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A general in hell

Most stories, no matter how implicitly, encourage you to make judgments. You want to know, pretty quickly, who is the hero. That way you can barrack for them and there won’t be any nasty surprises as you read along.
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Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those sort of stories. It is, instead, simply a tale about the way things are, in a very different country, in the middle of a war. But unless you, too, have seen your home city become a battle zone, or witnessed your future evaporating as a nation disintegrates around you, then don’t judge Brigadier-General Hassan al-Nuaimi. Because one thing’s for sure: his men would follow him anywhere.

From his youth, Nuaimi was destined for the army. He came from a well-connected military family: his father and uncle were generals in Saddam Hussein’s army. It would have been more surprising if he’d refused officer training and so, as a good, responsible child, of course he didn’t. He did what was expected of him, so, five years before the US invaded Iraq, he graduated into the technical arm that we’d call artillery. He then engaged in all the peacetime routine drills that come with being in the army. Then, suddenly, like a terrible swift sword, war came. It has never departed.

Nuaimi was in part of the Iraqi army that was outmanoeuvred and outgunned by the US forces. It disintegrated rapidly as the Americans carved their way through the “ring of steel” that supposedly surrounded Baghdad. Iraq’s defences proved feeble and incapable of holding back the far superior weapons and equipment of the allies. Nothing could have stopped that assault, and nothing did.

It was after the assault that everything began to go wrong; very wrong. George W. Bush installed a hapless, incompetent, bungling pro-consul to run the country. Jerry Bremmer should never have been charged with administering anything more complex than a 7-Eleven but, fuelled with the swift triumph of victory, the Americans thought they could do anything. And then, as just the first of so many disastrous decisions, Bremmer sacked the entire Iraqi officer corps at a single stroke; throwing people out of work and removing their livelihood. Nuaimi was out of a job with, quite suddenly, no prospects. He began driving taxis.

Meanwhile, the security situation in the capital deteriorated rapidly. Nuaimi began carrying a pistol in the car door and then practising picking it up quickly, until it flew automatically into his hand. Yet for almost a year he kept working, picking up fares and dropping people off, trying to capture normality while everything else fell apart.

And then, finally, the moment came where the insurgency caught up with him. Two men, one waving a gun, charged into the taxi at a roundabout. They’d killed already and now wanted someone to drive them to safety.

Nuaimi ran through the automatic drills he’d taught his body, this time for real. He sprang from the car, trapping the terrorist’s gun hand in the door. The man pushed it open, smashing him in the face. But the pistol was in his hand. He fired. His assailant’s head came apart in the cab. The barrel of the other man’s automatic was caught in his bag. He dropped it and fled.

By now Nuaimi was trembling. He was far too shocked to shoot again and just wanted to escape. He scrambled back into the cab and sped to the centre of town, terrified someone may have seen his number plate. He knew that, if they had, he’d be marked for assassination in revenge. He parked the taxi in a vacant spot and fled.

Time passed. He took new jobs, working first as a security guard then, eventually, after the US had realised the stupidity of dispensing with people like Nuaimi, personal connections saw him return to the army.

Brigades and divisions multiplied, even if there weren’t enough soldiers to fill out the ranks and man the nominal structures. Nuaimi was promoted quickly. He acquired the rare red-tabbed epaulettes showing he was a graduate of staff college. Soon he was commanding 16 Division’s artillery: huge 105mm mortars that are set up like field guns, because that’s how they’re used – as an area weapon, to blunt enemy attacks (by forcing them to seek cover) and assist assaults (by destroying dug-in, defensive positions).

When Islamic State suddenly erupted in 2014, challenging the regime and threatening Baghdad, Hassan was on the frontline, one of few who remained to defend the capital while others fled. Since that time, he’s been with 16 Division as it’s slowly fought its way 400 kilometres north and into the insurgency’s heartland. At the city of Mosul, the battle finally bogged down as Daesh (the Islamic State) realised it could no longer trade terrain for time by retreating.

By now, the infantry were used to calling on the mortars every time they were opposed. The liberal use of firepower spared them the deadly heartbreak of costly assaults over open ground. But the war of movement had stopped at the gates of the city and the fight bogged down into the grinding slog of bitter, positional warfare, as both sides entrenched for a long battle.

Supported by heavy weapons, the infantry slowly managed to move forward. There were always, however, tasks that no one wanted to do, like clear trenches. There was one in particular – five-kilometres long, covered and protected – that stretched between a number of Da’esh posts. It was thought the insurgents had fled, but no one knew if there was still someone down there. And although the main force had been pushed back, this long trench could have been booby-trapped and mined, or stragglers might be waiting below for their chance to kill.

The general didn’t hesitate. Pulling out his pistol, he entered the long tunnel alone, feeling his way forward, checking for improvised bombs or tripwires that might set off an explosion. He told his soldiers not to follow too closely so that, if there was an explosion, he’d be the only one to die. Nuaimi was lucky. Either the insurgents had left in such a rush they’d failed to booby-trap the trench or, alternately, and possibly even more plausibly, Daesh has neither the capacity nor the explosives to rig bombs. But that’s not the sort of gamble on which anyone wants to risk their life.

Today, the trench is open and harmless. Being the first in, however, and clearing a way through the mud and masonry, takes a very special sort of courage. Particularly when you’re a senior officer with no need to prove one’s bravery. His soldiers still appreciate it – you can see it in their smiles when they talk about their mad, courageous general.

The way Nuaimi behaved is certainly not in accordance with standard operating procedures in the Australian Army. We don’t normally use senior officers as tunnel rats, probing with their own bodies to find explosive devices and clear trails for their men. But this general is not leading diggers and our operating procedures are irrelevant. Particularly for an army that’s been engaged in total war, against first Iran, then the US, and now Daesh, for 25 of the past 35 years. What’s far more critical is what the Iraqi soldiers think. Nuaimi’s soldiers look as if they’re prepared to follow him anywhere.

This is the key to understanding why the current offensive against Daesh has the potential to resolve the conflict, once and for all. It’s being fought and won by the Iraqi forces. The tactics used in the battle for Mosul aren’t Western: they’re slow and deliberate. There’s no finesse in a fight that’s now disintegrated into a laneway-by-laneway, house-by-house struggle in the tight spaces of the old city. There’s been so much killing, so much horror, that the idea of a final thrust to finish the war quickly brings something like laughter to the soldiers when I suggest it. They know any assault will certainly end in death. The enemy may be killed, but so will many Iraqi soldiers. No one wants to be the last one to die in battle, so no one wants to be the first to charge across the rubble.

That’s what makes Nuaimi’s leadership so special. He isn’t sitting back and ordering his soldiers to attack; he’s going in with them instead.

Iraq will win this fight; it will just take a long time.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer. He travelled to Mosul as a guest of the Iraq government.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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Pool temperatures could drop as council tackles $2m power bill

Sutherland Shire Council is considering urgent measures to reduce its gas bill, including closing swimming pools in winter, increasing entry fees, lowering water temperatures and cutting subsidies to swimming programs after its gas supplier hiked the price by 220 per cent.
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The increase will cost the community an extra $500,000 and will see the cost of heating and powering the council’s three major swimming centres blow out to $2 million a year, unless savings measures are implemented.

Mayor Carmelo Pesce said the council was flummoxed when it was informed in March of the imminent increase.

“It’s quite extraordinary. We don’t understand why it’s such a big increase. There was no explanation,” he said.

The hike means the council must consider the operational costs for the Shire’s 11 pools and spas in council-run swimming centres at Sutherland, Engadine, and Caringbah, some of which rely on natural gas for heating.

The increase follows six months of tendering negotiations between the council and the state’s two energy suppliers, Origin Energy and AGL, for a new energy contract.

The council was unable to secure quotes from the companies until March, weeks before its existing contract with Origin was due to expire on March 31, a spokeswoman said.

The council decided to re-sign with Origin, accepting the 220 per cent increase, as it was the cheapest quote presented to the council, the spokeswoman said.

The price hike comes amid a national debate over Australia’s looming gas shortage and spiralling energy costs, and follows a warning last month from the Australian Energy Markets Operator that eastern states would face blackouts unless something was done to secure gas supplies.

In a bid to find savings, the council is now considering immediately hiking the general pool admission by an average of $1.30 across the three centres, reducing the $40,000 heating bill by lowering pool temperatures by one degree, and closing the Engadine swimming pool during the winter months.

The council is also considering charging the Department of Education for its access to its swimming centres to run its Learn to Swim Programs for children, bringing it into line with other councils across Sydney.

Currently, the council provides the department with free access to its pools, which adds about $40,000 to the council’s gas cost.

“Whether the department chooses to absorb the cost of entry, or pass it on to families is a matter for them,” the spokeswoman said.

Cr Pesce said the elected council would discuss the proposed savings measures at Tuesday’s council meeting, but said no decision would be made until feedback was sought from the community.

“We need to go to consultation with the community first. We don’t want to make a drastic change without consulting them.”

Origin Energy spokesman Ryan Auger said he could not comment on the specifics of the Sutherland Shire’s contract, but said the company would “work worth with the council to manage their consumption and ongoing supply arrangements”.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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ATO commits to stop sharing workers’ personal data

The Tax office has assured its 19,000 public servants that their sensitive employment data will no longer be shared with external private sector polling companies.
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The pledge comes as further progress is made towards ending three years of industrial stalemate at the revenue agency.

Fairfax revealed last month that Tax Office secretly handed sensitive employment details on its own workforce to a private firm in an attempt to voter-profile an all-staff industrial ballot.

The ATO covertly supplied its contractor with the names, email addresses, locations of work and pay grades of each of its 19000 employees without their knowledge or consent.

Tax Office bosses tried to play down the significance of their actions but in the latest olive branch to be extended to its restive workforce, Tax has conceded that some of its public servants were not happy about the extent of the employment information supplied to polling company ORIMA.

But in her message to the workforce, human resources executive Lina Ranieri??? re-iterated that ORIMA had not told bosses how individual workers had voted.

“We have…heard that some people are uncomfortable with the level of information provided to our external vote provider,” Ms Ranieri wrote to the workforce.

“We confirm the ballot voting results provide global level insights and do not provide information for any groups of less than 100 people.

“We do not have information on how individuals voted and it is important to us that you have confidence in the integrity of the voting process.”

But Ms Ranieri said strict protocols will be observed around voter data in any new ballot.

“We will work with the external provider to ensure that we can have sufficient rigour and quality in the next voting process without needing to provide classification level, business line, site or state to the vote provider in future,” she wrote.

“We will also let the provider know that they do not need to provide us with a vote outcome report beyond the high level result.”

Meantime, the ATO’s main workplace union, the Community and Public Sector Union, has told its members that “progress looks likely” in talks on a new workplace deal for the 19,000 ATO public servants.

“The CPSU bargaining team is hopeful that this new approach will see the ATO bring forward an improved offer,” the union’s deputy secretary Melissa Donnelly wrote to her members.

The CPSU’s message to its members follows the announcement by the smaller but more hardline Australian Services Union that it might be prepared in principle to advise its members to support a new enterprise agreement proposal from the ATO

Ms Donnelly said the “exploratory” talks with the Tax Office were still at an early stage although intransigence of Public Service minister Michaelia Cash and her workplace enforcer, Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd remained as stumbling blocks.

“The exploratory discussions we’ve had to date suggest the ATO are genuine about wanting to fix this bargaining mess,” Ms Donnelly wrote to her members.

“That said, it should never have taken this long for the ATO to get to this position.”

More talks are scheduled for the April 27 and 28.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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Open up empty government offices to homeless

News. Anzac Park East Building that is 100% vacant. Warning sign on one of the entrances to the building warning of asbestos. Some of the many broken windows around the building. 27 November 2014. Canberra Times photo by Jeffrey Chan. Photo: Jeffrey ChanIt has always frustrated me that we do not use empty government buildings as temporary accommodation for homeless people. The juxtaposition of recent stories in the media about homelessness and vacant government office space is striking.
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The federal government has identified nearly 200,000 square metres of unoccupied floor area it leases in Canberra alone. Fitting out less than a quarter of this space would be ample to house the 1500 homeless people now living in this city.

The ACT has the second-highest rate of homelessness in Australia, behind the Northern Territory. The Productivity Commission’s 2017 Report on Government Services shows the ACT failed last year to provide accommodation solutions to more than 34 per cent of people seeking accommodation support, the equal highest rate of failure in the country. Since 2012, the ACT has been the worst or second-worst performing jurisdiction on this measure.

As the repurposing of the Addison Hotel in Sydney shows, we can make better use of vacant buildings to address homelessness. It would certainly be a far more effective use of taxpayers’ money than letting leased buildings remain idle. All that is needed is political determination, some smart planning and willingness to act.

Unlike the confronting sight of a person sleeping rough on the street, people who live in emergency accommodation or “couch surf” from house to house are mostly invisible to the population. Yet the negative effects of this secondary homelessness on people’s lives are significant and real.

Homelessness is often triggered by relationship breakdown. A Swinburne University and Hanover Welfare Services longitudinal study found people who suddenly become sole parents can find it almost impossible to access rental accommodation, especially when they have a low income and a poor or non-existent rental history in the private market.

The burden of homelessness can fall disproportionately on people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. More than 16 per cent of people in the ACT needing accommodation aid are from countries where English is not the main language – almost double the national average.

Once a person becomes homeless, it can be very difficult to return to the private market. ACT rental vacancy rates are often below 1 per cent, making it easy for landlords to put “risky” applications at the bottom of the pile.

As the ABC reported recently, young homeless people (and especially women) may resort to sexual favours to secure shelter for the night. Insecure accommodation exposes homeless families to trauma and violence. Others end up in emergency accommodation that offers only a few days of accommodation, often also with people who have drug-and-alcohol issues – a frightening option for families.

The current system, which relies mostly on grants to community accommodation providers, is ad hoc and poorly regulated. What is needed is a large stock of medium-term, temporary accommodation that can provide safe, secure and stable housing for residents while they are helped to return to a permanent home.

As government-run facilities, people accessing these rooms would be provided with security and visited regularly by case managers to ensure they receive the services they need. Everything from accessing employment and education services, to drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation and help with paperwork for public-housing waiting lists.

The goal of these temporary fit-outs would be to rapidly scale installations up and down in response to client demand. Ideally, an excess of rooms should be maintained to ensure every person and family who needs shelter can always access a room and a bed. As soon as an office floor leased by any government agency or department is expected to be vacant for 12 months or more, it should be flagged as available to convert to temporary residential rooms.

A vast number of objections can be anticipated from public servants but they will be mostly excuses or baseless fears. Fit-out costs can be minimised through smart, modular approaches that reuse 95 to 100 per cent of material. Rooms can use office-style prefabricated partitions. Preconstructed bathrooms and kitchen units can be installed where existing toilet and kitchen facilities are insufficient for communal use.

In a well-off country like Australia, there should be no reason for a person to be homeless. We are proud of our universal healthcare system yet, for some reason, the need for universal shelter is not similarly endorsed. Rather than relying on the cash-strapped community sector to fill the gap, governments should see this as a their primary responsibility.

I raised this suggestion with local residents while campaigning as a candidate in the last ACT election, and the idea received near-universal acclaim. I believe taxpayers expect the government to ensure that people have a roof over their head. All that is needed is people with the vision to make it happen.

Kim Fischer is a community activist and was a Labor candidate at the 2016 ACT election.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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Flu jab at a pharmacy is ‘second best option’: AMA

The 2017 flu season will be the first pharmacists Australia-wide are permitted to administer flu shots.
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The Australian Medical Association has voiced safety concerns, saying it’s “a second-best option” for patients, and further reduces regular consults with patients, particularly men.

It will be the second winter the influenza vaccine has been administered to adults at ACT pharmacies.

AMA vice president Dr Tony Bartone urged the public to think about their circumstances before having a pharmacy-administered vaccination, saying in a quest for convenience patients may lose out.

“It is about ensuring the best possible standard of care is applied rather than an acceptable or passable standard of care,” he said.

Patients shifting away from a medical practice may feel as though they are getting a bargain but Dr Bartone said the move reduced opportunity across the country for consultation and valuable preventative care.

. “If there was an adverse reaction in the retail space it would be challenging at best and very problematic at worst,” he said.

“It is an extremely safe process but we run the risk of overlooking and over-simplifying something that does carry a very low but inherent risk.”

Pharmacies in Canberra are offering the flu shots for between $10- $15 dollars and Dr Bartone questioned whether the low-cost offering was part of a more generalised marketing push in the larger discount stores.

“I don’t even think it can be supplied into a practice at the price that it is being offered,” Dr Bartone said.

He also reminded the public to check if they were eligible to be dosed for free such as those over 65, pregnant women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 15 years and over and those older than six months with underlying medical conditions which predispose them to complications due to flu.

ACT Pharmacist Ben Jackson had customers relay stories about pharmacists in discount chains jumping over the counter to give flu shots.

In his store customers were given privacy in one of two treatment rooms, were being dosed with the quadrivalent (four strain) vaccine, were thoroughly checked by through a questionnaire and had the support of a nearby medical centre in case of any adverse affects.

“If I was in a smaller corner store pharmacy I wouldn’t do it,” he said.

“One you want privacy but two you have to be equipped ready to go in case if there is a reaction you have to have space and room for them to lie down if they need.”

He understood the AMA’s concern about encouraging people, particularly men, to have regular health checks.

Mr Jackson felt it was a common goal and why his pharmacy did health awareness campaigns and provided extra services for wound care, sleep apnoea, diabetes, smoking cessation and medication management.

National Health Coop general manager Blake Wilson, who oversees eight medical clinics, supported broader access to flu vaccination as it had proven public health benefit.

“From an individual perspective if they don’t have it and don’t get sick they are lucky to have a good immune system or they are relying on herd immunity where lots of other people have had the flu vac and therefore it doesn’t spread as much when there aren’t as many carriers,” he said.

People with certain conditions should steer clear of the vaccine and while these would be flagged in a pre-vaccination questionnaire in a pharmacy setting, he said without regular contact with a doctor people ran the risk of not being well informed about their own health.

“There is always benefits to speaking with a doctor and making sure you are getting considered medical advice whenever you are taking any medication,” he said.

“It’s increased availability can be a very good thing. Naturally you have got to make sure that the continuity of care is provided and they are in a safe space but many pharmacies do a wonderful job at that.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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