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A Conversation With Sheik Khalesi

By Matthew Pascarella

“Let us be clear. These are not elections. There are all processes of selections.”
— Christian Arandel, Research Triangle Institute (A USAID contractor in Iraq)
It was January 30th 2005. Images of Iraqis’ bright purple fingers, dyed with ink from voting, were ubiquitous – appearing throughout American television and newspapers. The networks looped clips of English speaking Iraqis praising the United States, some thanking coalition troops, and some even expressing gratitude to President George W. Bush. Far from all of these happenings, far from the curfews and travel restrictions, far from the 15,000 American troops marching patrol in the dusty streets of Baghdad monitoring what had been praised as a “successful election,” I sat next to Sheikh Jawad Al-Khalesi as our bus sped along the bumpy highway leading to Porto Alegre.
80 years ago while the British occupied Iraq, a Shia man, a respected Ayatollah, worked to organize Iraqis against the occupation. The man was Sheikh Khalesi’s grandfather.
After being in exile in Syria and Iran for 23 years, Khalesi returned to Iraq only two years ago – after the fall of Saddam. Beset but what appeared to be a distinct type of wisdom, the kind gained through years and maybe even decades of struggle, Sheikh Khalesi told me of the situation he was facing at home in Iraq.
“The soldiers can not tell the difference between Iraqis and the resistance, they often kill people in the streets without any reason.” Khalesi pointed left, and looked out the window of our bus toward the other side of the highway – he motioned for me to look with him. “There was a time when someone shot at soldiers across the highway – imagine the soldiers are over here.” He pointed out the right window of the bus. “Now imagine the shooter was somewhere over here.” He looked again out the left window. “There was a large group of people across the road from the soldiers – near where the shots were fired from. They were at the gas station waiting hours to get gasoline for their electric generators and cars … the soldiers started firing their guns and then blew up the entire gas station, killing everyone.”
I looked down at his hands resting on his knee, clasped together, and holding prayer beads that looked generations old. I remembered seeing him a day or so earlier, at the World Social Forum, he was outside one of the tents in the blazing sun praying on a hill.
He went on to describe more horrific experiences witnessed in Iraq since returning home two years ago. As we passed the slums on the outside of Porto Alegre, I couldn’t help but think of the things I have heard repeated over and over, from my friends and family – many of them soldiers. I told him, “Most American’s justify the situation in Iraq by saying America is truly helping the Iraqi people.”
He massaged one of the prayer beads between his forefingers and thumbs and slowly replied, “The American government is not the best to help the Iraqi people – they are the ones that helped Saddam for so many years, while our people were suffering.”
He looked out the window of the bus as a motorcycle sped by. Slowly looking back at me, he said, “You know, it is the same people in power in your country now that supported Saddam. Regan sent Rumsfeld over to make deals about Iran in 1983 … The Iraqi people know this – they know America is not the best model of democracy and most people walk around wondering what the real intents of America are this time around. The Americans are not the best to help the Iraqi people.”
He then told me, “If I could meet President Bush I would ask him two things: Why did your government help Saddam in the past?” and, “When will the American army return home?”
I couldn’t help but tell him that many of my friends were soldiers and most of them were stationed throughout Iraq. “It is difficult – young Americans are dying – Iraqis are dying. It is a terrible — terrible situation — especially for all of these young people.”
Our bus got off the highway and we entered downtown Porto Alegre. On the other side of the colorful city walls were huge ships docked and birds floating carelessly above. The Sheikh looked at me and said quietly, “It is a terrible, difficult, situation. We are glad to be free from Saddam but it is time for American soldiers to go home – it is time for us to build our own country.”
Matthew Pascarella is a researcher and producer for Investigative Journalist Greg Palast. Last January Matt conducted a series of interviews with Iraqis and NGOs working in Iraq during the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

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