National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 26, 2003

Peace activists divided on Iraq withdrawal


Sr. Anne Montgomery has been to Iraq at least 16 times with the Christian Peacemaker Teams. The nun, a Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, witnessed firsthand the devastation from the first Gulf War in 1991, the subsequent suffering of the Iraqi people caused by more than a decade of economic sanctions and most recently the chaos being wrought by this year’s second U.S. invasion and occupation.

A pacifist who has spent several years in prison for various antiwar protests, Montgomery, 76, is not among those calling for an instant withdrawal of the U.S. troops who have been occupying Iraq since the spring. Like most Americans opposed to the occupation, Montgomery wants to see the job of restoring Iraq turned over to an international peacekeeping force. In the meantime, however, the presence of U.S. troops, some of whom are training new units of Iraqi police, is necessary, she says, to maintain some semblance of order to a nation mired in confusion and overrun by crime.

Speaking to a largely Catholic gathering of peace activists at a Labor Day weekend retreat in Germantown, Pa., Montgomery, just back from a three-month stint in Iraq, said the Iraqi people “do not want a vacuum” caused by a quick pullout of U.S. troops.

“They would rather have some international peacekeeping force from the United Nations or the European coalition,” she said. “But they’re afraid. Security is the need they always express first. ... They need something; at least that’s the expressed need. It can’t be just suddenly we’re gone. There has to be somebody to take [the U.S. soldiers’] place.”

Montgomery spoke of a nation overwhelmed by disorder -- constant traffic congestion, long gas lines, neighborhoods without water and electricity, and thousands of people without jobs, to name just some of the problems.

Robberies, kidnappings and looting are common, Montgomery said. Most Iraqi women won’t come out into the streets for fear of being abducted. In the midst of the disorder is a huge presence of U.S. troops in Baghdad. Tanks, armored personnel carriers and Humvees fill the streets of the capital city, Montgomery said.

On the streets of Baghdad “you just have to be very, very prudent,” Montgomery said. She said Iraqis are “afraid to send their children to school.” Criminals operate openly on the streets, looting and harassing people.

Montgomery said there’s “a need for order on the streets, for protection until they can get their own security together. But they don’t want it to be the empire taking control of them. They want to be able to eventually -- as soon as possible -- have their own government popularly elected, not appointed by the U.S.”

Larry Syverson, the father of two sons who are serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq, would like to see the troops pulled out of Iraq immediately. Opposed to the war from the start, Syverson is among a growing group of parents of members of the military who want their children to be sent home right away. Syverson joined a group called, “Military Families Speak Out.” He was among the speakers last month when the families held a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington.

The group’s message is, “It’s OK to be a military family and be against the war,” Syverson said. “It’s not unpatriotic to be against this war.”

Since the news conference the group has been contacted by hundreds more families of soldiers, said Syverson, who three days a week spends his lunch hour in front of the Richmond, Va., federal building holding a sign that reads: “Iraqi oil isn’t worth my sons’ blood.” The sign includes photos of Branden, 31, and Bryce, 25, both of whom have been stationed in Iraq since early spring.

Syverson, an environmental engineer for the state of Virginia, is not a pacifist, and supported Bryce’s deployment to Kosovo in 1999. This war, he said, should have never taken place. Getting the U.S. military out is also what the Iraqis want, Syverson said.

“Just get them out,” he said. “Will it be anarchy? I don’t know. We need to just get the troops out. Give the Iraqis the money, and let the Iraqis rebuild themselves.”

Despite claims to the contrary from the Bush administration, Montgomery said the situation in Iraq is getting worse rather than better. The longer the occupation continues, the higher Iraqi resentments are rising, Montgomery said. While most Iraqis she meets are grateful that Saddam Hussein is deposed, they tell Montgomery the U.S. has not lived up to its promises of rebuilding their nation.

“There was a total lack apparently of any preparedness for this occupation, of what we’re going to do after we win this war,” Montgomery said. “The troops are in everybody’s face. They’re going up and down the streets in tanks and armored personal carriers and Humvees and the soldiers are on edge because they’ve been shot at, so they’re too liable to shoot first rather than wait. It’s just a bad scene.”

Syverson has seen a dramatic change in his son Branden’s letters. After his arrival in Iraq in April, Branden wrote of the beauty of the nation, and told of positive encounters with Iraqi civilians. In his recent letters, Branden, who is stationed in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, speaks of increased tension and violence.

When Iraqis approach their encampment, the U.S. troops immediately open fire, and use tanks to crush the vehicles being driven by the Iraqis, Syverson said his son told him. “He said he shoots at people all the time,” Syverson said.

Montgomery said that for the average Iraqi, “day-to-day survival takes precedence over politics,” but the Iraqis are clear they want the U.S. occupation to end.

“They didn’t have many illusions about why we came in,” Montgomery said. “They knew it was about oil, etc., etc. They know that the U.S. is there for its own interests. I think the idea of the U.N. or some kind of coalition forces being there would be in their interest, trying to help them rebuild their country rather than do it for the sake of our corporations.”

Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who has been leading a campaign to impeach George Bush, said in a telephone interview with NCR that the United States certainly has “the highest legal and moral duty to help the people of Iraq. My thoughts on how to do it are not stay there and shoot them.”

Clark said the United States should recognize its obligation to rebuild Iraq, prepare “to spend tens of billions up front,” but not give a dime of the funds to U.S. corporations.

“I think all U.S. companies should be barred absolutely from profiting from any contracts in Iraq because you just can’t condone crime and permit profiting from crime,” he said. “As far as the military presence goes I think we have to draw back as quickly as we can and move out as quickly as we can. We shouldn’t forget we announced we were building permanent military bases there.

“The whole psychology has to be we’re getting United States troops out,” Clark said. “It’s not to bring the troops home. It’s to get them out of Iraq so you need to turn the organization of replacement police forces, security forces, over to the United Nations, not substitute our own choices that we can control.”

Patrick O’Neill writes from Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, September 26, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: