It’s been a week now since I completed a 2 week tour of post war Iraq, or at least that’s how George W refers to this time. Actually, the war continues in Iraq only now there are even more players. It is no longer the war between the lone ranger USA and dictator Saddam, although most people knew it was never really that simple. This unilateral, preemptive war with no clear plan on what to do after the Iraqi government fell, has opened up a Pandora’s box that nobody knows how to contain. It is a quagmire probably of more significance than Vietnam where the enemy is defined as terrorism which is about as tangible as a ray of light. The victims of course are the Iraqi people and our foot soldiers, but that’s nothing new either.
Our Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) delegation arrived in Baghdad on January 5. We joined a CPT team of 7 who were deeply involved in documenting cases of abuse and torture by coalition forces against Iraqi detainees. The team had compiled data from 72 cases which included prying off toenails during interrogation to psychological torture and more. The data was passed on to CPA headquarters, various senators and representatives and of course, the media. BBC picked up on it almost immediately and ran the story repeatedly on headline news. The next day, there were reports that 500 of the estimated 18,000 detainees would be released and that military investigations were pending. CPT didn’t claim total responsibility for the response as Occupation Watch, AFSC, Amnesty International and independent journalists had been contributing evidence as well. [see reports below]
Our delegation jumped into the work head on. During our 1st full day in Baghdad, we witnessed the testimony of an Iraqi translator who saw a man gunned down at a check point. Although some of the details were sketchy, the man was essentially gunned down by 3 soldiers without firing any warning shots as he approached the checkpoint. When the car finally stopped, US soldiers dragged the victim out of the car while he bled profusely as other soldiers searched for explosives for 45 minutes.When none were found, they strapped him to the hood of a Humvee and took him to a nearby medical facility. He died soon after and due to improper documentation, it took 3 months before the family knew what happened. The victim left behind a wife, 5 children, and many family members.
Next, we learned about the tragedies in Balad, a city of 90,000 northwest of Baghdad in the so called Sunni triangle. Balad has had its share of violent resistance and was therefore subject to the policy of "Iron Hammer". This policy is carried out through violent house raids, intimidation, and collective punishment. It’s during these procedures in particular that abuse and misconduct seem to prevail. We heard the details of a few. We also saw the effects of collective punishment in the form of bulldozing citrus orchards and imprisoning an entire village of farmers and their families behind razor wire.
During the remaining time in Iraq, we spoke with a variety of representatives from the Iraqi population. We talked with some of the highly educated as well as the common laborer. We spoke with the Sunni, Shia, Palestinian and Christian, including the Papal Nuncio. We heard from hospital administrators, educators, engineers, the Chief of Police, mothers, fathers, ex-soldiers and soldiers to be. We also spoke with representatives from 2 remaining international NGO’s. As many know they are hard to come by in Iraq right now.
We looked pretty hard for signs of reconstruction. Bechtel had already been awarded a large portion of the allocated 18 billion dollars. We heard from a number of people that Bechtel has been notorious for subcontracting out the work, pocketing a large portion of the bid and then being completely unaccountable for the work which has so far been of extremely poor quality. Additionally, we saw no improvement in getting basic necessities to the people. Electricity is off 50% of the time, there are still large segments of Baghdad with no clean water and rural areas experience even worse conditions. Many of the roads in Baghdad are blocked off and rerouted by the military so traffic is almost at a standstill. The frustration level is close to meltdown.
We did learn that some of the larger hospitals received quite a bit of support from NGO’s before they left the country and that the CPA did a great job of financing the Iraqi police force. For the most part, they are the first line of defense for the coalition forces so it’s not too surprising they are so well stocked.
We heard many people say that in the beginning, they wanted to work with the American led forces, but now they are pretty much finished. A group of young men studying to be clerics at the Islamic University told us that because of the way they have seen the coalition forces treat the Iraqi people, they have done nothing but make enemies. As I listened, I thought to myself God help us, these are the future Iraqi leaders.
Members of our delegation asked the Iraqis repeatedly whether the occupation should end. The almost unanimous response which we tried desperately to make sense of was no, at least not in the immediate future. Some said they should leave after a few more months. The Papal Nuncio said outright "your country (USA) made this mess, your country needs to clean it up".
We heard over and over that the Iraqi people have been oppressed for so long that they don’t really know who they are or what they want. Although there were no clear answers, many Iraqi’s felt that given a bit of time to heal they could and actually had to pick their own government. In the meantime, they had hoped the military would act as referees without imposing their ideas. Helping with matters like getting electricity and water up to par would aid the healing process tremendously.
The military as it stands right now is the interface between the Iraqi people and the CPA which is totally divorced from the people. Any military has a hard time connecting with the people and the US military has a long track record of failure. Policies such as "Iron Hammer", "Iron Fist", "Iron Grip", etc., make building community and relationships virtually impossible. Not only do these policies put the Iraqi people in danger, they put the troops in harms way too. Stability in Iraq that is brought about by force and intimidation will not last. The consequences of an unstable Iraq extend well beyond their borders and are likely to cross over ours as well. How many more times can we afford to call "code orange"? Is it only a matter of time before we experience "code red"?
Mostly what I learned from this trip is the great need to stay focused on the source of these hideous policies, ie those in the White House and Pentagon. These people have taken the Iraqi people, the coalition soldiers, and our country to the brink of destruction. They need to be held accountable, especially if the UN manages to bail them out of their mess. How I would love to see a national march on the Pentagon the likes of which has never been seen before. Any organizers out there wanting to take this idea on?