Remembering the Build-up to the Iraq Invasion 10 Years Ago ... and Trying to Stop the Drone War in Pakistan Now
Update from Salon's Natasha Lennard on John Brennan's Senate hearing to be confirmed as CIA director: "Brennan had barely opened his mouth to begin his testimony when a protester interrupted him. The woman, who appears to be a member of antiwar group Code Pink, was swiftly escorted from the chamber by police at the request of Sen. Feinstein. Seconds later, a man in the chamber interrupted Brennan again, shouting against the U.S. drone program. Then another woman stood up to repeat the message. “Do your job” the protester shouted at Feinstein, decrying the death of civilians in Yemen and Pakistan. Feinstein has now asked to clear the chamber, calling a recess."
On Wednesday night, as I work with Medea Benjamin and the CODEPINK DC team on messaging and tactics for the Brennan hearing Thursday afternoon my memory returns to Iraq 10 years ago.
Those who rise on Thursday have returned from 10 days in Pakistan meeting with Pashtun tribal members who lost loved ones from CIA Drone strikes. These brave activists went to Pakistan to bring the story back just as we had gone to Iraq 10 years ago.
We had already been in Baghdad 5 days the night Powell testified at the UN, 10 years ago. We went to Iraq because we had been in a 4 month vigil outside the White House and it was clear we needed to go to speak from experience to be more effective.
We landed at 2 am and drove from the Amman airport across the desert to the Iraq border, past Fallujah to Baghdad. Our first stop was Freedom Plaza where we were a spectacle, especially in our pink. Kids came running to us wanting to speak English, “Hello, How are you? What is your name?” We were surrounded by hundreds of curious Iraqi who had been milling in the square. “Why are you so nice to us? We are from the United States and threatening to invade your country,” I ask, confused by all the attention and kindness coming our way. “You are not Bush and we are not Saddam, you are Americans and we are Iraqi.” It was refreshing that they understood the corrupting influence of power and stark in contrast to how most Americans were thinking and so willing to bomb these innocent and beautiful people.
We spent our days doing actions in the streets and squares of Baghdad. One afternoon in Firdos Square, the famous site of the Saddam statue falling a few months later, we marched around the square singing No blood for oil with a band from a wedding we recruited the night before. We were staying with other Americans in a hotel on the banks of the Tigris, our evenings were listening to Jeremy Schahill transmit his experiences of the day to Democracy Now! while the pet monkey behind the hotel desk screamed and threw himself at the bars of his cage.
We discovered where the IAEA Inspectors were staying and found ways to talk to them, even though every attempt had been made to wall them off from the public. “No there are no weapons of mass destruction,” insisted the Inspector from France to Medea in her native tongue.
Each day our rally in the streets of Baghdad had a new message, the day of the Colin Powell testimony it was a long pink sheet with the words, “We have found the smoking gun.” We had one hand holding up the banner and in the other was a gas nozzle. We stood outside for almost 2 hours as over 350 people passed by us to find their space in The Information Center to hear what Powell had to say to the UN.
Joining us in the Iraq Information Center were hundreds of International journalists, 32 members of the European Parliament and diplomats from around the world. It is pin drop still when Powell begins to speak followed by hissing and laughter as he describes weapons being moved around in the desert, warheads moved almost daily between facilities and biological dry agents capable of killing thousands upon thousands. Even before Powell had finished heads were shaking and the buzz was intense. This group didn’t believe a word. We followed the reporters to the roof of the IIC lined with tents of networks from around the word. Each has a position so the camera could capture the mosque in the frame with the talking head. Looking like we belonged we made our way through the booths listening as those from the European countries frowned on the Powell testimony and reported it was bad information. We arrived at the CNN tent before their broadcast and Gael Murphy stationed herself very near the block Nic Robertson would stand on to deliver his report. He was pacing and working on his notes. We hear the call, up in 1 minute, watch him take his place on the box and begin his report. It is nothing like what we have heard from the Europeans, he is insisting Powell’s crazy accusations are true and we should be concerned. Less than 2 minutes into his commentary Gael Murphy moves him off the block, gets on, and announces “the world does not want this war.” CNN's American broadcast version clicks it off in a second, but it plays on CNN in the Middle East and some European countries -- but is never repeated. Our adrenaline is pumping, so we head home with a walk on the Tigris to end the night. As we talk amongst ourselves, we are sure the US can’t invade as Powell’s report was so outrageous. With this confidence we go to bed while it is still early in the day time in the States.
The next morning the hotel housekeeper enters our room to bring our water and coffee. We had become acquainted because she could speak a little English. She comes over and buries her head in my chest crying and then looks up to the sky sobbing, “How do I protect my children? How can I protect them?” I have no idea what she is talking about until Medea reads the paper -- while we were sleeping Bush has said, “The game is over, time for Shock and Awe.” For the next three days we watch the threat of Shock and Awe terrorize the people. Store keepers taping their plate glass windows, others using blow torches in the middle of the streets to build containers to fuel generators, while others are making plans to leave.
For all of the 10 days we are in Iraq, reporters follow as we reveal the devastation of our sanctions and the absurdity that we would bomb this already broken country. None of those stories ran in the states, they did however run in the Middle East and Europe. Later when I asked some of the reporters why, they blamed their producers back in the states. And when I asked those producers why they didn’t allow those stories to air, their excuse was to keep their job because they needed to put their kids through school.
10 years later we have further destroyed Iraq, we have spent our treasure on destruction, corruption and waste, while our cities and citizens are going without basic needs and with the constant threat of more and more being unfunded.
As 11 courageous travelers who ventured to the border of Pashtun territories in Pakistan speak for those who have lost loved ones to Drone strikes in Pakistan at the Brennan hearing, let’s hope we have learned something about terrorizing others, something we know deeply the pain of and end Drone strikes and deny the Drone czar a role that can only make American less secure. Let’s hope the Intelligence Committee has the intelligence to ask Brennan the questions that reveal he is the most effective recruiter for Al Qaeda and the Taliban and would be a mistake as head of the CIA.
Jodie Evans and Medea Benjamin led a delegation of 15 to Iraq from February 2nd to 12th 2003.