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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

No one ever thought President Bush would win California this November. But this is a steep plunge. A new poll out Monday puts his approval in the Golden State at 38%.

A short note on Patrick Fitzgerald, the United States Attorney from Chicago running the Plame investigation.

I'm told this isn't the first time he's done a leak investigation of the Bush White House.

This earlier investigation, which was in 2002, grew out of Fitzgerald's investigation of a series of Muslim charities accused of having ties to terrorism -- the Holy Land Foundation, the Global Relief Foundation, and the Benevolence International Foundation.

My point isn't that the White House did something else wrong. In fact, I'm told that in this case the White House really hadn't done anything improper at all.

But Fitzgerald was pissed and apparently went after them very aggressively -- and this for a case in which, I'm told, there really wasn't much to go after.

This might be something to keep in mind when figuring how the Plame investigation might play out.

I'm here at my desk in the middle of the night working over interview notes for an article I'm writing and I see this late wire story from Iraq: "Iraqi Shi'ite Militia Battles Italian Troops."

In brief, Sadrist militiamen are engaged in what seem to be running battles with Italian troops in Nassiriya.

According to the report, the Sadrists have burned four Italian military vehicles and they still control streets near the local CPA headquarters.

The casaulties, at least as reported so far, seem relatively light.

But this has now been going on for several days. And these aren't terrorist attacks, bomb blasts or ambushes. These are continuous armed battles in which the insurgents are -- for at least periods of time -- taking control of parts of cities that are right up near, if not on top of, the symbols of the occupation authority itself.

In Karbala, says the Post, "Sadr's followers attacked a police station and a television station. In Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, they occupied the governor's office and traded fire with British troops."

In an urban warfare context there's obviously not always a bright line between all out war and isolated guerilla attacks. But this sounds a lot more like the former than the latter. And especially in areas where there aren't large concentrations of American troops, these sound a lot more like standoffs or worse than situations where coalition troops can quickly mobilize and stamp out the attacks.

We really do seem to be on the brink here. Like a top, once its even spin turns into a reckless wobble, these things can be very, very hard to right once they fly out of control.

According to the Times, Tony Blair is coming to Washington next week for crisis talks that won't be called crisis talks. From the Times article ...

British officials say that while they are sympathetic with the daunting management task that Americans have undertaken, they also believe that the Coalition Provisional Authority under Mr. Bremer has become too "politicized," meaning that events are orchestrated and information controlled with the American political agenda uppermost in mind.


A very difficult situation has been worsened by the political priorities of key decision-makers in the occupation authority. But that fact seems more like an afterthought when you consider how dire a situation we've backed ourselves into.

What was this about? From the beginning of a late morning press conference ...



THE PRESIDENT: I just met with Specialist Chris Hill's family from North Carolina. You know, I told the family how much we appreciated his sacrifice -- he was killed in Iraq -- and assured him that we would stay the course, that a free Iraq was very important for peace in the world, long-term peace, and that we're being challenged in Iraq because there are people there that hate freedom. But the family was pleased to hear that we -- its son would not have died in vain. And that's an important message that I wanted to share with you today.

Let me ask you a couple of <$NoAd$> questions. Who is the AP person?

Q I am.

THE PRESIDENT: You are? [Then ask it]

Q Sir, [what 'a], in regard to --

THE PRESIDENT: Who are you talking to?

Q Mr. President, in regard to the June 30th deadline, is there a chance that that would be moved back?

THE PRESIDENT: No, the intention is to make sure the deadline remains the same. I believe we can transfer authority by June 30th. We're working toward that day. We're, obviously, constantly in touch with Jerry Bremer on the transfer of sovereignty. The United Nations is over there now. The United Nations representative is there now to work on the -- on a -- on to whom we transfer sovereignty. I mean, in other words, it's one thing to decide to transfer. We're now in the process of deciding what the entity will look like to whom we will transfer sovereignty. But, no, the date remains firm.


I'm genuinely unsure what to make of that.

[ed. note: the portions in brackets are my additions based on hearing the audio.]

From today's Nelson Report ...

Gloom...has been building over Iraq. Increasingly, the <$NoAd$>Wise Heads are forecasting disaster. Wise Heads say they see no realistic plan, hear no serious concept to get ahead of the situation. Money, training, jobs...all lagging, all reinforce downward spiral highlighted by sickening violence. There seems to be no real "if", just when, and how badly it will hurt U.S. interests. Define "disaster"? Consensus prediction: if Bush insists on June 30/July 1 turnover, a rapid descent into civil war. May happen anyway, if the young al-Sadr faction really breaks off from its parents. CSIS Anthony Cordesman's latest blast at Administration ineptitude says in public what Senior Observers say in private...the situation may still be salvaged, but then you have to factor in Sharon's increasing desperation, and the regional impact.

Note: "quagmire"...when you are in a bad situation you created yourself, and would quit in a minute if you could, but which if you did, it would make everything else worse. So you can't...and it gets worse anyway. (Apologies to Bierce...)

1. Comes word from Very Senior Foreign Policy Observers that the situation now unfolding in Iraq is "a qualitative change of very profound significance. The chances of something like a general breakdown after the July 1 transfer is accelerating." The Observation continues: "Even if [dissident cleric Muqtada] al-Sadr is arrested, the whole question is whether the Shi'ia majority is comfortable with continued U.S. occupation." The suggested answer seems to be "no".

-- the Observer goes on to warn that, on the basis of personal soundings within the Administration, the conviction arises that the White House has "no concept of how to manage the crisis, no plan in place likely to work." This Observer last week relayed a concern that President Bush was not being given accurate reports from Iraq, but today, one assumes that even a President who prides himself on not reading the newspapers now grasps that things are not necessarily proceeding to our advantage, to borrow an historic phrase.


More to follow ...

Hats off to Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post for a truly well-deserved Pulitzer awarded today for coverage from Iraq.

The best way to get out of a hole is generally to stop digging -- at least, that's the first, critical step, without which nothing else matters.

Along those lines see this critical passage from Christopher Dickey's review of Rick Atkinson's In the Company of Soldiers in yesterday's Times ...

The coalition invasion force was less than half the size of the one that liberated Kuwait in 1991, because that was all that was needed to defeat Hussein's eviscerated services. But professional soldiers realized a lot more boots on the ground would be needed to maintain order once the dictator went down and the occupation (''the O-word'') began. The soldiers' concerns were ignored. The wishful assumptions of the Pentagon civilians about the after-war were just as wildly off base as their intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. ''The abrupt transition to anarchy was a disaster not only for Iraq but also for the United States,'' Atkinson writes. ''Pentagon planners in early May had predicted that U.S. troop levels would be down to 30,000 by late summer; instead, at Christmas the figure was 130,000 American soldiers in Iraq, with another 30,000 in Kuwait.''


Mull on that for a moment.

The people who planned and advocated for this war hadn't the slightest idea what they were getting into. All the plans, all the <$Ad$>assumptions, all the notions of what would flow from this came from that basic inability to grasp the reality of what they were entering into.

Think about it: down to thirty-thousand troops -- a smattering for a country the size of Iraq -- only three or four months after the end of fighting. Think how mind-bogglingly off the mark that was.

Some of this comes into perspective in a column Deputy National Security Advisor Steve Hadley wrote in the Washington Post on the eve of the war (Feb. 28th, 2003).

It shows that the administration had done a lot of planning. They just had no idea what to plan for. Hadley's main points are plans to deal with humanitarian disasters in the country.

If you put yourself back in that mindset the Bush politicals had as of early 2003, the idea was that the great mass of the Iraqi population would be in sync with what we were doing and eager to participate. Our role was being there at the ready to help them deal with crises brought on by the war or by the internal degeneration of the country in the years before it: ready to ship in water, food, help repave the roads, technical assistance getting their economy in order and reformed, etc. That's what we'd be there for. And thus we could pull most combat troops out after a few months.

The idea that we'd need a vast army of occupation -- hopefully one with some multinational flavor -- to make everyone keep their heads down while we went about with the serious and risky business of nation-building simply didn't occur to them. Thus the treatment of Shinseki.

Here are the second through seventh grafs of Hadley's piece ...

Securing this liberty and sustaining it in a post-Hussein Iraq will be a huge undertaking. But we are well prepared. Planning has been underway for months, across every relevant agency of the U.S. government.

The goals for which we plan are clear. First, along with our coalition partners, we must ensure the rapid flow of humanitarian relief into Iraq. The current humanitarian situation in Iraq is tenuous. For food, most Iraqis rely on rations from the oil-for-food program. But the Iraqi regime's manipulation of the program has led to mortality and malnutrition rates worse than before the Persian Gulf War.

Hussein has a history of manufacturing humanitarian crises. We must be prepared for this -- and we are.

The U.S. government is stockpiling nearly 3 million Humanitarian Daily Rations to meet emergency food needs. We are also stockpiling blankets, water containers, essential medicines and other relief items capable of helping up to a million people. Much of this material is already in the region, and more is on the way.

To distribute these and other materials, we will rely primarily on civilian relief agencies. We are counting on the efforts of international organizations such as the United Nations and the Red Cross and Red Crescent, as well as various nongovernmental organizations. These groups have the expertise, personnel and equipment that can literally mean the difference between life and death. We will fund and facilitate their efforts to the greatest extent possible.

In circumstances where no U.N. agencies or nongovernmental organizations are available, the U.S. military may be required to provide limited relief. Such relief will be under the guidance of civilian experts, with the goal of getting civilian agencies into these areas as quickly as possible.

To coordinate all this activity, the U.S. government is training a 60-person civilian disaster assistance response team, the largest in U.S. history. Made up of humanitarian emergency professionals from several agencies, the team will soon have representatives in Kuwait, Turkey, Jordan and Qatar.


This crew simply didn't understand what they were getting into. It was an intelligence failure even more difficult to grasp than the fiasco over WMD -- and in this case it stemmed entirely from administration political appointees in the face of unanimous contrary advice from everywhere else in government.

They've never copped to that misunderstanding, even to themselves. That team can't save the situation.

The news from Iraq today of scattered clashes between US/Coalition forces and armed crowds and Shia paramilitaries is the worst news to come out of Iraq for months.

Measured purely in the terms of American casualties, today's death toll was not as bad as some of the bloodiest days of the occupation. Seven US soldiers were killed in what appears to have been a ferocious running battle in Sadr City, the vast Shia slum in northeast Baghdad. Two other soldiers, one American and another Salvadoran, were killed in similar clashes in Kufa. Other outbreaks of similar violence seem to have spanned the entire country.

The difference here is the type of violence and who's fighting.

Even if the US occupation had been welcomed by most Iraqis, there almost certainly still would have been major car-bombings and other terrorist acts. It's just not that hard, in that part of the world, to find people willing to strike violent blows against the US, even at the expense of their own lives. And as we've seen from Madrid, one doesn't need widespread or even any support in a country to mount such attacks.

Meanwhile, almost all the paramilitary violence -- the shootings and ambushes and roadside explosions -- have come from the Sunni minority concentrated in the center of the country.

Violence from the Sunni areas has never been difficult to understand. They lost out on privileges and status when Saddam was overthrown. And the future looked even more bleak, because the eventual handover of authority to a democratically elected government all but insured the domination of the Shia majority which the Sunnis had been lording it over for decades if not centuries.

In other words, time was never on the side of the Sunni rejectionists. From the start their interests were in destabilizing and delegitimizing the occupation.

Time, however, was very much on the side of the Shia. From a cynical viewpoint, why not let their American and Sunni enemies bloody each other into exhaustion in the central Iraq and sit back and wait on the day -- not too distant, certainly -- when they would inherit the new Iraqi state?

A central question has always been, when would the Shia come off the sidelines? A number of Sunni attacks have been aimed at triggering just that. (For a prescient analysis of this dynamic see part one of TPM's interview with Joe Wilson from last September.)

Now, they seem to have come off the sidelines with a vengeance, though the particular trigger here seems to be factional rivalry within the Shia community.

In any case, it really amounts to the same thing. Part of the myopia of the Iraq is hunky-dory crowd was not to recognize -- and in this case I'm talking really about political spinners in Washington, the policy types across the political spectrum understand this -- that the key ethno-factional groupings in the country have been hanging back and strengthening themselves to have it out with each other after we depart. As I noted earlier with the Shia, they were in no rush: why not let us kill a lot of their Sunni opponents while they prepare for the real battles -- either political or paramilitary -- after we leave?

It will be critical to see, in the coming days, whether this is one spasm of violence (organized by the young firebrand Muqtada Al-Sadr in response to being shut out of the political process by the Americans) which can be brought under control or whether this is the first day of a new phase of violence or even uprising.

The reality is that the US doesn't have anywhere enough soldiers in the country to control the place if there's this sort of widespread violence on an on-going basis. That could quickly lead to a vicious cycle which will put a virtual end to reconstruction and prevent the coming into being of any entity for us to hand the place off to. In Jefferson's ugly phrase, we may end up holding the wolf by the ears.

That's my brief take -- I'm drowning in several deadlines, so no more for now. For a more lengthy and far more knowledgable overview see Juan Cole's running coverage.

The Associated Press on the hyper-politicized Coalition Provisional Authority.

Dan Senor, a former press secretary for Spencer Abraham, the Michigan Republican who's now Energy Secretary, heads the office packed with former Bush campaign workers, political appointees and ex-Capitol Hill staffers.

One-third of the U.S. civilian workers in the press office have GOP ties, running an enterprise that critics see as an outpost of Bush's re-election effort with Iraq a top concern. Senor and others inside the coalition say they follow strict guidelines that steer clear of politics.


As the gibe around Baghdad has it, they don't call it the Republican Palace for nuthin'.

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