Sunday, May 02, 2004

Welcome to your world 

Hiya all,

welcome and happy May Day, the day of international struggle against bad things. For new readers, this blog is a response to a fraction of the world's many injustices, highlighting a few stories from around the world with my own take on them, along with links to more information and other sites and ideas for taking action. For established readers - thanks for coming back, relax, take a look around. To everyone - you can send responses of all kinds to respond_alexblog@yahoo.co.uk, where they will be read respectfully.

In this blog posting you can read:

* A peek into the murky gutters of the British press with Richard Desmond
* Life and otherwise for women in British jails
* A month in Iraq - the US killing spree we were afraid of
* John Negroponte's skeleton-packed closets
* How the fascists won in El Salvador
* Rwanda revisited in Darfur - genocide in Africa is back
* Long, long road to freedom for Mordechai Vanunu (good news story)
* The Canadian government batters small, cute furry baby animals
* Archaeologists shed new light on pet cats (good news story)

+ Article on Bosnia trip, very soon

As you will see, and as you are most likely well aware, it has been a very bloody past few weeks. 'War is hell' is derided as a cliché in much of the arts, so much attention has the idea been given. War is hell - but our politicians the world over keep on taking us back there. President Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan doesn't actually strike me as one who read 'All Quiet on the Western Front' tearfully and then resolved to remove the scourge of war from our world, Bob Dylan playing in the background. Al-Bashir - welcome to your place in history, just another petty murderer running a shabby, racist horror show on the basis of feeble excuses.
George Bush and Tony Blair, leaders of the coalition of the not-nearly-as-willing-as-they-were-this-time- last-year, have had numerous opportunities to make their venture in Iraq more appealing to the historians of the future but through their arrogance and disregard for basic humanity have chosen not to take them up. Over the past month, the Coalition Provisional Authority has acted as if it wished to emulate the regime it replaced and has finally persuaded the majority of Iraqis that coalition forces should leave immediately. The US initially had cautious goodwill from most Iraqis – it was the Bush administration’s choice to throw it away in a hail of bullets.
Fortunately, there are other forces at work in the world besides these. On the return journey from a short trip to Bosnia via Italy, it was great to see that the number of billboards with the absurd Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, were outnumbered by the number of peace banners hanging from windows. I've never seen so many signs of anti-war protest as in a couple of hours' coach journey through Trieste. This is just part of the new emerging power on the international scene - in February 2003, a New York Times editorial perceptively noted that are two superpowers dominating the world stage, the US government and global public opinion. It's great to see so many people enlisting in the armies of the latter.
The trip to Bosnia itself was also encouraging, despite everything. You can read about that in a separate piece after this news-mail. Much love and good wishes to the people of that country - also to those who gathered from all over the world to successfully break some of the restrictions on the recently released Israeli prisoner Mordechai Vanunu and to the people of South Africa, celebrating a decade of ditching apartheid.

And, of course, to all and any readers,

Alex Higgins
(Tottenham, London, England)

There is a great deal more foul language in this blog than I am comfortable with, but unfortunately that is how the forces of resignation and injustice speak. Indeed, I feel almost obliged to warn readers with the sorts of labels you get on videos – ‘this film contains strong language and scenes of extreme violence’. Some of this stuff is very, very nasty indeed. It’s politics.

For more Dilbert cartoons, visit the official website


Links to news stories not given due attention elsewhere in this blog:

Bombing of unkown provenace in Syria's capital, Damascas
Conflict in southern extremities of Thailand
Still hope for Cyprus reunification despite Greek rejection of UN plan in referendum
Potentially malicious US manipulation of politics in Bolivia
Kurds are pushing for their rights in Syria
Vulnerable Afghans forced from their homes in culture of impunity
Washington and London sell out Palestinians again
Montagnards persecuted in Vietnam's central highlands
Rich countries stopping poor kids going to school in the Third World
Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon proclaims death of the already dead road map to peace
Castro brings shame on Cuban revolution
North Korean media struggle to turn bad news into good news after rail disaster
Russian intellgience agencies slime their way into domestic politics
Hey advertisers - leave those kids alone!
Police brutality in Turkey

I hate it when they say, ‘He gave his life for his country.’ We steal the lives of these kids. We take it away from them. They don’t die for the honor and glory of their country. We kill them.
– Rear Admiral Gene R. LaRocque

Lalo Alcaraz, LA Weekly

Formerly a football field in Fallujah


93% of Britons agree – we have all had enough of Richard Desmond. Where does the figure of 93% come from? I’ll admit, I just made it up on the basis of flimsy evidence, much like the poll that appeared on the front page of the Daily Express on April 23rd. The Express, bought for £125 million in 2000 by Richard Desmond, has just switched its allegiance from the Labour Party to the Conservatives, and today’s front page informs us that “Britain backs the Daily Express – 93% Agree We All Have Had Enough of Blair”.
Had enough of Blair? Certainly, but there are few things that could earn Britain’s PM sympathy from sane quarters more than having Richard Desmond as his enemy.

Britain has some great journalists and some OK liberal newspapers with relatively limited national circulation (though some their reporting is featured on activist websites around the world). But by and large, this island is inflicted with deeply unlovely, far right rags. For all their flaws – and there are plenty - papers such as the Washington Post and Le Monde are respected for their professionalism around the world. You would be hard pressed to say that about the Times, the Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail, known for their cheap political point-scoring and for running fraudulent news stories (anyone have a copy of the Hitler diaries?), let well alone our openly depraved tabloids. It’s hard to pick a candidate for worst paper, but the members of Richard Desmond’s Express Group – the Daily Express, the Express on Sunday and the Daily Star – are certainly in the running.
Richard Desmond put up the money to buy the Express Group in 2000, and paid the Labour Party for the privilege shortly beforehand (£100,000 actually - a matter that caused some conflict-of-interests-type controversy of the kind that occasionally addles Blair for about a week until the papers covering it get bored and move on). As the BBC profile of Desmond on BBC Online gently puts it, such money was made from the profits to be had in “the adult industry”.

Desmond recently ditched such titles as ‘Asian Babes’, ‘Megaboobs’, ‘Nude Readers’ Wives’ and ‘Tits and Bums’ in an effort to gain respectability – part of an effort to buy up the Daily Telegraph, whose highly conservative readers are likely to rankle at being bought by a pornographer. They are currently getting over the shock of their paper’s proprietor being charged with theft by his own shareholders. Conrad Black was recently denounced by a judge in the state of Delaware. Judge Leo Strine told the court that while many corporate law cases involve “the color gray”, “Regrettably, this case is not one of that variety.”
It got worse for Mr. Black as Strine went on: “It became impossible [to] credit [Black’s] word… [Black is] evasive and unreliable… [and he] misrepresented facts to the International Board, used confidential company information for his own purposes without permission, and made threats, as he would put it, of ‘multifaceted dimensions’ toward International’s independent directors… [Black] persistently and seriously” violated corporate law.

So Conrad Black is denounced by a judge as a liar, a bully and a thief – one who owned newspapers in Canada, the US, Britain and Israel. Leo Strine’s judgement can be seen not just as a statement about one proprietor, but as a dictionary definition of media barons, past and present.

Nick Cohen, writing in his recent book, ‘Pretty Straight Guys’, provides some relevant anecdotes. When the Pound sterling fell out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1993 and the country headed for economic disaster, the editor of the Sun, Kevin MacKenize, gave then Prime Minister John Major a call. “John, I’m holding a bucket of shit in my hands and tomorrow morning it’s going to be emptied over your head”, MacKenzie told him.
The editor of the Mirror, Piers Morgan, once discussed the early decision of Tony Blair’s cabinet to freeze their salaries as a temporary gesture to the working class with them. Flaunting his own wealth, he took out a £20 note and threw it at Blair shouting, “Hey, Tony, buy the kids some toys!” The ministers became silent, until the PM’s Press Secretary Alistair Campbell picked up the note, straightened it out and return to Morgan, suggesting he give it to charity. As Cohen notes, “It takes a man of extraordinary vulgarity to bring out the hidden grace in Alistair Campbell. Piers Morgan was that man.”
These people are ruling class and boy do they know it.

Of course, capitalism is not famous for bringing out the best in people and Richard Desmond is a consequence of the rule and not an exception. As noted earlier, Desmond was until recently, a pornographer by trade, and the journalist Francis Wheen has fortunately done some research in places I’d rather not have to go myself.
Desmond owned the porn website fantasy121.com, whose employees record their numerous good deeds on the site. In one such, they described a trip to India, “It’s hard to believe that we found Shaheeda in the slums of Bombay in India. She was begging in the streets so we offered her $100 to strip for us”. Desmond’s kindly employees bought Shaheeda some new clothes and she told them movingly, “As a beggar, men never ask you for sex. If I could earn money having sex, I would. It is not easy to appear sexy when you are dressed in rags and cannot wash. I don’t know how to thank you for this day.” Moved by her plea, they could not but act, “We gave Shaheeda an extra $100 because she let all of us fuck her. We are trying to arrange for her to go to America and become a major porno movie star. Watch this space.” Who says the West never does anything for the Third World?
And from South Asia to South America where the philanthropic pornographers report, “We found Maria on the beach at Rio de Janeiro. We offered her $5 and she agreed to come back to our hotel and to pose for these pictures.” Maria told them, “I am just a poor peasant. I live by collecting rubbish. Why do you want to see my pants? OK, I will take my pants off, for $5 I will do anything. It is much money. Do you want to fuck me? OK, but I want five more US dollars, OK? How many of you will fuck me? Twelve of you? Holy Mother of God! OK, let’s get started then.”
Wheen describes other stories of “the charitable side of Richard Desmond”, including some that take place on Desmond’s own £80,000 boardroom table, but let’s leave them for now.

The Daily Express generally appeals to the harshest and most vulgar bastion of middle-class selfishness. Almost every day, its main story is a summons to hate refugees for some reason or another. Often headlines spill over into outright racism, including its stern warning that Roma Gypsies should stay away from England – “Gypsies – Don’t Come Here” (switch ‘Gypsies’ with ‘Jews’ and you realise just how offensive that is).
So it’s little surprise that Desmond’s racism should unleash itself in catastrophic fashion just as the Express was winning publicity for itself with their switch from Blair to the Tories. While in a meeting with executives from the Daily Telegraph, which may now be bought by the German media group Axel Springer, Desmond launched into a passionate denunciation of Germans, up to and including goose-stepping around the room doing a Nazi salute and crying "Germans are all fucking Nazis". After four minutes of this, the Telegraph’s executives walked out.
Nor was this an out-of-character outburst - in the current issue of Private Eye (No. 1105), where the writers are having as much fun with Desmond as they can, we can read of Andre Tomas, a former employee of his who filed a racial harassment suit against the porn baron in February 2002. Tomas, who originally came to Britain as a refugee from Stalinist East Germany, claimed that every time Desmond even so much as saw him, he would scream "Heil Hitler" and "I hate fucking Germans". Now who exactly is acting like a Nazi in this particular situation then? And which newspaper do we go to if we want to read about how degenerate are the inhabitants of Eastern Europe?
So the Express’ role as a propaganda tool for the Conservative Party turned out not to be such a disaster for Blair after all, and the Tory frontbenchers who were proudly holding up their copies of the paper are left looking as silly as they deserve. The ambitious Richard Desmond however, remains one of the most powerful men in Britain.


While we’re on the subject of the British press, the Sun’s millionaire fake populist, Richard Littlejohn, who usually spends his time smearing refugees and immigrants, today (April 23rd) has succeeded in writing a piece attacking no fewer than three friends of mine.
He begins with a nasty personal assault on the Independent journalist Johann Hari, and ends with a few lines mocking peace activists Jenny Gawain and Jo Wilding. Johann is the subject of abuse because he came on Littlejohn’s Sky TV show and defended refugee rights. Jenny and Jo are featured in the ‘You Couldn’t Make it up!’ slot because they are in the Iraqi city of Fallujah as observers and because they tried to entertain children during the recent siege with party tricks – “Like you do”, Littlejohn retorts. How absurd of them.
You can read Littlejohn’s column here. But better to read Johann’s account of the same event here, or Jo Wilding’s popular blog here. I think it’s pretty clear that Johann emerges as an honest hack promoting humane values while Jenny and Jo, whom I joined on a trip to Iraq in 2001, are two of the most big-hearted and brave people you could ever hope to meet. Littlejohn, on the other hand, is renowned for remarks such as this on Rwanda ten years ago: "Does anyone really give a monkey's about what happens in Rwanda? If the Mbongo tribe wants to wipe out the Mbingo tribe then as far as I am concerned that is entirely a matter for them.“
The contrast between Johann, Jenny and Jo on the one hand, and Littlejohn on the other seems evident enough to make further comment superfluous.


Sheena Kotecha, aged 22, rang her parents at 6:30 pm on April 3rd and asked what they were doing. She then put the phone down. A few minutes later she rang them again and, sobbing into the phone, said: “I can’t take nine years. I can’t take one more day in here.”
At 7:30 she made another call, saying: “I love you. I miss you. Goodbye” and then hung up. Frantically her parents rang the prison where Sheena was being held again and again but only got through to an answer machine. At 1:45pm the next day, they got a reply from an official who told them she would get back to them. At 2pm the police arrived at Sheena’s home to tell her parents she was dead.
Before she could start a nine-year sentence as an accomplice to armed robbery and for possession of an imitation weapon, she hanged herself from the railing of her cell wardrobe and was found by prison staff at 9:40am.

Thos who advocate the return of hanging in Britain will be pleased to know that, actually, there is a lot of it going on in our prisons, even among those convicted of petty offences. Since the early 1990s, the two leading political parties have been engaged in a struggle to outdo each other in implementing heartless criminal justice policies. Both Labour and the Tories finally heard the tabloid mantra – our judges and prison staff are a bunch of liberal pansies who seek to mollycoddle criminal low-life at the expense of the law-abiding. Both Home Secretary Michael Howard and Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair declared the time had come to get tough.
Certainly, the state got tough on Sheena Kotecha, as we learn in a powerful report in the Independent (April 24th). A fabulously beautiful and petite young girl, Sheena is described by family members as “tiny and sweet” and “lovely, lively and bubbly.” Sheena had never been involved in criminal activity before when she drove a friend and work colleague, Peter Wright (aged 23) to a nearby bank where he got out and robbed a Securicor van, pointing an imitation pistol to the driver’s head and taking £24,000.
The prosecution maintained that Sheena was the getaway driver and had hatched the plan together with Wright with whom she was supposed to be having an affair. She denied this in court, and her family believed her - “She always said she had nothing to do with the robbery and we totally believed her” her mother, Narmi, told the press, “she thought the court would believe her but I think they saw an Indian girl standing next to a black man and decided they must both be guilty.”
Throughout the trial Sheena was on bail but following her conviction in February, she was jailed pending sentencing on April 3rd. The prison officers told her she would probably get community service as she had no previous record, and so Sheena looked forward to her sentence believing the court would be lenient and she would be able to go back home. She was sentenced for nine years.

Sheena weighed seven stone when she went into prison, but lost a further two stone for the two months she was there. She was a vegetarian and the prison often ran out of vegetarian meals so she ate nothing. “She wasn’t a tough girl… She wasn’t used to the life in prison and would write letters home saying she couldn’t take it.” Conditions at Brockhill women’s remand centre are – as one former inmate, convicted of benefit fraud, relates – particularly bad, even by the standards of Britain’s prisons. She explained to the local Redditch Advertiser that there was no psychological or even medical assistance for prisoners in their early part of the stay – when most suicides occur – that her cell was burgled by other inmates twice in her four-day stay, that the window wouldn’t shut and that her mattress was “filthy beyond belief”. She called for assistance with the pain caused by her angina but received none.

Prison is supposed to be a deterrent against crime, but the deterrent value is much reduced by the incessant and untruthful propaganda from the tabloid press about how prisons are virtual holiday camps and that sentences are ludicrously short. The result is that many people believe these claims and are stunned by both the length of their sentence and the harsh reality of prison life. It may be asked what the point of deterrence is if it is constantly belittled by its advocates.
Sheena was shattered by life at Brockhill. Her lawyer, Phillip Gibbs, told the court at the time of her sentence that she “was depressed and considered a vulnerable prisoner”. She cried publicly while in prison and cried into her phone while talking to her parents but received no assistance. She was not put on suicide watch but stuck in a cell with sheets and a clothes rail.

Sheena Kotecha’s death is one of many comparable scandals in Britain’s prison system, but it is a stand-out. Even assuming she was guilty as charged – and the evidence isn’t actually all that strong - what was the point of jailing someone as obviously harmless as Sheena? What good was served by tormenting her in this fashion? How about some big headlines with the words ‘Outrage’, ‘Disgrace’ and ‘Fury at Suicide of Woman Prisoner Left to Die’ from the Sun?
Why was she treated in this way? The answer is that the legal system chose to deal with her not as a person in her own right, but as a lesson for others to learn from. Sheena’s death was caused by the stupid belief that by making prisoners suffer, you make up for their offence in some way.
Today, despite falling crime rates, there are 4,671 women in prison, a new record, in an overall record convict population of 75,290. Ten years ago there 1,811 women in jail – so we have seen an increase of 252% in the rate of jailing women in a decade. Some extra statistics – 45% of these women have mental health problems, and two thirds of them are mothers. Women on remand are the fastest growing section of the prison population. Most are jailed for shoplifting.

The more people are stuffed into overcrowded prisons, the more blood hits the floor in the form of violence among inmates, violence between inmates and staff, and suicide. Sheena is the fourth woman to kill herself in prison this month.
She joins Paige Tapp, aged 23, who hanged herself on April 18th. A mother of two with a history of mental health problems, Paige had tried to kill herself by jumping off Beachy Head. She was stopped by a policewoman and Paige subsequently hurled abuse and threats at her for preventing her suicide. Paige was then jailed for two years for threatening to kill a police officer. She was put on suicide watch, which the naïve might assume was supposed to prevent suicide by keeping prisoners under close observation, but Paige managed to hang herself. As did Louise Davies, 32, on suicide watch while two months into a life sentence for arson, on the same day as Paige killed herself, though in a different prison.
Julie Hope, 35, died in hospital three days after being found hanging in her cell while awaiting sentence for a theft charge on April 17th. Six women have killed themselves in British prisons so far this year, putting us on course to beat last year’s record of 14 suicides.

For the authors of this catastrophe, suicide is painless – both Howard and Blair have made careers out bringing back medievalism into criminal justice – and it has usually only enhanced their ascendancy. Politicians, Labour and Tory, fall over themselves to announce their toughness, promising to protect us all against Sheena Kotecha.
Time to get tough on politicians and tough on the causes of politicians.

Martyn Turner, The Irish Times


The conflict in Iraq took a very dramatic and significant turn this month. The major significance, in my view, is that while in April last year the US army could argue, with some justification, that the Iraqi civilians it killed were slain largely as a by-product of the war against the regime of Saddam Hussein - that they hated more than anyone – they can no longer make this case. The reality was always more complicated – the resort to cluster bombs and depleted uranium weaponry, along with the disregard of arbitrary killings of Iraqis by US soldiers suggested a casual disregard for Iraqi lives on their part. But this April, the war is not against a fascist regime, it is against rebels who are firmly rooted in certain communities in Sunni and Shia towns. Civilians are not killed through accident, but because they are directly at the receiving end of the military effort. In short, as in most counter-insurgency wars, the occupying forces are killing civilians on purpose.
The Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, most famous for his recent hastily withdrawn lament for the demise of racial segregation, took up this theme the other day with his recommendation to the administration that: “If we have to, we just mow the whole place down, see what happens. You’re dealing with insane suicide bombers who are killing our people, and we need to be very aggressive in taking them out.” To which one conservative commentator replied indignantly: “Which ‘whole place’ is it that we should now ‘mow...down’? Iraq? Or perhaps just Baghdad?” Seems people like Lott are quick to abandon the liberation rhetoric. They probably never felt comfortable with it anyway. Did I mention that he was a US Senator?

‘How does it feel to be the mother of a thousand dead?’ was a song shouted at Margaret Thatcher by the punk band Crass after the Falklands war in 1982. The question can be put to the Bush administration – following their decision to pick a fight with the most radical Shia communities and to launch a mini-war of revenge on the inhabitants of Fallujah – some 900+ people have died since the beginning of the month on all sides. This was not inevitable, it was not unavoidable, it was an escalation that was consciously decided upon by the Bush administration, in disregard of what some of their coalition and Iraqi partners would have preferred.

So how did the authors of a thousand dead bring this about? Perhaps beginning first with Fallujah, the city of 200,000 to the West of Baghdad that has been the site of a small dirty war between the US army and Iraqi rebels that finally became a bloodbath last week.
There has been some very good reporting of the Iraq war, but by and large, the press have poorly served the inhabitants of Fallujah. Time and time again, reports would talk about Fallujah as a violent city. Actually, Fallujah was, this time last year, one of the most peaceful cities in Iraq. It was left almost untouched by the initial invasion, the Iraqi army made no stand there, and there was very little looting as religious authorities stepped in quickly to fill the void following the collapse of the Ba’athist regime. It was then a fairly calm city until the US 82nd airborne division showed up and set up barracks in a primary school against the wishes of the town’s inhabitants.
Over the next few weeks, tensions built up between the US Marines and much of the town’s population as rumours spread around of US malice, while the Marines lacked translators needed for any kind of dialogue and negotiation. The tension culminated in angry protests outside the school, which the 82nd airborne division responded to by opening fire on the unarmed crowd, shooting 87 people and killing 17. They repeated the performance the following day and killed four more people. After that, Fallujah did indeed become a violent city and US troops became the target of increasing attacks. A sensible approach on the part of the Coalition Provisional Authority would have been to discipline the 82nd airborne division, offer apologies and meaningful compensation to Iraqi victims, and scale down the US military presence in the town. Instead, the US army waited months to offer desultory compensation (with no apology) and merely increased its efforts to break resistance in Fallujah, insisting it was at war with the remnants of the old regime.
This pointless conflict involving the loss of many Iraqi and American lives has dragged on and steadily eroded security elsewhere in Iraq. It came to global media attention once again, when four Americans were killed in Fallujah on March 31st. These men were described in much of the Western media as civilian contractors. In reality, they were armed, private military personnel – derogatively but accurately described as mercenaries by many anti-war commentators. They worked for Blackwater USA, one of a growing number of firms offering soldiers for hire to governments who want to avoid using their regular forces for whatever reason.

That said, the deaths of these men were no more justified for it. Robert Fisk described on April 1st, how “the men were dragged from their car, begging for their lives”. They were “mutilated, stoned, burnt and beaten with iron pipes. One of them was decapitated, then dragged through the streets behind a car… ‘They had gasoline splashed on them and were set alight’ [said one witness]…”. Videos were made of this incident and broadcast across the region, with viewers able to see one man, “…clearly a Westerner, is lying on his back… staring at the sky. A tide of burning petrol embraces the corpse and his hands are standing claw-like above his chest. A crowd of screaming civilians – many shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ and ‘Fallujah will be free’ – then use a metal hook to drag another smouldering body from beneath the second vehicle… A second man steps forward to kick the head until it is completely severed from the body.”

This incident served to encourage the CPA and the US army to take revenge on Fallujah – by killing a hundred times as many people themselves. The killing of the Blackwater employees was actually an act of revenge in itself for the death of civilians in Fallujah in a previous US raid, but politicians and vengeance have no memories for such details.
“Their deaths will not go unpunished” announced Paul Bremer in Baghdad as the Marines began to close off Fallujah and surround it, ready for an offensive. For this punishment, the judge and jury were dismissed early and only the executioners set in place, about 1,200 of them.
Details of precisely what the US has done in Fallujah are still emerging – but the phrase “bodies lying in the street” have appeared in more than one newspaper. So violent has the US assault been that Bremer himself has denied having much control of the US army. Meanwhile, the army itself is in negotiations with Fallujah rebels and declared a ceasefire.
Some reports from Operation Vigilant Resolve:

An airborne assault on a mosque killed 'at least 40 worshippers' attending prayers in the city of Fallujah yesterday as US-led occupation forces lost control of large parts of Iraq.
American attack helicopters and fighter aircraft supported marines as they stormed Fallujah 30 miles west of the capital. The aircraft fired a rocket and a bomb into the compound of the Abdul-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque.
Witnesses said the attack came as worshippers gathered for afternoon prayers and that at least 40 worshippers had been killed. Improvised hospitals were set up in private homes to treat the wounded and prepare the dead for burial.
The US military gave varying casualty counts. Marines Capt Bruce Frame, in a statement issued from Central Command, said: "One anti-coalition force member was killed in the attack. There is no report of civilian casualties."
Meanwhile Brig Gen Mark Kimmitt, the chief US military spokesman in Iraq, said, "I understand there was a large casualty toll taken by the enemy."
US Marines on the roads leading in and out of Fallujah were turning back all vehicles yesterday including ambulances. Anyone trying to reach the city, which has a population of 300,000, was barred from entering. Two Iraqis, sitting half-hidden close to a US roadblock near the village of Haswa, said: "You can't reach the city. The Americans have closed it off. Don't let them see you talking to us or we will be arrested."
Overall civilian casualties in Fallujah are not known but 16 children and eight women were reported to have been killed when US aircraft hit four houses on Tuesday, according to Hatem Samir, an official at Fallujah hospital.
(Patrick Cockburn, April 8th, 2004 for the Independent).

A man grieves at the grave of a relative - the site was a football field until the recent US assault when the sheer number of dead caused it be converted into a graveyard.

"The reason I’m on the bus is that a journalist I knew turned up at my door at about 11 at night telling me things were desperate in Falluja, he’d been bringing out children with their limbs blown off, the US soldiers were going around telling people to leave by dusk or be killed, but then when people fled with whatever they could carry, they were being stopped at the US military checkpoint on the edge of town and not let out, trapped, watching the sun go down.

'He said aid vehicles and the media were being turned away. He said there was some medical aid that needed to go in and there was a better chance of it getting there with foreigners, westerners, to get through the American checkpoints. The rest of the way was secured with the armed groups who control the roads we’d travel on. We’d take in the medical supplies, see what else we could do to help and then use the bus to bring out people who needed to leave."
(Jo Wilding for her blog, April 13th)

“What I can report from Falluja is that there is no ceasefire, and apparently there never was. Iraqi women and children are being shot by American snipers. Over 600 Iraqis have now been killed by American aggression, and the residents have turned two football fields into graveyards. Ambulances are being shot by the Americans. And now they are preparing to launch a full-scale invasion of the city.” (Dahr Jamil, Iraq Dispatches, April 11th)

U.S. troops reportedly used loudspeakers to announce that women, children, and elderly could leave the city, but not “military age men.” Subsequent reports however indicate that men have been among the thousands who have fled, mainly to Baghdad.

The number of killed and wounded is sharply disputed. The director of Falluja’s general hospital, Rafa al-Issawi, reportedly estimated that some 600 persons had been killed, citing reports from clinics in the city and several soccer fields where bodies were being interred. News correspondents reported seeing rows of freshly dug graves at one of the soccer fields and Khalaf al-Jumaili, a volunteer gravedigger, told the Associated Press that more than 300 persons had been buried there.

Al-Issawi, the hospital director, also said that many of the dead were women, children, and the elderly. U.S. military officials have insisted that U.S. forces have taken great precaution to avoid harming civilians and civilian casualties have been minimal.
(Human Rights Watch, April 16th)

Children walk through what was a residential area in Fallujah

So a death toll of about 600 is emerging – in one town in one week, in what is supposed to be an effort to arrest those who killed the Blackwater employees. If even half of the dead were armed rebels, then it would put paid to official US claims that such rebels are only a tiny minority.
As refugees streamed out of Fallujah, Jonathan Steele reported on their experience from Baghdad for the Guardian. One of the significant things that came out from his interviews was that many Fallujah residents did indeed regard the US armies as liberators - this time last year. Far from being a pro-Ba’athist stronghold, much of Fallujah was strongly anti-Saddam and there was considerable goodwill towards the US. All of which is gone now. One resident recounted:
"After the war we were very happy they had removed Saddam Hussein from power. Then they started to behave disrespectfully. Armoured cars drove on the pavement. They began treating Iraqis as though we were beneath their feet. My doctor son was studying in the Czech republic and came back via Syria two months ago. There were about 20 US checkpoints on the road. They flung his papers around and when he said he was a doctor and should not be shouted at, they just swore," she said.

The public US army response to the massacre has been an extraordinary thing, with one US officer even claiming that the attack on Fallujah was one of the most humane examples of urban warfare in history, a claim that makes sense only if you accept that killing Iraqi civilians for revenge is an act of humanity, which they probably do. U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne said, “What I think you’ll find is 95 percent of those [deaths] were military age males that were killed in the fighting. The marines are trained to be very precise in their firepower…. The fact that there are 600 [killed] goes back to the fact that the marines are very good at what they do.”

Peter Nicholson, Melbourne, Australia

Indeed. We’re still not done with Iraq, the last two weeks [this was written kid-April] has seen bullets flying all over the south of the country too, often into people’s stomachs and backs. The war is going south for the summer as the CPA goes to war against Muqtada al-Sadr’s party. Al-Sadr is a radical Shia chauvinist who has a small but loyal and partially armed following in the Shia slums in the south of the country. A proper hellfire preacher, al-Sadr believes in Hell for non-believers in the afterlife, and may not be above helping them get used to the idea in this life also. His followers take to the streets with the death-worshipping slogans of their Iranian compatriots – “Death to America, Death to the Jews!”
But it is likely that both al-Sadr's politics and that of his followers are quite undeveloped. As one Iraqi commentator put it:

"They aren't die-hard anti-Westerners. Sadr's supporters don't have fully formed political views. Look, they've lived all their lives under a tyranny that made everybody too afraid to even whisper about politics, so they are only now finding their political bearings. It is a very fluid time. Muqtada's supporters, like everyone else, are evolving and changing. They certainly aren't fundamentalists. I didn't hear anyone talk about Shariah law or any of that. Muqtada is leading a populist movement with a light Islamic coating."

Most commentators reminded us that the majority of Iraqi Shias do not particularly support al-Sadr nor do they wish for an Iranian-style regime in the country, though they generally do favour a prominent role for the religious institutions that were among the only surviving forms of opposition to Saddam Hussein for much of the long, dark years of his rule. Even then, secular parties are also making political progress among the Shia and in general, support for a Khomeini-style despotism like Iran's is very small indeed.

After all the killing, it is worth recalling that the episode began when the CPA banned al-Sadr’s rag, al-Hawza. This screed had a circulation of around 10,000 but achieved celebrity status with the CPA’s censorship order. From here, the situation deteriorated with a series of murderous acts that have received pathetically little coverage. US tanks ran over two (or was it 3?) young men demonstrating against the closure of al-Hawza, Spanish and Salvadoran troops fired on protestors in Najaf on Monday April 5th, and became involved in a fire-fight in which at least 22 people were killed. British troops opened fire in Amara and killed 15 protestors, Italian troops killed 15 in Nasiriya, Ukrainian troops, who never even expected to see any kind of conflict, joined in and killed a similar number of people in Kut – a whole string of Bloody Sundays. Reporting of these incidents is so poor that it is not possible to be sure of the figures here.
The violent retaliation of al-Sadr’s Mehdi militia prompted in turn the US army’s tastelessly named Operation Iron Fist, a bloody assault on the dirt-poor Shia slums of southern Iraq with hi-tech weaponry, a blood-stained mini counter-revolution to complement the war of revenge in Fallujah. Amid the fighting, the US army drew on the new Iraqi army, but half of this army failed to fight for the US – Major General Mark Dempsey estimated that 40% chose to stay at home while 10% decided to fight against the US. For the first time, whole towns and cities were declared by rebels to be outside CPA control.

A Mehdi militiman standing by a picture of al-Sadr in Najaf

Meanwhile, in British-occupied Basra, 150 Mehdi rebels occupied the governor’s office on April 5th. The British army responded by negotiating with them and the situation was resolved without a massacre. Which is a useful reminder that the thousand or so dead of the last two weeks were pointlessly killed, even from the perspective of the CPA. Not that the British government felt the need to urge a gentler approach on Washington’s part - instead Blair merely made an absurd speech about the historic nature of the struggle, then unfolding in the form of Operation Iron Fist and Operation Vigilant Resolve. On April 28th, Blair gave full backing to US policy in Fallujah in the House of Commons – to quote “perfectly right and proper”. For those who still needed it, the evidence of Blair’s personal willingness to kill civilians deliberately is there, underneath the ‘passionate and sincere’ rhetoric and the much-vaunted Gladstonian idealism (which wasn’t all that idealistic when it was Gladstone either).

An analysis by Jonathan Marcus for the BBC is quite typical of the flawed diagnosis of the problem in the coalition mainstream – the argument being put forward, by the US Democratic party among others - is that the US should have assembled a much larger invasion force from the outset and saturated the country with troops to prevent disorder and that the CPA should have kept on the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein intact to use to govern the country.
Very likely such an approach would have assisted in US governance of the country, but it is also hopelessly immoral. It is typical also that the title of Marcus’ piece considers Iraq to be “a security dilemma” instead of say, a human rights dilemma (and security is for US Marines and the CPA, not for the hapless inhabitants of Fallujah or Najaf). The CPA was not wrong to disband the Iraqi army, only in that it provided no means for many of its former members to earn a living. As for the troop presence – it has been precisely the violent and lawless conduct of US forces on Iraqi streets that has been provoking a backlash that is in no-one’s interest. There is a real danger that as the US gets into trouble in Iraq, they will take the advice of people like Marcus and recruit more Ba’athist personnel to help them with Ba’athist repression, as this article by Patrick Cockburn warns us.

No-one’s interest by the way – turning an already devastated Iraq into a battleground with the most powerful army on earth before it begins its partial withdrawal would be a serious error for Iraqis seeking to further the cause of national liberation. They might possibly drive the US out, but only amidst the kind of chaos and blood-letting that would leave Iraq looking like Afghanistan. It remains my view that those on the left cheering on the armed struggle in Iraq are making a serious mistake. Much better to give our backing to those Iraqis who are busy forming trade unions, getting politically active in a useful way and producing radical newspapers. It is in the act of forming a workers’ union that the best hope for meaningful democracy in Iraq comes and not from the US, nor from any group tearing about with blood-curdling slogans, truck bombs and Kalashnikovs. For the moment, the main struggle must be to stop Iraq becoming a slaughterhouse.

[NB - the above conclusion was written a couple of weeks ago. I have decided to leave as it is, but as you can see below, I feel it is no longer sufficient. Calling for the CPA to get its act together has become meaningless, Iraqis are now set against the occupation and a full, immediate Coalition withdrawal has become an urgent necessity]

Marine Corporal Jason Dunham with his Mum in December 2003. He died from shrapnel injuries sustained in Kerbala on Arpil 22nd.

A demonstration of military families against the war, Washington DC, May 1st.


As fast as I can write, events in Iraq get worse. The US army re-entered Fallujah, then withdrew, and started to push into Najaf. In Fallujah, they left an Iraqi army contingent in charge on May 1st, led by former Republican Guard General Jasim Mohamed Saleh (so Fallujah did end up with 'regime remnants' and 'Ba'athist loyalists' after all). The military body bags of the US army and the hastily dug dirt graves of the Muslim poor continued to fill. Meanwhile, the CPA announced the creation of a new flag for the New Iraq which, however well-intentioned, has gone down like a technicolour dream-coat at a funeral.

The new flag, the yellow stripe represents Kurdistan, the blue cresent Islam and the white represents peace. To most Iraqis it resembles the Israeli flag too closely and has merely annoyed them further - patriotic elements retain the old Iraqi flag

In media imagery, the flag of the new Iraq flies alongside the images from an old Iraq – torture in Saddam Hussein’s grimmest prison, Abu Ghraib in Baghdad. But this time, the ones shoving in the electrodes are US soldiers. All over the world we have seen them, following a belated release on the CBS show 60 Minutes and the British tabloid, the Daily Mirror. An Iraqi prisoner stands in a crucifixion pose, hood over his head, holding electrodes in each hand, told they will be switched on if he moves. Private England gives the cameras the thumbs up as hooded Iraqi prisoners are forced to mastrubate. Naked and hooded Iraqi prisoners are stacked on top of each other in a pyramid while US soldiers stand by grinning and giving the thumbs up. A British soldier stands over a hooded Iraqi prisoner and urinates on him. Still worse images are withheld from us.

For the first time since Vietnam, or in Britain’s case Northern Ireland, US and British viewers and readers at home are being forced to face up to a reality that these images won’t let us deny – our armed forces use torture, sometimes as part of a military and political strategy, or just for the fun of it. We can choose to ignore or play down the images and hope it will all go away, but consider the fact that these pictures are circulating the entire world. They are a secret from no one, certainly not Iraqis and people across South-West Asia and North Africa.
One British soldier explains what they do to the Mirror:

"You pick on a man and go for him. Straightaway he gets a beating, a couple of punches and kicks to put him down. Then he was dragged to the back of the vehicle. As we took him back he was getting a beating. He was hit with batons on the knees, fingers, toes, elbows, and head.

You normally try to leave off the face until you're in camp. If you pull up with black eyes and bleeding faces you could be in shit.

"So it's body shots - scaring him, saying 'We're going to kill you'. A lot of them cry and piss themselves.
Because it was so hot we put him in the back of a four-tonner truck which has a canopy over it. That's where the photos were taken. Lads were taking turns giving him a right going over, smashing him in the face with weapons and stamping on him. We had him for about eight hours."

(NOTE: Since using the two pictures above and the copy of the Mirror, it has been demonstrated that they were fakes - a possibility acknowledged below. In retrospect, it is reasonable to argue that they should not have been posted on here in the first place given this likelihood, a mistake I will concede. The Mirror's story of abuse has not been rejected, however, and seems plausible - particularly in light of evidence from trials of British soldiers and verified photographic evidence of British army torture and abuse that has emerged since.)

The prisoner was accused of theft. Whether these photos turn out to be reconstructions - as the evidence in this instance suggests - should not detract for a moment from the verified reality of torture in the British sector in southern Iraq.

The US and British governments have reverted to damage control, with some of the media rushing to help them out. The US army have had these pictures for a month - CBS sat on the torture pictures for the same amount of time before broadcasting them and only then because they had leaked out and were starting to get around. When the pictures were broadcast it was with the comforting message that torture was the action of a small number of rogue soldiers and the odd officer who are now being disciplined, and should not be seen as a reflection on the US army as a whole, ditto the British.
George Bush, Tony Blair and Britain’s General Sir Michael Jackson tell us of their shock and anguish at the photographs and declared that the soldiers depicted in them were a disgrace. Blair condemns urinating on prisoners “utterly” but informs us that such incidents as have been caught on camera are “exceptional”, while Defence Minister Martin Ingrams calls it “appalling” and adds that such episodes “besmirch the good name of the armed forces” (which is, to be sure, something that actually worries them). Jack Straw acknowledges that the allegations are "appalling" - but refused to commit to compensating any victims. This is outrageous – there have been well-documented reports of torture in Iraqi prisons by coalition forces, resulting in death in some cases for some time, yet never once did Bush or Blair express the slightest concern. Only now that the whole world has seen these photographs have they produced their late, late condemnations. For a year they have granted total impunity to their officers and soldiers in committing grave human rights violations and only political convenience has prompted a change of mind.
The director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, points out that the US government has failed to respond to many of his organisation’s reports of US army torture and homicide in Afghanistan and Iraq. With regard to the torture photographs, he states: “The brazenness with which these soldiers conducted themselves, snapping photographs and flashing the 'thumbs-up' sign as they abused prisoners, suggests they felt they had nothing to hide from their superiors. Their superiors should be closely scrutinized to see whether they created an atmosphere of impunity that fostered this abuse."
An Amnesty International press release concurs, calling for “nothing less” than a full, public and independent inquiry, adding that, "our extensive research in Iraq suggests that this is not an isolated incident. It is not enough for the USA to react only once images have hit the television screens".

Some ingenious folk have argued that the soldiers have been given insufficient training in dealing with Iraqis though it is hard to imagine precisely what needed to be explained in this case – Lesson 1 in how to occupy a foreign country, Do Not Piss on the Locals?
A more obvious explanation is that the US and British armies are infused with racist contempt for the Iraqis and that senior officers (and politicians) have created an atmosphere in which atrocities against Iraqis are not seen as a problem. There are different strands of thought in both the US and British armies. There were initial pre-invasion talks about treating Iraqis with respect – in Baghdad US soldiers queued up behind Iraqis in restaurants and gave out sweets to kids, while in Basra British soldiers used to patrol without protective head gear in order to seem less intimidating. But running against liberal gestures is the plain fact that the US and British governments ultimately have quite different aspirations for Iraq than most Iraqis and that the US and British armies now play a counter-revolutionary role there. For as long as Iraqis feel US and British troops are a help to them, co-operation is possible, but when that changes, those troops are there to repress and kill them.

"I questioned this and the answer I got was 'This is how Military Intelligence wants it done'" - Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick

And just as the US government gets its damage control publicity ready, the great Seymour Hersh produces another devastating report for the New Yorker. The Iraqi prison system was handed over to reserve Brigadier General Janis Karpinski of the 800th Military Police Brigade (since suspended) who told one newspaper last December that the prisons under her control were so nice, she feared that the prisoners would not want to leave. She also visited Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay and found the place to be just great.
A somewhat different picture emerged from a 53-page report compiled by Major General Antonio M. Taguba, which was not intended for public release - much like the photographs causing the controversy - but happily has been leaked to the New Yorker. Taguba found that from October to December, there were many "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses" in Abu Ghraib prison at the hands of the 372nd Military Police Battalion. Taguba's report was based detainee accounts and photographs and videos taken by US soldiers themselves. He listed the following conduct:

"Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee."

Photograph of dead Abu Ghraib prisoner - "They stressed him out so bad he passed away"

Seymour Hersh suggests, probably rightly, that there is more to this torture than cruel and racist GIs having fun with defenceless people. The testimony of many US soldiers in Abu Ghraib, both among those accused of torture and those who are not, is that they were acting within an understanding, and sometimes under direct orders, of senior figures within US Military Intelligence (who certainly would have known what was going on) - the purpose being to "soften up" the prisoners prior to interrogation.
Don't let's be fobbed off with talk of a few bad apples - a handful of arrests won't end impunity for US forces in Iraq any more than it did in Vietnam. Note - Brigadier General Karpinksi has been suspended but there are no criminal proceedings forthcoming in her case.

Abuse by UK soldiers in Iraq 'common' - The Scotsman


The cumulative result of all this is that Iraqis no longer want US and British forces in Iraq. A new poll from USA Today, one of the most comprehensive polls of Iraqi opinion, shows that 57% of respondents now want an immediate withdrawal, even though 53% anticipated deterioration in the situation as a consequence in the short-term. 58% of respondents said that US troops conduct themselves “badly or very badly” while a mere 11% said that the CPA was trying very hard to restore water and electricity provision. Many Iraqis argue that the killing of US soldiers can be justified in some circumstances (a majority among Arab Iraqis) though the overwhelming majority strongly oppose attacks on Iraqi police stations. Only a third of Iraqis now regard the occupying forces as doing more good than harm – many of these are Iraqi Kurds who still have every reason to be afraid, surrounded as they are by forces hostile to Kurdish self-determination and dependent on a capricious great power ally to guarantee their survival for the time being. While support for the Kurds remains urgent, the occupation of Iraq has to come to an end. I am obliged to add to what I wrote only last week – US and British forces must withdraw from Iraq immediately. They are not welcome any more, they are part of Iraq’s many problems and not their solutions. They are causing, not preventing a bloodbath. They have no right to be there.
They can join Spanish, Honduran, Salvadoran and Dominican troops – out.

Brits out

As reported in The Onion:

Bush To Iraqi Militants: 'Please Stop Bringing It On'
WASHINGTON, DC—In an internationally televised statement Monday, President Bush modified a July 2003 challenge to Iraqi militants attacking U.S. forces. "Terrorists, Saddam loyalists, and anti-American insurgents: Please stop bringing it on now," Bush said at a Monday press conference. "Nine months and 500 U.S. casualties ago, I may have invited y'all to bring it on, but as of today, I formally rescind that statement. I would officially like for you to step back." The president added that the "it" Iraqis should stop bringing includes gunfire, bombings, grenade attacks, and suicide missions of all types.


Speaking of Iraq and slaughterhouses, it is unsettling to see that the post for US ambassador to the new Iraq is to go to John Negroponte, currently US ambassador to the United Nations.
There are many politicians of whom it could be said that they have a few skeletons stashed away in cupboards somewhere. But in Negroponte’s case we would not be speaking in metaphors, but discussing actual skeletons.
The BBC Online profile moronically describes Negroponte as a man with “a reputation for getting things done” – accurate enough, but the same could be said of Slobodan Milosevic and for not dissimilar reasons.
Negroponte joined the world of US foreign policy in the 1960s. Back then he was little more than a glint in Henry Kissinger’s eye, but shot to prominence in Vietnam by virtue of his decision to learn Vietnamese, which distinguished him from those who felt no need to. In consequence, Kissinger gave him a role in Nixon’s shabby secret negotiations and went to surprise Kissinger with what Sy Hersh calls Negroponte’s “strong support” for the massive bombing of North Vietnam in 1972 that even the New York Times editors described as an act of “terrorism”.
His next big break came when the Reagan administration gave him a job as the US ambassador to the Central American state of Honduras. Honduras, like most of its neighbours was a military dictatorship, and furthermore, a dictatorship that was largely an adjunct of US power interests in a region that US politicians patronisingly and offensively dub their own ‘backyard’. As US ambassador, he held considerable power over the country and was in part the director of US military and intelligence operations in the region.

It is worth noting that, on a moral level, there is nothing even ambiguous or complex about official US Central American policy in the 1980s. There are no redeeming features, no attractive moments, no reasonable motives, just the most vicious and cruel repression imaginable unleashed against poor people to keep them in their place. Dump the illusion that there must have been a shred of a decent motive somewhere. No shades of grey here, just pitch black.

It was from Honduras that the Nicaraguan paramilitary group the Contras was largely based (they had to be based outside Nicaragua because they had almost no support inside it). The Contras were, to be charitable, a group of throat-slitting, child-killing, coke-pushing mercenary fascists. That is not in any way an exaggeration. They were assembled under the supervision of the CIA from the remnants of the Somoza (quote – “I don’t want educated people, I want oxen”) dictatorship that was overthrown by the popular democratic revolution of 1979.
The courageous freedom fighters of the Contras attacked farms, hospitals, schools and other such instruments of Communist aggression in Nicaragua before returning to bases outside the country after a hard day’s work, sometimes taking prisoners with them. Negroponte supervised the construction of El Aguacate air base, which was used by the US army to train and impart skills to the Contras. This base was also used by the Contras as a facility for torturing and killing their victims.
In August 2001, excavations at the airbase uncovered the graves of the first of an expected 185 people, including two US citizens, thought to be buried in the vicinity. But in September that year, even as the human remains were being exhumed, the US Senate was busy giving its approval to the Bush Jr. administration’s decision to make Negroponte the official US spokesman to the rest of the world, and co-ordinator of the new international coalition against al-Qa’ida. Well, he is a man that gets things done, isn’t he?

The military regime in the Honduras was less awful than the US-sponsored abattoir states of El Salvador and Guatemala (in the sense that concussion is less awful than bowel cancer) largely because in the Honduras the poor were succumbing to their misery whilst in Salvador and Guatemala they were vehemently protesting about it. But Honduras’ regime nonetheless did not resist the temptation to kill politically inconvenient citizens. Its army, trained by US and Argentine neo-Nazi personnel, created a death squad called Battalion 316 which abducted and murdered about 200 people. As Honduran journalist Oscar Reyes – who narrowly escaped death himself – put it: “It was a systematic persecution of the people that have some kind of free mind“.
The activities of the Honduran regime were well known and documented by groups like Americas Watch, but you wouldn’t know it from anything Negroponte said at the time or since, nor was it noted in US State Department reports, which consistently gave the regime full marks.

Normally when people are found to have overseen murder and stashed the bodies under their patio, they are considered to have committed an offence and are removed from public life. The exception is for politicians, who can behave like Fred West and merely earn the description of ‘tough-minded’ and ‘level-headed’ – maybe even a reputation for getting things done (like mass graves).
Negroponte left Honduras for embassies in the Philippines and Mexico, before leaving the Foreign Service in 1996 for plum jobs in the private sector. Responding to the call to serve his country once again in 2001, he is now headed for Baghdad. Washington expects that he will get things done there, and they are probably right.

"To this day, I do not believe death squads were operating in Honduras"


And on the subject of malice in Central America, on Monday March 22nd, the ARENA party claimed victory in the elections in El Salvador, having ruled the country for the past 14 years. Their presidential candidate, former sports commentator Tony Saca claimed victory after the first round of voting.
Several things are surprising about this – the trend in Latin America recently has been towards electoral victory for left-wing parties (as in Venezuela and Brazil), or at the very least, left-leaning parties have fared strongly while the far right has been defeated at the polls (with the exception of Colombia). But in El Salvador, ARENA, representing the harshest section of the country’s ruling class have come out on top again. Their main opponents, the FLMN, the party of the leftist guerrilla armies of the 1980s trailed behind ARENA with 20% less votes.

The elections themselves are quite remarkable – the two main parties are genuinely very different from each other, representing as they do formerly armed opponents in El Salvador’s civil war twenty years ago.
Civil war might be pushing it a bit actually in describing what was essentially a one-sided affair – a wealthy class that went crazy with bloodlust as it tried to extinguish any and all challenges to its rule from the poor, with the Reagan administration in the driving seat. It was primarily a war against the poor who had become increasingly willing to challenge those who kept them in extreme poverty, in large part because of the organisation of the radical Church.
The ARENA party, set up by Major-General Roberto D’Aubuisson, the likely murderer of Archbishop Oscar Romero, was a fascist party representing the most vicious sections of the armed forces, who behaved in a manner described here by Reverend Daniel Santiago, a Catholic priest working in El Salvador at the time:

“People are not just killed by death squads in El Salvador – they are decapitated and then their heads are placed on pikes and used to dot the landscape. Men are not just disembowelled by the Salvadoran Treasury Police; their severed genitalia are stuffed into their mouths. Salvadoran women are not just raped by the National Guard; their wombs are cut from their bodies and used to cover their faces. It is not enough to kill children; they are dragged over barbed wire until the flesh falls from their bones while parents are forced to watch…”

Not just disembowelled, not just raped. This went on from 1979 to 1992. Recall again that one of the US authors of this military strategy has just been appointed ambassador to Iraq. And that others – Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams, have jobs in the current Bush administration. The authors of these abominations remain untouched by international law and justice. And they are in charge of El Salvador. The anthem of the ARENA party goes “El Salvador will be the tomb where the Reds meet their end”.

Monument to the 70,000 dead

So why has ARENA just won elections despite their manifest evil? The Private Eye’s (issue 1104, April 16th) letter from Salvador from their anonymous correspondent reports:

“The official version is that El Salvador is a success story: we made peace, we privatised; we scrapped our own currency and brought in the dollar; we are now an oasis of capitalist enterprise in Central America… But success comes in many forms and our levels of inequality are unrivalled even in Africa. Naturally our oligarchs pay almost no tax. These stalwart patriots were also the obvious custodians to benefit from the wholesale bargain-price disposal of our state enterprises… The country’s economic ‘miracle’ was achieved on the backs of our immigrant brothers in the US. The money they sent back last year came to 14 percent of our GDP. Even with that money, the economy has grown by, er, 0 percent in the last five years… Saca’s winning slogan was ‘Un Pais Seguro’ – A Secure Country. For in our libertarian ARENA paradise, and a decade and more after the war, we still live in fear of armed gangs and violent crime.”

ARENA was able to put into its service what advantages it had – official US backing, control of the media and the understandable fear among Salvadorans of what they would do if a leftist party won the elections:

“Rightly, they [ARENA] also control the most important media, which gave us such fine and balanced coverage during the presidential contest… Our gringo [US] friends, of course, were taking no chances. Officially the US said it would respect any result in the elections. Privately it made clear what damage there might be to relations [if the FLMN won]… Just in case no one took the hint, ARENA produced TV spots warning that if Schafik were elected, Salvadorans would be thrown out of the US, losing all that remittance money and swelling the already teeming ranks of the hopelessly unemployed.
‘With this world offering so little promise, it’s no surprise that the biggest growth industry here is religion – and not the traditional Roman Catholicism of our forebears, but fire and brimstone evangelism. Roll on the everafter.”

An international observer of the election noted that while ARENA won with 58% of the vote, there were few celebrations. Over the country "an eerie quiet prevailed" on the eve of the government's new term in office.

After the uber-repression of the 1980s, the poor of El Salvador have been reduced to a state of wretchedness, fear and despair from which they have yet to recover. The dreams and hopes of the 1970s lie buried in the mass graves, in the tomb of the Reds. but they have not been destroyed forever.

Unusually honest BBC piece on US role in El Salvador


It was a Nelson Mandela moment – Mordechai Vanunu walking out of Shikma prison in the Israeli city of Ashkelon on April 22nd. Stepping out of the jail, Vanunu made defiant peace signs with his fingers and rebuked his sadistic tormentors: “You didn’t succeed to break me, to make me crazy. The target of 18 years in isolation is to make me crazy.”
There were many people on hand to greet him – both Israelis and visitors to the country, including the Sunday Times reporter Peter Hounam, who hugged him tearfully. There were also people there who came to shout “Death to traitors” and to drag their fingers across their throats as Vanunu walked out of the building, but fortunately these people were outnumbered.

Vanunu’s release hasn’t had the kind of coverage that Mandela’s got, but it deserves it – and since there are some readers who don’t know the story, here it is in brief.
Vanunu was a minor technician at Israel’s Dimona nuclear plant from 1976 to 1985 – a site used for the development of Israel’s secret and highly illegal nuclear weapons programme (Dimona is also the site for the development of biological and chemical weapons). On learning that the plant was producing nuclear weapons, Vanunu decided to blow the whistle on the project. In 1986 he met Peter Hounam in London and showed him documentary and photographic evidence of the construction of nuclear weapons. Hounam wrote up the scoop in the Sunday Times, back when it was quite a good paper (Vanunu received no money for this, nor did he ask for it).
At this point, the Israeli government decided to silence him and the political patron of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme, Simon Peres, authorised Vanunu’s kidnap. He was lured to Rome by a female Mossad agent who seduced him and invited him back to her apartment where he was seized by two other agents who rendered him unconscious by forcibly injecting him with sedatives. They then took the drugged Vanunu back to Israel. In a secret trial he was convicted for espionage and treason, and was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment – the first 11 of which were spent in absolute solitary confinement. For the first two years he was forbidden to switch the light off. Vanunu was disowned by his parents and was only allowed occasional visits conducted through a metal screen with family, a lawyer and a priest (Vanunu converted to Anglican Christianity in 1985).

On April 22nd, Vanunu was finally freed, only to face a whole series of new restrictions. He may not leave Israel for a year and was forbidden from approaching foreigners, embassies or border crossings for six months after his release. The authorities gave way on access to foreign visitors, however, owing to the sheer number of them. Mordechai, now 49, was joined by his brother Meir and the American couple who adopted him as their son, Nick and Mary Eoloff.

Vanunu is a huge embarrassment to the Israeli state for two reasons. First, it still officially denies that it has nuclear weapons, though it most certainly does. Second, their treatment of him exposes some of the strict limits of the much-vaunted democracy that Israel is supposed to have and leaves its political leadership looking less like suave Nobel-Peace Prize winning elder statesmen and more like the very nasty, super-racist little Mafiosi that they are. Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, Simon Peres, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, David Ben-Gurion, Ehud Barak, Moshe Ya’alon, Benjamin Netanyahu – what an embarrassing bunch of crooks! Moshe Sharett was probably the only semi-decent prime minister Israel ever had – which is why the Israeli army constantly undermined him and why he is denounced as a sap in Israeli mainstream political culture.
Since Vanunu’s release, the Sharon government has attempted to argue that he is an extremely dangerous man out to hurt Israel, because he courageously tried to tell the world that his government was breaking the law to develop genocidal weaponry with hugely damaging consequences for the region (it is hardly a secret that the Iraqi, Libyan and Iranian nuclear weapons programmes began in response to Israel’s). Nuclear weapons protect no one, they are unique in causing danger to nations that possess them as well as those that don’t.
People like Vanunu – who risk their jobs and put themselves in harm’s way to tell the public what people in their government or organisation are up to are in short supply. Most people chose to obey, succumb, keep quiet. Israel, like the rest of the world, needs more people like him.



The tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda has prompted some soul-searching at the United Nations and in mainstream media circles in the West. Whether they have actually found their souls or not is another matter, and so far the evidence is not all that great.
The UN Commission on Human Rights has just pronounced on the situation in Darfur in the Western Sudan, in what Human Rights Watch described as a crucial test of the comission’s credibility. The Commission has just finished examining the case of Chechnya where, despite the discovery of another mass grave last week, they found nothing much to criticise, with the Chinese representative reminding us thoughtfully and surely without conflict of interest that condemning Russia would constitute intolerable interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation.
The main flaw in the UN Commission is thus exposed. It is supposed to monitor and implement policy on human rights around the world. But its members consist of representatives of the world’s governments. And they are the ones who abuse the human rights. Many of its members have as much interest in exposing human rights violations as MacDonald’s has in discovering e-coli in its burgers. A judge may not sit on a case involving a company in which he owns shares – might it not to be too much to ask that those sitting on the UN Commission of Human Rights should not be mass-murderers?
This serves to explain their conduct on Friday April 23rd when they issued what Amnesty International called “a weakly worded statement” against the Sudanese regime which had less gravitas than if they had issued Khartoum a parking ticket.

The Pakistani ambassador, Shaukat Umer, rose to pronounce that, “this is a matter of concern to all of us”. He was not referring to the atrocities in the Sudan but to the fact that a UN report on them had been leaked to the Independent in London. The Commission did not examine the report by a UN delegation in the Sudan – and indeed the publication had been specifically delayed at the request of the Sudanese regime precisely so it would not be examined before the Commission voted.

The report has served to confirm what is already pretty clear. The International Crisis Group describes Darfur as the “potential horror story of 2004” (alas, it may not be the only one).
The Sudanese regime, dominated by its Arab minority in the north, is engaged in a war of racist aggression against the black population in the West of the country, which is largely Muslim, choosing to launch its offensive just as it was on the verge of concluding a peace deal with the largely Christian and animist south of the country, where it has fought a twenty year war for oil resources.

The Sudanese airforce and army is working in conjunction with Arab militia, the janjaweed, to attack those they call Zurgas (which translates roughly as niggers), destroying their villages and crops, massacring and raping their way across Darfur. Up to 30,000 have been killed so far and a million made refugees. The Sudanese government has repeatedly blocked access by both aid agencies and foreign observers to the region. A Human Rights Watch report gives an example of the sort of thing going on, given by an 18-year-old from Goz Naim:

"The first attack was in early January[2004]. First the plane bombed and then the janjaweed came. Most people fled but after three or four days they had no water, so they returned to the village for water, especially for the animals. The second attack was two weeks later, in late January. First there was bombing about 9 a.m., then the janjaweed came by horse and car; there were hundreds of them. I was at the well giving water to my animals when I saw them coming. I was on my horse and I was hit by a bullet and I fell off my horse into the bushes. The janjaweed collected all the animals but they didn’t see me, otherwise they would have killed me.
‘They killed fifteen people in the village—three women and twelve men. Two of the women were old women, in their fifties, they were shot while trying to protect their animals from being stolen. The men were in the mosque when they were killed. They had gone to the mosque at 6 a.m. They stayed inside the mosque when the janjaweed came, they were praying for life. The janjaweed shot and killed them there.”

One way of marking the anniversary of Rwanda’s tragedy would be for the world’s governments to take constructive steps to end the atrocities in Darfur. But already tired clichés about Sudan being ignored because the West is preoccupied with Iraq are being used as pre-emptive excuses. In fact, the atrocities in Darfur are taking place at a time of major international engagement in the Sudan by the British, US, Kenyan and Norwegian governments as they apply pressure on Khartoum to accept their proposed settlement for the south of the country. It is not beyond these governments to put Darfur on the agenda.

Furthermore, the Bush administration has gleefully cited the past failures of the UN in Bosnia and Rwanda as reasons for dispensing with the UN’s authority altogether, while Tony Blair has told us many times of his “passion for Africa” and has described his determination to prevent Rwanda’s experience being repeated (while flogging weapons to belligerent forces in the Congo). So here they are then. This is the opportunity they wanted.
The Clinton administration famously bombed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan in 1998 and Blair shamefully came out in full support of this supposed retaliation against al-Qa’ida, even as Sudanese elderly and children began dying in their tens of thousands from untreated diseases in consequence. So the idea of London and Washington coming to the rescue of this country’s inhabitants is not terribly plausible. Nonetheless, we can reasonably expect them to acknowledge openly what is happening in Darfur, to insist on access for aid agencies and to make the crisis a central feature of the ongoing negotiations. Their memories may just be long enough to recall that the genocide in Rwanda was damaging to their own interests in Africa.
Instead we see no indication of any seriousness on the part of the great powers on the UN Security Council, the UN Commission on Human Rights is allowing al-Bashir’s regime to bully them into censoring reports from Darfur, and the UN has withdrawn its observers from the country. For those familiar with the beginnings of the Rwandan genocide, this is not a good sign. “Never again” always was a weak joke at the expense of the victims coming from these people - we are about to see whether there is anything in it at all.

Another Rwanda may be starting in Sudan, Johann Hari

None too impressive UN Human Rights Commission resolution on Darfur

Human Rights Watch letter to UN Commission


On April 13th, the Canadian government permitted the killing of 140,000 seals along its eastern coastline in what is the biggest seal hunt in Canada for 50 years, part of a wider programme of baby seal battering that should see 975,000 animals killed in all, to allow the sale of their fur.
The slaughter is causing the Canadian government some considerable embarrassment. Whatever arguments they use to justify what they are doing, they can’t escape the fact that it involves smashing the skulls of very cute baby animals with pick axes for profit. Rebecca Aldworth, a local Newfoundland observer recounts:

"It is horrible to see the aftermath of this slaughter. There is blood everywhere. Every few feet as you walk across the ice, you pass by large pools of blood and carcasses lined up in open graves. The sealers don't take the carcasses, because the meat is practically worthless. So they leave them to rot on the ice, or dump them in the ocean. Hundreds of thousands of them. Rotting because all the sealers want is the skins."

Two decades ago, protests against the seal slaughter effectively brought the whole thing to an end. But over the years, the industry has re-emerged following an increased demand for fur, particularly from new markets such as Eastern Europe.

The Canadian government claims that the hunt is basically humane and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association stated that 98% of seals were killed in a manner that ensured the minimum pain, so it’s only about 20,000 that suffer enormously then. The authorities also reassure us and themselves that the vast majority of the seals are dead before they are skinned.
The RSPCA disputes this, however, with Laila Sadler, a Senior Scientific Officer writes in the Independent:

“In 2001 an RSPCA marine mammal vet joined four other international vets to examine seals in the annual hunt. When they inspected skinned seal carcasses they found 42 per cent lacked sufficient impact injuries on their skulls to kill or permanently injure, so had probably been alive and conscious when they were skinned.”

She also warned that the population may “drive populations to unsafe numbers”, since cull quotas “radically outweigh natural replacement rates” adding to problems already being caused by the failure of ice packs to form in increasingly mild winters.

Readers can probably discern my own view here which is that killing baby seals for their fur is indefensible. What always strikes me in these situations is the effort to which people will go to justify such an obviously horrible act. Fishing communities seeking to supplement their limited and insecure incomes are quite understandable. But people who defend the slaughter out of a dislike of sentimentality are not.
Typical is the editorial of the Toronto Globe and Mail which describes protestors as “city dwellers whose earliest understanding of nature comes via Walt Disney”. Another is a Professor G S Solt, who felt moved to write to the Independent to complain, “Why does the Independent give way to Walt Disney-inspired sentimentality?”
Observe – first the constant resort to cliché - that protestors are inspired by cartoons of talking animals they watched as children. Note how boring this cliché is and the way that it is constantly reused as though it was a new observation, and as though it was accurate.
The constant criticism of hunt protestors is that they have no understanding of nature, even though they are often biologists and people who spend their whole lives studying nature. It is of course true that most animals meet painful deaths in the wild, it is true that animals treat each other very cruelly, and that sympathy with seals is inspired by the fact that they are very, very cute indeed.
But what of it? The fact that animals usually meet painful deaths of their own accord is not a strong case for doing the job ourselves. It is precisely because we are human beings that the rules are different for us. If we see a child kicking a dog or setting fire to a cat – and such incidents are real – we do not sit back and watch nature at work, criticising the sentimentality of those who would intervene. Rather we recognise that a child would have to very disturbed and brutalised to carry out such an act, or else is developing into someone very cruel. The best reason for not smashing a baby animal’s skull with a pick axe is that it is a soul-destroying thing to do.
And if our natural reaction to the violent death of a cute animal is one of horror, then why disregard such a response merely because it is emotional? Isn’t that sort of gut reaction natural too? Maybe that instinct is right. Animals matter even when they aren’t so pretty, but in this case, it’s the cute ones that are getting splattered for their coats.

Professor Solt posits that we would not object to a rat hunt, but that is missing several points. Firstly, rats are known to have damaging consequences to human health, while seals do not. Secondly, if the government were to announce efforts to control the rat population by having a million rats battered to death it probably would provoke discomfort.
The economic arguments are also weak. Fish stocks are depleted not because seals are eating them but because people are eating them, and unlike the seals, we don’t have to eat fish. It is true that people in many fishing communities need more money to get by, but the Canadian government has other means at its disposal for raising their incomes than allowing the sale of seal fur. Furthermore, the majority of Canadians are opposed to the policy.

Killing animals is not wrong in every case, it can be justified but only because the lives and welfare of human beings are so much more important. The Australian animal rights activist Peter Singer argues that animals should be considered as having the same rights as people, more or less. He gives the example of a mentally disabled child who has a mental capacity not much more sophisticated than a dog, but asks why the dog should be considered as having no rights, when the child does? This comparison doesn’t work and is actually quite offensive – a mentally disabled child is not at all analogous to a dog, in mental capacity or anything else.
The concept of animal rights in fact doesn’t make very much sense – it means little to grant animals rights that they themselves could never act to uphold and constantly violate. Giving animals rights could never mean anything more than a series of prohibitions on what people could do to them. So the issue should be one of animal welfare rather than rights – people should treat animals with respect and without cruelty in as far as is possible.
At the very least that means that to kill an animal, you have to have a reasonable justification for doing so, i.e. one that’s better than just pointing out that animals kill each other anyway. Killing baby animals for fur clearly doesn’t meet this basic criterion. So leave seal babies alone!



After all this blood-splattered news, this posting ends with a more charming story of a new discovery concerning the relationship between human beings and domestic cats. Archaeologists have uncovered the grave of a stone age villager who died 9,500 years ago in Cyprus, buried along with jewellery and other ceremonial gifts (The Guardian, April 9th). And next to him, in the same soil and at the same depth, they unearthed the skeleton of a young cat. This suggests that people and cats have been getting along together for longer than was previously thought.
While there is archaeological evidence to suggest that the forerunner of the domestic dog, a kind of Asian wolf, first began to live with people 15,000 years ago (with the earliest burial of a dog alongside a man dated to 12,500 years ago in modern Israel) and goats appear to have been domesticated 10,000 years ago, it was assumed that cats were first domesticated in Egypt around 4,000 years ago.
So the discovery of a 9,500 thousand year old skeleton a definite Felix Sylvestris, buried with ceremonial care, is causing some excitement among the archaeologists from the College de France who have discovered it. Cat bones have been discovered alongside human settlements dating back to this time before, but it was not possible to decide whether they had been domesticated or not. This new evidence however, has prompted a more definite conclusion, that cats have been a part of our history for longer than we thought.

Thank-you very much for reading – again, respond_alexblog@yahoo.co.uk welcomes responses with open arms. Readers may also wish to know that the response to the Guardian’s Saving Grace appeal has been very positive and as a result, another 50 African women will receive antiretroviral drugs to treat the symptoms of AIDS for as long as they require. If you want to help, you can go to this site (scroll down a bit).

Best wishes and peace,

Alex Higgins

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