Authors: James Loney
Footsteps enter the room. “Good morning,” a voice says.
It’s a risk, but I decide to take it.
?” I ask, immediately sitting up.
,” a bored voice says. My bladder is ready to explode. I am ushered through a door, turned left, taken six steps and stopped in front of another door.
I hesitate, wonder if I should close the door or not. I decide to chance it. The captor does not object. A good sign, I think. They respect us enough to let us use the bathroom in privacy. I see that I’ve been taken to a different
, though it is the same size as the one I stood in last week, two and a half feet wide and three feet deep. The yellow ceramic floor bowl is caked with shit. I break into a sweat as I wait for my urethra to let go. It won’t. I give up, fill the water jug, pour water into the basin—my contribution to good housekeeping—and fill it again so it will be ready for the next customer. I pull my hat down over my eyes and open the door.
The captor takes my arm and sits me down in a plastic lawn chair facing the wall. The others are brought to sit beside me, one by one. I notice right away a round, quarter-sized crater in the wall at the height of my knee. A bullet hole. What else can it be?
During my first visit to Iraq, in January 2003, I went to visit Baghdad’s Amiriya Shelter. It was my first encounter with the devastation of war. The back of my neck tingled as I stepped into the hellish black cavern. An oval gash of light poured through a curtain of twisted steel into a crater of exploded cement and broken girders. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I began to see mangled wires and ventilation ducts hanging from the ceiling, massive concrete pillars stripped to the rebars, black blotches on the floor where the bodies of sleeping women and children had been incinerated. It was one of thirty-four bomb shelters constructed during the Iran–Iraq War. On February 17, 1991, two American “smart bombs” hit the shelter at four in the morning. Four hundred and eight people—women, children and old men—were reduced to ash. An Associated Press reporter wrote, “Most of the recovered bodies were charred and mutilated beyond recognition.”
I remember that day very well. Four days before, Dan and I (along with three others) dumped big buckets of ash in front of the Conservative Party headquarters in Toronto. Canada was one of thirty-four countries led by the United States that declared war against Iraq after Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait. Twenty-six Canadian CF-18s were flying bombing sorties over Iraq. It was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and we had a message for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney: the only thing that comes from war is ash. We were arrested and charged with mischief.
Talk about mischief. The U.S. dropped sixty thousand tons of bombs on Iraq during the First Gulf War. It deliberately targeted Iraq’s electrical grid, dams and power stations and destroyed seventy-five percent of its power-generating capacity. The country’s entire civilian infrastructure—hospitals, irrigation systems, sewage and water treatment facilities—was crippled.
Saddam withdrew from Kuwait and the fighting stopped on February 28. The economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council in August 1990, however, continued. Medical supplies, chlorine for water purification, firefighting and milk-production
equipment—even pencils—were banned. No one could buy from or sell anything to Iraq. The consequences were devastating. The economy collapsed, the middle class was wiped out, child mortality rates skyrocketed, and 90 percent of the country fell dependent on a monthly food ration.
The stated purpose of the UN sanctions was to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In fact, they were a systematic program of economic warfare. The Washington
quoted a Pentagon war planner on June 23, 1991: “People say, ‘You didn’t recognize that it [bombing civilian infrastructure] was going to have an effect on water and sewage.’ Well, what were we trying to do with sanctions—help out the Iraqi people? No. What we were doing with the attacks on infrastructure was to accelerate the effect of sanctions.” Once the sanctions had been imposed, they couldn’t be removed until all five permanent members of the Security Council agreed. The United States with its veto kept the sanctions in place until May 23, 2003.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the Twin Towers and George W. Bush declared a global war against terrorism. He went after Afghanistan first for harbouring Osama bin Laden. Then he turned his sights on Iraq. Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, Bush said. Weapons inspectors scoured the country while 36 million people took part in three thousand protests around the world in an unprecedented cry for peace.
As war clouds gathered over Iraq, Peggy Gish and Cliff Kindy joined the Iraq Peace Team (a joint initiative of Voices in the Wilderness and CPT) in October 2002. A CPT delegation was leaving on December 26. I took a deep breath and gave Doug Pritchard a call. “I want to join the delegation,” I told him.
The fifteen-member team assembled in Amman, Jordan, and travelled overland to Baghdad in a hired bus. We stayed in a hotel in central Baghdad. The city was bracing itself for war. Cliff and Peggy, the delegation leaders, reviewed the different scenarios that were possible during the ten-day delegation. Things could continue as they had been,
without war but with escalating pressure from the U.S. The U.S. could start bombing. The Iraqi government could decide to remove us from the country. There could be a coup. “This is probably the most dangerous scenario for us,” Cliff said. “We could be arrested, held hostage, the whole society thrown into the chaos of civil war.” I gulped. That was one scenario I hadn’t thought of.
The delegation was carefully managed by an Iraqi minder who approved our itinerary and attended our meetings. We were warned by Peggy and Cliff not to ask questions about the political situation—it could get us kicked out of the country or, worse, endanger anyone who talked with us. Nevertheless, we got a clear picture of a country that had been devastated by thirteen years of economic sanctions. Their effects were massive, and they were everywhere. Teachers were making five dollars a month. Ninety percent of the population was dependent on a UN food supplement. An army of children worked in the streets shining shoes and selling tissue paper instead of going to school. The best public infrastructure oil money could buy was a shambles. Half the country’s schools were unfit to receive students. Water treatment plants couldn’t be repaired. The average Iraqi child suffered fourteen episodes of diarrhea a year from drinking bad water, killing tens of thousands from dehydration. Hospitals couldn’t get medicines or parts for medical equipment. The UN estimated that 1.5 million people had died as a direct result of the sanctions.
Azhar was one of the 1.5 million. “She is a six-month-old baby,” the doctor told us at a hospital we visited, “brought in last night suffering from diarrhea. She died this morning from dehydration.” She was lying on her side, tiny fingers curled gently into a fist. Her eyes were open, her face colourless, cranial, emaciated, a white film about her lips.
On March 20, 2003, the boot of war stomped down on Iraq. They called it Shock and Awe. “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad,” a Pentagon official said. “The sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before.” The bombs and missiles fell
day and night, fifty thousand strikes in thirty days.
On April 9, U.S. forces rolled into Baghdad and Saddam Hussein fled.
Chaos followed shock and awe. After securing the Ministry of Oil and the Ministry of Interior, the U.S. stood by and watched as libraries, hospitals, schools and every government building was looted and burned. I couldn’t help but wonder if the looting of Baghdad wasn’t some kind of sophisticated psy-ops operation. Let the criminals and arsonists finish off what the sanctions and the bombing started, while confirming the Western impression that Iraqis (and by extension all Muslims and Arabs) are a barbaric, lawless, uncivilized people.
On May 1, George W. Bush announced the end of major combat operations on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln behind a giant banner that read Mission Accomplished. The toll to that point: 9,200 Iraqi combatants, 7,299 civilians, 139 U.S. and 33 U.K. military personnel.
Just a small taste of the death to come. By the end of July 2010, 4,413 U.S. soldiers had been killed. As for civilians, nobody knows. Iraq Body Count, an estimate based on press reports, put the number between 97,143 and 105,994 in July 2010. The prestigious medical journal
estimated 601,027 in June 2006. An Opinion Research Business Survey estimated over a million in August 2007.
Occupation followed chaos, and chaos followed occupation. Midnight house raids, the arbitrary arrest and detention of thousands of Iraqi men, the theft and destruction of personal property, checkpoint shootings. The borders were left wide open. The Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the Iraqi army and police. Unknown quantities of ordnance disappeared from unsecured armaments dumps. It was almost as if the United States wanted an insurgency.
The car and suicide bombs started in August 2003. The United States retreated behind blast walls and concertina wire. Crime swept through the streets like a tsunami. Kidnapping became commonplace, an
average of thirty every day. Anybody with money became a target. Those with means turned their homes into fortresses protected by armed guards, or left the country altogether. The insurgency grew and the morgues filled—a hundred bodies a day in Baghdad alone. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found.
I returned to Iraq on January 3, 2004. As before, I flew to Amman and travelled overland by bus. I saw two American soldiers on duty at the border: one hardly visible, sitting in a booth, the other slouching in the doorway smoking a cigarette. An Iraqi border guard stepped onto the bus, exchanged some words with the driver, looked at a handful of passports and waved us on. Just about anyone or anything could have entered the country on that bus.
I couldn’t believe how much had changed in a year. The roads were choked with traffic. It took hours to get anywhere. The once-ubiquitous images of Saddam Hussein had been blasted, shot full of holes, erased. Giant coils of razor wire surrounded every public building. The streets were littered with garbage. Ragged hordes of teenaged boys laboured under bulging burlap sacks collecting aluminum cans, bottles, scrap metal, anything worth a few cents. Boys sold black market gasoline at the sides of the road and gas station lineups were over a kilometre long. Free speech was in the air like a spring breeze. Men hawked newspapers, and satellite dishes sprouted on buildings like mushrooms. The electricity went on and off at random. Generators belched black diesel fumes everywhere. The city was replete with bombed and looted buildings. There was no reconstruction going on that I could see. Whether or not life was better under Saddam Hussein was an open question.
It surprised me, when I first arrived, to hear Iraqis talk approvingly of George W. Bush. “Bush good, Saddam bad,” they’d say with their thumbs up, market vendors, taxi drivers, people in the streets. “Thank Bush, thank America.” The long, tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein was over and everyone, it seemed, had a story about an uncle or a
brother or a cousin who’d been threatened, imprisoned or tortured. When Saddam’s regime fell, dozens of unions and human rights groups sprang up overnight. People gathered to demonstrate and march, speak their minds, open email accounts, surf the Internet. Few were those who mourned his defeat.
But even during my ten weeks in the country I could see this goodwill evaporating. It was like watching a storm roll in. More and more we heard people complain there was no security, no electricity, no gasoline, that things were better under Saddam. “If this is George Bush democracy, give us back Saddam.”
The CPT team decided in the summer of 2003 to focus on security detainees when scores of people came to the team with stories of family members who had been detained without charge by the U.S. Army. We accompanied families in search of their loved ones to military bases. A handful we were able to track down, but otherwise our inquiries were met with polite stonewalling or bureaucratic finger-pointing. Nobody seemed to know where the detainees were or when they would be released.
CPT published a report on December 23, 2003, summarizing information gathered from the families of seventy-one men and one woman who had been detained by the United States. A third had been detained after a house raid conducted in the middle of the night. In every case where someone had been arrested during a house raid, the families reported that coalition forces had confiscated their property; 40 percent reported that the person being detained was injured during the raid; 28 percent reported that a member of the family had been injured; two people were reported to have died as a direct result of their injuries. Of the twenty-four men who had been released after being detained for an average of fifty-seven days, none had ever been convicted of a criminal offence and not one of the seventy-two had seen a lawyer. Only a third faced formal charges.
Our impression at first was of an under-resourced system that was nevertheless doing its best to process the thousands of men who were being swept up in the military’s clumsy, heavy-handed effort
to quell the insurgency. We managed to work our way up the chain of command to get a meeting with Ambassador Richard Jones, second-in-command to Paul Bremer, who was head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Ambassador Jones admitted they had “no policy,” no process for determining guilt or innocence, that the system was “overwhelmed” and they just didn’t have the “resources” to deal with “the problem.” We reminded him of his responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions and called on him to implement due process for security detainees or else release them. The detainee crisis and the practice of house raids, we told him, were breeding insurgent rage. He asked his aides to schedule a follow-up meeting.
We began to work on an “Adopt a Detainee” letter-writing campaign. We prepared detailed profiles of some of our detainee cases and asked church and community groups to write letters on their behalf. One of them was Kahdhan Munther Ahmed Salih al-Obaydi, a 22-year-old municipal street cleaner who had been detained in October 2003. I met his father, Ismael, a blind man who sang the call to prayer at Baghdad’s Abu Hanifah mosque. He told me that Kahdhan and a friend were swimming in the Tigris River when they heard a big explosion. They weren’t concerned at first because explosions were commonplace in Baghdad. They became afraid when they heard gunfire, and the two men swam towards shore. U.S. soldiers opened fire on them. Kahdhan was shot in the foot and taken to Abu Ghraib. Ismael explained that Saddam Hussein had exempted his son from military duty in 1997 because of a head injury. This was significant because it meant his son knew nothing about guns or explosives. “I want them to release my son,” he told me. “I have no one to support me.” His son earned three dollars a day.