Unembedded in Iraq
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Editor's note: After covering post-9/11 politics and the run-up to the Iraq War for a weekly in Alaska, Dahr Jamail saved his money to cover the war from the front lines.
How long have you been reporting on Iraq, and what brought you there?
DJ: I have spent 6 of the last 12 months in Iraq. As I mentioned, what brought me here was the nearly total failure of the US 'mainstream' media to show the truth of this illegal invasion and occupation. How it affected the Iraqis, as well as US soldiers. Overall, they just weren't doing their job, and this has grown even worse.
I had done all the usual actions of attempting to speak up and effect change at home-calling and writing Senators/Congresspeople, attending teach-ins, spreading information. After watching the worldwide demonstrations on February 15, 2003 be brushed aside as a "focus group," I knew then that the minds of the American public had been misled by the corporate media who mindlessly supported the objectives of the Bush regime, and reporting the true effects of the invasion/occupation on the Iraqi people and US soldiers was what I needed to do.
What is it like being one of the only "unembedded" journalists operating in the country? Do you fear for your safety, and what have you done to ensure your safety? Whom do you fear more, random kidnappers or the American Military? How do you manage to move through Iraqi society now when it appears that, in the wake of Margaret Hassan's murder, all Westerners are viable targets? And on that same note, what do the Iraqis think of the kidnappings, murders, and beheadings?
It's tough. Working in this environment of media repression and danger is always an uphill battle. Blinking electricity, car bombs, kidnappings are the playing field. I constantly monitor my safety factor and those who work with me. I grew a beard, dress like locals, and only travel around covertly with one interpreter in a beat up car. I minimize my time on the street, while at the same time spending enough there to get the Iraqis reactions to what unfolds here each day.
My greatest concern is the reaction of my own government. I'm reporting information that the Bush regime wants kept under wraps. I fear reprisal from both the government and military far, far more than being kidnapped or blown up by a car bomb.
Iraqis are of course shocked and outraged by the beheadings and kidnappings of people like Margaret Hassan. So many also believe it was a CIA/Mossad plot to keep aid organizations and journalists out of Iraq in order to give the military and corporations here a free hand to continue to dis-assemble and sell of the country.
On Nov 18 in one of your dispatches you wrote, "Journalists are increasingly being detained and threatened by the U.S.-installed interim government in Iraq. Media have been stopped particularly from covering recent horrific events in Fallujah." What are the predominant differences between your reporting and that of the corporate media and embedded reporters, or that of Iraqi and Muslim journalists? In other words, what does each group do with the same pieces of information? Do you feel you have a freer hand by being "unembedded"? Have you or anyone you know been intimidated or harassed in any way?
Myself and most Arab and western independent journalists here show the costs of war. Report the massacres, the slaughter, the dead and wounded kids, disaster that this occupation truly is for the Iraqi people. Report on the low morale of most soldiers here, report on how doctors now state openly that due to lack of funds and help from the US-backed Ministry of Health, they feel it is worse now than during the sanctions.
I do feel I have more freedom because I am "unembedded." I'm flying under the mainstream radar of censorship.
I have been attacked from some mainstream sources and pundits. Fox propaganda channel invited me on after I accurately reported the sniping of ambulances, medical workers and civilians in Fallujah last April...I declined the set up because I didn't have a desire to have my character assassinated.
My website has taken some attacks by hackers...but so far we've managed the onslaught. I receive some hate mail via my site, and have received one death threat...so far.
The US Corporate media consistently characterizes the Iraqi resistance as "foreign terrorists and former Ba'athist insurgents". In your experience, is this an accurate portrayal? If not, why?
This is propaganda of the worst kind. Most Iraqis refer to the Iraqi Resistance as "patriots." Which of course most of them are-they are, especially in Fallujah, primarily composed of people who simply are resisting the occupation of their country by a foreign power. They are people who have had family members killed, detained, tortured and humiliated by the illegal occupiers of their shattered country.
Calling them "foreign terrorists" and "Ba'athist insurgents" is simply a lie. While there are small elements of these, they are distinctly different from the Iraqi Resistance, who are now supported by, very conservatively at least 80% of the population here.
There are terrorist elements here, but that is because the borders of Iraq have been left wide open since the invasion. These did not exist in Iraq before.
The Bush regime like to refer to anyone who does not support their ideology and plans for global domination as a "terrorist."
Here, these fighters in the Iraqi Resistance are referred to as freedom fighters, holy warriors and patriots.
We rarely see any substantial imagery coming out of Iraq in the US corporate media. What does Iraq look like now? What aren't the people in the United States seeing, and what do you feel they should be seeing?
The devastation. The massive suffering and devastation of the people and their country. Baghdad remains in shambles 19 months into this illegal occupation. Bombed buildings sit as insulting reminders of unbroken promises of reconstruction.
Bullet ridden mosques with blood stained carpets inside where worshippers, unarmed, have been slaughtered by soldiers.
Entire families living on the street. 70% unemployment with no hope of this changing. Chaotic, clogged streets of Baghdad and 5 mile long petrol lines in this oil rich country.
Engineers and doctors, unemployed, driving their cars as a taxi to try to feed their families.
The seething anger in the eyes of people on the streets as US patrols rumble past.
Iraqis now cheering when another US patrol or base is attacked. Dancing on the burning US military hardware.
Dead and maimed US soldiers. The wounded screaming and writhing in agony. Their shattered families.
The mass graves of innocent Fallujans after the utter destruction of their city.
Children deformed by Depleted Uranium exposure lying in shattered hospitals, suffering from lack of treatment, or even pain medications.
Dead, rotting bodies in the streets of Fallujah of women and children being eaten by dogs and cats because the military did not allow relief teams into the city for nearly two weeks.
What are the sentiments of the Iraqis you have spoken with towards the Americans? Is there any good will left? Was there any to begin with? What do they think of Alawi, the pending "elections", the continued occupation, the American-trained Iraqi security forces? Do they have any hope or belief that the Americans will leave, or are they thinking this will be a generation-long occupation?
There was support by most Iraqis for the removal of Saddam Hussein. But that started to ebb quickly on in the occupation as people watched family members killed, detained, tortured and humiliated by the occupation forces.
Then there was Abu Ghraib. I cannot stress enough how devastating this was to US credibility in Iraq, and the entire Middle East.
Throw on top of that the April siege of Fallujah, nearly complete lack of reconstruction, importation of foreign workers to do jobs Iraqis are far more qualified for, the installation of an illegal interim government, and you have a complete PR disaster for the US here.
Any credibility for the occupiers, and I doubt there was much to speak of, after the destruction of Fallujah has been lost. Iraqis I speak with are infuriated at the US government. While they are well aware that what is most likely the majority of people in the US being in opposition to the Bush regime, they believe the US government and those who support it are guilty of war crimes of the worst kind. I see rage, grief, and the desire for revenge on a daily basis here.
They hate Allawi. They have no respect for him or any other of the puppets in the US-installed interim government, because they don't see how any self-respecting person would allow themselves to be a puppet of the US in this illegal, brutal endeavor.
They are well aware that he is an exile who has been linked with the CIA and British intel for a long, long time. He and the rest of the interim government are views as thieves, rapists and US pawns. They are utterly loathed, as everyone here knows these people do not have the interests of the Iraqi people in mind.
The elections are viewed as a joke. Most here now believe there is no way they can be held in an honest, transparent and truly democratic way. Most are also too afraid to vote. I've heard people say things like, "The Americans won't even allow a legitimate election in their own country, so why would they want to have one here!"
The Iraqi "security" forces, being the police and national guard, are viewed by most as surrogates of the US military. They are viewed as collaborators and traitors by most. While people understand many of these forces join out of desperation because there are no jobs, they remain loathed, along with the foreign occupation forces. It doesn't help when many of the police are actively involved in organized crime.
Lastly, the occupation is viewed as endless. Iraqis know there are already 4 permanent military bases here, and more soldiers coming. There is little hope amongst those I talk with about this topic that the occupation will end.
We've read substantive reports recently that over 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians have been killed since the war began. What is your take on this report, and what have you seen that either supports or contradicts it? Is the US military indiscriminately targeting civilians, or are they just hopelessly inept, or is it something in-between?
I think this report has understated the death toll. From what I've seen during my six months here, it is increasingly difficult to find a family here who has not had at least one member killed by either the military or criminal activity. Entire neighborhoods in Fallujah have been bombed into rubble. Houses with entire families have been incinerated and blown to pieces.
The random gunfire of soldiers nearly every time a patrol or convoy is attacked almost always results in civilian deaths. Keep in mind there are now over 100 attacks per day on US forces in occupied Iraq.
Then we have the infrastructure-people dying from lack of food, water borne diseases, inadequate health care...the list is longer than any of us know.
I think the military is killing so many civilians for several reasons. Primarily, because they have been put in an untenable situation by their Commander in Chief-that is, a no-win guerilla war against an enemy who now has the massive support of the populace. Thus, anyone, anytime could be an attacker. So they are shooting first and asking questions later because they are scared to death.
They are using a conventional military to fight a guerilla war-and just as in Vietnam, it is a disaster and utter failure.
Then there are the soldiers who have completely dehumanized Iraqis, and I've spoken with some who seem to actually enjoy killing them.
Of course it doesn't help that this is sanctioned and encouraged by the US government, and that blinding religious ideology appears to have filtered down into many of the soldiers here. "You are either with us, or you are against us." Iraq is now full of fields of death. There is carnage in the streets everyday in Baghdad, as well as other cities throughout much of the country.
There has been a lot of speculation about the role of oil in the occupation. Americans were told that Iraqi oil revenues would pay for the war and reconstruction, but there is no oil coming out of Iraq after more than 18 months. Certain journalists and activists ranging from Jim Marrs to Mike Ruppert to Peter Camejo have all stated, in some form or other, that this was never the intention, that the idea was to first remove Iraqi oil from the world market, thereby driving up oil prices (the profits mainly landing in the pockets of the Saudis), and eventually to co-opt the oil supply to sell to China and India as their energy demands skyrocket. What have you seen in regards to oil activity? Also, Iraq Coalition Casualty ( http://icasualties.org/oif/default.aspx)
Iraq is still importing all of its gasoline. And from what I know, they are exporting all of the oil from here, as well as that which is refined in Iraq, which isn't much at all, if any.
I think the lack of reporting on the sabotaging is akin to the lack of reporting that there are nearly 100 attacks per day on US soldiers, or lack of reporting of lack of infrastructure, etc. I think it all falls under the umbrella of the mainstream media's successful efforts to whitewash the Iraq catastrophe for the Bush administration.
It looks as though it is the resistance who are doing the sabotaging. An open question though, regarding what you asked, is why is there not better protection of the oil infrastructure?
We have conflicting reports in the US about the Shia and Sunni putting aside their historical differences to team up against the Americans. Do you see this happening, and what do you believe the eventual outcome will be. US policy makers claim that an American withdrawal would only result in a widescale civil war between these two factions and the Kurds in the north. Do you believe this will be the case? Are the Iraqis in a situation now where they are dammed any way they turn?
I do see this happening. During the siege of Najaf, collections for aid at Sunni mosques were organized, as well as resistance fighters from Fallujah who provided guns and supplies to the Mehdi Army there. During the siege of Fallujah last April, Shia weighed heavily in donating aid, and participated in a non-violent action that pushed supplies into Fallujah through a US military cordon.
The Shia/Sunni rift is largely a CIA generated myth. There are countless tribes and marriages alike that are both Shia/Sunni. There are mosques here where they pray together.
There is the possibility of war if the Kurds go independent, but the more likely possibility of that war would be Turkey invading Kurdistan before any Shia/Sunni action would occur regarding this.
Remember the Arab proverb; "Me against my brother. Me and my brother against my cousin. Me, my brother and cousin against the stranger."
The Iraqis are in a situation where they are damned as long as the US continues to occupy and subvert their country, as they have been doing.
It is critically important that Americans begin to understand the psyche of the Iraqi resistance. What is really going on in Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, and Baghdad? Is this a legitimate, coordinated uprising against the occupation, or is it a defensive response to the US escalation of the war? Or both? Considering that the US claims they have opened a front to "take the battle to Al Qaeda", do you see any evidence of an Al Qaeda presence, or the presence of "foreign fighters streaming in from the Syrian border" as is also reported here?
The resistance is complex because it has so many facets. Parts of it are simply Iraqis who don't want their country to be occupied. Iraqis who have had family members killed, tortured or humiliated by the military...so they are exacting revenge. Other parts are more organized, where individual cells are operating in coordinated attacks with other cells, but they remain largely decentralized. This is why the conventional US army will never defeat it. Because the resistance has no face, no leader, no fixed organization.
It is really both a defensive reaction to the occupiers, but also is going more on the offensive as the occupation continues. As one Iraqi man old me once, "The invasion was America's war on Iraq. Now we are seeing the Iraqi's war against the Americans."
I have yet to see any evidence or meet any Iraqi who has seen evidence of Al-Qaeda here. There are certainly other fighters entering Iraq from different countries, but they are a relatively small number. When we say "foreign fighters" here, we must recall that every Iraqi I've spoken with views the occupiers as the foreign fighters, and not any other Arab who is coming here to fight in the resistance. Most Iraqis I speak with view these Arab fighters as brothers, and the occupiers as the "foreign fighters."
Have you had much contact with American troops, and if so, what are they saying, and what is your impression of them? Do you support NBC reporter Kevin Sites' decision to film and report on the murder of an unarmed and wounded Iraqi prisoner this week? Do you believe this was a relatively "isolated" incident, or did these guys just get caught?
I've had a fair amount, but not so much this trip. I make it a point to avoid them now since they are such constant targets. They are being attacked at least 100 times a day as of late. But when I interacted with them my last two trips I found most of them to be quite scared, and morale depended on how long they'd been here. The newer folks were keeping a stiff upper lip and staying on message. The folks who'd been here 6, 9 or 12 months were angry, aiming their guns at everyone, and sometimes high on drugs. Not to generalize-not all were like this. But I saw many who were, and it reminded me of everything I've read about what happened to the psyche of US soldiers in Vietnam.
I do support Kevin Sites' decision to film what he did of the execution of the old, unarmed Iraqi man in the mosque. 100% I support this. People need to see that this is what is occurring here-and this is NOT an isolated incident. Nearly every refugee from Fallujah I've interviewed has spoken of mass executions, tanks rolling over the wounded in the streets, bodies being thrown in the Euphrates by the military, and other atrocities.
The footage of the execution in the mosque is akin to the photos that came out of Abu Ghraib. They are only the tip of the iceberg of atrocities that have been occurring here from the beginning. Atrocities that are occurring right now.
Indeed, those soldiers just got caught. This is not news, however-because we've even had military commanders come out in the media and admit that they gave orders to soldiers to shoot anything that moved in Fallujah. What we will see in Fallujah is that it has been a genocide.
Lastly, what do you see happening in both the immediate and distant future in Iraq? How long do you plan to stay? Do you believe you will sill safely be able to report the truth to us when so much of your reporting flies in the face of the so-called "official" reports and media blackout? Do you envision an even greater information clamp-down, or do you think Independent reporting is going to become a stronger force as the US digs itself into a deeper and deeper hole?
I see more bloodshed and chaos. Sending more troops will only speed up the spiral here; increase the fighting. I see a continuing degradation of the infrastructure and failing of the occupation. It has already failed. It had failed even before the April siege of Fallujah and the Abu Ghraib scandal (which is ongoing). The real question is, how many more Iraqis and soldiers die before the US admits to its colossal failure, makes reparations for the countless war crimes that have been committed and pulls out.
The long term-that depends on how long the US stays here. It is rare when I speak with an Iraqi who wants the US to stay-they say, "Civil war? It can't possibly be worse than this-so the US should leave. Then we'd at least have the chance to run our own country."
Another man pointed out that if there were a civil war, no Shia or Kurdish attack on Fallujah could ever possibly compare to the devastation the US military has caused there. I think he makes a good point.
I am concerned about my safety, of course. This is the most dangerous place in the world for a journalist to be, especially those of us who are reporting the reality of what is occurring here. I have concerns of reprisal from the military and my government-because they don't like to have the facts get out. I've consistently been a minority voice with my reporting in Iraq-which has led many to discount my reports and call me biased.
Yet I have consistently been shown to be accurate, as have the other independents here. An example would be that several of us were reporting on Abu Ghraib months before the mainstream decided to do their job and run the story. And at the end of the day, those of us who have been reporting that this occupation failed months ago, and the vast, vast majority of Iraqis oppose the occupation and support the resistance, will end up again being proven right. But I'm afraid with the media blackout in the mainstream of the US, in general, being as stunningly effective as it has been, I think this is going to be a long time before this comes to light. But it will.
I do envision a deepening of the clampdown we are now experiencing. We're watching this in the US media now, with NPR having even jumped on the propaganda bandwagon.
However, as with repression of any kind, the more the "powers that be" attempt to muzzle independent media and the truth, the more they create a growing, powerful, diverse entity that finds new and creative ways to work here.
For example, the closing of the Al-Jazeera office here has simply caused their journalists to go underground and decentralize, making it impossible for the government to control them. In this way, the repression naturally creates a smarter, more diverse and creative resistance in the form of increased independent reportage.
In the end, people know the truth when they see it. I taste this by mail I get from my readers-those who read many sources and thank me for reporting the truth, as well as those who support the occupation who send hate mail and try to tell me I'm reporting from Idaho and making everything up. Their ugly reactions indicate that they prefer not to know the truth-that their government has deceived a large percentage of the American people into supporting an illegal invasion that has cost at least 100,000 Iraqi lives, as well as those of over 1,200 US soldiers. Many people would rather lash out to protect their denial rather than accepting responsibility for supporting such atrocities.
In the end, the truth will come out, no matter how intense the repression becomes. And in the end, those in America who support this occupation will eventually see that virtually the majority of people in every other country on the planet oppose the American agenda in Iraq.
It is only a matter of time.
Dahr Jamail's Iraq Dispatches can be found at: http://dahrjamailiraq.com
Charles Shaw is Editor-in-Chief of Newtopia Magazine.