by Bill Berkowitz
July 17, 2003
On Wednesday, July 9, a group of international peace organizations launched the International Occupation Watch Center in Baghdad. Although there are few anti-war gatherings these days, and the pre-war protests that mobilized millions are fading into history, for the first time peace groups from around the world have come together and have set up shop to monitor and track the US and British occupation of Iraq.
Medea Benjamin, who along with Gael Murphy from Code Pink in Washington DC, entered Iraq through Jordan in late June, and embarked on a grueling 11-hour trip across the desert to Baghdad, Benjamin wrote in her June 27th "Journal from Iraq" that they were part of the "advance team" sent to lay the groundwork for the launch of the Center.
Why the International Occupation Watch Center? Benjamin, a co-founder and founding director of the San Francisco, CA-based Global Exchange and one of the Center's organizers, explained the reasons to Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio's "Democracy Now!":
"We felt that this incredible international peace movement that came together to try to stop this war now has a responsibility to come together, set up an office here, [in Baghdad] and disseminate information to the global community about what's really happening on the ground; put pressure on the occupying forces to stop the violations of human rights; to be stopping the corporate takeover of Iraqi resources; and really be a center where the international community can send delegations to and get the word back home about what the impact of the occupation is."
According to its Web site the Occupation Watch Center will take on a full range of critical occupation-related issues including: documenting the real number of civilian casualties in Iraq, monitoring the conduct of occupation forces on the ground, investigating foreign corporate investment, tracking governance issues, documenting the economic consequences of the occupation, monitoring humanitarian aid, as well as looking at the media, the oil industry, women's human and civil rights and the resistance to the occupation.
The need for an Occupation Watch has become more apparent with each passing day. The situation on the ground in Iraq has deteriorated substantially since President Bush's May 1st declaration that formal hostilities had ended: Continued attacks by resistance forces have brought the total of US troops killed in post-war hostilities to thirty-one. (Unofficially, nearly fifty more US personnel have died in Iraq since Bush's Abraham Lincoln "mission accomplished" speech). Over the July 4th weekend, seven Iraqi police recruits were killed and seventy wounded when a bomb exploded near the graduation ceremony of the first class of the new U.S. trained Iraqi police force. Oil pipelines are being blown up regularly. L. Paul Bremer, the country's top civilian administrator, recently acknowledged the need for more US troops to help restore order and move the reconstruction process along.
Just as significant as the ongoing chaos is the fact that US troops are beginning to suffer "from low morale that has in some cases hit 'rock bottom,'" the Christian Science Monitor recently reported. The troops are being forced into a role that they weren't trained for -- peace keepers that police the Iraqi people and repair destroyed infrastructure in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.
Medea Benjamin's findings regarding the building frustrations of US troops echo the CSM story. She told Democracy Now! that the soldiers are laboring under extremely difficult conditions. "We talk to the troops every day," she said. "They are living under absolutely terrible conditions. They're working twelve hour days, seven days a week in 120 degree weather wearing heavy armor, flak jackets, helmet, and boots. They are on tanks that are as hot as you can imagine. They sleep a couple of hours a night. And they're scared to death because they are being killed every day. Everyone we talk to says they just want to go home; they've had enough. Morale is terrible and they know that things are getting worse, not better."
The Christian Science Monitor report also pointed out that some soldiers have sent letters to their Congressional representatives "requesting their units be repatriated." "Most soldiers would empty their bank accounts just for a plane ticket home," one recent Congressional letter written by an Army soldier now based in Iraq who requested anonymity.
"The Iraqi police are furious here," Benjamin added. "Many of them haven't been paid for months, they haven't been given weapons, they have no uniforms, they have no authority," she said. "The Iraqi police are now wearing identification tags that are only in English. That's indicative of the lack of sensitivity and utter arrogance of the occupation in general.
President Bush has spoken in terms of a "massive and long-term" period of reconstruction. But what does he mean by "massive and long-term?" Several members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a late June fact-finding trip to Iraq urged President Bush "to be more forthcoming about the breadth of the U.S. commitment and the cost of rebuilding Iraq," Reuters reported.
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the prestigious establishment foreign policy outfit, recently cranked out a policy paper suggesting ways to reverse the current downward spiral in Iraq. Candidly admitting that the administration's post-war policy for Iraq has been a disappointment, former UN Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering and former Defense and Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger, the co-chairs of CFR's Independent Task Force on post-war Iraq, recommend that President Bush give a "major address" to the nation and outline the U.S.'s long-term goals and objectives in Iraq.
One of the most important reasons for setting up the International Occupation Watch Center is to avoid the media indifference experienced with regard to Afghanistan since the Taliban and al Qaeda were removed from power, says Tim Kingston of Global Exchange's Communications Department. "The center is necessary because we do not want Iraq to fall down the memory hole like Afghanistan has. All too often the Bush administration relies on the short attention span of the media and the short attention span of the public.
"Iraqi civil society is in crisis now and if things get dicier, information might get more modulated by the administration. We need to have people on the ground that have an independent view as to what's going on there."
Democracy Now's Web site reported that the Center is "supported by an advisory board of international academics, writers, and human rights advocates. It will function under the auspices of United for Peace and Justice," -- the umbrella coalition made up of more than 600 member groups -- which played a critical role in building the anti-war movement before Bush's March invasion of Iraq. According to a Center press release, this is the "first-ever joint effort by the international peace and human rights movement," with organizations such as the US coalition United for Peace and Justice, the Asian-based Focus on the Global South, the international group Arabs Resisting Globalization, the European-based Iraqi Democrats Against Occupation, and the Italian group Bridges to Baghdad all sponsoring the Center.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.