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Return to Sorman

Anatomy of a NATO War Crime

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Sorman, Libya

It was a warm early Monday morning along the Libyan coast on June 20, 2011.

At approximately 0200 GMT the next day in NATO Headquarters in Brussels and 30 minutes later in its media center in Naples, staffers finished tabulating NATO’s 92nd day of aerial attacks on Libya and began to post the data on its website (www.nato.int).

Twenty four hours earlier an Atlantic Alliance command unit, located approximately 30 miles off the Libyan coast, in a direct line with Malta, and NATO’s targeting unit had signed off on 49 bombing missions for June 20, the last day of spring and the last day of NATO’s original UN bombing mandate.

The authority for NATO’s  bombing, which far exceeded  earlier estimates  was claimed from the hastily adopted UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and UNSCR 1973.   UN resolutions 1970 & 1973 gave NATO UN Chapter 7 authority to enforce a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace, initially for 90 days which ironically ended the day before its bombing at Sorman.

The two UN Security  Council Resolutions were insisted upon by their main sponsors, France, the UK, Italy and the US who claimed  that ”a limited  no-fly zone would  protect Libya’s civilian population from the wrath of the government of Libya’s leader, Muammar Kaddafi.” NATO requested and was granted two additional 90 days extensions to continue its Libyan mission which gave its air force until the end of 2011 to continue Operation Unified Protector.

It was early Monday morning, June 20, 2011.

Sorman Libya.  A quiet and peaceful Libyan town, Sorman is located 45 miles west of Tripoli, near the Mediterranean coast, in the Zawiya District of the Tripolitania region in northwestern Libya. Many of the town’s children grew up exploring the 3rd Century  magnificent Roman ruins at nearby Zabratha. Some archeologists consider Zabratha, located almost in direct line with Rome across the Mediterranean, and built on a high cliff above the sea, as the most complete extant Roman architecture with only a small part of this large Roman city having been excavated. This observer has visited Zabratha a few times since the mid-1980s and each visit elicits more awe. Families from Sorman and nearby villages regularly visit and picnic there.

In the early hours of June 20, 2011 it was dark in Sorman except for some muted half-moon light. A few dim street lights and some partially illumined homes  provided some light as residents began to rise and prepare for the Al Fajr (“Dawn”) prayers.

At the homestead of Khaled K. El-Hamedi, the 37 year old President of the International Organization for Peace, Care & Relief (IOPCR), one of Libya’s most active social service organizations everyone was asleep following a rambunctious birthday party for his three year old son. The Hamedi family members included Khaled’s three year old son Khweldi, five year old daughter Khaleda, his  pregnant wife Safa, his aunt Najia, and his six year old niece Salam, among others.

At NATO’s Control and Command Center, the 49 bombing missions planned for early morning of June 20, included a target at Sorman, which would push the number of NATO reconnaissance sorties over Libya to 11,930. This number would become 26,500 by midnight on October 31, when NATO would end its air campaign. The day’s bombing sorties would also bring the tally of rocket and bombing targets to 4,521. This figure would increase to more than 11,781 by late fall, when NATO was instructed to end OUP (Operation Unified Protector).

NATO prepares to bomb Dorman’s “command and control center”

Before the bombs were fired at Khaled K. al-Hamedi compound, NATO staff conducted a six-step process, the first of which was surveillance using the MQ-9 Reaper UAV, which sometimes is also used to fire missiles.  Also above Sorman was a Predator drone with full-motion video. During June 19 and the early hours of June 20,  the drones locked on the Hamedi  homestead target and relayed updated information to NATO’s command center.

The Hamedi home was not what NATO labels a “time-critical target” so there was plenty of time for its staff to transmit information about the site from unmanned reconnaissance aircraft to intelligence analysts. Almost certainly, according to a source at Jane’s Weekly, NATO UAV’s watched the Hamedi compound over a period of days and presumably observed part of the birthday party being held for three old Huweldi, the day before the order to bomb was issued.

NATO Rules of Engagement for  Operation United Protector, constitute a set of classified documents which present specific and detailed instructions about what is a legitimate target and who can approve the target, whether pre-planned or “on the fly” when a pilot happens upon a target of opportunity. The Sorman attack on the Hamedi home was planned as part of what NATO calls its “Joint Air Tasking Cycle (JATC).  A target development team put the Hamedi home on the June 20 daily list of targets. The team used a report from NATO intelligence analysts who determined that retired officer Khaled al Huweldi, Hamedi, one of the original members of the Gadhafi-led 1969 coup against King Idris in 1969, and a former member of the Al Fatah Revolution’s Revolutionary Command Council was living on the property.  His assassination had been ordered by NATO because they hoped to weaken the regime in some way even though the senior Hamedi was retired and had no decision making role in Libya.

On June 19, the day before the bombing attack on the Hamedi family at Sorman, NATO was obliged by its own regulations and by the international law of armed conflict to conduct a “potential for collateral damage review” of this mission.         There is no evidence that this was every done.

A requested US Congressional NATO Liaison Office review of the Sorman bombing, initially requested from Libya on August 2, was completed in early September 2011 and found no documentary evidence or other indication that anyone in NATO’s Target Selection Unit, evaluated, discussed, or even considered the subject of potential civilian casualties at the Hamedi home  in  Sorman.

Following the green light to bomb the Hamedi home, the coordinates were fixed at 32°45′24″N 12°34′18″E . Specific aim points on the Hamedi property were chosen and eight bombs and missiles were readied and attached to the strike aircraft.

At Sorman, NATO used a variety of bombs and missiles including the “bunker busting” BLU-109 (Bomb Live Unit) which is designed to penetrate 18 feet of concrete.  NATO also used the American MK series of 500 lb, (MK 81) 1000 lb, (MK-82) and the 2000 lb (MK-84) that Israel used so widely during its 2006 invasion of Lebanon.

Following the inferno at Sorman, NATO denied responsibility but the next day NATO admitted carrying out an air strike somewhere in Sorman but denied that there were civilian deaths even as its drones filmed the scene close up. NATO’s media office in Naples issued a statement claiming “A precision air strike was launched against a high-level command and control node in the Sorman area without collateral damage.”  NATO spokespersons also told Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that “the facility was a legitimate military target and that all necessary precautions were taken before conducting the strike which minimized any potential risk of causing unnecessary casualties”.

The official NATO record of its bombing of Libya for June 20, 2011 reads as follows and remains unchanged:

“Allied Joint Force Command NAPLES, SHAPE, NATO HQ. Over the past 24 hours, NATO has conducted the following activities associated with Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR:

Air Operations Sorties conducted 20 JUNE: 149

Strike sorties conducted 20 JUNE: 52

Key Hits

20 JUNE: In the vicinity of Tripoli: 1 Command & Control Node, 8 Surface-To-Air Missile Launchers,  1 Surface-To-Air Missile Transport Vehicle.  In the vicinity of Misratah: 3 Truck-Mounted Guns, 2 Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Guns, 1 Tank. In the vicinity of Tarhunah: 1 Military Equipment Storage Facility. In the vicinity of Al-Khums: 1 Military Vehicle Storage Facility. In the vicinity of Zintan: 1 Rocket Launcher.”

Oddly, NATO records for June 20 as well as subsequent reports of bombing attacks listed for June 20th and June 21st in its daily logs have never included the bombing attack on Sorman or the attack on the Al-Hamedi residence which indisputably killed 15 civilians.

Just before the bombs hit, eye witnesses,  reported seeing red specks in the sky and then flashes of intense light, immediately followed by thunderous ear splitting blasts as eight American bombs and rockets pulverized their neighbor’s homestead.

In an instant Khaled El-Hamedi’s family was dead. The children were crushed,   blown apart or shredded into pieces, along with friends and extended family members who had slept overnight.

Khaled was working late, attending meetings with displaced Libyans driven from their homes and urgently in need of IOPCR help. As he returned home, Khaled saw from his car window the sky light up and heard exploding bombs. He was frozen in horror as entered his property and observed rescue workers frantically digging and futilely trying to move the thick concrete slabs of his home hoping against hope that they would miraculously find survivors.

Libyan government spokesman Mousa Ibrahim announced the death of 15 people, including three children, were killed at Sorman. He slammed the NATO bombing as a “cowardly terrorist act which cannot be justified.”  Investigators, who visited Sabratha hospital 10 kilometers from Sorman, saw nine bodies, including three young children. They also saw body parts including a child’s head.

For those who visited the Al-Hamidi family compound  following the NATO bombings, as this observer did less than a week after the crime as part of an international delegation, the scene was one of total devastation. Collapsed and blown apart concrete and tiled homes, small body parts, and bits of family belongings and memorabilia, trees, some blown over, others bending and nearly denuded of their foliage, dead, terrified and dying petting zoo animals, including exotic birds, ostrich, deer, small animals and large moose killed or left near death and most in a blind stupor staring blankly from what remained of their shelters while dying of wounds and from trauma.

Outside one of the bombed houses I noticed crushed cartons of spaghetti pasta and cans of tomato sauce, stockpiled for distribution to the needy as part of the work of IOPCR during the summer and in preparation for the coming Holy month of Ramadan observances which includes doing  performing charitable works and individual humanitarian acts.

Under growing pressure from the international community including NATO member states, NATO HQ claimed equipment malfunction, missed target, poor intelligence and pilot errors.  Finally US Defense secretaries Gates and his replacement, Leon Panetta admitted that NATO lacked effective intelligence on the ground to identify military targets with certainty. Former Defense Secretary Gates, in criticizing NATO’s operation in Libya implied that NATO used a bomb first ask questions later paradigm in Libya.  And this appears to have been the case. These excuses in no way absolve NATO and its 28 NATO member states of responsibility.         Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard insists to this day that only Libya’s military was targeted: “This important strike will greatly degrade Gadhafi regime forces’ ability to carry on their barbaric assault against the Libyan people,” he told the media from his office in Brussels.  The civilian deaths at Sorman came just hours after NATO acknowledged that one of its missiles had gone astray early on Sunday, hitting a residential neighborhood of Tripoli.

At the request of Khaled al-Hamedi, himself being sought by Libya’s new government, and aware that I was going to return to Sorman, I felt honored as I made my way to his loved ones’ gravesites on the family homestead where he and I first met, in order to deliver a message from him to his loved ones.

Picking my way through debris in the dark, under the cold and suspicious eyes of a couple of  local militiamen, I stood at the same spot, where on June 27 his family’s freshly dug graves bore witness to what Khaled was describing to our shocked delegation  concerning the details of the horror and hellfire that NATO unleashed upon his family.

Back in June I had moved to the rear of our group as Khaled spoke to us about the loss of his babies, his beauties and his precious pregnant wife. I was embarrassed because for some reason, uncontrollable tears would not stop streaming down my face and, despite averting my eyes, I saw that Khaled noticed.  I was touched when this young man, to whom I was a total stranger, came to me and put his arm around my shoulder in comfort. Clearly he understood that each of us can feel the pain of others, even of strangers, as well as connect them with our own losses of loved ones in life.

Later, as I learned more about Khaled’s family and saw their most expressive and revealing photos, I came to believe that with respect to the wanton criminal aggression that caused thousands of needless deaths of innocents over the period of nearly nine months , that Najia, Safa, Salam, Khaleda, and Khweldi, and the others slaughtered at Sorman, are forever iconic representatives of all the innocent civilians who were slaughtered in Libya since March 2011.

During my recent visit to Sorman, I stood at the same location as last June. I surveyed the area and then approached the graves of Najia, Safa, Salam, Khaleda, and Khweldi.  In the cold darkness with the piles of rubble still in place it was eerie.

I knelt close, felt a strange source of warmth and looked over my shoulder. I whispered in the silent night that I had a message from your loving Husband, Father, Uncle and Nephew that he asked me to deliver to you.

I read to them the message entrusted to me. And I left a copy in Arabic, pinned to a bouquet of flowers. The message read:

“Please say a very big hello to them and tell them I am coming.    Please tell them I won’t leave you alone    And I miss each of you so very much.And please write them each a note.    Najia, Safa, Salam, Khaleda, and Khweldi.Franklin, Tell them, “You are my life.    You are my love.I miss you very, very much.Life without you is so painful, so hard and completely empty. I won’t stay and live away from you. I promise.    I’ll return and be close to you. Baba will be back. I love you.”

As I made my way back to the main road in search of a taxi, a militiaman stopped me and interrogated me about why I was there, confiscated my camera and ordered me to leave the area at once.

I paused for a moment and looked back toward what had been a loving family home, a petting zoo and bird sanctuary that had delighted the children in this neighborhood.

A little boy and girl, perhaps siblings, maybe six or seven years old, approached me with their Ethiopian nanny and asked: “Wien, (where is) Khaleda? Wien Khweldi?  metta yargeoun ila Al Bayt (when will they come home?)                  “When will they come home?”

Unable to speak, I kissed and patted their heads and continued on my way.

Khaled K. Al-Hamedi is strong, deeply religious, and fatalistic. He has pledged to family and friends around the world that he will continue his work with the International Organization for Peace, Care & Relief in spite of the life shattering loss of his loved ones. An honorable family, a peaceful and welcoming town, a devastated country, and a shocked and angry international community demand justice from those who sent ‘Unified Protector’ and NATO’s no-fly zone to destroy Libya in order to “protect the civilian population.”

FRANKLIN LAMB is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com