Official Numbers on Iraqi Casualties from U.S. Government?

Is this a first? The latest from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (big pdf) gives a casualty number of almost 100,000 Iraqi civilians to date, which may be the first time a U.S. government body has released this information.

sigir-thumb-700x117

You can read the entire report, “Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience” (and order a printed copy) here.

Congratulations, Mr. POTUS…

capitol-building-inauguration-bleachers.jpgSo, Inauguration Day. It’s here and I still can’t quite believe it. Eight years of arguably the worst presidency in the history of the country are over and a new one begins with President Barack Obama. Like many Americans I am hopeful, anxious, enthusiastic and ready to move on. But I can’t help feeling a bit nostalgic for President George W. Bush.

I mean, he provided me and my colleagues in the war covering business with lots of work. I mean, *a lot of work*. I made a career covering Bush’s catastrophes across the Middle East, and that wasn’t the only region he royally screwed up. THese include Afghanistan/Pakistan, Russia, the Caucuses and — lest we forget — New Orleans right close to home. Any one of these would be a blight on a presidency and a boon for journalistic careers, but damn.

Anyway, welcome to the Big Game, President Obama. Time to get to work.

Pirates, ahoy!

pirates.jpgOK. I’m going to take an I-told-you-so victory lap on this one. The U.S. will lead a 20-nation coalition to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa. Many of you will remember I’ve been interested in pirates off of Africa since 2005. I even embedded with the Germans in 2007 on the FGS Bremen as they took part in CTF-150, designed to protect the sea lanes leading up to the Red Sea. Other embeds I pursued included the USS Stennis off the coast of Pakistan and the task force in the Persian Gulf charged with protecting Iraq’s two off-shore oil terminals.

It’s nice to see that something I’ve been trying to draw attention to is finally getting the press attention it deserves, given the threat piracy poses to trade and the tie-ins between global terrorism and non-state criminal organizations.

Stories:
* Piracy 2.0: Deadly and Dangerous
* Silent war against terror waged in dangerous waters
* Patrolling the world’s dire straits (PDF)

Uh, oh…

Many news outlets are reporting that several Katyusha rockets from southern Lebanon have landed in western Galilee in Israel, injuring two. Israel has apparently flown sorties over the Lebanese border and responded with mortar fire.

Stratfor has some quickie insight that I find plausible:

“… a Stratfor source in Hezbollah also noted recently that the Iranians, preferring to keep Hezbollah out of the fight, were concerned that other Sunni militants in Lebanon could decide to launch rockets against Israel and draw the group into war. The key thing to watch for now is whether this rocket attack is the first salvo, or if this is an isolated attack. If the rocket attacks continue, it is far more likely to be Hezbollah than some Sunni militants acting independently.” (Emphasis mine — CA)

Regardless of who fired those rockets, the risks of a new war on Israel’s northern front has just gone up dramatically — and I suspect that Israel won’t make the same mistakes in 2006.

UPDATE 0649 PST: Well, maybe not, as it turns out. Both Lebanon and Israel seem to be downplaying the event, with Palestinians in Lebanon getting the blame and being accused of trying to widen the conflict. Israel has opened the northern bomb shelters amid signs of de-escalation. Still, this bears watching.

New administration, fewer reporters

Another day, another bout of bad news for the journalism industry. The New York Times has a story today about how newspapers are cutting back on Washington coverage at a time when a new administration is coming in, two wars are still going on and the economy is teetering on the brink of collapse.

“From an informed public standpoint, it’s alarming,” said Representative Kevin Brady, a Republican from the Houston area, who has seen The Houston Chronicle’s team in Washington drop to three people, from nine, in two years. “They’re letting go those with the most institutional knowledge, which helps reporters hold elected officials accountable.”

The papers are focusing on local news rather than on events “far away” in … Washington, D.C.

Look, I can almost understand the desire to cut back on foreign news. I don’t agree with it, but I can understand the thinking. But Washington? On a recent trip to Louisiana, family members were discussing Congressional legislation that might affect them and their mortgages. That was direct paycheck stuff and they definitely wanted to know about it. So for newspapers to cut back on Washington coverage at such a time… Well, it just shows the desperate straits the industry is in.

I’m here at Stanford giving some thought to how the industry can be triaged and transitioned to the new media future, but for the moment, we need to save what we can. Do your part. I know you’re mad at “the media” but letting newspapers go under won’t help. It will be much, much worse.

So here’s a radical thought: if you want to hold the government accountable, buy a newspaper — an actual, printed copy. Subscribe to a paper, read it. Take some time and actually peruse the paper. Think of these small steps as a democracy bond purchase in a time of crisis. As Joseph Pulitzer once said, “Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together.”

Remember that Arab-Kurdish Feud?

It’s hard to say whether things are heating up in Mosul between the Kurds and the Iraqi government or whether it’s the latest outbreak of a festering sore, but either way, it doesn’t look good:

The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is squeezing out Kurdish units of the Iraqi Army from Mosul, sending the national police and army from Baghdad and trying to forge alliances with Sunni Arab hard-liners in the province, who have deep-seated feuds with the Kurdistan Regional Government led by Massoud Barzani.

The Kurds are resisting, underscoring yet again the depth of ethnic and sectarian divisions here and the difficulty of creating a united Iraq even when overall violence is down. Tension has risen to the point that last week American commanders held a series of emergency meetings with the Iraqi government and Kurdish officials, seeking to head off violence essentially between factions of the Iraqi government.

“It’s the perfect storm against the old festering background,” warned Brig. Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, who oversees Nineveh and Kirkuk Provinces and the Kurdish region.

Worry is so high that the American military has already settled on a policy that may set a precedent, as the United States slowly withdraws to allow Iraqis to settle their own problems. If the Kurds and Iraqi government forces fight, the American military will “step aside,” General Thomas said, rather than “have United States servicemen get killed trying to play peacemaker.”

Many observers have assumed the flashpoint for an Arab-Kurdish war over Iraq’s northern regions would be sparked by unrest in Kirkurk. But perhaps Mosul is the real problem.

Actually, it seems the entire border zone of the Kurdish region is a problem, with intense personal animosity between Barzani and Maliki. There have been armed stand-offs between the Kurdish pesh merga and Iraqi Army units in Diyala, and Barzani has referred to the Iraqi prime minister as a new Saddam Hussein. It doesn’t help that Maliki is allying himself with Arabs from Mosul who have deep ties to the former regime, including the former general who led the invasion of Kuwait. He’s also been trying to purge the Army up there of its Kurdish leadership causing some officers to announce that their loyalty is to Kurdistan and not Iraq.

If tensions do erupt up north, things could get worse all over. First of all, it would renew questions of why the Americans are in Iraq if they’re not going to stop their two biggest allies from going at each other. Secondly, it could create a security vacuum that foreign fighters could exploit to start entering Iraq in larger numbers again. The exodus of Christians could worsen. And of course, the price of oil could start to creep up.

All in all, not a good sign and a reminder that Iraq ain’t over yet.

Back to Iraq is back

Huzzah. After weeks of wrangling, I was able to recreate the old style sheets that made B2I readable. Which is a good thing, as I plan to pick up the keyboard again.

To bring you guys up to date, I’m currently at Stanford University for the John S. Knight Fellowship for Professional Journalists. Back-to-Iraq was, of course, a major selling point for the selection committee, as the program is really reaching out to non-traditional media people. (You can see my essays, including the plan of study here.)

My colleagues in the program are exceptionally talented and smart and it’s an honor to get to spend a year palling around with such folks. My project here is to look at a way to scale the Back-to-Iraq model up to an institutional level. Perhaps it won’t work; perhaps what’s needed is a networked system of correspondents in conflict zones around the world supported by subscriptions, donations, licensing fees and advertising. Whatever. I’m here for a year to try to figure it out. Being close to Silicon Valley and all those venture capitalists probably doesn’t hurt. Oh, and I’m going to learn how to play the guitar.

But that doesn’t mean I’m abandoning commentary and analysis of Iraq. I’m still deeply attached to the place and, yes, hope one day to go back. Even as Western media organizations are dialing back their coverage. (Mind you, I think this is a trough in the staffing and coverage, coming as it does in the closing weeks of the presidential campaign. While the economy will continue to dominate the news, by spring of next year I suspect Iraq will once again be on America’s radar as military pullouts commence.) So I will endeavor to share some of the interesting things here at Stanford — many of my coursework and research is directly tied to the Middle East, terrorism, the usual areas of interest — and also look at developments in the war. It’s not over yet, folks. And neither is B2I.