Saturday, September 29, 2007


I've been looking at some blogs from Burma--otherwise known as Myanmar, the name this country was given by a military dictatorship in 1988--over the last few days. The sights are gruesome. But I think it's great that people from across the world have offered support to the bloggers and people of Burma, be they links to proxy servers or words of support. Even Jim Carrey posted a video on YouTube about Aung Sanh Suu Kyi, then another appealing to viewers to write an email calling for UN action. This song dedication is also great.

Some pictures are beyond gruesome, like this one. Tear gas, rubber bullets, even batons are brutal, but sometimes, at the very least, journalists and other observers are able to use gas masks. It is tyranny when the military uses live ammunition and beatings so savage that heads are smashed. In that case, you have to wonder how deep the rabbit hole goes.

UPDATE #2: Thank God for the internet--where the world can express solidarity for the protesters and hold Myanmar's regime accountable.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Iraq Watch: Unity Through Horror

[The Iraq Memory Foundation intends eventually to build a museum at the site of the Swords of Qādisīyah, which Saddam Hussein built before the end of the Iran-Iraq war to celebrate his "victory." The war ended in stalemate. Those are bronze casts of Saddam's arms you're looking at, accurate down to every hair. The sword is made out of melted stainless steel, in part from guns and tanks of dead Iraqi soldiers. My New School Free Press column on Iraq was bumped to a monthly installment. Here is #2, which runs in next Tuesday's issue.]

On Al Iraqiya T.V., a weekly one-hour program hosts a round table discussion of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Jews, Christians and Turkomen. They reflect on how they survived Saddam Hussein's society of surveillance, imprisonment and torture.

"We equate peoples' suffering with each other," Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi exile who founded the Memory Foundation, which produces the show, told me this summer over the phone. "Suddenly, Kurds see that their experience has been parallel to Arabs, and Shiites see their experience has happened to Sunnis, and Sunnis see that they, too, have seen what other people have gone through."

The Memory Foundation started after the invasion in 2003. Since then, the group has built an immense archive of Baath Party documents, works of art by Iraqis and personal testimonies of Baath crimes. All of it is available for perusing on the group's website,

"We are on our way to creating a living history," Makiya said.

But their work faces numerous roadblocks. Over two million people have escaped Iraq—including level-headed professionals integral to building a free and fair society. That has left the country, and its 170,000 internally displaced families, largely under the control of warring Shiite militias and the homegrown terrorist group, Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Shiite militias, posing as police, have slaughtered Sunnis. Al-Qaeda terrorists have assassinated reconciliation advocates.

And the Memory Foundation mostly runs on grants. Makiya told me this Monday that the television program will be shut down at the end of September because its funds have run out.

On Wednesday, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution to impose a "soft partition" on Iraq, dividing it into three semi-autonomous regions to make "breathing room" for reconciliation. Forcing Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds into new borders will not stop the ethnic cleansing, but fuel it. Lawmakers should focus their attention on groups like the Memory Foundation, because Iraqis need a unifying force.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Slog Ahead

I don't usually dream when I sleep. Most often, I wrangle with half-baked thoughts just before my alarm starts screaming. I'm revisiting George Packer's brilliant The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq for my journalism class, and read his chapter "The Unfinished War" on Sunday. On Tuesday morning, I was in the middle of another morning fit when the image of Jeane Kirkpatrick's name stuck in my mind. In 1979, she wrote the essay "Dictatorships and Double Standards" for Commentary, arguing that American human rights advocates were wrong to challenge our dictatorship friends, since enemies like the Soviet Union and Iran were just nastier versions of the dictators we supported.

Packer also writes about Paul Berman, who after 9/11 had sunk into Sayyid Qutb's writing and began studying modern Islamic terrorist groups. He concluded, Packer writes, that modern day Islamic terrorists were advocating totalitarianism. And a war in Iraq was a war for liberalism. After reengaging Albert Camus' The Rebel, Berman found the epithet for his future book: "Here, suicide and murder are two sides of the same system."

I didn't recognize the name, but there was something peculiar about that guy. This morning, it hit me. I did recognize the name. Ejecting from another morning fit, I jumped out of bed and headed to my bookshelf, where I fished Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism from a stack of unread books. I paged to the epithet and there it was: "Here, suicide and murder are two sides of the same system." - Albert Camus. Below that, a quote by Sayyid Qutb read: "Death comes to all, but for him there is martyrdom. He will proceed to the Garden, while his conquerors go to the Fire."

At day, images of limber men wearing kaffiyes and wielding Kalashnikovs swam in my head. I thought of Saddam Hussein's bureaucratic system of terror, which Kanan Makiya writes about in Republic of Fear. I wondered, how does a rebel group overthrow a system like that? And how does the new system avoid becoming the violent regime it routed? Then I had a mild anxiety attack.

As I headed home for the night, I read The New Republic's editorial on the politics surrounding the war in Washington D.C. The editors didn't offer anything by way of new information or insight this time. I know the politics are pathetic, the situation in Iraq is dire either way the Americans go (be it a final withdrawal or more surge), and that Joe Biden and Leslie Gelb's "soft partition" plan will not make "breathing room" for Iraqi reconciliation, but it will stoke more ethnic cleansing. At least "soft partition" looks like a good solution, to Americans ready to end the war. And, of course, it would benefit the Kurds--who have wanted an independent state since the Roman Empire.

I think The New Republic did a better job with the editorial's subtitle, which I read in the table of contents on the next page: "Does the future of Iraq lie in pieces?" Talk about superb word choice.

There is so much to read about the war, so much to know about our shameful history with the region. (See Peter Galbraith's The End of Iraq and you'll know what I mean.) And of course, Iraq is the cradle of civilization--the place of Babylon, Ur, Samarra, Karbala and more. But the war has moved fast in Iraq. In America, most are trying to play catch up. It took months before the civil war was official, and even now our government treats the Iraqi government like it hasn't crumbled into warring factions. The surge was supposed to create "breathing room" for reconciliation, even though National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley had almost no faith in Nuri al-Maliki in the early stages of the surge.

For most of us, the truth is still a matter of debate. According to a Newsweek poll in June, as many as 4 in 10 Americans still think that Saddam’s government played an active roll in planning, funding and executing 9/11. Iraq's secular regime was so crippled under sanctions by 2001 that Iraqis couldn't buy spare car parts or basic medicines. Meanwhile Osama bin Laden was a millionaire sponsor of terrorism and had led Al-Qaeda for longer than a decade. I can't help but wonder--are 4 in 10 Americans just plain stupid?

Or have I become an obsessive freak? I've been consuming information on terrorism, totalitarianism and Iraq for the past six months and I still have plenty on my plate. I feel like I am on book leave--my journalism class focuses on all sorts of reading about Iraq. Now I just got home and I'm writing a blog update, which is more intended for my future self than my readers, so I have a timeline of events to look back to when I start writing my senior project on Iraq next semester.

It's no wonder I'm getting overwhelmed, disillusioned, cynical. It's no wonder that I've lost faith in the war. And now I'm filled with a lot of negative energy, against America, against terrorists and against myself. So I'm going to pack up my mental bags and fly over to Africa for a little while. My traveling partner and I are going to get serious about planning for the trip we'll take after college. BBC Africa and IRIN are going on my new iGoogle homepage. Time to renew my passport, call some embassies and email some NGOs. And I've still got George Packer on my side--I just discovered today that his first book, The Village of Waiting, is about slogging through Togo in the Peace Corps, fresh out of college. Strange how things come full circle sometimes.

By the way, I also have a responsibility to myself. I haven't eaten well lately. I only own two wearable pairs of pants at the moment. I'm tired a lot. I have fitful sleeps. To most people, I probably look like a train wreck. And here I am--in one of the greatest, happiest, most successful years of my life. The war isn't even over...and I've lost all hope? This is when I need to stop complaining, dear reader. It's a long slog ahead, that's all.

Before I sat down to write, I filled up a bag full of dirty clothes and hauled them to the laundromat. For the second time tonight, I passed the tall, skinny black guy with a deformed shoulder and bloodshot eye, sitting along a wall by the clinic he lives in. I always pass him when I stroll down the sidewalk. I said what's up. He saw the laundry and nodded.

"Keep busy, guy," he said.

Well spoken, guy.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Rolling home on the subway, I read the New York Times' take on the suicide attack Monday on a banquet encouraging reconciliation in Iraq. I am astounded that both papers have managed to write essentially the same article--describing the scene of the bomber blowing himself up amidst the banquet, killing 16, including Diyala Province's governor, the region's police chief and a military commander; then reporting that Iran closed its border on Kurdistan because the military arrested an alleged Iranian diplomat.

The Washington Post depended on "news agencies" and four Iraqi reporters, one who goes unnamed. The Times used three Iraqi reporters, on call from Baghdad, and the perfunctory "Iraqi employees of The New York Times" team at Baquba and Sulaimaniya. Oh yeah...the Post's Sudarsan Raghavan and the Times' Andrew E. Kramer also both did some work too, wrote it up, then won the by-lines.

I am miffed. I don't keep track of the Washington Post's Iraq coverage so much as the The New York Times, so mainly I'm aiming my ire at the Times. They have depended on "Iraqi employees of The New York Times" for years. I understand that naming them puts their lives at risk. And reporters like Damien Cave, Alissa J. Rubin and Baghdad Bureau Chief John Burns have always done a bang-up job. But handing out a by-line to one individual for "all hands on deck" assignments looks totally fraudulent. If you've checked out the Times' Iraq page recently, especially that interactive graphic of Baghdad, you can tell these Iraqi reporters have been working their asses off.

So our paper of record should give credit where credit is due. Get rid of that single by-line trend, or somehow be specific about who did what.

Whatever Happened to Diplomatic Immunity?

[Bayan Jabr, Iraq's Minister of Finance. Is he the bad dude the U.S. military is looking for?]

Today the Washington Post touches on an alarming trend of the U.S. military in Iraq: arresting Iranian diplomats.

President Jalal Talabani has been negotiating openly with Iran for quite some time, so it boggles the mind that we would violate Iran's diplomatic immunity. Sure, we may fear letting Iranian spies operate in Iraq. And allegations are rife that Iran is funnelling concave copper discs into the country, which are used in roadside bombs and destroy Humvees. But arresting diplomats definitely makes us look bad in the international public eye. And arresting the diplomats of our nemesis inches us closer to a potential armed conflict.

On a side note, even if these Iranian diplomats are spies, it's not like America hasn't done the same exact thing. In the 1990s, according to Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, C.I.A. agents posed as diplomats in Sudan to pursue terrorists like Osama bin Laden--which led to heated sabotage attempts and a crazy car chase.

Maybe we should tone down the diplomat arrests--which get plenty of publicity--and investigate politicians like Bayan Jabr, Iraq's Minister of Finance, who headed the Ministry of the Interior and oversaw the Iraqi police when they set up slaughterhouses to torture Sunnis in 2005 and 2006.

Jabr joined the Shia opposition movement in the 1980s and was allegedly a member of the Badr Organization--known back in the day as the Badr Brigade--which was based in Iran during the Saddam years and fought alongside Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. Now, this is a wild guess, a shot in the dark, but maybe Jabr still has some connections with Iran and a vested interest in a military partnership with the Revolutionary Guards.

Just a thought.

I wrote this one kinda fast, so I overlooked the most important reason why arresting the "diplomat" is bad in this situation: Iran has an excuse to close its borders with Kurdistan, thus starving its economy and people.