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The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in the case of two American citizens held by the U.S. military in Iraq who are challenging their proposed transfer to the Iraqi legal system. The arguments, which centered on the question of jurisdiction, may intersect with arguments being made in the cases of some Guantanamo detainees. (New York Times)

In 2006 the U.S. accidentally shipped four nuclear-missile detonators to Taiwan. The acknowledgment of this mistake comes on the heels of the Pentagon's admission last fall that a B-52 mistakenly carried armed nuclear missiles across the U.S. The Pentagon failed to detect the missing triggers for more than one year. (McClatchy)

President Bush has asked Congress to pass legislation exempting oil-rich Libya from being sued by victims of state-sponsored terrorism (through the assets Libya has in the United States). Congress has already granted Iraq immunity to such laws at President Bush's request. The administration claims exempting Libya would encourage their support in the current fight against terrorism. (AP)

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Confused about what's going on in Basra? So is pretty much everyone.

For years, Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army was one of the main destabilizing forces in Iraq. But last summer, he agreed to a cease fire, a move that everyone agrees has done a tremendous amount to diminish the violence in recent months. He renewed the cease fire last month.

But Sadr's group has splintered. And Shiite militias, some connected to Sadr and some not, have been mixing it up in the southern city of Basra. The British haded over control of the province to the Iraqi government in December, and things have been downhill since then.

For weeks (or months), Iraqi forces (with U.S. encouragement) have planned an offensive to reclaim Basra from these rogue militias. Besides the violence, there's the problem of corrupt militias having control of the city's valuable ports. And as the Iraqi general in charge of southern Iraq argued, the militias has to be moved out before the elections this fall, or they might forever take hold.

So the offensive was finally launched this week, with Iraqi forces moving in on the ground with British and U.S. support by air. It came as a surprise to no one, even Sadr's people, one of whom tells The Los Angeles Times that Sadr has initially agreed to support the crackdown, provided that it targeted 'outlaws.'"

But now Mahdi representatives say that the offensive is not so "targeted." And Sadr issued a statement two weeks ago permitting the Mahdi Army to fire on U.S. and Iraqi forces in self-defense. So no matter the talk of "outlaws," everyone perceives this as a hit against Sadr.

So now it's chaos, as the operation deepens in Basra and there are clashes in Baghdad -- where the Iraqi forces are also attacking "special groups" (as an American official calls them, meaning Shiite militias with Iranian backing) with American support. Shiite insurgents have responded in part by firing rockets into the Green Zone. There's also a good deal of violence between the rival Shiite militias in Baghdad and elsewhere.

The big question for everyone is whether the cease fire will hold up. Sadr loyalists, the LA Times reports, "accuse his Shiite rivals in the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party of using the Iraqi army and police to round up the cleric's followers ahead of the elections."

The Washington Post reports that Sadr " is under immense pressure from senior loyalists to lift the cease-fire order." The New York Times gives a vivid sense of how close the situation is to tipping:

Many places in Baghdad were tense. At a checkpoint downtown, a policeman’s radio crackled with the news of the sniper shooting of a police officer in a nearby neighborhood. “We’ve heard that Sadr has canceled the cease-fire, is this true?” he asked motorists whose car he was searching....

Saeed Ammar, a government employee, said he was standing near policemen in the Huriya neighborhood on Tuesday morning when he was approached by Mahdi Army members. “They told me not to stand near checkpoints. They said, ‘We are waiting for the word from Moktada Sadr to attack the checkpoints — it may come at any moment.’ “


So far, though, Sadr has only responded by calling for a nationwide civil disobedience campaign. His statement: "we call on all Iraqis to show restraint, throughout Iraq, as a first step. If the government does not respect the demands of the masses, then the second step will be disobedience in Baghdad and the rest of the provinces." The cease fire is still in effect.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has gone down to Basra to monitor the campaign and has issued an ultimatum for the militia members to lay down their arms.

As the Post observes it's an awkward time for the biggest test yet of the preparedness of the Iraqi forces: "It was unclear why U.S. forces would take part in a broad armed challenge to Sadr and his thousands-strong militia on the eve of Petraeus's assessment, which the Bush administration has said would greatly influence its decision on whether to draw down troop levels."

And White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, as always, has put the brightest face possible on things: "I would characterize it as a bold decision — precisely what the critics have asked to see in Iraq, more movement by the Iraqi Security Forces."

So is the Justice Department investigating the breach of Barack Obama's (and Hillary Clinton's and John McCain's) passport files or not? CNN quotes a Department spokesman as saying that prosecutors have "met with officials from the State Department Inspector General's office on this matter, and are coordinating with the Office of Inspector General on its investigative efforts."

But at this point, the Department of Justice can't be said to be actually investigating, just sort of keeping stock of things, apparently. "A knowledgeable official" tells CNN that it's too much to call this a "joint investigation" -- which is the same stance that the State Department had on Friday.

Last time we checked in on Hans von Spakovsky, the vote suppression guru was doggedly making the case for voter ID laws.

Now Angelenos have a chance to sample his wisdom. On April 2nd, Spakovsky will be speaking to the Los Angeles chapter of the Federalist Society. The title of the lecture is "Litigating Elections: the Campaign Process in 2008" -- characteristic of a man who's shown a genius for using the law to affect elections.

While Spakovsky is spreading the gospel, the White House and Republicans have still refused to back down from his nomination to the Federal Election Commission. The Dems, meanwhile, refuse to allow him to be slipped through with the other FEC nominees. Which is why the FEC remains unable to act.

Thanks to TPM Reader KA for the tip.

There's been a bit of a shuffle lately at Freedom's Watch, the billionaire backed conservative attack group.

Early this month, Bradley Blakeman, a former Bush White House official who'd been the group's president, left the group under something of a cloud. Unnamed conservatives grumbled that the group had not "figured out its role in the conservative/Republican universe," and there were whispers that some had been unhappy with his leadership.

But today the group announced that Carl Forti will serve as the groups' Executive Vice President and "will lead the group’s 2008 issue advocacy campaign." That means, presumably, that Forti will have some say of where that $200-250 million goes.

Forti comes off of a stint as Mitt Romney's political director -- and before that, the National Republican Campaign Committee's spokesman. Forti left the NRCC, where he was for more than seven years, after the 2006 election -- of which he confidently said earlier that year, "Incumbents don't get beat because there's a bad national environment" (d'oh).

When asked whether the group had found a replacement for Blakeman, Freedom's Watch spokesman Jake Suski said that was an "ongoing transition process." So in other words, no.

From The Boston Globe:

When the American team arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2003 to repair the Qarmat Ali water injection plant, supervisors told them the orange, sand-like substance strewn around the looted facility was just a "mild irritant," workers recall....

But the chemical turned out to be sodium dichromate, a substance so dangerous that even limited exposure greatly increases the risk of cancer. Soon, many of the 22 Americans and 100-plus Iraqis began to complain of nosebleeds, ulcers, and shortness of breath....

Now, nine Americans are accusing KBR, then a subsidiary of the oil conglomerate Halliburton, of knowingly exposing them to the deadly substance and failing to provide them with the protective equipment needed to keep them safe.

But the workers, like all employees injured in Iraq, face an uphill struggle in their quest for damages. Under a World War II-era federal workers compensation law, employers are generally protected from employee lawsuits, except in rare cases in which it can be proven that the company intentionally harmed its employees or committed outright fraud.

KBR is citing the law, called the Defense Base Act, as grounds to reject the workers' request for damages.

But the company's own actions have undermined its case: To avoid payroll taxes for its American employees, KBR hired the workers through two subsidiaries registered in the Cayman Islands, part of a strategy that has allowed KBR to dodge hundreds of millions of dollars in Social Security and Medicare taxes.

That gives the workers' lawyer, Mike Doyle of Houston, a chance to argue to an arbitration board that KBR is not an employer protected by federal law, but a third-party that can be sued.


The whole horrid story is worth a read.

We knew that the House's lawsuit against White House officials would take awhile. And it turns out that it'll be June, at the earliest, before a judge makes his first decision in the House's suit against Harriet Miers and White House chief of staff Josh Bolten.

That relatively rapid pace (for the courts, at least) is the result of the House pushing for quicker resolution of some of the White House's more expansive claims of executive privilege. The court will decide first whether administration lawyers are right when they say that Miers didn't even need to show up in response to the House Judiciary Committee's subpoena and that both Bolten and Miers didn't even need to indicate what sort of documents the White House were claiming privilege for. Thornier issues (e.g. whether certain conversations that do not involve the president are covered by executive privilege, etc.) would be dealt with later. The House has sought this speedier resolution with the hope that it would mean they'd actually get to hear from Miers and see some documents from Bolten before the close of the Bush administration.

Last Friday, the judge set a schedule for both sides to submit motions and set a hearing for June 23rd when the House's general counsel and Justice Department lawyers will argue before the judge. But whichever way the judge eventually rules, the decision would likely be appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, meaning that regardless of the House's desire for a speedy resolution, the case is bound to spend a long time in the courts before Congressional investigators see any of its fruits.

Five years into Mr. Bush's war and long after the declaration of "mission accomplished," the U.S. death toll in Iraq has reached 4,000. More than 97 percent of these losses occurred after that declaration. Though the administration continues to ban images of coffins coming home, The New York Times and Huffington Post provide us with the faces of the dead. (Think Progress, New York Times, Huffington Post)

"Curveball," the Iraqi defector whose stories - many of which turned out to be false - were used by the U.S. to make the case for invading Iraq, told Der Spiegel recently that "he is not to blame for the war and that he never said Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction." Curveball's accounts of Iraq's weapons program were used by then Secretary of State Collin Powell in his speech to the United Nations in February 2003. (ABC)

The recent revelations that employees of private companies with government contracts improperly accessed the passport files of both Barack Obama and John McCain is adding to concerns that the federal government is relying too much on private contractors to carry out its work. The questions follow recent controversies over the use of private military contractors, such as Blackwater, in Iraq. (AP)

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When Gen. David Petraeus made his big trip to Congress last September, he came armed with a full deck of slides. But none of them captured the U.S. strategy in Iraq quite like this one:



In it, you can see a neat illustration of how we’re going to eventually get out of Iraq. By July, as you can see above, the U.S. force level will return to the approximate size it was preceding the surge. After that, well... the question marks begin.

According to the chart, the date for the subsequent drawdown was to be determined this month (the "decision point"). But it won't be, The Washington Post and New York Times report this morning.

When Petraeus returns to Congress in a couple weeks for his next big briefing, he will give a good idea of how many U.S. troops will remain in Iraq as of July. But beyond that, nothing. From the Times:

During the briefing to the president, General Petraeus laid out a number of potential options, the officials said, but avoided using the term “pause.” That word has gained traction here in Washington over recent weeks to describe the plateau in troop levels that is widely expected to last through the fall elections and perhaps beyond.

Instead, he described the weeks after the departure of the extra brigades ordered to Iraq in January 2007 as a period of “consolidation and evaluation,” a phrase first used publicly by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates during a visit to Iraq in February.

The officials said that Mr. Bush and General Petraeus, recognizing public and Congressional wariness about the toll of the war, would publicly hold out the possibly of withdrawing more troops, but only if conditions allowed it. Mr. Bush, in particular, is eager to end his presidency with the appearance that things are getting better in Iraq.


The Times concludes that "it now appears likely that any decision on major reductions in American troops from Iraq will be left to the next president." A state of affairs that should surprise no one, as the administration has ably kicked the can down the road with promises of dramatic improvement just six months away. Perhaps the only happy development from all this is that the administration has decided to chuck the farcical six month reviews and instead concentrate on a smaller review every month by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military’s Central Command, where, away from the distraction of noisy public debate, the military can privately ascertain whether it's safe to draw down troops in the last months of Bush's presidency.

4,000 dead U.S. soldiers and five years later, Frontline takes stock in a two part, four and half hour series. The first part airs tonight, so check it out.

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