Into the abyss of Baghdad:
I covered Iraq for two years, beginning a few months after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. For the last year, I have been gone. I wondered how the country had changed.
I found that this ancient byway of Islamic learning and foreign invaders has gone over to the dark side. A year ago, car bombs, ambushes, daily gun battles and chronic lack of electricity and gasoline were sapping the city. But not this: the wanton execution of individuals because of sect — a phenomenon so commonplace it has earned a military shorthand: EJK, for extrajudicial killing.
Every day the corpses pile up in the capital like discarded furniture — at curbside, in lots, in waterways and sewer lines; every day the executioners return. A city in which it was long taboo to ask, "Are you Sunni or Shiite?" has abruptly become defined by these very characteristics.
Once-harmonious neighborhoods with mixed populations have become communal killing grounds. Residents of one sect or the other must clear out or face the whim of fanatics with power drills.
Gunmen showed up one day on an avenue where fishmongers have long hawked barbecued fillets. They mowed the vendors down. Maybe it was because of the merchants' beliefs — the fish salesmen were Shiites in a mostly Sunni district, Dawoodi. Maybe it was revenge. No one knows with certainty. No one asks. All that remains are the remnants of charcoal fires.
"It's like a ghost city," laments Fatima Omar, a resident of the Amariya district, which once abounded with street life. She is 22, a recent graduate of Baghdad University, an English major — and, like many of her generation, unsure of what future she can expect. "So many of our men are either dead or have gone away," she says. "We may be doomed to spinsterhood."
People are here one day, gone the next. Those who do go out often venture no farther than familiar streets. In the sinister evenings, when death squads roam, people block off their lanes with barbed wire, logs, bricks to ward off the killers.
Many residents remain in their homes — paralyzed, going slowly crazy.
"My children are imprisoned at home," says a cook, Daniel, a Christian whom I knew from better times, now planning to join the exodus from Iraq. "They are nervous and sad all the time. Baghdad is a big prison, and their home is a small one. I forced my son to leave school. It's more important that he be alive than educated."
But homes offer only an illusion of safety. Recently, insurgents rented apartments in mostly Shiite east Baghdad, filled the flats with explosives and blew them up after Friday prayers. Dozens perished.
U.S. Is Said to Fail in Tracking Arms for Iraqis:
The American military has not properly tracked hundreds of thousands of weapons intended for Iraqi security forces and has failed to provide spare parts, maintenance personnel or even repair manuals for most of the weapons given to the Iraqis, a federal report released Sunday has concluded.
The report was undertaken at the request of Senator John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and who recently expressed an assessment far darker than the Bush administration’s on the situation in Iraq.
Mr. Warner sent his request in May to a federal oversight agency, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. He also asked the inspector general to examine whether Iraqi security forces were developing a logistics operation capable of sustaining the hundreds of thousands of troops and police officers the American military says it has trained.
The answers came Sunday from the inspector general’s office, which found major discrepancies in American military records on where thousands of 9-millimeter pistols and hundreds of assault rifles and other weapons have ended up. The American military did not even take the elementary step of recording the serial numbers of nearly half a million weapons provided to Iraqis, the inspector general found, making it impossible to track or identify any that might be in the wrong hands.
Another report unrelated to Mr. Warner’s request was also released by the inspector general on Sunday, on the so-called provincial reconstruction teams that the United States is creating for the next phase of rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure.
While some of the teams, intended to be scattered in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces, are functioning, security problems have severely hampered work in others, the report says. As a result, the inspector general recommended, the United States should consider reassigning its personnel in six provinces — including Basra in the south and Anbar in the west — to other places where effective work can be done.
The western province of Anbar is a central focus of the Sunni insurgency, and power struggles between Shiite militias have made Basra increasingly violent. The other four provinces that the inspector general recommends essentially abandoning are also in the Shiite south.
Idle Contractors Add Millions to Iraq Rebuilding:
Overhead costs have consumed more than half the budget of some reconstruction projects in Iraq, according to a government estimate released yesterday, leaving far less money than expected to provide the oil, water and electricity needed to improve the lives of Iraqis.
The report provided the first official estimate that, in some cases, more money was being spent on housing and feeding employees, completing paperwork and providing security than on actual construction.
Those overhead costs have ranged from under 20 percent to as much as 55 percent of the budgets, according to the report, by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. On similar projects in the United States, those costs generally run to a few percent.
The highest proportion of overhead was incurred in oil-facility contracts won by KBR Inc., the Halliburton subsidiary formerly known as Kellogg Brown & Root, which has frequently been challenged by critics in Congress and elsewhere.
The actual costs for many projects could be even higher than the estimates, the report said, because the United States has not properly tracked how much such expenses have taken from the $18.4 billion of taxpayer-financed reconstruction approved by Congress two years ago.
The report said the prime reason was not the need to provide security, though those costs have clearly risen in the perilous environment, and are a burden that both contractors and American officials routinely blame for such increases.
Instead, the inspector general pointed to a simple bureaucratic flaw: the United States ordered the contractors and their equipment to Iraq and then let them sit idle for months at a time.
The delay between “mobilization,” or assembling the teams in Iraq, and the start of actual construction was as long as nine months.
“The government blew the whistle for these guys to go to Iraq and the meter ran,” said Jim Mitchell, a spokesman for the inspector general’s office. “The government was billed for sometimes nine months before work began.”
The findings are similar to those of a growing list of inspections, audits and investigations that have concluded that the program to rebuild Iraq has often fallen short for the most mundane of reasons: poorly written contracts, ineffective or nonexistent oversight, needless project delays and egregiously poor construction practices.
Airport screeners fail to see most test bombs (October 28, 2006):
Screeners at Newark Liberty International Airport, one of the starting points for the Sept. 11 hijackers, failed 20 of 22 security tests conducted by undercover U.S. agents last week, missing concealed bombs and guns at checkpoints throughout the major air hub's three terminals, according to federal security officials.
The tests, conducted Oct. 19 by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents, also revealed failures by screeners to follow standard operating procedures while checking passengers and their baggage for prohibited items, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said screeners also failed to use handheld metal-detector wands when required, missed an explosive device during a pat-down and failed to properly hand-check suspicious carry-on bags. Supervisors also were cited for failing to properly monitor checkpoint screeners, the official said. "We just totally missed everything," the official said.