Tuesday, August 29, 2006

“Creating Chaos” Teach-In Explores Middle East Issues

Speakers Call on U.S. Peace Movement to Endorse Armed Resistance


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Three powerful Arab-American speakers assembled at the Polish-American Association building in Golden Hill August 25 to give a different view of the current crisis in Lebanon and the overall status of the Middle East from the one usually heard in the mainstream media. But the presentations of Elias Rashmawi, national coordinator of the National Council of Arab-Americans; Grossmont College professor Basheer Idoui and local attorney Nadia Keilani, presented by the Middle East Cultural and Information Center (MECIC) under the title “Creating Chaos: Civil War 101: The U.S. Agenda in the Middle East,” traced the history back to 19th century colonizers from the major European powers and called on American peace activists to support armed resistance movements like Hezbollah and Hamas.

Idoui, the first speaker, called Israel’s recent attacks on Lebanon “the total destruction of an entire country through destroying its infrastructure and massacring its civilian population, of which Qana was just one example. At least 1,400 Lebanese have been killed, one-third to one-half of them children; 500,000 people displaced from their homes and Lebanon bombed back to the state it was in 15 years ago. It will take an estimated $15 billion to rebuild.” Idoui said Israel’s attack on Lebanon was “nothing new,” noting that in 1982 “there was also a systematic destruction of Lebanon [by Israel] in which 8,000 people were killed, Beirut was bombed and under siege for 89 days, and ultimately Palestinian refugees were massacred at Sabra and Shatila.” Those massacres — he didn’t need to remind an already informed audience — were personally ordered by Ariel Sharon, former prime minister of Israel, founder of the ruling Kadima party and mentor to the current prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who ordered the attacks this year.

According to Idoui, Israel’s repeated attacks on Lebanon “reveal the true nature” of the Jewish state. He said the attack on Arabs in general began in the late 1940’s,when Israel was founded by Jewish militias who systematically uprooted thousands of Palestinian Arabs from their land and, in some cases, wiped entire villages off the map. Many of these people and their descendants “are still refugees,” Idoui added, still living in the squalid “temporary” refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to which they fled in the first place. Idoui called Israel’s policy towards Palestinians “ethnic cleansing” and added, “It’s still happening in Gaza and the West Bank. It’s the continuation of the process started in 1948.”

Idoui also argued that the United States’ role in all of this is basically as Israel’s enablers, and that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s talk about the current crisis being “the birth pangs of a new Middle East” is actually part of a long-standing policy by the U.S. and Israel to keep Israel’s Arab neighbors divided and weak. He said that in 1982 the Javits Center worked out a long-term plan for Israel’s security that included “promoting all the tribal divisions” within Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to make sure none of them became strong enough to threaten Israel. “You unleash different forces within the state,” he explained, “one group against another, like in Iraq between Kurds and Arabs, Sunnis and Shi’ites. You create ‘constructive chaos,’ as they call it, by promoting bloody civil wars.”

Keilani, Iraqi-born, focused most of her presentation on postwar Iraq and argued that the chaos in the country today is the direct result of a deliberate U.S. policy. ”I don’t believe the chaos in Iraq today is the result of ‘unintended consequences’ of Bush’s policy,” she said. “I don’t believe it was a ‘mistake’ to destroy every single aspect of Iraq’s society and infrastructure.”

According to Keilani, Iraq today is a nation in virtually complete chaos, comparable to Afghanistan under the Taliban. “Armed militias control the streets,” she said. “The educated middle class has mostly left. There has been a deliberate attempt to target the intellectuals both inside and outside Iraq. Eighty percent of Iraq’s institutions of higher education have been looted or burned to the ground. Iraqis are fleeing to Syria and Jordan. There are no servies. Less than half of all Iraqis have clean water and only eight percent have sewage services. The electrical grid in Iraq under Saddam Hussein was functional and advanced for the Middle East; three and a half years after the U.S. took them over, they still only get electricity 1 1/2 hours a day.”

Since clean water no longer is available through Iraq’s taps, and the virtual lack of electricity makes it impossible to refrigerate food, Keilani explained, Iraqis have to leave their homes every day to buy food, water and ice. This, she said, makes them vulnerable to militia attacks. ”Militias stop buses and make people show their new government-issued ID’s,” Keilani said — and, since the ID’s give the people’s religious and ethnic affiliations, this makes them fair game: a Sunni militia will simply kill everybody on the bus whose card says “Shi’a,” and vice versa.

Among the elements involved in what she described as a deliberate attempt to plunge Iraqi society into chaos and keep it there, Keilani cited the decision by U.S. military forces not to put guards on Iraq’s armories after the occupation — with the result that 250,000 tons of ammunition went missing, much of it, she suspects, now being used to fire on U.S. troops and make improvised explosive devices (IED’s). She also criticized the U.S. for not securing any of Iraq’s government ministries except the oil ministry, for allowing the looting of the Baghdad museum and its irreplaceable collection of antiquities from the founding of civilization in what is now Iraq, and for dissolving the army and police force and putting a blanket ban on members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party from holding office or government jobs in the “new Iraq.” She said that as a schoolgirl in Iraq she recalled Ba’ath Party recruiters coming to her classroom to sign up children — and that in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq you couldn’t get a government job without being a party member.

The insurgency, Keilani said, came from these decisions, which created a population of tens of thousands of young men, thrown out of government, the military or the police, with ready access to arms and a major grudge against the occupiers. The U.S.’s solution, she said, was to foment sectarian violence and turn the resistance into a civil war. Among the ways they did this was to set up the Iraqi Governing Council, the advisory group to America’s direct rulers in Iraq in the early days of the occupation, and allocate the 25 seats proportionately on the basis of religion and ethnicity: 13 Shi’ites, five Sunni Arabs, five Kurds, one Maronite Christian and one Turkoman. “These moves were the beginning of the end of Iraqi national unity,” Keilani explained.

Asked just what the U.S. gained from plunging Iraq into chaos and civil war, Keilani said, “At first the insurgency was directed at the U.S. military. Then there were bombings at Sunni or Shi’a mosques, which I don’t think came from any indigenous movement. It divided an otherwise cohesive movement and got these powers to fight each other instead of the U.S. Also, chaos in Baghdad does not influence the oil industry. The U.S. can still pump out oil without metering it, essentially stealing it from the Iraqi people.”

Keilani drew back from an accusation that the U.S. itself bombed both Sunni and Shi’ite mosques to start an Iraqi civil war, but Idoui said the sectarian violence “was in part begun by Ahmad Chalabi and his group, which was supposed to play up the ethnic divisions and play the role of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. The people who came in with the U.S. tanks formed death squads, and there seems to have been an attempt to start sectarian violence by bombing Shi’a monuments.” (Chalabi, an Iraqi Shi’ite who fled the country when the British-installed king was overthrown in 1958 and never returned until after the U.S. seized Baghdad, was defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s choice for a ruler for postwar Iraq. He was reportedly responsible for much of the prewar intelligence alleging — falsely — that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction, and was later revealed to have been on the payroll of Iran’s secret service.)

Rashmawi, who had been scheduled to begin the meeting but who went on last because his flight was delayed, gave two strongly worded speeches, one in the middle and one at the end, saying the current crisis in the Middle East could only be understood in a geopolitical context. He said that because of its strategic location between Africa and Asia, energy resources, control of the waterways by which oil is shipped to the world and available labor pool, “you cannot be a unipolar power and dominate the world without having clear domination of the Middle East.”

According to Rashmawi, the U.S. currently dominates the Middle East through various mechanisms, including direct colonization (as currently in Iraq), indirect colonization, military regimes and so-called “proxy states.” Among America’s proxy states he listed not only the obvious one, Israel, but also Saudi Arabia and Egypt: Saudi Arabia because it sells oil to the U.S. and its allies at cheap prices in return for U.S. military assistance, and Egypt because it serves as a dumping ground for refugees created by U.S. policies elsewhere. He attributed Israel’s recent attack on Lebanon in part due to the failure of the so-called “Cedar Revolution,” by which Syria was forced out of Lebanon, to create a Lebanese government that would be a viable proxy for the U.S.

“The heart of the liberation movement today is in Egypt, Iraq and Syria,” Rashmawi said. “South Lebanon is a recent failure of the proxy-state policy. They tried to uproot and destroy a homegrown Lebanese resistance movement [Hezbollah] twice, once in 2002 and once in 2006, and now they’re trying to clean up the process by containing their failure. … When you see 3,000 to 5,000 folks able to stand up to the Israeli army and reverse it, two dynamics develop. The first is intensification by the colonists. The second is intensification by the resistance.

Rashmawi said the resistance movement in the Middle East is just a part of a broader anticolonial movement that began after World War II and swept through Africa and Central and South America. He cited Frantz Fanon’s 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth as a source for his analysis of anticolonialism as a worldwide movement that is still going on — and he said that the peace movements in the U.S. and other Western countries need to fish or cut bait: either embrace the anticolonial struggle fully, including support for armed resistance against the colonial power, or remain what he called a “boutique movement” interested more in marketing political merchandise and building influence within mainstream political organizations like the U.S. Democratic party than in supporting fundamental change in the world.

According to Rashmawi, American peace groups take people on tours to areas of struggle, “and you pay $3,000, $4,000 and come back to the U.S. with slides of a tearing mother and a baby just about to die. You know how much I hate that? If it was a photo under the context of liberation, I’d say that child is paying a price that no one should have to pay. But when it’s shown in the context of pity, I hate that. What about a broken flower, a cactus in a broken village, people with rifles working for their own movement? This movement is decontextualized.”

Rashmawi recalled some of his experiences as a part of the A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) coalition and their attempts to co-sponsor peace events with the liberal United for Peace and Justice (UPJ) coalition until UPJ permanently broke off relations with A.N.S.W.E.R. in 2004. He said that he would be told by UPJ organizers that there were “too many Arabs” or “too many scarved women” in the front lines of joint marches, and that he would have to send the Arabs and Palestinians to the rear of the march so that military veterans or some other group UPJ was trying to promote would be in front. Most importantly, Rashmawi said, A.N.S.W.E.R. insisted that the issue of freedom for Palestine and ending the Israeli occupation be “front and center” in all the demonstrations — while UPJ refused to make ending the occupation of Palestine a demand in its actions at all. According to Rashmawi, the current U.S. peace movement is “married to the Democratic Party” — and thereby cut off from the worldwide anticolonial struggle that alone can bring peace to the Middle East and justice to the world.