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Iraq

Checkpoint Four
by D. Martinez, T. Sommer
Friday Feb 6th, 2004 12:03 PM
Dispatch IV from Iraq, originally written for a french newspaper.
Checkpoint Four

Paola Gasparoli has been in Iraq since the beginning of August, 2003. She’s working with Occupation Watch Center, an international NGO which is attempting to monitor all the aspects of the U.S.-led occupation. Paola is particularly concerned with humans rights violations in Iraq since the end of the war. Part of her work with O.W. is trying to help Iraqis who have experienced such violations make claims against the Occupation forces.

She said, “ We try to get everyone to make claims. But the problem is that the Iraqis don’t know they have the right to claim against the American army, and they don’t know the process.’’ The process is indeed very complicated because the war is officially finished, and the rules for the American military are unclear.

“The work takes a very long time. We have to go to see the families and get their stories, translate them into English, and gather all the evidence, medical, legal or otherwise. All things which could be used as proof of the nature of the causalities.’’

“These days, we follow personally about 80 cases, a least 30 of which are about killed or severely injured people. The coalition forces admit to having among 10 000 claims against them since the end of the war.”

She invites us to accompany her to an appointment with the general CMOC (Civilian Military Operation Center, the organ in charge of handling all civilian charges against the U.S. military), whose office is located at Checkpoint Four, near the infamous Abu Graib jail, home to unknown numbers of Iraqi detainees.

We arrive at the two prefabricated buildings that make up the general office of the CMOC. Approximately one hundred people are waiting on a patch of muddy ground next to the office, hoping to get an appointment with the major in charge. We find Paola and her colleague Ismail among them, hoping to shed some light on three different cases that Occupation Watch has taken on.

People come here to find out about relatives who were arrested by the American army, or because their home or their car were destroyed during patrols. And others are here because their relatives or children were killed by the military.

People show us pictures while they wait in line. The pictures show cars crushed by armored vehicles, their occupants killed while driving, the soldiers preventing anyone from approaching the victims to offer help.

They will enter the office 10 by 10, and 10 per hour. As with so much else in Iraq, the press is not allowed inside, so we integrate ourselves into Paola’s group.

After the obligatory body-search by soldiers, we enter the office. The major of the CMOC general office, Major Liptman, is in charge of supervising all civilian claims against the Occupation forces in Baghdad, as well as all claims put forth by the soldiers between themselves. And yet the major works in a ten-meter square office, with no computer and without administrative assistants, only armed guards.

For the Iraqi side of the claims, there is no lawyer or legal assistance to argue on their behalf. So, the American army acts simultaneously as defense counsel, prosecutor and judge over the behavior of their own troops here in Iraq.

The process is long, and may only happen on Saturday, as Saturday is the only day when the office is open. Saturday, it should be added, is a weekday in the Middle East, so people must take time out from their jobs and lives to make the visit.

Paola and Ismail have come to investigate a claim wherein a man was shot randomly while purchasing food at a corner store. An American patrol heard a burst of gunfire and fired their weapons, killing the man in question by accident. It was not, as in the case of Mohammed Dura in Palestine, a case of a civilian caught in crossfire. It was a bullet fired randomly. Two weeks before, the CMOC has told them that they will investigate the case, and to
return later.

Now they have returned, and the major hands them a page of paper written in English , as are all the documents issued by the office. It says that the claim is not accepted. The major explains that he has spoken with the soldiers of the unit in question, and that they said that they were in a combat situation. In other words, the major has only spoken with the soldiers, and not the people in the neighborhood where the alleged infraction was committed. We point this out to him, and he seems somewhat embarrassed. “But,” he says, ”the patrol is the best place to find out what really happened. And so, since they were in a combat situation, they followed the rules of engagement of the American army in
Iraq.”
“But what are theses rules”? we ask.
He is about to answer, when the soldier guarding the office pipes up. “Sir,” he says. ”We aren’t allowed to divulge that information.”
“Oh, correct,” says the major. “ For security reasons we prefer keep these rules secret.”

Yes, maybe it’s better to keep secret the rules which give you the ability to killed an unarmed man who was buying food. Such is the face of justice in the newly-liberated Iraq.