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Occupation and Resistance in Iraq

Keith Parkins | 07.12.2004 16:37 | Anti-militarism | Repression | Social Struggles

All day conference on Iraq organised by Iraq Occupation Focus. Held at University of London Union (Malet Street) Sunday 5 December 2004.

'People say to me, “You are not Vietnamese. You have no jungles and swamps to hide in.” I reply “Let our cities be our swamps and our buildings be our jungles.”' -- Tariq Aziz, 7 April 2003

Travelling to and around London on a Sunday is a pain, nevertheless I got to ULU about 15 minutes before it was due to start. There were not as yet many people around so I bagged a seat and had a look at the stalls which were just setting up.

From the stalls I got some useful literature off Voices UK. I would highly commend Voices UK for the quality of the information they put out. An example to us all. Off the Pluto Press stall I got copes of Iraq Under Siege by Anthony Arnove (ed) and Regime Unchanged by Milan Rai. A bargain at £5 each!

The first plenary session was at least half an hour late getting started, which had a knock on effect for the rest of the day.

A special plea here. Everyone please try and get in on time. Also, have half an hour for registration, then maybe people will arrive on time. In this case, 10-30am for 11am start.

The day was organised into two plenary sessions, with a brief break for lunch and a workshop between the two.

I will not try and allocate comments to individual speakers, other than to note what was said, plus comments from the floor and discussions I held behind the scenes. I may incorrectly attribute comments to the wrong people, and apologise in advance if I do.

The morning session had on the platform: Michael Hoffman (Iraq Veterans Against the War), Christian Parenti (journalist and author of the recently published The Freedom), Sami Ramadani (Iraqi exile), Haifa Zangana (Iraqi exile).

Rose Gentle of Military Families Against the War (whose son Gordan Gentle was killed in Iraq) could not make it, but we did have a guy Michael Hoffman ex-US Military from Veterans Against the War. He hated his time in Iraq. He was adamant the US should pull out as they are doing more harm than good. He said the US was not there to rebuild Iraq. The Iraqi people were more than capable of rebuilding their country. What they needed was the resources with which to do so. He also raised a gripe on behalf of the squaddies on the ground. They did not even have proper body armour.

Haifa Zangana talked of the freedoms or lack thereof in occupied Iraq. We are told that over 170 newspapers have been established in Iraq. Of these only ten are newspapers, the remaining 160 are distributors of pamphlets and leaflets. The press and media in Iraq is very tightly controlled, and can be shut down for criticism of the regime, be it the puppet government of Allawi or the occupiers. Journalists are being targeted and killed. Al-Jazeera has already been shut down in Iraq.

An election commission, appointed by US Iraqi viceroy Paul Bremer, whose members are not known, has the final say on who can stand in the forthcoming elections, and which parties can stand. The elections are not seen as fair.

The US is not seen as bringing democracy to Iraq. One only has to look at the track record of the US in the last 50 years, where its track record has been to destroy democracy.

Christian Parenti made himself very unpopular with the Iraqis on the platform when he said we should not look upon the Iraqi resistance as the good guys. He said they were brutal and ugly, and were targeting civilians. This did not go down at all well with the Iraqis on the platform, but as Christian quite rightly said, we have to accept unpalatable truths. He said the resistance was led by a former officer core, Baathists and Saddamists. That when they saw they were going to lose the war, they laid plans for a sustained resistance. That unlike Central America, this was not a grassroots movement with the resistance working with the people, they were focused simply on ridding the county of occupiers and were not too fussed about the methods used, or how many civilians were killed. The more chaos is caused, the more costly it becomes for the occupiers.

We should not be surprised at this. Winston Churchill did the same for Great Britain in the event we fell under German occupation. Talking to people later, they said the resistance was very varied, much of it was spontaneous reaction to the atrocities by the occupiers, and there was heated discussion within the resistance as to what level of violence to use, or even whether violence should be used at all, and whether civilians should be targeted.

Sami Ramadani said any targeting of civilians was only against collaborators. But we have to be careful of heeding armchair Iraqis who have spent their time in exile in England.

Talking to a couple of Iraqis later they said it was very wrong to be targeting the police, and especially young Iraqis queuing up outside police stations. There was high levels of unemployment and people were desperate for work. They did not see the police as collaborators, and made the point that when the Americans had launched assaults on Iraqis the police had refused to cooperate, had handed over their weapons and joined the resistance.

A general consensus was that the Iraqis could under the UN Charter take whatever steps they felt necessary to rid the country of occupiers, and the choice on how they did it was theirs.

A government of the Iraqi people rooted in Islam is no more to be feared than a western government rooted in Christianity. Either is simply reflecting the dominant culture of the region. What is to be feared is a government dominated by fundamentalism, be that Christian or Muslim fundamentalism.

A point was raised that large numbers of academics were being assassinated. The Iraqis on the platform were adamant this was the Americans. The claim was made without a shred of evidence. It was put forward John Negraponte's track record in Central America coordinating terrorism and death squads, Operation Phoenix in Vietnam ( I could add the atrocities in Indonesia at the time of the coup), but this is not evidence, it is supposition. Making wild allegations does not do our cause any good at at all.

I have little doubt of the role of Negraponte in Iraq, and it is not rebuilding a war-torn country, but that is not the same as proof.

Someone in the audience raised about mercenaries being sent in from Chile. But apart from a nod of agreement from the US Veteran on the platform, this important issue was lost in the general rush to condemn the Americans for assassinations and terrorists attacks in general.

I asked the US Veteran about this later. He said there wasn't when he was in Iraq, but he said his buddies still out there had picked up rumours and some had run across South African mercenaries. He said the rumour was they were coming in from Chile, South Africa and Israel and were being trained by Israelis.

The unsuitability of Allawi was raised, that he did not have the support of the Iraqi people. A CIA thug and former right-hand man of Saddam Hussein. Allawi was the 'source' for WMDs and the forty-five minute warning. Justice Not Vengeance have produced an excellent briefing sheet on Allawi and his bloody background.

Christian raised the duality of Saddam Hussein. On the one hand he was a hated despot, on the other the father of the nation. This caused seemingly contradictory reactions from Iraqis.

I saw an example of this later that evening when a group of us went out to dinner. Someone who I will not name, who has spent time in Iraq and thus understands the culture, made derogatory remarks about Saddam Hussein. Quite what was said I do not know as the remarks were in Arabic. An Iraqi took great exception. He would not leave it alone and even continued the quarrel when we are out on the street. He made the point that he was imprisoned and tortured by Saddam Hussein.

We were spoilt for choice with workshops. It was not only the topics, but also the quality of the people leading the workshops. Workshops included human rights in Iraq, Iraqi economy, British media, solidarity, resistance and the anti-war movement, women in Iraq, legal challenges in Britain, resistance in the military, practical solidarity and direct action. Maybe others would like to append reports on the workshops not attended by myself.

I attended the one on human rights led by Christian Parenti, Paola Gasparoli (human rights activist) and Munir Chalabi (Iraqi exile).

Munir Chalabi described the deteriorating situation on the streets of Iraq. That liberation had not brought peace or freedom. That the situation was particularly bad for women.

Munir said when there were Americans on the streets, you avoided them, as they had the propensity to open fire with no warning. Christian and Paola echoed this view.

Paola Gasparoli gave several examples. She spoke of where an American tank had been attacked. The Americans then raked the area with gunfire. Only two people got killed that time.

Christian spoke of the 'double tap'. If an Iraqi was injured, you made sure he was dead with a bullet to the head. You ensured the area was made secure. You took no chances.

Paola said there was a problem in that no one knew what the 'rules of engagement' were. If the Americans thought they were in danger, that was sufficient, they opened fire. Christian said once one opened fire, they all opened fire. The victims every time are the Iraqis on the streets, or in their homes.

Christian spoke of the abuses by the Americans, and warned against focusing on Abu Ghraib, and echoing Paola, he warned we were in danger of losing the bigger picture. Bad as these incidents are, they are part of a bigger picture, they are not isolated incidents. He also said, not every deed done by the Americans was bad, it may be done with the best of intentions, but the effect was the same. He talked of people defecating in houses and in Mosques. It may at times be malicious, but it was also because they had literally nowhere to go when the call of nature came. He also said when they smashed the windows in the houses in which they were holed up, it wasn't malicious vandalism, it was to reduce injury in the event of a bomb blast.

Both Christian and Paola spoke of the arrogance of the Americans on the streets.

Christian spoke of a tank crew. They saw a few houses that had not been damaged or demolished. They opened fire with tank rounds to finish off the job.

Christian said we should not be surprised at the atrocities in the prisons. He said far worse was routine in prisons in the US. [see his book Lockdown America (Verso, 2000)]

Paola described Americans visiting a house. They approach with a tank which demolishes any outer walls, the door is removed with explosives. The men, women and children are separated. The men are routinely beaten, then taken away, where they may then 'disappear'. Once in custody they will be beaten, abused and tortured. The house will be ransacked and trashed. Anything of value such as gold, money, jewelry goes straight into the pockets of the looters.

When relatives try to seek information, they usually get nowhere. Request for compensation, and usually the Iraqis are seeking justice rather than money, are invariably turned down.

Paola had a lot more she could have said, but was cut off in full flow through lack of time.

In her book, Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace, Peggy Gish describes Paola as 'a lively Italian human rights worker'. Chatting to Paola later, I'd say an understatement if ever there was one. The Italians who were recently kidnapped then released in Iraq, were colleagues of Paola, which only serves to illustrate the dangerous circumstances in which these people operate.

A pity he was not one of the speakers, was an Iraqi doctor who had been in Falluja during the first US attacks in April 2004. What he detailed, and it was a pity there was not more time to hear what he had to say, was nothing less than war crimes carried out by the US.

He and a group of medics tried to take patients to the hospital. The marines barred the way across a bridge and would not let them pass through. They were told to 'fuck off'. They then set up a field facility. It was the best they could do. He told how when they went out in a clearly marked ambulance, they were fired upon. Whilst out in the streets they saw a car hit and set on fire. When they tried to get out to help, they were fired upon. They were forced to sit and watch whilst the occupants were burnt alive. Later into the siege of Falluja when the people were without food and water, they went out to take food and water. They could not leave their vehicle, when they tried to do so, they were fired upon. They had to throw bread rolls from the vehicle into people's houses. They also dropped off jerry-cans of water. These were fired upon to let the water out. He and his colleagues had no food and had to survive on sugar. He also told of the Americans entering an operating theater and dragging away the doctors under arrest. As a result the person on the operating table died. He told how in the second attack on Falluja, several of his colleagues, the bravest people he could wish to know, died. He said he hated Americans, but as a doctor, as a human being, he had treated injured Americans

It is hoped to publish some of this information in the near future.

The second plenary session had as speakers: Phil Shiner (lawyer representing Iraqi families abused), Nadje Ali-Ali (an Iraqi exile and academic at Exeter University), Paola Gasparoli (Un Ponte per Baghdad, a bridge to Baghdad) Kamil Mahdi (Iraqi academic at Exeter University), Lou Plummer (Military Families Speak Out), Adam Price MP.

Phil Shiner spoke of his anger and disgust at the way Iraqi families are treated by the MoD. An apology would be a start. Request for information has hit a brick wall.

Nadje Ali-Ali spoke out against the abuses which are taking place against women in Iraq. She said this was a feature of Muslim society. Under Saddam Hussein women did quite well, they received a good education and were valued members of society. In the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein, there was a flowering of women's rights movements. But now they are collapsing as women fear to leave the home.

We heard of women being raped, and then either kicked out or worse killed by their families in 'honour killings' for bringing disgrace upon their families.

In his recently published book, The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq, Christian Parenti describes a meeting with womens rights activist Yanar Mohammed, an attractive woman who 'scorns the veil'. Christian notes the fact that 'the top few buttons of her tight denim shirt are unbuttoned to reveal a just a hint of cleavage' is a political not sexual statement.

'Yanar Mohammed explains that the class suffering most routinely, horribly and silently under the new regime of chaos are women. She tells me of marauding men in 'misery gangs' that kidnap and rape women and girls at will. Some of these victims are dumped back on the streets only to be executed by their 'disgraced' male relatives in what are called 'honor killings'. Many women and girls stay locked in their homes for weeks at a time for fear they will be assaulted on the street or because male relatives will not let them go out. Increasingly those who do venture out wear veils, since the misogynist ravings of the more fundamentalist clerics have warned that women who do not wear the hejab should not be protected.'

Wherever Yanar Mohammed travels she does so with armed bodyguards. The office block in which Christian interviews her, had armed guards at the door.

The treatment of women (and its interface with Islam), which Yanar Mohammed puts in the context of liberation a class liberation (women being seen as a social class), can be summed in the comment by Christian following his meeting with Yanar Mohammed 'The political traction of Islam can be seen everywhere, perhaps most obviously in the number of women wearing the hejab or headscarf'.

All Yanar Mohammed is seeking is 'a secular, democratic Iraq where women are full members of society'.

The Freedom is a classic of war reporting. Christian gave me a copy of The Freedom to review, and I hope to publish a review sometime in the not too distant future.

The number of rapes has gone up since liberation, the exact number is not known as few dare report what has happened, and if they did, neither the police nor occupying forces are geared up to deal with rape.

This is not something unique to the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in Iraq. In England, there are around a couple of hundred cases of Asian women who have either disappeared or been killed in 'honour killings'. The number of suicides of young Asian women is three times the national average.

Lou Plummer said recruits were being unfairly blamed for what was happening in Iraq. It wasn't the fault of those at the bottom, the blame lay at the top.

Three US combatants are seeking political asylum in Canada. Please lobby the Canadian High Commission. Voices UK have produced a postcard.

Adam Price MP summed up why Blair had to be impeached: if a minister lied it undermined the very bedrock of parliamentary democracy, Blair was a liar and he had to go. Adam slammed the hypocrisy of LibDems and Labour back-benchers, who opposed the war, but are not supporting his motion to impeach Blair. He urged everyone to lobby their MP to support the motion to impeach Blair. People should also sign the on-line petition calling for the impeachment of Blair. The site mysteriously went down on the eve of the Queen's speech.

I had not seen Milan Rai for some time, and was wondering what had become of him. I was therefore pleased to see he was down on the day's agenda, but saw no sight of him. Making inquiries, I learnt that he was excluded from London for direct action on the Foreign Office.

The exclusion of Milan Rai (part of bail conditions) once again highlights why we must seriously re-think direct action. We cannot afford to lose people like Milan on futile gestures.

Bill, an elderly white-haired gentleman raised the issue of depleted uranium. He raises depleted uranium at every opportunity. Whilst he was correct in raising the importance of this issue, he was wrong in his claim that it does not get discussed or reported anywhere and there seems to be a media media blackout. His claim is not true. I have reported on the matter, as has Peggy Gish, as has John Pilger. Last summer I met a Japanese journalist and we discussed DU. There has also been several books published, the latest being Hiroshima Appeal to Abolish DU Weapons. Also a new organisation has recently been launched to focus attention on DU. It is important we quash these untruths before they become perceived as accepted truths. Where Bill had a very valid point was that depleted uranium was not on the day's agenda (a serious omission), and that at the very least this important subject should be granted a workshop. This was taken on board by Focus on Iraq.

On reflection, I realised there was also something else that was missing. We had westerners reporting on Iraq, but not their personal experience, what they felt, how they managed. I suggest this as a future workshop, in particular to share their experiences with others who may be thinking of travelling to Iraq and what good they can do. Although a word of caution, Paula warned that the situation is changing very rapidly in Iraq, what is good or valid or worth doing one day, may no longer be a week later.

Currently, everyone has pulled out of Iraq as the situation was too dangerous to remain in the country.

Millions of us opposed the war. There is the temptation to now say, well at least we got rid of Saddam Hussein, we now need to remain to help stabilise the country. We must resist the temptation.

Over the last few weeks, I have had the opportunity to listen to and talk to both Iraqis and Westerners who have been in Iraq. They all are saying and reporting the same thing. The Iraqis were relieved at the fall of Saddam Hussein, they welcomed their liberators. But that is not the view now. The liberators are seen as occupiers, people felt safer under Saddam Hussein.

What we are now seeing is a brutal occupation. This is self-evident in the behaviour of the occupiers. The behaviour of the occupiers is no different to the SS or Gestapo in occupied Europe under the jackboot of the Nazis.

The atrocities that are being carried out in Iraq are not being carried out by totalitarian states, although sometimes it feels that way. They are being carried out by western democracies. They are being carried out because we allow them to be carried out.

The mainstream media has rightly been criticised in their coverage of the war and occupation. We though have to recognise the restrictions under which they occupy. They are holed up in within the green zone. They dare not venture out. It is too expensive to venture out, both in human cost and monetary cost. Therefore all the more important when a conference like this takes place, we who were there, make every effort to disseminate the information.

Where though I would take exception to the mainstream media, and in particular the BBC, is when they refer to Iraqis as insurgents, terrorists, Baathists, Saddamists. If they refer to comments by the US/UK it is fine they use such terminology, as they are merely reporting what is said, but they should not use such terminology in their own reporting as it is slovenly and lazy. The same happened with the reporting of Vietnam. We should challenge this at every opportunity. They should be reporting on Iraqi people fighting to liberate their country from a foreign occupier. Something they have every right to do under the UN Charter.

A question that remained unanswered, even though I asked many people. We can attribute atrocities to the Americans, even if not to individual soldiers, but what of the random bombings, targeting civilians, kidnappings, beheadings etc. No one seems to know. No one is willing to believe it is Iraqis, although fingers are being pointed at the resistance. Is it outsiders, is it the Americans fermenting dissent? No one knows.

We have heard a lot about the abuses of Iraqis by Americans. Little information is available on what the British are doing in the southern sector.

Iraq Occupation Focus are to be complimented on the work they put in for this conference. I have only skimmed the surface. I am sure others will add to my comments, and correct where necessary. The event was filmed and taped. Iraq Occupation Focus hope some time in the not too distant future to make the film and audio available and publish conference proceedings. This will all be available on their website.

Iraq Occupation Focus meet regularly once a month at SOAS (Malet Street, London). I think their next meeting is Tuesday 14 December 2004 to discuss the forthcoming Iraqi elections (check their website).

People travelled some distance to attend this conference. A Canadian studying at Glasgow travelled down from Scotland, some even came over from the States.

File on Four, tonight at 8pm (Tuesday 7 December 2004) on BBC Radio 4, investigates the treatment by MoD of families who have suffered casualties in Iraq. The programme is repeated at 5pm on Sunday.


recent meetings on Iraq

recent leaflets and pamphlets

'As long as we win', Voices UK, 2 August 2004

Global terrorism, Voices UK, 9 October 2004

Allawi, Justice not Vengeance, 13 October 2004

Onslaught: The Attack on Fallujah, Justice not Vengeance, 11 November 2004

Voices, Voices UK, October/November 2004

Voices, Voices UK, December 2004/January 2005

Background reading

Tariq Ali, Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq, Verso, 2003

Anthony Arnove, Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War, Pluto Press, 2003 {updated edition}

Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance, Hamish Hamilton, 2003

Seymour M Hersh, Chain of Command: From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, Penguin/Allen Lane, 2004

David Miller, Tell Me No Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq, Pluto Press, 2004

Christian Parenti, The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq, The New Press, 2004

John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World, Verso, 2003 {updated edition}

Milan Rai, War Plan Iraq, Arrow Publications, 2002

Milan Rai, Regime Unchanged: Why the War on Iraq Changed Nothing, Pluto Press, 2004

Keith Parkins
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