Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Five Years of War for What?

I didn’t watch George W. Bush declare war on Iraq that dark and cold night in March. I had prayed for weeks that war would be averted and up until the week before I believed that it would. The “inevitable,” as Bush called it, came when he gave the signal to let the bombs fall on March 19, 2003. Once more, I had to escape my denial of the thing.

The president had made up his mind to go to war and so we went to war.

I sat alone that night imagining the scene at the borders of Iraq where soldiers had been gathering for months and waiting for the action to begin. They kept themselves busy by exercising, readying the equipment, cleaning their weapons, and contending with the swirling sands and howling winds of the desolate, treeless terrain. Sand everywhere and in everything: shoes, clothes, gear, machinery. Mouthfuls of it in their food, in their sleepy snores, and constantly in their eyes and ears.

We were told that Iraq during the summer months would be unbearably hot so our war planners wanted to get on with the war, win it, and bring the soldiers home just as they did in 1991. Back then, coalition forces of 660,000 had successfully pushed Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait in 100 hours. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers surrendered with hardly a fight. Casualties were minimal and our troops returned as heroes and victors.

This time, although we were practically running this war alone, we were still the strongest firepower the world had ever seen. We had the most up-to-date technology and the most disciplined troops. Why shouldn’t we have a repeat performance of the Persian Gulf War?

For months Bush had appeared on TV every night talking about “the evil one” and about how determined he was to rid the world of “the dictator” and his weapons of mass destruction. Bush also wanted to avenge his father’s attempted assassin and garner payback for the dastardly acts of terrorism on September 11.

Polls showed that most Americans believed Bush’s charges. They were convinced and impatient that we should just get on with the war and settle the score.

I was among the 43 percent of Americans horrified by all this bloodlust, especially since the administration said that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons and might use them on our troops. Fear of this happening gripped me as I contemplated thousands of our soldiers breathing in the toxins and dropping dead as they crossed the border into Iraq.

We were also told to expect the appearance of the renowned and fearless Republican Guard. Daddy Bush hadn’t taken them out in ‘91 so they were still out there ready to kill our troops.

The day after war was started the newspapers pictured Bush in the Oval Office. He looked solemn and grave. He sat up straight behind his desk with his hands folded. He appeared very presidential. Later it was revealed that this self-proclaimed man of God was convinced that he was to go forward with this war. Our country was now in Bush’s hands—and God’s—although I wondered who this God was that advocated war.

The newspapers also pictured a soldier seated on a bench, bowing his bare head and praying as a rosary dangled from his folded hands. He was big and strong in his combat garb and he was a well-trained warrior. He looked apprehensive as he prepared for battle as though he knew his life was in God’s hands now, too.

On that somber night in March I imagined the soldiers breaking camp as they readied themselves for the push into Iraq. They solemnly but efficiently packed away their unnecessary gear, put on their flak vests, tied up their boots, straightened their helmets, and adjusted their rifles. These sounds trifled with the cacophony of trucks and tanks warming up their engines.

Once again the Middle Eastern desert, the “cradle of civilization,” would be filled with the clanging of metal against metal and will against will amid the low-pitched shouts of commanders and troops’ cries of “let’s go get ‘em.”

As the soldiers began the ground invasion into Iraq, jet fighter pilots dropped bombs on Iraqi military installations in order to scare the beejeezus out of the Iraqis through a new war tactic called “shock and awe.” The tremendous firepower unloaded on these targets was intended to make Saddam surrender unequivocally. It must have been a glorious sight if it had not been so deadly!

To me, the new war felt like a headache, an intense and splitting headache on the scale of a migraine. What had been unleashed in the world?

At that time no one ever doubted the U.S. would overtake Iraq. Images of victory flashed across our TV screens as our troops moved into city after city in record time. Once again, we would pound Iraqi troops without much loss of life. It looked like another cakewalk against Saddam.

In early April we saw the conquering of Baghdad symbolized in the tearing down of Saddam’s statue. It was reminiscent of our soldiers hoisting the flag at Iwo Jima. We had prevailed and the Iraqis thanked us for ridding them of their tyrant.

The newspapers also showed pictures of our soldiers relaxing in cushy chairs with their feet atop coffee tables as they puffed on cigars in Saddam’s palaces. It was the sweet taste of victory. I’m sure they were relieved it was over and they anticipated their return to the States.

Americans back home were happy, too. Well, some Americans. Those who initially supported the war saw its conclusion in those pictures. They had been right and Bush had been justified in calling for the war—because we had won it.

Those who didn’t support the war remained apprehensive. Some continued their demonstrations on downtown street corners denouncing the illegal, unnecessary, immoral destruction and death. They had been proved wrong.

One war hawk in my town berated the millions of “peace protesters” in a letter to the editor by asking: “Where’s the problem? What’s the worry?”

After five years of war with 4,000 Americans and one million Iraqis dead, the questions now are: when does it end, how and who’s going to do it?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

BTW, What Do the Iraqis Want?

You’ve got to hand it to the Quakers. They never quit. They are steadfast in their devotion to peace. And they continue to seek ways of informing Americans about the Iraq War, even when that war has become passé in the media and a largely avoided topic in the presidential debates.

Recently, in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, the Friends set up a “Speak for Peace Tour” and invited Raed Jarrar to provide an Iraqi perspective. I met him during his five-cities tour of Michigan.

Raed is a native of Baghdad who had just completed studies in architecture when his neighborhood was bombed by the Americans in April 2003. “Surgical warfare” was supposed to target only the “bad guys” and not civilians, but Raed found his neighbors were being killed and fleeing from their homes.

His purpose in life instantly changed. He decided to document civilian injuries and deaths during the first four months of the invasion. He recruited and organized 200 volunteers to conduct a survey by going door to door in cities and villages to find out who was hurt or killed.

“We gave names and faces for the Iraqi casualties,” said Raed. Also included in the survey were notes about the way each person was killed, the place and the monthly income of the dependents.”

Raed married an American and has lived in the U.S. for several years now. He works as a political analyst and consultant for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and has testified before Congress about conditions in Iraq. His blog, “In the Middle,” discusses U.S. foreign policy, the political scene and the media’s portrayal of Iraq and Iraqis. His commentary is blistering but hey, how would most of us feel if we lost our whole way of life?

During his visit to Kalamazoo where 150 people showed up, he was congenial, articulate and very pointed in letting us know what was happening in Iraq and what the U.S. should do.

“There is only one U.S. foreign policy for Iraq and that is one based on military interventionism,” he said. “Whether it is humanitarian aid or killing off the ‘bad guys’, the attitude remains that the United States must stay in Iraq.”

Raed said that the U.S. government’s justifications for intervention in Iraq have shifted but the motivation is the same: to control the Middle East and its oil resources.

For example, one of the reasons given in the 1990s to justify bombing and sanctioning Iraq was to save the habitat for certain birds living in the marshes that Saddam Hussein was drying up. Other reasons included saving the Kurds from genocide. Then it was to save the world from weapons of mass destruction. Now it is to prevent civil war between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites.

Military intervention in Iraq was not George W. Bush’s idea alone. His father and Bill Clinton were both itching to get into Iraq. And while Americans are stuck debating whether military intervention should be multilateral or unilateral, Raed was adamant that the U.S. never had any business being in Iraq in the first place.

“U.S. taxpayers should think about fixing the problems here before going outside to police and rescue the world,” he said referring to the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina, joblessness, poverty, and now the housing crisis. Actually, Raed put his money where his mouth is and went to New Orleans to volunteer in its reconstruction.

Five years of war in Iraq have resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1 million Iraqis (based on the July 2006 Lancet report that counted 600,000 Iraqi deaths).

“Americans need to realize that the violence in Iraq is the result of 18 years of illegal foreign intervention,” said Raed.

The solution of what to do about Iraq stymies most Americans. Both Democrats and Republicans maintain that it is imprudent to withdraw troops from Iraq but they come at it from different perspectives, said Raed.

The so-called “right” in Washington, D.C. believes that the terrorists will win and that the U.S. should stay in Iraq to defeat them. The so-called “left” wants the troops to stay because they believe that the ancient hatred between the Sunnis and Shi’ites will destroy the country so the Iraqis need to be rescued from civil war and the country should be partitioned.

While the “hawks” are openly speaking about leaving troops indefinitely, the “doves” want to start withdrawing the troops soon. What the majority of Americans don’t know is that the peaceful D.C. “doves” make three exceptions that would maintain up to 75,000 troops indefinitely in Iraq. These exceptions include training the Iraqi military forces, maintaining counter-terrorism operations and protecting the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Military trainers in Iraq are viewed as negatively as those at the School of the Americas who train Latin American officers and soldiers on strategy and tactics, including torture.

“Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish governmental and non-governmental militias that are being trained and protected by the U.S. are the major reasons why 4.5 million Iraqis have been kicked out of their homes during the last five years,” said Raed. “These militias are committing systematic ethnic and sectarian cleansing to create a new environment in Iraq where partitioning the country is possible.”

Secondly, counter-terrorism tactics have created more terrorism.

Prior to the 2003 invasion there was no Al Qaeda and no regional and international intervention in Iraq. There were no extremists blowing themselves up either, said Raed.

Thirdly, the U.S. embassy, which is as big as the Vatican, does not welcome Iraqi diplomats or legislative representatives. In fact, they are harassed and humiliated whenever they attempt to visit.

“The embassy is a base for long-term political intervention,” said Raed.

The U.S. has been taking the side of the minority separatists (comprised of Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds, Christians, seculars) against the majority nationalists (also comprised of Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds, Christians, seculars). This Iraqi-Iraqi conflict is not religious or sectarian. It is political and economic.

“A U.S. withdrawal will not unleash a pending religious civil war. It will open up a space for political reconciliation to start,” said Raed.

During the 2005 Iraqi election, which the Bush administration hailed as a “watershed moment in the story of freedom” and a victory in the war on terror, the American people didn’t quite catch what was going on with all those voters’ purple fingers, said Raed.

The Iraqis voted for a majority of nationalists to be their legislative representatives. (They do not vote for their executive branch.) Their candidates, who won a majority, were against privatization of the oil industry, against partitioning Iraq into ethno-sectarian confederations and they wanted the U.S. to leave the country.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi leadership turned out to be the five separatist parties that lost the elections and who were supportive of the Bush administration and helped plan its intervention in Iraq. And no wonder. The entire process was manipulated by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

So what should Americans think about Iraq?

“What three-quarters of the Iraqis want is a complete U.S. withdrawal,” said Raed. “No mercenaries. No permanent bases. No interference. Only complete withdrawal is the first step toward stabilizing Iraq. After that, we can start healing the wounds of this occupation.”