Trying to get into the Iraqi Assistance Centre, formerly the Ba’ath Conference Palace, a sleek, polished floored, cold-aired set of chambers, is like passing into another country. Four borders must be crossed; an ID must be shown at each of the four stages of entry. The preferred is a passport, which rules out most of the Iraqi population as theirs are invalid now and all contain the mandatory picture of the smiling death-sated dictator himself. All pictures of Saddam are illegal now under CPA de-Ba’athification regulations. Most Iraqis are stopped, abrupt, at the first checkpoint and barked at to retreat; they need a special letter, special permission, a press pass, or a white face with a Western passport to smile them through. Metal detectors bleep over belt buckles, twice over at two checkpoints, front and back, and bags are turned through, twice. The Centre is ringed by concentric circles of barbed wire; sand bag columns and sand-bag walls, build up the barriers; soldiers languish at the checkpoints drinking tea-temperature water from their backpacks, tell you ‘have a nice day’, sullenly.
Under the regime, the Conference Palace was home to elite discussions, pan-Arab politico assemblies, skewed and changeless voting, sonorous speeches from Party demagogues, paper-shuffling, account-tallying, and life-steering decision-making, reaching high over the heads of the Iraqi public, all in a days work. Nothing has changed.
The IAC, in name suggesting the dynamic of a Drop In Centre, is in fact the nerve centre of the Occupation’s civil society co-ordination and media briefings – off limits to 99.9% of Iraqis. NGO workers converge here, pick up their free mobile telephones, soldiers tap away emails to their missed loved ones, co-ordination between NGOs – both new Iraqi and foreign (numbering together over 200) and the army is arranged here, and Administrator Bremer (re-fangled as Ambassador Bremer by the Governing Council) and Grand Commander for the Coalition Forces General Sanchez give regular press briefings. Evenings promise Iraqi poetry nights and the odd traditional dancing show, in an effort to acquaint Occupation Forces with Iraqi culture, something inconceivable given the dominant image diet of Iraq as a desert, Iraq as nothing but hostile, moustached uniform wearing authoritarians, Iraq as beggars and frail-boned children fading to their graves in hospitals, Iraq as backward, Iraq as a squalid dump full of ‘Ali Babas’ (soldier slang for 99% of all Iraqis they come into contact with). Little know it as the home of the ‘garden of eden’ in Babylon, the most sacred shrine for Shias, Imam Ali’s tomb in Kerbala, the birthplace of one of the first civilizations in the world, and birthplace of the Arabic alphabet. Before the first Gulf War, Iraq was on its way to being defined as a First World Country and had one of the highest literacy rates in the middle east.
The inaugural performance of Iraq’s Governing Council on July 14 was, as are regular press conferences, run like a military operation. The council is a US handpicked Benettonised (i.e ‘all the colours in the world with none of the conflict’, For Sale) mixture of former Ba’ath, Assyrian Christian, Sunni, Shia, Turkmen, Kurdish, and Communist representatives, including Jalal Talabani (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) Massoud Barzani, (Kurdistan Democratic Party), Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim (Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution), Ezzedine Salim (Daawa Islamic Party) and US propped would-be pre-disobedience Saddams (i.e. ‘Our Guys’ in the Middle east) Adnan Pachichi (former Foreign Minister) and Ahmad Chalabi. They all took to the stage, their backdrop a massive flag of Iraq, divided into three zones, rumoured to be potential zones of partition for future federalised governance. Mohammad Bahr al-Ulloum, a Shia scholar and GC member opened up the performance by congratulating and declaring the GC the ‘manifestation of the free will of Iraqi peoples’ and an ‘expression of the Iraqi national will’, defining the type of democratic process Iraqi people can expect from the GC. No elections were held. No ordinary Iraqis were consulted about the formation of the council. Also over half of its members lived in exile throughout the toughest years of Saddam’s dictatorship. Al-Ulloum also introduced Iraqis to ‘Iraqi National Liberation Day’ – April 11, the first date of total occupation. The council members, amid standing ovations and applause, from many a plant in the audience, sat down to respond to whichever questions were levelled at them, from whichever direction, with formulaic, evenly prepared no-conflict answers. Chalabi, preened by the Pentagon for this very day, hailed and thanked in earnest, repeatedly, the efforts of ‘the brave Coalition Force Heroes’ who had liberated the country, to the cheers and yelps of a female plant in the audience, screaming, ‘Aieesh Aieesh Bush!!’ Long live Bush!!’ Taut, armed, checkered-shirted men, fled back and forth, from one door to another, tracking invisible assassins, radios crackling in their pockets, maybe veterans from the contra wars, certainly veterans of killing, some in their 40s, gnarled faces, rugged frames, their movements charged with a history of death as an aside, death as a business, death for quotas, for fear-stirring, a strategy, death was coursing through the room. Security groups flanked every door, from paramilitary professionals to Italian Special Ops, a steely surveillance in shades, chewing gum and scoping out, motionlessly, each and every person walking by. The meeting, rehearsed and ceremonial in its conduction, ran smooth under the gaze of Bremer and his cronies, suited schoolboys in the front row, nodding and languishing in the perfect complicity of it all, only to begin shirking down in their seats and chuckling in shock/embarrassment when Caoimhe Butterly asked/uttered the only truth a hallowed, guarded theatre of lies such as the GC may ever hear collectively: ‘Why, after 13 years of genocidal sanctions and American foreign policy which has steadily cheapened Iraqi blood to the point that it has become expendable, is there the belief that the sanctity of Iraqi lives, human rights or efforts towards genuine self determination and sovereignty will be respected now anymore now than they have been in the past?’. To which a female council member, one of three and the only GC woman to speak at the conference, responded, flatly, neutralizingly, by stating her own involvement in Iraqi human rights issues for years and how she had every confidence that human rights would be respected in the New Iraq, Now more than ever. The question burned a blip in an otherwise entirely ready-made historical event TM., performed for journalists, and consumed by everybody in Iraq in total alienation, via TV screens, understood in technicolour, radiating out of The Iraqi Media Network, the new and only, unless you have satellite, TV channel and national source of information available to Iraq people. With its offices located within the Presidential Palace (Occupation HQ) and its content routinely monitored for any hint of potential incitement or critique of Occupation force violations, behaviour or presence, the channel re-produces the state television fake reality, fake representations and fake communications people were subject to under the regime.
The inauguration of the GC was a defining moment in History and America created it. US artist Barbara Kruger has a picture, black and white, showing just the legs and feet of a group of men, business men, men of money, in shiny black shoes, stood in collaboration, in the process of deal-making. The caption underneath their feet says: ‘You make history when you do business.
The meaning of doing business, big business, perpetuating the profit machine, on a global scale, means imposing the free market by any means necessary, expressing the free will of the worlds elite money-makers to incur and exploit, by any means necessary, war or occupation. You’re either with it or against it, whether it’s Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia or West Papua, with it or against it, with them or against them, and either choice leads to death, one more slower perhaps than the other, for the majority poor on the planet and its ecology. For when the worlds only superpower and its allies are in crisis, and the corpse machine needs new capital, a new trade transfusion is a matter of emergency, national profiles are re-written, installed dictators demolished, missiles fired, new governments hired, contracts signed, and the curtains open and fresh history is re-made.
The inauguration of the new Iraqi Governing Council was incredibly violent; 35 years and 5 million murdered under Saddam; 23 coups and insurrections in under 40 years; over 3,500 villages and hundreds of individual homes razed; three wars, 8-years of fighting and 3million heaped body bags with Iran; 88,000 tons of bombs dropped and 200,000 slaughtered in the 6 week first Gulf War; 13 years of infrastructure and socially devastating sanctions leaving over a million dead from preventable causes and Iraq ready for total economic and territorial take-over; the war this time, over 7,000 civilians dead, and now the domination of Iraq with over 350,000 occupation troops, military bases, checkpoints, new prisons, new laws, new graves and skies patrolled with black apaches. A history of turbulence and insurrection and fierce social struggle, continuous social struggle, whether it was against the dictatorship of the British, Saddam, the sanctions or the free market, and the represented triumph over all of this, the culmination of it all to now, the point, the dot at the end of a story of incredible suffering, manipulation and resistance, was this silently, perfectly sculpted ceremony, gagging and glossing over everything that brought it here in fire. It was delivered with the same stoical satisfaction and hid the same trail of mass violence, causal violence, and unrelenting bloodshed as a smile from Saddam.
Ewa Jasiewicz and Caoimhe Butterly are solidarity activists living in Baghdad and working with Voices in the Wildreness and Occupation Watch.
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