History repeats itself

IssueSeptember - November 2004
Comment by Jo Wilding

It repeats itself: the main hospital has been closed down by US troops and is being used for military operations, ambulances are being prevented, again by US troops, from moving around the town, which is being pounded from the air while the US and the Iraqi militias, disparate armed groups, fight in the streets and US soldiers drive around with loudspeakers, ordering civilians to leave or be killed.

It could be Falluja in April; this time it's Najaf. I hear that Kut has been bombed, the hospitals reporting massive casualties which the US says were fighters, the locals say were mostly civilians. I hear nothing about Nasariya, Samawa, although I know that when Najaf kicks off, my friends in the other southern towns just have to lock their doors and wait.

Consequences of occupation

Then the kidnappings. I hate it when my mates become the news. One morning the radio woke me up with the news that James [Brandon] has been kidnapped in Basra. Armed men went to the hotel, went through the books to find out his room number, shot him, dragged him out and threatened to kill him if the US didn't withdraw from Najaf in 24 hours.

Of course they know, all too well, that the US command doesn't care about life - they wouldn't have been attacking civilians in Iraq for the last 14 years and a week if they cared about life. Of course, James is only one in a ceaseless flood of civilians caught up in the violence of this occupation, the invasion and the sanctions; he's only one of dozens that I know personally, but there's something about hearing your mate's voice on the radio, hearing the terror in his voice, when the last time you heard it was over a narghila in your apartment in Baghdad, hearing the media commentators pontificating about him in the past tense, remembering what it felt like for me when I had four other people with me and when our captors were so gentle and polite.

The latest news is that the kidnappers have released him at the request of Moqtada Al-Sadr. He thanked them for their kind treatment of him once they found out he was a journalist and criticised the occupiers for creating the situation in the first place. It emphasises again that, even when loyal to the same cleric, all groups are not under any unified command. The Iraqi resistance is mainly a conglomeration of different armed groups acting independently, most - no doubt - with their own hierarchy and with some of the same aims, but emphatically without any centralised control structure.

Remote control?

Bombings and hijackings along the roads from Baghdad to the south are common now for Iraqis and foreigners alike and the kidnapping risk is seen as too high for any of the NGOs' foreign staff to work in the south. About 20-25 ex-pat NGO workers are still in Baghdad, keeping a low profile, travelling only in unmarked vehicles but managing to keep their projects going.

A friend explained that, “Everyone in the towns knows us so rumour spreads quickly when a foreigner is back. The locals who know us see it as a sign of hope and that things are getting better but the militia see it as an easy target.”

She says lots of the NGOs have pulled out completely because they don't trust their local staff. “Donors are desperate to find people who can still operate projects by remote (not from within Iraq). They are sending emails asking for new proposals all the time. In some ways this is good but seems completely out of sync with the needs and the lack of money in Africa, for example, which has many more starving dying children than here.

”It also makes you wonder about the donor's motives when they are desperate to give away money but not before we sign a waiver of any liability to them for staff injured in the field. Complicated stuff. Highly political even if we try hard to be neutral.”

Military interference

Military and political interference with aid and humanitarian efforts have caused huge problems for NGOs in Iraq and Afghanistan and have been responsible for the deaths of several aid workers. Medecins Sans Frontieres pulled out of Afghanistan recently after the US military issued letters to the local population saying they would be denied humanitarian aid if they didn't comply with military demands.

Apart from being illegal, it reinforces the idea that NGOs are working for and part of the military and the occupation. The mercenary “security” companies make it worse by calling themselves NGOs when they're doing military missions.

It repeats itself: as the invasion ended and the occupation began, the president of

Médecins Sans Frontiéres USA testified to the House of whichever-it-was on the disastrous consequences of that same deliberate linkage in Afghanistan, while my friend Ibrahim and his MSF colleague Francois were being held prisoner by the old Iraqi government.

Devastation and sickness

It repeats itself: the new leader, Ayad Allawi, has closed down Al Jazeera's Baghdad office to see whether they can be bullied into compliance before full expulsion. He's reinstated the death penalty for sedition as well as murder. The Sydney Morning Herald carried credible reports of Allawi personally shooting dead unarmed suspects in custody.

Last year's anti-Saddam freedom fighters are this year's “insurgents”, whatever insurging involves; and the US's appointees, Salim and Ahmed Chalabi, among many others, are accused of corruption.

Allawi is not seen as a strong leader, does not have broad support and is not able to unite Iraqis. The apparent unity of opposition to the occupation which has arisen in the last half year or so obscures differences which some commentators think are likely to be manifested after elections when all the main groups are, inevitably, disappointed with their respective shares of power.

It repeats itself, only bigger: the devastation faced by Iraqis is reflected in the sickness of returning troops. Of one unit returning from Iraq, almost half have already got malignant tumours, double the already appalling figures for returnees from the 1991 Gulf War.