Connecting the Dots

Where does power lies when the Iraqi interim government assumes … well what exactly?


By Tom Engelhardt

Here’s the first line of a front-page New York Times piece by Dexter Filkins and Somini Sengupta, datelined Baghdad, that appeared Monday under the headline, Iraq Government Considers Using Emergency Rule: “Faced with violent resistance even before it has assumed power, Iraq’s newly appointed government is considering imposing a state of emergency that could involve curfews and a ban on public demonstrations, Iraqi officials said Sunday.” Now, consider that phrase “even before it has assumed power.” “Power,” of course, is a very specific word with so much meaning embedded in it. It’s no small journalistic act to bestow “power” upon a largely helpless entity simply because it proclaims that, with untested, minimal forces uncertainly at its command, it may declare “martial law” in embattled areas of a still-occupied country.

Now consider these recent comments by “Riverbend,” a young woman blogger in Baghdad:

“The new government isn’t very different from the old Governing Council. Some of the selfsame Puppets, in fact. It’s amusing to watch our Karazai [the Afghan head of state] — Ghazi Ajeel Al-Yawer — trying to establish himself… That whole charade is laughable. It has been quite clear from the very start that the Puppets do not breathe unless [occupation administrator L. Paul] Bremer asks them, very explicitly, to inhale and exhale. The last time I checked, Puppets do not suddenly come to life and grow a conscience unless a fairy godmother and Jiminy the Cricket are involved.”

Two views of power, you might say, and both datelined Baghdad. Your choice. But first consider the recently proposed solution to the problem of Saddam, the captive, in the context of assuming power. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch recently pointed out to the Bush administration that, under the Geneva Conventions, with sovereignty officially being turned over to Iraqis on June 30, POWs like Saddam either had to be charged with crimes or released. The leaders of the new “interim government” promptly demanded that Saddam be turned over to them; George Bush initially refused. Now, Washington has suggested a “compromise,” which tells us a good deal about what power is being assumed by whom: “It said it would retain physical custody of Saddam but legal custody would go to Baghdad.” So here’s a question — If physical custody equals power over Saddam, what does “legal custody” equal?

Consider, then, where power lies when the interim government assumes… well what exactly? How would you rewrite that New York Times first line? Here’s a sentence I picked up from a piece (Echoes of the past) in the British Guardian by Luke Harding that might come closer to reality (the job of journalism, no?): “Next month the Bush administration will hand over limited powers to a carefully handpicked and pro-US Iraqi government to politicians whom most Iraqis already dismiss as American stooges.”

Or take another subject. Just days ago, an American plane or helicopter fired two missiles into a residential neighborhood of Fallujah (itself a war crime as Juan Cole recently pointed out at his Informed Comment website). The Bush administration explanation went like this: Based on “strong, actionable” intelligence or “multiple confirmations of actionable intelligence,” our military hit a “safe house” used by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s terrorist network. Reports from Fallujah were that 22 people had died, mostly belonging to a single extended family and including a number of women and children. Our spokesperson in Baghdad responded: Not at all; we “killed key figures in the network of suspected terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.” (How, given our notoriously dreadful intelligence in Iraq, we can be sure of this in out-of-bounds Fallujah, I leave to your imagination.) The destruction and civilian deaths, the claims and counterclaims, the reassertion of even more specific claims and counterclaims (often followed by the promise of an investigation)… anything seem familiar here? Not, probably, if you read the American press.

On June 13, the New York Times had a striking piece (Errors Are Seen in Early Attacks on Iraqi Leaders) by Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt reporting that, of 50 air strikes meant to take out the top figures in Saddam’s government with “precision munitions” over a month-long period beginning on the eve of the war, and based on our best intelligence of that moment, we were an across-the-boards 0-50. What are the odds against that, even blind? (“It was all just guesswork on where they were,” they quote “a senior military officer” as saying.) Of course, we were anything but 0-50 when it came to killing significant numbers of Iraqi civilians since, as in the recent Fallujah missile attack, many of these strikes took place in heavily populated urban neighborhoods. Perhaps there is a little formula here: smart bombs plus dumb intelligence equals civilian horror. Then again, as the Israelis have shown, precision munitions plus good intelligence still equals civilian horror.

Now, you might think that the Times piece would have provided a little useful context — with the Fallujah strike taking place only a week later, with the U.S. Air Force once again attacking an urban residential area, once again using precision munitions based on hot intelligence tips, and once again claiming to have precisely taken out the bad guys (as, for instance, during the war we claimed incorrectly to have taken out General Ali Hasan al Majid, aka “Chemical Ali”); or you would think that a number of other similar and similarly contested bombing incidents and U.S. claims might be brought up. But no such connections are made in the American press.

Under the pressure of events, our media people now generally agree that the Abu Ghraib scandal was not simply a matter of “a few bad apples” and, on the issue of torture, some of the obvious dots are indeed finally being connected all the way up to the top of the Pentagon and into the White House. But generally speaking, during the era of the younger Bush, the single bad apple theory of reporting has ruled the roost.

We are not into patterns, not those in any case that might reflect badly on us. Being the world’s hyperpower evidently means never having to notice. To see such patterns, you really need to view the world through other journalistic eyes. The minute you do, and so leave our American biosphere (as Nick von Hoffman calls it in his new book Hoax), the world starts to look like quite a different place and pictures — large ones filled with connected dots — begin to form almost immediately, like so many images emerging from the solution in a dark room.

Ask British journalist Robert Fisk of the Independent, for instance, what dots should be connected when considering the Iraqi “assumption of power,” the turning over of “full sovereignty,” and he writes a thoroughly eerie piece,
Iraq: 1917, on parallels between the British occupation of Iraq in the 1920s and ours today (right down to the punitive use of air power).

Or step out of our bubble with Filipino columnist Renato Redentor Constantino below, and the recent bombing in Fallujah promptly brings to mind a bombed wedding party in Afghanistan, then another on the Iraqi border with Syria; while our present debate over “water-boarding” and other tortures applied in our offshore mini-gulag is framed by an earlier version of the same in the turn-of-the-last-century Philippines. Dilip Hiro, an expert on the Middle East based in London — don’t miss his latest book Secrets and Lies: Operation “Iraqi Freedom” and After — takes us on yet another dot-connecting journey to Iraq in the second piece below, as he puts together “tipping points” in the history of imperial occupations.

Perhaps we should take heart, though, as ever more Americans seem to be stepping out of our bubble all by themselves, at least as judged by the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll on support for the war and occupation. Still, it always helps to see your world through the eyes of someone else, particularly when those eyes belong to foreign journalists with the urge to connect at least a few dots; whereas even now, unless forced to the reportorial wall, our media people still insistently take their stories one by one, lest a larger picture or two come disturbingly into focus.

So many dots, so little time. Tom

God Bless America

By Renato Redentor Constantino

Coincidence, pattern, and memory. Tricky things these three.

One ghastly day in May, at close to three in the morning, a US helicopter fires its missiles at the village of Mukaradeeb in western Iraq. “Coalition forces came under hostile fire and close air support was provided,” the Pentagon explains later. The target was “a suspected foreign fighter safe house,” the deputy director of U.S. military operations in Iraq, Gen. Mark Kimmitt, adds.

Once the smoke peels away from Mukaradeeb, the counting begins. Over 40 people are dead, many of them women and children. It was a wedding party.

Almost a year earlier, in the early hours of a July morning, the U.S. Air Force pounds the Afghan village of Kararak with bombs. “Close air support from U.S. Air Force B-52 and AC-130 aircraft struck several ground targets, including anti-aircraft artillery sites that were engaging the aircraft,” explained the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida. By the end of the attack, over 40 people are dead — all of them civilians, many of them children. Another wedding party.

In Southeast Asia over a hundred years ago, the American annexation of the Philippines has just commenced and the crescendo of carnage is nearing a state of continuous climax. In a humid theater somewhere in the ex-future first republic of Asia, the 11th Cavalry encounters a festive gathering — another wedding party, of course. The soldiers fire into the throng, kill the bride and two men, and wound another woman and two children. The cursory statement from the Army in response to the atrocity, which explains that “American troops ran into a beehive of insurgents and responded valiantly with covering fire,” has yet to be discovered. We are certain, however, that it’s tucked somewhere in the growing scrapbook of imperial nuptials, the remedy to insatiable greed.

Till death do us part?

The exchange of vows under the American boot has been going on for some time now. Everyone is invited, depending on the matrimonial gift one brings. The wedding of avarice with gluttony: imperial groom — that ugly, muscular, festering wound of a suitor — seeks and swallows lonely girl, professing love, the good life, and liberty. We don’t do torture; we don’t occupy; we don’t do massacres; we reject Satan and all other evildoers.

“Those are my principles,” said Groucho Marx. “If you don’t like them, I have others.”

What a curious thing, today’s trends. The rage is Abu Ghraib. The shame of the few “bad apples” that have sullied the good name of the United States. The Rumsfeld memorandum. The August 2002 memo on “standards of conduct for interrogation” prepared by the misnamed Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. The isolated incidents.

Yes. The isolated incidents.

In 1901, in the course of interrogating “treacherous” Filipinos who did not have the good sense to accept America’s seizure of the Philippines, Lieutenant Frederick Arnold and one Sergeant Edwards were accused of torturing Filipino prisoners. Their acts of “prisoner abuse”? Stripping a young man naked, then subjecting him to the water cure (the essential memory-recovery medication of the occupation army’s battle kit and predecessor to today’s “water-boarding”): The prisoner’s mouth is forced open to respectfully facilitate down his throat five to ten gallons of water (or whatever his bloated stomach can endure). Once filled up, the interrogators politely step on the prisoner’s tummy until the prisoner blurts out the desired information.

For data validation purposes, the same prisoner is interrogated once more by his American liberators and “whipped and beaten unmercifully with rattan rods” and “then strung up by his thumbs.” Efficiency is everything.

Another feat of the imagination — before questioning, a strip of skin is cut from a Filipino prisoner’s ankle and attached to a piece of wood. Then “the flesh” is coiled “with the wood.” Think can-opener.

“When I give a man to [my troops],” said Lt. Arnold, “I want information. I do not know how [they] get it, but [they] get it anyway.” Filipinos “had no feelings other than physical, and should not be treated as human beings.”

In 1900, a captain and lieutenant of the 27th Regiment were tried for hanging six Filipinos by their necks for ten seconds, “causing them,” it was charged, “to suffer great bodily pain.” The words in the charge sheet were later changed to “mental anguish” and the officers were found guilty and sentenced to reprimands.

Unlucky chaps these U.S. officers; they lived way too far ahead of their time. By the standards of America’s government today, they wouldn’t have been charged at all. According to the Acceptable Torture Handbook prepared by the Bush administration, if someone “knows that severe pain will result from his actions, if causing such harm is not his objective, he lacks the requisite specific intent.” A “defendant is guilty of torture only if he acts with the express purpose of inflicting severe pain or suffering on a person within his control.”

Thus, if your professed intention is to extract information, you can’t be accused of torture.

God bless America.

Renato Redentor Constantino is a writer and painter based in the Philippines. He writes a weekly column for the Philippine national daily, TODAY (whose online partner is abs-cbnnews.com). He lives in Quezon City with his wife, Kalayaan Pulido, and their two kids, Rio Renato and Yla Luna. Constantino’s recent works can be accessed at www.redconstantino.blogspot.com. Constantino is currently working on climate and energy concerns with Greenpeace China. He can be reached at xioi@excite.com.

Copyright C2004 Renato Redentor Constantino

Tipping Point in Iraq

By Dilip Hiro

There is no turning back from the Abu Ghraib photo scandal. No matter how hard President Bush and his senior aides try, they won’t be able to restore the last bit of the fig leaf that once covered their illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. This is especially true, since the recent leaking of a legal brief prepared for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld in March 2003 arguing that, since the President safeguards national security, any ban on torture, even under American law, could not be applied to “interrogation undertaken pursuant to the President’s commander-in-chief authority.”

If the prisoner scandal was a moral tipping point — the final step in transforming Iraq’s foreign liberators into its oppressors — it came in-between two military tipping points in the ongoing struggle between armed insurgents and the US-led occupation forces; in-between, that is, the battle for Falluja in the Sunni triangle and the battle for Najaf in the Shia heartland. In combination, these put George W. Bush in a listening mode during his meeting with French President Jacques Chirac in early June and led to a series of redrafts of the Anglo-American resolution on Iraq at the UN Security Council.

The Bush administration’s changed stance manifested itself in Iraq in the discarding of Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, the poster boy of the neo-cons at the Pentagon, and the embracing of Iyad Alawi of the Iraqi National Accord, the darling of the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency as well as British MI6.

Only late in the day indeed did the Bush White House finally abandon its disastrous “year zero” strategy — the disbanding of the Iraqi military, the security agencies, and the civil service coupled with a blanket de-Baathification policy (advocated by Chalabi and his neo-con cohorts) — adopting instead the Alawi strategy of co-opting most of the elements of Saddam’s regime minus its top leadership. And it did so not with a bang but with a whimper in Falluja where the only alternative was to reduce that city of 300,000 to rubble and create a political earthquake in the Middle East.

Evidently, the Abu Ghraib moment marked a tipping point for public opinion on Iraq in the United States as well. In our Internet era, with the instant, worldwide transmission of the Abu Ghraib images, described by Rumsfeld as “blatantly sadistic, cruel, and inhumane,” American voters were suddenly directly exposed to the dark side of the armed occupation of a racially, culturally, and historically different nation. Such turning points can also be found in the history of imperial Europe. In late 1950s Britain, popular support for the war in Kenya to crush the Mau Mau nationalist guerrilla struggle fell after the exposure of a fatal beating at the Hola detention camp. In retrospect, a leaked report from the International Committee of the Red Cross on torture in Algiers proved the tipping point in French public support for its war of occupation in Algeria.

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, trumpeting the passage of Security Council Resolution 1546 as a landmark achievement, have failed to address the crucial question: Will this resolution change the popular perception of Iraq as an occupied land? In the final analysis, public opinion in Iraq is sure to prove far more important than any Security Council resolution. The latest USA Today/ CNN poll of Iraqis shows that only 23%-27% have a favorable view of the U.S. or the UN. There was no ethnic or sectarian breakdown of these figures, but it is safe to assume that almost all the Kurds – one-sixth of the population — who enjoyed autonomy under the Anglo-American air umbrella from 1991 to 2003, fall into the favorable category. This means that among Iraqi Arabs, only 7%-11% have a favorable view of the U.S. and the UN.

It follows, then, that any Iraqi entity the U.S. and/or UN might put in place in Baghdad would lack credibility among Iraqis, no matter how much sovereignty was to be transferred to it by the Anglo-American occupiers with their 150,000 troops in place. And the actual interim government put in place was disappointing indeed.

On one hand, President Bush and his National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice assured us that their input into the creation of the new body was “zero.” On the other hand, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi admitted publicly that his own promised authority in shaping the caretaker government had been “sharply limited” by American officials. After calling occupation administrator Paul Bremer “the dictator” of Iraq (“Nothing happens without his agreement in this country”), he said, “Whether Dr. Alawi was their choice, whether they maneuvered to get him in [the prime minister’s] position — you better ask them.”

On getting his Bush administration-backed assignment to name the interim government, Brahimi declared that he would choose those Iraqis who were honest, efficient, and nursed no political ambitions. Without much ado, however, the Americans overruled him because they feared that these technocrats might prove too independent.

What Washington wanted was Iraqis who — while willing to dabble in occasional criticism of the administration — were in the final analysis beholden to it; and that is what Washington got at the cost of missing as yet another opportunity to persuade ordinary Iraqis that a dramatic change was in the offing on June 30. Of the top five positions, three went to erstwhile members of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) — Iyad Alawi, Ghazi Yawar and Ibrahim Jaafari — and the remaining ones to the leaders of the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), allies of Washington since 1991.

More specifically, the Bush administration placed two long-established cohorts in the key positions of executive prime minister (Iyad Alawi) and deputy Prime Minister in charge of national security (Braham Salih, former Prime Minster of the PUK-ruled Kurdistan). Lest we forget, Alawi’s Iraqi National Accord (INA) was as prolific in supplying false information on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as its rival Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. The INA was the source of the sensational claim that Iraq was capable of firing its weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of a Saddam order to do so.

During the bargaining at the Security Council over the new interim administration’s rights to its own security forces and its relationship with the US-led Multi-National Forces (MNF), the French insisted on an Iraqi veto over any large scale MNF offensives. By failing to support the French demand, Alawi proved his pro-American bona fides to top U.S. officials.

A British-trained civil engineer, Salih has been Kurdistan’s regional representative to Washington, and has cultivated good relations with both the State Department and the Pentagon. As Alawi’s point man on national security, he will supervise the defense and interior ministries, and coordinate the rebuilding of the Iraqi security forces.

Before taking up his new post of defense minister, Hazim Salaan Khuzaei, a Shia, was the American-appointed mayor of Diwaniya. In the wake of the failed 1991 Shia uprising in which he participated, he fled to Britain, where he became a property dealer. His lack of military experience suits the Americans. Falah al Naqib, a Sunni, who was appointed governor of Salaheddin province (capital, Tikrit) by the Coalition Provisional Authority, is equally close to the Americans.

As was also true of the IGC, two-thirds of the 36-member interim government carry foreign passports, chiefly British and American. Of the remaining 12 who have only Iraqi passports, half are women. Remarkably, most of the former exiles of the IGC didn’t even bring their families back to Iraq. Within days of his failure to secure the post of president, Adnan Pachachi typically returned to his base in Abu Dhabi with plans to spend the summer with his daughter in London. Now, the former exiles on the interim government are following the same IGC example and keeping their families abroad. This shows just how skin deep their attachment to Iraq is and how little faith they have in its future as a US-dominated “stable, democratic state.”

Like the IGC, the interim government lacks a minister for religious affairs, which makes Iraq the only Arab country without such a ministry — a fact which undoubtedly has been noted disapprovingly by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani among others.

From the public relations point of view, of course, it helps both the Bush administration and the interim government to resort to shadow-boxing over such symbolic issues as the custody of Saddam Hussein and who should in the future occupy the Republican Presidential Palace. Alawi’s demand that Saddam must be handed over to the Iraqi government before June 30, and Yawar’s insistence that the Coalition Provisional Authority should vacate the Republican Presidential Palace are meant to impress a skeptical Iraqi public that the new entity is different from its predecessor. The likelihood is, though, that it will be an example not of “old wine in a new bottle” but of “old wine in a well-used bottle.”

Dilip Hiro’s latest book is Secrets and Lies: Operation “Iraqi Freedom” and After. (Nation Books). He is based in London, writes regularly for the New York Times, the Observer, the Guardian, the Washington Post and the Nation magazine, and is a frequent commentator on CNN, BBC, and Sky TV. He is also the author of Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm.

A version of this piece will appear in print in issue #728 of Middle East International.

Copyright C2004 Dilip Hiro

Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.

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