Saturday, June 23, 2007

Perspective: On This Day In Iraq -- June 23rd edition

June 23, 2005: A man yells for help with an Iraqi boy whose leg was blown off by a bomb as he was riding his bicycle in Baghdad

June 23, 2002:

Fatal Vision: How Bush Has Given Up On Peace

George Bush Junior gave up last week. After all the blustering and grovelling and the disobeyed instructions to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and all the hectoring of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and all the "visions" of a Palestinian state, the President threw in his hand. There will be no Middle East peace conference in the near future, no serious attempt to halt the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, not a whimper of resolution on the region's tragedy from the man who started the "war for civilisation', the "war on terror', the "endless war' and, most recently, the "titanic war on terror'. Mr Bush, his ever more incomprehensible spokesman Ari Fleischer vouchsafed to us last week, "has come to some conclusions". And – this really took the biscuit – "when the President determines the time is right, he will share it".

I love the idea of this increasingly incompetent strategist on Middle East affairs quietly weighing, like Frederick the Great, the odds on the rights of three million Palestinian refugees to return, the future of Jerusalem, and the continued growth of settlements for Jews on occupied land – only to decide that these weighty matters of state must be withheld from his loyal people. After lecturing the pompous and pathetic Arafat on his duties to protect Israel it only took an Israeli shell fired into a crowded Palestinian market – another of those famous Israeli "errors" – to shut Bush up again. Just a week ago, as we all know, Mr Bush had another of his famous "visions". They started in the autumn of last year when he had a vision of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel. This particular vision coincided quite by chance, of course, with his efforts to keep the Arab states quiescent while America bombed the poorest and most ruined Muslim country in the world. Then this dream was forgotten for a few months until, earlier this year, Vice President Dick Cheney toured the Middle East to drum up Arab support for another war on Iraq. The Arabs tried to tell Cheney that there was already a rather dramatic little war going on in the region. And what happened? George Bush suddenly had his vision thing again.

Now, however, after six visits to the United States by Ariel Sharon – and after Bush was totally ignored by the Israelis when he demanded an immediate end to the West Bank invasion and an end to the siege of Palestinian towns – the President has had yet another vision, a rather scaled-down version of the earlier one. Now he dreams of an interim Palestinian state. It is a sign of how obedient American journalists have become that not one US newspaper has seen this for the preposterous notion it really is. The great American newspapers – I'm talking about their physical bulk not their contents – tiresomely pontificate on the divisions within the American administration on the Middle East. Or they ask whether there's a Middle East policy at all: there is not, of course. But the ideas of this US administration, however vacuous or simply laughable, continue to be treated with an almost sacred quality in the American press and on television.

Read the rest from the Independent

June 23, 2003:

Bush's Vietnam

America's two "great victories" since 11 September 2001 are unravelling. In Afghanistan, the regime of Hamid Karzai has virtually no authority and no money, and would collapse without American guns. Al-Qaeda has not been defeated, and the Taliban are re-emerging...

In Iraq, scene of the second "great victory", there are two open secrets. The first is that the "terrorists" now besieging the American occupation force represent an armed resistance that is almost certainly supported by the majority of Iraqis who, contrary to pre-war propaganda, opposed their enforced "liberation" (see Jonathan Steele's investigation, 19 March 2003, The second secret is that there is emerging evidence of the true scale of the Anglo-American killing, pointing to the bloodbath Bush and Blair have always denied.

Comparisons with Vietnam have been made so often over the years that I hesitate to draw another. However, the similarities are striking: for example, the return of expressions such as "sucked into a quagmire". This suggests, once again, that the Americans are victims, not invaders: the approved Hollywood version when a rapacious adventure goes wrong. Since Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled almost three months ago, more Americans have been killed than during the war. Ten have been killed and 25 wounded in classic guerrilla attacks on roadblocks and checkpoints which may number as many as a dozen a day.

The Americans call the guerrillas "Saddam loyalists" and "Ba'athist fighters", in the same way they used to dismiss the Vietnamese as "communists". Recently, in Falluja, in the Sunni heartland of Iraq, it was clearly not the presence of Ba'athists or Saddamists, but the brutal behaviour of the occupiers, who fired point-blank at a crowd, that inspired the resistance. The American tanks gunning down a family of shepherds is reminiscent of the gunning down of a shepherd, his family and sheep by "coalition" aircraft in a "no-fly zone" four years ago, whose aftermath I filmed and which evoked, for me, the murderous games American aircraft used to play in Vietnam, gunning down farmers in their fields, children on their buffaloes.

On 12 June, a large American force attacked a "terrorist base" north of Baghdad and left more than 100 dead, according to a US spokesman. The term "terrorist" is important, because it implies that the likes of al-Qaeda are attacking the liberators, and so the connection between Iraq and 11 September is made, which in pre-war propaganda was never made.

More than 400 prisoners were taken in this operation. The majority have reportedly joined thousands of Iraqis in a "holding facility" at Baghdad airport: a concentration camp along the lines of Bagram, from where people are shipped to Guantanamo Bay. In Afghanistan, the Americans pick up taxi drivers and send them into oblivion, via Bagram. Like Pinochet's boys in Chile, they are making their perceived enemies "disappear".

"Search and destroy", the scorched-earth tactic from Vietnam, is back. In the arid south-eastern plains of Afghanistan, the village of Niazi Qala no longer stands. American airborne troops swept down before dawn on 30 December 2001 and slaughtered, among others, a wedding party. Villagers said that women and children ran towards a dried pond, seeking protection from the gunfire, and were shot as they ran. After two hours, the aircraft and the attackers left. According to a United Nations investigation, 52 people were killed, including 25 children. "We identified it as a military target," says the Pentagon, echoing its initial response to the My Lai massacre 35 years ago.

The targeting of civilians has long been a journalistic taboo in the west. Accredited monsters did that, never "us". The civilian death toll of the 1991 Gulf war was wildly underestimated. Almost a year later, a comprehensive study by the Medical Education Trust in London estimated that more than 200,000 Iraqis had died during and immediately after the war, as a direct or indirect consequence of attacks on civilian infrastructure. The report was all but ignored. This month, Iraq Body Count, a group of American and British academics and researchers, estimated that up to 10,000 civilians may have been killed in Iraq, including 2,356 civilians in the attack on Baghdad alone. And this is likely to be an extremely conservative figure...

A recent study at Columbia University in New York has found that the spraying of Agent Orange and other herbicides on Vietnam was up to four times as great as previously estimated. Agent Orange contained dioxin, one of the deadliest poisons known. In what they first called Operation Hades, then changed to the friendlier Operation Ranch Hand, the Americans in Vietnam destroyed, in some 10,000 "missions" to spray Agent Orange, almost half the forests of southern Vietnam, and countless human lives. It was the most insidious and perhaps the most devastating use of a chemical weapon of mass destruction ever. Today, Vietnamese children continue to be born with a range of deformities, or they are stillborn, or the foetuses are aborted.

The use of uranium-tipped munitions evokes the catastrophe of Agent Orange. In the first Gulf war in 1991, the Americans and British used 350 tonnes of depleted uranium. According to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, quoting an international study, 50 tonnes of DU, if inhaled or ingested, would cause 500,000 deaths. Most of the victims are civilians in southern Iraq. It is estimated that 2,000 tonnes were used during the latest attack.

In a remarkable series of reports for the Christian Science Monitor, the investigative reporter Scott Peterson has described radiated bullets in the streets of Baghdad and radiation-contaminated tanks, where children play without warning. Belatedly, a few signs in Arabic have appeared: "Danger - Get away from this area".

At the same time, in Afghanistan, the Uranium Medical Research Centre, based in Canada, has made two field studies, with the results described as "shocking". "Without exception," it reported, "at every bomb site investigated, people are ill. A significant portion of the civilian population presents symptoms consistent with internal contamination by uranium."

An official map distributed to non-government agencies in Iraq shows that the American and British military have plastered urban areas with cluster bombs, many of which will have failed to detonate on impact. These usually lie unnoticed until children pick them up, then they explode.

The day I watched children skipping through what might have been an urban minefield, I saw Tony Blair on CNN in the lobby of my hotel. He was in Iraq, in Basra, lifting a child into his arms, in a school that had been painted for his visit, and where lunch had been prepared in his honour, in a city where basic services such as education, food and water remain a shambles under the British occupation.

It was in Basra three years ago that I filmed hundreds of children ill and dying because they had been denied cancer treatment equipment and drugs under an embargo enforced with enthusiasm by Tony Blair. Now here he was - shirt open, with that fixed grin, a man of the troops if not of the people - lifting a toddler into his arms for the cameras.

Read the rest at the New Statesman

June 23, 2004:

Iraqis dismiss civil war threat, point to strong tribal bonds, mixed marriages

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Ahmed Shammar, a Shiite Muslim, prays in a Sunni Muslim mosque because it's close to his house. His wife, Shatha, a Sunni, improvises her own daily prayers, mixing Shiite and Sunni rituals.

That she and her husband are from different sects of Islam means nothing to Shatha. "He's a Muslim and I'm a Muslim," she says, wearing a pale green headscarf that stylishly matches her blouse.

The two were colleagues at a government office when they married in a Shiite ceremony in 1990. Their three children go to Christian schools, where they are also taught the Quran, Islam's holy book.

"I don't know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites," said Mustafa, their 12-year-old son. "I don't want to know the difference."

While the Sunni-Shiite split is bitter in some Muslim areas, Mustafa's attitude is widespread in Iraq, where intermarriage between the two Muslim sects is common, especially in Baghdad. Also, tribal ties often outweigh sectarian differences in Iraq, and several important tribes – through the twists of history – have come to include both Sunnis and Shiites.

This intricate religious mosaic seems largely lost on U.S. occupation authorities.

Citing the repression of Shiites and Kurds by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime, and some Sunnis' resentment at the loss of privileges with Saddam's ouster, U.S. officials have warned that Iraq could slip into religious warfare once the American-led troops leave the country.

Not necessarily, say Iraqis. Although they fear chaos and further deterioration in security, they generally dismiss forecasts of civil war between religious sects. They say the Americans are using the specter of religious fighting to frighten people and lay the groundwork for prolonging the occupation.

In particular, Iraqis are skeptical about a letter the Americans released a few months ago to bolster their view. The letter, allegedly written by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an anti-American operative from Jordan, tells leaders of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda group that the best way to undermine U.S. policy in Iraq is to turn Iraq's religious communities against one another.

"They're spreading these rumors to scare us that if they leave, there will be civil war, that Iraqis cannot handle the situation. It's their presence here that is creating divisions," said Shatha Shammar.

Abdul-Razzaq al-Naash, a professor at Baghdad University, also doesn't see any danger from the religious division, which dates from a schism over the sucession to the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century.

"I don't believe there will be a civil war. Social cohesion is very strong in the Arab tribal and religious value system," he said.

Iraqis argue that their country – though cobbled together from three separate Ottoman provinces by Britain after World War I – has never had a civil war. Despite Saddam's repression of Shiites, his Baathist Party's credo encouraged secular society, not division by religion.

Attempts to drive wedges between the two Islamic communities – such as the March bombings in the Shiite holy city of Karbala and in Baghdad's Kadhemiya neighborhood – have been overwhelmingly rejected by public expressions of solidarity.

Sunnis in Ramadi and Fallujah, a hotbed of anti-American resistance, offered thousands of pints of blood to Shiite victims of those two attacks.

When thousands of Sunnis fled the fighting between U.S. Marines and guerrillas in Fallujah in April, people in Baghdad's predominantly Shiite neighborhoods warmly welcomed them, providing food and lodging.

In December, when a series of bombs exploded in Karbala, killing 19 people and wounding 137, Shiite residents pointed the finger at foreign perpetrators, meaning al-Qaeda, and at Wahabis, followers of an austere brand of Sunni Islam practiced mostly in Saudi Arabia. But they refused to blame Iraqi Sunnis.

When an explosion at an elementary school playground killed a child and wounded four others in the Baghdad working class area of Jawadayn, parents chastised a reporter for asking if the neighborhood was Shiite or Sunni.

"Why do you ask?" shouted the father of one wounded victim. "You're trying to say if this is a Shiite neighborhood, then Sunnis were behind the blast. We refuse to say that because we and our Sunni brothers are both suffering. Those who are carrying out these attacks are criminals."

Read the rest at the San Diego Tribune

June 23, 2005:

Insurgents develop deadly new bombs

Insurgents in Iraq have reached a new level of military sophistication by developing a bomb which penetrates heavily armoured vehicles, US commanders have admitted.
Recent roadside bombs have used a "shaped" charge which concentrates the blast, devastating some of the most heavily protected Humvees.

Insurgents have also developed a way to detonate bombs with infrared lasers rather than mobile phones, which can be jammed.

The refinements have fuelled a surge in US casualties, with roadside bombs alone responsible for at least 68 deaths since May, the highest toll over a two-month period since the guerrilla war began two years ago.

A shaped charge was believed responsible for last week's attack in Ramadi, which was so powerful it melted a Humvee and showered the remains of five marines onto rooftops.

Read the rest at the Guardian

June 23, 2006:

General Reports Spike in Iranian Activity in Iraq

Iranian support for extremists inside Iraq has shown a "noticeable increase" this year, with Tehran's special forces providing weapons and bomb training to anti-U.S. groups, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said yesterday.

Other U.S. officials have complained about Iranian meddling in Iraq, but the criticism of Tehran by Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. was the most direct and explicit so far. Speaking at a Pentagon news conference before an array of reporters and television cameras, the general listed Iranian influence as one of the four major problems he faces in Iraq.

"We are quite confident that the Iranians, through their covert special operations forces, are providing weapons, IED technology and training to Shia extremist groups in Iraq, the training being conducted in Iran and in some cases probably in Lebanon through their surrogates," Casey said, using the military abbreviation for "improvised explosive devices," or roadside bombs. The Iranians are "using surrogates to conduct terrorist operations in Iraq, both against us and against the Iraqi people."

Iran's actions are a major concern not only because of attacks on U.S. forces, but also because the durability of the new Iraqi government depends in part on the willingness of Iraqi's Sunni minority to accept the government. The Sunnis will be unlikely to do so if the Iranian government is perceived as playing a major role in supporting and even arming violent Shiite factions.

"Since January, we have seen an upsurge in their support, particularly to the Shia extremist groups," Casey said. "They are providing weapons, training and equipment to Shia insurgents, and that equipment is being used against us and Iraqis."

In the wide-ranging news conference, Casey also touched on several other aspects of the three-year-old U.S. war in Iraq. He said that insurgent attacks are up but insisted that "the insurgency hasn't expanded." About 90 percent of its attacks are launched within 30 miles of Baghdad, he said.

Read the rest at the Washington Post