Helen thomas savages Ari Fleischer

Pow! Blammo! Sock-o! Helen Thomas proves herself the Mighty Fightin’ Journo as she body slams Ari “The Assassin” Fleischer in this exchange during a Jan. 6 White House press briefing. Ari never laid a glove on her.

fleischer.jpgAri Fleischer took a savage beating from the feisty dean of the Washington press corps, Helen Thomas. Be sure and dig Ari’s spinning, and the insidious idea that the Iraqis are somehow respsonsible for Saddam Hussein. Comments by me in italics.
January 6, 2003
12:35 P.M. EST
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon and happy New Year to everybody. The President began his day with an intelligence briefing, followed by an FBI briefing. Then he had a series of policy briefings. And this afternoon, the President will look forward to a Cabinet meeting where the President will discuss with members of his Cabinet his agenda for the year. The President is going to focus on economic growth, making America a more compassionate country, and providing for the security of our nation abroad and on the homefront.
And with that, I’m more than happy to take your questions. Helen.
Q At the earlier briefing, Ari, you said that the President deplored the taking of innocent lives. Does that apply to all innocent lives in the world? And I have a follow-up.
Here’s the setup.
MR. FLEISCHER: I refer specifically to a horrible terrorist attack on Tel Aviv that killed scores and wounded hundreds. And the President, as he said in his statement yesterday, deplores in the strongest terms the taking of those lives and the wounding of those people, innocents in Israel.
Q My follow-up is, why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?
Pow. He really should have seen this one coming.
MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, the question is how to protect Americans, and our allies and friends —
Q They’re not attacking you.
MR. FLEISCHER: — from a country —
Q Have they laid the glove on you or on the United States, the Iraqis, in 11 years?
MR. FLEISCHER: I guess you have forgotten about the Americans who were killed in the first Gulf War as a result of Saddam Hussein’s aggression then.
I guess Ari is forgetting that of the 148 Americans who died in the first Gulf War, 35 were killed by “friendly fire,” more than 10 times the rate in other 20th century wars. And what about those Canadian troops who died in Afghanistan after a U.S. pilot bombed them?
Q Is this revenge, 11 years of revenge?
MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, I think you know very well that the President’s position is that he wants to avert war, and that the President has asked the United Nations to go into Iraq to help with the purpose of averting war.
Actually, he’s asked the U.N. to go in to find reasons to justify war.
Q Would the President attack innocent Iraqi lives?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President wants to make certain that he can defend our country, defend our interests, defend the region, and make certain that American lives are not lost.
Q And he thinks they are a threat to us?
MR. FLEISCHER: There is no question that the President thinks that Iraq is a threat to the United States.
Q The Iraqi people?
MR. FLEISCHER: The Iraqi people are represented by their government. If there was regime change, the Iraqi —
OK. So the Iraqis are now responsible for Saddam Hussein, since he was “elected” in a farce ballot back in October.
Q So they will be vulnerable?
MR. FLEISCHER: Actually, the President has made it very clear that he has no dispute with the people of Iraq. That’s why the American policy remains a policy of regime change. There is no question the people of Iraq —
Oops! Now they’re not represented by Saddam Hussein, who is evil. EVIL we tell you.
Q That’s a decision for them to make, isn’t it? It’s their country.
MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, if you think that the people of Iraq are in a position to dictate who their dictator is, I don’t think that has been what history has shown.
Helen, when it comes to being in a position to dictate who dictates in a country, that’s the United States’ job, you hippie freak
Q I think many countries don’t have — people don’t have the decision — including us.
I was thinking the same thing.

Victims of Arabization

BINISLAWA DISPLACED PERSONS CAMP, Iraqi Kurdistan — The day is hot, damn hot. It’s the middle of July, and the air is dry and thirsty with the thermometer bumping against the 45 degree Celsius mark. Little dust devils curl up around my heels as I walk. Yet inside a tent that 11 people call home, the water is cold and refreshing and the hospitality is genuine.

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Wahab Mashoor Muhammad and his sons © 2002 Christopher Allbritton

BINISLAWA DISPLACED PERSONS CAMP, Iraqi Kurdistan — The day is hot, damn hot. It’s the middle of July, and the air is dry and thirsty with the thermometer bumping against the 45 degree Celsius mark. Little dust devils curl up around my heels as I walk. Yet inside a tent that 11 people call home, the water is cold and refreshing and the hospitality is genuine.
Abdullah Salam, my guide from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and I have come here to Binislawa where thousands of tent homes are set up and tens of thousands of people wait for relief from … someone. As we approach one tent, Wahab Mashoor Muhammad, 49, greets us and welcomes us into his home.
It’s not much, to be honest. The floor is poured concrete and the walls are cinderblocks packed with mud to hold them in place. Poles support the canvas “roof” which is all that protects them from the winds and the cold of winter. There is no heat or running water. But it’s clean, and Wahab’s wife and daughters arrange pillows for us to sit on. Another daughter brings me a glass of water from a plastic cooler.
He’s been here since July 18, 2001, almost a year to the day that I visit. He’s from Kaznafar, a village outside Kirkuk, the largest Kurdish city in Iraq, where he was a taxi driver. He was forced to leave his home with a few blankets, some kitchen items and his family when he refused to change his nationality from Kurdish to Arab under a program called “Arabization” that Saddam Hussein’s regime has been engaging in since the 1970s. In other parts of the world, it would be called ethnic cleansing.
“I’m a Kurd,” he says. “How can I be an Arab or change my nationality? It’s wrong for a man to deny his nationality.”
Arabization has been going on since the 1920s, ever since the Kingdom of Iraq was created out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire by the United Kingdom. But it was intensified after 1975 after the Algerian Agreement between Iran and Iraq, under which the Shah cut his support for Kurdish rebels in Iraq. Kurds are forcibly evicted from their homes in Kirkuk, Mosul and other oil-rich regions of northern Iraq unless they agree to have their registered nationality changed to Arab. If they refuse, which many do, they are expelled from their homes, usually with only a few hours to gather their possessions and turned north, to the Kurdish enclave in the north. Arab families are lured from the south to the vacant Kurdish homes in the north with money, land and pickup trucks, all confiscated from the displaced Kurds. It is estimated that more than 8,000 families live in Binislawa. That’s more than 50,000 people.
NATO went to war in 1998-99 in Kosovo and Yugoslavia to prevent this kind of stuff.
But changing his ethnicity isn’t all Wahab was expected to do. The Iraqis demanded he join the elite Jerusalem Brigade, which now holds positions about 20 km outside of Arbil. So named because Saddam has said this fighting force will be the one to liberate Jerusalem from the Jews, the Kurds say that the road to Jerusalem runs through Kurdistan. Wahab was being told he must be prepared to make war on his own people.
Since he refused all this, he was expelled, along with his wife, his mother and his eight children. Now they all live in a tent, and they might be considered the lucky ones.

  • In 1983, 8,000 Kurds were “disappeared” by the Iraqi regime.
  • In 1987-88, 180,000 people disappeared or were executed under the Anfal Campaign. “Anfal” is a principle from the Koran and it allows the looting of a non-Muslim population when Muslims conquer them.
  • In 1988, Halabja became a nightmare when Saddam used chemical weapons against women and children, killing 5,000 people in about 15 minutes. More than 10,000 people were injured and the region suffers from lingering health problems. In all, more than 200 villages were gassed and no one is sure how many people died. There have been no studies on the after-effects of the chemicals on the population or the environment.

So, Wahab is understandably anxious to see Saddam go. “If Saddam is overthrown, I would run back to Kirkuk!” says Wahab. “My family has been living there for 300 years.”
He may get his wish come February.

Saddam to present UN with suicide note

Just what is Saddam’s game? The Independent in London is reporting that the final document Iraq will present to the United Nations on Saturday (Someone’s brown-nosing by turning in homework early!) will declare that the country is “devoid of weapons of mass destruction.” … Oh, boy.

Sigh. Just what is Saddam’s game? The Independent in London is reporting that the final document Iraq will present to the United Nations on Saturday (Someone’s brown-nosing by turning in homework early!) will declare that the country is “devoid of weapons of mass destruction.”
Oh, boy.
Iraq promises to deliver a 7,000-page document describing the state of the country’s biological, chemical, missile and nuclear technologies in both Arabic and English. All the technologies, it claims, are kosher by U.N. standards.
OK. Show of hands. Who believes this? I don’t. And I’m still puzzled by the alleged assertion by the Iraqi official who said the country would protect itself with weapons of mass destruction.
What are they thinking? Has Saddam really entered a suicidal phase? If he thinks the French and the Russians will rein in the United States this time, he’s sorely mistaken. Is he hoping to provoke an armageddon on the banks of the Tigris so he can attempt to lob some chems into Israel? Has he decided, fatalistically, that the United States will attack no matter what so he may as well get the show started?
I’m honestly befuddled by this assertion that Iraq has nothing to declare. This can only lead to trouble, since Saddam must feel he has one or two tricks left to pull out of his hat.
Al this is taking place in an environment of mutual suspicion. An Iraqi vice president accused the inspectors of being spies for the United States and Israel, a not unrealistic charge as the U.S. did exactly that from 1991-1998. And George W. Bush continued to say the weapons inspections were not working. (He says this after a week of work.)
“One of my concerns is that in the past he has shot at our airplanes,” Bush said. “Anybody who shoots at U.S. airplanes or British airplanes is not somebody who looks like he’s interested in complying with disarmament.”
(It should be noted that the no-fly zones aren’t sanctioned by the United Nations and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the targeting and firing by Iraqi anti-aircraft positions aren’t material breaches of UNSCR 1441. That must piss off Bush.
(And in a further sign of the fragmented Bush policy, Secretary of State Colin Powell described the inspections as “off to a good start” and “working as intended.” Guess he didn’t get the memo.)
Well, when — or if, I suppose I should say although I think a war is inevitable — the bombs start falling, at least journalists will be on the ground. (Which might be the Pentagon’s plan all along. Hmm.) Actually, this is just part of the propaganda effort by the brass in the Pentagon to get some Ernie Pyle-like coverage of individual heroism from the front lines. I’m convinced the only stories that get past the military censors will be those that talk up the bravery of “our boys.” But perhaps I’m just cynical. Perhaps the military really is interested in getting honest stories out about combat and the war, stories that show the military in action, warts and all.
Right. And the Bush White House will suddenly drop its obessions with secrecy and controlling the message that have marked its dealings with the press since the start of Bush’s presidential campaign.
(By the way, I’ve applied for the military bootcamp at Fort Benning, but I’ve not heard back from the Army yet.)

From Ankara to Diyarbakir

More dispatches from the summer. After Aykut Uzan, my fixer, and I left Ankara, we spent a few days in Cappadocia. We arrived in Uchisar, after three hours of driving. Aykut turned off the main highway and onto an older, less well-maintained road. He often swerved wildly to avoid the seemingly endless number of potholes and ditches on what?s left of the ancient Silk Road, which ran from Beijing to Istanbul.

More dispatches from the summer. After Aykut Uzan, my fixer, and I left Ankara, we spent a few days in Cappadocia. We arrived in Uçisar, after three hours of driving. Aykut turned off the main highway and onto an older, less well-maintained road. He often swerved wildly to avoid the seemingly endless number of potholes and ditches on what?s left of the ancient Silk Road, which ran from Beijing to Istanbul.
Suddenly, on our right was the Agzikarahan Caravai, a 13th century hotel and way station for the caravans that carried the spices and fabrics between Istanbul and Beijing. These caravais were built by the Seljuk Turks every 30 to 40 km and followed a strict architectural style. A central courtyard containing a kitchen and a mosque were surrounded by naves and chambers within the thick walls. A distinctive pointed dome was the signal to weary travelers that sanctuary was nearby — but only for one night.
In Uçisar, Many were worried about a looming war, since Cappadocia is one of the top tourist destinations of Turkey. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the region had been suffering as no one was coming to visit. In the middle of summer, we were able to find a room in one of the beautiful rock hotels in town, with the rooms carved directly into the stone of the canyon walls. But after three days of Cappadocia, it was time to move on. And we headed off to Diyarbakir, the flashpoint for much of the war with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) since 1984.
More than 37,000 people died in the civil war that raged across much of southeast Turkey from 1984 to 1998, ending only when Abdullah Ocalan, the party’s leader, was captured and brought to Turkish justice. While in custody, he renounced violence and sought to be a voice of reconciliation between Turks and Kurds. Needless to say, many Turks didn’t believe his jailhouse conversion and many of his old compatriots in the PKK considered him a quisling. He avoided the noose because of Turkey’s attempts to join the European Union. His death sentence was commuted in October.
But Diyarbakir, with its historic basalt walls limning the city like kohl around a Kurdish girl’s eyes, hadn’t changed in the four years since Ocalan’s capture. The streets were oppressive, with the presence of police everywhere. Aykut and I were followed the whole time we were there, and men came sniffing about my hotel, asking the staff about me and what I was doing there. The people who did talk to me veered from the timid and worried to the brave and/or fatalistic. The dominant thought among the residents, who daily live under the heel of police that routinely use armored personnel carriers to keep order, was that even if emergency rule were lifted — which it was in October — nothing would change as the economy was so devastated, there was no hope for the people to make a living. A. Turan Demir, the deputy chairman of HADEP, the Kurdish party in Turkey with its strongest base in Diyarbakir, listed many of the problems of the region in this interview I had with him: destroyed villages, discrimination, intimidation… A list of offenses that neither side can ever fully forgive.
What follows is a collection of notes and emails that I took when I was in Diyarbakir (and which I emailed out after I realized the level of surveillance I was under.) Reading back over the emails and notes, I see that some of it is insensitive, but I think now that the tone masks a level of frustration both with the environment as a New Yorker and with the treatment that many people live under.

From: Christopher Allbritton
Date: Wed Jul 10, 2002 12:37:10 PM America/New_York
Subject: Update...

Hey all?
Popped into the local press office today, just to say hi, and they were expecting me. Creepy. There was a document from Ankara to say that I was coming and to accredit me for Emergency Rule Zone reporting. Now I have TWO press cards from the Turks. I was told I could go ?anywhere? and talk to ?anyone? but I suspect that any visits to HADEP offices will be frowned upon. It?s not a big deal to me, as an American, they would likely send me back to Ankara or Istanbul after confiscating film, but my guide, Aykut, lives in this country. He?s married to a Kurdish woman and has a past involvement with radical leftist movements. He?s left it all behind, but I don?t want my troubles to spill over and cause him or his family grief.
Also, the money situation is not good. My tenant, Theresa, has not made deposits as she said she would. If she doesn?t make some deposits by the end of this week, I?ll have to skip Iraq, head back to Germany and then immediately head back to the states, which would just about kill the purpose of all of this. I?m not pleased, obviously, by this development. Nor will Fabiana be pleased either, I think, but at the moment that?s the least of my worries.
Other than that, all is well. Cappadocia was amazing, with all sorts of otherworldly, “Planet of the Apes”-style rockscapes and houses. Diyarbakir, on the other hand, is hot and oppressive.
I?m glad everyone is doing well, and I can?t wait to see you all again.

And this one I sent out later:
From: Christopher Allbritton
Date: Wed Jul 10, 2002 10:18:04 PM America/New_York
Subject: Lame!

Lamelamelamelamelame!
And thus, I pass judgment on poor, war-torn Diyarbakir. Christ, what a boring town. I thought war-zones were supposed to bring out the decadence in people (Berlin, maybe?) but instead, I get sullenness. Shit, the one bar that looked good, we couldn’t get in. We had not women with us.
Let me repeat that. I got turned away at the door at a bar in Diyarbakir.
Honestly, how lame is that? Finally, we ended up on the roof of out hotel, listening to the Kurdish version of “Mr. Vegas” on a Casio keyboard sing Arabesque songs in the roof restaurant. If it weren’t for the singer, it would have been almost pleasant. Instead, I felt sorry for the people living the apartments right next door to the hotel. Some were out on their balcony “enjoying” the singer.
Hm. Reading back that last paragraph leads me to believe I would be perfect as a colonial governor in, oh, 1895 or so. All that’s lacking is a British accent, old chap. And I’m supposed to be culturally sensitive. Perhaps I’m just damn tired of nothing working right in this country. Today, I had to mail a contract back to the states so we went to the post office. Looking around, there were no envelopes.
“I need to buy an envelope,” I told Aykut.
“You didn’t tell me that,” he said. “You have to buy those somewhere else.”
What kind of post office sells stamps but not envelopes?
I feel sorry for the police people following us. They must be very, very bored. We walk and we eat and occasionally talk to some poor schmuck on the street. We’re not very interesting subjects to tail, I don’t think. Hell, tonight I was hoping our tails would take pity on us and pull up and say, “You look like a couple of guys looking for some fun. Let’s have a friendly drink at the belly dancing palace.” Alas, such things rarely happened in the Cold War, and I doubt they’re going to happen now.
So that’s the score. I’m back in my hotel room (and everything undisturbed, including my own hair I left sticking out of my laptop in case someone came in and opened it. Paranoia can be fun!)
So that’s all. Safe and sound. I may have an appointment with the military governor tomorrow. Or not. Without doubt I will have to drink more tea. Every time I sit down in an office, a porter brings me tea in the little glasses. It’s tasty, but it’s 120 degrees Fahrenheit outside. And the tea is hot. Aykut drinks the stuff like it was water, says it keeps him healthy and quenches his thirst, but I need real water, not hot tea.

[Ed. — I suppose this last sentence could be mistaken for some kind of metaphor about the differences between the rituals of the east with the cool drink of Western rationalism, but I won’t bother since I never intended the lament for water to be anything more than a sign that I was thirsty.]
To be continued…

John Burns interview on ‘Fresh Air’

Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air has a great interview with New York Times correspondent John Burns, who was in Iraq when Saddam released his prisoners. He’s won two Pulitzer prizes and comes across as a journalist’s journalist. I highly recommend this interview, especially for Burns’ recounting of his interview with Palestinian Liberation Front leader Abu Abbas, the man who masterminded the hijacking of the Achille Lauro.

HADEP Deputy Chairman: “This is democracy in Turkey”

In which the Deputy Chairman of HADEP, the Kurdish party in Turkey, talks about the state of affairs in the southeast part of the country.

While in Ankara, Aykut and I spent a day trying to find the local offices of various Iraqi and Kurdish opposition groups including the KDP and PUK. We were looking for various officials who might be able to help me when I went to Diyarbakir in the southeast and on to Iraq, but we weren’t having much luck, and kept driving through twisty neighborhoods hoping the cops weren’t following us.

At one point, the comedy descended into farce, as we drove into a military residence area looking for the embassies. We found the embassies, but the PUK still eluded us. We drove past the Jordanian, Syrian and Saudi Embassies, but finally stopped outside the the United Arab Emirates while Aykut jumped out of the car and asked a bored-looking security guard for directions.

“Excuse me, where are the offices for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan?” Akyut asked while I shrunk into my seat and tried to look invisible.

The guard, a Turk and apparently no friend of Iraqi Kurds, looked him up and down, looked me up and down, and then motioned off down the road.

Aykut dropped his bulk into the drivers’ seat and smiled at me.

“Don’t do that again,” I said.

He apologized, but at least the guard’s directions were good. We finally found the rather sad looking house that was the office for the PUK. No one was around except for a plainclothes guy who watched us closely and smoked a cigarette like a fugitive. He made me nervous, so we left to go meet A. Turan Demir, the deputy chairman of HADEP, the Kurdish party in Turkey. The transcript — from Aykut’s translation — follows:

Continue reading “HADEP Deputy Chairman: “This is democracy in Turkey””

Eastward bound…

Being the second of my dispatches from Turkey, this time from Ankara… The call for prayer is echoing outside my window, I’m staying with Aykut and his wife and I�ve just seen on the news that the UN has failed to reach an agreement with Iraq on the return of arms inspectors and that the New York Times has published a front-page story outlining plans for a three-pronged attack on Iraq. … I’ll be there in a week.

This is the second of my posts from Turkey, made after I arrived in Ankara. Prior to my arrival, I met with Turan Ceylan, the manager of the Inter-Continental Hotel in Istanbul. He’s a Kurdish success story, one of many in Istanbul where many Kurds have settled after the PKK troubles in the southeast during the 1980s and 1990s. I didn’t get much to get out of the interview, except that he is pro-EU (he’s a businessman) and he believes that discrimination against Kurds is blown way out of proportion by Western press (which is easy for him to say; he comes from a rich family that runs one of the largest construction firms in Turkey.)

This was an attitude I discovered among many middle-class Istanbul residents. Aydin Kudu, my original fixer before he suffered a hip injury, had me over for dinner and during the post-prandial tea, he and Raia, his girlfriend and sometimes partner-guide, said the same thing: There is no discrimination in Turkey; Kurds can do whatever they like, as long as they don’t break any laws.

On one level, they have a point. At least one president of Turkey, Turgut Ozal, has claimed Kurdish ancestry and Istanbul has seen a number of Kurds other than Ceylan rise to success in the business world. But there is a great deal of unknown truth in the statement that “Kurds can do whatever they like, as long as they don’t break any laws.” But until recently, it was illegal to be Kurdish. It was illegal to teach or sing in Kurdish. Yes, Kurds could succeed in Turkey, but only if they assimilated and acted Turkish. And even then, if someone’s ID card listed them as hailing from the southeast, they would often be greeted with suspicion and had a harder time finding jobs in the more cosmopolitan western part of the country.

At any rate, this gave me much to think about. So after a couple of days, I took a bus from Taksim in Istanbul where Aykut Uzun, my fixer, met me. After five hours on the road in Turkey, I was glad to see him.

Continue reading “Eastward bound…”