P. Diddy announced on the weekend that his “Vote or Die” campaign will live on. The hip-hop mogul's voter-registration drive during the U.S. presidential elections was, he said, merely “phase one, step one for us to get people engaged.”
Fantastic. I have a suggestion for phase two: P. Diddy, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio and the rest of the self-described “Coalition of the Willing” should take their chartered jet and fly to Fallujah, where their efforts are desperately needed. But first they are going to need to flip the slogan from “Vote or Die!” to “Die, Then Vote!”
Because that is what is happening there. Escape routes have been sealed off,homes are being demolished, and an emergency health clinic has been razed—all in the name of preparing the city for January elections. In a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, U.S.-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi explained that the all-out attack was required “to safeguard lives, elections and democracy in Iraq.”
Less than twenty-four hours after The Nation disclosed that former Secretary of State James Baker and The Carlyle Group were involved in a secret deal to profit from Iraq's debt to Kuwait, NBC was reporting that the deal was “dead.” At The Nation, we started to get calls congratulating us on costing the Carlyle Group $1 billion, the sum the company would have received in an investment from the government of Kuwait in exchange for helping to extract $27 billion of unpaid debts from Iraq.
Next week, something will happen that will unmask the upside-down morality of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. On October 21, Iraq will pay $200-million in war reparations to some of the richest countries and corporations in the world.
If that seems backwards, it’s because it is. Iraqis have never been awarded reparations for any of the crimes they have suffered under Saddam, or the brutal sanctions regime that claimed the lives of at least half a million people, or the U.S.-led invasion, which United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan recently called “illegal.” Instead, Iraqis are still being forced to pay reparations for crimes committed by their former dictator.
When President Bush appointed former Secretary of State James Baker III as his envoy on Iraq's debt on December 5, 2003, he called Baker's job "a noble mission." At the time, there was widespread concern about whether Baker's extensive business dealings in the Middle East would compromise that mission, which is to meet with heads of state and persuade them to forgive the debts owed to them by Iraq. Of particular concern was his relationship with merchant bank and defense contractor the Carlyle Group, where Baker is senior counselor and an equity partner with an estimated $180 million stake.
Until now, there has been no concrete evidence that Baker's loyalties are split, or that his power as Special Presidential Envoy—an unpaid position—has been used to benefit any of his corporate clients or employers. But according to documents obtained by The Nation, that is precisely what has happened. Carlyle has sought to secure an extraordinary $1 billion investment from the Kuwaiti government, with Baker's influence as debt envoy being used as a crucial lever.
My first run-in with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army came on March 31 in Baghdad. The US occupation chief Paul Bremer had just sent armed men to shut down the young cleric’s newspaper, Al Hawza, on the grounds that its articles comparing Bremer to Saddam Hussein incited violence against Americans. Sadr responded by calling for his supporters to protest outside the gates of the Green Zone, demanding al-Hawza’s reopening.
When I heard about the demo, I wanted to go, but there was a problem: I had been visiting state factories all day and I wasn’t dressed appropriately for a crowd of devout Shiites. Then again, I reasoned, this was a demonstration in defense of journalistic freedom—could they really object to a journalist in loose pants? I put on a headscarf and headed over.
When Simona Torretta returned to Baghdad in March 2003, in the midst of the "shock and awe" aerial bombardment, her Iraqi friends greeted her by telling her she was nuts. "They were just so surprised to see me. They said, 'Why are you coming here? Go back to Italy. Are you crazy?'"
But Torretta didn't go back. She stayed throughout the invasion, continuing the humanitarian work she began in 1996, when she first visited Iraq with her anti-sanctions NGO, A Bridge to Baghdad. When Baghdad fell, Torretta again opted to stay, this time to bring medicine and water to Iraqis suffering under occupation. Even after resistance fighters began targeting foreigners, and most foreign journalists and aid workers fled, Torretta again returned. "I cannot stay in Italy," the 29-year-old told a documentary film-maker.
Russian President Vladamir Putin is so fed up with being grilled over his handling of the Beslan catastrophe that he lashed out at foreign journalists on Monday. “Why don't you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks,” he demanded, adding that, “No one has a moral right to tell us to talk to child-killers.”
Mr. Putin is not a man who likes to be second guessed. Fortunately for him, there is still at least one place where he is shielded from all the critics: Israel. On Monday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warmly welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergie Lavrov for a meeting about strengthening ties in the fight against terror. “Terror has no justification, and it is time for the free, decent, humanistic world to unite and fight this terrible epidemic,” Mr. Sharon said.
It was only after I had been in Baghdad for a month that I found what I was looking for. I had traveled to Iraq a year after the war began, at the height of what should have been a construction boom, but after weeks of searching I had not seen a single piece of heavy machinery apart from tanks and humvees. Then I saw it: a construction crane. It was big and yellow and impressive, and when I caught a glimpse of it around a corner in a busy shopping district I thought that I was finally about to witness some of the reconstruction I had heard so much about. But as I got closer I noticed that the crane was not actually rebuilding anything—not one of the bombed-out government buildings that still lay in rubble all over the city, nor one of the many power lines that remained in twisted heaps even as the heat of summer was starting to bear down. No, the crane was hoisting a giant billboard to the top of a three-story building. SUNBULAH: HONEY 100% NATURAL, made in Saudi Arabia.
I've been in New York a week now, watching the city prepare for the Republican National Convention and the accompanying protests. Much is predictable: tabloid hysteria about an anarchist siege; cops showing off their new crowd control toys; fierce debates about whether the demonstrations will hurt the Republicans or inadvertently help them.
What surprises me is what isn't here: Najaf. It's nowhere to be found. Every day, US bombs and tanks move closer to the sacred Imam Ali Shrine, reportedly damaging outer walls and sending shrapnel flying into the courtyard; every day, children are killed in their homes as US soldiers inflict collective punishment on the holy city; every day, more bodies are disturbed as US Marines stomp through the Valley of Peace cemetery, their boots slipping into graves as they use tombstones for cover.
Last month, I reluctantly joined the Anybody But Bush camp. It was “Bush in a Box” that finally got me, a gag gift my brother gave my father on his sixty-sixth birthday. Bush in a Box is a cardboard cutout of President 43 with a set of adhesive speech balloons featuring the usual tired Bushisms: “Is our children learning?” “They misunderestimated me”—standard-issue Bush-bashing schlock, on sale at Wal-Mart, made in Malaysia.
Yet Bush in a Box filled me with despair. It's not that the President is dumb, which I already knew, it's that he makes us dumb. Don't get me wrong: My brother is an exceptionally bright guy; he heads a think tank that publishes weighty policy papers on the failings of export-oriented resource extraction and the false savings of cuts to welfare. Whenever I have a question involving interest rates or currency boards, he's my first call. But Bush in a Box pretty much summarizes the level of analysis coming from the left these days. You know the line: The White House has been hijacked by a shady gang of zealots who are either insane or stupid or both. Vote Kerry and return the country to sanity.