Friday, June 30, 2006

History lived

The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, by Robert Fisk., published in the U.S. by Random House.

To be honest, I wouldn't have had time to read this 1000+ page tome if I hadn't been waiting for a replacement hard drive while confined to bed with a bad cold. But I was and I did -- and am probably somewhat the wiser for it, though also simply overwhelmed in the history of cruelty, carnage and cupidity that Fisk writes.

Fisk, a Brit, has been a correspondent for 30 years, based in Beirut, first for the London Times, then the Independent. In an excellent earlier book, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War he pieced together the story of that nation's civil war (1975-1990), a saga of local intrigue punctuated by repeated Israeli invasion and occupation and Syrian "intervention."

This new volume attempts an almost unimaginable sweep: beginning with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; looking back to the European betrayal of their Arab allies in the Versailles settlement after World War I (they promised independence and created colonies); touching on the Turkish genocide of Armenians in 1915; deconstructing the gross power imbalance that has led to naming the progressive destruction of Palestinian hopes a "peace process"; reminding ignorant Westerners of the real Gulf War I (1980-1988) in which Saddam led Iraqis against the Islamic Iranian revolution with support from the U.S. and Gulf potentates, killing some million people in 8 years; rushing west to Algeria whose independence struggle never broke the paradigm of murder and torture; and then back to contemporary hot spots, to suffering Iraqis who endlessly pay the price of grand Western dreams.

It is all so huge and awful, almost more than this reader can bear -- and I've haven't had to live it, except at a voyeur's distance. In this chronicle, the 9/11 atrocities appear at the scale they deserve: terrible crimes, but small and marginal compared with the ongoing horror in the Middle East of which they were a remote epiphenomenon.

Fisk's lesson, insofar as he is willing to derive one, is most un-American. We cannot escape the implications of our histories.

"...Our tragedy lies always in our past, that we have to live with our ancestors' folly and suffer for it, just as they, in their turn, suffered, and as we, through our vanity and arrogance, ensure the pain and suffering of our own children. How to correct history, that's the thing...."

Fisk's opus is going on my bookshelf next to William L. Shirer's classic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, another historical record of horror and folly by an informed witness that still demands contemporary reading.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Friday Cat Blogging:
More Lebanese cats

My Lebanese friend says hers is a country of cats. Certainly these creatures were not shy...

about showing themselves off....

exploring whether there is anything in it for me?....

or staking out the turf.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The great souq of Damascus

I'm about to be offline for a few days, sending my laptop out to get a new hard drive. My passion for digital photography has overrun this computer's storage space. So it seems only right to leave the blog with some pretty pictures during my absence.

In the late afternoon of a workday, the Damascus market is bustling, so crowded that simply walking through demands navigational energy. You can get anything you want here and many things you never thought of wanting. In such a citadel of consumerism, it is hard to think of Syria as an official enemy of the United States. (For some perceptive comments on Syria's enemy status, see here.)

You want it, you can get it -- in vibrant colors.

Syrians (and Lebanese and Jordanians, from my observations) prize their nargilehs, offered to tourists as "hubbly-bubblies." Yes, they use them for scented tobaccos, in case you had any ideas.

Yes, some flowers are plastic.

While these nuts couldn't be more real.

Need a fez in the Ottoman style?

Though modest dress is pervasive on women in the market, shops with displays like this (and much more risqué) are everywhere. What do mere tourists know about how Syrians really live?

Perhaps you are looking for plastic grapes and a baby doll?

Or even a vegetable sculpture?

You can indeed get anything you want at Damascus' restaurant!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Iraq Stories:
Restoring the Mesopotamian marshlands

Scientists and marsh dweller, October 2003. Photo from Nature Iraq.

Just about the only encouraging news we heard about during our delegation to Jordan and Syria came from Nature Iraq, a non-governmental organization working to restore the Mesopotamian marshlands that once covered much of southern Iraq. Dr. Azzam Alwash envisioned the project while in exile in the United States (where he supported the U.S. invasion) and returned to work on it as soon as Saddam Hussein was overthrown.

Following Gulf War I in 1991, the dictator drained these enormous wetlands that had endured for all of recorded history.

The marsh dwellers were important elements in the uprising against Saddam Hussein’s regime. To end the rebellion, the regime implemented an intensive system of drainage and water diversion structures that desiccated over 90% of the marshes. The reed beds were also burned and poison introduced to the waters. It is estimated that more than 500,000 [persons] were displaced, 95,000 of them to Iran, 300,000 internally displaced, and the remainder to other countries. By January 2003, the majority of the marshes were wastelands.

The former marsh dwellers were reduced to surviving as landless day laborers. They responded to the overthrow of Saddam by tearing down embankments and redirecting pumping stations to reflood the marshes.

But reconstituting a giant ecosystem is not easy. Anna Bachmann, an American who is Nature Iraq's only U.S.-born employee, told us how the process works. The marsh dwelling lifestyle depended on lots of other life in the wetlands. Other species had to return before humans could survive. Now that is happening: "when the birds came back and the fish came back, they the people came back." Today, 41 percent of the former area is again living marshland.

Not all previous wetland dwellers wish to return. Younger people have learned to like a dry land existence. They have learned to equate brick houses with riches, while the marshes can best support traditional reed building materials. Nature Iraq is trying to build a "Green Village" showing that traditional materials and a hunting and gathering economy can offer the people an attractive way to live and work.

Despite all the insecurity in contemporary Iraq, environmental NGOs are still doing some useful work, though they cannot employ non-Iraqi staff. Their longer term success will depend on Iraq working its way to a stable government.

Iraq stories:
A glimpse of 'Iraqi feminism'

Dr. Najde Al-Ali, a social anthropologist of Iraqi origin who teaches at Exeter University in the United Kingdom happened to be in Amman for a conference while our group was visiting. She offered some insight into the historical experience of Iraqi women, the subject of a book she is currently writing for Zed Books. The key insight I got from her talk is that feminism in Iraq has mostly been an idea used by an authoritarian regime for its own ends. During the oil boom of the 1970s, top down, state-sponsored "feminism" encouraged women's education and work in technical jobs. Then the long Iran-Iraq war, 1980-1988, which killed one million people, altered the gender balance in society to a female majority as well as promoting a militarized culture. Gulf War I and the sanctions that followed fell heavily on women as the regime propped itself up while leaving it to women to sustain families that had lost access to imported foodstuffs and medicines.

Top down, state-sponsored feminism made an unsustainable bargain to obtain women's labor in a society which sent many men to die in its wars; it brought women into public life but left family law, based on religious dictates, undisturbed. When insecurity under occupation pushed women out of employment, legally-based protections for women collapsed. This has nothing to do with "backwardness" or the particular dictates of Islam; it is a function of a false women's "liberation" that aimed to serve society's needs, not those of women themselves.

Al-Ali presented a time line of Iraqi women's status something like this:
  • 1958: first nationalist constitution grants considerable freedom to women outside the home;
  • 1978 constitution included some positive changes to family law, though nothing earthshaking;
  • 1980-1988 the Iran-Iraq war saw resurgence of patriarchal traditions;
  • 1991-2003: women bore the brunt of the sanctions regime, as the health and educational systems fell apart and secure employment declined;
  • late 2003: the Iran-linked SCIRI party began agitating for full restoration of sharia and patriarchal control of women; U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer vetoed this;
  • 2004: under the U.S.-installed Iyad Allawi government, the legal status of women remained as under the last Baath constitution;
  • 2005 and onward: the new constitution is contradictory. On the one hand, women can pass on Iraqi citizenship to their children, a new right. However, its family law removes even the formal guarantees of individual autonomy that existed under Saddam, making every woman subject to the authority of religious law as interpreted by the recognized authorities/clergy of her community of origin. Since such interpretations are not uniform, this means a very uneven, arbitrary set of legally enforceable rules. Thirty-seven women's organizations in Iraq are working to get these provisions rewritten, but how successful they will be in current circumstances remains to be seen.
Iraqi women have never yet been the leading voices deciding what rights they should have under law. The current insecurity makes it hard to see how they will play such a role today.

Most Iraqis would agree, according to Dr. Al-Ali that "we were afraid we'd be killed under Saddam ... but at least we could leave the back door open!" Only when security returns will Iraqi women be able to debate and define what rights they believe they should have under law.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Iraq stories:
Christian refugees seek help

Pastor Samir Yacco was filling in for the regular leader of the congregation.

Who would have thought that attending a Presbyterian service would be a highlight of visiting Syria? But St. Paul's Church in Damascus has become a home away from home for some of the thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees created by the collapse of security under U.S. occupation. And so, our delegation of peace activists joined members of this community for worship.

Afterwards we attended an emotional, sometimes angry, meeting at which the refugees poured out their stories of terror and their concerns about their future. Before the war, Christians of various sorts were about 3 percent of Iraq's population of 26 million, or some 800,000 people. That number is rapidly falling.

We heard a catalogue of horrors. An artist from Basra who sold a few pieces to the occupying British Army found himself labeled a collaborator with the occupation, threatened with execution for being a traitor. Intolerant fundamentalisms have been unleashed; one man reported that a neighbor was killed by radical Islamists for wearing shorts. All said they feared to send their daughters out alone, and certainly not without veils.

One of these young women summed up her situation: "I have no future in Iraq. To go on living, I would have to wear hijab and not wear a cross." She had finished high school, but does not expect to have a chance for further schooling.

These Iraqi Christians look back fondly to an earlier time. As they tell it, until the 1980s, different religious communities got along, neighbors of different faiths knew each other, and congratulated each other on their various religious holidays. Then Saddam Hussein launched his war on Iran and encouraged divisions. "Iraqis lost their sense of community." Saddam encouraged splits between people to stay in power. He took measures against wine shops, which were run by Christians, in order to win popularity. When Saddam was removed, an explosion of religious intolerance was unleashed.

People have lost their livelihoods. Those we met with are educated people who have skills that they trusted would give them a good living. In exile, they cannot work and live on small pensions and contributions from relatives.

Yet their plight at the hands of Islamic radicals has not made them supporters of the U.S. invasion. We heard heartfelt condemnations as well as multiple theories about who benefited from their misfortune:

"We are Iraqis and we oppose the occupation, but the Christians will never be able to go back. The new Iraqi government is imposing Iranian law; it is giving citizenship to Iranians. They don't want educated people to stay in Iraq."

"I saw American tanks knock down the doors of banks in Basra and say 'just go in.' The Americans created this situation, they should fix it. America is the government now."

"Sometimes we wish we didn't have oil in our country. We didn't ask Bush to come and get rid of Saddam Hussein. Billions have been spent on what they call 'reconstruction,' but nothing is fixed."

"America is letting Iran take over. Or maybe they want to give our country to Israel. We can't go back."

The meeting was humbling in several ways. First, our delegation was confronted by the simple fact that there is very little we can do for these people who need help so badly. Certainly we can try to publicize their plight -- happily, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. has been writing about the refugees' situation for several years. But on top of the sympathy we felt for these individuals, we also had to carry the knowledge that there are hundreds of thousands of other refugees, mostly Muslim, fleeing the carnage in occupied Iraq, most of them with even less prospect of assistance.

As the refugees say, the United States has made this humanitarian crisis -- can the people of the United States find the will to force our government to tend to our victims?

Throughout the meeting, our Syrian host worked his worry beads. This situation is not going to get better easily.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Al-Maliki tries to put out the fire

Iraqi firefighters put out a blaze started when a roadside bomb exploded in the predominantly Shi'ite area of Kazimiyah, sparking a fire in two discount clothing stores in Baghdad, Iraq, today. (AP Photo) Boston Globe

Here's a quick interruption of my series of reports on conversations with Iraqis to comment on breaking news:

Newsweek reports that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will unveil a new master national reconciliation plan tomorrow. Expected points include:
  • A timetable for withdrawal of occupation troops from Iraq;
  • Amnesty for all insurgents who attacked U.S. and Iraqi military targets;
  • Release of all security detainees from U.S. and Iraqi prisons;
  • Compensation for victims of coalition military operations.
If true, this is very good news. Unlike just about any of the blather out of Washington from U.S. politicians of either party, the proposal seems grounded in reality as perceived by people in the region -- an obvious prerequisite to progress toward reconciliation and reconstruction in Iraq.

In particular, this plan fits very well with one observation I should make from our trip to the area: no Iraqi we talked with even mentioned Abu Musa Zarqawi and his band of Al Qaeda wannabees as elements in the deteriorating situation. Zarqawi's outfit seems to be a Washington bugaboo, not a percieved factor in Iraq for those who are living there or even nearby.

I'll be posting more stories from the region over the next few days...

Friday, June 23, 2006

Iraq stories:
"They ruined everything."

From June 12-20, I was a member of a group of U.S. citizen peace activists organized by Global Exchange who traveled in Jordan and Syria in order to listen to people and groups, mostly Iraqi, reflect on the U.S. occupation of Iraq. This post is one of several that report what we saw and heard.

While we were in Amman, George W. dropped in for his photo op in the Baghdad Green Zone. As a consequence, one of the Iraqi women we were lucky enough to meet with, Raissa Zaydal (left above), found herself imprisoned in the Baghdad airport for 24 hours instead of taking off for Amman. There's a snapshot of the U.S. project in Iraq: it has the capacity to lock down the country for a five hour visit but most residents won't even be able to see the visitor on TV because they don't have any electricity. When Raissa finally got off the plane, she joined Faiza Al-Arji, the author of the blog A Family in Baghdad to talk with our group.

Raissa, a middle class Sunni, brought a very immediate account of conditions in Iraq's capital. She has sons who are university students. The practical effect of having only two hours of electricity a day is that the boys can scarcely study. To get light, they need natural gas for their house generator (I guess the occupation has succeeded in privatizing electric service); the price of natural gas has gone up 10 times since 2003. Not that studying seems very relevant in a country with so few prospects. A friend of one of Raissa's son's had been randomly killed by a car bomb near his university only three days before.

She had been forced out of her pre-war job as a pharmacist, a victim of the pressure from religious radicals to return women to the home. In general, security has become so poor that women simply have to stay home if they possibly can afford to. People are afraid to send their children to school, so she worries that literacy rates are declining. One way some families seek to protect their daughters is to marry them off very young. The pervasive lawlessness and actual danger is destroying the future for Iraq's young people.

After Bush's stunt, she particularly feared there would be a security crackdown in Baghdad. The prospect didn't make her feel safer. When the U.S. forces have done this previously, they have invaded houses, tossing in a stun grenade, then breaking down the door. They separate the women and the men, usually handcuffing the latter. After the 2004 siege of Fallujah, she explained that they'd heard rumors that whole families whose houses had been searched and who appeared to have come through the ordeal safely, suddenly left their homes and disappeared. It took a long time for those who remained to figure out what had happened to them: it is believed that the soldiers (U.S. and Iraqi, she wasn't sure which) had raped the women after taking them out of view of the men. The dishonored families fled their neighbors as well as the soldiers.

While Raissa shared what seemed sensible, day-to-day fears, Faiza, an educated, middle class Shiite, expressed a carefully honed, articulate fury about what has been done to her country. Before the war she had been a civil engineer. Under occupation, her car was highjacked at gunpoint. Her son was arrested by the Iraqi secret service probably because of his blog but luckily released intact; see here for the story as told by another brother. The family knew it was time to leave the country and fortunately were able to move to Amman. She insisted:

"the media just show Bush. They don't tell you how it really is. They don't tell you about all the Iraqis in Jordan and Syria."

She has no faith in the new Iraqi government.

"Iraqis are lost between the occupation and the crooks who say they are a government. ... The young men are being made fuel for war. There are no jobs. The occupiers send weapons; they make militias; they make the young men killers.

"There are gangs in the streets that attack women. You have to put a veil on your daughter or send your son with her if you want her to go to a store.

"Women from foreign non-governmental organizations come to tell us that we should make a revolution against our religious leaders. This would solve our problems, they say. But who put those leaders in power? The occupation!

"They [the Americans] ruined everything."

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Iraq Stories:
Realism and its limits

After 10 days in Jordan and Syria meeting with residents of those countries, especially Iraqis, it is depressing, if not surprising, to return to a silly debate in the U. S. Congress about the "future" of the U.S. enterprise in the region.

"Democrats insisted that the war had cost too much and that the United States must begin pulling troops out, while Republicans equated any withdrawal with retreat." NY Times, June 22, 2006.

NO ONE in the region thinks the "future" they are debating has any reality. Not "western observers" who needed to speak off the record; not the advocates of the possible such as the policy wonks of the International Crisis Group (ICG); not Syrians and Jordanians who live amid the backwash of the U.S. military adventure; and certainly not Iraqis, who have long ago concluded that the superpower is either mad or entirely bent on handing their country over to its enemies in Israel or Iran, if not on brutally exterminating them through encouraging criminal gangs while withholding essentials like electric power.

Joost Hiltermann is the Jordan-based Middle East project director for the ICG, an organization whose board of directors lists half the "wise old men" of Western international relations: figures like Zbigniew Brzezinski and retired General Wesley Clark lend their prestige to the group's work. Hiltermann very generously spoke candidly with our Global Exchange tour group of U.S. peace activists. He is in the business of providing research to governments, not on what has gone wrong in the past, but on what policy options may exist for moving forward with the least violence and human suffering.

ICG was unable to reach internal agreement on whether the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was justifiable. However Hiltermann believes his personal prediction has proved true: the U.S. won the military conflict easily, but has lost the peace. He describes the current situation in Iraq as very fragile indeed, as likely to collapse into inter-communal violence and criminal anarchy as to lead to any kind of stable state.

The most fundamental problem with the U.S. "victory" was that its imported occupation administrators, led by Paul Bremer, acted as if Iraq could be ruled without considering the well being of its Sunni population. Though Sunnis are only 20 percent of Iraqis and are concentrated in regions without oil reserves, they also have provided many of the country's vital technocrats, its secularists, and the years of Baath rule gave them an expectation of government influence. Yet U.S. occupation policy attempted to rule through dividing Iraqis along sectarian religious community lines. When Sunnis were simply excluded from influence in constitutional negotiations between some of the Shiites represented by the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution In Iraq (SCIRI) and Kurdish parties, an authentic, desperate Sunni insurgency mushroomed. The sectarian logic of occupation policy has created a low level civil war. "Full scale civil war could be much worse."

Hiltermann says the U.S. belatedly realized its error last fall, pushed by international pressure, especially from the Saudis. Until an elected Iraqi government was finally formed two weeks ago, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalizhad was effectively running the country while trying to encourage constitutional revisions that would diffuse sectarian conflicts. ICG proposes three elements of a path out of the present instability:
  • a national unity government representing all communities must be formed. The recently formed government is such an entity, though Hiltermann called it "not very legitimate" despite the electoral and negotiation process from which it arose.
  • a thorough revision of the constitution that removes the divisive "federalism" inserted by Kurds and SCIRI-oriented Shiites that would exclude Sunnis from most oil revenues. Whether this can be accomplished will be the test for Iraqis and the U.S. occupation in the next period. Some Shiites, especially those led by the prime minister's Dawa Party and by Moqtada Sadr are nationalists, not inclined to enshrine sectarianism in the basic law. These groups are not beholden to Iran, despite occasional U.S. suggestions to the contrary. However Kurds are not Iraqi nationalists. They have no intention of subjecting their territory to genuine national control; they further demand to control the oil rich city of Kirkuk. Hiltermann emphasized that his research supports the Arab Iraqi position that this demand is just an oil grab; Kurds cannot legitimately claim that Kirkuk was once a majority-Kurdish city. If constitutional negotiations fail, the Sunnis will withdraw from the government and an even more destructive insurgency/civil war will follow.
  • after the constitution is rebalanced, then genuinely national Iraqi security forces can be created. The current ones are simply disguised militias; new ones, representing a legitimate, broadly supported government will be required to restore order and civil society. Persons occupying positions of power in the Iraqi government need a realistic, independent vetting by some legitimate judicial body that doesn't currently exist. The country needs not only de-Baathification, but also an impartial review of crimes committed in the post-invasion civil strife.
If these measures fail, Iraq will dissolve in a fury of inter-communal violence far worse than anything seen yet, violence that might well spread to neighboring countries such as Jordan and Syria.

Hiltermann cannot not urge immediate U.S. withdrawal. A "precipitous" U.S. departure seems to him likely to make a bad situation even worse, akin to the U.S. ignoring Afghanistan and allowing it to fester after the Soviet Union pulled out in the late 1980s.

This was a line we heard as well from "responsible western observers" who cannot be quoted. Domestic U.S. political parties may be off in LaLaLand refighting the Munich crisis of 1938, but the policy wonks are obsessed with the Afghan experience.The U. S. dropped the ball there when it seemed to serve our interests and ended up with the Taliban. The wonks fear we'll do this again. (As in fact, we apparently have... in Afghanistan.)

From our interviews however, this seems a Western point of view. Some Iraqis and other Arabs are afraid of what will happen when the U.S. withdraws, but they also see eventual U.S. departure as essential and inevitable. A Jordanian policy sophisticate who asked not to be named summarized what seems to be the regional concensus succinctly.

My solution may be brutal, but I believe the U.S. must leave completely. Iraq will have a difficult rebirth; it may take 10 or 15 years. But Iraq has enough heritage to recover, to stand on its own two feet. There is no other way.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Iraq Stories:
Detainees and torture

From June 12-20, I was a member of a group of U.S. citizen peace activists organized by Global Exchange who traveled in Jordan and Syria in order to meet with people and groups, mostly Iraqi, to hear their experiences and views of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. This post is one of series that will report what we saw and heard.

Three men we met with in Jordan claim to have been tortured by U.S. forces while in detention for various periods. Obviously, I have no way to verify their particular stories, but I will affirm that I believe that they speak truth in the sense that the outrages described have all happened somewhere in Iraq at the hands of U.S. forces, even if not to these particular individuals. I report what they told us below. At the end of the article I'll add some of my own comments.

Muhamad al-Daraji of the organization Monitoring of Human Rights in Iraq introduced us to the three former prisoners at a meeting at the Amman Center for Human Rights. He reports that his organization assists the work of 28 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Iraq, focusing on brutality in prisons, including those run by the U.S. occupation forces, by the Iraqi government, and, worst of all, by various militias. From what I could tell, his organization came largely from a Sunni base.

Sheik Abdul-Kareem Habdaraza, the leader of a Sunni mosque in Fallujah, runs an association that cares for women and orphans. He knows of 500 widows, many with seven or more children, all without a source of income and many without even housing. Now drugs are turning up in his community and the children are psychologically injured.

He thinks the U.S. troops are sex obsessed. They take the clothes off prisoners including women and children. When he was detained, women soldiers showed him their naked bodies. He also heard a woman screaming: "Don't take my clothes off." The Americans hang prisoners upside down, use electric shocks on their genitals. Because they do these things, now Iraqi militias do the same and worse. He thinks the militias were set up by Iran.

"People in Iraq think the Americans are bloodsuckers....The truth is bitter. Americans will be hated for generations. Sometimes I want to scream at you: we come from a civilization that has endured for 7000 years."

Haj Ali says he was the person in the iconic photo from Abu Ghraib showing the hooded figure with arms outspread hooked to electrodes and balanced on a box. He displays a hand that is missing one and half fingers; he claims this deformity matches the hand of the man in the photo. Some U.S. journalists have interviewed him and disputed this claim. He does look to be a much larger man than that photo seems to portray.

He didn't want to talk about his torture. He was arrested in 2003 and released six months later with no charges. He wanted to talk about the Association of Victims of American Occupation Prisons that he organized. There are now 76 U.S. bases in Iraq that have prison facilities. Militias that he claims have been instigated by Iran probably run another 150.

According to Haj Ali, the U.S. arrests people based on denunciations by people who have grudges against people they know; 99 percent of those arrested did nothing against the occupation, though many are individuals opposed to religious or ethnic sectarianism. He hears terrible stories every day at his headquarters in Amman. Recently he heard from a man released by occupation forces that they had arrested his wife, put her in another room and made him listen to them abusing her.

Basam al Akram was also held prisoner by U.S. forces. He is a Christian and Kurdish. When first arrested in 2003 he was kept handcuffed in a small room for 15 days. He asked for a Bible; guards gave him pornographic images instead. He believes that because he said he was a Christian, they asked him if he liked Jews, then hung him up on a cross. They also put a cat under his clothes to torment him.

Most of his difficulties now are that he is a refugee in Jordan and unemployed. He is married, but after what they did to him, he has trouble being with his wife. When he came out of prison, he looked so different his little daughter did not recognize him. After he was released by U.S. forces, he was kidnapped for ransom. The kidnappers were criminals who just wanted money. His family and tribe paid, but then he fled the country.
After the ex-prisoners shared their testimony, Muhamad al-Daraji explained that he had been on the city council of Fallujah. The U.S. Army troops that first came to the town met with civic leaders and worked out ways to avoid intruding on the mores and religious feelings of the townspeople. Then, in early 2004, the Army was replaced by U.S. Marines who scorned the previous agreements and proclaimed that if one Marine was killed, ten Fallujans would die.

He said he tried to make these U.S. soldiers understand that violence just bred more violence, but they wouldn't listen. Later in 2004, the U.S. used white phosphorous, an incendiary weapon, to subdue the resistance in the town. Much of the town was reduced to rubble and people made refugees in their own country. Now townspeople are seeing abnormal births. They have asked the United Nations and the World Health Organization to help them understand what is making people sick, but the U.S. won't allow an impartial investigation. In order to enter Fallujah, people must submit to fingerprinting and iris scans.

Al-Daraji is one of the many Iraqis who suspect that U.S. Special Forces along with the new Iraqi army did the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra in February which touched off a terrible spate of killings of Sunnis by enraged Shiites -- and then a wave of revenge killings by Sunnis.

All these men believe the only hope for Iraq is for American forces to leave. They believe if the occupation ended, Iraqis, perhaps with help from international courts, could solve the problems between their communities.
The Bush administration's response to tales of torture like these has been to say that Al Qaeda or the Iraqi insurgency teaches men to make these claims as a way of attacking the U.S., as a form of "asymmetrical warfare." I can't help but believe that there is too much smoke for there not to be fire. We've seen the Abu Ghraib pictures; we read of misconduct indictments and massacres by G.I.s. At this point, given what we know is true, the burden of disproving these kinds of reports is on the U.S., not the men who make the claims.

Where U.S. troops are concentrated, they have overwhelmingly superior force. They can abuse prisoners if the command allows such conduct. And their command authorities do not seem to have stopped abuse. Perhaps some commanders even endorsed "tough measures." Too often, torture seems to have become U.S. policy in dealing with those deemed "enemies." As the occupying power, U.S. is responsible under international law for criminal acts by soldiers and by shadowy "interrogators."

Monday, June 19, 2006

Iraq Stories:
Human rights and humanitarian work under occupation

From June 12-20, I was part of a group of U.S. citizen peace activists organized by Global Exchange who traveled in Jordan and Syria in order to listen to people and groups, mostly Iraqi, speaking about the U.S. occupation of Iraq. This post is one of series that will report what we saw and heard.

Stefano Alfaro spoke to us of the work of an Italian humanitarian aid project funded by local Italian government (presumably ones not quite in sympathy with former Prime Minister Berlusconi's acquiescence in Bush's war.) Un Ponte Per (A Bridge Across) began its work after Gulf War I and stayed in Iraq throughout the sanctions regime of the 1990s. It only removed its foreign staff after the kidnapping of the two Simonas (Italian humanitarian workers whose rescue was climaxed by U.S. forces shooting the Italian officer who was escorting them to safety.)

Now Un Ponte Per has spread its work throughout the region, supporting local indigenous human rights groups in Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Turkish Kurdistan. They have many specific projects, for example, supporting the rebuilding of the catalogue of the National Iraqi Library which was burned in the chaos after the invasion. But more generally, they view their role as supporting local groups with technical assistance.

One of these partner projects is Al-Messalla, an Iraqi non-governmental organization (NGO) that tries to build community capacity and encourage non-violence. Its director, Ishmael Daoud described what has been like to try to do this work under occupation.

He explained that right after the U.S. invasion, there was plenty of money for human rights work -- if what you meant by human rights was documenting the abuses of the Saddam Hussein regime. But if you were interested in the current human rights there was no support.

In Daoud's opinion, the real human rights problem in present day Iraq is "the impunity." That is, U.S. soldiers and their contractors are free to operate outside any legal structure without responsibility for any acts they may do against the civilian population. From the beginning

"the soldiers killed people randomly and they just didn't care. .. Each 'mistake' is another person killed. We are bleeding everyday."

He further complained that the U.S. authorities act as if all there is to human rights is holding elections. Iraqis have gained some formal freedoms; in theory he could say anything in Iraq. But he can have no confidence that he won’t be killed or that any authority would hold his killers accountable.

Daoud went on to wonder where all the killers come from? Could they really have so many weapons if the U.S. didn't have a hand in setting up the militias?

His group has had small successes educating Iraqi police and authorities at the local level about the rights of prisoners. But the U.S. controls those it designates "security prisoners" and they have no influence over how they are treated. U.S. forces jail juveniles and women with adult men. Al Messalla particularly fights this practice.

In response to a question, Daoud admitted that prisoners don't tend to turn to NGOs for help -- rather, the harsh conditions of prisons led them to organizing under the auspices of their religious communities.

Alfaro chimed in to explain about how the occupation has undermined authentic human rights work. It is a long-standing principle that humanitarian NGOs must be separate from governments to enable them to navigate among all the parties in societies; a reputation for independence increases their credibility and protects their staff. Beginning with the Afghanistan war, the U.S. military has openly aimed to make NGOs agents of peace-keeping strategy, doling our aid to buy acceptance. USAID, supposedly a humanitarian agency, has an office in the Pentagon; so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq have been under military control and authority.

International humanitarian NGOs are forced to work through Iraqi partners because they cannot protect foreign staff in contemporary Iraq. But Alfaro wanted us to understand that the tremendous challenges of working in Iraq were proving a real opportunity for humanitarian professionals to learn how to better assist projects envisioned and controlled by Iraqis on the ground.

Daoud expressed alarm the new Iraqi government would take its lead not from U.S. words but from the occupation's practice, curtailing freedom of speech and association in the name of security. Conditions in Iraq are not getting better. It is harder to do NGO work in 2006 than it was in 2003. His only glimmer of hope is that it may be possible for Iraqi NGOs to work with United Nations agencies and those of the European Union sometime in the future.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Jordan notes

(The following notes are random impressions from three days in Amman, Jordan where I am part of a delegation of U.S. peace activists which is meeting with Iraqis and other international workers to try to better understand the effects and implications of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Many posts about this journey will follow, but internet access is sporadic, so what follows is only a taste.

Disclaimer: I write from a country where I have never been before, where I do not speak the language; what I share may tell more about me than the place I am lucky enough to visit.)

After getting used to the riot of posters of politician's faces that cover half the surfaces in Lebanon, it was a shock to come to a country dominated by only very few pictures: the smiling King Abdullah II, occasionally his father King Hussein, and one other visage which I take to be the Prime Minister. There are also occasional symbols of the Palestinian resistance, not surprising in a country where at least two thirds of the population is Palestinian.

The people who clean hotel rooms in a good, but not high-class, business hotel here are men.

This country is full of Iraqis displaced by the U.S. invasion. The Jordanians we've talked with (taxi drivers, tourism workers primarily) say they have flooded in, they are rich, and they have driven real estate prices sky high. The Iraqis we've met say that the Jordanians make it hard for them to stay, forcing them to go back to Iraq and re-enter every 3 months on a new visa; many Iraqis arriving at the border are not permitted to enter. Every Iraqi has a story of someone they know, a relative or a friend, who didn't make it out of their no-longer functioning, desperately insecure country.

Our guide, an Iraqi Shiite, tells of taking a bus back to Iraq to accomplish the visa renewal. She was fully sheathed in hijab so as not to attract attention. The rest of the passengers were Sunnis. At the border, the Jordanians made a point of letting the entire bus hear that the stamps on her passport showed she had visited the United States. (She spoke on college campuses early in the war.) The other passengers started making comments about how maybe they should spent the night in Fallujah. Our guide managed to leave the bus without going all the way into Iraq and come back through the Jordanian border -- in fear for her life.

The same guide helped two members of the delegation who are waiters in the U.S. talk with some restaurant workers here. These turned out to be Egyptians. They work 14 hours a day, 7 days a week -- and assured our guys that the conditions here were better than Egypt.

When we are not talking politics, we are visiting the ruins of the succession of civilizations that have flourished in this place: Ammonites, Babylonians, Persians, Hellenic Greeks, Romans, Selucids, Arabs, Turks and more.

This Ummayyad Citadel tops Amman's highest point -- the ubiquitous Jordanian flag flys from what is said to be the world's highest freestanding flag pole in the distance.

Monday, June 12, 2006

A visit to the Lebanese village of Jezzine

When it gets hot in Beirut, Lebanese who can flee to the mountains. Jezzine in the south central mountains is such a village. Our dear Lebanese friend insisted we should see this beautiful place of which she carries happy childhood memories.

To reach the village, you climb twisting mountain roads.

The village sits on top of a cliff rock formation.

Some buildings seem grow right out of the rock.

Back from the cliffs, there is a quiet main street,

an Ottoman vintage town hall,

boxes of apricots, oranges, zucchini, beans and other produce in front of small stores,

and a jumble of buildings old and new where the residents of Jezzine live.

The people of Jezzine are known for a unique craft, creating inlaid horn handles shaped like a bird's head. An old gentleman gave us a demonstration of this local art.

This was the old way of drilling. Nowadays, they use a drill press.

Here he has pushed the blue stone inlay into the hole drilled in the horn. He is cutting it off at the surface level. After the inlay is firmly in place, the whole will be sanded and polished smooth.

A letter opener handle, showing the distinctive long-beaked bird of Jezzine.

Ring that bell!

Above the village of Jaj in Lebanon, high on the side of the mountain, a hearty grove of the famous cedars pushes upward among the rocks.

A hiking path leads to a small stone church, empty of furnishings.

A cross and bell tower top the tiny shrine.

At this distant place we came upon two young local hikers who were considering whether they could make the church bell toll. One clearly had some experience with the bell and was eager to show off for his friend and foreign tourists with cameras. I didn't have to understand Arabic to know what he was saying:

Here's how you do it.

You have to pull all the way down.

Then the bell pulls you back up.

It lifts you all the way off your feet! Clang, clang, clang....