It was in conversation with the Iraqi doctors visiting from Najaf that I inquired about Muqtada al-Sadr and the role he and his militias might play in Iraq after the U.S. uniformed troops leave by the end of this year. [Note: we leave behind close to 6,000 mercenary “contractors” – mostly ex-military personnel hired at enormous cost to provide “security” for U.S. State Department and other American personnel remaining in Iraq.] Soon after the Saddam Hussein regime toppled, the Iraqi cleric and political leader, son of the murdered Grand Ayatollah Mohammad al-Sadr, formed his youthful followers into a political group which included a fighting force called the Sadr Brigades or the Madhi Army and declared the Coalition Provisional Authority as illegitimate. Al-Sadr’s forces were a key factor of what has been called the “insurgency” in Iraq along with uprisings in Sunni areas as well.
What I was told by one of the physicians who works in Najaf, the city known as the home base for al-Sadr [who is now studying in Iran to become an ayatollah himself] is that most of his followers are “ignorant young people”. The doctor went on to explain that one of the consequences of the economic sanctions put in place at U.S. insistence by the United Nations in 1990 was a severe devaluation of the Iraqi dinar as the ability to import and export goods became increasingly difficult. Although the declared purpose of the sanctions was to force Saddam Hussein from power, the actual effect led to a black market that only further solidified the power of the dictator as he controlled what underground economy existed. As a result, he and his cronies got even wealthier while the middle class and the poor bore the brunt of the devastation that ensued.
To “connect the dots”, the economic catastrophe which hit Iraq destroyed much of the infrastructure as spare parts or key ingredients were embargoed. Baghdad was well known as “the” place to go for quality medical care in the Middle East before the sanctions. Less than 10 years later, doctors had to scrounge for the tubing needed to administer IV fluids, let alone the critical ingredients for drug cocktails used for many cancer treatments. Water treatment plants and electrical power stations which were bombed in the 1991 war were left in disrepair when the spare parts or critical components were denied importation by the sanctions committee dominated by the US and the UK. But even more tragic was the impact on the “human resources” of the country.
Children often went to bed hungry after only one or two meager meals a day that stunted both their mental and physical growth. As the dinar’s value was rapidly deflated, the schoolteachers were forced to take additional jobs to support their families. One doctor told me his history/geography teacher took a “job” selling tobacco on the street corners in order to feed his family. With both inadequate food and schooling, it is no wonder many of Iraq’s precious resource of children, now young adults, remain “ignorant” and are easily swayed by the persuasive powers of leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr. We have reaped the whirlwind in allowing a whole generation to be inadequately schooled, thus unable to help discern what leaders might be worthy of following.
Speaking of leaders, one of the primary charges leveled against Saddam Hussein in the run-up to war was that “he killed his own people” – referring to his chemical warfare attacks against the Kurdish population in the northern part of Iraq. Never mind that the Kurds, a ruggedly independent people, never really considered themselves as “Iraqi” but rather “Kurdish”; they suffered mightily under the Baathist regime as well as the “Marsh Arabs” and other Shia groups in the south. Is in not ironic (and certainly a revealing shadow-side of our empire) that we now have a U.S. President openly bragging about killing a U.S. citizen last month? Yes, Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemani-American cleric was considered by many as a “terrorist” or at least an inspirer of terrorists but he was a U.S. citizen who supposedly has a constitutional right to arrest and trial rather than summary execution. Saddam also accused the Kurds of “terrorism” and saw no need for a trial. Now we emulate those we say are our enemies; now our leaders “kill their own people” as well.
All in the name of “national security”. This idol, this obsession, has led us to the shredding of our civil liberties and our constitution. We continue to tremble in fear and obsequiousness whenever our leaders or corporate media tell us of another “threat”. We take off our shoes in the airport and trip-over ourselves in trying to be “more-patriotic-than-thou” by not only having the National Anthem played at the ballgame but have to add “God Bless America” to the seventh-inning stretch! All the lip-service given to “honoring the troops” is a mask to cover the shame many of us feel because these wars have cost us nothing as we go shopping at the President’s beckoning – leaving the bills for these wars as debt for the future generations.
We are a nation/empire in serious decline yet we live in denial. But the cracks are showing: the Occupy Wall Street movement and its metastatic-like spread around the country and the globe signals a stirring, possibly an uprising. Our Iraqi friends, in telling us their stories and experiences of sanctions, invasions, and occupations, can hold a much-needed mirror up for us so we can begin to see both the whirlwind and the shadow of empire.