JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: On a planned presidential trip to the E.U. headquarters, it was supposed to be all handshakes and photo ops about a new trade deal. But instead, President Obama, in his speech before the E.U., took to defending the United States’ decision to invade Iraq.
BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: But even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people in a fully sovereign Iraqi state that can make decisions about its own future.
Never miss another story
Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.
DESVARIEUX: But back home in Washington, the soldiers who fought that war and the Iraqi civilians who are still living through the aftermath had a much different take on the war’s legacy. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in the war, and they took the opportunity to speak to the lasting impact of the war at a people’s hearing.
YANAR MOHAMMED, PRESIDENT, ORGANIZATION OF WOMEN’S FREEDOM IN IRAQ: Sovereignty for whom? I think he’s talking about the 275 or 300-something parliamentarians who are living inside the International Zone. (And that’s the new name for the Green Zone. It’s not “Green” anymore.) It’s only the sovereignty for those people. And they have the whole wealth of Iraq, while the people are suffering. And there’s a number that was produced by the UN reports: almost 38 percent of the Iraqi people are living under the poverty line. Sovereignty for whom?
DESVARIEUX: Many questions still remain for the people of Iraq after, almost 11 years ago, troops toppled the government of Saddam Hussein and brought to power the Shiite government of al-Maliki.
Iraqi labor organizer pointed out how the U.S.-backed al-Maliki government is more concerned with amassing wealth and seizing resources, and it aims to crush organized labor movements and remain in power.
FALAH ALWAN, PRESIDENT, FEDERATION OF WORKERS COUNCILS AND UNIONS: The new government, busy with how to redivide the wealth and how to seize the resources of the society and how to spend mountains of dollars and gold—and this corrupted government, supported directly by the U.S. government.
The new Iraqi authorities, despite the tragic situation in Iraq, they want to impose a new legislation, which enable them to be in power and [incompr.] in power by controlling the so-called elections and to issue new labor laws to control the workers and prevent them from expressing their demands and their interests, and keeping the old laws of Saddam, which would prevent the workers from organizing themselves, from holding strikes, from negotiating, from calling for their interests. All—we can talk about the tragedies day and night.
DESVARIEUX: The tragedies don’t stop there. Speakers pointed out to the high levels of toxic chemicals in Iraq left over from depleted uranium used in both the 1991 Gulf War and the recent Iraq War. Also, abandoned bases, like this one in Basra, have left scores of military vehicles abandoned, leaving some scientists concerned over the exposure of chemicals like lead and mercury.
MOZHGAN SAVABIEASFAHANI, ENVIRONMENT TOXICOLOGIST: These abandoned sites, these abandoned military vehicles, are the perfect reservoir for toxic material to get into the environment, and eventually into the bodies of the people. Basra is one of the most highly impacted. People are suffering from cancers, birth defects. Dr. al-Sabbak, who is my collaborator in Basra maternity hospital, told me a story last few times I’ve talked to him. He has patients who’ve had—for example, a couple who’ve had 19 miscarriages. And on top of that, the woman is suffering from cancer. So imagine the kind of mental, emotional, physical pressure on the population of Iraq.
DESVARIEUX: The aftereffects are not only being felt by those in Iraq, but by the veterans who fought in the war. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, in 2013, 22 veterans committed suicide everyday. That’s one suicide an hour.
Many of these veterans suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder or other mental issues, veterans like Ramon Mejia, who spoke to the mental affects of war. He served in the Marines on resupply missions. When he returned from Iraq, he found himself walking up in the middle of the night with seizures, but no doctors could pinpoint the cause. Before the people’s hearing he gave an emotional testimony to how he’s been living since he returned.
RAMON MEJIA, MEMBER, IRAQ VETERANS AGAINST WAR: It’s been difficult for me and family to not know why I have seizures. Either way, I was retired out of the military. I was, you know, sent home packing. They gave me some medication. And even then, after they gave me the medication, I didn’t know what was wrong with me.
So I went back to Dallas. I started to heavily drink. In my neighborhood, you know, no one thinks about—other than just what—their own—just other than themselves. So in my neighborhood, you know, there’s gang violence, there’s drug sales. And that’s who my friends were. My friends were drug dealers and my friends were gangsters. So I got mixed up into that whole lifestyle again.
And it wasn’t until I finally questioned—. My uncle helped me. He was a Vietnam veteran. He was able to kind of help me out and pull me from the downward spiral of attempting to take my life. And my wife finally pulled me out of that environment, and we moved to Ohio. And that’s when I kind of started to question the war. Sorry. Those questions started to rise up again.
And then, in the process of me questioning the war, questioning my intent, I ended up converting to Islam. And for a moment I found peace. And at this moment I am at peace. But these are issues that I still have to deal with on a daily basis.
DESVARIEUX: Another purpose of the hearing was for those to make the case that government U.S. officials who lead Americans into the war be held accountable.
PAMELA SPEES, SENIOR STAFF ATTORNEY, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Justice requires an accounting from those individuals who so perverted and twisted the truth and cavalierly drove this country into a war of aggression that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives of Iraqis and treated U.S. servicemembers like cannon fodder: Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, and George W. Bush.
DESVARIEUX: The hearing pointed to the U.S. media’s resounding silence leading up to the war in Iraq, and how even today Iraq still gets limited coverage.
JOHN TIRMAN, EXEC. DIRECTOR, MIT CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: —that the news media, which was almost completely silent about civilian suffering in Iraq, has constantly brought out the issue of human suffering in Syria, which of course is a good thing. But I did a quick count of references in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and in 2012—so I haven’t even done it in the last year—in 2012, it was four times the number of references to Syrian civilians as there were to Iraqi civilians during the height of the war in 2006. And I think the reason for that is because we weren’t doing the killing in Syria.
DESVARIEUX: Wrapping up the hearing, speakers addressed how to ensure that reparations go directly to the Iraqi people instead of the Iraqi government.
SPEES: There are other models for this, but the important thing is that communities that are affected be involved and have some say in what should happen. And one could envision a similar type of mechanism, where the funds could be channeled through it and for the betterment, with the involvement of people who are most affected.
DESVARIEUX: For The Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.