It takes cachet to pack a lecture hall when the audience knows full well you'll be a no-show.
Iraqi doctor Salam Ismael seems to have a lot of it. On July 15 and 16 the foe of the U.S. occupation attracted some 700 people to meetings hosted by the Canadian Peace Alliance and the Muslim Council of York Region - even though everyone knew the feds had blocked his entry to the country.
What attendees hoped to hear - and finally did hear via a documentary - was Ismael's first-hand account of visiting Fallujah shortly after the U.S. siege in 2004. The young physician has been telling audiences in Europe that he suspects the U.S. used chemical weapons in Fallujah and that he believes what he witnessed was "the aftermath of a massacre, the cold-blooded butchery of helpless and defenceless civilians.'
But the feds denied him a visa. Canada is the first country to blacklist Ismael, who is currently on his way to Ecuador and France and has already addressed audiences in the UK, Norway, Ireland and the Netherlands, raising funds for medical supplies. Activists believe Canada's refusal was made in America.
"The reasons are odd. We're very suspicious,' says the CPA's Sid Lacombe. "He does humanitarian work. We have requests for him to speak all over Canada and in the U.S. It's a question of where the political pressure is coming from."
No one, however, is more distraught about this move than Ismael himself. "My colleagues could not believe Canada would do this," he says from a Jordanian hotel. "Canada is not part of the war. They are not committing war crimes in the Middle East. I find Europe more reasonable. I'm sorry to say from the heart, but I don't believe in Canada any more."
A junior doctor before the occupation, Ismael and his colleagues in Doctors for Iraq Society set up NGO field hospitals where the fighting is fiercest. He says they often work without medical materials and sometimes under bombardment by U.S. troops. One doctor colleague died in action.
"We have pictures showing Americans shooting from helicopters at our health clinic. How do you work under those conditions? How do you deal without sutures? We have to use sewing thread. We perform amputations without anaesthesia."
Ismael says he entered Fallujah before the army could clean up evidence of its atrocities, and what he saw there -ravaged body parts rotting in streets and gardens - continues to give him nightmares. "We didn't work as doctors in Fallujah. We only collected the bodies," he says.
Though he can't prove it, he believes many of the injuries he saw were consistent with an attack with chemical weapons. "You can't prove [chemical attacks] after 48 hours, but we saw bodies with only the exposed parts burnt. Many people died asleep in their homes. The whole area south of Fallujah has been bulldozed. Not just the streets - a whole area, all bulldozed. I'm telling you, this is true. Do you know what I'm saying?"
Those who survived the slaughter came to Ismael by dodging U.S. snipers. He writes in a widely circulated article that they brought with them tales of families killed in their houses, brothers and sisters shot assassination-style, parents who watched their children die slowly because medical treatment was unavailable.
"Fallujah's main hospital was seized by U.S. troops in the first days of the siege,' he wrote. "The only other clinic was hit twice by U.S. missiles. The two ambulances that came to help the wounded were shot up and destroyed."
Canadian peaceniks aren't hearing this info first-hand due to a politically intriguing Citizenship and Immigration Canada assessment. I have perused a document sent to Ismael from the Canadian embassy in Jordan that says CIC believes the doctor lacks employment prospects and would stay after his visa expires.
Lacombe says this is ridiculous. The CPA sent a letter informing the Jordan embassy that it was picking up his travel tab. Doctors for Iraq Society supplied embassy officials with a signed, stamped employment letter. A disheartening refusal didn't take long.
At the minister of Citizenship and Immigration's office, spokesperson Karen Prest cites privacy laws as the reason for not speaking about the case.
Windsor MP Joe Comartin's office directly contacted Minister Joe Volpe's office seeking an exemption for Dr. Ismael and a copy of his Canada Security Intelligent Service security profile
"It was a very blunt no" that his staff received, Comartin recalls. "Just look at the facts. He's right there in the war zone. The U.S. is concerned about that. And CIC might be using U.S. information."
He argues that as a Member of Parliament he should have access to the security check. "Unfortunately, the lack of information is all too typical when CSIS and the RCMP are involved. They're not prepared to tell us their concerns about Dr. Ismael. They won't even tell us where their information is coming from."
CSIS media spokesperson Barbara Campion confirms that the agency's role in the immigration process is routine. The spooks performed 24,400 security assessments last year. "If a foreign national is applying for entry, a standard thing is to provide a security check," Campion reveals. The agency snoops around for the lowdown on an applicant's possible spying, war crime or terrorism activities.
But Ismael responds, "I don't belong to any resistance group. I'm a doctor. I have to help my people by telling the world what I witnessed. I wish this wasn't the evidence. The films, the photos, hospitals completely ruined - we have evidence. We have pictures. They don't want me to speak."