Doom in Baghdad
A friend told me I was crazy to fly this September 11. "Blame Jim Abourezk," I said.
Abourezk had asked me to accompany him and Representative Nick Rahall, Democrat of West Virginia, on a humanitarian mission to Iraq. Abourezk, the seventy-one-year-old former South Dakota Democratic Senator (1973-79), dropped out of his Sioux Falls law practice for a week "to do what I can to try to stop the war," he told me.
Neither Abourezk nor Rahall was sure that the Iraqis would listen to political logic.
"What lessons has Saddam learned from the Gulf War?" I asked Abourezk.
"We'll see, but I'm not optimistic," he said. "We have to talk Iraqi officials into doing something they don't want to do: Readmit the U.N. weapons inspectors Clinton ordered to leave in 1998. Otherwise, Bush'll bomb the shit out of the Iraqis."
We met up in Amsterdam en route to Iraq, and we laughed about his first experience as an emissary in a collision-course situation. In 1973, the American Indian Movement (AIM) had claimed to have taken hostages on the Wounded Knee Reservation, and AIM leaders asked for Abourezk to negotiate with them.
"South Dakota is my state," Abourezk said back then, "and I chair the Indian Affairs Subcommittee, so I'll be there." Along with South Dakota's senior Senator, George McGovern, Abourezk flew in an Air Force helicopter to Pine Ridge, where the FBI agent in charge met them. "It was not that far from the little village of Wood on the Sioux reservation where my father, a Lebanese peddler, had opened a general store," Abourezk recalls. He conferred with AIM leader Russell Means and advised him to give it up before someone got hurt. Means agreed to do so on the condition that the government stipulate what the charges would be, but the Nixon Administration would not oblige, and so the standoff lasted seventy more days. Later, a federal prosecutor called Abourezk to testify against AIM. "I told him what I had told the FBI, that the Indians had a just cause, and he said, 'Forget it, we don't need your testimony.' "
Abourezk got into more controversy after his first trip to the Middle East in 1973, when he criticized U.S.-Israel policy and defended Palestinian rights. "People I thought were friends became instant enemies," he says. "Guys who worked on my campaign stopped speaking to me. Worse, they started spreading rumors about me being anti-Semitic. Wolf Blitzer [who then wrote articles for a journal published by AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] said vicious stuff about me 'selling out to the Arabs,' because I spoke about Israel withdrawing to the pre-1967 borders in exchange for the Arab governments signing a peace agreement with Israel, which they told me they would do."
In 1980, Abourezk founded the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. It became the first organization to bring together Arab Americans from all regions of the country, not only to deal with grievances, but to stand up for Palestinian rights, as well.
Abourezk and Rahall, also of Lebanese descent, have known each for a long time. And when Rahall asked him to join the delegation to Baghdad, Abourezk felt he had an obligation to go.
It takes one hour for Gulf Falcon Air to make the Damascus-Baghdad hop. Wadah Kasimi, the Iraqi official in charge of our visit, looks disappointed when Abourezk and Rahall tell him to cancel the visit to alleged sites of weapons of mass destruction because, says Abourezk, "we wouldn't know a Vaseline-making plant from an anthrax factory, so why bother?"
At the Al Rasheed hotel, I step on the inlaid mosaic tile face entitled "George Bush War Criminal," which covers the entrance to the hotel lobby. On the first day, we're spirited to the offices of Dr. Omed Mubarak, a cardiologist, now minister of health. He explains how the U.S. and British delegates that sit on the U.N. committee overseeing the sanctions "destroy the integrity of our health system by vetoing our access to crucial parts of chemotherapy cocktails and surgical equipment" because they "might have military use." To dramatize his lecture, he sends us to a nearby pediatric hospital where we observe a Kurdish girl clinging to her desperate-looking mother. The little girl has blood oozing from her mouth. The doctors explain that they have no medicines to treat her leukemia.
Even though we know the Iraqi government wants to shock us, it is still hard not to be affected.
"I have a daughter about her age," Abourezk says, trying to hide his tears. Dr. Mubarak describes how children have developed leukemia after playing with shrapnel from depleted uranium bombs dropped by U.S. planes. Bush rightly condemns Iraq for using chemical weapons, but he fails to own up to the extensive use by the United States of shells tipped with depleted uranium. There has been a plethora of deformed births in southern Iraq, where most of the depleted uranium ordnance was dropped--children born with no heads, with enlarged heads, with other killing birth defects.
It's more than 100 degrees outside as our Mercedes limousines push their way through chaotic Baghdad traffic. Exhaust fumes mix with the dusty air at a turbulent souk (bazaar), in which peddlers offer local crafts, canned and fresh--well, sort of--food, plastic toys, electronic gadgets, CDs, video cassettes of X-rated movies and regular Hollywood fare. About half the men sport the dishdashas, long white robes, with or without the kaffiyeh on their heads. Others wear slacks and shirts. Women in black robes with shawls stride alongside those in skirts and even tight slacks; some wear only hijabs to cover their heads. Loud and rhythmic music blares, the smell of cooking lamb and chicken emanates from some of the stalls.
Harold Samhat, a retired Arab American businessman on the delegation, begins negotiating a price for an imported Iranian silk rug with a merchant who looks about thirty. I ask the handsome peddler in well-fitting slacks and clean sport shirt about his political take. His smiling face undergoes a metamorphosis, and so does his English, which seemed fluent when dealing with prices.
"Why you want war? What good from war? We have plenty of war. We know bombs. We know destruction. What we do to you? You bomb. We die. Bush say he care about Iraqi people. Why he bomb us?"
The young man becomes self-conscious, stops the sermon, offers us tea, and resumes his bargaining. Harold buys the rug, and we're in the cars again.
"It doesn't look like they're preparing for war," I remark to Knight Ridder correspondent Warren Strobel, as I observe the chaotic bustle of midday in Baghdad.
"Yeah, but then again, how do you prepare for the Leviathan?" he asks as our cars pull up at the imposing office building (designed in a neofascist desert style) of Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.
Abourezk knew Aziz back in the 1980s, and while he and Rahall meet with Aziz privately, the rest of us contemplate several Saddam portraits adorning the waiting room walls. These icons of Saddam, in prayer, in derby with rifle, in uniform saluting, are ubiquitous.
The Congressman and former Senator reemerge from Aziz's office with the owlish-looking Iraqi official behind them, dressed in his canned spinach green uniform, belt drawn tightly around his belly. Now in his seventies, Aziz belongs to the dwindling fraternity of original Ba'ath Party members who made the revolution in 1979 and survived Saddam Hussein's ruthless whim.
"Jim, the Iraqi people need peace," Aziz asserts. "But the Bush Administration wants no talk, no dialogue about any matter. It threatens to attack and then invade and our regime should be changed. What are the pretexts? If, for instance, W.M.D. [weapons of mass destruction] are a genuine concern, I have said repeatedly that it could be resolved. I don't understand why the American Congress didn't respond positively to our fact-finding mission. We allowed them to bring any experts, any equipment they needed. It's not that difficult a job to trace such activities. In UNSCOM [United Nations Special Commission, which sent weapons inspection teams to Iraq], they have the instruments to detect any biological or chemical weapon or nuclear activity. It's not going to take years for the Congress to be assured that there is no activity--maybe only days."
Abourezk presses Aziz. "Is there a reason for not allowing the weapons inspectors to come back?"
"If the inspectors return," he says, "there is no guarantee it will prevent war. They could be used to create a crisis with the Iraqi government and then be used as a pretext to attack."
Abourezk insists that some Bush Administration people have serious reservations about making war unilaterally and that "your acceptance of inspectors might help this coalition of Bush opponents make a stronger case against U.S. military action."
Aziz doesn't buy it. "Bush has said the U.S. will attack with or without the inspectors," he says. "So we're doomed if we do, doomed if we don't. If we can't prevent war, why expose ourselves to inspectors who will visit military barracks and then expose facts on how many tanks, anti-aircraft, etc. we have? If you're doomed if you do and doomed if you don't, you better don't."
Abourezk then raises the issue of Iraq's alleged ties with Al Qaeda.
"Lies," Aziz declares. "When the Taliban came to power, the diplomat representing the former government remained in Baghdad. We didn't accept the new representative of the Taliban government. In 1990, Bin Laden tried to convince Saudi leadership to use him and his groups to fight Iraq. This is on the record. How could we work with a person with those intentions?"
Aziz looks tired. His voice rings with the tones of fatalism. But he warns the United States of untoward consequences if it invades.
"There's a difference between this war and the 1991 war," he says. "The U.S. bombed and Iraq decided to withdraw from Kuwait. But the U.S. idea of a change in regime will mean that U.S. forces must come into each city and occupy them one by one. Imagine the results, because Iraqis will defend their sovereignty. Everybody in danger will fight."
Aziz also predicts unrest throughout the Arab world. "Now, the United States is more hated than anytime before in the region," he says. "You find this hatred in the streets of the Arab and Muslim countries, even those with good U.S. relations. If the U.S. attacks Iraq, those sentiments in the Arab world will reach their climax. It's not in interests of the American people to have whole nations hating you. In history, all empires need good attitudes towards them from countries under their influence. If the U.S. decides it is all right to be the most powerful empire in the world and also be hated, that's a bad choice. This has to be weighed, by all those who will face grave situations in their own countries--Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan."
When Abourezk and Rahall come out of the session, they seem dejected.
"I understand their arguments," Abourezk says, "but they just don't get American politics."
Rahall agrees. "If the American people knew what our weapons had done to innocent people here." At a bomb shelter--now museum--that took two smart bomb hits in the 1991 Gulf War, we see how our intelligent weapons transformed 408 women and children from flesh into ashes. Intesar, the museum guide, a beautiful and bitter neighborhood woman in her mid-thirties, wears a hijab. "The Pentagon discovered its mistake and four days after killing the people huddled in the shelter it said sorry," she says. "Too late!"
Inside, the photos of many of the deceased line the walls. Wires and bent iron rods that once reinforced the concrete dangle from the ceiling. "This," Intesar says, "is what war does." She points to what looks like the outline of a woman etched into the wall. The bomb literally burned her into the side of the shelter.
The day before we leave, to Abourezk's surprise, Iraq announces it will readmit the U.N. inspectors without conditions. The Iraqi foreign ministry official tells us that our trip has been successful.
Abourezk smiles and says, "Yes, with a little help from Nelson Mandela, the Arab League, and Kofi Annan." All of them had been strongly urging Saddam Hussein to accept the inspectors.
British left Laborite M.P. George Galloway, attending the Sixth Iraq Solidarity Conference, rejoices over the news.
"The fox is shot, as we say in Britain," he declares. "You must stop the hunt if the fox is dead."
Abourezk is delighted that the Iraqis have agreed to the inspectors. Now he thinks, perhaps erroneously, Congress can show some backbone.
Within two days he finds out that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who once worked for him as a Senate legislative aide, is likely to go along with Bush's demand for sweeping military powers.
"It's naked power," he says. "George Bush refuses to take yes for an answer."
Once home, Abourezk hits the talk show circuit, and Daschle, angered by Bush's insinuation that the Democrats are traitors, makes an irate denunciation of the President on the Senate floor. Even Al Gore in his San Francisco speech manages to muster a challenge to Bush's unilateralism. Ted Kennedy also decries the President's rush to war.
For his part, Abourezk remains realistic, unsure if the war against Iraq can be stopped.
"We'll do what we can," he says between radio and TV talk shows, "because we owe it to the civilians who will die in the bombing and to the American soldiers who will die in the ground-fighting. Hell, that's what you have to do if democracy and citizenship are going to mean anything."
Saul Landau is the Digital Media Director at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. He is currently completing a film on Iraq.