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History > 2009 > USA > War > Iraq (I)



Jordan Awan


The Hearts and Minds of Soldiers


















Two Suicide Bombers

Kill at Least 60 in Baghdad


April 25, 2009
The New York Times


BAGHDAD — Twin suicide bombers struck outside the gates of the holiest Shiite site in Baghdad on Friday, killing at least 60 people and wounding scores more, according to preliminary reports from police officials.

The blasts came a day after the single deadliest day in Iraq in more than a year, and punctuated a deadly outburst of violence in recent weeks.

Friday’s bombings occurred near the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, one of the twelve imams of Shiite Islam, in the Kadhimiya neighborhood of Baghdad. Like the previous bombings, the attacks appeared to target Shiites in particular.

An interior ministry official said that most of those killed appeared to be Iranians making pilgrimages to the shrine. Two suicide bombers blew themselves as they mingled with crowds gathered in front of checkpoints at the main entrance to the shrine, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to speak publicly. In addition to those killed, at least 125 others were wounded.

The streets around the shrine have already been hit by two other suicide bombings this year.

On Thursday three suicide bombings — one in Baghdad and two in Diyala, the restive province northeast of the capital — killed more than 80 people. In barely 24 hours, five bombings have killed at least 140 people and wounded 240.

Thursday’s deadliest bombing destroyed a restaurant in the city of Muqdadiya, killing at least 47 people, most of them Iranians travelling in buses. On Friday, a morgue official said the toll had risen to 56 killed, Agence France-Presse reported from Diyala’s capital, Baquba.

While violence overall remains far below the worst years of the war here, a string of attacks so far this month has raised concern that insurgents, terrorists and other fighters have regrouped themselves with the intention of inflaming sectarian tensions and weakening Iraq’s government and security forces as the Americans reduce their military presence on the ground in advance of a full withdrawal at the end of 2011.

“The government was treating the situation like they’d won a victory,” said Sheik Jalal al-Din Saghir, a member of Parliament from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite political party. “They relaxed. We can’t ignore that there were security successes, but that doesn’t mean the story is finished.”

The government may have scored at least one important security victory on Thursday, announcing the capture of a major leader of the Sunni insurgency, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. But reports of his arrest, and even his supposed death, have been announced before, and some American military officials even question whether such a man exists.

Iraqi leaders say Mr. Baghdadi is the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group of Sunni militant forces that includes Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown group that American intelligence officials say is led by foreigners.

The Iraqi military provided no further details about the arrest, and the United States military has not confirmed it.

On Thursday, Hussein al-Shami, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, defended the government’s security gains.

“The security situation is still good, but there are some sleeper cells that are targeting the softer areas,” he said. “They just want to send a message to the government and the world that they are still here.”

The woman who blew herself up in Baghdad’s central Karada district on Thursday resembled most of the other women crowded outside a food distribution site that was catering mainly to those displaced by the war.

She wore a black abaya and, like many of the other women, was walking with a child, in her case a young girl, according to Iraqi Army and police officials who interviewed survivors at the scene.

The woman stood out, the witnesses said, only because she began nudging her way through the crowd, which had been waiting patiently for the bags of flour, bottles of cooking oil and other staples that the police were handing out. The witnesses said she tugged the child, who looked about 5 years old, along with her.

Once she reached the center of the crowd, she set off the blast, with explosives that the police believe she hid under her flowing clothes.

Afterward, a tattered black abaya stuck to a wall on the first-floor balcony of an adjacent apartment building, singed by the explosion. The sidewalk was littered with bags of macaroni and loose leaf tea that had been part of the giveaway. Flies swarmed on bits of human flesh.

One woman sat on the ground, wailing as she beat the sidewalk with the palms of her hands. She said she had lost her husband, her son, her sister and six grandchildren.

An Interior Ministry official said 28 people had died in the explosion, including 12 police officers. Fifty others were wounded.

It was not immediately clear how many of the victims were children.

At nearby Ibn al-Nafis Hospital, women who were visiting the injured moaned loudly. The patients lay on stretchers, some with burns over much of their bodies.

“I was close to the area, wondering why there was a crowd,’” said Adnan Ibrahim, 25, who had a bandage over his left eye. “After that, I don’t know what happened. It felt like there was something very heavy on my face. I discovered that I lost my eye.”

Ali, a man in his 30s who had been selling fruit from a small cart with his brother Haider, said his brother had noticed the crowd of women and children gathering nearby and gone to find out what was happening. Ali had stayed with the cart.

Moments later, Haider was dead, and Ali, who gave only his first name, was wounded by shrapnel.

At the hospital, Ali sobbed and struck his head against the metal door of a large refrigerator where bodies had been placed.

“It’s like I lost my ribs,” he said.

In the second attack Thursday, in the city of Muqdadiya in Diyala Province, a suicide bomber set off his explosives in a popular restaurant where several busloads of Iranian tourists had stopped to get snacks, to pray and to use the restrooms, the Iraqi police said.

The restaurant, Khanaqin, is in a neighborhood known as being particularly violent and in a province where Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia remains active. The restaurant has been placed off limits to tourist groups traveling from Iran to some of Iraq’s Shiite holy places, but bus drivers sometimes stop there anyway, the police said.

At least 47 people were killed and 70 injured in the blast, which brought down the restaurant’s roof, the police said. Almost all of the victims were Iranians.

Five other people were killed Thursday in Diyala Province when a man detonated his suicide vest as a car carrying a local Awakening Council leader passed, officials said. The leader was killed, as were four bystanders.

The Awakening Councils, groups throughout Iraq that were paid to leave the insurgency and fight on the government’s side, have been singled out in recent attacks.


Reporting was contributed by Suadad N. al-Salhy, Muhammed al-Obaidi, Mohamed Hussein, Atheer Kakan and Steven Lee Myers from Baghdad, and an employee of The New York Times from Diyala Province.

    Two Suicide Bombers Kill at Least 60 in Baghdad, NYT, 25.4.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/25/world/middleeast/25iraq.html?hp






At Least 75 People Are Killed

in Two Attacks in Iraq


April 24, 2009
The New York Times


BAGHDAD — At least 75 people were killed and 120 injured in two explosions in Iraq on Thursday that shook a quiet residential Baghdad neighborhood and a restive city north of the capital where Iranian tourists were targeted.

In the first attack, a woman wearing a suicide belt exploded herself in the Karada district of Baghdad as dozens of people lined up at a food giveaway, killing 28, including 12 police officers, and injuring 50, according to an official with the Interior Ministry.

In the second attack, in Muqdadiya in Diyala Province, a bomb went off inside a restaurant where a group of Iranian tourists were eating lunch, killing 47 and injuring 70, according to police officials. All but five of the dead and injured appeared to be Iranians. It was not immediately clear whether the explosion had been caused by a suicide bomber. Two of the dead and three of the wounded were Iraqis, officials said.

The attack in Baghdad came as food was being distributed by members of the Iraqi police and the Red Crescent charity in front of an apartment building. In the aftermath of the blast, the street was littered with bags of flour and red apples, and pieces of human flesh attracted masses of flies.

One woman who said she did not know what had happened to her children sat on the sidewalk wailing. Iraqis arrived in tears to hunt for missing family members.

    At Least 75 People Are Killed in Two Attacks in Iraq, NYT, 24.4.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/24/world/middleeast/24iraq.html







It's Fear That Keeps

Baghdad's Peace


March 25, 2009
Filed at 5:48 a.m. ET
The New York Times


BAGHDAD (AP) -- The streets are calmer now. The fighting between Shiites and Sunnis has largely ceased. But this is not a sign of normalcy in the Iraqi capital. It's fear that keeps the peace.

Only an estimated 16 percent of the mainly Sunni families forced by Shiite militiamen and death squads to flee their homes have dared to return.

It takes two sides to have a fight, and there's really only one side left in Baghdad.

Parts of some neighborhoods seem almost like ghost towns. And families that have gone back are sometimes met with spray-painted threats and other forms of intimidation. ''Back after a break, the Mahdi Army,'' is a Shiite militia's slogan -- playing off the same words that Iraqi television uses as a lead-in to commercials.

The findings -- based on statistics obtained by The Associated Press from U.S. and Iraqi officials as well as AP interviews in key Baghdad neighborhoods in recent weeks -- are acknowledged by U.S. military commanders on the ground. And they point to a troubling prospect.

Baghdad has been much calmer since the massacres reached their peak in late 2006 and the first half of 2007. But the calm has been achieved in part because the city is now ethnically divided. Shiites predominate. Sunnis have largely fled.

The situation is somewhat similar to Bosnia after the war of the 1990s -- years of calm but no lasting political reconciliation after its populations divided into different regions and governments.

''Baghdad has been turned from a mixed city, about half of its population Shiite and the other half Sunni in 2003, into a Shiite city where the Sunni population may be as little as 10 to 15 percent,'' said Juan Cole, a prominent U.S. expert on Iraq.

No accurate census has been taken since the bloodletting. But Cole's estimates, backed up by AP observations and U.S. statistics, hold troubling implications for the future should Sunnis come back in greater numbers.

A Sunni government employee, Mohammed Abdul-Razzaq, fled his home in the Jihad neighborhood of west Baghdad for majority Sunni Amiriyah after Shiite militiamen threatened to kill him. Iraqi police last year forced out the squatters who had moved into his house, but he has no plans to return.

''Security is still fragile,'' Abdul-Razzaq said. ''I was forced to flee once, and it can happen again. Next time they may kill me.''

Most startlingly, the ethnic divides remain even though the Iraqi and U.S. militaries have driven Shiite militiamen and death squads off the streets.

That suggests Sunnis still do not trust Iraq's government to protect them in the long run. Their mistrust could hold the seeds of future bouts of violence, especially as the U.S. military begins to draw down this year.

''The potential for renewed sectarian violence is definitely there,'' said Capt. Nathan Williams, the U.S. military commander at Hurriyah, a northern Baghdad district that saw the worst sectarian bloodletting. ''We believe if it restarts in Hurriyah, it will spread to the rest of the city.''

Even more remote is the hope of restoring Baghdad's traditional character as a city where people can live together in peace regardless of faith or ethnicity.

Among the statistics obtained by the AP:

-- Only an estimated 50,000 of 300,000 displaced families -- or 16 percent -- have returned to their Baghdad homes, according to the U.S. military. Most are believed to be Sunnis.

-- In Hurriyah, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 families, most of them Sunnis, fled in 2006 and 2007. Of those, only 648 families -- or 16 to 22 percent -- have come back since September.

In addition, 350 to 400 of the displaced families have sold or rented their Hurriyah homes, suggesting they intend to stay away forever, said Maj. Hussein al-Qaissy, Hurriyah's Iraqi army commander.

-- The violence has virtually emptied parts of the city, particularly on the mainly Sunni western side of the Tigris river. In Amiriyah, for example, 100 of the 252 Shiite families that fled are back. Roughly the same number of Shiite families, 250, fled Khadra, another western Baghdad area; only 70 have returned.

Baghdad's sectarian violence began as early as 2003 but picked up dramatically after suspected Sunni militants blew up a revered Shiite shrine north of the city in 2006. At its peak, dozens of bodies, some decapitated or with execution-style gun wounds, turned up at outlying areas of the city or in the Tigris each day.

Shiite militiamen who led the attacks against the Sunnis are largely thought to have won the sectarian conflict in the capital. The Sunnis, who are generally better off economically than the Shiites, largely fled to Jordan or Syria.

That has given Baghdad a distinctly Shiite character, which becomes obvious during the sect's religious holidays when traditional Shiite banners are hoisted over most of the city.

In Hurriyah, the signs of sectarian division are still stark.

Attacks on Iraqi and U.S. forces have been rare since they rid the neighborhood of Shiite militiamen and death squads and Sunni militants.

But most of the 18 Sunni mosques remain shut or in ruins. Some are now used as sleeping quarters for Iraqi troops, with attached rooms turned into offices.

A recent prayer held in a Sunni mosque to mark a major religious occasion attracted a meager 48 worshippers, according to Iraqi army Maj. Imad Rassoul.

Some returning families have been greeted with threats spray-painted on the walls of their homes, according to Williams, the U.S. Army captain stationed at Hurriyah.

The neighborhood also remains walled off, with access tightly controlled by Iraqi security forces. U.S. and Iraqi officials argue that removing the walls could erode some of the security gains made by allowing militants to move freely.

Resettlement has provoked 10 attacks, one deadly, violent, since September. Half of these, according to Williams, involved families that had not coordinated their return with the Iraqi army as required.

Williams said he believes Hurriyah is now generally safe.

''It's a struggle,'' said Williams, who along with local tribal leaders recently tried to persuade Hurriyah refugees north of Baghdad to come back. ''Our struggle here is to counter misconceptions about security in Hurriyah.''

Williams' men go door-to-door to check on the families that returned to Hurriyah, pleading with them to report any intimidation or threats. He also offers grants of up to $3,000 to returning families to start a business.

In a hopeful sign, some of the returning Sunnis in Hurriyah and elsewhere in Baghdad say longtime Shiite neighbors extended a warm welcome.

''They said they could not do anything to help us when the Mahdi Army came to force us out,'' said Bassem Mahmoud, a 35-year-old father of two, speaking outside his Hurriyah home with his mother next to him. ''They said they feared for their lives if they tried to help us.''

Omar al-Jibouri, a taxi driver and father of three, said his Shiite neighbors in the Dora district of western Baghdad helped repair his damaged home when he returned a month ago.

''For a whole week after our return,'' he said, ''they kept giving us food.''

    AP IMPACT: It's Fear That Keeps Baghdad's Peace, NYT, 25.3.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/03/25/world/AP-ML-Iraq-Still-Cleansed.html






Op-Ed Columnist

Wars, Endless Wars


March 3, 2009
The New York Times


The singer Edwin Starr, who died in 2003, had a big hit in 1970 called “War” in which he asked again and again: “War, what is it good for?”

The U.S. economy is in free fall, the banking system is in a state of complete collapse and Americans all across the country are downsizing their standards of living. The nation as we’ve known it is fading before our very eyes, but we’re still pouring billions of dollars into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with missions we are still unable to define.

Even as the U.S. begins plans to reduce troop commitments in Iraq, it is sending thousands of additional troops into Afghanistan. The strategic purpose of this escalation, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged, is not at all clear.

In response to a question on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Mr. Gates said:

“We’re talking to the Europeans, to our allies; we’re bringing in an awful lot of people to get different points of view as we go through this review of what our strategy ought to be. And I often get asked, ‘Well, how long will those 17,000 [additional troops] be there? Will more go in?’ All that depends on the outcome of this strategy review that I hope will be done in a few weeks.”

We invaded Afghanistan more than seven years ago. We have not broken the back of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. We have not captured or killed Osama bin Laden. We don’t even have an escalation strategy, much less an exit strategy. An honest assessment of the situation, taking into account the woefully corrupt and ineffective Afghan government led by the hapless Hamid Karzai, would lead inexorably to such terms as fiasco and quagmire.

Instead of cutting our losses, we appear to be doubling down.

As for Iraq, President Obama announced last week that substantial troop withdrawals will take place over the next year and a half and that U.S. combat operations would cease by the end of August 2010. But, he said, a large contingent of American troops, perhaps as many as 50,000, would still remain in Iraq for a “period of transition.”

That’s a large number of troops, and the cost of keeping them there will be huge. Moreover, I was struck by the following comment from the president: “There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments, but our enemies should be left with no doubt. This plan gives our military the forces and flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners and to succeed.”

In short, we’re committed to these two conflicts for a good while yet, and there is nothing like an etched-in-stone plan for concluding them. I can easily imagine a scenario in which Afghanistan and Iraq both heat up and the U.S., caught in an extended economic disaster at home, undermines its fragile recovery efforts in the same way that societies have undermined themselves since the dawn of time — with endless warfare.

We’ve already paid a fearful price for these wars. In addition to the many thousands of service members who have been killed or suffered obvious disabling injuries, a study by the RAND Corporation found that some 300,000 are currently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and that 320,000 have most likely experienced a traumatic brain injury.

Time magazine has reported that “for the first time in history, a sizable and growing number of U.S. combat troops are taking daily doses of antidepressants to calm nerves strained by repeated and lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Suicides among soldiers rose in 2008 for the fourth consecutive year, largely because of the stress of combat deployments. It’s believed that 128 soldiers took their own lives last year.

Much of the country can work itself up to a high pitch of outrage because a banker or an automobile executive flies on a private jet. But we’ll send young men and women by the thousands off to repeated excursions through the hell of combat — three tours, four tours or more — without raising so much as a peep of protest.

Lyndon Johnson, despite a booming economy, lost his Great Society to the Vietnam War. He knew what he was risking. He would later tell Doris Kearns Goodwin, “If I left the woman I really loved — the Great Society — in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs... All my dreams...”

The United States is on its knees economically. As President Obama fights for his myriad domestic programs and his dream of an economic recovery, he might benefit from a look over his shoulder at the link between Vietnam and the still-smoldering ruins of Johnson’s presidency.

    Wars, Endless Wars, NYT, 3.3.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/opinion/03herbert.html?ref=opinion






With Pledges to Troops and Iraqis,

Obama Details Pullout


February 28, 2009
The New York Times


CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — President Obama declared Friday that the United States has now “begun the work of ending this war” in Iraq as he announced the withdrawal of most American forces by the summer of next year while leaving behind as many as 50,000 troops for more limited missions.

Nearly six years after American troops crossed the border into Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, Mr. Obama said “renewed cause for hope” produced by improved security would allow Americans to begin disentangling militarily and turn the country over to the Iraqis themselves.

“Let me say this as plainly as I can,” the president told thousands of Marines stationed here. “By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.”

The “transitional force” he will leave behind will no longer participate in major combat missions but instead train and advise Iraqi security forces, hunt down terrorist cells and protect American civilian and military personnel working in Iraq. Mr. Obama promised that all of them will leave as well by December 2011 in accordance with a security agreement with Iraq negotiated by President George W. Bush before he left office last month.

At the same time, Mr. Obama vowed to continue the American commitment to building a new Iraqi society and to resettling millions of displaced Iraqis still away from home — elsewhere in their own nation or in neighboring countries. And he promised to escalate diplomatic involvement in the broader region, including new lines of communication with Iran and Syria.

“Every nation and every group must know — whether you wish America good or ill — that the end of the war in Iraq will enable a new era of American leadership and engagement in the Middle East,” the president said. “And that era has just begun.”

The announcement marked a sharp turning point in the American venture in Iraq, one that signaled a shift in the once-fiery political debate at home and in the nation’s priorities abroad. The choice of Camp Lejeune, the largest Marine base on the East Coast, symbolized the transition because 8,000 troops from here will soon ship out to Afghanistan as part of a 17,000-troop buildup ordered by Mr. Obama.

The reaction to the Iraq drawdown plan indicated an emerging consensus in the United States that it is time to begin getting out. While some leading Congressional Democrats grumbled about the size of the residual force, the drawdown largely won support across party lines, including from leading Republicans like Senator John McCain of Arizona, who lost year’s election to Mr. Obama after a fierce debate over Iraq.

Speaking on the Senate floor on Friday before the president’s speech, Mr. McCain credited the opportunity to pull troops out to the surge that Mr. Bush ordered two years ago with his support. But he cautioned that Iraq remains fragile, urging Mr. Obama to remain flexible and listen to military commanders.

“With these factors in mind, I believe the president’s withdrawal plan is a reasonable one,” Mr. McCain said. “Given the gains in Iraq and the requirements to send additional troops to Afghanistan, together with the significant number of troops that will remain in Iraq and the president’s willingness to reassess based on conditions on the ground, I am cautiously optimistic that the plan as laid out by the president can lead to success.”

Former Bush aides also offered support for the plan, calling it the logical next step after the president’s agreement with Iraq to withdraw all forces by the end of 2011. “The specific timing is only slightly different but consistent with the goal of helping Iraq become self sufficient in providing its own security,” Gordon D. Johndroe, who was Mr. Bush’s last national security spokesman, said in an interview. “This is possible because of the success of the surge.”

Mr. Obama called Mr. Bush from a holding room at Camp Lejeune just before going on stage in the base gymnasium to make the announcement, aides said. He called Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq from Air Force One on the flight from Washington to brief him on the withdrawal plan.

In Baghdad, Yassen Majeed, an adviser to Mr. Maliki, said the prime minister “is very comfortable with the plan.”

“The Prime Minister assured the American president that the security situation in Iraq is stable and his forces are ready to take over all the responsibilities from the American side.”

But others there were more cautious, including Sunni lawmakers worried about their the possible erosion of their influence in the Shiite-dominated government.

Several noted with approval Mr. Obama’s statement that the Iraqi government would only have American support as long as it remained non-sectarian. “All Iraqis want the American to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible,” said Adnan al-Dulaimi, a senior Sunni politician. “We’re just afraid of the vacuum that this withdrawal may cause.”

During his speech, Mr. Obama credited troops who “got the job done” but gave no credit to the troop surge and associated strategy shift that he opposed in January 2007. He praised Ambassador Ryan Crocker as an “unsung hero” and Gens. David H. Petraeus and Ray Odierno as the “finest generals,” without mentioning Mr. Bush. His only implicit reference to his predecessor came when he said Iraq had taught painful lessons about how and when America should go to war.

“We have learned that we must always weigh the costs of action, and communicate those costs candidly to the American people,” he said. He added: “We must use all elements of American power to achieve our objectives, which is why I am committed to building our civilian national security capacity so that the burden is not continually pushed on to our military. We have learned that our political leaders must pursue the broad and bipartisan support that our national security policies depend upon, which is why I will consult with Congress and in carrying out my plans. And we have learned the importance of working closely with friends and allies, which is why we are launching a new era of engagement in the world.”

To that end, Mr. Obama also introduced Christopher Hill, a veteran diplomat, as his ambassador to Iraq.

The president’s plan to disengage will pull out most of the 142,000 troops in Iraq by August 2010, or 19 months after his inauguration and three months longer than he promised on the campaign trail. From 35,000 to 50,000 troops will remain until December 2011. While the Bush team once envisioned a long-term peacetime presence along the lines of Germany and South Korea, Mr. Obama’s aides rejected that.

“The path we’re on here, the path is not towards any sort of Korea model,” said a senior administration official, briefing reporters under ground rules requiring that he not be identified. “The path is towards reducing, in a fairly substantial way, U.S. forces in 2010 and then down to what’s currently anticipated, down to zero, by the end of 2011.”

Mr. Obama’s withdrawal plan will still leave the vast bulk of American forces in Iraq through the end of this year to let ground commanders have the forces they want to guard against any resurgence of violence surrounding parliamentary elections in December and any subsequent transition of power. The drawdown would then accelerate early next year.

Officials said Mr. Obama agreed to the longer-than-promised timeframe and the gradual approach after consulting military commanders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The military presented three options to the president — one that would fulfill his 16-month campaign time frame, a 19-month middle ground, and a 23-month option that General Odierno, the ground commander in Iraq, thought would present the lowest risk.

The administration convened interagency working groups to evaluate the risks and benefits of the different options and ultimately Mr. Obama became convinced by General Odierno that he needed more than 16 months to get through the elections safely. “The president found that very compelling,” a top official said.

At the same time, the Joint Chiefs were concerned about leaving troops there too long because of the strain on the overall armed forces and the need to reinforce the mission in Afghanistan.

The final 19-month plan had the support of all of Mr. Obama’s national security team, officials said, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman, who were both held over from the Bush administration. Officials said Generals Odierno and Petraeus, the Middle East commander, were also comfortable with the plan.

But senior Democrats, while happy that most troops will be withdrawn, are not completely satisfied. Congressional leaders in recent days have criticized the size of the residual force, even though Mr. Obama said consistently during last year’s campaign that he would leave troops behind for limited missions.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, who complained Thursday that a 50,000-member residual force was too big, put out a more tempered statement Friday, calling Mr. Obama’s plan "sound and measured," while adding that he still wants to keep "only those forces necessary for the security of our remaining troops and the Iraqi people."

A person briefed on the closed-door White House briefing for Congressional leaders said Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House speaker, was particularly upset about the residual force. She kicked off the public criticism on Wednesday by saying she did not understand “the justification” for 50,000 troops staying.

By contrast, Republicans seemed more amenable to the plan. During the Thursday evening session with Mr. Obama, Mr. Gates, Admiral Mullen and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the State Dining Room, Mr. McCain said he thought the withdrawal plan was thoughtful and well prepared, according to several people who were present.

Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, and other senior Republicans were likewise generally supportive, while advocating flexibility to preserve security gains of the last two years, according to Congressional aides.

Representative John M. McHugh of New York, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said Mr. Obama had reassured him that he would revisit the plan if circumstances changed.

“The president’s objective to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq is one that we should pray for, plan for and work toward,” Mr. McHugh said. “However, I remain concerned that the security situation in Iraq is fragile, and we should work to mitigate any risks to our troops and their mission.”


Mark Santora contributed reporting from Baghdad.

    With Pledges to Troops and Iraqis, Obama Details Pullout, NYT, 28.2.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/28/washington/28troops.html?hp







Obama to Announce

Iraq Withdrawal


February 24, 2009
Filed at 3:13 p.m. ET
The New York Times


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Administration officials say President Barack Obama is planning to announce that most U.S. troops will be out of Iraq in less than 19 months.

The plan would leave a interim force of between 30,000 and 50,000 to advise and train Iraqi security forces and to provide intelligence and surveillance. They would have to be out by 2011. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The withdrawal would fall three months short of one of Obama's central campaign pledges to remove U.S. troops in 16 months.

A senior White House official says Obama is at least a day away from a final decision.

There are currently 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

About 4,250 have died and more than 31,000 wounded since the war began in 2003. It has cost more than $650 billion since 2003.

    Officials: Obama to Announce Iraq Withdrawal, NYT, 24.2.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/02/24/washington/AP-Iraq-Withdrawal.html






Iraq Won’t Grant

Blackwater a License


January 30, 2009
The New York Times


BAGHDAD -- Blackwater Worldwide, the security firm whose guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians on a crowded Baghdad street in 2007, will not receive an operating license from the Iraqi government, a decision that will likely force American diplomats here to make new arrangements for their personal protection, officials said Thursday.

Unlike many security contractors in Iraq, Blackwater has been operating without an Iraqi government license, although it had recently applied for one.

The request was turned down during the past few weeks by the Iraqi government, officials said.

“They presented their request, and we rejected it,” said Ala’a Al-Taia, an official with Iraq’s Interior Ministry. “There are many marks against this company, specifically that they have a bad history and have been involved in the killing of so many civilians.”

The decision was first reported in The Washington Post.

An official at the United States Embassy in Baghdad said Thursday that the decision was being studied. Blackwater provides personal security to American State Department employees in Iraq, including the ambassador.

“We have been informed that Blackwater’s private security company operating license will not be granted,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she lacked permission to discuss the topic to a reporter. “We don’t have specifics about dates. We are working with the government of Iraq and our contractors to address the implications of this decision.”

Anne Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Blackwater Worldwide, said Thursday that the company had not yet received official notification that its Iraqi license would not be granted.

“If that is the case,” she said, “we will respect the laws of Iraq and follow the direction of our U.S. government customers to insure that we are compliant with our contractual obligations as well as the rules of Iraq.”

It appears likely that Blackwater will remain in Iraq at least until spring, when a joint Iraqi-American committee is scheduled to complete guidelines for private contractors operating in Iraq, officials said. The State Department extended its contract with Blackwater in April 2008, despite its lack of an Iraqi license to operate.

The Iraqi government has sought in the past to expel Blackwater over concerns of inappropriate use of force, but American officials in Iraq who rely on the company’s heavily armed guards for security have said they had no alternative but to continue using the North Carolina-based security contractor.

Security contractors working in Iraq lost immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law on Dec. 31 as part of the status-of-forces agreement signed by the United States and Iraq. The agreement also strengthens the Iraqi government’s hand with United States officials to enforce its decision to not allow Blackwater to operate.

The immunity issue had been a priority for the Iraqi government since the Sept. 16, 2007, shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. Blackwater’s guards, riding in a convoy through the square, opened fire on Iraqi civilians. The guards apparently believed they were being fired on.

Last month, five Blackwater guards were charged in the United States with manslaughter in connection to the shooting. They pleaded not guilty. A sixth guard, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter, is cooperating with prosecutors.

Iraq’s decision to ban the firm did not come without warning. In 2008, the State Department’s inspector general issued a report that said that there was a “real possibility” that Blackwater might not be licensed by the Iraqi government to continue to protect American diplomats in Baghdad in 2009.

Suadad al-Salhy contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Sharon Otterman from New York.

    Iraq Won’t Grant Blackwater a License, NYT, 30.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/30/world/middleeast/30blackwater.html?hp






Obama Seeks Accord

With Military on Iraq


January 29, 2009
The New York Times



WASHINGTON — As President Obama moves to redefine the nation’s mission in Iraq, he faces a difficult choice: Is he willing to abandon a campaign promise or risk a rupture with the military? Or can he finesse the difference?

Since taking office last week, Mr. Obama has recommitted to ending the war in Iraq but not to his specific campaign pledge to pull out roughly one combat brigade a month for the first 16 months of his presidency. His top commander in Iraq has proposed a slower start to the withdrawal, warning of the dangers of drawing down too quickly.

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama visited the Pentagon for the first time since becoming president, and he seemed to be looking for an option that would let him stay true to his campaign promise, at least in theory, without alienating the generals. The White House indicated that Mr. Obama was open to alternatives to his 16-month time frame and emphasized that security was an important factor in his decision.

“We’re no longer involved in a debate about whether, but how and when,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said about a withdrawal from Iraq. “That’s a process the president wants to take seriously.”

He added: “He wants to ensure the safety of our troops as we remove our combat brigades; wants to, as I’ve said repeatedly, provide the responsibility and the opportunity for the Iraqis to do more in governing their own country; and, as I said, to do this in a way that seeks the consultation of all those leaders.”

Among those consulted by the president was Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, who has developed a plan that would move slower than Mr. Obama’s campaign timetable, by pulling out two brigades over the next six months. In an interview in Iraq on Wednesday, General Odierno suggested that it might take the rest of the year to determine exactly when United States forces could be drawn down significantly.

“I believe that if we can get through the next year peacefully, with incidents about what they are today or better, I think we’re getting close to enduring stability, which enables us to really reduce,” General Odierno said as he inspected a polling center south of Baghdad in advance of provincial elections on Saturday.

General Odierno said the period between this weekend’s elections and the national elections to be held about a year from now would be critical to determining the future of Iraq. While some American forces could be withdrawn before then, he suggested that the bulk of any pullout would probably come after that.

“We are going to reduce forces this year,” the general said. “It’s the right time to reduce our forces here. I believe that Iraqis are making progress. It’s time for us in some places to step back and give them more control.” He added, “What we want to do is to slowly shift our mission from one that’s focused on counterinsurgency to one that’s more focused on stability operations.”

After a session at the White House last week, with General Odierno participating via secure video, Mr. Obama traveled to the Pentagon on Wednesday to meet with the service chiefs. The discussion ranged beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, covering a variety of challenges confronting the armed forces. “It was a very elevated conversation about the situation worldwide and the threats that we face and the risks that exist around the globe,” said Geoff Morrell, the Defense Department spokesman.

Speaking with reporters afterward, Mr. Obama expressed concern about the “enormous pressure on our military to carry out a whole set of missions” and promised to advance “all aspects of American power to make sure that they’re not carrying the full load.” He indicated that he had not decided on his approach to Iraq. “We’re going to have some difficult decisions that we’re going to have to make surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan, most immediately,” Mr. Obama said.

J. D. Crouch II, who was President Bush’s deputy national security adviser and a leading architect of the “surge” strategy, said Mr. Obama and his team would be wise to heed the military. “They don’t want Iraq to go bad because they have too many other important things to do,” he said. “They don’t want to alienate the military. And there’s something to be said that the guy who got things under control over there, Ray Odierno, probably has a good idea of what he needs.”

Yet Mr. Obama faces pressure from his political base to stick to his 16-month timetable. “We voted for him because he’s going to get us out of Iraq,” said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, an antiwar group. “If there are some military people who feel we should stay there, they’re entitled to their opinion, but that shouldn’t be our policy.”

Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, another organization that opposes the war, said, “We have no reason to think Obama’s backed off his campaign promises on a timeline to end the war.” Representative William D. Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts and member of the Out of Iraq Caucus, said that the withdrawal should happen even faster than 16 months and that military commanders knew it could. “When they say it concerns them, there’s a certain ‘cover myself’ ” at work, he said.

Others said the timetable was less important than the goal. “It helps for him to aim for it,” said Representative Ike Skelton, Democrat of Missouri and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “If you can draw your troops down to within the ballpark and they’re safe, that’s what counts.”

In Jisr Diyala, south of Baghdad, General Odierno traveled in an armored vehicle on Wednesday to inspect preparations for Saturday’s voting. He said his focus now was on “drivers of instability” that could halt Iraq’s security gains, including Arab-Kurdish friction in northern Iraq and tension between Shiite political parties over the division of power elsewhere in the country.

General Odierno said he envisioned a shift in the American mission that would occur in “five or six nodes,” where Iraqis and Americans would both have forces working with provincial reconstruction teams, other American Embassy personnel and nongovernmental organizations to help Iraqis mature as a fighting force and gain skills in civilian projects.

Eventually, he said, only about one-third of the current 140,000 troops now in Iraq will be needed, but when that will happen has yet to be decided. “That’s the decision we have to make is when that happens; when do we go to that level,” he said.

Under the security agreement approved by Baghdad and Washington before Mr. Obama took office, all United States forces are supposed to leave by the end of 2011 unless requested to stay by the Iraqis — a date confirmed by General Odierno, who said, “By 2011 we’ll be zero.”

“We’re making progress every day,” General Odierno said. “But I still see some issues that could cause problems that I worry about. Political issues that could turn into security issues. But the longer we go, if we get through the elections, we get closer and closer to not being able to backslide.”

Peter Baker reported from Washington, and Alissa J. Rubin from Baghdad. Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington.

    Obama Seeks Accord With Military on Iraq, NYT, 29.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/29/us/politics/29prexy.html







The Hearts and Minds of Soldiers


January 28, 2009
The New York Times


To the Editor:

Re “Troubled Minds and Purple Hearts,” by Tyler E. Boudreau (Op-Ed, Jan. 26):

A medal for post-traumatic stress disorder would help those veterans who have the condition, although few would wear it with pride.

Until recently, PTSD was a stigmatized status equated with cowardice or lack of resilience or, even worse, with malingering to escape service or to receive unmerited compensation.

Now there is growing recognition of the medical reality of PTSD, including brain scans showing altered function. The syndrome affects high numbers of combatants. It is unreasonable to judge these men and women by the relatively few malingerers and exaggerators.

At last, the true suffering from PTSD is acknowledged. This recognition helps veterans, family members, doctors and therapists attend to the injury and its consequences.

The Purple Heart should remain an emblem for service on the battlefield resulting in obvious injury. But veterans deserve a separate symbol for hidden wounds that are honorably earned and equally disabling. Frank M. Ochberg

Okemos, Mich., Jan. 26, 2009

The writer, a psychiatrist, is the editor of “Post-traumatic Therapy and Victims of Violence” and former associate director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

To the Editor:

“Troubled Minds and Purple Hearts” is definitely a step in the right direction in one sense. Movingly and persuasively written by Tyler E. Boudreau, a former marine, it advocates for an alternative medal to the Purple Heart for those have suffered the hidden wounds of war trauma.

But from a psychological standpoint, Mr. Boudreau then takes a half step backward when he suggests giving what he calls a “Black Heart.” When he says “the hearts of these soldiers are black,” he is suggesting something negative, dark and associated with death. That may only add to the stigma of mental illness that has led to this conundrum.

Why not refer to the “minds” noted in the title of his article? How about a “Mind Medal” in honor of the damage that can’t be physically seen, to be given out in May, our Mental Health Month? There indeed can be light at the end of this dark tunnel.

H. Steven Moffic

Milwaukee, Jan. 27, 2009

The writer, a psychiatrist, is a professor of psychiatry at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

To the Editor:

Tyler E. Boudreau’s article is so cogent: “That far too many of those returning from combat experience deep and long-lasting devastation is irrefutable.”

I would remind readers of the cost of post-traumatic stress to our society, of which suicide is the most tragic and devastating, but also including divorce, physical and emotional abuse, substance abuse and addictions — a terrible toll to us all. Susan Woodall

Managing Director

Connecticut Mental Health

Center Foundation

New Haven, Jan. 27, 2009

To the Editor:

Re “Troubled Minds and Purple Hearts” and “Counting the Walking Wounded,” by Lawrence M. Wein (Op-Ed, Jan. 26):

Let us not forget another group of victims deeply affected by the invisible wounds of post-traumatic stress — the children and spouses of the returning soldiers. Not only should every soldier be screened for PTSD, but the families (particularly children) should also be educated about and treated for its effect on them. Carolina Nadel

Arlington, Va., Jan. 26, 2009

The writer is a medical doctor and a children’s book writer-illustrator who is working on a picture book to help children cope with parents returning from war with PTSD.

To the Editor:

Lawrence M. Wein’s Op-Ed article was well written regarding our war veterans’ health needs and statistical data. The central question that was not directly addressed is, Where is the money to finance the program in the worst economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s?

As a creator of the 2008 State of California Bill SB 1401 (screening and treatment of traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress) of our Iraq- Afghanistan war veterans, I strongly recommend that the medical institutions in the 50 states start the health care process.

Then, those vets who have the medical illness would be directly referred to V.A. hospitals for treatment.

The key to financing this needed health care is to connect the dots and overcome the academic bureaucracy.

Jerome V. Blum

Los Altos Hills, Calif., Jan. 26, 2009

The writer is a medical doctor.

    The Hearts and Minds of Soldiers, NYT, 28.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/opinion/l28heart.html






Op-Ed Contributor

Troubled Minds and Purple Hearts


January 26, 2009
Northampton, Mass.


THE Pentagon’s recent decision not to award the Purple Heart to veterans and soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress has caused great controversy. Historically, the medal has gone only to those who have been physically wounded on the battlefield as a result of enemy action. But with approximately one-third of veterans dealing with symptoms of combat stress or major depression, many Americans are disappointed with the Pentagon’s decision; many more are downright appalled. As a former Marine infantry officer and Iraq war veteran, I would urge the Pentagon to consider a different solution altogether.

First, let me say that both sides of the Purple Heart debate have expressed some reasonable concerns. Those who believe that the Purple Heart should be reserved strictly for the physically wounded hold a more traditional sense of the battlefield in which wounds are bloody and undeniable. The gashes of war carry an irrevocable purity that tends to make the issue concrete and uncomplicated.

And yet there have been complications. During the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry’s Purple Hearts, awarded for his service in Vietnam, were labeled by his opponents “purple owies” because the wounds he suffered were not considered dire enough. It was a petty episode, to be sure, but it demonstrated the disparate views of this medal. In the interests of guarding the nobility of the Purple Heart, many service members, including me, have suggested that not every last physical wound merits a decoration.

When I was in Iraq, the most common wound behind the many Purple Hearts we awarded was the “perforated eardrum,” an eardrum punctured by the concussion of a nearby explosion. In the vast majority of cases, no blood was ever shed. Seldom did these marines ever miss a day of full duty. And yet they were all awarded the coveted medal.

Admittedly, I was dubious about the “recognition” of these and other lesser wounds; I felt that in a way they subverted the obvious intent of the Purple Heart — honoring soldiers who have been seriously hurt. But where to draw the line? Perhaps it should be awarded only to those who required admittance into a combat support hospital. “The Purple Heart deserves at least one night out of action,” I argued at the time. But my own commander stood fast by the rules, affirming: “A combat wound is a combat wound, no matter how small. So they get the medal.”

A year later, back at Camp Lejeune, N.C., I was making calls to the families of wounded marines — a difficult duty even when the wounds were minor. But I noticed during that time that I never once made a call to a family about a marine’s psychological wounds. I never got a casualty report for post-traumatic stress, despite the rising number of veteran suicides. Never once.

Why, I asked myself, if a combat wound is a combat wound no matter how small, shouldn’t those people suffering from the “invisible wounds” of post-traumatic stress also receive the Purple Heart? Difficulty of diagnosis is one of the central justifications the Pentagon has given, citing the concern that fakers will tarnish the medal’s image. Spilt blood cannot be faked.

But this seems an unconvincing argument not to honor those who actually do suffer from post-traumatic stress. For example, the possibility of fakers has not prevented the Department of Veterans Affairs from awarding disability payments to service members who have received a diagnosis. Why should the military itself be different?

The distinction, I suspect, lies in the deep-seated attitude toward psychological wounds. It is still difficult for many members of the military to truly believe that post-traumatic stress is, in fact, an injury and not the result of a weak or dysfunctional brain. The same culture that demands tough-mindedness also encourages skepticism toward the suggestion that the violence of war can hurt the healthiest of minds.

Still, almost all service members agree that veterans suffering from confirmed cases of post-traumatic stress should be cared for. The reality of psychological wounds is becoming harder and harder to deny. That post-traumatic stress can lead to suicide is no longer in question. That far too many of those returning from combat experience deep and long-lasting devastation is irrefutable.

So why not recognize the struggles of these many individuals with a medal? Why, for instance, if a veteran has been given a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress and awarded benefits, should he not also be awarded a Purple Heart? Sadly, as long as our military culture bears at least a quiet contempt for the psychological wounds of war, it is unlikely those veterans will ever see a Purple Heart. That is too bad, I think, because they do deserve all the honor the physically wounded receive.

But there may be another solution — perhaps a new decoration, a new medal, could be established specifically for those suffering from post-traumatic stress. It would be awarded to those whose minds and souls have been sundered by war.

I urge General Eric Shinseki, the new head of Veterans Affairs and former Army Chief of Staff, to work hand in hand with the Defense Department to bring about some form of official recognition for these wounded veterans. The current stigma of post-traumatic stress would likely prevent many soldiers from wearing the medal initially, but its mere existence would help crystallize in the American — and the American military — consciousness one of the more obscure human costs of war.

I suggest we call this medal the Black Heart. Certainly the hearts of these soldiers are black, with the terrible things they saw and did on the battlefield. Certainly the country should see these Black Hearts pinned on their chests.

Tyler E. Boudreau, a former Marine captain, is the author of “Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine.”

    Troubled Minds and Purple Hearts, NYT, 26.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/26/opinion/26boudreau.html






Bombings in Iraq as Biden Arrives


January 13, 2009
The New York Times


A series of bombings around Baghdad killed eight people and injured at least 29 others on Monday morning, a few hours before Vice President-elect Joe Biden was reported to arrive in the Iraqi capital for talks with officials.

The visit was not officially announced, and Iraqi officials refused to confirm it. But several news agencies reported his arrival. The Associated Press said he met with President Jalal Talabani at Mr. Talabani’s residence and was to meet other officials as part of a senate delegation. Mr. Biden, who is still the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Pakistan on Friday and Afghanistan on Saturday.

Most of the bombs on Monday morning appeared to target Iraqi Army or Iraqi police convoys, but half of the dead and the vast majority of the wounded were civilians, according to Iraqi government officials.

The first two explosions occurred simultaneously at about 8 a.m. along a busy street in eastern Baghdad as a police patrol passed a bakery shop.

One of the blasts came from a car packed with explosives that had been parked on the street, while the second was from an explosive device known as a “sticky” bomb, which are often attached with a magnet to a vehicle, an official with the Ministry of the Interior said. Those bombings killed three people and wounded 10 others, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Not long afterward, in central Baghdad, a sticky bomb that had been placed on a car exploded, killing one civilian and wounding a second, the official said.

At about 8:45 a.m., a fourth explosive — this time, a roadside bomb -- was detonated in Kahramana Square, not far from the French Embassy. An Iraqi police officer was killed and two traffic officers and a civilian were wounded, officials said.

“We received information about an explosive device planted near where our patrol was located,” Ahmed Ali, 35, a traffic officer said after. “We blocked the road from both sides, but one of my colleagues, along with a police officer from the French Embassy, ignored our warnings and went to inspect it. It exploded as soon as they got close to it. My colleague was thrown several meters, while the police officer was lying down on the ground bleeding heavily.”

Some people in the neighborhood wondered how a bomb could have been placed in such a heavily policed area of the capital.

“How could somebody plant an explosive device in such a fortified area?” asked Qasim al-Attab, a 48-year-old shop owner near Kahramana Square. “I can’t fully trust the Iraqi security forces because they don’t have the same discipline as Americans regarding military duties.”

The United States has said it will withdraw combat troops from Baghdad and other Iraqi cities by the end of June and leave Iraq altogether by the end of 2011. There have been persistent questions about the readiness of the Iraqi Army and police to handle security without American assistance.

Also, Monday morning, another roadside bomb targeting an Iraqi military convoy in southeastern Baghdad carrying ammunition killed three soldiers and wounded four bystanders when a vehicle caught fire and exploded.

Other attacks in Baghdad on Monday morning included a roadside bomb aimed at a police patrol in the western part of the city that left four civilians wounded and still another roadside bomb that injured seven people, include three police officers, in eastern Baghdad near Al Shaab Stadium.

The United States military said an American soldier had been killed in a noncombat related incident on Sunday in the city of Samarra, but gave no further details.

Also Monday, the Iraqi government released a national poverty survey of 18,144 Iraqi families conducted during 2007 by the World Bank, the Iraqi Ministry of Planning, and the Kurdish Regional Ministry of Planning.

The survey found that most of the families lacked indoor plumbing and that about half the homes were infested with insects or rats.

Riyadh Mohammed, Mudhafer al-Husaini

and Mohammed Hussein contributed reporting.

Bombings in Iraq as Biden Arrives, NYT, 12.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/13/world/middleeast/13iraq.html