Sampling of those caught in middle of war critical of U.S.
As we cleared the last stretch of Atlantic and closed in on the Arabian Peninsula, I heard the pilot say we'd soon be flying over the Red Sea. A flock of clouds parted below us to reveal an ancient landscape unrolling like a great sandy carpet — the Middle East, place of millennial dreams.
For the next nine days, as part of a 15-member peace delegation of people from all over the country, I would hear from Iraqi refugees, human-rights groups and policy-makers. Here is a shorthand effort to tell some of their stories.
"In 2004 we started publishing the human rights violations . . . but we learn soon that foreign policy is clear in the occupation — impunity to American soldiers and contractors.
"The policy in Iraq is not to listen to Iraqis. . . . If you're thinking in 20 years Iraq will have a democracy . . . that is good. But we have no strategy. We are every day bleeding, bleeding. We are speaking about hours here . . . before another deadly explosion.
"You are creating fundamentalism through torture, random violence, attacking cities. . . . You have to take out your troops. . . . You have to make clear you are not supporting these violent militias."
Sitting beside Daoud is Stefano Ellero, director of the Italian humanitarian organization Un Ponte Per, which has been offering technical and financial support to Iraqi nongovernmental organizations since the '90s embargo.
"My experience has been in the Balkans, and I am surprised at the level of commitment the Iraqis have to get out of this black hole . . . but the occupation doesn't allow them to move on," said Ellero.
Afternoon: Before a tour including Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad ruins, Cathleen Krahe, a group member from Colorado, invited us to meet in the lobby with her Iraqi friend Amal Maseer, who had brought along her paintings to sell. "Amal" means peace in Arabic. Maseer's family remains in Baghdad, which she said "is not livable anymore."
She was grateful for every painting we purchased, but her smile was haunting; it reminded me of our translator, also a refugee with family members in Baghdad. This young woman makes the dangerous trip home every three months to keep her Jordanian visa valid. She did not wish to expose her identity as that might compromise her family's pending visas to move abroad.
The smiles of both women floated like thin veils over deep depression.
June 13, Toledo Hotel
Morning: Our next meeting was with Nadje S. al-Ali, who attended the University of Arizona from 1986 to 1989. She lives in London and teaches cultural anthropology at the University of Exeter. At the start of economic sanctions, she helped found the United Kingdom-based Act Together: Women's Action for Iraq. She's co-authoring a history of Iraqi women beginning in the 1950s. Al-Ali gave us a detailed background on women's rights in Iraq, which, due to failed security and increased fundamentalism, have been disappearing since the occupation.
"Every day an average of 90 new widows are made. It is the saddest to say that for most people it was better under the tyranny of Saddam than now, with only two hours of electricity, queuing up for everything, costly petrol, escalating violence on all sides. I don't know any middle-class family in Iraq that has not had a family member kidnapped. It's done by criminals who give out mobile-phone numbers so they can negotiate a price. The U.S. cannot control this," said al-Ali.
"I can't possibly stand in front of you and say with confidence that things will be all right when the troops withdraw. But what I know is that American presence and policies are escalating, not stopping, sectarian violence. Some members of the resistance use the occupation as an excuse. Once it is over . . . their lack of support for Iraqi people will be exposed."
June 14, International Crisis Group offices, Amman
Afternoon: The International Crisis Group (ICG), is an independent, nonprofit organization that is headquartered in Brussels. At the ICG office, in a semi-residential area of Amman, Mideast analyst Joost Hilterman shared his insights.
"Our group tries to bring out the drivers of conflict and seek ways of minimizing actual outbreaks. A stable Iraq is good for the region, good for American interests. . . . We might expose U.S. interest in controlling Iraqi oil, but never support this concept. . . . Sectarian issues exist, but the Shiites in Iraq do not like or trust Iranian Shiites, who for too many years treated them like 'dirty Arabs.'
"If the U.S. withdraws too fast, it will be a disaster. If they stay too long, it will be a disaster. The U.S. must be clear that it has no motives but to restabilize the country and get out. . . . Rather than building permanent bases, it should leave populated areas, eventually managing things with long-distance bombers — as it has in the past — but no troops on the ground."
June 15, Center for Monitoring Human Rights, Amman
Morning: We crowded into the small, stuffy downtown office of the Amman Center for Monitoring Human Rights to hear from victims of war crimes and nongovernmental organizations in Iraq that deal with such abuse. Center Director Muhammad T. al-Daraji was on the Fallujah City Council at the time the city was attacked. Basam al Akram, a Christian Kurd from Basra, told us how American soldiers, upon learning of his religion, tied him to a cross. Haj Ali represented the Association of Victims of American Occupation Prisons, and Sheik Abdul-Kareem Habdaraza led a Sunni mosque in Fallujah.
All four men bore the physical and emotional scars of incarceration and torture. Except for the sheik, their voices were flat, eyes empty, as they described electrocution, rape and other horror at the hands of Iraqi police, U.S. soldiers and militia members. All supported an immediate U.S. withdrawal overseen by international courts.
After several of us apologized for any war crimes committed in our names, Habdaraza gave us a message to take home: "I know not you, but some Americans seem to care more for a dog run over accidentally than the killing of Iraqi children. The truth is bitter: Americans will be hated for generations. Sometimes I want to scream at you, 'We come from a civilization that has endured for 7,000 years!' But I call instead for good American people to stand by Iraqi people and put a stop to this."
Afternoon: We met with two women from Baghdad, Faiza al-Araji, an engineer who fled after her son was kidnapped, and Raissa Zaydal, who still lives in the city with her family but can no longer work as a pharmacist.
Zaydal quietly pleaded, "If they wanted to keep Iraqis safe, why did they wait three years to implement a Baghdad curfew? One hundred fifty a day are fleeing Baghdad. Three days ago, my son's close friend was killed by a car bomb at the university."
Both agree that the occupation is blocking Iraqi unification. Al-Araji, who authors a blog, afamilyinbaghdad.blogspot.com, says "Iraqis are lost between the occupation and the crooks" (referring to Iraqi officials who recently fled with millions of reconstruction dollars). Al-Araji paused to touch Zaydal's arm. "I am Shia. I don't know if Raissa is Sunni. We are Iraqi. Why you divide us?"
Zaydal spoke softly but with equal passion: "There is no excuse for killing women and children. I am working now for an international women's conference to solve these problems."
After taking a call on her cell phone, al-Araji concludes, "There are almost a million Iraqis in Jordan, every eighth person you meet. It is not enough to keep saying the violence is not in your name. We see that. But please, what you must do is to take back your country."
June 16 and June 17, Petra
We have a day-and-a-half break from meetings to visit an ancient city carved from towering rock cliffs, followed by a bus ride to Damascus, Syria.
June 18, Damascus, Syria
Morning: Though I had a feverish night, I wasn't going to let a slight illness keep me from our day in this ancient capital of magical souks (markets) and inlaid mosques.
By 10 a.m., we were in the east quarter of Old Damascus, humming along with an Arabic "Ode to Joy," in St. Paul Presbyterian's Sunday service, my own denomination. Two Presbyterian ministers in our group offered a greeting and benediction. Afterward, as sweet Arabic coffee was passed in a fellowship hall, a dozen or so Iraqi refugees — mostly professionals who recently escaped from the violence in southern Iraq — conveyed through our translator a picture of daily life that several men compared to "hell on earth."
A middle-age painter, Sabri Daoud, told us that he received death threats for selling his artwork to British troops in Basra. He explained, "I decided to leave Iraq immediately and find a safe place for my family, leaving everything behind."
June 19, Damascus
Morning: Minister of Expatriates Bouthania Shaaban was unable to meet with us, so Nadette Stasa, a delegate from New York City, arranged a breakfast meeting with a young Syrian woman who only identified herself as Wiaam.
In April she was a volunteer and a rider in the international bicycle event "Follow the Women," in which 250 participants biked from Lebanon to Jordan to promote peace and tolerance in the Middle East.
Wiaam proudly explained to us, "We went to the place taken from Syria, the Golan Heights, and the women were waving their white scarves at soldiers."
Afternoon: On the bus trip back to Amman, we had a lengthy delay at the Jordanian border, where customs officials temporarily seized our translator's visa. We discussed the fear that this type of threat might soon be routine for Iraqi refugees.
June 20, Amman
Morning: At 9:30 sharp we piled into a bus and made our way to the American Embassy, which sits like a walled city atop one of Amman's limestone hills.
Once we cleared three security checks, Acting Chief Political Officer Eric Carlson and Acting Public Affairs Officer David Meese couldn't have been more cordial.
Although we weren't allowed to take pictures, make tapes or attribute any of their comments, we were commended for making the trip and exercising our right to ask hard questions of our government.
We received only soft answers about "displaced" Iraqis. Both men acknowledged that the hundreds of desperate people crossing daily into Jordan and Syria were escaping a bloodbath, but U.S. policy denies refugee status. Iraqis are considered "guests."
On the way out, I was struck by a wall plaque inscribed with part of Jimmy Carter's 1978 speech on the 30th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Of all the human rights, the most basic is to be free of violence. . . . When government itself becomes the perpetrator of violence, it undermines its legitimacy. . . . The Universal Declaration means that no nation can draw the cloak of sovereignty over torture, disappearance, officially sanctioned bigotry or the destruction of freedom."
Afternoon: Our excursion to the holy sites of Mount Nebo and Bethany on the Jordan River couldn't wash away the guilt I felt. Even when I spotted my first nightingale — a universal sign of love — in a tamarisk bosque near a bank where Jesus is thought to have been baptized, I was haunted by the horror that the liberation my government started might be headed toward annihilation, leaving Iraq as unlivable as the Dead Sea.
June 21, Queen Alia Airport, Amman
As my plane prepared for takeoff, I thought of what delegation member Pastor Emilee Whitehurst from Austin, Texas, had shared with fellow Presbyterians in Damascus: "We say in the U.S. that hope is believing in spite of the evidence."
The overwhelming evidence from my journey exposed a brutal civil war. Amid this chaos, U.S. strategy appears to be centered not on protecting people, but on constructing a series of military bases within the country for the protection of U.S. interests.
When I arrived home, I discovered little progress toward setting a debate or timeline on withdrawal. Without leadership, the only way to contain the annihilating genie unleashed by the Iraq war may be for ordinary Americans to rise up from the depths of conscience and take action. I choose to believe that we the people can end this occupation and begin giving humanitarian aid, and that we can change "the evidence."