January 18, 2006
For Iraq watchers, the daily carnage of liberation, the searing, wailing grief of the bereaved, bombed, bereft, haunt. Neighborhoods, evocative ancient homes reduced to rubble by the 'liberators', the surviving, bewildered, standing on shattered bricks, mortar, toys, belongings, liberated even from home's secure warmth.
In the distorted horrors of today's Iraq, many never make it home: disappeared, kidnapped, shot by the occupying forces for driving, walking, and playing, in familiar venues. Iraqi lives are the earth's cheapest. 'Government' or occupying troops kill 'insurgents' (even if baby or toddler 'insurgents’) and few questions are asked. 'Insurgents' are also blamed for the kidnappings and killings of independent aid workers and journalists - Iraqi and foreign - yet the growing list of their disappeared and dead, are those who were recording atrocities against the population by occupying troops and US imposed government's militia.
Recently General Muntazar Al-Samarrai, who fled Iraq for Jordan last year, told Al Arabiya television that Interior Minister Bayan Jabr Solagh had employed thousands of Badr Brigade militia, the now 'disarmed' fighters of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Random arrest, torture, crackdowns, interrogation without Court approval were rife, claimed Al-Samarrai. He cited the Squad's Headquarters as being in a bunker under the Ministry at Al Gardiyah, where one hundred and seventy prisoners were discovered, malnourished and showing signs of torture. Fifty-two blindfolded, dead were found in Baghdad's Al-Iskan and Al-Huriya neighborhoods. 'I have no doubt countless others have been killed at the hands of Solagh's men', added Samarrai
Recent kidnappings of foreigners have occurred when approaching the Association of Muslim Scholars - who record circumstances pertaining to the dead and missing – or waiting to enter Mosques where officials also keep records. Sunni leaders have also been calling for investigation in to the death squads. The death toll of the Scholars themselves - indeed Iraq's academics, professionals - is largely missing from the public domain. There is a deadly 'Catch 22' in the dangers of record keeping and in access to knowledge.
Iraq is unrecognizable from when foreigners and Iraqis, until the invasion, wandered late night streets, socializing, eating imaginative snacks costing pence, cooked on creative pavement cookers fashioned from scoured scrap, not fearing kidnap, ransom demands, death - gift of an illegal onslaught recently described by Martin Van Creuveld, Military History Professor at the Hebrew University, as: ' The most foolish war since Emperor Augustus sent his legions into Germany in 9 B.C., and lost them.' (www.forward.com 25th November 2005.)
The kidnappings and attendant horrors have been a surreal, horrific learning curve for Iraqis and those who know Iraq. Some governments have been careful, imaginative, quietly working behind the scenes for releases. Britain's approach is unusual. When Ken Bigley was kidnapped, his brother Paul, desperately fighting for him, says his phone and computer were disconnected and he was visited by British authorities at his home in the Netherlands and accused of negotiating with terrorists.
When Care's Director, Margaret Hassan was kidnapped, in October 2004. Lord Blair of Kut Al Amara, as dubbed by the Independent's Robert Fisk (Kut: the scene of near Augustian decimation of the British on an earlier colonial misadventure) stood in Parliament and dealing also diplomacy's death knell, said Britain now knew what kind of people it was dealing with, capturing a wonderful British woman.
Could the Prime Minister possibly correct his statement publicly? I asked the Head of Consular Protection for the Middle East, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I had known Margaret for some years and was fairly sure her passport was Irish, she was certainly Irish born and regarded herself as Irish. Being British or American in Iraq, post invasion, could invite a death sentence. 'We do not need advice from you ..', he said : ' We are already trying to find out if we have the right woman.' Life is seemingly cheap viewed from bunkered Whitehall.
The only option was to break rule one, go public, in a damage limitation exercise. On every possible media outlet, her background her passion for Iraq became central. Her home of thirty years, she stayed during two wars, thirteen years of bombings and embargo, her heartbreak at the plight of the people. She traveled to the UK and spoke in Parliament and at the UN in New York in January 2003, warning of invasion's consequences: 'The Iraqi people are already living through a terrible emergency ... they do not have the recourses to withstand an additional crisis brought about by military action', she said in a House of Commons briefing. She could have stayed in the West, but returned to Iraq, stockpiled emergency medical requirements – and awaited the bombs. Was it a random, opportunist kidnapping, I prayed I was repeated on Arabic services. The Middle East minds people who care for them.
In my wake, producers received mysterious calls: I was a fantacist who had never met Margaret Hassan. I received one myself on a Sunday afternoon. Establishing who I was, the caller said he was head of government communications and, basically, would I shut the f ... up about Margaret Hassan. After Margaret's death, Iraqi exiles in Manchester and Liverpool, appalled and ashamed, decided to establish initiatives for Iraq in her memory and asked if I would give a talk - on their country. My arrival was preceded by a 'phone call from 'Scotland Yard' (no name of officer, number, extension etc.) advising the organizers against my speaking. The meetings went ahead.
Now, according The Sunday Times (1st January 2006) it transpires that Times columnist and former Conservative MP, Matthew Parris, was approached by ' ... a very rich friend', offering, that were: '..a ransom demanded, it could perhaps be raised.' What followed was: ' ... a scarily effective ... behind-the-scenes operation to stop the plan ... from on high - very high ... Terrified my friend backed out. So might you if you were told your own family might be targeted next.'
The Foreign Office dismissed the claim as: 'utter nonsense.' Margaret Hassan fought for Iraq's vulnerable under Saddam's regime and would certainly not keep quiet regarding subsequent conditions and atrocities under that of the occupation - and frequently by them. And she had a voice in high places, as did many of Iraq's disappeared. The lionhearted Margaret's terrified, pleading face looked out again from the Sunday Times and she again spoke for Iraqis: the terrorized, traumatized she mirrored. Iraqis had spoken back in their thousands and war maimed, limbless, children demonstrated on crutches outside her final project, a center she had built for them. Her body has never been found.
Did someone, somewhere, look in a mirror and decide she was expendable, to illustrate the invasion's historic disaster was necessary, to 'democratize' and 'educate' Iraq? And that in the New Iraq, unsilencable voices are anyway, inconvenient?
Robert Fisk in Canada recently joked of a minion saying to the Prime Minster: 'Terrible news, Sir, Robert Fisk has been kidnapped in Iraq' - and the Prime Minister replying: 'Poor old Bob, ha, ha, ha.'
Jokes apart, there are more questions than answers regarding Iraq's disappeared, say informed legal and human rights experts, than ever there were under Saddam.
Details of Iraq's murdered academics can be found at www.brusselstribunal.org a petition to save the living is at www.PetitionOnline.com/Iraqacad
-Felicity Arbuthnot lives in London. She has written and broadcast widely on Iraq, one of the few journalists to cover Iraq extensively even in the mid-1990’s during the sanctions. She with Denis Halliday was senior researcher for John Pilger’s Award winning documentary: Paying the Price - Killing the Children of Iraq. She is a regular contributor to PalestineChronicle.com