Until I read this article below I hadn’t realised there was a problem with transparency and the US over war in the Middle East. A problem with the US? This is surprising since all of the Middle East countries are accused of being less than transparent. This is what Bryant Harris in Al Monitor newslwtter had to say.

Congress rebels against Middle East war secrecy

 Article Summary

Fed up with increased restrictions on information and less on-the-ground access, some Democrats are seeking more transparency regarding the Donald Trump administration’s military operations throughout the region.

REUTERS/Hadi Mizban/Pool

US Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., (L) meets with Iraq's Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abbawi (C) during his visit to Baghdad, Iraq, July 26, 2009.

As the top Democrat on the House panel overseeing the Defense Department, Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts has traveled to Iraq almost two dozen times under three different presidents.

But now, that ability to monitor US military actions and foreign aid, Lynch insists, is being compromised by what he contends is a plummeting level of transparency under President Donald Trump, even as the administration promises to confront Iran throughout the Middle East. With the Pentagon restricting congressional travel to the region and classifying more information on its operations, Lynch and several of his Democratic colleagues have begun pushing back.

“I would say since the Trump administration came in, we have seen a gradual increase in limitations on [congressional delegations], especially Iraq and Afghanistan and understandably Syria,” Lynch told Al-Monitor in an interview this week. “The work we’ve been doing under [Barack] Obama and under George W. Bush, we’ve had far greater access.”

The Pentagon this month restricted access for senior Defense Department officials to Iraq and Kuwait, a key entry point into Iraq, until mid-June and then again from late August through September, Al-Monitor has learned. At the same time, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford sent a letter to Congress asking members and staffers to limit travel to Iraq and Kuwait during those times.

The measure coincides with the recent elections, the Ramadan season and the March transfer of control over the headquarters in Baghdad for the anti-Islamic State (IS) ground operations, according to the Pentagon.

“During this time, commanders would not be able to adequately host senior-level visitors and while supporting these competing requirements,” aspokeswoman told Al-Monitor. “DoD supports members of Congress in their need to understand DoD missions, provide oversight and visit deployed US forces, however, we do put limited travel restrictions in place when conditions on the ground require military commanders to focus their resources on essential mission requirements.”

Additionally, a House aide told Al-Monitor that the Pentagon imposes travel restrictions throughout the region “every summer during the fighting season or when units are in rotation.” The Army announced Tuesday that the 18th Airborne Corps, stationed at Fort Bragg, would be deployed to Iraq in the fall, relieving the 3rd Corps.

Those explanations haven’t placated Lynch, who has offered an amendment to the annual defense bill that calls on the Pentagon to “authorize and facilitate meaningful access and assistance” for congressional delegations that have made a “reasonable request” to access “missions and operations” in Iraq, Kuwait, Syria and Afghanistan. The House is voting on the bill this week.

“All things considered, I think I’ve been fairly supportive of our operations in both those countries,” said Lynch, who voted in favor of the Iraq war authorization in 2002. “I expressed my displeasure and disappointment with the fact it seems to be at the whim of the Department of Defense as to whether Congress gets to do its constitutional duty to provide oversight.”

While the Pentagon has offered to make exceptions for some lawmakers, Lynch maintains that access to certain areas remains problematic. Most recently, he has been trying to access Mosul for a firsthand look at reconstruction efforts in the devastated city following its liberation from IS last year. He noted that even the Bush administration eventually allowed him to access Sadr City during the height of Muqtada al-Sadr’s insurgency to examine a multimillion-dollar US water treatment project — even if it took him five trips to finally gain access.

“There’s no good justification,” he insisted.

Separately, some Democrats are balking at what they view as the Trump administration’s penchant for classifying materials.

Last week, for instance, the president handed Congress a classified report outlining the administration’s strategy in Yemen, even though lawmakers had requested an unclassified version with a classified annex as needed. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a harsh critic of the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, has responded with an amendment to this year’s defense bill requiring an unclassified assessment of the civil war’s impact on the growth of Islamic State and al-Qaeda branches in the country.

“The administration has not been forthcoming about our role in Yemen,” Khanna told Al-Monitor. “An explanation is owed to the American public and I want to see a transparent report.”

Lynch also pointed to the Defense Department’s recent classification of previously unclassified data in the Afghanistan war, including territory assessments, casualties, rates of attrition, recruitment and training.

“There’s a lid being put on access to firsthand information, and then the information they choose to give us and the inspector general is also limited in terms of circulation,” he said.

Hoping to curb this trend, Lynch has also offered an amendment requiring the Pentagon to rescind its decision to redact troop levels for Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in its quarterly public reports.

The Palestinian-Israeli crisis is becoming increasingly worse. Any hope of a peace accord is looking highly unlikely. Listening to the news you would think that the Palestinians are entirely to blame.

Khaled Elgindy from the Brookings Institute explains.

 Political amnesia in Washington: From the Nakba to the occupation

Within less than a generation, both the political significance of the Nakba and the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were all but forgotten in Washington, writes Khaled Elgindy. This piece originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

This week’s protests at the Gaza border were the largest—and deadliest — since Palestinians began what organizers have dubbed the “Great March of Return” some six weeks ago. The protests culminated on May 15, the 70th anniversary of the Nakba (“catastrophe”), during which most of Palestine’s Arab population was expelled from the British-mandated territory in the course of Israel’s creation. Approximately 70 percent of Gaza’s 2 million Palestinians are registered refugees from lands in what is now Israel.

Israel has long denied responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem and continues to maintain that the refugees will never be allowed to return, and American policymakers now generally accepted the Israeli view. But this was not always the case. Unlike today, in the years immediately after 1948 neither the events of the Nakba nor the U.N.-mandated right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes was considered controversial in US politics. Within less than a generation, however, both the political significance of the Nakba and the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were all but forgotten in Washington.

Seventy years later, a similar process of denial is now happening—albeit at a slower pace—in relation to Israel’s half-century occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The steady erasure of the Israeli occupation from Washington’s political discourse not only makes it impossible for the United States to resolve the conflict but places Israelis and Palestinians on a seemingly irreversible path to one state.

Although the term nakba never entered Washington’s political lexicon, U.S. policymakers understood the nature and scope of the calamity that befell Palestinians during Israel’s creation. At the time, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers closely monitored and reported on developments in what was then British Mandate Palestine as events unfolded. Most senior U.S. policymakers therefore, including the president and secretary of state, had no illusions about the nature of the Palestinian exodus.

In the wake of the Deir Yassin massacre, in which more than 100 Palestinian civilians were killed by members of two Zionist militias—the Irgun and the Stern Gang—the trickle of refugees became a full-blown exodus. Thereafter, the U.S. State Department kept regular tabs on the numbers and conditions of Palestinians fleeing the area. When the first U.S. representative to Israel, James G. McDonald, repeated Israeli claims that Palestinians fled as a result of the invasion of Arab armies, it was Secretary of State George Marshall who set him straight. Marshall reminded the representative that the “Arab refugee problem … began before outbreak of Arab-Israeli hostilities. A significant portion of Arab refugees fled from their homes owing to Jewish occupation of Haifa on April 21-22 and to Jewish armed attack against Jaffa April 25.” Marshall’s message went on to warn that the “leaders of Israel would make a grave miscalculation if they thought callous treatment of this tragic issue could pass unnoticed by world opinion.”

There is a myth that Dubai, in the UAE, has a lot of money. This is not true since it is the emirate of Abu Dhabi that has the money, especially with its oil income. Certainly, the outlook for the oil price in 2018 is looking good forecast to sit at an average of about US $57 a barrel. A 5.7 per cent increase over 2017. Indeed, the price of Brent crude touched US $80 a barrel for the first time in about four years in early May.

So it is no surprise that the UAE has put its hands up for reconstructing Mosul’s Grand al-Nuri Mosque, famous for its eight-century-old leaning minaret, known as al-Hadba minaret (or hunchback) that was blown up by Islamic State militants last year. It will cost $50.4 million, at least.

This is what Adnan Abu Zeed from Al Monitor said about it.

 When the Al-Nouri Mosque and the adjacent al-Hadba minaret in Mosul were bombed by the Islamic State (IS) on June 21, 2017, many thought that the landmark mosque and its “hunchback” minaret most famous for its leaning structure were gone for good. 

But today, there is some hope of restoring both structures. The reconstruction of the mosque and the minaret will start in June, said Nofal Sultan al-Akoub, the governor of Iraq’s northern province of Ninevah, on May 6. 

The announcement follows a protocol signed April 23 between Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, where the latter would commit $50.4 million over five years for the reconstruction of the mosque that dates from the 12th century. UNESCO is also a signatory to the reconstruction agreement. 

The mosque is an important symbol for Mosul, and it was used in 2014 as the venue where Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and militants proclaimed a caliphate. Three years later, IS fighters blew it to pieces weeks before their defeat.

The minaret, which was one of the few remaining parts of the original construction, is less known to the international world. It had a design often attributed to Iranian architectural influence, with a white plastered top. It had a significant lean since the 14th century, and its likeness can be found on 10,000-dinar bills.

The main questions on the renovation are whether the amount allocated, which is one of the largest sums committed for a restoration project in Iraq, will be enough and whether the reconstruction will be successful.

Mohammed Nouri al-Abed Rabbo, a parliament member from Ninevah, told Al-Monitor that the next phase would be to take bids for the reconstruction after the government agencies finalized the contract and the blueprints for the work required.

Abed Rabbo added that the reconstruction process “needs more funding than what has been allocated by the UAE.” Pointing out that the monument was essentially razed to the ground, he said that great architectural skills would be required for the reconstruction, and UNESCO — the cultural arm of the UN — would need to be involved. 

“There have been efforts since the liberation of Mosul to clean the mosque of explosive devices, remove rubble, document the destruction and collect the damaged authentic relics. The area was cordoned off to prevent the loss of the remaining relics from the minaret and the mosque,” Abed Rabbo added. 

Mosul Mayor Zuhair Muhssein al-Araji told Al-Monitor via phone that the reconstruction plan was developed following discussions and meetings with UNESCO. These meetings have taken up costs and conducted feasibility studies. He said he expected the construction to take at least four years. 

“The implementation process is likely to take a long time, as it is a large area. Given its great historical importance, the work needs to be meticulous. We need to study the available historical data so it can be restored to its original architecture,” Araji added. 

According to professor of modern history at Mosul University Ibrahim al-Allaf, Nur al-Din al-Zanki — who ruled Mosul — "ordered the building of the mosque [and its minaret] in A.D. 1172." 

Allaf said the mosque had been damaged many times in its history. “The Iraqi Department of Antiquities dismantled and rebuilt the mosque in 1942 as part of a renovation campaign,” Allaf told Al-Monitor. “Al-Hadba minaret is the only remaining feature of the original building of the mosque. Due to its historical value, the minaret has been printed on Iraqi banknotes.”

Leafing through the documents he held on the minaret, Allaf said of its structure: “The minaret was 55 meters high [although there are different accounts of its height], while the mosque area is about 6,000 square meters. The minaret’s base is large, and it features Islamic decorations on its four facades. The building of the entire mosque cost at the time 60,000 dinars of gold.”

Louise Haxthausen, the UNESCO director for Iraq, said at the press conference April 23 that the “reconstruction of the minaret is an ambitious project that carries major symbolism for the liberation of Mosul.” 

The head of Iraq's Parliamentary Committee on Media and Culture, Maysoon al-Damluji, who is from Mosul, told Al-Monitor that the National Authority for Antiquities and Heritage will be involved in the restoration, and that she hoped archaeologists and architects from Mosul would be involved. 

“The reconstruction project will not only address the physical and structural aspects of the building, but also highlight the cultural and artistic heritage such as the decorations, ornaments, inscriptions and writings,” Damluji said. She urged the authorities to be careful "not to damage the remaining relics during the removal of rubble and the works on the site.” 

Meanwhile, Ahmed Kassem al-Juma, a retired professor from the University of Mosul and a UNESCO Islamic monuments and archaeology expert based in Mosul, told Al-Monitor, “No matter how meticulous and careful the work to restore the relics is, the restored building will not bear the same value of the original that was blown up by IS.”

“The minaret and the mosque were characterized by fine technical details such as the marble pillars of the praying room, the cubic crowns, the strip engraved with words from the Quranic verses, as well as the mosque’s mihrab ornamented with arabesque decorations carved on marble,” Juma added.

He said, “The summer prayer mihrab (the outdoor niche in the wall where the imam stands to conduct prayers) is made of marble. It is currently at the National Museum in Baghdad.”

Juma accompanied the UNESCO delegation that toured the site before the launch of the project. “I keep all the documents, blueprints and drawings of the mosque with all its parts, the architectural details, measurements and maps of the original locations,” he said.

“I worked for a full year in a field survey of the minaret and the mosque before IS entered Mosul in 2014. I documented the details of the mosque and the ceramic construction units with more than 500 sketches and technical drawings,” Juma said, adding, "The mosque has great moral, social and religious significance, as it has been in the past … the place to hold meetings and gatherings for religious and official public events.” 

We can all speculate as to what may happen in the Middle East now that the US has pulled out of the deal designed to prevent Iran developing a nuclear programme.This is what the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) says about the US pulling out of the Iran deal.

Washington, DC – NIAC President Trita Parsi issued the following statement in response to reports that President Trump declared he would snap back all nuclear-related sanctions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, and impose new sanctions:

“Donald Trump has committed what will go down as one of the greatest acts of self-sabotage in America’s modern history. He has put the United States on a path towards war with Iran and may trigger a wider regional war and nuclear arms race.

“This is a crisis of choice. Trump has taken a functioning arms control deal that prevented an Iranian nuclear bomb and turned it into a crisis that can lead to war.

“This is not America first, this is Trump leasing out America’s foreign policy interests to the highest bidder. The only parties applauding this move are Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed Bin Salman, who have consistently chosen to undermine regional security to advance their own short-sighted political fortunes. Trump’s reckless decision is a betrayal of the national interests of the United States of America that could haunt us for generations.

“Not only has Trump opened a pandora’s box of consequences in the region, we now know the administration hired the private Israeli intelligence firm Black Cube to target former U.S. officials who supported the agreement. This Nixonian campaign was likely an illegal attempt to discredit the Iran deal. Anything short of a full investigation by Congress and the Justice Department of Trump’s efforts with Black Cube would be an affront to our democratic system.

“Perhaps the most absurd aspect of President Trump’s Iran policy is his attempt to claim solidarity with the Iranian people, even as he bans Iranians from the U.S. and his top advisors openly support the MEK terrorist group that is universally reviled by Iranians. The Iranian people overwhelmingly supported the nuclear deal, at least until the sanctions relief that was promised failed to materialize, and will be the party most impacted by Trump’s decision.

“Many were hopeful that the nuclear deal would facilitate broader change in Iranian society over time by empowering moderate forces in their demand for social and economic justice. By diminishing the excuse of sanctions and raising expectations for economic improvement, the nuclear deal appears to have added pressure on Iran’s leaders to meet the public’s political expectations. However, a potential opening for accelerated progress in Iran has now been slammed shut by Trump, an action that will redirect attention from the Iranian government to the United States. This will not just empower hardliners, it will force Iran’s political elite to paper over fissures on key social and political issues while cracking down further on any dissent. This is potentially the biggest crime of Trump’s decision – limiting the agency of Iran’s own people to choose peaceful political evolution in order to address their grievances.

“It is our profound hope that the Europeans, Russians and Chinese are able to sustain the nuclear accord in spite of Trump’s decision – though we recognize that this is a tall task given the effect of U.S. sanctions. We also hope that Congress will shake off the politicization of Iran policy and move to restrict Trump’s nuclear sabotage. However, given that Senate Republicans and even a handful of Democrats voted for Iran-hawk Mike Pompeo to join John Bolton on Trump’s war cabinet, this may not be possible until a new Congress is sworn in.

“Iran has remained compliant with the nuclear deal as verified by the IAEA in 11 reports since January 2016, and its people want more economic relief – not less. Under the JCPOA, Iran’s commitment never to pursue a nuclear weapon never expires, while other far-reaching constraints stretch out for decades. After Trump’s breach of the accord, the U.S. – not Iran – is now the outlier when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program. If the deal dies as is highly likely, the U.S. will find little to no support in addressing Iran’s soon to be expanding nuclear program.

“For decades, Washington has insisted that the Iranian leadership is addicted to enmity with the United States. Now it may become fact for the world that the opposite is true and it is America that is addicted to enmity with Iran.

“For those in and outside of the Iranian-American community who worked for years to prevent war with Iran, and then succeeded in protecting the nuclear deal from sabotage until today, this move comes as a bitter blow. Unfortunately, we must now redouble our efforts to prevent Trump from leading us to war with Iran.”