State Dept. sponsors trip for imam connected to N.Y. mosque project

By Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin
Thursday, August 19, 2010; A15

State Dept. sponsors trip for imam connected to N.Y. mosque project

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the Park51 Muslim community center and mosque proposed on a site near New York's Ground Zero, leaves this week for a three-nation Middle East tour on behalf of the State Department, during which he is expected to speak about the controversy surrounding his project.

Rauf will leave New York and travel to Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, a State Department official tells The Cable. The cost of the trip is $16,000.

The State Department has no knowledge or control of the specifics of what Rauf will talk about as he tours the region, but officials note that his agenda could not be more directly related to the backlash against his project, still slated to be built in Lower Manhattan.

"His program is about religious diversity and tolerance in America. Will he relate that to his personal situation? Probably," another State Department official said.

The State Department has been shy about talking about Rauf and the trip, ostensibly to avoid wading into the controversy over the community center. But that didn't stop officials from posting New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's impassioned defense of the project on the State Department-run Web site State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that because the site is directed at foreign audiences, State was not violating the Smith-Mundt Act, which prohibits the U.S. government from spreading propaganda inside American borders.

Rauf's trip is organized by the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs and will not include any fundraising. This is his third trip with the State Department; the first was in 2007 under the George W. Bush administration. Rauf also visited Egypt in January.

A push to assist Iraqis who aided U.S.

As the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq accelerates, the thousands of Iraqi citizens who have worked with the U.S. military since the 2003 invasion face an even more uncertain future. Members of Congress are calling on the administration to devise a new plan to help them.

In 2008, a shocking article in the New York Post, written by U.S. Marine Owen West, described the harrowing experience of translators and aides to U.S. troops in Iraq as they tried to escape the threats on their lives and transition to a better life in America. It was an excruciatingly long process full of bureaucratic hurdles.

Those who have made it the United States -- more than 35,000 Iraqi refugees have arrived since 2003 -- face another set of near-insurmountable challenges. Eligible for one-time grants ranging from $900 to $1,800, most have trouble finding work and are still fighting with the State Department for permanent resident status.

Congress held hearings and eventually passed legislation in 2008 to expand services for Iraqis who had worked with the U.S. military. But now, as the U.S. military leaves Iraq, Congress members are calling on the administration to do more.

Twenty-two senators and representatives wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently to demand that the administration come up with a comprehensive plan to support the thousands of Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. military.

"The United States has a moral obligation to stand by those Iraqis who have risked their lives -- and the lives of their families -- to stand by us in Iraq for the past seven years," the lawmakers wrote.

Senator contests pick for ambassador to Turkey

The GOP is holding up the nomination of Frank Ricciardone to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday explaining his objections to the nomination.

Brownback, who will retire from the Senate at the end of this year, has long been critical of Ricciardone, dating to the nominee's time as ambassador to Egypt during the Bush administration and as one of the key officials chosen to strengthen Iraqi opposition groups in early 2003. Brownback states in his letter that Ricciardone "downplayed" the Bush administration's pro-democracy efforts in Egypt and "did not favor" a strong effort to work with Iraqi opposition groups in the run-up to the invasion.

"From the latter days of the Bush administration to today, opposition groups from Africa to the Middle East to Asia have been questioning the U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights. Given these questions, I am not convinced that Ambassador Ricciardone is the right ambassador for Turkey at this time -- despite his extensive diplomatic experience," Brownback wrote.

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