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Report from Baghdad: Destruction everywhere
Everywhere in Iraq, you can see the destruction from the U.S.-UK invasions. Half of the citys utilities, destroyed in the 1991 Gulf War and never rebuilt because of sanctions, are now newly destroyed from the U.S. invasion last March. There is a U.S. military-imposed curfew of 11:00 PM in Baghdad and many other Iraqi cities. U.S. Humvees speed across the city with mounted machine guns and license to do whatever they want in a country without government, among a people seemingly without hope.
According to the Human Rights Watch report Climate of Fear published in July 2003, as a result of the invasion, women and girls face increased sexual violence and abduction. Elizabeth Hodgkin, a research coordinator for Amnesty International in Baghdad, says the violence against women and girls has created a state of fear, preventing them from being more active in society.
Its certain that women feel that now [after April], it is less safe for them on the street, she explains. Theres been more killing; women who feel more danger going back and forth from work and school, and participating in activities. Some girls have been withdrawn from school because their parents think its unsafe in the streets.
According to Hodgkin, there has also been an acute rise in honor killings and domestic violence. A woman becomes the victim of an honor killing when her family feels she has damaged their reputation by having sex with a man or even just by going out with him. This dishonor entitles a male member of her family to justifiably murder her.
Many worry that Saddams secular government will be replaced with a fundamentalist Islamic government, which will further undermine womens rights. Hodgkin believes there must be constructive efforts in every area in order to ensure that women have positive positions. She says, for instance, in the Iraqi Interim Governing Council that was established in July, of the 25 members on the Council, only 3 are women. Hodgkin believes there must be stronger efforts made to ensure the rights and the equality of women in the future constitution and governing body of Iraq.
Many Iraqis are angry at U.S. troops and corporations who came to rebuild Iraq. While they stay in the air-conditioned rooms of Saddams palaces, desperate and angry Iraqis swelter in up to 120-degree summer heat.
The dust from destroyed buildings poses a grave threat to the health of the inhabitants of Baghdad, primarily in the form of respiratory disease. Even worse, many depleted uranium (DU) weapons used during the attacks are still lying around the city and countryside in rubbled buildings or destroyed Iraqi tanks.
According to recent estimates by a British Member of Parliament, between 2,000 and 17,000 unexploded bomblets from cluster bombs remain on the ground in Iraq. These bomblets pose a daily threat to civilians, especially children. However, the biggest threat to Iraqi children is unsafe water, malnutrition, and the breakdown of much of Iraqs health system. Immediately after the war, the Ministry of Health stopped functioning, communication between the capital and the local officials became impossible, and vital services like routine immunization collapsed, leaving children vulnerable to disease. With the help of the international community, the Ministry of Health was able to get back to business, but still hasnt returned to its functioning pre-war level.
Everyone I interviewed told me its not the war killing them, its the decade-old sanctions. A simple medicine like Cipro (an antibiotic), which can be easily obtained at any local drug store in the United States, was impossible for many Iraqis to get under sanctions. Thousands of Iraqi children died during the sanctions because they drank dirty water that made them ill and there was no medicine to save them.
Overall, Iraqis have two positions on U.S. troops in Iraq: fix everything and get out within a year, or get out now because youre doing nothing but stealing our resources.
Iraqis tell me Saddam is a student and Bush is his teacher and now the teacher has come for his student. Theres almost no one in Iraqeither pro- or anti-Saddam, defender or opponent of the U.S. invasionwho wont argue that the reason the U.S. invaded Iraq is to control its oil and colonize the country. Many Iraqis believe Saddam is an Ali Babaa thiefbut that the U.S. is an even bigger Ali Baba.
The U.S. bombings and invasion destroyed government ministry buildings, police stations, Baath party offices, TV stations, many stores, private houses, public utilities, and telecommunication systems. Yet the U.S. military intentionally spared the Ministry of Oil building; it was back in business shortly after the end of the war.
Although it sounds implausible, since the invasion, there is a major gas shortage in Iraq, site of the worlds second largest oil reserve. The Iraqi domestic oil supply has plummeted and every day at gas stations in Baghdad, hundreds of cars line up for hours to fill their tanks. The alternative is expensive (yet convenient) black market oil on the street.
Al-Daura Oil Refinery general manager, Dathar Al-Khashab, says his company produces gasoline for the Baghdad market. U.S. bombing during the 1991 Gulf War damaged his plant severely, but this time, Americans didnt attack the facility and it basically went unharmed.
Its a different story for the majority of Iraqi government workers and ordinary citizens. Their offices were destroyed by U.S. troops. They lost their jobs and no one is giving them unemployment insurance. The U.S. was, however, able to pay $30 million to the informants who provided them with the whereabouts of Udei and Qusay Hussein. They are willing to shell out another $25 million for Saddams head.
According to an unofficial survey, Iraqs unemployment rate since the invasion is up to 90 percent and those fortunate few who do have jobs and manage to get paid make around $20-$30 per month. Any Iraqi who works as a manual laborer on the U.S. base can earn twice that average, but he is considered a traitor by most.
This doesnt mean that Baghdad doesnt have food or drink or that no one can afford it. There are plenty of rich Iraqis and foreign business- people that can get anything they want. For less than $3, you can eat like a king. Many rich people have satellite telephones, imported goods, and satellite TVs (which were banned under Saddam Hussein, but are now freely available). American-made GMC eight- passenger trucks are everywhere.
Although many Iraqis are happy that Saddam is gone, there are many others who still support him. Regardless of where they stand on their countrys former head of state, the majority of them told me that they want the U.S. troops to leave. Many even said they would arm themselves and rise up against the U.S. occupiers if they stay in Iraq any longer.
In numerous interviews, Iraqis told me that U.S. troops had wrongfully killed members of their family, looted their houses, and stolen their money. Soldiers have arrested many people who have subsequently disappeared and havent been heard from since. Iraqis complaints against U.S. troops are echoed in a recent Amnesty International report, Iraq: Memorandum of Concerns Relating to Law and Order. They include disappearance, unlawful detention, torture, ill treatment of prisoners, and shooting Iraqi demonstrators. Amnesty concludes that its shameful to still hear of people who are being detained in inhumane conditions [by U.S. troops], without their family knowing where they are and with no access to a lawyer or a judge, often for weeks on end.
During the U.S. invasion in March and early April, the Iraqi Body Count Project documented the deaths of over 7,000 civilians and up to 2,300 Iraqi soldiers, in addition to the confinement of thousands of detainees and Iraqi prisoners of war. According to the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), most of the detained Iraqis are interned at Baghdad airport, including some high-profile former Baath party officials such as Tariq Aziz. Most of them, though, are ordinary Iraqi civilians arrested during house raids by U.S. troops and sent to detention. They are there without formal charges, denied both the right to consult with their lawyers and the chance to talk to their families. So far the U.S. military has refused to allow any journalists or families of the detainees to visit the detention camp, nor will they release the names of the detainees.
Good Morning, Baghdad
Who are these American troops Iraqis love to hate? Most of those currently in Iraq arrived after the major combat in late April. Marines and British troops are in southern Iraq, Army personnel are stationed around Baghdad, and Airborne units are based in northern Iraq. Some of the troops are regular army mobilized from Germany, but many are reservists called to duty early this year. Initially, they were told they would be in Iraq for a few just months, but now they are being told they must stay until next spring. Before they were called to duty, some were students or government workers. One was even a schoolteacher with two kids at home. Except for a few, most had never seen battle or death before.
Officially, in post-invasion Iraq, U.S. troops are not combat troops, but rather military police to secure the public safety. Most of their tasks these days involve street patrol or conducting raids to catch what they call the very bad people from Saddams regime, social criminals, or those attacking American troops. Amnesty Internationals Curt Goerig criticizes many coalition soldiers (mainly U.S. troops) who do not have basic skills and tools in civilian policing and they are unaware of the law they are supposed to be applying.
I was invited by the U.S. military to visit the 37th Armored Division in Baghdad for a few days. Their unit took over Baghdad Island as their military base. Its the biggest park next to the Tigris River, but is now off-limits to Iraqis. There are over 1,000 troops occupying the island, including some soldiers from other battalions.
I interviewed many military personnel from the base and, depending on which unit they were in, they came from everywhere in the countryCalifornia, Alaska, Arizona, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Idaho, New York, Florida. Asked why they are in Iraq, most troops told me they came to overthrow Saddam and to free Iraqis from a dictator. Some, like Private Scanlon from Hampton Roads, Virginia, were straightforward: We are here because were told to. This is our job youre here to do your job and move on.
Anthony Parrish, also from the 37th Armored Division, told me that daily attacks in Iraq against U.S. soldiers are common. Parrish is a native of England who migrated to the United States, joined the Army, and became a tank driver. He said about his first couple of days on the base, We got shot at. We got rounds coming at us. Every time we went out, theres somebody yelling [at us]. Everywhere people hanging chicken wire across the street, dropping grenades off the bridges, shooting at you, even children. We saw 13, 14-year-old children with weaponsAK-47s, rifles, handguns.
According to the Department of Defense (DoD), for the first four months of the U.S. invasion, there were approximately 300 U.S. and UK soldiers killed from both combat- and non-combat-related deaths. Both Iraqis and peace activists in Iraq are skeptical about this figure. Even the DoD acknowledges that U.S. military estimates relate only to fighting in or near Baghdad. They make no other figures available and rarely report the number of injured soldiers, which is several times higher than the death toll. In many cases, they aggressively cover up their casualties and do not allow journalists to report them. With the U.S. death toll rising and public support of the occupation in Iraq waning, the military is making sure no negative pictures of soldiers dead bodies are shown on U.S. primetime TV. Instead theres a proposal from one of the producers at Fox TVthe most-watched television station by the troopsto produce COPS: The Baghdad Specials.
Most soldiers have expressed either privately or publicly that they want to go home to be with their families. Jason Gunn, 37th Armored Division tank driver, says the hardest thing is not the daily attacks against the troops, but the forced separation from his loved ones. You can deal with being shot at a lot because after a while you just get used to it and you dont really think about it and you just keep your mind on what your job is, what you have to do. But actually, when you come back in and youre by yourself, you just start to think about your family, your friends, being away so long, what they are doing, what they have gone through, and how they feel.
Not surprisingly, one of the reasons retail business has surged in Baghdad these days is the buying power of the GIs, their preferred purchases being smuggled electronic appliances or pirated DVDs, according to the shop owners. However, the troops do not purchase any other consumer items or food products from the local stores. Instead they buy overpriced water, food, and military rations from other countries as far away as the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
Who is the Iraqi Resistance, Anyway?
On July 13, under heavy U.S. military escort, there was a celebration of the formation of the 25-member Interim Iraqi Administrative Council. Most of its members are exiled Iraqis, including the members of the Iraqi National Congress from New York, funded by the United States and airlifted by the U.S. to Baghdad for this occasion, as well as the Iraqi Communist Party and powerful Iraqi Shiite clerics from Iran, who are not viewed favorably by the U.S.
The Council has promised to form a new permanent government, draft a new constitution, and hold free elections. Yet U.S. administrator Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) the highest authority in occupied Iraqholds the ultimate power to approve or veto the Councils decisions. This is a U.S. puppet regime, many Iraqis told me. Just a few hours after the ceremony, an Iraqi resistance ambush against the U.S. military resulted in one U.S. soldier dead and six wounded.
Many people believe if there were a government tomorrow in Iraq run by Iraqis, it would most likely be run by powerful Shiite Muslims from the south. Shiites make up approximately 50 to 70 percent of the population. They have been the de facto local government in southern Iraq since the invasion. They opposed Saddam (who is Sunni and persecuted Iraqs Shiite for decades) and welcomed his downfall by the U.S., but they are also against U.S. occupation. They openly advocate that the future Iraqi government should be an Islamic government and that the U.S. should leave as soon as possible.
Despite U.S. media claims, its common knowledge in Iraq that most of Iraqs underground resistance forces are not the so-called die-hard Saddam supporters or foreign groups (such as al-Qaida). Rather, they are mainly organized by local clans and religious clerics who have no connection to Saddams inner circle. They control local politics; even during Saddams reign, he consulted with them to get what he wanted.
I had an opportunity to interview former Iraqi army Colonel al-Akid Jaf Sadk Hussin al-Shmary. He was an al-Istikhbarat (military intelligence officer) in the Iraqi 51st Mechanics Unit in the al-Basra area. He said when the U.S. began its invasion on March 20, during the first few days of fighting they lost 200 to 250 tanks in battle and the Iraqis burned the rest of the tanks. We lost around 600 to 700 soldiers and officers and 1,000 or more became prisoners of war. [Since then], they have released most of the soldiers, but have still kept the high-ranking officers. He said after their defensive line was broken, they retreated to the city of al-Basra.
Al-Shmary blames their loss on traitors from Saddams inner circle. He said they sold Iraq out to the U.S. They caused the quick defeat of the Iraqi army and lost Baghdad in a few days.
Regarding the Iraqi resistance against Americans, al-Shmary denied he has any connections and downplayed the role of the former Iraqi army, so far. Of the resistance fighters, he said, I think they are from Islamic resistance, even from Fedayeen Saddam (Saddams Men of Sacrifice). They went to the Islamic resistance and you can see that in al-Falluja. If the Iraqi army wants to do something, they will hurt the Americans a lot and I wish they would do something, if God wants that. Al-Shmary predicts future fighting in Iraq against Americans will never be from the tank because we dont have them [anymore], but we could fight as street fighters, like what you saw in Baghdad, Falluja, Tikrit, Diyala, Mosul, and Diwaniyeh.
International Activists in Iraq
Since mid-April when the major assaults in Iraq ended, thousands of foreign humanitarian workers and human rights activists from around the world have come to Iraq to work with the United Nations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and human rights groups. Theyve come with the intention of helping the people of Iraq, all of this outside the scope of U.S. occupational forces and the U.S.-run CPA.
Unlike during Saddams regime, in post-war occupied Iraq, theres no immigration authority or government bureaucracy to register, monitor, or coordinate the international agencies so no one really knows how many international organizations are in Iraq. Baghdad is now the wild, wild west of international and Iraqi NGOs. Almost any group can get an apartment or hotel room and set up an office without going through any paperwork. They range from faith- based organizations to media activists, medical aids groups to human rights monitors. Some groups are multi-million dollar operations with hundreds of staff members, while others are mom- and-pop operations with only one person.
Medea Benjamin from San Franciscos Global Exchange and United for Peace and Justice has brought several delegations to Iraq since the end of the war to open an Occupation Watch center to monitor human rights abuses by U.S. occupying forces in Iraq. It has been an amazing experience here, and [you] get opinions from such a cross-section of Iraqis, she says.
Voices in the Wilderness is considered to be one of the oldest foreign human rights groups in Iraq. Ramzi Kysia, from Washington, DC, a third- generation Lebanese- American, has spent one of the past two years in Iraq for Voices. He was here during the first two weeks of the war, but was expelled by Saddams government. After the fall of the regime, he immediately returned to Baghdad. At its peak, Voices had 33 people from across the world in Iraq during the war.
Voices set up an independent media center in downtown Baghdad. Theyre working with a group of local university and high school students, as well as others, to start an independent newspaper called Al-Muajaha (Iraqi Witness; www.almuajaha.com).
I think our ultimate goal, Kysia says, is try to work for peace, social justice, and some kind of accountability for the leaders and policymakers who pursue policy that really devastates the entire nation [Iraq]. One thing that has been absolutely consistent in U.S. policy throughout Iraq in the last 30 years is the total disregard of the welfare of the Iraqi people.
The bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, which killed the UN special representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, has clearly shown the complexity of the situation in Iraq. Moreover, the August 29 bombing in Najaf, which killed over 100 including Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, the most powerful Iraqi Shiite leader, further demonstrates to the Iraqis the U.S. militarys inability to restore social order in occupied Iraq and to stop attacks from the bombers.
Despite many Iraqis opposition to the U.S. invasion, there are also many people supporting the idea of U.S. invasion for their own reasons. Kysia said their members had struggled for months before the war, when many Iraqis were privately telling them that they supported and wanted war.
But, Kysia argues, peace activists need to understand the paradox facing Iraqis. My view on this, from talking to people here, is really more sad than anything else, he explains. The fact that after 30 years of dictatorship, 3 absolutely devastating wars that ruined this country, and over 12 years of sanctions, they had been brutalized to the point where the only hopeful alternative they could see was to have massive amounts of bombs dropped on their country and to have foreign nations invade and occupy them.
Kysia says the fact that some sectors in Iraq supported the war doesnt mean its an indictment of the antiwar movement. I think its an indictment of a world that is just indifferent to the massive suffering of people everywhere. People here have been so brutalized that war was the only hope that they saw. Kysia concludes, I think if we are going to build a peaceful world, if we really do believe in things like peace and social justice, then we have to envision a world where we can give people hope outside of dropping bombs on them and invading their countries and taking them over.
Lee Siu Hin is an activist and a reporter for Pacifica Radio KPFK, Los Angeles. Special thanks to Ahmard Zaman, Amer al-Jassim, and Sheila Gibbons.
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CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
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PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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