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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at ds@iraqslogger.com


Daily Column
Demonstrations for the Release of Detainees, Heated Debate over Iraq's Identity
By AMER MOHSEN 04/05/2009 6:22 PM ET
Az-Zaman
Az-Zaman
Al-Bayyna al-Jadeeda interpreted statements made by Gen. Odierno in Mosul (in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor’s Jane Arraf) as proof that US forces will not be withdrawing from all Iraqi cities by the end of June as prescribed in the SOFA agreement. Odierno had stated that the “mistakes of the past” will not be repeated in Mosul and that no hasty retreat will take place while al-Qa'ida maintains a presence in the area.

The paper claimed that, “for months,” politicians have been preparing to announce that in Mosul and – to a lesser extent – Ba'quba, the capital of Diyala, continued presence of US forces will be indispensable beyond the June 30th deadline. The daily noted that the General coined the term “exceptions”( to the SOFA articles,) which could be obtained with the permission of the Prime Minister to keep US forces in these cities.

Regarding the developing crisis between Maliki’s government and the Sahwa (Awakening) Sunni militias, al-Jazeera reports that arrests against Sahwa leaders are continuing, and that Premier al-Maliki came out accusing Sahwa factions of being infiltrated by “Ba'this and al-Qa'ida.”

In an interview with the official television channel, al-Maliki commented on the confrontations with the Sahwa of al-Fadl in Baghdad by affirming that “the clashes ... were not with Sahwa forces, but with a branch of the Ba'th party organization.” Maliki launched a stern warning against other Sahwa leaders who are allegedly entering into contact with Ba'this: “what took place in al-Fadl is a message to those who wish to take the same path as that gang ... they think that they are communicating away from the eyes of the government and the security organs, but they are all under supervision ... each one of them will meet a day where he receives his just punishment.” Moreover, the Premier announced unambiguously that the Sahwa, as a quasi-autonomous paramilitary force, is over. “There is no Sahwa anymore, they have become (part of) state institutions,” he said.

Al-Hayat daily, on the other hand, pointed that Maliki also took steps to reassure the current Sahwa members, announcing that the government “will not abandon the Sahwa.” The paper said that it received information that the government will pay (on Sunday) all unpaid Sahwa salaries throughout the country. On the same front, and in a response to the arrest campaigns, Sahwa leaders are “preemptively” providing lists with the names of al-Qa'ida activists that were killed in battles with Sahwa.

The leader of the Sahwa of southern Baghdad told the paper that the measure was taken because families of al-Qa'ida’s deceased have begun to press charges against them. The militia leader, Yusuf al-Jubburi, exclaimed that he and his peers should not be prosecuted for “operations waged against al-Qa'ida.”

In other news, Az-Zaman reports that hundreds of Iraqis, mostly women, demonstrated in Basra demanding that Iraqis detained by US and Iraqi forces for long terms without specific charges be released. Most of the demonstrators were families of the detainees, the paper noted, citing examples of mothers who have several sons in Iraqi and US prisons. The paper added that, according to the security agreement, many detainees have been released in recent months, but that many of them have been subject to assassinations and – in many cases – renewed arrest.

Lastly, al-Bayyna al-Jadeeda’s editor-in-chief published an op-ed in response to Kurdish protests against Premier al-Maliki, who referred to Iraq as “an Arab country” in recent speeches. The paper, a Shi'a publication supportive of al-Maliki, is known for publishing harsh material against Kurdish leaders who criticize al-Maliki’s centralization policies. Last week, the same writer fumed at Masrur al-Barzani, the son of Kurdistan’s President and head of security organs in the Kurdistan Region, who made statements that were viewed as “secessionist” by the paper.

On the controversial matter of Iraq’s identity, the editor Sattar Jabbar unambiguously declared: “we are Arab and we represent the heart of Arabism and we are 85% of the population.” The author tried to distinguish between “the chauvinist nationalism” of the Ba'th party and the “civilizational” Arab belonging of the majority in Iraq, but considered calls denying the Arabism of Iraq “dangerous.” In a semi-threatening tone, he addressed Kurdish critics: “the hated secessionist tune, which is on the rise, is a strike against national unity, and a return to the government’s wars against the north of the country.”

Daily Column
Britain Departs from Basra, AirForce Seeks F-16s to " Counter Syria and Iran" ?
By AMER MOHSEN 04/01/2009 6:35 PM ET
Az-Zaman
Az-Zaman
The British military presence in Iraq, which has so far cost 179 soldiers and around $16 Bn, is drawing to an end. A formal ceremony in Basra on Tuesday heralded the transfer of military authority in the region from British to American units. According to al-Jazeera, the 4,100-strong British contingent will formally end its mission on May 31st, and all the British troops, except for 400, will be out of the country by the end of the July. Az-Zaman noted that the British withdrawal comes almost to a day on the 50th anniversary of the “first” British withdrawal, in 1959, when British military units evacuated the Habbaniya airbase ending a military occupation that lasted since 1917.

In other news, Az-Zaman focused on statements by the Iraqi Airforce Commander Anwar Ahmad to the Reuters news agency, announcing that the Iraqi Army aims at acquiring a squadron of F-16 airplanes to re-equip its air force. The interesting bit was that Ahmad bluntly exclaimed that these armament plans seek to confront “Iran, as a source of potential threat ... and Syria” after the US withdraws from the country. These statements, highlighted on the paper’s front page, are likely to cause some embarrassment for the Maliki government and stir questions over the training, dogma and strategy of the “new” Iraqi Army.

Al-Maliki’s government has been attempting to regain its legitimacy in the eyes of Arab and regional governments; and the Iraqi state has been fervent in its affirmation that Iraq seeks peaceful coexistence with its neighbors and a break with Saddam’s legacy of regional enmities. In his dealings with neighbors, especially those in the anti-US camp, Maliki tried to construct a perception of the Iraqi government as distinct from US foreign policy. When a US raid last year targeted a location inside Syria, Iraqi officials hastened to say that they were not aware of the raid, nor did they approve it. Anwar Ahmad’s language, however, could be used by some as an affirmation that a “Saddamist” strain persists in Iraqi foreign policy – where countries like Iran are viewed as “eternal “enemies.” Other critics could see in the Airforce Commander’s statements a proof that Iraq is being recast as a US base in the region, with an Army trained specifically to combat America’s enemies.

Ahmad also stated his hope that a contract for 18 aircraft be signed soon, as part of a multi-billion-dollar armament package for the Iraqi Army. Eventually, he said, the target is to obtain as much as 96 F-16s by 2020. He added that he has been engaged in talks with officials from the US State Department and the US Air Force, and that the first F-16s piloted by Iraqis could be in the air by 2012 - provided that funding is guaranteed and a contract signed this year.

Meanwhile, al-Hayat reports that “Saddam’s Kurdish vice-President,” Taha Mihideen Ma'ruf, has “disappeared” from his residence in the Dukan resort in Kurdistan. Ma'ruf, a co-founder of the Kurdish KDP, broke with Barzani and became a Ba'thi in the 1970s. He has been one of Saddam’s vice-Presidents since the early 1980s. After being arrested for a short period following the 2003 invasion, the 85-year-old became a resident of the Dukan resort town, near Suleymaniya, where President Talabani lives. It is not clear whether he was under house arrest, but reports of him “escaping” suggest that his movement may have been restricted.

Sources in Kurdistan say that Ma'ruf was “smuggled” through the Suleymaniya airport to a foreign country mainly to obtain medical care, and because he fell to an “acute depression.”The paper says that Ma'ruf suffered from a dangerous illness that made him unable to speak.

Daily Column
Talabani Makes Strongest Statements to Date Against the PKK
By AMER MOHSEN 03/23/2009 5:05 PM ET
Kull al-'Iraq
Kull al-'Iraq
According to pan-Arab al-Hayat, almost half of the fighters of the “Awakening” tribal councils have been placed on the payroll of the Iraqi government – a step preceding their integration into military and civil services – while the other half are still being funded by the US.

According to a member of the “Reconciliation Committee” who spoke to al-Hayat, over 100,000 individuals have been enrolled in the multiple Awakening groups, funded by the US in mostly Sunni regions to combat the influence of al-Qa'ida and insurgent groups. Out of those, the dossiers of 49,000 have been transferred to the Iraqi government, with 51,000 still on the American payroll.

For over a year, Premier Maliki has complained that the Awakening militias represent a threat to the sovereignty of the state if they remained outside of the control of the government, and a possible element of destabilization in the future. The original plan was to transfer these fighters gradually into the government payroll, assimilate a number of those into the security services (around 20%) and “rehabilitate” the others to fill civilian positions in the public administration.

However the recent drop in international oil prices, which caused the Iraqi state budget to shrink significantly, is making it difficult for the government to afford the incorporation of so many employees into its apparatus. The Iraqi government already employs a hefty percentage of the Iraqi workforce, with hundreds of thousands added to the various security services in recent years. Al-Anbar’s police chief, Tariq al-Dulaimi, told the paper that “the lack of allocations in the general budget” is postponing the assimilation of the Awakening members into the government apparatus.

On the security front, the paper said that the leader of the Awakening group in Sadr City was assassinated yesterday, while al-Jazeera reports that over 25 Iraqis were killed in a suicide bombing that targeted a Kurdish funeral in the province of Diyala.

In other news, the visit of the Turkish President to Iraq resulted in the strongest-ever statement by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani against the PKK. Turkish-Iraqi relations have been marred in recent years by the activities of the PKK, which leads a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey against the Turkish government. The PKK operates several bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, near the Turkish borders, and the Turkish government has accused the Iraqi authorities of not doing enough to stem the party’s activities and attacks against Turkish territories.

Today, after meeting Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Talabani announced flatly that the PKK has a choice of “either putting down their arms or leaving Iraqi territories.” The PKK is classified as a terrorist group by Turkey, the EU and the US, but Kurdish leaders in Iraq have been subjected to pressures by Kurdish nationalists (both in Iraq and Turkey) not to cooperate with the Turkish government in its war against Kurdish independentism.

On a different front, al-'Arabiya says that Moroccan authorities have closed the Iraqi school in Rabat, spurring protests from Iraqi families in Morocco. The argument for banning the school: it could be used in attempts to “spread Shi'ism” in the Sunni Maliki kingdom. The story has a background. Two weeks ago, the Moroccan government suddenly cut its diplomatic ties with Iran, claiming Iranian efforts to “spread Shi'ism” in Morocco and threaten the prevalent Maliki school. The theory is of course a stretch: the vast majority of Muslim Moroccans are Maliki and Shi'ism has a negligible presence in the westernmost Arab country. Sunni Sheikhs in Morocco who were contacted by al-'Arabiya said that Iranian efforts to encourage “conversions” to Shi'ism may be present, but with a very limited effect (reportedly, only “hundreds” of Moroccans have chosen to practice Islam according to Shi'a interpretation in recent years.)

Lastly, London-based al-Quds al-'Arabi quoted Premier al-Maliki who stated, from Australia, that Iraqi journalist Montadhar al-Zaidi, who hurled his shoes at President Bush during a Press Conference last December, was “lucky” to receive only three years in prison. Al-Maliki added that al-Zaidi received a “reduced sentence” and that he could have been subjected “to a longer sentence, or execution.”

Daily Column
Despite "US and Arab Encouragement," Maliki Backs Down from Talks with Ba'thists
By AMER MOHSEN 03/20/2009 6:28 PM ET
Az-Zaman
Az-Zaman
For the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Lebanese al-Akhbar daily (a leftist publication that opposes US policies in the region) published a dossier on the issue. Regarding the future of US presence in the country, Muhammad Sa'eed wrote arguing that the US is following the “British model” whereby neo-colonial arrangements replace direct military occupation: “a new colonialism that exploits the country’s oil by assigning a symbolic (local) ruler and maintaining him in power through the use of a local force and airpower, and smaller military units located outside urban areas that are ready to intervene to quell “coup” attempts.”

The author noted that, in parallel with President Obama’s claims of full US withdrawal in 2011, the Defense Department is making plans to expand its military bases, “including the airbases of Balad and al-Asad, which will be equipped with four-kilometer-long airstrips so that they can be used by heavy bombers and transporters;” and that the Pentagon will maintain 58 military bases in the country, “compared with 36 US bases in South Korea.”

Meanwhile, al-Hayat claims that al-Maliki was forced to “abandon” his recent policy of rapprochement with Ba'thists – which is reportedly supported by the US and the Arab governments – after mounting criticisms on the part of his Shi'a allies. After the Premier made several calls for “the opposition” to join the political process, with multiple government leaks claiming that meetings are being held with representative of Ba'th factions, the Prime Minister’s office released a statement today affirming the government’s refusal to negotiate with Ba'thists, describing the banned party as “criminal,” adding that “it cannot be a partner in the political process.” The statement was effectively an obituary for Maliki’s short-lived initiative towards the Ba'th.

According to al-Hayat’s Washington correspondent, the US administration and Arab governments favored a dialogue with the Ba'th. The paper quoted State Department official Richard Schmierer as saying that the US administration “welcomes Maliki’s invitation of Ba'thists, inside and outside Iraq, to participate in the political process.” On the other hand, Arab encouragement for rapprochement with the Ba'thists was apparent in the position of Arab League Secretary 'Amr Musa, who concluded his visit to Iraq by stating that he was glad to see that the policy of “uprooting the Ba'th” has turned into a policy of “attracting the Ba'th.” Clearly, 'Amr Musa (who lobbied extensively, during his trip, for constitutional amendments that would lift the ban on the party) made those claims before the statement from the Premier’s office was released.

Maliki’s initiative towards the Ba'thists prompted worried responses from Shi'a parties: Muqtada al-Sadr affirmed that the government should not open channels of communication with the Ba'th, noting that Iraqi Ba'thists “still refuse to acknowledge their crimes.” In Parallel, al-Hakeem’s party, the Supreme Islamic-Iraqi Council, made the dramatic claim that attempts are underway to bring Ba'thists back to power in Iraq.

An opposing theory states that Maliki’s initiative was doomed because the Ba'thists themselves refused to negotiate with the government, a narrative that the government denies. “Someone close to the Prime Minister” told the Saudi-funded daily that “Maliki’s dialogue initiative with the Ba'thists and the call for amending the constitution ... was not reversed because of the refusal of important Ba'thist wings ... Maliki was recently under tremendous pressures from his Shi'a allies, some of whom tried to exploit the situation to their favor.”

Lastly, Az-Zaman reported that Kuwait insists on maintaining the mandate of the UN Security Council over the disbursement of Iraqi war reparations. After Kuwait’s refusal to forgive Iraq’s debts, the Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs requested that the reparations be turned into a bilateral debt between the two countries, which would allow Iraq to regain its economic sovereignty and exit the Chapter VII mandate of the UN (currently, the UN oversees Iraq’s foreign trade and receipts, and automatically transfers 5% of Iraq’s oil revenue to service Kuwait’s war reparations.)

The paper says that Kuwait has already collected $ 23Bn from Iraq since the 1990s, but that influential circles in the country, including members of the ruling family and parliamentary blocs, insist that the debts should be collected in full.

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