I Knew Saddam

This is an abbreviated portrait of Saddam Hussein, based mainly on the reminiscences of US, British and Russian journalists who met him during the first Gulf War (1990-91).

The documentary notes his difficult childhood – his birth out of wedlock, unrelenting bullying by other children and his physically abusive stepfather. It also explores his love of the film The Godfather Part 1, for its portrayal of power based on ruthless brutality.

The filmmakers credit Saddam for the rapid modernization of Iraq and delivery, for the first time, of health services, education, water and electric power to even the most remote regions of Iraq. The price Iraqi people paid for these creature comforts was to live in a constant climate of fear. Children were pressured to inform on their parents. Even ruling Ba’ath party members were summarily executed if they posed any threat to Saddam’s authority.

Soon after assuming power in 1979, Saddam launched a devastating eight-year war against Iran, with the encouragement and financial/military support of the US. Iraq lost this war. A number of analysts blame the loss on Saddam’s insistence on running every aspect of the military campaign, despite his total lack of military experience.

The film goes on to talk about Saddam’s defeat by UN forces following his invasion of Kuwait. And the extreme suffering of the Iraqi people under a 12-year UN sanctions regime – while Saddam continued to live in lavish palaces.

While rarely mentioned in the Western media, Saddam had handed over power to his youngest son by the time the US invaded Iraq in 2003.

Tony Benn, the British journalist (and former Labour MP) describes the 2006 Iraqi trial in which Saddam was sentenced to death as a “fraud.”  According to Benn, he should have been tried at the International Criminal Court, where he would have been allowed to call witnesses in his defense (eg former president George H W Bush).

The film makes no mention of the CIA-sponsored coup that brought the Ba’ath Party to power in Iraq in 1963: see CIA Saddam

 

Former Guantanamo Detainee Exposes MI5 Role in Rendition

The Confession: The Story of Moazzam Begg

Al Jazeera (2017)

Film Review

In this horrifying documentary, Moazzam Begg, who spent a year at Bagram prison and two ears at Guantanamo relates the history of his kidnapping and rendition from Islamabad (Pakistan), his rape and torture in both prisons, his release without charge in 2005 and his ongoing demonization by Islamophobic police, MI5 agents and British media.

Begg, the son of Pakistani immigrants, was born and grew up in the UK (Birmingham). After several beatings by skinheads, he paid a visit to Bosnia, where foreign Islamic fighters were supporting local Muslims during the NATO war against Yugoslavia. A short time later, he quit his job to open an Islamic bookshop in Birmingham. It was at this point he began to have regular contacts with an MI5 agent named Andrew.

In mid-2001, he was arrested under the Terrorism act, and British police raided his home and bookshop. The charges were dropped, and following his release, he moved his wife and three children to Afghanistan, which at that point was ruled by the Taliban.

Following the US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, he and his family fled to Islamabad. On Jan 21, 2002, a group of English-speaking men came to his home, kidnapped him and flew him to Kandahar prison in Afghanistan. There, after being threatened with rendition to Syria or Egypt for further torture and/or summary execution, he signed a confession admitting to membership in Al Qaeda. He reasoned that signing it would keep him alive long enough to stand trial.

Following the US invasion of Iraq, he was transferred to Bagram prison and from there to Guantanamo.

After his January 2005 release, he was briefly in custody in the UK and released without trial. It took three years to get his passport back. He then traveled to Egypt, Tunis, Libya and Turkey seeking further evidence of the US/UK rendition program. Under this process,  Muslim intellectuals were routinely kidnapped and “rendered” to totalitarian regimes (mainly Libya, Syria and Egypt), where they were tortured and forced to confess to Al Qaeda-related crimes.

In 2014, British police arrested him for the third time and he spent seven months in Belmarsh prison on a charge of training Syrian rebels and supplying them with an electrical generator. The case collapsed for lack of evidence. He believes this arrest stemmed from pure MI5 maliciousness for his efforts to expose their role in rendition and torture.

The video can’t be embedded for copyright reasons but can be viewed free at Confession: Story of Moazzim Begg

 

 

Running the Gauntlet: The Tortuous Path to Political Asylum in Europe.

Sky and Ground

Directed by Joshua Bennett (2018)

Film Review

Sky and Ground is about two refugee families from battle torn Aleppo who illegally smuggle themselves from Turkey to Germany, where they are eligible to apply for asylum. Due to archaic and tortuous EU law, they are unable to apply for political asylum unless they run the gauntlet and illegally cross a number of countries to reach German soil.

Using smugglers to cross the Mediterranean, they decide to leave Greece after a hepatitis A outbreak in their refugee camp. An uncle, a filmmaker, captures their journey on his Smartphone. He also uses the phone to communicate with brothers in Germany, who track them via GPS and advise them of the best routes to take.

In 2016, Macedonia has just closed their border, which means they must find an unguarded wilderness crossing point. They seek medical help when one of the women sprains her ankle. The Red Cross turns them into the police – who return them to the Greek refugee camp.

On their second attempt they walk mainly at night across Macedonia. They openly cross the Serbia border, where police transport them to a hostel in Belgrade.

They stay in a refugee camp on the Serbian-Hungarian border, where the Hungarian police demand a $50 bribe not to return them to Greece. As a single man, their uncle is forced to remain in the refugee camp for 28 days. A relative from Germany flies to Hungary to assist the other family members in traveling by train from Hungary to Austria. There, they are taken to the police station, where they are issued a 14-day permit.

Eventually the entire group reaches Germany, where they apply for, and receive, temporary asylum.

 

 

US Occupation of Iraq: the Environmental Legacy

Iraq’s Dying Rivers

Al Jazeera (2019)

Film Review

This documentary is about the environmental degradation of the Middle East’s most famous rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. The intersection of the two rivers, referred to as the Fertile Crescent, is celebrated as the birthplace of the agricultural revolution and the first human settlements.

The two rivers join in southern Iraq to form the Shatt-al-Arab, which empties into the Arabian Sea. The marshes along the Shatt were previously home to 200,000 “Marsh Arabs,” who worked as fishermen until Saddam Hussein drained the marshes in the 1950s. He reportedly did so to punish them for criticizing his regime.

The marshes were re-flooded in 2003, following the fall of Saddam. According to the UN, the wetlands habitat has only partially recovered (37%). This relates in part to dams on the upper Euphrates in Turkey and Syria. The latter have cut water levels in the Iraq segment of the Euphrates (making it more saline) by 50%. The river is also contaminated by industrial waste, agricultural runoff, human sewage, old rusting fishing vessels and the environmental damage resulting from nearly 30 years of US bombing campaigns (starting with the first US invasion in 1992).

Only 5,000 fisherman remain and all struggle to sustain their livelihood. In addition to declining fish stocks, they also face repeated harassment by the Iranian and Kuwaiti coast guard. The harassment stems from unresolved disputes between Iraq, Iran and Kuwait over their sea borders.

Fish stocks are also significantly reduced in the Tigris, which flows through Iraq’s capital city. While Baghdad fishermen are repeatedly hassled by Iraqi security forces, the Tigris is less contaminated and even serves as a source of drinking water.

At present, Iraq must import 60% of their fish, an important Iraqi dietary staple.

 

Saudi Aramco: The Company and the State

Saudi Aramco: The Company and the State

Al Jazeera (2019)

Film Review

It never occurred to me before watching this film that Saudi Aramco, the Saudi oil company isn’t a publicly traded company. In other words, it has no shareholders – it’s entirely owned by the Saudi royal family.

In 2016, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman announced plans to do an IPO (initial public offering) and list the company either on Wall Street or the London stock exchange. Had it gone forward, the IPO would have been the largest in global history. Saudi Aramco, which the Saudi government values at $2 trillion, had hoped to sell 5% of the company to private shareholders for $100 billion. The Crown Prince proposed to use these funds to finance his Public Investment Fund and Vision 2030.*

Late last year the IPO was mysteriously cancelled.

International oil analysts dispute whether Aramco is really worth $2 trillion, largely because they question the size of Saudi oil reserves. Despite the absence of any new oil discoveries (and pumping out 100 billion barrels in 30 years), the Saudi government maintains their reserves still stand at 261 billion barrels (as they did in 1989).

When bin Saman’s father Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ascended to the throne in 2015, he made drastic changes to the law of succession, essentially concentrating power in the hands of his son Mohammad. Some of bin Abdulaziz’s brothers remain attached to a system in which the royal family made collective decisions instead of ceding power to a single monarch. Several reportedly opposed Vision 2030, which is why the Crown Prince had them arrested in 2017 and confiscated their estates.

The capital flight triggered by these arrests not only scared off foreign investors, but also cast a cloud over Aramco’s potential ability to attract shareholders.

Analysts also point to other factors in bin Salman’s decision to postpone the IPO:

  1. Saudi budgetary problems stemming from military over-commitments in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.
  2. Ongoing economic blockade against regional ally Qatar.
  3. The absence of a stable Saudi system of taxation (at present Aramco revenues fund 87% of the government budget).
  4. The absence of a a work ethic in Saudi Arabia. Because basic needs are heavily subsidized, the Saudi population doesn’t tend to see work as a valuable part of their lives – leading to enormous government dependence on foreign workers.

*Saudi Vision 2030 is a plan to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy, and develop public service sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation and tourism

 


 

The Price of Oslo: How the Oslo Accords Set the Palestinian Cause Back 20 Years

The Price of Oslo

Al Jazeera (2013)

Film Review

The Price of Oslo is a two part documentary about the 1993 Oslo Accords, which according to many analysts, set the Palestinian cause back at least 20 years.

Episode 1 explores the background leading both Palestine and Israel to accept Norway as a “neutral” mediator. Israel welcomed the participation of Norway, as they replaced Iran as Israel’s primary oil supplier after the Shah was overthrown in 1977. In addition Norway’s ruling pro-Zionist Socialist Labor Party had extremely close ties with Israel’s ruling Socialist Labor Party.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) accepted Norway’s mediator role because of close personal ties they developed with Norwegian soldiers deployed as UN peacekeepers after Israel’s 1978 invasion of south Lebanon.*

Many Mideast analysts believe the PLO was on the verge of collapse in the late 1980s,  when Norway offered to set up a secret back channel for Arafat to participate in secret negotiations with the Israeli government.

The Norwegian government subsequently arranged for Palestinian and Israeli delegates to hold secret talks in Oslo and Israel under the auspices of FAFO, a Norwegian trade union think tank allegedly conducting “research” in Israel.


* The PLO was headquartered in Lebanese refugee camps prior to their expulsion from Lebanon in 1982.

Episode 2 describes how the secret FAFO negotiations took place in parallel with “official” Washington DC negotiations overseen by the Clinton administration. It also reveals how the entire Palestinian delegation disagreed with the concessions Arafat demanded they consent to. They most vehemently disagreed with Israel’s “deal breakers” that negotiations not include the status of Jerusalem, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, nor UN involvement in the ultimate peace settlement.

In the final Oslo Accords signed in August 1993, the Palestinians were granted limited autonomy (an elected Palestinian Authority) in areas of the occupied West Bank and Gaza that excluded “military zones” and Israeli settlements. In return, the Palestinians agreed to allow Israel to assume overall responsibility for “security,” to allow continued building of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine and to vigorously police “terrorist” activities carried on by anti-Israeli activists.

The only concession the PLO received was an agreement for the Israeli Defense Force to withdraw from Jericho and Gaza.**

Renowned Palestinian scholar and activist Edward Said was deeply shocked by the concessions Arafat agreed to, which he blamed on the “decay” of the PLO leadership. The Oslo Accord, according to Said, transformed the PLO from a “movement of national liberation to a municipality.” Owing to the extreme secrecy under which they occurred, Israel came out the clear winner of the Oslo negotiations. Had the Palestinian people known about the self-defeating concessions Arafat was making, they would never have allowed them to go forward.

With the Palestinian Authority brutally policing their own dissidents and activists to enforce “peace” in Israel/Palestine, the most important outcome for Israel was hundreds of millions in foreign investment.


*It would take the IDF until 2006 to withdraw from Gaza. (see The Back Story on Hamas)

 

Rendition: How the CIA and MI6 Kidnapped and Rendered Dissidents to Libya to be Tortured

Libya’s Muamar Gaddafi, Torture, Rendition and the West

Al Jazeera (2018)

Film Review

This documentary is about a secret agreement between US, UK and German intelligence to kidnap anti-Gaddafi dissidents around the world and fly them to Libya – to be imprisoned, tortured and/or killed by Gaddafi’s security officials.

Following the 2011 Libyan revolution, rebels captured a trove of security documents verifying these secret agreements. One document reveals the CIA, as well as UK and German intelligence, met with Libyan intelligence officials one week after 9-11 (while Libya was still under UN sanctions) to agree the details of the program. Documents also reveal that western intelligence officers were fully aware that Gaddafi tortured and murdered dissidents he detained in his prisons.

Western intelligence referred to the secret kidnappings – of victims that included pregnant women and children as young as six – as extraordinary rendition.

Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Gaddafi claimed to have a nuclear weapons program and offered to give it up to have Libyan sanctions lifted. There followed an eight year period of improved relations involving billions in oil deals for British Petroleum, as well as Gaddafi’s alleged funding of French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign .

The film focuses on two anti-Gaddafi dissidents kidnapped and “rendered” to Libya by UK intelligence. Both filed suit against the British government in 2012. One withdrew from the lawsuit in 2015 after receiving a 2.2 million pound settlement. The other received a full apology from Prime Minister Theresa May in May 2018.


*Sarkozy has been indicted for violating French campaign financing laws but has yet to go to trial.