Loss of Status

An Iraqi army patrol at Kirkuk’s northern gate. Photo courtesy of Ayub Nuri.

This week on War News Radio, we examine why the negotiations over the Status of Forces Agreement between the US and the Iraqi governments have stalled. Asher Sered and Sonny Sidhu prepared this report.

We also talk to two college professors who are sending help from America to Iraqi universities in the form of books. Elizabeth Hipple reports.

Next, we learn about the Chaldeans, a Christian minority with a 6,000-year presence in Iraq that is now struggling to survive. Listen now to Kristin Caspar’s report.

Finally, we take a look at how Iraqi athletes have bounced back from oppression under Saddam’s regime. Matthew Diaz reports.

These stories, this week on War News Radio.


VARIOUS: “From Swarthmore College, this is War News Radio.”

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: I’m Elizabeth Hipple.

ALEX IMAS: And I’m Alex Imas.

BRUCE ACKERMAN: The fact of the matter is, if nothing legally is done, on January 1st we will have a law-suit.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: Another day, another struggle between Iraq’s government and the US military — this time over the long-term presence of American troops. This week on War News Radio: Loss of Status. We examine why the negotiations over the Status of Forces Agreement between the US and the Iraqi government have stalled.

ALEX IMAS: Also, we talk to two college professors who are sending help from America to Iraqi universities.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: Then, we learn about the Chaldeans, a Christian minority in Iraq that is struggling to survive.

ALEX IMAS: Finally, we look at how Iraq’s athletics are recovering after being ravaged by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: These stories, this week on War News Radio. This week, American and Iraqi negotiators announced that they had failed to reach a comprehensive Status Of Forces Agreement for the US military presence in Iraq. According to both governments, the main sticking points included timetables for withdrawal and the question of immunity for soldiers and contractors. Sonny Sidhu and Asher Sered spoke to legal experts and Iraqi politicians about why these negotiations failed, and what’s in store for the future.

ASHER SERED: Since the US and Iraqi governments have been unable to agree on a comprehensive SOFA, they’re working towards a provisional or “bridge” statement that will extend into the beginning of the term of the next president. Bruce Ackerman, Professor at Yale Law School, explains the importance of reaching an agreement between the two governments.

BRUCE ACKERMAN: We have been obtaining United Nations resolutions every year authorizing our further troop deployment in Iraq and this one expires, our present one expires on December 31.

ASHER SERED: Unless something is done before the end of the year, the American presence in Iraq will become illegal on January 1st. However, Professor Ackerman argues, a bilateral agreement between the US and Iraq will not fill the legal void unless the agreement receives congressional approval, something which President Bush has refused to seek.

BRUCE ACKERMAN: The administration is refusing to go to congress to obtain its consent, but insists on a unilateral act of agreement between President Bush and President Maliki. And this is simply not constitutionally valid under American constitutional law.

ASHER SERED: Nonetheless, at a press conference earlier this week, President Bush reaffirmed his vow to reach a bilateral agreement by the end of his term.

GEORGE W. BUSH: To be in a foreign country, there must be an understanding with the government. There must be authorities to operate, as well as protections for our troops. We’re in the process of negotiating that as well, and it needs to be done prior to the year.

ASHER SERED: In addition, President Bush claims that Prime Minister Maliki’s insistence on timetables for the withdrawal of American troops and the ceding of responsibility to the Iraqi military played a major role in derailing the talks. But according to Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent, and author of the new book Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, The Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq, negotiations to secure a long-term US presence in Iraq were hampered more by the Americans’ overreaching demands than by what President Bush referred to as the Iraqis’ “aspirational” timelines.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Iraqis found this sort of unacceptable, from the top to the bottom, including the government, they were rather amazed by this. Later the US modified it somewhat, but I think by overplaying their hand initially, and not realizing what a backlash there would be, they made the whole question of the American position in Iraq a hot political issue.

ASHER SERED: Dr. Mahmoud Othman, a prominent Kurdish member of Iraq’s National Assembly, says that Iraqis sense the war is nearing its end, and are suspicious of the Bush administration’s efforts to defer an eventual American withdrawal indefinitely. Even though Iraqis know American troops aren’t going anywhere just yet, they found the initial proposal of a long-term agreement without a timetable for withdrawal unacceptably open-ended.

MAHMOUD OTHMAN: The majority of Iraqis, they want to see the light at the end of the tunnel: they want a timetable for the Americans to leave.

ASHER SERED: A surge of Iraqi nationalism in the past few months has made it very dangerous for any politician to be seen as compromising Iraq’s sovereignty within its own borders. But Dr. Othman says that, although they don’t know exactly what transpired at the bargaining table, Iraqis feel as though the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has stood up for them in this case.

MAHMOUD OTHMAN: They have a sort of faith in Maliki and his group, I mean, the negotiators, that these people will not victimize the sovereignty of Iraq–Iraq should be sovereign and the forces should stay, but if they stay they should be under Iraqi law, Iraqi authority, and their activities and also immunity should be well-controlled.

ASHER SERED: This last point—legal immunity for American private security contractors operating in Iraq—emerged as a major sticking point in talks between the US and Iraq. Iraqis are pleased that whatever agreement is signed between the two nations will not include legal immunity for American contractors implicated in Iraq. As Mahmoud Othman stresses, it’s hard to overstate the importance of immunity as an issue for all Iraqis.

MAHMOUD OTHMAN: Iraqis are very, very sensitive towards immunity. Immunity has been misused, and in the name of immunity a lot of crimes have been committed against Iraqi people by contractors, by the Americans, by guards, by everybody.

ASHER SERED: Even though there are many issues that remain to be resolved between the two governments before they can reach a Status Of Forces Agreement, the Bush Administration wants to go forward with direct, leader-to-leader executive agreements. As for Iraq, Mahmoud Othman says the country is looking toward future negotiations with the next American presidential administration on a longer-term accord that may include a timeline for withdrawal.

MAHMOUD OTHMAN: They say the agreement will not be binding for the next administration, so people think that this agreement will be temporary, it will be only for the Bush administration, so they say it is like a letter of understanding rather than a long-acting agreement.

ASHER SERED: The future is uncertain, but one thing is clear: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has hit on a winning political strategy in his new role as a principled defender of Iraqi sovereignty. And according to Patrick Cockburn, it’s all but inevitable that Maliki would continue to hone this image in talks with the next American administration.

PATRICK COCKBURN: This whole thing may have impressed Maliki with the idea that there’s an awful lot of support to be garnered in Iraq by distancing himself from the US. I doubt that he and the government think they can last without US support but they’ve seen that there’s quite a lot — that it’s dangerous to be seen as too close to the US — quite a lot to be gained by sticking up for Iraqi sovereignty. So I think we’ll see the same thing after the election.

ASHER SERED: For now, Legal scholars from around the country, including Bruce Ackerman, have made repeated calls for the US to go to the UN to get a temporary extension authorizing the US presence in Iraq. If the Bush administration fails to do so, Ackerman warns, they will face grave consequences.

BRUCE ACKERMAN: The fact of the matter is, if nothing legally is done, on January 1st, well then we have a law-suit as well as congressional action here.

ASHER SERED: For War News Radio, with Sonny Sidhu, I’m Asher Sered.

[Music Break: “Pure & Easy” by The Dining Rooms]

ALEX IMAS: Iraq’s universities were once considered among the best in the Arab world. But today, there is a lack of resources at such high levels of education. My co-host, Elizabeth Hipple, spoke to two men about what they’ve done to provide Iraqi students with the reading materials they need.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: When Dr. Safaa Al-Hamdani of Jacksonville State University was fulfilling his Fulbright in Jordan in 2002, he met several faculty members from Baghdad University who shared with him their need for textbooks. After Iraq’s regime change, Dr. Hamdani was eager to start Books For Baghdad to help his colleagues in Iraq get the books they needed.

DR. SAFAA AL-HAMDANI: I have one university I contact in the southern part of Iraq, to be specific, in Najaf. They say they have a dept of English, they teach in English as secondary language, they have a number of students enroll, but there’s no single book in English in the library.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: With funding from International Relief and Development, Books For Baghdad was able to ship 56,000 donated books to universities around Iraq. In addition to books, Dr. Hamdani’s organization sent 20 donated and refurbished computers to professors as well.

DR SAFAA AL-HAMDANI: We have a tremendous number of surplus in the United States computers and really some of that some of the time they go to waste because they have lead they have other thing and it’s hard to recycle them and the people in Iraq love to have them because in school they don’t have computer they could use them to learn English, they could learn how to type, they have access to the internet through them, so these computer can be refurbished and sent and they will take care of them there.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: Unfortunately, after four shipments, Books For Baghdad had to suspend its operations in August of 2007 due to lack of funds. While the large scale of Books For Baghdad is no longer possible, Professor Jonathan Roth of San Jose University, who served on the board of Books For Baghdad, has continued to do what he can on his own to help one Iraqi student in particular.

PROF. JONATHAN ROTH: He’s a postdoc at the university of Baghdad, I’m sorry, university of Basra, in history. And he had been working with some other historians here who had been sending him material and someone heard about my project so I’ve been in contact with him and some people have been sending me books to send on to him.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: While Books For Baghdad may have had to suspend operations, Prof. Roth is hopeful that he might be able to expand from his much smaller scale operation to help Iraqis with their higher education needs besides just textbooks.

PROF. JONATHAN ROTH: I think creating a network that could not only just send books over but help with computer equipment, help with reconstruction money, maybe with scholarships, I think there’s a lot of potential for tapping into academics here in the States also to the Iraqi-American community, the Arab-American community, in the Bay area there’s a very large Kurdish community and so forth, a Syrian community, to create a kind of conduit for aid for particularly for academic aid.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: That funding for even the postal charges for boxes of books to Iraq has been difficult to come by is especially troubling given the needs of Iraq’s universities beyond just books.

PROF. JONATHAN ROTH: Well the Iraqi education system it need to be overhauled. They need a lot, they need equipment, they need training, they need books, they need supply. There is no money really, significant amount of money being put into the education system right now and that what I feel from talking to my colleagues back in Baghdad.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: While larger solutions for the woes of Iraq’s universities remain elusive, the efforts of individuals like Dr. Hamdani and Prof. Roth to help in whatever ways they can are more important than ever. For War News Radio, I’m Elizabeth Hipple.

[Music Break: Invocation by The Dining Rooms]

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: New host intro: The population of Chaldeans living in Iraq — 1.2 million during Saddam’s regime — has dropped to less than half that number since the 2003 US invasion. As Iraq’s 2009 elections draw near, there’s a lot at stake for this Christian minority, that needs government representation to maintain their presence in Iraq. Kristin Caspar prepared this report.

KRISTIN CASPAR: After thousands of years of relatively peaceful living alongside their Muslim neighbors, the Chaldeans — a Christian minority — have now become the targets of violence and persecution. Mr. Joseph Kassab is the executive director of the Chaldean federation of America – an association working for the preservation and rights of the Chaldean people. He says that during Saddam’s regime, life was much easier for the Chaldeans.

JOSEPH KASSAB: Saddam regime was hurting those who were opposing his policy, in other words, whoever was threatening his throne, he was chasing them trying to eliminate them. Christians never tried that. Christians are people who believe in peace so they never tried to revolt against him.

KRISTIN CASPAR: The Chaldean community was centered in Mousel, which after the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003 became a hotbed for insurgents. Jacklyn Bejan is the executive director of the Chaldean Assyrian Syriac Council of America or CASCA, an organization working for the political advancement of Chaldeans and other Christian minorities. She says that Muslim Fundamentalists accused the Chaldeans of being pro-American, because of their Christian faith and their desire for democratic representation in the government.

JACKIE BEJAN: In the last three years, we have had 42 churches bombed. Just from the clergy we have had 12 priests, deacons, and nuns kidnapped, killed. The highest ranking clergy of the Chaldean Catholic church was the Archbishop of Mosul, who was kidnapped in March of this year and after two weeks found dead.

KRISTIN CASPAR: Due to the pacifism prescribed by their religion, Joseph Kassab of the Chaldean Federation of America says that self-defense has been a challenge.

JOSEPH KASSAB: They are considered the weakest among the weak and they have no militia to protect them, they have no tribal people to back them up, they have very little representation in the Iraqi government or the parliament.

KRISTIN CASPAR: The Chaldean population scattered after they couldn’t hold up under pressure, says Jackie Bejan of CASCA:

JACKIE BEJAN: When the insurgency was on the rise, specifically in a neighborhood by the name of Dora inside Baghdad, fatwas were issued by militant groups against the Christians and our people were told to either pay tax imposed on non-muslims for protection, to convert to islam, to have a daughter or a sister married off to a Muslim, or to basically flee with nothing but the clothes on their back. That created in less than 6 months that attributed to over 20 thousands families fleeing from neighborhood that was predominantly Christians.

KRISTIN CASPAR: Those who can afford it move abroad, to a neighboring country or to the United States. Those who can’t settle in their ancestral villages in the Nineveh plains Northeast of Mosul. Here, under the jurisdiction of the Kurdish government, they feel relatively safer. But practicing their faith in public is still a daily risk that many are afraid to take, says Bejan.

JACKIE BEJAN: We have many of our churches that have closed down in metropolitan areas such as Basra and Baghdad. As a matter of fact the Archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic church in Basra last year was moved to Australia out of fear for his life. There was a very thriving Christian community in Basra, our recent reports are indicating not more than 300 families in a Shi’a area in south of Iraq. Many of our churches in Baghdad and Mousel have suffered from attacks from bombings from fire from vandalism.

KRISTIN CASPAR: While violence has taken a large toll on the Chaldean community, Mr. Kassab says this doesn’t mean they haven’t stood up for themselves and what they believe.

JOSEPH KASSAB: One of our priests was shot and killed after he finished mass, before he was killed he was asked to shut down the church and his answer was “How do you expect me to close down the house of god?”

KRISTIN CASPAR: Amid talk of a new, democratic Iraq, the Chaldeans, mostly those located outside of Iraq, are advocating strongly for representation, explains Jackie Bejan.

JACKIE BEJAN: In 2005 because of the unfairness of the elections, and because of this fear and intimidation that our community suffered during the elections, many people chose not to go to the polling centers. Most of the votes, especially in northern region, were disenfranchised. So the end result is that we have a single independent member in the Iraqi national assembly elected.

KRISTIN CASPAR: As 2009 approaches, Bejan says that Chaldeans are anxiously awaiting next year’s pivotal elections.

JACKIE BEJAN: What will become of these elections, it will all depend if both the US and Iraqi government can commit to conducting a fair and open election process.

KRISTIN CASPAR: Currently, there are more Chaldean refugees in the US than in any other country. With so many people moving abroad, Jackie Bejan says that numbers are dwindling in Iraq.

JACKIE BEJAN: Many observers are saying that if in the next two years if Christian community in Iraqi is not directly assisted and aided, they will flee, and we will be looking at complete eradication.

KRISTIN CASPAR: After 6,000 years of calling Iraq their home, Chaldeans are getting help through organizations such as CASCA and the Chaldean Federation of America to keep it that way. For War News Radio, I’m Kristin Caspar.

[Music Break: Invocation II by The Dining Rooms]

ALEX IMAS: Last summer, the Iraqi national soccer team, the Lions of Mesopotamia, brought their nation to its feet as they defeated Saudi Arabia, winning the Asian Cup for the first time ever. The victory is the latest chapter in the troubled history of Iraqi athletics. In a piece first aired in August 2007, Matthiew Diaz has more.

MATTHEW DIAZ: In 1984 Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday, was put in charge of the Iraqi national Olympic committee, as well as the Iraqi soccer federation. This began a dark time in Iraqi athletics from which the country has yet to fully emerge. Uday Hussein tortured and traumatized his athletes, employing the brutal tactics of his father in a poor attempt to invigorate Iraqi athletics. Ed Hula is the editor and founder of Around the Rings, a publication that specializes in world sports.

ED HULA: Torture was as much a part of being an Iraqi athlete as was actual competition. There was great threats that hung over athletes as they trained, as they competed. Athletes who didn’t perform up to the pleasure of Uday Hussein were tortured or faced other deprivations as a result of their performances.

MATTHEW DIAZ: Uday’s tactics destroyed the very fabric of Iraqi athletics. In 1980, before Uday came to power, Iraq was a successful sporting nation, sending 46 athletes to the summer Olympic games. In 2000, after 16 years under Uday’s influence, Iraq sent a paltry figure of four athletes to the summer Olympics in Sydney. In July of 2003, US forces killed Uday, and his brother Qusay in a firefight in the Iraqi northern city of Mosul. After his death, a great period of optimism surrounded Iraqi sports. Again, Ed Hula.

ED HULA: Initially, I’d say early 2004, late 2003 before the insurgency had gained traction there was considerable talk about investment in Iraqi sports facilities, rehab-ing soccer stadiums, training facilities for other sports, and that’s pretty much fell by the wayside given the drama of the past few years there.

MATTHEW DIAZ: In the face of war in their home country, Iraqi athlete have found ways to train and otherwise thrive in the wake of Uday’s reign of power. Again, Ed Hula.

ED HULA: It certainly not a tolerable situation at home when you can’t have your national team train and your best athletes have to go somewhere else to practice and train. While the fact that they’re training and participating and competing and winning and making progress shows that there certainly is a great potential for Iraqi sports. Football has provided the best results so far but I think theres a good chance come the Beijing Olympics that Iraqis in other sports in which they’ve excelled in the past for example such as boxing, weight lifting may start coming to the floor.

MATTHEW DIAZ: As the war rages at home, the Iraqi soccer team suffers. Recently hired Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira who picked up the reigns of the Iraqi team for only a few months cited the disorganization of Iraqi soccer as his main reason for departure. The team has had to train in neutral Jordan because of the violence in their own country. It’s simply not safe for them to practice at home. Iraq’s own Captain Younis Mahmoud who scored the winning goal against Saudi Arabia, has refused to return to his home country for fear of the violence that permeates it. Each member of the 24 man squad has lost at least one family member in the war. These agonies make the success of the Iraqi team all the more meaningful. The Iraqi players have been crowned more than the champions of Asia. They have been knighted the heroes of the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. Politicians especially have championed the ethnically diverse team as a symbol for all Iraqis to take to heart. Tom Farrey of ESPN:

TOM FARREY: Athletes have become political figures in Iraq. They symbolize a unified Iraq, they are one of the few symbols of a united Iraq. You have Kurds on the team, you have Shi’ites, you have Sunnis, and they play together. One guy kicks the ball and it lands on the head of another guy from a different sect and he passes it to another from the third sect. It’s sort of what you want sports to be, what you want sports to represent.

MATTHEW DIAZ: But then, reality sets in. Frank DeFord of Sports Illustrated:

FRANK DEFORD: There’s a million things the Iraqis would prefer to have right now than a winning sports team. It’s aversion, that’s great – for a few minutes we can cheer it – but when the game is over, I’m still hungry, my electricity doesn’t work, guy’s shooting me down the street. Nobody’s going to sit around and say “Oh wasn’t that wonderful though, we beat Egypt in volleyball!”

MATTHEW DIAZ: For the Iraqi people who treasure every shred of happiness they can get, there’s no doubt that the soccer team’s success is deeply meaningful. War News Radio spoke with Farouk Mansoor, an Iraqi chef, at his restaurant in New York City.

FAROUK MANSOOR: The Iraqi soccer team, what they did yesterday was amazing. I mean we had, after the game, all the Iraqis here, we had a big party and breakfast, lunch, and dinner we were all day packed, people were just coming here and gathering together, talking about the game. That was a big relief for the Iraqi people back home. All over the world there were Iraqi people celebrating because they brought happiness to our life, not the government that we have there, not the situation that we have there. I mean, God loves us in some way, you know.

MATTHEW DIAZ: For War News Radio, I’m Matthew Diaz.

ALEX IMAS: That’s our show for this week.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: War News Radio is a production of Swarthmore College.

ALEX IMAS: Visit us online to listen to archived shows, learn more about the program, or subscribe to our podcast. That’s at warnewsradio.org.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: On our site, you can also comment on this show or on our past programs.

ALEX IMAS: Our behind the scenes crew for this week includes: Elise Garrity, Marge Murphy, and Ayub Nuri. I’m Alex Imas.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: And I’m Elizabeth Hipple. Until next time, thanks for listening.


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