Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
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This article, by Ernesto Londoño, was published in the Wahington Post, August 18, 2009
BAGHDAD, Aug. 17 -- U.S. troops could be forced by Iraqi voters to withdraw a year ahead of schedule under a referendum the Iraqi government backed Monday, creating a potential complication for American commanders concerned about rising violence in the country's north.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's move appeared to disregard the wishes of the U.S. government, which has quietly lobbied against the plebiscite. American officials fear it could lead to the annulment of an agreement allowing U.S. troops to stay until the end of 2011, and instead force them out by the start of that year.
The Maliki government's announcement came on the day that the top U.S. general in Iraq proposed a plan to deploy troops to disputed areas in the restive north, a clear indication that the military sees a continuing need for U.S. forces even if Iraqis no longer want them here.
Gen. Ray Odierno said American troops would partner with contingents of the Iraqi army and the Kurdish regional government's paramilitary force, marking the first organized effort to pair U.S. forces with the militia, known as the pesh merga. Iraqi army and Kurdish forces nearly came to blows recently, and there is deep-seated animosity between them, owing to a decades-long fight over ancestry, land and oil.
If Iraqi lawmakers sign off on Maliki's initiative to hold a referendum in January on the withdrawal timeline, a majority of voters could annul a standing U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, forcing the military to pull out completely by January 2011 under the terms of a previous law.
It is unclear whether parliament, which is in recess until next month, would approve the referendum. Lawmakers have yet to pass a measure laying the basic ground rules for the Jan. 16 national election, their top legislative priority for the remainder of 2009.
Before signing off on the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement last year, Iraqi lawmakers demanded that voters get to weigh in on the pact in a referendum that was to take place no later than last month. Because it did not happen, American officials assumed the plebiscite was a dead issue.
U.S. officials say they have no way to know how the referendum would turn out, but they worry that many Iraqis are likely to vote against the pact. Maliki billed the withdrawal of U.S. forces from urban areas at the end of June as a "great victory" for Iraqis, and his government has since markedly curbed the authority and mobility of U.S. forces.
Senior Pentagon officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Odierno probably will make an announcement later this week or early next week the accelerating the withdrawal of U.S. forces, which now stand at 130,000, by one or two brigades between now and the end of the year. Each brigade consists of about 5,000 troops. Odierno said Monday that he has not decided whether to speed up the plan, which he said remains on schedule.
The acceleration would still be much slower than if the referendum nullified the agreement.
Still, senior Pentagon officials played down Maliki's announcement, saying it was an expected part of Iraq's political process. Senior Iraqi officials did not raise the possibility of the referendum with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates when he visited the country earlier this month, Pentagon officials said.
Bahaa Hassan, who owns a mobile phone store in Najaf, south of Baghdad, said he would vote for a speedier withdrawal.
"We want to get rid of the American influence in Iraq, because we suffer from it politically and economically," he said. "We will vote against it so Iraq will be in the hands of Iraqis again."But many Iraqis, particularly Sunnis and Kurds, consider the presence of the U.S. military a key deterrent to abuses of power by the Shiite-led government.
"After six years of Shiite rule and struggle, we still have no electricity, so what will happen if Americans leave?" said Dhirgham Talib, a government employee in Najaf. "The field will be left to the Shiite parties to do whatever they want with no fear from anybody."
A poll commissioned by the U.S. military earlier this year found that Iraqis expressed far less confidence in American troops than in the Iraqi government or any of its security forces. Twenty-seven percent of Iraqis polled said they had confidence in U.S. forces, according to a Pentagon report presented to Congress last month. By contrast, 72 percent expressed confidence in the national government.
Zainab Karim, a Shiite lawmaker from the Sadrist movement, the most ardently anti-American faction, said she was pleasantly surprised that the government is backing the referendum.
"I consider this a good thing," she said. "But we have to wait and see whether the government is honest about this or whether it is electoral propaganda."
As the Iraqi government took steps to force U.S. troops out earlier than planned, Odierno said Monday that he would like to deploy American forces to villages along disputed areas in northern Iraq to defuse tension between Kurdish troops and forces controlled by the Shiite Arab-led government in Baghdad.
"We're working very hard to come up with a security architecture in the disputed territories that would reduce tension," Odierno told reporters. "They just all feel more comfortable if we're there."
Scores of Iraqis have been killed in recent weeks in villages along the 300-mile frontier south of the Kurdish region. U.S. military officials say the attacks bear the hallmarks of Sunni extremists, but local leaders have traded accusations to bolster their positions on whether specific areas should be under the control of Baghdad or the autonomous government of Kurdistan.
The pesh merga currently controls some villages that are nominally outside the three-province Kurdish region. The expansion of Kurdish influence in northern Iraq has prompted Maliki to deploy more troops loyal to Baghdad to northern provinces south of Kurdistan. The new provincial leadership in Nineveh province, the most restive among them, has made curbing Kurdish expansion its top priority and has called for the expulsion of pesh merga forces.
The tension, Odierno said, has created a security vacuum that has emboldened al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group that he said was almost certainly responsible for recent sensational bombings in the province. The number of civilian casualties in Iraq has increased since the urban pullout, Odierno said, largely as a result of attacks in the disputed territories.
What we have is al-Qaeda exploiting this fissure between the Arabs and the Kurds," he said. "What we're trying to do is close that fissure."
This article, by Qassim Abdul-Zahra, was posted to Yahoo News, August 12, 2009
BAGHDAD – The Iraqi government insisted that it's not up to the United States to negotiate over Iraq's security with Syria as a delegation from the Obama administration arrived Wednesday in Damascus.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will make his own trip to Syria next week to discuss security, the government said, calling the issue an internal Iraqi affair. U.S. and Iraqi officials have long been concerned about the infiltration of foreign fighters across the Syrian border.
"It is not the duty of the American delegation to negotiate on behalf of Iraq," spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told The Associated Press. "It is the Iraqi government that will directly negotiate on security with Syria."
The remarks underscored emerging strains in the relationship between the Iraqis and the Americans as the balance of power shifts with the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011. U.S. combat forces already turned over urban security to Iraqi forces on June 30, focusing their efforts on the borders and rural areas.
U.S. officials dismissed concerns about a rift over this week's talks in Damascus, which also were expected to deal with prospects for Mideast peacemaking.
"One of the issues that we continue to discuss with Syria is its efforts in terms of taking care of border issues on the Syrian side of the border," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "We have had concerns, going back a number of years, regarding the infiltration of foreign influences from the region through Syria into Iraq."
And, Crowley said, Iraq benefits from the effort to deal with the problem.
The mostly military delegation includes Frederic Hof, an assistant to George Mitchell, a former Senate Democratic leader who oversees U.S. Mideast peacemaking efforts. An earlier round of talks was held in June. Hof has been rumored to be in line for nomination as U.S. ambassador to Damascus. The post has been vacant for four years.
The talks are part of an acceleration of U.S. engagement with the Arab world and U.S. hopes that Syria can play a constructive role.
But Crowley said Tuesday that the infiltration of foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq would be "a significant topic of discussion."
U.S. and Iraqi officials have sought to shut down Sunni extremist networks that smuggle weapons and fighters through Iraq's northern desert to Mosul, where al-Qaida and other Sunni insurgents remain active.
American special forces staged a cross-border raid in October that Washington said killed the al-Qaida-linked head of a Syrian network that smuggled fighters, weapons and cash into Iraq. The operation outraged Syria, which claimed only civilians were killed.
The some 130,000 remaining U.S. troops face new limits on their actions in Iraq under a security pact that took effect on Jan. 1, and the Iraqi government has increasingly been asserting its sovereignty and reaching out to neighboring countries.
Al-Maliki's trip comes as violence has risen over the past week with a series of devastating bombings that have killed more than 120 people.
Gunmen also assassinated a senior Iraqi police officer late Tuesday as he was leaving a funeral in his hometown near Mosul, authorities said.
Brig. Gen. Abdul-Hamid Khalaf, a 55-year-old father of three, was an army officer under Saddam Hussein's regime but joined the police force amid efforts to rebuild the Iraqi security forces following the 2003 U.S. invasion.
He was a provincial police spokesman from 2005 to 2007, when he was promoted to be the deputy head of emergency battalions, and had survived at least one other attempt on his life.
The officer was killed by a gunman while walking home from a funeral service for a fellow officer who had died of natural causes in Zawiya, a mainly Sunni village and former al-Qaida in Iraq stronghold 45 miles (70 kilometers) south of Mosul, according to the area's police chief, Brig. Gen. Khalil al-Jubouri.
Elsewhere in northern Iraq, a roadside bomb killed a policeman and wounded five people Wednesday in the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, police said. Three other policemen were later killed while dismantling a parked car bomb in the northern city.
A bomb attached to the car of an employee of a cell phone employee also exploded, killing him and seriously wounding a colleague in Mosul, according to the provincial police.
This article, by Ernesto Londoño and Karen DeYoung, was published in the Washington Post, July 17, 2009.
BAGHDAD, July 17 -- The Iraqi government has moved to sharply restrict the movement and activities of U.S. forces in a new reading of a six-month-old U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that has startled American commanders and raised concerns about the safety of their troops.
In a curt missive issued by the Baghdad Operations Command on July 2 -- the day after Iraqis celebrated the withdrawal of U.S. troops to bases outside city centers -- Iraq's top commanders told their U.S. counterparts to "stop all joint patrols" in Baghdad. It said U.S. resupply convoys could travel only at night and ordered the Americans to "notify us immediately of any violations of the agreement."
The strict application of the agreement coincides with what U.S. military officials in Washington say has been an escalation of attacks against their forces by Iranian-backed Shiite extremist groups, to which they have been unable to fully respond.
If extremists realize "some of the limitations that we have, that's a vulnerability they could use against us," a senior U.S. military intelligence official said. "The fact is that some of these are very politically sensitive targets" thought to be close to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The new guidelines are a reflection of rising tensions between the two governments. Iraqi leaders increasingly see the agreement as an opportunity to show their citizens that they are now unequivocally in charge and that their dependence on the U.S. military is minimal and waning.
The June 30 deadline for moving U.S. troops out of Iraqi towns and cities was the first of three milestones under the agreement. The U.S. military is to decrease its troop levels from 130,000 to 50,000 by August of next year.
U.S. commanders have described the pullout from cities as a transition from combat to stability operations. But they have kept several combat battalions assigned to urban areas and hoped those troops would remain deeply engaged in training Iraqi security forces, meeting with paid informants, attending local council meetings and supervising U.S.-funded civic and reconstruction projects.
The Americans have been taken aback by the new restrictions on their activities. The Iraqi order runs "contrary to the spirit and practice of our last several months of operations," Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, commander of the Baghdad division, wrote in an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post.
"Maybe something was 'lost in translation,' " Bolger wrote. "We are not going to hide our support role in the city. I'm sorry the Iraqi politicians lied/dissembled/spun, but we are not invisible nor should we be." He said U.S. troops intend to engage in combat operations in urban areas to avert or respond to threats, with or without help from the Iraqis.
"This is a broad right and it demands that we patrol, raid and secure routes as necessary to keep our forces safe," he wrote. "We'll do that, preferably partnered."
U.S. commanders have not publicly described in detail how they interpret the agreement's vaguely worded provision that gives them the right to self-defense. The issue has bedeviled them because commanders are concerned that responding quickly and forcefully to threats could embarrass the Iraqi government and prompt allegations of agreement violations.
A spate of high-casualty suicide bombings in Shiite neighborhoods, attributed to al-Qaeda in Iraq and related Sunni insurgent groups, has overshadowed the increase of attacks by Iran-backed Shiite extremists, U.S. official say.
Officials agreed to discuss relations with the Iraqi government and military, and Iranian support for the extremists, only on the condition of anonymity because those issues involve security, diplomacy and intelligence.
The three primary groups -- Asaib al-Haq, Khataib Hezbollah and the Promised Day Brigades -- emerged from the "special groups" of the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) militia of radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which terrorized Baghdad and southern Iraq beginning in 2006. All receive training, funding and direction from Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force.
"One of the things we still have to find out, as we pull out from the cities, is how much effectiveness we're going to have against some of these particular target sets," the military intelligence official said. "That's one of the very sensitive parts of this whole story."
As U.S. forces tried to pursue the alleged leaders of the groups and planned missions against them, their efforts were hindered by the complicated warrant process and other Iraqi delays, officials said.
Last month, U.S. commanders acquiesced to an Iraqi government request to release one of their most high-profile detainees, Laith Khazali. He was arrested in March 2007 with his brother, Qais, who is thought to be the senior operational leader of Asaib al-Haq. The United States thinks they were responsible for the deaths of five American soldiers in Karbala that year.
Maliki has occasionally criticized interference by Shiite Iran's Islamic government in Iraqi affairs. But he has also maintained close ties to Iran and has played down U.S. insistence that Iran is deeply involved, through the Quds Force, in training and controlling the Iraqi Shiite extremists.
U.S. intelligence has seen "no discernible increase in Tehran's support to Shia extremists in recent months," and the attack level is still low compared with previous years, U.S. counterterrorism official said. But senior military commanders maintained that Iran still supports the Shiite militias, and that their attacks now focus almost exclusively on U.S. forces.
After a brief lull, the attacks have continued this month, including a rocket strike on a U.S. base in Basra on Thursday night that killed three soldiers.
The acrimony that has marked the transition period has sowed resentment, according to several U.S. soldiers, who said the confidence expressed by Iraqi leaders does not match their competence.
"Our [Iraqi] partners burn our fuel, drive roads cleared by our Engineers, live in bases built with our money, operate vehicles fixed with our parts, eat food paid for by our contracts, watch our [surveillance] video feeds, serve citizens with our [funds], and benefit from our air cover," Bolger noted in the e-mail.
A spokesman for Bolger would not say whether the U.S. military considers the Iraqi order on July 2 valid. Since it was issued, it has been amended to make a few exemptions. But the guidelines remain far more restrictive than the Americans had hoped, U.S. military officials said.
Brig. Gen. Heidi Brown, the commander overseeing the logistical aspects of the withdrawal, said Iraqi and U.S. commanders have had fruitful discussions in recent days about the issue.
"It's been an interesting time, and I think we've sorted out any misunderstandings that were there initially," she said in an interview Friday.
One U.S. military official here said both Iraqi and American leaders on the ground remain confused about the guidelines. The official said he worries that the lack of clarity could trigger stalemates and confrontations between Iraqis and Americans.
"We still lack a common understanding and way forward at all levels regarding those types of situations," he said, referring to self-defense protocols and the type of missions that Americans cannot conduct unilaterally.
In recent days, he said, senior U.S. commanders have lowered their expectations.
"I think our commanders are starting to back off the notion that we will continue to execute combined operations whether the Iraqi army welcomes us with open arms or not," the U.S. commander said. "However, we are still very interested in and concerned about our ability to quickly and effectively act in response to terrorist threats" against U.S. forces.
This article, by Benjamin Morgan, was published by Agence France Presse, May 10, 2009
BAGHDAD (AFP) – Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki assured visiting US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday that his country's security will be unaffected by the planned American troop withdrawal from Iraqi cities.
"We don't need big numbers of (US) military forces inside the cities after we get control of them," Maliki said in a statement after talks with the top US lawmaker, who arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit.
"The responsible withdrawal (of US troops) will not affect the security situation," Maliki added.
A fierce critic of the 2003-US invasion ordered by former president George W. Bush, Pelosi's one-day visit came as US troops prepare to withdraw from Iraq's urban areas by the end of next month despite a spike in violence.
The withdrawal is a key part of a military accord signed by Baghdad and Washington last November that will also see US troops leave the country by the end of 2011.
Maliki said Iraq's military efforts were now concentrated on improving its intelligence services.
The US Congress, for its part, should try to develop bilateral relations focused on the scientific and economic agreements signed by the two countries, he said.
"Under stability, we are seeking to develop our economy, especially the oil industry, after multinationals have already come to work and invest in the sector," he said.
Pelosi said that Washington would stick to its part of the agreement on troop withdrawals.
"I can't speak to what the attitude is in Iraq, but what I do know that this is the plan that has been agreed upon, and we want to honour that," the California Democrat said after meeting parliament speaker Iyad al-Samarrai.
"Our agenda included talking about the strategic framework agreement and how it needs to be discussed and strengthened and enforced," Pelosi told a news conference after the meeting.
She said that Washington was withdrawing its troops in spite of the continued violence in Iraq.
Tackling the rampant corruption that international surveys routinely say makes Iraq one of the world's most corrupt countries was also crucial to its stability, as was improving US intelligence, she said.
"If we're going to have a diminished physical military presence, we have to have a strong intelligence presence," she said.
Pelosi, who previously visited Iraq in January 2007 and again in May of last year, also met with US officials and later left the country, a US embassy official said.
Her visit came as Iraq has been hit by a spate of deadly bombings which targeted crowded civilian areas, making April -- with 355 people killed -- the bloodiest month in the country since September.
Despite the violence, Iraq has insisted it will stick to the deadline for American troops to withdraw from cities by June 30, while Washington's top commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, has insisted the pullout is on track.
Pelosi has backed President Barack Obama's plan to end US combat operations in Iraq by August 2010, but has at the same time faulted his plans to leave behind a residual force of up to 50,000 soldiers.
"The remaining missions given to our remaining forces must be clearly defined and narrowly focused so that the number of troops needed to perform them is as small as possible," she said in February.
The US military currently has about 139,000 troops in Iraq.
This article, by Jason Ditz, was published by Antiwar.com, May 8, 2009
Top US Commander in Iraq General Ray Odierno was decidedly non-committal today on the question of how many US troops would remain in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the capital of Baghdad by June 30, as required by the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqi government.
“There is potential that they can handle the mission starting 1 July,” Odierno said of the possibility of Iraqi forces taking over operations in Mosul as per the agreement. At the same time, he seemed willing to confirm that troops would remain, and seemed irked at people who were waiting for the long-promised US victory over the insurgents, declaring “it’s not going to end, OK? There’ll always be some sort of low-level insurgency in Iraq for the next 5, 10, 15 years.”
The Iraqi government has repeatedly ruled out the US remaining in cities beyond June 30, but the United States has challenged that decision, and Gen. Odierno previously said the US might just choose to ignore the deadline, and it seems they will do exactly that.
Violence across Iraq has been on the rise for the past two months, particularly in Baghdad, but while US officials have dismissed that as an aberration, Mosul has steadily been a hotbed of violence for the past several years. The real question is unlikely to be whether an extra 45 days will turn the situation around - rather it is if the deadline turns into another point of dispute between the US and the Maliki government.
This article, by Gareth Porter, was posted to Alternet, March 26, 2009
WASHINGTON, Mar 25 (IPS) -- Despite President Barack Obama’s statement at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina Feb. 27 that he had "chosen a timeline that will remove our combat brigades over the next 18 months," a number of Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), which have been the basic U.S. Army combat unit in Iraq for six years, will remain in Iraq after that date under a new non-combat label.
A spokesman for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Lt. Col. Patrick S. Ryder, told IPS Tuesday that "several advisory and assistance brigades" would be part of a U.S. command in Iraq that will be "re-designated" as a "transition force headquarters" after August 2010.
But the "advisory and assistance brigades" to remain in Iraq after that date will in fact be the same as BCTs, except for the addition of a few dozen officers who would carry out the advice and assistance missions, according to military officials involved in the planning process.
Gates has hinted that the withdrawal of combat brigades will be accomplished through an administrative sleight of hand rather than by actually withdrawing all the combat brigade teams. Appearing on "Meet the Press" Mar. 1, Gates said the "transition force" would have "a very different kind of mission," and that the units remaining in Iraq "will be characterized differently."
"They will be called advisory and assistance brigades," said Gates. "They won't be called combat brigades."
Obama’s decision to go along with the military proposal for a "transition force" of 35,000 to 50,000 troops thus represents a complete abandonment of his own original policy of combat troop withdrawal and an acceptance of what the military wanted all along -- the continued presence of several combat brigades in Iraq well beyond mid-2010.
National Security Council officials declined to comment on the question of whether combat brigades were actually going to be left in Iraq beyond August 2010 under the policy announced by Obama Feb. 27.
The term that has been used internally within the Army to designate the units that will form a large part of the "transition force" is not "Advisory and Assistance Brigades" but "Brigades Enhanced for Stability Operations" (BESO).
Lt. Col. Gary Tallman, a spokesman for the Joint Staff, confirmed Monday that BESO will be the Army unit deployed to Iraq for the purpose of the transition force. Tallman said the decision-making process now underway involving CENTCOM and the Army is to determine "the exact composition of the BESO".
But the U.S. Army has already been developing the outlines of the BESO for the past few months. The only change to the existing BCT structure that is being planned is the addition of advisory and assistance skills rather than any reduction in its combat power. The BCT is organized around two or three battalions of motorized infantry but also includes all the support elements, including its own artillery support, needed to sustain the full spectrum of military operations.
Those are permanent features of all variants of the BCT, which will not be altered in the new version to be deployed under a "transition force," according to specialists on the BCT.
They say the only issue on which the Army is still engaged in discussions with field commanders is what standard augmentation a BCT will need for its new mission.
Maj. Larry Burns of the Army Combined Arms Centre at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, told IPS that Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey directed the Combined Arms Centre, which specialises in Army mission and doctrine, to work on giving the BCTs the capability to carry out a training and advisory assistance mission.
The essence of the BESO variant of the BCTs, according to Burns, is that the Military Transition Teams working directly with Iraqi military units will no longer operate independently but will be integrated into the BCTs.
That development would continue a trend already begun in Iraq in which the BCTs have gradually acquired operational control over the previously independent Military Transition Teams, according to Maj. Robert Thornton of the Joint Center for International and Security Force Assistance at Fort Leavenworth.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command, has issued Planning Guidance calling for further refinement of the BESO. After further work on the additional personnel requirements, Casey was briefed on the proposed enhancement of the BCT for the second time in a month at a conference of four-star generals on Feb. 18, according to Burns.
Other names for the new variant that were used in recent months but eventually dropped made it explicitly clear that it is simply a slightly augmented BCT. Those names, according to Burns, included "Brigade Combat Team-Security Force Assistance" and "Brigade Combat Team for Stability Operations."
The plan to deploy several augmented BCTs represents the culmination of the strategy of "relabeling" or "remissioning" of BCTs in Iraq that was developed by U.S. military leaders in the wake of the surge of candidate Barack Obama to near-certain victory in the presidential election last year.
Late last year, Gen. David Petraeus, the CENTCOM chief, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, were unhappy with Obama’s pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat brigades within 16 months. But military planners quickly hit on the relabeling scheme as a way of avoiding the complete withdrawal of BCTs in an Obama administration.
The New York Times revealed Dec. 4 that Pentagon planners were talking about "relabeling" of U.S. combat units as "training and support" units in a Dec. 4 story, but provided no details. Pentagon planners were projecting that as many as 70,000 U.S. troops would be maintained in Iraq "for a substantial time even beyond 2011".
That report suggested that the strategy envisioned keeping the bulk of the existing BCTs in Iraq as under a new label indicating an advisory and support mission.
Secretary Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen discussed a plan to re-designate U.S. combat troops as support troops at a meeting with Obama in Chicago on Dec. 15, according a report in the Times three days later.
Gates and Mullen reportedly speculated at the meeting on whether Iraqis would permit such "re-labeled" combat forces to remain in Iraqi cities and towns after next June, despite the fact that the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement signed in November 2008 called for all U.S. combat forces to be withdrawn from populated areas by the end of June 2010.
That report suggests that Obama was well aware that giving the Petraeus and Odierno a free hand to determine the composition of a "transition force" of 35,000 to 50,000 troops meant that most combat brigades would remain in Iraq rather than being withdrawn, as he ostensibly promised the U.S. public on Feb. 27.
An update on the mass arrest of members of the Sunni Awakening Council who launched an uprising in Baghdad’s Fadhil neighborhood reveals that as many as 25-30% of those who took part in the clashes have gone missing, apparently having escaped with their weapons.
The Awakening forces had been protesting against the Maliki government for a week ahead of the uprising, complaining that the Shi’ite majority government had failed to live up to its promise to provide jobs for the nearly 100,000 members of the US-backed Sunni militia.
After the protests, the government arrested one of the top Awakening leaders, sparking a violent gunbattle between the two US-allied factions. The US praised the arrest, and Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin says he believes the Iraqi government is committed to supporting the forces, in spite of the arrests.
Last weekend, the Iraqi government arrested an Awakening Group leader of a Baghdad neighborhood, then moved into the area. With the help of US occupation forces, they disarmed the militiamen under his control, but only after fighting broke out between US-backed Iraqi government security forces and the US-formed Sunni Awakening Group militia. This disturbing event is the realization of what most Iraqis have long feared - that the relative calm in Iraq today would eventually be broken when fighting erupts between these two entities.
The US policy that has led to this recent violence has been long in the making, as it has only been a matter of time before the tenuous truce between the groups came unglued. For it has been a truce built on a deeply corrupt US policy of backing the predominantly Shia Iraqi government forces while paying the Sunni resistance not to fight both government and occupation forces.
Most of us remember all too well the praise from the Bush administration lavished on the Awakening Groups, a Sunni militia comprised of former resistance fighters and al-Qaeda members (according to the US military), each member paid $300 per month of US taxpayer money. They grew in strength to 100,000 men.
US aid to the Councils was cut off last October on the understanding that the members would be absorbed into Iraqi government forces. To date, less than a third have been given government jobs.
Two months ago I visited the al-Dora area of Baghdad, a sprawling area controlled by Awakening forces. One of their commanders told me he was concerned about the fact that most of his men were not being given government jobs. "They are lacking pay, and most of them are becoming more angry by the day, since they have had more broken promises than they can handle," he explained as we drank tea, "Many of my men have not been paid since October. This cannot continue."
Meanwhile, the US-backed Iraqi government led by US-appointed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to target the leadership of the Awakening Groups. Maliki perceives the Awakening groups as both a political and military threat, and since October has been targeting their leadership in parts of Baghdad, as well as in Iraq's volatile Diyala Province.
In the wake of the spasm of violence in Baghdad last weekend, The Washington Post reported "As Apache helicopter gunships cruised above Baghdad's Fadhil neighborhood, former Sunni insurgents fought from rooftops and street corners against American and Iraqi forces, according to witnesses, the Iraqi military and police. At least 15 people were wounded in the gunfights, which lasted several hours. By nightfall, the street fighters had taken five Iraqi soldiers hostage. The battles, the most ferocious in nearly a year in Baghdad, erupted minutes after the arrest of Adil Mashadani, the leader of the Fadhil Awakening Council, which is composed mostly of former Sunni insurgents who allied themselves with the US military in exchange for monthly salaries that are now paid by Iraq's government."
Of course, the reason given to justify government's detention of the Awakening leader of the area, the incident that triggered the bloodshed, were "terrorist acts" by the group, according to Iraq's chief military spokesman, Gen. Qassim Atta. Predictably, the Awakening group spokesman for the area, Abu Mirna, told the Post, "We will fight them till the end if they don't release him."
It was convenient policy to have set up the Awakening groups to temporarily quell overall violence in Iraq. Resistance fighters rushed to join the ranks for the paycheck, as well as US military protection from Shia militias, which now largely comprise the government security apparatus. Now, however, clearly the US has lost some of their interest in continuing to support the Awakening groups, and the Maliki government is ratcheting up its efforts to dismantle them. Predictably, members of the Awakening are fighting back - for without a paycheck, and with yet another broken promise by the occupation forces to spur them on, why should they sit back and allow themselves to be detained, killed or further betrayed?
However, let us not martyr the Awakening Groups. Most of the leadership of the Awakening Groups are thugs, as are many of the members. Within weeks of the formation of the groups back in 2006, Iraqis living in areas that began to come under the control of Awakening groups began complaining of the brutality of the fighters in their area. Extortion and bribery became rampant, and many Iraqis view Awakening forces as collaborators with the occupiers of their country.
For example, I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with the president of the Fallujah Awakening Council, Sheikh Aifan Sadun, who, like other Awakening leaders, has hundreds of security personnel under his control. It was just before the January 30 elections in Iraq, and he was vying for political power against a rival Sunni group in the city - the Iraqi Islamic Party. Sheikh Aifan, who spoke with me while driving his $420,000 custom-built heavily armored BMW through the city that was destroyed by two US sieges in 2004, was accusing his rivals of rigging the upcoming elections.
He told me he would use "any means necessary" to fight them if they stole the elections. It was and is all about power for these Awakening leaders. And money. Shiekh Aifan, like most of the Awakening leaders, quickly got into the "construction business" when the US military stopped direct payments to them last October. Now those payments come in the form of "construction contracts." Sheikh Aifan himself has been awarded "contracts" worth $250 million - keep that in mind during this tax season, because it is your money that is paying for things like his own private militia, his BMW and his mansion on the outskirts of Fallujah.
In nearby Ramadi, the capital city of Al-Anbar, Sheikh Ahmad Abo Risha is president of the Awakening Council for the entire province. Just before the election, he, like Sheikh Aifan, was making moves to ensure he maintained his grip on power. His rival in the elections was Sheikh Hamid Al-Hayis, also an Awakening Council leader in the city, and from the same tribe. Abo Risha did not have kind words for Al-Hayis. "Al-Hayis has relations with government people and oil contracts, and he gets money from this by using his position which we helped him acquire," Abo Risha told me at the Awakening Council of Ramadi headquarters. "I'm from a long line of sheikhs, but Al-Hayis has only been a sheikh since 2006 when we started the Awakening," Abo Risha said. If Al-Hayis were to win the elections, "there will be a revolution."
When I asked Abo Risha about the Islamic Party, which Sheikh Aifan was accusing of trying to steal the elections, he told me if the Islamic Party took the elections by fraud, "It will be like Darfur."
None of these threats came to pass, as both men were victorious over their rivals. But their bellicose rhetoric is indicative of the kind of people they are, and the lengths they are willing to go to in order to maintain and/or seize power.
Despite the corruption and inherent infighting with the Awakening Group leaders, most of them, and the tens of thousands of men under their control, will certainly fight when attacked or provoked, as evidenced by this past weekend in Baghdad.
Broadening the frame of reference, keep in mind that government detentions, killings and threats towards Awakening Group leaders and members are ongoing in neighborhoods of Baghdad, as well as across Diyala province. We should expect violence in the areas of Baghdad they control as the Iraqi government continues to make moves towards taking them out in advance of the national elections scheduled for later this year. Thus, keep your eyes on the following areas of Baghdad in the coming weeks and months: Adhamiyah, Amiriyah, Gazaliyah and al-Dora, to name just a few. More broadly, also watch Baquba and surrounding areas where Awakening Groups are largely in control.
And keep Al-Anbar in mind. The province, which is one-third the geographic area of Iraq, is largely controlled by Awakening groups. This is the area where the fiercest resistance to the occupation has occurred, and if US occupation forces or the US-backed Iraqi government begins to move on men like Sheikh Aifan or Abo Risha, it will bring predictable results.
As Awakening Group member Abu Ayad, 58, told the Post, "We will all become suicide bombers" if his leader, Mashadani, is not released by the Iraqi government.
This article, by Kim Gamel,was publishedby the Associated Press, January 26, 2009
Two U.S. helicopters crashed Monday in northern Iraq, killing four American troops, the U.S. military said, in the deadliest single incident for U.S. forces in more than four months.
The military said the crash "does not appear to be by enemy action."
No precise location was given for the 2:15 a.m. crash, but a military spokesman said it occurred in Tamim province, which includes the oil-rich disputed city of Kirkuk.
Iraqi officials said the crash site was located about 20 miles (30 kilometers) west of Kirkuk, which is about 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release the information.
Maj. Derrick Cheng, a spokesman for U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said all the dead were Americans. He declined to give more details.
The deaths raised to at least 4,236 the number of U.S. service members who have died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The number of Americans killed in Iraq has dropped significantly with an overall decline in violence in the country.
Monday's crash was the deadliest single incident for U.S. troops since Sept. 18, when seven American soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash in the southern desert west of Basra.
The U.S. military relies heavily on helicopters and other aircraft to ferry troops, dignitaries and supplies to avoid the threat of ambushes and roadside bombs in Iraq.
At least 70 U.S. helicopters have gone down since the war started in March 2003, according to military figures. Of those, 36 were confirmed to have been shot down.
The most recent previous incident was on Nov. 15, when a helicopter made a hard landing after hitting wires in the northern city of Mosul, killing two American soldiers.
A Russian-made cargo plane chartered by FedEx also crashed in November after reporting a malfunction west of Baghdad, leaving the seven crew members dead.
The Jan. 2005 crash of a U.S. Marine CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter in western Iraq claimed 31 lives — the biggest single U.S. loss of life in the Iraq war. Investigators determined the crash was not due to hostile fire.
raqi electoral officials, meanwhile, geared up for Saturday's provincial elections — the first nationwide vote in more than three years.
A spokesman for Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, Qassim al-Aboudi, said the panel had punished more than 69 parties or coalitions for 180 campaign violations ranging from putting posters outside allocated locations and defaming rivals.
He expressed concern that was only a preview for likely conflicts and claims of fraud after the vote.
"I think that this issue will get worse after the results are declared," he said at a news conference. "I do not expect that the losers in the elections will congratulate the winners."
"They will not miss any chance to question the integrity of the results. But practically speaking, we have taken all necessary measures to combat fraud," he said.
At the gates of the Green Zone every day, Marwa Yasin is greeted by a volley of suggestive remarks from the Iraqi guards who this month took over from their American counterparts on checkpoint duty.
"Why is the moon so cross?" the men say, calling Yasin by the colloquial term for an aloof, beautiful woman. "What are you doing after work today? Why didn't you call me yesterday?"
The 19-year-old student is one of a growing group of women who says they run a gauntlet of insults and innuendo when they go to the Green Zone, a fortified complex of government offices, palm orchards and palaces built by Saddam Hussein. For the past six years, it has symbolized the United States presence in Iraq.
Iman al-Khalidi, a 23-year-old journalist, says she returned from a trip to the Green Zone to find a note containing a phone number inside her bag, supposedly left by a "lover who could who could not sleep" since he saw her at a checkpoint.
Khalidi believes the paper had been placed inside her bag during a search.
The responsibility for securing this vast area of central Baghdad passed from American to Iraqi forces on January 1, 2009.
Iraqi officials insist they will investigate all allegations of harassment against the guards now in charge of security.
Marwa Yasin, who attends an exclusive school inside the zone, says women had less to fear when the Iraqi security forces had American overseers.
"The American soldiers would punish any Iraqis who verbally harassed us and take away their badges," she said. "Now we miss their protection."
Most Iraqis and foreigners were barred from the Green Zone unless they lived or worked there. The U.S. military controlled access, protecting government officials and diplomats from the insurgency raging beyond its walls.
Amid a recent improvement in security, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki was able to hail the handover of the Green Zone as a sign that his country was regaining its sovereignty.
Weeks earlier, his government had finalized a deal on the eventual withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.
The government says it will eventually open up the Green Zone to the public, though it has not set a date for this.
Mahdi Kathem, the 33-year-old owner of a food store in Baghdad's Harethya neighbourhood, said, "Entering the Green Zone has been like a dream for us."
He says the transfer of the zone to Iraqi control is a big step in the "restoration of our sovereignty".
Like Kathem, most Baghdadis are pleased at the promise of regaining access to a once-forbidden part of their city.
However, many who have been working inside the Green Zone are pessimistic about its prospects under Iraqi control.
They fear the gradual withdrawal of American forces will worsen security and take a chunk out of their earnings.
Adil Mahmoud, a 20-year-old taxi driver, says the takeover of the zone by Iraqi security forces has been bad for business.
"My profits have fallen because of traffic jams inside the zone," he said. "The Iraqi forces are closing off streets and setting up checkpoints, creating congestion just like they've done in the rest of Baghdad."
Ali Jasim, a 22-year-old working in the zone's Iraqi-owned Freedom restaurant, says the new security arrangements have prompted foreign companies to relocate to Baghdad airport, which remains largely under the control of foreign guards.
"The number of customers who used to come to the restaurant has fallen by half because of the danger," Jasim said.
A government official insists Iraqi forces are capable of keeping the zone secure for all its occupants.
"I am not aware of any organizations leaving the Green Zone," said Firyad Rawanduzi, a member of the Iraqi council of representatives' security and defense committee.
"Security for all areas inside the zone is handled by Iraqi forces and they have done their job successfully."
Rawanduzi also said his committee had not received any reports from women of misconduct or harassment by the guards. "We will punish anyone guilty of such behavior if we receive complaints in the future," he said.
Over the past year, general improvements in security across Iraq have helped lessen the Green Zone's isolation.
Mohammed, a 17-year-old working with a private security firm inside the zone, says he is now able to visit his family outside more frequently.
At the height of the violence, he was confined to the zone because of the threat from militants to anyone who worked there. The teenager spent long periods without seeing the family he had given up his schooling to support.
Mohammed's mementoes from his last two-and-a-half years inside the zone include a photo of himself with some American soldiers.
"The handover is a good step," said Mohammed, who did not give his real name because of security concerns. "We have to protect our areas by ourselves."
Despite the ceremonial handover on January 1, the U.S. military currently still has a presence in the Green Zone, mentoring and supporting the Iraqi force.
Iraqi officials say the handover will be completed on March 31, at the end of a three-month transition period. The minister for national security, Shirwan al-Waeli, says U.S. forces are training and monitoring the Iraqis' handling of "technical equipment and other such issues."
Waeli says protection of the Green Zone has been assigned to a brigade of 3,000 men from the ministry of defense, who are under the command of the prime minister.
He says the government plans to support the brigade's work with an intelligence unit, supplied by the ministry of national security.
The agreement on the U.S. forces' withdrawal from Iraq, signed late last year, says the Green Zone must be fully handed over to the Iraqi government.
Iraqi forces already guard all five entrances to the zone. They also control vehicle checkpoints inside the zone.
Pedestrian checkpoints inside are jointly manned by Iraqi and American forces. The Iraqis there have the same duties as the Americans, asking for badges and checking them.
On the ground, the Iraqis are getting to grips with the new order.
"Now I, as an Iraqi officer, can give orders to the American soldier, whereas this was not possible in the past," said Mohammed Ameen Abbas, a 24-year-old officer in charge of a checkpoint in the Green Zone.
Ali Hameed, a 19-year-old soldier at another checkpoint, said Iraqi guards are more understanding than the Americans.
"We can still assist our citizens, even if they do not have identification cards with them," he said. "The Americans were strict in their treatment of Iraqis. It is different now that we have taken responsibility."
However, Marwa, who goes to school inside the zone, fears the Iraqi guards will be less reliable.
"The American soldier would never single anyone out for favorable treatment, even if it was his father," she said.
"But the Iraqi soldiers can show courtesy to their friends and let them enter the Green Zone, even though they do not have identification cards. What guarantee is there that a suicide bomber might not enter the zone and head to my school?"