MEDEA BENJAMIN is a cofounder of Global Exchange and a leading antiwar activist. In June and July, she led a delegation to Iraq to establish an Occupation Watch Center in Baghdad to monitor the U.S.-run military occupation and the activities of foreign corporations. The center is providing reports through its Web site www.occupationwatch.org. After returning from Baghdad, Medea talked to Socialist Worker's LEE SUSTAR about conditions in Iraq under U.S. rule.
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Sustar: Could you describe what you saw in Iraq?
Benjamin: I Think a lot of us have read about colonialism in other eras, and you see it with your own eyes today. I suppose there are similarities with the occupation of Palestine, but this is even more raw in many ways, because you see troops everywhere, and you see tanks everywhere. You see patrols moving down the street. You see sandbags and barbed wire, and the physical presence of 150,000 troops is pretty overwhelming.
And U.S. occupying forces have taken over the very sites that Saddam Hussein was known for in such a negative way--the presidential palaces. The largest presidential palace is the home of Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority. And many of the troops are stationed there as well.
So it really is just an overwhelming sense of intimidation. There are roadblocks all over the place where the U.S. troops barricade certain streets or bridges. One day, theyâ€™re open, and the next day, theyâ€™re closed. You have 18- or 19- or 20-year-olds barking orders in English to Iraqis, "Get out! Do this! Do that!" Oftentimes, Iraqis donâ€™t understand and get shot at.
You have the daily humiliation that Iraqis feel when they are being told what to do by young foreigners who donâ€™t speak their language and donâ€™t know their culture. You have women being frisked by male soldiers on the street. You have U.S. soldiers breaking down doors of homes in the middle of the night and going into bedrooms.
This kind of thing is just unacceptable in any culture, but particularly in Muslim culture. So you just have the daily humiliation--and this sense of many Iraqis that theyâ€™ve lost their country.
Sustar: So Violence is now an everyday occurrence in Iraq.
Benjamin: When we arrived in Iraq at the end of June, we went to a military briefing, and they said there were 13 attacks a day on U.S. soldiers. When we went to a briefing two weeks later, we were told there were 25 attacks on U.S. soldiers, and they were more sophisticated.
Because of the increased attacks on American soldiers, the American soldiers have increased their attacks against Iraqis. You hear about the death tolls in Iraq, but you donâ€™t hear whatâ€™s happening to the Iraqi civilians.
And itâ€™s not just death tolls. Itâ€™s people being picked up off the streets or out of their homes or out of their workplaces--not charged with anything, thrown into jails or prisons, and sometimes there are allegations of torture. Thereâ€™s no access to lawyers, and family members donâ€™t know where their loved ones are. This kind of gross violation of the Geneva Convention and human rights is happening on a daily basis.
Sustar: There have been some reports that Iraqi prisons have more people in them now than in the last days of Saddam Husseinâ€™s government. Is that the case?
Benjamin: We were unable to go to any of the prisons. The U.S. hasnâ€™t allowed anyone to go in, except the Red Cross--and the Red Cross can only go in on the condition that they donâ€™t speak publicly about it. Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch havenâ€™t been able to go in. Our Occupation Watch Center folks tried to go in and havenâ€™t been allowed.
We tried to get into a jail in one of the poorer sections of Baghdad that used to be known as Saddam City, and the head of the jail--the Iraqi police chief in charge--was very happy to let us inside. We were stopped by what looked to be an 18-year-old American who said, "No way, you canâ€™t come in here and interview people who have been thrown into jail." The Americans are more secretive than the Iraqis. The Americans are really trying to keep any scrutiny away from their treatment of prisoners.
Sustar: How are the other consequences of the war, like the lack of electricity or the disintegration of the economy, affecting peopleâ€™s lives?
Benjamin: The people feel betrayed. They really did feel that the United States had the ability to make their lives better. They were oppressed by Saddam Hussein, and they were oppressed by the sanctions. And they thought that if they got rid of Saddam Hussein and the sanctions were lifted, their lives would be better.
So many Iraqis were hopeful, and their hopes have been dashed. And they feel very confused. They donâ€™t know why the U.S. is doing this to them. Some describe it as a slow kind of torture.
Just the electricity alone has people up in arms, because the heat is extreme. Baghdad is an urban, sophisticated society, where people are used to air conditioning and electricity, and they find it very hard to cope in 115-120 degree heat.
They canâ€™t sleep at night. The men go up to the roofs. The women, for reasons of protection, donâ€™t go up to the roofs, and they have a very hard time sleeping at night. Itâ€™s a population thatâ€™s sleep deprived.
They donâ€™t have access to clean drinking water because the pumping system that gets the water to their homes isnâ€™t working. They donâ€™t have a way to keep their food refrigerated without electricity. And many peopleâ€™s businesses canâ€™t function without electricity.
Sustar: You've talked about how saw factory equipment being shipped out of Iraq as you were going in. Can you say what kind of impact this looting has had on the economy and living standards?
Benjamin: The Iraqis will tell you that the U.S. allowed the looting to happen after U.S. troops came in--and in some cases, facilitated the looting by helping to break down doors, like at the bank. At first, it was government buildings that were looted. But then, it was private institutions, including banks and factories and shopping centers.
And the people who enriched themselves through the looting have become large-scale thieves--gangsters. Itâ€™s kind of like the breakdown in the former Soviet Union, when a kind of gangster capitalism emerged. You can see that starting to emerge in Iraq.
On the one hand, you have a lifting of all tariffs so goods can flood into the country from anywhere and undercut Iraqi production. Secondly, you have the productive capacity being gutted by what is now large-scale organized looting.
And third, you have the U.S. giving money to large corporations to go in to do the job of "reconstruction." So there is what seems to be a very orchestrated campaign to destroy the ability of Iraqis to produce for themselves--and then open up the country to the privatization of what were public institutions.
Sustar: Did you see much evidence of the corporate invasion of Iraq?
Benjamin: You have to look hard for it, because you donâ€™t see evidence of much large-scale reconstruction at all. For example, on the street corner where the main telecommunications building is, every day, youâ€™ll see Iraqis who used to work in that building standing on the street corner, lamenting the fact they donâ€™t have their jobs.
They say that after the Gulf War, the telecommunications building was hit, and the phone system was down, but within a month, they had them up and running again. Now the people that could do those jobs have been fired.
The Iraqis are desperate to be in touch with each other--their loved ones in different parts of the country who they havenâ€™t talked since the war and donâ€™t know if theyâ€™re alive. Instead, they see MCI WorldCom coming in and bringing a cell phone system thatâ€™s totally incompatible with the rest of the region--and that isnâ€™t for Iraqis but is for the international community to be able to communicate with their home bases.
We were given free cell phones with 914 Westchester County area codes and told that we could call anywhere in the world for free, as much as we liked. Thatâ€™s on the U.S. taxpayersâ€™ dime, but itâ€™s an example of how the "rebuilding" is being done for the international community, and not for the Iraqis.
I think in the south, you would see more evidence of the rebuilding of the ports and around the oil facilities. But around Baghdad, you donâ€™t see it.
Bechtel had an office in the Sheridan Hotel, and every day, there were legions of Iraqis coming there to try to get a piece of the pie. But you didnâ€™t see the actual physical construction happening.
Sustar: So How do people put food on their plates?
Benjamin: That's a really fascinating issue, because while Iraqis donâ€™t have jobs, they donâ€™t have clean drinking water, they donâ€™t have electricity, they donâ€™t have decent sewage system--still, theyâ€™re not starving. And the only reason they arenâ€™t starving is because the food-ration system that existed during the sanctions as part of the oil-for-food program is still in place.
In fact, right before the war, extra rations were given out to people on the understanding that the food system would be disrupted during the war. Now the rations system is being restarted.
The hitch is that with the U.S. success in getting an end to the oil-for-food program, the ration system will be ended at the end of November. And the Iraqi people donâ€™t know that. When we ask how theyâ€™ll cope with an end to the rations system in November, they look and just say, "What, the ration system is going to end? No one has told us that." And then, instead of saying they would slowly starve to death, they said there would be food riots, and then the ration would have to be reinstated.
I think people in this country think that after 30 years of being repressed by a brutal dictator, people in Iraq would be very cowed. But they arenâ€™t. They really have a sense of entitlement--that they wonâ€™t give up easily.
Sustar: The Occupation Watch Center has been trying to illustrate the problems of the occupation by following to one family in particular, whose only breadwinner was a man who was shot to death by U.S. soldiers. Can you tell us a little about that?
Benjamin:We met this family though a family friend who just happened to hear about the Occupation Watch Center and took us to meet with them--a wife and two young children, 2 and 4 years old, and elderly parents. The husband, who was a veterinarian, had been on his way to work.
His car wasnâ€™t working, so he went in the street to get a taxi. There were some gunshots, and suddenly, there were U.S. soldiers thinking that they were being fired at and firing into the street. He got seven bullets shot into his chest and was killed immediately.
The family talked about the callous treatment they received even in just returning the body to the family. The body was left lying on the street. When the brother ran up and said, "Thatâ€™s my brother, thatâ€™s my brother," they handcuffed the brother and arrested him.
They tried to pretend that the father was shooting at them. The family showed us the daybook that was in his hand, which had been sliced through with a bullet, and the U.S. soldiers kept insisting that this guy was attacking them. It was hard enough for the family to cope with the death--and then to have this womanâ€™s husband, who had never been in trouble a day in his life and never visited a police station, to be labeled a criminal was too much for them.
When his elderly father went to claim the body near the airport, he had to go far from his home. The U.S. forces gave him the bloody body and said, "Okay, goodbye." The father said, "I have no transportation, what am I going to do?" And they took him in a Humvee, but dropped him off several blocks from his house. They wouldnâ€™t even take him to his house. He had to go ask the neighbors to help him carry the bloody body of his son back to his house.
People said this is the kind of thing that happened during Saddam Husseinâ€™s time. This manâ€™s brother worked for the U.S. military as an interpreter. And he initially was very welcoming of the U.S. troops. But when he saw what happened--the way his brother was treated and the arrogance of the way the military acted against the local population--heâ€™s now one of the people saying the U.S. has to go.
Sustar: And this is a story that could be multiplied many times, right?
Benjamin: Weâ€™re now trying to do some more documentation, and the people running the center going out to different parts of the country, so maybe weâ€™ll get a better sense of it. But I think itâ€™s fair to say that every time a U.S. soldier dies, thereâ€™s probably some Iraqi or even more than one Iraqi killed in the crossfire--perhaps by jittery troops thinking they are being fired at. I would venture to say that unfortunately, itâ€™s a pretty regular occurrence.
Sustar: How do you see the Occupation Watch Center playing a role in the antiwar movement?
Benjamin: We have to have a better sense of whatâ€™s happening in Iraq, and thatâ€™s one of the things weâ€™ll be doing as an Occupation Watch Center--updating the Web site, Occupationwatch.org, on a regular basis. And weâ€™re not interested in just getting out information. We want that information to turn into campaigns.
There are many examples of what some of those campaigns might be. For example, we were just told by our staff that four Iraqi newspapers have been shut down. This is the hypocrisy of U.S. forces saying that they are trying to bring democracy to Iraq, that the media was stifled under Saddam Hussein, and now there will be a free press.
And lo and behold, the press prints something they donâ€™t like, and then they shut down the newspapers. So our staff not only wants to help report this more widely in the international community, but is organizing protests in Iraq to try to get these newspapers reopened.
Weâ€™ve also been approached by a large group of professors. Theyâ€™ve told us that there are 2,500 names on a letter from professors who lost their jobs because they were members of the Baath Party, which they had to be in order to get those jobs. Theyâ€™ve been dismissed--unfairly, they feel. They have no way to make a living anymore. And they are calling on the academic community worldwide to come their assistance.
So weâ€™re waiting to get that letter sent to us, which we will then get out to groups not just in the U.S., but around the world. Either you accuse these people and try them and find them guilty or not guilty, or you give them their jobs back.
Sustar: I understand thereâ€™s also a plan to take families of U.S. military personnel to Baghdad to see the conditions that U.S. soldiers are living under, and the kind of work that theyâ€™re carrying out.
Benjamin: I've talked about the abuses occupying forces are committing against the Iraqis. But there is the issue of how much the U.S. soldiers themselves are abused. We talk to them every single day. They are very open to talking, and they hate it there.
Theyâ€™re working under extremely difficult conditions--the heat, seven days a week, 12 hours a day. Many of them were Third Infantry Division. They had been training in Iraq for months before the war even started. They feel they were trained to fight and not trained to be peacekeepers. They donâ€™t know what theyâ€™re doing.
So weâ€™re looking into having a component of the Occupation Watch Center be some sort of counseling for the troops themselves. Weâ€™re talking to people who have done conscientious objector work in the United States, and they are very excited about working with us on this.
And the other issue is bringing some of the military families from the U.S. to Iraq. Weâ€™ve already spoken to Military Families Speak Out. They want to do something in the fall, and so weâ€™ll be helping to organize that trip.
Weâ€™ve also met a lot of Iraqi soldiers, and I think we have to humanize the Iraqi soldiers in the eyes of Americans--so they wonâ€™t be so anxious to go to war and kill these unknown people. So thatâ€™s another component--to bring a variety of Iraqis to the U.S., which is not easy because the visa situation.
The U.S. controls who can come in and who canâ€™t come in. Right now, weâ€™re bringing a couple women, and we have a few congresspeople who are helping us get visas for them. But it will be difficult to bring Iraqi soldiers or anybody else who the U.S. doesnâ€™t want their voices heard.
Sustar: How can people get involved in Occupation Watch?
Benjamin: There's a whole list of things people can do. Weâ€™re just doing a video from our trip that will talk about conditions and Occupation Watch--people can show that locally. They can do house parties to help raise funds. To do this right, we actually need a couple hundred thousand dollars. We started it with $10,000. We need a lot more.
We need people to sign up on the Web site to get the updates and help disseminate those--to help take the campaigns and make them into mass campaigns. And anybody who has Arabic language skills, we need lots of help in translation. Then we need people who have research skills to go with us on research trips to Iraq. Especially people who have skills researching corporation, where itâ€™s oftentimes hard to get the information. So those are some of the ways people can help.
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