The best-known U.S. Quaker to have undertaken a peace-witnessing mission inside post-invasion Iraq was Tom Fox, the widely loved member of Christian Peacemaker Teams who was killed there in early 2006. From my own personal experience, I know there are many Quakers, all around the world, who are working in different ways to help restore the rights of the Iraqi people, to provide humanitarian assistance to them, and/or to end the US occupation of their country.
Now, I can reveal to you that Bob Fonow, whose ‘End of Assignment report’ from his work as the US Embassy’s chief telecoms adviser I shared with you here recently, is also a Quaker. What’s more, shortly after Bob finished his 18-month term working with the Embassy inside the heavily fortified ‘Green Zone’, he returned to Iraq as a private individual, with the aim of trying to mediate an apparently complex set of disputes among shareholders of the country’s largest mobile phone company.
He went on that mission in April. And that time, he was working in what many people call the ‘Red Zone’– that is, the area outside the Green Zone.
Tom Fox and his CPT colleagues made a point of working in the Red Zone.
Bob is a member of the Herndon, Virginia ‘Meeting’ –that is, congregation– of the Religious Society Friends. (The RSF is the official name of the church, though we’ve been called ‘Quakers’ since almost the beginning of the RSF’s emergence as a pacifist Protestant church, back in 17th century England.) He first got in touch with me back in, I think, December, to challenge the assertion I’d made that I thought I was the only Quaker who’s also a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Not so, he said, since he is one, too.
And unlike a number of other Quakers– oh, for some reason Richard Nixon comes to mind– who have strayed pretty far from their connection with their home meeting, Bob has stayed in good touch with, and well grounded by, his meeting.
Bob has now been kind enough to say I can publish here a couple of the short reports that he sent back from the ‘Red Zone’ to members of his home meeting during and right after his late-April stay in the Red Zone. His descriptions of life there, and of the attitudes of the people he met and worked with, are certainly valuable for all of us to read and to reflect on. When he was there was when the US military was trying– using massive amounts of violence and force– to fight its way deep into Sadr City…
In his second letter to the Herndon friends, Bob wrote:
- At an Iraqi government meeting I was asked to attend on Tuesday I heard that several hundred thousand people in Sadr City have no clean water. They are drinking sewage, or water from filthy canals. The city is rat infested from garbage piling up. Electricity is limited to a couple hours a day. Medical services are holding up but US and Iraqi Army units are stopping ambulances. So far in the two weeks since Coalition forces started their attacks 925 Sadr City people have been killed and 2695 wounded. Earlier in the day I was told by one official that US Army snipers are playing games with killing. For a couple hours they are shooting men in the testicles, then a couple hours to the foreheads, and then a couple hours aiming at the heart. I hope this isn’t true, but I hope someone investigates.
Several Mahdi Army officers visited my host in Baghdad on Tuesday to tell him that they can’t take much more. They are being attacked after calling a truce. They will have to declare all out war in a few days if the attacks don’t stop.
… How is any more violence going to lead to peace, unless you kill every potential militant in Sadr City – which means hundreds of thousands of men and women? I haven’t yet met any Iraqis or Americans prepared to suggest that alternative. So there has to be a political and diplomatic solution.
It’s time to stand down the military attack on Sadr City. It’s a useless operation with no strategic utility. There must be a better way.
He concluded like this:
- I’d like to go back to Baghdad, and I don’t want to go back. I want to help but I don’t want to get killed. I don’t know how to reconcile these competing feelings or how to determine the right level of my commitment to Iraq and the people I have learned to understand and like. Time for a clearance committee.
A clearness committee is a mechanism we Quakers use when we face difficult decisions or dilemmas. I hope that in the four months since he wrote about his conflicted feelings in that intimate way, Bob found the clearness he needed.
And now, the whole US citizenry and our government need to look much more seriously for the clearness we all need, at the broader level, regarding Iraq. As Bob wrote, “there has to be a political and diplomatic solution.” It so happens that– as longtime JWN readers are doubtless aware– I have done quite a lot of thinking about what that solution might look like, stretching back more than three years now.
… But now, I am just very happy to let you read the full text of Bob’s two reports from the Red Zone. To read them, just keep on reading or click on the link below. Thanks, Bob– and here’s praying for your safety in your continuing world travels.
28 April 2008
I’m back in Baghdad again, only three weeks after leaving government service in the US Embassy in the Green Zone as the senior US reconstruction official for telecommunications in Iraq. This time it’s to mediate a dispute among shareholders of the largest mobile phone company. If the dispute is not resolved within the next two weeks the cell phone service in Iraq could shut down. The system is the lifeline for most people in Iraq, and the primary instrument of stability in the country. So it’s a serious issue. In any other country there would be technical alternatives. In Iraq there aren’t. A shut down will impair food distribution, fuel distribution, emergency services, general commerce, just about everything.
I’m in the Red Zone in Baghdad, staying in a secure complex, with a bodyguard 24 hours a day, and numerous other guards around. Stress in the Red Zone is different than in the Green Zone. In the Green Zone it’s the constant threat of rockets and mortars. In the Red Zone people fear car bombs, kidnapping and assassination. (The Red Zone is everywhere in Iraq outside the Green Zone military and government area in central Baghdad). It has been confirmed by my Iraqi hosts what many of us believed in the Embassy: overall violence is down, targeted assassinations of doctors, dentists, professors, local politicians, teachers, engineers, etc. are up. My protection service in the Red Zone – people who live ordinary daily lives – say that life in Baghdad isn’t getting better.
The guest house in the security complex where I’m staying is very nice, with a bedroom and even a pool table in the nicely furnished living room. In the Embassy I lived in a gray metal trailer. It’s a gilded cage of course, but if you have to live in a cage, gilded is preferable. I can hear the mortars exploding in the Green Zone during the day and at night the military action taking place in the city. One tends to sleep fitfully in such circumstances and I must always remain aware of the impact this has on my emotional, physical and psychological condition. I can’t do this work continuously – on my own with minimal support.
My relationship to the Embassy has changed dramatically. I’m having trouble getting a badge to enter the Green Zone. I have to cross into the Green Zone just as an ordinary Iraqi. That means passing through a cordon of six checkpoints, getting frisked twice, emptying my pockets three times, taking the battery out of my cell phone, being interrogated by Iraqi, African and South American guards several times through a quarter mile of barbed wire and fencing.
An important part of my role as a mediator in Baghdad is to get the Embassy to engage. The telecommunications sector is considered a success in Iraq so it’s hard to get attention for a problem that hasn’t happened yet, when so much else is going wrong. Yet, if the State Department gets involved in the Iraqi mobile phone services dispute, they will carry sufficient weight to bring it to a successful resolution. They have talented people with negotiating experience, and that’s what’s needed for this problem. This particular dispute could lead to loss of American and Iraqi lives. Who wants more of that here?
By now I’m known by many as a Quaker in Baghdad, a member of the Religious Society of Friends, often called a “peace church” due to its rejection of war as a political instrument. The closest thing to a core belief in Quakerism is “a seed of God in everyone”, and that the potential for grace is within every person. For several centuries many Quakers have expressed this belief in the mediation of difficult disputes. I have made my affiliation known to the disputing parties and that I expect a certain flexibility and good will going forward. It’s to my advantage that many officials in Iraq today have worked with Friends in their years in exile.
An Iraqi official said to me today that we need more love and less bombing and bullets from the United States. This was after he received a delegation from the Mahdi Army saying that they were only days away from declaring an open war on the United States in Iraq after increasingly deadly attacks on their stronghold in Sadr City, a giant rat infested, festering slum of three million people in East Baghdad that even Saddam left alone. This sounded a little embarrassing to me, the man was a fighter for many years, a leader of armed resistance forces, and it seemed almost like a Sixties admonition to make love not war. But he was trying in a second language to express his views that we Americans have missed many chances for peace in Iraq and there aren’t many left. He said that the US should be bringing the people of Sadr City to the negotiating table, not killing them. While Americans believe we are peaceful people, he said this is no longer shared by many Iraqis.
Violence, danger and the ugliness of war is present everywhere in Iraq today. I have accepted this assignment as a private American Quaker as a “mission to protect” my friends in Iraq – and American soldiers and civilians – from the collapse of the mobile system that is their vital lifeline to the necessities of complex urban life in a war zone. If service shuts down Iraqi society will be even more chaotic, desperate, dangerous and miserable than it is today. But if we can find a peaceful resolution to this difficult problem, up to now intractable, we may have a model that others involved in the confrontation in Iraq may use to their peaceful advantage.
Having said that, I still would rather be at the monthly pot luck dinner next Sunday at the Herndon, Virginia Friends Meeting House, or camping along the Shenandoah River at Friends Wilderness Center near Harpers Ferry.
Bob Fonow is Managing Director of RGI Ltd., a troubleshooting firm for the international telecommunications industry. He a member of the Religious Society of Friends, Quaker. Herndon, Virginia Meeting.
Herndon Friends Meeting
3 May 2008
It has been quite a week in Baghdad. I’m in Kuwait now trying to negotiate my little part of the madness into a favorable resolution. With any luck – and it will take some – the mobile phone system may stay operating after the middle of May, but it’s no certainty.
For ten days until Wednesday night I was in the Red Zone trying to mediate – i.e. in the middle of – a nasty shareholder dispute that has the potential of destroying the only functioning part of the Iraqi infrastructure. American generals accused me of exaggerating or trading for business on my former position in the Embassy as the senior advisor for telecommunications, as if my entire career as a troubleshooter was based on that sole assignment. Diplomats say I’m being alarmist – a much cleverer use of language. You only have to read the newspaper this week to understand why I’m getting such a reaction. Things aren’t getting better, they’re deteriorating. I’m off message.
I was probably safer in the Red Zone than the Green Zone. This is because Coalition forces, read that as US and Iraq Army forces, are attacking Sadr City. The Sadrist Mahdi Army is firing rockets into the Green Zone in return. Americans in the Green Zone are frightened, some are leaving, and many are angry. But I don’t think they should be surprised. US diplomats should be asking the US military to explain the strategy behind their attacks, and how it contributes to stability and peace in Iraq.
Sadr City is portrayed as a nest of militant criminals, proxies for Iran in Iraq. In fact, it’s a slum of three million people living in indescribable poverty. It has always been poor and militant. Saddam wouldn’t attack it as long as the people kept to themselves and didn’t threaten his regime. Unfortunately, thanks to the US they have a taste now for democracy and elections, and they tend to elect people the current US Administration doesn’t like very much.
At an Iraqi government meeting I was asked to attend on Tuesday I heard that several hundred thousand people in Sadr City have no clean water. They are drinking sewage, or water from filthy canals. The city is rat infested from garbage piling up. Electricity is limited to a couple hours a day. Medical services are holding up but US and Iraqi Army units are stopping ambulances. So far in the two weeks since Coalition forces started their attacks 925 Sadr City people have been killed and 2695 wounded. Earlier in the day I was told by one official that US Army snipers are playing games with killing. For a couple hours they are shooting men in the testicles, then a couple hours to the foreheads, and then a couple hours aiming at the heart. I hope this isn’t true, but I hope someone investigates.
Several Mahdi Army officers visited my host in Baghdad on Tuesday to tell him that they can’t take much more. They are being attacked after calling a truce. They will have to declare all out war in a few days if the attacks don’t stop. Wouldn’t that be convenient?
Today we learned in the international press that satellite guided precision weapons are being used against enemy command posts in Sadr City. This means that Americans in bunkers in the western part of the United States using video cameras and a classified version of something like Google Earth are remotely guiding, over the international telecommunications network, Predator unmanned vehicles over Baghdad to fire Hellfire missiles at ramshackle breezeblock huts holding a few guys with cell phones.
If you add up all the costs of this futile and ridiculous endeavor, the cost of that missile strike, which killed six illiterate young men, since most men in Sadr City are illiterate, would easily be several million dollars. The cost of one missile strike could remove the piles of feces off the streets and alleys of Sadr City, purchase a fleet of water tankers, provide textbooks for schools, set up centers for adult literacy, equip playgrounds, and even plant a few trees in the moonscape of this destroyed city within a city in Baghdad.
A second missile hit a bunch of kids picking up scrap metal to sell. The US claims it wasn’t a Hellfire. OK. We accept that. But what do you think the Iraqis believe? How is any Hellfire missile going to improve the situation in Sadr City? How is any more violence going to lead to peace, unless you kill every potential militant in Sadr City – which means hundreds of thousands of men and women? I haven’t yet met any Iraqis or Americans prepared to suggest that alternative. So there has to be a political and diplomatic solution.
It’s time to stand down the military attack on Sadr City. It’s a useless operation with no strategic utility. There must be a better way.
I’d like to go back to Baghdad, and I don’t want to go back. I want to help but I don’t want to get killed. I don’t know how to reconcile these competing feelings or how to determine the right level of my commitment to Iraq and the people I have learned to understand and like. Time for a clearance committee.
3 May 2008