- April 15: The US Army breaks its promise to allow 21,000 troops to return home after a year's tour of duty in Iraq. Instead, with only a few weeks to go in their tour, the troops were recently informed that they would be staying another three months. The decision has not yet been made public; Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is expected to make the announcement today. The Army is so stretched by its commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere that it has few, if any, forces immediately available to substitute in Iraq for the affected units. Supreme US commander John Abizaid originally planned to reduce the number of US forces in Iraq from around 135,000 to 115,000, but an upsurge of violence in Iraq has apparently forced Abizaid to change his mind. (AP/Guardian)
Iraqi nuclear materials are being left unguarded, and looters have ransacked the facilities, stealing radioactive materials and critical equipment
- April 15: The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Iraqi nuclear facilities are still being left unguarded, and that looters have pillaged these facilities, taking radioactive materials and critical equipment. The US has refused to cooperate with the IAEA since the March 2003 invasion. The IAEA says that a quantity of unrefined "yellowcake" uranium that turned up in a Rotterdam harbor probably came from Iraq; the source is believed to be an Iraqi uranium mine that produced the uranium before the 1991 Gulf War. Yellowcake, or uranium oxide, could be used to build a nuclear weapon, although it would take tons of the substance refined with sophisticated technology to harvest enough uranium for a single bomb. A small number of Iraqi missile engines have also turned up in European ports, IAEA officials say. "It is not clear whether the removal of these items has been the result of looting activities in the aftermath of the recent war in Iraq or as part of systematic efforts to rehabilitate some of their locations," the IAEA reports. (Guardian)
- April 15: An Italian hostage is executed by Iraqi militants. The militants have demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and threatened to kill three other hostages, the Arab TV network al-Jazeera reports. The killing could further heighten fears among international aid workers, contractors and journalists, some of whom are already restricting their activities in the country. Al-Jazeera said it had video of the killing but did not broadcast it because it is too graphic. Al-Jazeera did show footage of the four Italian security guards sitting on the ground, holding up their passports and surrounded by armed men. The identity of the slain hostage has been confirmed as security consultant Fabrizio Quattrocchi. The Italian ambassador to Qatar says the Italian government will do "what is possible and impossible" to free the remaining three. Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi rules out any withdrawal of troops. "They have cut short a life, Berlusconi says. "They have not damaged our values and our commitment to peace." A US spokesman confirms that 40 foreigners from 12 countries are being held by kidnappers, but an Associated Press count put the number at 22, with Wednesday's release of the French journalist and the apparent abduction of two Japanese freelance journalists in a Baghdad suburb. American experts, meanwhile, are conducting tests to determine whether four bodies discovered west of Baghdad are the remains of private US contractors missing since an assault on their convoy Friday. One of the missing, Thomas Hamill, is known to have been abducted. His captors have threatened to kill and mutilate him unless US troops ended their assault on Fallujah. The deadline passed Sunday with no word on his fate. The Russian Embassy in Baghdad is preparing a list of about 800 specialists to be evacuated after three Russian and five Ukrainian employees of a Russian energy company were kidnapped by masked gunmen who broke into their Baghdad house on Monday. They were released unharmed the next day. The four Italian security guards were abducted April 12. The militants' videotape was accompanied by a statement from a previously unknown group, the Green Battalion, said it would "kill the three remaining Italian hostages one after the other, if their demands are not met," according to al-Jazeera. The group demands the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, an apology from Berlusconi for an insult to Islam and Muslims and the release of religious clerics held in Iraq. Three of the Italian captives were working for a US-based company while a fourth was employed by a Seychelles-based firm. Italy is the third-largest coalition partner in the occupation force. Italy didn't send in combat troops during the war. Its forces are based in the southern city of Nasiriyah, working on reconstruction. (AP/Guardian)
- April 15: In an attempt to shore up Iraqi security, the US is planning to hire a large number of officials from the regime of Saddam Hussein to top jobs in the new Iraqi security forces. The hirings are an apparent attempt to prevent a repetition of last week's mutiny by several hundred Iraqi soldiers. The appointment of officers from the old regime was advised by British officials last summer after the entire Iraqi army was disbanded by Paul Bremer, the top US administrator in Iraq, a move which sparked anger and discontent. The US secretly changed tack early this year and sent a group of six major-generals, and about 20 other senior officers, for training in the US. "I was invited by the Americans three months ago to come to a meeting in Baghdad with a view to being trained abroad," says one high-ranking Iraqi officer. "There was a list of 27 men, the intellectual cream of the Iraqi forces, and most of them graduates of top staff colleges abroad, like Sandhurst and Cranwell. They were clean, honest, and not involved in repression." He says he had declined the request because he did not want to serve an occupying power: "I come from a family with five generations in uniform and I didn't want to put a black mark on this page." Brigadier Najib al-Salhi, an officer who defected to the west in the 1990s and is back in Baghdad, says no officers were from Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, which was largely recruited for its personal loyalty to the regime. "These were among the best apolitical elements in the Iraqi army," he says. "They are not all Sunnis. They represent a sectarian balance." The US has already trained 200,000 police, border guards, members of the new Iraqi civil defence corps (who now man most checkpoints), and soldiers. The Iraqi army is planned to number 40,000, of whom 30,000 are due in place by September. Officer cadets were sent to Jordan for training, and the first group was commissioned a month ago. The police training has been hasty and thin, and many defected during last week's uprising by Shi'a militias loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "They did not stand up to the intimidators," says General John Abizaid, head of US central command. It's very clear that we've got to get more senior Iraqis involved -- former military types involved in the security forces," Abizaid continues. "In the next couple of days you'll see a large number of senior officers being appointed to key positions in the Ministry of Defense and the Iraqi joint staff, and in Iraqi field commands." "The Iraqis have to have their own chain of command and know who they're working for, and know that they're working for a greater Iraq," General Richard Myers, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said on a visit to the Gulf earlier in the week. (Guardian)
- April 15: Humanitarian agencies and other NGOs (non-governmental organizations, largely relief organizations and aid groups) are pulling out of Iraq, citing the country as too violent and too dangerous for their relief workers. "The situation continues to be very, very volatile and I believe that if there are any moves on Najaf then the whole thing is just going to blow completely," says Norman Sheehan, chief executive of relief agency War Child UK. Many NGOs have already left Iraq, leaving a scant few to address the tremendous needs of the destitute and desperate Iraqi civilian population. "At a time of heightened military action on all sides, the dangers increase for NGOs," says David Wightwick of Merlin, a British medical aid agency that withdrew its international staff to Amman just before the Easter weekend. "And if we're talking about a complete mismatch of military power, then the side that has less power is going to adopt more unorthodox tactics. If that means snatching foreigners on the street then that's what they're going to do, and there's not much we can do about it except keep out of the way." Any big offensive against Najaf is expected to lead to shortages of food, water and medical supplies in that besieged city. A 48-hour ceasefire was declared in the city until 0500 GMT on April 16. "There's a massive humanitarian crisis down there at the moment," says Sheenan. "If you've got an estimated 600 killed, how many have been injured? What hospital can cope with that?" He adds, "There's nobody talking about a political solution here. It's boys with toys with their guns, and everybody's upping the ante the whole time." The latest NGO pull-outs come as aid workers wait for news of the IRC's Fadi Fadel, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen in charge of programmes to provide safe children's play spaces in southern Iraq. Those programs are now suspended. IRC spokeswoman Melissa Winkler says nothing had been heard since Fadel's abduction on April 7. "It's been a bad week," she says, adding that while some IRC international workers remained in the country, it was mainly up to Iraqi staff to keep programs running. She says the possibility of a major offensive in Najaf had led the IRC to suspend its work in the south. Some NGOs that had previously argued that aid workers were not being singled out for attack said the latest incidents suggested a sea change had taken place in Iraq. "For the established insurgency, whoever they may be, NGOs were not a target," Wightwick says. "But there appear to be a whole new bunch of groups and people setting themselves up as fighters. For them, in the heat of the moment -- and the moment is quite hot -- anyone appears to be a target." Before the wave of attacks on foreigners, Wightwick thought about 30 or 40 insurgent groups were operating, and he guessed that most of the insurgents were Iraqis rather than foreign fighters. "There don't seem to be very many captured or dead [foreign] insurgents being paraded," he says. Wightwicksays he was hopeful the security situation would not continue to deteriorate. "It seems unlikely that the current level of violence will continue indefinitely," he says. "We could have another Chechnya, but that doesn't seem very likely." Russia's interior ministry said that 605 people were kidnapped in Chechnya during 2003. "It's nowhere near that level [in Iraq]," Wightwick says. "We haven't got to the sort of level that everyone's a target for everyone. I don't think that's quite where we are." (Reuters)
- April 15: The Philippines decides to suspend the deployment of more troops to Iraq; instead, plans to evacuate Filipino civilians are underway. The 49 Filipino troops are told to remain in their tents and not take part in any military actions. (Philippines Sun Star [cached Google copy])
- April 15: The Bush administration's shift towards support for Israel and away from a bipartisan approach to peace in the Middle East, as evidenced by Bush's recent "ringing approval" of Ariel Sharon's plans to consolidate the West Bank under Israeli control, is seen by Arabs as a death blow to the moribund "road map" for peace advocated by the US and Israel. Bush's position further erodes the image of an administration already disparaged by Arabs for the occupation of Iraq and support of Sharon. In the eyes of many Arabs, it signals something deeper as well: a decisive turn in a fundamental evolution of the US role in the Mideast, from that of an evenhanded mediator to an avowed partner of Israel in its fight against the Palestinians. "The prestige of the Bush administration was extremely low, but this will take it another step down the spiral," says Walid Kazziha, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. "Arabs have waited a long time for the road map to unfold and, if this is what has unfolded, then it is really frustrating and disappointing, because this is an Israeli road map, not the one envisioned," Kazziha adds. The prospect of a new blow to the image of the US in the Arab world comes as the US is seeking to build international support for an expanded role for the United Nations in the rebuilding of Iraq. The US is also in the midst of a broad effort to sow democracy in the Middle East, an initiative that has foundered because Arab leaders have sought to distance themselves from anything that has the American imprimatur. Arabs across the region routinely link the US occupation of Iraq with its support for Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza, and Bush's support for Sharon's West Bank policy seems certain to enshrine that perception at the very moment that the US is locked in mounting bloodshed with the Iraqi resistance. Anticipating the unveiling of renewed Israeli-U.S. ties, the Egyptian daily Al-Jumhuriyah writes that "the victims being killed daily in Palestine and Iraq are due to the continuation of the occupation." Explaining suicide attacks and the resistance to the US-led occupation of Iraq, it adds: "Violence and extremism have increased as a natural response to the brutality of the occupation." (Chicago Tribune)
- April 15: Bush tells an Iowa crowd, "Our military is...performing brilliantly. See, the transition from torture chambers and rape rooms and mass graves and fear of authority is a tough transition. And they're doing the good work of keeping this country stabilized as a political process unfolds." Four days later, in Pennsylvania, he says, "We're facing supporters of the outlaw cleric, remnants of Saddam's regime that are still bitter that they don't have the position to run the torture chambers and rape rooms. ...They will fail because they do not speak for the vast majority of Iraqis who do not want to replace one tyrant with another. They will fail because the will of our coalition is strong. They will fail because America leads a coalition full of the finest military men and women in the world." Four days after that, he tells a Florida campaign audience, "We acted, and there are no longer mass graves and torture rooms and rape rooms in Iraq." By this time, at least six US soldiers are facing court-martial for their roles in torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, and numerous others are being investigated. The Taguba report documents systematic abuse and torture of prisoners throughout the Iraqi prison system. (White House/Slate)
Rumsfeld says US troops are replaceable, implying that their deaths are barely relevant since they can easily be replaced
- April 15: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reveals just how little he values human lives, even the lives of US military troops, when, during a press conference, he says, "People are fungible." Translation: people are expendable. They can be replaced. His exact phrasing comes after a reporter asks for clarification about the rosy scenarios of Iraqi success that Rumsfeld painted in his opening statement: "You said that the challenge in Fallujah is being contained and that the situation in the South is largely stabilized," the reporter says. "And I wonder, if that is the case, why...is it necessary to keep extra troops in Iraq for 90 days?" Rumsfeld replies, "Well, it is -- the reason it is contained is because we have the extra troops there. That is self-evident." Showing some irritation, he continues, "Come on, people are fungible. You can have them here or there. We have announced the judgment. It is clear. You understand it. Everyone in the room understands that we needed additional -- the commander decided he'd like to retain in-country an additional plus or minus 20,000 people -- and that is what we are doing." Columnist Clarence Page reacts: "People are fungible? Like so many replaceable parts? Perhaps in Rumsfeld's former corporate-CEO mindset they were. But in the world where most of us live, this ranks as his least fortunate comment since, oh, early last year. That was when he said during another news conference that the 11 million Americans (including me) who were drafted during the Vietnam years 'added no value, no advantage, really, to the United States armed services over any sustained period of time, because [of] the churning that took place. It took [an] enormous amount of effort in terms of training -- and then they were gone.' Yup, we were 'gone,' all right. Some of us left in better shape than others did. Of the more than 58,000 Americans who died in action in Vietnam, more than 20,000 were draftees. Rumsfeld, who served three years on active duty as a Navy aviator in the 1950s, later apologized for the slight." Page concludes, "I guess the Pentagon hasn't got much time for niceties these days. There's a war on. Besides, as our Secretary of Defense says, our troops are 'fungible.' Take it from me, Mr. Secretary, they're not 'fungible' to their families." (Chicago Tribune)
- April 15: Retired US Army generals Barry McCaffrey and William Odom speak about the state of the Iraq occupation and the effect it is having on America's military. McCaffrey, commander of the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and drug czar under President Clinton, says though he supported the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the US entered Iraq with a "grossly anemic" military force and probably will need a UN-led military presence for a transfer to succeed. He continues that the real devastation of Iraq was not just from the effects of the fighting, but the looting of Baghdad and other "freed" cities after Hussein's ouster. McCaffrey says the "artificial" deadline of transfer of power has Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish leaders scrambling to bolster their own power in the face of the new, unformed interim government. He says it is imperative to have some sort of international legitimacy, including Arab and other partners, in the rebuilding of Iraq. "You can't open a Safeway store if you started today by 1 July. How do you build a mechanism of government and some leadership that will be interim in nature that safeguards three murderous factions that correctly fear each other?" McCaffrey says the only good thing he sees on the horizon is the takeover by the State Department of the governing and rebuilding efforts from the Pentagon. McCaffrey says of the US troops in Iraq, there may be enough troops there to do the job, but there are "no more troops to send.... We are at, or beyond, our breaking point." He says it probably will take a year or two for Iraqi institutions to be built and security and stability to come to that country. Odom, director of the National Security Agency from 1985-88, says the US-led war to oust Saddam Hussein has had the unintended consequence of making Iraq safe for terrorists and other anti-US movements "and they're breeding them rapidly." Odom says that "having torn up things in Iraq, we've really pleased Osama bin Laden. He couldn't have been more pleased." Odom says that, like Vietnam, the US has committed a huge military force in a situation that is not in our strategic interest. Both Odom and McCaffrey say that the consequences of the US mishandling Iraq will affect the world for 20 years or more. McCaffrey says, "We've got to get this thing right. We've got to build political legitimacy for continuing presence -- UN-led, probably, would be the answer." Both recommend that, in light of the effect on the Middle East and the failure to find Iraqi WMDs, that the US "declare victory" and pull out, leaving the United Nations to straighten out Iraq's government. "This was not a war we had to fight at this time," says McCaffrey. (NPR)
- April 15: Washington insiders and observers have long been amazed at the lack of accountability among the members of the Bush administration. In previous administrations, heads would have rolled over some of the actions committed, or allowed to be committed, by officials, but under this administration, no one seems accountable. "In Washington, when people aren't fired it's because they have protection," says Gary Hart, the co-chair of the National Security Commission report that warned in January 2001 that Americans would die in large numbers on American soil unless we woke up. "Two years ago I assumed the director of the CIA, for a start, would be fired for the failures of 9/11. When he wasn't, my antennae went up. I began to assume he had some insurance in the form of warnings he had issued, and indeed it turned out to be true." Corporate mavens like GE's Jack Welch wonder why the administration isn't following standard procedures in making corrections: "There is no room in an organization for those 'eternal optimists' who never confront reality and keep hoping quietly that the team will make an impossible deadline," Welch tells the Wall Street Journal. At a Park Avenue dinner party last week, a prominent financier and Democrat suddenly buttonholed the Republican chairman of a credit card company after coffee with an unsolicited tirade about the need to be bipartisan in seeking solutions for Iraq. "I am giving money to reasonable Republicans like [Sen. Richard] Lugar now," he declared. "We must move beyond politics." "The party out of power always says that," the Republican replied. Others are equally bemused, and sometimes angry, about the apparent lack of understanding among administration officials that changes need to be made. What was once perceived as a positive aspect of Bush's presidential demeanor -- the steadfast resolve to "stay the course" -- is now being perceived by many as stubborness taken to the extreme. "Are we spending all our resources in the wrong location?" Donald Trump asks rhetorically when asked how he would address personnel issues in US strategy for Iraq. "Iraq in my opinion had nothing to do with terrorism. Have we spent the lives of these great people unwisely? You tell me." When asked who in the Bush administration deserved their walking papers, he soberly responds, "It's too tragic even to talk about. This is not like someone just made a bad deal." (Washington Post)
- April 15: National, state, and local leaders in the GOP are worried about the impact of the Iraq war at the polls in November. One such worrier is Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who serves as state co-chair of the Bush re-election campaign. Pawlenty says that Iraq is "a mess" and voters are rattled. Pawlenty is slated to attend two funerals this week of servicemen killed in the Persian Gulf nation. "People are becoming unnerved by it," he says. "Minnesota communities are strong and tough, but people do want to know, 'What's the end game here?'" After attending a funeral, Pawlenty muses over the political implications of Iraq. At the funeral, the brother of the slain soldier, Corporal Tyler Fey, says, "I have so much anger for the politicians in Washington." Their policies "sent my brother on a second tour of Iraq after I thought he'd done his part in the initial invasion." Pawlenty says it is essential for Bush to keep making the case that much has been accomplished in Iraq for a good cause. "But, at the same time, it's a mess," he says. "You've got people there who, based on religious backgrounds, hate each other. They've got all kinds of agendas and sub-agendas and I think it's confusing to Americans because they don't understand why Iraqis don't like us. They don't get it." He continues, "They're starting to ask this question, 'Is this thing really going to work?'" Local Bush campaign co-chair Laura Hemler of Edina, a politically crucial suburb of Minneapolis, says her neighbors are growing uneasy about Iraq. Hemler says suburban women once comforted by Bush's fight against terrorism may have second thoughts if he doesn't adequately explain his goals in Iraq. Pawlenty says he strongly supports Bush's policy in Iraq and believes the president's news conference should allay some concerns. "I think the message was good," he said after the conference. "He reiterated the challenge and opportunities and the importance of the mission. For the people who were willing to listen, I thought he was right on the mark." Not every voter was swung Bush's way by the conference. Amanda Svobodny, a suburban mother who voted for Bush in 2000, said she regrets her choice. "I'm going to vote Democrat in this election," she says. "I don't think we were ever made aware of what's going on in Iraq. His administration has not told the truth." Another former Bush supporter says, "[I]t was a big mistake to trust him." Pawlenty still thinks it's Bush's election to lose: "The economy is likely to continue to stabilize between now and November," he says. "If that happens -- and he stabilizes Iraq, I think he'll be re-elected -- not by a lot, but I think he's going to get re-elected." (AP/Truthout)
- April 15: Former Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal reacts to Bush's press conference of two days ago, where Bush showed little familiarity with pre-9/11 warnings, gave no indication that he knew any details of the upcoming transfer of power to Iraqi lawmakers, and refused to take any responsibility for failing to prepare the country for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Blumenthal writes, "As the iconic image of the 'war president' has tattered, another picture has emerged. Bush appears as a passive manager who enjoys sitting atop a hierarchical structure, unwilling and unable to do the hard work a real manager has to do to run the largest enterprise in the world. He does not seem to absorb data unless it is presented to him in simple, clear fashion by people whose judgment he trusts. He is receptive to information that agrees with his point of view rather than information that challenges it. This leads to enormous power on the part of the trusted interlocutors, who know and bolster his predilections. At his press conference, Bush was a confusion of absolute confidence and panic. He jumbled facts and conflated threats, redoubling the vehemence of his incoherence at every mildly skeptical question. He attempted to create a false political dichotomy between 'retreat' and his own vague and evolving position on Iraq, which now appears to follow senator John Kerry's, of granting more authority to the UN and bringing in NATO. The ultimate revelation was Bush's vision of a divinely inspired apocalyptic struggle in which he is the leader of a crusade bringing the Lord's 'gift.' 'I also have this belief, strong belief that freedom is not this country's gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the earth we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom.' But religious war is not part of official US military doctrine." (Guardian)
- April 16: As April shapes up to be the bloodiest month for US troops in Iraq since toppling the Hussein regime, the number of troops killed by enemy fire has reached the highest level since the Vietnam War. "This has been some pretty intense fighting," said David Segal, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Research on Military Organization. "We're looking at what happened during the major battles of Vietnam." The last time US troops experienced a two-week loss such as this one in Iraq was October 1971, two years before US ground involvement ended in Vietnam. The Vietnam War actually started with a slower death rate. The US had been involved in Vietnam for six years before total fatalities surpassed 500 in 1965, the year President Lyndon Johnson ordered a massive buildup of forces. There were 20,000 troops in Vietnam by the end of 1964. There were more than 200,000 a year later. Currently around 135,000 troops occupy Iraq. US officials say that comparisons with Vietnam are invalid and reject the idea that Iraq has become a quagmire. But the two-front battle that US troops have been waging against Sunni and Shi'ite insurgents for the past two weeks is the most widespread resistance US forces have faced since the war in Iraq began. Senior US officials insist the current fighting is only a "spike" and not indicative of a widening war. General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, describes the current fighting as a "symptom of the success" US forces are having in Iraq. "The sole intent" of the insurgents is to stop Iraq's transition to self-governance and democracy, he says.
- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says that the death toll was worse than he had expected a year ago. He also announced that more than 20,000 troops, mostly from the 1st Armored Division, would remain in Iraq for three more months to deal with the insurgency instead of coming home after a year of duty. Gunfire has been the biggest killer of US troops, followed closely by improvised explosive devices. The two account for more than 250 deaths so far. Those killed represent a wide range of military specialties. Truck drivers and clerks are getting killed just as often, if not more often, than infantrymen and other combat specialties. That's an indication of the kind of battlefield environment in Iraq. "Even Vietnam was a more conventional war than this," says Charles Moskos, a sociologist with Northwestern University who specializes in military issues and worked as a correspondent in the Vietnam War. "Here in Iraq, there are no battle lines," he says. "It's all over." Another striking difference is age. The average age of a casualty in Vietnam was 20 years old. The average age of a casualty in Iraq is nearly 27. The youngest American soldier killed in Iraq was 18; the oldest was 55. More than 12 percent of those killed have come from the Army National Guard and Army Reserve, which helps explain why the average age of the dead is higher. "Reserve components tend to be older," Moskos says. Another reason is that a number of special operations troops were also killed in the early days of the war, and they tend to be older as well. In a sharp departure from previous wars, 18 women have been killed, 12 of them by hostile fire, including a civilian lawyer working for the Army. Sixty-five percent of those killed have been from the Army, which has had the most troops in Iraq. Twenty percent were from the Marine Corps, which has taken more than half of the casualties in April because of fierce fighting in Fallujah. Hostile fire has accounted for about 70 percent of the deaths in Iraq, according to figures compiled by the Pentagon and Lunaville.org. an independent Web site that tracks coalition casualties. In all, 88 US troops died in the first 15 days of April, including one whose death wasn't caused by hostile fire. In the first two weeks of the war, 98 died, including 16 from non-hostile causes. Since Vietnam, there was one attack on US forces that inflicted a higher death toll than anything experienced since: 241 servicemen were killed in Beirut in 1983 when a suicide bomber from the Islamic group Hezbollah drove a truck full of explosives into their barracks. Many experts and historians cite that incident as the beginning of America's war with Islamic terrorists. (Knight Ridder)
Negroponte accepts post of US ambassador to Iraq
- April 16: The US ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, has accepted the new post of ambassador to Iraq. Negroponte's nomination is seen by moderates and leftists as a sharp warning for Iraq not to expect any concessions or flexibility from the Bush administration. Negroponte, a hard-line neoconservative, has a long and ugly history as, among other posts, US Ambassador to Honduras from 1981 through 1985, where he oversaw some of the most repressive and murderous actions ever performed by US-backed rebels against an indigenous people. With Negroponte's help, Honduras became the base for Contra attacks against Nicaragua's elected Sandinista government as well as opposing the popular insurgency in El Salvador. While torture and human rights abuses ran rampant through Central America, Negroponte insisted that Honduras was a "model of democracy," and worked hard to keep those human rights violations secret. From 1969 through 1971, Negroponte was a senior advisor to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and resisted any overtures of peace with Vietnam. Under George H.W. Bush, Negroponte, as ambassador to Mexico, directed the US intelligence service to assist the Mexican government in its war against the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Progressive editor Tom Rothschild asks, "so this is the man who is going to show the Iraqis the way toward democracy? More likely, as the insurgency increases, this will be the man who will oversee and hush up any brutal repression that may ensue." The embassy Negroponte will direct will be the largest ever assembled by any country in the world, with a staff of close to 4,000. Initially to be housed in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, many fear it will act as the US colonial administration. Additionally, rumors are rife that former New York City mayor Rudolph Giulani may become the next ambassador to the UN.
- Negroponte's deputy will be James Jeffrey, the current US ambassador to Albania, a career Foreign Service officer and a Vietnam veteran. He will arrive in Iraq six weeks before Negroponte, in order to coordinate with Paul Bremer's CPA before Negroponte's arrival. It doesn't take long for Jeffrey to form an opinion, reporting to Washington, "We're standing up an embassy for this crazy g*ddamn CPA thing in the midst of this burlesque palace, being shelled every day -- a really bad nightmare." He comes to the same conclusions that others have already reached: the acrimony between Bremer and General Ricardo Sanchez is terrifically detrimental, and the so-called Iraqi army is a farce. (NewsMax, WSWS, The Progressive, Bob Woodward)
- April 16: The Bush administration's head of an independent agency, the Office of Special Counsel, that enforces workplace and whistleblower rights of federal employees is accused of trying to curb employee rights in his own office. An internal e-mail is leaked to three watchdog groups, which call it a "gag order" aimed at silencing the agency's career staff. "It is ironic that the nation's protector of whistleblowers is not protecting his own," says Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. The OSC denies the charges, and says agency employees will be encouraged to speak up within the office about their concerns. Scott Bloch, the agency head, says that "nobody on my immediate staff saw the final message before it went out," and "there was no intent" to curtail the First Amendment or statutory rights of the agency's employees. The e-mail flap comes after Bloch ended a dispute with gay groups and some members of Congress over how to interpret civil service law, and reinstated a ban on sexual-orientation discrimination in the federal workplace. Bloch acted after the White House made it clear that President Bush expects federal employees to be protected from discrimination at work. Bloch told his senior staff to reassure agency employees that they can speak up. "In the future, if there are any concerns about policies or procedures, please encourage any employee to feel free to voice them to me, my staff, or through you to us." The e-mail was sent April 9, informing employees that Bloch had reinstated the ban on sexual-orientation discrimination.
- The e-mail begins with the phrase "the Special Counsel has requested." That e-mail instructed agency employees to refer complainants, their representatives, federal agency representatives and others "to the press release on our web site as a complete and definitive statement of OSC's policy" on sexual-orientation discrimination. It also said that "the Special Counsel has directed that any official comment on or discussion of confidential or sensitive internal agency matters with anyone outside OSC must be approved in advance...." The e-mail prompts a letter of protest from three watchdog groups, the Government Accountability Project, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Project on Government Oversight. The groups say "the sweeping and overbroad language" in the e-mail violates the First Amendment, the Whistleblower Protection Act and an "anti-gag" law annually renewed by Congress to ensure that federal employees can bring concerns to lawmakers and congressional committees. "The special counsel is the last official that should be issuing gag orders," Jeff Ruch, executive director of the environmental group, says. (Washington Post)
American mining company investigating for cooperating with al-Qaeda terrorists in Philippines
- April 16: American company Echo Bay was regularly paying al-Qaeda-linked group Abu Sayyaf and other terror groups in the Philippines in exchange for protection of its gold-mining operations. Allan Laird, a former mining executive with the Denver-based company, says that once he began working for Echo Bay, he quickly learned that the company was paying off Abu Sayyaf for protection. Laird calls the practice "corporate support of terrorism." Laird took his story to the Sierra Club; with the Sierra Club's intervention, the Justice Department has reactivated an investigation into Echo Bay's practices in the Philippines. "My company was dealing directly with terrorists," Laird says. "It must have been close to $2 million. Maybe more." Laird says he believes that the funding provided by his former company cost American lives. That funding, he says, continued until the company closed its mining operations in 1997. In May of 2001, Gracia and Martin Burnham, missionaries from Wichita, Kan., were celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary trip at Dos Palmas Resort off Palawan Island in the Philippines when they were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf and taken to the jungles of Basilan Island. After 376 days of captivity, Martin was killed in a firefight when the Filipino Army made a rescue attempt. Gracia was rescued. Guillermo Sobero, a California resident, traveled to the same Philippines resort to scuba dive when he was kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf the same day as the Burnhams. Abu Sayyaf beheaded him. "They're vicious killers and they need to be dealt with," said Guillermo's brother, Alberto Sobero. Laird was sent to the Philippines in 1996 by Echo Bay as project manager of a start-up gold mine on the island of Mindanao, home turf for the terrorists, who demanded what Echo Bay called "revolutionary taxes." By paying off the terrorists, Laird said, the company was "buying safety for the people inside and for the project."
- But the price was high. In addition to the cash, Laird said the company provided the terrorists with weapons, medical treatment for the wounded, and access at times to a beachfront company guest house used to hide key terror leaders. "[The company's security personnel] hid them from the search of the authorities, when there was a military operation going through the region where the site was situated, to prevent them from being captured and caught by government forces," Laird says. "The security group was close enough, and most intimately involved, with these groups that they knew when external shipments of arms, illegal arms, were being made," sayd Laird. "And my people knew that. The military didn't know that." Laird claims his story is supported by the meticulous records he kept, which include signed receipts he says are from terror leaders and security reports detailing weapons deliveries. (The ABC web site has copies of these receipts posted within the story; click on the link below to see for yourself.) In repeated e-mails and reports he sent to top company executives in Denver, Laird spelled out what he called illegal activity. In one report, he states flatly the company was paying off "terror groups connected to Osama bin Laden." "I wanted absolute, big, wide footprints so that people in Denver, and on the site, understood and knew what was going on," says Laird. "I told the bosses, 'We were paying off.' I told my superior. I sent e-mails. I wrote in reports. I was absolutely adamant that I was to bring to the attention of people who made ultimate decisions in Echo Bay that they knew, without any doubt, what was going on." Laird said he received one message from an executive in Denver, which was quite clear: "You need to be more discreet in some of your observations regarding Corrupt Practices Act, et cetera, and the distribution of such a report could be incriminating under certain scenarios." "He's saying, 'Shut up, don't say anything. Don't do anything. Just be quiet,'" Laird says. Providing money or material support for terrorists is a clear violation of US law.
- Bush said in November 2001, "If you harbor a terrorist, you're a terrorist." But Laird was in for another surprise when he took his allegations and documents last year to both the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. "About four, five months after I'd met with Homeland Security, I contacted the agent that I'd met earlier and asked him what was happening. And he said, 'well, we've decided not to pursue this." In e-mails from the Homeland Security agent, Laird was told that federal prosecutors in Denver had no interest in pursuing the case because they believed the statute of limitations had expired. Today, in response to inquiries by ABC, the Justice Department said that was incorrect, and the investigation was reactivated. Echo Bay Mines has since been taken over by a Canadian company, Kinross Gold Corporation, which says it was unaware of the allegations. The former chairman of Echo Bay, Robert LeClerc, who now lives in Las Vegas, says that Laird never raised the allegations until he and others were laid off in the take-over by Kinross. "I think it's the world of illusion according to Mr. Laird," LeClerc says. "And I suppose the biggest comment I could make is that he really initiated all of this by trying to extract some money from the company when he and others were terminated." Laird's documents prove that he raised the issue within weeks of arriving in the Philippines in 1996. Alberto Sobero, the brother of the Californian who was beheaded by Abu Sayyaf, says he's outraged to hear Laird's allegations. "That's shocking and outrageous," he says. "It almost amounts to treason. It's unbelievable that a United States company would pretty much give funding and money to a self-declared enemy of the United States." Gracia Burnham says she hopes Laird's story will bring justice: "I hope the people in charge of these things at the Justice Department or whoever gets ahold of this story will work to the best of their ability to bring about justice," she says. Laird says he is still haunted by the entire affair. "I'm not comfortable with myself with what took place," he says. "I have to live with myself and sometimes that's hard." Laird said when he looks back at his former company's business practices, Echo Bay should have left the Philippines earlier. "[It should have] pulled up the stakes. Pulled the stakes and got the hell out of there. You know? If you can't do business in the Philippines properly or anywhere else in the world, don't do it." (ABC, ABC)
- April 16: The American Prospect believes it has evidence that the attack on Richard Clarke's character by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was actually orchestrated by a former White House staffer and presidential aide, Steve Biegun, former executive secretary of George W. Bush's National Security Council under Condoleezza Rice from 2001 through 2003. Biegun is now Frist's national security advisor. After Clarke's testimony, Frist was uncharacteristically savage towards Clarke, accusing him of lying and perjury. Frist was forced to back down from his allegations after evidence shows that Clarke's testimonies before Congress and the 9/11 commission were congruent. Fellow senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat, says that the attack was so out of Frist's character that it was as if it had been scripted by the White House. TAP writes, "That's because buried beneath Frist's overheated rhetoric lies an incestuous web of close relationships between his top national-security aide and the White House." As Rice's #3 man, Biegun was intimately involved in the administration's preparations, or lack thereof, for terrorist attacks. He was with Bush on August 6, 2001, when Bush received the now-famous PDB warning of imminent attacks by al-Qaeda on American targets. Bush met with Biegun and Joe Hagin, the deputy chief of staff, patching Rice in by conference call. In 2002, when Bush was again on vacation in Texas, a White House spokesman described Biegun as Bush's chief national-security aide at the ranch. Like Rice, Biegun is a Europeanist and a scholar of the former Soviet Union. Before joining the White House, he served as chief of staff for Jesse Helms' Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Helms describes him as being like a son) and, in the mid-1990s, advised Bob Dole on European issues during Dole's campaign for the presidency against Bill Clinton. Frist's office denies that there was any communication between Biegun and his former employers. "Mr. Biegun did not have contact with the White House before Mr. Frist gave this speech," says Frist spokeswoman Amy Call. But, notes TAP, "such direct contacts may not have been necessary, given Biegun's posture toward the White House and close ties there." Biegun is often mentioned as a possibility to succeed Rice as national security advisor during Bush's second term, or failing that, to work as #2 under Stephen Hadley, Rice's current deputy, if Hadley were to take the position.
- One Democratic Senate aide said he suspects that Frist was snookered by his own staff into giving the speech without adequately thinking it through. It wouldn't be the first time in history a senator has done such a thing. But, insists Call, "senator Frist reviews carefully all of the information staff gives him and made a decision about a speech that he wanted to give and statements he wanted to make." Biegun's use of hyperbolic language had caused him some embarrassment earlier, according to the Washington Post, when, in March 2004, Biegun had a problem figuring out his e-mail system and sent -- apparently by accident -- the following question to a group in response to a notice about European Union tariffs being imposed on U.S. products: "Just out of curiosity, what is the accepted tariff on exporting the United States military to defend the continent of Europe (in case we decide it might not be worth it anymore)?" Frist's attack was based on supposed contradictions between what Clarke told the 9-11 commission openly and what he had said previously in still-classified 2002 testimony on the Hill. The question is, how could Frist have known that Clarke had contradicted himself? The answer is that, without a review of the 190 pages of 2002 testimony, he couldn't have known this firsthand. Nor had he consulted with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts before making his floor comments, Roberts says, to be briefed on the testimony. Frist was briefed on Clarke's siz hours of testimony to the joint intelligence committee in 2002 by his aides just before issuing his broadside against Clarke.
- TAP writes, "It now appears likely that Frist's staffers had improperly been in touch with partisan Republican intelligence-committee staffers who had taken it upon themselves to talk about Clarke's classified testimony in a bid to spur Frist into action. "A number of staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee familiar with Clarke's 2002 joint intelligence committee contacted the senator's staff and said 'the tone' was 'quite different from 2002,'" the Post reported Stevenson telling them. TAP writes, "And those contacts, Roberts told The Hill, were not appropriate. The odds that Clarke would be prosecuted for perjury were always low; congressional testimony is notoriously difficult to prosecute, and all statements to Congress, whether under oath or not, are supposed to be true. But the odds have gotten even lower now that Frist's poor -- and likely improper -- sourcing is known. Meanwhile the charge of perjury, once introduced into the political debate, completely backfired. Indeed, the first person to pick it up was a less partisan Republican than Frist: 9-11 commission Chairman and former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, who used the word to pressure the White House to allow Rice to testify. 'I would like to have [Rice] testify under the penalty of perjury,' Kean told the New York Times. 'I think she should be under the same penalty as Richard Clarke.' Kean got his wish. Rice testified, telling the commission, under oath, that the August 6 Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) 'was historical information based on old reporting. There was no new threat information. And it did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks inside the United States.' When the PDB was declassified several days later, it turned out that this statement of Rice's was demonstrably untrue. The PDB noted that there were 'patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York' and stated that 'the FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers [Osama] Bin Laden-related,' including one following leads about bin-Laden supporters 'in the US planning attacks with explosives.' But did Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle call for a perjury investigation? No. Like most Democrats, he was reluctant to insert partisanship into the work of the commission, and thus barely mentioned Rice's testimony. According to South Dakota's Aberdeen American News, 'Daschle said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice did a good job of testifying before the Sept. 11 Commission on Thursday, but other witnesses have different opinions as to what happened before the attack. "It's a matter of who do you believe," Daschle said.' And since then the Republicans have -- wisely -- let the matter drop." (The American Prospect)
- April 16: The Federal Election Commission is unlikely to make a decision on questions about election campaign funds in time to have a real impact on the presidential race, according to commission members. The commission, which has a history of deadlocks, had set a deadline of May but is struggling with tedious details over how, or whether, to place contribution limits and other restrictions on so-called 527 committees, one of the few remaining ways to collect unlimited campaign contributions. The organizations, named for the section of the tax code that created them, became targets for new rules in large part because Democratic groups seized upon them as a way to overcome the Republicans' significant financial advantage. In particular, groups like the Moveon.org Voter Fund and the Media Fund have used the unlimited donations to pay for millions of dollars in advertisements that are sharply critical of the Bush administration. Republicans have challenged the legitimacy of the 527 committees, while simultaneously moving to set up their own 527s. "I think we'll need more time," says Republican commission chair Bradley Smith, echoing the sentiments of several commissioners. "We've got to have the time for this to be properly done. We know it will be challenged in court."
- Commissioners are also struggling over whether to regulate thousands of charities, labor unions, trade associations and "social welfare" groups. While these nonprofit groups, also referred to by their section of the tax code, 501(c), cannot make politics their primary mission, they often play a large role in elections. The decision is an important one in this year's election because Democratic-leaning 527 committees are bolstering the presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry, prompting President Bush and the Republican Party to go on the offensive to try to stop their activities. The commission's rules follow passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law in 2002 and the Supreme Court decision last year that upheld most of it. The law prevented political parties from accepting unlimited soft money contributions, but did not extend the restriction to 527 committees. The debate before the commission in part pits those who say 527 committees must be regulated to protect the integrity of the law against those who argue that lawmakers would have addressed 527's if they wanted to. In addition, some say any regulations that cover 527 committees must also be extended to 501(c) groups, arguing that if 527 committees are curtailed, then organizations will simply shift their money and efforts to other nonprofit outfits not covered by the rules. "The record is overpowering that 501(c)'s are at least as much of a problem as 527's," Smith says.
- Critics argue that such an approach is too broad and would have a disastrous effect on nonprofit groups of all sizes, stifling free speech on issues and chilling fund-raising, to say nothing of changing the rules just months before Election Day. "The voice of nonprofits fills a void on many critical issues," says Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a public interest goup, and co-chairwoman of the Coalition to Protect Nonprofit Advocacy. "These new rules will silence those voices." "What the commission is bringing up is far, far more than we out here can bear," says Lawrence Gold, associate general counsel for the A.F.L.-C.I.O. The issue was a major theme at the two daylong hearings this week that drew 29 election lawyers, academics and political activists from across the political spectrum to make their cases and answer questions. The core of the issue is whether 527 and 501(c) groups should have to register with the commission as political committees, a change that would subject them to contribution limits and other restrictions. To make the change, the commission would have to recast legal definitions that govern how campaigns are conducted, a difficult exercise that requires interpreting laws decades old, as well as the McCain-Feingold legislation and subsequent court ruling. The question of whether to include 501(c) groups complicates the effort, and the six-member commission, three Democrats and three Republicans, appears divided on the issue. "I do think it's a conundrum," says Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic commissioner. "They do important advocacy work that I don't want to interfere with." Some argue that the commission should narrow its scope and simply regulate 527 groups. "It will reduce the reach of the proposal and make it easier to implement," says Republican commissioner David Mason. Mason ignores the fact that by restricting 527 groups and not 501(c)s, the FEC would give a tremendous funding advantage to the Republican party. Others say that ignoring 501(c) groups could invite circumvention, requiring the commission to come back and regulate them later. "An incremental approach is a setup for regulatory failure," says Smith. (New York Times)
- April 16: John Kerry accuses George W. Bush of exploiting the war on terrorism, saying the president has tried to draw links between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network for political purposes. "Home base for George Bush in this race, as you saw to the nth degree in his press conference, is terror," Kerry tells an audience at a Democratic fundraiser. "Ask him a question and he's going to go to terror," Kerry continues. "And everything he did in Iraq, he's going to try to persuade people it has to do with terror, even though everybody here knows that it has nothing whatsoever to do with al-Qaeda and everything to do with an agenda that they had preset, determined. That's where they're going to go." Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot says Kerry's "reckless allegation" demonstrates "a profound misunderstanding" of the global war on terrorism and the threat facing the United States. "On a day when Osama bin Laden again threatened the United States and our allies [referring to an audio tape supposedly issued by bin Laden], it is disturbing to realize that John Kerry neither recognizes nor understands the murderous ideology of our enemies and the threat that they pose to our nation," Racicot says. Continuing to draw differences with Bush over Iraq, Kerry accuses the administration of now embracing his calls for giving the United Nations a significant role in overseeing the creation of a new government. "What you're seeing already is the administration is essentially trying to implement my strategy without admitting they're implementing my strategy. They've got Brandini [UN special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is helping to negotiate the terms of the transfer of power to the Iraqis on June 30] over there, and he's negotiating. They've basically turned over the decision of what they're going to turn over the government to, to Brandini -- whatever he creates.... And they're desperately trying to avoid a visible public transfer of authority to the UN, because that would be an admission of failure in the way they've approached it." Saying even Secretary of State Colin Powell agreed there was no link between al-Qaeda and Iraq before the war, Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter says Iraq has now become a breeding ground for terrorists. "This president has to decide what the mission is in Iraq and how we're going to achieve that goal instead of challenging John Kerry's patriotism and his commitment to the security of this nation," she says. (Washington Post)
- April 16: Obviously fed up with the personal slanders from Republicans, John Kerry slams the Bush campaign for continuing to smear his patriotism. Picking up on the theme that many liberals have used in characterizing many administration officials as "chickenhawks" who advocate military solutions to problems but dodged serving in the military themselves, Kerry says, "I'm tired of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney and a bunch of people who went out of their way to avoid their chance to serve when they had the chance. I'm not going to listen to them talk to me about patriotism." He continues, "I've seen how these people in the White House today, in their twisted sense of ethics and morality, don't think twice about challenging John McCain and what happened to him as a prisoner of war," a reference to attacks by President Bush in 2000 on his Republican primary rival McCain, an Arizona senator. Kerry has come under heavy attack from Bush and Republicans, who have launched tens of millions of dollars of advertising trying to paint him as a waffling, traditional tax-and-spend Democrat. "They don't think twice about trying to pretend to America that I somehow don't care about the defense of our nation," Kerry says, paraphrasing wording in the "star Spangled Banner" including reference to "political bombs" bursting in the air. "When I look up, that flag is still there and it belongs to all Americans," he says, pointing to a nearby flag. "Not to them, not to a party. It belongs to us." Kerry tells the University of Pittsburgh crowd of more than 5,000 that "asking questions about the direction of our country is patriotism." The Bush campaign recently announced that it is cutting back its advertising by two-thirds, which Kerry said was designed to "distort" his record. Kerry says he believes he has withstood the early Republican charge. "They're out 50 million bucks and they got nothing for it," Kerry says. Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman, said Kerry's judgment in his voting record on defense and security was in question, not his patriotism. "The fundamental difference in this election will be between President Bush's steady leadership in the war on terror and John Kerry's consistent political opportunism on the war on terror," Schmidt says, mounting another oblique attack on Kerry's patriotism while denying that the campaign uses such tactics. (Reuters/Free Republic)