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On-Message on Iraq -- Except for Baghdad

By Al Kamen
Wednesday, December 7, 2005

There was a little confusion a few months back as to how training Iraqi troops has been going. Back on Sept. 29, Pentagon brass told Congress only one Iraqi battalion (about 400 troops) was deemed at Level One, meaning able to fight independently -- and that was down from an earlier estimate of three battalions at that level.

But the training program has since improved exponentially, administration officials say. And this time everyone at the Pentagon seems fully on board that we're rocketing along at warp speed.

"About 80" Iraqi army and police battalions "are fighting side by side with coalition forces," Vice President Cheney said yesterday, "and about 40 others are taking the lead in the fight -- controlling their own area, conducting their own operations against the terrorists."

Still, some people insist on going off-message. This time it's Iraqi Vice President Ghazi Yawer , a Sunni moderate, who says training has suffered a big "setback" in the past six months.

The Shiite-dominated army and Interior Ministry security forces , Yawer said in an interview in Dubai on Monday with the Associated Press, are increasingly being used to settle scores and for political goals. So the United States can't withdraw now because that would leave "a huge vacuum" and Iraq might fall into civil war, he said, a war Shiite militias might incite if U.S. and allied troops left.

Well, what does he know? Besides, a few more Level One battalions should be able to work this out.

Getting Dovish at Bob Jones

Speaking of going off-message, a notable college newspaper editorial last week carried this headline: "Congress must begin gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq."

"The U.S. government must gradually remove troops from Iraq, being responsible about the war but giving control back to Iraq," the editorial said. "We've been there long enough and done enough and spent enough."

Words from the Antioch Record? No. Turns out it's the Collegian, published by the students of Bob Jones University.

The editorial rejected "remaining indefinitely" in Iraq and sending in more troops. "But how can we do that when we've already been there just about 32 months? When will the end come?

"The United States can't really expect to make things perfect before ending its Middle East visit," the paper said. "The Iraqis won't feel independent and capable of launching out on their own until we, the Americans, the foreigners, have left."

But after this Murtha-like flirtation, the editorial rejected "immediate and complete withdrawal" -- settling on a variant of a Pentagon drawdown proposal, so long as it includes "a relinquishing of oversight to the Iraqis."

Time Off for Good Shopping

Not enough time for all the shopping you need to do? Wishing for a few days off before Christmas just to have an unrushed minute or two at your favorite mall?

Fear not. The Agency for International Development is offering employees that chance, just in time for the holidays.

AID, citing a steep cut in congressional funding for fiscal 2006, is offering up to 30 -- that's right, 30 -- days of leave during the fiscal year that you can take all at once or in chunks throughout the year, as long as your absence "will not disrupt office operations."

But how will this help AID weather the problem of cuts in its operating budget? Well, that's because this is "leave without pay," or LWOP, according to a Dec. 1 AID "General Notice e-mail."

But, the e-mail warns, if you take off, say, time around Christmas and New Year's, you could lose holiday pay for those two days.

So buy all your relatives and friends cheap-o stuff and take a couple of days off. Your government will thank you, even if your relatives don't.

Ex-Amtrak Chief Catches On

Recently terminated Amtrak president David L. Gunn is going to be an adjunct scholar at the conservative Free Congress Foundation -- an unusual landing for someone who's spent many years heading public transit systems here and in Toronto and New York City.

But turns out Free Congress says it is "one of the few conservative public policy institutes that favors public transportation, especially rail." Free Congress Chairman Paul M. Weyrich is a former member of Amtrak's board of directors and also of the Amtrak Reform Council.

"David Gunn was the best President Amtrak had in a long time," Weyrich said in announcing the appointment. "His firing, which was engineered by the White House, was a travesty. It suggests that the current Administration is out not to reform Amtrak but to destroy passenger trains in this country."

There he goes, pulling his punches as usual.

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