Dear Family, Friends, and All Good People,
There are some good standards being discussed for this region of the world. Hans Blix has called for a nuclear free Middle East. The Arab League had earlier suggested it and the United States, in the lead up to the recent war, called for Iraq to stop its nuclear weapons development and, now, for Iran to make a similar commitment. Blix and the Arab League have been clear that such a standard would include Israel as well. Of course, if that is an important standard for our world, it would be appropriate for the United States to abide by the same standards.
Many countries are now putting pressure on Syria to withdraw its occupation troops from Lebanon, appropriately so. It is right for countries not to be occupied by other countries! If that standard is good, it should also apply to Israel in its occupation of Palestine. It has been ongoing since 1967 and has had many United Nations Security Council resolutions that call for an end to that occupation. Then, if we are noticing occupied countries, we quickly note that the United States has 150,000 troops occupying the sovereign country of Iraq. Countries should not occupy other countries!
The past ten days I have been with part of a CPT delegation in the city of Kerbala. We visited with US State Department official Tom Cooney, three military medical doctors, and four soldiers from Lima Camp, a US base outside Kerbala. On the way out of the base, I fell in with a man from South Chicago in civvies. He had been in both Gulf wars and said he hoped to be in Syria and Iran by 2006. He had refused to shake my hand when we first met, but finally did as we parted. I had been talking about another way to resolve conflict than war and he was unable to even fathom the idea that we could walk outside the base unarmed. As I left, he said, "Keep your head." We also visited the Japanese military base in Samawah, but they were mum, apparently fearing that any news would increase the resistance of the Japanese public to their military presence in Iraq. At the Women's center in Samawah, Ms Bodoor, the director said, "The Japanese came just for America. They are not serious about rebuilding the city."
We entered Kerbala just three days after the Shi'a Muslim celebration of Ashura. Security was tight and the city was crowded with pilgrims from around the world. Imam Husayn is for the Shi'a much what Jesus is for Christians and this is the time and the central location for that recognition. We visited the shrines of Imam Husayn and Imam Abbas and met with the media chief for the Husayn Shrine.
A few of you may have seen the article I wrote about the visit with the shepherd from outside Kerbala. He is still trying to get recognition that he was treated wrongly. Sixteen of his extended family, including his father and mother, died when the US attacked his farm during the war not two years ago. He is Shi'a, the same group that were victims of Saddam Hussein in the 1991 uprising. In fact, near his farm there are six mass graves that he showed to Human Right Watch, International when they came to document his tragedy. He has gotten no help from the US, Iraq interim government, or anyone else. He told us, "Jesus gave his life for peace. My family is given for peace. Let the Christians of the world hear my story. I need nothing [in compensation]; I just want people to understand how it affects my heart."
Our delegates got to meet members of the Muslim Peacemaker Team (MPT) that we had trained in January. We even heard new stories of their nonviolence activity! In December 2003 their human rights office responded after three big explosions shook Kerbala. At the university they calmed the population that thought the Polish and Bulgarian troops had caused the explosion and then intervened when the Bulgarians wanted to open fire on the crowds. Assad told of lots of checkpoint and convoy attacks on Iraqis by the US. Any suspicious movement at a checkpoint is met with deadly force and convoys often deliberately crash into Iraqi vehicles, according to Assad. We have documented countless incidents that supplement his stories.
Human rights workers from Hilla who joined the MPT meeting shared about an incident two weeks earlier when a US Hummer crashed into a pickup and a small bus for no cause, killing one and injuring seven. Less than two days later a car bomb exploded in Hilla, killing 125 and injuring 150. Al Qaeda took responsibility.
The next day we had an invitation to the Diwan of Sheik Ali Kamona. He was the first mayor of Kerbala after the US invasion and this Diwan is a religious, government, and reconciliation meeting place. He was with our MPT folks in uncovering the first mass graves of Saddam Hussein's regime and facilitated the peace agreement between Sistani and Sadr's people when they were fighting in Kerbala in 2003. The talk was focusing on the 1991 mass graves and then melded into the story of an attack by the US on the tents of four Bedouin families who were meeting to decide how to escape the US invasion two years ago. 29 died as US helicopters and fighter jets struck with four kinds of bombs. One survived to tell the story. A HR worker took US military officials out to the site. They ignored it and paid no compensation.
That evening three of us found the site of the December bombing that happened just before we arrived in Kerbala last year. It was near a hotel and targeted one of Ayatollah Sistani's aides. He was not killed, but ten others were killed and many were injured. We visited the hospital just two days after it happened.
As a group we visited some of the mass graves sites around Kerbala that happened during the resistance to Saddam Hussein during 1991. They were places where people were executed and buried, one at the hospital, two outside the city at checkpoints as people were fleeing, another in what is now a parking lot. It would be good to have markers that memorialize the tragedies.
We did re-visit the Iraq Electoral Commission that granted us observer status in Kerbala for the election. They wanted a report about our activities that I have sent off.
A highlight of the week was a meeting with two representatives of Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, who is seen by some as a firebrand cleric who encourages the resistance to the U.S. One of the young men was a veterinary and the other was just elected to the new city council. They shared the overtures they are making with various political and religious factions in Iraq and the efforts they are implementing to rebuild the country. Sadr had encouraged followers (82 did) to give blood for those wounded in the tragic bombing in Hilla instead of following the more bloody Ashura displays of
beating the head with the broad side of a blade and beating one's back with chains until blood is drawn. This last is a common way to express sorrow at the way Imam Husayn was abandoned to his death by Muslim followers. Ashura is the event that commemorates that historical incident. Sadr's group is working in amazing nonviolent ways to bring change and an end to the US occupation. We are intrigued.
A trip to a fruit farm where the apricots, almonds, cherries, and bananas were in bloom was special for me. They fed us the guest dates from the only palm of that variety on the farm.
Hoping that the US will make the changes toward nonviolence that I see Sadr's