US House Passes Troop Bill, Senate Iraq Vote Expected – Bush Promises Veto

The US House of Representatives passed its much-anticipated bill on Wednesday which provides $124 billion in funding for US troops in Iraq, while also setting a non-binding goal to bring all the troops home from Iraq by March 31, 2008.

The bill calls for troop withdrawal to begin in October 2007 at the latest.

“This terrible chapter in our history must come to an end … enough is enough,” said Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.).

On the other side of the chamber, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) argued, “Every generation of Americans have had their obligation to stand up and protect their country, not just for today but for tomorrow and the next generation. We have a solemn obligation to the American people to finish the job we started.”

The House vote of 218-208 passed mainly along partisan lines, with a Senate vote expected on the bill on Thursday.

The bill sets strict standards for resting, training and equipping US troops, but gives President Bush discretionary powers to waive these standards provided he publicly justifies them. There are also benchmarks set for the Iraqi government to disarm militias, reduce sectarian violence, roll back de-Baathification measures and share oil revenue equally among the regions in Iraq.

If the benchmarks are not being met by July 1, the US would begin to withdraw troops immediately and would bring all soldiers home by the end of the year. However, if the Iraqi government demonstrates that it is meeting the benchmarks, US troop withdrawal would not begin until October, but would still be completed by March 31, 2008.

President Bush has vowed to veto the legislation, having repeatedly rejected calls to set timelines for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said after the vote, “Tonight, the House of Representatives voted for failure in Iraq, and the President will veto its bill.”

The Democrats do not have enough votes in either the House of Representatives or the Senate to override a Presidential veto, and it is unclear what their strategy will be in the event of a veto – apart from proposing a new bill that provides interim funding for the troops, whose funding runs out mid-year. They have ruled out cutting off funding for existing troops in Iraq.

In January, Mr Bush announced a surge of 21,500 US troops to try to reduce the sectarian violence in Iraq. The full contingent of additional troops has not yet hit the ground in Iraq.

Some war-weary Republicans acknowledged that there is a need to see some progress soon from the troop surge. “We need to get some better results from Iraq, both politically, economically and militarily in the foreseeable future,” said House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who voted against the bill.

“How many more suicide bombs must kill American soldiers before this President offers a timeline for our troops to come home?” asked Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), an Iraq war veteran. “How many more military leaders must declare the war will not be won militarily before this president demands that the Iraqis stand up and fight for their country? How many more terrorists will President Bush’s foreign policy breed before he focuses a new strategy, a real strategy? This bill says enough is enough.”

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Iraq Sunni, al Qaeda Area Flush With Oil – Slick Battleground

A recent study has concluded that Iraq has twice as many oil reserves as previously thought, mostly in western Anbar province, the stronghold of the Sunni insurgency and al Qaeda in Iraq.

The estimated 100 billion additional barrels of oil would take Iraq’s reserve base up to 225 billion barrels, second in the world only to Saudi Arabia’s depository of 375 billion barrels.

Until now, Iraq’s western region was believed to be resource-poor compared to the Kurdish north and the Shiite south.

The discovery could have a substantial impact on Iraq’s fledgling political reconciliation process, and may significantly reduce the local population’s support for the insurgency.

After the election of the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the minority Sunni population feared being all but frozen out of the new Iraq, including the sharing of oil revenues collected by the central government in Baghdad.

Oil reserves in Iraq’s west have previously been under-explored because the country has had a surplus of oil and little incentive for further exploration.

Information about Iraq’s substantial western oil reserves is contained in the new Iraq Atlas produced by the Colorado-based consulting firm IHS, Inc., which was commissioned by the Iraqi government to re-interpret seismic data collected by Iraq over several decades using the latest technology.

This year, the Iraqi parliament is expected to pass a hydrocarbon law which will open the country’s oil fields up for foreign investment. The government will then launch bids for 65 exploration blocks and 78 fields.

The challenges of developing oil fields in volatile Anbar province are considerable. Most recently, tribal chiefs stepped up their revolt against al Qaeda, who arrived in Iraq after the US-led invasion and annexed many local insurgency groups.

Despite the challenges, local leaders are elated at the prospect of oil-driven economic development and prosperity in the impoverished region.

Mayor Farhan Farhan of Qaim, the nearest populated area to the Akkas oil field, told the New York Times, “If we use this petroleum, it will be enough for all the west of Iraq.”

Iraq’s current production capacity of two million barrels of oil per day would be doubled if political stability were restored and production facilities repaired and modernized.

Mohamed Zine, IHS’s regional manager for the Middle EastZine, has said: “The cost to produce oil in some Iraq fields is less than $2 per barrel according to our estimates and investments involved in developing the fields are minimal.”

After three consecutive record-setting days, oil prices hit $72 a barrel on Wednesday.

Maliki Orders US to Halt Construction of Baghdad Wall

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered the US military in Baghdad to stop construction of a controversial wall being built around the Sunni area of Adhamiya.

“I oppose the building of the wall and its construction will stop,” Mr al-Maliki told reporters in Cairo on Sunday during a joint news conference with the secretary-general of the Arab League. “There are other methods to protect neighborhoods, but I should point out that the goal was not to separate, but to protect.”

He added that “this wall reminds us of other walls that we reject, so I’ve ordered it to stop and to find other means of protection for the neighborhoods.” Mr al-Maliki did not elaborate on this statement, yet it is believed to be a reference to the West Bank wall which separates Israelis from Palestinians.

The Adhamiya wall has caused outrage in Baghdad, with the US accused of commencing construction without consulting the local community. Residents of Adhamiya are expected to hold a major protest on Monday.

Opponents say the wall – intended to separate Sunni and Shia communities in an effort to quell sectarian violence – will only serve to further entrench the bitter sectarian divisions within Iraqi society.

Many view the wall as the surest sign yet that President Bush’s troop surge has failed to restore order in Iraq. Abu Moamer, a Sunni professor of international relations, told The Times that the wall plan “reflects the failure of the American and Iraqi governments and [their] inability to restore lost security and to establish the rule of law on the streets. Instead of one mixed Iraqi society, it will be two societies, Shia and Sunni.”

The wall strategy has also fuelled fears that Iraq is in the process of being partitioned along sectarian lines. “The government had a hand in the sectarian conflict from the start. I used to think the US was stupid, but now I see that it was a plan to divide first Baghdad, then Iraq,” said Ali Naim, an engineer who lives in Adhamiya.

Local residents fear the district will be turned into a virtual prison. Checkpoints would control who enters and leaves the area, and one local resident fumed that “we will spend half the day leaving and the other half coming back in”.

The US military and Iraqi forces have already built a number of cement walls around marketplaces in Baghdad as well as around towns such as Samarra, Fallujah and Tel Afar in an attempt to prevent attacks. Brief periods of reduced violence were followed by the inevitable return of deadly attacks. Residents have also come to deeply resent the restriction on their movements, and the need to have their fingerprints taken and their retinas scanned whenever they are allowed to enter and leave the towns.

Given the level of outrage in Adhamiya, the US may find itself with little choice but to heed Mr Maliki’s demand and halt construction of the wall. US military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver would not be drawn on this directly, but told the Associated Press, “We will coordinate with the Iraqi government and Iraqi commanders in order to establish effective, appropriate security measures.”

Great Wall of Baghdad Separating Shiites and Sunnis – Security or Prison?

In a highly controversial move, the US military is constructing a 12-foot high, three-mile long wall surrounding the Sunni enclave of Adhamiya in Baghdad in an effort to curb sectarian attacks in one of the most violent flashpoints in the troubled capital.

Adhamiya sits in northern Baghdad on the east bank of the Tigris River, surrounded on three sides by previously mixed neighborhoods that have turned Shiite due to sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing which have caused hundreds of thousands of families to flee their homes. This process has transformed the entire east bank of the Tigris River into Shiite territory, apart from Adhamiya. About half the area on the west bank is now considered minority Sunni territory.

In this sense, the winding Tigris River can be seen as the great fault line between Shiites and Sunnis in Baghdad’s sectarian divide.

Dubbed the ‘Great Wall of Baghdad’ by US troops, the wall has already attracted ominous comparisons to the barriers separating Catholics from Protestants in Belfast and Israelis from Palestinians in the West Bank.

The wall does seem to indicate a spiraling deterioration in the security situation in Baghdad, contradicting claims made by US President George Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki this week that the security plan supported by the US military surge in Baghdad is working.

Mr Bush has said in recent days that “the direction of the fight is beginning to shift” and that “so far the operation is meeting expectations”. Similarly, Prime Minister Maliki told Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson during an unannounced visit to Baghdad that “The security plan currently in action is going in the right direction despite the challenges.”

Yet the wall, which US forces began constructing under cover of darkness on April 10, has been renounced by furious residents of Adhamiya, who regard the move as an attempt to imprison them in a ghetto in Baghdad.

“This will make the whole district a prison. This is collective punishment on the residents of Adhamiya,” Ahmed al-Dulaimi, a 41-year-old Adhamiya engineer, told the Associated Press. “They are going to punish all of us because of a few terrorists here and there.”

Local community leaders insist that US troops began building the wall before they had been able to discuss it with the local residents, which seems to be a significant departure from the counterinsurgency strategy written by General David Patraeus, the US commander in Iraq. The centerpiece of the counterinsurgency strategy – which at the time of the general’s appointment was touted as the last hope for uniting US troops, Iraqi security forces and the local population against the Iraqi insurgency – emphasizes strong communication with local leaders and communities to build trust and partnerships.

“A few days ago, we met with the US army unit in charge of Adhamiya and it asked us, as a local council, to sign a document to build a wall to reduce killing and attacks against Iraqi and US forces,” Dawood al-Azami, the acting head of the Adhamiya council, told the Associated Press. “I told the soldiers that I would not sign it unless I could talk to residents first. We told residents at Friday prayers, but our local council hasn’t signed onto the project yet, and construction is already under way.”

Only Wednesday, US military spokesman Major-General William Caldwell denied that the US intended to construct a wall around Adhamiya. “Our goal is to unify Baghdad, not subdivide it into separate [enclaves],” he told reporters. Yet in a separate statement released from Camp Victory, the US military confirmed: “The area the wall will protect is the largest predominately Sunni neighborhood in east Baghdad. The wall is one of the centerpieces of a new strategy by coalition and Iraqi forces to break the cycle of sectarian violence.”

Yet doubts have been raised that the wall will be able to protect the residents of Adhamiya from violence. On Thursday evening, Shiite insurgents fired six Katyusha rockets into Adhamiya as local Sunnis walked to evening prayers.

Opponents of the move say they fear that the wall will symbolize and institutionalize the bitter sectarian divide in Baghdad, making it more difficult to overcome in the longer term. Ahmed Abdul-Sattar, a government worker and local resident of Adhamiya, told The Guardian, “I don’t think this wall will solve the city’s serious security problems. It will only increase the separation between our people, which has been made so much worse by the war.”

Bush Upbeat on Surge in Iraq: “The War is Not Lost”

US President George Bush defiantly hit the road this week to promote his troop surge in Iraq as a strategy that will lead to victory, following one of the bloodiest weeks on record since the US-led invasion and amid revelations that the US is building a wall in northern Baghdad to separate Sunnis and Shiites.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has stressed the limits of US patience and warned Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that legislation providing for political reconciliation urgently needs to be passed by the end of summer.

Both Mr Bush and Mr Gates have vigorously rejected the assessment of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) this week that “the war is lost”.

On Thursday and Friday, Mr Bush visited the small predominantly Republican towns of Grand Rapids, Michigan and Tipp City, Ohio to deliver his upbeat message that “the direction of the fight is beginning to shift” and that “so far the operation is meeting expectations”.

In his Friday presentation to an audience of 500, mostly members of the Western Michigan World Affairs Council, a group that promotes discussion of foreign policy, Mr Bush pointed to maps that showed shrinking bases for insurgents in Ramadi in Anbar province. He also said that tip-offs to US and Iraqi forces regarding insurgent hideouts had hit an all-time high during the past three months, and noted that the number of deaths in Baghdad had been halved since the new joint security strategy was launched in mid-February.

Yet the most recent developments in Baghdad appear to contradict the President’s optimistic view. Although insurgent attacks had been temporarily displaced to other areas of Iraq, violence is now making a painfully obvious comeback in the capital.

One week after a suicide bomber struck in the heart of the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses Coalition forces and the Iraqi parliament, violence is again raging in central Baghdad. On Wednesday alone, a series of bombings and gunfire left over 200 people dead, mostly Shiites, with hundreds more wounded.

In the worst single attack since the US-led invasion, a suicide car bomb ripped through the crowded Sadriyah market in central Baghdad, killing 140 people and wounding 150. Several cars were set ablaze and, as the fires raged, relatives of the victims hurled stones at Iraqi and US soldiers and chanted, “Down with Maliki! Where is the security plan?”

A series of earlier explosions had already rocked the capital and set nerves on edge. Another suicide car bomber slammed into an Iraqi police checkpoint in Sadr City, killing 35 people and wounding 45. Before that, a parked car packed with explosives had been detonated near a hospital in the central neighborhood of Karradah, killing 11 people and wounding 13. Later in the day, a bomb left on a bus exploded, killing four people and wounding six. Four Iraqi policemen were also killed while on patrol in southern Baghdad when they were ambushed by gunmen.

The following day, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on his third visit to Iraq that the Bush administration will review the Maliki government’s progress towards political reconciliation at the end of summer, and hinted that if the Iraqis had not made reasonable progress then the US might begin to recall its troops.

“Our commitment to Iraq is long-term, but it’s not a commitment to having our young men and women patrolling Iraq’s streets open-endedly,” said Mr Gates.

In another indication that the military strategy is failing to stem the violence in the war-ravaged capital, US troops are constructing a three-mile wall around the northern Baghdad district of Adhamiya – the only Sunni Arab enclave left on the east bank of the Tigris River. The area is also a known Sunni insurgent stronghold and a long-standing flashpoint for violence in Baghdad.

Yet doubts have been raised that the wall will be able to prevent violence between the warring sects. Shiite insurgents have already demonstrated their resolve and ability to attack the area regardless, firing six Katyusha rockets into Adhamiya on Thursday evening as local Sunnis walked to evening prayers.

Alberto Gonzales: The Recall Attorney General

Beleaguered US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales came under heavy fire in a five-hour Senate panel hearing on Thursday, as Senators from both political parties openly questioned his honesty, judgment and fitness to continue leading the Justice Department.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee also grew impatient with his apparent memory lapses during questioning over the firing of eight federal prosecutors last year. Mr Gonzales responded “I don’t recall” more than 50 times.

When the scandal broke, Mr Gonzales at first denied that he was involved in any discussions about the dismissals, but was forced to change his story when the Justice Department released emails and other documents which revealed that he had attended critical meetings where the purge was discussed. He also backed away from his earlier claim that the White House had not been involved in the dismissals, since the documents confirmed the participation of top Bush administration advisor Karl Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers.

“The reality is that your characterization of your participation is just significantly, if not totally, at variance with the facts,” said Senator Arlen Specter (R-Penn.).

Mr Gonzales could not say who determined the fate of the prosecutors and said he could not recall who at the Justice Department and the White House had been involved. He firmly denied partisan political motives.

He conceded that at the time of the prosecutors’ removal, he had not seen their performance reviews and did not know why two of them were being dismissed. He could not recall a final high-level meeting that took place in his office in November to discuss the imminent dismissals, nor did he remember when he decided to carry out the decision to remove the attorneys.

“While the process that led to the resignations was flawed, I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred,” Gonzales said. “It would be improper to remove a US attorney to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain. I did not do that. I would never do that.”

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked Mr Gonzales, “How can you give us those assurances, since you had a limited involvement, the process wasn’t vigorous, and you left it, basically, to somebody else?”

“Well, Senator, since then, of course, I have gone back and looked at the documents made available to Congress,” responded Mr Gonzales, who added that he had also since discussed the matter with other officials at the Justice Department.

By the end of the hearing, it was clear that Mr Gonzales had not inspired the confidence of the Committee. Republican Senators were among his harshest critics.

Senator Specter, the Committee’s ranking Republican, said that the “panorama of responses” offered by Gonzales had contributed to a further “loss of credibility”. He said he will privately offer President Bush his opinion about whether Mr Gonzales should remain Attorney General.

Other Senators were more forthcoming with their opinions.

“There are some very serious problems, Mr Attorney General,” said Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “Your ability to lead the Department of Justice is in question.”

Senator Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) was even more direct. “I believe there’s consequences for mistakes. And I believe the best way to put this behind us is your resignation,” he said.

However, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino stated that President Bush was “pleased” with the testimony of Mr Gonzales, who still has the “full confidence” of the President.

In the course of the Senate hearing, Mr Gonzales was asked whether he thought he would keep his job if he were subjected to the same vague criteria that he offered as reasons for the dismissals.

“You said something that struck me, that sometimes it just came down to, ‘These were not the right people at the right time’,” said Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “If I applied that standard to you, what would you say?”

“Senator, what I would say is, is that I believe that I continue to be effective as the Attorney General of the United States. We’ve done some great things,” said Mr Gonzales.

Maliki: Iraqi Security Forces Will Assume Control by End of 2007

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced on Wednesday that his security forces will assume control over all of Iraq by the end of 2007.

Mr Maliki made the declaration in a speech read out by Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie in Amara, 225 miles south of Baghdad, during a ceremony in which Iraq officially took control of the southern Maysan province from British forces.

This is the fourth province over which Iraq has resumed control, following the handovers of Al-Muthanna, An-Najaf and Dhi Qar – overwhelmingly Shiite areas in southern Iraq which have seen less violence than more religiously mixed regions.

Next month, Iraq plans to take control of three provinces in the autonomous Kurdistan region in the north, which will be followed by Karbala and Wasit, located south-west and south-east of Baghdad, respectively.

Iraq has a total of 18 provinces, or governorates.

The announcement appears to be a response to the latest political move of anti-US Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who on Monday removed six ministers from Mr Maliki’s cabinet to protest the Iraqi government’s refusal to set timelines for US troop withdrawals.

Mr Sadr’s political bloc controls 32 lawmakers in Iraq’s 275-member parliament.

Mr Sadr also commands substantial popular support among the country’s Shiites, hundreds of thousands of whom marched in the streets of Najaf on April 9 at a rally organized by Mr Sadr to call for an end to the US occupation of Iraq.

“Some people have demanded a timetable to end the foreign presence in Iraq,” said Mr Maliki in the speech read out in Amara on Wednesday. “I tell them this is the demand of every patriotic person. We are working to create the objective circumstances for this withdrawal. These circumstances are to accomplish training and equipping Iraq’s security forces.”

Yet Mr Maliki’s announcement does suggest an implied timeline for US troop withdrawal, since there will be no need for occupying forces once the Iraqi government’s security forces have assumed control over all regions.

In the US, President Bush continues to resist calls for setting timelines for US troop withdrawals from Iraq, because this would “give our enemies the victory they desperately want”.

Congressional Democrats have attached timelines for withdrawing troops as a condition to approving further funding for the war.

Mr Bush is scheduled to meet with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at the White House on Wednesday to discuss the war in Iraq, in particular the current bill that contains $96 million in funding provisions for the troops through September.

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