The Speak for Peace Tour 2008 came to Xavier University's Bellarmine Chapel last Thursday evening in an effort to bring voices from the Iraq War to Cincinnati, Ohio. The Speak for Peace Tour 2008 is put on by the American Friends Service Committee and has traveled throughout various cities in the country. The American Friends Service Committee is a Quaker organization founded in 1917 and "carries out service, development, social justice, and peace programs throughout the world." The event was also co-sponsored by Xavier University's Peace & Justice Programs, Bellarmine Chapel, and the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center. The Iraq War and its impact on human lives was the main topic as speakers Eugene Cherry and Raed Jarrar addressed the crowd.
Eugene Cherry is an Iraq War Veteran. He was deployed to Iraq in 2004 where he worked as a medic and for a personal security detachment. He returned to the United States in 2005 with symptoms of PTSD and went AWOL for 16 months before turning himself in. He was given an honorable discharge and now is working with various groups, including Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) to tell his story about what is happening overseas. Cherry spoke of enlisting in the military with the hope of learning some medical skills that would aid him in his quest to become a doctor, but after his time in Iraq Cherry feels that he did more harm than good. Within American Culture, violence is too often embraced and when speaking within the context of the American military, Cherry says that they are often the perpetrators of such violence. Cherry spoke of the use of cluster bombs and their deadly impact on civilian populations and spoke candidly about the use of white phosphorous by United States forces in Iraq.
In 2004, after the U.S. assault on the city of Fallujah, independent reporters began to report that the United States had used chemical weapons on civilians during the assault. Reporter Dahr Jamail was one of those who began to report that he had spoken with Iraqi doctors who treated citizens who "had their skin melted". The U.S. initially denied having used white phosphorus during the assault, then said they had used it only to light up enemy positions at night, and then admitted that they did use the chemical weapon, but assured us that they did not target civilians. Eugene Cherry confirms that the United States did use this weapon and that the those within the military called it "shake and bake".
Cherry went on to speak about the role of private contractors and mercenary firms inside of Iraq as proof that the corporations are in the back pocket of elected officials. "With every war there is an underlying social and economic issue," Cherry stated. He went on to speak of his work with the contracting firm KBR and how KBR paid their local workers a small salary every month while some KBR contractors were earning up to $650,000 for their work. Cherry equated this treatment with slave labor.
The evening had been kicked off with the question "What really led us to this point?" and as Raed Jarrar took the floor, he reminded those gathered in the chapel that what has been going on in Iraq began during the first Gulf War. Jarrar is an Iraqi and following the fall of Baghdad in 2003, became a country director for the only door-to-door casualty survey group in post-invasion Iraq. He currently works in Washington D.C. as an Iraqi Political Analyst. "The same people who have been telling us lies, continue to tell us lies," Jarrar said. He sees two reasons that politicians use to explain why the U.S. must stay in Iraq. The first is for the security of the United States, politicians claiming that if the U.S. withdraws, Al Qaeda will take over. The second is for humanitarian reasons, if the U.S. withdraws, then all hell will break loose and the Iraqis will be worse off. Jarrar claims that both of these views are manufactured myths.
The humanitarian reason for staying in Iraq is based on the belief that Iraq is divided by sectarian hatred, Sunni versus Shite versus Kurd. "Iraqi's do not see it this way," Jarrar stated, "They [Iraqis] realize that it is political and economic, not religious." Jarrar finds that the United States has been taking the side (though at different points throughout the conflict) of Sunnis and Shites with the minority view against the majority of Iraqis. This can be seen if you look at the representation in the Iraqi Parliament which is largely made up of parties who advocate for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. Jarrar stated that these very parties hold the majority of seats in Parliament yet hold no seats in the executive branch. This results in the Iraqi people voting in members of Parliament who want the U.S. to withdraw, but an Executive Branch that is aligned with Washington in allowing U.S. forces to continue the occupation. Jarrar feels that this is a disconnect that many members of Congress even fail to see. Jarrar told the crowd that if they wanted to see the view of the majority of Iraqis, to watch the demonstration that would be happening over the weekend in Iraq. The peaceful protest did happen on Saturday and drew tens of thousands of Iraqis who protested the continued occupation of their country.
I had a chance to get in one question during a brief Q&A session which I directed at both Eugene Cherry and Raed Jarrar. I asked them for the Iraqi's perspective on the presence of private mercenary firms (like Blackwater) and if Iraqis see any difference in opinion between contractors and U.S. troops. Eugene Cherry responded that it is problematic when you have contractors operating with complete immunity inside Iraq. He said the only distinction is that U.S. military operates under a set of laws that can allow for accountability, but contractors are not bound by either American or Iraqi law. Raed Jarrar gave a much more frank answer to the question. "They [Iraqis] do not care where the bullets come from or who is doing the shooting. People do not like to be occupied."
Both Eugene Cherry and Raed Jarrar call for a complete and immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and reject both major Presidential candidates support for continuing the occupation and building permanent military bases inside of Iraq.
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