Saddam is Captured, Let the Liberation Begin

by Medea Benjamin
December 15th, 2003

After floundering around in search for justifications for the war in Iraq that ranged from fighting terrorism to ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, George Bush finally settled on a goal of liberating the Iraqi people. We cynics in the anti-war movement didn't believe it. We said the Bush administration had ulterior motives: controlling Iraq's oil and other resources, reshaping the political landscape of the Middle East to make it more amenable to US and Israeli interests, and imposing a free market model on Iraq that would be good for US corporate interests.

With the capture of Saddam Hussein, an achievement applauded by the world community, George Bush has an historic opportunity to prove to the many skeptics that this war was really about liberating Iraq. Many of us will never be convinced that invading Iraq was the right way to go about it. We will never condone the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of innocent Iraqis, the destruction of Iraqi infrastructure from electricity to water to the telephone system, the policy of preemptive strike and the contempt for the United Nations that is so devastating to the rule of international law. But Bush does have a chance to convince us that this war was about liberation, not oil or political control. 

Here's what he would have to do:

Start scheduling the orderly withdrawal of US troops. With Saddam Hussein locked away, there is no reason to keep our troops in Iraq. The Saddam loyalists will be demoralized and fade away. If the occupying forces leave, other anti-US forces will have no one to fight and they, too, will fade away. We should send a strong signal of our intentions by immediately pulling our troops out of the cities and towns, and sequestering them in their bases. Then we should announce a plan for an orderly withdrawal within six months, to coincide with the political transition to Iraqi self-rule on July 1. In the meantime, we should speed up the hiring and training of Iraqi security forces and encourage other countries to help with that process. And if a sovereign Iraqi government requests international help, a UN peace-keeping force could be sent to back up the Iraqi forces.

Let the UN oversee the political transition to Iraqi self-rule. The US and its appointed Iraqi Governing Council have come up with a plan to hand over political power to a transitional government by July 1. But many Iraqis, including key members of the Governing Council itself, express grave concerns over the convoluted, indirect electoral process the US proposes. Both Shiite and Sunni leaders are calling for direct elections, using the ration card as a voter ID, but the US has opposed this option. With the Baathist party now beheaded, the US must stop trying to control the political process and by extension, its outcome. In line with the request by the influential Shiite leader Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the UN should immediately send a team to Iraq and assess the feasibility of holding direct elections before July 1, and if not feasible, the UN should come up with another option that would be more inclusive and empowering than the US plan. The US should then step aside and let the UN oversee the process.

Give Iraqis control of the oil and reconstruction money: The US now controls Iraqi oil money, seized assets, and the reconstruction funds, and is using massive amounts of this money to award contracts to wasteful US companies such as Bechtel and Halliburton. This is angering Iraqis--a well-educated, highly skilled people who, if they had the resources, are capable of rebuilding themselves. The US should tear up the present contracts and turn the funds over to the appropriate Iraqi ministries to then contract out to companies of their choice. The US should also rescind the disastrous Investment Code that it pushed through in September, a code that lifts restrictions on foreign investment and allows foreigners to have 100 percent control of Iraqi companies. While The Economist called the Code a “capitalist's dream”, it is totally unacceptable, if not illegal under international law, for an occupying force to make major economic policy changes before there is an elected government.

Help those mistakenly hurt by US forces: During the course of the occupation, many Iraqis were mistakenly hurt by US forces either through accidents or excessive force. In the delegations I have led to Iraq, we met children who have been blinded or lost limbs from US shrapnel, but have no adequate medical care. We met families living out in the cold because their homes were mistakenly bombed. We met young wives whose husbands, the sole breadwinners in the family, were shot because of miscommunications at roadblocks. So far, the US has failed to even acknowledge these cases.

There needs to be a fair and consistent policy to provide humanitarian assistance to these victims. Having a compensation policy that shows concern, compassion and remorse, especially in the cases of bodily harm and wrongful death, is not only the correct position vis-à-vis the victim or the victim's family, but can help stem the community anger and the desire for revenge that such cases often engender

Respect the basic civil rights of Iraqis: With Saddam Hussein on the loose, US authorities in Iraq cracked down on the Arab TV station that broadcast Hussein's messages, closed down Iraqi newspapers they thought were inciting resistance, and arrested peaceful demonstrators such as the leaders of the Union of the Unemployed who were demanding jobs. All of this was done in the name of security. With Hussein imprisoned, the US should lift restrictions on the press and freedom of assembly.

In addition, there are presently over 10,000 Iraqis being detained in Iraq with no charges, no lawyers, no trials, no family visits, no rights. Some former detainees have come forward with credible allegations that they were tortured by US soldiers under interrogation, including with the use of electro-shocks. Detainees must be charged with crimes and given due process, or released immediately. Allegations of torture should be seriously investigated, and if proven, the US needs to adequately compensate victims and see that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

The capture of Saddam Hussein gives the Bush administration a chance to show the world that we indeed want to see the Iraqis take over their political system, their security and their economy. Let George W. Bush prove us anti-war activists wrong. Let the liberation of the Iraqi people begin.

Medea Benjamin just returned from Iraq.