All posts by Erik K. Gustafson


New Opportunities

Taif and Amb Faily no logo

It is with mixed emotions that I write to inform our friends that EPIC’s Program Manager, Taif Jany, will be leaving us at the end of this month to join a progressive advocacy group here in Washington, DC.

Taif came to us as an intern in 2013, and it was immediately clear that his talents and passion for making his native Iraq safe and prosperous again were needed full-time at EPIC. During his tenure, his energy helped found our lifesaving Soccer Salam program and the Iraq Security and Humanitarian Monitor (ISHM). He contributed to the production of our IRAQ MATTERS Podcast, compiled ISHM each week, raised thousands of dollars for our programs and, quite simply, made EPIC stronger in every possible way.

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Why do I care so much about Iraq?

My friends and colleagues have asked me over the years: Why do I care so much about Iraq? Twenty-five years ago, I toured newly liberated Kuwait and witnessed first hand the environmental devastation and human costs of modern warfare. That experience kindled a life-long passion for preventing and mitigating armed conflict, and more importantly, working to ensure that conflict-affected populations are never forgotten.

As a veteran and the founding director of EPIC, our current CrowdRise campaign is one of the most important campaigns that I have ever been a part of. Its success will further Soccer Salam, a program I believe in because it supports families harmed by ISIS, and celebrates Iraq’s cultural diversity through the unifying power of soccer.

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New hope in the new year

 A boy smiles as EPIC volunteers construct a soccer field for him and his friends at a camp for displaced persons near the Bzeibiz Bridge, Iraq.

Today, Iraqis are celebrating the liberation of Ramadi from ISIS. While the long ordeal of those we serve is long from over, there is reason to have new hope in the new year.

As 2015 comes to a close and we look ahead, we want to take a moment to acknowledge all of the milestones we achieved thanks to the support of our visionary donors.

This year, we:

  • Launched Soccer Salam, our lifesaving program that delivers humanitarian assistance and the joy of play to Iraq’s most vulnerable children and families,
  • Grew TentEd, our rapid response program in partnership with U.S. veterans that helps displaced children access and continue their education within the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan,
  • Produced new episodes of our educational Iraq Matters podcast and published more than 40 reports on the latest developments in our weekly Iraq Security and Humanitarian Monitor (ISHM), and
  • Celebrated the overhaul of our website, and the addition of Mark Seaman as EPIC’s first Director of Development and Communications.

EPIC is committed to a peaceful and prosperous future for Iraq. Altogether this year, we extended a helping hand to more than 9,600 men, women, and children fleeing ISIS. We want to do even more in 2016, and ask you to consider maximizing your tax-deductible giving by making a contribution today.

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Mark Seaman
Mark Seaman

Meet EPIC’s Newest Team Member

On December 1, Mark Seaman began as EPIC’s first Director of Development and Communications. In his role, Mark will be responsible for growing our relationships with foundations and corporate donors, planning events for those in our network, working with the media to spotlight our work, and bringing to everyone’s attention the needs of millions of vulnerable children and families in Iraq.

Mark has more than ten years of experience in communications and non-profits, and recently completed graduate school at Columbia University and Sciences Po in Paris where he focused on the power of education and economic opportunity to help shape Iraq’s future.

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When soccer brings peace

Displaced children play soccer with balls donated by Soccer Salam (July 2015).
Displaced children play soccer with a ball donated by Soccer Salam (July 2015/IHAO).

In 2007, Iraq won the Asia Cup sending waves of euphoria across Iraq as millions of people took to the streets to celebrate, bringing a brief respite to the violence.

That unifying moment for the people of Iraq has never been forgotten, inspiring the launch of Soccer Salam — a youth-empowering project delivering lifesaving essentials and soccer balls to Iraq’s most vulnerable children and their families.

Now we have a goal that everyone can rally behind: helping 2,000 displaced families in need this summer!

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One Team, One Dream

A displaced girl in Babil, Iraq recently reached by Soccer Salam (June 2015).

Since 1998, EPIC has remained focused on one goal: peace in Iraq.

One way we’re aspiring to realize that goal is through Soccer Salam, our project with U.S. veteran-led charities to assist and empower vulnerable children and families who have been displaced by the conflict in Iraq.

Today we’re launching a Crowdrise fundraiser. We’re asking you and everyone we know to help us reach our goal of $20,000 within 60 days to provide our field-based Soccer Salam team with what they need to purchase food, water tanks, medicine, and other essentials – along with soccer balls – for more than 2,000 displaced families in Iraq this summer. We need your help to make this goal.

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A displaced girl at one of the camps reached by Soccer Salam. The camp is one of dozens of encampments near Bzeibiz bridge on the Euphrates River outside Ramadi, Iraq (Photo by IHAO/2015).
A displaced girl at one of the camps reached by Soccer Salam. The camp is one of dozens of encampments near Bzeibiz bridge on the Euphrates River outside Ramadi, Iraq (Photo by IHAO/2015).

A Smile for Your Weekend

A displaced girl at one of the camps reached by Soccer Salam near Bzeibiz bridge outside Ramadi, Iraq.
A displaced girl at one of the camps reached by Soccer Salam. The camp is one of dozens of encampments near Bzeibiz bridge on the Euphrates River outside Ramadi, Iraq. ©IHAO/July 2015.

We have some great news to kick-off your weekend!

Over the past month of Ramadan, the Soccer Salam team successfully reached 490 displaced Iraqi families in need. Our distributions included food baskets, water containers, first aid and hygiene kits, a change of clothes, and urgently needed medicine.

Of course, it would not be Soccer Salam without also distributing some soccer balls and organizing some games with the kids.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of our on-the-ground partner, the Iraq Health Aid Organization (IHAO), Soccer Salam is reaching some of Iraq’s most vulnerable children and their families. Our goal for this summer: to reach 2,000 displaced and vulnerable families in need.

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You made it possible

I’ve written to you so much over the past year about the crisis in Iraq — and about the children and families most affected. Every day, the conflict is creating new challenges.

But on each of those days, supporters like you have reached out to help. Today, I want to share the difference you’ve made over the past year.






these are just a few examples of how you’ve helped families escaping war, and how you’ve invested in a better future for their children.

Thank you for being a part of our mission. We look forward to what we can do together in the new year.

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Seizing headlines and the attention of President Obama, fighting in western and northern Iraq has forced 1.4 million people to flee their homes this year. For much needed context, listen to our latest IRAQ MATTERS podcast with Christine van den Toorn.
Seizing headlines and the attention of President Obama, fighting in western and northern Iraq has forced 1.4 million people to flee their homes this year. For much needed context, listen to our latest IRAQ MATTERS podcast with Christine van den Toorn.

Doing the Right Thing

Seizing headlines and the attention of President Obama, fighting in western and northern Iraq has forced 1.4 million people to flee their homes this year. For much needed context, listen to our latest IRAQ MATTERS podcast with Christine van den Toorn.
Seizing headlines and the attention of President Obama, fighting in western and northern Iraq has forced 1.4 million people to flee their homes this year. For much needed context, listen to our latest IRAQ MATTERS podcast with Christine van den Toorn.

By now you have seen the news. Iraq is in crisis.

The advance of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) across western and northern Iraq has forced over 1.4 million people to flee their homes this year. Families fleeing or trapped by ISIS are facing extreme hardships and dangers, and in some cases, without aid, certain death.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama ordered the emergency air lift of aid to 40,000 Iraqis stranded on Sinjar Mountain, an area familiar to EPIC and our podcast listeners from our recent interviews with Christine van den Toorn. While the delivery will certainly save lives preventing more children from dying of dehydration, these families remain in extreme danger.

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Top 10 Misconceptions on the Iraq Crisis

While many choose to focus on divisions in Iraq, they often ignore what is shared among Iraqis, like the simple pleasure of tea.
While many choose to focus on divisions in Iraq, they often ignore what is shared among Iraqis, like the simple pleasure of tea.

The advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq and corresponding events, along with ISIS’s effective use of social media, have given rise to narratives across the world of media. Some of those narratives are thoughtless overreactions to the sudden appearance of ISIS on the world stage, a story that has been all to easy to sensationalize. Not surprisingly, among those emerging narratives are serious misconceptions about ISIS and the current context of Iraq and the region.

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TentEd: an EPIC Initiative to Help Syrian Refugee Children

Click here to learn more about TentEd

TentEdThe Education for Peace in Iraq Center is ramping up our response to help Syrian refugees in Iraq, alongside our continuing commitment to invest in young Iraqis.

Last night, I returned from two weeks of Picturing Change with some really impressive students at American University in Iraq – Sulaimani (AUIS). EPIC’s work with AUIS students strengthens our commitment to do more to reach young people, including school-age children affected by the Syria crisis and the spread of political violence in Iraq.

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EPIC’s Latest 2014 Updates

EPIC’s Executive Director, Erik Gustafson (middle) with Program Associate Taif Jany (far left) and the Spring intern team

With only two months passing into the new year, there have been many remarkable developments at EPIC. For all of us on EPIC’s team, it has been a very exciting time and we would like to share a few of these developments with you. 

First, we are pleased to welcome EPIC’s new Program Associate, Taif Jany, a Baghdad native who arrived to the US in 2008 to study Sociology and French at Union College in Schenectady, NY. Taif was born and raised in Baghdad, and left Iraq in late 2006 to seek refuge in Damascus, Syria due to the rising violence in Iraq at the time. Taif arrived to the United States through the Iraqi Student Project (ISP), a grassroots effort to assist displaced Iraqi students in Syria to finish their undergraduate education in US colleges and universities.

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Support Peace in the New Year

As the founder and director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC), I am writing to ask you for your continued support.

Please consider making an investment in EPIC this holiday season with a year-end tax-deductible contribution toward our work to empower young people for peace in Iraq.

Right now, the situation in the region is dire. Syria’s civil war has forced millions to flee, including 200,000 refugees seeking safety in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. At the same time, millions of Iraqis remain displaced and that number is expected to grow if steps are not taken to curb the escalating violence.

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Giving the Gift of Peace

This holiday season, consider making an investment in the power of youth to bring peace to the world.

Please support the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) with a year-end tax-deductible contribution toward our work to promote peace and empower young people.

Young people like Hawre, one of the participants of our photovoice project with Iraqi university students. When EPIC first met Hawre, he was entering his third year of college, still trying to find his voice and path in life.

As part of photovoice, Hawre undertook ‘photo walks’ on campus and in his hometown, followed by ‘photo viewing and writing sessions’ with an adult mentor. In October, I had an opportunity to be Hawre’s mentor for a week, and experienced firsthand photovoice’s value. In Iraq today, far too much historical and current social data is simply unavailable. By looking at Iraq through the eyes of young people, EPIC is learning about the Iraq that they know. The Iraq that they have grown up with. And in doing so, we are gaining insights into how our advocacy in Washington and field work in Iraq can better address their fears and support their aspirations.

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NOTE: The full commentary offered below appears in our most recent IRAQ MATTERS podcast available here. The commentary begins at 2:36.

Shortly after the departure of the last U.S. troops from Iraq nearly two years ago, President Obama and Iraq’s Prime Minister — Nouri al-Maliki — held a joint press conference. At that event, Mr. Obama welcomed the Prime Minister as the elected leader of “Iraq’s most inclusive government yet.

Bi-lateral meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki. November 1, 2013
Bi-lateral meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki. November 1, 2013

Mr. Obama declared: “We’re here to mark the end of this war.

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An EPIC Update on the Obama administration & PHOTOVOICE

Greetings dear friends,

I am writing to  you from Arbat refugee camp outside Sulaimani in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, and I have some very important news to share with you.

A young mother and her twin girls at Arbat, a Syrian refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq, on October 17, 2013 (Erik K. Gustafson/EPIC).

President Barack Obama has just announced that he will meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House on November 1, marking the first such meeting in nearly two years.

This is a welcome development in our work to put Iraq back on the agendaNow we need your help to ensure that the meeting translates into tangible steps toward peace in Iraq.

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Remembering Displaced Iraqis on World Refugee Day

Ground_Truth_Interview_Refugees_International_ThumbnailToday is World Refugee Day, a day when the world takes time to honor the resilience of forcibly displaced people throughout the world.

Last year alone 7.6 million people around the world were forced to flee conflict or persecution, adding to an estimated total of 45.2 million displaced people worldwide.

In the Middle East, the Syrian civil war and escalating violence in Iraq are contributing to a growing humanitarian crisis. The numbers are staggering. As many as 5.7 million Syrians and more than 3 million Iraqis have been forcibly displaced from their homes.

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Urge President Obama to do more to end the violence

As reported by Kelly McEvers (@KellyMcEvers) this morning on NPR, Iraqis are facing the worst violence since the country’s sectarian war of 2006 and 2007.

Since April, waves of car bombs and other sectarian attacks targeting civilians have killed thousands. The Syrian civil war and the Iraqi government’s deadly crackdown on Sunni protests are major drivers of the escalating violence and political tensions in Iraq.

Sign our new petition at

If left unchecked, renewed civil war in Iraq and a widening regional conflict are all but inevitable. Strong US and international diplomacy are urgently needed to reverse that trend. As the lead country that started the war in Iraq, the US must do more to help end the violence.

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For USAID chief, the FY2014 budget is a matter of life and death

USAID chief Rajiv Shah testifies before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee
USAID chief Rajiv Shah testifying before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

This week Dr. Rajiv Shah, Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is on Capitol Hill to deliver testimony on the international development priorities of President Barack Obama’s proposed FY2014 budget.

The total amount that his agency, USAID, and the US State Department and Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) combined spend annually on foreign assistance represents less than 1% of the U.S. federal budget. Yet as Dr. Shah testified, that small investment of U.S. taxpayer dollars advances our core values and national interests, while helping to save millions of lives worldwide.

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The April 9, 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad shortly after the Iraq War invasion.
The April 9, 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad shortly after the Iraq War invasion.

Remembering the Fall of Baghdad

Many of you remember the moment like it was yesterday. For me, I was in the DC studios of FoxNews preparing to face off with one of the war’s cheerleaders. On screen was live footage from Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Beginning with Kadhem Sharif and other Iraqis wielding sledgehammers, an effort was underway to pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein. Then with the aid of U.S. troops and an M88 armored recovery vehicle, Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled, symbolically marking the end of his regime.

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We did it!

Thanks to the support of 191 contributors like you, we successfully reached our crowd funding goal on Indiegogo.

The EPIC team's jump for joy
The EPIC team (from left to right): Executive Director Erik Gustafson, Board Member Andrew Morton, Board President Nathaniel Hurd, Fall interns Daniel Young and Joanna Fisher (and her flying scarf), and our chief project advisor Kristien Zenkov. Off camera: EPIC fall intern Christian Chung and 191 contributors who took us across the finish line!

As a result, PHOTOVOICE IRAQ: Picturing Change is 100% funded, and EPIC is now moving forward to implement Iraq’s first photovoice project.

If you shared our project with your friends or donated, thank you for being a part of this amazing achievement.

Here at EPIC, Picturing Change represents another important step toward our long-term goal of establishing a summer youth institute to serve young people and educators from across the region.

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The Story of Newroz and the fabled town of Akra

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, spring has arrived, and that means Newroz (or Nowrūz derived from Persian meaning “new day” or “new sun”), a spring festival of Zoroastrian origin that has been celebrated for over 3,000 years.

Walking among the budding Cherry Blossoms and mating songbirds, there are few arrivals that I welcome more than the grand entrance of spring. My young son Caleb could not agree more! Indeed, the occasion has excited the hearts of humankind for as long as recorded memory.

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Remembering Halabja

Today the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) remembers what happened in Halabja 24 years ago today.

Halabja is a Kurdish town on the very northeastern edge of Iraq 8 to 10 miles from the border with Iran. It stands at the base of the mountainous Hewraman region which stretches across the Iran-Iraq border.

Halabja today
A snapshot from Halabja today (Photo by @epicEKG, Sept 30, 2011).

Last fall I joined a couple expat and local friends of Metrography‘s Kamaran Najm for an unforgettable day trip to Halabja and the neighboring village of Hawar. It is a truly beautiful area rich in culture, folklore, and natural heritage. Sharing a full spread of lunch with a family, walking through the walnut and pomegranate groves of Hawar, napping along a babbling mountain stream, and enjoying songs and drinks with men on the roadside, it is truly hard to imagine that such an idyllic place could be the setting of such a terrible crime. Yet what occurred in Halabja 24 years ago today remains the largest scale chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history.

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Is a lasting peace in Iraq possible?

Yes, but only if communities come together. Today in Iraq, there are not enough opportunities for that. Moreover, in a country where nearly 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30, young people must be a top priority of peacebuilding efforts.

In 2011, those ideas developed into a vision for an exciting new phase of EPIC’s work: youth and peacebuilding initiatives on the ground in Iraq.

While making that vision into a reality, we’ve seen a 5-fold increase in individual donations to EPIC since 2010. In addition, EPIC’s Board of Directors and I have personally donated more than $17,000.

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Who Inspires You?

From early 2009 through much of 2010, my home was Sulaymaniyah (known as Sulaimani by local residents) in Iraqi Kurdistan.  I had the privilege of working with Iraqi community groups, humanitarian aid workers, and human rights defenders from across the country, including many led or staffed by young people.

Their dedication to make a positive difference against the odds inspires me to this day.  As EPIC continues our youth work for a sustainable peace in Iraq, we look forward to writing about some of the individuals and organizations (both international and local) that inspire us.

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Join the conversation

I want to hear from you.

This blog is about more than the Power of Youth. It’s also about the power of ideas, and that includes your ideas.

At EPIC, we always welcome the opportunity to share our mission with others, to partner with like-minded organizations, and to develop project ideas and best practices in conversation with our advisors, supporters, and fellow practitioners.

Iraq Action Days Participants with Iraqi Ambassador Sumaida'ie

When EPIC’s primary mission was policy and advocacy, we did more than just talk with government officials on behalf of our members. We initiated the Iraq Peace and Development Working Group (IPDWG) and helped build diverse coalitions to develop and advance our advocacy goals, such as the groups that joined us for Iraq Action Days in 2008.

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Can Crowdfunding Drive EPIC’s Mission in Iraq?

I find that coincidences are good indicators of something that deserves my attention. Two months ago, an entrepreneur friend, Pierre Habshi, told me the story of how the “crowdfunding” website Kickstarter raised $1 million in capital for a designer who had the idea of converting an iPod nano into a wristwatch.

Coincidentally, that same week, EPIC Board member John Reinke told me about another crowdfunding platform called RocketHub, where one of John’s friends had successfully raised the capital he needed to support two writing projects.

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>EPIC Guest Blogger: Reidar Visser on ISCI’s Election Losses in Southern Iraq

>Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of Shi'ite religious political party Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), waves to supporters during an election campaign rally in Najaf, south of Baghdad January 25, 2009. There are 14,431 candidates registered to contest just 440 council seats across Iraq for the coming January 31 provincial election. (c)2008 Reuters.

Reidar Visser is research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs with a background in history and comparative politics (University of Bergen) and a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies (University of Oxford). He’s the author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Lit Verlag, 2006) and co-editor of An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? (Columbia University Press, 2007). The following commentary was originally posted at

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>The Year of the Ballot Box Begins

>This Saturday, provincial council elections will be held in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Early balloting has already taken place for Iraqi prisoners, hospital patients, and nearly 600,000 members of Iraq’s security forces.

Voting in the three provinces comprising the Kurdistan Regional Government — Irbil, Dahuk, and Sulaymaniyah — will take place later this year. Voting in the disputed province of Tamim (Kirkuk) is postponed indefinitely.

Throughout the rest of the country, some 14,400 candidates representing over 400 political entities are contesting 440 provincial council seats. Each provincial council will comprise 25 seats plus one additional seat per 200,000 people in the province.

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>In the Last and Final Presidential Debate, Few Mentions of Iraq

>Given the global economic crisis, Americans are understandably focused on pocketbook issues close to home. Thus it was not a surprise that the final Presidential debate focused on economic issues. Nevertheless, in an increasingly interconnected world, it’s important for the United States to remain responsibly engaged in facing global challenges.

Yet during the full 90 minutes of the last and final debate, the word “Iraq” came up only 7 times, and every time it was Senator John McCain. However, Senator Barrack Obama did use the word “war” once. The following are excerpts capturing the use of these words taken from the full transcript (38 pages).

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>EPIC Guest Blogger: Reidar Visser Offers a History Lesson for Senator Obama

>Reidar Visser is research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs with a background in history and comparative politics (University of Bergen) and a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies (University of Oxford). He’s the author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Lit Verlag, 2006) and co-editor of An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? (Columbia University Press, 2007). The following commentary was originally posted at

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>Is Honesty on Iraq as Elusive as The Great Pumpkin?

>Today’s Washington Post editorial once again challenges Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama to update his Iraq position. While EPIC takes no position on candidates running for political office, we have a lot to say about the policy prescriptions (or lack thereof) of both the Republican and Democratic nominees. Where one party seems to be blind to U.S. shortcomings in Iraq and the region, the other seems to be blind to any progress.

What progress you ask?!

Yesterday EPIC Guest Blogger Reidar Visser wrote about the successful passage of a special election law in Iraq, which opens the door for next year’s provincial elections. Today the editors of the Washington Post write:

Iraq’s parliament on Wednesday took another major step toward political stabilization. By a unanimous vote, the national legislature approved a plan for local elections in 14 of 18 provinces by early next year — clearing the way for a new, more representative and more secular wave of politicians to take office. The legislation eliminates the party slate system that allowed religious authorities to dominate Iraq’s previous elections, and it provides for women to hold 25 percent of seats. Most important, it will allow Sunni leaders who boycotted the 2005 provincial elections — and who have since allied themselves with U.S. forces against al-Qaeda in Iraq — to compete for political power in the provinces that were once the heartland of the insurgency.

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>A Crisis Too Big for Iraq Alone: a remarkable speech by Iraq’s Ambassador to the U.S.

>In the following video, Iraq’s first Ambassador to the U.S. in 16 years, His Excellency Samir Sumaida’ie, delivers an impassioned opening keynote address at the 2008 National Iraq Forum. Introducing him is former U.S. Ambassador to Jordan Edward Gnehm, Jr., a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Ambassador Sumaida’ie addresses the plight of his compatriots as a man who knows what it’s like to flee one’s homeland. Following Saddam’s seizure of power in 1973, he was forced to do just that. He was 29 years old.

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>EPIC Guest Blogger: Reidar Visser on Why Obama-Biden May not be Change Iraqis Can Believe In

>Reidar Visser is research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs with a background in history and comparative politics (University of Bergen) and a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies (University of Oxford). He’s the author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Lit Verlag, 2006) and co-editor of An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? (Columbia University Press, 2007). The following commentary was originally posted at

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>Putting Iraq’s Budget Surplus into Context

>More than 2 million Iraqis have fled the country, while another 2.8 million people are internally displaced. To make matter worse, Iraqis are facing the worst drought in ten years. Millions live in hunger or fear of starvation.

Meanwhile here in the U.S., the lead Iraq story is the Iraqi government’s budget surplus. A new GAO report projects that Iraq’s cumulative budget surplus could reach as high as $79 billion by year’s end. Pundits and politicians are asking: “They have the money so what’s the problem?” The problem begins with decades of war, tyranny and sanctions that hampered Iraq’s development. Then the U.S. toppled Iraq’s government, allowed government ministries to be looted and destroyed, dismissed civil servants with any ties to Saddam’s Baath Party, disbanded Iraq’s military, created a security vacuum, which led many Iraqi professionals to flee the country.

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>Why Obama Needs a New Plan

>In our July 3rd post we wrote about the long overdue need for Senator Barack Obama and the Democrats to update their Iraq policy position. We included excerpts from two recent essays by George Packer and Fareed Zakaria.

Today the editors of the Washington Post joined the chorus: “BARACK OBAMA has taken a small but important step toward adjusting his outdated position on Iraq to the military and strategic realities of the war he may inherit.”

Of course not everyone agrees on the refinement of Obama’s Iraq plan. We received this eloquent comment from John: “…the antiwar crowd who formed the basis of Obama’s successful primary coalition is pretty dismayed by what also appears to them as a cynical move and a betrayal for political gain.”

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>George Packer and Fareed Zakaria Offer Obama a Way Out on Iraq

>Two years ago you could even hear Republicans grudgingly acknowledge that President Bush had an Iraq problem. His rhetoric was too inflexible to adapt to shifting realities in Iraq, and Americans were losing patience.

How quickly political fortunes change. Today it seems it’s the Democrats who are not keeping up with shifting realities in Iraq.

In the latest New Yorker George Packer candidly explains Obama’s Iraq Problem:

Obama’s plan, which was formally laid out last September, called for the remaining combat brigades to be pulled out at a brisk pace of about one per month, along with a strategic shift of resources and attention away from Iraq and toward Afghanistan. At that rate, all combat troops would be withdrawn in sixteen months. In hindsight, it was a mistake—an understandable one, given the nature of the media and of Presidential politics today—for Obama to offer such a specific timetable. In matters of foreign policy, flexibility is a President’s primary defense against surprise. At the start of 2007, no one in Baghdad would have predicted that blood-soaked neighborhoods would begin returning to life within a year. The improved conditions can be attributed, in increasing order of importance, to President Bush’s surge, the change in military strategy under General David Petraeus, the turning of Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda, the Sadr militia’s unilateral ceasefire, and the great historical luck that brought them all together at the same moment. With the level of violence down, the Iraqi government and Army have begun to show signs of functioning in less sectarian ways. These developments may be temporary or cyclical; predicting the future in Iraq has been a losing game. Indeed, it was President Bush’s folly to ignore for years the shifting realities on the ground.

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>ACT NOW: House Vote to Determine Fate of Millions in Need

>As early as noon TOMORROW, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on an emergency spending bill for fiscal years 2008 and 2009, including an amendment that would provide over $1.3 billion in lifesaving humanitarian assistance for Iraqi refugees and vulnerable civilians in Iraq, as well as other global humanitarian concerns.

Without your help, this hard-fought humanitarian provision is likely to get stripped out of the emergency spending package! Such an outcome would be catastrophic for millions of war-affected Iraqis who are facing a deepening humanitarian crisis.

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>IRAQ ACTION DAYS: 3 Ways You Can Help

>Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie addresses crowd of hundreds at National Iraq Forum.“I have only praise. It was the best organized event I attended. I went home feeling well briefed, empowered and more effective.” – Sister Ann Marie, OP, participant of Iraq Action Days

I am pleased to report back to you the resounding success of IRAQ ACTION DAYS in furthering our fight to help millions of Iraqis in need of humanitarian relief and protection.

From April 14th-16th we were joined by hundreds of concerned constituents from across the U.S. and leading experts just back from Iraq and the Middle East. We began with an all-day national Iraq Forum at George Washington University attended by more than 220 concerned citizens, NGO colleagues and government officials. Photos, video highlights and media coverage are now available at

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>EPIC’s Year-End Appeal

>Dear Friends,

Iraqi refugee girl. Many fleeing Iraqis have no legal status beyond Iraq's borders and desperately need our help. Inside Iraq they need food, medicine, jobs, and a safe place to live.

This holiday season please consider making a year-end, tax-deductible contribution to the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. Give the gift of peace and humanitarian relief for the people of Iraq.

Armed conflict in Iraq has created one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of our time. More Iraqis have fled their homes than any other population in the world.

One year ago this month, when the U.S. administration and Congress failed to act, EPIC was there to sound the alarm.

Today, we are urging President Bush to end his silence about the mass displacement of 4.5 million Iraqis. We are working to expand U.S. admissions of especially vulnerable refugees and generate emergency humanitarian assistance for Iraqis harmed by violence in Iraq. And we are getting results.

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>Is the Surge Working?

>Women walk through Baghdad's Zawra Park. Joao Silva for The New York TimesIn the media, that question is being asked a lot these days, and for those of you planning to break bread with extended family this week, it will likely be among the topics of conversation.

So how can I resist but to throw in my two cents. Consider this post a Ground Truth Guide to one of the most political questions of our day.

First, let’s recognize the question for what it is: a partisan test of loyalties. Answer “no” and you must be marching with those antiwar Democrats. Answer “yes” and you’re a “pro-war Bush supporter.”

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>Seeing Through Blackwater’s PR Strategy

>Bosom Buddies: L Paul Bremer and Blackwater Guards (AP Photo)As long as we allow private military contractors in Iraq to commit human rights violations with impunity, we are complicit in the reckless endangerment and deaths of innocent civilians. All contractors must be held accountable under law, and every innocent life – American and Iraqi – must be equally protected.

Today’s New York Times editorial Legal Loopholes in Iraq concurs:

It is folly to outsource the tasks of combat to private contractors with no commitment to the nation’s broader goals in Iraq, undermining the already hard job of gaining Iraqis’ trust… That folly was compounded by the decision to allow gun-toting mercenaries to run around Iraq without any clear legal tether holding them accountable to Iraqi law, American criminal law or military law. The killings in Baghdad last September were not the first crimes involving private contractors working for the American government. Still, four years after the start of the war, not one contractor has been prosecuted for crimes committed against an Iraqi. That is no way for a nation to behave if it prides itself on following the rule of law.

Last month, the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight held a hearing on the Blackwater killings. In opening statement, Chairman Henry Waxman offered the following interesting stats: According to Blackwater’s own incident reports, the security firm has been involved in at least 195 ‘escalation of force’ incidents in Iraq since 2005. In 80% of those cases, the company reports that its people fired first. Furthermore, the company acknowledges that (prior to the Sept. 16th incident) it was involved in 16 Iraqi civilian casualties and 162 incidents with property damage, primarily to Iraqi civilian vehicles.

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>EPIC Guest Blogger: Sarah Holewinski on Blackwater Killings

>Sarah Holewinski is the executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), a group founded by slain U.S. aid worker Marla Ruzicka that works with civilian victims of wars to make sure they get the recognition and assistance they need. Sarah wrote the following commentary shortly after the Sept. 16th shooting deaths of 17 innocent Iraqis by Blackwater personnel. It was published by United Press International on September 28, 2007.

When someone is shot in America, there’s an investigation, a trial, damages might be paid. Not so in Iraq.

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>Eid Mubarak!

>Happy Eid to all of our Muslim readers and to Muslims around the world. I pray this is a joyous time for you and your loved ones.

For our non-Muslims readers, few festivals are anticipated with greater delight than Eid el-Fitr. It is this festival that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, the annual assertion of ‘the spirit over the flesh’ with prayers, sawm (fasting), charity and self-accountability.

Ramadan ends with the sighting of the first crescent of a new moon, heralding the beginning of a new month in the lunar calendar. Of course, different religious authorities apparently see different things when they gaze up into the night sky, which leads one Iraqi blogger in Europe to pose the question: Whom to Follow?

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NPR’s Morning Edition Reports on the Plight of Iraqi School Kids in Syria

>Among broadcast media, National Public Radio is the leader in its coverage of Iraqi refugees. This morning, NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos filed a powerful report on Iraqi school kids in Syria. I highly recommend listening to Deb’s report if you’re looking to better understand the plight of Iraqi refugees.

Here’s a short description: Morning Edition, October 16, 2007 · Syria has become a safe haven for 2 million Iraqi refugees, most of them children. Education is important to Iraqis, but their parents can’t afford school in Syria, meaning a generation of Iraqi kids may go uneducated. Listen to Deb’s powerful report here.

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>60 Minutes Fails to Hold Blackwater CEO to Account

>I’ve got to sound off this morning. Last night 60 Minutes had an opportunity to hold Blackwater to account for the wrongful killings of 17 innocent civilians at Baghdad’s Nisour Square on September 16th. Instead, we got a fluff piece.

In her 9-minute interview with Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, 60 Minutes reporter Lara Logan lobbed softball question after softball question, and when she did ask more difficult questions, she seemed to do all that she could to sugar-coat them. It got so bad that I had to remind myself that I was watching an investigative report by an award-winning TV newsmagazine, and not a PR video for Blackwater.

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>Senate passes The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act

>As an advocate for peace in Iraq, it’s not every day that I can share a victory with you. But today, thanks to EPIC’s supporters and concerned citizens like you, I am pleased to announce a major victory in support of Iraq’s most vulnerable refugees.

On Friday, Sept. 28, the U.S. Senate passed the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act as an amendment to the Defense Reauthorization bill. Originally introduced by Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) last June as S.1651, the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act faced heavy opposition from the Bush Administration. But concerned citizens like you helped us fight back, sending more than 2,000 letters to your Senators urging action on behalf of Iraqi refugees. Many of you followed up last week with phone calls. Together, all of these efforts added up to make a real difference.

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Senator Ted Kennedy on Passage of The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act

>The Honorable Edward (Ted) Kennedy is the senior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts (1962 – present) and the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship. He is also a Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services and Joint Economic Committees, and chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. In June he introduced The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act as an important step by the U.S. Senate to help better protect Iraq’s most vulnerable refugees and address one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time. Thanks in part to the efforts of EPIC members and readers like you, the Senate passed a modified version of this important bill on Friday. The following speech was delivered shortly afterwards by Sen. Kennedy.

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>Update & Talking Points on The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act

When General David Petraeus testified before the House of Representatives, he was asked by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) whether the U.S. has an obligation to protect Iraqi refugees. In response, Gen. Patraeus expressed strong personal feelings about the issue and confirmed that many courageous Iraqis are standing up and trying to contribute to rebuilding Iraq. “We have an obligation towards them,” declared the General.

Both Gen. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker also mentioned the displacement of millions of Iraqis as a major concern regarding the stability of Iraq and the region. But even more revealing have been the Ambassador’s cables to the State Department, the most recent of which was leaked earlier this week.

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>EPIC Guest Blogger: Jen Smyers on The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act

>Jen Smyers is Associate for Immigration and Refugee Policy of Church World Service, an organization founded in 1948 to serves as the relief, development, and refugee assistance ministry of 35 Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican denominations in the United States. From New Orleans to Iraq, CWS works worldwide to meet human needs and foster self-reliance for all whose way is hard.

Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) held a press conference today to stress the importance of The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act(S.1651). Joining him were Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS), Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Joe Lieberman (ID-CT). In addition to having a bipartisan cast of Senators, what really turned heads were the prominent conservatives in attendance, including the President of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist; the Chairman of the American Conservative Union, David Keene; and U.S. Army Sergeant and Iraq War veteran Joe Seemiller.

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>From the Director’s Desk: Two Senators to Watch

>Let’s face it, it’s difficult to win a Presidential campaign (or even your party’s nomination) and be a responsible Senator at the same time. Running for President requires saying things that fire up your political base, thereby generating campaign contributions, volunteers and media visibility. Being a Member of Congress, on the other hand, involves nuance, compromise, and consensus-building to advance meaningful policy options. With Iraq, it’s about finding the least bad option remaining, one that has the best chance of reducing conflict and suffering.

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>Father’s Day and That Place Called Vietnam

>Yesterday viet vet said… “Does anyone remember a place called Viet Nam?” While I have never been to a place called Vietnam, I feel close to it.

My dad served two tours in Vietnam (1967 and 1970). He retired a Major in the U.S. Marine Corps. Although my brothers and I continued the family tradition of military service, it was not until recently that my dad and I began sharing the Things We Carried. Even on the eve of my deployment to Saudi Arabia in December 1990, scarcely a word was mentioned about his time in Vietnam. Perhaps it took my own wartime service to have enough of a reference point to ask useful questions. Today we talk about Iraq a lot and my work with EPIC makes the conversation increasingly relevant.

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>Iraq Peacebuilders Storm Capitol Hill

>From right to left: Iraqi peacebuilders Samuel Rizk, Sister Helen, EPIC's Erik Gustafson, Hero Anwar, Lynn Kunkle and Lisa Schirch, outside the Hart Senate Office Building. (photo by Geoff Schaefer)Yesterday was intense. I spent the day on Capitol Hill with longtime EPIC colleague Lisa Schirch and a delegation of peacebuilders from the region, who are implementing active peacebuilding programs inside Iraq. There’s a real hunger in Washington for genuine peacebuilding solutions, especially solutions that come from the ground. At the Capitol Hill briefing we helped organize, we had standing room only and had to turn dozens of people away. The audience was a good mix of congressional staffers, government agencies, NGOs and academics. Although the press was invited, none showed up.

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>In the Media: When Agents of Death & Mayhem Get All the Press

>Earlier this week I blogged about the tendency in the press to characterize Iraq as a “mission impossible” and “let homegrown terrorists and foreign fighters speak for Iraq using car bombs and death squads.”

As I posted the blog, I heard the voice of Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero-One (the abrupt, impolite borg crewman on Voyager who always spoke in short declarative sentences) demand: “Where’s your data?”

Here’s a list of the 16 top stories on the New York Times Website – Iraq News:

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>ABC News Loses Two Journalists; Iraq Loses Two of Her Finest Sons

>Iraq continues to be the most dangerous assignment in the world for journalists, especially for local Iraqi journalists and media support professionals.

Last Thursday, ABC News lost two of its broadcast journalists. Unidentified gunmen in two cars ambushed and killed cameraman Alaa Uldeen Aziz, 33, and soundman Saif Laith Yousuf, 26, on their way home from the network’s Baghdad bureau.

“They are really our eyes and ears in Iraq,” ABC’s Terry McCarthy said of the contribution each made to ABC News. “Many places in Baghdad are just too dangerous for foreigners to go now, so we have Iraqi camera crews who very bravely go out … without them we are blind, we cannot see what’s going on.”

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>In the Media: Declaring “Game Over” in Iraq Over and Over Again

>Tom Hanks in Cast Away (© 2000 Twentieth Century Fox and Dreamworks LLC. All Rights Reserved)When it comes to Iraq, the media loves broad-stroke narratives. In recent years we’ve watched the pendulum of U.S. media coverage swing from “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible.”

Yet the reality has always remained somewhere in between. Iraq’s emergence from devastating tyranny, sanctions, wars and occupation was never going to be “a cake walk,” nor hopeless. The former has already been proven wrong, and the latter does a terrible injustice to all Iraqis as well as U.S. soldiers and international aid workers. It tells them we would rather let homegrown terrorists and foreign fighters speak for Iraq using car bombs and death squads, rather than listen to the needs and aspirations of the vast majority of Iraqis who abhor the killing of noncombatants and want to see an end to violence.

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>Nir Rosen and the Exodus from Iraq

> In the early 1990s, Nir Rosen used to be a bouncer at a club here in Washington DC. Interested in terrorism and what was happening in the Middle East, he met a DJ with similar interests. His name is Peter Bergen.

Years later, Peter would become one of the only journalists to interview Osama Bin Ladan. His 1997 TV interview with the man became the basis of a documentary and the bestselling book Holy War Inc. (Free Press, 2001). Nir Rosen would go on to become internationally recognized for his groundbreaking journalism on Iraq, including his time among the insurgents and tribal leaders of Fullujah and Anbar province. His book on Iraq is In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq (Free Press, 2006), which made it onto EPIC’s “2006 Best Books on Iraq.”

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>The Story of Diyala and the Promise of a New Awakening

>So why are so many foreign fighters and homegrown suicide bombers blowing themselves up in Diyala? What do we know about Diyala?

Diyala province covers an area of 6,828 square miles (about 4% of the total area of Iraq). It extends to the northeast of Baghdad as far as the Iranian border. The province is drained by a major tributary of the Tigris, the Diyala River. These two rivers support a largely agrarian economy. Throughout much of the province are large groves of Date Palm. Diyala is also considered the orange capital of the Middle East.

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>Suicide Bombings shift from Anbar to Diyala

>On May Day, I came across a smugly penned speech by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. He had written an apology and a warning for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to deliver to Arab and Muslim nations on behalf of President Bush and the American people.

The apology: “I’m sorry that I rushed into the invasion of Iraq… I was wrong, and I now realize that in unilaterally launching the war the way I did,… Not only did that alienate you from us, it made us less effective in Iraq. We had too few allies and too little legitimacy. I’m most sorry, though, because my bungling of the war has prompted all of us to take our eye off the ball. I messed up the treatment so badly that people have forgotten the patient really does have a disease.”

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>Bayan Jabr and the Chilling Gangs of Iraq

>So you know those daily news reports you see about mutilated bodies being found and catastrophic bombings? Well it’s not random.

The choice of “soft targets” like markets — often selected to maximize civilian casualties — and attacks against a specific community like the Iraqi Shi’ite Muslims of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad are by design, intended to provoke the genocidal passions of civil war. And unfortunately it often works. The more provocative the attacks, the more difficult it can be to contain the retaliatory violence.

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>Is Reconciliation possible during Civil War?

>Responding to my May 2 post Where are the Benchmarks for U.S. Progress? Bruce Wallace (aka PT Witte in Second Life) asks…

Where is the reconciliation benchmark? How long are the Iraqis going to wait before they get a strong reconciliation program going? It’s not like we don’t know how to do this. Great work in connecting divided people has already been done in South Africa, Northern Ireland, Rwanda. It’s time for the Iraqis to stand up to the forces that seek to divide.

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>Where are the Benchmarks for U.S. Progress?

>Let’s step into our way-back machine and throw the dial to early November 2006. Speculating on potential common ground between President Bush and the coming Democratic majority, I wrote this:

To help stabilize Iraq and repair some of the damage done by the U.S., there will need to be a viable strategy for responsible withdrawal and continued development assistance. In a word: “benchmarks.”

Dial the way-back machine further to the summer of 2003, when EPIC hosted a weekend Iraq Forum and lobbied more than 100 Members of Congress, delivering our Citizens’ Humanitarian Pledge to the Peace of Iraq signed by 30,000 Americans. Our message at that time was the same, Congress must establish benchmarks to hold the Bush administration accountable for progress in helping the people of Iraq rebuild after the U.S. invasion and decades of war, tyranny and crippling sanctions.

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>Invite an Iraqi Refugee Family into Your Home

>Our friend JennyJo, a filmaker and producer at Democracy Now!, has a family she would like to introduce you to.

She met the Al-Khamisi family earlier this year. They are Iraqi Sabeans who follow the teachings of John the Baptist. They once lived in the “city of peace”, the proprietors of a Baghdad jewelry shop. Now they reside in the shadows of Amman, Jordan. Once you know their story, learn about their terrible loss, and allow their words to reach your heart, you will not be able to forget them.

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>The 100,000s of War Refugees Outside Speaker Pelosi’s Window

>Defending her trip to Syria and dinner date with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed she was “assessing the ground truth” to inform spending decisions made by Congress. If that is the case, than how could Speaker Pelosi spend a day and night in Damascus, Syria without noticing the 100,000s of Iraqi refugees right outside her hotel window?

On some days, the queue of Iraqi refugees waiting outside the UN Refugee Agency’s Damascus office extends for city blocks. While it is true that many of these refugees are urban ghosts — trying to keep a low profile out of fear of deportation — Pelosi could not possibly have spent a day and night in Damascus without learning of the crisis.

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>Looking Back at the Fall of Baghdad

>The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue at Firdaus Square remains a defining image of the Fall of Baghdad, which occurred four years ago today. The first to swing a sledgehammer against the stone base of the statue was Khadim al-Jubouri, a burly man who had been imprisoned for a year and a half in the 1990s for criticizing Saddam’s regime.

In today’s Washington Post, Sudarsan Raghavan tells Jubouri’s story and asks him what he thinks today, four years later. His answer is a testament to far Baghdad has fallen since then.

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>Tell Your Senators: Iraqis need Aid, not War


Regardless of when U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq, the U.S. must do more to pursue peace through other means and help the Iraqi people.

Earlier this year, 1,000s of friends of EPIC and our partner, Refugees International, urged President Bush to do more to help Iraqi refugees and to support international relief efforts. After thousands of emails were sent to President Bush, the U.S. announced an $18 million contribution to the UN Refugee Agency. Although it falls far short of what’s needed, it is a step in the right direction and it will save lives.

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>Meanwhile in Iraq…

>As Democrats celebrate their electoral gains, I think it’s worth reminding them as well as Republicans that a widening civil war continues to rage in Iraq. With the campaigning over, its time for our elected officials to put aside their partisan differences and begin the work together to develop a more sensible policy on Iraq. Regardless of how enormous the challenges may be, they have a responsibility to our nation, our troops, the 28 million people of Iraq, and international security to find a new way forward in Iraq.

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>An early Veterans’ Day gift: Bush announces Rumsfeld’s Resignation

>This morning the New York Times editorialized: “Whatever this election accomplished, it did nothing to end the rancor and distrust that define current American politics. Yet, as the campaign went on (and on) there was one issue on which people from both parties appeared to be finding common ground: Donald Rumsfeld has to go.”

In a few minutes, President Bush will announce the resignation of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Let’s review his record:

(1) Establishing the Office of Special Plans (OSP) which cherry-picked, manipulated and possibly even manufactured intelligence to build a case for invading Iraq. Led by Douglas Feith, the OSP greatly exaggerated what little evidence there was of Iraqi weapons of mass-destruction (WMDs) and sought to discredit CIA reports on the absence of any evidence of a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Even the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (which expresses the coordinated judgments of the US Intelligence Community made up of 16 intelligence agencies) was forced to admit that its “judgments” of Iraqi-al-Qaeda ties and a WMD threat were based on “sources of varying reliability.” For the intelligence community to include information based on questionable sources (such as Iraqi defectors who had been vetted-and-coached by the Iraq National Congress and a forged Nigerian document about a shipment of nuclear material to Iraq) in a National Intelligence Estimate shows how warped the process had become.

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>’Power Shifts’ in War-Ravaged Baghdad

>On October 31, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. acquiesced to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s demand that the U.S. military lift its blockade of Baghdad’s Sadr City, home to more than 2.5 million Iraqis – mostly poor Shiite Muslims – and some of some of Baghdad’s most notorious death squads. One of the reasons for the U.S. military’s action was to hunt for a missing U.S. soldier who is believed to have been captured by Abu Deraa, the leader of one of Baghdad’s most notorious death squads.

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