PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


Bases for Peace in Iraq by peaceprobe
May 30, 2007, 10:27 am
Filed under: Iraq

It took years for the inevitable formal talks between the US and Iran to begin this past Monday, May 28, 2007. The talks were clearly mired in distrust. Nine US warship maneuver in the Persian Gulf. Iran talks a tough nuclear policy. Iran holds three high profile US think tankers. The US holds five Iranian officials arrested in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil in January.

In the early months of the war in Iraq I visited Kabala and other important urban centers in Southern Iraq where there were key Shiite shrines. Several of these sites subsequently were bombed but, in 2003, and 2004 great crowds gathered at the shrines where martyred founders of Shia were entombed. Buses from Iran and occasional taxis intermingled with the press of humanity in the dry August heat. When I arrived at the Kabala shrine I had just visited a newly formed human rights office where workers had pressed us to help them gain access to US forces in the area in order to request help to clean up unexploded ordnance left from the invasion in March and April 2003.

The tide of common interests for peace that I sensed at the shrines more than three years ago cannot be restrained. The US can’t win in Iraq as it earlier thought it could, and Iran wants an outcome that is less than chaotic. On both sides there are extremist nationalist voices shaded in religious conviction cautioning, threatening and counseling war. For many of us, the May 28 meeting is a sign of the times. Beyond the immediate horizon there will be an end to this war. When the end comes dozens of bases large and small will be abandoned, some quickly. 

I have visited abandoned US military bases around the world. I also visited the abandoned US military bases here at home. There are always massive problems, dangerous residual pollutants, contaminated ground water, and angry former base workers. In Iraq a new peril has surfaced, residue from shells that used depleted uranium. As the torment of this war winds down we have an opportunity to make public the horrors of base closings before those closings are turned over to Iraqi citizens with self congratulatory announcements that sooth the conscience long enough to escape before the harrowing implications become known.

As I entered the shrine, I was aware that as a non Muslim civilian Christian American citizen, allbeit with a beard, I may stand out to be cursed. Exactly the opposite was the case. What I wasn’t prepared for were the frequent deliberate attempts by people from Iran to talk to me. Repeatedly I was invited to sit with them, share sweets over tea and talk about life in our native lands. It happened so often and I have no doubt that these overtures of friendship in a very public and conservative religious setting were genuine. I soon learned to distinguish the subtle but real differences between Iraqi Arabs and Persians from Iran – neighbors for millennia who had long ago learned to negotiate the journey to the final resting places of common spiritual ancestors.

Sometime after that event I met another friend, this one a Westerner with some experience in Iran who chortled with excitement when I asked him to describe Iranian response to US military operations in their neighbors in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The Iranians can’t hide their glee”, he said to the consternation of other members of the conversation. “Think about it”, he said, “Iran’s two most troublesome neighbors have been neutralized at least for now, by US military initiatives.

Our prayers and advocacy to hurry that date might help, as will our votes. But the forgotten kicker in this equation probably won’t be tackled in the carefully choreographed negotiations. That forgotten kicker is the legacy of unexploded ordnance. There are two kinds. There is the kind that explodes in market places and holy places or fields and kills and maims. And then there is the ordnance that has been planted in the deeply wounded Iraqi and Muslim population.

Some people still hope that the sacred places of Iraq like the shrines I visited with Iranians will be an inspiration for all peoples. That which is sacred always requires vision for health, for nurture of the land, and for reconciliation. I wonder what the Iranian friends I got to know in Kabala might say about this.

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