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An activist, clown, trainee lawyer and writer from England. I was in Iraq several times, most recently Nov 03 to May 04, still writing about Iraq and passing on my friends' stories from there.

Monday, August 23, 2004

August 24th, 7pm I'll be speaking at the weekly meeting at the International Action Centre, 39 W 14th St rm 206.

August 25th, St Marks Church, E 10th St. and 2nd Ave, New York city, Call to Mutiny / Clamour magazine launch. 7pm $5-10 sliding scale (no one turned away for lack of funds). I'm not actually speaking at this but Daivd Martine will be showing the new "A Short Film From Falluja" about our 2 trips there during the siege and I'll be there.

August 26th, NYC, Iraq War Crimes Tribunal: People Judge Bush, Martin Luther King Auditorium on 65th and Amsterdam, near Lincoln Centre - 3pm-9pm FFI: www.peoplejudgebush.org

August 27th, Making Peace conference, Albany, NY state. Thre's a bus going from there to the Republican National Convention on Sunday morning early.

ALSO: from Jenny Gaiawyn, who was with me in Falluja -

Through the Eyes of the Young - An exhibition of art and photography on the lives of youths in Palestine and Iraq [including a picture by one of the Falluja refugee kids]

Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre 16th August - 6th September talk by Jenny Gaiawyn on the 15th August at 12:30-1:30 in the Edinburgh Friends Meeting House contact jenpalestine@yahoo.ie

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

This is an unedited e mail from my friend and ex-neighbour Helen Williams, who's still in Baghdad. The boy-soldier she refers to, from Falluja, is the same one I wrote about in my reports from there in April. The district, Shuala, where the fighting is, is where the squatter camp is that we worked in and where we helped build a drain.


Hi Bagdad 7 August 2004

I am furious. Ali, one of the boys, just came to visit and have some lunch
with us. He is 18 and had problems in the 'Big Boys' House in Adhimaya and
left there and ended up back on the streets. When he was back on the
streets he used to come and see us most days - sometimes twice a day for
some food, a shower etc. He often leaves his sack of cans with us which he
collects from off the streets - he gets 500 dinar (20 pence) a kilo. He
leaves them with us so that they do not get stolen when he is sleeping -
usually up on Karamana roundabout in Kerrada. He is a really nice boy -
shy, mild mannered and polite and totally honest about his use of drugs.
We encourage this honesty by telling the boys that we are not judging them
or that we are not going to think they are bad just because they sniff
some thinner. In this way we can monitor how much they are using - if we
do not shout at them or judge, they tell us. Ali was using thinner about
twice a week (when he become depressed) and arten tablets about once a
week. When he told us, about, 10 days ago that he wanted to move back with
his mother and 8 year old little brother to a new home in Shula, Bagdad,
we were overjoyed for him. His parents are divorced and were living
separately in Sadr City -he found getting on with either side difficult
and this is how he originally ended up on the streets.
He came to see us the morning he left to go to his mum. He had a shower,
some nice new clothes (we washed his old ones so he could take them with
him), breakfast and we gave him a package of food items to take to his mum
- things like tins of beans, fruit, nuts, bread and crisps for his little
brother. And we made sure that he had no thinner on him to take to his
mum's.
Today Ali came to visit us. He is looking fantastic - clean, happy, off
thinner and said he was pleased to be living with his mum and young
brother. His brother is going to school, Ali is still collecting cans, but
now in Shula, to raise some money and his mother sews for a living. They
are renting a small house with one bedroom, a sitting room, kitchen and
bathroom. Doesn't this sound like a beautiful success story - well, it is
- even if it only lasts for a month or two it is something, a chance for a
better life.
But all is not well. Ali wanted to leave us before 3 pm. Why? Shula is
coming under attack from the Americans. Last night no one slept in Shula
as the Mahdi Army resisted an onslaught from American rockets and
helicopter gunships. Ali told us how two minibuses and one 25 seater bus
(like the ones we have here in Kerrada) were hit yesterday by American
rockets - luckily none of the buses had passengers, but all three drivers
died - these were separate incidents. Ali reported that there were many
casualties - mainly civilian, though there were 5 or 6 definite dead from
the Mahdi Army. He said his mum was okay, but his little brother was so
scared and cried and cried all night. He knows of three American soldiers
being killed. The Mahdi Army have set up checkpoints into Shula and will
close down the area at 4 pm. This is when they expect to receive
reinforcements and more weapons and it is also the time when the Americans
do their 'shift change'. Ali is expecting a big battle, lots of death and
destruction and lots of problems. He wanted to get home by 4 pm, otherwise
the Mahdi Army won't let him in and he needs to be with his mum and
brother to look after them. We asked Ali about the Shula, which is
situated past Khadimaya to the north-west of Bagdad. He said it was a big
district with a mixture of Shia and Sunni Muslims, but mainly Shia. At
first it was just the Shia fighting, but now the Sunni men have joined in.
There is staunch support for Moqtada Al Sadr - his photos are everywhere.
Have you heard about Shula in the news? No.
And here is our poor Ali trying to make a new life, while the Americans
terrorise the area - but it is not big enough news for TV - you just need
to know the big things that go on.

And did you know that the Public Security (secret service) Centre near New
Bagdad was bombed - No? And did you know that yesterday, the Ministries of
Oil, Sport and Youth came under attack form the Resistance - No.

Over the past few days, since the church bombings, there have been many
many more bombs in Bagdad. Many of them have been closer and louder than
before. We had one a few nights ago at around midnight, followed by a gun
battle (we could hear reply fire). Then five mortars were heard, probably
towards the Green Zone. Then two mornings running there were huge
explosions at around 6.45 am - the 'morning bombs' don't usually go off
that early, they are usually between 7.45 am and 9.30 am.
Then last night, at about 11 pm, there was a big bomb not far away and
this was followed by the definite sound of a rocket attack, also close by
- we didn't know what was being hit though. At midnight there were 3 more
explosions. One was huge and extremely close. I have told you before how
Iraqis don't even look around if there are bombs going off, unless they
are close. Well, all of these, initiated a response - people looking and
stopping what they were doing. The last one in particular got our whole
street up and about. People were on their roofs and balconies looking out.
The Baker Boys went to see, one of them went off on his push bike. Wassim,
opposite us, went on the roof and told us it was in the next street. And
indeed it was. We don't know why, but a bomb hit an air-conditioning unit
shop in that street. Maybe it went off there by mistake. Maybe it was just
to drive more terror into the mainly Christian community in that street.
As so often is the case - we just don't know. The felafel shop in that
street lost its glass front in the blast. The brothers who run it are
really nice men, Christians, who used to do all the felafel sandwiches for
us when we first started to feed the boys when they were on the street,
back in November 2003.
These bombs were not reported on TV - not on BBC, Al Jazeera or Al Arabia
- although Al Jazeera did report that the rocket we heard had hit the
Sheraton Hotel - about 800 metres away.
Al Jazeera were also the only station to report that the recent upsurge in
resistance has also been occurring in Kut (the Ukranian army base was hit
by 28 rockets!), Amara, Nasyriah and Samawa.
But you have been told about an Irish woman winning $32 million on lottery
and the Russian film industry taking off.
There seems to be a concerted effort to take Iraq off the news. Indeed, I
heard an American Republican Party woman on the radio the other day saying
that Iraq was old news, that is it not headlines anymore. Well, while
Moqtada and his men make that virtually impossible and churches coming
under attack have to be reported, there is still a huge swathe of goings
on, deaths, bombs and so on that are not being reported. I know that, to
me, Iraq is the centre of the world, but can you imagine a bomb or a gun
going off not being reported on if it happened in America or Britain. No -
well that's what's going on here.

You have all heard that it has been 'kicking off' in Basra, Nagaf and Sadr
City. I went to Sadr City on Monday with 3 of my translator's friends -
all guards at the Sheraton/Palestine Hotel complex and all supporters, in
name at least, of Moqtada Al Sadr. In the taxi on the way, the driver was
playing a music tape of a woman singing for Saddam. In the song she was
asking Saddam why he left 'us' and who did he leave 'us' to? She was
imploring Bashar Assad, the President of Syria, to help Iraq. And she was
detailing the mess that Bagdad and Iraq has beome in the melancholic
lyrics. I donned my chadoor for the outing, just to be on the safe side -
little wonder, but Westerners are not entirely trusted in Sadr City. I
felt safe enough though, after all, I was with 4 young men, 3 of whom
lived there. Only one car bothered me a bit as it slowed down and stopped
for a better look. Moqtada Al Sadr picures adorned EVERY home. Children
played in the streets in a scene of peace and tranquility - in safety and
in great numbers. Sadr City is a place of children and little ones at
that. There are far far more children than adults living in this poor
neighbourhood - I am sure that they beat the Iraqi average of 46% of the
population being aged 15 years and younger. Here it seemed as though at
least 50% were under 10 years. And it is this scene of peace, tranquility
and little children playing in the streets that America is now
pulverising. These are the people that welcomed the 'liberation' brought
to them by America - these were the people most glad to see the back of
Saddam Hussein. And now these are the people that resist the most fiercely
- they want an end to the occupation and they want America out of their
neighbourhood. There is no question of who is to blame for the recent
fighting in these areas - let's face it, if the Americans were not around,
who would the Mahdi Army attack and fire their RPGs at?
Anyway, in Sadr City, we visited the family home of one of Wejdy's
friends, Ali. This home also had plenty of snaps of Moqtada. I met two of
Ali's tiny little neices and then I met his new, two month old, nephew -
his name was Moqtada. We discussed many things over our meal of rice and
beans - from music to the current situation in Iraq. We were talking about
how children are being effected by the occupation and we mentioned the 11
year old Mujahdeen fighter we had met in Fallujah. Ali said "That's
nothing, a few streets away from here is an 8 year old boy. During the
last attack from the Americans, he got an RPG and fired it at a humvee and
blew it up, then he was shot at and injured, but he is still alive".
Then we left Ali's home and once again walked through the peaceful dusty
streets full of children playing to get our taxi home.

Incidentally, I heard a report about the 11 year old Mujahdeen fighter in
Fallujah from a man who actually witnessed the boy's bravery and skill.
there were two American snipers placed one each end of the road on which
the hospital/clinic we visited was situated. In the darkness, this child
rolled his body across the road from one kerb to the other. He called out
to a man on the side of the road, under the cover of a building, to throw
something white out into the middle of the road. This was done and the
American sniper shot at it revealing his position to the boy who then shot
at him and in the same movement he rolled back across the street to the
other side, just in case the sniper fired at him. No return fire came and
our 11 year old then took night vision binoculars into the middle of the
street and could see the American's snipers body slumped over a wall -
dead. My friend told me that the boy then left and went down the road - he
heard that he used the same procedure there and attacked and shot at
another American sniper.
What future is there for these poor children, whether fighting or not? I
hear, time and time again, how children are frightened now, were
frightened in the war and how some are not going to school and how others
now have temper tantrums, suffer from nightmares or how they have become
withdrawn and silent. This is a country where almost half the popluation
are under 16 years of age. I attended a lecture about this at around
Christmas time. The lecturer estimated that half of the children in this
country are suffering from PTSD, and there are no trained child
psychiatrists or counsellors to deal with this enormous problem. Add to
this the high levels of unemployment, the continuing security problems,
the ongoing violence and the lack of electricity, clean water and petrol
and you have a country that is not years, but decades from recovery.

And all this goes unreported in the news. What is actually happening here
is simply not as important as what MIGHT happen in Britain. Heathrow MIGHT
come under attack, but it has not happened yet and no one has been killed
by a 'terrorist' there. But people are being killed and people are
suffering daily here. But do you need to know about things that are
actually happening? No.


In the days following the bomb attacks on the churches, I have spoken with
many Christians in the neighbourhood. At least 3 families we know, who
usually attend church on a Sunday, had had something else to do on this
day and, thankfully, they had not gone to church. One shopkeeper told me
that the Christians will be too afraid to worship now and that many will
want to leave Iraq.
We heard how one vicar, on hearing about the attacks, got his congregation
out of the church and to safety in great haste - although his church did
not then come under attack. And another vicar in another church which was
bombed, tried to keep the panicking worshippers inside in relative safety,
but away from the glass windows.
The day after the bombs, rumours were rife in Kerrada - 5 more bombs had
been discovered and diffused in churches in the area, and also a roadside
bomb had been found and diffused in Kerrada.
And we consider this a safe area!!

BAD ATTITUDES
I can give you two first hand accounts of why the occupation is detested
and why the Coalition Forces and the Western Companies are despised.

One day last week, we were returning from Allawi bus station in a taxi
when we passed the Ministry of Interior next to Assassins Gate. We ended
up behind two white Land Cruisers as we crossed over the Republic Bridge
over the beautiful Tigris River. The second Land Cruiser, that is the one
in front of us, had its hatchback door open. A pivate security mercenary
was sitting in the back pointing his gun out ready for attack. Likewise a
mercenary sitting in the passenger seat - pointing his gun sideways. On
Saduun Street we came a little too close to them and the gun man in the
back indicated to our taxi dirver to slow down and back off. This our taxi
driver did and the gun man stuck his thumb up in thanks. I commented on
how these people behaved towards the local population when it was not even
their country. The taxi dirver said "What can we do, we have no
authority?" Mind you,when the Land Cruisers turned off to go down to Abu
Newas Street and the Palestine Hotel, he hooted cheekily at them and we
made signs to them. The mercenary looked stunned!!

Last night my translator and I were walking down Kerrada main street when
a humvee passed us going the other way. My translator made his usual
cheeky, rude gesture at them and we carried on our way. A minute or so
later he was roughly grabbed on his shoulder and pulled around by a mad
little jumped-up American soldier who obviously could not control his
temper. I intervened and shouted at the soldier to stop and get away right
now. He released his grip, but carried on shouting. I explained to him
that since America had 'freed' this country, Iraqis were entiltled to make
their feelings known towards their occupiers in a peaceful manner. After
all, isn't that what democracy and free speech are all about? Well, not
according to this idiot. Free speech is only allowed if you are saying
nice things! His friend turned up then - the first soldier had literally
got the humvee driver to stop and had jumped out in temper and had run
over to us. Then along came his sergeant. Now, he was nice. A huge
towering, 6'6'' black guy with a very pleasant way about him. He was
furious with the crazy soldier, who still could not control himself, and
he was also angry with their Iraqi translator. Their translator was busy
lip servicing the Americans saying that they got rid of Saddam and Iraqis
owe them - no wonder so many translators working with Americans are
targetted!
Anyway, the nice sergeant explained that they couldn't have Iraqis making
cheeky signs at them - if they let one do it, next time there will be
ten!! I said that it was better to have rude gestures than bullets and he
agreed. He really started on the idiot soldier then, who had still not
calmed down and we had a nice chat in all them mayhem!! I said that the
actions of this soldier did nothing to win the 'hearts and minds' of the
Iraqis and I explained that he had put all of them in great danger by
jumping out of the humvee in this way and coming down onto the street
where they were now surrounded by Iraqis. I mentioned Abu Gharib and the
sergeant tutted and said "Look Americans put up with this shit in our
prisons in America all the time". I pointed out that America was supposed
to be the shining example of democracy, freedom and fairness - and things
like this just showed the USA Army's true colours. He agreed. In fact, he
agreed with most of what I said and I with him - in the end I actually
took a big risk and shook his hand in front of the assembled onlookers. I
wished him safety and I wished the idiot soldier a long stay in Iraq. I
think I shook his hand because he admitted to me tht he had not agreed
with the war and certainly did not agree with the way things were going in
Iraq right now. He had such a kind face and dealt with the situation so
well, that I really felt for him. But in the idiot soldier, I could see
all the reasons why the American Army are hated here. His was the face of
the abusive soldiers in Abu Gharib, his was the face of the lost temper
which fires at a car load of civilains and his was the face of the soldier
that murdered Shafaq's dad and blew away Abdul Azziz's leg, and his was
the face of the murdering snipers that kill 10 year old boys in Fallujah.
I saw the hatred and temper in his eyes - the hatred and temper that
exists in so many soldiers here.
During this exchange a big crowd of onllookers had gathered. AbuWalid (a
man I was going to rent an appartment off, but didn't in the end) joined
in with us and was shouting at the soldiers' translator. After it was all
over, we turned and walked away through the crowd to grins and 'thumbs up'
signs - coy and secret signs of appreciation - many Iraqis are as
frightened of American soldiers as they were of Saddam's secret police.

We all know the reasons why America doesn't pull out of the disaster that
is Iraq. But if they did, there would be no roadside bombs, no Mahdi Army
Resistance in Nagaf, Sadr City, Basra etc and probably no kidnappings. I
wish they would go and give it a try - after all things can't get much
worse than they are now. Or can they?


**************************************

I wrote the above report on Saturday afternoon. That evening we had lots
of visitors - one of them was a poor lady accompanied by her 2 children
from further up our street. She was asking me for help to pay her rent and
to buy food (more about this in a future report). We promised to visit her
tomorrow as it was now around 10 pm. She thanked us and left. As she went
down our appartment stairs, there was a huge bang, which echoed through
the sky, followed by another. Mustafa, her 8 year old son, clung to her
chadoor, keeping in behind her, crying out "Come on, let's hurry, we're
coming under attack!" He was absolutely terrified. I knew children were
frightened by the bombs and bangs, but here I actually witnessed it -
Mustafa was actually trying to hide in his mum's chadoor and biting his
fingers while he did so.
(When we viisited her the next day, we found he small living quarters
within a big house without glass in the windows - her home is further up
the street than our appartment ie nearer the church and it also faces the
church - so there was no chance that the windows would keep their glass in
the blast from the church bomb - I wondered how poor little Mustafa coped
when that bomb went off.)
5 minutes later, Qusay, one of the Baker Boys, called around. We talked
about his family in Nasyria - who he sees for 10 days every 20 days, as I
explained before. We also discussed how he felt about the Mahdi Army. He,
like Hasan across the street, said he backed the resistance, but would
noly fight if Sistani gave the call. And he felt that there were better
ways for the government to deal with Nagaf, other than getting the US
military to attack the resistance and population of Nagaf.
He, like me, is also angry at the lack of press coverage about the truth
in Iraq. He told us how a small earthquake had occurred in Nasyria at 1 am
last night. Although no one died, there were many injuries and many ruined
and damaged houses. It is believed that the earthquake happened because of
natural gas created by the oil underground. He had spoken to his wife
earlier today on the telephone. His family were fine after the earthquake
and after the recent resistance from the Mahdi Army which took place in
the city.
We were about to sit on our balcony with him, as there was no electricity
to run the fans and the appartment was so hot, when there was yet another
loud bang, followed by another, then another. Qusay decided that he was
too scared to sit out there - the Baker Boys sleep on the roof of the
bakery and, after the church bomb, they had discovered shrapnel on the
roof - shrapnel had travelled that far.

Indeed, the man in the exchange/telephone shop opposite us and next to the
fruit and veg shop, found a cross shaped wheel spanner in the yard of his
house after the bomb. He lives on our street up nearer the church. One of
the crosses of the spanner had become embedded in one of the tiles in the
floor of his yard. I dread to think of the injuries if that had hit a
person.

Anyway, about 12 of these really loud bangs occurred and people were
looking out and fussing. We heard the air raid sirens go off in the Green
Zone and saw plumes of smoke up in the night sky above Kerrada. And then
we realised what the loud bangs were. They were from mortars or rockets
being fired at the Green Zone across the river from the top of the taller
buildings around us in Kerrada. This was why the bangs were so loud - the
booms from each one fired were terrific.
Later Al Jazeera, banned but not silenced from reporting the truth from
within Iraq (so they must be doing something right), said that 10 rockets
had hit the Green Zone.
The next day, a friend visiting us, told us how he had seen lorry loads of
rubble being removed from the Green Zone.
And again that night, another 10 or 11 rockets or mortars were fired from
Kerrada and the sirens went off again in the Green Zone. We went out on
the street, as did many of our neighbours, to listen and watch. Everyone
seemed pretty happy and were saying 'ba'ad', meaning 'more', as we waited
for more to go off. The Baker Boys, Wassim, the cleaning lady - it seemed
as if everyone was out.
We heard reports of how rockets had hit Saduun Street and how others had
hit the checkpoints at the Palestine Hotel - thankfully no injuries - we
have many friends living and working in that area.
Talk was of Mahdi Army fighters climbing the stairs of tall buildings,
such as the appartment blocks around here, in the darkness. From the roof
of the building, the fighter would fire off as many as he could and then
slip away into the night, possibly to another building. This seems
feasible, the bangs were coming from all around us, and, although not an
expert in such matters, I would estimate that all were launched within a
kilometre or so from us.

Last night, with another appartment full of visitors, another 6 or 7
mortars or rockets took off and the sirens went off again. We decided that
it was a clever tactic of the Mahdi Army. There are no 'on the ground'
fighters in Kerrada, so the military cannot really attack the area. By day
Kerrada continues as always - you would never guess that at night the area
has been used a a launchpad for attacks on the Green Zone.
And the BBC is busy report that 'lawless' Sadr City is where the attacks
are being launched from. Popycock!! The Mahdi Army could never hit the
Green Zone from Sadr City and they would not even try - what utter
rubbish! And we certainly would not hear the bangs or see plumes of smoke
from here - Sadr City is around 10 kilometres away.
Each night we have heard much more gun fire and more gun battles with
return fire than usual - although it is very difficult to say exactly
where it is coming from.

Yesterday Ali (with the smile) visited us. We were so happy. We had not
seen him for 3 or 4 weeks and we have been so worried about him. We did go
looking for him, but to no avail. Tha day after we last saw him, he was
due to come back and get some new clothes. He did not come. Instead, he
had bumped into some old friends who were living in the House of Mercy
Childrens' Home in Al Rashad in Bagdad and he went there with them and
stayed there. He has his own room, cupboards and lots of clothes and is
being fed well. This we can see for ourselves - he has honestly grown
taller and, apart from a nice big black eye he had got from crashing into
the goalpost while playing football, he looked wonderful. He now worked
collecting scarp aluminium by day and the sheikh at the Chidrens' Home
collects and saves the money he earns for him and any other child that
works. There seems to be more freedom, trust and responsibility for their
own actions given to the children here than in Al Wazerya and it seems to
suit our Ali well. He could not stop smiling and he wanted nothing, just
to see us - he had been to see us several times before, but we had been
out. It was fantastic to see him.
We asked him how things were in Al Rashad. Ali told us how the House of
Mercy was situated next to a US Army Base in Al Rashad. The Mahdi Army was
attacking this base nightly with RPGs, mortars and AK47's. Then the
Americans would set off flares which stay in the sky lighting up the area
for 5 minutes in order to be able to see the Mahdi Army fighters so that
they could counter attack. When the flares die, the Mahdi Army attack
again and so it goes on and on. Ali said that all the children in the
House of Mercy were terrified and were unable to sleep at all.
Howza (Islamic Pressure Group) run this childrens' Home and in order to
register to live there, a child must first go to Sadr's (Moqtada's
deceased father's) office in Sadr City. Ali had been to the office
yesterday for something else and had seen 2 US tanks destroyed and burnt
out from fighting with the Mahdi Army the night before.

When we heard about the curfew in Sadr City, my translator became very
concerned about his friends who live there. Some of them work as guards at
the Paelstine/Sheraton complex and we wondered how they would be able to
leave and return from work if the area was under curfew. Indeed, many of
the guards that protect US/coalition interests in Bagdad, are Shia and
live in Sadr City. Would these places end up with no guards? So last night
Wejdy rang Ali to check if he and other friends were okay. Yes,
thankfully, they were - the fighting has not yet reached their area of
Sadr City - the area we visited last Monday. And they had not experienced
any trouble leaving Sadr City to get to work. As the boys spoke, there was
a bang from Kerrada as a rocket was fired off. A second later, Wejdy could
hear commotion and shouting from Ali's end of the phone. The checkpoints
at the Palestine/Sheraton had come under attack - the rocket we had heard
leave had hit the first checkpoint on Abu Newas Street which protects the
rear of the Bagdad Hotel - casualties so far unknown.
We are very concerned about the safety and well-being of our friends
during this trying time. Although they work as guards for the coaltion,
they fully support Moqtada Al Sadr and the Mahdi Army.

And we are also concerned about the reports of Iraqi Police and ICDC (Iraq
Civil Defence Corps) being used in the front line against the Resistance
in Nagaf, Sadr City and other places. Is this America trying to create
tension, strife and civil war - not between Sunni and Shia (that didn't
work), but between the Resistance and government/coalition employees?

Today we bought some fruit and vegetables, and in yet another example of
how the ordinary Iraqi suffers, we found that the recent upsurge in
Resistance has caused prices to rise. Tomatoes, eggplants, onions, grapes
and water melons had all gone up in price (and that's just what we
checked). Tomatoes and water melons had almost doubled in price from 10 p
a kilo to nearly 20 p a kilo. This is because 'Jamila', the main
wholesaler for all the food in Bagdad, situated in Sadr City, has had to
shut down due to the fighting. The shopkeepers are now having to travel
out of Bagdad to Mahmoudya or Yusefia for example (30 and 40 kilometres
away respectively) to obtain their wares. The travel and time costs are
then passed onto the customer, just as the taxi drivers have to charge
more when they end up sitting in a petrol queue for one day a week instead
of earning money working.

Where will all this end, I don't know? But I feel certain that if America
pulled out and went home, the situation would be sure to improve. A Muslim
peacekeeping force may work here, but NOT if it works under or with the
Americans. If they do this they will become America's canon fodder - just
as the Iraqi men in the Iraqi Police and ICDC are now.

And how much of this do you get in the news? You tell me!

All for now
Helen Williams
Living amoungst Iraqis in Bagdad,
From Newport, South Wales.

Friday, August 13, 2004

August 13th
The News From Iraq

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.

Then the kidnappings. I hate it when my mates become the news. This morning the radio woke me up with the news that James 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 have threatened to kill him if the US doesn’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.

Bombings and hijackings along the roads from Baghdad to the south are common now for Iraqis and foreigners alike and 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 who has many more starving dying children than here.

"It also makes you wonder about the donors 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.

"Since being here three months ago Baghdad seems a bit quieter because many of the shops have been closed and many of the houses have huge walls built around them for protection. Businesses are still open and there are plenty of traffic jams (more due to road blocks and re-routing of traffic away from target buildings) but still life as normal, or as normal as the Iraqis are used to for the last 25 years.

"The streets are definitely cleaner though and a lot of work and purchasing of resources has finally happened for the ministries and government departments - more since the hand over two months ago than in the six months before that it seems. People are saying that civil servants’ wages have gone up but then the food rations are reducing so again the poor miss out on both counts.

"As a foreigner I get a different reception to three months ago. People are welcoming and nice when they know who I am and what I do but very sceptical and distant on first appearances. My interpreter spoke of abuse he has received while working with foreigners, from Iraqis asking 'how he can work with those Americans to ruin our country'.

"It seems that the difference between Coalition Forces and NGOs is not at all known by the majority of people. I must say that my utmost respect goes to those staff who continue to work for NGOs and especially to the Iraqi police who are the biggest targets of all, but still go to work each day and stand in the firing line with very little protection. They are the committed new Iraqi generation in my eyes."

Military and political interference with aid and humanitarian efforts have caused huge problems for NGOs in Iraq and Afghanistan and has been responsible for the deaths of several aid workers. Medicins 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 Medicins Sans Frontieres 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.

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, turn out to be corrupt.

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.

Check out www.iraqoccupationfocus.org for loads of good stuff on Iraq.


Monday, August 09, 2004

ALSO: from Jenny Gaiawyn, who was with me in Falluja -

Through the Eyes of the Young - An exhibition of art and photography on the lives of youths in Palestine and Iraq [including a picture by one of the Falluja refugee kids]

Glasgow Friend's Meeting House 8th August - 14th August talk by Jenny Gaiawyn on the 11th at 7:30pm

Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre 16th August - 6th September talk by Jenny Gaiawyn on the 15th August at 12:30-1:30 in the Edinburgh Friends Meeting House contact jenpalestine AT yahoo.ie

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Some new talk dates for the UK and US (now amended to show the right month, oops) - the Islamic Cultural Fayre in Bristol on Sunday should be really good and it's a chance to check out what Action Time Vision are doing - they're a wicked new cinema co-op in Bristol. There's not much about them on the web, just a little bit here ( http://www.bitcoop.co.uk/index.php?module=pagemaster&PAGE_user_op=view_page&PAGE_id=7&MMN_position=21:21 )so you'd better come and see them instead.

August 8th 3pm in the Action Time Vision cinema space, Islamic Cultural Fayre, Eastville Park, Bristol, UK

August 14th TBC at Edinburgh Solidarity meeting at Edinburgh Festival

August 25th, St Marks Church, New York city somewhere, Call to Mutiny magazine launch.

August 26th, People's Tribunal on Iraq in New York City - details asap.

August 28-29 Albany NY - details asap as well.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Organising the UK and US Labour Movements Against War and Occupation
Public Meeting with US Labor Against the War
Co-Convenor Gene Bruskin
Welcomed by Greg Tucker, RMT, National Train Crew Secretary
Thursday 5th August, 7pm
Friends Meeting House
173 Euston Road, London NW1 (opposite Euston Station)
Entrance Free/Donation £2
All welcome

US Labor Against the War has played a key role in promoting opposition to war and occupation among US trades unionists. USLAW has more than 80affiliated national and local unions, regional labour bodies and alliedlabour organisations representing more than three million US workers.

On 13 July the California Federation of Labor, representing more thantwo million members, voted overwhelmingly to "demand an immediate end tothe US occupation of Iraq" and to affiliate to USLAW.

On 25 June, theannual convention of the 1.4 million member American Federation ofState, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) called on Bush to "bringour troops home from Iraq now" by near unanimous vote.

On 22 June, the1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU)unanimously passed a resolution backing USLAW. Gene Bruskin's visit offers people in Britain a unique chance to learnabout anti-war opposition within US trades unions. Gene will also talkabout USLAW's efforts to support Iraqi trade unions.

The meeting, organised by Iraq Occupation Focus, will be a chance toforge closer links between British and US trade unionists who oppose thecontinuing war and occupation in Iraq. There will also be a slide show by US Labour journalist and photographerDavid Bacon on USLAW's fact-finding mission to Iraq and a video speech from Stewart Acuff, National Organising Director AFL-CIO, on supportingworkers rights in Iraq.

Gene is visiting the UK from August 4-7 in order to meet with anti-wartrade union leaders and activists and to build links between US and UKtrades unionists opposed to the ongoing war and occupation in Iraq.

www.uslaboragainstwar.org

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