Joe Hendren

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Thursday, October 21, 2004

Distorted media coverage of kidnappings in Iraq will only lead to more deaths.

Many aspects of the media coverage of the latest kidnapping in Iraq trouble me. I believe the case of Margaret Hassan especially highlights the biases of western media, not to mention the self-interested reactions of western politicians.

As news of the kidnapping broke, reactions in the media were full of surprise and dismay that a British person who has lived in Iraq for 30 years, is married to an Iraqi and considers herself to be an Iraqi could be the victim of the kidnap gangs. This is only a surprise if one assumes it is unusual for an Iraqi to be kidnapped. In fact, many more Iraqis than westerners have lost family members to the kidnap gangs, money often being the primary motive, as ransoms become a barbarous form of 'gangster capitalism'. Consider the following from a "girl blog from Iraq" Baghdad Burning, posted on the 3rd of October.
I'm very relieved the Italian hostages have been set free... and I hope the other innocent people are also freed. Thousands of Iraqis are being abducted and some are killed, while others are returned... but it is distressing to see so many foreigners being abducted. It's like having a guest attacked in your own home by the neighbor's pit bull- you feel a sense of responsibility even though you know there was no way you could have prevented it.

I wasn't very sympathetic though, when that Islamic group came down from London to negotiate releasing Kenneth Bigley. I do hope he is returned alive, but where are all these Islamic groups while Falluja, Samarra, Sadir City and other places are being bombed? Why are they so concerned with a single British citizen when hundreds of Iraqis are dying by the month? Why is it 'terrorism' when foreigners set off bombs in London or Washington or New York and it's a 'liberation' or 'operation' when foreigners bomb whole cities in Iraq? Are we that much less important?
Tony Blair said his government would do everything it could to secure Ms Hassan's release. "This is someone who has lived in Iraq for 30 years, someone who is immensely respected, someone who is doing her level best to help the country," he said. "It shows you the type of people we are up against, that they are prepared to kidnap somebody like this.". This is all he said on the issue, see Downing Street statement. By turning the issue into a simple US vs THEM dichotomy, Mr Blair does little to explain the possible reasons behind the kidnapping, and thus does not appear to be engaging in the key task of assisting Ms Hassan's release. To some, his comments could appear to be a politically motivated attempt to remind the anti-war faction of his party that they are 'terrorist' targets too.

Felicity Arbuthnot, an Irish freelance journalist and long-time friend of Ms Hassan appears to have given Blair a clear rebuke when she said she hoped that Blair would step back and allow the Irish government to lead efforts to secure her release. In contrast to Blair, Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern, said his thoughts were with the Hassans: "I stand ready to contribute in any way we can to help secure her release." (Guardian)

Blair's US vs THEM language go right to the heart of my second key concern regarding the media coverage, in which the kidnappers are described as terrorists, insurgents, or militants, often with a suggestion of a possible connection to Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In fact, such descriptions tell us very little. They also give the erroneous impression that the 'kidnap gangs' are a uniform group with a common goal. Consider the kidnapping of John Martinkus, as reported by his journalist friend Christopher Allbritton on the 18th October (click this link - its an amazing story).
We're not sure what all happened during [John's] captivity, but he was able to persuade his captors that he was an Australian and a friend to the resistance and not to the Americans. It appears, by the kidnappers' statements and questions, that they were nationalists and not jihadis, lucky for John. Also, he was lucky for not being American, because the kidnappers said if he had been, they'd have killed him quickly....

At one point, one man disappeared, saying he would check out John's story. He came back after about 15 minutes, John said, convinced John was who he said he was. We suspect they Googled John, because they referenced previous stories he had covered.
John was lucky -- very lucky. He was picked up by nationalists who, we hear, are getting out of the kidnapping and beheading business. He wasn't an American. He had a pedigree of lefty, anti-war reporter. And he fell in with a (more or less) kind-hearted bunch who were just doing their job as national resistance fighters. (He said they expressed concern that he wasn't married and that his living arrangements in the Hamra weren't safe. Bizarrely, they offered to let him stay with them the next time he came to Iraq -- I'm sure.)

Not sure I would go as far as to call them a "kind hearted bunch", but it does give some hope the violence will diminish when Iraqis are given back their country free of foreign armies. It might be unlikely that the group holding Ms Hassan are such a "kind hearted bunch", one can only hold on to the slim hope her captors also know how to google. Margaret Hassan strongly campaigned against the cruel sanctions regime, enforced by the US following the Gulf War of 1991. "In the build-up to the war last year, she warned MPs of the humanitarian catastrophe another conflict would bring. In January 2003, she travelled to New York and spent a week briefing the members of the UN security council and UN agencies on the dire consequences of military action" (Guardian, ibid).

If we are unable or unwilling to accurately ascertain the identity, motives and demands of those doing the kidnapping, more lives will be lost.

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Sunday, October 17, 2004

Iraq opens oil reserves to Western companies

Just read a report on the NZ Herald Online 'Iraq opens oil reserves to Western companies'.

Opening up Iraq's natural resources to widespread foreign investment completes the neo-liberal agenda of the US and its former viceroy Paul Bremer. In September 2003 Bremer imposed Order 39, a 'law' that rescinded nearly all of Iraq's legal and constitutional restrictions on foreign investment and banking. This law allowed 100% foreign investment in Iraqi companies (and state assets) and 100% repatriation of profits to their offshore owners. The only sector to be excluded from this carte blanche neo-liberalism was 'natural resources' (i.e. oil). This law is clearly illegal under the Geneva and Hague conventions, as Iraq was under under military occupation when Bremer imposed the changes, and the provisions of Order 39 clearly breached Iraq's constitution of 1970, a constitution that is still valid under international law.

Oil was exempted from Order 39 because it was thought that domestic political opinion would not stand for it. That’s not to say these changes were in any way democratic, as Order 39 was imposed before elections. The US clearly thinks that Iraqis will be happier with US part ownership of oil infrastructure, if the policy is advocated by an Iraqi face. This is where the (unelected) interim government comes in.
In an interview in a Shell newsletter that is distributed to its Middle Eastern clients, [Oil Minister] Mr Ghadban added that Iraq would open its doors to the oil giants early next year.

"We would like to open a dialogue with international oil companies [IOCs]. We are now formulating our policies ... and we think there is room for IOCs in Iraq - in particular in the upstream because we need new investment."

"We believe that there is at least 2.5 to 3 million barrels per day of new oil production capacity that could, in the long term, be added to our production levels."

The 'problem' for such 'investment' is the 1970 constitution that provides that "natural resources" and the "basic means of production" are owned by "the People". Not even Bremer attempted to override the clear constitutional prohibition to foreign ownership of the oil. It would not surprise me if the latest comments by the 'Iraqi' Oil minister are part of a strategy to move public opinion in favour of privatisation. Expect the interim unelected 'government' to stitch up a deal with BP or Shell and then claim 'there is no alternative' to Iraqis accepting full or part US/UK profiteering from the oil. Then expect such clauses to be missing when a replacement constitution for Iraq is drawn up next year.

Luckily, global justice activists have time to fight this issue, as the western oil companies are hesitant about investing in Iraq while the violence continues.

The Iraqi Oil Ministry was forced to cancel a conference in April when most companies pulled out after a surge in violence in the country.
Today, neither BP nor Shell has any staff working there. Shell has one consultant in Iraq and it is monitoring developments from its Dubai office. A spokeswoman refused to say if it was planning to send employees to the country. But she added: "Iraq does offer opportunities. We are following developments and working with the Iraqi Minister of Oil.". A BP spokesman said that the company would only consider opportunities in Iraq when "there is a proper regime" in the country.

While it would be nice to think that BP regards the current Iraqi administration as illegitimate, it is more likely they are worried about the prospect of their 'investments' being renationalised by a future representative Iraqi government, on the grounds that privatisation under effective occupation is illegal (and they would be right!)

Also expect US relations with Saudi Arabia to cool further as more barrels of oil roll out of Iraq. Saudi Arabia was one of the most significant beneficiaries of the 1991 Gulf War, as it was able to increase its production as Iraq's oil infrastructure was bombed. Saudi Arabia picked up the slack, and Iraq will soon want and be able to take the 'slack' back.

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Saturday, October 16, 2004

"From Toll to the Dole" now online

My other article on rail related issues in the August issue of 'Foriegn Control Watchdog' "From Toll to the Dole" is now online. It documents the heavy handed approach to industrial relations taken by Toll Holdings this year, despite only owning the-company-formerly-known-as-Tranz-Rail for a short time. It examines Toll's treatment of the crew of the ferry Arahura and Toll's ultimately successful attempt to
destroy the Multi Employer Collective Agreement (MECA) that once covered a large proportion of their workforce, notably the Auckland rail workers that have now transfered to Connex..

Take it or leave it" was the choice given to the cooks and stewards of the Cook Strait ferry Arahura. The new transnational owners of the ferries, Toll Holdings, told the crew to accept a big cut to pay and conditions or be made redundant. The live-on-board positions were to be disestablished, with those made redundant forced into reapplying for their jobs in competition with other Toll employees and external recruits.

Continue reading the article

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Thursday, October 14, 2004

Article on Toll deal on renationalisation of the rail track now online

I have now uploaded my article 'Toll Rail: Secret Deals Close to
Witching Hour Revealed" to the site. It looks at the July
agreement between the NZ Government and Toll Rail (an Australian
transnational) that bought the rail network back into public

The article can be read here

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