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January 4, 2007

A Death Threat Wrapped Around a Bullet


by Kathy Kelly
Voices for Creative Nonviolence

An Iraqi friend whom I've known for 10 years looked worn and very weary yesterday when he came to visit me at my apartment in Amman, Jordan. He hadn't slept the night before because he'd been on the phone with his wife, who throughout the night was terrified by crossfire taking place over the Iraqi village where she stays with their four small children. My friend longs to soothe and protect his wife and kids. But now he lives apart from them, in another country.

His life was completely changed when a piece of paper was tossed into his kitchen in Baghdad. It read: "Leave now or you will die like a dog." Many Iraqis have been receiving notes like this. This piece of paper was sent to him with a bit of extra emphasis. It was wrapped around a bullet.

Weeks later, assailants killed his younger brother who was returning home from university studies. My friend moved his family to a village outside Baghdad and then ran for his life.

Here in Amman, where the UN cites a figure of 700,000 Iraqis who've fled their country, he feels trapped. Like other Iraqis, he lives without legal protections: he is not allowed to work, he is unable to obtain proper documentation to settle here, and each embassy to which he has applied for resettlement has given him the cold shoulder. He may walk the sunburst streets of Amman, ride in taxis, eat in kabob shops, but he lives a shadowy, underground existence. Everyday, Iraqis in Jordan are arrested (for working, for overstaying their visas, etc.) and deported. This, too, is a death threat of sorts. Meanwhile, in Iraq, his family lives on a battlefield, and who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Still, my friend's case is hardly unique. Relative to other stories we've heard, he is somewhat fortunate. He was not captured and tortured before fleeing Iraq. His wife has not been raped. His children are still alive.

Anyone listening to my friend's experience of loss and tragedy would surely understand his feelings of cynicism, even bitterness, when he thinks about how the Bush administration has sold this ongoing war. Turn the page back to May 2006, when sectarian violence had already begun to consume Iraq, and here is how President Bush depicted what the U.S. had done for Iraq, following Iraqi elections:

"For the people across the broader Middle East, a free Iraq will be an inspiration…. (Iraqis) have proved that the desire for liberty in the heart of the Middle East is for real. They have shown diverse people can come together and work out their differences. … Years from now, people will look back on the formation of a unity government in Iraq as a decisive moment in the story of liberty, a moment when freedom gained a firm foothold in the Middle East and the forces of terror began their long retreat."

The speechwriter who equipped President Bush with these lines should be burning with shame. The president indulged in a fantasy at a time when thousands of Iraqi civilians were fleeing abroad, every month, to escape worsening violence and tens of thousands more were being displaced internally – nearly half a million in the last 10 months, according to UNHCR.

In reality, there were no encouraging signs of the U.S. troop presence stabilizing the situation in Iraq. Today, even President Bush acknowledges that news from Iraq is "unsettling," as daily headlines report battles, kidnappings, torture, and murder.

Nevertheless, the president will likely ask the Congress to approve $97.7 billion in supplemental spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in addition to the Pentagon's $560 billion budget. According to some estimates, U.S. taxpayers will pay close to $2 trillion for a doomed war in Iraq.

A New York Times article called "Heady Days for Makers of Weapons" notes that military contractors are profiting more than ever as Pentagon spending has reached record levels. Nobody expects the Democrats, now in charge of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, to interfere with the lucrative deal-making. With an eye toward 2008 elections, Democrats want to establish their cooperation with the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill, the "defense" lobby. "I think the Democrats will be on good behavior," commented an analyst with JSA Securities in Newport, R.I., "as long as the war continues and we have 150,000 troops in Iraq."

Ultimately, this means that U.S. taxpayers will have to be "on good behavior" – pouring billions more dollars into weapons making giants like Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon, and General Dynamics.

No one asks the U.S. government to behave accountably on behalf of the 100,000 Iraqi refugees who, every month, according to UN estimates, flee from Iraq.

There are no simple solutions. Problems such as corruption within Iraqi governing structures, retaliatory violence fueling a civil war, and the lack of protection for any non-governmental involvement in distributing support for reconstruction seem nearly insurmountable. Lawmakers should have at least enough integrity to acknowledge that current plans to support ongoing troop presence in Iraq at a cost of billions of dollars show very little promise for lessening the violence, displacement, and signs of civil war that afflict Iraqis today.

Beginning in February 2007, when lawmakers will discuss the administration's proposed supplemental budget, Voices for Creative Nonviolence will launch the Occupation Project.

Although we have paltry financial means compared to the weapons makers who wield so much influence on Capitol Hill, we do have resources. We have our bodies. We have our determination. We have our compassion for the Iraqi people and for U.S. soldiers. We have our concern for future generations who will have to live with the consequences of this violence. These are the grains of sand that will stop the cogs of war from turning.

Now is the time for seriously strategizing about the best ways, in our hometowns, to engage in sustained civil disobedience at the offices of elected representatives, demanding that they vote against the supplemental spending bill.

A polite refusal to leave an elected representative's office may entail some hours spent in jail. Some will receive minor misdemeanor charges from federal or local police, for "disorderly conduct," or "trespass," or "failure to comply." We'll prepare for a day in court; we'll discuss how to handle any fines imposed on us. These are slight inconveniences and discomforts when I think of Iraqi friends, so wearied by war, and of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the thousands of Americans whose lives are forever altered by the cruelty and senselessness of war and of those who prolong it.

Much more grave is the risk of growing adjusted to a warlike culture that feeds the multi-billion dollar weapon industry.

I shudder still, thinking of the note that landed in my friend's kitchen, ugly paper wrapping a tiny yet terrible weapon. Who pens such a letter? Who delivers it? Who authorizes these threats? What kind of organization thrives on sundering families, on death and torture, on driving whole societies into flight and chaos and despair? The answers are murky and unclear.

It's hard to put your foot down over something called a "supplemental spending bill" – over a piece of paper, a bit of writing that you didn't write yourself but are perhaps helping to deliver. My friend's life was ruined by such a piece of paper. Iraqis are leaving their homes in Iraq by the thousands every day, and prolonging this war will cause more to flee.

That's why many of us will be occupying our representatives' offices this winter. We don't want to help deliver a death threat to people all across Iraq. This bill, this message of continued U.S. commitment to spending for war, isn't just a piece of paper to them.

It's a death threat, and it's wrapped around a bullet.


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Kathy Kelly is co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness and a three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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