Sunday, July 6, 2014

What we need to Know about Iraq

What we need to Know About Iraq

I've been working with Iraqis since January 2001, when I made my first trip to Baghdad.  Some of these long-time colleagues and friends are Christians, most are Muslims.  I don't know if they're Shi'ia or Sunni. I've never asked, and they have never offered. So, I don't know if my friend Mazin in more danger or less in this current crisis…perhaps it's all the same. He doesn't worry to me about "the others" if indeed they are the others…maybe they're not.   Then there's Khalid, a young father now living in Jordan who for two years has been helping critically ill children in need of surgery transit from Basra through Amman to Europe. And, Thamir, a devout Muslim and the artist who coordinated projects for Iraqi refugees in Amman, including ones in a Melkite Catholic church in a neighborhood where many Iraqi Christians lived.

No one ever asked about religion when they agreed to be of help to other Iraqis.  They rail against the violence and the corruption of the government, they want the borders in Iraq closed and long for security so they can resume something like a normal life. But they don't talk in sectarian terms when they talk about what they've been through or their fears about what is coming.  It's  a small sample, but it makes me wonder why the media is so insistent on this issue; why the narrative is strictly framed in sectarian terms. I expect this religious conflict doesn't make sense and even doesn't  matter to most people in the US anyway. It's just, in my opinion, TMI.

I became an activist on behalf of children in Iraq in 1997,  when UNICEF and other reputable agencies on the ground were reporting that between 5.000 to 7,000 children were dying every MONTH in Iraq as a result of US supported UN Sanctions.  I didn't know anything, really about Iraq at that point, but I'm an educator and advocate for children.  What American could live with this, our government sustaining a policy that was resulting in the death of so many, many children? I thought it would be an easy fight, tell people what's happening, and they'll demand an end to it.

But it wasn't an easy fight.  These were not "just" children, these were Iraqi children.  People heard the figures --not just from me and other activists but from "authorities" like then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. When asked about the deaths of 250,000 children on that infamous segment of 60 Minutes in 1998, Albright responded that the price of keeping sanctions in place, the price of US policies in Iraq, might indeed be the death of all those children.  But, she said, the price was worth it. An entire Sunday night viewing audience heard this horrifying acknowledgement; I'm sure some felt badly  But neither the public nor our elected officials reacted with enough moral outrage to change US policy. 

Part of my activism was standing on a vigil line for one hour every Saturday for eight years, holding signs and  handing out flyers about the human disaster created by UN sanctions against Iraq.. I live in what would be described as a liberal college community. It was my experience that the public--people passing by and talking or taking our flyer-- couldn't care about Iraqi children because they were too worried about Saddam Hussein.  Some even asked, well, how bad is 5,000 deaths per month in terms of the population of Iraq…is it significant?

 Everyone knew the most important fact, the one they were supposed to know, and that fact formed the basis of their thinking and opinions about the situation in Iraq:  Saddam was an evil dictator capable of  murdering  his own people. In addition,  most people believed the government and media hype about the threat Iraq posed, believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was hell bent on using them against us if given half a chance. When all was said and done, fear won over concern for children dying in Iraq, over empathy for their suffering parents and the doctors who tried to care for them, over sympathy for the struggling communities who could not protect or provide for their basic needs.

Our thinking is clouded by fear.  On top of that and even worse,  for a long time I've been thinking that our moral inclination to be outraged and then moved to act is  being overwhelmed by too much news with, too much purposefully irrelevant information framing and then dominating a complex issue such as Iraq. Saddam Hussein's evil deeds aren't necessarily irrelevant, but the story of Iraq as of all countries is complex. Yes Saddam was evil, but still there were and are meaningful lives being lived, despite evil dictators. There  were many positives to go with the negatives.  Education in Iraq was mandatory for both girls and boys through grade six; education was free through university and there was free universal, high quality health care. But all of that, social and economic  benefits we can only dream about in the US, all that along with  tens, probably hundreds of thousands and some would say more than a million lives disappeared, with the evil dictator.  The baby thrown out with the bath.

What could possibly have moved people in 2003 to support a war against Iraq knowing what devastation the sanctions had brought, and knowing what was at stake for ordinary men, women and especially children in Iraq?  Fear and I suppose oil.  What could possibly move people to support another round of military intervention in Iraq now, in 2014?  The misguided notion that "these people" cannot solve their own problems…just look at the religious strife.

So, I've been asking: what's important to know about the current crisis unfolding in Iraq? Asking  why do we as activists or academics -- as humanists-- keep talking about it, framing it in sectarian terms: Sunni vs. Sh'ia vs. Kurd?  Isn't it enough to simply know there is yet another war and more marauding troops on the doorstep of Iraq?. What does it matter and who truly knows at this point who is fighting with whom, who is supporting whom and why? Ordinary people are caught up in wars they don't want and cannot end.  They "join up"  because they are forced to  or perhaps they need the money or to save their house and family.  Perhaps they are furious about the life they have been dealt. Who knows.

 I argue that what we need to know, what we need to keep in mind so we can act as responsible, moral citizens is only this: the land, the people and culture, the entire society in Iraq has been torn asunder. Generations of children and their parents--Sunni, Shi'ia and Kurds -- have been  set back and will not recover sufficiently to be in a position to be of help in revisioning or reconstructing their country. The very air they all  breathe, the water they all drink; the very earth they live on and the soil they grow food in is  dangerously polluted and will be toxic for generations to come. Enough!

We already know enough to act. We know we cannot "save" people by killing them; we cannot "save" villages in Afghanistan or cities in Iraq or the country of Syria by destroying them.  Turn off your radio and TV. Stop listening to corporate media pundits explaining (erroneously) why war between Sunni, Shi'ia and Kurd in Iraq is inevitable, why these frightening Arabs need us to help them control their out-of-control passions.  Stop listening.  Trust yourself, you already know enough to take action in whatever way is open to you.  Demand that fighting --all combat and  all financial support and intervention by foreign troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan-- stop.  Demand an end to all of it.  It's way past  time to stop destroying and start rebuilding; it's time for all of us to demand an end to war.

Then, we can begin using our vast resources to give back  and help rebuild the lives and the countries we've destroyed.

It sounds impossible.  But the alternative -- to continue on this path-- is unacceptable.  Enough.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Iraq's Legacy of Literacy and Illiteracy, of  Nation building and Nation un-building

I have had a few articles posted on Common in the last few weeks.  My last one, Human Narrative Still Missing in Iraq, tries to convey the enormous losses suffered by Iraq and by Iraqis.  Reading Faiza's post this morning as she reflects on who the new angry people are that are marauding in Iraq,  reminds me of the everlasting impact of our experiences--both negative and positive.  As an educator, I am particularly aware of how early experiences and critical  things such as education, access to adequate food, shelter and safety contribute to who and what the child will be as she or he grows and mature.

Who, I wonder, in  terms of ordinary citizens,  men and women struggling to live in Iraq, does President Obama and Sec. of State John Kerry imagine is in a position to pull their shattered country together.  In addition to the militarization of Iraq, the vast destruction of the infrastructure and institutions , there has been an incredible brain drain of academics,  artists, engineers and doctors to name just a few professions. Many of those who did not flee were killed; there is a list in tribute to murdered academics in the excellent book Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered, edited by Raymond W. Baker, Shereen T. Ismael and Tareq V. Ismael.  The opening essay talks about the job of "state-destruction" as opposed to the well-understood idea of "state-building"…the task Iraq was set on before the 1990 war.          

         "To be remade, a state must be rendered malleable.  Obstacles to this goal in Iraq included an impressive intelligentsia committed to a different societal model and the unifying culture they shared.  The actions of the occupying forces indicate they understood that the emergence of the new Iraq would require liberation from the grip of the inherited intelligentsia and culture of a unified Iraq.  Iraq under occupation would see both human and cultural erasures that advanced these goals.  Thus, state destruction in Iraq entailed more than regime change and more than political and economic restructuring.  It also required cultural cleansing, understood in the Iraqi case as the degrading of a unifying culture and the depletion of an intelligentsia tied to the old order." (page 6)

Culture and literacy have been  synonymous with Iraq from the beginning. What many people don't know, on some level one of the great ironies of the calamatiy in Iraq,  is that the first piece of literature, the poetic drama of creation, The Epic of Gilgamesh (2000-1400 B.C.) was written in ancient Mesoptamia, the site of the modern country of Iraq. And, probably next to no one knows that in 1982 Iraq was awarded a prize by UNESCO for eradicating illiteracy.  This was achieved as a result of three acts of legislation:  The Illiteracy Eradication Law, 1971, The Free Education Law, 1974 and The Compulsory Education Law, 1978.  As a result of this legislation, education was mandatory for both girls and boys through grade 6, and free through university.

 Everything changed after the first Gulf War.  UNESCO bemoaned  the decline  saying" The education system in Iraq prior to 1991 was one of the best in the region, with over 100% gross enrollment rate for primary schooling, and a high level of literacy, both of men and women. The Higher Education, especially the scientific and technological institutions, were of an international standard, staffed by high qualification personnel.   In 2004 they put the literacy rate at 74% and by 2007 Education International estimated the rate had fallen to 65% (54% women and 74% men)

This should come as no surprise. Iraq's Ministry of Education reported only 30% of school-age children were attending classes in early 2007.   84% of higher institutes of education and schools were damaged and/or destroyed in the two wars(UNESCO). Lots of parents kept children home out of fear for their safety; many children left school to earn money to help support their families. Those who attended classes often sat in building without running water or heat or adequate supplies including books.  Books and supplies such as pencils could not be imported under the UN Sanctions.  As a result, everyone in this once literate culture has fallen behind.

Fallen behind is a gross understatement. Children out of school for years, missing exams, unable to re-enter the system out of shame for their lack of academic skills.  Teachers without adequate facilities for students, without up-to-date text books or with no text books at all.   This includes teachers in the medical colleges.  Imagine "keeping up" with your profession, trying to train new doctors and nurses in Iraq during the years 1990 to 2013  without medical journals, or current text books or any professional connection to the outside world.

All the media babble about bringing democracy to Iraq, and our own government statements both then and now calling on Iraqis to pull together, to take control and  re-build their country are nothing but hogwash. 

Democray depends on a literate society and  functioning institutional structures. We have bombed and sanctioned Iraq back into a state of illiteracy and dismantled the very structures necessary to re-build.  Our project of state-destruction is complete.  Mission, in this case,  accomplished.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Good morning
I was thinking about this phenomenon of extremist people who appeared suddenly in our countries and pulling all the attention in the international media and being a strong actors and  threat to our countries.
Let me take Iraq as an example. We have never seen such kind of extremist groups before 2003. Even when  we had oppositions against  Saddam, they were either from the Iraqi army or from religious parties connected with Iran.Most of the time the oppositions failed to make any change on the ground and Saddam punished them severely.
But now after 2003, we have another style of oppositions such as Al-Qaida and ISIS who entered Iraq and achieving a brutal activities against the government and the civilians as well. I was wondering : why  these people are acting in this aggressive way ? we are human, and I can understand why somebody decides to behave in such tough way ?
These people are a mix of Iraqis and non Iraqis. The Iraqis are either from the previous Iraqi army or from the victims of Abo- Graib prison.  While Non- Iraqis are coming from countries where they have witnessed brutal treatment also from their governments of outsiders such as Chechen or Afghans.
So, this is the consequence of  the brutal treatment against  detainees in Iraqi prisons (under the supervision of the US troops ). I bet you this is a well planned strategy to keep Iraq stuck with  a vicious cycle of endless violence and destruction.
Now I can understand the motive of these extremist people, they have passed through tough days in prisons inside and outside Iraq, and now they came to take revenge. Somebody invested them and sent  money to achieve their dreams.
I guess there is a connection between who humiliated them in prisons and who sent them the fund to fight.
Thank you America for this smart strategies !
Our Countries and people are paying the price of these policies and strategies.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Good morning
I know it's difficult for any outsider to understand what's going on in Iraq unless he/ she has read the history of Iraq. It is obvious that the geographic location of Iraq had made it's political life always unstable.
We have in the North Turkey, which is a strong regional actor, in the East Iran, another strong regional power, and recently in the South strong Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia / Qatar/ and Emirates.
All of these regional actors have their own agenda and interests in Iraq , they all are seeking for a partnership with Iraq and its leaders to keep their interests protected and maintained.
Before the war on Iraq and the invasion of it in 20013, Saddam was a strong leader who kept all these neighboring forces away from the intervention in Iraq internal issues.
After the invasion, the US established the basis of new Iraq based on sectarian and  ethnic division. New leaders are fighting among them on the power. Even the new institution is a bad one, based on ethnic and sectarian division. What is the outcome of this strategy in Iraq since 2003?
Here is it, now in 2014, we are seeing the consequence of US policies and strategies in Iraq: a weak and fragile state, with weak and fragile army ( the US leaders in Iraq disbanded the Iraqi army in 2003 and encouraged sectarian and ethnic  structure ).
And because of these new principles since 2003, the Iraqi political new leaders are affiliated with regional forces. Shiaa are connected with Iran, Sunni are connected with Saudi Arabia, and the Kurd are connected with the US and Israel.
On the international level, Iran is backed by Russia , Saudi Arabia is backed by America, those are the main forces fighting inside Iraq after 2003.
How can you build a strong/ independent/  democratic country in this stupid and sick context ?
This is what the US planted in Iraq, and this is what Iraqi people have cultivated.
And the US is trying to help Iraqi leaders now to fight ISIS ?
It's too late, and ISIS is the last tool, to divide Iraq to three states: Kurd, Sunni, and Shiaa states.
then America can celebrate : mission done, no more Iraq on the map.
Exactly as the scenario of old Yugoslavia, it's not on the map any more. We can see only small states such as Croatia , Serbia, Black mountain and so on !
Have a good day

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Tragic Opportunity

It seems  Iraq has always been old news.  I remember Kathy Kelly, co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness, recounting an event from the mid-1990s when she was visiting a hospital in Iraq.  The media was following her as she was a well know activist, and was in Iraq in violation of UN Sanctions.  But, they weren't following her into the hospital: We've already done that story, they said when she invited them to come along to see the numbers of sick and dying children in the hospital.

How many times can one tell the story? How many times will a reader, accustomed to "breaking news" take the time to read again about an issue that seems far removed from them?  The corporate media is focused on the latest head-line grabbing story.  A car bombing, with many dead is worth a report.  The unfolding story of children --two children, then four, then eight and sixteen-- ever increasing numbers of children sick and dying from cancer  in a hospital  with ever-decreasing  medical capacity is not something the media is willing to write about. It's not necessarily something most people want to read about. And, to make matters worse, the children are sick, but many of them... look fine, i.e. you cannot tell by looking at them that they are dying.  It is a horrible thing to say, really.  Bloated bellies, skin hanging from napalm gets the message across in  a single, horrifying glance.

To say things--everything-- has been in rapid decline in Iraq since the first Gulf War and the imposition of US supported UN Sanctions is to grossly understate the facts.  Yet, throughout this period aside from a few committed journalists-- the late Anthony Shadid, Robert Fisk or John Pilger-- very few seem to notice or to care.  Iraq has been old news for twenty four years.  The story reads something like this:  We TRIED to help them, but they're hopeless.

But, now!  What I am calling a tragic opportunity.  All eyes are once again on Iraq: remember Iraq?  The coverage is the same, as if it were a sporting event.  The media has identified the teams:  Sunni, Shia and Kurds, we know the coaches and even the team "owners".  We hear daily of wins and losses, advances and retreats.  There is endless speculation about the possible outcomes of events.  What we don't hear about is the people struggling to live in this devastated country.

I hope our blog will bring you in touch with Iraq and with Iraqis.  We hope to share  our own thoughts and insights as well as those  from Iraqis and internationals who have been and continue to partner with Iraqis through  these terrible and terrifying times.

Drawing and photographs of Faisa Amir in her bed at Al-Mansour Pediatric Hospital, Baghdad 2004

Fiasa died of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia a few weeks after I took this photograph.  She was 8 years old.

The drawing is by her brother, age 10.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

This is our new Blog where my friend Claudia is sharing her thoughts- with me- on this blog. Our goal is to open a window on Iraq now, to discuss what is going on  after the intervention of ISIS coming from Syrian borders.. I know that many people are confused and have no clear idea, even from Iraqis . The story of Iraq is very complicated as the existing conflict has multidimensional perspectives : first dimension is the internal one, second is a regional one, and third is the international one. Players are many, and each one has his own agenda.
I will write  more details in the next posts from my personal point of view as an Iraqi . I am Iraqi, this is my identity, I refuse any sub-identity such as Sunni and Shiaa, These ugly titles came after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and now Iraqi are paying the price of that stupid policies. What is going in Iraq now is the consequence of that wrong strategies adopted by American political leaders and Iraqis political leaders as well.


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