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by Jim Lobe

Where Was The Louisiana Guard? Oh, Right - Iraq (2005)

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Increasingly isolated by his dogged opposition to a timetable for withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq, Bush will travel to the site of a deadly tornado in Kansas Wednesday, in part to rebut charges that relief operations there were hampered by shortages of equipment that had been shipped to Iraq.

In an echo of the Katrina hurricane disaster that devastated New Orleans -- and Bush's approval ratings -- in August 2005, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and several senior National Guard officers have charged that the deployment of key equipment, notably tractor-trailers that can bring heavy equipment to the site, to Iraq has slowed the state's response to the tornado that destroyed the prairie town of Greensburg last Friday night.

"Fifty percent of our trucks are gone, our front loaders are gone. We are missing Humvees that move people," Sebelius, a Democrat, told an interviewer from NBC's "Today" show Monday.

"We can't borrow them from other states because their equipment is gone. It's a huge issue for states across the country to respond to disasters like this," she said of the 300-km/hour winds that obliterated 95 percent of Greensburg's houses and other structures.

Her observation underlined the growing concern of state governments that National Guard deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have undermined their ability to respond to civil disorder or natural disasters, a concern that is growing more pronounced with the approach of hurricane season along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico.

"You name it, we are short of (it)," the National Guard's top officer, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, told Congress just last month after the Pentagon announced that 13,000 more National Guard troops and their equipment were to be deployed to Iraq as part of the Bush administration's so-called "surge" strategy. "This is meat-and potatoes basic items: I'm talking about (bull)dozers, graders, loaders, backhoes, dump trucks."

"Can we do the job? Yes, we can," he said. "But the lack of equipment (means it takes) longer to do that job, and lost time translates into lost lives, and those lost lives are American lives."

The Greensburg tornado, the most powerful to hit the United States in nearly a decade, killed at least 10 people and sent a dozen more to the hospital with serious injuries. The death toll in the town of 1,500 people would surely have been higher if residents were not given a 20-minute warning that permitted them to take shelter.

Forty National Guard troops arrived in Greensburg Saturday, and another 65 joined them Monday, but some relief officials complained that they lacked key equipment, including front and wheeled loaders used for clearing debris, as late as Tuesday.

Before the Iraq war, "they would have had heavy equipment in there to move the debris," said Jane Bullock, chief of staff to the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), James Lee Witt, under former President Bill Clinton. "This (disaster) happened on Friday, and this is Tuesday, and we're still looking at a bad scene."

For its part, the White House rejected charges that the response to the disaster had been slowed either by National Guard deployments to Iraq or by delays by the federal government in acting on the state's requests for emergency assistance.

Indeed, in what some called a replay of Katrina, Bush's spokesman, Tony Snow, blamed Sebelius herself for failing to follow procedures in requesting help, asserting that, since the disaster, the state had only requested FM radios. He later added a mobile command center, a search-and-rescue team, and helicopters to the list.

He also noted that Washington had declared Greensburg a federal disaster area Sunday, making it eligible to receive a range of assistance, including the authority to hire private contractors to supply heavy equipment. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican presidential candidate who visited Greenburg Tuesday, said Guard officers there had told him they had all the equipment that was needed.

But Sebelius' office said she had asked the Pentagon in December to urgently re-supply equipment that had been diverted to Iraq, and Col. Eric Peck of the Kansas Guard told the Kansas City Star that his force currently had fewer than 15 tractor-trailer trucks, compared to more than 30 before the Iraq war.

Similarly, he said, the Guard's normal inventory of more than 600 Humvees has been reduced to less than 400, while its complement of 170 medium-sized tactical vehicles has fallen to less than 30.

In December 2005, Sebelius sent a written appeal to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for key equipment to be replaced, saying, "We must be able to maintain a high level of readiness because no one can know when disaster will strike." She received no reply at the time.

The following month, Sebelius renewed her appeal in a face-to-face meeting with Bush in Kansas. "We're dealing with it," Bush said, according to her account of the conversation.

"Kansas is not an isolated situation," Brig. Gen. Stephen Koper, the president of the non-partisan National Guard Association, told CBS News this week.

On average, state national guards have only about 40 percent of their pre-war equipment inventory. The Pentagon plans to increase that percentage to 65 to 70 percent by 2013, a Pentagon spokesman told the 'Star' Tuesday.

In January, Congress' watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, issued a study that found that the Pentagon itself "does not adequately track National Guard equipment needs for domestic missions... State national guards may be hampered in their ability to plan for responding to large-scale domestic events," it warned, echoing a second report by a Congressionally-sponsored commission that examined military readiness last year.

To some, the slow response to the Greenburg disaster offered yet another reason to question the U.S. intervention in Iraq. "We can spend two billion dollars a week to take care of another country, but we can't take care of our own state, own welfare," Sen. Donald Betts, a senator in the Kansas state legislature, told a press teleconference sponsored by the National Security Network and several other anti-war groups Tuesday.

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Albion Monitor   May 10, 2007   (

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