed by a teenager but can penetrate the American military’s latest heavily armored vehicle, the MRAP. The grenades cost as little as $10, according to American military officials, who would not say how often they have killed soldiers.
Continuing the Times’ upbeat security reporting, Marc Santora files from Balad Ruz in Diyala province, where the war is "far from over". It begins as follows...
Cpl. Phillip Buck stopped in his tracks. And then took three careful steps back, the parched earth cracking beneath his feet like fresh ice over snow. Ten yards in front of him, an Iraqi soldier was inspecting a possible booby trap in a desolate village deserted long ago. “You never know what he is playing with,” said Corporal Buck, 27, his eyes squarely on the soldier.

Moments later, an explosion rang out less than a half-mile away. An unsuspecting Iraqi had detonated a pressure-triggered roadside bomb. His legs were ripped off, and after a brief struggle for air, he died in the dirt.
It ends up being a slice-of-life piece, from a place where living isn’t so easy. The relative peace of other areas within Iraq, where US soldiers are “doing less soldiering and more social welfare,” is clearly not so easy to find in Balad Ruz, as pointed out by the commander of the only full battalion in Iraq still dedicated exclusively to counterinsurgency combat. “This is the retro war in Iraq,” Colonel Rago said. “Other commanders are doing what they should be doing in Iraq in 2009. I am not.”

Finally, a terrific feature by Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post, about a train ride from Baghdad to Basra. In this piece, Shadid does what he does best, pairing current events together with narrative that captures a moment of Iraqi life the way few (or none) other western journalists can, all woven together with Iraqi phrases, songs being played in the background, telling quotes, and subtle observations.
At 6:25 p.m., the horn blew, and workers and students, good sons going home to their families, well-wishers and mourners threw their jackets, shoulder bags stretched taut, sacks stuffed with sandwiches and tightly rolled carpets on the racks overhead. They settled into frayed green leather seats, with murmurs like that of an audience before a play.
Shadid’s use of metaphor may prove to be a bit too extensive for some readers, but even if you’re one of those folks, it’s well worth the ride.

Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.
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