Camp Speicher, Iraq (AFP) Nov 8, 2008
US Lieutenant Colonel Mark Grabski has been busy on the computer over the past few weeks -- not to follow the history-making presidential election but to check on his dwindling savings.
"I had a list of icons, my favourites, the funds that are working with Thrift savings programme. Every single day, their rates were just collapsing," said the officer posted at Camp Speicher, north of the Iraqi capital.
"Virtually, I've lost right now tens of thousand of dollars," said the 31-year-old who is in charge of criminal inspections of the base.
Grabski said a third of his salary goes into Thrift, an additional pension scheme for US civil servants and soldiers. "I've lost 30 percent of my savings in this programme due to the financial crisis."
Army pensions are meant to pay out 50 percent of the salary of soldiers with 20 years of service and 75 percent for 30 years, but many rely on the Thrift programme to further secure their retirement.
Camp Speicher has been abuzz with the latest grim statistics of the crisis, often overshadowing the election campaign which resulted in Barack Obama's triumph as America's first black president-elect.
The crisis back home has dealt a cruel blow to combat troops who have had to endure dangerous patrols and firefights in the dusty alleys of Tikrit, former hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
The impact of the financial crisis on the savings and pensions of US troops in Iraq is difficult to estimate. But it has spared neither the young recruits nor the veterans nearing retirement.
"We've been encouraging young recruits to invest their money in that (Thrift) programme. When you arrive in Kuwait, before coming to Iraq, it is actually one of the first papers you are given," said Grabski.
For Major Daniel Meyers, who works with the US military's central command for northern Iraq, the losses have been limited to about 3,100 dollars.
"I've been only investing eight percent of my salary but it is still money for me," he said, referring to his pay of around 5,000 dollars a month for serving in Iraq, compared to about 2,000 for an ordinary soldier.
At the height of the crisis, even the televised broadcasts of the baseball World Series were followed up by financial analyses which were also eagerly watched at the central command.
"We were all stuck to our TV screens. When they hit the bell (to mark the close of Wall Street), I was completely shocked. I could barely sleep more than two hours a night," said Meyers, who hails from New York State.
The 32-year-old officer whose division is based in Germany has little expectation of a dramatic turnaround by the new US president. "Unless Congress votes for regulatory laws. Congress can do that," he said.
Grabski and Meyers just hope the market will eventually make enough of a recovery for them to recoup their losses. But other soldiers who are close to retirement fear the worst.
"I'm three years from retirement. I lost half of my savings," said a sergeant in his 50s from the state of Alabama who asked not to be named, after close to three decades of service in the military.
"I don't blame anyone. When I signed up I knew these funds were risky," he said.
"But when we go out on a mission, I think sometimes that I was that close" to a comfortable retirement, he said, signalling a small space between his finger and thumb.
"I couldn't imagine that I may have to work as a civilian after 30 years in the US army."
earlier related report
"Every Iraqi should read this agreement and decide for himself whether he agrees or disagrees with it," Sheikh Sattar al-Batat, a follower of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, said in the crowded slum of Sadr City.
"Will they agree to the complete immunity for American soldiers to do whatever they wish without accountability, or to use Iraq to strike the neighbours of Iraq?" he told tens of thousands of worshippers.
"No one in his right mind can accept this agreement, so how can we?"
His remarks came after the United States and Iraq appeared to be moving closer to a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to govern the presence of US troops after their UN mandate expires at the end of the year.
The draft agreement calls for US troops to move out of all towns and cities by June 2009 and withdraw from the country completely by 2011, although Iraqi officials have said some troops may remain longer if necessary.
There are currently almost 145,000 US troops in Iraq.
"The Americans want to cloak their presence in a robe of legitimacy with this agreement, so they can remain forever," Sheikh Talal al-Saadi told a similar gathering at the Kadhimiya shrine in central Baghdad.
"We call on all officials not to dirty their hands with these sorts of agreements," the Sadrist imam added.
He called on US president-elect Barack Obama to fulfill his campaign pledge to withdraw the troops within 16 months of taking office.
In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Sadr al-Din al-Qubanshi, a cleric loyal to Iraq's other main Shiite movement, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, also criticised the agreement.
"We are not happy with the agreement, which is binding on the Iraqi side but not on the US side," he said in a sermon.
"There are only two ways for there to be agreement on this document -- the first is a popular referendum and the second is the support of our highest religious leadership."
Qubanshi was referring to the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, considered the most senior Shiite religious leader in the country.
Iraq's main Sunni preachers did not mention the agreement in their Friday sermons, perhaps reflecting fears that a rapid US withdrawal could leave them at the mercy of a national government dominated by Shiites.
Iraq and the United States must agree on the pact before the UN mandate allowing foreign soldiers to operate in the country expires on December 31.
A failure to agree on the current draft would raise a new set of thorny problems for both Washington and Baghdad, starting with the need to request a new mandate from the UN Security Council.
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