Thursday, April 09, 2009

Thousands of Iraqis Demonstrate Demanding Immediate US Military Withdrawal

Thursday, April 09, 2009
15:38 Mecca time, 12:38 GMT

Iraqi protesters call for US exit

The rally comes six years after US forces toppled the government of Saddam Hussein

Thousands of people loyal to an Iraqi Shia leader have gathered in Baghdad to protest against the US' continued presence in the country, six years to the day after the capital fell to American troops.

Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr rallied on Thursday in Firdous Square, where the statue of then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was pulled down on April 9, 2003.

The demonstrators waved banners and carried pictures of al-Sadr, calling for an end to the US occupation of Iraq.

The rally, which went ahead despite heavy rain, comes amid US preparations to pull its combat troops out of Iraq by the end of June.

Iraqi police kept watch over the protest but did not enter the main square. Iraqi and American armoured cars were on standby a short distance away.

Public opinion

Abdel Wahab Al-Qassab from the Strategic Studies Centre in Doha, Qatar, which researches political and military strategies, said that Iraqi public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of US forces leaving the country.

"The US has said verbally that it will end the occupation but we do not know what the real ambition of the invaders is. They could yet say there is no stability in the country and extend their presence there.

"The US has already said that 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq for what they say is training Iraqi troops. But I think that every Iraqi wants US troops out of the country because what has occurred is the shattering of the Iraqi society."

The Shia community in Baghdad has been hit by a series of bomb attacks in recent weeks, fuelling fears that Iraqi soldiers could face an uphill struggle in keeping the capital secure when US forces leave Iraq.

At least seven people were killed and 23 injured when a bomb planted in a plastic bag exploded close to the site of a Shia mosque in Baghdad’s Kadhimiyah district on Wednesday.

Nine people had been killed the day before in a car bomb blast in the same neighbourhood.

At least 37 people were killed and more than 100 hurt in a string of attacks across the city on Monday.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Thursday, April 09, 2009
11:42 Mecca time, 08:42 GMT

'No Saddam, no security either'

By Asaad Khalaf, newspaper vendor, Baghdad

Six years after the fall of Baghdad, one Iraqi tells Al Jazeera why he now yearns for the stability and security of life under Saddam Hussein.

I am Asaad Khalaf, I am 28-years old, married and have two children. I live in the Orfali district in Baghdad.

Before the war, I used to trade in electrical and domestic stuff. Everything was going well with me and I used to make enough money for myself and my family.

On April 9, 2003, I was near the Firdous Square, where the Americans toppled Saddam's statue.

At the beginning, I felt happy, thinking that we would get rid of the dictator and his Baath party.

But, soon after, I regretted all of that.

I had seen horrible scenes that I did never see in my life. Killing, looting, as well as damage ... all started right after the US invasion.

After that, I first worked as a newspaper seller. I used to have a very good income from selling papers due to the fact that there were no computers, internet or news.

People were eager to receive the paper on a daily basis. No matter how much it used to cost, I could sell all that I had.

People are not asking for papers any more and moreover, they don't want to receive them because they don't believe what is written there. The reason for that is the lack of credibility in the news as there are so many newspapers and so many TV stations.

I used to live a better life than now. Nowadays, we pay for everything - gas, electricity and everything. Even water I pay for it.

Medical treatment

My daughter, Fatyma, had a defect of birth which needs treatment.

So far, I have spent one million dinars on her and I can't always guarantee making all the money needed for her treatment.

When I go to the Wasiti hospital, which is a government one, they give me very far-off appointment. When I went to a private hospital, the operation was done the next day.

In the past, we used to live in better security conditions.

I used to serve in the army and I used to go back home at three or four in the morning and it was OK to do so.

Nowadays, after the Isha prayer, after seven in the evening, nobody could stay in the street.

Our life was better before, I work very hard, but gain only a little. I'm Iraqi, but have nothing in Iraq.

It is not easy to find a job, if I go to hotels, they don't hire me unless I have a relative there or someone whom I know. Unemployment is overwhelming in the country.

Despite the improvement in the security conditions, still we need more.

For me, I wish for the security companies to leave and for the Iraqi army to take over because - according to the officials - our military forces are ready.

I have to wake up at 5.30am to pray and then go out to work.

I go to Bab al-Moadham area in central Baghdad and I start working from there where I collect a quantity of newspapers in order to distribute them to customers.

Sometimes I'm late because of the traffic, like 9am which is too late for someone who reads papers.

I wish for the old days to come back because of security.

Security, it is the most important thing.

Source: Al Jazeera

Thursday, April 09, 2009
14:39 Mecca time, 11:39 GMT

'Fallujah never leaves my mind'

By Laith Mushtaq, cameraman, Al Jazeera

Fallujah was almost flattened after the US assaults that intensified in 2004

Laith Mushtaq was one of only two non-embedded cameramen working throughout the April 2004 'battle for Fallujah' in which 600 civilians died.

Five years on, he recounts the events he witnessed and filmed.

"What you saw on your TV sets at home reflects only ten per cent of the reality. Also, if you watch those pictures at home, you can change the channel.

But we were in the middle. We smell. We feel, see, and touch everything. We could touch the bodies, but we couldn't change the channel. We were the channel.

When I think of Fallujah, I think of the smell. The smell was driving me crazy. In a dead body, there is a kind of liquid. Yellow liquid. The smell is disgusting, really. It sticks in your nose. You cannot eat anymore.

And you can't get the pictures off your mind, because every day you see the same: Explosion, death, explosion, death, death.

After work, you sit down and notice there are pieces of flesh on your shoes and blood on your trousers. But you don't have time to ask why.

In April 2004, I remember I was in the Baghdad office and my boss said: "We have information that the Americans will attack Fallujah. We need a crew to go inside Fallujah immediately. Who can go there?"

I said: "Yes. Me. I can go there." I didn't hesitate at all.

Filming was a 'duty'

I knew the price to pay was high. Maybe my life. But if I'm afraid to die, then I shouldn't hold a camera in any dangerous place. I know some day I will die. Tomorrow. Next month. Next year. Or in ten years. I don't know.

But the point is that maybe I will die in my bed. Or maybe I will die doing something good.

Fallujah was my duty. I had to show the truth to people outside of Iraq.

By truth, I mean what really happened in the streets. Not a political message, just what I could see with my own eyes. Because some people were talking about Fallujah and said "there is nothing happening," or "the people are okay" and "everything is stable".

It would be great if everything had been stable. I would be happy if nothing had happened. I would shoot it and show it, with pleasure. But the reality was very different.

One day, I think it was April 9, 2004, someone with a loudspeaker in Fallujah's main mosque said: "The Americans will open a gate and women and children can go out."

As soon as he had finished, all the women and children of Fallujah tried to find a car to leave the city but when they were in the streets, the US forces opened fire.

There's a picture that I cannot forget. An old woman with three children, I saw her on the street and took a picture of her and the children.

She said: "We don't have any men here, can anyone help us?" Many of the men from Fallujah worked in Baghdad, once the city was sealed off they could not get back to their wives and children.

So, some men helped her, I decided to film the scene and then I sat down to smoke.

Ten minutes later, an ambulance came down the road. I ran to follow the ambulance and when they opened the door, I saw the same woman and her children - but they were in pieces.

I still remember the nurses couldn't carry the woman because she was in too many pieces, people were jumping back when they saw it. Then, one nurse shouted: "Hey, she looks like your mother."

In the Iraqi language that means: "She could be your mother, so treat her like you'd treat your mom." Everyone stood up and tried to carry a piece because they needed to get her out quickly, because the ambulance was needed for other people.

"We heard people screaming inside the hospital, they did not have any drugs left. They had to cut legs without anything at all"

We were standing in front of the main hospital, but we would have needed 12 cameramen in order to cover all that happened that day.

There were five, six ambulances coming and going with dead and injured people. When I filmed people inside the hospital, there were so many outside. When I filmed outside, there were so many inside.

Me and all of the Al Jazeera crew, we felt paralysed. It was bigger than us. We were only two cameramen and two reporters. It's not enough.

Reporters, editors in Doha and Baghdad, the people of Fallujah, all of them kept calling for us to film what was happening, and the ambulances just kept coming and going.

We heard people screaming inside the hospital, because they did not have any drugs left. They had to cut legs without anything at all.

At some point, I couldn't move anymore. I sat down on the street and kept smoking. I couldn't move. I see what's happening around me, but I can't move. Khallas [enough]. I didn't have any energy left.

Corpse-strewn streets

But then you remember the heroes of Fallujah that nobody talks about.

Like this old man. He had a pick-up truck and every day, he drove through the streets and listened to the people who told him there is a dead body in this or that street, but nobody can go there because there's a sniper.

Then he went there, stopped his car, and on his knees, he'd crawl to the body and carry it to his pick-up car. One day he brought five bodies.

Some of them had died more than a week ago, but no one had dared to carry them away. Some, the dogs had started eating them.

While I was inside Fallujah, I knew that every single move of my camera is not for me. It's for the people inside. And the people outside who should know what happened. It's like an SOS.

The Americans said our pictures stirred up hatred against them. But what I did was only showing what their army did on the ground.

Mushtaq: 'You remember the heroes... nobody talks about'
I don't hate them, I don't want vengeance, I just wish they had understood what they were doing.

And sometimes I wish my mind was more like a computer that you can reformat. Or that you can go to hospital and get pieces of your memory removed.

In Fallujah, there were moments when I held my camera beside a dead body and I felt I haven't got a heart anymore. Because of the dose of war that I've seen. It was something like an overdose.

Not just for me inside, also for my family in Baghdad.

The month that I spent in Fallujah, my mom was watching TV all the time, because she knew her son was there and she knew those were the pictures that he had shot. Sometimes we couldn't talk for a couple of days.

One day, she heard on the news that the Americans would try to reach the middle of the city. She couldn't bear it anymore. She went to the Al Jazeera office in Baghdad and cried: "Give me my son back!"

I was embarrassed, but my mother is, well, a mother.

Around the same time, in the evening, we got a phone call from the general manager of Al Jazeera. He wanted to talk to every member of the crew. The driver. Me. Everyone.

He said: "Thank you very much, we appreciate what you're doing." And then he said: "If you want to leave Fallujah, we'll send someone and will try to get you out of there."

We all refused. Everyone wanted to stay.

Why should we be better than the women and children of Fallujah? No one had called them to ask whether they wanted to leave."

In a written statement given to Al Jazeera, Lieutenant Colonel Curtis L Hill, public affairs director for the multi-national force in the west of Iraq, denied US-led forces fired on "unarmed civilians" .

"Coalition forces were there to capture the terrorists responsible for the death of four American contractors. They would not have fired on unarmed civilians attempting to leave the city," he said.

Specifically asked if a ceasefire had been called on April 9, he said troops had "halted the advance although I believe the date was 11 April".

Interview compiled by Stephanie Doetzer

Laith Mushtaq is from Baghdad and joined Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel in 2003. He is now based in Doha.

Source: Al Jazeera

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