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Archive for January 8th, 2007

War’s Toll on Iraqis Put at 22,950 in ’06

Statistics From Health Ministry Official Show Tripling of Civilian, Police Deaths

BAGHDAD, Jan. 7 — More than 17,000 Iraqi civilians and police officers died violently in the latter half of 2006, according to Iraqi Health Ministry statistics, a sharp increase that coincided with rising sectarian strife since the February bombing of a landmark Shiite shrine.

In the first six months of last year, 5,640 Iraqi civilians and police officers were killed, but that number more than tripled to 17,310 in the latter half of the year, according to data provided by a Health Ministry official with direct knowledge of the statistics. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said those numbers remained incomplete, suggesting the final tally of violent deaths could be higher.

Much of last year’s politically motivated bloodshed unfolded in Baghdad. The Bush administration is considering sending more U.S. troops there, as the newly ascendant Democrats in Congress press for a military withdrawal.

Bringing stability and rule of law to the capital is a cornerstone of the administration’s strategy to exit Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced over the weekend his own security push to tame Baghdad’s sectarian strife.

Last year’s spike in casualties occurred despite an ambitious U.S. military operation in the capital, Together Forward, that involved thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops cordoning off some of the deadliest neighborhoods and conducting house-to-house searches.

“We have been in a reaction mode in many ways to the events that occurred because of the [February] bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, and that began a cycle of sectarian violence that we’ve been working very, very, very hard to keep under control,” Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the former second-ranking commander in Iraq, told reporters last month.

“Now, I’m not in any way happy with what I see in Baghdad. The level of violence is way too high,” he added.

The Health Ministry’s full-year death toll of 22,950, although incomplete, is higher than the 13,896 violent deaths of civilians, police officers and soldiers reported Jan. 1 by Iraq’s ministries of defense, health and interior. The United Nations, in a November report, estimated that more than 28,000 Iraqi civilians had died violently in the first 10 months of 2006, but that count was disputed by the government. The differences in the numbers could not be reconciled.

Iraq’s death toll from violence is controversial because it provides a vivid report card on the difficulty of U.S. and Iraqi efforts to bring order to the country.

Neither the U.S. government nor the military provides death totals for Iraqis.
“It is often very difficult to gain consensus on the numbers of casualties in Iraq.

It really is a government of Iraq issue,” said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a U.S. military spokesman. U.S. and Iraqi officials have discouraged Baghdad’s medical officials from releasing morgue counts.

The Iraqi government does not provide a single official death toll, leaving it up to individual ministries to release data, which are often conflicting.

The Health Ministry compiles data from morgues across the nation and from government hospitals. Those figures include Iraqis killed in bombings, terrorist acts, militia attacks, roadside explosions, drive-by shootings, kidnappings and other acts of violence. They also include the numerous unidentified corpses that turn up virtually every day, often handcuffed and showing signs of torture.

The Health Ministry data are believed to be more reliable than those issued by other sources because they are based solely on death certificates. But the Health Ministry, as a policy, does not publicly release these statistics. The ministry is under the control of the Shiite religious party of Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is behind much of the sectarian killing.

The numbers are considered so sensitive that some Iraqi officials, when told of the Health Ministry data, dismissed them as exaggerated, but at the same time did not offer any other numbers. Previous reports about such body counts have drawn similar denials.

“I don’t know of these numbers,” said Health Ministry spokesman Qasim Yahya. “The Ministry of Health does not give out such numbers.”
He referred all comments to the Interior Ministry, which he said was responsible for releasing such statistics.

Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said the Health Ministry was “not authorized to give out such statistics. It’s a very big number. It’s not close to the truth.”

The Interior Ministry’s figures are based primarily on data from police stations, police units and emergency patrols. Those numbers do not include the wounded who die later from their injuries, those kidnapped and later killed, armed men who die in clashes with U.S. or Iraqi forces, unidentified bodies, and other categories of deaths.

Another source of data is the United Nations, which relies on reports it culls from the Health Ministry, the Baghdad morgue and government hospitals, and releases death figures every two months. The organization does not include Iraqi police or military casualties in its reports.

The United Nations reported 28,076 violent deaths of civilians in the first 10 months of 2006, including 3,709 killed in October, according to its latest report, issued in November. At that time, Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh disputed the U.N. numbers as “inaccurate and exaggerated” because they were not based on official government reports.

“Yes, we have casualties, but not that huge number of casualties,” Health Minister Ali Hussein al-Shamari said on Iraqi television. “The true number might be a quarter that, although we feel sorry for those who are dying. But they want to mislead the world about the conditions in Iraq.” During a visit to Vienna that month, however, he said as many as 150,000 Iraqi civilians had died since 2003 as a result of violence. Dabbagh, who is traveling outside of Iraq, was not available for comment on Friday.

Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, disputed the figures, saying they probably included those who were killed in car accidents or day-to-day crimes.

The Health Ministry official made clear that the statistics counted only those who had died from political violence.

“Everyone can guess, but what is the real number? I’m not sure if anyone knows how many people are killed due to the violence and the terrorism,” Rikabi said.
The Associated Press count for last year, assembled from its daily dispatches, is roughly 13,700 civilians, police and soldiers. But the news service has said that it believes its figures are substantially lower than the actual number of deaths because it lacked access to government data. Iraq Body Count, a British-based research group that reports on civilian deaths in Iraq, says the number is at most roughly 58,000 since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The group relies on deaths reported by the news media, and suggests on its Web site that its totals are an underrepresentation because “many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported.” Critics have accused the group of grossly underreporting Iraqi deaths.

A study on Iraqi mortality rates published in October by the Lancet medical journal estimated that more than 600,000 Iraqis had died from violence since the invasion. That number was extrapolated from population surveys rather than a compilation of actual deaths. The U.S. and Iraqi governments, as well as Iraq Body Count, dismissed the Lancet findings as inaccurate.

The United Nations is scheduled to release death tolls for November and December within the next two weeks, an official said. According to the Health Ministry figures obtained last week, November’s death toll was 3,293, while December’s fell to 2,748.

In November, four family members of Abu Taha al-Adhami, a computer engineer in Baghdad, were killed, he said, and one was kidnapped and remains missing. During the first half of last year, he lost no relatives, he said.

“The violence wasn’t that obvious during the first half of last year,” he said. “During the second half, the violence started to grow and grow and become more severe. It’s all because of the political atmosphere.”

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New Oil Law Means Victory in Iraq for Bush

I. Surging Toward the Ultimate Prize

The reason that George W. Bush insists that “victory” is achievable in Iraq is not that he is deluded or isolated or ignorant or detached from reality or ill-advised. No, it’s that his definition of “victory” is different from those bruited about in his own rhetoric and in the ever-earnest disquisitions of the chattering classes in print and online. For Bush, victory is indeed at hand. It could come at any moment now, could already have been achieved by the time you read this. And the driving force behind his planned “surge” of American troops is the need to preserve those fruits of victory that are now ripening in his hand.

At any time within the next few days, the Iraqi Council of Ministers is expected to approve a new “hydrocarbon law” essentially drawn up by the Bush administration and its UK lackey, the Independent on Sunday reported. The new bill will “radically redraw the Iraqi oil industry and throw open the doors to the third-largest oil reserves in the world,” says the paper, whose reporters have seen a draft of the new law. “It would allow the first large-scale operation of foreign oil companies in the country since the industry was nationalized in 1972.” If the government’s parliamentary majority prevails, the law should take effect in March.

As the paper notes, the law will give Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell and other carbon cronies of the White House unprecedented sweetheart deals, allowing them to pump gargantuan profits from Iraq’s nominally state-owned oilfields for decades to come. This law has been in the works since the very beginning of the invasion – indeed, since months before the invasion, when the Bush administration brought in Phillip Carroll, former CEO of both Shell and Fluor, the politically-wired oil servicing firm, to devise “contingency plans” for divvying up Iraq’s oil after the attack. Once the deed was done, Carroll was made head of the American “advisory committee” overseeing the oil industry of the conquered land, as Joshua Holland of Alternet.com has chronicled in two remarkable reports on the backroom maneuvering over Iraq’s oil: “Bush’s Petro-Cartel Almost Has Iraq’s Oil and “The US Takeover of Iraqi Oil.”

From those earliest days until now, throughout all the twists and turns, the blood and chaos of the occupation, the Bush administration has kept its eye on this prize. The new law offers the barrelling buccaneers of the West a juicy set of production-sharing agreements (PSAs) that will maintain a fig leaf of Iraqi ownership of the nation’s oil industry – while letting Bush’s Big Oil buddies rake off up to 75 percent of all oil profits for an indefinite period up front, until they decide that their “infrastructure investments” have been repaid. Even then, the agreements will give the Western oil majors an unheard-of 20 percent of Iraq’s oil profits – more than twice the average of standard PSAs, the Independent notes.

Of course, at the moment, the “security situation” – i.e., the living hell of death and suffering that Bush’s “war of choice” has wrought in Iraq – prevents the Oil Barons from setting up shop in the looted fields. Hence Bush’s overwhelming urge to “surge” despite the fierce opposition to his plans from Congress, the Pentagon and some members of his own party. Bush and his inner circle, including his chief adviser, old oilman Dick Cheney, believe that a bigger dose of blood and iron in Iraq will produce a sufficient level of stability to allow the oil majors to cash in the PSA chips that more than 3,000 American soldiers have purchased for them with their lives.

The American “surge” will be blended into the new draconian effort announced over the weekend by Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki: an all-out war by the government’s Shiite militia-riddled “security forces” on Sunni enclaves in Baghdad, as the Washington Post reports. American troops will “support” the “pacification effort” with what Maliki says calls “house-to-house” sweeps of Sunni areas. There is of course another phrase for this kind of operation: “ethnic cleansing.”

The “surged” troops – mostly long-serving, overstrained units dragooned into extended duty – are to be thrown into this maelstrom of urban warfare and ethnic murder, temporarily taking sides with one faction in Iraq’s hydra-headed, multi-sided civil war. As the conflict goes on – and it will go on and on – the Bush administration will continue to side with whatever faction promises to uphold the “hydrocarbon law” and those profitable PSAs. If “Al Qaeda in Iraq” vowed to open the nation’s oil spigots for Exxon, Fluor and Halliburton, they would suddenly find themselves transformed from “terrorists” into “moderates” – as indeed has Maliki and his violent, sectarian Dawa Party, which once killed Americans in terrorist actions but are now hailed as freedom’s champions.

So Bush will surge with Maliki and his ethnic cleansing for now. If the effort flames out in a disastrous crash that makes the situation worse – as it almost certainly will – Bush will simply back another horse. What he seeks in Iraq is not freedom or democracy but “stability” – a government of any shape or form that will deliver the goods. As the Independent wryly noted in its Sunday story, Dick Cheney himself revealed the true goal of the war back in 1999, in a speech he gave when he was still CEO of Halliburton. “Where is the oil going to come from” to slake the world’s ever-growing thirst, asked Cheney, who then answered his own question: “The Middle East, with two-thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies.”

And therein lies another hidden layer of the war. For Iraq not only has the world’s second largest oil reserves; it also has the world’s most easily retrievable oil. As the Independent succinctly notes: “The cost-per-barrel of extracting oil in Iraq is among the lowest in the world because the reserves are relatively close to the surface. This contrasts starkly with the expensive and risky lengths to which the oil industry must go to find new reserves elsewhere – witness the super-deep offshore drilling and cost-intensive techniques needed to extract oil form Canada’s tar sands.”

This is precisely what Cheney was getting at in his 1999 talk to the Institute of Petroleum. In a world of dwindling petroleum resources, those who control large reserves of cheaply-produced oil will reap unimaginable profits – and command the heights of the global economy. It’s not just about profit, of course; control of such resources would offer tremendous strategic advantages to anyone who was interested in “full spectrum domination” of world affairs, which the Bush-Cheney faction and their outriders among the neo-cons and the “national greatness” fanatics have openly sought for years. With its twin engines of corporate greed and military empire, the war in Iraq is a marriage made in Valhalla.

II. The Win-Win Scenario

And this unholy union is what Bush is really talking about when he talks about “victory.” This is the reason for so much of the drift and dithering and chaos and incompetence of the occupation: Bush and his cohorts don’t really care what happens on the ground in Iraq – they care about what comes out of the ground. The end – profit and dominion – justifies any means. What happens to the human beings caught up in the war is of no ultimate importance; the game is worth any number of broken candles.

And in plain point of fact, the Bush-Cheney faction – and the elite interests they represent – has already won the war in Iraq. I’ve touched on this theme before elsewhere, but it is a reality of the war that is very often overlooked, and is worth examining again. This ultimate victory was clear as long ago as June 2004, when I first set down the original version of some of the updated observations below.

Put simply, the Bush Family and their allies and cronies represent the confluence of three long-established power factions in the American elite: oil, arms and investments. These groups equate their own interests, their own wealth and privilege, with the interests of the nation – indeed, the world – as a whole. And they pursue these interests with every weapon at their command, including war, torture, deceit and corruption. Democracy means nothing to them – not even in their own country, as we saw in the 2000 election. Laws are just whips to keep the common herd in line; they don’t apply to the elite, as Bush’s own lawyers and minions have openly asserted in the memos, signing statements, court cases and presidential decrees asserting the “inherent power” of the “unitary executive” to override any law he pleases.

The Iraq war has been immensely profitable for these Bush-linked power factions (and their tributary industries, such as construction); billions of dollars in public money have already poured into their coffers. Halliburton has been catapulted from the edge of bankruptcy to the heights of no-bid, open-ended, guaranteed profit. The Carlyle Group is gorging on war contracts. Individual Bush family members are making out like bandits from war-related investments, while dozens of Bush minions – like Richard Perle, James Woolsey, and Joe Allbaugh – have cashed in their insider chips for blood money.

The aftermath of the war promises equal if not greater riches. Even if the new Iraqi government maintains nominal state control of its oil industry, there are still untold billions to be made in PSAs for drilling, refining, distributing, servicing and securing oilfields and pipelines. Likewise, the new Iraqi military and police forces will require billions more in weapons, equipment and training, bought from the US arms industry – and from the fast-expanding “private security” industry, the politically hard-wired mercenary forces that are the power elite’s latest lucrative spin-off. And as with Saudi Arabia, oil money from the new Iraq will pump untold billions into American banks and investment houses.

But that’s not all. For even in the worst-case scenario, if the Americans had to pull out tomorrow, abandoning everything – their bases, their contracts, their collaborators – the Bush power factions would still come out ahead. For not only has their already-incalculable wealth been vastly augmented (with any potential losses indemnified by US taxpayers), but their deeply-entrenched sway over American society has also increased by several magnitudes. No matter which party controls the government, the militarization of America is so far gone now it’s impossible to imagine any major rollback in the gargantuan US war machine – 725 bases in 132 countries, annual military budgets topping $500 billion, a planned $1 trillion in new weapons systems already moving through the pipeline. Indeed, the Democratic “opposition” has promised to expand the military.

Nor will either party conceivably challenge the dominance of the energy behemoths – or stand against the American public’s demand for cheap gas, big vehicles, and unlimited consumption of a vast disproportion of the world’s oil. As for Wall Street – both parties have long been the eager courtesans of the investment elite, dispatching armies all over the world to protect their financial interests. The power factions whose influence has been so magnified by Bush’s war will maintain their supremacy regardless of the electoral outcome.

[By the way, to think that all of this has happened because a small band of extremist ideologues - the neo-cons - somehow "hijacked" US foreign policy to push their radical dreams of "liberating" the Middle East by force and destroying Israel's enemies is absurd. The Bush power factions were already determined to pursue an aggressive foreign policy; they used the neo-cons and their bag of tricks - their inflated rhetoric, their conspiratorial zeal, their murky Middle East contacts, their ideology of brute force in the name of "higher" causes - as tools (and PR cover) to help bring about a long-planned war that had nothing to do with democracy or security or any coherent ideology whatsoever beyond the remorseless pursuit of wealth and power, the blind urge to be top dog.]

So Bush and his cohorts have won even if the surge fails and Iraq lapses into perpetual anarchy, or becomes an extremist religious state; they’ve won even if the whole region goes up in flames, and terrorism flares to unprecedented heights – because this will just mean more war-profiteering, more fear-profiteering. And yes, they’ve won even though they’ve lost their Congressional majority and could well lose the presidency in 2008, because war and fear will continue to fill their coffers, buying them continuing influence and power as they bide their time through another interregnum of a Democratic “centrist” – who will, at best, only nibble at the edges of the militarist state – until they are back in the saddle again. The only way they can lose the Iraq War is if they are actually arrested and imprisoned for their war crimes. And we all know that’s not going to happen.

So Bush’s confident strut, his incessant upbeat pronouncements about the war, his complacent smirks, his callous indifference to the unspeakable horror he has unleashed in Iraq – these are not the hallmarks of self-delusion, or willful ignorance, or a disassociation from reality. He and his accomplices know full well what the reality is – and they like it.

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On Saturday, over one thousand protesters occupied the sands of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach – part of new Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s district – in order to spell out the message “IMPEACH!”

“America is a great country,” Brad Newsham, a local cab driver and author who organized the event, stated in a press release. “But President Bush has betrayed our faith.

“He mislead us into a disastrous war, and is trampling on our Constitution.,” Newsham continued. “He has to go. Now. I hope Nancy Pelosi is listening today.”

San Francisco’s ABC affiliate KGO TV covered the protest, and a video can be seen at its web site.

“Do you think the country has the stomach for another impeachment?” asked ABC7’s Noel Cisneros.

“I think we don’t have the stomach for another two years of Bush,” protester Dan Brook responded.

While the station’s legal analayst noted that “you can’t impeach a president for incompetence,” he does think “the strongest legal case against Mr. Bush would likely be for the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretaps of millions of American telephone calls.”

“Section 1809 of the FISA Act provides that any public official who engages in a wiretap, without authorization, is guilty of a felony – I think it’s beyond a reasonable dispute that President Bush violated that statute,” said former prosecutor Dean Johnson.

A 2006 Zogby poll taken one year ago, commissioned by AfterDowningStreet.org, a grassroots coalition that supports a Congressional investigation of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, found that 52 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: “If President Bush wiretapped American citizens without the approval of a judge, do you agree or disagree that Congress should consider holding him accountable through impeachment?”

In that same poll – which had a margin of error of 2.9 percent – 43 percent disagreed, and 6 percent responded that “they didn’t know or declined to answer.”

The beach event had originally been scheduled on December 10th’s “Human Rights and Impeachment Day,” as reported earlier by RAW STORY, but “dangerous surf conditions” led to its “forced postponement” until Saturday.

More photos, including the aerial shot featured above taken by John Montgomery, can be seen here, while other photographers’ work can be seen here, and here.

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War Could Last Years, Commander Says

BAGHDAD, Jan. 7 — The new American operational commander in Iraq said Sunday that even with the additional American troops likely to be deployed in Baghdad under President Bush’s new war strategy it might take another “two or three years” for American and Iraqi forces to gain the upper hand in the war.

The commander, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, assumed day-to-day control of war operations last month in the first step of a makeover of the American military hierarchy here. In his first lengthy meeting with reporters, General Odierno, 52, struck a cautious note about American prospects, saying much will depend on whether commanders can show enough progress to stem eroding support in the United States for the war.

“I believe the American people, if they feel we are making progress, they will have the patience,” he said. But right now, he added, “I think the frustration is that they think we are not making progress.”

The general laid out a plan to make an impact in Baghdad with the additional troops. Several other military plans since the fall of Baghdad in 2003 have faltered. He said he wanted the new American units, working with three additional Iraqi combat brigades that Iraqi officials say will be deployed in the capital, to move back into the city’s toughest neighborhoods and show that they can “protect the people,” which he said coalition forces had previously failed to do.

General Odierno contrasted his approach with the last effort to secure Baghdad, effectively abandoned for lack of enough Iraqi troops last fall.

Then, American troops conducted house-to-house clearing operations before moving on to other neighborhoods, leaving the holding phase of the operation to Iraqi troops, who failed to control the areas and forced Americans to return. This time, the general said, American troops would remain in the cleared areas “24/7,” to stiffen Iraqi resolve and build confidence among residents that they would be treated evenhandedly.

Equally important, he said, coalition troops would move into both Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods. That, too, would break with the pattern set last fall, when American troops concentrated on known Sunni insurgent strongholds, especially Dora, in southwest Baghdad. This time, the general said, it was crucial the security plan be evenhanded. “We have to have a believable approach, of going after Sunni and Shia extremists,” he said.

Going into Shiite neighborhoods, particularly the sprawling working-class district of Sadr City, the base for the powerful Mahdi Army militia that has spawned Shiite death squads, will risk new strains in the relationship between American commanders and the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Sunni leaders and, increasingly, American commanders here have accused Mr. Maliki of a strong Shiite bias. The criticism has intensified since the sectarian taunting by Shiite guards at the hanging nine days ago of Iraq’s ousted dictator, Saddam Hussein, an event personally planned by Mr. Maliki.

General Odierno said he envisaged making enough of a difference within three or four months of the new deployments to move to a second phase of the new plan, pulling American troops back to the periphery of Baghdad and leaving Iraqi forces to carry on the fight in the capital. He said he hoped to be able to do that by August or September, but with American troops prepared to move back into the capital rapidly if commanders conclude that the pullback was “a miscalculation.”

Meeting American reporters over lunch at a villa in the grounds of one of Mr. Hussein’s former palaces, General Odierno was careful not to divulge details of Mr. Bush’s new war plan, which the president is expected to make public in coming days, perhaps on Wednesday.

But much of the Bush plan has been leaked, including an influx of as many as 20,000 additional combat troops to Baghdad. Their arrival would be staged over coming months as American commanders watch to see whether the Iraqis, who made troop commitments before that they have not fulfilled, meet their part of the deal.

Sending up to five additional combat brigades, as suggested by administration officials in Washington who have discussed the plan with reporters, would push the American force in Iraq to at least 160,000 troops, close to the levels involved in the invasion nearly four years ago.

This so-called surge would constitute an abrupt about-face in American strategy, which has aimed in the past two years for a drawdown of American troops as Iraqi forces take on greater responsibility for the war.

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Troop surge in Iraq would have McCain in tow


As a key backer of a buildup, his 2008 chances may ride on its success or failure.

WASHINGTON — As a onetime prisoner of war during Vietnam and decorated Navy officer, Sen. John McCain has based much of his political persona on his staunch support for the military and his consummate credibility on national security.

But as the Arizona Republican prepares to mount a White House campaign, he is putting those military bona fides on the line — aggressively backing an unpopular plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq at a time that other presidential hopefuls are steering clear of the war or calling for troop reductions.

President Bush is expected this week to announce a plan to send at least 20,000 additional troops to try to halt sectarian violence and bring security to Baghdad — a move widely perceived as an all-but-final push to avert failure in Iraq.

Besides Bush, no politician has more to lose than McCain, the presumed GOP front-runner in 2008 and the plan’s biggest backer in Congress.

Now that Bush is pursuing the McCain approach, the senator could soon find himself defending the policy to a war-weary public in Iowa, New Hampshire and other key election states where surveys show voters are fed up with rising U.S. casualties.

McCain readily admits that the new strategy is likely to result in even more violence — setting up a paradox for him as he strives to succeed an unpopular fellow Republican in the White House by backing an escalation of the very war that has plunged Bush’s approval rating to near-record lows.

Democrats can barely contain their eagerness for McCain to take the blame for a plan that seems to contradict the antiwar message of the 2006 midterm election that stripped Republicans of their once-solid congressional majorities. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, went out of his way recently to describe the troop increase as the “McCain doctrine.”

McCain shows no interest in shedding that label.

“If it destroys any ambitions I may have, I’m willing to pay that price gladly,” McCain said Friday after an appearance at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, where he said the surge “must be substantial and it must be sustained.”

His presidential aspirations, he added, “pale in comparison to what I think is most important to our nation’s security.”

McCain’s calculation is the latest sign that the Iraq war is likely to dominate the 2008 race, just as it overshadowed the elections of 2004 and 2006. But it also shows that McCain, perhaps the best-positioned of any candidate to win the presidency in wartime, is willing to bet it all on a gamble that voters will reward his resolve, as they did for Bush in 2004, rather than punish him, as they did to GOP candidates in November.

Other Republicans are clearly not ready to play those odds.

One of McCain’s top rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has so far declined to weigh in. In interviews with conservative magazines and bloggers before his term in the statehouse ran out last week, his response was only “I’m still a governor” when asked about increasing troops. He added that he wanted to hear what Bush had to say before making any additional statements.

Another potential McCain primary opponent, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), has walked a careful line, saying that a troop buildup “could be an acceptable plan” but adding that an increase “seems shortsighted if its only purpose is to impose military order without also moving toward a political equilibrium.”

Foes across the aisle

Democrats, encouraged by the 2006 midterm results and still smarting from a 2004 campaign in which many believe they were too passive on national security, appear to be staking out a strong stance against troop buildups.

The party’s leaders in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, laid out their opposition in a letter to Bush last week, and Pelosi warned Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that any administration budget request for additional troops would receive “the harshest scrutiny.”

Meanwhile, Edwards and another possible White House contender, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), are talking about troop reductions or redeployments.

Edwards has called his 2002 vote in favor of the war a mistake — an admission that his supporters believe will help him appeal to the party’s antiwar base. He took the offensive in a recent television interview, pinning the idea of adding troops squarely on McCain, rather than Bush.

“He’s been the most prominent spokesperson for this for some time,” Edwards said Dec. 31 on ABC’s “This Week.” “I’m just telling you it’s his thing, and I know John McCain very well. He and I are friends, but I think he’s dead wrong about this.”

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BAGHDAD, Iraq – In his first wide-ranging interview, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq conceded Sunday that a military “surge” escalation would not be enough to rescue Iraq, advocating economic and political changes as well, as top Democratic lawmakers in Washington stiffened their opposition to any escalation of U.S. troop strength.

Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno said he believed that a combination of jobs, provincial elections, anti-militia legislation and stronger Iraqi security forces could stop the nation’s plunge toward all-out civil war. Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, his predecessor, spelled out the same approach before his departure one month ago.

By echoing his predecessor, Odierno’s comments raised concerns in both Washington and Iraq that the U.S. war effort is exhausting old tactics that haven’t worked. Indeed, many Iraqis do not trust that a new Baghdad security plan can change their circumstances because the U.S. and Iraqi government have touted at least five such plans before, all of which failed to stop the violence.

The commander’s statements came days before President Bush is to announce a new course for U.S. policy in Iraq, probably Wednesday. It’s expected to include an escalation “surge” of between 9,000 and 30,000 U.S. troops, an increase in civilian advisers to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government and perhaps $1 billion in new aid for reconstruction efforts.

In Washington Sunday, top Democratic lawmakers emphasized that they oppose any plan to escalate U.S. troop strength in Iraq, but made clear that they are not ready to cut off funds for troops there now. However, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that Congress would scrutinize any Bush request to fund an escalated U.S. presence in Iraq.

“The American people and the Congress support those troops. We will not abandon them. But if the president wants to add to this mission, he is going to have to justify it. And this is new for him, because up until now, the Republican Congress has given him a blank check with no oversight, no standards, no conditions, and we’ve gotten into this situation which is a war without end, which the American people have rejected,” Pelosi said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

On Friday, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sent Bush a public letter opposing any increase in U.S. troops in Iraq and calling for a phased redeployment of U.S. troops out of Iraq starting in four to six months.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday that Bush’s expected plan to escalate U.S. troop strength in Iraq “is a prescription for another tragedy.” Biden also announced that he will seek the presidency in 2008.

“There is now a civil war. You need a political solution,” said Biden, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” His committee plans extensive hearings on Iraq in coming weeks.

Taking the opposite view was Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“I support a surge with a purpose – co-joining with the Iraqi political and military leadership to control this country,” Graham said, also on “Meet the Press.” “We cannot let this country go into the abyss.

“Now is the last chance, and the only chance, to get this right.”

Graham said many Republican lawmakers are prepared to back Bush’s call for an escalation of U.S. forces in Iraq.

In Baghdad, Odierno said he proposed several approaches to Defense Secretary Robert Gates during his visit here last month, including a surge.

“What I will tell you is when Secretary Gates was here with General (Peter) Pace, we offered several different courses of action. Some included surge of troops, some included a surge in economic capabilities.” Others, he said, included boosting other Iraqi capabilities in the treasury, justice, and rule of law fields, “and some didn’t include a troop surge.”

Odierno arrived in Baghdad less than a month ago, replacing Chiarelli. During his tenure, Chiarelli repeatedly said that if more Iraqis had jobs, fewer would join a rogue group or shoot at American soldiers. The unemployment rate here is at least 25 percent, government officials estimate.

Both commanders said they believed that Iraqi forces should take the lead in enforcing security, while conceding that, while they are improving, Iraqis have faltered when given the lead. Some forces have been overtly sectarian. Others lost control of their communities, forcing U.S. troops to intervene. Both commanders said that U.S. troops should be on the periphery of areas handed over to Iraqi forces in case violence erupts.

Both said that U.S. forces must tackle not only Sunni insurgents but Shiite militias – yet both stopped short of advocating that U.S. forces go after firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who leads Iraq’s largest militia, the Mahdi Army, and supports the Iraqi government.

“I’m not sure we take him down,” Odierno said. “There are some extreme elements (of the Mahdi Army) … and we will go after them. I will allow the government to decide whether (Sadr) is part of it or not. He is currently working within the political system.”

Both Odierno and Chiarelli said that the military could not do everything and that Iraq needs a political solution. Both also said that everyone should be patient with Iraq’s nascent government, noting that it has been in power less than a year.

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