Shias wait for elections, or war

first published in the New Statesman, Saturday 1st January 2005

Observations on Iraq. By Stephen Grey

On a cold winter’s night in Iraq, a young shopkeeper stands outside in the
driving rain, his storefront illuminated by a sputtering petrol gen-erator.
It is a flickering pool of light in a city of darkness. Basra has been
getting barely four hours of electricity a day – one year after the British
army announced the restoration of round-the-clock power.
The young owner, Mohamed Hussein, shows us a poster, plastered with a
picture of a Shia saint, that announces the Iraqi elections on 30 January.
As we talk, a Kalashnikov bullet echoes across the street. The British
soldiers with me drop down for cover. Hussein does not flinch. “There is not
a single person in this city that will not vote in January,” he says. “We
have waited all our lives for this moment.”

Talking to Shias in southern Iraq, you get the impression that however many
suicide bombers or assassins stalk the streets, they will cast their vote.
Their leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has ordered them to vote: they
will obey. Continue reading Shias wait for elections, or war

Let’s talk: ex-MI6 man plans terror summit

(First published in the Sunday Times, Dec 12, 2004).

by Stephen Grey

A FORMER senior MI6 officer whose career brought him face to face with extremists from Ireland to Afghanistan is to convene talks with militant Islamic groups in an initiative aimed at changing the course of the war on terror.

Alistair Crooke, 55, who spent nearly 30 years with MI6, says he hopes to
persuade leading policymakers from Europe and America to participate.

He wants them to break a taboo on “talking to terrorists” by meeting
representatives of Hamas, the Palestinian group, and Hezbollah, based in
Lebanon. Political organisations such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and
Jamiat-i-Islami, from Pakistan, could also be involved.
Crooke’s initiative will be run through a new organisation, the Conflicts
Forum, which he describes as an “action tank, not a think tank”. It is
backed by former government, military and intelligence officials in Europe
and the United States who reject many of the methods of the “war on terror”.
It is funded from private donations but has the tacit support of some Arab
governments. However, Crooke’s plans are controversial as both Hamas and
Hezbollah are classed as banned terrorist groups by America. Some of their
members have directed suicide bombings. Continue reading Let’s talk: ex-MI6 man plans terror summit

Britons sounded alert on Abu Ghraib

first published in the Sunday Times, Dec 05, 2004.

by Stephen Grey

BRITISH officials in Iraq warned the Foreign Office and American authorities of serious concerns about the treatment of prisoners six months before the torture and sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib was revealed.

Several civil servants seconded to reconstruction jobs in Iraq have described in interviews how they witnessed ill-qualified American guards ignoring basic human rights as they turned Abu Ghraib into a military interrogation facility — rather than the civilian installation they wanted.

Gareth Davies, governor of Pentonville prison in London, discovered in December 2003 that Americans were using leg irons and belly chains to hold prisoners — a violation not only of new Iraqi laws adopted by coalition forces but also, he believed, of international conventions and of Britain’s 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act.

Davies, awarded an OBE yesterday for his six months’ work in Iraqi prisons, protested to American and British officials. He also withdrew British prison staff from Baghdad to avoid complicity in any wrongdoing. The scandal erupted in May this year with publication of photographs showing US guards humiliating their charges. Continue reading Britons sounded alert on Abu Ghraib

Follow the Mullahs

The Atlantic Monthly November 2004

With theologians at the center of terrorist strategy, “forensic theology” is rapidly becoming a valuable intelligence tool

by Stephen Grey


Inside the Green Zone in Baghdad last winter I watched a coalition adviser study a 4,200-word communiqué purported to be from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian suspected of links to al-Qaeda, whose network has claimed responsibility for the recent spate of beheadings and is the United States’ most wanted enemy in Iraq. The essence of the screed had already been broadcast by the media: the author promised to draw the Iraqi people “into the furnace of battle,” in order that “a real war will break out, God willing.” The analyst, however, had little interest in the political content of the communiqué. An Arabist and a scholar of Islam, he was scrutinizing the language and religious references in the text in an effort to determine whether it was in fact written by al-Zarqawi. Many commentators believed that it had been put together by others—perhaps an intelligence agency or the Iraqi National Congress—in order to give credence to U.S. accusations of foreign involvement in terrorist actions within Iraq.
Continue reading Follow the Mullahs

'We have your daughter and we're going to kill her tonight' :

by Stephen Grey

In the thick, sweaty heat of a Baghdad night, a family sit in their garden

under a full moon, and wait for news. They’ve been sitting and talking for

many hours now, smoked too many cigarettes and drunk too many cups of tea.

Now they just sit on plastic white chairs and listen.

Many sounds are familiar and reassuring: the occasional dog’s bark, the buzz

of crickets, the rustling of fronds in the date palm tree, the steady

clack-clack of the electric fan propped up on the lawn. From a distance come

other sounds that would normally have them on edge: the bursts of a

Kalashnikov machine gun and the roar of an American fighter plane. But

tonight, the sounds that fray their already stretched nerves, the sounds

that might mean an end to the waiting, come from the road just beyond the

garden wall: the screech of tyres, the horns, and the slamming of car doors.

Photographer Steve Bent and I are waiting with Harb Nayma and his family for

the return of their 23-year-old daughter, Shayma – kidnapped seven days

previously. This afternoon, 62-year-old Harb went alone to a deserted

backstreet to hand over a ransom. The kidnappers had promised to release

Shayma and send her home within one hour. Five hours later, there is still

no sign of her. Continue reading 'We have your daughter and we're going to kill her tonight' :

America's Gulag

Cover story – New Statesman
Stephen Grey
Monday 17th May 2004

Stephen Grey uncovers a secret global network of prisons and planes that allows the US to hand over its enemies for interrogation, and sometimes torture, by the agents of its more unsavoury allies

8 October 2002. Over the Atlantic, at 30,000 feet, on board a Gulfstream jet, Maher Arar looked out through the portholes of the private plane at the clouds beneath and the red glow of dawn. Stretching out on the wide, upholstered leather seat, he glanced across at the large video screen on which was displayed the path of the plane from its departure point near New York, onwards to Washington, DC and then to its final refuelling point at Portland, Maine, before heading across the ocean. A telecommunications engineer in Ottawa, Canada, Maher was used to air travel – but not to such luxury.

His companions – specialists attached to the CIA – were preparing to switch on another in-flight film, an action movie. Maher could think only of what fate lay ahead of him when he reached the country to where the United States was now sending him for interrogation and from where his family had once fled – Syria.

He recalls: “I knew that Syria was a country that tortured its prisoners. I was silent and submissive; just asking myself over and over again: ‘How did I end up in this situation? What is going to happen to me now?'” Continue reading America's Gulag

Who should we believe?

first published in the New Statesman, Monday 10th May 2004

The more people are victimised, the less account we take of their witness to torture and abuse.

By Stephen Grey

Abdullah crouched down until his knees just about touched the ground, nearly but not quite, and his head rested against a concrete wall. It was in this excruciating position that he was made to stay, blindfolded, for hours on end. “If I touched the floor with my knees,” he explained, “they would come behind me and strike with their boots, or with rods.”Freed after four months in detention, Abdullah was describing his experience of a special US interrogation centre inside the Baghdad airport base. His worst moment, he said, was the electric shock treatment. Drawing a detailed diagram, Abdullah showed how crocodile clips had been attached to his genitals and then wires passed to a device which looked like a wind-up field telephone that generated a painful electric current.”I could not believe they would treat a human being like this,” said Abdullah, who was accused of involvement in the insurgency against US troops. Continue reading Who should we believe?

The Sound of Freedom

First published in the New Statesman, Monday 22nd March 2004

Across much of “liberated Iraq”, you can search in vain for irony. Despite

what conspiracy theorists may say about America’s designs over oil, most US

officials really do want to make a success of a free Iraq. They believe in

it with that kind of deep stare that makes you want to start fidgeting.

On completion of their time in Iraq, senior officials are presented with a

signed certificate from L Paul Bremer III, thanking them for bringing

democracy and freedom to the country. The Brits sometimes giggle at the back

of the room, murmuring “inshallah” (“God willing”). The near-Messianic

commitment extends to the US military. The other day, an Iraqi journalist

asked a military spokesman what should be said to children scared by

low-flying US helicopters. “Tell them it’s the sound of freedom,” he

replied, without batting an eyelid. Continue reading The Sound of Freedom

Turn to the lawyers for justice

first published in New Statesman, Monday 8th March 2004

Stephen Grey argues that when governments are so feeble, unions so weak and corporations so powerful, we should welcome the “compensation culture”

Everyone has their favourite story of the American culture of compensation.
Mine came towards the end of last year from the Iowa court of appeals, which
upheld a jury’s award of $41,267 to a shopper, Judy Krenk, who slipped on a
grape at a supermarket checkout. The parties agreed that “a customer, other
than Krenk, dropped the grape while bagging groceries”, reported the Des
Moines Register. The judge, while noting that “the evidence in support of
Krenk’s claim is less than overwhelming”, said that supermarket employees
“should have known” there was a smashed grape on the floor.
Are we, too, developing a compensation culture? Continue reading Turn to the lawyers for justice

US learns the Bogside lessons

first published in the New Statesman, Monday 8th March 2004

Observations on Iraq by Stephen Grey

The first sound was a low roar; then the windows began rattling. Families

woke up and looked outside to see the tanks, armoured cars, trucks and

bulldozers of the British army. It was 4am on 31 July 1972, and 20,000

troops were sweeping into the IRA’s “no-go zones”.

The launch of Operation Motorman brought an end to “Free Derry” in the

Bogside and to IRA control of parts of West Belfast. Twenty-two years later,

as insurgents cause havoc across northern Iraq, most recently with the

blasts in Karbala and Baghdad, US commanders are preparing for operations

similar to Operation Motorman in an attempt to defeat the resistance.

I have just returned from seven weeks in Iraq, and my impression from

talking to US military officers, resistance fighters and ordinary people in

the Sunni Triangle is that there are two distinct threats. Most Iraqi

resistance fighters will tolerate almost any attack on Americans and their

local “collaborators”. But they do not support the cells of mainly foreign

fighters who kill civilians indiscriminately with the kinds of attacks seen

on Tuesday. Continue reading US learns the Bogside lessons