Tuesday, July 31, 2007

EPIC Guest Blogger: Marla Bertagnolli on Cluster Bombs Beyond Combat

Marla Bertagnolli is Associate Director of Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), a nonprofit organization advocating on behalf of victims of armed conflict.

On a warm spring day in April 2003, a young Iraqi boy named Ali Mustafa was playing with his four brothers in their family’s garden. Ali bent down to pick up a shiny round object. A few seconds later, the object detonated, injuring Ali and his brothers.

Today, tens of thousands of unexploded ordnance litter farmland, schoolyards and roadways in an estimated 84 countries, posing a constant threat of death or serious injury to innocent civilians. Unexploded bombs, shells, landmines, grenades and missiles can take many years to find and clear -– killing and maiming hundreds, mostly children, in the meantime.

The most common and arguably the most threatening of these is cluster munitions. Large canisters, each containing hundreds of cluster bomblets, disperse rapidly over an extremely wide area. Up to 40% fail to explode on impact and leave hundreds or thousands of sensitive bombs on the ground where civilians -– such as Ali and his brothers –- can accidentally detonate them in the course of their daily lives.

But there is hope. With advanced technology, communications systems and precision weapons, the threat to civilians can and should be limited significantly.

Many countries are calling for complete bans on these weapons. Though the U.S. will likely not sign onto that ban, Congress is currently considering legislation addressing cluster munitions. The Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act of 2007 (S. 594/H.R. 1755 I.H.), initially introduced in the Senate on February 14, 2007, limits the use, transfer and sale of cluster munitions and is intended to lower the threat to civilians in conflict. The Senate Appropriations committee has also inserted a portion of the CMCPA language into the fiscal year 2008 round of appropriations. Word from the Capitol is, they are testing the waters to gauge support for the issue. By fall, we should know where the chips lie. You can help by
taking action through CIVIC's website to tell your Senator to cosponsor the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act.

The pushback against this legislation comes in part from the defense industry. According to information received by
Human Rights Watch, the U.S. inventory alone contains more than one billion individual submunitions, including more than forty different types of air and surface-delivered cluster bombs. Under the CMCPA, before these weapons could be considered for sale, export or transfer, each would need to be retrofitted with self-destruct devices in order to significantly decrease the current dud rate. This poses a huge financial and operational headache for those dealing with U.S. weapon systems.

In a world where warfare is increasingly fought in populated areas, there simply is no place for weapons that indiscriminately destroy lives. Legislation limiting cluster bomb sale and use is an important part of the evolution of the protection of civilians in armed conflict. It is a marked change in U.S. policy and will, if passed, protect civilians -- particularly children –- from extreme harm.

And that is something we can all agree on.

Monday, July 30, 2007

End in Sight? Leading Scholars Revise "Doom and Gloom" Outlook on Iraq

Troop morale is high. The soldiers have confidence in their leader's strategy. They're living in harmony with the people, tailoring their operations to the specific needs of each community, and making a real difference. The people are optimistic, and different sects are coming together against extremists and violence. Local leaders are cooperating towards economic revitalization and development, with fresh strategies and renewed vigor. And all the people are coming together to cheer on their favorite, continent-dominating sports team.

Nonsense, you say. This couldn't possibly be the same Iraq we've been hearing about every day in the media since this war began. It must be some sort of fairy-tale. The Iraq we know is a chaotic, violent place, full of angry warring factions and hatred for America and our miserable, failing U.S. troops. There's no hope for the Iraq we know. This just couldn't be the same place.

Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack are getting similar responses to their article in today's New York Times, titled "A War We Just Might Win." Although Pollack and O'Hanlon describe themselves as "two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq,” their new article arouses criticism of Republican partisanship as well as questions of sanity from many who are eager to recount the albeit grave costs of the war and ignore any progress being made. But is the cry of "withdrawal" so strong that it's drowning out evidence of the troop surge's success?

At EPIC, we're interested in the truth regardless of the politics. Democrat vs. Republican squabbles don't influence our perspective. We're only interested in reality, and finding real solutions for the people of Iraq.

So why do we believe O'Hanlon and Pollack's rather rosy assessment of the situation? Because regardless of where these two men might come from, it's exactly the same thing we've been hearing from the Iraqis, themselves, and others in the NGO community who have nothing to gain from supporting the Bush administration.

The peacebuilders we've interviewed have all stressed the importance of community-based solutions for Iraq, and O'Hanlon and Pollack describe that happening with the new Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Our sources say Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds often overcome their differences and come together for common goals, and O'Hanlon and Pollack confirm that as well -- as does the championship-holding Iraqi soccer team.

These guys don't claim we haven't a long way to go. O'Hanlon and Pollack stress that "the dependability of Iraqi security forces over the long term remains a major question mark," and that "more must be done" in terms of economic development and security building. They acknowledge the reality that people are still dying. But the point is, progress is possible, hope is justified, and we can't afford to overlook successes for the sake of political posturing.

Friday, July 27, 2007

"No End in Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq - The Inside Story From the Ultimate Insiders"

The "why" and "how" leading to the 2003 war in Iraq are bogged down in a muck of half-truths and contradictions. Even today, a lot of important questions lack sufficient answers. Perspective is wavering, and an insider's point of view fails to elucidate because it is the insiders themselves whose actions have rendered our questions necessary. Bias fills our conversations and leaves authors of modern-day history books waiting, with pen in hand, to figure out what really happened.

The new documentary "No End in Sight," opening this weekend in select theaters nationwide, removes a good portion of this obfuscation. Filmmaker Charles Ferguson explores the fundamentals of the invasion, the planning behind it, and the people constructing the strategy. Adapted from over 200 hours of footage, the film offers a wide range of interviews and history from high-ranking officials directly involved with the war.

Just a few expert reviews:
"Charles Ferguson’s exacting, enraging new film, may signal a shift in emphasis,a move away from the immediacy of cinéma vérité toward overt political argument and historical analysis. Not that these have been scarce over the past few years, as an ever- growing shelf of books can testify. Among Mr. Ferguson’s interview subjects are the authors of some of those books — notably Nir Rosen (“In the Belly of the Green Bird”), James Fallows (“Blind Into Baghdad”) and George Packer (“The Assassins’ Gate”) — and his film in effect offers a summary of some of their conclusions." - A.O. Scott, New York Times
"With an accountant's eye for precision and a political scientist's grasp of the machinations that move national policy, Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight" itemizes the errors, misjudgments and follies that have defined the Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq. In his first doc, Ferguson delivers the calm, meticulous survey of U.S. policy that legions of critics of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" have been waiting for. By no means definitive or comprehensive, the pic nevertheless contains plenty of information within a conventional running time and will raise auds' hackles -- pointing to powerful B.O. biz for a current affairs doc." - Robert Koehler, Variety.com
The movie hits theaters this weekend. Don't miss it.

"Bring Your Daughter Here": U.S. Soldiers Selflessly Aid Injured Iraqi Child

The U.S. government's record on coming to the aid of our Iraqi allies when they are in need has so far been pretty dismal, especially concerning Iraqi translators. But there are also real instances of U.S. citizens, such as Kirk Johnson, working hard and making sacrifices to help those who have helped us.

The following is an excerpt from an article by David Finkel in today's Washington Post, titled "
Izzy? . . . Bring Your Daughter Here." It's an extremely moving story that brought tears to my eyes at its conclusion, and I hope you will read it in its entirety.

BAGHDAD, July 26 -- An hour after a car bomb exploded in downtown Baghdad on Thursday, killing at least 25 people, wounding at least 110 and destroying an apartment building, a phone call begging for help came to an Army officer in eastern Baghdad. It was from a man named Izzy who works as an interpreter for the U.S. military and whose calm voice was now filled with panic.

A suicide car bomb exploded in Baghdad's Mansour area on Wednesday near a crowd of jubilant Iraqis celebrating Iraq's Asian Cup defeat of South Korea, killing 30 and wounding 75, police said.  [photo: REUTERS/MAHMOUD RAOUF MAHMOUD]His apartment was in ruins, he said. One of his two daughters had been badly injured. Something had pierced her head when their apartment disintegrated. He had taken her to a hospital filled with the injured, but overwhelmed doctors had said there was nothing they could do, that she needed more help than they could give, and so he was standing on a street with his bleeding daughter at his side, afraid that she was going to die.

"The only hope you have is to get her to an American hospital?" said Maj. Brent Cummings, executive officer of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, for which Izzy is an interpreter. He was repeating what Izzy had just said. Izzy started to answer. The cellphone went dead. "Izzy?" Cummings said. "Izzy?"

How do moments of decency occur in a place such as Baghdad, in a war such as this war? Perhaps by what several officers on an Army base in eastern Baghdad decided to do next.
Please continue reading the story here.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

"Dying in the Desert": Congressional Briefing Addresses Needs of Iraqi Children

'I'm dying in the desert' - A Palestinian Iraqi refugee, in a camp on the Syrian border, holds up a sign she made herself. [UNHCR photo 7/25/07]The picture at left was taken four days ago at the Al-Walid refugee camp, located within Iraq about a kilometer from the Syrian border. The little girl, along with nine other young children in her camp, will be dead before the end of the year.

This according to the photographer, Ambassador L. Craig Johnstone, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees. On Wednesday, he addressed a gathering of Members of Congress, Congressional staff, the nonprofit community and the media, describing the plight of the 2 million refugees forced to flee Iraq and the additional 2 million internally displaced.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) speaks at the Congressional briefing on Iraqi refugees [EPIC photo: Emily Stivers 7/25/07]U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), an original cosponsor of the Responsibility to Iraqi Refugees Act (H.R. 2265), introduced the Ambassador. "This is, in many ways, a very personal issue for me," she said, "because it is widely reflected in my District, where we have lots of Assyrian Christians and Iraqi Christians who are among those targeted groups in danger in Iraq. Many are trying to leave Iraq and have been unable to do so."

Ambassador Johnstone's focus, however, was on the children. Part of his recent mission was to help open Jordanian schools to the estimated 500,000 Iraqi refugees there. The situation in Syria is slightly better, but a low estimate of 40% of the roughly 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria are going without basic education and health services. "We desperately need a lot of money...to take care of the educational needs of Iraqi children in Jordan and in Syria," the Ambassador said, outlining a forthcoming UNICEF/UNHCR joint appeal for about $130 million towards that cause.

Within Iraq, the situation is even more dire -- and worst of all for the Palestinian Iraqis rejected by Syria. At Al-Walid camp, Johnstone described 150-degree temperatures within the UN-provided tents. UNHCR can't even get to Al-Walid to provide services or supplies without incurring heavy fire from insurgents, so most of the time the roughly 1,300 people there -- with 20-30 more families arriving daily -- go without basic needs. And that is why children, such as the little girl pictured above, are expected to die before the year is out.

Ambassador Johnstone [EPIC photo: Emily Stivers 7/25/07Ambassador Johnstone's appeal was emotional. "I speak to you mainly as an American," he said. "This war is a product in large part of our intervention in Iraq, and we have a special responsibility to the consequences of this war. We desperately need to help these people."

EPIC agrees. To find out how you can help, click here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Next Steps: What YOU Can Do for Iraqi Refugees!

More Members of Congress are signing on to cosponsor H.R. 2265, The Responsibility to Iraqi Refugees Act, every day. This bill would provide support for Iraq, NGOs and neighboring countries to handle the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian and protection situation for 4 million displaced Iraqis. It also provides special visas for the most at-risk refugees -- particularly those in danger for working closely with American soldiers and NGOs in Iraq.

Here is the list of cosponsors as of 8/2/07, organized by date of sign-on:

Rep Blumenauer, Earl [D-OR-3] - 5/10/2007
Rep Schakowsky, Janice D. [D-IL-9] - 5/10/2007
Rep Shays, Christopher [R-CT-4] - 5/10/2007
Rep McGovern, James P. [D-MA-3] - 5/16/2007
Rep Clarke, Yvette D. [D-NY-11] - 5/16/2007
Rep Velazquez, Nydia M. [D-NY-12] - 5/16/2007
Rep Berman, Howard L. [D-CA-28] - 5/21/2007
Rep Capps, Lois [D-CA-23] - 5/21/2007
Rep McCollum, Betty [D-MN-4] - 5/24/2007
Rep Baird, Brian [D-WA-3] - 6/5/2007
Rep Holt, Rush D. [D-NJ-12] - 6/5/2007
Rep Sestak, Joe [D-PA-7] – 6/7/2007
Rep Dingell, John D. [D-MI-15] - 6/11/2007
Rep Hirono, Mazie K. [D-HI-2] - 6/11/2007
Rep Woolsey, Lynn C. [D-CA-6] - 6/13/2007
Rep Moran, Jerry [D-KS-1] - 6/15/2007
Rep LaTourette, Steven C. [R-OH-14] - 6/15/2007
Rep Delahunt, William D. [D-MA-10] - 6/15/2007
Rep Baldwin, Tammy [D-WI-2] - 6/15/2007
Rep Ellison, Keith [D-MN-5] - 6/15/2007
Rep English, Phil [R-PA-3] - 6/15/2007
Rep Sanchez, Linda T. [D-CA-39] - 6/15/2007
Rep Watson, Diane E. [D-CA-33] - 6/18/2007
Rep Payne, Donald M. [D-NJ-10] - 6/19/2007
Rep Meeks, Gregory W. [D-NY-6] - 6/19/2007
Rep Honda, Michael M. [D-CA-15] - 6/20/2007
Rep Larson, John B. [D-CT-1] - 6/21/2007
Rep Pomeroy, Earl [D-ND] - 6/21/2007
Rep Capuano, Michael E. [D-MA-8] - 6/21/2007
Rep Larsen, Rick [D-WA-2] - 6/21/2007
Rep Lantos, Tom [D-CA-12] - 6/21/2007
Rep Norton, Eleanor Holmes [D-DC] - 6/22/2007
Rep Israel, Steve [D-NY-2] - 6/22/2007
Rep Gilchrest, Wayne T. [R-MD-1] - 6/22/2007
Rep Wexler, Robert [D-FL-19] - 6/25/2007
Rep Jones, Walter B., Jr. [R-NC-3] - 6/27/2007
Rep Frank, Barney [D-MA-4] - 6/27/2007
Rep Hooley, Darlene [D-OR-5] - 6/28/2007
Rep Davis, Tom [R-VA-11] - 7/11/2007
Rep Snyder, Vic [D-AR-2] - 7/11/2007
Rep Crowley, Joseph [D-NY-7] - 7/16/2007
Rep McDermott, Jim [D-WA-7] - 7/16/2007
Rep Jackson-Lee, Sheila [D-TX-18] - 7/17/2007
Rep Smith, Adam [D-WA-9] - 7/17/2007
Rep Hinchey, Maurice D. [D-NY-22] - 7/17/2007
Rep Olver, John W. [D-MA-1] - 7/18/2007
Rep Allen, Thomas H. [D-ME-1] - 7/23/2007
Rep Jackson, Jesse, Jr. [D-IL-2] - 7/23/2007
Rep Davis, Danny K. [D-IL-7] - 7/24/2007
Rep Moran, James P. [D-VA-8] - 7/24/2007
Rep Welch, Peter [D-VT] - 7/31/2007
Rep Eshoo, Anna G. [D-CA-14] - 7/31/2007
Rep Filner, Bob [D-CA-51] - 7/31/2007
Rep Berkley, Shelley [D-NV-1] - 8/2/2007
Rep Fattah, Chaka [D-PA-2] - 8/2/2007
Rep Nadler, Jerrold [D-NY-8] - 8/2/2007
Rep Davis, Susan A. [D-CA-53] - 8/2/2007

If your member is on this list, congratulations! Your work is done. But if not, there are a few important steps you can take on behalf of millions of innocent Iraqi civilians displaced by violence.

Step #1. Send a letter to your representative through our
action center. If you have already done so, move on to step 2.

Step #2. Place a follow-up call. The House switchboard at (202) 224-3121 can connect you to the right office. Ask for the legislative assistant handling the Iraq refugee crisis, and tell him or her that the time is NOW to cosponsor H.R. 2265 and thus protect and assist innocent Iraqi refugees. If you haven't received a letter from your member in response to your action in Step #1, be sure to ask why. And please email EPIC to let us know how your member's office responded -- the more info we have, the more effective our advocacy will be.

Step #3. Schedule a visit with your representative. Congressional recess is coming up in August, and many members will be heading home for the month. You can find local contact info by entering your rep's name into your favorite search engine and going to his or her website. So give a call and set up a meeting in August to express your concern for Iraqi refugees, and again, be sure to let us know how it goes.

Step #4. Make a donation to EPIC. Our advocacy work is made possible by the contributions of our members. Every dollar makes us that much more effective in our mission of building peace and protecting the innocent in Iraq.

You can also help by writing letters to local publications when they run stories about Iraqi refugees, and telling your friends about EPIC and our action center. We all need to continue working together to keep the pressure up. Those refugees are counting on us.

FYI: Epic Booklist

So there was a tremendous commotion at bookstores this past Friday. As customers thronged around checkout counters all across the country, exceptionally long lines and hordes of consumers awaited the stroke of midnight. Why midnight you ask? Well that was when the latest, hottest, frenzy-inspiring book was released.

If you don't know which book we're talking about, it's because you haven't been visiting EPIC's book list. Didn't know we had a book list? Well that's another problem. We keep the most up-to-date and comprehensive source of the best Iraq literature on the web. From military strategy, to children's books, we have it.

With Congress coming to its summer recess, and personal vacations looming, I think it's time you updated your summer reading list. I mean, what else are you going to do on the beach?

Oh and if you still don't know what book garnered all the commotion last Friday, you should really check out our "Notable New Releases." I'll give you a clue though: it doesn't start with a "Harry" or end with a "Hallows." ;)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Kirk Johnson and Iraqi Refugees Get Press

On the July 15th "World News With Charles Gibson," ABC News ran a story on Iraqi refugees, featuring Kirk Johnson. The segment, titled "Left Behind: Adocates Helping Iraqis Come to the U.S.," involved interviews with Johnson as well as Ellen Sauerbrey, the top State Department official on refugees. You can watch the video and read the accompanying article here, and I highly recommend both.

Meanwhile, Kirk got more press with an article in Sunday's Washington Post by Spencer Hsu. This article, "
Envoy Urges Visas for Iraqis Aiding the U.S.," cites Kirk making what I believe is one of the most compelling arguments in favor of aid to Iraqi refugees:
Kirk W. Johnson, who served as regional reconstruction coordinator in Fallujah in 2005 for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the damage to the United States' standing in the Muslim world will be long-lasting if the country's immigration officials are unable to tell friend from foe in Iraq -- between terrorists and those who have sacrificed the most to work and fight alongside Americans.

"If we screw this group of people, we're never going to make another friend in the Middle East as long as I'm alive," said Johnson, who is advocating the resettlement of Iraqis who have worked for coalition forces. "The people in the Middle East are watching what happens to this group."
This week, EPIC continues to advocate on behalf of Iraqi refugees, and we'll keep you informed of our progress.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Econ Report: "So How Many Resumes Should I Bring?"

Characters in the comedy cult film Office Space (1999) contemplate what it would be like if they all lost their jobs... Well, it would be very similar to Iraq.So you don't have a job? Of course you don't. You live in Iraq. Unemployment nationwide has been hovering between a dismal 25% and an astoundingly bad 40% for almost three years now. But don't worry, if you live in the Karkh area of Baghdad you can ignore those numbers. Your unemployment rate is closer to 60%!

Faced with this crisis, the Karkh Chamber of Commerce and Industry NGO recently took some action. I know what you're thinking: there seems to be only one obvious answer to a 60% unemployment figure. And you would be right -- they held a jobs fair!

Over 25 companies and several international businesses showed up, all offering jobs in areas around Baghdad considered relatively safe. What's even smarter is that each company was looking for applicants with residences in the area a particular project would be rooted. With less road to travel, or hardly any at all, workers are much safer from insurgent attacks.

While the notion of a jobs fair in Baghdad might not be the first solution that comes to mind in light of a 60% unemployment figure, consider this: over 4,000 applicants attended (predominantly younger persons with college degrees) and thousands of jobs were offered. With such an enthusiastic turnout, another fair has been scheduled in Rasafa, Baghdad.

"We intended to put companies in direct touch with the unemployed. The unemployed should invest their energy working in their neighborhoods instead of joining the insurgents," said Ali Jamil Latif, head of the NGO. "We believe that when we ensure people have a good life, the security situation will improve." Indeed, EPIC's recent Ground Truth Interview with Professor Eric Davis came to the same conclusion, as well as several non-job-fair solutions for Iraq's unemployment crisis.

We need to remember that economics and security are intertwined. The jobs fair, while such a simple idea, means that the 4,000 persons in attendance are 4,000 persons less likely to be recruited for militias and terrorist groups. A jobs fair could link someone who is increasingly worried about how he or she is going to put food on the table with the means to do so. Unemployment is not just a statistic: it's progress defined.

PHOTO CREDITS: Characters in the comedy cult film Office Space (1999) contemplate what it would be like if they all lost their jobs.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

EPIC Guest Blogger: Jessica Guiney on "Martyrs Without Borders"

A small crying girl, her body covered in cuts from the blast. Faces melting in screams are frozen in time, captured in grief for hours. Reading news, surfing the internet, I’m under no illusion: I am, by all relative measures, safe. These people, the victims of suicide bombings in Iraq, are not. I am left wondering: what is going on?

While I can’t understand the entirety of this messy and complex conflict in Iraq, I feel I have a better comprehension after attending an event on Iraq suicide bombings at the
U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). Professor Mohammed Hafez, who recently wrote, Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom, was joined by the Iraqi Ambassador to the United States, and Washington Post correspondent Tom Ricks. They helped expand my understanding of “what is going on,” but left plenty of room for more questions and uncertainties.

Professor Hafez uses the catchphrase “Martyrs without Borders” for the growing trend of suicide terrorism. It seems
most of those carrying out attacks are not Iraqis, but typically young men in their early- to mid-twenties from nearby countries. These young men, many from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, or Morocco, are often provided food, shelter and information by resistance fighters in Iraq.

Their motivations are hard to pinpoint. According to Hafez, the images of Abu Ghraib and “shock and awe” campaigns push them towards Iraq. Also, the “martyr” status associated with suicide attacks against occupiers makes the choice more attractive to young men.

However, most of the victims of these attacks aren’t occupiers; they’re usually innocent Iraqis, including women and children. In fact, Hafez argued, most suicide attacks in Iraq do not target the U.S., but rather Iraqi police and Shi’ite communities. While he acknowledges the ongoing conflict between Sunni and Shi’ites, he thinks it is overplayed in terms of suicide bombings. These attacks, instead, are strategically calculated to create disorder, enflame the sectarian conflict, and make people blame the U.S.

The Iraqi ambassador pointed out that suicide bombings, while not as frequent as other types of attacks, disproportionately affect security in relation to the small amount of money, manpower, and technology needed to create an attack. But beyond the physical damage, with each failed U.S. program and each suicide bomb comes damage to the campaign for “hearts and minds.” Extravagant, top-heavy programs currently funded by the U.S. lack impact on everyday life for Iraqis. Suicide bombings, on the other hand, are a painful and too frequent reality.

Baghdad is the epicenter of a global confrontation of ideas, and the majority of the people there are allies of the United States. The Ambassador insisted that the U.S. must engage them, and find ways to collaborate at a grassroots level. Iran ensures control and efficiency in its spending in Iraq by operating locally, within small communities. While the US may outspend many other parties in Iraq, it also must ensure that spending is effective.

As difficult as the problem is, the potential exists for the U.S. to improve how it understands and is handling such conflicts in Iraq. In the long term, no society will harbor a group that continually harms its own most vulnerable. And whether an average Iraqi sees U.S. forces and NGOs as allies or not, the groups perpetrating suicide attacks don’t offer ways for Iraqis to help themselves. The U.S., I think, can.

Hafez, the Ambassador, and Ricks all agreed that the justifications for suicide terrorism, especially targeting fellow Iraqis and Muslims, are truly empty. The U.S. can help Iraqis become their own best allies through education and training programs aimed at sustainable development, and helping expose the truth of martyrdom – and the Ground Truth it creates for Iraqi families, children, and society.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Refugee Bills Pick Up Steam...and Cosponsors!

Thanks in part to your letters and our advocacy efforts, the two bills that would help Iraqi refugees -- H.R. 2265, the Responsibility to Iraqi Refugees Act, and S. 1651, the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act -- are not just picking up steam. They are on fire.

The House Bill, introduced by Rep.s Blumenauer, Schakowsky and Shays, has netted 30 new cosponsors since we began our efforts in June (including FIVE in the last TWO days!), bringing the total to 44. Here is the full list of Representatives who have stood up in support of our Iraqi allies and the innocent victims of violence and displacement in Iraq:

Rep Baird, Brian [WA-3]
Rep Baldwin, Tammy [WI-2]
Rep Berman, Howard L. [CA-28]
Rep Capps, Lois [CA-23]
Rep Capuano, Michael E. [MA-8]
Rep Clarke, Yvette D. [NY-11]
Rep Crowley, Joseph [NY-7]
Rep Davis, Tom [VA-11]
Rep Delahunt, William D. [MA-10]
Rep Dingell, John D. [MI-15]
Rep Ellison, Keith [MN-5]
Rep English, Phil [PA-3]
Rep Frank, Barney [MA-4]
Rep Gilchrest, Wayne T. [MD-1]
Rep Hinchey, Maurice D. [NY-22]
Rep Hirono, Mazie K. [HI-2]
Rep Holt, Rush D. [NJ-12]
Rep Honda, Michael M. [CA-15]
Rep Hooley, Darlene [OR-5]
Rep Israel, Steve [NY-2]
Rep Jackson-Lee, Sheila [TX-18]
Rep Jones, Walter B., Jr. [NC-3]
Rep Lantos, Tom [CA-12]
Rep Larsen, Rick [WA-2]
Rep Larson, John B. [CT-1]
Rep LaTourette, Steven C. [OH-14]
Rep McCollum, Betty [MN-4]
Rep McDermott, Jim [WA-7]
Rep McGovern, James P. [MA-3]
Rep Meeks, Gregory W. [NY-6]
Rep Moran, Jerry [KS-1]
Rep Norton, Eleanor Holmes [DC]
Rep Payne, Donald M. [NJ-10]
Rep Pomeroy, Earl [ND]
Rep Sanchez, Linda T. [CA-39]
Rep Schakowsky, Janice D. [IL-9]
Rep Sestak, Joe [PA-7]
Rep Shays, Christopher [CT-4]
Rep Smith, Adam [WA-9]
Rep Snyder, Vic [AR-2]
Rep Velazquez, Nydia M. [NY-12]
Rep Watson, Diane E. [CA-33]
Rep Wexler, Robert [FL-19]
Rep Woolsey, Lynn C. [CA-6]

We are expecting to add several more names to that list by the end of the week. But if you don't see your rep's name, you can still take action through our
action center (if you have not already done so) or call the House switch board at (202) 224-3121. Tell your member the time is NOW to help Iraqi refugees, and urge them to sign on as a cosponsor to H.R. 2265.

Meanwhile, prospects are very good for the Senate version of the bill as well. We don't have a lot of details yet, but it looks as though the text may be added as an amendment to a spending bill and pushed through very soon. We will keep you posted as that develops.

Overall, things look very good for these bills, and we are spending the next couple of days on the Hill advocating for Iraqi refugees and IDPs. With your support, we really have the power to make a difference!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

FYI: The 18 Iraq Benchmarks

Here is the complete set of benchmarks submitted to Congress in the "Initial Benchmark Assessment Report" dated July 12, 2007. MSNBC offers a breakdown and analysis of the report here, and the White House provides a transcript of President Bush's press conference on the report here.


(1) Forming a Constitutional Review Committee and then completing the constitutional review.

(2) Enacting and implementing legislation on de-Baathification.

Enacting and implementing legislation to ensure the equitable distribution of hydrocarbon resources of the people of Iraq without regard to the sect or ethnicity of recipients, and enacting and implementing legislation to ensure that the energy resources of Iraq benefit Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, Kurds, and other Iraqi citizens in an equitable manner.

Enacting and implementing legislation on procedures to form semi-autonomous regions.

Enacting and implementing legislation establishing an Independent High Electoral Commission, provincial elections law, provincial council authorities, and a date for provincial elections.

Enacting and implementing legislation addressing amnesty.

(7) Enacting and implementing legislation establishing a strong militia disarmament program to ensure that such security forces are accountable only to the central government and loyal to the Constitution of Iraq.

(8) Establishing supporting political, media, economic, and services committees in support of the Baghdad Security Plan.

Providing three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations.

Providing Iraqi commanders with all authorities to execute this plan and to make tactical and operational decisions, in consultation with U.S commanders, without political intervention, to include the authority to pursue all extremists, including Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.

(11) Ensuring that the Iraqi Security Forces are providing even handed enforcement of the law.

Ensuring that, according to President Bush, Prime Minister Maliki said 'the Baghdad security plan will not provide a safe haven for any outlaws, regardless of sectarian or political affiliation'.

(13) Reducing the level of sectarian violence in Iraq and eliminating militia control of local security.

(14) Establishing all of the planned joint security stations in neighborhoods across Baghdad.

Increasing the number of Iraqi security forces units capable of operating independently.

Ensuring that the rights of minority political parties in the Iraqi legislature are protected.

Allocating and spending $10 billion in Iraqi revenues for reconstruction projects, including delivery of essential services, on an equitable basis.

(18) Ensuring that Iraq's political authorities are not undermining or making false accusations against members of the Iraqi Security Forces. Rebel cleric Muqtada al Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, still controls parts of the city, and some Iraqis believe it has expanded its hold since the surge began. Many members of the parliament are loyal to the Sadrist bloc.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Clinton Vows to Aid Iraqi Refugees

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton visited the bellwether state of Iowa last week, where she outlined her most detailed plan for Iraq yet.

In a 40-minute speech, Mrs. Clinton stated that she would begin to withdraw troops from Iraq within 60 days of being elected into the presidential office. She also vowed to improve health care for returning veterans, remain vigilant against terrorism in the Middle East, encourage countries around the world to contribute to a stable Iraq, and to implement a multi-billion dollar campaign to help Iraqi refugees. The former first lady believes that President Bush will not alter his course or strategy on Iraq, clearly supposing that our next president will inherit the burden.

The Washington Post’s op-ed columnist Fred Hiatt agrees with Hillary on this point. But Hiatt has something else to say about Clinton’s speech. “Clinton ascribed to what might be called the consensus, Baker-Hamilton view: Pull out of the most intense combat but remain militarily engaged by going after terrorists, training and advising Iraqi troops, and safeguarding at least some regions or borders.” Hiatt is pointing out the disparity between Clinton’s rhetoric and her true intentions (to keep U.S. military forces in the region to protect our national interests).

Whether or not this disparity exists, I wish to bring to your attention the fact that Clinton addressed a number of important issues in her speech, not least among them the Iraqi refugee issue. (Iraqi refugees are a topic we have frequently blogged about and is an issue we aim to remedy via education and action.) We are not endorsing her campaign (nor anyone else’s for that matter), but we are happy to see Clinton bring up the Iraqi refugees issue. We sincerely hope that it is an indication of the direction that political speeches and action is going.

Civilian Casualties: We Can Do Better

Remember those horrific photos from a couple years ago, showing U.S. soldiers abusing and torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib? Of course you do. Who could forget those images. "Disturbing" doesn't even begin to say it.

Now, I've always had a tremendous respect for the service men and women who are out there risking their lives every day for our country. And it's important that we recognize that far more missions and prisons are handled with respect for human life than not. Meanwhile, whatever problems our military has, it's still known as the best and most humane in the world.

But we can do better.

This week, The Nation came out with an article including disturbing detail about the brutal treatment of Iraqi civilians by some U.S. soldiers and marines in the early years of the war.
The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness, by Chris Hedges & Laila Al-Arian, documents interviews with 50 Iraq combat vets, dozens of whom:

...witnessed Iraqi civilians, including children, dying from American firepower. Some participated in such killings; others treated or investigated civilian casualties after the fact. Many also heard such stories, in detail, from members of their unit. The soldiers, sailors and marines emphasized that not all troops took part in indiscriminate killings. Many said that these acts were perpetrated by a minority. But they nevertheless described such acts as common and said they often go unreported -- and almost always go unpunished.
Devastated neighborhood in Sadr City.Granted, The Nation's report is biased towards the earlier years of the war (including interviews with only two respondents who served in Iraq after 2005), and the Washington Post reports that the aggregate number of civilian deaths has decreased by 34% since January. Nevertheless, the June 30th bombing in Sadr City, in which two U.S. raids for insurgents hit a civilian area, prove we still have a problem. Witnesses -- including surviving residents, police and hospital officials -- said as many as 26 innocent Iraqis were killed during the operation, including a number of children.

Back in May, I wrote here about
the failure of the U.S. military to adequately document and compensate for the deaths of Iraqi civilians. The recent events in Sadr city substantiate the point we and our friends at the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) have been making...and breaks my heart, because it just shouldn't be this way.

"Every civilian death deserves recognition and the families suffering a loss deserve the dignity of knowing the circumstances,” said Sarah Holewinski, CIVIC’s executive director, in a recent press release. "If and when the US may be at fault, an investigation is appropriate and just."

EPIC joins with CIVIC in demanding a full, transparent investigation into these and other civilian casualties. "Investigate, figure out what went wrong, why civilians were killed, then fix the problem," said Holewinski. "That effort would show the Iraqi people that U.S. troops care."

Friday, July 13, 2007

Question: Are You Following the Latest Trends?

On July 5th, the Washington Post printed a chart depicting the "Ups and Downs in Iraq Violence." In the first section of the chart, showcasing the number of unidentified bodies found in the country, the total in Baghdad from January to April fell substantially (321 to 182 respectively). And while May and June have shown increased numbers (a combined total of almost 900), in the provinces, the data has displayed a marked decrease from April.

The second section, depicting the aggregate number of civilians killed, and the aggregate number of people slain in bombings that killed over 20, signals hope as well. Again, while May and June highlighted a jump in the number of civilians killed in Iraq, the aggregate number of deaths shows a 34% decrease since January. Also, the number of civilians killed in mass bombings is at a six month low (after a significant spike from February through April). However, these numbers do not include the three provinces in the Kurdish North -- an area that is apparently peaceful enough not to demand statistics.

To make best use of this data, we need to look at the reasons why civilian casualties took a downward turn. A number of sources in the current political discourse attribute these numbers to the troop surge. They are quick to point out, however, that while the surge may be successful in the areas where the new strategy has been deployed, it is not a sustainable policy. The successes realized are too focused to represent a substantial change in the expected outcome.

In other words: It's not enough. Read former USAID worker
Kirk Johnson's take on what is needed for real security in Iraq.

We should harness these successes and continue to improve the security of Iraqi civilians, but we can't fool ourselves into thinking the current positive aberration in the progress our policy is making is anywhere near a reliable phenomenon. A lot of areas are improving, but there are still a number of locales that are not. As long as we keep our thinking sharp and continue to build upon the successes we are having, we can keep improving upon the Iraqi's security -- making sure the graphs never show increases again.

Good News: UNHCR Receives $19 Million Donation

Living conditions in Ruweished camp are harsh, with hot desert storms in the summer and freezing nights in the winter. [© UNHCR/A.van Genderen Stort/July 2004]According to a press release from the State Department, the U.S. has just contributed an additional $19 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for Iraq refugee programs.

This contribution will provide urgently needed humanitarian assistance to Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and other countries in the region as well as to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and non-Iraqi refugees inside Iraq. It supports UNHCR's initiative to raise enrollment of Iraqi refugee children in schools throughout the region from 60,000 at present to 200,000 during the 2007-2008 school year. It will also support an increase in primary health services for Iraqi refugees in the region and sustain protection through registration, legal assistance, and resettlement activities for Iraqi refugees.

Inside Iraq, UNHCR coordinates the international response to Iraq's IDPs and refugees, provides emergency assistance to over 150,000 of the more than 2 million internally displaced Iraqis, and gives lifesaving assistance to 45,000 third-country refugees, including 15,000 Palestinians.

On July 12, 2007 UNHCR issued a Revised Supplementary Appeal for the Iraq Situation Response, raising its Iraq program budget to $123 million. This new U.S. contribution, along with our earlier contribution of $18 million, brings our total 2007 contribution to UNHCR's Iraq programs to $37 million.

This is a great start -- but $37 million is only 30% of $123 million, and traditionally the U.S. has funded at least half of UNHCR requests. Because we are in large part responsible for this refugee/IDP crisis, we can and must do more.

You can still do your part by taking two minutes to personalize our pre-written letter to Congress in support of legislation that would further fund UNHCR and protect and assist Iraqi refugees. And if you've already taken action, maybe pass the link along to a few friends or make a donation to EPIC today.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

From the Director's Desk: Two Senators to Watch

Let’s face it, it’s difficult to win a Presidential campaign (or even your party’s nomination) and be a responsible Senator at the same time. Running for President requires saying things that fire up your political base, thereby generating campaign contributions, volunteers and media visibility. Being a Member of Congress, on the other hand, involves nuance, compromise, and consensus-building to advance meaningful policy options. With Iraq, it’s about finding the least bad option remaining, one that has the best chance of reducing conflict and suffering.

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL)Which is why I appreciate the Senator from Illinois -– the one who is not running for President. Like EPIC, Sen. Dick Durbin questioned the Bush administration’s rush to invade Iraq. In 2002, he voted against the Bush-Gephardt war authorization bill (which EPIC lobbied hard against). Durbin has also worked hard to end the use of torture and Honor the Legacy of America’s commitment to human rights and the Geneva Conventions.

Today, responsible Senators such as Durbin recognize that it takes a lot more to end a war than political speeches and rallies. The same cannot be said for former Sen. John Edwards, who is no longer constrained by the national demands of having to actually get things done in the U.S. Senate. He’s now a Presidential candidate who has been helping “fuel antiwar expectations for congressional action.”

Here is John Edwards' advice for his former Senate colleagues:

"The one way to support our troops and bring them home is for Congress to exercise its constitutionally mandated funding power, force an immediate drawdown of 40,000 to 50,000 troops and require withdrawal of all troops within about a year."
Edward's statement falls far from the mark. Americans I talk with are losing as much patience with the war as they are with partisan bickering and absolutist demands. They want bipartisan cooperation that forces Bush toward meaningful change; change that can help reduce conflict and suffering right now –- NOT TWO YEARS LATER! So with that in mind, you’ll understand why I like Senator Durbin’s rebuke to John Edwards. Here’s an account from this morning’s Washington Post:

"I recall when John voted for this war. So it's understandable that he feels badly about that decision and wants to see something done to undo the harm that has happened," Durbin said during an appearance on washingtonpost.com's Post Talk. "But it has to be done in a sensible way."
Fortunately there are some men and women in the U.S. Senate who are NOT running for President: Senators Durbin (D-IL), Lugar (R-IN), Reed (D-RI) and Collins (R-ME), among others. Based on some of their recent remarks, they all appear to recognize the imperative task before them: forge a new bipartisan agreement on Iraq that the White House ‘can’t refuse.’

In my humble opinion, the gold standard was already set by the Iraq Study Group (ISG) whose recommendations are looking better and better to Senators on both sides of the aisle. This morning on NPR, ISG co-chairman Lee Hamilton told Morning Edition’s Renee Montagne that the ISG’s core recommendations remain relevant, both as a bipartisan way forward in the Senate and a viable policy option for ending the war in Iraq.

Regarding the ISG’s recommendations, the former Democratic congressman from Indiana, who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says: “…so far as I know, it's the only bipartisan proposal out there. And I think it still does have a reasonable chance of bringing about a unity of effort which is required for the success of our policy in Iraq.”

Senator Lugar calling for a Course Change in a speech on the Senate floor (6/25/07).Fellow Hoosier Richard Lugar seems to agree. He’s the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and seems to be the most respected Republican voices on foreign policy. More than any other Senator, his support is critical for any measure to be politically viable and (in my view) responsible. For the smartest interview on Iraq with a sitting Senator that you'll hear for months, listen to Sen. Lugar’s July 5th interview on Charlie Rose.

NPR's Own "Ground Truth" Interviews

We are happy to see that this week, National Public Radio is interviewing Americans who have been working on the ground in Iraq. Every morning on the “All Things Considered” hour, listeners hear from Americans across a spectrum that includes international development workers, military service members and others.

Monday’s interview featured Lt. Col. Robbie Robbins, an Army reservist from North Carolina where he is an assistant school principle. He shares his experiences as an overseer of Iraqi national police training. He says that Iraqis believe in their country and want to create a free and democratic Iraq. Just to be trained for the Iraqi national police they must risk their lives and enter an environment where “it’s at least 50/50 that they’ll get killed that day,” says Lt. Col. Robbins. Although it is shadowed by the dire situation in Iraq, the Army reservist’s own optimism is evident. “When I left, I felt like I left a country that, if it survived, it’d be the best think in the world for all of us.”

Tuesday’s “All Things Considered” featured an interview with Karen Diop, an aid worker in the Iraq program of America’s Development Foundation (ADF). Karen was forced to shut down the Iraq program after the U.S. failed to provide enough funding. She believes that Iraq will fall apart and that organizations such as ADF need to be present in order to help people cope with the situation. However, Karen also believes that there must be a “critical mass of Iraqis [who] need to decide to move their country forward.” A U.S. military presence along with development organizations could “keep the democratic space open” in order to reach that critical mass and to rebuild the country.

We are delighted to see NPR’s interviews with those who have worked on the ground, which complement our own Ground Truth Interviews, which you can read here. Stay tuned to NPR all week to hear more from people Lt. Col. Robbins and Karen Diop.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

EPIC Guest Blogger: Jessica Guiney on "Mission Al Jazeera"

Mission Al Jazeera: Build a Bridge, Seek the Truth, Change the World, the title of a new book by U.S. Marine Cpt. (ret.) Josh Rushing, definitely captured my attention right off. As I read through his experience working in the U.S. Central Command media office in Iraq, Josh's story opened my eyes to a new “front” in the Iraq war that isn’t debated nearly as much as soldiers, tanks, and weapons: the media.

Josh’s perspective is particularly insightful because he was there. As a military spokesman to media outlets around the world, he was the officer in charge of engaging the largest Arab media outlet:
Al Jazeera Arabic. He believes this channel is not meant to undermine or attack anyone, but is instead an important voice in the Arab world.

Unfortunately, military and political leaders have taken a very hands-off and at times even hostile approach towards Al Jazeera. That’s why Josh –- an officer with no expertise in Arab culture or language -– became the face of the West to the 35-55 million viewers across the Arab world during the current Iraq war. Based on the cultural experience he gained from working with Al Jazeera reporters, he considers the U.S. failure to truly work with the Arab media a huge strategic mistake. It is also a failure in a larger war of information, ideas, and explanations about the U.S. role in the Arab world.

That’s part of the reason why Josh works for Al-Jazeera English today. He truly believes that misunderstandings, and particularly cultural misunderstandings, fuel ongoing conflict.

Al Jazeera English launched in November of 2006, and is viewed in 100 million homes worldwide. Yet only Ohio and Vermont have picked up the channel in the United States. Thus most of America is missing out on a new model for international news that is building a bridge between cultures by having local people report on their issues to an international audience. Viewers in America wouldn’t get an American perspective on Iraq; they’d hear from Iraqi journalists.

Sometimes this might be difficult. As Josh noticed, Al Jazeera videos can be disturbing to watch because they provide a more accurate portrayal of war realities than what we’re used to seeing in the United States.

This is part of what Josh describes as getting to the “Ground Truth.” That's where, by listening to those closest to the issues, you can start to reach a truly substantive debate. Even solutions.

While Josh writes honestly about mistakes in Iraq, he also has hope for the future. A lot of people in the military and political realm want to better utilize, understand, and work with the media. And, he points out, Americans want to become better informed about the world around them. Modern technology makes building these bridges of information possible, so people can see, hear, and try to understand the Ground Truth.

And, as we get closer to the Ground Truth and push the debate deeper, we may even be able to change the world.

"The Volunteers"

In the classic 1985 comedy "Volunteers," Tom Hanks plays a spoiled playboy forced to join the Peace Corps when his father refuses to pay off his gambling debts. Along with John Candy and Rita Wilson, he heads to a fictional town in Southeast Asia, where the group is tasked with building a bridge and finds itself in the midst of a 3-way feud involving the U.S. military, local Communists (hey it was the 1980s) and a drug lord. Hilarity, as you might expect from such a cast, ensues.

EPIC volunteer Julia Stutz makes a delivery to an office in the House of Representatives.Fortunately, EPIC has had considerably better luck with its volunteers, and a lot more fun. In addition to our two full-time interns, Geoff and Chris, we've been relying upon Julia Stutz, who comes in on Thursday afternoons to help with transcriptions, publicity and various administrative projects. Julia and former EPIC intern Natasha Mooney were invaluable during our refugee letter delivery to Congress, and we also received assistance from several Amnesty International interns who volunteered for one to two days each. Finally, we have recently enlisted Jessica Guiney, who is going to write several guest blogs for us and do some editing on our upcoming reports.

EPIC volunteer Natasha Mooney helps organize constituent letters.Without these volunteers so generously donating their time, skills and passion, our work would not be possible.

If you're interested in volunteering for EPIC on a flexible schedule -- possibly even from the comfort of your home -- contact us at info@epic-usa.org or fill out our Volunteer Registration Form. We have all sorts of projects and can use people with all sorts of different skills, including editing, graphic design, data entry, guest blogging and more. And if you don't have the time but want to make a difference, please consider making a donation to our work.

Just think -- in the time it might take to watch a ridiculous '80s comedy about the Peace Corps, you can instead make a meaningful contribution to real-life peacebuilding, possibly building your resume in the process. And I can personally guarantee that you'll have a much better time than the guys in "Volunteers," and your contributions won't get blown up with TNT at the end of the day. ;)

Monday, July 09, 2007

"Too Early to Cheer"

In last week's guest blog, Ken Bacon of Refugees International wrote that the U.S. resettled 63 Iraqi refugees in June. Although this is a huge accomplishment (a 6,300% increase!!), Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) Ellen Sauerbrey's continued false claims about our commitment to Iraqi refugees make it too soon to cheer our moral victory.

Sauerbrey stated back in February that the U.S. would be able to resettle 7,000 Iraqis in the 2007 fiscal year. Then PRM backtracked and said they would at least get that many referrals from the UN (which they did –- ahead of schedule). Now they’re claiming they might get 2,000 Iraqis resettled in the U.S. by year’s end.

Then, on July 5th, Sauerbrey wrote a letter to the editor at the Washington Post, claiming “the United States has funded 30 percent of the appeal from the [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] for $60 million to help Iraqis.” But this, too, is false. According to Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch, the U.S. has only funded $12 mill
ion, not $18 million.

So our administration has been scaling down its quota for Iraqi refugees and backtracking on its promises. Their excuse was that the Department of Homeland Security had not created its special screening process for Iraq refugees. That process was created at the end of May, and my guess is that the latest 63 Iraqis to resettle here are a result of DHS' progress. UNHCR already reached its quota of 7,000 referrals for resettlement. Even if DHS can resettle 63 in just one month, immediately after creating its screening process, we should only expect to bring in another 189 Iraqi refugees by the end of this fiscal year, far short of 2,000.

This is
pathetic and unacceptable. It's our moral responsibility to help Iraqis who have been displaced as a result of this war, especially those who have sided with the U.S. in the reconstruction of Iraq. With your help, we will keep the pressure on the administration to live up to its claims and to our collective responsibility.

Friday, July 06, 2007

EPIC Guest Blogger: Ken Bacon on U.S. Resettlement of Iraqi Refugees

Ken Bacon, President of Refugees International, is our guest blogger today. He outlines a more honorable U.S. policy toward Iraqi refugees.

It’s too early to cheer, but after months of delay and disappointment, the U.S. is beginning to admit more Iraqi refugees for resettlement here.

In June, 63 Iraqi refugees arrived in the U.S., bringing to 133 the number of Iraqis resettled in the first nine months of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. This is still a very small number compared to the State Department’s various announcements that it was prepared to resettle from 7,000 to 20,000 Iraqis this year.

The hold up has been the Department of Homeland Security, which has moved slowly to issue its security protocols for processing Iraqis and getting interview teams into the field.

But resettlement will deal with only a small corner of the Iraqi displacement problem. An estimated 4.2 million Iraqis have fled their homes to escape violence in Iraq. Of the total, 2 million are internally displaced in Iraq, and 2.2 million are refugees, living primarily in Syria and Jordan.

Yesterday, I appeared on a panel at the Middle East Institute with Nir Rosen, an author and analyst who has spent a lot of time in Iraq and surrounding countries. Earlier this year he went to Northern Iraq and Egypt as a consultant for Refugees International. Nir noted that countries throughout the Middle East fear that Iraqis will become another population like the Palestinians—displaced, disenfranchised and potentially radicalized.

The possible radicalization of Iraqi refugees would be a disaster for the U.S. Not only would we be blamed for contributing to another destabilizing force in the Middle East, the U.S., Israel and our allies could be targeted by a newly radicalized group. For this reason, the U.S. needs a better, more aggressive and more generous policy for dealing with Iraqi refugees.

First, we need to do much more to help Jordan, Syria and other host countries bear the burden of Iraqi refugees. The State Department is starting to help host governments build and staff schools for Iraqi children, but the program is limited. In Jordan, there are an estimated 250,000 Iraqi children of school age, yet by some estimates, only 14,000 are in school. How are the rest spending their time? What will they and their families think of the U.S.? We also need to bolster the infrastructure for medical care and provide food and other support, where necessary.

Second, we need to help meet the needs of displaced families in Iraq. Many are cut off from the Public Distribution System—the government food rations on which most Iraqi families depend—when they move. We should work with the Iraqi government to make sure that no displaced families are left out.

Third, we need to step up our resettlement program so that more of the highly vulnerable Iraqis—particularly those who worked for the U.S.—can be protected. Every year, the U.S. sets a goal for the number of refugees it plans to admit. This year’s goal is 70,000. At the end of the first nine months of the current fiscal year, the U.S. had admitted 24,536. This gives us 45,000 more spaces to fill in the next three months, and most of those should go to Iraqis. Then, next year, we should lift that goal.

If we fail to help Iraqi refugees now, we could be paying the price for years to come.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Doing the Right Thing, Patriotically

As I made my rounds in the House and Senate office buildings last week, visiting with various Congressional staffers about Iraqis displaced by violence, one of my most effective points turned out to be that the U.S. looks really bad internationally when we fail to protect those Iraqis who supported the invasion and worked for/with us to try to rebuild their country. These people put their lives on the line every day, and many endured humiliating treatment, because they believed in us and what we were trying to do. And we've been leaving them high-and-dry when they most need us.

I don't mean to be unpatriotic during 4th of July week, but reading their stories in EPIC's latest
Ground Truth Interview with Kirk Johnson made me feel ashamed of my country. Our failure to fulfill even our own low quotas for resettling refugees is morally reprehensible and just plain wrong.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who feels this way. According to
polls conducted by the Pew Research Center and released on June 27th, the U.S. image in the eyes of the rest of the world is steadily declining. Only 25 of the 47 countries surveyed reported positive views of the U.S., and all by margins much lower than in previous surveys. Meanwhile, 37 of 47 countries reported little or no trust in President Bush to do the right thing in world affairs (as you can see in the graph, left, Putin also got low scores).

I find this incredibly disturbing, but not surprising. Abandoning the refugees is just one important example of recent foreign policy bungles by the U.S. government. The fact is, we have proven time and time again that we're only out for #1, and the rest of the world has noticed.

The good news is, by "we" I mean the U.S. government, and not the American people at large. The Pew study also asked participants about their attitudes towards Americans, and the findings were far less dismal. Although margins have still fallen since 2002, nearly every country rates our people higher than our government. I find that encouraging.

But clearly, the U.S. government needs to do more to earn back the respect of the world, and can start by passing the Responsibility to Iraqi Refugees Act (H.R. 2265) in the House and the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act (S. 1651) in the Senate. And if you haven't done so already, you can still join over 2,000 Americans in writing to your Members of Congress to request their support for these bills.

While I may not be proud of my government right now, I'm hopeful that, with the help of good American people, we can still turn this around. And I'm still proud to be an American.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Meet Kirk Johnson, Part 2

Back in early May, on my first day as an intern here at EPIC, Erik Gustafson told me about a young man named Kirk Johnson. Erik told me Kirk was a former USAID employee who had worked in Iraq and was now compiling a list of Iraqi refugees who had worked with the U.S. and who fled as a result of “collaborating” with the occupation. It was a fascinating story, and I was eager to meet him.

I spoke with Kirk later that day over the phone. It turned out we had both studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo, and each felt very strongly about the moral obligation of the United States to address the worsening disaster in Iraq, especially in regard to Iraqi refugees. Since then, I have become more actively involved with Kirk and his work.

Today EPIC releases the second and final Ground Truth Interview with Kirk Johnson. In the first interview, Kirk talked about his experiences in Iraq and Fallujah and about his PTSD-related accident in the Dominican Republic. (See my recent blog on non-combat PTSD here and see the New York Times July 5th top story on the topic here.) Now, he talks about his work back in the U.S. and the dire situation faced by Iraqi refugees. Kirk shares traumatic stories of his Iraqi friends who were targeted for their work with the U.S. and subsequently abandoned by their allies. They are in urgent need of international support.

UNHCR promised to refer 7,000 Iraqi refugees to the U.S. for resettlement, which they accomplished ahead of schedule last month. The ball is now in our court. We have been blogging and delivering constituents' letters to Congress in support of Iraqi refugees for months now. It is the responsibility of this administration to expedite the process of resettlement for high-risk refugees and to bring in as many of our allies as possible before the end of this fiscal year, and in years to come.

The Econ Report: "Where Did the Watts Go?"

Iraq's energy situation, hanging in the balance.How long does it take you to run a fresh load of laundry? Maybe thirty, forty minutes minutes? And some of us, I suspect, enlist the television to help alleviate laundry-induced boredom, correct? (Guilty as charged right here). Well, since the television is on, you might as well finish watching that favorite show once the laundry's done...and maybe watch another one while you check email and start cooking dinner. Oops, forgot to turn the lights on in the kitchen...

How would you like to be relegated to a certain time of day to complete these activities? Actually, no, wait, that's too easy. How would you like to first have to choose one, and then be relegated to only an hour sometime in the middle of the day to get it done? No good, huh?

Welcome to Baghdad.

In the most recent Iraq Index complied by the Brookings Institution (using data from the State Department), Baghdad only receives 5.6 hours of electricity per day, on average. But that figure is actually deceptively optimistic. The 5.6 hours a day is often haphazardly broken up in a 24 hour time span -- e.g., dinner could be on the stove one minute, and the next, the Hamburger Helper is steadily coming to a cool.

Because of this, a new sound has emerged on the sonic landscape in Baghdad. Given that a sporadic 5.6 hours of electricity per day is less than adequate, Iraqis have turned to self-financed generators to fulfill their electricity needs. In a recent Washington Post article, an Iraqi named Amir Rahim "spends his entire salary [in the summer] -- about $950 a month -- to repair and keep his family's home powered generator running for 14 hours a day -- and that's without air conditioning." So while more than 5.6 hours of electricity per day is attainable, it's extremely costly. And "with monthly incomes in Iraq averaging about $200, most people here have far less power."

One of the primary reasons for the lack of electrical services are the incessant attacks on power grids, a much-noticed consequence of an unnoticed cyclical violence. Let me explain. Needing somewhere to turn when you can't pay for basic services, you look to the insurgent groups who can. They then proceed to attack, with your support, the basic service providers whose initial inefficiency caused you to support the insurgents -- rendering those service providers even less efficient.


The electricity issue connects to a number of bigger problems in Baghdad: it is tied to Iraqi well-being, it is a metric for reconstruction, and it is a factor in creating security. It may be just one of many economic problems that need to be worked out, but being so essential to the everyday mechanics of life, it may also be the most pressing.

But hey, it's a good thing it doesn't occasionally hit 140 degrees there in the summertime, otherwise restoring electricity may be fairly urgent.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Double Refugees: Palestinians Fleeing Iraq

Iraqi Palestinians are a people twice removed - double refugees. Expelled from the new state of Israel in 1948, about 90,000 Palestinians came to Iraq because, despite the cruelties of the Hussein regime, it was better than some of their other alternatives. In fact, Palestinians are viewed as sort of poor-relations throughout the Middle East, and frequently face discrimination and mistreatment. At least under Saddam, they received housing subsidies to compensate for not having the right to own land.

According to Adam Shapiro, co-founder of the pro-Palestinian
International Solidarity Movement (ISM), Palestinians in Iraq were the first targets after the U.S. invasion in 2003. They were kicked out of their homes, and many fled before the borders became secure. But without citizenship or proper identification, thousands of Iraqi Palestinians remain stranded in "no man's land" camps on the Syrian and Jordanian borders -- unable to return to Iraq out of fear for their lives, and unable to enter neighboring countries due to internal Arab and Israeli politics (Arab states fear Palestinians will become permanent squatters, and Israel has nixed any prospect for resettlement in Gaza).

About a thousand are trapped in a Baghdad camp, where they live in increasing squalor with limited water, sanitation and electricity. "The [Palestinian Iraqi] refugees express sentiments that they are treated as if they don't matter, as if there are too many of them, and no one cares about them," Shapiro stated at the Iraqi Refugee Roundtable Strategy Session last May. "[They] face killings, lootings, torture and imprisonment."

Conditions in the Palestinian Iraqi refugee camps on the Syrian and Jordanian borders are particularly dire. "No man, woman or child should be living in that environment," said Sybella Wilkes, spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Damascus, one of the few organizations able to gain access to the camps. Wilkes reports deaths, miscarriages, suicide attempts, fires, floods, dust storms and unbearable heat amongst contributing factors to the anguish of the camps' residents.

"These refugees are in danger of being completely eliminated," Shapiro stated. He advocates increasing the numbers of Palestinian Iraqi refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S., and helping other countries, such as Chile, with the funding and logistics of resettlement.

But the Palestinian Iraqi refugees must have a more immediate humanitarian solution if they are to survive. The U.S. and other nations -- including the Arab states claiming outrage against Israel at the plight of Palestinians -- must step up and provide shelter, food, clothing and especially medical care for these people. Before it's too late.
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