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"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

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April 30, 2005

Double Anniversary

April 30, 2005, is quite a remarkable double anniversary. 60 years ago today, the invading Red Army first raised its victory flag over the Reichstag in Berlin. The famous picture

is from a staged re-enactment a few days later.

Thirty years ago today, the last American forces left Vietnam as the government of South Vietnam surrendered to the advancing National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese Army. The iconic picture from that retreat,

is not actually from the American embassy, but from the roof of a nearby apartment complex.

I never hear these two events connected by anyone. That they are not says something, I think, about how hard it is to think outside the ideological limits of your society, even if you devote your life to thinking outside the ideological limits ...

The connection seems clear to me. The Red Army's taking of Berlin and the American retreat from Saigon each represent the defeat of that era's most rapacious force. And each of these pictures is the best-known iconic rendering of that defeat (or victory, looked at from the other side).

That Germany and Nazism were the most destructive and dangerous force of the 1940's is disputed by no one. But in this country nobody thinks of their defeat as being due to the Soviet Union. Even an elementary acquaintance with the facts makes that clear -- estimates are that 80% of Wehrmach casualties were inflicted by Soviet forces, four times the number inflicted by Americans, British, French, ... An even higher proportion of casualties among the Eastern European "satellite" forces were inflicted by the Soviets.

Even the final assault on Berlin was a matter of the American high command deciding to allow the Soviet forces to sustain the massive casualties necessary to take the city.

And yet, in all the chest-beating on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the little fact that it was the Soviet Union that won the war hardly got mentioned -- as it hardly gets mentioned in high school history classes or in the huge numbers of World War 2 books you can see at any time in your local Barnes and Noble.

That the United States was the most rapacious and dangerous force in the late 1960's and early 1970's is, shall we say, much more hotly contested. And yet, I don't think we need to compare it with the Nazis to conclude that there really wasn't a rival at the time. Had Mobutu (installed by the Americans and Belgians) been the dictator of a superpower instead of a weak African state, he might have been more dangerous.

Had the Soviet Union had the global reach of the United States, it's conceivable, I suppose, that it might have been as dangerous. Certainly, its crushing of Czechoslovakia's "Prague Spring" in 1968 was brutal and inexcusable; certainly, it was not even worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the brutal devastation of Vietnam.

But with the facts as they were, there is little question. Apologists for American policies, when faced with the massive criminality and devastating consequences of the Vietnam War, which is also conceded by the establishment to have been a mistake (because it was a defeat) usually fall back on American "intentions," which were supposedly not just far nobler than Soviet intentions but far nobler than the intentions of the Vietnamese who fought back against three successive colonial powers, the Japanese, French, and Americans.

Without trying to address fully that tendentious debate, let me just suggest that it's much easier to discern one's own good intentions in the midst of horrible acts than it is to discern those of the other guy.

The devastation of Korea and Vietnam by the United States, just as the later wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, were justified by the claim that we beat the Nazis, who were really evil -- even though we actually didn't. And yet, it was Vietnam that invaded Cambodia and put an end to the autogenocide of the Khmer Rouge -- and the United States that then turned to supporting the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese then went on to install a hated puppet regime, much as the United States did in South Korea after the war.

And, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, its "Vietnam," the proximate reason was to remove from power the extremist "Halk" faction of Afghanistan's communists (the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan). In its first year in power, it's been estimated that Hafizullah Amin's government took over 100,000 people into custody, never to be heard from again. The Soviet Union, afraid that Amin was discrediting the Soviet Union -- and that he was a CIA agent -- invaded, rather reluctantly.

It was a "liberation" just like the U.S. removal of Saddam, except that the Soviet Union did it when the regime was at the height of its criminal activity; the United States actively supported the criminal activities of Saddam's regime, then removed him from power 15 years later.

Despite these initial "good intentions" of the Soviet Union, it then went on to destroy much of Afghanistan, killing from 1 to 1.5 million people.

An official apologist for Vietnam or the Soviet Union could, frankly, construct a far more plausible story of good intentions gone awry in these various interventions than could any of our homegrown American apologists regarding the Vietnam War -- or this one.

The Soviet Union was a massive country with a huge industrial base and inflicted a crushing defeat on Germany. Nazism would never and will never rise again.

Vietnam, a small mostly agricultural country, could not conceivably do more than it did -- outlast the Americans, while inflicting just enough casualties to exact a major political cost. It won for itself only a Pyrrhic victory and for the Third World only a short respite from U.S. interventionism. Even for that, the existence of an oppositional movement in the heart of the empire was essential.

It still is.

Posted at 10:41 pm

April 28, 2005

Shooting the Messenger

The New York Times has picked up on the story of Cherif Bassiouni's dismissal as "independent expert" on human rights in Afghanistan, reporting to the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights.

Apparently, he was dismissed the day after he filed a report that said American forces in Afghanistan had acted as if they were above the law by "engaging in arbitrary arrests and detentions and committing abusive practices, including torture."

On his trips to Afghanistan, he made numerous efforts to gain access to suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners being held by the Americans, with a notable lack of cooperation. Still, he managed to discover a few things:

He said he was rebuffed repeatedly in his efforts to visit prisons at the United States bases in Bagram and Kandahar by American officials who told him he was exceeding his mandate.

He discovered the use of 14 fire bases for detainees, he said, when he spotted an American military order warning commanders against keeping captives at the spots for more than two weeks.

Despite the lack of cooperation, he said, he had no trouble learning of rights violations. "Arbitrary arrest and detention are common knowledge in Afghanistan because the coalition forces are known to go to villages and towns and break down doors and arrest people and take them whenever they want," he said.

He said victims' descriptions of their American captors' appearance had struck a grim note of recognition because of his past experience. "It was very reminiscent of what I had seen in the former Yugoslavia, where you would ask victims of beatings and torture who had abused them and they would say they couldn't identify them because they wore battle fatigues with no names and no insignias."

Asked what he thought would happen to prisons in Afghanistan now, he said, "My guess is that torture will go down at the U.S. facilities, but what will go up is torture at the Afghan facilities. It's the usual shell game. The U.S. feels the heat, it tries to discontinue the practice itself, but it finds special forces in the Afghan Army to do its bidding."
His actual report goes into somewhat more detail:
50. Examples of alleged violations include entry into people’s homes without arrest or search warrants, detention of nationals and foreigners without judicial authority or judicial review (sometimes for extended periods of time), beatings resulting in death, beatings causing bodily harm, forced nudity and public embarrassment, sleep deprivation, prolonged squatting, and hooding and sensory deprivation. Since no United States detention centre is open to inspection, there is no way of ascertaining the veracity of these allegations. However, several incidents have been reported publicly. On 1 and 2 September 2004, United States Army criminal investigators are reported to have recommended that two dozen United States soldiers face criminal charges in connection with the death of two prisoners.

51. The independent expert has received reports from international human rights organizations and UNAMA of individuals who have died while held in detention by Coalition forces. At times, reports indicated that the bodies were returned to families showing signs of torture, including bruises and internal bleeding from severe beatings and serious burn marks on victims’ skin.

52. The Government has no knowledge of or control over such detained persons. Detention conditions are often below the standards of the Geneva Conventions, as has been reported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to the detaining forces on a confidential basis. An American general has been appointed to investigate these arrests, detention and interrogation practices, but his report has not yet been made public. AIHRC has been denied access to these facilities, as has the independent expert who made requests to the appropriate United States authorities to visit the main detention facility in Bagram (see para. 9 (b) above).

53. The independent expert has received accounts of acts that fall under the internationally accepted definition of torture, contained in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. A man from Gardez described his treatment as follows, “They poured cold water over us and then started beating us with their fists and with sticks. Sometimes they picked us up on their shoulders and then threw us down. They were all American soldiers wearing uniforms ... They untied dogs and they frightened us with the dogs. The dogs bit us and scratched us with their teeth and nails ... When we were unable to stand anymore, they tied our hands to an iron rod on the top of the cell. This kept up from standing normally, and we were forced to stand on our toes.” Numerous accounts in the press and by victims corroborate the common use of excessive force at Bagram airbase and the Kandahar military base, including sleep deprivation, forcing detainees to sit or stand in painful positions for extended periods of time, and other “stress and duress” techniques. Others have described beatings and various acts of humiliation. 35 Accounts of these violations were originally publicized in early 2002, and there is some evidence of links between techniques used in Afghanistan and actions that led to the abuse scandal in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In addition, many Afghans detained by Coalition forces have been detained for indefinite periods, sometimes held without any formal charge for over two years. There have been several reports by the United States Department of Defense on the question of treatment of detainees.
All practices with which we are familiar from reporting on Iraq and Guantanamo. We know little about them from Afghanistan because, although an internal investigation was conducted by Brig. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the report remains classified. We do know about the case of two Afghan detainees who were beaten to death, at least one of them struck so many times in the knee and leg that doctors said even hadhe survived he would have needed both legs amputated.

Bassiouni says his dismissal was because of pressure by the Bush administration, angry over his attempt to discover what was being done. Both the State Department and the U.N. Secretary General's Office deny this. Brenden Varma, spokesman for Kofi Annan, said that the decision had been made that the human rights situation in Afghanistan had improved so much that an independent counsel was no longer needed.

Posted at 11:08 pm

April 28, 2005

Prisoner 151716 -- The Man in the Hood

I've just finished wading through a cesspool. Having noticed for months that I was no longer able to keep track of the unfolding torture revelations (along with everything else), about a month ago I asked a friend and colleague to help me do a comprehensive review of the information that was out there.

Well, yesterday, I read through her notes and reread much of what I had seen before.

Seeing it all together like that, along with many things I hadn't seen and didn't know,  brought me to a whole new realization about what's going on. I'll be trying to express that in a piece I'm working on.

But for now, let me just write about one of the many stories I reviewed.

As Under the Same Sun pointed out, no picture is so iconic, so representative of the American occupation, as the famous "hooded man" from Abu Ghraib -- a man in a hood, with a black blanket tied around him, standing on a box with arms spread, with wires clipped to his fingers (picture at above link).

Donovan Webster actually interviewed this man and wrote about it in his February 2005 Vanity Fair article, "The Man in the Hood."

His name is Hajji Ali (he asked that his surname not be used). Hajji, a Muslim honorific denoting one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, has been twisted by American soldiers, with the easy ignorance and racism of the colonialist, into a dehumanizing insult -- the occupation's version of "nigger." (The movie Three Kings had an illuminating sequence with Ice Cube belaboring an uneducated "white trash" boy for his use of the term "sand nigger" -- "You can call them towelhead or camel jockey, but not 'sand nigger' or 'dune coon.'")

He was once mayor of the Al Madifai district and then administrator of a mosque in Amiriyah district, where in the 1991 Gulf War over 400 women and children were killed when two "smart bombs" hit a major bomb shelter.

Here's a series of excerpts from the article, just dealing with him:

Arrested as he walked down a street around 10 a.m. on October 14, 2003, Haj Ali is still uncertain of his specific infraction. Surrounded by Hummers and S.U.V.'s near his mosque, he was quickly handcuffed, hooded, and hustled into a vehicle.


As part of the initial exam at Abu Ghraib, soldiers kicked Haj Ali's feet apart, and he was made to stand, legs spread, facing a wall as they began searching his body. Beyond the pat-downs and cavity exams that are particularly insulting to Muslims, for whom modesty is an ingrained virtue, the Americans had another deliberate way of insulting new detainees: by removing their head wraps-an item infused with history and pride for Iraqis-and throwing them across the room with their shoes. In Arab cultures, pointing the bottom of a shoe or foot toward anyone is the pinnacle of insult.

Haj Ali was given a prisoner number, "151716," he says, speaking each numeral-among the few words he knows in English-with pained slowness.

Then the soldiers shoved him into another room, which smelled like an unclean bathroom and where he was confronted by three interrogators:

"Where is Osama bin Laden?"

"Osama bin Laden is in Afghanistan," he replied.

"How do you know?"

"I heard it on the news."

"What is your plan? What are your plans to resist the Americans coming to occupy you?"

"I thought the Americans came to liberate us."

"Are you anti-Semitic? Do you hate Christians? Do you hate Christianity? Do you hate Jesus Christ?"

"No. Why would I hate them?"

For 10 days Haj Ali was detained in Camp Vigilant, a kind of tent city at Abu Ghraib, without another question being asked. Then one day he was taken to a large steel room, perhaps one of the hundreds of shipping containers around the prison compound, and interrogated by a 50-ish man, one of the three who'd first questioned him.

"I'm going to give you two days to admit what you know," the interrogator said. "And if you don't, I'm going to send you to a place where even dogs can't survive. Your hand will rot away, because we're not going to give you any medicine. It's better for you to admit everything."

"Admit to what?"

"Give us the names of all the people in the Resistance."

"What people ... ?"

The interrogator, frustrated, dismissed him.


And then there was the music. Graner and a soldier named Sergeant Hydrue Joyner looped a short digital sample of the refrain from the song "Babylon" by the musician David Gray and played it at earsplitting levels through a huge speaker just outside Haj Ali's cell while he was handcuffed, still naked and hooded, to the bottom bar of his cell, the speaker right next to his ears. (Neither Joyner nor attorneys for Graner returned telephone requests for comment.)

"'Babylon' ... 'Babylon' ... 'Babylon' ... over and over again," he says, "so loud I thought my head would burst. So loud you could hear it two kilometers away." (During a later part of our interview, to confirm what song he was tortured with, I hand Haj Ali my iPod with Gray's "Babylon" playing on it; he rips the earphones away from his head and begins to cry.)

"This went on for a day and a night," he says.

Finally the music was turned off, and whispers could be heard along the hallway that Graner was approaching. "Graner is coming," people were saying. "Graner is coming." Haj Ali remained handcuffed on the cell's floor. His injured hand and arm were so swollen and painful that he was whimpering. Soon Graner was in front of him. Haj Ali asked for his medicine. "Graner told me to stick out my arms as much as I could through the bars. I did, and he put his foot on my hand and he went back and forth when he was pressing it, grinding it. I was in so much pain I passed out."

Over the coming days, Haj Ali remained naked in his cold and damp cell. He was often lifted onto his toes, with his handcuffs laced through the jail bars above their highest horizontal crosspiece. Then he was left there, hanging, overnight.


Haj Ali was also regularly deprived of food and water-once for five days. He notes that the overwhelming majority of abuses happened on Graner's night shift.

Often at night, Haj Ali and the other inmates, still naked, would be brought out into the cellblock's hallway to be beaten and humiliated in front of the other prisoners. The guards had nicknames for everyone, Haj Ali continues. "Colin Powell. Gilligan. Dracula. Wolf Man. Insulting names." Later he adds, "I think they really hated (the detainee nicknamed Colin Powell) because they always treated this guy really bad." ...

Haj Ali claims he was given electrical shocks near the end of his stay on Cellblock 1A at Abu Ghraib. By this time, his old, customized blanket had been returned to him by Joyner; he wore it like a hospital gown for modesty, tying it in the back with its fringed edges. One night as he was praying, Haj Ali was taken hooded by Graner and led to another room. "I felt there were 8 or 10 people standing around," he says. He was then made to stand on a food box and lift his hands, as electrical wires were clipped between his fingers. "They would give me electric shocks. I could feel the pulses going even into my eyeballs. I would collapse and faint." Upon each collapse, the guards would kick and hit Haj Ali with boots and sticks, saying, "Get up! Get up!" He believes he was shocked five times.

As he tells me this, Haj Ali begins crying. Army investigators have not spoken to Haj Ali, but a report on alleged prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib released last spring noted one instance of a detainee's being hooked up to wires to "simulate" electric torture.

Following his release, after more than two months, Haj Ali quickly co-founded an Iraq-based non-governmental organization, Victims of American Occupation Prison Association, which currently has thousands of members and is growing daily.

Points to note:

It was not just a simulation; he was given electric shocks.

The interrogation was entirely feckless. They had no idea of what to do with him, because they had no reason for picking him up.

He was subjected to a wide variety of torture and abuse -- Graner stepping on his injured hand, deprivation of food, being forced to listen to "Babylon" (abusive even if one weren't in detention), and various forms of humiliation.

The detainee nicknamed "Colin Powell" was particularly hated. Obviously, this signifies garden-variety American anti-black racism combined with a perception (accurate or not) that Powell was trying to "keep the gloves on" and restrain the soldiers in what they could do.

Posted at 3:25 pm

April 26, 2005

From Our Brave Fighting Men

Via Raed Jarrar's blog, Raed in the Middle, here's a U.S. soldier's home video of a bomb blowing up a suspected "insurgent" building. Listen to the exultation and ask yourself how these soldiers treat Iraqis on whatever occasions where they actually have contact.

Posted at 8:32 pm

April 25, 2005

Torture and the Abu Ghraib Anniversary

Today's Empire Notes radio commentary, aired on Uprising Radio:

Thursday will mark one year since the televised revelations of U.S. torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. There had been earlier reports, including one by Amnesty International in July 2003 citing numerous instances of torture, leading to death in at least one case, but until it was on American TV it wasn’t quite real.

Since then, we’ve learned much more. We started with prisoners piled naked into human pyramids, forced to simulate sexual acts, subjected to sleep deprivation and stress positions and kept hooded. We graduated to prisoners stripped and smeared in feces, having their food thrown in the toilet, use of dogs to intimidate and even attack prisoners.

We learned about people beaten to death. We heard about female U.S. soldiers deliberately smearing men with fake menstrual blood, then denying them access to water so they couldn’t wash and therefore couldn’t pray. We learned about taking women and children hostage, and even about the torture of children to break their fathers.

We learned about electric shock, mock executions, water torture. In total, according to the Associated Press, as of March, at least 108 people had died in U.S. custody since 9/11. Some of these people were picked up for no reason; according to the Red Cross, 70 to 90% of Iraqi detainees were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Shortly after 9/11, a decision was made to “take the gloves off” with al-Qaeda suspects, which included, in practice, anyone detained in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last week, the Washington Post gave a glimpse into how these policies were further developed in Iraq: “Army intelligence officials in Iraq developed and circulated ‘wish lists’ of harsh interrogation techniques they hoped to use on detainees in August 2003, including tactics such as low-voltage electrocution, blows with phone books and using dogs and snakes.”

Those discussions led to “rules of engagement” for interrogation that were then approved by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez.

Shortly thereafter, they tried torturing a detainee by beating the soles of his feet with a baton. This is an old Ottoman torture technique, known as falaka; called bastinado in English, it‘s part of the arsenal of any police state.

Last week, Human Rights Watch reported that perhaps 150 people since 9/11 have been sent by the United States to other countries to be tortured. Given the wide variety of techniques U.S. interrogators are happy to employ, what more was to be done to these men?

As we claim to democratize the world with bombs, we tell everyone that we stand for human rights, democratic accountability, and the rule of law. Yet, in the past year, we’ve seen virtually no accountability.

A handful of lower-level brutes and sadists, following orders to extract information by any means necessary, and having a little fun into the bargain, have been punished. But, despite overwhelming evidence, the Army inspector-general recently cleared Sanchez and three of his top deputies of any responsibility for torture. Brigadier-General Janice Karpinsky received a reprimand for dereliction of duty; that was it.

The rest of the world, will never forget what they saw on April 28, 2004. Unfortunately, in this country, it’s almost as if nothing had happened. For the right wing, the entire torture scandal has been reduced to what they call “fraternity-style hazing” at Abu Ghraib.

In Iraq, the U.S.-controlled state TV is getting sensational ratings with a show called “Terror in the Hands of Justice,” where tortured resistance fighters are filmed “admitting” that they are criminals, alcoholics, and have participated in homosexual orgies. Here, we have “24,” a prime-time show seemingly designed to justify torture. It’s all about the virtually nonexistent “ticking bomb” scenario -- in this case, a nuclear bomb. Our maverick hero Kiefer Sutherland, fighting against the terrorist-supporting Amnesty Global and a weak, indecisive president, foils the plot by breaking a few fingers.

Still, this issue refuses to go away. Of the numerous scandals associated with the Iraq war, this is the only one that has involved investigations, even if they were whitewashes. Our imperialist morality is comfortable with bombing of civilian areas; it would be difficult to be imperialists otherwise. But torture does not sit so comfortably; a national campaign against torture would be one of the best ways to open people’s eyes to the gross immorality of the occupation.

Posted at 11:42 am

April 21, 2005

Chavez and Resistance

Yesterday, I participated in a three-way discussion about Left/Antiwar Strategy on the show Against the Grain, which airs on KPFA, Berkeley's Pacifica station.

With three people and an hour, we could only set the stage for the discussions that are needed. You can listen to the show here.

According to yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Venezuela will be raising its tax rate on private oil firms, which produce 40% of Venezuel's oil, from 34% to the standard income tax rate of 50%.

Last year, the government increased the royalty rate on several heavy oil projects conducted by ExxonMobil in the Orinoco belt from 1% (an ultralow rate to get ExxonMobil to do the major upfront investment needed) to 16.6% (a pretty typical royalty rate in the early days of colonial oil concessions and in the post-nationalization days of neocolonial oil concessions). ExxonMobil is paying the new rate under protest.

According to the Journal, "Venezuela is seeking to increase revenue to fund social programs ranging from adult-literacy and job-training programs to subsidized food prices at a state-run grocery chain, now the country's largest."

Just as Chavez is distinguished from Castro by maintenance of electoral democracy, freedom of speech, and virtually complete absence of state repression, he is distinguished from reformers like Allende by the realization that he can never rest on his laurels -- you have to keep moving and build systematic transformation or all your achievements remain vulnerable to reaction.

The moderate success of the Iraqi resistance in tying down the Bush administration is helping to create space for him to do this (and the high oil prices aren't hurting him either), just as it helped Argentina last month to restructure over $100 billion of external debt by offering creditors a mere 30 cents on the dollar.  About 80% of creditors accepted the deal, and the Bush administration didn't even fight.

When the Vietnamese finally pushed U.S. forces out, their country was half-ruined (and then subjected to further ills, like a Chinese invasion and a U.S. embargo). But their fight kept the United States from intervening directly in Central America in the 1980's.

Posted at 7:24 pm

April 20, 2005

More on The Grand Inquisitor

According to AFP, der Panzerkardinal wrote a letter to American bishops in June 2004 saying that strong supporters of the right to an abortion must be denied the Catholic sacraments. He mentioned specifically "the case of a Catholic politician consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws."

Three guesses who he was referring to. The U.S. bishops eventually left it up to the individual priest's choice, the kind of decision that will be more difficult now that the Grand Inquisitor is pope.

And, of course, the MSM has responded with alacrity to its task of whitewashing him (while burying the truth about him deep in the articles). The Times opens up by talking about how he has gone about "setting out some of the themes of his papacy in conciliatory language." The Post tells us that "Pope, U.S. Cardinals Push Softer Image." The LA Times goes one step further, telling us in the subheadline that "his personality and his past belie stereotypes."

In other words, they want to push the pleasant fiction that, because Ratzinger has started off, as one would expect him to do, by using a little vague, mushy language, and because he hasn't bitten any children's heads off onstage, that his papacy will somehow contradict the entire trend of his life in the past 35 years. Just once, it would be nice to pick up a newspaper and not have one's intelligence insulted.

Posted at 12:55 pm

April 20, 2005

The Grand Inquisitor

Well, the College of Cardinals, in its infinite wisdom, has managed to find someone even more conservative than Pope John Paul 2 -- Joseph Ratzinger, elevated to the College of Cardinals in 1977, and called to Rome in 1981 by John Paul 2 to serve as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the post he has held ever since.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is the body charged with upholding doctrinal purity in worldwide Catholicism and, as prefect, Ratzinger is the church's top theologian. Between 1908 and 1965, it was named the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office.

Before 1908, it was called the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, and was tasked to " "maintain and defend the integrity of the faith and to examine and proscribe errors and false doctrines."

Our new Grand Inquisitor, a former Hitler Youth, is often known as the "Panzer Cardinal." He has downplayed the child abuse scandal, suggesting that "the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign." He is very concerned about violence against children, however, having said, in regard to same-sex unions, "Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children."

He was also heavily involved in John Paul 2's attempt to reign in liberation theology and revolution in Latin America at a time when the Reagan administration was backing or creating murderous counterinsurgencies in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Here's a passage from my favorite book, Eduardo Galeano's Century of the Wind, third volume of his Memory of Fire trilogy. Keep in mind that Galeano uses "America" the way most Latin Americans do, not the way most residents of the United States do:

1984: The Vatican
The Holy Office of the Inquisition

now bears the more discreet name of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It no longers burns heretics alive, although it might like to. Its chief headache these days comes from America. In the name of the Holy Father, the inquisitors summon Latin American theologians Leonardo Boff and Gustavo Gutierrez, and the Vatican sharply reprimands them for lacking respect for the Church of Fear.

The Church of Fear, opulent multinational enterprise, devotee of pain and death, is anxious to nail on a cross any son of a carpenter of the breed that now circulates within America's coasts inciting fishermen and defying empires.

Posted at 1:28 am

April 18, 2005

Justice for Halabja

My weekly commentary for Uprising Radio:

The hypocrisy of the Bush administration has once again exceeded all previously known bounds. A familiar statement; in a way, all of us suffer from a sort of death of outrage. But here’s something to make you angry, if anything still can.

You may recall that, back in September, the Bush administration shifted $3.4 billion of the congressional allocation for reconstruction away from water, electricity, and oil into “security.” At the time, only about 5% of the money allocated had been spent and only about one-fourth of that was actually going to benefit the Iraqi people, instead of to private mercenaries, government corruption, and corporate profits.

The New York Times reports recently that, of 81 water reconstruction projects being planned, all but 13 have been defunded. The Kurdish north, which has been harmed by the occupation much less than the rest of the country, lost all but two of the 20 projects being planned.

The project for Halabja, $10 million allocated to bring water to a town where only half the population has access to running water, was one of those that was cut.

A little historical review is required to understand how heinous this is. On March 16, 1988, as part of Saddam’s Anfal campaign in which 100-200,000 Kurds were killed, Saddam’s forces attacked the town of Halabja with chemical weapons. Somewhere from 3-8000 people died in agony, grotesquely distorted and discolored.

The United States intervened to make sure the Security Council did not act nor even issue a toothless condemnation. As it unfolded, the United States actually increased the flow of agricultural credits that was its primary means of supporting Saddam’s war machine. The United States even deliberately put out disinformation suggesting that Iran was responsible for the attack. It aided and abetted the massacre of Halabja and is guilty as an accomplice of Saddam’s, a fact he will surely bring up at his trial if allowed to.

You might think that afterwards the United States would want to bury its guilt over the dead of Halabja, but you would only be half right. Halabja remained buried until Saddam crossed a certain “line in the sand” in Kuwait. Since that time, Halabja has been rhetorically used by three U.S. administrations in order to justify the first Gulf War, the sanctions, the 1998 Desert Fox war, the ongoing invasion and occupation of Iraq, and all the other ills that the United States has made Iraqi flesh heir to.

On March 16, 1998, the 10th anniversary of the gassing, James Rubin at the State Department presided over a special ritual commemoration -- in the middle of a propaganda campaign that culminated in the December 1998 bombing. And it is not an accident that George Bush chose March 16, 2003, the 15th anniversary, as the occasion to launch his twin ultimatums -- one, to Iraq to capitulate immediately or face war, the other to the United Nations, to capitulate immediately or face war in Iraq. In that speech, he showed his pious horror at the suffering of Halabja’s dead, suggesting that they died because the U.N. was ineffectual, not because the United States smade the U.N. ineffectual.

Although the victims of Halabja have garnered a great deal of rhetorical concern, any actual help is a different matter. Two years after the regime change, the disabled and gravely ill survivors of the nightmarish attack wait in vain for any medical aid, compensation, or other restitution from the United States, some attempt to expiate its own guilt for their condition. Cuba has 25,000 doctors in Venezuela, but apparently with our $11 trillion GDP we cannot afford any help for these people we have so grievously wronged.

A little over a year ago, on the 16th anniversary of the gassing, Paul Bremer and Colin Powell flew to Halabja for the commemoration and decided to “help” the town, not by providing water, but by allocating $1 million for the building of two schools. The Washington Kurdish Institute found evidence of cytotoxic chemicals in the soil on those sites; the United States has refused to follow up with a serious study, confident that the children of Halabja won’t mind just a little bit more exposure.

Those plans for schools are about the only thing that’s been done so far to “help” the people of Halabja. The hypocrisy of the Bush administration and our whole American exceptionalist culture stand revealed as ultimately monstrous and revolting. If you’re looking for something concrete to do, campaign for justice for Halabja.


Posted at 10:52 am

April 15, 2005

Israel's Apartheid Wall

Last nigth, I spoke in a public debate about the Israeli wall and its effect on Israeli-Palestinian relations and on Israeli security. When I was originally invited, I jumped at the chance, because the right wing almost never agrees to a debate on equal terms. You can go on Bill O'Reilly and get screamed at, but that's about as far as it goes.

It quickly became obvious during the course of the debate why the Israeli professor who headed up the other side agreed to a debate; he's not a right-winger, and he even recognizes that the occupation is indefensible. He completely undercut the students on his side who are gung-ho supporters of the occupation and the wall.

Anyway, I thought I'd post my opening statement:

I’ll discuss whether the separation wall is a legitimate means of assuring Israeli security. Notice there is no question about Palestinian security; few even acknowledge that as a concern.

I’ll argue that the wall is totally illegitimate, and also that it is part of a larger project that is not about assuring Israeli security but rather what Baruch Kimmerling calls politicide, the destruction of Palestinian society as a society, although not necessarily the destruction of Palestinians as individuals.

I’ll use the framework of Catholic “just war” doctrine; the building of the wall is not a war, but recent Israeli policy certainly seems like one to the Palestinians.

Four of the requirements that a war be just are that it be a last resort, that it be conducted by a legitimate authority, that it be done to redress or avert a wrong, and that the means discriminate appropriately between combatants and noncombatants.

Last resort

Let’s start with the last resort , the claim that the Israelis have no partner for peace.

This claim starts with the negotiations at Camp David in 2000, where Ehud Barak supposedly put forward a “generous offer” that included 95% of the occupied territories, an offer which was spurned by Arafat because the Palestinians don’t want to negotiate, but rather to destroy Israel and expel the Jews.

In fact, as Robert Malley, an American staffer at the talks pointed out, “Strictly speaking, there never was an Israeli offer. …The Israelis always stopped one, if not several, steps short of a proposal.” Barak, having called for the meeting, resolutely refused to deal with Arafat face to face or put forward anything concrete. The idea was to get Arafat to agree to severe concessions before even starting negotiations, which would then necessitate further concessions. For example, he had to agree to abandon claim to almost 10% of Palestinian land from the start. If you remember that East Jerusalem is usually not included in those number, that Israel has no intention of giving up the Jordan Valley, that the numerous bypass roads would remain in Israeli hands, the best Arafat might have been able to get is what is being proposed now, about half of the West Bank -- this after conceding 78% of historic Palestine, including 23% gained by Israel completely illegitimately through ethnic cleansing. It’s also possible, as Tanya Reinhart theorizes, that it was a deliberate ploy to galvanize Israeli public opinion behind the state by making Arafat look as if he wouldn’t negotiate.

Since that time, basically, Israel has refused to negotiate with Palestinians. Instead, they have repeatedly targeted Palestinian security forces and government offices, especially during the April 2002 invasion. Also, their assassination policy, billed as reprisals for Palestinian attacks, has frequently been the reverse -- “reprisals” for unilateral truces declared by Palestinian groups. At least three times, with the assassination of Mahmoud Abu Hanoud in November 2001, Salah Shehadeh in July 2002, and Ismail Abu Shanab in August 2003, the Israelis have acted to end a truce or, in the case of Shehadeh, to head off a unilateral truce that was about to be declared. Just as with Sharon’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the provocation was that Palestinians appeared too reasonable and too ready to negotiate.

Legitimate authority

Israel is building the wall on Palestinian land. Even if you neglect international law, which makes it clear the Israeli occupation is illegal and accept the Oslo framework that the land is “disputed,” you have no right to build your wall on disputed territory. End of story. Israel has no right except might. The International Court of Justice has confirmed this with an advisory ruling that the wall violates international law.

Redress or avert a wrong. Although the wall has helped for now to cut down on Israeli deaths, that’s not what it was designed for. It’s part of a larger strategy that began with Ariel Sharon’s staged provocation at the Temple Mount in September 2000, continued with the violent crackdown on Palestinian protests, assaults on the Palestinian government, the invasions of April 2002 and April 2004 (among others), and the systematic closures.

There are two competing imperatives: to gain as much land for Israel as possible and to avoid being forced into a position where Palestinians are a majority and Israelis have to choose between some sort of democracy and their identity as a Jewish state -- the so-called “demographic problem.”

As Benjamin Schwarz points out in this month’s Atlantic, the wall was conceived long before the second intifada started; he quotes Arnon Soffer calling the wall “a last desperate attempt to save the state of Israel” -- from the demographic problem, not from Palestinian attacks, which in no way endanger the state.

To save Israelis from attacks, they would built the wall along the Green Line, not deep in Palestinian territory. That would have more effectively addressed any Israeli security concern; I’ll say again that those concerns are an afterthought for the Israeli government. Changes have been made to the original plan because the Israeli government sees a clear opportunity to grab far more land. Withdrawing from much of Gaza will cut off a large chunk of the demographic problem while forfeiting land worth nothing to the Israelis; the land of the West Bank, however, is worth a great deal. In fact, some of the most fertile land is now being cut off by the wall.

Discriminate Means

Far from discriminating between civilians and military, the occupation in general, the closures and siege, and the wall in particular, are directly aimed at civilians, at the mass of Palestinian society. Before the closures began, it was bad enough; deliberate colonial-style forced underdevelopment of Palestinian society so it could be a source of cheap labor for Israel, stealing of land and settlement building, bypass roads, and police-state measures.

With the closures, it’s at a new level. They target civilians directly and children preferentially. According to a 2002 USAID report, over one-fifth of Palestinian children suffer from severe acute or chronic malnutrition; the numbers have eased only slightly since then. This is almost three times the pre-closure level. According to the 2003 Ziegler report, 50% of Palestinian families were eating one meal a day; access to health care has dropped by roughly 50%. Over 1.5 million Palestinians are dependent on international food aid to survive. The toll in death and misery from these measures dwarfs the direct toll from Israeli bombings and invasions.

The wall exacerbates all of this. The projected path constantly changes, but over 200,000 Palestinians will be trapped on the Western side of the wall, and something like 150,000 will be cut off from their land by the wall; at one point, the Israeli state actually implemented its “absentee owner” rule to appropriate land in East Jerusalem owned by Palestinians cut off by the wall.

Reliable projections are that, once the eastern part of the wall is built, cutting off Palestinians from the Jordan valley, 45 to 50% of the West Bank will have been taken away from Palestinians.

In short, the wall and the closures are about starving children and denying access to health care so that Palestinian society is so beaten down that Israel can grab even more of their land than it has in the past 57 years. Most Israeli military actions that kill civilians are justified, just like U.S. actions in Iraq, by the pernicious doctrine of “collateral damage” -- as long as the target is military, it doesn’t matter how many civilians are killed. Morally indefensible as that is, this is worse. Far from being a defense of Israelis against terrorism, the wall targets Palestinian civilians to serve Israeli expansionism; it is state terrorism far beyond what Palestinian suicide bombers are capable of.

Posted at 3:08 pm
April 9, 2005

2nd Anniversary of Regime Change

While I was busy with other things, the second anniversary of the fall of Saddam's regime crept up on me. Last year today, I was in Baghdad. Firdaus Square, the site of the heavily televised, American-staged toppling of Saddam's statue two years ago, was cordoned off with razor wire as were numerous major intersections. The city was on edge and the failure of the occupation, even in the terms of the conquerors, was all too clear to anyone living there.

This year, Firdaus Square was filled with tens of thousands of Shi'a protesting the occupation and calling for U.S. withdrawal. The mobilization was done by the Sadrists, without any backing from Sistani. Although the Sadrists have been trying to work with the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars and others like the Iraq National Foundation Conference on building a trans-sectarian anti-occupation political agenda, unfortunately, Sunnis did not participate in this protest.

This time, U.S. occupation forces seem to have gotten a little more politically mature. A little over a year ago, they precipitated an unnecessary confrontation with the Mahdi Army (a confrontation Sadr didn't want) first by closing the Sadrist newspaper and then by a military crackdown on what Sadrists described as peaceful demonstrations -- after a few protesters were killed, then the Mahdi Army rose up and actually swept coalition forces out of a large part of southern Iraq.

This time, they didn't crack down, and actually allowed the Sadrists to protest peacefully, unmolested. The reasoning is, of course, that Iraqis can protest all they want without exerting any leverage on U.S. forces or on the Bush administration -- a reason that could backfire if Iraqis can push their new government to start taking a stand on occupation-related issues.

The Sadrists have also become more sophisticated politically, and are very ready to work all the levers of power. In Basra, Edmund Sanders of the LA Times reports, even though Sadrists won only 12 of 41 city council seats, as opposed to 20 for SCIRI, they have crafted a coalition of all the other groups and are actually running things.

At the same time, reports Anthony Shadid, their militia in Basra is well organized and has thrown down the gauntlet to SCIRI's Badr Brigades, saying effectively that if SCIRI wants to rule through strongarm tactics, the Sadrists can play that game as well (one of the messy open secrets of the occupation is that Basra and much of the South are not in revolt because of iron-fisted rule by Islamist militias propped up by British and other coalition troops).

Of course, the Sadrists have many unsavory tactics and political goals, but their re-emergence as a responsible, at least somewhat anti-sectarian, anti-occupation group is definitely a positive step.

Update: According to Dexter Filkins's report for the Times, in fact, members of the AMS said Sunni adherents of theirs did participate in the protest. The symbolism of Shi'a and Sunni marching together to demand an end to the occupation is particularly important at this time.

Posted at 4:35 pm
April 7, 2005

Forming the New Iraq Government

A story in the Christian Science Monitor has an explanation of the final compromise necessary to end the standoff and form the new Iraqi government:
Kurds dropped their immediate demand that the oil-rich city of Kirkuk be added to their autonomous section of Iraq, and Shiite Arabs said they wouldn't insist on dismantling the Kurds' peshmerga militia.
Given the history of Arab-Kurdish relations in Iraq, of course, the desire of the Kurds for a guaranteed share of oil revenues and for some sort of independent existence of their own armed militias are very understandable.

The three northern governorates that had a de facto autonomy after the Gulf War and that now have at least some de jure autonomy through the Transitional Administrative Law do not, however, have the oil; that is in the areas around Mosul and Kirkuk.

Kirkuk, furthermore, is a place inhabited originally by Kurds and Turcomans, but under Saddam's Arabization policies a large Arab contingent was created -- think of it as Northern Ireland with the United Kingdom's historical Protestantization policies. Just as in those cases, or in Bosnia, struggles over land and ethnicity become very ugly because they are in a sense existential.

The violence in Kirkuk has been nothing, of course, like Bosnia, but there has been trouble. According to one member of the Kurdish PUK (Talabani's party), Saddam's policies displaced about 600,000 Kurds from Kirkuk. Many of them have returned and many Arabs have left, under some feeling of danger.

Because of its large non-Kurdish popultion, Kirkuk should have some compromise solution. Unfortunately, the difficult compromises Kurds and Shi'a have make in order to live with each other just get put off while the occupation continues.

Posted at 11:53 pm
April 6, 2005

Occupation Watch Launch

Along with a high-powered creative team, I've taken over operation of the Occupation Watch website. Every day, we'll be picking 10 or 12 of the most useful mainstream news articles, alternative news articles, blog posts, and more, plus several of the best analysis pieces on Iraq and posting them, along with a News Watch much in the style of Cursor.

Excerpts from today's News Watch (go to Occupation Watch to see the whole thing):
After a long delayed vote for the new speaker of the National Assembly, the vote went to Hajim al-Hassani, the first Sunni candidate the major Kurdish and Shi'a parties could agree upon after interim President Ghazi al-Yawir turned down the post on the grounds that there were too few elected Sunni Arab legislators for him be able to wield any influence. Hassani is a long term exile, who spent twelve years working in Los Angeles. His record is mixed. As minister of industry, he led the privatization program for the US-appointed interim government (which very quietly announced on March 21 a change in Iraq's investment law, allowing foreign investors to enter the Iraqi securities market and own up to 49% of publicly listed companies). During the April assault on Fallujah, Hassani helped push for a negotiated settlement, explaining to John Abizaid, who wanted to "finish Fallujah" in two days, "Yeah, you may finish Fallujah but I guarantee you, you'll have all Iraq as one big Fallujah." During the more violent November assault, however, as his Islamic Party resigned from the government in protest, he broke with the party to retain his post as minister of industry, lending tacit support to the US military's destruction of the town.


Details about the US attack on Fallujah continue to transpire. According to independent documentary filmmaker, Mark Manning, who recently spent two weeks in Fallujah, "The city itself has been devastated. Most houses have been seriously damaged, with about 65% of them totally destroyed... Many of the houses were fired, meaning that the troops burned them down after searching them. Many houses with white flags and markings stating 'Family Here' were destroyed." With almost every building destroyed and with serious damage, the vast majority of Fallujans still live as refugees in other cities or encampments on the outskirts of town. According to the interim government's deputy minister for industry, Muhammad Abdul al-A'ani, only 90 families had received compensation of around US $1,500 each so far. The new speaker of the National Assembly, Hajim al-Hassani, was responsible for this compensation program as minister of industry.


The Iraqi resistance's coordinated attack on the Abu Ghraib prison, a symbol of US torture and humiliation of Iraqis, comes right after declarations in the mainstream that the resistance has lost steam. This attack has once again sparked a debate about whether the Iraqi resistance has developed a more organized military structure. Meanwhile, Sec. Rumsfeld has ordered the senior military staff to study a RAND report that argues that US forces face groups of "disparate opposition elements" with "no center of gravity, or clear leader," and "flatter, more linear networks rather than the pyramidical hierarchies and command and control systems of traditional insurgent organizations." Analysts at RAND theorize "netwar" as the counterinsurgency focus for the future, weaving together such disparate elements as the Zapatistas, al-Qaeda, the activists in the 1999 Seattle protests, and the Iraqi resistance.

Posted at 11:44 am
April 1, 2005

Article on the WMD Commission

Following up on yesterday's post about the WMD Commission, here's an article, "WMD Commission -- Yet Another Intelligence Failure:"

The “Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction” has done reasonably well what it was created to do. Unfortunately, it was created to provide political cover for the Bush administration in the middle of a scandal that dwarfs Watergate, Iran-contra, and even Lewinsky-gate, but that, in contrast to those events, has led to no in-depth investigation, minimal television coverage, and hardly any calls for the heads responsible to roll.

Think back to late January 2004 and the preliminary report of the Iraq Survey Group, which concluded that no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. This came on top of what was by then a mounting wave of revelations that the Bush administration had repeatedly and deliberately deceived the American public -- and attempted to deceive the world -- about the evidence it claimed to have regarding Iraq’s WMD.

Post-war, those revelations started with Joseph Wilson’s account that, acting for the Bush administration, he had debunked the claims that Iraq was buying uranium from Niger. It included the British government’s apology for its “dodgy dossier,” in which it plagiarized 12-year-old information from a graduate student’s paper and passed it off as current intelligence, and the revelation that Tony Blair’s claim that Iraq could deploy its nonexistent chemical and biological weapons in 45 minutes was known to based on a single uncorroborated statement by an untrustworthy defector. It included a comprehensive accounting in the Washington Post showing that Iraq was not and could not have been using its famous aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment. It also included a comprehensive debunking in the Associated Press of virtually every element of Colin Powell’s February 5, 2003, presentation to the U.N. Security Council. It even included a description of the role of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their Office of Special Plans in pressuring the CIA, distorting their conclusions, and even setting them aside in order to create the most urgent and compelling justification for war.

This wave, and the wave of political discontent with the Bush administration, crested when David Kay’s report came out. Yet, within days of its issuance, the administration, with the help of prominent Democrats like Jane Harman on the House Intelligence Committee, had already spun the issue around from administration deception to something called “intelligence failures,” shifting blame from the coterie of top officials who had lied us into a war to the intelligence agencies had been pressured to come up with those lies. The creation of this commission was the final step in the process, and helped to head off any chance of a serious investigation into those lies.

Instead of impeachment proceedings for Bush, we saw a very skillful bureaucratic maneuver that killed two birds with one stone -- deflection of attention and also an attack on the CIA, seen as an institutional obstacle to implementation of the Cheney-Rumsfeld-neoconservative foreign policy agenda. The check provided by the CIA is a pragmatic, not a moral one, but if heeded might have kept the administration out of embarrassing adventures like support for the military coup attempt in Venezuela and perhaps even out of the more than two-year-long occupation of Iraq.

Although the commission was specifically not tasked with considering the administration’s use of intelligence, it still went out of its way to opine that political pressure from the administration played no part in the “intelligence failures,” because “The analysts who worked Iraqi weapons issues universally agreed that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgments.” Of course, not only would such an admission be tantamount to saying one didn’t do one’s job properly, in the current political climate intelligence analysts had to know that they would be punished for any such claim.

Similarly, the commission reserves particularly harsh criticism for the way the President’s Daily Brief is prepared, characterizing them as “more alarmist and less nuanced” than longer reports like the famously flawed October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (heavily worked over by the Office of Special Plans). Their “attention-grabbing headlines and drumbeat of repetition” supposedly gave top officials the impression that dramatic claims were much better sourced and heavily corroborated than, in fact, they were.

The commission is clearly trying to imply that some sort of scaremongering from the intelligence community stampeded the administration into war. And yet, there is no mention of another “attention-grabbing headline” from the August 6, 2001 PDB -- “Bin Laden Determined to Attack in US.” To the uninitiated, this might well seem alarming, yet it didn’t grab enough attention for Bush to cut short his vacation at Crawford or to bring back other top officials to Washington DC. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the administration got “alarmed” by claims that supported its pre-existing plans, like the invasion of Iraq, but couldn’t be bothered by claims that had little to do with an imperial agenda, but, of course, the commission escapes it with ease.

Much of what the commission concludes about the shortcomings of the intelligence community is true and recapitulates what thoughtful critics on the inside like Richard Clarke and Michael Scheuer have been saying. In a sense, it is the fault not so much of the commission but of the Bush administration that created it as a diversion and of political figures from across the spectrum who allowed themselves to be diverted.

The most alarming thing about the report is that the sections on intelligence regarding Iran and North Korea have been kept classified. The justification given is that there’s no reason for the U.S. government to tip its hand to the remaining members of Bush’s “axis of evil.” But, given the administration’s saber-rattling and consideration of regime change attempts in both countries, the public’s right to know is a far more compelling consideration. If the slightest move is made toward any military aggression against Iran (the more likely scenario of the two), the first thing we should demand is declassification of those pages.

After that, perhaps we can take up that question of impeachment again. Posted at 10:31 am
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