Letter from the Road #9

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon & Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


In Iraq with Colin Powell


We arrived in Baghdad three days ago. It is good to be back, though it seems strange to say that. There is something about being here now that is extraordinarily heartfelt.

“Baghdad is a realistic city,” said Khaled, the Yemeni doctoral student we visited yesterday. “It is a city of real sadness. I will miss it. I don’t want to leave.” Khaled was packing his family’s belongings to leave next week for Syria, and then back to Yemen. He doesn’t want his four young children to experience the trauma of bombing and an American attack. Khaled is writing his doctoral thesis on the American writer William Faulkner. He has no savings. On Saturday he will sell his old car to try to raise enough cash for the trip.

Indeed it is a city of real sadness. Between the policies of our president and theirs, the people here are trapped and their lives robbed of the dreams of their youth. But as Khaled says, at least the sadness is real, “not like the unreal smiles of the Emirates and Saudi Arabia.” How is it that tragedy has this effect?

Last night several of us from the Peace Team huddled around our short-wave radio to listen to Colin Powell’s speech to the U.N. Security Council. It was an effective presentation, especially effective in stimulating fear in the U.S. public of being the target of weapons of mass destruction. We can identify with that fear from our vantage point in Baghdad, a city and country surrounded by a massive U.S. arsenal of weaponry ready to inflict, by U.N. estimates, up to 500,000 Iraqi civilian casualties. Today “mass destruction” is not a very discriminating term.

As you can imagine, the conversations here over late night glasses of Iraqi tea and early morning cups of coffee are busy responding to Powell’s accusations and the assumptions they rest upon. Here is a brief summary of some of those conversations:

  • Mr. Powell did not demonstrate the government of Iraq has a clear intent to use any weapons it may posses against the United States. A war against Iraq would be aggression, not self-defense.
  • Yes, the government of Iraq has missed opportunities to show complete compliance with the weapons inspection process. However, the inspections are wide scale and definitely force Iraq into ever greater compliance. They are in no position to continue producing or to use any weapons they might still have. The policy of containment works.
  • An Iraqi told us, “Any third-rate intelligence agency could fabricate the recorded phone conversations Powell used as “evidence”. You have to understand, Iraqis would never discuss such things on the telephone. We are used to being listened to.”
  • Mr. Powell neglected to mention that many countries possess weapons of mass destruction, including countries in the Middle East, and that the U.S. has actively helped these countries obtain such weapons. Indeed, the U.S., along with Germany and Britain, helped design and equip chemical weapons plants for Iraq during the 1980’s. As for biological weapons, a 1994 investigation of the Senate Banking Committee turned up dozens of biological agents shipped to Iraq under license of the Commerce Department, including various strains of anthrax.
  • The point is, the U.S. is not really serious about eradicating weapons of mass destruction since it actively engages in their sale. The U.S. is using this cause as a pretext for establishing a central and stable “police station” and “gas station” in the region.
  • The links to al-Qaeda are flimsy. The area in northern Iraq where the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam has camps and purportedly interacts with al-Qaeda is outside of the government of Iraq’s control in the Kurdish autonomous region. In any case, Saddam Hussein would be loath to give such dangerous weapons to a group who could turn these weapons against him. In addition, if the U.S. is so concerned about keeping nuclear weapons out of al-Qaeda’s hands, why did Congress stop funding the program to decommission nuclear weapons and weapons-grade material held by former states of the Soviet Union, forcing Ted Turner and others to try to fund these efforts privately?

As we engage in conversations such as these filled with historical references and stories of intrigue and deception, we realize how difficult it is to surface the truth. The current confrontation with Iraq is a “signifier” that, if we look deeply, implicates all sides and many generations in conflict.

Mr. Powell and the U.S. administration appeal to a moral code that is commendable – a revulsion against the making and use of terrible weapons, and the call for nonviolent and truthful behavior on the part of a nation state. Yes, by all means, let us stand for this moral code. And let us be consistent. Let us insist on this code in all the dealings of the U.S. Departments of State and Defence and in all our trade practices. How can we expect the world to exhibit nonviolent and truthful behavior if we continue to flood it with weapons of all kinds while we pose as the moral “good guys”?

This world of politics, accusations and counter-accusations has a strange unreality to it, as if we are walking on foam. No wonder there is something reassuring about being here in Baghdad, in the streets, in the eye of the storm, where we can at least take refuge in something real, like sadness.

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