Tuesday, Dwecember 23, 2008. Chaos and violence continue, the Iraqi Parliament reaches an agreement but El Salvador decides to withdraw anyway, Margaret Hassan was mourned in 2004 but it largely forgotten today, KBR's problems never go away, and more.
"She stands in the empty room, a deplorable, terrible, pitiful sight. Is it Margaret Hassan? Her family believe so, even though she is blindfolded. I'm not sure if videos like this should ever be seen -- or perhaps the word is endured -- but they are part of the dark history of Iraq, and staff of the Arab Al Jazeera satellite channel have grown used to watching some truly atrocious acts on their screens," wrote Robert Fisk (Independent of London) last August. He recounts the videotapes that emerged in November 2004, following Hassan's October 19th kidnapping in Baghdad, her call for then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to pull British troops out of Iraq. Fisk:
Then comes the last tape. She is standing in that bare room in a white blouse,
a blindfold over her face, her head slightly bowed and a man approaches her
from behind holding a pistol. He points it at her head and places what
appears to be an apple over the muzzle -- a primitive form of silencer? And
then squeezes the trigger. There is a click, an apparent misfire, and the
man retreats to the right of the screen and then reappears. Margaret Hassan
doesn't move although she must have heard the click. The man is wearing a
grubby grey and black checked shirt and ill-fitting, baggy trousers, a scarf
concealing his face.
This time the gun fires and the woman utters a tiny sound, a kind of cry,
almost a squeal of shock, and falls backwards onto the floor. The camera
lingers on her. She has fallen onto a plastic sheet. And she just lies
there. There is no visible blood, nor wound. It is over. Should such
terrible things be seen? Margaret's immensely brave Iraqi husband told me I
had his permission to watch this, but still I feel guilty. I think it was
only here, watching her death on a screen next to Al Jazeera's studios more
than three years later, that I realized Margaret Hassan was dead.
It was Margaret who took leukaemia medicines donated by readers of The
Independent to the child cancer victims of Iraq back in 1998 after we
discovered that hundreds of infants were dying in those areas where Western
forces used depleted uranium munitions in the 1991 Gulf War. She was a
proverbial tower of strength, and it was she -- and she alone -- who managed
to persuade Saddam Hussein's bureaucrats to let us bring the medicine into
Iraq. The United Nations sanctions authorities had been our first hurdle,
Saddam Hussein our second. It is all history. Like Margaret, all the
Today David Brown and Francis Elliott (Times of London) reports that Hassan's family members are accusing "British diplomats of refusing to help them to confront alleged members of the Iraqi gang that kidnapped her." Ali Lutfi Jassar al-Rawi goes on trial tomorrow with another man and Hassan's family have requested that a representative from England's Embassy be at the trial in attendance but they have been informed the Embassy considers it "too dangerous". In November of 2004, Jack Straw, then-British Foreign Secretary, declared that "it is repugnant to commit such a crime against a woman who has spent most of her life working for the good of the people of Iraq." Straw is now the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain and Secretary of State for Justice and, apparently, the Ministry of Justice has no interest in justice and Straw no longer feels as he once did?
When she was kidnapped, PBS' NewsHour addressed it (text, audio, video) via a discussion between Ray Suarez and the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran:
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Margaret Hassan is just an incredible woman who literally has devoted the plus ten years of her life of helping the Iraqi people out. I first met her almost two years ago in my first trip to Iraq in the fall of 2002, and I wanted to find out what was really happening with Iraqi civilians living under the U.N. economic sanctions that were placed on the country.
Margaret was one of a very few number of international aid workers operating in there and she had been heading up the CARE office in Iraq for more than a decade. Prior to that, she had been teaching English for the British Council in Iraq, a position that made her very well known among educated Iraqis and even before that actually had a brief career reading the English news on Iraqi TV, so a very prominent person and a woman who really had devoted her life to helping the situation of ordinary Iraqis both before the war who were suffering under economic sanctions and after the war in the very sort of chaotic climate that was there helping out and directing projects involving water, sanitation and health care.
RAY SUAREZ: So there's that background you cite 30 years on the ground in Iraq. She remained in Baghdad when the invasion was under way. She even traveled to Britain to speak against the war and speak to the members of the British parliament to advise them against joining the invasion. Didn't these things make her an unlikely kidnap target?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Certainly. I mean she's the last possible person you might imagine being at risk for kidnapping because she was... she had very clear views about the military invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq and really was somebody who was out in an apolitical way helping the people of Iraq. But this demonstrates yet again there really is no litmus test here for the sorts of work foreigners do in Iraq in the eyes of the insurgents; a number of foreign aid workers now have been kidnapped. Two Italian aid workers were taken, subsequently released, thankfully. But headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross was bombed last year.
Nothing is sacrosanct to the insurgents these days and even a woman like Margaret Hassan, although she holds Iraqi nationality being of British origin and holding British citizenship is seen as a prominent and legitimate target for the insurgents in Iraq.
All the programs covered Margaret Hassan. Former United Nations Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday, for example, spoke of her to Democracy Now! November 17, 2004:
I worked with her in 1997 and 1998 in Iraq in Baghdad. I lived there. That's where she and her family lived. She ran a small CARE International program, some $7 million worth per annum and she produced hands-on results, clinics, health facilities, water systems which the poor of Baghdad and other cities needed desperately. I was there overseeing a $4 billion program and prohibited from doing the same sort of hands-on work by Washington and the London and Washington regimes. So I have nothing but respect for her work and for her commitment and her gentle nature, although underlined with steel. She's a quality that she delivered. She made things happen.
In December of 2004, Westiminster Cathedral was the site for a requim for Margraet Hassan that Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor presided over and during which he called her a martyr: "I use the word advisedly, because the word martyr means witness. Margaret witnessed, in both her life and her death, to the act of loving." November 18, 2004, France's then-President Jacques Chirac hled a press conference in the UK and opened with, "Before I begin, I would like us to think of Margaret Hassan, and I should like to express the depth of horror that what she experienced inspires in us, and, of course, give our fullest sympathy and solidarity to our British friends in this horrifiic business." And four years later, whent he family asks that an Embassy staffer attend Wednesday's hearing, they're rebuffed and ignored.
And does the British government do anything for the five hostages held since May 2007? Ian Johnston (Independent of Longon) reports on "Peter Moore, a computer expert, an his four bodyguards, who are known only by their first names -- Jason, Alan, Jason and Alec" and quotes Alan's wife stating, "My son is three so he has not seen his dad since just before his second birthday. He is now three-and-a-half and he has told people his daddy is coming home for Christmas, so that is quite sad." Steve Bird (Times of London) explains, "Up to 40 men posing as policeman abducted the group and demanded the release of prisoners in American detention. The kidnapped men, one of whom was rumored to have committed suicide, have not been fully identified for security reasons."
England and other countries did get some news out of the Iraqi Parliament today. CNN reports that the "resolution that will allow non-U.S. foreign troops to remain in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires" December 31st was approved. AFP adds, "A vast majority of the 223 MPs in attendance voted to approve the resolution, a parliamentary source told AFP, but the exact breakdown was not immediately available." Al Jazeera points out that the passage will provide legal authority for troops from the United Kingdom, El Salvador, Estonia, Romania and Australia to remain in Iraq through the end of July 2009. Matt Brown (Australia's ABC) says the "agreements will expire at the end of June" Despite the passage, AFP is reporting that Elias Antonio Sacca, president of el Salvador, announced today, "Considering the lack of a United Nations resolution, the government of El Salvadaor decided to end our presence in Iraq." The Salvadorian embassy in DC knew nothing about the issue -- apparently they're too busy to even follow the press conferences of their own president. But Estela Henriquez (La Prensa Grafica, in Spanish) backs up AFP reports and states that Sacca declared El Salvador's (military) work in Iraq was finished on Decemeber 31st. Rosa Maria Pastran and Yensy Ortiz (El Salvado.com, also in Spanish) also note the press conference, the fact that El Salvado was the last Latin American country that maintained a military presence in Iraq and that the announcement came as the Iraqi Parliament voted to allow some countries ("including El Salvador") to stay. Meanwhile AP observes that the vote came thirty minutes after another development in Parliament: the resignation of Speark Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. Sam Dahger and Graham Bowley (New York Times) report that al-Mashhadani -- who made remarks appearing to resign last Wednesday -- tossed out the option of resigning again today "and lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to approve it." AFP and Lebanon's Daily Star quote al-Mashhadani stating, "What happened in the last session was a slip of the tongue, and what I wanted to say was in the interests of the people. But the anger I felt, God did not give me the power to control myself. My excuse to you is I spent 35 hard years of my life moving from one prison to another. If I have hurt your please excuse me. I apologize for my shortcomings."
Ernesto Londono (Washington Post) adds, "Mashhadani, a deeply religious Sunni Muslim Arab who belongs to Ahal al-Iraq, a small party within the Sunni bloc in parliament, has alienated and enraged colleagues -- including fellow Sunnis -- since he became speaker in April 2006. His long-winded speeches often delayed passage of key legislation."
In diplomatic news, Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi visited Turkey Saturday. Today Hurriyet reports Iraq's president, Jalal Talanbai, has made remarks Turkey sees as wecloming: "The main aim for me, Barzani (the leader of Kurdish regional administration in northern Iraq) and other politicians is persuading those in the mountains to lay down arms and engage in political dialogue." "Those in the mountains" refers to the PKK which is labeled a terrorist organization by many -- including the US, the European Union and Turkey -- and has a base in northern Iraq from which they launch attacks on Turkey and Turkey launches attacks on northern Iraq. Nour al-Maliki is scheduled to visit Turkey tomorrow.
In some of today's reported violence . . .
Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) reports a Baghdad roadside bombing that claimed the lives of "Lietenant Colonel Ismail Faisal, his wife, his deputy Major Arkan and two other policemen".
Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) reports a liquor store owner was kidnapped in Kirkuk Monday night.
Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) reports 1 corpse discovered in Krikuk. Reuters notes 1 corpse was discovered in Mussayab and, last night, 1 in Kifl.
Moving to the US, Sunday's Weekend Edition (NPR) featured a report by Terry Gildea on the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas that focused on those who provide care to wounded veterans: "The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left lasting scars on the young men and women recovering at military hospitals across the country. Many of them injured by roadside bombs were burned beyond recognition. The medical staff who dress their wounds and help ease their agonizing pain also fight a daily emotional battle." One care giver, Lt. Col. Maria Serio-Melvin, is also preparing for her husband's deployment to Iraq before the end of this year. But not all wounds come from individauls. Corporations? Dropping back to the December 4th snapshot:
Yesterday, KBR was in the news for imprisoning workers in Iraq and now Scott Bronstein and Abbie Boudreau (CNN) report KBR is being sued by 16 members of Indiana's National Gaurd who served in Iraq and maintain that KBR knew a water treatment plant (which the soliders were assigned to) exposed them to dangerous chemicals such as the carcinogenic sodium dichromate. David Ivanovich (Houston Chronicle) explains, "In their suit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Evansville, Ind., the plaintiffs contend KBR knowingly allowed them to be exposed to sodium dichromate, a chemical used as an anti-corrosive but containing the carcinogen hexavalent chromium. The alleged exposure occurred while the guardsmen were providing security for KBR workers at the Qarmat Ali water plant in southern Iraq." Rajini Vaidyanathan (BBC) elaborates, "The soldiers say that they and other civilian contractors there were repeatedly told there was no danger, and that when they reported health problems such as nose-bleeds to their bosses, they were told they were simply 'allergic to the sand'. The court papers claim that these symptoms were the early side-effects of the chemical, and that some who served on the site went on to suffer severe breathing problems and nasal tumours." Meanwhile Kelly Kennedy (Army Times) noted at the start of the week, "Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, has asked that the co-chairs of the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs Oversight Committee begin a review of environmental toxins - including those coming from burn pits -- at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. . . In November, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., asked Gen. David Petraeus for an investigation into whether troops are being exposed to harmful fumes from burn pits."
Yesterday Armen Keteyian (CBS Evening News with Katie Couric -- link has text and video) reported on the case and noted that James Gentry has lung cancer and is at least one of two Indiana National Guard members to develop lung cancer after serving in Iraq, guarding KBR's water plant.
Now CBS News has obtained information that indicates KBR knew about the danger
months before the soldiers were ever informed.
Depositions from KBR employees detailed concerns about the toxin in one part of
the plant as early as May of 2003. And KBR minutes, from a later meeting state
"that 60 percent of the people . . . exhibit symptoms of exposure," including bloddy
noses and rashes.
Gentry says it wasn't until the last day of August in 2003 -- after four long months
at the facility -- that he was told the plant was contaminated.
The facility KBR was working at was Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Plant in Basra. In PDF format, CBS provides the Defense Health Board report they obtained a copy of which appears to pat KBR on the back. US Senator Evan Bayh told CBS, "Look, I think the burden of proof at this point is on the company. To come forward and very forthrightly explain what happened, why we should trust them, and why the health and well-being of our soldiers should continue to be in their hands." September 15th, Bayh proposed "legislation to create an Agent Orange-style registry for U.S. military personnel exposed to hazardous chemicals while serving in the line of duty. The Bayh proposal would guarantee access to follow-up medical evaluations and priority status at Veterans Administration (VA) medical facilities for service members who have been exposed to occupational and evenironmental hazards while deployed." Bayh again called today for a medical registry:
The Bayh legislation would establish a registry that aggressively tracks soldiers exposed to industrial toxins during wartime service, guaranteeing them access to priority status care at VA facilities. It would also authorize a scientific review of the evidence linking exposure to adverse health effects. There have been at least seven reported cases of possible exposure at contaminated industrial sites, including Qarmat Ali.
"Our government has a responsibility to remove needless obstacles to care for soldiers exposed to potentially lethal quantities of toxic chemicals in service of their country," Senator Bayh said. "We should be guided by our government's response to Agent Orange in Vietnam, when we changed our VA claims system so veterans placed at risk did not bear the burden of proof if health conditions developed later in life."
Turning to US politics, the Center for Constitutional Rights issues the following press release:
The Center for Constitutional Rights is outraged at President Obama's choice of the right wing Rev. Rick Warren to lead the convocation at his inauguration. This is "change" we can neither believe in nor support. Many of us have been looking forward to this inauguration as we have no other in the past, with great hope that the new administration will restore our Constitution and its place in a nation of laws. We understand, too, that the new president is working to reach across the aisle and make people of different beliefs welcome at his table.
But the choice of Rev. Warren is a callous slap in the face to all progressives and people fo conscience who cherish the equality of women and their right to a safe and legal abortion. Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. It is a constitutional right. Women fought and died for it. A man who so vocally opposes such a hard won and important a constitutional right has no place at this inaugaration.
The choice of Rev. Warren is a slap in the face to all progrssives and people of conscience who cherish the equality of men and women in the LGBT community. His vocal support for the shameful California Proposition 8 pushes from the table those who have fought long and ahrd to be able to love and be loved without the interference of hate mongers. A man like Rick Warren who envisions a society where some classes of people are entitled to fundamental rights while others are not based solely on whom and how they love has no place at this inauguration.
We understand that there will be compromises and decisions we won't agree with in the coming years, and we will be right there challenging them. But to begin it all in this way, is a terrible signal to send to the people who worked day and night to elect President Obama. He should withdraw his invitation. At the very least, he should ask someone else to officiate as well, someone with decency and eloquence who can balance the presence of Rev. Warren. If the president is at a loss for ideas, allow us to suggest two women who could ably fit the bill: Kahtleen Jeffords Schori, an African American Epsicopal Bishop who supports the ordination of gay ministers, and Susana Heschel, a feminist theologian and daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Jewish leader who worked hand in hand with Martin Luther King.
In other news the American Sociological Association's periodical Contexts features an essay by independent journalist David Bacon -- whose latest book is Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon Press) -- entiled "Living Under the Trees" which focuses on "the experiences and conditions of indigenous farm worker communities." That's the description of the Living Under the Trees photo exhibit that won huge praise in San Diego, Sonoma and elsewhere throughout this year. In September Alicia Doyle (Ventura County Star) noted:
A reporter and documentary photographer for 18 years, he covers issues of labor, immigration and international politics and travels frequently to Mexico, the Philippines, Europe and Iraq. He also hosts a weekly radio show on labor, immigration and the global economy on Berkeley's KPFA-FM and is a frequent guest on KQED-TV's "This Week in Northern California."
His exhibit at the Santa Paula Family Resource Center -- consisting of 36 photographs and six text narrative panels -- explores the challenges these communities face while also celebrating the culture and community spirit that sustains them.
"This exhibit tries to show a certain reality that essentially indigenous immigrants are making important contributions in a lot of areas," Bacon said.
Chronicling the conditions of farmworker communities in California, the exhibit conveys the vibrant cultures of music, dance, food and traditional health practices that help these communities survive under very difficult circumstances, Bacon said.