Monday, May 19, 2008

IVAW Members Meet Iraq Ambassador, Discuss Restoring Iraqi Sovereignty

On May 17, 2008 three other members of Iraq Veterans Against the War and myself met with Iraqi ambassador Samir Sumaida’ie at the Iraqi Embassy open house. We got there just in time to get in line before they closed the gate. We started taking pictures with the plaque on the outside of the building when one of the embassy staff members, a gentleman in his mid thirties wearing a suit, approached us and offered to take our picture so we could all be in it.

I thanked him in Arabic and we started chatting. I told him about my time in Fallujah and asked him where he was from. He said Baghdad, and Mark Wilkerson asked him what was the last time he was there. He said he had been living in the US since 1982, the year I was born.

On the way in, we passed through a security checkpoint similar to the ones used at airports. I forgot that I was wearing steel-toe boots after taking my metallic personal effects out of my pockets, putting them on a little plastic tray, and stepping through the metal detector. The Iraqi man on the other side motioned me towards him and said, “No problem,” before waving me down with the wand. Having performed the same procedure without the courtesy of a wand on thousands of Iraqis, the irony was a kick in the nuts to say the least. We were now on sovereign Iraqi soil. Except for the sovereign part.

We were led into what seemed like a reception room with a handful of tourists where for thirty awkward seconds or so, we watched a video on a flat screen TV of an interview with two non-Arabs who seemed to be talking about Iraq. Then we were led back across the hall into another room that had a number of ancient artifacts and paintings on display.

There were also flat screen TVs around the room playing a sideshow that guided the viewer through the history of Iraq since at least its independence in 1932. While the first seventy years or so were pretty glossed over and left out a lot about the coup and the Iran-Iraq war, the recent history was much more thorough. As the slides changed, I eagerly awaited the timeline to get to 2004, to see the battles of Fallujah, or at least the handover of power, on June 28th, but both were noticeably absent.

While I was captivated by this sideshow, the other IVAW members were making their way around the room and meeting various staff members. Matthis Chiroux was particularly struck by the ancient artifacts on display; some were the recovered remains of collections that were looted after the invasion, most of which are still missing. One that caught his eye in particular was the statue of Entemena, a headless statue of a king from around 2400 bc that was excavated in Ur.

The statue has a very interesting history, even just since being dug up in the early 20th century by a joint expedition of the University of Pennsylvania and the British Museum. It was stolen during the looting of the Iraq National Museum in April of 2003. Ironically, it has been said that the statue may have originally came to Ur as a war trophy, since the inscription says it originally stood in Lagash. It was recovered in 2006 by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement wing of DHS, and is considered on of Interpol's most significant recoveries.

According to a press release from the Embassy of Iraq from June 25th, 2006 that was on the table there, “Maliki and Secretary for Homeland Security Michael Chertoff participated in a ceremony marking the repatriation of the diorite statue of Entemena to the Iraqi Government, at the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq.” As if to say, “we're sorry,” I guess.

Meanwhile, Kristofer Goldsmith was purchasing a book entitled History Begins At Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts In Recorded History from one of the embassy staffers. He was explaining to Kris how the proceeds from the book were going to raise awareness about artifacts that were looted during the invasion, and Kris was more than happy to support the cause.

Mark Wilkerson had already proceeded through the building and was downstairs checking out the two rooms that opened out onto the rear driveway, where a garage might have been. One of them was a souvenir shop and the other was a gallery with photos of various landmarks in Iraq like the Ruins of Ur and the Minaret at Samarra. There were also two pictures depicting Americans in Iraq. One was a photo of Petraeus sitting on a couch with an Iraqi in a suit and the other was an anonymous soldier smiling face to face with a little boy. I knew that Maliki would only send an ambassador who endorsed “his” platform, but it would be interesting to see with how much enthusiasm.

By then I had joined Kris and was talking with the staffer who sold him the book. He had left soon after the invasion and was very supportive of what we were doing, but was nervously quiet about it. Then the ambassador himself came in with his little entourage, which included a rather burly and surly Iraqi General with a mustache, who seemed to be a carbon copy of the half-dozen or so Iraqi generals that I met in Iraq.

The first thing the ambassador hit me with was something to the effect of, “We want to make sure that your comrades and all Americans who have sacrificed so much have not done so in vain.” I had to reply with the all too gory lawnmower metaphor to quickly deconstruct this dangerous emotional appeal. “If you're working on a lawnmower, and you get a couple fingers chopped off by the blade, would you ever think that you had to put your arm in up to the elbow so that your fingers weren't lost in vain?” We went back and forth for a while and I had a chance to explain the essence of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and communicate my reasons for being a member, before I let him take a nearly uninterrupted thirty minutes to explain his platform.

We discussed Iran for a while, and he mentioned the power vacuum and the susceptibility to Iranian influence. He explained to me the significance of Ahmadinejad visiting Baghdad and being welcomed, but not getting to visit certain religious sites, which as a Shi'ite guest to Iraq, is very significant. But he did acknowledge the contrast to President Bush's visits, which only happen in secrecy and under the cover of darkness. He described Iraq as a carcass, or piece of meat that a circling group of vultures were taking pieces out of. He was afraid that in a “power vacuum” Iran would be able to get a bigger piece of influence. The implication was that American protection was needed, but he recognized that American contractors have also become vultures pulling at the carcass.

I had two points I had to make when he was done, however, and he graciously gave me his attention. I explained that from my experience, I realized that a single Iraqi cop has more of an effect of creating rule of law, which is what Iraq really needs, in a small Iraqi town, than an entire platoon of Marines who can impose martial law, piss people off, and make targets of themselves. He enthusiastically agreed that the best way Americans could support Iraq was to help get more Iraqi security forces on the streets rather than doing the patrolling ourselves.

He had also mentioned the numerous mistakes made by L. Paul Bremmer, a man I had served under for the first half of my time in Iraq, until the handover of power on June 28th. I told him that I had met Bremmer, served under him, looked him in the eyes, and even had a chance to question him when he spoke at my college after I came back, and I did not believe that all of the mistakes were honest mistakes because of the obscene profit that is to be had from instability.

I also pointed out that the best way to prevent future “mistakes” was to keep Americans from being in a position to make them, and to keep American corporations from being able to tear off chunks of Iraqi flesh. He ended by saying, “There is a lot of truth in what you say. I wish you the best of luck.”

He shook all of our hands and introduced us to a son of one of the staffers who was missing his right index, middle, and ring fingers. Apparently, he had lost them because he voted in 2004. Kris had a moment when he said that he recognized him from Iraq from right before the elections, but as Kris's appearance has changed drastically since then, the recognition was not mutual, although the Iraqi was taken aback and unsure for a while. He was now enjoying life as a student at an American university.

He told us of a time when students at his university in Baghdad had been killed and Mahdi Militia members were taking things from their bodies, even rings from their fingers, when US soldiers came and chased them away. He was a strong advocate of an American presence patrolling the streets, but was under the impression that Iraqis could continue to patrol side by side with US patrols, and somehow the Iraqis would eventually take charge and be able to establish rule of law with US-style military patrols. Matthis took the opportunity to quote Ben Franklin, “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” The Iraqi said he did not want Americans there forever, but could not describe a way for a transition to occur.

By then the open house had been over for a couple of hours and we were the only ones left who did not seem to have some business being there. So we said our goodbyes and found ourselves in a very nice alley behind embassy row. We walked back down Massachusetts Avenue to spend the rest of the afternoon laying on the grass in Dupont Circle, talking politics and reflecting on our visit to the the not-so-sovereign piece of Iraqi territory in Washington, DC.


lightbringer said...

Great "DC" story...

Jen said...

You guys make sure to take care of each other and rock on to DC for being so active!


Army Sergeant said...

Glad to see you guys made use of the remaining time together. Sounds like a good time, wish I could have been there.

Dejan said...

I will say one big THANK you.

Anonymous said...

good evening from camp luna linda --

"when the door opens -- go through it" julia cameron "the artist's way"

gratefully everything changes -- mm