Monday, September 8, 2008

No, Iraq is not all Seashells and Balloons

Article I wrote for SW about the state of Iraq:

It was with great fanfare this week that US officials announced the handover of security in Iraq’s al-Anbar province, home of Fallujah and once where the insurgency was at its fiercest, to the Iraqi army.

The New York Times’ Dexter Filkins (as obsequious a mouth piece as any the Bush regime could ask for) waxed delusional on the situation in Anbar, writing that “the arrangements in Anbar seem immune to those strains” which are threatening the peace in other parts of Iraq. He continues, “Perhaps because the province is almost entirely Sunni, there are no sectarian tensions to speak of.”

Filkins’ reporting is, unfortunately, utterly typical of a press which has (again!) swallowed the Bush administrations lies about what is going on Iraq. Every drop in violence is chalked up as a victory for the occupiers, regardless of its causes or implications. Indeed, if Bush hadn’t been burned once before when declaring ‘Mission Accomplished,” he would surely be tempted to do so now.

The administration’s propaganda surge has been successful in disorienting parts of the antiwar movement. If people don’t have an understanding the unimaginable destruction the US-led occupation is still subjecting Iraq to, protesting the war seems a lot less urgent.

The first thing to recognize about the post-surge Iraq is that, despite sunny news reports, people’s lives remain shattered by the occupation. A poll by a British news agency earlier this revealed that one in four residents of Iraq (45% in Baghdad) had a family member who had been murdered. Recent drops in sectarian fighting don’t take away the fact that the United States unleashed almost unimaginable levels of violence in Iraq.

The slowdown of ethnic strife also didn’t alleviate the judgment of the Iraqi Red Cross/Red Crescent earlier this year, when it declared that “The humanitarian situation in most of the country remains among the most critical in the world," and that Iraq’s health care system is “now in worse shape than ever.”

Iraq’s 18 provinces average 15 hours of electricity a day, a potentially deadly situation for hospital patients.

Poverty also remains the norm for many Iraqis, with many families using up to a third of their monthly income to buy drinking water.

Though it’s true that sectarian violence has declined, the occupation forces remain a brutal presence in Iraqi’s lives, a fact highlighted by the US military’s “mistaken” killing of six Iraqi security personnel on Wednesday.

Four million Iraqis remain displaced, and contrary to administration stories of returning families, that number isn’t changing much. The highest number of internally displaced people (those forced to flee their homes but remaining in Iraq) was about 2.3 million a year ago. The Iraqi Red Crescent reported that as of the end of May 2008, that number had dropped to about 2.1 million – a drop of 5% over 8 months. At that rate it will only take 120 years for all of the internally displaced to return to their homes!

Internally displaced people only account for half of Iraqi refugees. The rest have been forced to flee the country altogether. In Lebanon, a country with a large population of Iraqi refugees, Human Rights Watch has just reported an epidemic of deaths among migrant domestic workers, with at least one dying every week from unnatural causes – a disturbing prospect for refugees trying to eke out a living.

There are also good reasons to believe that the administration is putting pressure on the Iraqi government to limit the information on instability in Iraq that reaches the media corps.

A recent article by Dahr Jamail and Ahmed Ali showed how, in the Diyala province, kidnappings of Sunni residents are going unreported by the local government. While one tribal leader told the reporters that at least ten people from his tribe have been kidnapped recently, the police were reporting no kidnappings in the last four months.

Government censorship has been of the more blatant variety as well. Just this Thursday the vice-governor of the Babil province banned journalists and media workers from covering a march by protesting municipal workers.

Iraq’s political situation is also showing signs of instability. Last month the Iraqi Parliament ended its session unable to reach a deal over the provincial elections originally scheduled to take place in October. The crucial issue behind the stalemate is the question of who will control Kirkuk, an oil-rich northern city which Iraqi Kurds are attempting to bring under their control. The ruling class Shi’a parties of Iraq, led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, are resisting this attempt.

The conflict between the ruling Shi’a parties and the Kurds is an ominous sign for Washington, as these two groups have been the twin pillars of Iraqi political support for the occupation.

Even more potentially explosive are the recent moves by the Iraqi government against the Sunni Awakening councils (which are essentially former insurgents who are now on the US payroll). While some have called for the complete merging of the councils into the Iraqi security forces, the government itself has declared that no more than 15% of the 100,000 former insurgents will be allowed to join. The few that are allowed will be forced to accept low-level positions as foot soldiers or police officers.

Beyond discriminating against the councils, there are also reports of Nuri al-Maliki’s government arresting Awakening council leaders and confiscating their weapons. Last month Battalion 36 of the Iraqi army, known as “the dirty group,” was involved in operations in many of the central Iraqi provinces in which prominent Sunni tribal leaders and Awakening council leaders were arrested. In several cases, these arrests led to violence between government troops and council members (both supposedly US allies).

Such clashes reveal the potential that still exists for open conflict between Sunni militants, who once formed the backbone of the insurgency, and the Iraqi government.

Beyond Iraq, the war is still having a devastating impact at home. Army officials announced yesterday that the suicide rate for veterans was set to pass last year’s record, as well as passing the rate for the general US population, a number it hasn’t approached since the Vietnam War.

The antiwar movement still has a case to make, and in a presidential election where both candidates agree that “victory” in Iraq is the goal, it’s more important than ever that activists put forward the argument that the US has only made the lives of Iraqis worse.