The war “plan” that wrecked Iraq

As someone who was watching the US government march to invade Iraq from the streets of San Francisco, and from countless antiwar events, giving more of an insider’s view has been both chilling and darkly fascinating. A big help is last summer’s PBS documentary, No End in Sight.

Strangely for me after watching the film last night, this morning’s New York Times covers one of the main hidden histories exposed by the documentary. Early on in the occupation, sometime in the month of May 2003, a few highly placed Defense Department officials decided to disband the Iraqi army, without so much as asking Secretary of State Powell, National Security Adviser Rice, or the U.S. Army.Plans to screen and reconstitute the force were pushed aside, and Iraqi officers offering help had to be ignored. The Army’s head of policy in Baghdad, John Hughes remebers:

Later, a battalion commander from the 101st Airborne came in—to see me, and he said, “Hey, sir, I’ve gotta talk to somebody, I’ve got a group of Iraqi generals and colonels that want to talk to somebody from ORHA.”

And they—over the course of the war, even before the war, had been removing computers and software —of personnel lists from the Ministry of Defense and storing them at their home, because they knew they were not going to win this war.

And they wanted to help reestablish the Iraqi military with the Americans.

Absolutely. And I took intelligence officials with me to meet with these men. And these guys were willing to—to explain or provide information on anything that they could.

They were saying to me, “Colonel Paul, Baghdad’s burning. You tell me, and I can have 10,000 military police ready for you next week.”

I took that back, nothing ever became of it.

We were also going to—take some Iraqi units and let them become the labor force for reconstructing Iraq. If you needed the rubble from a bridge cleared, they would do that. And there on the news one morning was the announcement that the Iraqi army had been disbanded and abolished by—Ambassador Bremer.

You want to talk about feeling like the ugly American, that’s what I was. You know, here I was, trying to work with these men, to help them rebuild their country, to—to bring their soldiers under some semblance of control. And instead, they’re told they’re not worth the time.

Just two months later, lines had been drawn, and another reality began to unfold:

Hussein Saber shook with fury as he lay on a dirty hospital bed last night and told the story of another day in Baghdad, a city torn apart by killings, misunderstanding and the startling failures of America’s military occupation.

Yesterday Hussein, 33, should have collected a $50 (£30) emergency payment which all Iraq’s now unemployed soldiers are due to receive. The money did not arrive and so he and hundreds of other frustrated young men poured towards the gates of the US-led authority to protest.

Within minutes he was shot in his right side by a young, nervous American soldier. Hussein survived but two other Iraqis standing next to him in the crowd were killed.

“I hoped and I wished that when the American forces came they would bring us democracy and freedom but unfortunately we have seen the opposite,” said Hussein, a non-commissioned officer in the air force for the past 18 years. “The Americans are going to get hurt if the situation remains as it is.” (Rory McCarthy, “Just another day in Baghdad,” The Guardian, June 19, 2003)

Normally, I’m cautious about getting too deep into debates among war planners. The argument usually turns into some idea that if only more competent people were in charge, everything would go smoothly. In the context of one country ruling over another country, such an outcome seems extraordinarily unlikely. However, it is people who strive to do their very best under whatever circumstances that leave behind the archive and their regrets, both of which help us understand how an enterprise like our new colonialism could ever have happened.

This news and a lot of details in the film raise a deeper question. Aside from proving that a high tech, high corporate profit, but smaller military without the bother of too many actual American citizens on the ground, did Rumsfeld and Bremer have plans of their own? Was leaving Iraq in chaos, whatever the motive, something they were consciously pushing their colleagues and superiors aside to do?

When “up and coming neighborhood” means losing your home…

While in Washington, I stayed just in my old neighborhood, Adams Morgan. Just blocks away, a new Metro station opened just before I moved out, and the eight years since have seen enormous investment by developers in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. Usually, the corporate media is there to celebrate moments like this, producing headlines like this one in the Washington Post: “A Rapid Renaissance in Columbia Heights: Retail-Based Renewal A Contrast to ’60s Strife.” Gray Brechin’s phenomenal history of San Francisco, , makes the point that this is rarely a coincidence, and that major newspapers have long had a financial interest and close family ties to real estate developers.

This left me walking through the box-stores, remaining affordable apartments, and new luxury condos with a friend who spent time organizing, and occupying abandoned buildings, with Homes Not Jails in the District. We were left to talk about the horrible fact that new, shiny buildings force one to cringe about who got pushed out. Now, some local organizing has meant that tenants in some buildings have gotten upgraded housing, but that’s not the whole story.

As it turned out, the very next morning the Post redeemed itself a bit and started publishing a series on how landlords have pushed out their lower middle class tenants to sell buildings as condos. Called Forced Out, it’s good reading for what displacement looks at the level of a neighborhood. In this case, the one I used to live in.

Dozens of landlords refused to make repairs, forcing families to live in filth — at times without heat, hot water or electricity. Other landlords delivered urgent letters or mass notices demanding that tenants leave.

In the past four years, landlords emptied more than 200 buildings from Columbia Heights to Southeast, most of them rent-controlled, thwarting the intent of one of the nation’s toughest tenant rights laws with the approval of the city government, a Washington Post investigation found.

It was the hidden toll of a frenzied condominium boom that turned aging neighborhoods into coveted urban communities.

In one building, what D.C. Council member Jim Graham, called an “aggressive, relentless” campaign to empty the building, was followed by a fire:

Within hours of the November 2006 fire in Adams Morgan, investigators declared arson: Inside the apartment building, they found a charred plastic container that had been filled with a mixture of gasoline and alcohol, stuffed in a plastic shopping bag. The liquid was poured in the basement near 12 electrical boxes and on the second floor, just below Begum’s apartment. Flames quickly choked the building, searing walls and melting lights.

Net result, everyone had to move. The landlords sold the property for $4 million.

On the South Side of Chicago, this was the story of the 1960s and 70s, when absentee landlords bailed out of responsibility and took the insurance money and ran. The vacant lots weren’t always vacant. In the District, the fires seem to still be burning today.

Gaza update

Gaza-End the BlockadeLife for one-and-a-half million people in Gaza has been getting dramatically worse in the past two years. The territory has been surrounded by walls, barbed wire, and an electrified fence. Its older residents can look across these lines towards the lands and ruined villages from which they were expelled in 1948 and 1967. Across the border, an armed conflict is asymmetrically raging. Armed Palestinian factions launch small-scale rockets at Israeli coastal cities in hopes of emulating the pressure that led to the 2002 Israeli withdrawal from occupied southern Lebanon. Meanwhile a far greater Israeli arsenal targets Gaza’s cities, and periodically pushes in with tanks, armored vehicles and soldiers who raid Palestinian homes. The most recent Israeli push—in response to the death of an Israeli student at Sapir College from rocket fire—is still in progress, although a 2-day “interval” was observed while US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the region. The impact confirmed by B’Tselem so far is:

From 27 February to the afternoon of 3 March, 106 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip. Contrary to the Chief of Staff’s contention that ninety percent were armed, at least fifty-four of the dead (twenty-five of them minors) did not take part in the hostilities. In addition, at least forty-six minors were wounded.

I’m confident you haven’t heard the names of any of these children, nor the circumstance of their deaths. Here’s B’Tselem again:

The killing of four children – ‘Ali Dardona, age 8, Muhammad Hamudah, 9, Dardona Dardona, 12, and ‘Omer Dardona – and wounding of two others while they played soccer in the street, east of the Jabalya refugee camp on 28 February. B’Tselem’s investigation indicates that Qassam rockets may have been fired earlier about 100 meters from where the children were. However, no armed Palestinians were killed or injured in the incident.

The killing of Iyad and Jacqueline Muhammad Abu-Shabak, brother and sister, 16 and 17 years old, when they were watching the fighting from the window of their house east of Jabalya. According to testimonies by family members, the two were shot in the head and chest.

The killing of six-month-old Muhammad al-Bur’i, at the family’s home in the Rimal section of Gaza on 27 February, and the wounding of others, in the shelling of the nearby Interior Ministry building. The building is a civilian office building, and not a legitimate military target.

Current operations, of course, come with the full support of the U.S. government, and presidential hopefuls McCain, Clinton and Obama.

Unfortunately, missiles and invading soldiers may not be nearly as destructive as the policies of “economic warfare” (in the words of the Israeli government), which now extend to restricting, and at times cutting off, electricity and fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip. The result is a new humanitarian crisis. A joint report, The Gaza Strip: A humanitarian implosion, on the current depth of the crisis has been released by eight UK human rights and aid groups, including Oxfam and Amnesty International. According to Geoffrey Dennis, Chief Executive of CARE International UK:

Unemployment has soared and 80% of people in Gaza are now dependent on food aid compared to 63% in 2006. Water and sewage infrastructure is on the point of total collapse. Unless the blockade ends now, it will be impossible to pull Gaza back from the brink of this disaster and any hopes for peace in the region will be dashed.

Key facts in the report:

  • 80% of families in Gaza currently rely on food aid
  • 95% of Gaza’s industrial operations are suspended due to the ban on imported raw materials and the block on exports
  • 18.5% of patients seeking emergency treatment in hospitals outside Gaza in 2007 were refused permits to leave
  • Hospitals are currently experiencing power cuts lasting for 8-12 hours a day
  • 40-50 million litres of sewage continues to pour into the sea daily

“Humanitarian crisis” means daily disasters. Here’s one father’s description from the inside.

The U.S. role in the Fatah-Hamas battles of 2007 is the subject of a new Vanity Fair exposé. David Rose reports in “The Gaza Bombshell,” that the U.S. armed Fatah to expel the popularly elected Hamas government from Gaza.

In essence, the program was simple. According to State Department officials, beginning in the latter part of 2006, Rice initiated several rounds of phone calls and personal meetings with leaders of four Arab nations—Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. She asked them to bolster Fatah by providing military training and by pledging funds to buy its forces lethal weapons. The money was to be paid directly into accounts controlled by President Abbas.

Legal or not, arms shipments soon began to take place. In late December 2006, four Egyptian trucks passed through an Israeli-controlled crossing into Gaza, where their contents were handed over to Fatah. These included 2,000 Egyptian-made automatic rifles, 20,000 ammunition clips, and two million bullets.

This shipment, and arms and training that followed, were joined by the leak of a State Department-drafted “Action Plan for the Palestinian Presidency”:

The early drafts stressed the need for bolstering Fatah’s forces in order to “deter” Hamas. The “desired outcome” was to give Abbas “the capability to take the required strategic political decisions … such as dismissing the cabinet, establishing an emergency cabinet.”

Hamas read this as a call for a coup. So did Dick Cheney’s chief Middle East adviser, a neo-conservative by the name of David Wurmser:

Wurmser accuses the Bush administration of “engaging in a dirty war in an effort to provide a corrupt dictatorship [led by Abbas] with victory.” He believes that Hamas had no intention of taking Gaza until Fatah forced its hand. “It looks to me that what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen,” Wurmser says.

Hamas seized complete control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. Outsiders like myself were left to see it as mere internecine warfare. Now we have questions to ask about how our government armed one political party to oust the other, while backing the siege that keeps Gaza’s Palestinians on the edge of survival.

Haditha watch: Marines investigate their own atrocities

The morning of November 19, 2005, one Marine and 24 Iraqis were killed in the town of Haditha, in occupied Iraq.  Within hours, the Marines had claimed that the improvised explosive device that killed Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas had also killed 15 civilians, while eight “insurgents” were killed in self-defense.  This description was a lie.  None of the Iraqis, 19 of whom died in their homes, were killed by the roadside bomb.  Among the men, four were killed in a house, while five – three students, a friend and their taxi driver – were either ordered or dragged from their car before being shot on the street. A balanced investigation of the morning by the German magazine Der Spiegel is online, as is the collaborative Wikipedia article on the Haditha killings.

Largely because the bedrooms of the 15 women and children who were killed that morning were recorded on video, and because that video made it into the American press, the marines involved are now on trial. One of them has turned state’s evidence, testifying that that not only did he shoot civilians of the orders of a superior officer, but he then proceeded to desecrate their freshly killed bodies. Meanwhile, apartheid rules of evidence are governing both the trial and the American press coverage. Iraqi eyewitness testimony and the conclusions of the medical examiner are being essentially discounted as either pleas for compensation money, or subject to nationalist bias.  The Marines are being held to a standard based on rules of engagement, rather than morality or law. Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, who “responded instinctively, assaulting into the room and emptying his pistol” into the house where four men were killed, was recommended for exoneration by the Marines on the grounds that,  “Whether this was a brave act of combat against the enemy or tragedy of misperception born out of conducting combat with an enemy that hides among innocents, LCpl Sharratt’s actions were in accord with the rules of engagement.”

You can expect that the assumption that any Military Aged Male in Iraq is an insurgent (see Juan Cole on the Rules of Engagement) will be upheld, or at least that any marine testifies that he thought such a person was armed will be backed up. this is especially chilling given the story of the men in the taxi (quoting Der Spiegel):

They were driving eastward into the morning sun, and the driver was probably momentarily blinded by the glare. By the time they had registered the scene unfolding in front of them, it was too late. What they saw signaled imminent danger: a wrecked Humvee, clouds of smoke, soldiers with drawn weapons. Normally they would have turned around immediately. But the soldiers motioned for them to stop. Anyone who attempted to continue driving at that point would come under fire. Those are the rules in Injun Country.

The Iraqis stopped. The Marines approached, signaling to the driver to turn off the engine. The Iraqis got out of the car. Up until this point, the various pieces of testimony coincide. The men and the vehicle had to be searched for weapons and explosives. When no weapons were found, it was clear that the five men posed no immediate danger. They were told to sit down with their hands behind their heads.

At some point the five men were shot.

The “Rules of Engagement” permit any Marine to kill without warning in the event of danger. This is especially applicable when it comes to so-called MAMs, or Military Age Males. Who were these five men? Were they scouts who had been sent to investigate how successful the attack had been?

The Marines must have known how unlikely this was. Only one man, not five, would have been needed to survey the scene. He would have hidden first or would have come from the River Road, on a motorcycle.

Did the five men try to run away? That was the way the accused Marines described it. Possible, but also unlikely. Most of all, it is unlikely that all five Iraqis would have pursued the same suicidal impulse. Besides, the Marines could have shot the Iraqis in the legs to prevent them from running away. However one paints the scenario, the key issue is that the men were unarmed.

Can these men get justice? A recent Editor & Publisher apology to Sharatt makes MAM status into a full explanation:

Unlike Sharratt, who was accused of killing three men who were between the ages of 24 and 41, Tatum is accused of killing women and children as young as 4 years old and as elderly as 76 years old.

For his part, Tatum is arguing “women and children can hurt you, too.” To make the entire situation more bleak, the man with the final decision on prosecution is none other than Lt. Gen. James Mattis, infamous for the following quote:

“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually, it’s a lot of fun to fight. You know, it’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right upfront with you, I like brawling.”

Mattis has just pronounced Sharatt “innocent” and exonerated Capt. Randy Stone for failures in reporting the incident (more on those here).  On Stone, Mattis stated yesterday, “his attentiveness to training the Marines in the law of war and rules of engagement and willingness to share their hardship to better appreciate the challenges facing them are notable. By patrolling alongside the infantrymen in his Battalion, he helped them embrace the imperative of ethical behavior in combat.”

The First Amendment is So Eighteenth Century…

Once again the U.S.’s now right-shifted Supreme Court has reaffirmed the concept that limiting spending on political ads is limiting speech. They threw out campaign finance regulations that restricted corporations from funding issue-based ads that are parallel equivalents to giving money to candidates. As John Bonifaz of Voter Action puts it:

The court continues to equate money with speech in the political process. But beyond that, it gives First Amendment rights to corporations. And these artificial entities don’t have the same, obviously, qualities as you and I do as breathing human beings, and they should not be given those kind of First Amendment protections.

The fact is, is that we need to protect the electoral process and to protect our democracy. And we should not have big money corporate interests drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. The court does not weigh in any way whatsoever the First Amendment rights and the equal protection rights of voters, of people who do not have access to wealth, but yet under our Constitution and our promise of democracy have an equal right to participate. And that continues to be a problem with the court’s jurisprudence in this area.

In a way the ruling is no surprise, as the legal equation of money with speech is long standing in the U.S., and corporations have maintained the status of “people” with legal rights (except the right to die after a reasonable period, it would seem) since the 1880s. More importantly, the U.S. view of what exactly is free speech is stuck in the eighteenth century. That’s how you have the traditionally liberal ACLU supporting this strange entitlement for corporations. (See also Kaja Tretjak’s “Why U.S. Liberalism Must Change or Die“)

What do I mean by stuck in the eighteenth century. Take this snippet of the ruling:

The First Amendment requires us to err on the side of protecting political speech, rather than suppressing it. Where the First Amendment is implicated, the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor.

Now it’s easy enough to argue about whether buying television and radio ads is political speech, especially when it’s a kind of speech that 98% of us could never have, or whether protecting a kind of speech where a few people are massively louder than everyone else makes sense at all.

But I’m writing this from Mexico City, and that offers a bit of perspective. One of the prime issues in last year’s disputed presidential election is the intervention of private corporations into the election at all. And, they intervened quite massively by using fear-stoking political ads insisting the left-leaning PRD candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was a “danger to Mexico” and threatening massive economic collapse should he win. An entire block of Reforma Avenue, a central thruway in the City which is now lined with a massive outdoor exhibition charging the winner with fraud, is devoted to this corporate intervention. Now in Mexico, corporate funding of candidates is just plain illegal, while in the U.S. it’s an industry (for all you ever wanted to know about that industry, ask the Center for Responsive Politics). Free speech is a shared concept in both countries, but it means something different.

Encoding the right of free speech and a free press, our First Amendment is a bit vague: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;”. That “make no law” clause meant that violations of free speech weren’t even subject to lawsuits until after the Supreme Court took the 14th Amendment (1866) to mean that rights were defensible. And it took decades of defiance of baton-wielding cops to guarantee regular practice of free assembly, something not really achieved until the unionization push of the 1930s. For the press, though, the no-interference nature of the 1st Amendment boils down to what A.J. Liebling said: “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” So Eighteenth Century.

What do I mean by Valley Girl-style dissing the Constitution? I mean, get with the program. This press freedom for those who own one thing isn’t convincing anyone, in the same way that giving property owners only the vote is passe. And like a lot of things, if you zoom out from the U.S., you see a lot of people have different ideas. The biggest change is to think of rights as belonging to people (all of them, right) instead of restricting the government. So you have South Africa’s constitution:”Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes ­1. freedom of the press and other media; 2. freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; 3. freedom of artistic creativity;” or even clearer the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Whoa, “any media” for everyone. That’s going to take some work. Yeah, it’s time to move from our limited idea of freedom (the government leaves you the heck alone) to something which takes work, but is worth fighting for. Building our own media is as much a part of the free speech struggle as is suing for it. That takes all kinds of forms: When the Solidarity movement in Poland (look ’em up, ’cause they were once so rad) demanded a free right to publish, it’s demand was backed up by printing press workers taking over their shops to print & by the free use of pasted poster & graffiti if they weren’t going to be allowed on air. The May 1970 student takeover of Berkeley and the May 1968 revolt in France essentially turned universities into giant publication factories (all those xerox machines and paper), with Berkeley having public competitions among art students to design the best posters and students running from Berkeley and downtown Paris to outside and inside factories organizing blue collar folks to join them. Oaxacan women nonviolently invaded a TV station last summer when they were tired of being ignored, and when a long while later riot police chased them out, activists took over at least ten more broadcasters and opened their doors and their airwaves.

Less confrontationally, but just as effectively, zine publishers & internet folks have been spreading out “those who own one [a press, remember]” to the rest of us. Check out Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has been acting as the legal and legislative defense arm of that effort for the past couple decades.

Cue soundtrack: They Might Be Giants, “I should be allowed to think.”