The first time I saw Blackwater contractors in action was one morning in 2005 on al-Mansour street in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. In the middle of the bridge, heavily armed contractors emerged from a vehicle driving north, blocked the traffic by pointing their machine guns in all directions, including mine, and moved what seemed to be a VIP they were presumably protecting.
They then jumped into another vehicle with tinted windows heading south, in the opposite direction. In the time between the contractors’ emergence from the first vehicle and their entry into the second, everybody on the street froze, anticipating that bullets could start flying at any moment given the gunmen’s aggressivity and menacing behavior — to the point where my driver ducked and forgot to push on the brakes, allowing his car to roll forward and hit the one ahead.
At the time, the Blackwater contractors' presence was directly linked to the U.S. administration, the Coalition Provisional Authority, which had been running Mesopotamia since the 2003 invasion.
As the highways became increasingly more dangerous for coalition forces due to insurgent attacks, it was not unusual to see an American Humvee opening fire on a civilian vehicle regardless of the official U.S. rules of engagement that were, in practice, impossible to abide by. In fact, the last Humvee in any U.S. convoy would carry a sign demanding that all vehicles remain at least 100 meters further away. It was almost impossible to read the panel from the equivalent of a football field away, which of course exposed civilians to deadly fire.
Meeting a U.S. convoy on these Baghdad (north or south) highways carried numerous difficult challenges. U.S. convoys drove at a steady average speed, even on highways. Other vehicles were not permitted to pass them. The Iraqis found a risky solution by driving on the opposite side of the thoroughfare, taking an enormous risk of collision. The worst was when another convoy was coming in the opposite direction. At that moment, all drivers froze and put their arms in the air for fear of being shot at.
During the first seven years of the U.S. occupation, the risk of being mistakenly killed was extremely high for numerous reasons. In 2007, Blackwater contractors opened fire on people at Nisour Square, killing 17 civilians and wounding 24. After years of litigation, four American mercenaries were eventually convicted in 2014 and sent to prison; that is, until President Trump pardoned them last week.
But the 2007 massacre was not even the beginning of American disregard for Iraqi lives. In 1996, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright responded to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children attributed to the impact of more than five years of U.S. sanctions on the country by saying “…the price is worth it.” The 2003 invasion and the Iraq war left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead or wounded. In 2004, pictures from the U.S.-run prison Abu Ghraib Iraq confirmed “sadistic and criminal abuses” by American soldiers and contractors against Iraqi prisoners.
In 2010, a classified U.S. video showed an Apache helicopter attack killing a dozen Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters news staff.
Moreover, in the first year of the U.S. occupation, Paul Bremer, Washington’s viceroy, disbanded the Iraqi army, leaving 400,000 men at home without financial means or rights. Many of these men eventually enlisted in Al-Qaida in Iraq (that later metamorphosed into the “Islamic State” terror group ISIS, or Daesh). In 2009, Washington closed Camp Bucca, a U.S. detention center that had become a "jihadi university." This is where terrorist leaders recruited the men to fight and terrorize Iraq, violently taking over vast swaths of the country, including six major cities, leaving at least 20,000 dead and millions displaced from 2014 to 2017.
There was no accountability for these casualties, either directly caused by American soldiers, contractors, or coalition forces, or indirectly through the violent chain of events. One can blame in part Washington’s total lack of knowledge or respect of Iraqi culture, the lack of a viable post-occupation plan, or the weight put on domestic politics over the future of a country the United States once claimed to have “liberated.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Iraqis are responding to Trump’s pardons with derision and anger. They know their lives are not cheap and demand accountability. Iraqis today are much less inclined to submit to the dominant power of U.S. forces.
In 2001, former President George W. Bush addressed the nation and asked: “Why do they hate us?” He believed it was because people in the Middle East hated “democracy and freedom.” But this is precisely what Iraqis are looking for: justice under democracy and freedom. Freedom to live and freedom to pursue criminals responsible for the human rights abuses they have committed.
After the unlawful assassination of Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes and Iranian Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani almost exactly one year ago, the Iraqi parliament enacted binding legislation ordering all U.S. forces to leave the country. After January, there will still be 2,500 U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Though Nisour Square was 13 years ago, the release of the Blackwater guards from prison opened up old wounds for the families of those killed and memories of all the indignities and pain suffered by innocent Iraqis at that time. I was there, and I saw it first hand. If anything, Trump’s pardons will strengthen the resolve of Iraqis to see every last one go.
Elijah J. Magnier is a veteran war correspondent and a Senior Political Risk Analyst with over 37 years experience covering the Middle East specifically on the ground in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan and Syria. He specializes in political assessments, strategic planning, terrorist organizations, and non-state actors in various countries across the Middle East, in particular Iraq after 2003, and Islamic movements across the region including Hezbollah, ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Force). He has provided unique insights into political developments in Iraq where he lived for nine years, and in Syria, Iran and Lebanon, informed by an intimate knowledge of the main governmental and non-governmental actors. He has covered the Iran-Iraq war, the 1982 Israeli invasion to Lebanon, the war in the former Yugoslavia from Bosnia and Croatia, the wars in Iraq and Syria, the 2006 second war in Lebanon, the war in Sudan, and the 2011 war in Libya.
An Iraqi boy cries as he is questioned by U.S. soldiers during a raid, searching for illegal weapons inside his house, in Baghdad August 3, 2005. REUTERS/Andrea Comas ACO/JJ
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.