The bottom line is clear: Our vital interests in Afghanistan are limited and military victory is not the key to achieving them. On the contrary, waging a lengthy counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan may well do more to aid Taliban recruiting than to dismantle the group, help spread conflict further into Pakistan, unify radical groups that might otherwise be quarreling amongst themselves, threaten the long-term health of the U.S. economy, and prevent the U.S. government from turning its full attention to other pressing problems. -- Afghanistan Study Group

Thursday, January 10, 2008

News & Views 01/10/08

Photo: A woman cries as she talks to a soldier as other members of Ghostrider Company, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment search a home in Abu Musa. (Marko Drobnjakovic / Associated Press)

REPORTS – LIFE IN IRAQ

Security worsens in Baghdad despite U.S. claims of improvement

The security situation in Baghdad is deteriorating very quickly. Of course this bit of information no longer has any meaning for Iraqis as it has become an integral part of Iraq’s media discourse in the years since U.S. invasion of 2003. But it assumes a special significance right now since it comes in the aftermath of the empty official statements made recently with regard to security conditions in Iraq and particularly Baghdad. The synchronized bombing of churches in three major cities in the country – Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk – and the ostensible surge in bomb attacks targeting U.S.-supported Arab Sunni militias, government targets and U.S. Marines are indications of worsening security conditions despite Iraqi government’s efforts to present a different picture. The upsurge in insecurity is a natural outcome of the drastic failure to lead in a country whose ruling political factions are the ones to blame. They are the ones who shoulder the responsibility for the deterioration in security. Following a short ‘lull’, the current deterioration is extremely dangerous as it comes in on the heels of false statements and lies of gains in security. There were obvious signals that conditions would aggravate but the authorities ignored all of them. They were childishly happy with their patchwork, thinking it could resist the collapse of their rickety security infrastructure. The structure of security in Iraq is falling because its foundations were built on sand or probably it had no foundations at all.

Kurds, Arabs in Maliki Regime Remain Divided

The ruling coalition of Arab Shiites and Kurds, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, has much less in common than previously thought. Both need each other to keep their small majority intact and thereby preserve the strings of power, no matter how shaky, in their hands. The Kurds are represented by ostensibly secular political factions battling a surge in Islamic militancy in their own backyard in northern Iraq. Fighting militant Sunni elements like those linked to al-Qaeda is the platform that brings them together and appeals to their protectors, the U.S. occupiers. Otherwise, there is little common ground for them to stand and the divisive issues setting them apart remain unsolved despite their alliance now in its fourth year. The coalition has failed to address the conflict over Kurdish militias, known as peshmergas. The Kurds want the government to subsidize their militias whose numbers they estimate at 180,000 fighters. The government, dominated by Arab Shiites, disputes the figure, saying the Kurds under previous agreements are only allowed to have a military force of no more than 25,000. There is also the contentious issue of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk which the Kurds are adamant to add to their semi-independent enclave currently composed of three provinces - Sulaimaniya, Arbil and Dahouk.

Millions of Shiites flock to Iraq to celebrate Ashura

Millions of Shiite Muslims marked the holy day of Ashura in the Iraqi city of Karbala Thursday, beating their heads and whipping their chests and backs with chains to commemorate the killing of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson Imam Hussein. Shiites from all over the world including Lebanon, Iran, Bahrain, Pakistan and Tanzania brought their young sons to march down the streets in a pilgrimage to the city's shrine, traditionally held to be the tomb of Hussein, who died and was martyred in the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD.

Police foil attempt to smuggle al-Askari shrine contents

The Iraqi Ministry of Interior foiled an attempt to smuggle precious contents of the two holy Shiite shrines of al-Askari imams in Samarra, an official government spokesman said on Thursday. "The Iraqi Ministry of Interior seized precious contents of the two holy shrines, including a copy of the Holy Quran, armors and swords of great historic and artistical value," Spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement received by the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI). The smugglers were planning to move the contents outside the country, al-Dabbagh indicated. Al-Dabbagh did not provide information about the number of smugglers or the date of arrest. Samarra, one of the main cities in Salah al-Din province, lies 118 km north of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, on the eastern side of the Tigris River. The city houses Iraq's four main Shiite shrines. The al-Askari shrine, which contains the tombs of Imams Ali al-Hadi and Hassan al-Aaskari, figures deemed holy by Shiite Muslims, came under a bombing attack that destroyed its two minarets last June. The attack was followed by angry demonstrations in several areas in Iraq, prompting the authorities to impose a curfew in Baghdad and Samarra for three days. Meanwhile, the official al-Iraqiya satellite channel said that security forces arrested the mastermind of the attack. The state-run channel showed pictures of the suspect and the items seized in his possession.

Baghdad newspapers lash out at al-Qaeda

Iraqi press on Thursday went on the attack, accusing al-Qaeda organization and its leader Osama Bin Laden of fueling sectarian sedition in the country, with a newspaper highlighting statements by the Baghdad security plan spokesman about the recent attacks on awakening councils and the security apparatus. Al-Istiqama newspaper, a daily mouthpiece of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakeem, wrote, "After al-Qaeda organization in Iraq and its evil allies had given up their goal of triggering a sectarian war in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites, they turned their attack on the faithful sons of the awakening councils…" "Al-Qaeda has particularly mounted its attacks on awakening councils and its leaders in the aftermath of Bin Laden's latest call on the councils to stop pursuing his followers in Iraq's Sunni areas," the newspaper said.

Precious pages

"Like thousands of Iraqis I wanted to participate in building a new society, a new Iraq... based on equality, on cultural and ethnic diversity," he says. Born into a Kurdish family living in Baghdad, he had spent half his life, 21 years, in exile - following his time among Kurdish militants as a young man. But since December 2003, just months after the invasion, he has been back in Baghdad with his wife who was just as keen to return and has since given birth to their second child while living in the city. He was appointed director of the Iraq National Library and Archive (Inla). A lover of books and learning, he believes passionately that libraries provide the "cultural memory" of a nation and must be preserved at all costs. "In these institutions you can find common symbols which represent all Iraqis regardless of their ethnic and religious backgrounds," he says. But as soon as he arrived at the Inla, he realised how awesome the task of rebuilding it would be. The building itself was in total disarray, bombed and looted. Sixty percent of the archival materials and 95% of the rare book collections had been destroyed or were missing. Most had been lost in the aftermath of the invasion.

Beneath the facade

"Welcome to Kurdistan," the signs say. There are no Iraqi flags, only Kurdish flags, flying throughout this self-governing region. The safety and apparent prosperity also makes Kurdistan feel a long way from the rest of Iraq. Irbil looks like a boom town. Cranes and new multi-storey buildings litter the skyline. There are shopping malls, luxurious gated communities, conference centres and grandiose headquarters for the factions who once fought Saddam and now rule Kurdistan - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The Regional Government is selling Kurdistan as flourishing, progressive and democratic. But beneath the fa├žade, ordinary Kurds are struggling to survive, while state money gets siphoned off into private pockets.

REPORTS – IRAQI MILITIAS, POLITICIANS, POWER BROKERS

Switching sides

The self-styled Awakening Councils, made up of former insurgents who have switched sides to fight al-Qaeda, are a key element in the current US strategy in Iraq. But among the country's competing factions and militias they are winning distinctly mixed reviews. In security terms, says Joost Hiltermann, Iraq analyst with the International Crisis Group, they have undoubtedly helped reduce the violence in some parts of the country. "They've brought quiet back to Anbar province and Sunni neighbourhoods of Baghdad," he says. In Anbar the councils are made up of tribesmen who have turned against al-Qaeda because of its brutal Taliban-style rule in areas where it held sway. In Baghdad they comprise former insurgents, including ex-Baathists. But while welcomed by some Iraqis for restoring calm to their neighbourhoods, these groups have also stirred up resentment, mistrust and outright hostility.

Parliament holds regular session, postpones accountability bill

The Iraqi parliament held its regular session on Thursday under Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, while voting on the accountability and justice law was postponed until further notice. "The parliament held its regular session today and started with discussing the accountability and justice draft law," a media source told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI) under condition of anonymity. Meanwhile, MP from the Sadrist bloc Maha Adel said "the parliament postponed discussing the accountability and justice draft law until further notice due to the disagreement among a number of political blocs over that law." The draft is an alternative for the debaathification law, enacted by former U.S. civil administrator Paul Bremer, who ruled Iraq after the fall of the former regime in April 2003.

Article 140 referred to constitutional court to consider its legality- source

The Iraqi parliament's presidency and political bloc leaders have agreed to refer Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution pertaining to the status of oil-rich Kirkuk to the constitutional court to determine its legality, a senior parliamentary source said on Thursday. "On Thursday morning, members of the parliament's Constitutional Amendments Committee discussed with Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani changing the Iraqi flag and Article 140 pertaining to the normalization of the situation in Kirkuk. The parties agreed to refer the article to the constitutional court to determine its legality," the head of the committee, Hammam Mahmoud, said in exclusive statements to the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI). Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution is related to the normalization of the situation in Kirkuk , an important and mixed city of Kurds, Turkmen, Christians and Arabs. Kurds seek to include the city in the autonomous Iraq's Kurdistan region, while Sunni Arabs, Turkmen and Shiite Arabs oppose the incorporation. The article currently stipulates that all Arabs in Kirkuk be returned to their original locations in southern and central Iraqi areas, and formerly displaced residents returned to Kirkuk, 250 km northeast of Baghdad.

REPORTS – US/UK/OTHERS IN IRAQ

In Iraq, U.S. airstrikes target insurgents near supposedly safe zone

The U.S. military dropped 40,000 pounds of explosives southeast of Baghdad on Thursday in a series of airstrikes that underscored the tenuousness of U.S. progress against Islamic extremists in Iraq. The targets were near the town of Arab Jabour, a Sunni Muslim-dominated district on Baghdad's outskirts that American officials recently held up as a security success and an example of how local Sunni tribesmen known as "concerned local citizens" had turned against al Qaida in Iraq. But Thursday's air attack indicated that the area still has a considerable Sunni militant presence. The statement said that more than 40 targets in three large areas were hit during two passes by two supersonic B-1 bombers and four F-16 fighter jets. A U.S. military official in the area said the targets were al Qaida in Iraq weapons caches and bomb-making materials.

US Troop ‘Surge’ in Iraq One Year Old

It was one year ago that President Bush addressed the nation to announce an increase of US combat forces in Iraq. Sectarian violence was spiraling out of control, American casualties were rising, and some believed the war was lost. [It was lost before any USuk troops set foot in the place. – dancewater]

U.S. troops set free Haweija mayor

U.S. troops set free al-Haweija mayor after one month of detention, the chief of the district local council said on Thursday. "U.S. troops on Thursday set free al-Haweija (70 km south west Kirkuk ) Mayor Abdel Amir Abdullah after detaining him for a month”, chief of Haweija local council, Hussein Ali Salih, told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI). Last month, U.S. troops arrested al-Haweija mayor without giving the cause of the detention.

’05 Use of Gas by Blackwater Leaves Questions

The helicopter was hovering over a Baghdad checkpoint into the Green Zone, one typically crowded with cars, Iraqi civilians and United States military personnel. Suddenly, on that May day in 2005, the copter dropped CS gas, a riot-control substance the American military in Iraq can use only under the strictest conditions and with the approval of top military commanders. An armored vehicle on the ground also released the gas, temporarily blinding drivers, passers-by and at least 10 American soldiers operating the checkpoint. “This was decidedly uncool and very, very dangerous,” Capt. Kincy Clark of the Army, the senior officer at the scene, wrote later that day. “It’s not a good thing to cause soldiers who are standing guard against car bombs, snipers and suicide bombers to cover their faces, choke, cough and otherwise degrade our awareness.” Both the helicopter and the vehicle involved in the incident at the Assassins’ Gate checkpoint were not from the United States military, but were part of a convoy operated by Blackwater Worldwide, the private security contractor that is under scrutiny for its role in a series of violent episodes in Iraq, including a September shooting in downtown Baghdad that left 17 Iraqis dead.

Ex-Blackwater Employees Sentenced

The details of what information the two men are giving to prosecutors was kept secret by Chief U.S. District Judge Louise Wood Flanagan, who invited attorneys to the bench to quietly share details of what she called "extensive cooperation." "I believe the matters in this case should be kept under seal," Flanagan said. An Associated Press reporter in the courtroom unsuccessfully objected to the private discussion. U.S. Attorney George Holding did not immediately return a call seeking comment on why part of the sentencing hearing needed to be held in private. Cashwell also was sentenced to three months of house arrest. Both men had faced up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but federal prosecutors asked Flanagan to approve the lighter sentence in light of their cooperation. "I'm sorry for what I've done," Grumiaux said during the hearing. "I feel like I've dishonored myself, having served in the military, and that's a burden I'll have to bear for the rest of my life." Little is known about the weapons investigation, which became public in September when Howard Krongard _ then the State Department's Inspector General _ mentioned that he "made one of my best investigators available to help assistant U.S. attorneys in North Carolina in their investigation into alleged smuggling of weapons into Iraq by a contractor."

RoboCop in Iraq

In the next five years, according to DefenseLink, the Pentagon plans to spend $2 billion on robots. Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, have killed 1,678 U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan since July 2003, according to Georgia-based Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. The death toll could have been much higher without the help of 5,000 IED-detecting robots that, according to CBS News, have found 10,000 roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the next step in the evolution of wartime robots looks to go from saving lives to taking them. The U.S. Army soon plans to deploy armed robots with firepower into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Designed by Foster-Miller, these robots, known as SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detections Systems), are operated and fired by remote control. They can be outfitted with M240 or M249 machine guns or Barrett .50 caliber rifles. The 5th Special Forces in Iraq evaluated the system, and three other systems have completed evaluation with the 3rd Infantry Division and deployed to Iraq in 2007. Meanwhile, the Army continues to assess alternative weapons, including grenade launchers and anti-tank rocket launchers. Each unarmed version of the robot costs $60,000.

IRAQI REFUGEES

Arab League to launch fund-raising campaign for Iraqi refugees

The League of Arab States, working with UNHCR and other international organizations, will on Friday launch a massive fund-raising and public awareness campaign to help hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees. The League and its partners hope that the "Arabs Hand-in-Hand with Iraqis" campaign, the brainchild of popular Arab Iraqi musician Naseer Shamma, will raise millions of dollars. It will be launched tomorrow with major coverage on Arab satellite television stations, including Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and the Egyptian Satellite Channel, as well as more than a dozen national channels in the Arab world. Shamma and other celebrities will be taking part. The aim of the 90-day campaign is to seek donations from viewers and to raise awareness about the plight of Iraqi refugees in countries – especially top host countries, Syria and Jordan – through advertising, feature stories, documentaries and testimonials from refugees.

"Minute percentage" of Iraq refugees coming home

Iraqi refugees are beginning to trickle home from abroad and other areas inside Iraq, but they represent only a "minute percentage" of the more than 3 million who have fled sectarian violence, a migration watchdog said. The International Organization for Migration said in a new report on Thursday that internal displacement had slowed in 2007 thanks to improved security, but also as a result of ethnically and religiously mixed neighbourhoods becoming more homogenous. More than 2 million Iraqis fled to Syria and Jordan and 1.2 million were internally displaced following the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 that triggered a wave of bloodletting between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims. "Slightly more than half of the internally displaced plan to return home, but as displacement prolongs, this figure is likely to decline, potentially leading to the permanent segregation of communities in Iraq," the IOM said in its 2007 report on Iraq.

How to Help Iraqi Refugees

ANOTHER Way to help: The Collateral Repair Project

COMMENTARY

POLITICS-US: On Anniversary, Views of Surge Diverge

While even many Democrats, who have sought in vain to reverse the strategy since it was first announced, now concede that it has helped reduce the violence in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, critics say that its ultimate political objective -- national reconciliation between Iraq's three major ethnic and sectarian groups -- remains as distant as ever. Some even argue that the surge, which added some 30,000 troops to the 140,000 deployed to Iraq at the time of Bush's announcement, may actually have enhanced prospects for a bloodier civil war by effectively permitting the warring sides -- now more demographically segregated than ever -- to re-group and re-arm in anticipation of a new round of bloodletting as U.S. troops withdraw. "The thing that worries me most of all is what happens over the next 12 to 24 months in Iraq," ret. Army Gen. Douglas MacGregor, an outspoken critic of U.S. strategy in the Iraq war since the 2003 invasion, told National Public Radio (NPR) earlier this week. "Could we have actually made matters worse in the long term?"

e-mail to a friend

The latest in Baghdad is a more suttle, but a more important story to tell. Because all the deliberate chaos and violence was like a curtain, keeping everyone so distressed there're incapable of seeing the real issues - the ones for which the war was faught in the first place. Now, people may have the energy, I hope - and the heart, to look up and start taking stock of the situation. They should begin to ask questions and demand answers of those whom they elected. Have many lost faith in their religious leaders? Have they had enough of being manipulated by them in the name of their brand of Islam? Have they had enough? But the government still feels safe, in spite of that. For who will do the serious questioning? The greater majority of the middle class has fled, and the government still has a strong hold upon their own people because of the sectarian fears - the evil seed that was sown after the occupation. So you see, although the story may have lost some of its intensity for some readers, the real story of Iraq has yet to be told. It is sometimes illusive and dificult to tell because so much is still unknown - but tell it we must.

Retired Military Officials Disagree On Impact Of Surge

During the first six months of the surge, violence in Iraq reached an all-time high. Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor said, "Up until that point, the surge was simply providing more targets for the insurgents to shoot at." But then around June, almost too fast for anyone to absorb, the violence began to plummet - a decline that continues and has turned one-time Iraq skeptics like former Gen. Barry McCaffrey into believers. "The real debate, in my mind ... (is) not whether things are better in Iraq - they are unquestionably like night and day, (the) change in the level of violence. The real question is what caused it," McCaffrey said. What caused it is open to debate. "Improvements in security are a result of the greater number of coalition and Iraqi security forces and the strategy that guides the operations we conduct," Petraeus says.

But some current and former military officers with whom NPR spoke disagree. Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, whose own son, a Marine, served in Iraq before the surge was implemented, is one of the dissenters. "My son was there fighting in Ramadi when the situation began to turn around, and I don't believe that it would be appropriate for people to say that that was even part of the surge," says Webb. McCaffrey and other former officers say that a surge of 30,000 additional troops into a country of 30 million could never have enough of an impact alone to turn things around. "The least important aspect of the so-called change in strategy was the surge," McCaffrey says.

If it wasn't just the surge, how did it happen? It could be, in part, exhaustion among Sunnis, tired of fighting and dying. Or also, in part, a cease-fire declared by the largest Shiite militia, others say. But another part, and possibly the most significant, can be traced to the end of last May. That month, 126 U.S. troops died; it was the second deadliest month for U.S. forces during the war. Petraeus was under pressure to reduce those casualties. "Petraeus seems to have concluded that it was essential to cut deals with the Sunni insurgents if he was going to succeed in reducing U.S. casualties," Macgregor says. The military now calls those "deals" the Concerned Local Citizens program or simply, CLCs. It's a somewhat abstract euphemism. The CLC program turns groups of former insurgents, including fighters for al-Qaida in Iraq, into paid, temporary allies of the U.S. military. ….Some 70,000 former insurgents are now being paid $10 a day by the U.S. military. It costs about a quarter billion dollars a year. [Roughly 1/500 of the annual cost of the war - JFP.]

RESISTANCE

Resister in Exile

Haifa Zangana survived Saddam, and urges Iraqi women to survive the occupation. It was difficult to imagine that the petite, 57-year-old with smiling eyes once smuggled intelligence and weapons under her abaya to help subvert Iraq’s powerful political parties. In 1972, when Zangana was 21, Baath officials arrested her and others for being part of a faction of the Iraqi Communist Party called the Central Leadership. She was held for six months as a terrorist and was tortured. After her release, Zangana eventually fled to London, where she has lived in exile with her husband ever since.

….How’s your family doing? - They are carrying on, like my husband’s family who lives in a part of Baghdad that the Americans built a wall around. This is the justification for it: “We are protecting people from the IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and we don’t want them to be randomly killed.” But at the same time there are air strikes that kill people randomly, so the justification doesn’t make sense except to separate and segregate people into smaller and smaller communities, which will make it easier for the occupiers to control them. We are talking about Baghdad. There are also cities like Fallujah, Anbar and Samarra in the north, where walls are built to stop the coming and going of the people. And it is not just the walls. The U.S. military was digging trenches around Al Hilla, the ancient city of Babylon, destroying an archaeological site to fill sandbags. American archaeologists did fantastic work highlighting this issue. The problem was that once they left, the damage had already been done.

Working to End the War in an Election Year

A combination of events in Iraq, congressional action, public education, protests, and public witness will be needed to end the U.S. war and military occupation of Iraq. Read FCNL Legislative Secretary Jim Fine's outline of a three point strategy: working around the country, making peace an election year issues, and lobbying Congress to change U.S. policy.

Wexler wants hearings – sign the petition here.

We Support the Troops Who Oppose the War

On the weekend of 13-15 March, 2008, Iraq Veterans Against the War will assemble history's largest gathering of US veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Iraqi and Afghan survivors. They will provide first hand accounts of their experiences and reveal the truth of occupation. We support Iraq Veterans Against the War and their Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan Investigation. Join us in supporting the effort to reveal truth in the way that only those who lived it can.

Please go to this website to sign the petition.

Quote of the day: "We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where the government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission; which is the stage of the darkest periods of human history, the stage of rule by brute force. " -- Ayn Rand in "The Nature of Government"

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