Mar. 20, 2006
Three years ago on this day, a great, bear-like hotel porter called Ahmed came and knocked on the door of my room and said, "I am sorry. The bombers are coming."
"No," I said. "I’m sorry. They’re our bombers."
The campaign in Britain against the war had been immense and it remains my firm belief that the size of the global mobilization against bombing was all that prevented even greater civilian carnage when the United States, United Kingdom and their allies invaded Iraq.
The numbers opposing the occupation now are even larger, with fewer people believing what the government says but, sadly, fewer people believing they have any power to make a difference. If the millions marching on a single day around the world did not stop them, the thinking goes, what can I do?
Yesterday, March 18th, thousands of people marched in London. The police, who always underestimate, claimed around 15,000. The organizers, who always overestimate, asserted 100,000. Though the marches are the most visible face of the anti-war movement in the United Kingdom, they are not its sole focus. As I said to Ahmed, they were our bombers. They were made by arms manufacturers in our towns. Companies in our cities are still gobbling up the financial spoils of war and occupation.
If the millions marching on a single day around the world did not stop them, the thinking goes, what can I do?
The Brighton-based SmashEDO group has targeted EDO MBM, described on their website as "a wholly owned subsidiary of EDO Corp, a US-based arms multinational that is currently number 10 on the Forbes 100-list of fastest growing companies." The company supplies the UK Ministry of Defense with bomb releasing equipment and its managing director Dave Jones has admitted he is "fully aware" of what the products are used for.
SmashEDO has been demonstrating outside the company’s premises consistently, using noise protests, vigils, weapons inspections and so on. The company applied for a court injunction to limit the protests to a maximum of ten, who would be obliged to be silent on pain of criminal punishment. They used the Protection from Harassment Act, passed, ostensibly, to enable prosecution of people who stalked women.
More than thirty were arrested and two were remanded in prison for breaches of the injunction before the company dropped its claim in early February this year, agreeing to pay the defendants £200,000 ($350,000) in legal costs. The UK Attorney General had intervened in the case to prevent the court considering whether EDO MBM was responsible for war crimes. Criminal charges were also dropped and the managing director resigned.
The group’s website quotes Gandhi: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
On a similar theme activists have been targeting "Corporate Pirates" who are perpetuating and profiting from the occupation of Iraq. The UK company Windrush Communications organized a series of "Iraq Procurement Conferences" to help companies procure a piece of the carved-up new Iraq. Since becoming a target for peace activists, the company—formerly known as Wishwell — has divided itself into several businesses called Iraq Supplier, the Iraq Development Program, the Iraqi British Business Centre and Iraq Procurement.
Like EDO MBM, Windrush tried to use the law to stifle protests, but dropped criminal charges when faced with the defendants’ argument that it was guilty of the war crime of pillage. The Attorney General had already indicated to the British government in a memo that its economic plans for Iraq might breach the Hague and Geneva laws against changing an occupied country’s economic structure or extracting its natural resources.
The cases are rumbling on against five activists who sabotaged bombing-related equipment at RAF / USAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, with the House of Lords—the highest court in the country — now considering whether the defendants can bring evidence of war crimes into their defense. They believe that the International Criminal Court Act, which sets out Britain's role in the ICC, permits British courts to examine allegations of conduct said to amount to war crimes.
That would mean the five protesters could say in court that they were justified in sabotaging war machinery because it would have been used to commit war crimes, and could bring evidence showing that war crimes were in fact committed.
The impact of a march lies in letting people isolated in Iraq or elsewhere see that there is solidarity and compassion for them in the very countries which are attacking them.
Of course what matters most is that the sabotage — the determined and sustained campaigning against these most important targets — is going on. It cannot be ignored as a march can. However, the impact of a march lies in letting people isolated in Iraq or elsewhere see that there is solidarity and compassion for them in the very countries which are attacking them.
But it is interesting to see the response of the government, Attorney General, police and companies: their ongoing efforts to demoralize, criminalize and silence protest. Clearly, we in the United Kingdom are much better placed to defy those attempts than activists in other countries, protected as we still are by relatively effective civil liberties—at least for the white-skinned among us.
Still those liberties are being hacked away alarmingly. On April 2nd — the anniversary of the beginning of the first siege of Fallujah — there will be a gathering in Parliament Square to read the names of just 1000 of the Iraqis who have been killed in the invasion and occupation. Since the passage of the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act (2005), simply to take part in the protest has been considered a crime.
I carried the body of an unarmed old man shot in the back, escorted ambulances because the US marines were shooting at them when they were driven by Iraqis, helped evacuate civilians because the marines had been shooting dead even children who tried to flee their homes unaccompanied by white foreigners. That is what the US forces did in Fallujah, but I will be committing a criminal offence if I participate in a reading of the names of some of the dead in front of the houses of Parliament.
Meanwhile Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers continues to fight for Iraqi families who are demanding "an independent and effective inquiry" into killings by British forces in southern Iraq. Baha Mousa’s family won a High Court ruling in December 2004 and a Court of Appeal decision a year later that an inquiry should be held. Baha is believed to have been beaten to death in British custody.
We will not rest until the occupation forces are out, economic control of their country is returned to the Iraqis and the Afghanis and every other country and reparations are paid.
Three years have passed since the invasion of Iraq began and the opposition of the military — of veterans, families and serving soldiers — has become bigger, more public and more vocal. Yesterday’s Independent (19th March 2006) published figures showing a massive increase in soldiers going absent without leave since the occupation of Iraq began; 135 in 2003, 230 in 2004 and 383 in 2005 have refused to return to duty. The number of those who overtly declare themselves to be conscientious objectors is much smaller but growing.
Military Families Against the War has been functioning in the United Kingdom for a couple of years, opposing the occupation and offering support for bereaved families, those with someone still out in Iraq and soldiers thinking of refusing to go there. Since the arrest of two members of the British SAS (elite special forces) in Basra disguised in Arab clothing and driving a car packed with weapons and explosives followed by the British army’s operation to free them from Iraqi custody, there have been even more questions about the United Kingdom's activities in Iraq though not, of course, in much of the mainstream media.
There were vigils across the United Kingdom when the 100th British soldier died in January 2006. Though this number was miniscule compared with the number of Iraqi civilians killed, it provided a landmark against which the damage caused by the governments lies could be measured.
What has been disturbingly absent though is outrage on the streets against the attacks on towns and cities throughout Iraq. As I write, late at night, my baby son is asleep upstairs, three years almost to the hour after Ahmed came to tell me the invasion of Iraq was about to begin, the town of Samarra is under attack. Again media in the town is embedded with US troops, who have apparently not met with armed resistance. Reporters have been given an unusually high level of access to the assault, which accounts for the greater press coverage — as ever, the political and military agenda dictates what becomes news.
The attacks on Tal Afar, Hit, Rawa, Parwana, Ramadi and so on have received only a fraction of the coverage, with International Peace Angels, Doctors for Iraq, the Iraqi Red Crescent and a few courageous Iraqi journalists variously struggling to get aid in and information out. Too little has been heard and seen from the UK anti-war movement in response.
Wherever you are reading this, whether or not you are free to protest, the arms deals go on. The machinations of the UK and US governments, the IMF and a few huge multinational companies continue towards tighter economic control of the whole world and its resources.
In the UK the anti-war movement is beginning to look towards Iran. I hope that I can say for it that it will continue to target the mercenary companies, the arms dealers and the politicians, that we will sabotage the war effort this time round and that we will not rest until the occupation forces are out, economic control of their country is returned to the Iraqis and the Afghanis and every other country and reparations are paid.
**Jo Wilding is a British human rights campaigner, writer, and trainee lawyer from Bristol, UK. She went to Iraq several times, where she maintained a daily blog and took part in Circus 2 Iraq, “a small group of circus performers … set up to … perform and give circus skills workshops to children [in Iraq] traumatized by sanctions, war and its aftermath.” Her articles about Iraq and ordinary Iraqis were published in the Guardian, the New Zealand Herald, and Counterpunch.
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