Report from Baghdad: Destruction everywhere


Everywhere
in Iraq, you can see the destruction from the U.S.-UK invasions.
Half of the city’s 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. 

“It’s
certain that women feel that now [after April], it is less safe
for them on the street,”  she explains. “There’s
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have been withdrawn from school because their parents think it’s
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 Saddam’s secular government will be replaced with
a fundamentalist Islamic government, which will further undermine
women’s 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. 


Rebuilding 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 Saddam’s 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 Iraq’s
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 hasn’t returned to its functioning
pre-war level. 

Everyone
I interviewed told me it’s not the war killing them, it’s
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 you’re 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.” There’s
almost no one in Iraq—either pro- or anti-Saddam, defender
or opponent of the U.S. invasion—who won’t 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 Baba”—a
thief—but that the U.S. is an even bigger “Ali Baba.” 

The
U.S. bombings and invasion destroyed government ministry buildings,
police stations, Ba’ath 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 world’s 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
didn’t attack the facility and it basically went unharmed. 

It’s
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 “Saddam’s
head.” 

According
to an unofficial survey, Iraq’s 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
doesn’t mean that Baghdad doesn’t 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 country’s
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 haven’t 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 it’s “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 Ba’ath
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 Saddam’s
regime, social criminals, or those attacking American troops. Amnesty
International’s 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. It’s 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 country—California,
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 we’re told to. This is our job…you’re
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, there’s 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 weapons—AK-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 there’s a proposal from one of the producers
at Fox TV—the most-watched television station by the troops—to
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 don’t 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 you’re 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. 

Beyond
what they have been told, the average U.S. soldier has very limited
knowledge of the history and culture of Iraq, or of the Islamic
faith. Soldiers told me they learned a lot about Iraq through a
DoD publication, Iraq Handbook. At my request, Lt. Col. Garry
Bishop, Battalion Commander gave me a copy. This book is given to
every U.S. soldier who comes to Iraq. Its 385 pages can be broken
down as follows: key facts and cultural information for 24 pages;
history, primarily focusing on the time period since Saddam’s
rise to power, for 17 pages; government, politics, and economy accounts
for another 17 pages. By far, the largest part of this book, 270
pages, is devoted to information about the Iraqi military and what
weapons they use. 


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 Shi’ite
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 Iraq—holds the ultimate power
to approve or veto the Council’s 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 Shi’ite Muslims
from the south. Shi’ites 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 Iraq’s Shi’ite 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, it’s common knowledge in Iraq that most
of Iraq’s 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 Saddam’s inner
circle. They control local politics; even during Saddam’s 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 Saddam’s 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 (Saddam’s
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 don’t
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. They’ve 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 Saddam’s regime, in post-war occupied Iraq, there’s
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 Francisco’s 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 Saddam’s 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. They’re
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 Shi’ite
leader, further demonstrates to the Iraqis the U.S. military’s
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 doesn’t
mean it’s an indictment of the antiwar movement. “I think
it’s 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.