Mario Galvan / Peace Between Peoples – 2004-06-21 14:08:52
AMMAN, JORDAN (May 4, 2004) — As you already know, our delegation has left Iraq. Some members have already returned to the US, and some of us will be spending a few more days in the Middle East before returning home. However, we will be continuing to send information about the trip in the coming days; the updates we have sent are but a tiny glimpse of all we have seen and heard in our time here. Whatever we send seems incomplete and fragmentary, but we are trying to share as much as possible.
In this update, we are going to share some of our last day in Najaf, and our trip back to Amman through Kerbala. We have developed some of our film and have scanned a few pictures to attach. There are four parts to the story of our last day in Najaf: a final visit to the US military base; a visit to Kufa, a stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army; our drive from Najaf to Kerbala, and the discussion along the way; and a talk in Kerbala with Dr. Sharhistani.
The entire day was rushed, as we had to get everything done and still get to Kerbala before dark. No one wants to be driving around here in the dark! We did get to Kerbala just before dark, but were late for our appointment with Dr. Sharhistani, so we re-scheduled for later. There was no time to get to an Internet to report. The next day, Saturday, we left Kerbala early, drove all day, and arrived in Amman at 2:30 am. The time since then has flown past, and this report is overdue.
One of our prime motivations for visiting the base again was to talk with Dennis Gray, an Associated Press reporter who, we were surprised to discover, was “embedded” inside the base. We had gotten his e-mail address and asked him to meet us at the gate. It took a while, but we did finally have the pleasure of meeting him. He seemed interested in our project, asked a lot of questions, and took notes while we answered. I don’t know if he has filed a story on us, or if it has made it past the editors. But we enjoyed talking with him, and were impressed to hear of his experiences in Cambodia and Southeast Asia in the horrifying days of Pol Pot. Our interactions were sincere and mutually respectful. We left feeling glad that we had made the effort to contact him.
One thing did seem odd to us, though. Here was the only US reporter we had met in our entire trip, reporting on the situation in Najaf. from inside the barbed wire and defensive walls of the US camp. He had never walked freely down the streets of Najaf, as we did every day, and seen the people going about their daily routine. He had never gone to the Internet café to file a report, or stopped in at a neighborhood store for a bag of chips or some cookies. What kind of view did he have of Najaf? What can he tell the American people about what is really happening in Najaf?
Another plus to our visit at the base was the opportunity for more interaction with US soldiers. On our first visit, we had only spoken with one US soldier, but this time we got to talk with several. All of them were friendly, and like the first one, committed to doing their duty and serving their country. We didn’t fault them for that, but tried to explain our point of view, and why we were there. I broke the ice with one of them by asking if I could have a closer look at the .50 caliber machine-gun he was manning.
I told him, truthfully, that I had grown up on a diet of war stories and movies, playing with toy guns until I was old enough to have real ones, and playing war with my seven brothers. I told him how they laughed at me now that I was a member of Peace Action, since all through my youth I had been the “military-minded” one in the family.
We began to talk, first about weapons and military history, then he told me how he was a career soldier, and how both his father and grandfather had been soldiers. From there we began to talk of family in general, about how he was hoping to be home for his daughter’s upcoming birthday in August.
He reminisced about how his buddies ribbed him for coaching her t-ball team, and how he would visit her classroom at school. Very candid and very human thoughts and feelings, coming from a soldier standing at his post in a strange land, looking out over the sandbagged machine-gun toward a road full of unknown people going about their business. Any one of them might be an enemy, so here he was, dug in to defend himself against the very people he was fighting to free. What is wrong with this picture?
He would not be drawn into political discussions, simply saying that he was a soldier, and would keep his political opinions to himself. We were, of course, very curious as to the feelings of the troops themselves, and asked how they felt about being there. They all said they had a job to do, that they would do what they were ordered to do, as any good soldier would.
But between the lines, it seemed clear to us that all of them would rather be home with their families. Their unit had, after all, been in Iraq for over a year already, with no end in sight.
One soldier came right out with it, in an eloquently simple response to the question “What message do you have for the folks back home?” He simply said, “Help!”
What we think he meant by that was that, as a soldier, he knew that the decision was out of his hands. If his orders said “Fight,” he would fight. If his orders said, “Go home,” he would go home. He knew that he couldn’t change the orders; only a political decision could do that. And that political decision had to come from the folks back home. When we spoke to the soldiers of the decay of democracy in the US, of how elections are turning into auctions, with the offices going to the highest bidder, there was no argument, and even, in some cases, agreement.
It comes back to us, then. You, dear readers, who are US citizens; us, the members of the Peace Between Peoples Delegation; and every American who believes in freedom, equality, and humanity.
We did our best to make it clear that we were not here as anti-Americans; that we were not calling them murderers or monsters. But we believed, and made no secret of it, that the war in Iraq was wrong from the start. While most Iraqis had welcomed the invasion to get rid of Saddam Hussein, they were now hoping the US would leave.
Peter quoted the most recent poll of Iraqis, which showed less than 20% wanted the US to stay, while 70% wanted the US to leave. And we talked about that fact that, in modern warfare, with it’s marvelously destructive weapons that kill from a distance (artillery, air strikes, cluster bombs, etc.), 70% or more of the casualties will be civilians.
As we talked, I looked out again from the sandbagged bunker toward the road. I thought about the contradiction of a liberating army, defending itself from those it had come to liberate. And of the irrationality of how, when the fighting started, the brunt of the suffering would be borne by the unarmed citizens of the town, who drove daily through the sights of the cannons and machine guns that faced outward from the camp.
Our Visit to Kufa, Held by the Madhi Army
We had decided to go to Kufa to attend the Friday prayer services held by the supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr. He is the person referred to in the US media as the “radical cleric” who is defying the US and calling for them to leave. The US, in turn, calls him a rebel and a criminal, and demands that he surrender and disband his forces. Estimates of his military strength (as well as of his character and intentions) vary. One person told us that he had 100,000 followers nationwide, which is still a small number in a country of 24 million people. But in Kufa, we glimpsed his strength.
Because we had waited quite a while to meet Dennis at the US camp, we missed the prayer meeting. Friday, not Sunday, is the holy day around here. We drove into Kufa in a taxi that we caught on the road outside the US base. It took only a few minutes to go from the US armed camp to the armed camp of the Madhi army. And there, too, we entered past machine-guns and rocket launchers. We weren’t sure where exactly we were going, so we had the driver drop us off in a likely looking spot, between a mosque and a marketplace.
There were a lot of parked cars, and taxis and busses were going back and forth. It looked to be the Grand Central Station of Kufa. It didn’t take long to spot a number of men with AK-47’s strolling casually around, and then, one by one, we began to see the pointy-nosed RPG’s (Rocket Propelled Grenade, a modern descendant of WWII’s bazooka), the “heavy artillery” of the Mahdi army.
There was a relaxed atmosphere, and I got the impression things were winding down for the day, now that the prayer meeting was over. The armed men weren’t in formation, or in defensive positions; they were just walking around in various directions. We saw foxholes dug in front of the mosque, ready to defend it against any attack. And after a while, a truckload of armed men drove into town and stopped across the street. They were chanting some kind of cheer, and punctuating it with raised fist gestures. They seemed to be in good spirits, as they clambered down from the truck and went into a building.
Later, as we cowered under a bus stop to escape a sudden drenching rain, a group of young men around us responded to a crack of lightning with what may have been the same chant. They were smiling, and again seemed to be feeling confident.
They were also mostly young men. We had heard that al-Sadr’s appeal is mostly to the young, the poor, and the dispossessed. Kufa in general bore out that statement. The town was poor, and wasted in a way that gave it a bleak and somewhat depressing air. It seemed hard to believe that these poorly armed youths were holding back the US army, with all of its tremendous firepower.
Just a few days ago, in the fighting that we heard from our hotel, scores of them had been killed by US airpower on the edge of town. AK-47’s and RPG’s are no match for F-15’s and Spectre gunships. It was a David and Goliath confrontation, in a way, but Goliath was holding back. Perhaps the greatest force protecting the Mahdi was the mosque itself, and the US fear of provoking the wrath of millions of Shiites by attacking them there.
We had two interactions with the people there. First of all, we were ignored on arrival. We decided to go find a cup of tea, make ourselves visible, and wait to be approached. We didn’t make it very far into the market before someone came inquiring, and asked to see our passports. “Why are you here?”
The eternal question. We answered that we had come for the prayer service, but had been held up, and so arrived late. When we told them that we were in Iraq to oppose any US attack on Najaf, they seemed to find it hard to believe, but when we mentioned that we had met in Najaf with two of al-Sadr’s top people, faces began to light up. We were led over toward the mosque, but didn’t quite make it.
As we crossed the street (it was starting to rain), a bearded man in a cleric’s garb took an interest, and asked about us. He was very interested in the fact that we were there in opposition to the US occupation, and when he saw our banner in Arabic, he was delighted. He asked a young man who was with him to take a picture of him with it, and we launched into a photo session. I was worried about the cameras, as the rain was getting heavier, but people started crowding around to get in the picture. We snapped a few, too, and then the rain came down and everyone ran for cover. We headed for the bus stop mentioned above, and joined a crowd of soaked but cheerful men.
The rain was punctuated by thunder and lightning, but didn’t last long. People drifted away and left us standing there, so we headed back to the market once again, looking for a bite to eat. It turned out that the bearded man was a leader of the Mahdi army from Sadr City in Baghdad, and that the young man with him was a reporter from Time Magazine. Small world!
We walked through the market place, and finally found a falafel stand, where we had some great falafel sandwiches. People were friendly, and we handed out what we called our “magic sheets” which explained in Arabic that we were US citizens who had come to Iraq to oppose any attack on the holy city of Najaf. We had prepared this sheet before entering Iraq as a way of introducing ourselves and our mission, and they were received well almost universally all through our trip. Kufa was no exception; many people came up asking for the sheets, and we gave out all we had. After our falafel, we had tea from a neighboring stand. It was all quite sociable, and when we asked if we could take some pictures, suddenly everyone wanted to be in the picture!
The visit ended on a less friendly note. Suddenly, there was an angry-looking young man there, demanding that we come with him. We followed him to the mosque, where again we went through the “Why are you here?” routine, and we explained, yet again, our mission. When the message finally got through, the angry young man simmered down, but it became clear that they wanted us out of there, if only for our own protection. (Everyone we met wanted to protect us! No wonder we got in and out safely!) They even got us a cab for the ride back to Najaf.
The drive to Kerbala (I realize this is getting a bit long-winded, and it’s late, so I’m going to be painfully brief from here on.)
Why Are Iraq’s Borders Left Unguarded?
We were fortunate to have a driver who spoke excellent English and was well educated, and we took advantage, asking him numerous questions, which he answered thoughtfully. Most were the same ones we had asked everyone, about how they felt about the US occupation, what would happen if the US just left, and so on. I won’t go into it all now, but want to share a couple of remarkable things he said, and that we had not heard before.
He raised the idea (which someone else had brought up to him) that a major reason for the US invasion of Iraq was to create a theater of war that would draw anti-American elements from all over the Middle East. They could come to Iraq and fight the Americans! It would be a magnet for Al-Quaeda, for every America-hating mujahadin. And that would keep them busy, and lessen the possibility that they would take the trouble to go all the way to the USA to attack Americans. A novel idea, eh?
He supported this interpretation by pointing out that, for a year since the occupation of Iraq by the US, there has been no serious attempt at guarding the borders of the country. Trucks, busses, and cars enter Iraq with little or no searching; border security is non-existent. He told of coming in from Syria in a bus loaded with people and baggage galore, and of not being searched at all. That bus, he pointed out, could have been loaded with weapons and explosives or “freedom fighters” from other countries.
Our own experience was the same; we were not searched at all when we entered Iraq, or when we left. Isn’t it strange that, in a country where the US is willing, in the name of establishing security, to detain and hold without charges thousands of people (and torture and sexually abuse them, as recent reports indicate), to declare open war on cities such as Fallujah and call in air strikes on populated areas, they would leave the borders of the country unguarded?
Our talk with Dr. Sharhistani in Kerbala
Again, I will be painfully brief, but must include the essence of our conversation. First, though, let me say that Dr. Sharhistani is very knowledgeable about what is happening in Iraq. He has been instrumental in the negotiations between the UN and al-Sistani (whose office we visited upon our arrival in Najaf) seeking a transition from the current Governing Council to a democratically elected Iraqi government. We were very fortunate to be able to speak with him. He is a remarkable gentleman who not only took the time from his busy schedule to meet with us, but went out of his way to help us arrange details of our travel arrangements.
The political crisis in Iraq is more serious than the military crisis, and is feeding the flames. It is becoming clear to the Iraqi people that the US is not interested in real democracy, but merely a façade of democracy that will legitimize the continued control of Iraq by the US.
The interim constitution recently adopted, with much arm-twisting, by the Governing Council, makes the reality of US intentions clear. Even when elections are held, supposedly in January of 2005, the representatives elected by the Iraqi people will have less power than the Governing Council chosen by the US occupation authorities. Any law or measure they pass will have to be approved by 75% of the US-appointed body, PLUS be approved by all three of the executive officers (the President and two Vice-Presidents).
In a pinch, the US-appointed Council could call for the dissolution of the elected congress, and force new elections! This is the democracy the US is bringing the people of Iraq, and forcing it down their throats with the barrel of a gun!
Some parting thoughts
Today we visited a Roman amphitheatre here in Amman. On the hill above it to the north, we could see the ruins of the Citadel, the ancient site of generations of rulers. We learned from a guide some of the history of the area, of civilization beginning here almost 10,000 years ago, of waves of conquest, of trade routes, of empires and armies struggling to possess and control these lands. And it’s still going on today. (What timing! Again, as I write, the call to prayer sounds in the morning darkness from the mosque up the hill.)
There is a lesson here, waiting to be learned. Are we ready, after thousands of years of strife and war, to put aside our weapons and empires and delusions of grandeur (and power and wealth), and be guided by a spiritual power? Can we begin to realize that the “war in Iraq” started thousands of years ago, not in 2003 or 1990, or even 1919? And that the “war in Iraq” is not only in Iraq, but everywhere that men and women see each other as enemies, and not as human beings.
Note: We understand, and hope that you do also, that these reports and letters are being written in haste, and drawn largely from memory, in order to share our impressions and the sense of urgency we feel. Please do not mistake them for pronouncements, condemnations, or revelations. They are a mosaic, from which many pieces are missing. We invite you all to take part in their completion, sharing with us the missing pieces that you may have at hand.
All of the expenses for our delegation have come from private pockets, and principally from Peter and Meg Lumsdaine. Donations can be sent to them at: Peter Lumsdaine, PO Box 7061 Santa Cruz, CA 95061