Well, the Iraqis had their big election and the Sunnis came out to vote this time in big numbers, so we can pretty much pack up and leave, right? All the Purple Hearts our troops have received fighting in Iraq are turning into purple fingers! The fact that the main Shiite religious bloc gained the most votes at the expense of the secular Shiite lists and the Sunnis, is no impediment to the formation of a truly inclusive parliament that will represent all the factions of Iraq, right? The initial signs aren't encouraging, when one considers Sabrina Tavernise's report in the NYT on Monday that, "A committee headed by two independent Sunnis---Noori al-Rawi, Iraq's departing culture minister, and Zuhair Chalabi, the minister of human rights--met with members of the Shiite group, the United Iraqi Alliance, and relayed a request on behalf of the Sunni parties" that the Shiites donate 10 of their seats to the Sunnis in order to "defuse tensions over the results of the Dec. 15 elections." Surprisingly, Tavernise writes, "The Shiites refused." [NYT]
So, it appears that the US hope of the Shiites being reasonable and not alienating the Sunnis might be slightly misplaced. It's the same old zero sum game going on and the forecast calls for more Kurdish demands for Kirkuk in return for their votes in forming a governing coalition. (Along with some self interested back room deals for Ahmad Chalabi and his meager votes?)
Remember, the US plan is that the Shiites see reason and allow the Sunnis to get into the government and that this some how marginalizes the insurgents and this happy development along with General Peter Pace's plan to hand over more and more responsibility to Iraqi forces leads to us drawing down troop levels to 100,000 by the end of next year. (I still don't see how still having 100,000 troops over there this time next year is a sign of progress, but we just have to trust W. that this is a good thing.)
Despite the happy talk by the pundits, the whole thing might yet blow up in our faces as the Sunnis are complaining of massive voting irregularities around the country, including ballot box stuffing and intimidation of Sunni voters by Kurdish and Shiite militias. The tanker truck caught coming across the Iranian border with thousands of phony ballots hasn't helped the perception by the Sunnis that they got robbed, either. No one is taking these claims very seriously, though, and even the UN head of the electoral assistance team, Craig Jenness, says, "It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty credible given the circumstances."
Yes, given the circumstances that most of the country is a war zone, I'd say things went pretty well. Of course, it wasn't just the huge amount of security and the curfews that made the election successful, it was the indigenous Iraqi insurgent groups basically calling an election-day truce in the hopes that the Sunni political parties allied with them might pick up enough seats to serve as their version of Sinn Fein.
Now, it looks like that even though they gave the political process a chance, they still struck out. The result appears to be that the Shiites closest to the Iranians are back in the saddle and the Kurds are going to go ahead with their program of the de-Arabization of Kirkuk and both groups will go ahead with slicing up the oil money between them leaving the Sunnis with vast swathes of desert. Unless, Zalmay Khalilzad is a miracle worker I don't see this whole thing coming to a good end.
Not to say that the Shiite bloc is a monolith itself, they could wind up imploding over disputes about who runs what between Mukada al-Sadr and the Badr brigade in the south. The FT wrote on Dec. 17 that the commander for British forces in southern Iraq, Brigadier Patrick Marriot, said he would recommend no "significant reductions" of UK troops until provincial elections in March or April are over. Marriot predicts that Shia factions in the south are, "Going to be fighting for local power, they're going to be fighting within their lists." The main culprits as usual are the Badr Brigade and the Sadr's Medhi Army who have already had several violent clashes last August in Maysan province. The FT writes, "The Brigadier General said the provincial elections could see fragmentation within Badr and Medhi, as elements within the militias seeking local power independent of the national coalition broke from the alliance. 'There are certain minorities within those lists, if it fragments, will end up fighting.'"
Which is probably all well and fine with the Iranians, who will feel safer with a perpetually dysfunctional Iraqi neighbor and us tied down in a grueling guerilla war for years to come. Naturally, the Arab Iraqi Shiites, how ever much they may have in common religiously with the Shiite Iranians, still have a tribal and ethnic distrust of the Persians, but Persian money is still money. As long as the Iranians keep doing their part to keep the Iraqi United Alliance in power with bogus ballots and military assistance via Badr, we're SOL. If we push the Shiites too hard on the Sunni issue we'll just push them further into Iran's hands, but if we're seen to be helping the Badr brigade in our common fight against the Sunni insurgents, we convince the Sunnis we want them annihilated as well which will further inflames the situation. There are a whole bunch of militias in Iraq, we just happen to be the biggest and we're right in the middle of a very ugly civil war.
PTSD costs too much!
The WaPo reported yesterday that the VA is exploring ways to nickel and dime our returning troops that suffer from PTSD. It seems in the past five years claims for disability from PTSD has risen by 150% and the resulting costs are breaking the bank. Interestingly, the majority of claims are coming from Vietnam vets who have been dealing with their traumas by themselves up until now. (Just wait until the tens of thousands of troops who will be coming back from their 2nd or 3rd 18-month tours in Iraq, who have endured the viciousness and brutality of urban guerrilla war, start seeking the help only the VA can provide.)
Shankar Vedantam writes the VA, “has…been in negotiations with the Institute of Medicine over a review of the "utility and objectiveness" of PTSD diagnostic criteria and the validity of screening techniques, a process that could have profound implications for returning soldiers. ‘On the one hand, it is good that people are reaching out for help,’ said Jeff Schrade, communications director for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. ‘At the same time, as more people reach out for help, it squeezes the budget further.’
Its amazing to me that there would be a move on to change the way PTSD is defined in order to save money. Perhaps, before sending our service people into a meat grinder to protect democracy in the Middle East or South East Asia the president and Congress ought to make sure they're really willing to pay the bill for the consequences of their decisions four or five decades down the road as today’s twenty year-olds become tomorrow’s senior citizens.
“Facing a budget crunch, experts within and outside the Veterans Affairs Department are raising concerns about fraudulent claims.” Oh, what a cop out! The assertion that many of these claims might be efforts by vets to defraud the government is just absurd. There are, no doubt, ten of thousands of people who have been in combat and are mentally and emotionally scared by their service who never seek help because of the stigma involved. The idea that there are people out there willing to live with being called cowards or crazy just to pick up a government check is ridiculous. If the VA and the pentagon are so concerned about fraud they might begin by investigating Halliburton and all the other rapacious corporate looters of our tax payer monies before they build even higher bureaucratic walls around the treatment and help those who have done their duty for the country deserve and are owed.
This president is radioactive:
Geez, just when you're getting over the news that the NSA has been bugging American's phones without any warrents, you find out that it's not just a few phones but a whole bunch of phones.
The NYT reported on Friday that, "The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's main arteries, they said."
As if that wasn't bad enough, now we find out that, "Since 2002 the U.S. government has been monitoring for suspicious radiation levels outside more than 100 predominantly Muslim-related sites in the greater Washington, D.C., area, as well as various sites in other cities, several government officials with knowledge of the program confirmed to CNN Friday.
One government official said the authorities don't obtain warrants because the testing is conducted from outside the buildings on what they consider public property." [CNNCNN]
So, that's OK, because they were outside the building. If they were in a car outside your house and were using one of those audio-cones that they use on Monday Night Football to listen in on your conversations that would be OK too.
Stop all the complaining, you babies! As DAVID B. RIVKIN and LEE A. CASEY write in the Times today, "The contretemps its revelation has caused reveals much more about the chattering classes' fundamental antipathy to strong government in general, and strong executive power in particular, than it does about presidential overreaching." Stupid chattering classes!