ON THE ROAD WITH MULLEN: Parking concerns in Iraq

AP News
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Posted: Dec 19, 2009 2:50 PM

The merchant who buttonholed the top U.S. military officer at a street market on the outskirts of Baghdad wasn't worried about car bombs or infiltrators in suicide vests.

It was the parking.

There isn't enough of it and it's too far away, the man told Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

This ordinary complaint isn't the kind of thing Mullen usually hears. But U.S. officials take that kind of complaint as a good sign. People are only concerned about things such as parking when they can afford to be.

Security barriers and other measures have made parts of the busy market accessible only by foot and pushcart. Suicide bombers stuck the market last May, killing several and wounding the intended target, an Iraqi Army officer.

Further illustration of the improvement in overall security came later Saturday, when Mullen visited Anbar province, the former homebase for al-Qaida in Iraq.

The provincial governor bent Mullen's ear for 10 minutes about the difficulty of getting bank loans and asked Mullen to get the U.S. Navy or some other branch of the U.S. government involved to speed things

up.

Mullen, a Navy officer, politely explained that he doesn't control the banking sector.

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BASRA, Iraq (AP) _ Adm. Mike Mullen visited troops in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the annual holiday entertainment visit arranged by the USO. Entertainers this year include singer Billy Ray Cyrus and tennis player Anna Kournikova.

Taking questions from a group of enlisted soldiers at a base in Basra, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff joked that he might be a disappointing substitute to some of his audience.

"I've got Anna Kournikova down the street and you're here? What's up with that? Mullen quipped.

"How'd you get picked? Did you volunteer?" he asked. Some nodded.

But perhaps the soldiers didn't have much choice.

"Voluntold," might be more accurate, Mullen said with a smile.

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FORWARD OPERATING BASE FRONTENAC, Afghanistan (AP) _ Lt. Col. Jonathan Neumann's battalion has perhaps the highest casualty rate of the Afghanistan war _ 21 dead and 40 wounded between August and November.

That period roughly coincides with the long deliberations in Washington over whether to expand the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, including in the dangerous Kandahar region where Neumann is based.

Neumann said the debate barely resonated with him or his men, thousands of miles away at what he called "the tip of the spear."

"We knew there was debate," but it "almost becomes white noise" when the business of the day is avoiding roadside bombs and finding Taliban weapons caches, Neumann said.

He does welcome the 30,000 reinforcements Obama eventually ordered.