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Bernie Kerik had a talent for making wealthy friends -- and then hitting them up for money. It was a talent that prosecutors say crossed the line into bribery on at least one occasion.

Over the weekend, The New York Times revealed the details of another one of those deals. In 2003, while Kerik was on his short stint with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, Israeli billionaire and industrialist Eitan Wertheimer loaned Kerik $250,000.

But it wasn't what you'd call a straightforward loan. The money went first to Kerik's friend and Brooklyn businessman Shimon Cohen, who then passed it on to Kerik. It was provided with no interest, no conditions, and seemingly no questions asked.

There's even more grounds for suspicion. The loan only came to light after the Bronx district attorney's office and New York City’s Department of Investigation launched an investigation of Kerik's personal finances in 2005. They interviewed Cohen in June of that year about the loan -- he fessed up to having given the money, but said nothing about the fact that Wertheimer had financed it. Nine days later, two years after the loan was originally given, Kerik paid off the loan in full -- with interest.

The indictment of Kerik earlier this month included a charge of lying to the Federal Government about the loan (Both Wertheimer and Cohen are identified only as John Does in the indictment.). That's because when Kerik filled out a financial disclosure form that covered his time in Iraq, he didn't report it. Prosecutors pointedly mention that Wertheimer's companies do "business with the federal government." In other words, it was precisely the sort of conflict of interest that financial disclosure requirements are designed to expose.

Now, the open question is what Wertheimer thought he was getting for his money.

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Whatever rationale the Bush administration cooks up for our soon-to-be-permanent presence in Iraq, chances are it won't compare to Nouri al-Maliki's. Maliki went on Iraqi TV today to say that the joint agreement reached today with President Bush actually means that the U.S. presence in Iraq is... wait for it... coming to an end!

"The United States has promised that the multinational forces will stay under a United Nations mandate only until the end of 2008," Mr Maliki said in a televised address.

"The final extension for the multinational forces under the UN mandate will finish in 2008."

Mr Maliki said Iraq was not a threat to any of its neighbours as it was now a "democratic state".

"It is no longer a danger to the interests of the region. We are saying frankly that there is no justification for Iraq to stay under Chapter VII. All the justification created by the former regime is now over," he said.

Mr Maliki also said that Iraq had reached the stage where it did not need multinational forces and that the country should be allowed to become a "normal state".

Now, given the crippling legacy of U.N. sanctions during the 1990s, the expiration of a U.N. security mandate has an emotional resonance for Iraqis that Maliki is rather cynically exploiting. Left apparently unstated is that after the U.N. mandate expires, Maliki will personally broker a new "justification" for the U.S.'s Mesopotamian excursion. What kind of government blatantly misrepresents to its public the implications of its actions? Why, the kind of government to which we bequeath long-term security guarantees, of course!

Could Congress stop a Bush administration-brokered deal to garrison U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely? Not according to General Douglas Lute, the so-called "war czar." Here's Lute at today's gaggle:

Q General, will the White House seek any congressional input on this?

GENERAL LUTE: In the course of negotiations like this, it's not -- it is typical that there will be a dialogue between congressional leaders at the negotiating table, which will be run out of the Department of State. We don't anticipate now that these negotiations will lead to the status of a formal treaty which would then bring us to formal negotiations or formal inputs from the Congress.

Q Is the purpose of avoiding the treaty avoiding congressional input?

GENERAL LUTE: No, as I said, we have about a hundred agreements similar to the one envisioned for the U.S. and Iraq already in place, and the vast majority of those are below the level of a treaty.

Lute said the White House intends to conclude negotiations on an enduring security guarantee with the Maliki government in July. Permanent military bases and residual troop levels will be specified in the final accord, he said.

Oh, for the halcyon days when the Bush administration saw fit to deny that it sought a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq. Let's take a look at what senior administration officials said way back when, shall we?

President George W. Bush, April 13, 2004:

"As a proud and independent people, Iraqis do not support an indefinite occupation and neither does America."

then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, August 14, 2005:

"We do not seek permanent military bases in Iraq. Our goal is to help Iraq stand on its own feet, to be able to look after its own security, and to do what we can to help achieve that goal."

Condoleezza Rice, April 4, 2006, quoted by Agence France-Presse (Via Nexis):

Rice would not say when all U.S. forces would return home and did not directly answer Rep. Steven Rothman, a Democrat, when he asked, "Will the bases be permanent or not?"

"I would think that people would tell you, `We're not seeking permanent bases really pretty much anywhere in the world these days.' We are, in fact, in the process of removing base structure from a lot of places," Rice replied.

Tony Snow, June 15, 2006:

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It's hard to believe, but presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani and Giuliani, the law partner and businessman, seem to be at odds:

Giuliani, the Republican presidential front-runner, last month pledged to ``get rid of'' so-called earmarks, which cost taxpayers about $13 billion this year, saying his party should promote ``fiscal discipline.'' Just weeks later, Bracewell & Giuliani LLP won $3 million worth of projects for its clients in defense-spending legislation....

In all, Bracewell & Giuliani sought federal earmarks for 14 companies this year, 11 of which hired the firm after Giuliani joined in March 2005, Senate records show. Giuliani, 63, isn't registered as a lobbyist. The firm paid him $1.2 million last year, according to his personal financial-disclosure form.

The defense-spending legislation approved this month by Congress contained funding for three of those clients, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based advocacy group that opposes special projects that lawmakers insert in spending bills without public debate.

Now, this is Giuliani's law firm, not his consultancy Giuliani Partners. But it's yet another example of why Giuliani has a motivation to keep his business side quiet.

So it begins. After years of obfuscation and denial on the length of the U.S.'s stay in Iraq, the White House and the Maliki government have released a joint declaration of "principles" for "friendship and cooperation." Apparently President Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed the declaration during a morning teleconference.

Naturally, the declaration is euphemistic, and doesn't refer explicitly to any U.S. military presence.

-- Iraq's leaders have asked for an enduring relationship with America, and we seek an enduring relationship with a democratic Iraq. We are ready to build that relationship in a sustainable way that protects our mutual interests, promotes regional stability, and requires fewer Coalition forces.

-- In response, this Declaration is the first step in a three-step process that will normalize U.S.-Iraqi relations in a way which is consistent with Iraq's sovereignty and will help Iraq regain its rightful status in the international community – something both we and the Iraqis seek. The second step is the renewal of the Multinational Force-Iraq's Chapter VII United Nations mandate for a final year, followed by the third step, the negotiation of the detailed arrangements that will codify our bilateral relationship after the Chapter VII mandate expires.

A "democratic Iraq" here means the Shiite-led Iraqi government. The current political arrangement will receive U.S. military protection against coups or any other internal subversion. That's something the Iraqi government wants desperately: not only is it massively unpopular, even among Iraqi Shiites, but the increasing U.S.-Sunni security cooperation strikes the Shiite government -- with some justification -- as a recipe for a future coup.

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What? Permanent U.S. bases in Iraq? I've never heard of anything so absurd! Why, you -- you -- you conspiracy theorist! How can you be so shrill, so irresponsible, so, so, so...

Oh, wait.

Iraq's government is prepared to offer the U.S. a long-term troop presence in Iraq and preferential treatment for American investments in return for an American guarantee of long-term security including defense against internal coups, The Associated Press learned Monday.

The proposal, described to the AP by two senior officials familiar with the issue, is one of the first indications that the United States and Iraq are beginning to explore what their relationship might look like, once the U.S. significantly draws down its troop presence.

Make no mistake: this is Nouri al-Maliki offering the U.S. a permanent presence in return for guaranteeing the security of his government. (Would-be PM Ayad Allawi can't make President Bush a counteroffer as good as that.) In exchange for a platform for the indefinite projection of American power throughout the Middle East, the Bush Administration probably considers protection for Maliki and his coterie to be a small price to pay. No wonder the negotiation of a mandate for foreign troops in Iraq at the United Nations -- where this deal would begin to take shape -- is one of Bush's new post-benchmark benchmarks.

Who could have seen this coming?

The Pentagon’s statistics show that 4,471 troops have sustained brain trauma in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the actual number is five times that, according to USA Today’s investigation. One reason why the Pentagon has missed more than 20,000 brain injuries is that wounds discovered after a soldier leaves Iraq are not counted. (USA Today)

Guards from Unity Resources Group who shot and killed two Iraqi women on October 9 also shot and seriously wounded a man in June when they raked his van with automatic weapons near a Baghdad kindergarten. Now, RTI International, the North Carolina-based firm that hired Unity and works under a U.S. contract to help promote democracy in Iraq, has discovered internal reports about that second, previously undisclosed shooting. The firm initially said it had no information about the event – maybe because Unity deleted the event from its records. (Washington Post)

The Sunday Times of London reveals that several European countries have assisted the U.S. in transporting detainees to Guantanamo Bay, despite their officials' public objections to the widespread human rights abuses and torture there. At least five European nations provided airstrips and have allowed more than 700 suspects to cross their territory. Officials from those countries believe this makes them complicit in crimes. (TimesOnline)

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When last we left the Bush administration's so-called benchmarks for strategic progress in Iraq -- that is, the political progress that military success allows -- they weren't being met, and the White House didn't care. Now that the year's almost over and the administration is beginning to bring the "surge" troops home, it's worth asking: what happened to the benchmarks? The New York Times reports that the administration has quietly given up on them, preferring nebulous goals for which it's easier to claim success.

With American military successes outpacing political gains in Iraq, the Bush administration has lowered its expectation of quickly achieving major steps toward unifying the country, including passage of a long-stymied plan to share oil revenues and holding regional elections.

Instead, administration officials say they are focusing their immediate efforts on several more limited but achievable goals in the hope of convincing Iraqis, foreign governments and Americans that progress is being made toward the political breakthroughs that the military campaign of the past 10 months was supposed to promote.

The short-term American targets include passage of a $48 billion Iraqi budget, something the Iraqis say they are on their way to doing anyway; renewing the United Nations mandate that authorizes an American presence in the country, which the Iraqis have done repeatedly before; and passing legislation to allow thousands of Baath Party members from Saddam Hussein’s era to rejoin the government. A senior Bush administration official described that goal as largely symbolic since rehirings have been quietly taking place already.

In January, the entire point of the surge, according to President Bush, was to achieve sectarian reconciliation. The surge has had quite a few tactical successes, as would be expected with an infusion of 30,000 troops and a smarter, population-centric approach. But that's an unfortunate footnote to a four-plus-year war -- and one susceptible to reversal -- without political progress, as any half-awake counterinsurgency expert can attest. And, once again, the Bush administration has substituted at least some tangible definition of success for what amounts to a PR strategy. Remember this when Bush and the 2008 GOP presidential candidates praise the surge to high heaven and castigate liberals for opposing its manifest, shining wisdom.

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Who is Paul Singer? He and Rudy Giuliani would prefer you not think too much about it.

Singer, who founded the multibillion dollar hedge fund Elliott Associates, has raised $200,000 for Giuliani. He flies Giuliani around in his jet.

And, as of September, his $175,000 contribution was the sole backing for the Republican scheme to split up California's electoral votes. Instead of all the electoral votes in the country's most populous state going to the state's winner (almost surely the Democrat), the ballot initiative would throw the loser (the Republican) his percentage, potentially swinging the election.

Singer's no fan of publicity, which explains why he looks rather unhappy in the picture The New York Times photographer snapped of him on the street for today's piece.

Singer tells the Times that made the contribution because he "believes in proportional voting in the Electoral College." As the Times notes, Singer was also a donor to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004. Presumably that was just because he believes in the truth.

But just because Singer is the only money behind the California scheme doesn't mean it's entirely his baby. There's a whole host of other Giuliani backers who've gotten involved:

-- Anne Dunsmore, who resigned as the Giuliani campaign’s chief fundraiser this September, has taken charge of raising funds for the effort. She said she quit because she couldn't meet Giuliani's fundraising demands, but says she still support Giuliani.

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