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Daily Column
Samarra Shrine Bombing; Congressional Maneuvers
06/14/2007 01:58 AM ET
The biggest news of the day is obviously the destruction of the two minarets at the Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, apparently by Sunni extremists, in the hopes of stoking yet more sectarian violence in the midst of the U.S. "surge" plan. Everyone plays it big, with the exception of the Post, which strangely buries it on A20.

John Burns tackles the roundup for the Times, and makes the observation that the bombers likely had the American domestic politics firmly in mind when they blew up the minarets. By fanning more sectarian violence, the bombers hoped to undercut the generals when they report to Congress later this year. "Without significant progress by September," he writes, "when the top American military commander here is to report to the president and Congress, the generals appear to have little prospect of holding off pressure at home for withdrawal." Burns notes that the American military was getting all its pieces in place for a "summer offensive against Qaeda-linked insurgents and Shi'ite death squads," but intel reports were streaming in about plans for a "catastrophic" attack against Shi'ite shrines. The three holiest shrines in Iraq, those in Karbala, Najaf and Khadhamiya in Baghdad, all had been targeted this year. Samarra, while lacking in impact because of its prior destruction, was probably chosen because it was the most accessible.

The Post's A20 story(!) of the attack on the shrine by John Ward Anderson and Joshua Partlow has much of the same stuff as the Times, including the historical context, but adds a scooplet in its detailing of the security arrangements around the shrine. The inner ring of security came from the Facilities Protection Service, but the outer ring was was manned by police from the 3rd Battalion of the Salahuddin Provincial Police in Tikrit, near Saddam Hussein's hometowm. Perhaps guarding a Shi'ite shrine with men who blame Shi'ites for the death of the man who brought money and power to their home villages wasn't the best idea? The Post also found a witness who claimed commandos from Baghdad came up Tuesday night and pushed the police force out of the way to get to the shrine, although it's not clear what police force the witness was referring to.

Dan Murphy of the Monitor reports from Cairo on the bombing of the Askariya shrine and notes that while the original attack in February 2006 was "a watershed moment" in the civil war in Iraq, yesterday's attack "may not see the same devastating results." He notes that, like in 2006, all of Iraq's leaders appealed for calm, but the difference this time is that their followers seem to be listening. The Monitor reports that only one Sunni mosque was set on fire in reprisal Wednesday, and Murphy uses these events to showcase Moqtada al-Sadr's attempts to reach out to Sunnis and recast himself as a nationalist figure instead of a Shi'ite one.

The Wall Street Journal's Philip Shishkin has perhaps the best quote of the day in the Samarra coverage with a shopkeeper in Sadr City saying, "We have a saying that you cannot be bitten twice by the same snake, so it's a shame on the government that this happened again." Shishkin, however, reports widespread retaliatory violence in and around Baghdad including rocket fire, possibly from Shi'ite militiamen.

Cesar G. Soriano of USA Today gets a 1A interview with Gen. David Petraeus, who warns that the bombing in Samarra might fan sectarian violence. Petraeus also took the opportunity praise al-Sadr's calls for calm as "very constructive."

Both the Times and the Post report in stories separate from the Samarra coverage that violence has either not dropped or is creeping back up across much of the country.

The Times' David Cloud reports from Washington on a Pentagon report that says, based on data analyzed between February and early May -- the opening moves of the surge -- that it was too early to say whether the increased security operations would lead to a sustained improvement in the situation. That much most of us know, but it also described in more detail how the shifting of American forces to Baghdad had worsened security in other parts of the country. While Baghdad and Anbar have improved, Nineveh, Diyalah and Basra have seen marked deterioration. Ann Scott Tyson of the Post emphasizes the report's criticisms of the Iraqis, quoting the report as saying, "Iraqi leaders have made 'little progress' on the overarching political goals that the stepped-up security operations are intended to help advance."

USA Today's Soriano, however, takes the opposite tack and lets Petraeus say the surge is actually working in "half, perhaps two-thirds of Baghdad." Petraeus spins a bit however, emphasizing the progress in Anbar and Baghdad at the expense of Diyalah and elsewhere. He also said sectarian violence is down, contradicting the Pentagon report.

In other coverage

Soriano was busy today, with 1A stories and Q&As with Petraeus.

Ben Jones looks at the various states' flag-at-half-mast policies as Flag Day rolls around. Apparently, lowering the flag when a servicemember dies is not universal. More than half -- 28 -- lower the flag automatically, while 22 do not. And sometimes the flag is lowered only at certain facilities. It's complicated.

In an editorial, USA Today says this latest bombing is a test for Iraq and a message to the U.S. For the Iraqis, the challenge will be preventing all-out civil war. (A little late, no?) And for the Americans, the attack "underscored just how urgent it is to nail down a plan in which U.S. forces are engaged first and foremost in fighting al-Qaeda and disengaged from the sectarian violence among Iraqi factions."

At the end of its Samarra story by Anderson and Partlow, the Post notes that one of the success stories in Anbar -- the Anbar Salvation Council -- is facing competition from a new group of tribes that says the Council relies too much on the Americans. Raad Sabah al-Alwani, the Council's leader, says the newcomers are all foreigners. "They came recently from Jordan and Syria and the other countries, they are not like us," he said. "We suffered and founded this council, and we fought al Qaeda. They want to come and, after all these efforts, they want to take our place." The U.S. military does its best to spin the assault on its ally -- credited with helping bring down Anbar violence dramatically -- and said the dissolving of the Anbar Salvation Council would not "be an anti Coalition action by the tribes," said a Marine spokesman. The council will "hopefully dissolve because it outlived its usefulness, which was to fight al-Qaeda."

Post op-ed columnist David Ignatius spotlights a fascinating -- and dangerous -- feud between the American- and Iranian-backed Iraqi spy agencies. The American-backed Iraqi National Intelligence Service is led by Gen. Mohammed Shahwani, who is currently in self-imposed exile in the United States. Sheerwan al-Waeli, the head of the rival spy agency, the Ministry of Security, doesn't come off too well in Ignatius' eyes.

Despite the odd headline ("For Democratic Leaders, a Fear That the Focus on the War Has Blurred"), Congressional Democracts are going back on the offensive against Bush and the Iraq war, reports Jeff Zeleny. Whiel part of the party wants Congress to focus on a domestic agenda, which has been long neglected, the other, more liberal wing, wants to see a renewed push on ending the war in Iraq. After being out-maneuvered by Bush in their first attempt at setting limits on the war, the Democrats intended to wait until September to take it up again, allowing them the spring and summer to tackle the domestic chores of the nation. But both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pledged action sooner rather than later. Zeleny says Democrats "intend to reprise at least four ideas when the Senate considers the Defense Department policy bill: a measure to reverse the authorization for the Iraq war, set a deadline for troop withdrawal, block money for major combat operations after March 31, 2008, and increase readiness requirements for troops to be sent back to Iraq."

“On Iraq,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, “we’re going to hold the president’s feet to the fire.” Doesn't sound very blurry.

A Times editorial calls for better armor for vehicles in Iraq and takes the Bush administration and military officials to task for not responding more quickly to requests from commanders in the field.

On the other side of the aisle, Gail Russell Chaddock says that Bush is attempting to win back wavering GOP lawmakers who are just looking for any reason to desert their party leader. While there are several issues of contention, Iraq is the biggest one and the one most fraught with danger for Bush when September rolls around. Moderates and even some conservatives are expected to jump ship when the time comes for a vote.

Regular Monitor columnist Helena Cobban warns that the U.S. will need the United Nations when it comes time to negotiate a drawdown or -- even better, in her opinion -- a full withdrawal, but she's skeptical the U.S. can get over its "prickly, dismissive attitude" toward the world body. She also notes that this will be her last column for the Monitor because the newspaper is discontinuing its regular columns.

Iraq is bringing low GOP candidates' prospects in 2008, reports John Harwood. By 52 percent to 31 percent, the public wants to see a Democrat win next year, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Disgust with Bush is bringing down the whole party, pollsters say, and 54 percent of respondents said the situation in Iraq is getting worse. (10 percent said it was getting better.) Democrats need to watch out, too, as the "inconclusive debates" on Iraq have helped bring Congress's approval down to 23 percent, lower even than Bush's (29 percent.)

Anna Husarska, a senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee, chimes in on the Journal's op-ed page to argue that while the U.S. may have legally opened its doors to the thousands of Iraqis who worked for America in Iraq, the actual admission of Iraqis is woeful: Only one was admitted in May. In April, the count was also one. In the eight months after the Vietnam war, the U.S. "facilitated the movement to the United States of over 131,000 South Vietnamese refugees." Quite a difference.

Daily Column
Samarra Attack Fails to Spark Widespread Violence
06/15/2007 01:30 AM ET
The news from Iraq was dominated by the sectarian violence that didn't break out following yesterday's attack on the Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, and Washington twitters as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid attempts to take Gen. David Petraeus to the woodshed.

The Washington Post's Joshua Partlow writes up the day's violence with a report that 13 Sunni mosques came under fire the day after bombers nearly completed the destruction of the Askariya shrine in Samarra. But, he noted, the violence didn't escalate into the vicious sectarian fighting that followed the initial attack on the shrine in February 2006. Iraqi officials credit the relative calm to appeals from religious and political leaders, a rapid response by the United States military and a round-the-clock curfew that kept Iraqis homebound. Nine of the Sunni mosques attacked were in the southern and mainly Shi'ite city of Basra. Almost all escaped heavy damage, with only the al-Othman mosque taking RPG fire. Residents of Samarra said that when the curfew was lifted, they hoped to flee the country. Also, "only" 33 bodies were found scattered around Baghdad, which, "by the standards of recent months is not a particularly high number," Partlow grimly notes.

Alissa Rubin of The New York Times rounds up the Samarra aftermath, but the Times' Iraq is a much less violent place than that of the Post. She notes only four attacks on Sunni mosques, and reports that attacks in Basra were halted. Not only that, but Shi'ite and Sunni residents there held "unity" demonstrations. Also, only five unidentified bodies were found in Baghdad, "far fewer than the police have found daily for several weeks." Rubin gives more play to a mortar attack on the Green Zone, where seven shells "rained down" with one exploding at the gate of the ramshackle Rashid Hotel, just across from the Convention Center where Parliament meets. One person was killed and two others wounded, according to the Iraqi Interior Ministry. The attack came just 50 minutes before a relatively congenial joint press conference featuring U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker; Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, one of Crocker's predecessors in Baghdad; and David Satterfield, the secretary of state's coordinator for Iraq.

Breaking with past criticisms, Rubin says Crocker and Negroponte praised Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as well as Sunni and Kurdish leaders, for their handling of yesterday's Samarra attack. The Americans likely figured that criticizing Iraqi leaders as the remnants of the Askariya shrine smoldered was bad diplomacy. Negroponte even went out of his way to toss aside this silly notion of "deadlines."

"I haven't talked to anybody in terms of deadlines," Mr. Negroponte said. "I've stressed urgency."

Picking on Petraeus
Gen. David Petraeus' interview yesterday with USA Today sure ticked off Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid off, reports Thomas Ricks in The Washington Post. The Nevada Democrat said the general "isn't in touch with what's going on in Baghdad." This is one of the few instances where Petraeus has come in for criticism from members of Congress, who have publicly, at least, bought into the Petraeus-as-savior narrative. Reid goes so far as to use Petraeus' past against him: "Noting that Petraeus, who is now on his third tour of duty in Iraq, oversaw the training of Iraqi troops during his second stint there, Reid said: 'He told us it was going great; as we've looked back, it didn't go so well.' " Reid also said he was glad to see Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Marine Gen. Peter Pace on his way out, and allegedly called him "incompetent" to a gaggle of liberal bloggers. This callout on the generals prompted White House spokesman Tony Snow to once again declare criticism of the military in Iraq as off-limits. "At a time of war, for a leader of a party that says it supports the military, it seems outrageous to be issuing slanders toward the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and also the man who's responsible for the bulk of military operations in Iraq," he said.

Jeff Zeleny of the Times weighs in, giving good play to Reid's statement that Petraeus "was never as candid as he should have been about the conduct and progress of this war." In addition to Snow's remarks, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, called Reid's comments "highly inappropriate and regrettable." No word on whether his fellow Democrats have Reid's six.

In other coverage

Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, D-Calif., is leading the charge in Congress to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," reports Josh White in the Post. She and about 125 other House members say the 1993 policy allowing gay and lesbian service-members to continue in the armed forces as long as they keep their sexual orientation secret is outdated and harmful to a military stretched thin by two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Republican candidates for president, rather predictably and with an eye on the party's conservative base, all opposed repealing the policy, with McCain opposed to even talking about it. "I think it would be a terrific mistake to even reopen the issue," he said at a June 5 debate. The Service Members Legal Defense Network estimates that 65,000 troops are hiding their orientation and that 11,000 have been discharged under the policy since its inception. The GAO found that 800 of those discharged were in mission-critical positions, such as language experts.

In an op-ed, Post columnist Eugene Robinson attacks the White House for its "bait-and-switch" tactics on now playing down September as the month when things are going to show whether President Bush's "surge" plan is working. "White House spokesman Tony Snow was purposeful on Wednesday in stomping, trampling, tap-dancing upon and otherwise giving a definitive beat-down to any expectations of a serious, fact-based reassessment of Iraq policy in the fall. Never mind that the White House raised those expectations in the first place," he writes. Most of the column is a run-down of yesterday's Pentagon report that said violence was up across much of Iraq because of the inflow of troops into Baghdad and Anbar. "George Bush can't bring himself to question his basic vision of Iraq, and I doubt he ever will," he glumly concludes.

At the bottom of Rubin's write-up, she mentions that the case of Lt. Col. William H. Steele is going to court-martial. Steele, 51, an army reservist from Prince George, Va., was posted at Camp Cropper, one of the detention centers at BIAP, which held some of Iraq's most wanted, including Saddam Hussein. He is charged with "mishandling classified information, storing it on his computer, possessing pornography, and giving special privileges to an Iraqi interpreter and carrying on an inappropriate relationship with her." THe most serious charge against him, that he "aided the enemy" by allowing detainees to use a cellphone without supervision, carries the death penalty.

Paul von Zielbauer writes a very confusing story about the forensics evidence in the hearing of a Marine accused of killing three Iraqis in Haditha in 2005. Government experts testified that four Iraqi men were shot in the head from a few feet away, "undercutting prosecutors' argument that the men had been 'executed' by two Marine infantrymen."

But, in a sign of how forensic evidence can be open to differing interpretations, one expert conceded that the evidence could support the marines' account of acting in self-defense just minutes after he had asserted that it contradicted one marine's account of the shootings.

This will be a difficult story for prosecutors and the panel of judges to untangle in determining whether Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt, who is accused of killing three of the men, goes to trial or not.

In an extraordinarily tone-deaf op-ed, Bing West and Owen West call for enhanced identification technology for U.S. troops (sounds good) and a vastly expanded detention policy (not so good.) "The scale of imprisonment must be doubled or tripled if we are serious about prevailing," they write. The problem is that there is no accurate census or coherent ID standard among Iraqis, and the abuses of Abu Ghraib led to "vastly excessive civil rights protections for detainees." The result? No one knows who the insurgents are and many that are being picked up by sheer luck are constantly being set free.

America's newspaper has an interesting package by William M. Welch on equipment shortfalls facing the states' National Guard units because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Units in 31 states have 60 percent or less of their authorized equipment. The shortfall raises concerns that in the event of a major national emergency, such as another Hurricane Katrina, Guard units won't be able to help other states. New Mexico is in the worst shape, with only 34 percent of the equipment it needs, while Idaho has 100 percent of its equipment.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., pens an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal saying things are going better in Baghdad and Anbar province based on his recent trip there, echoing Petraeus' assessments reported by USA Today, er, yesterday -- which earned Petraeus a scolding by Lieberman's colleague, Sen. Reid (see above). In the piece, the Nutmeg Senator attempts to rebut critics' assertions that the surge isn't working because the overall level of violence is increasing across other parts of Iraq, according to a report issued by the Pentagon. "Our troops have succeeded in improving security conditions in precisely those parts of Iraq where the 'surge' has focused," he writes "Al Qaeda has shifted its operations to places like Diyala in large measure because we have made progress in pushing them out of Anbar and Baghdad. The question now is, do we consolidate and build on the successes that the new strategy has achieved, keeping al Qaeda on the run, or do we abandon them?"

Iraq's lawyers are being killed at an increasing rate, writes Melanie Kirkpatrick for the Journal's op-ed page, an assault on Iraq's legal system that American lawyers are neglecting. She recounts a letter from Aswad al-Minshidi, president of the Iraqi Bar Association: "Dear Miss Melanie," he writes. "I know when a journalist is killed in Iraq, his or her colleagues around the world provide support and raise their voices in outrage. But where are the voices of outrage of lawyers in other countries when a lawyer is killed for doing his job?" U.S. lawyers should stop focusing on defending detainees at Guantanamo and instead help out their brethren in Iraq, she argues.

No Iraq coverage today.

Daily Column
Sunni Shrine Destroyed; Gates Visits Iraq; PTSD on Rise
06/16/2007 01:40 AM ET
Today's big story comes from the Washington Post's Steve Fainaru, who peels back a lot of layers on the use of private military contractors in Iraq. In short, there's a lot of them, they cost a lot of money and a lot of them are dying -- all largely out of sight of the American public, which is mostly how the U.S. military likes it.

The security companies, Fainaru reports, are beefing up their presence and armor in parallel to the U.S. military's "surge," mostly for the use in protecting convoys and personal security. The statistics for the companies are sobering: one in seven convoys protected by private security forces have come under attack this year, with one company reporting 300 hostile actions in the first four months of 2004. Until relatively recently, the military routinely deleted contractor casualty figures from reports, but revised figures from last month state that 132 contractors and truck drivers have been killed and 416 wounded since fall 2004. Four security contractors and a driver are still missing and 208 vehicles have been destroyed. Even those numbers are considered low-balled.

The amount of money in play is also sobering: The U.S. military plans to outsource about $1.5 billion in security operations.

The story lacks a full accounting, however, with only the briefest of allusions as to why private security forces in Iraq are considered controversial. While it's nice Fainaru reported that most of the 100 companies operate outside Iraqi law and that the number of what might be considered "private combat troops" is in the 20,000 to 30,000 range -- about the same size as the military's "surge" -- the contention that contractors operate in a defensive role only is taken at face value. No mention is given to their rules of engagement, discipline and the opinions of U.S. troops on the ground. In the past, U.S. soldiers with contractors in their battle space have sometimes complained of the latters' cowboy tactics. The views of the employers, advocates and even U.S. commanders guarded by the contractors is given full venting, however -- all of which are bullish. Another big omission is how the contractors fit into the military's chain of command and how placing the contractors under the UCMJ (implemented in the FY2007 Military Authorization Act) is working out.

Sunni Shrine Destroyed
In the day's roundup of security incidents, Both The New York Times and the Post lead the destruction of the Talha bin Obeid-Allah shrine in Basra, the largest Sunni shrine in Basra. Alissa Rubin of the Times writes that Iraqi and American officials fear the lack of reprisal violence following Wednesday's attack on the Askariya shrine in Samarra was a matter of revenged delayed rather than prevented. "We won't see so much right away," she quotes an official in the office of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as saying. "It will come later." Rubin quotes Gen. Ali Hamadi, a security official in Basra, as saying that photographers and cameramen entered the mosque and planted bombs, but local residents reported uniformed men -- likely Shi'ite militiamen from the local security forces -- entering the mosque just before the explosion.

John Ward Anderson in the Post notes the shrine's destruction and also quotes Hamadi, who says the security detail in charge of the mosque was arrested. He also reports 35 bodies found in Baghdad Friday.

Both stories note the F-16 that crashed and the deaths of five U.S. troops. Rubin skips the report of bodies in Baghdad, but reports two civilians killed and four wounded in Samarra by a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol to enforce the curfew. Anderson, meanwhile, folds Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' visit to Iraq into his daily roundup and flicks at the completion of the surge, according to U.S. commanders. U.S. troops now number about 160,000 in Iraq.

Gates of Iraq
The Times and the Wall Street Journal break out their stories on Gates' visit to Baghdad, with the Times' Thom Shanker reporting that Gates isn't very happy with the pace of Iraqi political reconciliation, a departure from the happy talk on Wednesday by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and former ambassador John Negroponte. He did defend Gen. David Petraeus, who has been criticized by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., as not being candid with Congress and being out of touch with realities on the ground in Iraq.

The Journal's Greg Jaffe uses Gates' visit to talk about the U.S.'s efforts at arming Sunni tribal groups in Anbar to fight al Qaeda elements, a story that has been widely reported elsewhere. Both stories mention Gates' attempt to play down September as the make-or-break month for the surge when Congress gets to hear a progress report.

In other coverage

Ann Scott Tyson reports for the Post on a Pentagon task force's call for sweeping reforms in the nation's mental health system for returning troops. Nearly 40 percent of soldiers, a third of Marines and half of the National Guard members are reporting symptoms of psychological problems upon return home, but a shortage of mental health workers in the various services are being swamped by the tsunami of patients -- hundreds of thousands out of the more than 1 million troops who have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Gates is required to develop a plan of action within six months based on the task force's recommendations.

No weekend edition.

No weekend edition.

Daily Column
Turks Back Off? U.S. on the Offense in W. Baghdad
06/17/2007 01:47 AM ET
The Washington Post hits it hard on Iraq today, with four stories, multiple op-eds and a must-read followup to last year's Pulitzer-winning stories on the scandal at Walter Reed by Dana Priest and Anne Hull. Meanwhile the New York Times plays it big that the U.S. is starting a new offensive against al Qaeda in western Baghdad as part of its uncharacteristically thin Sunday offering on Iraq.

Priest's story for the Post, co-bylined with Hull, is both a heartbreaking and enraging look at the mental health problems faced by returning veterans and the bureaucratic sclerosis that hinders them getting help. Army Spec. Jeans Cruz, who helped capture Saddam Hussein, suffers from serious PTSD, but has been denied anything more than group therapy from the Veteran's Administration because of sloppy record-keeping by the Army. "I've shot kids," he is quoted as saying. "I've had to kill kids. Sometimes I look at my son and like, I've killed a kid his age. At times we had to drop a shell into somebody's house. When you go clean up the mess, you had three, four, five, six different kids in there. You had to move their bodies."

He is one of 45,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan -- the equivalent of four Army divisions -- who are suffering from some from of mental illness, usually PTSD, brought on by the stress of almost six years of war.

They occupy every rank, uniform and corner of the country. People such as Army Lt. Sylvia Blackwood, who was admitted to a locked-down psychiatric ward in Washington after trying to hide her distress for a year and a half; and Army Pfc. Joshua Calloway, who spent eight months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and left barely changed from when he arrived from Iraq in handcuffs; and retired Marine Lance Cpl. Jim Roberts, who struggles to keep his sanity in suburban New York with the help of once-a-week therapy and a medicine cabinet full of prescription drugs; and the scores of Marines in California who were denied treatment for PTSD because the head psychiatrist on their base thought the diagnosis was overused.

One of the problems is the ridiculously high standard for diagnosis of PTSD. Priest reports the current requirements are for veterans to prove they witnessed at least one traumatic event, such as the death of a fellow soldier, or been the victim of an IED blast. "That standard has been used to deny thousands of claims," Priest writes. Another problem is the stigma within military culture: in a recent survey, nearly 60 percent of soldiers said they wouldn't seek help for mental health problems because they worried about being treated differently by their unit commanders. Fifty-five percent worried about being perceived as weak.

Priest's and Hull's story comes on the heels of the Post story yesterday about the release of a Pentagon report calling for sweeping reforms in the treatment of mental illness for returning troops.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus announced yesterday that with the final units of the surge now in Iraq, a new offensive against al Qaeda in western Baghdad will begin, report Thom Shanker and Michael Gordon for The New York Times. It's an offensive aimed at disrupting the insurgent cells and bomb factories that have wreaked havoc on U.S. forces and Shi'ite areas of Baghdad. Interestingly, this offensive is apparently taking troops away from other Baghdad neighborhoods that still need to be secured, meaning even the surge troops may be spread too thin. "There has never been a military commander in history who wouldn’t like to have more of something or other," Petraeus said. "The fact is, frankly, that we have all that our country is going to provide us in terms of combat forces —- that is really it, right now."

There have been numerous offensives against al Qaeda and other Sunni militants in the past -- Fallujah I and II, Ramadi, Tal Afar, the Euphrates River Campaign of 2005 -- and they succeeded mainly in driving the militants to other areas rather than solving a problem. Shanker and Gordon's story never really gets at this issue, but they note that success has been mixed in the past.

The Post's John Ward Anderson and K.I. Ibrahim wrap up the security events by reporting on the destruction of a second Sunni mosque in the southern city of Basra while Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, called his followers to march to Samarra next month, the site of Wednesday's bombing of the Golden Shrine. Al-Sadr's proposed pilgrimage is incendiary, because tens of thousands of Shi'ites marching to an al Qaeda stronghold in Iraq sounds like it's asking for trouble, but knowing Sadr he's probably just agitating for some concession from his rivals. The Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq neé SCIRI said the logistics would need to be studied, indicating they're on to al-Sadr's game. The U.S. is taking a wait-and-see attitude to al-Sadr's provocation, with military spokesman being quoted as saying, "in theory, demonstrations are 'a part of democracy,' and that if Sadr 'can do it peacefully, with no one getting hurt, that's a good thing.'"

Also, the U.S. military announced that the ID cards of two soldiers captured by militants on May 12 were discovered in a safe house in Samarra a week ago. Gates' and Petraeus' presser gets a (very) brief mention by Anderson and Ibrahim. They don't seem very impressed by the new offensive.

The Times' roundup by Damien Cave plays big the destruction of the Ashrah al-Mubashra mosque in Basra, and gives a lot more detail on the security situation in that city, which a former governor calls "out of control." "The latest attack heightened tensions between Sunni and Shiite officials, and for some, seemed to confirm that Iraq’s central government had lost the ability to exert much influence, not just on areas of the Kurdish north, but also on majority-Shiite strongholds in the south," he writes. Cave buries the news of al-Sadr's call for a march on Samarra, but gets in that a U.S. soldier was killed south of Baghdad on Friday by a roadside bomb. The news of the discovery of the two soldiers' IDs gets a nod.

In other coverage
The Post absolutely dominates in extra Iraq coverage today as IraqSlogger was going to Web, with reports from the north on a possible Turkish invasion, a follow-up on Abu Ghraib that points to the involvement of senior Defense Department officials and three Outlook section pieces on Iraq.

Joshua Partlow travels to Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan to describe a tense situation with 20,000 to 30,000 Turkish troops massed on the border, families fleeing their homes, Turkish special forces in Sulaymaniyah and violations of Iraqi airspace by Turkish choppers. And yet, the headline says "Major Turkish Incursion in N. Iraq Seen as Unlikely." Huh? Only the commander of the border force, Brig. Gen. Muhsen Abdul Hasan Lazem, is quoted as saying it's unlikely. Partlow notes that Turkish premier Recep Tayyp Erdogan said his country would focus on defeating domestic Kurdish militants before turning to Iraq's Kurds and that troop movements and shelling are a relatively regular occurrence, but he buries the really significant part in the story: the suggestion that the U.S. would side with Turkey in a dispute with the Kurds. "We can't have it to where we have friction with a NATO ally," said Brig. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, who works with Iraqi security forces. The Kurdish regional government "must help out in muzzling the PKK or suffer the consequences."

Josh White and Amy Goldstein write up Syemour Hersh latest provocation: Lt. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who investigated the abuses at Abu Ghraib, said he was ordered to limit his investigation to low-ranking soldiers, that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld misled Congress about his involvement and that he was forced to retire early because of his work on the scandal. "I know that my peers in the Army will be mad at me for speaking out, but the fact is that we violated the laws of land warfare in Abu Ghraib," Taguba said, according to the article. "We violated the tenets of the Geneva Convention. ... Civilian and military leaders responsible should be held accountable."

In the Outlook section, Steven Simon and Ray Takeyh, two fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations, write in today's Post that Iraq is lost, full-stop. But they do offer a prescription on how to handle it. After downplaying the consequences of a defeat, they prescribe containing Iran, tamping down the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and returning to realistic ideas about promoting democracy in the Middle East. "Washington faces a bleak choice: It can push its values or realize its interests. It cannot do both," they write.

George Will holds Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., up as a barometer of future Republican sentiment in Congress. Smith is a war opponent, a lonely position in a party that has come to be defined by its leader, the president, and the Iraq war. "Smith's loneliness may be assuaged in September," writes Will, "when Petraeus reports on the effects of the troop surge. 'There is,' Smith says, 'a high expectation that we' -- Republican senators -- 'will be able to vote for something different in September.' And: 'I can,' he says, 'think of a dozen Republican senators who will be with me in September.'"

Finally, David Broder writes that the Bush administration is so desperate to get its message of "yallah, yallah!" to Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki and his government, that it's resorted to using The New York Times to apply public pressure. "Remarkable," he writes. "Not only does (Adm. William J. Fallon, the head of U.S. Central Command) invite The New York Times to what would normally be a private meeting, thus signaling to Malaki that the pressure will be publicized around the world, but then the American officials -- no reference to agreement on Maliki's part -- tell (NYT reporter Michael) Gordon, 'Go ahead and quote everybody directly on the record.'" To Broder, this is a sign that the Bush administration is so desperate that "even the Times becomes a lever." (Well, it does have a larger circulation than the Post, David.) What's more surprising, however, is Broder's surprise. Remember that run-up to the war with Judith Miller and WMD? Anyone?

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Daily Column
Baghdad Hard to Staff, while Diyalah Assault Continues
06/21/2007 01:50 AM ET
Shi'ite disarray and rivalries in Iraq lead the Big Two today, with the Washington Post focusing on political divisions in Baghdad, while The New York Times looks at the Shi'ite-on-Shi'ite violence that is tearing apart Diwaniya in southern Iraq.

At the same time, the Times again beats the Post in the coverage of Operation Arrowhead Ripper, with its embedded reporting from Baqoubah while the Post is left to file from Baghdad. The Post, however, cleans up in the Washington-based Iraq reporting with two op-eds, a look at Sen. Hillary Clinton's changing stance on the war, which is cheering some war opponents, and the latest developments on U.S. relations with Iran over Iraq.

The Post leads its Iraq coverage with the news that top Iraqi officials are growing frustrated with Nouri al-Maliki. Joshua Partlow and Robin Wright report that members of the al-Maliki government are growing so disillusioned with his lackluster performance that even Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi submitted his resignation. Abdul Mahdi, whose departure from the government was averted due to promises of action (presumably from PM Maliki), is a member of the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq neé SCIRI, and his attempted resignation reflects the serious splits arising among Iraq's governing Shi'ite coalition. Moqtada al-Sadr -- Malaki's main political backer outside of his own Dawa party -- has withdrawn his people (again) from Parliament following last week's repeat bombing of the Askariya mosque in Samarra, while the Fadhila Party withdrew its 15 members from the Shi'ite coalition earlier this year. With the health of SICI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim failing -- he has lung cancer -- "A highly complicated political landscape is about to get more complicated," said a U.S. official who tracks Shiite politics.

What Partlow and Wright only hint at, however, is that Abdul Mahdi also wants to be prime minister -- he was the Americans' favorite to succeed Ibrahim al-Jaafari -- and his not-so-determined attempt to "resign" allows him to put some daylight between himself and what he likely suspects is the soon-to-fail Maliki.

Alissa Rubin files a worrisome piece for the Times, datelined out of Diwaniya, describing the violence between rival Shi'ite factions in the once (mostly) peaceful south. "Shiites are killing and kidnapping other Shiites," she writes. "The police force is made up of competing militias and the inner city is a web of impoverished streets where idealized portraits of young men, killed in recent gun battles with Iraqi and American troops, hang from signposts above empty lots." She notes that Diwaniya has always been restive, being the first city to revolt against Saddam Hussein in the wake of the Gulf War in 1991. Today's splits however, break down along class lines, with the more educated, middle-class Shi'ites following al-Hakim's SICI, and the poorer, uneducated casting their lot with al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Fifty people were killed in March and "not a day goes by" without an attempt on a government official's life, she writes. It is only the presence of American and Iraqi forces -- who are taking casualties -- that seems to keep the city from erupting into all-out war.

On the battlefield, the Times' Michael Gordon and Rubin round up the day's kinetic operations with a to-the-point account of slow going in Baqoubah for U.S. troops. A slow start because of a sandstorm and roadside bombs have enforced a block-by-block pace. But there have been some surprises: a fully stocked medical lab for militants that included oxygen tanks, defibrillators, generators and surgical equipment; roadside bombs so powerful that they overturned a Bradley fighting vehicle and damaged a heavily armored Buffalo mine-clearing vehicle. So far, one soldier has been killed and 12 wounded, the U.S. military said, and 41 "al Qaeda" fighters had been killed.

John Ward Anderson of the Post files no first-hand account, however, but adds some context to his story. The U.S. military had been criticized in the past over previous offenses that allowed militants to escape. Anderson reports that "this time, military planners are trying to avoid that outcome by drawing a tight ring around Baqoubah that locks insurgents inside, where they can be captured or killed." One success, according to a military statement: six uninjured men were captured while trying to escape in an Iraqi ambulance. Anderson repeats the surprising news that elements of the Ba'athist nationalist insurgency, such as the Islamic Army and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, are working closely with U.S. and Iraqi forces to identify al Qaeda members. They've even been issued special insignias to distinguish them from al Qaeda members. It seems they do need steenkin' badges after all.

In an unfortunately buried piece on 9A, Jim Michaels reports from Muqdadiyah for USA Today on the scope of Operation Arrowhead Ripper. With so many U.S. and Iraqi forces brought to bear, the offensive is targeting multiple areas simultaneously, preventing militants to fleeing to other, nearby safe havens as they did in the past. Michaels reports the U.S. is attacking not only Baqoubah, but also Muqdadiyah in Diyalah province, areas south of Baghdad and supply lines west of Baghdad. "We want them to know we can hit these areas at the same time," said Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the MNC-I and the No. 2 U.S. military man in Iraq. "We think we surprised them with the amount of force we were able to generate." The weak point in the plan? Iraqi forces will have to hold the areas the Americans have secured for them, which has not gone so well in the past.

Both the Times and the Post note the bombing of three Sunni mosques south of Baghdad, while the Times expands on violence in and around Nasiriya between Mahdi Army fighters and local police. U.S. troops were involved and airstrikes had to be called in. The Post reports that eight Christians were abducted in Mosul on Wednesday.

Diplomatic Openings
Back in Baghdad, while the Iraqis are having trouble keeping people in government, the Americans are having trouble getting people to serve in Iraq in the first place. Glenn Kessler of the Post reports that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is responding to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker's plea for more staff at the Baghdad embassy by ordering that all diplomatic posts in Iraq and Afghanistan be filled first -- by order if necessary -- before any other posts at Foggy Bottom.

Kessler reports that at least 20 percent of the U.S. Foreign Service has already served in Iraq, and "directed assignments" are on the horizon. Additionally, the State Department is sweetening the pot by lifting the requirement that spouses and dependents of diplomats in Iraq, who can't take their families because of the danger, must return to the United States if a parent takes a one-year post in Baghdad from another overseas assignment.

It's a remarkable recognition of the difficulties in Iraq that the State Department is having trouble filling the posts, but it shouldn't be surprising. For years, the professionals at the Near East desk at State were denigrated by the Bush Administration. Now, they don't want to be left holding the bag on Iraq.

Robin Wright of the Post reports on the U.S.'s refusal to release five Iranians captured earlier this year despite pleas from Iraq's government because of bureaucratic foul-ups as well as a policy decisions. Part of the problem lies in the review rules for foreign fighters captured in Iraq, which is how the U.S. classifies the five Iranians. (The U.S. says they're associated with the Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.) They were due to have a review in mid-July, the six-month review all detainees get, but it was instead done in April, meaning they can't get another hearing until October. The Iranians have threatened unspecified retaliation if their guys aren't released soon, and Iraq Foreign Minister Hoshi Zebari, who really, really wants to see the U.S. and Iran getting along in Iran, says their release would help U.S.-Iran talks. Zebari warned the continued detention of the Iranians might scuttle the second round.

Other coverage

Perry Bacon Jr. files a report on Sen. Hillary Clinton's evolving stance on the Iraq war and how it's playing with the Democrats' left-wing these days. In short, she's improving, as far as they're concerned, but she's got a way to go. Clinton, the most hawkish of the Democrats running for president, is a barometer for sentiment among the major candidates. All Democrats now support timetables and a way to end the war, indicating that a major shift in policy might finally arrive, should a Democrat win the White House in 2008.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a well-known Democratic hawk, penned an op-ed in today's Post that says the Democrats are trying really, really hard to wind down the war, but like Lincoln during the Mexican-American war of the 19th Century, he and his colleagues would continue to fund the troops in the field. The tone of the piece, however, seems less a chance to explain the issue, however, than it is a plea for the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party to get off his back.

David Ignatius, a regular Post columnist, pens an extraordinary op-ed that says, a) people in the Bush administration don't see it as a failure but instead see it as "muddling through" on Iraq and b) that bringing in Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense is important because "He has an unusual ability to see reality as it is -- what might work -- rather than let his hopes and aspirations take over." (emphasis added.) Is the ability to discern reality as it is now an "unusual" attribute for powerful cabinet secretaries?

Proving the adage that kids lead, USA Today's Andrea Stone reports on a summer camp for the children of wounded Iraqi veterans. No other paper covers the homefront like USA Today in finding those stories about troops' lives left behind when they go to war, and this one's no exception. Stone writes that nearly 19,000 children have had parents injured in the military since 9/11, with 2,200 children losing a parent. For the kids of the wounded, the summer camp in Cleveland National Forest in California, gives them a chance to talk about the effect the wounds have had on their families.

Jennifer Allman of Spring Valley, Calif., says she has seen that in her children since their father, Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Corby Allman, suffered back injuries, partial vision and hearing loss and PTSD after his convoy was hit by an "improvised explosive device," or IED, in Iraq in 2004.

Brandon Allman, 12, is "distant," his mother says. Jacquelyn, 10, is angry and blames herself for her father's disability. At 7, Cheyanne appears, at least for now, just happy to have her daddy home.

"It's hard because they don't understand why he gets upset really quick with them or why he can literally forget a whole conversation in two minutes," Jennifer Allman says. "I wanted them to come to camp to be with other military kids, to get counseling and to know that they are not alone."

Gordon Lubold, sadly, seems to buy U.S. military spin on a meeting of religious leaders in Iraq. Lubold repeats military claims that a meeting of 55 religious leaders from across Iraq's spiritual spectrum is "the largest number of religious leaders from the broadest geographic base in Iraq to meet in 37 years." Well, maybe, but there have been several such meetings in Iraq since the American invasion and they've all come to naught. Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institute notes this, injecting a bit of realism into the piece. Significantly, in true Iraqi fashion, most of the meeting was taken up with "deciding how the meeting would proceed and included only a little substantive discussion." Yup, sounds about right for these kind of things.

WALL STREET JOURNAL No original Iraq coverage today.


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