"These wars are against women, and women are becoming the first victims."
These are the words of Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, who has been working with others in Iraq to arrange emergency shelter for women and families fleeing the current violence.
In an interview with Common Dreams from Toronto, where she resides when she's not at her home in Baghdad, Mohammed emphasized that if the U.S. intervenes militarily, it will be Iraqis—especially women—who will pay the price.
"We refuse [U.S.] military intervention," she said. "No. Never."
As violence in Iraq escalates, and President Obama prepares for potential military strikes, Mohammed is among those—from within Iraq and across the world—opposing U.S. air strikes, ground troops, and a new war in Iraq. She is also struggling to provide relief and humanitarian aid on the ground for people caught in Iraq's uptick in conflict—what she says is one of the many legacies of U.S. occupation.
Organizing for Survival Under Repression and Violence
"There is a humanitarian crisis," explained Mohammed, of "refugee women who have fled from one part of the country trying to find a safe haven."
OWFI aims to open houses to provide shelter and assistance to displaced families. Karbala, a city southwest of Baghdad, is a potential location for a relief house, because "there isn't much sectarian violence and there is security," Mohammed explained. The organization is also urging supporters in cities surrounded by militant fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to create "safe havens for threatened women" and is working to direct resources towards relief in western cities of the country that are already under threat.
According to Mohammed, however, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has hampered the OWFI's efforts to communicate with people affected by the violence.
Earlier this week, the government sent "police and officials" to the OWFI radio station in Baghdad to shut it down. "They threatened that if we broadcast at any point all our property will be confiscated," said Mohammed. Explaining that the radio station is crucial for keeping in touch with supporters and at-risk women, Mohammed added, "We know [the radio shut-down] is political. They don't want us to talk on the air."
"We have had very bad experience with the military coming into our country and running the show the way they like according to the U.S. government's interests, not the interests of the Iraqi people." —Yanar Mohammed, Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq
Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, also spoke with Common Dreams about the Maliki government's history of repression and violence against Iraqis protesting against discrimination and lack of a political voice. "There have been a lot of arrests, attacks, and checkpoints," explained Bennis. "There have been nonviolent protest encampments in several cities including Ramadi, which were brutally attacked and dismantled last fall."
She added, "We need to challenge this idea that Iraq has a legitimate government that is fighting terrorist organizations."
Armed with U.S. weapons, the Maliki government has launched numerous attacks on civilian-populated areas in Anbar province in the name of its military campaign against armed groups. According to a Human Rights Watch report released in late May, this has included, since January, repeated strikes against Fallujah's main hospital and, since early May, the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in residential neighborhoods. The report notes that ISIS is also guilty of atrocities, including the deliberate targeting of civilians.
The New York Times reported last week that among the approximately 500,000 Iraqis who fled Mosul when it was overrun by ISIS fighters, many of them "seemed less fearful of the beheadings and summary justice that the group is known for than of their own government and the barrage it might unleash in an effort to take the city back."
Ordinary Iraqis have consistently been victims of violence from both government soldiers and insurgents, including atrocities by ISIS members in Mosul who, "knocked down doors of houses and kidnapped and raped women who were not married," said Mohammed, referring to reports that women in Mosul have been committing suicide following rape and forced marriage. In these times of violence, she said, it is women who "find themselves responsible of families and of homes."
"We need to challenge this idea that Iraq has a legitimate government that is fighting terrorist organizations." —Phyllis Bennis, Institute for Policy Studies
U.S. Occupation and the Sectarianism it Unleashed
In response to the widespread crisis, the Iraqi government has formally asked the U.S. to launch airstrikes on ISIS and U.S. war hawks who backed the 2003 invasion—including senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and even former Vice President Dick Cheney—have endorsed further and more aggressive military action.
On Thursday Obama announced he was sending 300 special operations "military advisers" tto Iraq and "preparing to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine situation on ground requires it," in what some say signals a coming drone war.
Bennis cautioned that the violence in Iraq is a result not of withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, but the U.S.-led invasion that took place in 2003. She explained:
The ISIS organization started in Iraq around 2003 to challenge the U.S. occupation. When the Syrian civil war began, its fighters moved and it morphed into a Syrian resistance movement and became more extreme as it went. But it was clearly reflecting the sectarian-based political parties and system that the U.S. put in power in Iraq after dissolving the Iraqi military and Iraqi government, which had been the core institutions of secularism and nationalism in Iraq, although they were not democratic.
The U.S. destroyed [the former Iraqi government] and sent home everybody who worked in the government—who was member of Ba'ath party, which was everyone, many of whom joined the party to get a job. When that happened, [it] was replaced by a sectarian-defined political party which eliminated the national identity in Iraq and replaced it with sectarian identity.
Mohammed slammed what she says is a U.S. mainstream media myth that sectarian divides in Iraq are "ancient." She said, "They are trying to emphasize it to say Iraqis are religious fanatics who are at each other's necks. When you are an invader who failed to build a democratic state, you need to come up with justifications, or rather new stories based on lies, and this is one of them."
She added, "We have had very bad experience with the military coming into our country and running the show the way they like according to the U.S. government's interests, not the interests of the Iraqi people."
Moment for International Solidarity
"The threat of U.S. military action is the threat to escalate and make everything worse for ordinary people in Iraq," said Bennis. "Stopping U.S. military intervention is step one. We also need to be demanding real diplomacy."
OWFI, Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and other organizations had already been organizing to address the toxic legacy of over two decades of U.S. military involvement in Iraq. Within Iraq and the United States, this coalition is urging redress and reparations for the U.S. military's environmental poisoning of Iraq from burn pits as well as depleted uranium weapons deployed by the U.S. in the 1991 and 2003 wars.
Right to Heal on Thursday released a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry demanding an end to "disastrous" U.S. military intervention in the country.
“The many American lives that were lost in Iraq cannot be made meaningful by propping up an unpopular government with violence." —Ross Caputi, Iraq Veterans Against the War, ISLAH
Many U.S. veterans who participated in the invasion agree. Ross Caputi, a former marine who served in the second siege of Fallujah in 2004, declared in a statement released this week, “The many American lives that were lost in Iraq cannot be made meaningful by propping up an unpopular government with violence. Any further actions taken by the U.S. to arm the Maliki government in Baghdad or support it through military intervention and airstrikes would be completely unacceptable and immoral, as Iraqi civilians will surely suffer the most.“
In partnership with MADRE, an international women's human rights group, organizers with OWFI have put out an international call for direct financial support to provide assistance to Iraqi women and families.
When asked how people in the U.S. can show solidarity, Mohammed emphasized the "tremendous need" to question U.S. political backing of a deeply sectarian government and to "empower other groups in society" beyond the current allies. "We want people in the [United States] to ask officials, 'How come the government in Iraq is not democratic?' How come a community radio run by a woman's organization is closed?'"
And then she returned to the "very difficult humanitarian crisis" in cities across Iraq.
"We need to get help to people there," she said.
The full interview with Yanar Mohammed is available here.