Cowboys from hell

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The quotes of the day come from our man in Baghdad, the inimitable, irrefutable, continent-hopping, Washington-visiting, combat-boot wearing, counter-terrorism doyen of the occupied Green Zone, L. Paul (“in for the long haul”) Bremer:

It can’t be fun to be occupied.” (Herbert Docena, Will the real collaborators please stand up?, Asia Times)

We’ll have a bill of rights. We’ll recognise equality for all citizens. We’ll recognise an independent judiciary. We’ll talk about a federal government.
(Leonard Doyle and Stephen Castle, US agrees to international control of its troops in Iraq, the Independent)

The second quote, a paean to the constitution that the U.S.-appointed Governing Council can’t bring itself to write reminded me of a joke from my childhood. The Lone Ranger and Tonto are riding along one day when suddenly a host of Indians appear on the horizon. They wheel to the right. Another host of hostile hostiles. To the left and so on. Finally, the Lone Ranger turns in his saddle and says:

“What should we do, Tonto?”

Tonto replies, “Who we, white man?”

Withdrawal maneuvers or getting out while staying in:

So here’s the magic trick of the day: While listening to the sudden spurt of talk about “Iraqification,” “withdrawal,” “exit” strategies, turning sovereignty back to the Iraqis, and our desire to get out (even while, as our President said in London today, “staying the course” and never “retreating”), just keep your eye on those permanent bases we’ve been building in Iraq. It is assumedly not from Iraq but to them that this administration hopes one day to “withdraw.” What makes this a magic trick is that since April, when the New York Times, the British Observer and other papers reported on the four of them (one being built next to the largest extant ziggurat in the Middle East), they’ve vanished like some splendid sleight of hand trick by the fabulous Randi. So your mission, should you accept it, is to keep your eye on something that, thanks to no coverage, none of us here can see.

In the last week we’ve been engulfed in a swirl of confusing statements about the American future in Iraq. Let me just give you a few examples:

As America scrambled desperately to find a workable formula to speed the handover of political power in Baghdad, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, warned yesterday that even with a new government in place US forces might remain in Iraq for two years or more Douglas Feith, under-secretary of defense for policy, said: ‘We intend to stay the course in Iraq, but we don’t want to rule Iraq.’” (Rupert Cornwell, Rumsfeld warns US troops could stay in Iraq for many years, the Independent)

‘American troops will go to their camps in Iraq,’ said [Entifadh Qanbar, a senior member of the Iraqi National Congress, the party led by the Pentagon-favored exile, Ahmad Chalabi]. ‘They will stay there and they will protect the Iraqi borders. Everything else will be in the hands of Iraqis.’” (Rory McCarthy, Council aims to cut role of US troops, the Guardian)

The United States accepts that to avoid humiliating failure in Iraq it needs to bring its forces quickly under international control and speed the handover of power, Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, has said. Decisions along these lines will be made in the ‘coming days’, Mr Solana told The Independent. America’s chief post-war administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, also suggested that US-led forces would remain on a different basis. ‘Our presence here will change from an occupation to an invited presence,’ he said. ‘I’m sure the Iraqi government is going to want to have coalition forces here for its own security for some time.’” (Leonard Doyle and Stephen Castle, U.S. agrees to international control of its troops in Iraq, the Independent)

A new resolution could also help win commitments for additional troops and reconstruction aid from other countries, which Washington has been unable to secure with three previous resolutions, U.S. officials said. In addition, it might lead to a renewed U.N. role in Iraq in helping oversee the selection of a new provisional government An administration official added: ‘In the end, we will need a new resolution to bless our exit strategy. We could go into Iraq without the United Nations, but it’ll be much harder to get out and leave behind a viable government if it doesn’t have some form of U.N. approval.’” (Robin Wright and Colum Lynch, U.S. Plans New Iraq Proposal For U.N., the Washington Post)

If you feel confused, it’s quite pardonable. And if you happen to be keeping a withdrawal scorecard, the truth is you’ll only know you’re in the bottom of the 9th when we agree to withdraw not from “Iraq” but from those bases in Iraq which were meant to nail down an empire of bases stretching from Kosovo to the border of China, right across the “arc of instability,” which also means the major oil lands of our world.

In the meantime, no American tactical statement re: Iraq (or even the Middle East more generally) can be taken as bedrock policy at the moment. These are mostly trial balloons that the officials of a panicky administration are floating skyward every other day as they try to find a nonexistent formula — debaathification/rebaathification, army demobilization/army remobilization, written constitution first/ written constitution last, “hearts and minds” military tactics/”iron hammer” military tactics — that will leave them in Iraq for the duration.

I’ve included below two clear-eyed pieces — the first by Haroon Siddiqui of the Toronto Star (“Notwithstanding Bush’s lectures on democracy, only the naïve would continue to believe that America wants anything other than a satellite state.”), the second by Herbert Docena of Asia Times (“The US did not fight and is not fighting this difficult and expensive war so that an independent Iraqi government that will truly represent the interest of the Iraqis can take over.”). Both will help guide you through the labyrinth of America’s Iraqi policies and of what this administration still hopes to establish there using whom.

If you still feel confused, don’t worry. It’s largely because the administration finds itself suddenly at sea and flailing about. Imperial arrogance played a powerful part in this. Juan Cole at his “Informed Consent” website put it this way recently:

“According to Knight-Ridder, the US will double the number of State Department personnel in Iraq to 110, including a large number of the Department’s 402 Arabic speakers. (The State Department only has 402 Arabists??) The new team will oversee the transition to a sovereign Iraqi government scheduled for this June. One wonders whether this development isn’t too little, too late.

“When the Coalition Provisional Authority was first set up, Donald Rumsfeld and Douglas Feith kept out a lot of qualified State Department personnel, including most people in the government who actually knew Arabic. The civilians in Defense wanted to just hand the country over to Ahmad Chalabi. But Chalabi could not have run Iraq, especially once its military and police had collapsed

“How the Pentagon and the CPA thought it was going to govern Iraq without Arabists just baffles me. They brought in a lot of inexperienced conservatives and neoconservatives who had nothing going for them but loyalty to Rumsfeld or Feith. You can’t tell what is going on in Iraq unless you know Arabic. The Americans are stuck in that bunker of a headquarters, and don’t even interact with Iraqis much. Reporters go out on tours embedded with US troops and come back and tell the Wall Street Journal everything is great. They don’t know about the 3,000 murders in Baghdad in the past few months. They don’t know about the ongoing insecurity, or the grinding poverty and unemployment. They don’t know about the covert Shiite cells like the Revenge of God assiduously being planted in Basra.”

Perhaps that old Aldous Huxley title should be recast as “Eyeless in Baghdad.” There was a Vietnam version of this cultural arrogance and blindness. Someone — I wish I knew whom, as I’d give him or her full credit for the phrase — claimed that Iraq was Vietnam on crack cocaine. And it’s true that if there’s a comparison to be made with our experience in Vietnam (and as Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times suggests in a column included below, I think there is), it does seem as if Iraq has been “Vietnam” smashed into fragments and stuffed into a tiny time frame. So already we find ourselves in a full-blown version of the “withdrawal maneuvers” that went with the Vietnam War. I give it a month or so before the arguments about “who lost Iraq” begin to sprout on the right. They’re already practically underway at the Weekly Standard.

Today, out of curiosity, I pulled off the shelf The End of Victory Culture, the history I wrote of American triumphalism and the Cold War. Here’s a passage with a few eerie resonances that begins with a reference to the way, as in Iraq, despite all our troops and officials we never quite made it to Vietnam:

“What made Vietnam such a complicated experience for Americans was that, to the degree that they never arrived in the country, they also found it impossible to depart. The idea of ‘withdrawing’ from Vietnam arose with the war itself. It was there from the beginning, though never as an actual plan. All real options for ending the war were invariably linked to ‘cutting and running,’ or ‘dishonor,’ or ‘surrender,’ or ‘humiliation,’ and so dismissed within the councils of government more or less before being raised. The attempt to prosecute the war and to withdraw from it were never separable, no less opposites. If anything, withdrawal became a way to maintain or intensify the war, while pacifying the American public.

“‘Withdrawal’ involved not departure but all sorts of departure-like maneuvers — from bombing pauses that led to fiercer bombing campaigns to negotiation offers never meant to be taken up to a ‘Vietnamization’ plan in which ground troops would be pulled out as the air war was intensified. Each gesture of withdrawal allowed the war planners to fight a little longer The flaw in this war talk [of which “withdrawal” was a part] was the thought that what could not be faced would remain safely confined to faraway Vietnam. Yet, even as Americans ‘withdrew’ from Vietnam, what could not be looked at there drew closer, until America became Vietnamized” (pp. 197 & 201)

So keep your eye on those bases (and perhaps on the privatization plan for the Iraqi economy) as you try to sort out actual exit strategies, of which there are as yet none that I’ve noticed, from “departure-like maneuvers.” With the 2004 election already looming I think we’re going to see quite a flood of these aimed at “pacifying” the American electorate.

Alice in Iraqland:

Signage of the day, spotted on the sides of American tanks rumbling through the town of Tikrit: “Cowboys from hell” (Rory McCarthy and Ewen MacAskill, US steps up aggression in Tikrit, the Guardian)

For those of you, who might like a rundown on the latest developments in Iraq, let me offer you a swirl of my own.

The Enemy (and prospective enemies):

There are 5,000 armed insurgents according to the top American general in Iraq; 50,000 according to the latest CIA assessment from Iraq. Whoever they are in whatever numbers, they are slowly spreading the insurgency beyond the Sunni Triangle as American casualties spike. Only recently new overall casualty figures were released and the figures (which include relatively minor injuries as well) do startle. According to Mark Benjamin of UPI (U.S. casualties from Iraq war top 9,000):

“The number of U.S. casualties from Operation Iraqi Freedom — troops killed, wounded or evacuated due to injury or illness — has passed 9,000, according to new Pentagon data and represents an increase of nearly 3,000 non-combat medical evacuations reported since the first week of October. The Army offered no immediate explanation for the increase.”

What then is known of the Iraqis causing these casualties? In Time magazine, Brian Bennett considered the question, Who Are the Insurgents, and offered this in response:

“A while back, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dubbed the insurgents who are making life so difficult for coalition forces, Iraqi authorities and anyone caught in the cross fire ‘dead-enders,’ losers from Saddam Hussein’s regime with nothing left to do but go down fighting. U.S. military officials said the enemy fighters lacked organization and coordination. No one would say any of this now. American officials acknowledge that the insurgents are a potent and increasingly structured force. A former Saddam aide who is close to insurgents in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, agrees. What were once dispersed cells are now meeting weekly in the area, he tells TIME. At the first confab four weeks ago, he says, fighters traded intelligence about the location of U.S. bases, discussed future tactics and planned a series of attacks.”

Right now, you get the sense that it’s Rumsfeld who feels backed into some kind of cul de sac, if not a dead end. Mohamad Bazzi of Newsday recently visited Falluja in the heart of the Sunni Triangle where the populace, he reports, is “seething at the Americans” and offered a vivid portrait of how this came to be so — of, that is, just how blindly U.S. military and occupation authorities tried to impose their will on the town. He writes in part (The Epicenter of Anti-U.S. Hatred):

“This city is a case study in how U.S. war planners appear to have underestimated the complexity of Iraqi society, including the role of tribes and different ethnic and religious groups. As casualties grow, the Americans are discovering how hard it will be to create a government of these disparate interests.’The Americans made mistakes from the very first week they arrived,’ said Harith al-Marsoumi, 48, a leader of one of Fallujah’s largest tribes. ‘They never took the time to understand how the tribal relationships work, or the role of the mosques. They still don’t know how our society is built’

“‘The Baath party in Fallujah is not a mirage,’ said Salim, the political analyst. ‘It’s a reality on the ground. There is a clear following for Saddam Hussein, but that doesn’t tell the entire story.’ The other part of the story is the strong Islamist undercurrent in Fallujah.”

In Tikrit, Phil Reeves of the Independent paints a portrait of an occupation that has given up the very thought of winning anyone’s heart or mind and is instead imposing a gulag vision of occupation on the town with a policy that brings to mind not Vietnam but the West Bank (Americans turn Tikrit into Iraq’s own West Bank):

“It is the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but transported to Iraq. A town is imprisoned by razor wire. The entrance is guarded by soldiers, protected by sand bags, concrete barricades and a machine-gun nest. Only those people with an identification card issued by the occupation authorities are allowed in or, more importantly, out.

“‘Hey, this is just like Gaza, isn’t it?’ a fiery-eyed young Iraqi policeman shouted at us from behind the chest-high, three-layer wire coils which separate his home from the rest of the surrounding dead-flat Iraqi landscape, Sunni Triangle heartland. ‘We’re not happy. Not happy!’

“This is Awja, the wealthy enclave outside Tikrit where Saddam Hussein grew up Similar tactics against the Palestinian intifada by Israel, which has sealed off towns and villages in the occupied territories for many months, have been widely criticised within the international community and human rights organisations as counter-productive.”

Robert Collier, a fine reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, suggests some of the obstacles that the Shiite clergy, split among themselves, are likely to put in the path of American plans, such as they are. He quotes the fundamentalist, still in exile Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani , whose “position in Qom [Iran] is almost a mirror image of the role played by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who turned Iran into a fundamentalist theocracy after the 1979 Iranian revolution” (Shiite clerics stand in constitution’s path):

“In the first interview he has given in recent years to a Western reporter, Haeri said Sunday that the latest U.S. plan is unacceptable and only a strict Islamic government would do Speaking to a Chronicle reporter through a translator by telephone from his seminary in Qom, Haeri called the current Iraqi authority, the Governing Council, ‘puppets of the Americans. … The American administration in Iraq is not legitimate. So we are not obliged to obey the Americans.'”

Indiscriminate weaponry: Operation Iron Hammer:

Here’s another American shift in tactics. With the launch of Operation Hammer six days ago, the U.S. began to call in air power regularly for the first time since the war ended last April. Within a week the firepower being used had – to use a Vietnam-era word — escalated from 500 pound bombs dropped by plane to 2,000 pound bombs brought in by satellite-guided missile, and the Army had called out the tanks. Here’s AP reporter Slobodan Lekic’s summary of our new, post-war stance on weapons of war:

“Two 2,000-pound, satellite-guided bombs were dropped late Tuesday near Baqouba, 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, on ‘camps suspected to have been used for bomb-making,’ said Maj. Gordon Tate, a spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division. Jets also dropped 1,000-pound bombs on ‘terrorist targets’ near the northern city of Kirkuk, he said without elaborating. In recent days, U.S. forces have used heavy artillery, battle tanks, attack helicopters, F-16 fighter-bombers and AC-130 gunships to pound targets in central and northern Iraq.”

The prime-time news has been showing shots of tanks shooting directly into houses in Tikrit and what look like areas of housing blasted to bits in Sunni Triangle towns. This is, of course, indiscriminate weaponry in the context of such a war — weaponry, that is, not fit to find guerrillas, only fit to bring collective punishment down on populations assumed to be resistant.

One fitting comment I ran across was this:

“‘The U.S. is trying to catch flies with iron hammers, but will it ever work?,’ Francois Gerhard, the director of the French Foreign Policy and Defense Research Center said, raising questions over the efficiency of ‘Operation Iron Hammer.'”

But, of course, that’s the French. What struck me though was the escalating use of indiscriminate weaponry in an increasingly destabilized region. Only today in Istanbul two car bombs struck at “British” targets — a consulate and a bank — as two “Jewish” targets, synagogues, had been struck days ago, as a housing compound mainly filled with foreign Arabs was struck in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In total, among these five “targets,” hundreds and hundreds of people who, even by the bombers’ standards, could not in any sense have been targeted will have died or been wounded. These are, of course, simply abominable acts; quite unspeakable ones committed by people who can’t call in planes or missiles, but only recruits so blinded that they’re willing to make themselves into human missiles.

But the simple fact is that a 2,000-pound bomb is no less indiscriminate. It can’t choose between a woman cooking and a guerrilla sitting at a table. It can’t choose between a child playing and an armed man waiting. Again, we saw decades ago where this path of power led American presidents and military commanders.

This feels strangely like a mutual escalation of indiscriminate acts in the region by two groups – the Bush administration and al-Qaeda-like cells — linked in a dance both of death and to the death.

Indiscriminate weaponry: Operation Iron Word Processing Program

Here’s an offensive the administration can hope to win. According to Pauline Jelinek of AP, the administration has launched a propaganda war against the media in Iraq, another of the many spins of the Bush spin machine. She writes in part: (U.S. occupation forces launch media offensive to counter reports on Iraqi resistance):

“As American troops step up their attacks on Iraqi resistance, U.S. occupation officials also are launching a media offensive under pressure from the White House to do a better job promoting the military campaign against insurgents.

“Part of the idea is to give the American public a better sense that U.S. troops are on the offensive and not just passively facing daily, deadly attacks from Iraqi guerrillas.

“In effect, the idea is to return to the type of briefing operations that occurred during the war’s major combat phase, defense officials said Tuesday. That included daily briefings, by high-level officers, who explained daily military missions in some detail at U.S. Central Command war headquarters in neighboring Qatar, with video hookups for reporters in the Pentagon

“Some occupation officials also have started answering their e-mails, a development almost unheard of in the authority’s six months in the country.”

Just recall that they had this kind of ongoing press “offensive” in Saigon back when and it came to be called, if I remember rightly, “the five o’clock follies.”

Our allies at our side (or resignation update):

Here’s a story that’s gotten little attention in the U.S. To those 19 Italians who died in a brutal car bombing that shocked all Italy, another name must be added – though he’s alive and well. Marco Calamari, an official stationed in the Italian area of responsibility, quit his post and left Iraq in protest over the way the occupation is unfolding. I initially found this story buried in a Washington Post article which said:

“[A]n Italian official resigned from the U.S.-led administration running Iraq, saying it has only angered Iraqis and encouraged attacks with its policies. ‘The provisional authority simply doesn’t work,’ Marco Calamai told reporters Sunday as he resigned as special counselor to the coalition in the province of Dhi Qar, according to the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. Calamai said only an interim authority headed by the United Nations could turn things around.”

Calamari also referred to Iraq as “one enormous Somalia,” and offered this added comment in an interview on Australian radio, “The setting up of a provisional government is suffering from the general situation of uncertainty and failure surrounding the wider Coalition-sponsored Iraqi process. I believe the situation is in a state of complete paralysis.”

Meanwhile, in London, where the president is on a state visit, a fervent Blair supporter may be ready to offer some direct 2004 election help in the United States to the Democrats (Nicholas Watt and Duncan Campbell, Blair ally in poll threat to Bush, the Guardian):

“George Bush will be served notice today that the deep hostility towards him in Britain has reached the Blair inner circle, when the former minister Stephen Byers launches a bid to destabilise the president’s re-election campaign next year.

“On the eve of Mr Bush’s state visit to Britain, Mr Byers, an arch-Blairite, will set out proposals to help Democrats in key swing states if the White House refuses to abandon punitive trade sanctions against the UK.

“Acting with the tacit approval of Blair supporters, who were enraged when Mr Bush imposed tariffs on imports of British steel to shore up his vote, the former trade and industry secretary will call for sanctions to be imposed on four key marginal states which the president will need to win.”

Have you noticed by the way that the President’s cowardly decision not to address the British Parliament for fear of hecklers has hardly been mentioned in the American media. Yesterday, in fact, I heard a CNN reporter describe his speech before a hand-picked business audience as “a defining moment.” (Maybe I should simply have been relieved that he didn’t say “a shining moment.”) It was, by the way, a cleverly crafted speech filled with information on things British that Bush simply couldn’t have known.

Reader suggestions for withdrawal:

I thought I might offer a helping hand to the administration by reprinting two suggestions from readers regarding withdrawal from Iraq. Moss Roberts, an Asian scholar and translator, offers an ingenious way out for us, should we ever actually decide to leave:

“US policy pundits are divided about what kind of foreign presence might work in stabilizing Iraq. Some call for UN forces; others for troops from Arab lands; another wants more counterinsurgency. While I’m not persuaded that any foreign troops belong in Iraq, what about bringing in the Vietnamese? They are the only nation that has successfully carried out regime change in our time, having freed Cambodia of the US-China sponsored terrorist Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge and replaced them in 1979 with the Hun Sen government, still in power after the recent election in Cambodia. Buddhist and Confucian, the Vietnamese should not stimulate religious antagonism among Iraqis the way Christians inevitably must. Known for discipline and toughness, they have limited material demands, so their bid should come in at well under one billion per week. Given their history, the Vietnamese have probably already won the Iraqis’ admiration and might even win their gratitude.”

Another reader, Kwaku Annor, was kind enough to draw up an “exit statement” for the President which more or less follows the suggestion of Senator George Aiken of Vermont in the Vietnam era that we should declare victory and withdraw:

“The problem of this administration is arrogance. There is also the arrogance that comes from all of us who assume that for some reason Iraqis are incapable of handling their own affairs. To me, it’s simple: Just withdraw.This would be the exit statement:

“My fellow Americans, we went to Iraq to disarm a brutal dictator, who used weapons of mass destruction on his own people. The people of Iraq are free. Our brave men and women who fought valiantly have done their job to secure our freedom. We have ensured that a dictator has been rid of weapons of mass destruction. Although we did not find any, we have assured that there was no possibility of any. My fellow Americans, the job is done. The Iraqis are free. I have directed the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of Defense to commence an immediate withdrawal of our troops from Iraq. I have directed the Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, to work with our allies and the United Nations to sort out the details of a transitional government in Iraq. It is only the Iraqis who can determine what type of government they want. We Americans are a generous people. We will cooperate with the new government of Iraq, provide assistance, technical help, trade… We will keep a vigilant eye to ensure that Iraq never again pursues the ambition of amassing the weapons of mass destruction. May God Bless you all, and May God Bless America.”


There’s Something Happening Here
By Robert Scheer
The Los Angeles Times
November 18, 2003

Here we go again. Only now it’s the “Iraqification” rather than the “Vietnamization” of a quagmire war in another distant and increasingly hostile land.

Washington’s puppets are once again said to be on the verge of getting their act together, and the American people are daily assured that we are about to turn the corner. Soon we will be able to give Iraq back to the Iraqis, and some distant day the United States will get out. In the meantime, U.S. troops must continue in a “support role” while being maimed and killed with increasing frequency.

Sorry to appear so jaded, but it has been nearly 40 years since I was briefed in Saigon by U.S. officials about the great progress being made in turning the affairs of South Vietnam over to Washington’s handpicked leaders of that country. I was also told with great emotional forcefulness that it would be irresponsible to just leave, given the dire consequences for world freedom.

To read more Scheer click here

What Iraq will get isn’t self-rule
By Haroon Siddiqui
The Toronto Star
November 16, 2003

It was because of our deep belief as Canadians in the values of multilateralism and the United Nations that we did not go to war in Iraq.
– Jean Chrétien, to a standing ovation during his farewell speech at the Liberal convention in Toronto.

The Prime Minister can’t say it, but more than unilateralism, it was dishonesty that doomed George W. Bush’s war on Iraq and soured much of the world on America.

Incompetence – exacerbated by imperial arrogance and cultural ignorance – turned the occupation into a nightmare.

Now, all those traits are in play in the American plan to ostensibly turn Iraq over to the Iraqis.

The decision to hasten self-rule has little to do with installing real democracy. That’s the patina the president needs to cover the panic suddenly gripping the White House.

To read more Siddiqui click here

Will the real collaborators please stand up?
By Herbert Docena
Asia Times Online
November 17, 2003

This week, in the aftermath of the bloodiest period of the occupation since the invasion, talk was rife that members of the US-handpicked Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) will soon be shown the door.

Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief Paul Bremer suddenly flew back to Washington after a CIA report finally acknowledged what had become too obvious for the past weeks: the resistance is mounting. As he himself admitted a few weeks ago, “[I]t can’t be fun to be occupied.” [1] Bremer then came back to Baghdad hinting that the IGC would soon give way to an interim government that would assume office by next year. The sudden change had been projected as an indication of the US’ renewed commitment to restoring Iraqi sovereignty.

This official spin however is contradicted by the earlier line blaming the IGC’s dissolution on its members incompetence.

Herbert Docena is with Focus on the Global South and the Iraq International Occupation Watch Center.

To read more Docena click here