Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2006, pages 53-55

Southern California Chronicle

Fearless Iraqi Engineer in U.S. to Expose Sectarianism, Violence of Occupation

By Pat and Samir Twair

Faiza al-Araji (l) with Wafa Shami of the American Friends Service Committee (Staff Photo S. Twair).

“THE U.S. HAS BEEN in Iraq for three years. It claims it has spent billions of dollars on reconstruction. And what do we have? No clean water, no electricity, no security. Nothing but rubble.”

So said Faiza al-Araji, one of five Iraqi women who made public appearances throughout the U.S. in March under the auspices of Code Pink and Global Exchange.

A civil engineer and mother of three sons, al-Araji has lived in Amman, Jordan since her son, Khalid, was kidnapped and released July 24 for a steep ransom paid to Iraq’s Ministry of Interior.

Al-Araji was in Amman on Aug. 12, when her son went to Baghdad University to take his final exams in civil engineering. A new security guard asked Khalid for his identity papers.

“Apparently Khalid was arrested because he has a beard,” al-Araji stated. “The guard put a hood over Khalid’s head and he was transported in a pick-up truck to the Ministry of Interior.”

The hood was removed after Khalid was herded onto the seventh floor of the ministry, where he saw 50 to 60 men seated on the floor. Many had been held there for months. Days later, a sympathetic guard loaned his cell phone to Khalid, who called his father and said he could be released for thousands of dollars.

The concerned father dispatched an undisclosed amount of cash to the Interior Ministry. Khalid was immediately driven to his parents’ home, where his father had a car waiting to transport him to Amman.

“Khalid had been warned not to give the names of other detainees, but the first thing we did after he arrived in Amman was phone the families of the prisoners he befriended at the Ministry of Interior,” al-Araji said proudly.

It’s her fearless criticism of what’s happening in Iraq—which al-Araji posts on her blog, <www.afamilyinbaghdad.blogspot.com>—that caught the attention of Code Pink. The organization selected her for a month-long tour of the U.S. as part of its “Women Say No to War” campaign.

“We originally intended to bring seven Iraqi women,” explained Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin, “but two were denied visas on the grounds they might illegally remain in the U.S. because they have no immediate relatives in Iraq.”

This could be because their children and husbands died when U.S. tanks shot into their cars, opined Benjamin. “These aren’t the kind of stories the government wants Americans to hear,” she concluded.

Speaking to the American Friends Service Committee in Pasadena on March 13, al-Araji said she does not believe Muslims are bombing mosques.

“Not even al-Qaeda would bomb mosques—it targets police and mercenaries,” she averred. “The occupation forces are pushing the people into civil war to justify their existence in Iraq while they build huge permanent military bases.”

Rivalries between Shi’i and Sunnis were nonexistent during Saddam Hussain’s regime, stated al-Ajari, who is a Shi’i married to a Sunni Palestinian/Jordanian engineer. “We had a secular government under Saddam,” she added. “Women enjoyed equality. Now we can’t drive, our girls don’t dare go to school.

”˜If the U.S. had removed Saddam and shared our oil with the Iraqi people, we wouldn’t be complaining,” she noted. “But the U.S. wants all our oil for itself while it destroys our civilization and writes a Constitution based on sectarian divisions.”

Asked what she sees as a solution to the chaos in her homeland, al-Araji replied: “Pull all foreign forces out of Iraq. Build a strong non-sectarian government. Peace organizations must connect with each other. The key to the dilemma is in Washington.”

Vidal, Ritter Exchange Views

Author and satirist Gore Vidal and former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter expressed their views on the presidency of George W. Bush and the Iraqi quagmire to a full house in Immanuel Lutheran Church, Los Angeles. The March 4 event was sponsored by U.S.Tour of Duty.

Both addressed the question of whether Bush’s policies have made Americans feel safer.

“Clinton had a foreign policy,” Vidal mused. “Bush has guns, missiles and a tangled syntax.”

“Going into Iraq had nothing to do with national security,” Ritter pointed out. “Petroleum companies are enjoying a short-term windfall, but this war will prove disastrous 20 years down the line. So far, the war has been good for the profiteers.”

In uncharacteristic understatement, Vidal observed: “U.S. elections have been tainted of late. Our votes aren’t getting through. Michigan Congressman John Conyers went to Ohio and examined every precinct. No one seemed to take exception that Ohio’s secretary of state, who was in control of the ballot machines, also was in charge of Bush’s campaign in that state.”

Interjected Ritter: “We set standards overseas of one person, one vote on paper. Why can’t we return to paper ballots in the U.S.?”

“Because we’re idealistic,” retorted Vidal.

“We could clear up a lot of things if we had free elections,” he said later, in response to a question. “The president claims he has a mandate—given by 17 percent of the voters. To have robust elections, we need more than 30 percent of the electorate to cast ballots.”

The current administration only knows how to smear its enemies, Vidal concluded, adding, “They have no empathy for how others feel.”

Israeli-Palestinian Confederation Debated

Israeli-Palestinian Confederation panelists (l-r) Mahmood Ibrahim, Mehran Kamrava and Trevor LeGassick (Staff Photos S. Twair).

Israeli-American attorney Jocef Avesar saw his dream come true Feb. 26 at UCLA’s De Neve Plaza when nine respected panelists discussed his proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian Confederation (IPC).

The IPC would not replace the present governments, Avesar explained, but would create another body not unlike the European Union, which functions alongside individual European governments.

According to his proposal, the West Bank, Gaza and Israel would be divided into 300 districts, each representing 30,000 individuals, and would pass legislation on roads, hospitals, utility grids, banking, airports, housing and other interests shared by Israelis and Palestinians.

The majority of the 300-plus audience were Hebrew-speaking senior citizens concerned about protecting Israel’s security.

“The IPC is a utopian solution, but matters of borders, settlements, Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem must be decided first,” warned retired Israeli Gen. Schlomo Gazit, the panelist most opposed to the confederation scheme.

Prof. Trevor LeGassick of the University of Michigan viewed the IPC as a positive step, an exterior movement outside the political arena attempting to bridge gaps between the two people.

“Let’s begin with a common market and a Marshall Plan to develop the area,” responded General Gazit, who went on to describe Hamas’ victory in the Jan. 25 election as problematic to the peace process.

Prof. Saleem Ali of the University of Vermont disagreed, arguing that alternative mechanisms shouldn’t take a back seat to problems that haven’t been solved for the past 58 years.

“You talk in the context of Palestine and Israel being two sovereign states,” noted Prof. Mahmood Ibrahim of Cal State Poly, Pomona. “There is no equality. Israel hasn’t dealt with the issues seriously. How are you going to have freedom with 397 checkpoints? Palestine is being dismembered on a daily basis. Is Israel going to remove the Wall?”

As pandemonium broke out in the auditorium, with Israel-firsters shouting and booing, Professor LeGassick admonished the audience that “checkpoints can’t be shouted down and ignored. Hamas won because the Palestinians were disgruntled with the performance of Fatah. I’ve talked to three Hamas leaders who said they will recognize Israel if it withdraws to the June 5, 1967 borders.”

Salam al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee commented that U.S. envoy Dennis Ross had admitted there is no balance of power between Israel and Palestine. “The Palestinians should have the right to self-determination,” he argued. “To make peace with the enemy, you must have dialogue with the enemy.”

New Icons Dedicated

Vespers dedicating the Cloud of Witnesses Chapel of St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church (Staff Photos S. Twair).

St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral is a Los Angeles landmark noted for its religious works of art. On March 12 it dedicated yet another stunning piece of religious architecture in its Cloud of Witnesses Chapel. The tiny hallway measuring three paces by five paces, which leads into the narthex of the cathedral, now is covered by 10 canvases created by Lebanese iconographer Nicolas Majdalani.

Majdalani devoted 11 months in Beirut to painting the evangelists, the female saints with Mary and Jesus, and the male saints. In January, the canvases were air-freighted to Los Angeles, where the master iconographer glued them to the chapel walls and ceiling. For six weeks, Majdalani completed details on his life-size paintings, then coated gold leaf on remaining spaces not adorned by icons. The gilded effect is dazzling and celestial.

The first Sunday of the Orthodox Lent celebrates the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which restored the veneration of icons, banned from 726 to 787 ad. This year’s observance fell on March 12, and the faithful from 50 Southern California Orthodox churches gathered for Vespers and to witness the dedication of the icon-covered chapel.

Activists Protest CBS

As the third anniversary of the Iraq War approached, the American Friends Service Committee, Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, and Media Democracy Legal Project decided to demand that Los Angeles CBS News offer better coverage of the ongoing war.

Sign-carrying activists stood with a flag-draped coffin at the Sunset Boulevard entrance to CBS on March 15. A Unitarian minister played the flute, surrounded by placards reading: “Stop Burying the Truth,” “Let Information Live” and “Objective Journalism Is Dead.”

Bob McCloskey, who is running in the Democratic primary for the 29th Congressional District, called on CBS to uncover the cover-up of accurate information on what is happening in Iraq.

Wafa Shami of AFSC stated: “We mourn the death of a great news tradition exemplified by CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow, whose courageous stand for truth was portrayed in the film, ”˜Good Night and Good Luck.’”

No one from CBS talked to the demonstrators, who handed fliers to passersby demanding that CBS verify—not merely report—official statements of the administration and the military on the war and related issues of torture and spying. Other demands were for CBS to report on how money needed for community welfare is going to the war budget and to provide accurate coverage of military and civilian deaths in Iraq.

Thousands Protest War’s Third Anniversary

As many as 10,000 noisy and colorfully dressed protesters of the war on Iraq gathered March 18 in front of Hollywood’s Kodak Theater to denounce its third anniversary. Traffic was cut off for blocks along Hollywood Boulevard as musicians, dancers and placard-carrying demonstrators marched to a stage where celebrities called for troop withdrawals from Iraq.

Actor Martin Sheen called for an end to the military occupation of Iraq. Paul Haggis, who received two Oscars at the Kodak Theater for best picture winner, “Crash,” said it was his first time back since the March 5 Academy Awards. “I couldn’t be prouder to be with all of you,” said the recipient of awards for original screenwriting and co-producing the film.

At Arlington West, near the Santa Monica Pier, war protesters made their way through more than 2,300 white crosses buried in the sand to represent U.S. military personnel killed over the past three years.

MacArthur Park, made famous in song by British actor Richard Harris, was the scene for a display of 240 military boots representing the war dead sponsored by AFSC. Fernando Suarez del Solar, whose son was killed in Iraq, spoke in English and Spanish, imploring Latinos to become active in the anti-war movement. 

Pat and Samir Twair are free-lance journalists based in Los Angeles.

Additional information