Wednesday's must reads

By Jeff Horwitz
Published August 18, 2004 2:27PM (EDT)

Agence France-Presse reports that the U.S. is disavowing any intent to confront Moqtada Sadr and the Mahdi Army -- at least while they're holed up in the Imam Ali mosque.

"The United States pulled its punch in Iraq as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced US forces arrayed in Najaf against Shiite militants of firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr were 'unlikely' to storm the town's holy places to deal the militia a fatal blow."

The announcement "followed days of intensifying protests by Shiite communities throughout the Middle East against what they saw as a heavy-handed assault on one of the most sacred sites of Islam as well as fears that the anti-American revolt could spread throughout the Iraqi south."

Instead, Rumsfeld said any fighting that had to be done near holy sites would be left to Iraqi troops. That may be an unrealistic expectation, however, as "a recent U.S. congressional investigation has found the newly-created security forces are 'unready' to fight insurgents because their units remain inadequately trained, underequipped and suffer from a desertion rate sometimes exceeding 80 percent."

Haliburton is sure that the U.S. government owes its subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root $1.8 billion, it just hasn't explained what for. According to the The Wall Street Journal, the Army may start docking the company $60 million a month as punishment for its "inadequate" accounting of its services to the military in Iraq and Kuwait.

"Pentagon officials said many problems still exist with KBR's efforts to account for the work supporting troops. At the same time, officials worry that reducing the payments would hinder the many services the company provides, from food to housing to laundry.

"How to proceed with numerous billing disputes with KBR has been a matter of heated debate within the Pentagon. Some Defense Department officials have urged the Army to get tough with KBR and rescind the waiver, while others have advocated more leniency. Halliburton has denied any impropriety and blames the billing issues on politics."

But apparently Halliburton stockholders need not worry about the dispute: "Halliburton said withholdings would have little financial effect on the company, as it will pass along the cut to subcontractors."

Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times looks at the historical about-face that Democrats and Republicans have made regarding the stationing of American troops overseas. In the past couple of decades, Brownstein observes, "the greatest resistance to retrenching the U.S. military's foreign presence came from those who feared that such moves would lead America to withdraw from the world. Now, the proposal is evoking the greatest worry among those who think it will lead America to intervene in other countries more aggressively -- and less cooperatively."

Kerry has announced his opposition to Bush's plan. Ironically, the debate over troop withdrawals is largely the reverse of the debate that took place in 1992, when Clinton favored troop reductions as a way to increase the military's flexibility, and Bush Sr. "worried that if America's ties to its allies weakened, the U.S. would be less willing to commit forces in a crisis.

"Now, critics worry that Bush wants to loosen links with allies so they cannot restrain his freedom to use military force when and where he chooses.

"The real argument over Bush's proposal may be less about where American troops are based than how much the U.S. should consult others before sending them into battle."

The Washington Post follows the President's Tuesday visit to Pennsylvania, his 32nd excursion to the state since taking office. Speaking at a Boeing plant, Bush renewed his call for a national missile defense and attacked Kerry for pledging to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

"'I think those who oppose this ballistic missile system don't understand the threats of the 21st century,' he told 1,400 cheering Boeing employees and supporters.

"Standing on a platform flanked by two Chinooks, Bush said foes of the missile system are 'living in the past. We're living in the future. We're going to do what's necessary to protect this country. We say to those tyrants who believe they can blackmail America and the free world: You fire; we're going to shoot it down.'

"Continuing his campaign theme that he can best be trusted in this era of terrorism, Bush said, 'There's more to do to protect this country from the threats of the 21st century. If America shows uncertainty or weakness in this decade, the world will drift towards tragedy. This is not going to happen on my watch.'

"Several demonstrators had earlier gathered at the plant's entrance and at an intersection a mile away. Some carried banners with antiwar slogans; one woman brandished a placard with 'President Bush, you killed my son' written on it.

Anarchists, please go shopping: The New York Post reports that while New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg refuses to let protesters congregate in Central Park, he's perfectly happy to let them hang out at the mall. Faced with the prospect of the convention bringing both unruly demonstrations and a financial bust for New York City, Bloomberg is offering special "Welcome Peaceful Political Activists" discounts to the 200,000 protesters expected to arrive next week.

"'We want to make sure protesters feel welcome here and that they take advantage of all New York City has to offer  It's no fun to protest on an empty stomach,' said the billionaire mayor.

"The discounts -- including deals at certain hotels, restaurants, museums and stores -- are available to anyone who picks up a button at NYC & Co. or visits its Web site, Even anarchists can enjoy saving money as they seek to scuttle America's capitalist system, the mayor admitted.

"'They would still get the discount, even if they're an anarchist,' said the mayor."

Jeff Horwitz

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