David Johnston reports for the Times' front page that State Department investigators offered immunity from prosecution to Blackwater guards involved in last month's deadly shooting incident in Nisour Square that killed at 17 Iraqis. It seems the offer was a colossal blunder: The Bureau of Diplomatic Services had no authority to do so and the Justice Department had no knowledge of the offer. Now, this offer seems to have complicated and put in jeopardy efforts to prosecute the men -- efforts that are already enormously complicated and fall into a gray legal area. There's not much known other than that, but Johnston does his best to tweeze out more from the story, pointing out some of the legal complications involved in trying contractors and the loopholes contractors jump through as they do their jobs overseas.
Karen DeYoung has the story for the Post, also on the front page, and says the investigation may have been "compromised." FBI agents cannot use any information gleaned from questioning the guards now. The immunity offer has led some of the contractors to refuse to talk to the FBI, but DeYoung points out high up that the immunity only applies to the initial statements from the guards. The FBI can make a case based on other, gathered evidence, but that "make things a lot more complicated and difficult," said a Justice Department official. DeYoung tries to get at why the offer was initially given, but stops short of calling it a mistake.
It is unclear when or by whom the grant of immunity was explained to the guards. Under federal case law applying to government workers, only voluntary answers to questions posed by the employing agency can be used against them in a criminal prosecution. If an employee is ordered to answer under threat of disciplinary action, the resulting statements cannot be used.She also goes deep on the types of immunity offers and details the special situations government employees investigating other government employees find themselves. DeYoung does bury a bit of news: FBI agents will return from Iraq this week to turn the evidence they've gathered over to Justice, which will then decide whether to prosecute. It could be months before there's a decision.
Amit R. Paley nabs the second front-pager in the Post, and it's worthy of a disaster movie. Iraq's largest dam, up near Mosul, is in danger of imminent collapse that "could unleash a trillion-gallon wave of water," killing thousands and flooding Mosul and Baghdad. Up to 500,000 people could die. Mosul would be gone, submerged under 65 feet of water. Parts of Baghdad, too, with 15 feet of water. Why this isn't the lead story is beyond me. "The Mosul dam is judged to have an unacceptable annual failure possibility," The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said dryly after making new assessments. It was judged the "most dangerous dam in the world" by the corps in 2006. At the same time, reconstruction efforts in the north have been marked by incompetence and corruption, and the $27 million reconstruction project on the dam wasn't even supposed to be a permanent solution. Iraqis and American officials are tangling over the costs and benefits of building a second dam. The Iraqis don't want to build another dam because they say it's too expensive. But the Mosul dam is built on gypsum, which dissolves when it comes in contact with water. (Brilliant!) And so 50,000 tons of grout have been injected into the dam, almost from the moment of its completion in the 1980s, as a way of keeping it from collapsing. The governor of Nineveh, where the dam is located, asked that it be drained of water immediately. The manager, Abdulkhalik Thanoon Ayoub, sounds like an idiot. He acknowledges the problems -- sinkholes, grout, etc. -- but contends the dam is safe and thinks the Americans are worrywarts. It sounds like he takes the criticisms personally, and thinks it's a matter of personal honor.
Ayoub said he agrees that the most catastrophic collapse of the dam could kill 500,000 people, but he said U.S. officials have not convinced him that the structure is at high risk of collapse. "The Americans may very well be right about the danger," Ayoub said. "I think it is safe enough that my office is in the flood plain."Great idea. Other water ministry officials said they "hope" to avoid a disaster and would focus on a solution. Abdul Latif Rashid, Iraq's minister of water resources, said a brand new concrete wall could be built at the cost of less than $1 billion and "perhaps" construction could star next year.
The Times' Alissa J. Rubin handles the day's bloody roundup. A suicide bomber in Baqouba blew himself up in the midst of training police officers, killing 29 and wounding 19. Seven policemen, a woman and her baby were in critical condition. It appears it was a coordinated attack. Another bomber attempted to hit the police station at Hibhib, on the northern side of the city, but police shot him before he could detonate. Rubin writes that the coordinated attacks indicate the Sunni Arab extremists are again back in the city after being cleared by this summer's military offensive. Another suicide bomber killed seven people north of Baghdad and Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Dorko was injured in a roadside bomb and evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Dorko is the highest-ranking officer to be wounded in the war. Iraqi commandos rescued 10 of the 11 sheikhs kidnapped over the weekend. One was killed shortly after they were taken. And finally, the American military handed security responsibilities for Karbala province over to the Iraqis, the eighth province to be transferred.
Joshua Partlow of the Post has the story of the Baqoubah bombing, but says 28 were killed, not 29. (The Post and the Times often have differing numbers on these matters.) Partlow has good color on the attack, recreating it from witnesses' accounts. It was the deadliest insurgent attack in a month. (Partlow's figures say 28 dead and 17 wounded.) The U.S. military blamed al Qaeda in Iraq. He also mentions, in greater detail, the release of the captured sheiks, with the U.S. military fingering Arkan Hasnawi, a former commander with the Mahdi Army, as the man responsible. In other developments, a mortar shell fell on a soccer field in Tikrit, killing two boys and wounding seven others.
Sgt. David E. Lambert, a Virginia Army National Guardsman, died Friday from a roadside bomb, reports Jonathan Mummolo of the Post.
The Monitor's Sam Dagher profiles the chief baker of the Vanilla Pastry Shop, an enticing little boutique patisserie around the corner from the Hamra Hotel. (It's a favorite for the journalists there.) The baker, Hussein Faleh, sees the decreasing violence and hopes that better times are coming. "Maybe the improving security situation will allow us one day to have some tables on the sidewalk and serve coffee and drinks with our pastries and cakes," he says. The story's not so much about Faleh as it is about the fruits of the surge and the improving security condition. Dagher writes that despite the suicide bomber in Baqoubah, only 285 Iraqis have been killed in October. In January, it was almost 2,000. But Faleh sounds a bit like an Iraqi Willy Wonka, an engaging character who works in a chocolate dream world. "I love my work. It's perfect for me. It has saved me from our reality," he said as he slices peaches for his custard-filled mini fruit tarts. Getting supplies is difficult, especially for the high-end pastries he makes, but the shop's owner, in Jordan sends them to him via convoy every three months. (No wonder that place is so expensive.) But it's worth it. "Making sweets makes me forget our bitter reality in a way."
Fables of Reconstruction
Matt Kelley of USA Today reports on progress in Iraq, noting that some reconstruction efforts are showing signs of improvement and violence is down. Electricity in Baghdad reached six hours a day in September, a post-war high. However, the report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) says significant challenges remain, including widespread corruption and the lack of political reconciliation. The story is basically the executive summary of the SIGIR report released today.
IN OTHER COVERAGE
Christian Science Monitor
Lee Lawrence starts up a series on military chaplains, starting with an inaugural profile of Navy Chaplain Michael Baker. His duties are fascinating, as this is a little-known aspect of military life. The chaplains have to navigate a complex philosophical and theological landscape, all the while staying alive and ministering to their fellow troops. Part counselor, part cleric, Baker had to baptize a Marine in the Euphrates while under heavy security (and pollution; the river is filthy); and tend to the comrades of a Marine who committed suicide -- all the while avoiding proselytizing. Baker is a Methodist, rejecting the fire and brimstone of his childhood. This is a lovely package, complete with video, charts, a history of chaplains and a talk with a scholar of clergy in the military. Well worth a read.
Jerry Lanson, a professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston, notes that there were coordinated war protests in 11 cities over the weekend and no one knew about them because they didn't get covered by the media much. Why? Most Americans oppose the war. But neither The New York Times nor the Boston Globe gave the marchers in their cities -- numbering in the thousands -- much ink.