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




Families of Military Suicides

Seek White House Condolences


November 26, 2009
The New York Times


Since at least the time of Abraham Lincoln, presidents have sent letters of condolence to the families of service members killed in action, whether the deaths came by hostile fire or in an accident.

So after his son killed himself in Iraq in June, Gregg Keesling expected that his family would receive a letter from President Obama. What it got instead was a call from an Army official telling family members that they were not eligible because their son had committed suicide.

“We were shocked,” said Mr. Keesling, 52, of Indianapolis.

Under an unwritten policy that has existed at least since the Clinton administration, presidents have not sent letters to survivors of troops who took their own lives, even if it was at the war front, officials say. The roots of that policy, which has been passed from administration to administration via White House protocol officers, are murky and probably based in the view that suicide is not an honorable way to die, administration and military officials say.

But at a time when the Pentagon is trying to destigmatize mental health care in hopes of stemming a near epidemic of suicide among service members, the question of whether the survivors of military suicides deserve presidential recognition has taken on new significance.

“These families already feel such shame and so alienated from the military and the country, a letter from the president might give them some comfort, some sense that people recognize their sacrifice,” said Kim Ruocco, director for suicide support for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, a military support group. “What better way to eliminate stigma?”

As suicide has crept out of the shadows and become a front-burner problem for the military, TAPS, members of Congress and individuals like Mr. Keesling have begun raising the thorny issue of equal honors for survivors of military suicides. Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said the administration had begun a review of the policy on letters of condolence.

“The president’s thoughts and prayers are with every military family who has lost a loved one in service to our country,” Mr. Vietor said.

Presidential letters of condolence go to survivors of troops who died in action in a war theater. Though most suicides take place on posts in the United States, a significant number occur in Iraq and Afghanistan: at least 184 since 2001, according to Defense Department statistics.

Through October, the Army, which far and away leads the armed forces in suicides, reported 133 among active-duty soldiers, putting it on pace to surpass last year’s record, 140. The Marine Corps, which has the second-largest number, is also likely to have more suicides than last year, 42.

The spike in suicides has prompted an array of actions at the Pentagon. The Army is collaborating with the National Institute of Mental Health to study mental health and suicide. It has created a suicide prevention task force led by a brigadier general. It has instituted suicide prevention programs at most posts and will require all soldiers to take intensive training in emotional resiliency, to help them cope with the stress of war and deployment.

But as much as anything, the Army is trying to soften the longstanding sense that psychological problems are a sign of frailty. “We have to reduce the stigma surrounding seeking mental health help,” Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff, said this year. “Getting help for emotional problems should be as natural as seeking help for a sprained ankle.”

Mr. Obama has also spoken forcefully about the pain of suicide in the military. “We know that incidence of psychological injury increase with each additional tour of duty in Iraq, and that our troops are not getting the support they need,” he said in the 2008 campaign. “Too many are falling through the cracks because they need help but feel they can’t get it.”

Advocates for suicide survivors say the military has come a long way in equalizing the way it deals with suicides. Death benefits are largely the same for families, regardless of how a service member died. And suicides are eligible for an array of military honors, like burial in a national cemetery or color guards at funerals.

But a suspicion remains among survivors that there are differences. Ms. Ruocco, whose husband, a Marine, killed himself in 2005 after returning from Iraq several years ago, said several members of TAPS had said they had not received the folded flags from the military after family members committed suicide. She said it was possible they were not eligible, but the Pentagon had not been able to clarify its rules for suicide cases.

She also said the Gold Stars that parents of military suicides received were slightly different from the Gold Stars given to parents of troops killed in action. It is a small difference, she said, but one that further separates suicide survivors from other military families. The stress of war and deployment is often a cause of suicide, she argued, making it no different than a fatal wound from a roadside bomb.

But opponents of presidential letters of condolence argue that treating suicide the same as other war deaths might encourage mentally frail soldiers to take their lives by making the act seem honorable.

After Gregg Keesling’s son, Chancellor, shot himself in a latrine on June 19, the family received a folded flag, a letter from the Army praising their son, a rifle salute at his burial and financial death benefits.

But he views the letter of condolence as an important step toward reducing the shame and guilt many survivors feel. Hours before Chancellor, a 25-year-old specialist, killed himself, he had argued with his girlfriend over the phone and then sent a rambling, despondent e-mail message home.

“I can’t explain how ashamed i am i said some things out of anger,” he wrote. “I can’t cope without each and every one of you there by me the whole way. I feel alone and unappreciated for some odd reason this deployment is ending up to be like the last i thought about killing myself and went to the porti john and chambered a round into my m4 but decided not to pull the trigger. I realize i need help and i need to have family put first. Please forgive me and except my apology.”

About 17 hours later, he was dead.

“My last words to my son were, ‘Be a man and get through it,’ ” Mr. Keesling said, recalling one of dozens of frantic phone calls to Iraq in the hours before Chancellor’s death. “I was the stupid dad. If my son had said, ‘Dad, I’ve broken my leg, I can’t go on,’ I would have understood. But I didn’t understand the mental health side.”


Andrew W. Lehren contributed reporting.

    Families of Military Suicides Seek White House Condolences, NYT, 26.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/26/us/26suicide.html






Rebuilding Its Economy, Iraq Shuns U.S. Businesses


November 13, 2009
The New York Times


BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Baghdad Trade Fair ended Tuesday, six years and a trillion dollars after the American invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, and one country was conspicuously absent.

That would be the country that spent a trillion dollars — on the invasion and occupation, but also on training and equipping Iraqi security forces, and on ambitious reconstruction projects in every province aimed at rebuilding the country and restarting the economy.

Yet when the post-Saddam Iraqi government swept out its old commercial fairgrounds and invited companies from around the world, the United States was not much in evidence among the 32 nations represented. Of the 396 companies that exhibited their wares, “there are two or three American participants, but I can’t remember their names,” said Hashem Mohammed Haten, director general of Iraq’s state fair company. A pair of missiles atop a ceremonial gateway to the fairgrounds recalled an era when Saddam Hussein had pretensions, if not weapons, of mass destruction.

The trade fair is a telling indication of an uncomfortable truth: America’s war in Iraq has been good for business in Iraq — but not necessarily for American business.

American companies are not seeing much lasting benefit from their country’s investment in Iraq. Some American businesses have calculated that the high security costs and fear of violence make Iraq a business no-go area. Even those who are interested and want to come are hampered by American companies’ reputation here for overcharging and shoddy workmanship, an outgrowth of the first years of the occupation, and a lasting and widespread anti-Americanism.

While Iraq’s imports nearly doubled in 2008, to $43.5 billion from $25.67 billion in 2007, imports from American companies stayed flat at $2 billion over that period. Among investors, the United Arab Emirates leads the field, with $31 billion invested in Iraq, most of that in 2008, compared to only about $400 million from American companies when United States government reconstruction spending is excluded, according to Dunia Frontier Consultants, a emerging-market analyst. “Following this initial U.S.-dominated reconstruction phase, U.S. private investors have become negligible players in Iraq,” Dunia said in a report.

Indeed, even those companies that prospered during the war and occupation, including many of the big military contractors, will simply leave with the United States military as it completes its pullout over the next two years.

KBR was among the earliest contractors in Iraq and has $33 billion in contracts to support American bases. Yet it has not had any contracts with the Iraqi government to support those facilities when they’re handed over — or for that matter, to build anything else in the country.

“KBR is currently assessing the business environment in Iraq in order to make an informed decision regarding potential government contract opportunities there,” said a spokesperson, Heather Browne.

A few big American multinationals, like Bechtel, will still be in the midst of long-term projects like power plants and waterworks — but those were five- and 10-year undertakings kick-started with American reconstruction aid.

Now, Iraq is doling out its own oil-financed funds for capital projects, and American companies have so far received surprisingly little of it. Sports City, a billion-dollar complex of stadiums and housing in Basra planned for the Gulf Games in 2013, was awarded to an Iraqi general contractor, Al Jiburi Construction, over 60 other bidders, many of them American.

“We have a couple American companies as our subcontractors,” said Adai al-Sultani, an assistant to the firm’s owner, with evident pride. When the transportation ministry put up more than $30 billion in railroad expansion contracts recently, they went to Czech, British and Italian companies.

Those nations had been members of the coalition led by the United States, although all pulled outlong before the United States. But one of the biggest beneficiaries of Iraqi contract money is Turkey, which wouldn’t allow American warplanes to use its airbases during the invasion of Iraq, followed closely by Iran.

Turkey has gone from almost no legal trade with Iraq before the war to $10 billion in exports last year, five times as much as the United States. Turkey’s trade minister, Kursad Tuzmen, predicted that number would triple in the next couple years.

Both Turkey and Iran had huge pavilions at the trade fair, crowded with businessmen discussing deals. So did France and Brazil, also not coalition countries.

Last month, FedEx, which had been flying packages in and out of Iraq since 2004, announced it was suspending its operations. The reason is that Iraqi officials gave RusAir, a Russian airline, exclusive rights to cargo flights.

FedEx was one of the very few American businesses that braved the risks of working not only on American bases but also in the Red Zone, back when it was particularly dangerous to do so. Now that the danger is much less, its business is being thwarted by an upstart Russian come-lately.

“FedEx Express has had no choice but to use Rus and, as a result, the reliability of our service to Iraq has been substantially degraded,” the company said in a statement about the suspension.

It is almost an article of faith among many Iraqis, judging from opinion polls, that the United States invaded Iraq not to topple Saddam Hussein, but to get their country’s oil.

If true, then the war failed in even more ways than some critics charge.

It wasn’t until last week that the first major oil field exploitation contract was signed with a foreign company — BP, in a joint deal with China’s state-run China National Petroleum Corporation.

Exxon Mobil, an American company, has an oil field deal awaiting final approval from Iraq’s oil ministry. The Italian oil giant Eni, whose junior partner is the American-owned Occidental Petroleum, is expected to sign a similar deal. These, however, are service contracts, so the foreign oil companies don’t actually own rights to any new oil they may find.

The newest edition of the Iraqi Yellow Pages, a business-to-business directory, doesn’t have a single ad from an American company.

American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the record, disputed that United States companies were having a difficult time in the Iraqi free market. “I wouldn’t read too much into American presence or lack of it at the trade fair as a bellwether,” one official said. “I would say the future is very positive.”

Another official pointed out that a recent Iraqi-American investment conference held in Washington stirred up enormous interest among American companies. “We had to turn away several hundred companies that wanted to come,” he said, adding that the embassy in Baghdad has had many subsequent inquiries from firms. That interest has not translated into action yet.

“After the conference in Washington, I’m surprised you can get on a flight here considering all the opportunities,” said Mike Pullen, a lawyer at the British-American firm DLA Piper, who works in Iraq.

“It’s a pity we can’t get more people to come,” he said. “They’re losing out to Turkish companies, Russian companies.”

“Turkish companies are acceptable to all different Iraqi ethnic groups, because they are not an occupier, and they can implement big reconstruction projects at a lower cost,” said an executive of a leading Iraqi construction firm that often works with the Turks. He did not wish to be identified for fear of offending American clients.

Even Iraqi Kurds, many of whom are politically at odds with Turkey, seem to get along with the Turks when it comes to business.

“Turkish companies are not afraid to do business in Iraq,” said Eren Balamir, who was in charge of Turkey’s pavilion at the fair.

The high cost of security — a cost that most regional businesses don’t have — has dissuaded many American businesses from coming; some contracts spent as much as 25 percent of their budgets on security.

Security isn’t the only impediment. Being seen as the occupier is just not good for business. Although the United States, legally speaking, has not been an occupying power since June 2004, when the Security Council formally ended occupation, many see it that way. Even Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, has described Americans as occupiers to curry electoral support.

One European ambassador, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his government’s policy, said his own country’s trade opportunities greatly increased in Iraq after it withdrew the last of its troops more than a year ago. “Being considered an occupier handicapped us extremely,” he said. “The farther we are away from that the more our companies can be accepted on their own merits.”

“As a U.S. company, you already have a few strikes against you before you even step foot in Baghdad airport,” said Marc Zeepvat of the Trans National Research Corporation in New Jersey, who specializes in studying the Iraqi market for institutional investors. “The U.S. government and U.S. companies have to wake up and realize they’re not in a privileged position any more.”

“The State Department’s travel advisory doesn’t help either,” Mr. Zeepvat said. It tells people, in effect, “don’t come.”


Mohammed Hussein and Sa’ad al-Izzi contributed reporting.

    Rebuilding Its Economy, Iraq Shuns U.S. Businesses, NYT, 13.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/13/business/global/13iraqbiz.html






When Soldiers Snap


November 8, 2009
The New York Times


“Every man has his breaking point,” said military doctors in World War II, believing that more than 90 days of continuous combat could turn any soldier into a psychiatric casualty.

For Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who military officials said gunned down dozens of soldiers at Fort Hood, Tex., on Thursday, that point may have come even before he experienced the reality of war; he was bound for a combat zone but had not yet embarked.

Major Hasan was being sent not to fight, but to join those ranks of doctors who, over centuries of war, have worried about breaking points — how much fear and tedium soldiers can take; how long they can slog through deserts or over mountains; how much blood they can see, how many comrades they can lose — and have sought ways to salve the troops’ psychic wounds and keep them fighting.

Much is unknown about Major Hasan’s motives. He is said to have dreaded deployment, but what he feared is unclear. And officials have not ruled out the possibility that his actions were premeditated or political. One report had him shouting something like “Allahu Akhbar” — Arabic for “God is Great” — before the shooting.

But even in this absence of certainty, his case invites a look at the long history of psychiatric medicine in war, if only because of his status as a battlefield psychiatrist, and the chance that his own psyche was, on some level, undone by the kind of stress he treated.

Over the centuries, soldiers have often broken under such stress, and in modern times each generation of psychiatrists has felt it was closer to understanding what makes soldiers break. But each generation has also been confounded by the unpredictability with which aggressions sometimes explode, in a fury no one sees coming.

The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed more than their share of stress victims, with a rising number of suicides among soldiers and high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. Such casualties often occur not on the battlefield but after it — or, sometimes, merely in its proximity.

In World War I, the disorder was known as shell shock, and the soldiers who fell victim were at first believed to have concussions from exploding munitions. Their symptoms appeared neurological: They included trembling, paralysis, a loss of sight or hearing.

Yet it turned out that some affected soldiers had been nowhere near an exploding shell, suggesting “that the syndrome could arise in anticipation of going into a stressful situation,” said Dr. Richard McNally, a professor of psychology at Harvard and an expert on traumatic stress.

Some doctors devised methods to treat shell shock victims — one German doctor tried electroshock to the limbs. But there was also widespread suspicions that the soldiers were malingering. Some soldiers were shot for cowardice.

Yet shell shock was simply the Great War’s version of a reaction to combat that has been detected even in the writings of antiquity. Achilles, Jonathan Shay maintains in “Achilles in Vietnam,” (Scribner, 1994) displayed a form of traumatic stress when in the Iliad he grieves over the death of his friend Patroclus.

Soldiers in the Civil War suffered from irritability, disturbed sleep, shortness of breath and depression, a syndrome Jacob Mendes Da Costa, an Army surgeon, described in 1871 as “irritable heart.”

In World War II, the paralysis and trembling of the early 1900s did not recur. But nightmares, startled reactions, anxiety and other symptoms persisted as “battle fatigue” or “war neurosis,” a condition whose treatment was heavily influenced by the rise of Freudian psychoanalysis.

Out of that war emerged a theory of battlefield treatment known as PIE, or proximity, immediacy and expectancy. The doctrine held that if a soldier broke down during combat, he should be treated close to the front, because if he was sent home, he would do poorly and seldom return to battle. Major Hasan, had he reached Iraq, would have practiced a similar approach: Soldiers are treated close to the forward lines and only removed to hospitals farther from the front in the most severe cases.

Today, the flashbacks, nightmares and other symptoms of soldiers are diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder or P.T.S.D., a term that replaced “post-Vietnam syndrome” and entered the official nomenclature in 1980, appearing in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual. Like its predecessors, the disorder has been easier to diagnose than it has been to understand or to treat.

Research has yielded some treatments that studies show help soldiers, and the military — now acutely aware of the problem — has taken steps to make the methods widely available. Yet the history of treatments for combat stress has often been a circular one, with experts “remembering and forgetting and remembering and forgetting but never integrating and creating a lasting narrative that could be a blueprint for going forward,” as one psychiatrist put it.

Similarly, scientific views of what makes soldiers susceptible to stress disorders have waxed and waned. Some experts, in a modern echo of a view put forward in World War II, argue that soldiers who develop P.T.S.D. have longstanding vulnerabilities — psychological or physiological — that make them unable to withstand the pressures of combat. Others assert, in agreement with the military doctors of World War I, that every soldier simply has a breaking point, and that multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed to the numbers who return to a second, psychological war at home.

Yet no theory seems able to capture the unpredictable effects of sustained violence on human beings, the subtle pressures that years of killing and more killing exert on a soldier, a doctor or a society — or the reality that every war travels home with the soldiers who fight it.

“All these people have been under a tremendous amount of stress,” said Dr. Stephen Sonnenberg, a psychiatrist and adjunct professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, speaking of soldiers and those who treat them. “They are holding the stress for everybody.”

    When Soldiers Snap, NYT, 8.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/08/weekinreview/08goode.html






Obama Visits Returning War Dead


October 30, 2009
The New York Times


President Obama traveled to Dover Air Force Base early Thursday morning, where he met with family members and paid his respects as the bodies of 18 Americans killed this week in Afghanistan were returned to the United States.

It was the president’s first trip to the Delaware air base, the main point of entry for the nation’s war dead to return home. The trip was a symbolic one for Mr. Obama — intended to convey the gravity of his decision as he moves closer to announcing whether he will send more troops to Afghanistan.

The overnight trip was not announced in advance. The president, wearing a dark suit and long overcoat, left the White House at 11:44 p.m. A small contingent of reporters and photographers accompanied Mr. Obama to Dover, where he arrived at 12:34 a.m. aboard Marine One. He returned to the South Lawn of the White House at 4:45 a.m.

October has been the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the war began eight years ago, with at least 55 troops killed in action. This week alone, about two dozen soldiers have died in attacks and accidents. The bodies returning to Dover Air Force Base shortly after midnight included seven Army soldiers and three agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration who were killed when their helicopter crashed on Monday in rural Afghanistan. The bodies of eight soldiers killed in an attack on Monday also arrived on an Air Force C-17.

On a clear fall morning, Mr. Obama boarded the back of the gray plane at 3:40 a.m., standing watch as Air Force Chaplain, Maj. Richard S. Bach, offered a brief prayer over the cases containing the remains of the 15 soldiers and three federal agents.

The family of Army Sgt. Dale R. Griffin, 29, of Terre Haute, Ind., agreed to have the transfer of his remains photographed early Thursday morning. The other families chose not to, officials said, under a new Pentagon policy that lifted an 18-year ban on media covering the return of U.S. service members killed in action if families provide permission.

As the Commander-in-chief stood on the darkened tarmac and saluted, the flag-draped case was unloaded from the cargo plane in what the military calls a “dignified transfer,” as six soldiers in white gloves and camouflage fatigues carried the remains in precision. Mr. Obama and uniformed officers stood at attention as the case was placed in a white mortuary van parked nearby.

The transfer of the bodies — a solemn, 15-minute proceeding — took place after Mr. Obama spent nearly two hours meeting privately with several family members in the chapel of the Air Force base.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, traveled with the president to Dover. He told reporters earlier that Mr. Obama was “probably getting to the end” of his decision-making process on his military plans for Afghanistan. The recent rise in violence would not necessarily influence the strategy, he said, but it was weighing on the president.

“The hardest task that he has on any given day is signing the condolence letter to a loved one who’s lost a son or a daughter or a husband, a wife, in Iraq or Afghanistan, or serving our country overseas,” Mr. Gibbs said.

The trip early Thursday morning came several hours after Mr. Obama signed a defense spending bill, which he said “reaffirms our commitment to our brave men and women in uniform and our wounded warriors.” Three days ago, Mr. Obama spoke to soldiers and Marines at a Naval Air Station in Florida, where he defended himself against critics who have suggested that he is taking too long to announce a new military strategy in Afghanistan.

“I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm’s way,” Mr. Obama said.

The images and the sentiment of the president’s five-hour trip to Delaware were intended by the White House to convey to the nation that Mr. Obama was not making his Afghanistan decision lightly or in haste.

The president returned to the White House less than three hours before sunrise on Thursday morning. He will meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Friday, his seventh major session on Afghanistan since beginning his review.


Doug Mills contributed reporting from Dover, Del.

    Obama Visits Returning War Dead, NYT, 30.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/30/us/30obama.html






Iraq Ministries Targeted

in Car Bombings; Over 130 Dead


October 26, 2009
The New York Times


BAGHDAD — For the second time in two months, synchronized suicide car bombings struck at the heart of the Iraqi government, severely damaging the Justice Ministry and Provincial Council complexes in Baghdad on Sunday, killing at least 132 people and raising fresh questions about the government’s ability to secure its most vital operations.

The bombers apparently passed through multiple security checkpoints before detonating their vehicles within a minute of each other, leaving the dead and more than 520 wounded strewn across a busy downtown district. Blast walls had been moved back off the road from in front of both buildings in recent weeks.

It was the deadliest coordinated attack in Iraq since the summer of 2007 and happened just blocks from where car bombers killed at least 122 people at the Foreign and Finance ministries this August.

The attacks came as the American military prepares to withdraw in large numbers — from about 120,000 troops today to some 50,000 by the end of next July, with almost all gone by the end of 2011. Iraq is also readying for national elections in January.

For months, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who is seeking another term in office, has made painstaking efforts to present Iraq as having turned a corner on the violence that threatened to tear the country apart in 2006 and 2007.

He has recently ordered blast walls removed from dozens of streets in the capital and has insisted that Iraqi forces are capable of securing the country. In large part, his popularity has rested on the belief that he has kept the country reasonably secure.

But the wave of bombings at four high-profile, well-protected government buildings within a two-month span led some Iraqis to to say Sunday that they were reconsidering their support for Mr. Maliki.

“We don’t want a government that does not provide us with security,” said Saif Adil, 26, who has been unemployed since graduating from college two years ago. “It was good for awhile, and now explosions happen less often, but they are having big effects — large numbers of dead in important places.”

Ali Hussein, 32, said the explosions had also caused him to question his support of the prime minister. “Why should I vote for Maliki?” he asked. “He has done nothing except bring explosions and corruption.”

On Sunday, a statement from American Ambassador Christopher R. Hill and Gen. Ray Odierno condemned the bombings saying that the attacks would not “deter Iraqis from administering justice based on the rule of law and carrying out their legitimate responsibilities in governing Baghdad.”

On Sunday, American Marines were seen walking around the debris-filled streets after the attack. One Marine said the Americans had been asked by the Iraqi government to aid in the investigation.

Iraqi and American officials in Baghdad have repeatedly warned about a potential rise in violence as the Jan. 16 parliamentary election approaches, with political parties and their allies vie for advantage and insurgent groups redoubling their efforts to destabilize the country.

In a rare personal appearance at a bombing site, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki arrived at the provincial council building about an hour after the explosion, his face ashen as he surveyed the carnage.

Around Mr. Maliki, paramedics rushed the injured into waiting Red Crescent ambulances, workers wearing plastic gloves scooped body parts off of the street and into plastic bags, and scorched cars — their occupants trapped inside — were pried open in a desperate search for signs of life.

Surrounding streets had been blocked off and were under more than a foot of water because the blast had apparently also damaged a water main. Pools of water were colored red with blood.

Mr. Maliki, wearing a dark suit, did not venture far from his armored white sports utility vehicle. He made no public comment before being driven away.

Mr. Maliki later issued a statement calling the attacks “cowardly” and blamed elements of the Baath Party and the Sunni insurgent group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. He said the attack would not affect the scheduled elections.

President Jalal Talibani said the attackers had sought to damage Iraq’s fragile democracy.

“The perpetrators of this have revealed publicly that they are targeting the state and its basic pillars,” Mr. Talibani said. “They want to hinder the political process or to stop it and to sabotage what we have built during six years with great sacrifice.”

The two government buildings, typically filled with officials as well as civilians seeking government help, are situated on Haifa Street in one of Baghdad’s most congested sections. Nearby are other Iraqi government buildings, foreign embassies, the heavily fortified Green Zone, and bridges crossing the Tigris River.

In a testament to the power of the explosion at the provincial council building, a section of 12-foot high blast wall collapsed, crushing people underneath, witnesses said.

The Iraqi Police said the first bomb struck the Justice Ministry building around 10:30 a.m. blowing out its large windows that overlook Haifa Street, sending flying glass and shrapnel into passersby. A plume of black smoke rose over the city that could be seen for miles.

“I was eating in a restaurant near the Justice Ministry when a huge explosion took place,” said Sa’ad Saleem, 28, an employee of Iraq’s state-owned television channel, who had shrapnel wounds in his neck and chest. “The entire scene was filled with bloody human flesh. Large pools of blood were everywhere, in addition to the remains of burned cars. It was horrible.”

At the provincial council building, Sheikh Hadi Salih, 60, had been attending a meeting on the second floor when he heard the sound of an explosion followed by the collapse of the ceiling onto people’s heads.

“We tried to find our way out down the stairs, and as we went we found many dead bodies,” he said. “I’ve seen 20 bodies and more than 60 injured.”

Among the wounded were at least two American security contractors, a United States Embassy official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under diplomatic ground rules.


Anwar J. Ali, Duraid Adnan, Mohammed Hussein and Riyadh Mohammed contributed reporting.

    Iraq Ministries Targeted in Car Bombings; Over 130 Dead, NYT, 26.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/26/world/middleeast/26iraq.html






Pullout From Iraq Poses Daunting Challenges


October 9, 2009
The New York Times


JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — There is no more visible sign that America is putting the Iraq war behind it than the colossal operation to get its stuff out: 20,000 soldiers, nearly a sixth of the force here, assigned to a logistical effort aimed at dismantling some 300 bases and shipping out 1.5 million pieces of equipment, from tanks to coffee makers.

It is the largest movement of soldiers and matériel in more than four decades, the military said.

By itself, such a withdrawal would be daunting, but it is further complicated by attacks from an insurgency that remains active; the sensitivities of the Iraqi government about a visible American presence; disagreements with the Iraqis about what will be left for them; and consideration for what equipment is urgently needed in Afghanistan.

All the while, the Army must sustain its current force of about 124,000 troops across the country, trucking in fuel, food and other essential supplies while determining what to leave behind for the 50,000 troops who will remain in a mostly advisory role until 2011.

“It’s a real Rubik’s Cube,” Brig. Gen. Paul L. Wentz, the commander of the Army’s logistical soldiers, said in an interview at this sprawling military complex north of Baghdad, which will serve as the command center for the withdrawal effort.

But just as the buildup in the Kuwaiti desert before the 2003 invasion made it plain that the United States was almost certain to go to war, the preparations for withdrawal just as clearly point to the end of the American military role here. Reversing the process, even if Iraq’s relative stability deteriorates into violence, becomes harder every day.

The scale of the withdrawal is staggering. Consider a comparison with the Persian Gulf war in 1991: it lasted 1,012 hours, or about six weeks, and when it was over, Lt. Gen. William G. Pagonis, in charge of the Army’s logistical operations at the time, wrote a book, “Moving Mountains” (Harvard Business Press Books, 1992), about the challenges of moving soldiers and equipment in and out of the theater.

He called the undertaking the equivalent of moving all the people of Alaska, along with their belongings, to the other side of the world “in short order.”

The current war in Iraq has lasted more than 57,000 hours, or more than six and a half years. And now General Pagonis’s son, Col. Gust Pagonis, is one of the leading logisticians assigned to the task of figuring out how to extricate America from the desert.

“When I told my dad what my assignment was, he just laughed and said good luck,” Colonel Pagonis said.

A major reduction in troops is not scheduled to begin until after the January national elections. But preparations for that withdrawal can be seen on the roads across Iraq, with an average of 3,500 trucks a night traversing the nation on sustainment and redeployment missions.

The military has largely identified which materials are not essential anymore and has begun to move them out of the country, in some cases to Afghanistan. For instance, lumber, ammunition and barriers used to defend against car bombs are all desperately needed in Afghanistan, and as bases are taken apart here, those are among the items sent to the fight there, commanders said.

In August, about 3,000 shipping containers and 2,000 vehicles were shipped out of Iraq, and the heavy lifting is just beginning.

“When the brigade combat teams come out, I want to be in a position where I don’t have to deal with the excess equipment and matériel at the same time,” General Wentz said.

In a conference room here at the base, dozens of soldiers monitor the movements of every American truck in the country on two large flat-screen televisions, using GPS technology and radio communications, getting current information about attacks and the progress of convoys. Every movement is planned about 96 hours in advance to allow for rehearsals and readjustments.

As the pace of withdrawal is stepped up, the American military must also assuage the worries of Iraqi politicians who want the American troops to be less visible, so most missions are carried out in the dark of night.

The Americans hope that by next spring, they will be operating from what General Wentz described as a hub-and-spoke system, with 6 supersize bases and 13 smaller ones. Fewer bases means traveling greater distances, at greater risk.

“The distance between two points does not get any shorter,” said Colonel Pagonis, asserting that the logisticians in his command — known as “loggies” — are also warriors.

Turning the former American bases over to the Iraqis, and deciding what to give them, have proved to be among the biggest challenges.

Until May, there was no system in place even to figure out who legally owned the property where Americans had set up camp. This led to scenes like the one at Forward Operating Base Warhorse, where a local Iraqi commander showed up essentially demanding a list of items that the Americans were not ready to turn over.

So last spring, panels made up of Iraqi and American officials were set up to help work through some of these issues.

Congress has limited the total value of equipment — like computers and furniture — that the military can leave to the Iraqis to roughly $15 million per base, but that amount does not include items considered part of the infrastructure, like buildings, sewerage and power facilities.

Even coming up with a value for some of the American investments is hard because in many cases the initial costs were inflated by large outlays for security.

Commanders say it is often simply more economical to turn over more equipment to the Iraqis because the cost of moving it is prohibitive. Last month, the military announced the end of its detention operations at Camp Bucca on the Kuwaiti border and said that $50 million worth of infrastructure and equipment would be given to the Iraqis.

The United States has also brokered a deal with an Iraqi trucking network, led by a coalition of tribal sheiks, to move equipment that is not deemed sensitive between bases. The truckers currently move about 3 percent of all American matériel here, commanders said.

Commanders also said they would closely watch the January elections for what they say about the reliability of Iraq’s security forces and the direction the country is heading. But for the planners of the withdrawal, there is no time left to wait and see.

“You can’t wait for some big ‘Aha!’ moment,” said Brig. Gen. Heidi Brown, a deputy commander overseeing the withdrawal. “That does not give you flexibility. That just puts you in a box.”

    Pullout From Iraq Poses Daunting Challenges, NYT, 9.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/09/world/middleeast/09pullout.html






Attacks Complicate

U.S. Moves in Iraq


September 9, 2009
The New York Times


BAGHDAD — In the worst day of violence against American soldiers in Iraq since combat troops moved out of the cities this year, two bombings left four Americans dead, underscoring the dangers troops here still face even as they prepare for their exit from this country.

The American military provided little detail about the attacks, saying only that one soldier was killed in a roadside bombing in southern Baghdad and that three more were killed in another roadside bombing in northern Iraq.

While the American presence here has been greatly diminished, with Iraqis and Americans rarely conducting joint patrols and Iraqis eager to appear in control of their own security, there are still thousands of American soldiers working as advisers inside cities and towns across Iraq. Tens of thousands more are also on the road every night as Americans move equipment and resources in preparation for the large-scale reduction of forces scheduled to begin after January elections here.

One critical calculation is how the Americans can both provide the protection needed to move the vast accumulation of equipment from six years of war and maintain the capacity to support Iraqi forces if violence spins out of control.

Iraq’s security forces also continued to come under attack on Tuesday, with at least 10 police officers killed in Kirkuk Province, including a police commander, and another 6 wounded.

While Iraq’s police and army have long been targets of insurgents, August was the deadliest month for them since the Americans withdrew combat troops from the cities in late June, with 32 members killed. Since January, 164 Iraqi police officers and army soldiers have been killed.

The strategy of those committing violence in Iraq, never easy to divine, is particularly difficult to gauge when dealing with attacks on police officers in local areas.

Insurgents, of course, seek to destabilize the government. But there are also networks and overlays of crime, corruption, political power plays, ethnic rivalries and local factions in competition for control over vital areas.

In few places do those tensions form as combustible a mix as they do in Kirkuk Province, known as the country’s fault line because of the simmering tensions between the central government in Baghdad and the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan to the north. The deadliest attacks against Iraqi police officers on Tuesday took place around the city of Kirkuk. In one bombing in the town of Armeli, populated with Shiites from Iraq’s Turkman ethnic minority, the local police commander was killed along with three other officers when his convoy struck a roadside bomb. In a separate attack in the same area, four other police officers were killed.

The ongoing tensions in Kirkuk Province are an increasing focus for American commanders here, who have announced a new initiative to try and bring stability to the factions competing for power in the area. The details of the campaign, and how American troops will be involved, remain unclear.

There were also attacks against Iraqi police in Baghdad on Tuesday, with at least six officers wounded in two bombings.

Another bombing in Baghdad targeted an official in the Health Ministry, killing one of his employees and wounding 12 more people. But the official emerged unharmed.

Even as security forces are targeted, civilians here often bear the brunt of the violence, with 4,111 people killed around the country so far this year.

The ongoing violence has raised questions about the ability of Iraqi forces to maintain security as the American role shrinks, especially after deadly attacks in the heart of the capital last month left roughly 100 people dead.

Seeking to address those doubts, the Iraqi government on Tuesday announced that 29 police and army officers arrested after that bombing were being charged with negligence in the performance their duties.

“There was clear negligence from the security forces,” said Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, the spokesman for the Baghdad’s security command center. “Absolutely, what has been achieved so far in the intelligence and security efforts is below expectations.”


An Iraqi employee of The New York Times

contributed reporting from Kirkuk Province.

Attacks Complicate U.S. Moves in Iraq, NYT, 9.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/09/world/middleeast/09iraq.html