News of the Nation, 2007
News of the nation in 2007 from Iraq to the presidential election
by Beth Rowen
Iraq Edges Toward Stability
Iraq was far from secure by the end of 2007, but for the first time since the war began, the country began to edge toward stability. The number of Iraqi civilian deaths began to decline by year’s end, violence had fallen to the lowest level since the spring of 2005, moderate Sunnis started to turn against the Sunni al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and formed what is called the Awakening movement and supported the U.S., and Shiites began to back the Iraqi government rather than the Iran-sponsored Mahdi Army, which is led by radical, anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.
“I came away from all of it feeling very good about the direction of things in the security arena, about what is going on at the local and provincial level in terms of people reaching out to each other, crossing tribal, sectarian and provincial boundaries to work together,” said U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates after a trip to Iraq in December.
The one major obstacle to normalcy remained the lack of solid Iraqi leadership. Indeed, by the end of the year, expectations that the country would move closer to reconciliation and that the Iraqi government would pass legislation to divide the country’s oil revenue and establish protocol for provincial elections all but diminished. The only benchmarks that remained within reach were that Parliament would pass a budget and a law that would allow Baathists to return to the government posts they held under Saddam Hussein.
Attacks Begin to Wane
Although 2007 culminated as the deadliest year in Iraq for U.S. soldiers, the U.S. military reported in November that for several consecutive weeks, the number of car bombs, roadside bombs, mines, rocket attacks, and other violence had fallen to the lowest level in nearly two years. In addition, the Iraqi Red Crescent reported that some 25,000 refugees (out of about 1.5 million) who had fled to Syria had returned to Iraq between September and the beginning of December. However, many of these returning refugees found their homes vandalized or occupied by squatters. In addition, previously diverse neighborhoods had become segregated as a result of the sectarian violence.
President Bush attributed these gains to the surge of 30,000 troops deployed to Baghdad in February. Other factors played a part, including the cooperation of Sunni rebels and the ceasefire declared by al-Sadr in August.
But signs of improvement didn’t emerge until the end of the year. Indeed, several Sunni tribal leaders who joined forces with the U.S. to fight Sunni militants were killed in two separate attacks in Anbar Province in June and September. In addition, an August National Intelligence Estimate said the Iraqi government had failed to end sectarian violence even with the surge of American troops. That was followed by a highly anticipated testimony in September by Gen. David Petraeus before the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees in which he said that although the surge of troops has been effective in reducing violence, the U.S. military needs more time to meet its goals in Iraq.
"The military objectives of the surge are in large measure being met," Petraeus said. “One reason for the decline in incidents is that Coalition and Iraqi forces have dealt significant blows to Al Qaeda-Iraq.” He also said while “the situation in Iraq remains complex, difficult, and sometimes downright frustrating, I also believe that it is possible to achieve our objectives in Iraq over time, though doing so will be neither quick nor easy.”
Petraeus said if progress continued the number of troops in Iraq may be reduced from 160,000 troops to 130,000 beginning in July 2008. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker also testified, expressing frustration about the situation in Iraq. He said that while Iraqi leaders and the people are capable of—and desire to—bridge the sectarian divide, "I frankly do not expect that we will see rapid progress," he said.
Opponents of the war have used the failure of the Iraqi government to achieve the political benchmarks as an argument for a withdrawal of troops. Legislative efforts to create a timetable for a pullback or to tie funding to such a withdrawal failed repeatedly in Congress throughout the year. Indeed, the Democrats’ slim majority in both houses was not enough to force a change in policy.
The Bush administration endured fierce criticism in September, when 17 Iraqi civilians, including a couple and their infant, were killed by employees of private security company Blackwater USA, who were escorting a State Department convoy. In October, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform reported that employees of Blackwater had been involved in some 200 shootings in Iraq and that the company paid some families of victims and tried to cover up other incidents. According to the report, Blackwater's use of force has been "frequent and extensive, resulting in significant casualties and property damage." The FBI followed with an equally scathing assessment in November, reporting that 14 of the 17 shootings were unjustified and the guards were reckless in their use of deadly force.
Such military contractors have been in legal limbo, under the jurisdiction of neither the U.S. or Iraq. Under pressure from the Iraqi government and international scorn, Congress and the Bush administration swiftly moved to change the policy. In October, the House approved a bill that would place U.S. government contractors under the jurisdiction of U.S. criminal law and the State Department announced that its own monitors will accompany Blackwater employees on all security convoys.
|Number of U.S. troops in Iraq at the end of 2007: 162,000|
|Number of casualties for 2007|
|U.S. troops (through Dec. 31):||901|
|Iraqi civilians (through Dec. 31):||17,586|
|Iraqi security forces (through Dec. 31):||1,836|
|Estimated war costs of Iraq: fiscal year 2007:||$133.2 billion|
|Total U.S. fatalities since 2003: U.S. deaths (as of Dec. 31):||3,907|
|Total cost of war 2003-2007:||$448.6 billion|
Destruction of CIA Interrogation Tapes
The Bush administration was rocked by scandal in December, when it was revealed that in 2005 the CIA destroyed videotapes of the 2002 interrogation of two al-Qaeda suspects, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The tapes, which included hundreds of hours of questioning, reportedly showed agency operatives using severe interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, which simulates drowning.
The revelation once again turned attention to the Bush administration’s policy of condoning the use harsh interrogation tactics to obtain intelligence information from terror suspects. The CIA said that the Justice Department and members of the Bush administration had approved the techniques used in the interrogations.
In 2005, Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act that banned “cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment” of prisoners held in U.S. custody. However, in July 2007, President Bush signed an executive order giving CIA the authority to use a number of harsh interrogation methods, which are not allowed in military interrogations but have been determined by the Justice Department to comply with the Geneva Conventions, when questioning terrorism suspects. In December 2007, the Senate and House intelligence committees voted to outlaw all methods of interrogation that are banned in the Army Field Manual, which prohibits waterboarding.
CIA director Michael Hayden said the tapes, if released, posed a "serious security risk" and could have jeopardized the safety of CIA officials and their families because the faces of the CIA operatives were visible on the tapes.
Tapes Were Withheld Despite Requests
The tapes were not given to members of the Sept. 11 commission, which had formally requested such evidence, nor were they handed over to the defense team of terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui. During Moussaoui’s trail, his lawyers sought to determine if other terrorism suspects had implicated him during their interrogations, and federal judge Leonie Brinkema told the government to turn over any such evidence. The CIA, it was reported, said the evidence did not exist.
“The C.I.A. certainly knew of our interest in getting all the information we could on the detainees, and they never indicated to us there were any videotapes,” said Lee Hamilton, a co-chairman of the Sept. 11 Commission. “Did they obstruct our inquiry? The answer is clearly yes. Whether that amounts to a crime, others will have to judge.”
Both the House and Senate intelligence committees began investigations into the destruction of the tapes.
Political Dismissal of Federal Prosecutors
By all accounts, President Bush places a high value on loyalty among the members of his administration. Indeed, loyal “Bushies” have been rewarded with plum assignments and positions. Loyalty, however, proved to be the downfall of Alberto Gonzales, who resigned in August under intense pressure from Democrats and Republicans alike over what appears to be the politically motivated firing of ten U.S. federal prosecutors.
The plan to dismiss U.S. attorneys was hatched in early 2005, when Harriet Miers, then White House counsel, recommended to Justice Department officials that all 93 prosecutors be fired in a wholesale housecleaning. The proposal was deemed impractical, but it did start the process of dismissing attorneys who were not adhering to the president’s agenda in choosing which cases to prosecute. In an email to Miers, D. Kyle Sampson, then chief of staff to Gonzales, outlined a method to rank the prosecutors. Those he recommended for dismissal had been “ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against administration initiatives.” He suggested keeping the U.S. attorneys “who have produced, managed well, and exhibited loyalty to the president and attorney general.”
Aide Contradicts Attorney General’s Role
Sampson resigned in March when the extent of his involvement in the firings became public. In his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sampson contradicted earlier statements by Gonzales that the attorney general was not involved in planning the dismissals of U.S. attorneys. "I don't think the attorney general's statement that he was not involved in any discussions about U.S. attorney removals is accurate," he said.
Gonzales had claimed he was not personally involved in choosing which attorneys to fire, but instead had delegated that job to Sampson. Gonzales, answering a question about his role in the dismissals, said “I never saw documents. We never had a discussion about where things stood.” He also said that he “was not involved in any discussions about what was going on.” But documents released later revealed that Gonzales led a meeting about the plan ten days before the firings occurred.
At a hearing in April before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales conceded that although the process in which eight U.S. attorneys were fired was flawed, the dismissals were justified. He cited a bad memory more than 50 times when he failed to answer questions about key parts of the dismissal process. “Although the process was nowhere near as rigorous or structured as it should have been,” Gonzales said, “and while reasonable people might decide things differently, my decision to ask for the resignations of these U.S. attorneys is justified.”
Democrats and Republicans disagreed. “I think it’s clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office or at the White House and…and made up reasons to fire them,” said Republican senator Lindsey Graham.
Throughout the scandal, President Bush remained steadfast in his support for Gonzales, even as high-ranking Republicans called for his resignation. Bush repeatedly called Gonzales a man of integrity, and at the swearing in of Gonzales’s successor, Michael Mukasey, said, “Al Gonzales worked tirelessly to make this country safer.”
Announcing his resignation in August, Gonzales said, “Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days. I have lived the American dream.”
“It has been a long and difficult struggle, but at last the attorney general has done the right thing and stepped down,” said Charles Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York. “For the previous six months, the Justice Department has been virtually nonfunctional, and desperately needs new leadership.”
Democrats in Control of Congress
On January 4, 2007, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi became the first woman Speaker of the House as Democrats took control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994. She immediately embarked on an ambitious agenda, vowing to use the first 100 hours of 110th Congress to pass lobbying reform, increase the national minimum wage, implement the recommendations of the September 11 Commission, and cut the cost of prescription drugs for seniors.
The House succeeded in passing a flurry of measures in January, including a rule requiring legislators to disclose when they attach earmarks to bills; an increase to the minimum wage to $7.25 over two years; lobbying reform, and an expansion of stem cell research. The former two bills were signed into law by President Bush; he vetoed the latter.
President Bush Vetoed Several Bills
The rest of the year was not quite as productive for Congress. On several occasions throughout the year, Democrats failed to muster the votes to enact legislation to establish a timetable for a pullback of troops from Iraq or to tie funding to such a withdrawal. Bush vetoed a $124 billion spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill called on the Bush administration to establish benchmarks for the Iraqi government that, if met, set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. "Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure, and that would be irresponsible," Bush said.
President Bush used his veto pen five other times in 2007. Throughout his seven years in office, he has vetoed a total of only seven bills. The other vetoes included a law that would ease restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research and a bill, which Bush vetoed twice, that would have increased the funding of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to provide health insurance to more than 10 million uninsured children.
Congress overrode one of the vetoes— the Water Resources Development Act, a $23 billion bill funding 900 programs, including $3.5 billion for areas destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. It was the first time Congress has overridden a Bush veto.
After months of negotiation and compromise, Congress once again failed to pass legislation on immigration reform. The failure of the bill was considered a major blow to President Bush, who has made such legislation a domestic policy priority. In addition, as soon as Congress passed a law in August that legalized government eavesdropping of telephone conversations and emails of American citizens and people overseas without a warrant, it was working to revise the much-criticized bill when it expires in February 2008.
For election history and statistics, candidate biographies, and party politics, see Campaign 2008.
An accelerated primary schedule that has the Iowa caucuses on January 3 and the New Hampshire primary just five days later resulted in an early presidential campaign season. (Or was it the other way around, and the early campaign season resulted in early primaries?) Regardless, the races for the Democratic and Republican nominations were in full force in early 2007.
Throughout the year, Democrat Hillary Clinton, a senator from New York, maintained a sizable lead over Illinois senator Barack Obama and former North Carolina senator John Edwards. Clinton’s campaign, however, began to show signs of strain in November and December, which was reflected in the polls. The other candidates—Bill Richardson, Christopher Dodd, Joe Biden, and Dennis Kucinich—trailed far behind and struggled to fill seats at campaign events and generate press coverage.
The race was much tighter on the Republican side, with former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Fred Thompson polling in a near dead heat throughout the summer and fall. Former Arizona governor Mick Huckabee, who failed to register even a blip in early polls, emerged as a frontrunner in December. His rise coincided with Thompson’s fall. Thompson has yet to find his voice on the campaign trail and gave several lackluster performances at the debates.
On both sides, immigration, the war in Iraq, healthcare, and the environment dominated the campaign. With President Bush’s approval ratings nearing all-time lows, the Republicans seemed focused on distancing themselves from the current administration. With sunnier than expected reports coming out of Iraq, Democrats had to recalibrate their own campaigns to take the focus away from the war.
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