Review: Talk by Iraq eyewitness Hani Lazim on 26 January 2005

by Stephen Hewitt

In Birmingham on 26 January 2005, Hani Lazim gave a public talk advertised as an eyewitness account of Iraq.

The talk was at a meeting organised by the local Stop the War Coalition at Saint Barnabas Church, High Street, Erdington.

Hani Lazim gave a very informative talk, which was well worth attending. However, like many reports from independent observers in places such as occupied Iraq and occupied Palestine, it could have been even better if it had made a clear distinction between primary and secondary sources of information, between things he had seen with his own eyes, and things he has been told by newspapers and other people, and between facts and theories.

It was advertised as an eyewitness account of Iraq, but much of the talk evidently was not based on information that Lazim had seen himself and many of the simple observations that he could have told us were omitted - for example whether they have electricity in Baghdad. There were many areas of the talk that could have done with clarification as Lazim moved from one topic to another, seeming to introduce a new topic as he happened across it. He did not always complete sentences, sometimes making it hard to be sure what he meant.

Towards the end he said "I don't know where to start actually when I talk to you about Iraq." That was evidently true, but if the talk lacked structure, at least one of the reasons for it was a very welcome one: he had far too much material to fit into his 30 minutes. Indeed he seemed to have a vast mine of information - not all of it eyewitness information but all interesting and valuable - but not to have the means to fully convey it.

He sketched an outline of the situation in Iraq. Amongst other things he mentioned that law and order had been broken down "completely, deliberately".

He said that Iraq has a very high level of expertise in oil production - many Iraqi experts are now operating the oil fields in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Libya, He compared the production cost for oil in Iraq (US$0.50 per barrel) with various other places: the North Sea ($12) where operators were making a loss a few years ago when oil was selling for about $9, Alaska ($15-16) and central Asia (about $12). Iraq, he said, has very big oil reserves, bigger than Saudi Arabia.

When the Americans went to Baghdad, there was looting. However the looters left two buildings and there was a good reason for this. Of these two, the Oil Ministry contained lots of studies, geological maps and information about where oil wells have been dug. This, he said, "is what they came for". The Oil Ministry building was the "jewel in the crown". The other building was the Ministry of the Interior - which spies on the Iraqi people - the equivalent to MI5.

A previous speaker had said that following the invasion of Iraq there was a period of looting and after the looting of government buildings was finished armed criminal gangs attacked the neighbourhoods of Iraq, took property from private houses. In the neighbourhoods and the workplaces the people had started organising themselves and arming themselves against these criminal gangs and had successfully defended themselves against them. These groups arose from among the people but within a short time the Americans had largely suppressed them.

Evidently referring to this earlier speaker - he used the phrase "he mentioned" at one point - Lazim's description became especially opaque. He mentioned gangs though, confusingly, in the singular, saying something like "the gang we saw" and it was not clear whether here he was speaking as an eyewitness in Iraq, or referring to media reports, or simply referring again to the earlier speaker. In fact he used the phrase "we saw" on several occasions. If the phrase referred to his seeing things in Iraq then he gave no reason for his use of the plural "we" rather than "I".

Lazim said that when the neighbourhoods started to protect themselves there was an attack on them which was "quite vicious because it came from two sides". It came from the American side, he said, because they didn't want anybody to be armed. He then went on to mention an incident - presumably from press reports - of how the British had entered a particular town searching for weapons - and it resulted in 6 dead British soldiers. However he never returned to the subject of the two sides to give details of the second side from which the attack came. He simply said that the Iraqis will not give up their weapons because they have to protect themselves because law and order has all been broken down.

This is a big problem for the women in Iraq. "If you are a woman, it's terrible for you there". Women play an important part at work in Iraq they make 40% of the working population and they are teachers, engineers, in banks and the courts. Now, he said, the women cannot go from home to their work because they are kidnapped or killed and there is bombing everywhere. The state now consists of the Green Zone. Outside that it does not exist and even inside it they get mortars.

He had said that women had "filled up the whole needs of the state" (many men having been killed in wars since 1980 and intellectuals, many of them men, having fled to escape the "fascist regime"), So what he said implies that the violent problems that the invasion has created for women not only affect the women themselves, but also result in further problems for the state which needs them to function.

The United States, he suggested, thought that their occupation would be welcomed "after softening the Iraqi population with 14 years of sanctions and 35 years of a fascist regime - a hated regime". Now we see the result, which is quite the opposite: "The Iraqis - they never forgave, and they will never forgive, the United States for sanctions, for bringing Saddam and arming him, and all the wars he has waged."

The USA, he said, has to build a new army and new police to protect the US army. The US army does not want to be in the cities. "They want to be in their bases. And they built them at such a speed, it's incredible". He continued with some information which was first hand. Last November the motorway to Fallujah was closed and he had to drive around on some little roads. He went through a place, north of Baghdad - the name he said sounded like "Etagi" (although I have not yet been able to find any such place on a map). Here the Americans were building a base. He said ..."I could see the lorries, the shovels the - going in an almost you know - half of the motorway really going up in that area going to build up their base"... The exact meaning of these words was not clear. I supposed that he meant that half of the traffic he saw on the motorway was construction traffic for the US base. He said that this place used to be huge complex of Iraqi army industry making rockets, Kalashnikovs, mortars, and all sorts of weapons. He mentioned also "chemical weapons there nearby". It had been bombed to "smithereens". It looked just like a "rubbish dump", the whole area consisting of piles of dust.

Most of the concrete and iron going into Iraq is going into these bases and not into the reconstruction of Iraq.

And the workers used for this construction are not Iraqi. They have brought in people from all over the world, "even Chinese", while 60% of the population has no real job. On the subject of workers, he then moved on to a related topic. Iraqi oil workers are well trained in putting out oil well fires, because the Americans have been bombing Iraqi oil wells for a long time. And the Iraqis were doing this continuously, even with their limited imports. Now, however, a company in Kuwait, (whose name sounded something like "Karachi"), is involved, and it is a subcontractor to Haliburton. So Haliburton takes 50% of the money, then this Kuwait company takes 50% of the remaining 50%, and there are a "few drops" left for the foreign workers (for example Filipinos) that they have brought in to do the job.

For putting out 6 oil well fires, Haliburton took $1.9 billion (I wondered whether he meant million, but billion is what I heard). The Iraqis themselves could have done it for about $30,000. "This is the robbery of Iraq".

On the subject of robbery, he pointed out a newspaper headline "leaders feud over missing millions". In fact, he said, it was $7billion oil-for-food money. supposed to be given to the Kurds. He also mentioned that Mr Chalabi has accused somebody of smuggling $500 million dollars to Lebanon. Similarly he mentioned that there is $22billion of Iraqi money in the UN and nobody knows what has happened to it.

However, as far as I could tell, this kind of information, rather than being an eyewitness account, is gleaned from the newspapers. If he had any additional insight or sources of information on this subject, he certainly did not make clear what they were.

It was at this point that he said he didn't know where to start to talk about Iraq.

He has seen that what depleted uranium is doing to the Iraqis is a "slow genocide". And it would affect not only Iraq but also Iran,Turkey,Syria,Jordan,Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as the wind would take the dust.

His final point was on democracy. What he said about the recent USA-organised election (or rather what appears to be an election) was incredible - like something from Alice in Wonderland - so that some of the audience laughed as he described it. Unfortunately again the details were rather opaque. He said that on the ballot sheets are listed not candidates, but things called "slates". As far as I could understand, a slate could be a party, or a combination of political parties, or it could be an individual. But, he said, firstly the names on the slate are secret and you do not see their manifesto. Secondly the people elected to the assembly are secret.

Of course, this explanation raises more questions than it answers. Does it mean, for example, that you vote for an individual on a "slate" without knowing who you are voting for? Apparently so. The meaning of Lazim's description seemed to be that the Americans have designed a charade in which each would-be voter goes to the polling station and makes a mark next to a number on a piece of paper. The process thus has the outward form of an election. However, the process is meaningless in substance, because the entries on the ballot paper are meaningless.

He described it as a "sham" and said that voter registration was very low because the Iraqis could see it.

On this subject, Lazim gave the impression that some careful questioning would resolve some of the puzzles of his presentation, but unfortunately a public meeting is not the best forum for such a process. In the questions that did follow, one of the audience returned to this topic, mentioning that on Sky News on Sunday afternoon (meaning 23 January 2005) there was shown a ballot paper with 111 candidates on it.

Lazim responded: "Some of them are individuals not slates but each individual has to be a slate they call them a slate even if it's a single one and they give them a number so when you go to that you get a piece of sheet"... etc. His reply made no sense and someone else in the audience interrupted to ask: "Slate means candidate?" And he responded by starting to talk about proportional representation again, making it no more clear than the first time.

During the answer to another audience question, Lazim made some interesting points and gave another snippet of eyewitness information. Last November when he entered Iraq he went to show his passport and "nobody's there". Nobody searches you because there is nothing at the border. He said that there were two Americans and four Iraqis at the border and "that's it".

The question had been about Shia and Sunni and Lazim was answering by saying that there are Shia and Sunni in Iraq and they have lived there for thousands of years. The Sunni are there because of the Ottoman Empire, whose official religion was Sunni Moslem. You find Sunni and Shia who are cousins. His point was evidently that there is little or no real conflict between Shia and Sunni, and at one point he said "this is a red herring".

He said that the Americans wanted to deepen the divisions within Iraq and that "Sunni and Shia is a game they want to play" but that the Iraqis were not playing the game. He mentioned "Negroponte using his Salvador experience" - again the details were unclear - and death squads, where weddings at Shiite mosques were attacked and the attack was blamed on Zarqawi.

On the subject of divisions within Iraq, he said that Saddam savagely attacked the Kurds and the Americans helped him to do it.

Later occurred an example of how a careful question can clarify a point. Lazim was responding to a question from the audience by mentioning again the "Salvador experience" of Negroponte, the USA ambassador, who, he said, has 9,000 men with him in Baghdad, the biggest embassy in the world. He then continued talking confusingly about "40,000 of this war of dogs". What he was talking about was far from clear. He was saying ..."they are used to kill and maim and do secret jobs". At this point someone in the audience asked, sounding rather frustrated, "Sorry, who are?" and by persisting got Lazim to clarify: ..."dogs of war, defence contractors, a private army there's about 40,000 of them in Iraq a lot of ex-south Africans, apartheid"... "Mercenaries?" suggested the questioner. "Mercenaries" repeated Lazim, suddenly making his point clear. He said that he thought one British company had a $300 million contract supplying mercenaries to Iraq.

Hani Lazim is a member of Iraqi Democrats Against Occupation whose website is www.idao.org