Calls to Prayer amidst the Threat of War
May 17, 2004

US Civilians Confront US Military in Najaf

As numerous people from nonprofit organizations working in Iraq evacuated the country, an independent emergency delegation of US civilians was preparing to enter the conflict-torn nation, to place their bodies between the holy city of Najaf and the tanks and weapons of 3,000 US troops.

The Najaf Emergency Peace Team, "Peace Between Peoples", declared themselves prepared to "nonviolently, symbolically and physically" intervene between the US military and the civilian population.

The members of the NEPT:

  • Rev. Meg Lumsdaine is an ordained Lutheran pastor who has previously been involved in human rights delegations to Latin America and Iraq.
  • Peter Lumsdaine is coordinator of the Military Globalization Analysis Project and organizer of the Najaf delegation.
  • Mario Galvan, a high school teacher, is a national board member of Peace Action, with 100,000 members throughout the US, and a founding member of the Zapatista Solidarity Coalition.
  • Trish Schuh co-founded the Military Families Support Network in 1990 and was involved in Military Families Speak Out.
  • Brian Buckley is a carpenter and member of the Little Flower Catholic Worker community.

    "We understand the dangers of our journey," the group's statement read: "but we are determined to try and contribute in our own small way to peace and justice for the people of Najaf and Iraq. Only when peacemakers are willing to shoulder some of the same risks that soldiers take in war, can we begin to move away from the cycle of violence that grips human society at the dawn of the 21st century."

    Calls to Prayer amidst the Threat of War
    Mario Galvan / Peace Between Peoples

    Mario Galvans and Brian Buckley pose with PFC Perez outside the gate of a US military compound in Iraq. The Peace Team will be holding slide-show presentations on their trip. For more information, contact: Peter Lumsdaine, PO Box 7061 Santa Cruz, CA 95061
    NAJAF (April 26, 2004) -- As I write, the call to prayer sounds again in the street of Najaf. Yet, on the edges of the city, US and coalition forces maneuver closer, and rumors of an impending attack are increasing. As I write, other members of our group are driving around town, trying to size up the situation, and looking for the place where our presence will be most effective.

    We were told at al-Sistani's office that the US had occupied the main hospital in the area, forcing people to go to smaller, overcrowded clinics. The reports of the US forces closing hospitals elsewhere and the lack of medicines made us think that this was worth looking into. Then we were told about the people who had driven up to the hospital unknowingly and were shot without warning. On the way to Najaf, we had passed a US army base with a sign that said "Guards will fire without warning." We hadn't realized how true that was!

    Our Visit to the Madhi Army
    KUFA -- We had decided to go to Kufa to attend the Friday prayer services held by the supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, the person referred to in the US media as the "radical cleric" who is defying the US and calling for them to leave. Estimates of his military strength (as well as of his character and intentions) vary. One person told us that he had 100,000 followers nationwide, which is still a small number in a country of 24 million people. But in Kufa, we glimpsed his strength.

    Friday, not Sunday, is the holy day around here. It took only a few minutes to drive from the US armed camp to the armed camp of the Madhi army. And there, too, we entered past machine-guns and rocket launchers. It didn't take long to spot a number of men with AK-47's strolling casually around, and then, one by one, we began to see the pointy-nosed RPG's (Rocket Propelled Grenade, a modern descendant of WWII's bazooka), the "heavy artillery" of the Mahdi army.

    The town was poor, and wasted in a way that gave it a bleak and somewhat depressing air. It seemed hard to believe that these poorly armed youths were holding back the US army, with all of its tremendous firepower.

    Just a few days ago, in the fighting that we heard from our hotel, scores of them had been killed by US airpower on the edge of town. AK-47's and RPG's are no match for F-15's and Spectre gunships. It was a David and Goliath confrontation, in a way, but Goliath was holding back. Perhaps the greatest force protecting the Mahdi was the mosque itself, and the US fear of provoking the wrath of millions of Shiites by attacking them there.

    Ignoring warning shots, Peter Lumsdaine (far left) and the Peace Team approach a US military base, accompanied by members of the international press.
    Why Are Iraq's Borders Left Unguarded?
    We were fortunate to have a driver who spoke excellent English and was well educated, and we took advantage, asking him numerous questions. I want to share a couple of remarkable things he said, that we had not heard before.

    He raised the idea that a major reason for the US invasion of Iraq was to create a theater of war that would draw anti-American elements from all over the Middle East. They could come to Iraq and fight the Americans! It would be a magnet for Al-Quaeda, for every America-hating mujahadin. And that would keep them busy and lessen the possibility that they would take the trouble to go all the way to the USA to attack Americans. A novel idea, eh?

    He supported this interpretation by pointing out that, for a year since the occupation of Iraq by the US, there has been no serious attempt at guarding the borders. Trucks, busses, and cars enter Iraq with little or no searching; border security is non-existent. He told of coming in from Syria in a bus loaded with people and baggage galore, and of not being searched at all. That bus, he pointed out, could have been loaded with weapons and explosives or "freedom fighters" from other countries.

    Our own experience was the same; we were not searched at all when we entered Iraq, or when we left. Isn't it strange that -- in a country where the US is willing, in the name of establishing security, to detain and hold without charges thousands of people -- they would leave the borders of the country unguarded?

    A Façade of Democracy Masking a Plan for Total Control
    KARBALA -- Dr. Sharhistani is very knowledgeable about what is happening in Iraq. He has been instrumental in the negotiations between the UN and al-Sistani (whose office we visited upon our arrival in Najaf) seeking a transition from the current Governing Council to a democratically elected Iraqi government. He is a remarkable gentleman who not only took the time from his busy schedule to meet with us, but went out of his way to help us arrange details of our travel arrangements.

    The political crisis in Iraq is more serious than the military crisis and is feeding the flames. It is becoming clear to the Iraqi people that the US is not interested in real democracy, but merely a façade of democracy that will legitimize the continued control of Iraq by the US.

    The interim constitution recently adopted, with much arm-twisting by the Governing Council, makes the reality of US intentions clear. Even when elections are held, supposedly in January of 2005, the representatives elected by the Iraqi people will have less power than the Governing Council chosen by the US occupation authorities. Any law or measure they pass will have to be approved by 75% of the US-appointed body, PLUS be approved by all three of the executive officers (the President and two Vice-Presidents).

    In a pinch, the US-appointed Council could call for the dissolution of the elected congress, and force new elections! This is the democracy the US is bringing the people of Iraq, and forcing it down their throats with the barrel of a gun!

    Inside a US Base, the AP's Embedded Reporter
    NAJAF -- One of our prime motivations for visiting the US base again was to talk with Dennis Gray, an Associated Press reporter who, we were surprised to discover, was "embedded" inside the base. We had gotten his e-mail address and asked him to meet us at the gate.

    He seemed interested in our project, asked a lot of questions, and took notes. I don't know if he has filed a story on us, or if it has made it past the editors. We were impressed to hear of his experiences in Cambodia and Southeast Asia in the horrifying days of Pol Pot. We left feeling glad that we had made the effort to contact him.

    One thing did seem odd to us, though. Here was the only US reporter we had met in our entire trip, reporting on the situation in Najaf. from inside the barbed wire and defensive walls of the US camp. He had never walked freely down the streets of Najaf -- as we did every day. He had never gone to the Internet café to file a report or stopped in at a neighborhood store for a bag of chips. What can he tell the American people about what is really happening in Najaf?

    Conversations with some Soldiers
    On our first visit, we had only spoken with one US soldier, but this time we got to talk with several. All of them were friendly, and like the first one, committed to doing their duty and serving their country. We didn't fault them for that, but tried to explain our point of view, and why we were there.

    I broke the ice with one of them by asking if I could have a closer look at the .50 caliber machine-gun he was manning. I told him, truthfully, that I had grown up playing with toy guns until I was old enough to have real ones. He told me how both his father and grandfather had been soldiers.

    He would not be drawn into political discussions, simply saying that he was a soldier, and would keep his political opinions to himself. They all said they had a job to do, that they would do what they were ordered to do, as any good soldier would. But between the lines, it seemed clear to us that all of them would rather be home with their families.

    One soldier came right out with it, in an eloquently simple response to the question "What message do you have for the folks back home?" He simply said, "Help!"

    He knew that he couldn't change the orders; only a political decision could do that. And that political decision had to come from the folks back home. When we spoke to the soldiers of the decay of democracy in the US, of how elections are turning into auctions, with the offices going to the highest bidder, there was no argument, and even, in some cases, agreement.

    It comes back to us, then -- every American who believes in freedom, equality, and humanity. We did our best to make it clear that we were not here as anti-Americans. But we believed that the war in Iraq was wrong from the start.

    I looked out from the sandbagged bunker toward the road and thought about the contradiction of a liberating army defending itself from those it had come to liberate.

    Lessons from the Ruins of the Citadel
    Today we visited a Roman amphitheater in Amman. On the hill above it, we could see the ruins of the Citadel -- the ancient site of generations of rulers. Civilization began here almost 10,000 years ago with waves of conquest, trade routes, empires and armies struggling to possess and control these lands.

    There is a lesson here. Are we ready, after thousands of years of strife and war, to put aside our weapons and empires and delusions of grandeur, and be guided by a spiritual power? Can we begin to realize that the "war in Iraq" started thousands of years ago, not in 1990 or even 1919? And that the "war in Iraq" is not only in Iraq, but everywhere that men and women see each other as enemies, and not as human beings.

    All of the expenses for our delegation have come from private pockets -- principally from Peter and Meg Lumsdaine. Donations can be sent c/o: Peter Lumsdaine, PO Box 7061 Santa Cruz, CA 95061

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