On infrequent news reports from Iraq I occasionally recognize a place I filmed. In late September 2002 I saw Baghdad, Kerbalah, Najaf, Hamidayah, and other Iraqi cities through the camera lens. Saddam Hussein had just announced he would allow UN weapons inspectors to return to Iraq. U.S. politicians and pundits ignored the implications of his action. But in Baghdad, visiting foreigners breathed sighs of relief. If Saddam had weapons, they concluded, the best forensic experts in the world with sophisticated technology would find them. Saddam knew this, so it meant he didn’t have WMD. As soon as the inspectors concluded their search and failed to find the alleged stash, Bush would have lost his reason to go to war.

Under Saddam, the ruling Baath Party made sure that fellow Sunnis held key government positions. But they retained space for Shiites, Kurds, Turkomen and even Christians like Deputy Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. Saddam enforced this uneasy arrangement with brutal repression, but even after starting foolish and costly wars (Iran and Kuwait), he still had oil revenues trickling in, enough to give many Iraqis access to water, sewage, schools and hospitals. Iraqis suffered hardships of 12 years of crippling sanctions imposed by the U.S. and UK as punishment for Saddam’s Kuwait invasion.

During that week of filming, no Iraqi introduced him or herself as Shia or Sunni, despite antipathy to Saddam — which they expressed off camera. Several pleaded: “Please don’t come here. Saddam is old and will die soon. His sons are too stupid to govern.”

Meanwhile, Hans Blix and his UN inspectors began their search. After several months of finding nothing, Bush grew impatient and told them to leave, invaded Iraq in March and in May 2003 declared victory: “Mission Accomplished.”

Five years later, Republican candidates shout triumphantly: “We’re winning the war in Iraq,” a war Bush had declared won. Do they mean fewer U.S. troops now get killed and wounded? That’s it! McCain walked the Baghdad streets (one block with massive military protection) and got a gestalt experience: “Thanks to Gen. David Petraeus and these brave young Americans, we are winning in Iraq and we will come home with honor,” said John McCain.

Such campaign rhetoric — reported on Fox Noise as news — collides painfully with reality. No one questions the relevance of honor in the context of killing, torturing and humiliating a people. What does “honor” mean after subjecting Iraq to five plus years of occupation? No one invited us, by the way! The media and the leading Democrats do not confront McCain when he twists facts and history. They also aided and abetted Bush in his lies and war-making by continuing to fund it; then, they regretted their past behavior and continued to fund the war. Well, no one’s perfect!

“It’s just campaign rhetoric,” retort the cynics who supposedly belong to the Fourth Estate. “No one really pays attention.” If not, then why say it? Obama at least chastised McCain in the debates for supporting the push to go to war in the first place. But Biden also … well, let’s not bring up unpleasant memories (votes).

Sarah Palin, who can’t make two coherent sentences on key issues, whined her “winning” lines and then shamelessly displayed her son, Track, about to deploy to Iraq. “John McCain refused to break faith with the troops who have now brought victory within sight,” she squealed, “as mother of one of those troops.”

Obama refuses “to acknowledge we are winning in Iraq,” Palin bleats. “He called it spin. Is General Petraeus spinning the American people? I don’t think so. I don’t think so.” McCain pied in: “We’re not gonna let them get defeated. We’re not gonna have them surrender. And they’re gonna win. And by golly, they are winning, my friends. They are winning. They are winning.” (MSNBC, 6/13/08)

Winning! I hope Obama uses a few minutes of his remaining campaign time to expose the absurd use of language his opponents have chosen to describe what war has inflicted on Iraq and its people! Iraqis bleed. U.S. troops occupy their country for no legal or moral reason. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died or gotten wounded in vain. They have watched their infrastructure get destroyed and their professionals flee the country — or get murdered. Millions had homes destroyed; hundreds of thousands were subjected to arbitrary imprisonment; 4 plus million have fled, some to internal refugee camps, 2.2 million to other countries.

McCain and Palin have elevated the word “surge” to the level of religious faith. No need to explain! In fact, the reduction of violence in Iraq against U.S. troops has resulted from paying former enemies to stop fighting U.S. forces and from encouraging — by not stopping — ethnic cleansing in the country.

Violence remains a daily occurrence, but U.S. troops are less the victims of it. Iraqis now bear nearly the full brunt of tactics like kidnappings, a very common occurrence.

On October 12, Pamela Hess (AP) reported “a startling statistic” from U.S. intelligence: “a 500 percent increase in foreigners taken hostage around the world as militants adopt the methods of the most violent figures in the Iraq insurgency.” In 2004, “342 foreign and U.S. hostages were taken by terrorist and insurgent organizations. By 2006, that number had grown to 501. By 2007, it had jumped to more than 1,500, and it is on track to rise even higher this year, according to Thomas Brown, director of the office that analyzes information about prisoners of war and those missing in action.” This figure does not include the total kidnappings of a country’s own residents by terrorist or insurgent groups — a much more frequent and long-standing practice. U.S. military hostages — not included in the magical shield of “surge” — are almost guaranteed execution.

Ask the residents of Mosul about the magical surge. Over the last weeks, thousands of Christians have fled this predominantly Sunni city, 225 miles north of Baghdad. These “almost winners” ran from Islamic extremists who declared holy war on this ancient Christian community.

Iraqi police rushed to Mosul to try to stop the murders. Some 5,000 Christians fled over the past weeks, according to Iraqi officials. Mosul’s provincial governor Duraid Kashmula, called the violence “the fiercest campaign against the Christians since 2003” (Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, October 13).

How will the Iraqis who fled respond to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s claim that they can now safely return to their homes? So far, only 20,000 families (120,000 individuals) have returned, according to Abdul-Khaliq Zanqana, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s displacement and migration committee. Two million refugees still live in Iraq; most of the others reside in Syria and Jordan.

In 2006-7, some 3,000 Iraqis died each month from sectarian violence. This figure has dropped, but not because more U.S. troops arrived. Rather, ethnic cleansing has meant that either Sunni or Shia dominate neighborhoods or whole cities. A Sunni trying to reclaim his house in a Shia neighborhood or vice versa can hardly expect a warm welcome — except for arson. Baghdad has become lined with concrete blast walls and checkpoints. This means greater security, but not a better lifestyle.

U.S. troops did train Iraqi army and police forces so that they could develop their politics, which they did. But senior members of Iraq’s government tend to live in the Green Zone, protected by U.S. troops and with regular electricity and potable water. Other parts of Iraq suffer from cholera due to bad water.

Iraqi leaders still travel in armored convoys and rely on huge concrete barriers. Murder has replaced political killing. Thanks to the five years of war, Iraq has become a training ground for professional assassins.

In this atmosphere, who is winning? And who is whining about winning? Prime Minister Maliki, whom the White House selected as Iraq’s leader, leans toward Iran in his allegiances. He has tacitly supported Obama’s position of withdrawal within sixteen months. He also embraced Iranian President Ahmadinejad when he visited Iraq in March, without the vast display of body guards and military protection John McCain received.

No gratitude! For four years, Bush policies backed the pro-Iranian Shiites and helped them consolidate political power. Once the U.S. military force has gone, Maliki can order Iraq’s U.S.-trained army to target the Sunnis — and they can count on Iranian help in doing so. Maliki’s sectarian Shiites and their allies in Tehran have emerged from a formerly Sunni-run state to govern, thanks to U.S. help. McCain and Palin refer to this dreary scenario when they whine about Obama not accepting “winning.”

How would they define “losing?” Obama could retort: “Stop whining about winning and explain how you’ll rebuild Babylon!” I filmed in that biblical spot in 2002. Six months later, winning U.S. army members watched looters steal and destroy Iraq’s treasures while protecting the oil assets — the behavior of “winners”!

Saul Landau is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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