Six Years Later: An on-the-Ground View of Iraq
As Iraq enters into the sixth year of war and occupation, there's been varied analysis from many different perspectives. I have been in Iraq every year since late 2002 until the present time working with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), an international human rights and violence reduction organization based in Chicago and Toronto. CPT lived outside of the Green Zone in Baghdad until 2006 when virtually no other foreign independent human rights group existed in the country. CPT currently lives in the Kurdish north where another element of history is unfolding that gets little attention in the west.
Prior to the 2003 invasion, many United Nation organizations emphasized that another round of war in Iraq would result in an humanitarian crisis of unconscionable proportions. After decades of war and economic sanctions, there was simply no buffer left to absorb the devastation of more war. Six years later, the magnitude of the resultant humanitarian crisis is still hard to absorb.
CPT stood by the people of Iraq during the 2003 "shock and awe" bombing campaign. In 2004, CPT compiled testimony from detainees who were abused and tortured in U.S.-run prisons in Iraq. In January 2005, the document was released to world media and members of US Congress. The BBC ran the story as top headline news for 3 days but hardly a whisper was heard in the US. In May 2005, US soldiers released the now infamous pictures of Iraqis being tortured. The rest of the story is history. If forgotten, we may be condemned to repeat it.
In early 2005, CPT saw the razing of Fallujah and the world later learned that the chemical "white phosphorous" had been used indiscriminately as a weapon.
By late 2005, CPT saw at the grassroots level what failed US-counterinsurgency policies looked like. Identified as the Salvadoran Option, certain factions of the Iraq population were trained, armed and pitted against other factions. The same military advisors that once ran the failed counterinsurgency wars in El Salvador and Colombia were in the halls of Iraq's Ministry of Interior in Baghdad. Mass executions, disappearance, torture, and dismembered bodies found along the roadside were daily occurrences. Fear, confusion and scapegoating led to near total collapse of Iraq's civil society. With the explosion of the Al-Askariya Shrine, Iraq was teetering on the edge of civil war. It's infrastructure was destroyed and its societal net had just about unraveled.
In 2007, a reverse counterinsurgency plan was instituted and the faction previously labeled as terrorists were now being trained and armed. The "surge" arrived in the summer of 2007 and Baghdad neighborhoods were ethnically cleansed. People who once lived together as neighbors now remain divided by concrete walls. Each group lives in its own little neighborhood prison. Nobody knows what will happen when those walls come down since there has been little in the way of political or personal reconciliation.
Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds have their own story to tell. Brutalized beyond imagination under Saddam, the Kurds were elated when his government fell. These were the people that greeted the coalition troops with flowers, flew American flags, and named their children after George Bush and Tony Blair. When Turkey denied the coalition forces permission to launch their invasion into Baghdad from the north, the Kurdish Peshmerga cleared the way and marched alongside them into Baghdad. They are proud to say that not one coalition soldier was killed while under the Peshmerga's accompaniment.
Even though the governments of the West remained virtually silent during Saddam's genocidal Anfal campaign and the gassing of the Kurdish village Halubja, and that the US had turned a blind eye to the Kurdish uprising against Saddam in 1991, the Kurds believed that the US might become an ally in their struggle for political autonomy. So far, this has not been the case.
Where the Kurdish villages were once decimated under Saddam and rebuilt after the uprising and the institution of the northern "no-fly zone", they are currently being decimated by Turkey and Iran. The US provides military intelligence and opens the Iraqi air space to Turkish surveillance and bomber planes. Millions of Kurdish civilians have been displaced, some killed, and property damage and human rights violations are ongoing. Turkey's justification for these attacks is to eradicate the armed Kurdish liberation group, PKK which is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and the European Union. Evidence of their military strategy proves otherwise. Turkey is accused of mounting an intimidation campaign against Iraqi Kurdish autonomy and trying to get control of the oil rich city of Kirkuk
The recent provincial elections were filled with fraud and large numbers of Kurds were excluded from voting costing them important seats in certain provinces that have cities with high Kurdish populations. The people of Kirkuk were not allowed to vote at all.
With Nouri Al-Maliki's government in power and the US finalizing plans for troop withdrawal, the Kurds have been threatened by their Arab countrymen and threats of civil war between the north and the south are growing louder. Recently, the US turned over 140 Abrams Battle Tanks to the Iraqi Army and the Kurds fear that those tanks will be used against them as they have been branded as traitors to Iraq during the US-led occupation and invasion.
The UN, located in the Kurdish city of Erbil, severely restricts its staff from leaving its base for security reasons. Unless briefed by their local staff or teams such as CPT, they are largely unaware of human rights violations and volatile tensions.
It is estimated that the healing process for the people of Iraq will take decades. Those at the governmental levels, both foreign and domestic, appear far too removed from the people's reality. A massive campaign of healing and reconciliation at the grassroots level is seriously needed. Whoever helps in this healing process however, should best consider doing so for the good of humanity and not for the good of national interest.