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Can You Achieve Democracy Through Undemocratic Means? A Look At Occupation Watch & the New Governing Council in Iraq

Media Options

We speak with Occupation Watch Center’s Medea Benjamin and Nermeen Al-Mufti in Baghdad and Rev. Patricia Ackerman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. And we play an interview with the founder of a new women’s shelter in Baghdad Yanar Muhammed.

One U.S. soldier was killed and another wounded in an ambush on a road northwest of Baghdad today. The attackers used rocket-propelled grenades and small arms in the ambush.

The military had no other details on the attack, many of which lately have been staged with remote-controlled roadside explosions.

The attacks follow ambushes on Sunday and Monday, which killed three U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter.

Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan threw President Bush a lifeline yesterday.

Annan issued a report that recommends the Security Council recognize the Governing Council as an interim government. The council is comprised of 25 Iraqis selected by the American occupation authority.

Kofi Annan called the Council “a broadly representative partner with whom the United Nations and the international community at large can engage.”

This despite the fact that the U.S. retains a veto over the all of the group’s decisions which include administering Iraq’s domestic affairs, setting up a body to write a constitution, and planning elections.

Annan also called on the American-led forces in Iraq to set out a “clear timetable” for a staged withdrawal from Iraq.

  • Medea Benjamin, co-founder and founding director of Global Exchange. She recently returned from Baghdad where she led an international group to launch an Occupation Watch Center. The center, based in Baghdad, monitors the military occupation forces and foreign corporations, hosts international delegations to Iraq, and keeps the international community updated about the occupation.
  • Rev. Patricia Ackerman, special projects and media liaison for the Fellowship of Reconciliation and a member of the steering committee of Code Pink. She is also on the advisory board of the Occupation Watch Center in Iraq.
  • Nermeen Al-Mufti, co-director of the Occupation Watch Center in Iraq.
  • Yanar Muhammed, interviewed by Patricia Ackerman on July 7th 2003. She is the founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). She is also Editor-in-Chief of the Iraqi El-Musawat newspaper.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined in our studio by two women who have just returned from Baghdad, Media Benjamin who is cofounder of Global Exchange. We’re also joined by Patty Ackerman, She is a Reverend who is involved with special products and media liaison for the Fellowship of Reconciliation and is a member of the steering committee of Code Pink. Welcome both to Democracy Now! First, Kofi Annan’s endorsing the governing council, Medea, you just came back from there?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well I think it’s absolutely atrocious. This is a council that was hand selected by the U.S. occupying sources in a secretive fashion without involving the Iraqi population particularly the women that we have been involved with, had absolutely no say in this. And to now give it the cover of legitimacy by the U.N. would be really shameful.

AMY GOODMAN: Patty Ackerman, you have also just returned from Iraq. What about the role of women, first in the governing counsel council—I put that question to both of you — and then what is happening now in terms of the violence now in Iraq.

PATRICIA ACKERMAN: Well, it’s absolutely reflected in the governing council. Women are 60% of the population in Iraq and they have three seats on the council. Whereas Shiites have 60% of the population and they have 60% of the council, so women are not being treated with any equanimity under Bremer’s program there. He really has anointed a group of seven women to form a steering committee to speak for all of the women in Iraq. A lot of those women have ties to the Bush administration and are Iraqi-American women. They in turn hand picked 80 women to come and have a one-day conference with Bremer. And a lot of the grass roots women, for example, are colleagues of [Inar] Muhammad over there, and any number of women have not been included in the process. There’s no transparency, there’s no communication with the C.P.A.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the U.S. soldiers, the casualties only compounding every day. The number of soldiers killed actually well more than what the U.S. government is saying right now. As has been pointed out in Editors and Publishers magazine and other places. They’re just talking about so-called combat casualties, the numbers are three times higher with soldiers who are dying from so-called noncombat casualties, say in a car accident.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Or killing themselves. You know, we went there looking at the affect of the occupation on the Iraqis which is terrible. And while we were there, we talked a lot to the soldiers and we learned about the soldiers’ plight. They’re working in the terrible heat 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Sleeping in mite-infested cots without air conditioning themselves, getting shot at every day and they’re saying to us, we don’t know why we’re here any more. We don’t want to be here. The Iraqis hate us. We want to go home. And so as part of this Occupation Watch Center we’re now considering doing counseling for the troops.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Ackerman can you talk about your conversations with some of these soldiers, who they are and why they’re in Iraq. You describe vividly the reservists and people who are now in Baghdad and in other places in Iraq.

PATRICIA ACKERMAN: Well, one entire convoy that I ran into at the palace compound where the military is stationed or ensconced themselves, were all in combat dress, but they were plumbers, electricians, telecommunications people from the National Guard who said they received one weekend of training during the past year. Some of them might have received the two week training in the summer. But they said they were completely unprepared. The women—some of the women and men we talked to said, what a way to have to repay your college loans, this is not at all what I had bargained for. And one woman in particular said that, if they ever sought out help or counseling, that they were tagged by the military over there, and their weapons are taken away, and sometimes they’re even sent home. So there are no resources for mental health that we could see on the ground there.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe in specific, any soldier? You talked about one before the program, a young woman who was reading a book on a bus.

PATRICIA ACKERMAN: Absolutely. I was sitting on the shuttle which goes between Baghdad central and the palace, and there was this wonderful woman there reading a copy of Sister Soldier. I spoke to her, and she is a woman of color from the D.C. area, and she was just saying that she watches the whole thing and sees how it really mirrors the white corporate structure that people are forced to deal with every day. And that she just looks forward to coming home, and maintains her very careful observing status in order to not be in the line of fire there.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talked about what it was like to be there as this dissent increases so much so, that you had on ABC, soldiers calling for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. And now the Pentagon trying to crackdown on any voicing of dissent. Both the soldiers as well as their families here at home. Recently at Fort Stewart, Georgia, 800 family members angrily confronted a military official, they were so angry that the military official was taken out by the military to protect him from the military families. Medea?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Imagine what it was like for us to be there when Bush made his comment about the attacks on the soldiers and said bring ’em on. I mean the soldiers were absolutely appalled by that. We were appalled by that. But the other thing we should mention when we talk about these soldiers being out there and being very jittery, they go around through the streets of Baghdad with their guns pointed right at the population. And when they hear shots, whether they’re actually being fired at them or not, they fire. And we also talked to many people who lost loved ones and are doing so on a continual basis, because the soldiers are out there shooting into the streets. So let’s remember that there are Iraqi civilian casualties that we do not hear about when we hear about the soldiers being killed.

AMY GOODMAN: When we come back we’ll go to Baghdad to speak to two women there. We’ll hear from one who founded a women’s shelter in Baghdad. The effect of the general violence on the situation for women in Iraq. We’re talking to Medea Benjamin who has helped to found the Occupation Watch Office in Baghdad. And Reverend Patricia Ackerman just returned from Iraq..now we go directly to Baghdad to Nermeen Al-Mufti, who is co-director of that office in Baghdad. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Good to have you with us. Kofi Annan has just called the governing council a broadly representative partner with whom the United Nations and international community at large can engage. Do you agree?

NERMEEN AL-MUFTI: No, First of all — I’m saying to myself just to give time to those 25 appointed members of the governing council, Iraq was occupied in the United States and Britain and the second threat was democracy and human rights and et cetera. So I think one of the elements of democracy is to elect your own representative, your own government. And those 25 were not elected by us —- I mean by the Iraqi people. They were appointed by Bremer, so I don’t think they are going to represent me in Iraq or in the Security Council in front of United Nations. But just I’m asking myself and my friends to give them time—-maybe one week two, week, maybe one month, two months but not more than three months to see them, in which way they are going to behave. They are acting Iraqi or not Iraqi In time being they’re acting not Iraqi and it was astonishing for all of us that they decided to make after the nine day when the forces occupied Baghdad, they decided it as national day. So until now, they are not Iraqi. And I heard that the economic committee in this council are going to sell all the Iraqi public sector to American first and then European companies. So this is too, not an Iraqi decision, still they need time and you are going to give them this time. Amy?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. We’re also going to hear from Yanar Muhammed, founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq and editor-in-chief of El Musawat which means Equality. It’s a newspaper. She returned to Iraq after seven years in exile in Canada and Reverend Patricia Ackerman spoke to her when she was in Iraq about the women’s shelter that she set up.

YANAR MUHAMMED: Women in Iraq deserve a much better future. For the last 35 years we have been oppressed by the Ba’ath regime and all our previous achievements of women’s groups have been aborted one after the other. All the amendments that we did to the civil laws so as to improve our situation has changed the other way around. In the 1990s, Saddam made it really bad for us by introducing an article to the civil law that supports honor killings —- after which the males in the families were able to kill any female for the mere suspect of her being honorless and go free on the streets. Within the ’90’s, only in the northern parts of Iraq, 5,000 women were killed within what’s called honor killings, and some of this was organized by the ruling parties. We have a big issue. women are considered not second rate citizen in Iraq, I would say 10th rate. And their humanity is not taken into consideration. If the Ba’ath regime, being as fierce as it was and as dominant as it was, it was possible to change that reality in one month, why not change the situation the other way around after the war? That’s why we are gathering here in Baghdad—-some of us were abroad and came back, and many of us are in Iraq but they did not have a voice that was heard — we are getting together, we are setting up this organization, we are going to speak out against all the atrocities that are being committed against us. And also as political agenda by many parties that are set to keep women in an inferior status in this society.

AMY GOODMAN: Yanar Muhammed, founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. Also Editor-in-chief of El Musawat, which means Equality and is a newspaper. Nermeen Al-Mufti in Baghdad right now, co-director of the Occupation Watch Center in Iraq, what are you mainly doing right now with the center?

NERMEEN AL-MUFTI: Just this morning I was with many representatives and directors of NGOs in Iraq. We met [the] director and deputy director of Amnesty International. So we have discussed urgent and political cases, violation of human rights in Iraq such as—the beginning occupation itself is a violation for the human dignity and sovereignty. So we have been, especially myself, I am working on a report about the kidnapping and raping of Iraqi woman. Yesterday I met a child…she is just 9 years old and she was raped in a very brutal way. And also I am after the limited authorities given by the State MPs to the Iraqi police. And also we decided with Amnesty International tomorrow that they are going to meet with high rank officials in the C.P.A. so we have our demands in which way they are going to present these demands I don’t know. But we have that—the most urgent is the lack of security now in Baghdad especially, maybe in the other provinces, but cities to some extent, the huge amount of raping and kidnapping women.

AMY GOODMAN: Nermeen Al-Mufti speaking from Baghdad. I wanted to ask before you both leave about one of the efforts that you’re involved with in the Baghdad office, which has to do with advising U.S. soldiers on claiming conscientious objector status. Medea Benjamin?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, we didn’t think of this as something we would do as part of the center until we got there and we started talking to the soldiers, we realized how miserable their situation is. Now that we’re back here we’re talking to groups in the U.S. that have done this kind of counseling since the days of Vietnam. They’re very interested in working with us on this. And so this is an area that we want to explore and potentially add to the work of the center. Doing it from Baghdad.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re going to be bringing some women, Nermeen Al-Mufti and other women to the United States to speak, Reverend Ackerman?

PATRICIA ACKERMAN: Yes. At the end of August there will be a meeting in Baghdad for 300 women for three days. N.G.Os International, N.G.O.s sponsored by the U.N., and we plan on having three to four women come back with us to the United States to speak around major cities and to tell their stories and to talk about what Americans can do to help support the grass roots movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Your website?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: It’s Occupationwatch.org. We update it every single day. It has now become I think the best place to find out what’s happening, and what people in the movement who try to stop this war, can do to stop the occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Medea Benjamin and Reverend Patricia Ackerman, of Fellowship of Reconciliation. Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange and Occupation Watch Center. And Nermeen Al-Mufti from Baghdad at the Occupation Watch Center.

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