Month: June 2004

Handover Or Hangover?

“It will be like in Lebanon during the civil war. The only person who could move outside the embassy then was the ambassador, with a tank in front and a tank in back.”–Edward S. Walker, Jr., former ambassador to Egypt, former deputy chief of mission in Saudi Arabia, and current president of the Middle East Institute.

In the run-up to the June 30th handover of power in Iraq, the security situation has become so bad that political analysts on TV and radio are starting to talk about the “Lebanon scenario.” Upon the withdrawal of US troops, Iraq will dissolve into warring factions and one of Iraq’s neighbors will be forced to invade in order to put a stop to the civil war raging on their border, as Syria invaded Lebanon in the 1980s–or so the theory goes.

Of course, the analysts forget to mention that Israel also invaded Lebanon, but, hey, that’s how deep the anti-Arab, pro-Israel bias runs in our country. Aside from the fact that, in a true Lebanon scenario, the risk will be that multiple nations will invade and carve up the country (Turkey from the north, Iran from the east, Syria from the west, and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait from the south), nobody mentions the Vietnam scenario, which is much more likely to occur.

The Lebanon scenario rests upon the withdrawal of US troops. All indications are that US troops will be in Iraq for a long, long time to come, and not just at current levels, but at increased levels. That, my friends, is a Vietnam scenario: all of Iraq’s various factions–the Shiites, Sunni tribesmen, former Baathists, disaffected ex-military members, various fundamentalist Muslim groups, Kurds seeking autonomy, thousands of abused former prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other US detention facilities, and a vast and angry populace that hasn’t seen many improvements since the Saddam era–all united in their goal to kick out the invaders.

But when the analysts enumerate the possibilities, they talk ad nauseam about the various permutations of the Bush administration’s line: that the US-appointed Iraqi interim government will somehow get control of the security situation and stabilize Iraq. Then they mention what they call the worst case scenario: that Iraq will descend into a civil war like Lebanon in the 1980s. When asked what they think is the likeliest outcome, most of them admit that the Lebanon scenario is inevitable. This means that they’re not really telling us the worst case scenario. They all know that a Vietnam situation is possible. They also know that civil war in Iraq would be much, much worse and much more violent than civil war in Lebanon ever was. They also know that civil war or a Vietnam-style meatgrinder in Iraq would destabilize the entire Middle East, if not the entire world. Instead, we get 59 minutes of happy talk and 1 minute of a superficial peak at reality.

Meanwhile, guerrillas continue to overrun police stations and government buildings in major cities in Iraq: Baghdad, Baqubah, Ramadi, Mosul, Mahaweel, Fallujah, Najaf. The Iraqi police force repeatedly crumbles in the face of assaults that have become so well coordinated that they turn back US forces zooming in to “provide assistance.” US troops on the ground admit that the insurgents are becoming tough to defeat, that they’re fighting with armaments, coordination, and skills that strongly resemble the former Iraqi military. For example, during last Thursday’s major assault in Baqubah, the only way that US troops could drive Iraqi guerrillas out of warehouses and government buildings was to call in air strikes and drop 500 lb. bombs on them. The US had to destroy Iraqi government buildings to keep them out of the hands of the guerrillas. That’s a sign of things to come, and it looks terribly like Vietnam. Or worse.

Meanwhile, the British press reports that the Iraqi interim government has 120,000 cops on the payroll, but only 89,000 of them turn up for duty on any given day. Of those who turn up for work, more than half still have had no training. As for equipment, they lack 95% of the radios they need, 75% of the body armor, and two-thirds of the vehicles they need to go out on patrol. Only about half of the Iraqi police even have guns. No wonder they disappear when they see the enemy coming over the hill.

It’s become a common lament that Paul Bremer shouldn’t have dissolved the Iraqi army when he first settled into his job as US viceroy in Iraq. Nobody seems to recall that this was an abrupt change in US policy. Remember, Bush & Co. had planned to remove the top Baathists in Saddam’s government, but they were counting on the lower level government workers and Iraqi military to stay in place and provide “continuity”–a code word for security. The common story that the Iraqi officers sent all their men home, that they just “melted away” and took their guns with them, is a crock of bull. As soon as the main fighting was over, Iraqi soldiers came forward to demand their paychecks. That’s when Bremer told them to get lost. And now we know who was responsible for that decision: apparently, Ahmed Chalabi, in a fever of anti-Baathist extremism, managed to persuade Paul Bremer and Donald Rumsfeld that the Iraqi military should be dissolved and a new army trained in its place. No doubt he wanted his own militia to form the core of the new force.

Unfortunately, the search of Chalabi’s offices in Baghdad only set this old fraud back for a few days. It did keep him out of the running for prime minister, but it didn’t stop him from ensuring seats for himself and his cronies on the Supreme Commission for the Preparation of the National Conference, the group that’s going to select the members of the Interim National Council. The Interim National Council will have several duties, including advising Prime Minister Allawi’s interim government, approving the 2005 Iraqi national budget, and paving the way for elections in January 2005 (if they can stick to the timeline in the midst of a major guerrilla war).

Chalabi is not the only former exile to sit on the Supreme Commission. Nearly all the other members of the widely-reviled, exile-dominated former Governing Council managed to shoehorn themselves onto the commission, too. Apparently, this was with the express approval and adamant urging of Paul Bremer and other CPA officials. After all, it’s better to have the devils you know in charge than the devils you don’t know–and can’t control.

As for the new prime minister, Ayad Allawi, Iraqis see very clearly that he’s not a neutral actor. While Seymour Hersh took a beating for writing in the New Yorker that Israel was covertly supporting the Kurds in Iraq, it seems that no one read his entire article to the end, where he discusses Allawi’s sordid background. Allawi was a “true believer,” a hardcore supporter of Saddam Hussein, who ran the Mukhabarat (Iraqi intelligence) office in Europe during the early ’70s. He was linked to a hit squad that murdered Iraqi dissenters in Europe. Even Dr. Allawi’s medical degree may be a sham: one former colleague claims that Allawi’s degree was conferred on him by the Baath party. Hersh quotes Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer in the Middle East: “Two facts stand out about Allawi. One, he likes to think of himself as a man of ideas; and, two, his strongest virtue is that he’s a thug.”

Sound familiar? To Iraqis, that description evokes a man who was just recently deposed as dictator of Iraq.

Some of the sources for this article: “U.S. Faces Massive Task in Setting Up an Embassy,” Mary Curtius, Los Angeles Times, 6/20/04,; “Adversary’s Tactics Leave Troops Surprised, Exhausted,” Scott Wilson, Washington Post, 6/24/04,; “Security a shambles ahead of handover,” Rory McCarthy and Jonathan Steele, The Guardian, 6/24/04,,3858,4955091-103681,00.html; “Old Iraqi council clings to key roles,” Annia Ciezadlo, The Christian Science Monitor, 6/24/04,; “Plan B,” Seymour Hersh, The New Yorker, 6/28/04 issue,

The Real Domestic Terrorists

As San Francisco police were arresting more than 150 people protesting the Biotechnology Industry Organization last week, an FBI agent stood inside the conference center, speaking to a group of scientists, pharmaceutical reps, and biotech executives. His message: The FBI considers ecoterrorism and animal terrorism the country’s leading domestic terror threats.

That’s news to the folks who lost loved ones in the attack on the World Trade Center buildings. So far, “ecoterrorists” like the Earth Liberation Front and “animal terrorists” (a term that conjures up images of lab rats with explosives strapped to their bellies) like the Animal Liberation Front have engaged in property destruction and the disruption of laboratory experiments, not the outright physical violence of, for example, antiabortion extremists who’ve murdered doctors and clinic staff and spit on and shoved pregnant women attempting to enter women’s health clinics.

Among most of the people I know, the general fear is not of a bunch of animal activists freeing mink from a mink farm. It’s a growing fear of another kind of domestic terrorism: the depredations of our own government.

Last year, in February 2003, the FBI raided the home of a University of Idaho student, Sami Omar Al-Hussayen. Al-Hussayen was charged with three counts of terrorism, four counts of making false statements, and seven counts of visa fraud. Al-Hussayen, the son of a former Saudi education minister, a Ph.D. candidate who’s studied in the US for nine years, a husband and father, and a pillar of the community who organized a candlelight vigil for the victims of September 11th, had volunteered his time to a Michigan-based group, the Islamic Assembly of North America, to set up a website that promoted the study of Islam. The website contained a link to another website set up by a group the US government had listed as a terrorist organization. Another link pointed to a site that, among a huge volume of postings, contained four, short documents written by radical clerics discussing the war in Chechnya and the conflict in Israel and Palestine. One of these documents sanctioned suicide attacks and mentioned flying airplanes into buildings. The visa violations and false statement charges against Al-Hussayen involved his work with a nonprofit organization; his visa lists him as a student.

Al-Hussayen’s only crime, then, is that he took the Constitution and the Bill of Rights seriously and exercised his free speech rights. In fact, his case is seen as a major test of a provision in the USA Patriot Act that targets so-called “secondary players” in the war on terrorism–those who give aid to groups or individuals who later carry out terrorist attacks.

After more than a year in jail, Al-Hussayen was acquitted by a federal jury on June 10, 2004. The case against him was so thin that his defense attorneys produced only one witness, former CIA Near East division chief Frank Anderson, who testified about terrorist recruitment methods and questioned the FBI’s notion that people give up their jobs and family connections to go join a jihad in Chechnya or Palestine after simply reading a few postings on the Internet. After Al-Hussayen’s acquittal, Anderson said, “I take satisfaction in the verdict. But I am embarrassed and ashamed that our government has kept a decent and innocent man in jail for a very long time.”

Embarrassed and ashamed is not how Al-Hussayen feels. His wife and children have been deported, his studies interrupted, his friends and associates alienated, and his liberty and sense of personal security taken completely away from him. “Terrified” might be a better word to describe the pall that’s settled over the muslim community in the small college town and within university community of which Al-Hussayen was once an active and much admired member.

Although Al-Hussayen won his case, he lost so much more. He will probably choose to leave the US, now that his wife and children are in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the FBI and the US government, which had no case to begin with, still won their objective through sheer harassment.

For those of us who exercise our free speech rights frequently–or other Constitutional rights, for that matter–Al-Hussayen’s case is a chilling example. It’s meant to send a message: if the government doesn’t like what you have to say or doesn’t want you to protest in the streets, you can spend a really long time in jail, lose your job, be denied visiting rights from your family and friends, and spend thousands of dollars defending yourself. Or you can just shut up.

Beyond that is the specter of torture. Abuse of inmates in our jails and prisons has been growing worse with the privatization of the US prison system and the “tough on crime” laws of the 1980s and 1990s. Inmates are processed like cheese spread, and treated with about as much respect. And now, with the revelation that the Bush administration sought ways to circumvent both international and national laws to justify the torture of inmates at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, no one can feel sanguine at the prospect of spending time in a US jail or prison. It’s no coincidence that the men who set up the US military prison system in Iraq are executives from the private prison industry here in the United States.

Meanwhile the FBI continues to target domestic dissent as its top priority, even after John Ashcroft announced that Al Qaeda was planning another attack on US soil sometime in the near future, possibly this summer. No one in the servile, mainstream press has pointed out the contradiction, but those of us who feel and express a profound discontent with our government see the overall trend: the terrorists are not foreign; they’re the people who police our streets, tap our phone lines, monitor our spending habits, and decide who can go free and who will be terrorized.

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