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Archive: August 2008
Daily Column
History and inighting behind the Surge: Books about Iraq
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/31/2008 01:55 AM ET
For the second day in a row, there is no actual news of Iraq in any of the papers. The Times saves the day, though, with background on the “surge” strategy’s genesis. Also, non-fiction readers can turn to reading actual books in the fall, if the newspapers still aren’t writing much about Iraq.

The Story of the Surge
From Washington, Michael R. Gordon of the New York Times writes a thorough front page article, chronicling the doubt and debate that led to President George Bush’s decision that he was, indeed, sending thousands more troops to Iraq than many of his advisers recommended. Any reader, of course, knows that the decision was made, but as Gordon’s play-by-play of disagreement (between seemingly every member of the administration and upper echelons of the military) culminates with Mr. Bush giving his January 10 speech, announcing “I’ve committed more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq... The vast majority of them — five brigades — will be deployed to Baghdad.”, it seems almost climactic. It’s a bit dry, but in the interest of readers who want an account of how it all played out, Times editors deserve kudos for not stripping it down to a shorter, easier to digest piece. Bush is portrayed as something of a maverick, bucking almost everyone around him, as the sectarian violence of 2006 increased to tremendous levels.

In the end, the troop reinforcement proposal split the military. Even after the president had made the basic decision to send additional troops, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, never sought more than two brigades, about 8,000 troops in all, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reported to Mr. Bush in late December. But General Casey’s approach substantially differed from those of two officers who wanted a much bigger effort: the No. 2 commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen Raymond T. Odierno, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, who helped oversee the military’s new counterinsurgency manual and whose views were known by the White House before he was publicly named to replace General Casey, administration officials said.
Odierno is given much credit for sticking to his guns, even when the notion of deploying so many additional troops was not popular among his superiors. The use of the term “surge” for the deployment strategy is traced back to a briefing in October by a security council staff member, William J. Luti, a retired Navy captain.
...aides, Meghan O’Sullivan, Brett McGurk and Peter D. Feaver, had collaborated on the paper that raised the prospect of a troop increase. J. D. Crouch, the deputy national security adviser, called in Mr. Luti to ask for a separate look. After contacting the Army staff, Mr. Luti submitted a confidential briefing in October titled, “Changing the Dynamics: Surge and Fight, Create Breathing Space and Then Accelerate the Transition.”
As Bush’s January 10 speech was approaching, Gordon writes that “The tussle over the number of forces to be sent went down to the wire.”, and that at least one draft included the non-committal wording of sending “up to five” combat brigades. After aides at the National Security Council (who favored the surge) took the issue to Mr. Bush, the commitment of the full number of troops was made explicit. Again, we all know that the troops were sent, but any clear history such as this is is important, and at the very least, interesting(and at the very most, will provide intelligent-sounding banter).

Books
Marie Arana has a whole section of non-fiction books in a category she calls “America in an Age of Terror”. Here are the ones that pertain to Iraq.
• Big Boy Rules, by Steve Fainaru (Da Capo, Nov.) A Washington Post reporter follows some of the 100,000 mercenaries in Iraq who do what the military can't or won't.
• The Forever War , by Dexter Filkins (Knopf, Sept.) A war correspondent's observations from a decade of reporting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
• Tell Me How This Ends, by Linda Robinson (PublicAffairs, Sept.). An inside account of Gen. David Petraeus's attempt to turn around the war in Iraq.
• The War Within, by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, Sept.). Revelations about the inside machinations of the White House, Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies at critical points in the Iraq War.
• A World of Trouble, by Patrick Tyler (Farrar Straus Giroux, Dec.). Fifty years of topsy-turvy relations between the White House and the Middle East.

Christian Science Monitor,USA Today, Wall Street Journal, no Sunday Editions.
Daily Column
Some election-related Iraq coverage, and not much else.
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/30/2008 01:55 AM ET
After yesterday’s varied turnout of Iraq coverage, there’s barely a word today. In all the articles about Senator John McCain’s surprise running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, it is speculated that one of the reasons for her being chosen is that she has an 18 year old son who is enlisted in the army, and will soon ship off to Iraq. Other than that, there’s slim pickins indeed. The one offering that is Iraq-related enough to include is an opinion piece, also having to do with a candidate in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. This one isn’t so positive.

Opinion
Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund writes a piece from Denver called “Obama Should Come Clean On Ayers, Rezko and the Iraqi Billionaire”, in which he complains about the Obama campaign not readily releasing information in answer to questions about his past whose answers could be damaging to his chances of being elected president. At this week’s Democratic National Convention, Fund stated that he “had no trouble finding reporters who complained the campaign was secretive and evasive”. This was in response to, firstly, Sen. Obama's association with William Ayers, the unrepentant 1970s Weather Underground terrorist.
Then there's the house that Mr. Obama bought in 2005 in cooperation with Tony Rezko, his friend and campaign fund-raiser -- a move the candidate concedes was "boneheaded." Rezko was convicted in June of 16 counts of corruption.
Fund continues, asking...
How did Mrs. Rezko make a $125,000 down payment and obtain a $500,000 mortgage when financial records shown at the Rezko trial indicate she had a salary of only $37,000 and assets of $35,000? Records show her husband also had few assets at the time.
It gets complicated, and since there’s nothing else today, I’ll just keep quoting.
Last April, the London Times revealed that Nadhmi Auchi, an Iraqi-born billionaire living in London, had loaned Mr. Rezko $3.5 million three weeks before the day the sale of the house and lot closed in June 2005. Mr. Auchi's office notes he was a business partner of Rezko but says he had "no involvement in or knowledge of" the property sale. But in April 2004 he did attend a dinner party in his honor at Rezko's Chicago home. Mr. Obama also attended, and according to one guest, toasted Mr. Auchi. Later that year, Mr. Auchi came under criminal investigation as part of a U.S. probe of the corrupt issuance of cell-phone licenses in Iraq. In May 2004, the Pentagon's inspector general's office cited "significant and credible evidence" of involvement by Mr. Auchi's companies in the Oil for Food scandal, and in illicit smuggling of weapons to Saddam Hussein's regime. Because of the criminal probe, Mr. Auchi's travel visa to the U.S. was revoked in August 2004, even as Mr. Auchi denied all the allegations. According to prosecutors, in November 2005 Rezko was able to get two government officials from Illinois to appeal to the State Department to get the visa restored. Asked if anyone in his office was involved in such an appeal, Mr. Obama told the Chicago Sun-Times last March, "not that I know of." FOIA requests to the State Department for any documents haven't been responded to for months.

Washington Post, no Iraq coverage.
Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, no Saturday editions.
Daily Column
Cybercrime in Iraq: Ex-Marine aquitted in US civilian court
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/29/2008 01:50 AM ET
The big news today is a huge oil contract that China just signed with Iraq, leaving Western petroleum companies in the dust, and proving it doesn’t need the Olympics to stay in the headlines. A new anti-hacker crime unit in Baghdad is also in the news, as is the improvement in an Iraqi port city. Also, a verdict of “not guilty” for an ex-marine who was charged in a U.S. civilian court for the killing of unarmed Iraqis.

From Iraq
In the first major oil deal Iraq has made with a foreign country since 2003, the Iraqi government and the China National Petroleum Corporation have signed a contract worth up to $3 billion, according to Iraqi officials. According to Assim Jihad, a spokesman for Iraq’s Oil Ministry, the Chinese company will provide technical advisers, oil workers and equipment to help develop the Ahdab oil field southeast of Baghdad. If the deal is approved by the Iraqi cabinet, work could begin on the oil field within a few months, Mr. Jihad said. The 22-years contract is a renegotiated version of a 1997 agreement between China and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The original included production-sharing rights, but the new version is a service contract only. In June, agreements with Western oil companies like companies like Exxon Mobile, BP, Shell, Total, and Chevron seemed minutes away, but so far, negotiations are still going on. According to Oil Ministry officials, reports the Wall Street Journal’s Gina Chon, these deals are unlikely to go through. Chon’s article is the shortest, but doesn’t suffer for it, and includes a map of oilfields where Western companies are trying to get their feet in the door of Iraq’s “vast but creaking” (well put)oil industry. Erica Goode and Riyadh Mohammed of the New York Times have the most information, and Amit R. Paley in the Washington Post comes in second for length. There’s not a great difference between the three, as far as information provided on the oil deal goes, except the estimated barrels of oil per day expected to be produced at Ahdab. The Times says it’s 90,000, the Journal has it climbing to 110,000, and the Post says it’ll begin at 25,000 a day, and will gradually increase to 125,000. Either way, backs are being slapped in Beijing. Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal stories also mention the arrest at Baghdad International Airport of Ali Faisal al-Lami, a senior Shiite Iraqi government official who works for the de-Baathification council headed by Ahmad Chalabi. American officials claim that al-Lami is connected to “special groups”, a term used by the military to describe militias backed and trained by Iran. He is also thought to be responsible for a June 24 bombing of a district council meeting in Sadr City, which killed six Iraqis, two Americans employed by the State Department and two American soldiers. On Thursday, Mr. Chalabi said in a statement, “We condemn firmly this action against one of the high officials of the council.” The Wall Street Journal finishes with mention of Moqtada al-Sadr indefinitely extending a cease-fire order for his militia. "The freeze of the Mahdi Army will continue for an open-ended time," Sadr said in a statement. "And anyone who breaks this freeze should not consider himself part of the ideological movement."

Stateside
Nicholas Casey of the Wall Street Journal covers the acquittal of Jose Luis Nazario, an ex-Marine Corps sergeant who was accused under a law aimed at contractors for allegedly killing unarmed Iraqis in Fallujah in November 2004. By exiting the Marines in 2005 with an honorable discharge, he also left the jurisdiction of military prosecutors. He was then charged under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, a law passed in 2000 that extended the jurisdiction of federal courts to include certain major crimes by military and civilian contractors that occurred overseas. His case was the first in which the law had been used against a former serviceman for a crime alleged during combat. Two members of Mr. Nazario's squad, who prosecutors claimed had admitted to taking part in the killings, now await a military court-martial for the incident, and refused to testify in the case. For more background, read Casey’s article from August 19..

In Other News
USA Today’s Charles Levinson has an interesting story from Baghdad on Iraq's newly formed cybercrimes division.

Computer usage in Iraq has mushroomed since the U.S. invasion in 2003. During the Saddam Hussein era, Internet access was largely forbidden in the country, and economic sanctions made computers difficult to obtain. The Interior Ministry, which had no computers connected to the Internet in 2003, has 5,000 today. Maj. Ahmed Khathem, the head of the unit says, "Now, the government is starting to use computers everywhere, but these computers aren't protected.”
Levinson tells of “Iraqi Diver”, Iraq’s most prolific hacker, who routinely makes his way into government sites, but who has usually refrained from causing permanent damage. More worrisome are hackers with connections to terror networks, who use hacking as a tool for not only funding, but as a tool of terror itself.
In May, an innocuous pop-up window flashed onto the screen of an employee at the Ministry of Interior, Khathem says. The window asked if he wanted to install updates to his computer. Had he clicked "OK," he would have given a hacker who calls himself the "Iraqi Hacker" access to reams of sensitive data, including e-mails and addresses of the ministry's thousands of security officers. "If that information had fallen into the hands of terrorists, it would have been a catastrophe," says Lt. Alaa Hussein, another member of the ministry's anti-hacking team.


Tom Peter of the Christian Science Monitor reports from Iraq’s only port city of Umm Qasr, that it is showing signs of an economic comeback. In the past, boats had to wait one to two months outside the port before authorities allowed them to dock, and local militias often extorted extra duties. "It was too much of a problem," says Captain Cao Zhanshu, captain of a Thai freighter that was bringing on rice. When explaining why his company did not send another ship until now, he said that, this time, the situation looks much different. They only waited 10 days and paid no bribes. "I think it's safe to come here," he says.
In Umm Qasr, the amount of cargo arriving daily has tripled since April from 10,000 metric tons per day to 30,000. That number is likely to continue rising if the port can obtain International Shipping and Port Security (ISPS) certification, which indicates that the port meets international security standards. The designation would lower merchants' insurance costs by 50 to 100 percent, say British military officials who are actively working to help the port gain the accreditation.
Still, Peter reports, corruption continues, fueled in part by the limited infrastructure in Umm Qasr and Iraq in general. Since ships must often wait days until there are enough shore hands to download their freight, Mr. Salman, says many dock workers force boats to face long delays unless they pay a bribe for priority service.

Opinion
Dan Senor (an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served as a senior adviser to the Coalition in Iraq in 2003 and 2004) writes an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal about the conspicuous absence at the Democratic National Convention of Senator Joseph Biden’s once much-touted plan for the soft partition of Iraq. He lays it all out with a well thought out laundry list of reasons why the separation of Iraq into three sections, along Shiite/Sunni/Kurd lines, is misguided. Senor seems to respect Biden for his outspoken stance, but with all the buzz about the war in Iraq and Biden’s experience in foreign policy, he sees it as something less-than-forthcoming to just sweep it under the rug.
In response to critics who charge that he lacks experience, Mr. Obama has argued that he has something more important: judgment. What was Mr. Obama's judgment about his running mate's plan for Iraq? How would he have gone about implementing it if the two men were in charge at the time? And if they now believe that Mr. Biden's signature plan was a mistake, should they acknowledge that in a more serious way than by simple omission?

Daily Column
Another kind of prisoner rendition? Anbar about to be handed over... again
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/28/2008 01:50 AM ET
Not a bad selection of Iraq-related stories today, with contractors getting the most ink. After that, the planned handover of Anbar to Iraqi forces, and a front-page story in the Times about foreign prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan secretly being sent by the U.S. military to the intelligence services of their home nations. Also, 3,500 anti-war protesters at the DNC.

Contractors in the News
Dana Hedgpeth from the Washington Post reports that a Washington law firm filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against KBR and its Jordanian subcontractor, Daoud & Partners, alleging that the companies engaged in the human trafficking of Nepalese workers. The facts are a little unclear, but according to Agnieszka Fryszman, a partner at Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, said 13 Nepali men, were recruited in Nepal to work as kitchen staff, not in Iraq, but in hotels and restaurants in Amman, Jordan(not quite the same thing). After arriving in Jordan, it is alleged that their passports were seized, and that they told they were being sent to a military base in Iraq. Beyond those initial allegations, the scope of the alleged scheme is unclear, and no dates are provided. The plan seems to have gone awry when, as the men were driven in cars to Iraq, they were stopped by insurgents. Twelve were kidnapped and later executed, Fryszman said. The thirteenth man survived and worked in a warehouse in Iraq for 15 months before returning to Nepal. The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in California on behalf of the workers' families and the survivor, claims that the trafficking scheme was engineered by KBR and Daoud & Partners. This spring, an administrative law judge at the Department of Labor, which has jurisdiction over cases that involve on the job injuries at overseas military bases, ordered Daoud to pay $1 million to the families of 11 of the victims. A representative of KBR says the company hasn’t seen the lawsuit yet, but “The company in no way condones or tolerates unethical or illegal behavior."

USA Today’s Peter Eisler covers new federal records which reflect highest-ever levels of money being spent by the United States government on private security contractors in Iraq, as thousands of troops return home. The end of the surge in servicemen is being replaced by a surge in civilian contractors. Eisler writes that this year, spending on contractors, who protect diplomats, civilian facilities and supply convoys, is projected to exceed $1.2 billion, according to federal contract and budget data obtained by USA TODAY. Most of that bill — about $1 billion —is State Department spending, which is up 13% over 2007. The remaining $200 million covers Pentagon contracts. Rising private security costs come as the Pentagon removes the last of the 30,000 extra troops sent to Iraq last year. Contractors take on roles once handled by U.S. troops, such as securing Iraq's infrastructure and guarding reconstruction supplies. Congress is raising concerns about the costs of relying on contractors for that work and the challenges of ensuring that they are supervised properly. Concern over supervision of these contractors has heightened after incidents where Iraqi civilians were killed by contractors, such as when guards with Blackwater Worldwide shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians while escorting a State Department officer in Baghdad in September 2007. "While security is obviously necessary for American officials in Iraq, we should be transitioning reconstruction to the Iraqi government, which is capable of supporting many of these efforts with its ... oil revenues," says Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who chairs a House appropriations subcommittee that oversees spending for Iraq reconstruction, and calls the costs, "exorbitant." State's contractor spending has climbed because the focus in Iraq has shifted from combat to rebuilding, department press officer John Fleming says. More diplomats are leaving secure areas to work in the field, where they need security, he says. At the same time, U.S. troops who once guarded reconstruction projects and Iraqi infrastructure are leaving. Contractors "will increasingly take over these former military roles and missions, increasing (the) numbers of private security," Fleming says, noting that the new oversight policies will "hold contractors accountable." The Pentagon and the State Department have committed to work with Congress to enact legislation to increase legal accountability for all U.S. government contractors in Iraq.

Siobhan Gorman and August Cole report in the Wall Street Journal that MVM Inc., one of the biggest security contractors used by U.S. intelligence agencies, has lost the bulk of a Central Intelligence Agency contract in Iraq after failing to provide enough armed guards, according to company emails and contractors familiar with the decision. The loss of the CIA contract, which was potentially worth more than $1 billion over five years, is a big blow to closely held MVM, based in Vienna, Va. In last month's Journal, another article by Gorman and Cole detailed allegations from a former MVM guard who said his teammates fabricated an after-action report about a November 2004 shooting incident to cover up their errors. This week, MVM declined to respond to specific questions about the status of the loss of the contract. In a written statement, the company said it has an "outstanding performance history" working in dangerous regions and it has never failed to "secure any personnel or facilities that we have been contracted to protect." The company also said that it is "fully compliant with all of the contractual obligations of our diverse client base." A CIA spokesman said the agency doesn't comment on contracting decisions.

In Other News
The New York Times’ Mark Manzetti and Eric Schmitt report from Washington that, according to American military officials, the U.S. military has secretly handed over more than 200 militants to the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries, nearly all in the past two years, as part of an effort to reduce the burden of detaining and interrogating foreign fighters captured in Iraq and Afghanistan. The system is said to be similar in some ways to the rendition program used by the CIA since the Sept. 11 attacks to secretly transfer people suspected of being militants back to their home countries to be jailed and questioned. There are significant differences, though; military officials say. The prisoners can block their transfers to home countries. Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross interview all detainees before they are returned to their home countries, Bernard Barrett, a Red Cross spokesman, said. Many of these militants are initially held, without notification to the Red Cross, sometimes for weeks at a time, in secret at a camp in Iraq and another in Afghanistan run by American Special Operations forces, the military officials said. The American military’s prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the secret prisons abroad run by the C.I.A. have drawn criticism, and there have been concerns over the use of Iraqi and Afghan jails. Some have questioned whether those facilities should play any future role in housing terrorism suspects. As a rationale for the approach, the American officials said that language skills and cultural knowledge in most cases made the Saudis, Egyptians and others best suited to question the captured suspects, and best equipped to act on any intelligence they provide about militant networks in their countries. American military officials said the transfers required assurances that the prisoners would be well taken care of, but they would not specify those assurances, and human rights advocates questioned whether compliance could be monitored. About 30 to 40 foreign prisoners are held at the Iraq camp at any given time, the officials said; they did not provide an estimate for the Afghan camp, but suggested that the number was smaller. Saudi and Egyptian intelligence officers have been permitted to interrogate militants at the camps, although United States military officials say that the foreign interrogators who operate in the American camps are monitored by American soldiers, and that they must follow American rules. Henry A. Crumpton, who in 2006 was the State Department’s top counterterrorism official, said the decision to begin repatriating detainees was driven “by the realization that Guantánamo was a strategic failure.” Christoph Wilcke, who researches the prison systems of Middle Eastern countries for Human Rights Watch said that international organizations had very little information about the treatment of detainees. “When it comes to sending people back home, there is really no way for us to find out how they are doing,” he said.

On Wednesday, U.S. and Iraqi officials announced that the American military will hand over responsibility for the security of Anbar Province, once a stronghold of the Sunni insurgency and one of the most violent regions in the country, to the Iraqi government. It was originally scheduled to happen in June, but it was put off at the time due to “weather conditions”. In today’s lone story filed from Baghdad, Erica Goode of the New York Times reports that the turnover would be a milestone for American officials, who have said that reduced violence in the western province shows that a partnership there with the local Awakening councils been successful. The councils are credited with reducing crime and violence in Anbar, but have recently come under attack by the Iraqi Army, which is controlled by the Shiite government in Baghdad. The government’s campaign has been particularly pronounced lately in the area west of Baghdad, where the Iraqi Army has arrested scores of Awakening members. Former insurgent leaders have contended that the Iraqi military is pursuing 650 Awakening leaders, many of whom have fled. Goode goes on to sum up the current state of the SOFA negotiations, and report that American military officials announced that an American soldier had died from injuries suffered on Tuesday, when the vehicle he was riding in hit a bomb in Baghdad. The Washington Post’s Anne Scott Tyson covers the story from Washington. Her article is really limited to comments made by Marine Corps Gen. James T. Conway at a media roundtable at the Pentagon yesterday. Advances made by the Iraqi Army and the Awakening councils aren’t mentioned prominently as the reason for the handover, as is usually the case, but rather the need to reduce the 25,000-strong Marine contingent there and free up more Marines to go to Afghanistan. Conway said the additional Marines are needed in part to replace the 3,200 in southern and western Afghanistan whose extended eight-month tour will end in late November. He warned that without reinforcements, a security vacuum will allow the Taliban to retake captured territory and persecute the population. "Young Marines join our Corps to go fight for their country," Conway said. "It's our view that if there is a stiffer fight going someplace else in a much more expeditionary environment . . . then that's where we need to be."

USA Today’s Richard Wolf and Matt Memmott cover the estimated 3,500 angry protesters who marched outside the Democratic National Convention Wednesday, inspired by dozens of anti-war Iraq veterans and energized by the rock band, Rage Against the Machine. "We are here to hold the Democratic Party accountable," said Jason Hurd, 28, of Tennessee, an Army National Guard veteran of 10 years. "We voted them into office in 2006, and they have not done their job." The veterans marched like troops in their uniforms and fatigues. Police in riot gear, with batons, handcuffs and pepper spray, lined the parade route and watched warily from rooftops. Ron Kovic, the paralyzed Vietnam War veteran who inspired the movie “Born on the Fourth of July”, said the event reminded him of the anti-Vietnam War march at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami. "This is history happening," Kovic said. The concert and march were organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War, which called on Barack Obama to promise an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, better health care for veterans and reparations to the Iraqis.

Opinion
In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, William Shawcross, author of "Allies: Why the West Had to Remove Saddam" pays tribute to former Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman, who recently died of leukemia. The two were once fierce adversaries on U.S. policy in Vietnam, among other things, and Shawcross explains how they came to see common ground years later, concerning U.S. policy in Iraq. They gained mutual respect, and co-authored an op-ed on the subject for the New York Times in June 2007, which was cited in a speech on Iraq by President Bush. Shawcross writes, “Defeat in Iraq, we said, would produce an ‘explosion of euphoria’ among the enemies of the West, and demoralize all those who trusted in American and Western values. Defeat would destabilize moderate, friendly governments and accelerate the radicalization of every conflict in the Middle East. We shared the view that America is an absolutely vital force for good in the world and that America's defeat -- in Iraq or Afghanistan -- would be catastrophic.”

Christian Science Monitor, no Iraq coverage.
Daily Column
US officers admit to slayings: At least 25 killed in Diyala bombing
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/27/2008 01:50 AM ET
The two main stories for the day are that the New York Times gets its hands on court documents incriminating U.S. officers for the killing of Iraqis, and yet another deadly suicide bombing in Diyala province. There’s also some analysis of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s recent hard-line approach to the SOFA negotiations, and a review of a book about the CIA’s role in the events leading to the war in Iraq that’s been hitting the news lately.

Military Matters
Paul Von Zielbauer of the New York Times reports from New York that, according to the court documents made to Army investigators obtained by theTimes “by a person close to one of the soldiers in the unit who insisted on anonymity and who has an interest in the outcome of the legal proceedings”, three noncommissioned US Army officers, killed four Iraqi prisoners with pistol shots to the head as the men stood handcuffed and blindfolded beside a Baghdad canal in March or April of 2007. Two of the soldiers reportedly admitted to the actions in sworn statements. In their statements, Sgt. First Class Joseph P. Mayo, the platoon sergeant, and Sgt. Michael P. Leahy Jr., Company D’s senior medic and an acting squad leader, described the events that preceded the shooting of the Iraqi men, who apparently were Shiite fighters linked to the Mahdi Army militia, which controlled the West Rashid area of southwest Baghdad. After taking small-arms fire, the patrol chased some men into a building, arresting them and finding several automatic weapons, grenades and a sniper rifle, they said. On the way to their combat outpost, First Sgt. John E. Hatley’s convoy was informed by Army superiors that the evidence to detain the Iraqis was insufficient, Sergeant Leahy said in his statement. The unit was told to release the men, according to the statement. “First Sergeant Hatley then made the call to take the detainees to a canal and kill them,” Sergeant Leahy said, as retribution for the deaths of two soldiers from the unit: Staff Sgt. Karl O. Soto-Pinedo, who died from a sniper’s bullet, and Specialist Marieo Guerrero, killed by a roadside bomb. “So the patrol went to the canal, and First Sergeant, Sgt. First Class Mayo and I took the detainees out of the back of the Bradley, lined them up and shot them,” Sergeant Leahy said, referring to a Bradley fighting vehicle. “We then pushed the bodies into the canal and left.” The soldiers, all from Company D, First Battalion, Second Infantry, 172nd Infantry Brigade, have not been charged with a crime. However, lawyers representing other members of the platoon who said they witnessed or heard the shootings, which were said to have occurred on a combat patrol west of Baghdad, said all three would probably be charged with murder.

From Baghdad
According to Iraqi security officials, a bomb killed at least 25 people and wounded at least 46 in an attack on a group of Iraqi police recruits outside a police station in northern Diyala Province on Tuesday. It was covered by Amit R. Paley of the Washington Post and Stephen Farrell of the New York Times. There is some confusion as to whether the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber who wore an explosive belt, or a car bomb. Multiple eye-witnesses say they saw a car speed up to a government building in the Martyrs’ District of the city of Jalawla, 80 miles north of Baghdad (near the Iranian border) next to a line of job applicants outside just before the explosion. Officials seem to agree that it was the work of a man who wore more than 50 pounds of explosive materials packed with steel ball bearings, to increase casualties, and that the confusion about a car was because he was standing near a car when the bomb went off. Both accounts are brief and somewhat similar. Paley points out that a Kurdish brigade that had been in control of the area left about a week ago at the request of the Iraqi government, and that the city is recruiting security forces for the area. Farrell gives some context by writing that Jalawla is located in a region where some districts are in dispute between the Arab-majority Baghdad government and the Kurdish regional authorities in northern Iraq, and has been regularly attacked by Sunni Arab insurgent groups exploiting the ethnic and sectarian tensions. He ends by adding that, in nearby Khanaqin, thousands of Kurdish demonstrators turned out to demand that the town become part of the semiautonomous Kurdish region, and demanded the withdrawal of Arab-dominated units of the Iraqi Army(See Amer Mohsen’s “Iraqside” post below). Also in Diyala, five members of a Sunni family were killed when a roadside bomb struck their van near Mandali, according to a border guard spokesman.

Maliki’s Stance on SOFA Negotiations
From Baghdad, USA Today’s Charles Levinson puts Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s recent tough stance against any U.S. forces remaining in Iraq after 2011 in a historical perspective. He writes that “Iraq's troubled history of colonialism and foreign occupation precedes the U.S. invasion of 2003, dating to the 1920s when Britain was the ruling power. Previous Iraqi leaders who attempted to negotiate an end to the foreign presence, as al-Maliki is doing now, have often ended up cutting unpopular or untenable deals, dooming them to a lifetime of ignominy — or even, in one case, death.” Levinson lists examples, such as when Iraq's King Faisal hoped 80 years ago to restore Iraqi sovereignty through a bilateral treaty with the British, who insisted on keeping "advisers and experts" in Iraq. That deal eventually led to tribal revolts, repeated coups — and ultimately a British decision to reinvade Iraq in 1941. Al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, dismisses any comparisons with history. Unlike in the past, he says, this agreement will go to parliament for approval by all Iraqi parties. Mariam al-Rayis, a former adviser to al-Maliki who remains a close friend and confidante, says "I know that the lessons that al-Maliki has taken from history are on his mind.”

The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Grier reports from Washington with another view on Maliki’s hard-line stance. After some basic explanation of the negotiations (a good thing, since the Christian Science Monitor hasn’t produced ay original Iraq content in some time) he says that “an increasingly assertive Iraqi government (is) a key foreign policy problem with which the next occupant of the Oval Office will likely have to deal.” He quotes Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and writes that there may be more going on than protecting Iraqi sovereignty. “Iraqi leaders appear to feel a growing confidence that their own security forces have begun to perform well and can soon shoulder even more of the burden of Iraqi security. It is also possible that Maliki has something else on his mind. ‘There is a danger that Maliki may have decided to use military power to suppress domestic political opposition and views the continued presence of US troops as an obstacle to that,’ says Mr. Biddle. Maliki may want to use Iraqi security forces to crush individual units of the Sons of Iraq, the largely Sunni local groups that have played a large role in the reduction of violence in the country over the last year, according to Biddle. Biddle warns that Iraqi government forces are becoming so large that there is even a growing danger of an Iraqi military coup.”

Books
Mark Danner of the New York Times reviews “The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism” by Ron Suskind. It has been in the news lately for the Central Intelligence Agency’s repeated denials of the two central charges of the book. As Danner explains them, “more than three months before initiating the Iraq war President Bush and his highest officials received information, via the British, from Iraq’s intelligence chief, Tahir Habbush, that Saddam Hussein had destroyed all his weapons of mass destruction years before — information that the officials 'buried' but that turned out to be true. And second, that after paying off Mr. Habbush to the tune of $5 million and resettling him in Jordan, White House officials used him to run a scam on the American people, drafting a letter over his name, backdated to the summer of 2001, in which Mr. Habbush informs Hussein that he has been training Mohammed Atta, soon to be the leader of the 9/11 attacks. This forged letter, meant to establish beyond doubt a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, was leaked in December 2003 to an Iraqi politician and longtime C.I.A. asset — Ayad Allawi, soon to be named the first interim prime minister of Iraq — and thence made its way, via a prominent British journalist, to the front page of The Daily Telegraph, and from there into the American press, receiving prominent treatment in various places, including ‘Meet the Press’ and an Op-Ed column by William Safire in The New York Times. Perhaps, as you nursed your coffee that day, you saw the program or read the piece? According to Mr. Suskind, that was your government at work.” Danner says that Suskind’s case seems strong. “Amid the intense and vivid storytelling here, Mr. Suskind takes many risks and not all succeed; the book will be criticized for sentimentality and a kind of wide-eyed, communal optimism that are easy to ridicule.” Mostly, though, he lauds “The Way of the World”, which he calls “a complex, ambitious, provocative, risky and often maddening book”.

Wall Street Journal, no Iraq coverage.
Daily Column
Veterans' brain injuries go unnoticed and untreated
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/26/2008 01:50 AM ET
There’s not a great amount of Iraq coverage today, but there’s some stories worth reading. The ongoing SOFA saga is covered, as well as the fact that US veterans with brain injuries are often not getting the help or attention they need. Also, the curious story of Senator Joseph Biden’s son’s service in Iraq complicating the question of his succession to his father’s seat at the Senate, in the event of an Obama/Biden victory.

From Iraq
Campbell Robertson and Riyadh Mohammed of the New York Times, and also Amit R. Paley of the Washington Post report that, on Monday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki demanded a complete U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq by 2011 as he embarked on an attempt to win support among Iraqi leaders for a draft security accord with the United States. There is obviously a lot of behind the scenes action going on. Maliki is getting more specific by the day, and U.S. officials are getting less so. The Post reported that Maliki's public comments appeared to be an attempt to extract further concessions from American officials, less than a week after both sides said they had agreed to remove all U.S. combat troops by the end of 2011, if the security situation remained relatively stable, but leave other American forces in place. The U.S. plan is to leave as many as 40,000 troops to continue to assist Iraq in training, logistics and intelligence for an undefined period. That is what was reported in all the papers in the past week, but speaking before a gathering of tribal leaders in the Green Zone, Maliki said that the United States had agreed to withdraw all troops -- not just combat brigades -- as part of a security accord governing U.S. forces in Iraq, and that the withdrawal schedule must be firm. American officials said no accord had been reached and insisted that any withdrawal be based on conditions at the time. "There is an agreement between both sides that no foreign soldiers will be in Iraq after 2011," Maliki said. He added that the accord "must be based on a specific deadline for the withdrawal of foreign forces and that it should not be open." Maliki and U.S. officials cautioned that differences remained over the complex accord, known as a status-of-forces agreement, and that talks were continuing. "An agreement has not been signed, and so from our perspective, there is no agreement until there's an agreement signed," said Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman. "But any decisions on troops will be based on the conditions on the ground in Iraq. That has always been our position; it continues to be our position." U.S. officials, however, have signaled willingness to compromise with Maliki's government in order to sign an agreement by the end of President Bush's term. There is additional pressure because the United Nations' authorization for American troops to remain in Iraq expires at the end of the year; if no accord is signed before then, U.S. troops will have no legal basis to remain in the country. The Times version highlights that the prime minister is under intense political pressure to take a hard line against the Americans, even as his government engages in the back-and-forth of negotiations. Graffiti can be seen on the walls in Shiite districts of Baghdad saying, “Iraq for sale: See Maliki.” Mr. Maliki also said that there were other parts of the security pact on which the sides had yet to agree. Those points of dispute, he said, include Iraqi approval of American military operations and the conditions under which American soldiers will be granted immunity. “There are some articles on which we are stopped,” he said. “Unless these articles are changed, it will be hard for this agreement to pass.” U.S. officials have insisted that American troops be immune from Iraqi law, both on and off military bases and regardless of whether they are off duty. In his speech, Maliki said that would be unacceptable. "We will not jeopardize the blood of Iraq's sons by giving open immunity," he said. Underlying Maliki's remarks is the political reality that he must sell the accord to a fractious political establishment and the Iraqi public, which to a large extent views the U.S. military presence as an occupation that should end as soon as possible. Iraq is prepared to grant immunity to American soldiers who are on bases or are conducting military operations, the Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said in a telephone interview, but insists that they be subject to Iraqi law in any other circumstances. Hadi al-Ameri, an Iraqi lawmaker, said immunity was “the most complicated issue remaining.” Mr. Dabbagh said there was also disagreement over whether Iraqi detainees could remain in American custody. Iraq has been demanding that anyone detained by American forces be turned over to the Iraqi authorities within 24 hours. *USA Today’s print edition posted after the “Media Watch” deadline, so was not included in an earlier version of this post. Charles Levinson chimed in, too, with added quotes from U.S. military trainers in Iraq saying that much work remains to be done. The U.S. has just begun building the logistics and support networks for the country's security forces, which now number 581,000 soldiers and police. "From our perspective, there's so much work to be done in building forces that it's going to take time," said Col. Steven Wujciak, a spokesman for U.S. military trainers in Iraq. "Of course, whatever echelons above us and the political people decide is up to them." For a good understanding of how this all is playing out in the Iraq press, and how different people are being given different quotes, check out Iraqslogger Amer Mohsen’s “Iraqside”, posted below. The Times article also includes the news that, according to a military statement, an American soldier was shot in the Adhamiya neighborhood of Baghdad. The soldier was transferred to a military facility, where he died of his wounds.

Stateside
On the front page of the New York Times, Lizette Alvarez adeptly covers that the sometimes subtle or delayed symptoms of traumatic brain injuries sustained by many U.S. veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan go unnoticed and untreated all too often. It is worth reading in its entirety, especially for veterans and their families. Soldiers with symptoms which may seem very obvious are often turned down when requesting disability benefits, or may be given the further dishonor of having their injuries denied completely. Recent studies are making progress in gaining understanding of what happens to victims of a traumatic brain injury (TBI), but many veterans are being left behind. Alvarez focuses on Former Staff Sgt. Kevin Owsley, who sustained two concussions while serving in Iraq in 2004. “You keep doing your job with your injuries,” said Mr. Owsley, 47, an Indiana reservist who served as a gunner for a year outside Baghdad beginning in March 2004. “You don’t think about it.” But more than three years after coming home, Mr. Owsley’s days have been irrevocably changed by the explosions. At first, Owsley said, doctors missed his traumatic brain injury. “She told me nothing was wrong with me, but she gave me like 18 different medications, for pain, to go to sleep, for lots of other things,” he said of his first visit to a Veterans Affairs doctor at a facility in Fort Wayne, Ind. Later that year, another veterans hospital said he had mild traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, hearing loss and injuries to his hand, ankles, eye and back. He was rated 100 percent disabled by the Veterans Affairs Department. Yet Mr. Owsley, referring to his Purple Heart denial letter, said he felt his injuries had gone unrecognized by the military “because there was no blood” and because he chose to work through his pain. As many as 300,000, or 20 percent, of combat veterans who regularly worked outside the wire, away from bases, have suffered at least one concussion, according to the latest Pentagon estimates. About half the soldiers get better within hours, days or several months and require little if any medical assistance. But tens of thousands of others have longer-term problems that can include, to varying degrees, persistent memory loss, headaches, mood swings, dizziness, hearing problems and light sensitivity. These symptoms, which may be subtle and may not surface for weeks or months after their return, are often debilitating enough to hobble lives and livelihoods. To this day, some veterans — it is impossible to know how many — remain unscreened, their symptoms undiagnosed. Mild brain injury was widely overlooked by the military and the veterans health system until recently. Mr. Owsley’s request for a Purple Heart, given to troops wounded or killed in action, was denied by the military, a devastating blow. Others say that their mild brain injury entitled them only to low disability payments, or, if the diagnosis was inconclusive, to none at all. “The criteria remains ambiguous,” Mr. Baker said. “The military way underrates T.B.I. and its symptoms.” Says Dr. Alisa D. Gean, the chief of neuroradiology at San Francisco General Hospital and a traumatic brain injury expert who spent time treating soldiers at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. “We’re at the tip of the iceberg of understanding it. It is one of the most complicated injuries to one of the most complicated parts of the body.” It was not until 2006, three years into the Iraq war, that the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs began to pay close attention to mild traumatic brain injuries. The Pentagon last year opened the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, a clearinghouse for treatment, training, prevention, research and education. This year it is spending a record $300 million on research for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. “We are more attuned to brain injuries now,” said Lt. Col. Michael Jaffee, the director of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. “There has not been as aggressive an effort before.” That effort begins with screening. As of May, service members who deploy longer than 30 days will undergo neurocognitive testing before leaving, to establish a baseline for changes that may occur later, and again upon returning. At the same time, soldiers in battle who lose consciousness or feel dazed after a blast or other event must be screened by a medical provider and are either approved for duty in the field, told to rest for several days on base or sent to Landstuhl for further evaluation. Last year, Veterans Affairs started screening all Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who come in for clinical help. So far, 33,000 of 227,015, about 15 percent, have screened positive for mild brain injury since April 2007.

Ben Pershing of the Washington Post reports that it is possible that Delaware Senator Joseph Biden’s son, Beau, (currently Delaware’s state attorney general) could be selected to take over his father’s seat at the Senate, in the event of an Obama/Bidon presidential victory. Beau Biden is also a captain in the Delaware Army National Guard, though, and is scheduled to head to Iraq, on October 3 for a deployment of roughly a year. That would appear to put him out of the running for an appointment to the Senate by Delaware's governor. Though Beau Biden could seek an early return from his deployment, there has been no indication that he wants one, nor does it seem that shortening his service in Iraq would help his political future. A spokesman at the state attorney general's office said yesterday that Beau Biden would not comment on the possibility of a Senate appointment.

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

Daily Column
US military buys more accurate shells: Biden and Iraq
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/25/2008 01:50 AM ET
Not a heavy day of Iraq coverage, but not too bad. A deadly bombing in Abu Ghraib is the main story, followed by Biden's Iraq war record, the U.S. Army buying more accurate munitions, and a film about war widows.

From Iraq
In Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad, a suicide bomber killed at least 25 people celebrating the return of a detainee from U.S. custody. At least 29 were wounded, according to police. Amit R. Paley of the Washington Post wrote that the attack occurred at 8 p.m. as members of the Awakening Movement, a group mainly made up of former Sunni insurgents who have now joined with U.S. forces, gathered for a party. The celebrants were dancing and chanting when a stranger in his late 20s arrived at the feast, witnesses said. They said Adnan Hanoush, thinking the man was lost and needed some help, walked up to him and said, "Peace be upon you, please sit down." Instead, the man detonated a vest full of explosives, injuring at least 29 people, according to Col. Dawood al-Dulaimi, a police spokesman. He said the dead included both Sami and Adnan Hanoush and four of Sami's brothers. Erica Goode and Stephen Farrell of the New York Times give about the same account of the bombing, but also report, as an example of the improving security situation around Baghdad, on a playoff match between two Iraqi soccer teams in Baghdad on Sunday. Government officials estimated that 40,000 people crowded into Shaab Stadium and thousands more stood outside to see the match between the Baghdad home team, Zawra, and a Kurdish team from Erbil. The soccer match lasted three hours and was won by Erbil, 1-0, in overtime. It was Kurdistan’s second finals victory in a row. Last year’s match was held in the north, because Baghdad was considered too dangerous. This year, the stadium was heavily guarded, with convoys of soldiers, police officers and members of the Peshmerga, the Kurdistan security forces. The match was attended by some prominent politicians, including Ali al-Dabbagh, the spokesman for the Iraqi government. Ahmed Hasan, 28, came from the other side of Baghdad with three friends to watch the game. “I’m afraid while I’m standing here, because the explosions may happen at any time, but seeing the thousands of fans is really joyful,” he said. Ahmed Abbas, the soccer federation’s general secretary, said the last time the stadium had been filled to capacity was in 1990, at the championship finals. “This means a lot to us,” he said. Both the Post and Times versions end with brief mention of the U.S. military’s statement that it had captured a Sunni insurgent who planned the kidnapping of Jill Carroll, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor who was held captive for 82 days in 2006. An interpreter working with her, Allan Enwiyah, 32, was shot dead at the scene of the kidnapping. The military said it captured Salim Abdallah Ashur al-Shujayri, a senior leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, on August 11.

Washington Post staff photographer Andrea Bruce continues her “Unseen Iraq” column, which documents the lives of Iraqis with images and short descriptions of the people pictured. Today’s offering is from Diyala province, and is a photo of Sgt. Hassan Shegas, a member of the Iraqi army, praying next to a Humvee in 120 degree heat. “Under willow-like trees,” she writes, “he faces southwest, toward Mecca, and follows the daily ritual of his faith. He stands, bends, sits and repeats -- a prayer offered next to a gift of water”.

Stateside
The Washington Post’s Jonathan Weisman reports on Barack Obama’s newly-announced running mate for the Democratic ticket, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., and his past statements and history of voting on the Iraq war. Weisman calls Biden’s experience a “Double-edged sword”, and says it may provide some challenges for Obama, whose opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been an integral element of his presidential campaign. Biden voted for President Bush’s war resolution, which granted Bush the authority to invade Iraq. Once the United States attacked, Biden became one of the most emphatic voices against the administration's prosecution of the war and ultimately against the war itself. And by 2005, Biden forthrightly stated that his vote was a mistake. In the days that led up to the vote on the war resolution, Biden and McCain stood together on the Senate floor, sometimes fighting against each other, sometimes fighting in tandem. They teamed up to shoot down an amendment by Democratic Senator Carl M. Levin that would have forced Bush to seek further authorization before an actual invasion. They were on opposite sides of the effort to narrow the war mission from regime change in Iraq to combating Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction. And Biden expressed plenty of misgivings about Bush's intentions. "The president always has the right to act preemptively if we are in imminent danger. If they are coming up over the hill, he can respond. If troops are coming out of Tijuana, heading north, we can respond. If they are coming down from Toronto, we can respond. If missiles are on their way, we can respond. But that is not the way I hear it being used here. We are talking about preemption, as if we are adopting a policy," Biden said. Weisman lays out more details, and calls Biden’s views on the war “nuanced”.

Tom Vanden Brook of USA Today covers the U.S. army’s purchasing of more accurate artillery shells. Vanden Brook writes that, according to army officials and analysts, high-tech Excalibur artillery shells that can be fired from as far away as 14 miles yet explode within 30 feet of its target are being purchased to avoid civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. An urgent request from commanders in Iraq for more accurate artillery to reduce civilian deaths prompted the Army to speed production of the Excalibur shells, according to the Government Accountability Office. In May, the Army awarded an $85 million contract to buy Excaliburs — the most ever spent for the shells. The Excalibur shells are likened to the so-called "smart bombs" the Air Force uses to hit targets, said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy research institute. Excalibur shells costs $89,000 per round, compared with $300 for a conventional 155mm shell. Over the next decade, the Army wants to acquire 30,000 Excaliburs, said Audra Calloway, an Army spokeswoman at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. As production increases, the cost per shell could be cut in half, she said. "Excalibur is a very big deal," Krepinevich said. "It is long overdue." Soldiers fired the first Excalibur shells in Iraq in May 2007 to root out insurgents from Baqouba in volatile Diyala province. The shells, fired from more than 10 miles away, destroyed targets such as insurgents planting makeshift bombs, a rooftop machine gun position and a sniper team, said Maj. Evan Gotkin of the Arrowhead Stryker brigade. Gotkin said that last year, two snipers in a building in Baqouba shot a soldier's helmet, and the soldier survived. Minutes after calling Scharstein's battery, an Excalibur shell destroyed the roof of the building and killed the sniper team. "It allowed us to destroy everyone inside or on top of the building and then walk in," Gotkin said, adding that there were no civilian casualties.

War Widows on Film
The New York Times’ Tim Arango reports on an upcoming documentary about war widows, titled “American Widow Project,”. The filmmaker is Taryn Davis, who became a 21-year-old widow on May 21, 2007, when her husband, Cpl. Michael W. Davis of the Army, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. She began shooting the film several months after Michael’s death. (The 75-minute documentary will be available online from americanwidowproject.org next month; a preview of it can be seen on YouTube.) Recalling the days after her husband died, Ms. Davis said: “I was basically on the Internet for 14 hours a day looking for resources. I wanted facts, and I wanted reality. I started looking and couldn’t find anything, and I realized that what I needed was another widow to come to my house.” From September until April, Ms. Davis, who lives in San Marcos, Tex., hopscotched the country with a camera, filming interviews with other young war widows. The project spawned a nonprofit organization that is a resource for the newly widowed, the American Widow Project, and the Web site and Myspace page that serve as online support groups, where widows post wedding pictures and photos of displays they have erected in their homes to house dog tags and medals. They also share stories and tips — for example, how to turn the dead soldier’s clothing into “gallery style” art to hang on the wall. There are two other big organizations for the families of soldiers killed at war — Gold Star Wives of America and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors — but they are more focused on legislative and social service issues, Ms. Davis said. Her aim is to distribute the documentary to new war widows and widowers within the first two weeks of receiving the news of their spouse’s death, not just to share stories but also to give practical information: like when to expect the body to be flown home, what to do with personal items and how to plan a funeral. Ms. Davis said she wanted to make her film “because I knew that there would be other women in my shoes who would want to hear it.”

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

Daily Column
Prominant ministry official killed, Iraqi AP cameraman released from US custody
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/24/2008 01:00 AM ET
With few Sunday editions, and the Washington Post without any Iraq coverage, the New York Times is our only customer. Prominent themes today: safety for Iraqis and the not-always-pleasant experiences of the people covering it.

From Baghdad
Sabrina Tavernise has a piece on the front page of the New York Times entitled “Fear Keeps Iraqis Out of Their Baghdad Homes”, in which she conveys the complexity of present-day Iraq. Though relative stability has settled over Baghdad, neighborhoods vary widely, and sectarian divisions are far from reconciled. Internally displaced Iraqis have been returning to their homes, but Iraqi government officials’ triumphant announcements of this are a little simplified, and a little deceiving. Tavernise doesn’t give a dumbed-down account of what faces the returning families, or lump Iraqis into a few simplified groups, for which she deserves credit. (The inclusion of the sentence “In the patchwork of today’s Iraq, there are many exceptions.” placed after some explanation of the general situation, gets her points in my book.) Out of the more than 151,000 families who had fled their houses in Baghdad, just 7,112 had returned to them by mid-July, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Migration. Many of the displaced remain in Baghdad, just in different areas. In one neighborhood alone, Amiriya, in western Baghdad, there are 8,350 displaced families, more than the total number of families who have returned to their houses in all of Baghdad. In most cases, Iraqis say they feel safe with their own neighbors, but are not sure about other residents. Some are afraid of the new guards on their blocks. For now, returning families in many areas are still a trickle, indicating that even though sectarian killings seem to have ended, the distrust they sowed lingers. And while most Iraqis are trying hard to put the ugliness of the past behind them, moving their children back to areas where killings once raged is the ultimate act of trust that many parents — at least so far — seem to be unwilling to risk. Most Iraqis interviewed for the article agreed to be identified only by their first name, if that’s any indication. One is a Shiite named Jabbar whose neighborhood was scattered with leaflets in 2006 that told Shiites to leave or “we will use swords to cut your necks.” Within days, the area was unlivable, and the family escaped. Security improved, and this spring Jabbar began to look into moving back. His wife visited their house with a female friend first. Women, seen as less threatening, often carry out such tasks in dangerous areas. She returned with the good news that the furniture was still there, but... a young man from the local Awakening Council, the new Sunni group paid by the American military to guard the neighborhood, told her that he knew her sons, and asked how she was going to protect them. When the family visited the house several weeks later, all that remained was an old VCR. Jabbar had no proof, but he suspected the young Sunni guards on his block had taken the rest. “The street was empty except for them,” Jabbar said. A short time later, two Shiites were killed a few blocks away. Then, a Sunni renting a relative's house received a threatening letter. When he told the neighborhood guards about it, they asked him to prove his Sunni identity and then told him to disregard the letter. “From that moment, I felt I could not go back to my house again,” he said. Iraq has come a long way since 2006. People are moving relatively freely between neighborhoods, driving to work, visiting old friends and picking up food stamps (when available) in areas where the other sect lives. Some Iraqis say the trouble facing returning families has more to do with simple economics than sectarian prejudice. A retired Sunni civil servant named Qais said the city’s new concrete walls and sectarian separations might be ugly but were the ultimate guarantee of his family’s safety. Qais says he has little faith in the Iraqi government resolving the problem, and he is now trying to sell his house. But as a Sunni, he is in a weak position to bargain. “The area is Shiite now,” he said. “When they learn I am Sunni, the price will fall.”

Erica Goode continues the New York Times' Iraq coverage with a story about the killing of a top official in the Ministry of Culture, Kamal Shyaa Abdullah, as he drove through the streets of Baghdad on Saturday. Also, the release of an Iraqi Associated Press cameraman who has been held by US forces for almost three months. Mr. Abdullah, 54, was killed by gunmen as he and his driver headed down the highway toward a public garden where they had planned to relax in the hottest hours of the afternoon. Akil al-Mendlawi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Culture, said that Mr. Abdullah, a well-known scholar and a member of the Communist Party, had become friends with Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki when both men were in exile in Syria. Mr. Abdullah’s promotion to deputy minister had been approved, and Mr. Maliki was expected to sign papers confirming his appointment within days. She also includes the news that U.S. military officials released Ahmed Nouri Raziak, an Iraqi cameraman working for The Associated Press. Maj. John C. Hall, an American military spokesman, said that Mr. Raziak had been believed to be a security risk, but was released when “after review, he was determined not to pose a risk.” Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the A.P., said in a statement that the news agency “will be seeking more specific information about why he was picked up and held and about his experience during his incarceration.” In other news, violence also erupted on Saturday in the city of Kirkuk, where a suicide bombing killed at least five people and wounded at least seven, including Abdul Kareem Ahmed al-Obaydi, a prominent member of the American-backed Sunni forces known as Awakening Councils. The suicide bombing is the second in Kirkuk since last weekend. In Baghdad, officials at the Justice Ministry said that a court had issued a death sentence for Asad al-Hashimi, a former culture minister who was convicted for the 2005 murders of two sons of a well-known politician. Mr. Hashimi, a member of one of the parties in Tawafiq, the largest Sunni bloc in Parliament, has been a fugitive since last year.

Books
As a preview, the Times Magazine publishes an extensive excerpt from Dexter Filkins’ new book “The Forever War”. Filkins covered Iraq for The Times from 2003 to 2006 (and had a story from Baghdad as recently as Thursday). To judge from what has been included, it should be very interesting and informative for anyone interested in Iraq (and an especially enjoyable read for other journos who have spent time in Iraq over the past five years). It begins in the much less threatening days of 2003, with Filkins deciding to go for a jog along the Tigris, down Baghdad’s famed Abu Nawas Street. He was joined by a young boy, running at his side. Filkins writes that, a few days later, while on another jog, “the same boy appeared again, picking up the trail along the Tigris. His name, he said, was Hassan. We ran together for a while, me in my running shoes, he in his bare feet. Hassan motioned across the Tigris, toward the sprawling compound that once housed Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace and that was now the headquarters of the American occupation. The Green Zone. ‘Saddam house,’ he said in English. We ran together some more, and Hassan motioned again across the river. ‘Now, Bush house’.” Like much pertaining to Iraq, it runs the gambit from charming to very, very grim. The following is from when he and photographer Ashley Gilbertson were embedded with U.S. marines, in the fierce fighting of Falluja in November of 2004. Just after an insurgent was killed by marines, he and Gilbertson wanted a photo. “And so with the fighting over, it seemed as if finding that body was the thing to do. I was a reporter, and I needed a corpse for the newspaper. Ashley asked Capt. Read Omohundro, Bravo’s commander, and he gave us a dozen guys. They liked us now; we had been through hell with them, seen their buddies die. They wanted to help us.” Filkins continues,” Ash and I moved to go through the door, and a pair of marines stepped in front of us. We’ll go first, they said. The first marine put his hand out. I didn’t get a look at them, maybe a sidelong glance of the first guy, and they bounded up the stairs. Ashley with his camera fell in behind them, and I behind Ashley.” “The shot was loud inside the staircase, and I couldn’t see much, because the second marine was falling backward, falling onto Ashley, who fell onto me. Warm liquid spattered on my face. The three of us tumbled backward out the doorway. The second marine, although bloodied, was not hit. The first marine was stuck, maybe three-quarters of the way up the stairway. The shot had come from farther up the stairs. A very loud shot. Then tumbling and screaming and quiet. The guy who had fired was in the minaret, at the top of the stairs, sitting up there. ‘Miller!’ the marines shouted. ‘Miller!’ No answer. I tried to imagine him up there, Miller, foot stuck in the stairwell in some odd way that prevented him from falling like the rest of us. Unable, for some reason, to speak. Ashley was sitting on the stoop beside the entrance to the minaret mumbling to himself. His back was turned to the tower, and his helmet was on crooked so he looked especially vulnerable. His shoulders were heaving. My fault, he was saying, my fault. There was blood and bits of white flesh on his face and on his flak jacket and on his camera lens. My fault.” “The Forever War,” is to be published by Knopf next month.

Wall Street Journal, no Iraq coverage.

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

Daily Column
Contractors further woes: CIA denies claims made in a book, again
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/23/2008 01:50 AM ET
Google Earth image/IraqSlogger.com.
The day after the big SOFA announcements, along with a few strong stories about how the Iraq Army is facing the security situation in Iraq, there isn’t a whole lot to choose from, especially since it is Saturday. Still, everyone who published had at least something. No original coverage from Iraq at all, but some interesting stuff from the U.S.

SOFA News
Michael Abramowitz from the Washington Post reports that the insistence by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to set a timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal was a key factor in the Bush administration’s stark shift in policy apparently needed to get to the present stage in drafting a status of forces agreement. There isn’t really much in the story that isn’t a recap of yesterday’s news, and it’s nothing that will surprise too many people, but there’s some needed, if somewhat obvious, analysis. For two years, President Bush successfully resisted efforts to set a timeline to withdraw troops from Iraq. But in recent months, pressure from Iraqi politicians appears to have proved too much for the commander in chief. As part of an accord governing the future U.S. presence in Iraq, American and Iraqi negotiators have agreed to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, officials said this week. The Iraqis wanted 2010 to be the "aspirational" date for a U.S. withdrawal but, ultimately, settled on the following year. Still, it may not mean all that much, since White House officials emphasize that the target date of 2011 is "conditions based," meaning it can be rescinded if a future president and Iraqi leader agree that U.S. troops are needed to maintain stability. At any rate, the increasing assertiveness of Maliki, after recent effectiveness of Iraqi security forces, was apparently a brick wall in negotiations. Maliki, who faces a reelection bid next year, has been under pressure at home to show distance from Washington and to demonstrate that the U.S. military presence is coming to an end. Colin H. Kahl, a Georgetown University professor who has been following the negotiations while advising the Obama campaign on Iraq, said that with Iraqi security forces "beginning to find their feet," Maliki has been bargaining harder with the Americans. "The Iraqis had more leverage over us," Kahl said. "The fact of the matter is the Iraqis demanded some timeline for our departure, and the Bush administration acceded to their demands." Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations said, “This isn't what the administration was expecting when they went into the process of negotiating these agreements." He added, "Any successful politician in Iraq is going to have to run as a nationalist. The one surefire path to success is to say, 'Yankee, go home.' "

The Wall Street Journal’s August Cole reports that foreign contractors operating in Iraq on behalf of the U.S. could be forced to reorganize the way they do business after a deal with the Baghdad government stands to strip them of immunity from local laws. As in the previous Post article, there’s no breaking developments, but it gives a good understanding of where things stand now, and has some interesting quotes. Immunity from local courts is one of the factors that had permitted the contractors -- which do everything from protect U.S. officials to supply forces with food and fuel -- to swell their ranks and become a pillar of support to the U.S. military there. But the prospect of being held accountable in local courts could lead to higher insurance costs, greater legal uncertainty and difficulties in recruiting workers from abroad, according to industry officials. Such contractors in Iraq have effectively been immune from local law under a provision known as CPA Order 17 that dates back to the U.S. turnover of sovereignty to the Iraqi government in June 2004. But U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have reached an agreement on a security deal for American military forces that provides a framework for a continued presence there and replaces a United Nations mandate that expires at year end. Most contractors work on supplying U.S. forces as part of a for-hire logistics chain that relies heavily on Iraqis and draws in workers from around the world, often because they are paid less. The U.S. Defense Department has almost 150,000 contractors in Iraq, about 63,000 of whom are Iraqis. Security contractors are a smaller subset, but much more politically contentious in Iraq and in the U.S. The prospect of entering Iraq's legal system is one that most foreign contractors dread. Because details of the arrangement are still emerging, the companies still don't know exactly what type of legal situation they will be operating under. "Westerners are very concerned about not having any kind of guaranteed access of Western-style legal due process," said Lawrence Peter, head of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq in Baghdad, which counts more than 40 foreign and local companies among its members. Lee Van Arsdale, chief executive of the security company Triple Canopy Inc., some of whose employees guard Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, said he had always expected that the exemption would end. "My own personal opinion was that immunity turned into impunity, and that was bad for the entire industry," said Mr. Van Arsdale.

Books in the News
Joby Warrick of the Washington Post reports that the CIA more fully denies claims of deception about Iraq, made in Ron Suskind’s best-selling book, “The Way of the World”. Suskind contends that the White House learned in early 2003 that the Iraqi president no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction but went to war regardless. Suskind wrote that the information was passed to British and U.S. intelligence officials in secret meetings with Tahir Habbush, Iraq's spy chief at the time. Moreover, in an allegation that implies potentially criminal acts by administration officials, the author wrote that White House officials ordered a forgery to influence public opinion about the war. The book contends that the CIA paid Habbush $5 million and resettled him in Jordan after the war. Then, it says, in late 2003, the White House ordered the CIA to enlist Habbush's help in concocting a fake letter that purported to show that Iraq helped train Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian-born al-Qaeda terrorist who led the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Such a letter surfaced in Iraq in December 2003, but its authenticity quickly came into question. The CIA and White House denied Suskind's account when the book was first released. But yesterday, the CIA issued a more extensive rebuttal based on what the agency called an internal investigation involving a records search and interviews with junior and senior officers who were directly involved in the agency's Iraq operations at the time. As for the claim that the White House ordered the CIA to forge a letter, the agency said: "It did not happen." Suskind, whose claims are now the subject of two congressional investigations, yesterday continued to stand by his book and accused the CIA and White House of orchestrating a smear campaign. "It's the same old stuff," said Suskind, who said his findings are supported by hours of interviews, some of them taped. "There's not a shred of doubt about any of it."

Max Rodenbeck reviews Kenneth M. Pollack’s new book, “A Path out of the Desert” in the New York Times. Rodenbeck praises Pollack for his general description of the problems in the Middle East, especially how the Iraq war was handled by the Bush administration. Where he falls short, says Rodenbeck, is the solutions don’t all hold water. Also, he writes, “It would have been nice, for instance, had Pollack himself thought harder before arguing, in scholarly papers and his widely read 2002 book, ‘The Threatening Storm,’ that America had 'no choice' but to invade Iraq. That ostensibly sober appraisal, coming from a former C.I.A. analyst, Clinton official and self-described liberal, arguably added more gravitas to the shrill cries for war than any other voice. Pollack has long since confessed to having been wrong about Iraq. ‘A Path Out of the Desert’ includes other mea culpas. 'There has been far too little asking the people of the region themselves what they thought and what they wanted,' he ruminates at one point, though the book offers slim evidence of his having pursued this advice. While the administration that Pollack served gets some light wrist-slapping, it is the following eight years of Bush policy that he calls 'breathtakingly arrogant, ignorant and reckless.' Many of Pollack’s other judgments are as sound as is this criticism of the Bush administration. Since most of the post-cold-war world has stabilized, democratized and prospered, it is probably correct to suggest, as he does, that America should commit itself to helping the messy Middle East come up to par.” Still, how to do it is the question that Rodenbeck wants a convincing answer to. Don’t we all.

Christian Science Monitor,USA Today no Saturday Editions.
Daily Column
Rice and Zebari hold press conference: Iraq Army goes after Awakening Councils
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/22/2008 01:55 AM ET
Google Earth image/IraqSlogger.com.
The story of the hour is undoubtedly the surprise visit to Iraq by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the announcement of a draft of the Status of Forces Agreement being at hand.

SOFA Draft
According to Iraqi and American officials involved in negotiating a security accord governing American forces' presence in Iraq, the United States has agreed to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by next June and from the rest of the country by the end of 2011, if conditions in Iraq remain relatively stable. There are still not many specifics, but Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who gave a joint press conference with Secretary Rice in Baghdad on Thursday, said both sides were "very, very close to closing" the deal. A few things have come to light. One is the tentative date of 2011 for the pullout of U.S. troops, apparently a concession by the Iraqi negotiators, who are reported to have been previously pushing for a 2010 or even a 2009 withdrawal. It should be noted that the withdrawal timetables are being called “aspirational goals” rather than fixed dates by the Bush administration. American officials also repeatedly stressed that meeting the timetables depended on the security situation in Iraq. ” Secretary Rice reiterated, “We have always said that the roles, missions and size of the American forces here, the coalition forces, was based on the conditions on the ground and what is needed.” Mohammad Hamoud, the chief Iraqi negotiator, said that the draft contained two dates: June 30, 2009, for the withdrawal of American forces from “cities and villages” and Dec. 31, 2011, for combat troops to leave the country altogether. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh and Ali Adeeb, a close aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki provided similar information. Iraqi officials, not all of whom are happy with the 2011 date for the United States to end its military operations, could also end up rejecting the draft agreement. Al-Dabbagh said that Iraqi officials told Rice the "U.S. needs to be more flexible (and) needs to respect Iraqi sovereignty." The 23 page draft still must be approved by Prime Minister al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders before it goes before Iraq’s Parliament. Even if the goal of withdrawing combat troops by 2011 is realized, the accord does leave open the possibility that American military trainers and support forces could remain in Iraq for some time. Which and how many bases would remain in operation, as well as the continued levels of air support were not specified. On the sticky point of whether U.S. servicemen in Iraq would continue to have immunity from being prosecuted in Iraqi courts, Mr. Hamoud said that the accord would make a distinction between American troops who were on duty and off duty, and on base and off base, but he did not provide further details. American officials declined to confirm that account. Iraqi officials also stated that as part of any final draft, U.S. bases in Iraq would not be used as a launching point for an American military attack on one of its neighbors. The story was covered by everybody, except for the Christian Science Monitor, who seems to have forgotten that Iraq exists. Even with the limited amount of information being handed out to reporters, all did a good job. Stephen Farrell of the New York Times and Karen DeYoung and Sudarsan Raghavan at the Washington Post give the most thorough articles. Though USA Today’s Charles Levinson and the Wall Street Journal’s Gina Chon wrote more concise pieces, any reader at all familiar with the topic should get about the same level of understanding from each. Chon addresses the hurdles the draft will face in the Iraqi Parliament more prominently than the rest. Quotes vary a bit, but not much, since officials aren't giving a whole heck of a lot of specifics. As Rice said, "We'll have an agreement when we have an agreement."
*Note: The complete transcript from Thursday’s joint press conference in Baghdad by Secretaries Rice and Zebari was posted Thursday on Iraqslogger.

Related Articles
The Wall Street Journal’s Yochi J. Dreazen seems to have incorporated the SOFA developments into an article she was working on from Basra about some of the recent successes of the Iraqi Army, saying that those successes are what made an agreement which includes a timetable for U.S. withdrawal possible. The focus of the story is Brig. General Sabah Fadhil Motar al-Azawi, the commander of the 26th Brigade of the Seventh Iraqi Army Division, who are credited with helping chase militants from Ramadi and wrest control of Basra from the once-feared Mahdi Army. Now, Dreazen says, its helping to push the U.S. out of Iraq. She points out several factors that have helped bring a withdrawal deal closer, all stemming from the Iraqi Army’s growing effectiveness. An interesting tidbit that Dreazen brings up to illustrate the point is that when Georgia unexpectedly recalled its 2,000-soldier contingent to fight the Russians, it was Iraqis, not Americans, who replaced them. British Maj. Gen. Barney White-Spunner, the top U.K. commander in Basra said "The difference now is that it's us supporting them and not the other way around.” Though reporters have been hearing that from U.S. commanders for years, there seems to be a new confidence in the Iraqi Army that even some Iraqis are beginning to accept.

The Journal continues its coverage from back in the states, with Nick Timiraos writing that the SOFA draft is likely to bring presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama’s positions on the Iraq war closer, or to “stake a middle ground between troop-withdrawal goals” each candidate has been pushing. Timiraos sites polls which indicate that, for many voters, the importance of the war in Iraq is slipping below issues like the economy. Still, both candidates are likely to have plenty to say about it. "Their policy preferences are certainly narrowing," says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The Obama desire to get out and the McCain desire to succeed could be coming together in the form of an ability to get out while succeeding."

In Other News
A story that would’ve (and should’ve) gotten bigger billing (were it not trumped by the glitz of the SOFA news) is the New York Times’ Richard A. Oppel Jr. reporting from Baghdad on the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq driving out many leaders of Sunni citizen patrols, known as the Sahwa, or Awakening councils. The groups, which consist of many former insurgents in mostly Sunni-dominated areas, are on the American payroll and have been a major pillar in the decline in violence around the nation. In Diyala Province, Unites States and Iraqi military officials say there were orders to arrest hundreds of members of the Awakening movement as part of large security operations by the Iraqi military. West of Baghdad, Awakening leaders contend that the Iraqi military is going after 650 of its members, many of whom have fled the once-violent area they had kept safe. While the crackdown appears to be focused on a relatively small number of leaders whom the Iraqi government considers the most dangerous, there are influential voices to dismantle the American backed movement entirely. “The state cannot accept the Awakening,” said Sheik Jalaladeen al-Sagheer, a leading Shiite member of Parliament. “Their days are numbered.” In recent months, Awakening council leaders have been organizing in an attempt to turn their American support and popularity among many Iraqis into a political movement with significant clout. The question of whether Awakening councils are a legitimate force or just a militia cooperating with American forces for the moment because they are being paid is a tough one to answer, and Oppel spells it out as clearly as anybody. The government’s rising hostility toward the Awakening Councils amounts to a bet that its military, feeling increasingly strong, can provide security in former guerrilla strongholds without the support of these former Sunni fighters who once waged devastating attacks on United States and Iraqi targets. It also is occurring as Awakening members are increasingly eager to translate their influence and organization on the ground into political power. Beneath it all is mistrust between the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister al-Maliki and the Sunni-dominated Awakening councils. The Awakening began in western Anbar Province in 2006 as the violence in Iraq peaked and Sunni tribal leaders began feeling pressure from all sides, and then spread around the country as a means of Sunni self-preservation. The United States military focused its operations on Sunni insurgent groups, cooperating meantime with the Shiite-led government. The bodies of dozens of Sunnis surfaced on streets every morning, the victims of Shiite death squads. And many Sunnis themselves grew disgusted with the large number of civilian casualties in near-daily suicide bombings. The recent developments are causing a rift between the Iraqi government and the American military, which contends that any significant diminution of the Awakening could result in renewed violence, jeopardizing the substantial security gains in the past year. United States commanders say that the practice, however unconventional, of paying the guerrillas has paid off. “If it is not handled properly, we could have a security issue,” said Brig. Gen. David Perkins, the senior military spokesman in Iraq. “You don’t want to give anybody a reason to turn back to Al Qaeda.” Many Sunni insurgents had previously been allied with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other extremist groups. After one Awakening leader discovered his name on lists of 650 names that an Iraqi Army brigade was using to arrest Awakening members west of Baghdad, he fled south of Falluja. His men, he said, “sacrificed and fought against Al Qaeda, and now the government wants to catch them and arrest them.” Says Brig. General Nassir al-Hiti, commander of the Iraqi Army’s Muthanna Brigade, “These people are like cancer, and we must remove them.” It’s an article definitely worth reading in its entirety.

Opinion
The Wall Street Journal’s “Review and Outlook” section gives a short but adamant nod to General David Petraeus, saying that his “tenure in Iraq draws to a close at the end of the month, and it's a measure of his success that he is departing to far less political fanfare than when his tour began.” Central Command is lucky to be getting him, they say.

Also in the Wall Street Journal, Michael A. Cohen and Maria Küpçü, both senior research fellows at the New America Foundation, argue that U.S. contractors shouldn’t face Iraqi criminal courts. They begin the piece, “Nearly a year after the tragic shooting of 17 Iraqis by Blackwater security contractors, the Department of Justice is close to indicting six of the guards involved in the horrific events. This is a long overdue step toward holding contractors legally responsible for their actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this positive move risks being overshadowed by a more destabilizing development: the apparent agreement, as part of U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement negotiations, to revoke the immunity from Iraqi law that private security contractors have enjoyed since 2003. This decision could place diplomats, Iraqi civilians and PSCs at greater risk, and undermine the U.S. mission in Iraq. More must be done to hold security contractors accountable for their actions -- but this is not the way to do it.” They write that the possibility of being thrown in an Iraqi prison will likely keep many of the more professional security contractors from working in Iraq, and that they would be replaced by less-equipped and poorly-trained replacements from third-world countries. The answer, they say, is the appointment of an “extraterritorial U.S. attorney to prosecute potential criminal violations,” and support a bill which would place “State Department contractors under the jurisdiction of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act and create an office of enforcement in the FBI to investigate alleged contractor offences”. It may make sense on the American side, but it doesn’t address, or even mention, the huge concerns of the Iraqi population and its lawmakers on this issue.

Christian Science Monitor, no Iraq coverage.
Daily Column
Petraeus on pulling out: The U.N. on fixing Kirkuk
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/21/2008 01:55 AM ET
Google Earth image/IraqSlogger.com.
Plenty of Iraq news today, with the New York Times far in front of the pack. The big headline is of an agreement between Iraqi and U.S. officials on a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, but read the fine print (or lack thereof). General David Petraeus is the day's most-quoted person. The U.N., reconstruction book-cooking, and al-Qaeda propaganda difficulties all make appearances.

From Baghdad
Gina Chon and Yochi J. Dreazen of the Wall Street Journal and Stephen Farrell and Thom Shanker of the New York Times both break the story that, according to senior American officials, U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have reached agreement on a long awaited security deal. It reportedly calls for American forces to leave Iraq’s cities by next summer, as a prelude to a full withdrawal from the country. Everything is far from cut-and-dry though, as one would expect (including exactly what “leave Iraq’s cities” means). The Wall Street Journal version has more details, but the more details there are, the less convincing the whole thing sounds. If you want something to celebrate, stop at the headline. As of Wednesday night, the terms were still very unclear, and the deal’s final status will likely remain unsettled at least a few more weeks, according to Chon and Dreazen. Negotiating is reported to be finished, and all that is left is for President Bush, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the Iraqi Parliament to sign off. "The talking is done," one U.S. official said. "Now the decision makers choose whether to give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down." Complications exist on both sides, though. There are grumblings from members of the Iraqi parliament, which, in any case, is in recess until the end of next month (calling into question the possibility of settling things in the next few weeks). On the U.S. side, President Bush is expected to accept the agreement, according to U.S. officials, but expect some hullabaloo about the administration’s contention that the deal doesn’t require congressional approval. According to Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Haj Humood, the draft agreement sets 2011 as the date by which all remaining U.S. troops will leave Iraq. While reading these two stories, one starts to wonder exactly what has been resolved. Negotiators were tight-lipped throughout the process, and are continuing to be so about whatever deal was hammered out, and about how much hammering is really left to do. We know that the U.S. negotiators gave in on immunity for contractors, after incidents involving security guards from companies like Blackwater led to the deaths of Iraqi civilians and to much popular fury in Iraq. The question of whether U.S. servicemen would enjoy immunity from Iraqi law was a sticking point, and it seems that a real consensus wasn’t quite reached, or at least not a clear one. The Journal reports that Minister Hamood said joint committees of U.S. and Iraqi officials will be formed to resolve such issues when cases arise, while the Times has both Hamood and Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, declining to say whether the draft addressed immunity for American servicemen or even a timeline for a withdrawal of troops. The Bush administration has changed their tune on timelines since Prime Minister al-Maliki’s insistence in the past several weeks on what the Journal’s article calls “at least a vague timetable”. It seems he got one. According to the Times, Gordon D. Johndroe, a White House spokesman, would say only that an agreement was not final yet, adding: “The improved security in Iraq allows us to have conversations with the Iraqis about setting goals for more American troops to come home and for the Iraqis to take the lead in more combat missions. Any dates in an agreement will be based on conditions on the ground because we do not want to lose the hard-fought gains of the surge.” The piece continues with quotes by General David Petraeus, and explains how the both the “surge” and Petraeus’ general counterinsurgency strategy have improved the situation in Iraq. For his own part, Petraeus said that no one is "giving each other high-fives." Although extremist groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq and rogue Shiite militias have been weakened, he said, they could gain strength again. Well, let’s see what emerges in the coming days, weeks, and months.

The New York Times’ Dexter Filkins also got an interview with General Petraeus, and wrote a pretty darn thorough article focusing on his tenure. He is painted as a bit weary after the last 18 months (recently, he scaled back his punishing daily workouts to three a week), but he comes across as still kicking and as clear-minded as ever. The effect his leadership is thought to have had in Iraq is gone over in detail, and starkly contrasts the Iraq of February 2007 with the present-day improvements in security. Among other points made, Petraeus said that dismantling Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia took away the rationale for the Mahdi Army. “As the Al Qaeda threat is gradually degraded, the reason for the militia is no longer there." That, in turn, helped civilians in both communities who wanted to join the government or cooperate with the security forces. And that allowed the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister al-Maliki to purge the ranks of the state security services of sectarian killers, and finally take on Mr. Sadr’s militia. All good, General Petraeus suggested, as long as it lasts. “You’re either spiraling downward,” he said, “or you’re spiraling upward.”

Stephen Farrell of the New York Times reports that the U.N. is preparing a “Grand deal” to resolve Iraq’s dispute over Kirkuk, not the easiest problem to solve. The proposal will reflect months of research by a diverse team of 15 lawyers, negotiators, academics, diplomats and historians, some with experience in Bosnia, Israel and the Palestinian territories (if that’s good news). Staffan de Mistura, the United Nation’s special representative for Iraq, said that its assistance mission for Iraq would present proposals by the end of October. The objective, he said, was “a grand deal” among the Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Yazidis, and other groups now passionately pressing their claims in the area. Mr. de Mistura and other United Nations officials refused to say whether the recommendations would involve shifting populations from one place to another or redrawing provincial and regional boundaries, because the disputes have aroused too many passions among the competing ethnic and sectarian groups. As an initial step in June, the United Nations mission presented a report to Iraq’s Presidency Council on four areas: Akra, Hamdaniya, Mahmour and Mandali. These are regarded as among the least vexing of more than a dozen disputed regions in the north. (Others include Tal Afar, Sinjar, Khanaqin and Kifri.) Peter Bartu, a senior political adviser to Mr. de Mistura, said, however, that “there have been no easy places.” For some recent background on how easy to solve Kirkuk’s problems are, check out Richard A. Oppel Jr.’s article in Tuesday’s New York Times, which, it should be mentioned, begins with a U.N. official calling a Kurdish security commander in Kirkuk, asking him if it was true that Kurdish pesh merga had taken control of the city.

New York Times coverage continues with Campbell Robertson and James Glanz offering that Iraqi internal budget figures provided by the Iraqi government suggest that it has spent as little as 18 percent of the money it has devoted to rebuilding the country this year, roughly in line with previous estimates by American oversight agencies, but far below the amount cited by the Iraqi government itself. Despite petrodollars rolling in and hefty American expenditures on rebuilding the nation, the people largely aren’t seeing their cities rebuilt, nor their services restored. Robertson and Glanz report that this month, the United States Government Accountability Office said that, in 2007, Iraq spent only 28 percent of its reconstruction budget and could finish this year with a cumulative budget surplus of as much as $79 billion. A large piece of that surplus is sitting in an American bank in New York, collecting interest from the United States. Iraqi Finance Ministry officials provided the new figures to the New York Times in the hope of countering that criticism, saying they spent 57 percent of their annual reconstruction budget in the first half of 2008 — a clear sign of improvement. But when the definitions in the accountability office’s report are applied to those figures, the picture changes substantially. In fact, the rate of spending is less than a third of the rate claimed by Iraqi officials. For an example of how the press releases don't necessarily reflect what is really happening, though $231 million in reconstruction money has officially been spent by the Electricity Ministry, none of it has actually gone out the door. The number-crunching is explained as well as one could ask for. It isn’t exactly light summer reading, but getting an understanding of how reconstruction works, and doesn’t work, is obviously of great importance to anyone who really wants to understand what is going on in Iraq.

From Washington
Jim Michaels from USA Today covers al-Qaeda’s growing inability to effectively produce battlefield propaganda, in the form of web statements, videos, training films, propaganda fliers, and instruction manuals in Iraq. This is attributed to military successes throughout much of the country, and it is reportedly crippling al-Qaeda-allied groups’ attempts to recruit members and raise funds. Air Force Col. Scott Maw, a U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, described al-Qaeda's propaganda operations in Iraq as "severely degraded." Last month, operations directed against propaganda cells in Iraq resulted in the killing or capture of 11 cell members and the seizure of more than 800 gigabytes of data, Maw said. The decline in violence and reduction in publicity material are said to have moderated the way Iraq is covered on Arab news stations, such as Al-Jazeera. Terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda have proved resourceful in the past and have quickly adapted to setbacks, however. To rain on the parade, while insurgent publicity material linked to Iraq has been declining, the Taliban in Afghanistan has been increasing its presence on the Web in recent months.

Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, no Iraq coverage.
Daily Column
Man fired after speaking about conditions for wounded soldiers: China's oil deal
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/20/2008 01:55 AM ET
Google Earth image/IraqSlogger.com.
Not a heavy day of Iraq coverage, but there's some stories worth reading. The storming of Diyala's provincial headquarters adds fuel to the sectarian flame, China gets a piece of the pie in oil-rich Iraq, and a worker is forced out of his job after telling USA Today about unsanitary conditions at a unit for wounded US servicemen. Also, we hear counter-insults from Senators Obama and McCain.

From Baghdad
The New York Times heads off today’s coverage with a story by Campbell Robertson and Riyadh Mohammed about an investigation ordered by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into an incident on Tuesday in which Iraqi security forces raided the Diyala provincial headquarters in Baquba. One official in the building at the time of the raid was killed and another is under arrest. In the Washington Post, Zaid Sabah and Sudarsan Raghavan also cover the story with some good quotes, but in much less depth. During the raid, Iraqi forces burst into the building to arrest Husain al-Zubaidi, the Sunni head of the security committee on the Diyala provincial council, but ended up firing at a federal lawmaker and later engaging in a 30-minute gun battle with the local police. Reminiscent of the sectarian attacks once carried out regularly by Shiite-dominated security forces, Maliki’s swift response reflected fears that the incident could inflame sectarian tensions in Diyala and throughout Iraq. The prime minister ordered the formation of a joint committee to investigate the raid, to be made up of officials from the ministries of interior and defense, as well as a judge from the Supreme Judiciary Council. Salim Abdullah Jubori, a lawmaker and the spokesman for Tawafiq, the largest Sunni bloc in Parliament, said in a statement that he held the prime minister personally responsible for the raid, which he described as “militias diverting the operation to carry out a political agenda.” Robertson and Mohammed report that “It is still unclear who ordered the raid. Some witnesses, both Sunni and Shiite Muslim, said that some of the troops told witnesses during the operation that they were 'the dirty division' and were acting on behalf of Prime Minister al-Maliki, who leads a Shiite-dominated government. Several security officials identified them as a special antiterrorism force.” Members of the Diyala provincial council, at a news conference, condemned the raid and announced that they were suspending any meetings until those involved were brought to justice. According to Lt. Mohammed al-Tamimi, security commander at the compound, they told the guards that they were on a mission ordered by the prime minister, and that nearby Iraqi and American forces should be told to hold their fire. Several Diyala police officials said that American helicopters were hovering overhead during the raid. An American military spokesman acknowledged that helicopters were in the area but said the operation “was done without the knowledge or assistance of coalition forces.” The article continues with mention of a father and his adult son being killed by American troops in the northern town of Makhmour, when their car did not slow down as it approached a US convoy. Also, an American soldier was killed at a base near the southeastern city of Amara in a rocket attack.

In the Times, Campbell Robertson also covers a rare thing of late: something to do with China that isn’t related to the Olympics. The Iraqi government is on the verge of reviving an 11-year-old contract with China worth $1.2 billion, its largest oil deal since the invasion in 2003, according to an Oil Ministry official. Unlike the agreement reached between China and Iraq in 1997, which included production-sharing rights, the new one is a service contract, under which China would be paid for its work at the Ahdab oil field southeast of Baghdad but would not be a partner in the profits. Hussein al-Shahristani, Iraq’s oil minister, is currently in Poland to study its oil industry, and will be in China within the week. An anonymous ministry official said that al-Shahristani is expected to complete the negotiations then. The continuation of a contract dating back to the reign of Saddam Hussein has its critics, but it seems to be to each country’s mutual benefit. A similar deal with Russia’s Lukoil that Saddam’s government made and later revoked is not being revived. “Concerning the Russian contract, the former regime had signed it for political reasons and canceled it for political reasons, too,” Mr. Shahristani said. “This oil field will be put up for transparent public competition.” When completed, the oil field that is to be developed by China is expected to produce around 90,000 barrels a day, and to supply a planned power station.

Stateside
USA Today’s Gregg Zaroya continues the story about poor conditions in a unit for wounded soldiers at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. An Army social services coordinator named Chuck Roeder who spoke to USA Today about the conditions at Fort Sill, mostly mold infestation, has been forced out of his job. Roeder, a retired soldier, said he was told to resign or he would be fired. Roeder's departure Friday directly followed his contact with USA Today. According to Col. Sam White, an executive officer at Fort Sill, it was purely coincidental. Hmmmm. Zaroya’s original story from Monday has the background.

From the Campaign Trail
Shailagh Murray of the Washington Post (in its sole Iraq coverage for the day) writes about the latest bickering about Iraq policy by Barack Obama and John McCain. You know the arguments about continuing President Bush’s mistake and “paths of retreat and failure”, but it’s getting personal now. McCain recently charged that beneath Obama’s views on pulling US troops out of Iraq “lies the ambition to be president”. Today, at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Orlando, Obama struck back, reaffirming his patriotism and saying "The times are too serious for this kind of politics." Expect more to come.

Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, no Iraq coverage.
Daily Column
Rules tightened for security contractors: Marine tried in US civilian court
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/19/2008 01:50 AM ET
Google Earth image/IraqSlogger.com.
Some interesting stories for the day: of deals for billions of dollars worth of arms and of the Kurdish secret service in Kirkuk. Two articles in the Wall Street Journal will be of interest to much of the Iraq-based American community, concerning prosecution of both American contractors and servicemen for their alleged actions in Iraq.

From Iraq
USA Today’s Charles Levinson reports on the haggling over billions of dollars worth of arms the US military is selling to the Iraqi Army. The whole thing is pretty surreal, with the US officer in charge of foreign military sales to Iraq talking like a used car salesman to the Iraqi defense minister’s top military adviser, General Mohan al-Furayji. M-1 Abrams tanks were being showed off to the Iraqi adviser, 140 of which the Iraqi government is considering buying for $2.16 billion. After Furayji grabbed the hull of one of the tanks and complained that it was too hot for his soldiers to operate behind, US Brig. Gen. Charles Luckey replied, "For as little as $300 you can get a blast deflector to deal with the heat,” he said, oddly reminiscent of pitches for rust-proofing in the states. “I might even throw them in for free for you." A four man crew demonstrated the M-1’s prowess by blowing things up and showing off its laser range-finder and thermal-imaging night sights. All the while, al-Furayji seemed to be feigning disinterest to get a better price, and continued to kick its tires (or treads, rather). Since January 2007, Iraq has spent $3.1 billion on U.S. weapons, and the numbers are likely to grow quite a bit. Levinson reports that in the past two months alone, the Pentagon has alerted Congress of a possible $8.7 billion worth of additional military sales to Iraq, for everything from lightweight attack helicopters to armored ambulances to binoculars. A compelling read.

Richard A. Oppel Jr. of the New York Times covers the current situation in the power struggle for Kirkuk. The Kirkuk story is always the same... Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens all claim Kirkuk as their own, the city is a “powder keg”, and civil war is a likely result. Oppel keeps it fresh by focusing on the feared undercover Kurdish security service known as the Asaish, which operates as a force unto itself throughout much of northern Iraq. Its intelligence and reputation for quick action always seems better than Iraqi police in the area, and many believe it to be the dominating force in Kirkuk. The Asaish works with the American military and, according to Asaish commanders, United States intelligence agencies. The Kurds’ accumulation of power has stoked tensions with Arabs and Turkmens. “There is much fear,” said Mohammed Khalil, the leader of the Arab bloc on the provincial council. “The Asaish are saying they will annex Kirkuk by force, and that is terrifying people.” Arabs also say the Asaish carry out kidnappings, a charge Asaish officers deny. The central government in Baghdad is trying to exert control over Kirkuk, but the Kurdistan regional government is bucking them every step of the way. Though Iraqi Army troops have helped establish security in other volatile regions of Iraq, they have mostly kept out of Kirkuk, leaving Kurdish forces largely in charge. Baghdad sent troops there recently, but many, including the American commander in Kirkuk, Col. David Paschal, objected to the move. He said he feared that if Baghdad sent in additional troops, Kurdish leaders would retaliate by sending in their own militia from northern Iraq, creating a potentially disastrous confrontation. “I just saw this continued escalation of force happening,” he said. Baghdad is expected to withdraw the troops, according to American commanders. Examples of the ethnic mistrust and violence are given, and Oppel’s piece is a good addition to the litany of less-than-hopeful articles about Kirkuk.

Stateside
August Cole of the Wall Street Journal reports that the Defense Department has further tightened the rules for its almost 6,000 armed security contractors in Iraq. The move shifts more risk to hired guards, on whom the Pentagon relies to augment U.S. forces in Iraq, assigning them roles that range from protecting supply convoys to manning checkpoints. Since a September 2007 shooting incident involving State Department contractor Blackwater Worldwide left 17 Iraqis dead, a concerted effort to avoid further such incidents is being felt. The killings have infuriated Iraqis, and have jeopardized U.S. – Iraqi relations on several occasions. They have also greatly complicated negotiations between the two governments over the continued presence of American troops in Iraq. There is a continuing U.S. criminal investigation into the Blackwater incident, which spurred U.S. officials to implement overhauls in security contractor oversight and accountability. The new orders reflect "the evolving security environment in Iraq," according to a spokesman for the Multi-National Force Iraq command, who said that existing rules for the use of force must take into account "full awareness of local culture." Iraqi officials continue to express anger over the Blackwater shooting, partly because no one has, of yet, been held accountable.

In a related story, the Journal’s Nicholas Casey covers Jose Luis Nazario, an ex-Marine Corps sergeant who is being accused under a law aimed at contractors for allegedly killing unarmed Iraqis in Fallujah in November 2004. Two of Mr. Nazario's squad now await a military court-martial for the incident, but Mr. Nazario left the Marines in 2005 with an honorable discharge and a medal of valor. By exiting the Marines, he also left the jurisdiction of military prosecutors. In a trial scheduled to begin Tuesday, Mr. Nazario will face manslaughter charges for his alleged participation in the Fallujah killings. The charges have been filed not by the military, but by civilian prosecutors in a federal court in Riverside, Calif. They are invoking a little-known law that allows U.S. courts to pursue overseas combat crimes that were traditionally beyond their grasp. In 2006, Ryan Weemer, who had been a Marine corporal under Mr. Nazario's command, was on reserve and pursuing a job with the U.S. Secret Service. During a lie-detector test that was part of the interview process, Mr. Weemer's description of his time in Iraq worried his questioner. In a Secret Service transcript of the interview, Mr. Weemer described an incident in which his unit captured several men in a house. The men were unarmed, but the squad felt pressure to stay with other Marines who were moving through the city. "I don't know -- " Mr. Weemer recalled, "I -- we ended up..." "Shooting them?" the questioner asked, according to the transcript. Mr. Weemer: "We had to, yeah." The case was forwarded to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, a law-enforcement agency that probes crimes in the Navy and Marine Corps, and has ended up in a civilian criminal court. Mr. Nazario's attorney, Kevin B. McDermott, asks "How is it possible that our Congress sitting in Washington can make it a crime for an American citizen to kill a foreign national in a foreign country?"

Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, no Iraq coverage.
Daily Column
Bomb sweeping in Diyala: Another suicide bomb in Baghdad
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/18/2008 01:55 AM ET
Today in the news: an interesting look at bomb sweepers in the Iraqi Army, a new Congressional survey finds record levels of civilian contractors in Iraq, and more mold in a servicemen's hospital.

From Iraq
The Washington Post has the most in-depth Iraq story today, with Sudarsan Raghavan writing about the difficult work of Iraqi Army’s best bomb sweepers, clearing roadside bombs and booby-trapped buildings in Diyala province. Raghavan follows Capt. Adil Muhammed, an elite member of Iraq’s 1st Division, 3rd Battalion as he tries to clear an area of farmland and thoroughfares which insurgents, mostly members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, have left filled with bombs. It begins with Muhammed having missed an anti-tank mine which a US Army bulldozer sets off, but continues to show his adept skill and the respect the other Iraq soldiers have for him. The sometimes tenuous relationship between the Iraqi and American soldiers is illustrated, as are the differences in procedure in clearing and disposing of explosives. "These guys are crazy. They just get an IED and snip the wick," said Capt. Ben Michaels, a burly Texan, referring to an improvised explosive device. "We collect the bombs and put them together and detonate it. These guys just blow them on the spot." Ever present is the question of when Iraq’s soldiers will be ready to do without their US counterparts, and this is obviously the point of the story. It gives an eerie illustration of just what these men face every day, and of the situation in general.

Erica Goode and Ali Hameed of the New York Times report on a suicide bomber which killed 15 people and wounded 25 others in front of Baghdad’s famous Abu Hanifa mosque in the largely Sunni Adhamiya district. Among the dead was Faruq Abdul Sattar, a deputy commander of Adhamiya’s Sunni Awakening council, the American-backed local force that guards the neighborhood. Witnesses said that the bomber, a man, may have been riding a motorcycle that was parked about 65 feet from a traffic light on the street. Other sources said that the bomber may have been dressed as a woman. Adhamiya, once the site of fierce fighting between insurgents and American and Iraqi forces, has been quieter in recent months. Two other incidents are mentioned as well. Earlier on Sunday, two journalists from the Afaq television channel and their driver were wounded by a grenade thrown inside their car near Al Zawra park in Baghdad. Also, police in the usually quiet northern Kurdish city of Erbil shot and killed two people, after a demonstration of Kurds from a nearby town protesting inadequate water services reportedly turned into a small riot.

Stateside
Peter Grier of the Christian Science Monitor covers the findings of a new congressional report that looked into the Pentagon’s unprecedented use of civilian contractors providing security and logistics (food services, fuel distribution, etc.) in the war in Iraq. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) survey compares percentages of uniformed personnel for each contractor in Iraq with past American conflicts. In Korea, the ratio was 2.5 servicemen for each contractor, in Vietnam it was five to one. In Iraq, as of early 2008, it was one contractor for every serviceman. It is pointed out that the Balkans conflict in the 1990s had the same ratio, but with such small overall numbers, the scope was nothing like the situation in Iraq today, with at least 190,000 private personnel working on US-funded projects in the Iraq theater. The CBO estimates the total cost of these military contractor operations from 2003 through 2008 to be $100 billion, about 20 percent of all US funding for operations in Iraq. Of this, roughly $12 billion was paid to security contractors. An interesting finding is that the cost to the US government of having contractors providing most of these services is about the same as recruiting, training, and supporting servicemen to do about the same thing. Critics of such wide usage of contractors charge that there is much less control over the actions of private companies’ employees. Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said, in an analysis earlier this year, "One of the key questions surrounding the government's escalating use of military contractors is actually not whether they save the government client money or not.... Rather, the crucial question that should be asked at the onset of any potential outsourcing is simple: Should the task be done by a private company in the first place?"

USA Today’s Gregg Zaroya has two articles dealing with the treatment of soldiers in the Warrior Transition Unit (WTU) for wounded and injured outpatients at Fort Sill, an artillery training installation in Oklahoma. The first is about the unheeded complaints of mold infesting the barracks that were set up a year ago for wounded soldiers after poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center triggered a systemwide overhaul. The soldiers said that they had been ordered not to speak publicly about the conditions at Fort Sill. Maj. Gen. Peter Vangjel, the commanding officer, said it was "inappropriate" for soldiers to be ordered not to talk about the mold, and added, "We're going in and we're going to take care of this for these guys," Col. Robert Bridgford, garrison commander at Fort Sill, said he ordered workers last week to replace ventilation ducts encrusted with mold in two 48-room wounded-soldier barracks at the base. Soldiers say they had been complaining for months, and some reported having health problems because of the conditions. Bridgford said that Aug. 8 lab tests, taken in response to a July 25 inspector general's review, show the barracks have "common mold" that is not hazardous. He also said some vents were cleaned earlier this year. Zaroya’s second piece, entitled ‘Army leaders defend supervision of soldier care unit’ is about other complaints by soldiers in the unit, who described commanders who seem more concerned with enforcing discipline and punishing infractions than with creating an environment conducive to healing. Examples are given, such as wounded soldiers on heavy pain and sleep medications having to show up for physical training at 5:30 AM. Commanders are said to make too frequent use of Article 15 punishments, a non-judicial process that can result in a reduction in rank or loss of pay. "They're handing out Article 15s like they were candy," one soldier said. Though Maj. Gen. Peter Vangjel seemed to have wanted to get the mold situation under wraps before more newspapers picked up the story, he is not so conciliatory on the point of discipline at the unit. He defends the commanders' actions, and said that 10 out of the 12 of the punishments handed out were for drug violations.

Wall Street Journal, no Iraq coverage.
Daily Column
Blackwater under fire: Army running out of majors?
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/17/2008 01:55 AM ET
Only the Times and the Post have Sunday editions, and the Post takes up most of the slack. Bombings targeting Shiite pilgrims continue, as does the Blackwater controversy. More difficulties for the US Army, being stretched too thin.

From Baghdad
The New York Times’ Stephen Farrell reports on the latest in a string of bombings targeting Shiite pilgrims heading to the holy city Karbala. This one occurred near the Shaab neighborhood of northeast Baghdad, at a bus pickup for the pilgrims. Six are reported dead and ten wounded. Karbala’s provincial authorities estimated that two million pilgrims were already in the city on Saturday to celebrate the birthday of Muhammad al-Mahdi, a ninth-century imam, with many more expected in the coming days. Since the war, such holidays have become symbolic rituals for Shiites, some of whom say one factor in their determination to celebrate them is that mass pilgrimages were banned or restricted under Saddam Hussein’s rule. Helicopters dropped leaflets on the crowd bearing pictures of different types of explosives and a warning: “Gunmen use explosives to harm the Iraqi people, and our children are always the victims.”

Stateside
Del Quentin and Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post write about the Justice Department moving toward charges against Blackwater contractors, after a September shooting that left 17 Iraqis dead. Federal prosecutors have sent what is known as target letters to six Blackwater Worldwide security guards. Target letters are often considered a prelude to indictment, and offer suspects the opportunity to contest evidence brought before the grand jury and give their own version of events. The incident, which took place at a busy intersection in Baghdad, has fueled the call in Iraq for foreign contractors to be held accountable in Iraqi courts for their actions. There are varying accounts of what happened, as would be expected. Investigations by the U.S. military and the Iraqi government -- and initial findings by the FBI – disputed the account that the Blackwater employees were fired upon first, and concluded that no one fired except the contractors.

The Post’s Ann Scott Tyson reports on the Army’s current shortfall of majors, whose ranks are not expected to be replenished for another five years. According to a recent officer’s survey, the Pentagon’s plan for growth and the high numbers of deployment in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed to the shortfall, said to be in the thousands. The article explains that majors plan and direct day-to-day military operations for Army battalions, the units primarily responsible for waging the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout the Army, majors fill key roles as senior staff members, putting together war plans, managing personnel and coordinating logistics. "We need more officers, and we are pulling every lever we can," said Col. Paul Aswell, chief of the Army's personnel division for officers. The Army's strategy is to shore up the ranks of captains, offering $35,000 bonuses and other unprecedented incentives in a program launched last year. That program so far has led nearly 14,000 captains -- about 1,000 fewer than the Army's goal -- to sign contracts to stay three years longer. Brig. Gen. Michael S. Linnington, commandant of cadets at West Point, said groups of Army captains recently returned from Iraq have told him that long deployments -- not bonuses -- are central to their decisions. "The whole Army is pretty tired," he said.

Books
John A. Nagi of the Washington Post reviews Bing West’s new book, The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq, which the Wall Street Journal covered a few days ago. Nagi sees eye to eye with West, and writes a review that is both interesting and thorough.

Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, no Saturday Editions.
Daily Column
Nine killed in Balad: Most papers take the day off from Iraq coverage
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/16/2008 01:55 AM ET
Sure it’s the weekend, but Iraq coverage is limited to exactly one news story! On the second day in a row of suicide bombers targeting Shiite pilgrims, only the New York Times printed anything original, instead of just the AP wire version that a few others picked up.

From Baghdad
The New York Times’ Stephen Farrell and Suadad al-Salhy report on the suicide bomber that killed nine pilgrims in Balad, north of Baghdad. They were on their way to Karbala to commemorate the birth of Shiite Islam’s 12th imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi. The numbers of injured are skipped, but wire services are saying “dozens”. This happened one day after a female suicide bomber killed 18 pilgrims and wounded at least 68 in Iskandariyah. (Though the article calls this the second attack against Shiite pilgrims traveling to Karbala in 24 hours, a roadside bomb in Baghdad which killed one pilgrim and injured seven was reported yesterday in the Times by Campbell Robertson and Riyadh Muhammed.) Due to cultural taboos and the general lack of female security guards, women in Iraq are often not as thoroughly searched as men. In response to the recent rise in female suicide bombings, Karbala police said that they were deploying more than 2,000 women to make sure that every female pilgrim visiting the city was frisked nine times before reaching the city’s two main shrines. At Friday prayer, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on his followers to pledge their loyalty to the Shiite saint being honored, after whom his Mahdi Army militia was named. Al-Sadr recently announced that he intended to split his movement into the Mahdi Army and an unarmed cultural and religious movement. On Friday, he said that followers could take part “either in jihad and military resistance or in jihad and cultural resistance.” The article focuses on whether or not al-Sadr’s influence is waning, since the Iraqi government’s regaining of control in past Mahdi Army strongholds such as Basra, Sadr City and Amara.
“He wants to say that ‘I am still here,’ ” said one man from Sadr City. “He can’t stand the idea that he lost control of the city.” Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie, a political analyst, said, however, that Mr. Sadr was using the summons as a form of census, “to calculate his supporters on the ground” ahead of elections.

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

Difficulties of US troops returning home: Iraqi government sabotaging elections?
By DANIEL W. SMITH 08/15/2008 01:59 AM ET
I would like to begin my tenure at Iraqslogger with a tip of the hat to Chris Allbritton, whose last column was yesterday. He is off for a fellowship at Stanford, and I am left to fill his formidable shoes. May it be a good move for him. Also, a wish for Iraqis and others who find themselves in Iraq: may the news that comes through this column reflect a future with as little bloodshed as possible.

From Iraq
Yet another female suicide bomber struck Thursday, this one 30 miles south of Baghdad in Iskandariyah. The explosion occurred in a tent full of resting Shiite pilgrims, on their way to the holy city of Karbala to commemorate the birth of Shiite Islam’s 12th imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi. Sunni extremists, having employed female suicide bombers frequently in past months, are suspected. At least 18 were killed, and 68 wounded. An identical attack at nearly the same location occurred one year ago. "The army will replace the police in Iskandariyah after this security violation," said Capt. Muthanna Ahmad, a spokesman for the Babil province police. "The police are not capable to deal with the suicide attacks. They don't have detectors and the necessary equipment for these kind of attacks." A roadside bomb in central Baghdad, thought to have targeted the pilgrims as well, killed three and injured six. The Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan and Saad Sarhan have the most information about the incident, but not a whole lot that isn’t in today’s wire stories. Campbell Robertson at the New York Times has an account that is more brief, but includes some tidbits that nobody else has, like the fact that 33 men, thought to have been planning other attacks on the pilgrims were arrested near Iskandariya earlier in the day. 13 of them are reported to be members of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Both articles follow up with mention that the US Navy has charged six sailors with abusing detainees at the U.S.-run Camp Bucca detention Center in southern Iraq. In a statement, the Navy said that two detainees had suffered "minor abrasions" and that eight other detainees were confined overnight in a cell sprayed with a "riot control agent and then the ventilation secured."

USA Today’s Charles Levinson and Ali A. Nabhan cover a disturbing topic that deserves some attention. The chairman of Iraq’s High Electoral Commission, Faraj al-Haydari, is accusing Iraqi security forces of raiding voter registration centers in an attempt to discourage participation in upcoming elections. Opposition parties claim that the current government is trying to sabotage the elections, for fear of losing power. Areas where other blocs (both Sunni and Shiite) have popular support are reportedly being targeted. According to al-Haydari, “Iraqi troops have either removed, or allowed others to destroy, a large percentage of the 2 million posters distributed nationwide to publicize the registration effort." He continues, "We put up posters next to (security) checkpoints and the next day they're gone," "The people don't know that they're supposed to register." A U.S. military spokesman said forces were aware of fewer than five incidents at 565 registration centers since they opened July 15, and that they were "confident in the Iraqi security forces' ability to secure these elections,". Levinson follows up witha related article, citing two examples of intimidation at an elementary school being used as voter registration center, both witnessed by USA Today staff. The school is located in Baghdad's Sadr City, where Prime Minister al-Maliki's ruling party is not exactly popular. On Thursday, the Iraqi officer in charge of protecting the school is reported to have screamed at the center's director, to hand over names and addresses of voters — which are supposed to be confidential. Colin Kahl, an Iraq expert at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, said the incident at the school and others were the first evidence that elections could be sabotaged by parties in power. Two days earlier, Iraqi troops had also briefly arrested another polling station director at the same school, after he refused to divulge voter data. When a USA Today reporter entered the premises, an officer ordered his soldiers to lock the front gate, preventing anyone from leaving for about 15 minutes. Gen. Aiden Qader, the Interior Ministry's lead official for election security, confirmed the arrest but dismissed the incident as an isolated case. Sadiq al-Riqabi, a spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister's office, declined to comment on Thursday’s incident.

Stateside
Marilyn Elias from USA Today reports that, according to new findings announced at an American Psychological Association meeting in Boston, multiple combat deployments to Iraq are increasing serious mental health problems among US soldiers. This adds to the recent piles of literature that site high levels of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression among returning vets, as well as rampant drug and alcohol abuse. Repeated tours seem to make the problem much worse.

Veterans in Books and on TV
Jonathan Kay of the Wall Street Journal reviews a new book chronicling the intense experiences of Iraq veterans by Bing West, entitled ‘The Strongest Tribe’. West has traveled with 60 U.S. and Iraqi battalions, has interviewed 2,000 soldiers, and is a Vietnam veteran himself.

Washington Post Style columnist Tom Shales gives what looks at first like less-than-positive grades to the season finale of Bravo’s ‘Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List’. He questions her less-than-delicate approach to wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, but is won over in the end.

Opinion
Francis Fukuyama, professor of political economy at the John’s Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, writes an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, called ‘Iraq May Be Stable, But the War Was a Mistake’. The title pretty much gives it away and lets you know if you’ll agree with it or not, depending on which side of the aisle you’re on. It mostly deals with the American political discussion of Iraq, and discusses who was right, and when. He gives McCain some credit for supporting the ‘surge’, but says that “Obama was right on the much more important strategic question of whether the war itself was a prudent policy, and here Mr. McCain remains as wrong as ever.”

Christian Science Monitor, no Iraq coverage.

Daily Column
Iraqi students in Syria get shot at American college; British bailed on Basra
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/14/2008 01:11 AM ET
Well, today is a yet another light day, with both The New York Times and the Washington Post checking out. But it's also time to say goodbye.

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo of Christian Science Monitor has a feel-good feature on 15 Iraqi students who are on their way to American colleges to become members of the class of 2012. All tuitions and fees have been waived. The Iraqi Student Project was created by two American peace activists, Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak. It sounds like a really good cause for some needy students who have had a hell of a time just surviving.

USA Today's Charles Levinson has a feature on Kirkuk's ethnic tensions, approaching it from the perspective of a mixed Kurdish-Turkmen couple. They both agree there will be a fight for Kirkuk. "Things are getting worse day by day," says Hiwa Assad, the Kurdish member of the couple. Kirkuk has been a pot ready to boil over since the 2003 invasion, but this time it feels different as Iraq looks forward to a new, post-American phase. The city's status has become one of Iraq's most pressing challenges. Levinson also manages to get to one of the most frustrating aspects of reporting on Iraq, as evidenced by this exchange:

Just as Sunnis and Shiites in Baghdad once pointed to mixed marriages, jointly owned businesses and a long history of coexistence as proof that a civil war would never occur, Kirkuk's people make similar arguments now.

During a lunch of spiced rice and salted fish at the Assad house, the mix of languages -- jokes flew in Kurdish, Arabic and Turkmen -- reflects the patchwork of ethnicities and tribes that have long lived side by side.

"The problem is between politicians and political parties," says Rizkar Mohammad, Assad's brother-in-law and lifelong friend, who also is married to a Turkmen.

"There are no problems between the people," he says.

Assad listens politely to such talk -- and later dismisses it, when no one else is around.

"Don't believe a word they say," he says. "With their tongues they say everything is alright, but in their hearts they want to kill each other.”

While features like this have popped up every six months or so over the years, this is one of the better ones in the Kirkuk-as-powderkeg genre.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

Wall Street Journal
The Journal editorial board blasts the Brits over Basra, again.

And finally, this is my last column for IraqSlogger.com. It's been a great run, and I've had a lot of fun with it. Eason Jordan and Robert Young Pelton have created a great resource for people who want and need to know about Iraq, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have been part of it. Thanks, guys.

While my style has sometimes grated on people, I appreciate everyone's feedback and I hope what came through was not a disdain for the troops, journalists, Iraqis or anyone in particular. I tried to aim my ire at what I saw were dumb decisions from the top, poor journalistic practices or incompetency or corruption from governments in both Baghdad and Washington. Promoting good work and truth, whether they were the innovative efforts of the GIs in the field or great investigative journalism, was the goal.

Now I'm leaving for a fellowship at Stanford and I'll be following the news the same as everyone else, through Daniel W. Smith's writings. He's taking over the US Papers column as of tomorrow. I wish him, and everyone else in Iraq, luck. To my friends and colleagues still there, stay safe.

Daily Column
Oil deals with foreigns in jeopardy; Iraqi interpreters the memory of US units
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/13/2008 01:50 AM ET
The Iraqi Air Force, oil deals and antiquities are the big news of the day. And The New York Times checks out.

Ernesto Londoño of the Washington Post has a feature on Iraq's efforts to rebuild its air force from, heh heh, the ground up. The reconstruction of the air force (and other specialized units in the Iraqi security forces) is a top priority now for American trainers and budgeters. Iraq, however, has a long way to go from the competent force Iraq had in the 1980s when it invaded Iran.

The Wall Street Journal's Gina Chon reports that talks between Iraq and foreign oil companies appear stalled, setting back efforts to open the country's petroleum industry to foreign investment.

The Oil Ministry, which had been championing the deals for months, is now balking. Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani in an interview said that is because the companies are insisting that part of the payment for the consulting work be in oil, and the foreign companies want preferential treatment for future oil-exploration deals. Political sensitivities in Baghdad also appear to be in play.

Tom A. Peter of the Christian Science Monitor has a feature on Iraqi interpreters, who serve as the unofficial institutional memory for American units. They stay while the soldiers rotate in and out, so they can provide a measure of continuity.

USA Today's Dan Vergano takes a look at the continued looting of Iraqi historical sites across the country. Finally, after five years of this, some sites are getting guards, but many are still unattended.

A satellite image analysis, published earlier this year in the journal Antiquity by Stone, concluded that since 2003, looters have dug 6 square miles of holes in archaeological sites across Iraq. The looting "must have yielded tablets, coins, cylinder seals, statues, terra cotta, bronzes and other objects in the hundreds of thousands," Stone reported.
It's a catastrophe for human history, and there seems no way to fix it.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

USA Today
The editorial page argues that if America had the same budget surplus as Iraq, it would be wondering what to do with that extra $1.4 trillion. It's time for Iraq to pay its own way, the paper argues.

New York Times
No original Iraq coverage today. (!)

Daily Column
Discussing oil, security and refugees; Odierno hopes to continue troop drawdown
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/12/2008 01:45 AM ET
King Abdullah II of Jordan is in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno is in Washington and the U.S. has spent $100 billion on contractors. Welcome to Tuesday.

Over there
Stephen Farrell of The New York Times reports that Jordan's King Abdullah II is in Iraq for talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He's the first Arab leader to visit Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Talks will include discussions about security cooperation and economic relations, including the renewal of a 2006 agreement to sell Jordan crude oil at a discount. They two also discussed Iraqi refugees in Jordan and the plans to reopen Jordan's embassy in Baghdad.

Amit R. Paley and Qais Mizher of the Washington Post have the story of Abdullah's visit, too, and add that Iraq has halted its military operation in Diyalah in order to offer amnesty to insurgents who surrender. Also, Iraq fired Ernst & Young as the auditor of a multibillion-dollar account that funds most of the Iraqi government's operations, saying the firm was "too arrogant." Huh? That definitely warrants more attention. What is Baghdad up to?

Washington doings
The Times's Thom Shanker reports that Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno said Monday that he hopes to continue troop cuts in the next year, but that they would depend on conditions on the ground. (Odierno is set to replace Gen. David H. Petraeus as the commander of coalition forces in Iraq when Petraeus moves up to CENTCOM.) While he said things seem to be going well, al Qaeda in Iraq and Shi'ite militias could still pose a danger. He especially warned against the efforts by Moqtada al-Sadr to reform the Mahdi Army into a social movement that provides services to the people, challenging the central government. He noted that that's what Hezbollah did in Lebanon. "We do not want the Hezbollah model inside of Iraq," he said. "We do not want an organization that is an alternative to the government." That's probably the greatest long-term danger to Iraq today.

James Risen of the Times reports that the Bush administration this year will reach $100 billion spent on contractors since 2003, showing just how dependent the Pentagon has been on private firms to fight a war.

The Pentagon's reliance on outside contractors in Iraq is proportionately far larger than in any previous conflict, and it has fueled charges that this outsourcing has led to overbilling, fraud and shoddy and unsafe work that has endangered and even killed American troops. The role of armed security contractors has also raised new legal and political questions about whether the United States has become too dependent on private armed forces on the 21st-century battlefield.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

New York Times
Juliet Macur has a feature on the Iraqi rowing team, which has overcome much adversity to get to Beijing.

Wall Street Journal
Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense, writes for the Journal's op-ed page that the war in Iraq is over and now it's time to start looking ahead.

Washington Post
Joshua Partlow reviews Quill Lawrence's book, "Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood Is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East." It's the first thorough, book-length account of the Kurds' recent history and their role in the Iraq war.

Christian Science Monitor and USA Today
No Iraq coverage today.

Daily Column
Waves of bombs kill 13, wound scores; Lights go out for Georgians in Wasit
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/11/2008 01:49 AM ET
Despite the games in Beijing and the war in Georgia, the Washington Post and others put out some good stories today, mostly about money: its use as a weapon and the lack of it for the private sector. Also, Georgian troops bid "nakhvamdis" to Iraq.

Over there
The Washington Post's Dana Hedgpeth and Sarah Cohen take a good, long look at the use of cold, hard cash as a weapon in combatting the insurgency in Iraq. Thousands of dollars are handed out on an almost daily basis to pay for property demolished or lives shattered by U.S. military operations. It's also used to pay for new investments in schools, health clinics, water treatment and generators.

Army documents show that $48,000 was spent on 6,000 pairs of children's shoes; an additional $50,000 bought 625 sheep for people described in records as "starving poor locals" in a Baghdad neighborhood. Soldiers ordered $100,000 worth of dolls and $500,000 in action figures made to look like Iraqi Security Forces. About $14,250 was spent on "I Love Iraq" T-shirts. More than $75,000 sent a delegation to a women's and civil rights conference in Cairo. And $12,800 was spent for two pools to cool bears and tigers at Zawra Park Zoo in Baghdad.
In all, the U.S. has spent $2.8 billion out of the Commander's Emergency Response Program. And while this all sounds great, as the money for the big infrastructure projects runs dry, the CERP seems to be picking up the slack. And lieutenants handing out bricks of $100 bills are not a good way to run an aid program. As the Post reports: "A review by The Washington Post of a government database detailing more than 26,000 CERP records, along with congressional documents and audits, plus interviews with troops and their commanders who have worked on the projects, reveals a program that has evolved beyond its original goals. It has often been used for large projects that can take years to complete, is largely divorced from other reconstruction efforts and lacks the structure needed for overseers to know how well the program works." In one case, the Army couldn't account for $135 million in CERP payments. Hoo, boy. Why do I see a major scandal coming out of the GAO investigators unit? But, the troops love it, and lawmakers are reluctant to take it on for fear of alienating the troops. This is a big investigation and a fascinating look at how Gen. David H. Petraeus, who wrote his Princeton dissertation on money as a weapon, and his commanders are using cash in Iraq. (Most unexpected comparison: How the U.S. military is doing the same thing as Hezbollah does in Lebanon after an Israeli strike.)

Hedgpeth and Cohen zoom in on a ceramics factory in Ramadi as an example of what the CERP can do.

Yochi J. Dreazen of the Wall Street Journal reports that the war between Georgia and Russia has finally hit Iraq, as the 2,000 Georgian troops -- the third largest component of the Coalition -- began returning home to fight the Russians. This leaves a gap for the U.S. to make up, but it's even more complicated than that. The Georgians were actually doing dangerous work on the Iraq-Iran border, so replacing them with American troops could lead to an ugly border incident between Iran and the United States.

Campbell Robertson and Suadad al-Salhy of The New York Times reports that a wave of bombing attacks across Iraq killed 13, including a U.S. soldier, and wounded scores on Sunday. Iraq lawmakers continue to say a security agreement with the U.S. is close, but disagreements remain. And Parliament dedicated its new building outside the Green Zone, prompting some MPs to grumble that they were now more exposed to violence.

So much for the free-market paradise envisioned by the Heritage Foundation and the CPA. Robertson of the Times reports that Iraq's private sector is going nowhere fast, while the state's payrolls are rising. Since 2005, the number of government employees has nearly doubled, to 2.3 million from 1.2 million. In 2006, the state employed 31 percent of the labor force, and will probably reach 35 percent this year. Still, it's not like the government has much of a choice. Unemployment provided a ready pool of recruits for the insurgency, so putting them to work digging ditches (or in the vice presidency office) helps keep the violence down.

Poor Christian Science Monitor. Not publishing on the weekend means it's left to report old news. Tom A. Peter does the job ably today, reporting on Moqtada al-Sadr's calls to reform the Mahdi Army. He works to differentiate his coverage through analysis, and finds a journalist who says the militia is in a real crisis because of the shortage of weapons and volunteers. That's the reason behind the shift.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

USA Today
Kevin Johnson goes over the problems of the Iraqi Olympic team as it prepared for Beijing.

Daily Column
Treacherous political path awaits agreement; How and why the surge really worked
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/10/2008 01:41 AM ET
Georgia and Russia, as well as the Olympics, continue to dominate the news, but the Washington Post manages a couple of pieces on a slow Iraq Sunday.

Karen DeYoung continues the press's waiting game on the security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, with the final sticking point the timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Iraqi cities. How the accord will be approved in the Iraqi parliament is also unfinished business. It's a complicated package, and it will have the run a political gauntlet that will go from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to the multiparty executive and national security councils and his council of ministers. Then it will go to the parliament. Any step could be the deathblow for the agreement.

Peter Mansoor, Gen. David Petraeus's executive officer in Iraq from February 2007 to May 2008, tackles the history of the surge, and writes that it should get the lion's share of credit for the drop in violence in Iraq.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

New York Times
No Iraq coverage today.

Christian Science Monitor, USA Today and Wall Street Journal
No Sunday editions.

Daily Column
Militia continues its transformation; Sadr urges followers to join social wing
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/09/2008 01:20 AM ET
What do you get when the Olympics open and the Russians invade Georgia? Not a lot of Iraq news. But what news there is could be significant.

Earlier this week, I criticized Gina Chon and the Wall Street Journal for running her story on Moqtada al-Sadr's latest plans on the front page. From the coverage, I gathered Sadr's calls for a new spiritual path for the Mahdi Army was just more of what he had said a couple of months ago, with maybe some additional clarification. Well, Stephen Farrell of The New York Times and Amit R. Paley of the Washington Post both cover Friday's prayers at which Sadr's new plans were revealed.

In short, Sadr is offering a deal: He will end his movement's attacks on U.S. troops if the U.S. agrees to a timetable for withdrawal. And since all signs are pointing to that happening, we may be looking at the end of major combat operations in Iraq. Mission accomplished! Paley writes:

Salah al-Obaidi (a Sadr spokesman) said Sadr's paramilitary cells have already been ordered to stop fighting as U.S. and Iraqi officials negotiate an agreement over the presence of American forces in Iraq. He said the cells will be disbanded as soon as the United States agrees to a deadline for leaving the country.
The movement's new name will be al-Mumahidoon, meaning "those who pave the way." It refers to the belief among Sadr's followers that they are paving the way for the return of the Imam Mahdi, a messiah-figure for Muslims.

The question now is why? Is Sadr angling to get into the political process despite Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's best efforts to neutralize the Sadr Current? Is he genuinely committed to nonviolence? Is this another bob and weave the cleric is so good at? All of the above?

Paley writes that Obaidi said the Mahdi Army will not be dissolved, but will readjust its focus away from fighting. And the special cells dedicated to attacking the U.S. will also remain, but they'll stand down. That's big news, but it remains to be seen whether this is really something new or just a repackaging of the existing status quo.

Farrell seems to think it's the latter. He writes that the clerics urged Sadr's followers to join al-Mumahidoon, which would be the social wing that works alongside his Mahdi Army militia. As he writes,

Its formation follows an announcement in June that the movement would be divided into a specialized armed force, a core of fighters focused on opposing the American presence in Iraq, and another branch to concentrate on community and religious programs.

Sadrist officials insisted that the organization would remain a resistance movement and would concentrate weapons in the hands of the specialized fighters in the Mahdi Army.

It should be noted the similarity between the Mahdi Army's development into two wings and the public transformation of Lebanon's Hezbollah. I say "public," because Hezbollah, which many analysts say is the model for al-Sadr's militia, hasn't really split into a political and military wing, but there's a public perception -- thanks to a lot of propaganda from the group -- that it has. Indeed, Farrell makes the same observation. And he also brings up some possible problems. One senior Mahdi Army commander said that of course he would obey Sayyid Moqtada's orders, "but in this case we expect there are many members of the Mahdi Army who will reject this order," he added.

Both reports cover a car bomb in Tal Afar that killed at least 21 people and wounded 65.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

Wall Street Journal
No Iraq coverage today.

Christian Science Monitor and USA Today
No weekend editions.

Daily Column
Ethnic and sectarian groups compete in parliament now, not in gun battles
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/08/2008 01:38 AM ET
Not much news today. Ah, well, the Olympics are starting.

Sudarsan Raghavan and Ernesto Londoño of the Washington Post report that Iraq's regional politics -- Sunnis in Anbar, Kurds and Arabs in Kirkuk, and Shi'ites in the south, are heating up. This certainly seems better than shooting each other. The two Posties give a good rundown of the inter- and intra-group rivalries going on, but tack on a somewhat half-assed warning at the end. Mahmoud Othman, that Kurdish dial-a-quote Baghdad reporters love, warns that unless experienced people are at the helm, Iraqis may give up on politics and return to violence. He and the reporters provide almost no evidence that this might happen. A little explanation please?

The Wall Street Journal's Yochi J. Dreazen reports on the "moneymen" who still pay the Sons of Iraq to show up for work every day. They're mostly U.S. soldiers and they weren't supposed to still have a job. The Iraqi government has been slow, to say the least, to incorporate the SoIs into the national security apparatus, and that's left the U.S. military on the hook for these guys.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

New York Times
The Times editorial board calls for Iraq to start picking up more of the tab for running the country.

Washington Post
Will wonders never cease? Jim Hoagland, regular Post columnist, actually approves of what the Bush administration is doing on the world stage. "The administration is adjusting policy to reflect the changing political landscape of the United States -- and of Iraq." He notes that the two countries are "days away" from a security agreement that could see an "aspirational" timeline for the withdrawal of American combat troops.

Daily Column
Controversy in UK over delay in Basra fighting; US troops pivot to peacekeepers
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/07/2008 01:50 AM ET
Still no deal on the provincial elections and now parliament's hitting the beach. It's hot, it's August, it's Iraq.

Campbell Robertson and Richard A. Oppel Jr. of The New York Times report that, once again, the Iraqi parliament failed to approve a provincial election law. And, instead of sticking it out and hammering out a solution, lawmakers gave up and went on holiday. Awakening members anxious to translate their security power in the provinces to political power in Baghdad are upset. "We are running out of patience," said Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, a key Awakening leader in Anbar Province, who placed the responsibility for the delay with parties in power "who know the next provincial elections will hurt their interests and will not benefit them so they hope to postpone it until doomsday." Robertson and Oppel do a nice job of running down the various conflicts now simmering: Awakening Sunni vs. Exile Sunni, al-Sadr Shi'ites vs. Maliki Shi'ites and Arabs vs. Kurds vs. Turkmen. What does all this mean? Elections now won't be held until next year at the earliest.

Gina Chon of the Wall Street Journal has the story as well.

The Times's John F. Burns reports that Britain is gripped in a debate over the tardy arrival of British forces in the Battle for Basra, stationed as they were only a few miles away. American troops, stationed in central Iraq, got there before the British could be bothered to leave their base. The six-day delay in deployment reflects Prime Minister Gordon Brown's determination to drawdown British troops and limit casualties -- he once committed to halving the number of troops this year -- has left him in a bind. Because of the fighting, he scrapped plans for a significant drawdown, but hasn't given the troops new orders to mix it up if necessary. So politically, he's stuck. This is all exacerbated by the revelation of a "secret deal" with the Mahdi Army that allowed British troops to withdraw ("abandon"?) bloodlessly from Basra in exchange for giving the militia more control. (It's an unpopular deal with the British brass who call is shameful and inexcusable.) That deal prevented British troops from getting into Basra fighting early. Now, in Baghdad, British military officers are not nearly as welcome among the Americans as they once were.

Tom A. Peter of the Christian Science Monitor has a story on the difficulties facing U.S. soldiers as they take on the role of peacekeeper now rather than war fighter.

IN OTHER COVERAGE USA Today and Washington Post
No original Iraq coverage today.

Daily Column
Baghdad's surplus will hit almost $80B this year; Iraqi Army still not ready
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/06/2008 01:57 AM ET
Iraq is rich! And thrifty, too, because it's saving all oil revenues while the U.S. continues to pick up the tab on reconstruction. That and a bit of other news dominate today's coverage.

Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post reports that while the U.S. continues to pay billions every month in Iraq, Baghdad is banking up a sizable surplus and spending only 10 percent of its revenues on reconstruction from 2005-2007. Only 1 percent was spent on maintaining U.S. and Iraqi-funded investments in infrastructure. This comes out in a GAO report that projects Iraq's oil revenue to double this year. "It is inexcusable for U.S. taxpayers to continue to foot the bill for projects the Iraqis are fully capable of funding themselves," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin, D-Mich., said in a statement yesterday. While almost all of $48 billion for Iraqi reconstruction has been allocated since 2003, Congress is still funding an "emergency" military fund that pays for reconstruction and relief projects as well as salaries for 90,000 Sons of Iraq members. A big problem is that Iraq just doesn't have the capacity to spend that much money, dealing as it does with a lack of trained staff, a weak procurement and budgeting system and violence.

James Glanz and Campbell Robertson of The New York Times have the story as well, noting high up that Iraq's budget surplus could be as much as $79 billion by the end of the year. As the two Times reporters note, "From the beginning of the conflict, American officials assured taxpayers and the world that Iraq would use oil money to pay for reconstruction. But that has not happened." Indeed. They also make a medium sized deal over $10 billion still parked in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which has been there since the oil-for-food program. Instead of being used to pay for reconstructions, it's just gathering interest, raising questions in Congress. Why? Because the U.S. is paying Iraq $435.6 million a year in interest on it. What a neat trick. Get the U.S. to pay for everything Saddam and various wars broke, and get the U.S. to pay you millions in interest! Any other Americans starting to feel like the Iraqis are taking them for a ride?

The Wall Street Journal's Ian Talley plays it much more, um, conservatively by just mainly reporting the numbers and ignoring the money in the New York bank entirely. The overall tone is one of a shrug.

The Times's Campbell Robertson pens yet another report on the readiness of the Iraqi Army. And the result is yet another rehash of what it's always been: The Iraqi Army is willing to get into the fight, but when asked if they can handle it on their own, interview subjects always reply, no, the Americans need to stay just a bit longer. It's like "Groundhog Day"; the question and the answer are always the same in these stories.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

Wall Street Journal
A Journal editorial picks up on Gina Chon's non-scoop front-page story yesterday to crow that "Moqtada packs it in." Well, as I pointed out yesterday, there was little in that story that was new, as Moqtada al-Sadr seemed to be more clarifying earlier instructions to his people than issuing new ones. He will still maintain secret cells to attack U.S. troops, for instance. And does the Journal really want a kinder, gentler al-Sadr? Paradoxically, having him an angry, violent outsider will go a lot further toward advancing the Journal's goals in Iraq than having him as a peaceful political player. Because if he's on the outside, his unruly Mahdi Army will continue to act like thugs, causing Iraqis to resent them and cling to the Maliki government (which the neo-cons at the Journal like.) Having him inside the process, while decreasing the violence, gives him a chance to win at Maliki's own game of politics. And if he wins, does the Journal think an Iraq dominated by Shi'ite nationalists will be very friendly to U.S. interests? Like most Journal editorials, this is a grunt from the reptilian cortex, in line with the triumphalist bullying so common to that page.

Washington Post
Joby Warrick reports that -- surprise! -- the White House denies that it tried to forge a letter between Iraq's chief of intelligence under Saddam and al Qaeda, "proving" an operational link and providing a casus belli. The claim was made by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind, whose book "The Way of the World" charges that, in September 2003, the White House directed then-CIA Director George J. Tenet to concoct a fake letter, backdated to July 2001 but bearing the signature of Tahir Jalil Habbush, the former head of intelligence for Saddam, claiming that Mohammad Atta had been trained in Iraq for his mission on 9/11. Suskind also contends that the White House obtained compelling evidence in early 2003 that Iraq possessed no significant stocks of nuclear or biological weapons but decided to invade the country anyway. Is anyone really surprised by this anymore? Perhaps I just have outrage exhaustion.

Christian Science Monitor and USA Today
No Iraq coverage today.

Daily Column
U.S. tried to block medical textbook; Al-Sadr may be pulling back even more
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/05/2008 01:38 AM ET
It's a bit of a hodgepodge of news today, with no single theme emerging. The Wall Street Journal tries to roll out a scoop, while The New York Times spends a lot of energy on a new medical textbook for Army surgeons.

Over there
The Wall Street Journal's Gina Chon has what is presented as a decent scoop, that the Mahdi Army will completely disarm and Moqtada al-Sadr will focus his movement around "Shi'ite spirituality," devote it to helping Iraq peacefully and social justice. The changes will be announced this Friday in the mosques. But this kind of announcement has been made before, and "rogue elements" within the Mahdi Army have continued to kidnap Iraqis, kill rivals and attack American troops. So it remains to be seen if the militia's actions will match al-Sadr's words. Down in the story, Chon notes that the disarmament is not 100 percent, however, because al-Sadr will continue to direct small, secret armed cells against U.S. troops. So in the end, this sounds like less of a scoop of something new and more of a restatement -- or explanation -- of what al-Sadr declared in recent months.

Sudarsan Raghavan of the Washington Post reports that roadside bombs killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded a third as they patrolled in eastern Baghdad. Other violence included a bomb on Palestine Street that killed two Iraqis and injured 23, a bomb in Dora that wounded two Iraqi cops and a roadside bomb in Diyala that killed two cops and injured three others.

Jim Michaels of USA Today writes that the U.S. has started sending some of the foreign fighters it held in Iraq back to their home countries. The U.S. military holds about 200 foreigners.

Military matters
Donald G. McNeil Jr. of The New York Times reports on a new medical textbook based on wounds suffered by civilians and soldiers in Iraq, and the Pentagon's attempts to censor the book. There's no doubt that "War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq: A Series of Cases, 2003-2007," is a graphic book. But it's a textbook for surgeons and it has to show the effects of EFPs, IEDs, RPGs and host of other, deadly munitions in war. It's an expensively produced book, quietly issued by the U.S. Army, with a forward by ABC correspondent Bob Woodruff. Higher-ups in the Army tried to keep the book out of civilians' hands, but a succession of Army surgeons general made sure the book was released, if only quietly. "The average Joe Surgeon, civilian or military, has never seen this stuff," said Dr. David E. Lounsbury, one of the book's three authors. "Yeah, they've seen guys shot in the chest. But the kind of ferocious blast, burn and penetrating trauma that's part of the modern I.E.D. wound is like nothing they've seen, even in a Manhattan emergency room. It's a shocking, heart-stopping, eye-opening kind of thing. And they need to see this on the plane before they get there, because there's a learning curve to this." Lounsbury, 58, an internist and retired colonel, took part in the 1991 and 2003 invasions of Iraq and was the editor of military medicine textbooks at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Gordon Lubold of the Christian Science Monitor writes of the U.S. military's attempts to attract and retain native Arabic speakers into its ranks, including paying up to a $150,000 retention bonus. Lubold notes that only Special Forces get that kind of cash.

Gregg Zoroya of USA Today reports the Pentagon is spending $300 million this year to research PTSD and traumatic brain injury. The study is the most spent in one year on military medical research and will fund 171 research projects on the two prevalent injuries.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

New York Times
Stephen Biddle, Michael E. O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution have one of their quarterly op-eds detailing what's going well in Iraq and what's going not quite so well (but still on an upward trajectory.) However, despite gains, the U.S. can't leave soon because the Sunnis and Shi'ites are not yet ready to live together.

Wall Street Journal
Bret Stephens claims the Iraq war is over and the U.S. won, so Francis Fukiyama owes him $100. Yes, it's about as ridiculous as it sounds.

Daily Column
Kurds, Arabs unable to reach agreement; US troops visit Saddam's ruined palaces
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/04/2008 01:46 AM ET
The news picks up a bit, with the impasse over the election law remaining.

Over there
The Iraqi parliament failed to reach a compromise on Kirkuk and pass an election law viewed as vital for political reconciliation, report Sudarsan Raghavan and Qais Mizher of the Washington Post. Kurds wanted the bill to include a reference to Kirkuk's constitutionally mandated referendum on Kirkuk's status but that Arab lawmakers rejected that. Arab lawmakers, however, accuse the Kurds of bringing more than 750,000 Kurds into Kirkuk to affect any vote. President George W. Bush even called Iraq's Shi'ite vice president, Adel Abdul Mahdi and the Sunni speaker of parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, to try to broker a compromise. U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and U.N. special representative Staffan de Mistura met late Sunday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to find ways to dissolve the impasse. Tensions are rising in Kirkuk following the impasse, suicide bombings and ethnic clashes. And already the elections will be put off until early next year at the soonest. Some Iraqis say further American pressure could push the country into chaos. "The Americans are pushing for the elections at any price, and that is incorrect," said Mahdi al-Hafidh, a Community Party lawmaker. "The country is not quiet, and there is not a good climate for this election." Elsewhere, a car bomb blew up in a Sunni neighborhood in northern Baghdad, killing 12 and wounding 22. Later Sunday, another car bomb in front of a coffee shop in Hilla killed one and wounded 12.

Campbell Robertson and Suadad al-Salhy have the story for The New York Times, and note that negotiations are taking place at the Baghdad home of Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Times also includes three other bombs in Baghdad in its roundup and a bombing in Latifiya, which killed six people. Iraqi soldiers in the operation in Diyala found 15 bodies buried on a farm and two American soldiers died and three were wounded on Sunday in separate vehicle accidents.

Yochi J. Dreazen of the Wall Street Journal reports on the only tourist attraction readily available for U.S. soldiers in Baghdad: the ruins of Saddam Hussein's palace out near Camp Victory. With organized tours run by Army Sgt. James Lee from Tennessee, soldiers get a four-page, full color brochure of the ruins, which include algae-choked man-made lakes, a "Flintstones"-themed play area for Saddam's grandkids and the two massive palaces. But the most popular room is the "Tomahawk Room," where 200 Ba'ath Party apparatchiks met their end when a cruise missile hit it in the opening night of the war. The Ba'athist were killed while watching "Pretty Woman," Lee says, because Americans found the find still in the projector. Only 53 bodies were recovered, with the rest presumed still buried under the rubble. It's one of the most popular sections of the tour.

Presidential politics
Kathy Kiely and David Jackson of USA Today report that Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama are converging on their signature issue of Iraq. "Both now say the U.S. military can begin winding down combat operations in Iraq. Both believe the U.S. should begin stepping up its combat presence in Afghanistan. And each candidate says those views are a change of heart for his opponent."

Home front
Post photographer Andrea Bruce has a revealing vignette about Spec. John Bickenstaff, who is starting his first tour of Iraq.

Gregg Zoroya of USA Today has a long feature on hearing loss, one of the most common injuries soldiers -- and this writer -- have suffered while in Iraq. The loss of hearing has caused some soldiers to be pulled from the battlefield because they can't tell from what direction enemy fire is coming from.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

Christian Science Monitor
Peace activist and Monitor columnist Helena Cobban says the United Nations are needed to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

NYT
A Times editorial says Kirkuk is a major political test for Iraq and its leaders need to compromise pronto.

Daily Column
Intra-Shi'a rivalries could undo surge gains; Tensions between military, media
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/03/2008 01:04 AM ET
It's another slow news day, but The New York Times makes up for its lack of immediate news with a larger look at the war in its magazine.

Michael R. Gordon's Times piece, "The Last Battle," details the complexities of the intra-Shi'ite conflict that he suggests is the remaining obstacle to ending the Iraq war. (Others remain, including a mirror conflict amongst the Sunnis and the tensions in Kirkuk, but the Shi'ites are the Big One.)

(S)ectarian struggle has been eclipsed by a growing tussle for power among the Shiites themselves. The competition involves Prime Minister Maliki and the Shiite religious parties (the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Maliki's Dawa Party) that constitute the ruling hierarchy in Baghdad; Moktada al-Sadr's weakened but still-popular political movement and its military wing, the Jaish al-Mahdi, or Mahdi Army; and, increasingly, Shiite tribes.
The U.S. must balance opening Iraq's political system to the outside groups in order to leave Iraq a freer democracy with buttressing the security forces that belong to the ruling hierarchy in Baghdad. This is an important story, laying out as it does the various fault lines among the Shi'ites. But it also points out the troubles that still lie ahead before the Americans can go home.

Next up, Clark Hoyt, the Times's public editor, writes on the tensions between the American military and journalists when it comes to showing images of dead American soldiers. Though there is no evidence the photographers broke any rules as laid out in the embed agreement, they were kicked out of their embed regardless. Fewer than half a dozen such photos have been published in five years of war and more than 4,000 dead Americans.

Gail Buckland, an author and professor of photo history at Cooper Union in New York, said she tells students that because of the lack of a comprehensive photographic record of the war in Iraq, they are "more impoverished today than Americans were in the 19th century," when battlefield photographs by Timothy O'Sullivan and others documented the Civil War. "The greatest dishonor you can do is to forget," she told me. "Photographs are monuments."

The Washington Post limits itself to reviewing "Baghdad High," yet another HBO documentary about life in the war zone. Paul Farhi describes the 90-minute documentary as one that "doesn't say much about the larger issues facing Iraq, but it does capture some small and captivating human stories." Its point of view is four Iraqi boys, who took cameras and filmed themselves, their friends and their families for a year.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

Christian Science Monitor, USA Today and Wall Street Journal
No Sunday editions.

Daily Column
At 851, civilian and security forces deaths lower than May and June
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/02/2008 01:27 AM ET
The Iraq coverage is again dropping off now that the Obama glow is wearing off. The lowered death tolls are, thankfully, helping drive the news from the front page. But there's still a war on.

Sudarsan Raghavan of the Washington Post follows up on yesterday's reports on the low number of KIAs for American troops with a look at the Iraqis. And likewise, their casualty numbers are down, too. Last month, 851 civilians and members of Iraq's security forces died, less than in the previous two months. In June, 917 were killed and 1,1235 in May. Also, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki weighed in on the idea of federalism, emphasizing the primacy of the federal government. This will likely upset the Kurds and Shi'ites attached to the ISCI and Badr Organization, who are pushing for a autonomous Shi'ite region in the south.

The New York Times eschews any daily roundup today, surprisingly, and goes straight to an op-ed by Lindsey O'Rourke, who writes about the psychology of female suicide bombers. O'Rourke is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Chicago. She writes that, as part of her research, she found precious little evidence that women bombers are motivated by uniquely gender reasons -- despair, mental illness, religiously mandated subordination to men, frustration with sexual inequality, what have you. She found that women bombers have very similar motivations to men's.

There is simply no one demographic profile for female attackers. From the unmarried communists who first adopted suicide terrorism to expel Israeli troops from Lebanon in the 1980s, to the so-called Black Widows of Chechnya who commit suicide attacks after the combat deaths of their husbands, to the longtime adherents of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatist movement in Sri Lanka, the biographies of female suicide attackers reveal a wide variety of personal experiences and ideologies.
It's an interesting look at the phenomenon.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

Wall Street Journal
No Iraq coverage today.

Christian Science Monitor and USA Today
No weekend editions.

Daily Column
U.S. military deaths in July lowest of the war; Keeping Iraqi kids from trouble
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/01/2008 01:49 AM ET
Everyone gets a little piece of the action today, although there's not a lot going on. President George W. Bush hinted at more troop reductions given the stability breaking out, American combat deaths are at their lowest of the war and a new sports center keeps Iraqi kids out of the insurgency. What could go wrong?

Steven Lee Meyers and Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times kick off the coverage with a story on Bush's early morning announcement and the growing consensus, "though a cautious one," that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Bush announced that security gains meant that more troops could come home soon. (Just in time for the election!) Officials in Baghdad and the Pentagon now speak of "a degree of stability" that seems to be sticking. Bush also highlighted his decision to reduce the length of Army tours from 15 months to one year, which should please the soldiers and their families. Meanwhile, back in Iraq, the American military disclosed that it had killed three unarmed people northwest of Samarra on Wednesday. A fourth was injured. And in Mosul, a bomb killed three policemen.

John D. McKinnon of the Wall Street Journal covers the announcement and adds that the troop reductions would be in the 3,500 to 7,000 range, based on recommendations from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the outgoing commander of Coalition forces in Iraq. McKinnon also gets explicitly political, saying the comments "appeared to reflect the administration's hopes that it can build on recent improvement in public opinion on Iraq. Perceptions of how the war is going could be crucial for Republicans' chances in the 2008 election, and especially presidential candidate John McCain, who is closely identified with the 'surge' strategy." The U.S. death toll in July was 10, the lowest of the war.

USA Today's Tom Vanden Brook ties the reductions in Iraq to possibly deployments in Afghanistan, where attacks are up 40 percent compared with last year.

Amit R. Paley of the Washington Post leads with the low death toll for his story today, reporting that the death toll was five combat deaths for U.S. forces, the lowest of the war. (The total is 13 if you include non-combat-related deaths and two bodies discovered.) Paley doesn't add much news to the general narrative of the day -- there's not much news going on, really -- but he does provide a roundup of recent violence in Baghdad and Kirkuk as a reminder that Iraq can still bite.

Sabrina Tavernise of the Times also leads with the low death toll (a staple of top-of-the-month stories now), and adds that Iraqi deaths declined slightly for July, too. A total of 865 civilians and security forces were killed in July, down from 975 in June. In Kirkuk, 20 provincial council members, all Kurds, voted to become part of the Kurdish enclave to their northeast. It was a non-binding vote, and Arab and Turkmen council members boycotted it, but it's symbolic, nonetheless. Moqtada al-Sadr issued a statement in another attempt to clear his Mahdi Army's name.

Finally, Tom A. Peter of the Christian Science Monitor writes about a new sports center in Baghdad in a effort to keep kids out of trouble. Founded by former Iraqi athletes, the Adhamiyah-based center will work a bit like inner-city sports clubs do in America. The U.S. military has kicked in $300,000 to repair the facilities and fund programs, while a U.S. Army civil affairs team is in the process of adding another $200,000 in projects.

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