Report from the Military Families Delegation to Iraq

 

Report from the Military Families Delegation to Iraq
 
December 1 to 7, 2003
 
In a trip that is unprecedented in the history of US military activity, a group of American family members of US soldiers currently serving in Iraq and veterans of previous US wars traveled to the conflict zone. During their visit, from December 1-7, the group met with a diverse cross-section of Iraqis, as well as American civilians and military personnel, to learn for themselves what conditions are like for the troops and Iraqis under the US occupation.
The group was not composed of foreign policy or Middle East experts, but ordinary US citizens who decided to take an extraordinary journey, putting their own lives at risk, to play an active role in shaping US-Iraqi relations. They included four parents of soldiers in Iraq, one of whom was killed in March. Two Vietnam veterans and one Gulf War veteran, who has a son in the military, accompanied the family members. Some of the participants are members of the organizations Military Families Speak Out and Veterans for Peace . The trip was organized in the US by the San Francisco-based human rights organization Global Exchange and in Iraq by the Occupation Watch Center in Baghdad .
 
The group flew to Amman, Jordan, and then made a 12-hour overland drive across the desert to Baghdad. Total travel time for the group members averaged 36 hours between the east and west coasts to Baghdad.
 
While in Baghdad, the group met with the head of the US Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, Ambassador Paul Bremer, and had meetings with his deputy, Ambassador Richard Jones, and with the second in command in the military, Major General John Gallinetti. While the group was not given permission to have formal meetings with US soldiers on military bases, they did have regular informal interactions with soldiers at border crossings, check-points, on patrols and guard duty.
 
In addition, two of the delegates with children serving in Iraq were able to locate and visit their children in outlying bases in Fallujah and Tikrit. The parent of the soldier killed in Iraq during the war returned to the spot in Diwaniya where his son was killed.
 
The delegation met with Iraqi members of the Governing Council, including the current Council President Abdul Aziz Al Hakim, Communist Party Secretary General Hamid Majid and Governing Council spokesperson Hamid Al-Kahfaji. The group also had the opportunity to meet with important Shiite and Sunni religious leaders, as well as Iraqi human rights groups, women's organizations and workers associations.
 
But perhaps most informative was the group's interactions with ordinary Iraqis in schools, hospitals, universities, mosques, long gas lines, street protests and in their homes. Delegates visited the Abu Ghraib prison and talked to prisoners' families and interviewed former prisoners about prison conditions. At a Shiite religious school, the local community set up a tribunal for the delegation to hear testimony after testimony from people who had been detained, beaten, brutally interrogated, shot or had their loved ones killed by the occupation forces.
 
During this week of intense interactions, Iraqis of all types told the group they were glad that Saddam Hussein was no longer in power; but they were always quick to add they want the occupation of Iraq by US troops and administrators to end. The delegation left with some very strong and disturbing impressions, as well as urgent recommendations.
 
"If you can somehow imagine yourself on the streets of Baghdad, with streets lined by concrete barriers and barbwire, waiting in a five hour gas line, occasionally pushing your car forward in line, and watching black helicopters circle overhead and a soldier eyeing you through his gun barrel from a nearby tank turret, you may start to get a glimpse of the humiliation and growing anger of the Iraqi citizens." Mike Lopercio, a restaurant owner from Phoenix, Arizona whose son is stationed in Fallujah
 
The Daily Lives of Iraqis
 
Based on talks with many ordinary Iraqis, it is clear their daily lives have not improved in the eight months since Saddam Hussein was overthrown. In many cases, things are even worse with no improvement in sight. This very real frustration is turning to anger, something that increases the danger of retaliation against our young American soldiers.
 
We found a country with millions of people out of work and with no means to support for their families. Electricity remains intermittent; telephone exchanges destroyed during the war had still not been fixed; the water is not safe to drink; many hospitals lack basic equipment and medicines such as antibiotics; schools have no heat, lights or books; garbage is piled up in the streets; and in a country floating on oil, mile-long gas lines involving five to seven hour waits snake through the cities.
 
Iraqis complain that they are being occupied by the richest country in the world, yet the promises to improve the conditions of their lives have not been met and, in fact, conditions have actually gotten worse. Many Iraqis told us that, while they were glad Saddam Hussein was gone, conditions under his dictatorship were better. For example, we were told that after the 1991 war, electricity and telephone exchanges destroyed during the war were quickly repaired. Gasoline distribution was normal within 60 days and was sold for five cents a gallon throughout the embargo years. Now, electricity is unreliable, phones lines are still down, and Iraqis must wait in long lines to fill their tanks with gasoline. They want to know why.
 
Iraqis understand that the US controls Iraqi oil money, seized assets and reconstruction money pledged by US taxpayers; they are now asking where that money is going. They hear that US companies such as Bechtel and Halliburton are getting billion-dollar contracts to rebuild Iraq, but they don't see the results. Our delegation tried but was unable to obtain a list of the schools and hospitals that Bechtel has been contracted to fix, so that we could measure the progress. In the meantime, highly skilled Iraqis who are very capable of fixing the electricity, repairing the phone lines or refurbishing their own schools and hospitals are standing on street corners unemployed.
 
Recommendations:
 
Iraqis want to rebuild their own country with funds provided by their oil and much-needed aid from the international community. Money for rebuilding should not go to foreign companies like Halliburton and Bechtel but to the appropriate Iraqi ministries to then contract out to Iraqi companies. This must be dealt with urgently as the US is presently putting out bids for billions of dollars worth of new contracts to be awarded in February. Also, if a new Iraqi government is to be created by July 1, that government must have control over the budget and not locked into wasteful contracts with foreign companies. With respect to contracts already allocated, oversight committees should be formed in-country for the reconstruction of schools and hospitals and to monitor dispersal of the funds. These committees should be made up of representatives of government ministries as well as community representatives such as principals, teachers and doctors---people who are in the best position to know if the money is indeed going to the purpose for which it was allocated.
 
"As a former soldier and Gulf War veteran, I hold the commander-in-chief and his advisors responsible for putting our soldiers in a no-win situation. They successfully accomplished a mission for which they had been trained—fighting to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein. Instead of going home, they were then assigned to the job of policing Iraqi society, a job they were not trained for and a job that is totally inappropriate for our troops. Soldiers are not police officers." Michael McPhearson, a 1991 Gulf War veteran with a son now in the military
 
The US Military Presence
 
A prominent theme mentioned by almost every Iraqi we talked to was the presence of our troops patrolling the streets in humvees with machine guns and other armored vehicles. Iraqi citizens feel that such a presence of such US occupation troops incites violence rather than dispels it.
 
During our time in Baghdad driving through the city, we regularly encountered patrols made up of two humvees roaming the streets with young soldiers manning .50 caliber machine guns on roof mounts. We saw them in convoys on the four lane highways. We saw them in reinforced positions at intersections. Such a presence is reminiscent of past colonial eras where troops are sent out to "show the flag," in this case, to make the presence of occupying US forces a psychological reality in the minds of Iraqis.
 
Many Iraqis report rude and even violent treatment from US soldiers at checkpoints or in home searches. They told us of the humiliation of having orders barked at them—in English—by 20-year-old soldiers. Women told of their great shame at having soldiers barge into their bedrooms during a raid. But much more tragic is the number of cases we heard of Iraqi civilians being shot at by US troops at check points or while driving by in patrols. The troops are so jittery from being attacked themselves that they treat all Iraqis as potential enemies. We heard so many heart-breaking stories of soldiers mistakenly shooting civilians, and these mistakes in turn lead to hatred of our troops and a desire for revenge.
 
Recommendations:
 
The solution is two fold. On the one hand, there's the need to ramp up deployment of the Iraqi police forces to provide security; on the other hand, US troops should be removed from the streets. We would like to see their numbers reduced and see the remaining forces sequestered in bases beyond the city limits. The longer-term solution, and the only real solution in our view, is to bring US troops home. Security issues need to be addressed by Iraqis with the back up of a truly international force not under the control of the US.
 
"America is supposed to stand for freedom and the rule of law. I was shocked and deeply saddened by the violations of due process and fair treatment for prisoners that our delegation heard about. Aside from the anguish we are causing individuals detainees and their families, what is the message we are sending the world about the true face of America?" Michael McPhearson, a 1991 Gulf War veteran with a son now in the military
 
Human Rights Issues
 
We were told by a number of Iraqis that some members of the US forces in Iraq are violating the basic due process rights of Iraqis detained and imprisoned. We heard some shocking allegations of human rights abuses on the part of US forces, including the use of torture.
 
We visited the Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, a prison once run by the former regime under brutal conditions. Today, the prison is overflowing with people detained by the US occupying forces. On the day we visited, the parking lot was full of family members trying to find information about their detained relatives. We talked to a woman with two young children whose husband was arrested without charges; a poor woman crying uncontrollably because her son—the sole breadwinner of the family—had been held for four months; an elderly man looking for his son. They all had one thing in common: none of their family members had been charged with a crime. Most had no access to lawyers because they couldn't afford the services, but even the lawyers we met said there was little to do for their clients since the prisoners were held without charges and no trials had been set.
 
This prison alone is said to house over 5,000 prisoners. The prison is guarded and coordinated by Americans, who set the standards for everything from family visits to prison conditions. We learned from the family members, guards and lawyers, that there were only 20-40 family visits scheduled per day. Two days a week were designated for lawyers. The family members on line to schedule visits on the days we were there were told that the schedule was full all the way until June. That means that people were told to wait six months! Our delegation was appalled at this callousness on the part of the occupation forces and talked to the colonel in charge about this.
 
Besides the massive prison at Abu Ghraib, every base in Iraq has a detention center for people arrested for one reason or another; family members constantly come to the gates to plead to see their relatives.
 
The group attended a session where a 30-year-old Iraqi man alleged that he was arrested by American soldiers and taken into detention, where he said they interrogated him for hours and used electric wires. Others told of being physically abused at checkpoints and elsewhere. While we have no way of confirming these incidents, we do not dismiss them and think they need to be investigated further.
 
Another issue is the way the US treats families who have been mistakenly hurt by US forces. These incidents range from destruction of property such as homes and vehicles, to injury and wrongful death. The US administration in Iraq has a completely arbitrary and unacceptable policy with respect this issue of compensation. People can fill out complaint forms at US bases or at the Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters in Baghdad, asking for help in the range of $2,000 to $10,000 for property damage, personal injury or wrongful death. Claims can only be filed for incidents that occurred after May 1, when the US declared an end to the major combat. However, Iraqis tell us that most of the time these claims receive no response—unless the family is politically powerful, the community is particularly outraged by the incident, or the press has highlighted the issue. Money is dispersed, Iraqis claim, not on the basis of a consistent policy and as a show of compassion for the victims but more as "hush money" at the discretion of military officers.
 
We witnessed this ourselves during our visit. The son of one of the families we visited had been tragically shot by US forces in front of his office. Our visit was a high profile one, with several television cameras accompanying us. The family, still grieving over the death of their son back in July, had received only a half-hearted apology from the US military but no help for the victim's family. The day after our visit, the base commander in the area visited the family and gave them $10,000 and a promise of more funds. In return, they requested that the family stop talking publicly about the incident. While we were delighted that the family received some support, we are appalled by the process itself.
 
Recommendations:
 
Prisoners must be charged with crimes and must be given due process, which includes access to lawyers, even for those who cannot afford representation; those charged must be given a fair trial. If not charged, they must be released. On the issue of brutality and allegations of torture during interrogations, we feel the questions are serious and credible enough to call for a congressional investigation. Where instances of abuse can be proved, the US needs to adequately compensate victims and see that the perpetrators are brought to justice.
 
With respect to compensation for victims who were mistakenly hurt, there needs to be a fair and consistent policy that is implemented in a timely manner. In addition to receiving financial support, people with physical injuries should receive medical treatment. Having a compensation policy that shows concern, compassion and remorse, especially in the cases of bodily harm and wrongful death, is not only the correct position vis-à-vis the victim or the victim's family, but can help stem the community anger and the desire for revenge that such cases often engender.
 
What If US Troops Leave?
 
If the US were to withdraw its troops from Iraq, some say the country would descend into chaos and blood-thirsty civil war. The Iraqis we spoke with say this is not the case, that in fact Iraqis have lots of reasons to avoid such scenarios, that in fact this fear is being used as justification for the continued US occupation.
 
Iraqis pointed out to us that after the horrors of the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War and, now, the war to remove Saddam Hussein that they are tired of war. They want to get on with their lives and improve their devastated country. The last thing they want, we were told, is the bloodshed of another war. They want to govern themselves, even if it might be with a less than perfect government. As one Sunni religious leader involved in efforts to strengthen Sunni-Shiite relations told us when asked if there was a possibility of chaos if the US troops withdraw, "It's a gamble, but it's our gamble. It's our country and we have to be responsible for our own future."
 
Transition To Iraqi Self-Rule
 
The US administration has announced that a new Iraqi government will be in place by the end of June 2004. This plan entails indirect elections through provincial councils appointed by the Governing Council, a body appointed by Paul Bremer and the CPA. The provincial councils would appoint caucus members, who would in turn elect a government.
 
We met with several representatives of Iraqi organizations who expressed skepticism and grave concerns about this proposed process. They felt that the US was trying to manipulate the outcome by using such an indirect method of voting, and that such an attempt to control the outcome would de-legitimize the process. They emphasized that around half of the appointed Governing Council members are recently returned exiles, many of them out of the country for the past decades.
 
The other option supported by many Iraqis is a direct vote by the Iraqi people. While there are no accurate voting rolls, there is a list of Iraqis based on the UN Oil For Food program. Many feel this ration card list could be used as the basis for voter rolls, with additions made for Iraqis living in exile and others not on that list.
 
While no system at this time seems perfect, it seems clear that with the US controlling and driving the process of establishing a sovereign government, many Iraqis will not be confident in the outcome.
 
Recommendation:
 
The transition to Iraqi self-rule cannot be done by military forces occupying the country. That is clear. It must be overseen by a more neutral, international force such as the United Nations. The same is true for the oversight of the writing and approval of the constitution. The United Nations certainly has a tarnished reputation in Iraq for having implemented the sanctions and given its approval—after the fact—to the US occupation. And of course it suffered a horrendous blow when envoy Sergio Viera de Melo and 21 colleagues were killed in the bombing on August 19.
 
However, this is a time when Iraq, the US and the world need the United Nations to step back into the fray — especially to help form a new Iraqi government that will be seen as legitimate and representative in the eyes of the majority of Iraqis and the world community.
 
Conclusion
 
While with few exceptions, Iraqis told the group they are glad Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, they also said they want the occupation of Iraq by US troops and administrators to end. Several people referred to the US occupation as "the new Saddam."
 
The danger for the US and the Coalition Provisional Authority is that pressure to "fix" Iraq and to get clear of the quagmire it has become will lead US officials to take the quickest route and try to control and govern Iraq by employing many of the same techniques used by the dictator Saddam Hussein. These would be an ironic tragedy.
 
Attempting to create a government by appointing Iraqis sympathetic to US interests, while using the military to control dissenting parties, is a formula for disaster in the long run. This was basically the technique used by the British under its Mandate government in the 1920s. It ended in failure.
 
We should avoid these traps by encouraging as fair a general election as possible, no matter what the outcome. A Sunni cleric assured us he preferred a Shiite dominated government over US occupation. The point he was trying to make for us was, while Iraqis certainly have their differences, the continuing US occupation is becoming a sort of common enemy for all Iraqi factions to unite under.
 
We in the United States have to re-think our government's policies in Iraq. Changing course should not be interpreted as "running away." Running away is not the issue -- getting it right is the issue. That means turning Iraq over to a truly sovereign government that has control of its own budget, and letting Iraqis control their own security. The Iraqi nationalistic slogan we heard from people we visited—Iraq for the Iraqis—is a call for the US troops to come home. This is not only good for the Iraqis, good for our sons and daughters, but good for our image in the world as a nation that respects the sovereignty of others.