September 13, 2010
by Rania El Gamal
U.S. Staff Sergeant Kendrick Manuel swung his rifle over his shoulder and grumbled about being viewed as a “non-combat” soldier in Iraq.
“When NBC talked about the last combat troops are gone, they made it sound like everything is basically over,” he said, after escorting a 19-truck convoy through a part of northern Iraq where roadside bombs and mortar attacks are still a danger.
“To us it was like a slap in the face, because we are still here … we are still going in harm’s way every time we leave out of the gate,” Manuel said at a U.S. military base, Camp Speicher, near Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit.
On August 31, the U.S. military formally declared an end to its combat mission in Iraq, 7-1/2 years after the invasion that removed Saddam and led to sectarian warfare and a fierce insurgency in which tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed. More than 4,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed since 2003.
U.S. networks such as NBC showed what the U.S. military labeled the last combat brigade rumbling into Kuwait. Soldiers whooped and shouted on camera that the war was over.
Yet, there are still six brigades made up of 50,000 troops in Iraq, ahead of a full withdrawal at the end of 2011. Their focus is to assist and advise their Iraqi counterparts, not lead the fight against insurgents, but they remain heavily armed and face frequent threats.
On September 7, two U.S. soldiers were killed and nine wounded when an Iraqi soldier opened fire on them at an Iraqi commando base.
The hype around the change of mission, which allowed President Barack Obama to say he was fulfilling a pledge to start ending the unpopular war, set off complaints among some soldiers left behind who were no longer viewed as combat troops.
U.S. military convoys are still shot at and bombed, and bases are mortared, despite a change in the name of the U.S. mission from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn.
“That doesn’t really change a thing, it is still dangerous,” said 22-year-old Specialist Byron Reed, on his second deployment in Iraq, as he prepared to escort a convoy to Camp Speicher from Balad air base in Salahuddin province.
Manuel said changing the mission’s name meant little if any of his soldiers were to be killed by a roadside bomb.
“If a life is gone, it is gone,” he said. “As long as we are going in harm’s way, it (the war) is not over for us.”
LITTLE REAL CHANGE
U.S. soldiers said there had been little change in their mission since September 1. Most U.S. military units switched their focus to training Iraqi troops and police when they pulled out of towns and cities on June 30 last year.
While overall violence has dipped sharply in the past two or three years, Iraq is still a fragile place and al-Qaeda-linked insurgents and Shi’ite militia are active. Furthermore, tension has been heightened by the failure of politicians to form a new government six months after an inconclusive election.
“We do present a big target for the enemy, we still get attacked, just not as frequently,” said Lieutenant Colonel David Gooch, an infantry battalion commander, at Balad, about 80 km (50 miles) north of Baghdad.
“Over the last week, I think we probably got attacked, say, five times. Those attacks are becoming less lethal I guess you would say, because we have some really good vehicles as you can see,” he said, standing in front of a U.S. army MRAP — Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected trucks.
The MRAP, heavily armored and V-hulled to deflect bomb blasts, is credited with saving many soldiers’ lives in Iraq.
Soldiers who were in Iraq during the worst of the sectarian bloodshed between once dominant Sunnis and majority Shi’ite Muslims who rose to power with Saddam’s fall are happy to take a back seat and let the Iraqis fight the war.
“It is their country you know,” said 37-year-old Sergeant First Class Dana Campell, adding that security had greatly improved since 2007.
“I think they are doing a great job. They came a long, long way,” he said, dressed for battle in the remote northern town of Rabiya near the Syrian border.
Gone are the days when U.S. soldiers kicked in doors and searched for insurgents and weapons, U.S. officers say, adding that they cannot even enter towns now unless invited and escorted.
However, a tip-off that a suicide bomber from the Iraqi affiliate of al-Qaeda planned to attack a joint Iraqi-U.S. checkpoint in western Nineveh during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which started on Friday, led U.S. troops to take the initiative in a raid last week.
“Being that it is a credible threat specifically against U.S. forces, we kind of have to act,” said Captain Keith Benoit, a squadron commander in the 7th Cavalry Regiment, at the checkpoint a few hours before the raid.
The mission was planned by U.S. forces but it was to be carried out by the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga security forces, while U.S. soldiers stood about 100 meters away, said Benoit.
“If we were to capture these folks alive tonight, I have a specific interest in this … so I would probably join in the questioning, but there is no unilateral questioning by U.S. forces any more,” he said.
“Because it is not my country, really, it is their country.”
September 8, 2010
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley‘s surprise announcement today that he would not seek a seventh term in 2011 immediately set off speculation that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel would enter the race.
“In the end, this was a personal decision, no more, no less,” Daley said in Chicago Tuesday. “I’ve been thinking about this for the last several months…It just feels right.”
Emanuel, in a statement released this afternoon, made no mention of his interest (or lack thereof) in the job.
“While Mayor Daley surprised me today with his decision to not run for reelection, I have never been surprised by his leadership, dedication and tireless work on behalf of the city and the people of Chicago,” said Emanuel.
A senior Obama Administration official said Emanuel is likely to run for the post. “I’d be shocked if he doesn’t run,” the official said.
An Emanuel friend said that “I can’t imagine this is something he would pass on,” adding: “It’s always been a dream job for him [but] he was convinced it would be further down the road.”
Emanuel, who held a Chicago-area Congressional district prior to being named to his current post in late 2008, has long had designs on the mayor’s office.
“I would like to run for the mayor of the city of Chicago,” Emanuel told talk show host Charlie Rose in April. “That has always been an aspiration of mine even when I was in the House of Representatives.”
(We wrote at the time that if Daley didn’t retire, Emanuel’s political options were very limited.)
Conversations with plugged-in Chicago Democrats — and boy are there lots of them! — make clear that if Emanuel ran, he would be the clear frontrunner although almost certainly wouldn’t have the field entirely to himself.
Emanuel’s ties to Daley go all the way back to 1989 when he served as finance chairman for the younger Daley’s successful bid. (Daley’s father — Richard J. Daley — held the mayor’s office for two decades before dying on the job in 1976.)
President Barack Obama said that Daley “helped build Chicago’s image as a world class city” in a statement on the mayor’s retirement released this afternoon.
Those strong ties to Daley — and his political machine — coupled with the former Congressman’s demonstrated fundraising prowess and the behind-the-scenes role that President Obama could play in his home state make Emanuel a strong potential candidate.
That said, there are untold numbers of politicians who believe they have what it takes to be the city’s next mayor and at least a few of them aren’t likely to bow out even if Emanuel gets in.
Among the serious names mentioned: Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool, Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan, 2004 Senate candidate Gery Chico and Reps. Mike Quigley, Luis Gutierrez and Jesse Jackson Jr.
September 1, 2010
by Ben Feller
Claiming no victory, President Barack Obama formally ended the U.S. combat role in Iraq after seven long years of bloodshed, declaring firmly Tuesday night: “It’s time to turn the page.” Now, he said, the nation’s most urgent priority is fixing its own sickly economy.
From the Oval Office, where George W. Bush first announced the invasion that would come to define his presidency, Obama addressed millions who were divided over the war in his country and around the world. Fiercely opposed to the war from the start, he said the United States “has paid a huge price” to give Iraqis the chance to shape their future — a cost that now includes more than 4,400 troops dead, tens of thousands more wounded and hundreds of billions of dollars spent.
In a telling sign of the domestic troubles weighing on the United States and his own presidency, Obama turned much of the emphasis in a major war address to the dire state of U.S. joblessness. He said the Iraq war had stripped America of money needed for its own prosperity, and he called for an economic commitment at home to rival the grit and purpose of a military campaign.
In his remarks of slightly less than 20 minutes, only his second address from the Oval Office, Obama looked directly into the TV camera, hands clasped in front of him on his desk, family photos and the U.S. and presidential flags behind him. His tone was somber.
Even as he turns control of the war over to the Iraqis — and tries to cap one of the most divisive chapters in recent American history — Obama is escalating the conflict in Afghanistan. He said that winding down Iraq would allow the United States “to apply the resources necessary to go on offense” in Afghanistan, now the nation’s longest war since Vietnam.
As for Iraq, for all the finality of Obama’s remarks, the war is not over. More Americans are likely to die. The country is plagued by violence and political instability, and Iraqis struggle with constant shortages of electricity and water.
Obama is keeping up to 50,000 troops in Iraq for support and counterterrorism training, and the last forces are not due to leave until the end of 2011 at the latest.
As the commander in chief over a war he opposed, Obama took pains to thank troops for their sacrifice but made clear he saw the day as more the marking of a mistake ended than a mission accomplished.
He spoke of strained relations with allies, anger at home and the heaviest of wartime tolls.
“We have met our responsibility,” Obama said. “Now it is time to turn the page.”
To underscore his point, Obama said he had telephoned called Bush, whom he had taunted so often in the 2008 campaign, and praised the former Republican president in the heart of his speech.
“It’s well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset,” Obama said. “Yet no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security.”
In a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world, the Iraq war began with bipartisan congressional backing — based on what turned out to be flawed intelligence — over what Bush called a “grave danger” to the world posed by Saddam Hussein. Hussein is gone and Iraqis live in greater freedom.
Yet Iraq’s leaders are unable to form a new government long after March elections that left no clear winner. The uncertainty has left an opening for insurgents to pound Iraqi security forces, hardly the conditions the U.S. envisioned when Obama set the Aug. 31 transition deadline last year.
Obama pressed Iraq’s leaders, saying it was time to show urgency and be accountable.
He also sought both to assure his own nation that the war was finally winding down and yet also promise Iraq and those watching across the Middle East that the U.S. was not simply walking away.
“Our combat mission is ending,” he said, “but our commitment to Iraq’s future is not.”
The American public has largely moved on from the Iraq war. Almost forgotten is the intensity that defined the debate for much of the decade and drove people into streets in protest.
Yet what grew out of the war was something broader, Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive force against perceived threats. Running for office, Obama said the war inflamed anti-American sentiments and undermined U.S. standing in the world in addition to stealing a focus from Afghanistan.
He made mention of it again on Tuesday: “Indeed, one of the lessons of our effort in Iraq is that American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone.”
The president, though, also was presented with a tricky moment — standing firm in his position without disparaging the sacrifice and courage of those who fought.
Earlier in the day, at Fort Bliss, Texas, a post that has endured losses during the war, Obama tried to tell the stretched military that all the work and bloodshed in Iraq was not in vain. He asserted that because of the U.S. efforts in the Iraq war, “America is more secure.”
Not everyone was ready to embrace the White House view of the day.
“Over the past several months, we’ve often heard about ending the war in Iraq but not much about winning the war in Iraq,” said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.
Boehner said that congressional leaders who opposed the troop surge that led to advances in Iraq are now taking credit for it.
“Today we mark not the defeat those voices anticipated — but progress,” Boehner said in an address to the American Legion’s national convention in Milwaukee.
August 11, 2010
My Fox New York
by Luke Funk
Your thumbprint might soon be the key to an afternoon candy bar. A Massachusetts based vending machine company is joinng the growing ranks of companies that are field-testing new technologies.
Next Generation Vending and Food Service is experimenting with biometric vending machines that would allow a user to tie a credit card to their thumbprint.
“For a certain demographic that is pretty cool,” says company president John S. Ioannou.
Next Generation is currently testing about 60 of the biometric machines in various locations in the northeast.
The company is also testing other technologies. Ioannou says the key to the transforming the vending machine business is making the consumer feel more engaged.
The days might be numbered where a consumer watches a bag of chips roll through the machine and drop. Next Generation is also testing a machine that includes a 46″ touch-screen display that acts similarly to an iPhone display. The user can click on an item, flip the image and even see the nutrional information on the back of the packaging.
Ioannou says initial results are good saying, “The feedback is extraordinary.”
The machines include internally mounted cameras to monitor what is going on outside of the machine.
The tests are scheduled to run through the end of 2010. After that, Next Generation will decide if it is worth rolling out across its sales region in the northeast and Pennsylvania.
The company is also installing wireless or Ethernet connections on all of its current machines so there will be real-time reporting of the amount of goods in the machine for restocking purposes. Monitors will even be able to report when a coin is stuck in the machine. All of the current machines will be upgraded by the end of 2011.
There are other innovations that are being tested outside of the United States, including machines that use retinal scans to identify and charge consumers for their purchases.
August 2nd, 2010
By: Anne Gearan
As the war in Afghanistan faces a loss of public and congressional support and U.S. casualties rise sharply, the Obama administration is painting its goals for the war as humble and achievable while warning there is no quick fix.
“Nobody thinks that Afghanistan is going to be a model Jeffersonian democracy,” President Barack Obama said in a television interview that aired Sunday.
“What we’re looking to do is difficult — very difficult — but it’s a fairly modest goal, which is: Don’t allow terrorists to operate from this region. Don’t allow them to create big training camps and to plan attacks against the U.S. homeland with impunity,” Obama said in an interview broadcast by CBS’ “Sunday Morning.”
July was the deadliest month for U.S. forces in the nearly nine-year war, with 66 troops killed. Military officials predict the toll will be even higher for several months to come, as U.S., NATO and Afghan forces intensify fighting in Taliban-controlled areas.
The troop surge Obama ordered last year was meant to make that expanded fight possible, but it also guaranteed higher combat deaths and a renewed focus on whether a war that remains a stalemate is still worth fighting.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates predicted that only a small number of U.S. forces will come home next summer, when Obama has said he will begin phasing out the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan. A large number of U.S. forces will remain past the start of that drawdown, Gates said, and he gave no estimate for when all U.S. forces might leave.
“My personal opinion is that drawdowns early on will be of fairly limited numbers,” Gates said. “As we are successful, we’ll probably accelerate.”
Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, used television interviews Sunday to try to reassure Afghan and Pakistani leaders that the U.S. will not abandon the fight.
“I think we need to re-emphasize the message that we are not leaving Afghanistan in July of 2011. We are beginning a transition process and a thinning of our ranks,” Gates said, “and the pace will depend on the conditions on the ground.”
Mullen acknowledged that time and patience are short, and that all the fighting so far has not neutralized the Taliban as a military force. Some military assessments from within Afghanistan conclude the insurgency is more potent. Whiffs of that conclusion emerged from tens of thousands of leaked secret war assessments that Mullen decried as an appalling breach of trust.
“I don’t think that the Taliban being stronger than they’ve been since 2001 is, is news,” Mullen said, noting the insurgency regained momentum over several years.
The Taliban’s firmer purchase on key areas of Afghanistan while U.S. and allied forces challenge that territory for the first time makes the coming year crucial, military officials and members of both political parties agree.
“I certainly understand it is the ninth year, it is a long time, the sacrifices have been significant,” Mullen said. “At the same time, I think the strategies are right.”
Release of the nearly 77,000 secret military records from the war has done real harm but hasn’t affected the U.S. war strategy, Mullen said.
Gates accused the website WikiLeaks, which posted the material a week ago, of “moral culpability” for potentially deadly repercussions. The Taliban can glean a lot about U.S. tactics and sources from the documents, Gates said.
“That’s where I think the verdict is guilty on WikiLeaks,” Gates said. “They have put this out without any regard whatsoever for the consequences.”
Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, acknowledged the slide in support for the war among congressional Democrats.
“They have the impression that things are not going well now, at least the majority,” Levin said of Americans. “But I think the public does want us to succeed,”
Levin has been skeptical of parts of the strategy Obama adopted, but he sounded cautiously optimistic on Sunday.
“I think there’s really signs of progress. It’s a mixed picture,” he said.
A top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said he could foresee a collapse of congressional support next year if conservative Republicans yank their backing to make Obama look bad and if anti-war Democrats insist on a pullout.
“I do worry about an unholy alliance with the right and left coming together next summer, if we’re not showing progress, to basically de-fund this war,” Graham said.
“Afghanistan is a work in progress,” he said. “To lose there would be disastrous. To win there would be monumental. And I think we’ve got a good chance of winning, but by no means is the outcome certain.”
Mullen spoke on NBC’s “Meet The Press” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.” Gates was on ABC’s “This Week.” The senators were on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
June 14, 2010
My Way News
By Tom Murphy
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Companies that offer employee health insurance expect another steep jump in medical costs next year, and more will ask workers to share a bigger chunk of the expense, according to a new PricewaterhouseCoopers report.
For the first time, most of the American workforce is expected to have health insurance deductibles of $400 or more, the consulting firm said in a report released to The Associated Press.
Deductibles are the annual amount a patient pays out of pocket for care before insurance coverage starts. They are generally separate from co-payments and coinsurance.
Two years ago, only 25 percent of companies participating in the annual survey said they asked employees to pay deductibles of $400 or more. That grew to 43 percent in 2010 and is expected to pass 50 percent next year.
Employees who are asked to pay more through things like higher deductibles help keep cost growth in check because they use less health care.
The health care reform law passed by Congress and then signed by President Obama in March has just started to unfold and will have little impact on costs next year, said Michael Thompson, a principal with PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“In general, it’s a continuation of a fairly high rate of medical inflation,” he said.