Wednesday, January 14, 2009

State Pensions’ $865 Billion Loss Affects New Workers

State Pensions’ $865 Billion Loss Affects New Workers

By Adam L. Cataldo

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State governments from Rhode Island to California have run up estimated pension-fund losses of $865.1 billion, forcing some to cut benefits for new hires.

Assets for 109 state funds declined 37 percent to $1.46 trillion over the 14 months ended Dec. 16, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index of stocks fell 41 percent in the period.

“Not a whole lot of people get too excited about pension funds,” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said in an interview. “But if you have to pay those costs, they do grab your attention.”

After Philadelphia’s fund lost $650 million in the first nine months of last year, Nutter joined the mayors of Atlanta and Phoenix in writing a letter to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson seeking financial help for U.S. cities. Their November letter cited investment deficits and rising pension costs.

The $865 billion in losses, which exceed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program that Congress approved in October, comes as states face budget deficits totaling $42 billion.

The Boston College center analyzed holdings reported on financial statements from 2006, when the 109 funds had about 20.4 million members. It didn’t specify which of the 218 U.S. state funds it studied.

To return to 2007 actuarial funding levels by 2010, the 109 funds would need annual returns of 52 percent on assets, the analysis found. Annual returns of 18 percent would achieve the goal by 2013, the center said. The projections are based on a 5.7 percent annual increase in liabilities and a $50 billion increase in assets from contributions above annual payouts.

‘Accelerating Complications’

State funds have enough money on hand to pay benefits for the foreseeable future, said Alicia Munnell, the center’s director. “Even if markets recover, this will be a one-time loss that will have to be made up in the future by taxpayers,” she said.

“We can’t make enough on investments to drive out of this hole if all you do is depend on investments,” said Mike Burnside, executive director of the Kentucky Retirement Systems in Frankfort.

As of June 30, Kentucky’s largest fund for state workers held about 52 percent of the assets needed to pay current and future benefits to its 117,000 members. The plan had an unfunded liability of $4.8 billion at that time, while the entire system’s liabilities totaled about $16 billion.

‘Negative Cash Flow’

“When we are experiencing a negative cash flow and we are having to eat capital to make payroll, we are accelerating the complications,” Burnside said.

Increasing taxes to fill the pension gap has little support, said Frank Karpinski, executive director of the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island in Providence.

“I don’t think anybody wants to do that, likes to do that or would say it would be an easy sell anywhere, especially given the current economic situation,” he said.

State and local governments contributed $64.5 billion to pension plans in fiscal 2005-06, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s about 57 percent of the $113.2 billion spent on police and fire services.

Attempts to reduce benefits also face opposition.

“I believe that our members will oppose such initiatives in collective bargaining or in state legislatures,” said John Adler, a director with the Capital Stewardship Program in New York for the Service Employees International Union, which represents public workers. The union’s 850,000 members were in retirement plans with more than $1.5 trillion in assets as of Jan. 1, 2008, Adler said.

Two-Tiered Plans

To cut pension costs, some states are creating two-tiered systems offering less to new hires.

Kentucky lawmakers this year set the state’s first minimum retirement age, 57, for employees hired after Sept. 1, and required 30 years of service, up from 27, to receive full benefits. They capped cost-of-living adjustments, which had been tied to the Consumer Price Index, at 1.5 percent. The system had an unfunded liability of about $16 billion as of June 30, executive director Burnside said.

New York Governor David Paterson, trying to close a $15.4 billion budget gap over 15 months, wants to reduce new workers’ benefits and raise the retirement age to 62 from 55. New York’s pension system was over funded, with assets of $153.9 billion, as of March 30.

‘Weakest Cases’

Of the 109 state funds, 43 were funded at 79 percent or less of estimated current and future costs. Those below 80 percent “constitute the weakest cases,” said Ted Hampton, an analyst with Moody’s Investors Service Inc. in New York. The average level is 85 percent, according to an analysis prepared for a Moody’s report published in July 2008, Hampton said.

A survey of state funds found they owed $2.35 trillion to pension payments over 30 years, a December 2007 report by the Pew Center on the States found.

Company pension funds have also lost assets in the stock- market decline. The value of so-called defined benefit plans fell to $1.2 trillion at Dec. 31 from $1.6 trillion a year earlier, according to Mercer LLC, a New York-based pension consulting unit of Marsh & McLennan Cos.

Last month, after Pfizer Inc., International Business Machines Corp., United Parcel Service Inc. and dozens of other companies said losses could force them to make unexpectedly large contributions, Congress voted to delay provisions of the Pension Protection Act of 2006. The law would have penalized employers that didn’t cover at least 94 percent of their liabilities this year.

Membership Growth

For state plans, which weren’t covered by that mandate, the funding issue is complicated by 12 percent growth in membership since 2002, with 23.1 million now participating, according to census data.

Excluding Social Security, public employers’ pension costs are three times the retirement costs of their private counterparts, according to a June 2008 report by the Washington- based Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Some state retirement systems have seen losses in derivatives as well as stocks. Public pension funds bought more than $500 million in so-called equity tranches of collateralized debt obligations, according to public records compiled by Bloomberg in 2007. CDOs are packages of securities that are backed by bonds, mortgages and other loans. Their equity tranches are considered their riskiest portions.

The Missouri State Employees’ Retirement System invested $25 million in half the equity portion of the BlackRock Senior Income Series 2006 collateralized loan obligation, managed by New York-based BlackRock Inc. Moody’s last month cut ratings on parts of the debt, saying a drop in value of the underlying collateral may cause “an event of default.”

Finding Funds

Chris Rackers, the manager of investment policy and communication for the Missouri fund, didn’t return calls seeking comment.

In Rhode Island, state and local governments were scheduled to make contributions equaling 25 percent of their payroll expenses to retirement plans in 2010, said Karpinski, the executive director. Barring a recovery, the contributions may increase to as much as 30 percent in 2011, he said.

“That is kind of the elephant in the room,” he said. “Where are the funds going to come from to make these kinds of required contributions?”

Economic Rescue Package May Not be Enough, Bernanke Tells Obama

Economic Rescue Package May Not be Enough, Bernanke Tells Obama

By Heather Stewart

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Ben Bernanke, chairman of the US Federal Reserve, has warned Barack Obama to be ready to take fresh action to bail out America's banks if the world economy is to recover.

Speaking at the London School of Economics this lunchtime, Bernanke said the fiscal package planned by the incoming president would provide a "significant boost" to the US economy but the government would need to do more to stabilise the financial system.

"In my view, fiscal actions are unlikely to promote a lasting recovery unless they are accompanied by strong measures to further stabilise and strengthen the financial system," he said.

With the price of many assets still plunging, he said the $250bn programme for recapitalising America's banks might not be enough, and "more capital injections and guarantees may become necessary to ensure stability and the normalisation of credit markets". Options included the Treasury buying toxic assets, or separating them off into a so-called "bad bank".

Bernanke outlined the "toolkit" the Fed has used to unblock the flow of credit to the US economy, but denied that the measures it had taken so far amounted to "quantitative easing", the radical approach taken by the Japanese authorities to pull the economy out of its "lost decade" in the 1990s.

Instead, the chairman coined the term "credit easing" for his approach, which is targeted at specific areas of the economy where funding is short.

Asked when he expected to see an end to the rapid pace of job losses in the US, where more than 500,000 workers were laid off in December, Bernanke said he hoped that by the second half of this year it would be possible to "stop the bleeding", so long as the problems in the credit markets had been resolved.

He promised that even with interest rates now at zero to 0.25%, the Fed still had plenty of ammunition available and would act "aggressively" to promote a global economic recovery.

A New Spin on Iran’s Nuclear Threat

A New Spin on Iran’s Nuclear Threat

By Nader Bagherzadeh

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The neo-cons, some of the reporters from major US newspapers, and a number of nonproliferation experts are now spinning a new story about the potential threat of Iran’s uranium enrichment capability. According to the story, sometime in 2009, Iran will have enough Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) which may then be used as a seed for further refinement to bomb grade level, commonly referred to as High Enriched Uranium (HEU). LEU has the purity of about 5% and is only used to fuel reactors for generating electricity, but HEU has to be enriched to the 90% level and it is only good for bomb making purposes.

This allegation has technical and logical flaws that are not discussed by the highly biased and ignorant US media. Centrifuges at the Natanz facility in Iran are not set up for efficient enrichment to the level of 90%. Pipes have to be redesigned and new connections have to be made to get the cascades ready for efficient refinement to the level of 90% for bomb grade uranium. Moreover, the LEU product is under the strict control of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Any change in the cascades’ configuration or tap into the accumulated LEU would be noticed by the IAEA cameras, sensors and frequent inspections within minutes. The re-piping efforts would take months to finish and the US decision makers would have ample time to get the world community to support drastic measures to stop such illegal activity.

Of course Iran could opt to use the existing cascades without any modifications, by employing batch processing. This is a very inefficient and time consuming method which would also be immediately noticed by the IAEA. Batch processing means taking the 5% product currently stored under the control of the IAEA and run it through the existing cascades one more time. 5% fuel would produce a 20% product, and if the 20% product was used as the feed, it would refine the uranium to the 60% purity level. One additional refinement through the existing setup of the centrifuges with the 60% feed would produce bomb grade fuel at the requisite 90% purity.

The latest unofficial report on the Natanz facility is that currently there are 5000 centrifuges running smoothly without any major technical problems. It is reported that an additional 1000 centrifuges are scheduled to go online sometime in January of 2009. Once all the 6000 units are working, they can enrich about 4-5 Kg of LEU per day. Given that Iran has so far accumulated 700 Kg of LEU. It will have, by April of this year or perhaps even sooner, close to 1000 Kg of LEU. Recall that, in order to produce weapons grade fuel, roughly 30 Kg of LEU are needed to yield about 1 Kg of HEU. A typical uranium bomb has 25 Kg or more of HEU material.

The base of the story spun in the US media is to declare the 1000 Kg LEU milestone as a point of no return for Iran’s enrichment activity. This is an arbitrary and flawed argument, because Natanz is a safeguarded facility and any deviations will be noticed immediately. Let’s assume hypothetically that Iran embarks on an illegal activity and relinquishes its obligations under the current safeguard agreement and initiates illicit enrichment of purifying uranium to the level of 90%. The spin masters are saying that this emboldens Iran to threaten Israel which allegedly has more than 200 nuclear weapons.

Having 1000 Kg of LEU does not increase Iran’s deterrence vis-à-vis hegemony aspirations of Israel in the Middle East. First of all, even if Iran breaks its international agreements under IAEA and produces 25 Kg of HEU, detonating this material, although easier than plutonium, is not an easy task. Moreover, this will be designated as a nuclear device and not a bomb, going from a device which is considered a laboratory prototype to a bomb requires sophisticated technologies that Iran does not have.

Let’s assume that Iran passes all these difficult hurdles and with the help of their talented engineers develop a miniaturized and deliverable bomb, does anyone in the right mind believe that Iran could threaten Israel with their only bomb? Even the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of November 2007 disagrees with the notion that theocratic leaders of Iran take chances with their nuclear aspirations: They are not in the business of committing suicide for the sake of helping the Palestinian people.

The entire negative propaganda machine is making sure that Obama will be tough on Iran and will continue the failed Bush policy of zero enrichment. Iran has made its position clear to all the interlocutors in recent months that have contacted the government directly or indirectly: zero enrichment is not acceptable and is considered a redline position for Iran that they will not cross at any cost.

The team which president-elect Obama has selected for dealing with Iran includes Dennis Ross who has a long history of full support for Israel’s positions in the Middle East. His one-sided position during Clinton’s Arab-Israeli peace process was so noticeable that one Arab observer said “… he listened to what Israel wanted and then tried to sell it to the Arabs.” Iranian politicians are very familiar with Clinton’s team: Indyk, Miller, Kurtzer, and Ross. By selecting such a biased team to negotiate with Iran, Obama has taken the wrong step, giving more ammunition to the hardliners in Iran to torpedo negotiations with these representatives of the US government.

If Obama is serious about engaging Iran to resolve many of the lingering differences between the two governments, two important issues must be tackled. First and foremost, the threat of a military action is an illegal choice and a violation of Article 2 Paragraph 4 of UN Charter. It should not be on the table. A constitutional scholar such as Obama should know that and respect it, but so far in many of their public discussions Obama and Clinton have kept this illegal option on the table to appease Israel. Second, the zero enrichment requirement cannot be the starting point for the negotiations. Instead, how to enforce additional confidence building measures that the IAEA has established for member countries should be the focal point.

Wall Street Robber Barons Ride Again

Wall Street Robber Barons Ride Again

Workers forced to take unpaid vacations

Workers forced to take unpaid vacations

Number of temporarily laid off workers hits 17-year high

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Here's the vacation no one wants, courtesy of the recession: Forced time off without pay.

Financially struggling universities, factories and even hospitals are requiring employees to take unpaid "furloughs" — temporary layoffs that amount to one-time pay cuts for workers and a cost savings for employers. This year, the number of temporarily laid off workers hit a 17-year high.

"If they do it once, I think it's easier for them to try to do it again," said Carrie Swartout, who researches traumatic brain injuries at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Maryland is requiring unpaid time off for 67,000 of its 80,000 employees as it struggles with a budget crisis. The state says the furloughs will save an estimated $34 million during the fiscal year.

State governments, facing lower revenues but stymied by the long process required to cut public sector jobs, are using furloughs as a quick way to trim payrolls. Private-sector businesses — from automakers to small businesses — are shutting down factories and offices as sales drop.

The temporary layoffs are "kind of employment purgatory, but it's better than the alternative," said Carl Van Horn, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University. They're a typical response to decreasing demand in a recession, although this round is slightly worse than past bad recessions, Van Horn said.

Time off, without pay
Of 10.3 million unemployed workers in November, roughly 12 percent were unemployed because of temporary layoffs, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The last time this many workers fell into the category was February 1991, when 1.4 million workers were unemployed because of temporary layoffs. As a proportion of the total work force, workers on temporary layoff are roughly 1 percent, nearly the same now as 17 years ago.

The numbers, based on a Census Bureau survey of households, likely understate temporary layoffs. The survey asks about participants' working hours during the prior week, so a worker who knows he faces a temporary layoff later in the month would not be included.

Swartout, the 28-year-old Maryland researcher, could lose as much as $800 in pay, or nearly 2 percent of her salary, depending on how long she's furloughed. "That's a huge chunk," she said. The timing and duration of the furloughs of non-critical state workers are still unclear, she said, but the loss will mean she'll struggle to make her monthly $500 student loan payment.

At state-funded Winthrop University in South Carolina, workers are being asked to stagger days of unpaid leave as the state's sales tax revenue declines. Professors were told to take nine furlough days without canceling classes or office hours, missing meetings or interfering with any other university responsibility. They are required to take the days before June 30, when the university's fiscal year ends.

Education professor Nakia Pope, 32, calculates that there are 11 days before and after the semester and over spring break when he could take unpaid time, but he and his colleagues would normally work most of those days, preparing materials, grading and writing or doing research.

"Most faculty I know will end up taking few if any of those furlough days off — they'll just go about doing the good jobs they normally do for less money," he said.

"I'm grateful to be working at all, considering I live in the state with the third-highest unemployment in the nation and I think Winthrop is doing the best it can managing the situation it's been given by the state — but it's a mess," said Pope, who said the days off will amount to a 6 percent pay cut. "That's a pretty big hit."

Like other workers facing forced time off, Pope said his family will have to cut its spending.

Extended shutdowns
For factory workers, unpaid time is coming in the form of extended shutdowns as manufacturers try to reduce inventory of everything from aluminum to newsprint to fertilizer.

This month, RV maker Winnebago Industries Inc. said that all its workers, including Chief Executive Bob Olson, would take an unpaid week off during the current quarter, along with a two-week production shutdown during the holidays. 3M Co. said early this month that it had ordered some workers to take vacation or unpaid time for the last two weeks of the year. Computer maker Dell Inc. in November asked employees to consider taking unpaid vacation days during the fourth quarter.

Chrysler, General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. have all extended their annual holiday shutdowns, typically the last two weeks of the year. The moves will idle tens of thousands of workers both at the major automakers and their suppliers. Tire maker Michelin, parts makers BorgWarner Inc. and Gentex Corp. have also announced shutdowns of varying lengths beginning in December and ending in January.

At some companies, the furloughs are a prelude to a permanent layoff.

Trinh Nguyen, 23, was called into a conference room with about 25 other workers in late December at the 75-person Baltimore architecture and design firm where he works. The group was told that they were on a 30-day furlough, starting Dec. 10. "They tried to lighten (it) up as not a termination," said Nguyen, who asked that the company not be named.

As he sees it, most of his co-workers will spend the time hunting for new work. Those who succeed won't qualify for severance payments they would have gotten had they been laid off. That would make the furloughs a way for the company to save money both on paychecks and severance — if workers can find other jobs.

"It's just a harsh situation," he said.

Unions Need Unity

Unions Need Unity

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Oakland, California - Twelve unions met in Washington, DC, last week and announced they're considering rejoining the two labor federations, the American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and Change to Win (CTW), which split apart five years ago. The initiative came from the incoming Obama administration, which told union leaders it didn't relish the idea of dealing with competing union agendas.

Many progressive labor activists greeted the idea with a sigh of relief. "Dividing the labor movement was never a good idea to begin with," said Bill Fletcher, former education director for the AFL-CIO and now director of field services for the American Federation of Government Employees. Fletcher and many others believe that, while US unions have big problems, they can't be cured by division, competing federations or simply changes in structure. Instead, they call for a re-examination of labor's political direction.

Unions are at their lowest point in membership since the 1920s, representing less than 10 percent of the workforce. Obama's election, which they pulled out all the stops to achieve, promises some degree of change from federal policies that have accelerated that decline. The president-elect has appointed potentially the most pro-union labor secretary since the 1930s - Congresswoman Hilda Solis. A potential Congressional majority could pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make union organizing much easier and protect workers from retaliatory firings while they unionize. Obama has promised to sign the bill if Congress passes it.

In industry after industry, the impact of revived unions and growing membership could be enormous. For the first time in US history, for example, unions have gained the strength to organize the rest of the hospital and nursing home industries. That would radically improve the jobs and raise the income of hundreds of thousands of nurses, dietary workers and bed changers, in the same way the CIO and the San Francisco General Strike turned longshoremen from day laborers on the waterfront into some of the country's highest-paid blue-collar workers. An organized health care industry, in alliance with consumers, could finally convince Congress to establish a single-payer system guaranteeing health care to every person in this country.

Yet, while the 12 leaders were sitting down in Washington to discuss unity, the health care division of country's largest union, the Service Employees, may be torn apart in a fight between the union's national leaders and its largest local, United Healthcare West. Such a fratricidal conflict would not only jeopardize hopes for organizing health care workers, but even labor's larger political goals of the Employee Free Choice Act and single-payer health care.

Decisions made by unions often affect workers far beyond their own members. The labor upsurge of the 1930s and 1940s led to national contracts in the auto, steel, longshore and electrical industries, establishing pension and medical benefits, raising wages and forcing the creation of the unemployment insurance and Social Security systems. All workers benefited. And when many master agreements were destroyed in the early 1980s, workers' middle-class lifestyle began to erode everywhere.

Joining the AFL-CIO and CTW back together is a sensible step in marshaling the resources needed to take advantage of the openings presented by a new Obama administration and begin rebuilding what was lost. But that larger sense of responsibility should inspire unions to face a basic question. They cannot rebuild their own strength, much less improve life for all workers, by themselves.

A new direction in labor requires linking unions with other social and economic justice movements. Defending immigrants from raids and helping them win legal status is just as important to the growth of unions as passing the Employee Free Choice Act. Health care reform requires an alliance between health care providers and working class consumers. The communities in which all workers live need real jobs programs and a full employment economy, especially Black and Latino communities. People far beyond unions will help win the Employee Free Choice Act and rebuild the labor movement if it is willing to fight for everyone.

Unions need not just more unity and better organizing techniques, but a vision that will inspire workers. They need to speak directly to workers' desperation over insecure jobs, home foreclosures and falling income, and then lead them into action. As much as Obama has done labor a favor by forcing it to discuss reunification, political calculations in Washington can't be the guide to what is possible. Workers need a movement that fights for what they really need, not what beltway lobbyists say legislators will accept.

In the period of its greatest growth, labor proposed an alternative social vision that inspired people to risk their jobs and homes, and even lives - that society could be organized to ensure social and economic justice for all people. Workers were united by the idea that they could gain enough political power to end poverty, unemployment, racism and discrimination. "Workers are looking for answers," Fletcher says. "Without them we'll get further despair. What we need instead is to organize for an alternative."

Israel’s war on Gaza and the role of the Middle East ruling elites

Israel’s war on Gaza and the role of the Middle East ruling elites

By Jean Shaoul

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As people all over the world react with shock and anger to Israel's genocidal offensive against defenceless Palestinians in Gaza, it is important to review the factors that have enabled this blitzkrieg to occur.

Firstly, the Israeli government has the unconditional support of the United States, which has for decades provided Israel with the military, economic and diplomatic backing necessary to carry out its role as US policeman in the region and to pursue its own geopolitical agenda.

Secondly, the European powers have provided crucial cover by justifying Israel's war crimes as legitimate acts of self defence and are working to secure a cease-fire acceptable to Washington and Tel Aviv that will involve Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the US puppet regime of Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority (PA) policing Gaza.

But this points to a third crucial factor whose political significance in the catastrophe that has befallen the Palestinians has long been underplayed: the role of the bourgeoisie in the Middle East.

The ruling elites have not only failed to come to the aid of the Palestinians, but have supported Israel's actions and worked strenuously to demobilise the widespread opposition within their own countries.

In 1979, Egypt, the most populous and powerful Arab state, was the first to openly abandon the Palestinians and make peace with Israel and thereby the US. While Egypt was initially ostracised by its neighbours, today it

Israelis 'push on into Gaza City'

Israelis 'push on into Gaza City'

Israeli troops have entered the suburbs of Gaza City and are engaged in street fighting with militants, reports say

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Witnesses said Israeli special forces had advanced several hundred metres into several neighbourhoods and that intense gunfire could be heard.

Earlier, Israeli planes attacked more targets in Gaza as Israel's offensive against Hamas entered an 18th day.

A UN watchdog meanwhile accused Israel of showing a "manifest disrespect" for the protection of children in Gaza.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said more than 40% of those killed in Gaza were women or children, even though the Israeli government had signed a UN protocol condemning attacks on places where children were likely to be present.

The attacks would have a severe emotional and psychological effect on an entire generation of children in Gaza, it added.

A Palestinian human rights group earlier said more than 90,000 people had fled their homes during the conflict.

Palestinian medical officials say more than 40 people were killed on Tuesday, and that the emergency services have been unable to reach many of the areas targeted by the Israeli military.

They say that since the offensive began on 27 December, 971 people have been killed in Gaza - of whom 311 were children and 76 were women - and more than 4,400 people have been injured.

Thirteen Israelis have died, three of them civilians, Israel says.

Despite the Israeli offensive, militants in Gaza have kept up rocket attacks on southern Israel. The Israeli army said on Tuesday that 25 mortars and rockets had been fired out of Gaza and that Israeli war planes had carried out more than 50 air strikes since the morning.

Israel says it will not call off its offensive until it has stopped the rocket attacks and prevented arms being smuggled into Gaza.

Talat Jad, a resident of the Gaza City suburb of Tal al-Hawa, said he and 15 members of his family had gathered in one room of their house, too frightened to look out of the window.

"We even silenced our mobile phones because we were afraid the soldiers in the tanks could hear them," he said.

Analysts say Israel may be holding back from all-out urban warfare in Gaza City.

Intense street fighting could complicate truce efforts and cause heavy casualties on both sides, which they say would be a politically risky move less than a month before Israel's parliamentary election.

Diplomatic efforts to achieve a ceasefire are continuing in Cairo, where Egyptian mediators are pressing Hamas - which controls the Gaza Strip - to accept a truce proposal.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also made an unannounced visit on Tuesday to Saudi Arabia, where he discussed the situation with King Abdullah.

The BBC's Magdi Abdelhadi in Cairo says the meeting indicates that Egypt is seeking Saudi Arabia's help in persuading Hamas to accept a ceasefire.

Earlier, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said any agreement would have to entail a halt to Israeli attacks, a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces and the opening of border crossings to end the blockade of Gaza.

However, the Israeli foreign ministry said there was no guarantee that Hamas would respect any ceasefire agreement.

Hospital visit

Earlier, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jakob Kellenberger, visited Gaza to see the humanitarian situation for himself.

Speaking on a tour of Gaza's main hospital, Mr Kellenberger said he had been saddened by what he had witnessed.

"I wanted to see this hospital and I can only say this is really very sad and it hurts a lot when you see what I've just seen," he said.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the military operation would continue in order to stop Hamas rockets being fired into Israel and to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza.

"We are working towards those two goals while at the same time keeping an eye on the diplomatic initiatives," he said during a tour of an Israeli air force base.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of trying to "wipe out" his people.

"This is the 18th day of the Israeli aggression against our people, which has become more ferocious each day as the number of victims rises," he said.

"Israel is keeping up this aggression to wipe out our people over there."

US Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton said in her Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday that the Obama administration would make "every effort" to forge Israeli-Palestinian peace.

"The president-elect and I understand and are deeply sympathetic to Israel's desire to defend itself under the current conditions, and to be free of shelling by Hamas rockets," she said.

"However, we have also been reminded of the tragic humanitarian costs of conflict in the Middle East and pained by the suffering of Palestinian and Israeli civilians."

The Al-Mizan Centre for Human Rights, a Palestinian group, said that more than 90,000 people had abandoned their homes to escape the Israeli bombardment.

About 31,000 of them were staying at UN-run schools in Gaza City, which were full, and in the Jabaliya and Shati refugee camps, the group said. The other 60,000 are staying with neighbours and relatives.

UN mission

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is due in the region on Wednesday for talks to try to end the fighting.

Mr Ban said too many people had died and that there had been too much civilian suffering.

His diplomatic tour will include meetings with the leaders of Egypt, Israel and Syria, as well as with Mr Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

However, UN officials say he will not be meeting representatives of Hamas, and it is not clear whether he will go to Gaza itself during his week-long trip.

Both Hamas and Israel rejected last week's UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Israel is preventing international journalists from entering Gaza, making it impossible to independently to confirm casualty figures.

Israeli military escalates assault on Gaza City

Israeli military escalates assault on Gaza City

By Bill Van Auken

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With the death toll in Gaza rapidly approaching 1,000, and with nearly 4,500 others wounded, roughly half of them civilians, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are poised to launch a murderous assault on the most heavily populated urban neighborhoods of Gaza City.

Reporters from Al Jazeera, one of the only international networks reporting from inside Gaza, said that heavy fighting had broken out Tuesday in the Tal al-Hawa neighborhood in the south of Gaza City, while clashes were also reported in Beit Lahiya in the north and Kham Younis in the east. The impoverished urban area remains encircled by Israeli tanks, while warships sail off its coast and F-16 fighter planes carry out continuous bombardments.

In the southern city of Rafah, on the Egyptian border, Israeli jets have carried out intensive bombing, including with US-supplied "bunker-buster" bombs designed to destroy underground tunnels that have provided an alternative lifeline for the Palestinian population under conditions of the Israeli economic blockade of the territory.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee the town, and now armor and bulldozers are being used to demolish their homes.

"A large part of Rafah has been completely reduced to rubble...it has been described as hell on earth by some of the witnesses we have met," Ayman Mohyeldin, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza reported.

Meanwhile, Amira Hass, a reporter for the Israeli daily Haaretz, reported that significant numbers of Palestinians in farming areas in Gaza remain trapped in their homes surrounded by Israeli forces that have taken up positions there. "IDF troops surrounding the enclaves shoot at anyone who tries to leave," she reported, and those compelled to remain inside, including the wounded, sick and elderly, are running out of food, water and medicine.

On Tuesday night, as air strikes intensified, two Palestinian children were reported killed in the bombing of a house east of the town Jabaliya in the northern Gaza Strip.

A senior Israeli military official told the Times of London that "Israeli troops in Gaza had been ordered to engage with maximum force over the past 24 hours." Israeli reservists have been poured into the territory to take over areas already occupied and free up regular forces for the intensified assault.

The so-called "third phase" of the Israeli onslaught is now being set into motion, according to well-known Israeli commentator Alex Fishman of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. "The Israel Defence Forces will enter, with great force, with tens of thousands of soldiers, into the heart of the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip," he wrote Monday. "There will no longer be strikes at the margins from the ground and destruction from the air. Now we are talking about armoured divisions that will not leave a single stone standing on their way into the refugee camps and into the heart of one of the most crowded cities on Earth."

In other words, the greatest bloodshed is still to come.

International condemnation of the Israeli offensive has continued to mount. On Monday, the United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution charging Israel with grave human rights violations and calling for the formation of a fact-finding mission. The resolution passed by a vote of 33-1—with 13 Western countries abstaining.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a statement Tuesday warning that the 18-day-old Israeli assault on Gaza was having a "devastating" effect on children living in the territory, 311 of whom have been killed, according to medical authorities.

"Children have also experienced serious difficulties in accessing humanitarian aid. The emotional and psychological effects of these events on an entire generation of children will be severe," the UN panel states. It called upon Israel to stop its violations of international law, including "the targeting of children in situations of armed conflict and direct attacks on objects protected under international law, including places that generally have a significant presence of children, such as schools and hospitals."

Christer Zettergren, the secretary-general of the Swedish Red Cross, an organization that normally avoids direct criticism of parties to armed conflicts, charged Tuesday that the Israeli forces had attacked seven ambulances operated by the Red Crescent in Gaza last week. He described the shelling of the emergency medical crews as "very deliberate."

And the chief European Union aid official Tuesday condemned Israel for violations of international law and the use of "totally disproportionate" force in attacking Gaza.

"One simple fact, acknowledged and denounced by established experts in the field, is that Israel is not respecting international humanitarian law," EU Aid Commissioner Louis Michel told the Belgian newspaper La Libre Belgique. "The first obligation is that an occupying power must preserve the lives of the population, protect them, feed them and care for them. That is manifestly not the case here.... I can't accept it."

Israeli officials, however, showed no sign of bowing to such criticism. They have enjoyed relative impunity in conducting the murderous operation against Gaza largely because of the open support of Washington and the tacit acceptance of the major European powers.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed to strike Gaza with an "iron fist."

"We will continue for as much time as is necessary in order to remove this threat," he said Monday. "We cannot be soft. It is us or them.... We will continue striking with all our might, with all our power, until there is quiet."

Israeli military commander General Gabi Ashkenazi told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israeli troops had inflicted major damage on Hamas in Gaza, but "we still have work to do."

And Mark Regev, the Israeli government spokesman, asserted that Hamas was enduring "serious punishment" and Israel was "advancing towards the endgame."

What precisely that "endgame" consists of is far from evident. Indeed, the lack of any apparent strategic objectives in the Gaza operation has created increasing disquiet among Israel's erstwhile supporters.

Thus, Anthony Cordesman, the chief military analyst for the US establishment think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote on January 9: "The growing human tragedy in Gaza is steadily raising more serious questions as to whether the kind of tactical gains that Israel now reports are worth the suffering involved."

Citing the massive destruction and humanitarian catastrophe as "a legacy of greatly increased suffering for the 1.5 million people who will survive the current conflict," and pointing to the mounting outrage against Israel and the US throughout the Arab and Muslim world, Cordesman continues:

"This raises a question that every Israeli and its supporters now needs to ask. What is the strategic purpose behind the present fighting?... Has Israel somehow blundered into a steadily escalating war without a clear strategic goal or at least one it can credibly achieve? Will Israel end in empowering an enemy in political terms that it defeated in tactical terms? Will Israel's actions seriously damage the US position in the region, any hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab regimes and voices in the process? To be blunt, the answer so far seems to be yes....

"If Israel has a credible ceasefire plan that could really secure Gaza, it is not apparent. If Israel has a plan that could credibly destroy and replace Hamas, it is not apparent. If Israel has any plan to help the Gazans and move them back towards peace, it is not apparent. If Israel has any plan to use US or other friendly influence productively, it not apparent."

Cordesman concludes that the Israeli leadership have "disgraced themselves and damaged their country and their friends."

Indeed, as the massacre in Gaza continues to unfold and deepen, it has become increasingly apparent that the aim of Israel's military operation is not to halt the largely ineffectual Hamas rocket attacks, which have in any case continued. Nor, as Cordesman makes clear, is it harnessed to any coherent or realistic political strategy for changing the political status quo in the region.

There is the irrational conception, shared by the leading elements within the US political establishment, that somehow by killing and wounding thousands of Palestinian civilians Israel will succeed in turning the population against Hamas and secure greater support for a pro-Israeli regime in the occupied territories.

In Washington, this is supplemented with the ideological thesis that in attacking Hamas, Israel is waging a war against "extremism" and "terrorism" as well as Iranian influence, and that its action will strengthen "moderates" and US interests. In reality, the war has aroused massive popular hostility throughout the Middle East, not only against Israel but even more so against the so-called "moderates"—i.e., the motley collection of police states and royal families backed by US imperialism in the region.

There is also the idea, repeated frequently in the Israeli press, that the war on Gaza was a necessary means of refurbishing the reputation of the IDF after the humiliating defeat it suffered in its invasion of southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006. According to this argument, unleashing massive military force against a largely defenseless and imprisoned population will reaffirm Israeli military prowess against any potential foe.

There is in all of these arguments a striking level of irrationality and moral degeneration that increasingly characterizes the political atmosphere inside Israel.

This is taking increasingly demented and dangerous forms, not only in the slaughter in Gaza, but within Israel itself.

Thus, just as the IDF was ordered to dramatically intensify the assault on Gaza, on Monday Israel’s Elections Committee voted to ban the United Arab List and Balad, from participating in the February 10 elections. The parties, both of which have members in the Knesset and which enjoy support from Palestinian citizens of Israel, were deemed unfit to run for office because they had supposedly violated Israeli constitutional proscriptions against challenging Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. The grounds for this charge was the participation of the parties’ leaders in the mass demonstrations by Palestinians inside Israel against the war on Gaza.

The Kadima and Labor parties, which make up the ruling coalition government, voted in favor of the ban, which was proposed by the extreme right-wing Beitenu and National Union parties, both of which stand for the removal of Israel’s Arab population.

Ironically, the last party to be subjected to such a ban was the Kach party of ultra-rightist Meir Kahane, whose advocacy of the "transfer" of the Israeli Palestinians—now 20 percent of the population—was deemed racist. Today, this same policy is being increasingly accepted in one form or another by much of the Israeli political establishment.

Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who led the fight to ban the two parties, delivered a speech Tuesday at Bar-Ilan University suggesting that the solution to the Israel's problem in Gaza lies in a nuclear strike.

"We must continue to fight Hamas just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II," he said. "Then too, the occupation of the country was unnecessary." The surrender of Japan in 1945 followed the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

While the media has reported overwhelming popular support for the war in Israel, this is another manifestation of the political blind alley confronting the entire Zionist project. What dominates is the sharp turn to the right by the entire political establishment and the intimidation and demoralization of those elements who had previously criticized Israeli aggression.

Within this environment, there are expressions of growing disquiet and opposition.

"Israel has created an image of itself as a madman that has lost it," commented Haaretz reporter Yossi Melman.

And, in an article entitled "For the sake of the children," two Israeli writers, Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, issued an impassioned plea for a halt to IDF operations that are killing the children of Gaza.

The two commented: "Just a few years ago, any surgical strike that killed innocent neighbors stirred a public debate. This past week, hundreds of civilians were killed in Air Force strikes and no hint of doubt emerged. It appears as though the consensus slowly crawled in a direction that enables us to accept, relatively easily, all those things that a few years ago we were not able to digest. The big question is why: Has the threat to our existence grown so much, or perhaps we just became more frustrated and indifferent?"

Hamas popularity growing amid Gaza ruins (video)

Hamas popularity growing amid Gaza ruins

Since the beginning its offensive in the Gaza Strip, Israel has repeatedly declared it will decimate what it calls the "Hamas terrorist machine".

However, as Israel's bombardment continues, the appeal of Hamas in the Arab world appears to be growing.

Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra reports on how the war could be helping the popularity of Hamas to grow.

The Language of Death

The Language of Death

By Chris Hedges

Go To Original

The incursion into Gaza is not about destroying Hamas. It is not about stopping rocket fire into Israel. It is not about achieving peace. The Israeli decision to rain death and destruction on Gaza, to use the lethal weapons of the modern battlefield on a largely defenseless civilian population, is the final phase of the decades-long campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestinians. The assault on Gaza is about creating squalid, lawless and impoverished ghettos where life for Palestinians will be barely sustainable. It is about building ringed Palestinian enclaves where Israel will always have the ability to shut off movement, food, medicine and goods to perpetuate misery. The Israeli attack on Gaza is about building a hell on earth.

This attack is the final Israeli push to extinguish a Palestinian state and crush or expel the Palestinian people. The images of dead Palestinian children, lined up as if asleep on the floor of the main hospital in Gaza, are a metaphor for the future. Israel will, from now on, speak to the Palestinians in the language of death. And the language of death is all the Palestinians will be able to speak back. The slaughter—let’s stop pretending this is a war—is empowering an array of radical Islamists inside and outside of Gaza. It is ominously demolishing the shaky foundations of the corrupt secular Arab regimes on Israel’s borders, from Egypt to Jordan to Syria to Lebanon. It is about creating a new Middle East, one ruled by enraged Islamic radicals.

Hamas cannot lose this conflict. Militant movements feed off martyrs, and Israel is delivering the maimed and the dead by the truckload. Hamas fighters, armed with little more than light weapons, a few rockets and small mortars, are battling one of the most sophisticated military machines on the planet. And the determined resistance by these doomed fighters exposes, throughout the Arab world, the gutlessness of dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who refuses to open Egypt’s common border with Gaza despite the slaughter. Israel, when it bombed Lebanon two years ago, sought to destroy Hezbollah. By the time it withdrew it had swelled Hezbollah’s power base and handed it heroic status throughout the Arab world. Israel is now doing the same for Hamas.

The refusal by political leaders from Barack Obama to nearly every member of the U.S. Congress to speak out in the major media in defense of the rule of law and fundamental human rights exposes our cowardice and hypocrisy. Those who openly condemn the Israeli crimes, including Israelis such as Yuri Avnery, Tom Segev, Ilan Pappe, Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, as well as American stalwarts Noam Chomsky, Dennis Kucinich, Norman Finkelstein and Richard Falk, are ignored or treated like lepers. They are denied a platform in the press. They are rendered nearly voiceless. Falk, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied territories and a former professor of international law at Princeton, was refused entry into Israel in December, detained for 20 hours and deported. Never mind that nearly all these voices are Jewish.

I called Avnery at his home in Israel. He is Israel’s conscience. Avnery was born in Germany. He moved to Palestine as a young boy with his parents. He left school at the age of 14 and a year later joined the underground paramilitary group known as the Irgun. Four years afterward, disgusted with its use of violence, he walked away from the clandestine organization, which carried out armed attacks on British occupation authorities and Arabs. “You can’t talk to me about terrorism, I was a terrorist,” he says when confronted with his persistent calls for peace with the Palestinians. Avnery was a fighter in the Samson’s Foxes commando unit during the 1948 war. He wrote the elite unit’s anthem. He became, after the war, a force for left-wing politics in Israel and one of the country’s most prominent journalists, running the alternative HaOlam HaZeh magazine. He served in the Israeli Knesset. During the 1982 siege of Beirut he met, in open defiance of Israeli law, with PLO leader Yasser Arafat. He has joined Arab protesters in Israel the past few days and denounces what he calls Israel’s “instinct of using force” with the Palestinians and the “moral insanity” of the attack on Gaza. Avnery, now 85, was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in 1975 by an Israeli opponent, and in 2006 the right-wing activist Baruch Marzel called on the Israeli military to carry out a targeted assassination of Avnery.

“The state of Israel, like any other state,” Avnery said, “cannot tolerate having its citizens shelled, bombed or rocketed, but there has been no thought as to how to solve the problem through political means or to analyze where this phenomenon has come from, what has caused it. Israelis, as a whole, cannot put themselves in the shoes of others. We are too self-centered. We cannot stand in the shoes of Palestinians or Arabs to ask how we would react in the same situation. Sometimes, very rarely, it happens. Years ago when Ehud Barak was asked how he would behave if were a Palestinian, he said, ‘I would join a terrorist organization.’ If you do not understand Hamas, if you do not understand why Hamas does what it does, if you don’t understand Palestinians, you take recourse in brute force.”

The public debate about the Gaza attack engages in the absurd pretense that it is Israel, not the Palestinians, whose security and dignity are being threatened. This blind defense of Israeli brutality toward the Palestinians betrays the memory of those killed in other genocides, from the Holocaust to Cambodia to Rwanda to Bosnia. The lesson of the Holocaust is not that Jews are special. It is not that Jews are unique. It is not that Jews are eternal victims. The lesson of the Holocaust is that when you have the capacity to halt genocide, and you do not—no matter who carries out that genocide or who it is directed against—you are culpable. And we are very culpable. The F-16 jet fighters, the Apache attack helicopters, the 250-pound “smart” GBU-39 bombs are all part of the annual $2.4 billion in military aid the U.S. gives to Israel. Palestinians are being slaughtered with American-made weapons. They are being slaughtered by an Israeli military we lavishly bankroll. But perhaps our callous indifference to human suffering is to be expected. We, after all, kill women and children on an even vaster scale in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bloody hands of Israel mirror our own.

There will be more dead Palestinian children. There will be more cases like that of the U.N. school, used as a sanctuary by terrified families, that was blown to bits by Israeli shells, with more than 40 killed, half of them women and children. There will be more emaciated, orphaned children. There will be more screaming or comatose wounded in the corridors of Gaza’s glutted hospital corridors. And there will be more absurd news reports, like the one on the front page of the Sunday New York Times, titled “A Gaza War Full of Traps and Trickery.” In this story, unnamed Israeli intelligence officials gave us a spin on the war worthy of the White House fabrications made on the eve of the Iraq war. We learned about the perfidious and dirty tactics of Hamas fighters. Foreign journalists, barred from Gaza and unable to check the veracity of the Israeli version of the war, have abandoned their trade as reporters to become stenographers. The cynicism of conveying propaganda as truth, as long as it is well sourced, is the poison of American journalism. If this is all journalism has become, if moral outrage, the courage to defy the powerful, the commitment to tell the truth and to give a voice to those who without us would have no voice, no longer matters, our journalism schools should focus exclusively on shorthand. It seems to be the skill most ardently coveted by most senior editors and news producers.

There have always been powerful Israeli leaders, since the inception of the state in 1948, who have called for the total physical removal of the Palestinians. The ethnic cleansing of some 800,000 Palestinians by Jewish militias in 1948 was, for them, only the start. But there were also a few Israeli leaders, including the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who argued that Israel could not pick itself up and move to another geographical spot on the globe. Israel, Rabin believed, would have to make peace with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors to survive. Rabin’s vision of two states, however, appears to have died with him. The embrace of wholesale ethnic cleansing by the Israeli leadership and military now appears to be unquestioned.

“It seems,” the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe wrote recently, “that even the most horrendous crimes, such as the genocide in Gaza, are treated as discrete events, unconnected to anything that happened in the past and not associated with any ideology or system. ... Very much as the apartheid ideology explained the oppressive policies of the South African government, this ideology—in its most consensual and simplistic variety—has allowed all the Israeli governments in the past and the present to dehumanize the Palestinians wherever they are and strive to destroy them. The means altered from period to period, from location to location, as did the narrative covering up these atrocities. But there is a clear pattern [of genocide]. …”

Gaza has descended into chaos. Hamas, which despite Israeli propaganda has never mustered the sustained resistance Hezbollah carried out during the Israeli incursion into southern Lebanon, will be ruled in the future by antagonistic bands of warlords, clans and mafias. Gaza will resemble Somalia. And out of that power vacuum will rise a new generation of angry jihadists, many of whom may spurn Hamas for more radical organizations. Al-Qaida, which has been working to gain a foothold in Gaza, may now have found its opening.

“Hamas will win the war, no matter what happens,” Avnery said. “They will be considered by hundreds of millions of Arabs heroes who have recovered the dignity and pride of Arab nations. If at the end of the war they are still standing in Gaza this will be a huge victory for them, to hold out against this huge Israeli army and firepower will be an incredible achievement. They will gain even more than Hezbollah did during the last war.”

Israel operates under the illusion that it can crush Hamas and install a quisling Palestinian government in Gaza and the West Bank. This puppet government will be led, Israel believes, by the discredited Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, now cowering in the West Bank after being driven out of Gaza. Abbas, like most of the corrupt Fatah leadership, is a detested figure. He is dismissed as the Marshal Pétain of the Palestinian people, or perhaps the Hamid Karzai or the Nouri al-Maliki. He is as loathed as he is powerless.

Israel’s destruction of Hamas and reoccupation of Gaza will not bring peace or security to Israel. It will merely obliterate the only internal organization with enough stature and authority in Gaza to maintain order. The Israeli assault, by destroying Hamas as a governing force, has opened a Pandora’s box of ills. Life will become a nightmare for most Palestinians and, in the years ahead, for most Israelis.

How American News Media Works In Favor Of Israel Video

How American News Media Works In Favor Of Israel

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Part 2

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Army suicides rise as time spent in combat increases

Army suicides rise as time spent in combat increases

By Gregg Zoroya

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Josh Barber, former combat soldier, parked outside the Army hospital here one morning last August armed for war.

A cook at the dining facility, Barber sat in his truck wearing battle fatigues, earplugs and a camouflage hood on his head. He had an arsenal: seven loaded guns, nearly 1,000 rounds of ammunition, knives in his pockets. On the front seat, an AK-47 had a bullet in the chamber.

The "smell of death" he experienced in Iraq continued to haunt him, his wife says. He was embittered about the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that crippled him, the Army's failure to treat it, and the strains the disorder put on his marriage.

Despite the firepower he brought with him, Barber, 31, took only one life that day. He killed himself with a shot to the head.

"He went to Fort Lewis to kill himself to prove a point," Kelly Barber says. " 'Here I am. I was a soldier. You guys didn't help me.' "

For two days, a surveillance camera recorded the truck sitting in the Madigan Army Medical Center parking lot. Inside the truck, the body lay undisturbed.

If Josh Barber wanted his suicide to make a statement, no one seemed to notice.

Barber's suicide is part of a larger story — the record number of soldiers, Marines and combat veterans who have killed themselves in recent years, at a time when the Pentagon has stretched deployments for combat troops to meet President Bush's security plans in Iraq. The Marine Corps reported 41 actual or suspected suicides in 2008, a 20% increase over 33 in 2007. In 2007, the Army counted 115 suicides, the most since tracking began in 1980. By October 2008, that record had been surpassed with 117 soldier suicides. Final numbers for 2008 have not been released.

Suicides among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans doubled from 52 in 2004 to 110 in 2006, the latest statistics available, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

And the suicide rate among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is outpacing the rate among civilians, a disturbing trend because the military screens troops for mental health issues and servicemembers typically are healthier than civilians, says Han Kang, a VA epidemiologist.

"Cases like Sgt. Barber's are heartbreaking and my thoughts and prayers are with his family at this difficult time," says Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who has focused on military suicides as an issue and whose staff assisted Kelly Barber through her ordeal.

She says a cultural shift is needed in mental health care to expand outreach and de-stigmatize treatment for servicemembers and veterans.

"These problems can't be solved overnight," Murray says. "There is much more that needs to be done."

Josh Barber's wife shared his medical records with USA TODAY to provide a cautionary story about a soldier forced out of the service despite psychological illnesses caused by war.

"My husband fell through the cracks," Kelly Barber says, adding that she also is haunted by the idea that she could have done more to save him. "My husband's death shouldn't go in vain."

From cook to gunner

A large, jovial man who loved food and the outdoors, Josh Barber grew up in Traverse City, Mich. The youngest of two children, his parents divorced when he was in grade school.

Barber became engaged to Kelly Watson, the sister of his best friend, in 1997. He earned a high school equivalency degree before enlisting in the Army in 1999, and considered a career in the Army. But he changed his mind after serving in Iraq.He and Kelly married after his Army basic training and before he began attending cook school.

Barber had no history of mental health problems before enlisting, says his VA doctor, Lisa Olsen. His biggest problem was keeping his weight to service standards.

The Army's assignment to cook school led Barber to a job in which he excelled. His grill work was second to none — whipping up omelets and burgers to taste, always recalling a customer's favorite style of eggs, according to comments on his memorial page.

He took a job, Olsen notes, that was devoted to serving and feeding other soldiers. "He probably never suspected that he would be called on to serve in a combat role," she wrote in a letter to Kelly Barber, now 40, after his death.

But then, in 2003, the United States invaded Iraq.

When he arrived in Iraq in October 2004, contractors did the cooking. Barber was made a gunner on a Humvee. He stenciled a skull insignia from his favorite punk rock band, Misfits, onto his .50-caliber machine gun, and ran convoys. He worked base security along the Syrian border and manned an observation post near Fallujah during fighting there.

His only joy, Olsen says, were the care packages from Kelly Barber stuffed with beef jerky and jars of Jif peanut butter.

On Dec. 21, 2004, in Mosul, a suicide bomber detonated explosives in a mess tent, killing 22, including 14 soldiers. Barber stood guard over the carnage. He would never forget the "smell of death," he later told Kelly.

The shock of the blast affected others, including Army Gen. Carter Ham, who arrived at the scene 20 minutes after the attack. Ham told USA TODAY the incident contributed to the combat stress he developed afterward.

"There's things that go on over there you'd never believe," Barber told one of his best friends, Justin Haelle, during a trip home in 2005, "things I'll never be able to tell Kelly about."

Diagnosed with depression

Barber earned a combat action badge for fighting in Iraq. When he rotated home in September 2005, he filled out a health survey saying he had seen Americans and insurgents killed and wounded, had fired his weapon in combat and feared for his life. He admitted feeling numb and detached from others.

Barber left active duty in 2006 for the Army Reserve. Now a civilian, he got a job as a temporary cook in the dining facility at Madigan Army Medical Center here at Fort Lewis, about 40 miles south of Seattle.

Shortly after coming home, he went deer hunting in Michigan with his father, Dennis, something both had happily anticipated after Josh Barber's long absence.

But the son didn't kill anything that day. Later he told friends that he never even loaded his rifle while walking the brush.

One night during that hunting trip, the sound of gunfire woke Dennis Barber. He found his son, who had been drinking, blasting away at a paper target out in the darkness.

"What the hell are you doing?" he says he asked. Josh Barber stopped shooting and eventually went to bed.

Dennis Barber now wonders about that night.

"The armed forces can train you to do things you normally wouldn't do," he says of his son's experience. "But they've never been able to train people how to forget."

Barber's military records show he was forced out of the Reserve after a diagnosis of depression that was listed as "non-duty related." The Army provided no clarification on this issue. His plea to be retained and transferred into one of the newly created Warrior Transition Units for psychological care went unanswered, Kelly Barber says.

"The once smiling, happy man I knew is now quiet and depressed, reliving the events he experienced in Iraq today and full of guilt," she wrote in a 2006 letter to the VA. "He has had to face many demons."

About that same time, VA counselors diagnosed him with combat-related PTSD.

Classic symptoms were emerging, according to his medical records. Barber suffered nightmares filled with combat and explosions. He had flashbacks marked by moments when he simply seemed to be deep in thought, often while drinking vodka.

"He feels quieter and more isolated and feels somewhat less of a nice guy than he did before he deployed," counseling notes say.

Life was unraveling in different ways. It took more than seven months for the VA to re-evaluate his wartime disability and grant him benefits. At work, he struggled to be retained as a permanent employee and promoted. He was reprimanded for his anger, according to his records.

By this spring, Kelly Barber was working 52 hours a week at two hospital clerical jobs.

Josh Barber was drinking more, an increasing area of friction. The strain on the marriage was evident. Kelly Barber would find her husband crying in his sleep. He awoke from nightmares covered in sweat, his heart racing. His moods would alternate between feelings of apathy and moments of tearful reactions to small things, medical records show.

It was unclear whether Barber continued to take his anti-depression medication.

During one conversation about his drinking, Barber blurted out that he was afraid of going to hell for killing an innocent Iraqi in the war. Barber told his wife that if it wasn't for her, he would have committed suicide long ago.

Kelly Barber says she told him they would work through his problems.

When she awoke early on Aug. 24, Josh Barber was drinking vodka in front of the TV. Kelly Barber said she yelled at him for the first time.

"I said, 'If you continue to drink like this, I don't know how much more I can take,' " she recalls.

She now agonizes over that memory every day. "Did I give him an ultimatum?"

He vanished that night with his guns and ammunition in the Ford F-150 that Kelly Barber gave him as a coming-home gift from Iraq.

He left a note: "I love you. Please do not blame yourself. Sorry."

The search for answers

Army Col. Ronald Place, acting hospital director on the day Josh died, said "the whole family at Madigan Army Medical Center has suffered a lot with Mr. Barber's suicide."

Place said identifying and treating psychologically wounded soldiers has improved since Barber left the Army, but more needs to be done.

"This young man served honorably in combat for 12 months," Place says. "We're still looking at how could we have potentially helped this civilian employee."

One problem is a failure to seek help, Place says. Barber showed signs of anxiety, anger and detachment from others in a Fort Lewis questionnaire filled out in November 2005. But he did not request any counseling, according to the document provided to USA TODAY.

A leading suspect in the rise of suicides are the long and multiple combat deployments — not as a direct cause, but as a leading factor behind the stresses and family divisions that result, says Col. Carl Castro, an Army psychologist and suicide researcher.

The historic causes of suicide are hopelessness borne of stress, failed relationships and legal and financial problems, he says.

Soldiers have been required to serve multiple 12- to 15-month combat tours, with short periods of rest in between. More than 60% of soldiers who killed themselves in 2008 were, or had been, deployed, figures show.

"So the question becomes, 'Well, what could be affecting those factors in making them higher? And that's really where we then start looking at frequent and long deployments," Castro says.

Surveys of troops reveal that mental health can fray after six or seven months of war, Castro says. "You start seeing huge differences in terms of depression scores, PTSD rates, all sorts of mental health issues," he says. "And I think it has to do with the separation from family and friends and that social support network."

To find answers, the Army joined with the National Institute of Mental Health in October seeking proposals for a $50 million study. It will track a cross-section of soldiers over years, sifting for clues about signs of self-destruction and also evidence of resilience, says Robert Heinssen, project officer.

The hope is for initial results in a year, he said. "We're trying to work it so we get as fast a start-up as possible because soldiers are dying. We feel that urgency."

Still reeling from twin blows of Josh Barber's suicide and his heavily armed appearance at Fort Lewis, his family and friends struggle to make sense of it. "Every time he turned around, he felt like he was getting slapped in the face," his friend Haelle says.

A memorial service with military honors will be held for Barber on March 6, at Sarasota National Cemetery in Sarasota, Fla.

"Everybody wants to know why," his father Dennis Barber says. "Why did you have all that ammunition? What was he going to do out there, have a stand-off? I don't think so. But then again, when people snap, you never know what you're going to do.

"Josh took that (answer) with him," Dennis Barber says.