Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Iraq

The following excerpt is from chapter 9 of Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Iraq by Dahr Jamail (Haymarket, 2007).

Raiding Mosques, Torturing Iraqis

Having survived the hell of Fallujah, I returned to Baghdad to find that most of the remaining NGOs in Iraq were either pulling out completely or leaving behind a skeleton crew. There was even talk of a UN airlift to fly remaining members of international development organizations out of Iraq if necessary. Others spoke of the possibility of the Baghdad airport being closed down for security reasons. All of us were appalled when we found CNN on the satellite TV channels declaring that the cease-fire in Fallujah was "holding."

Other corporate media outlets like National Public Radio and the New York Times had their reporters happily embedded with the troops, obediently regurgitating the military press releases for U.S. audiences. In my gut, I was beginning to experience a feeling of being trapped. Conditions, particularly those related to mobility, were growing increasingly restrictive. Planes entering and exiting Iraq had to use corkscrew descent and ascent. The road to Amman was virtually impassable for any Westerner because of the threat of kidnapping. It was fear of being kidnapped that forced me to consider abandoning my mission and leaving Iraq.Most of us had decided to take it a day at a time. Our strategy was to stock up on provisions and sit tight in our apartment in the Karrada district of Baghdad.

Many of our Iraqi friends and interpreters had received death threats for working with us, more and more Iraqis were staying at home, and all of us were afraid.

That night, from the roof of our apartment, I watched soldiers and Humvees seal Firdos Square. In "liberated Iraq," U.S. soldiers announced on loudspeakers, from behind coils of concertina wire, that anyone approaching the square would be shot on sight.

In an April 13 prime-time press conference addressing the ongoing violence in Iraq, George W. Bush told reporters, "America's armed forces are performing brilliantly, with all the skill and honor we expect of them." He went on to say that he knew what the United States was doing in Iraq was right.When I read this in Baghdad, I wondered if Bush included the massacre of unarmed women, children, and elderly in Fallujah?

When he said he believed the soldiers in Iraq were performing brilliantly "with all the skill and honor..." did this include the snipers shooting ambulances with blaring sirens and flashing lights? Did this include dragging an entire country into a bloody chaos that was worsening by the hour? My sources from inside Fallujah, many of whom were doctors, said that by now more than six hundred bodies had been counted at area emergency facilities, although the local medical authorities in the city believed that a significant number of victims had been buried without any possibility of receiving care at a clinic or hospital.

Mass funerals were being conducted during brief lulls in the fighting. One of the two soccer fields in the town had been converted into a mass martyr cemetery. I tried hard to imagine a soccer field back in the United States being turned into a graveyard-headstones above ground and buried shrapnel-shredded bodies underneath, populating a dry field where children once laughed, ran, and kicked soccer balls-but my imagination failed me.

Alber was seething. "On April 11, at 3:30 a.m.,U.S. troops raided the mosque by using tanks to crash through the gate adjoining the food storage area that was being stocked for the besieged people of Fallujah.Another tank smashed through the gate next to the student dormitory and the martyrs' cemetery."

The spokesman for the Abu Hanifa mosque in the neighborhood of Adhamiyah, in Baghdad, slowly recounted the recent U.S. raid on his mosque. Rahul, Harb, and I sat listening in disbelief in a visiting room inside the mosque. Near us lay tattered plastic bags containing three tons of food meant as relief for Fallujah, now rendered useless by the crushing wheels of a Humvee. This and other aid material lay wasted inside a metal gate that had first been demolished by the same vehicle. "Forty soldiers entered the mosque while about sixty were guarding it from the outside," continued Alber as tea was served to us. "Those inside went first into the main area of the mosque where all of us were praying. Some Red Crescent volunteers from Kirkuk were also resting there before setting out with the supplies for the people of Fallujah."

The soldiers had entered with their weapons and with their footwear, strictly forbidden in a mosque, and then ordered everyone at gunpoint to lie on the ground. There was anger in his voice as he told us, "I speak good English. I pleaded with the Americans to let us open all the doors for them to avoid further damage to our mosque. I was afraid of how the people would react when they found out. But the Iraqi translator accompanying them yelled at me, 'Silence! Shut your mouth!'" While some soldiers held all the people at gunpoint, their colleagues broke in every locked and closed door in the mosque and some that were not even locked.

Later, walking around the Imam Adham Islamic College attached to the mosque, I had found door after door smashed in and random bullet holes spotting the walls and ceilings. Students' papers lay strewn about an instructor's desk, the U.S. soldiers having rifled through them-looking for what?

"After two hours of holding us with our faces to the ground and with their booted feet on our backs, which we consider a highly insulting gesture, the soldiers did not find a single bullet. Then they simply left. A year ago they would have apologized for such actions.Now they don't even bother.Now they apologize by stomping on our necks." This was the third time Abu Hanifa had been raided. The first time was last December.

I had covered the story during my last trip and had taken photos of shots fired into the outer walls and the clock tower of the mosque.After talking with Alber,we were walking to the other side of the mosque when a woman from Fallujah arrived, weeping, with her son. She explained to the men at the mosque that she had no ID card. The U.S. soldiers had taken it away. She had come begging for aid. Residents of Adhamiyah had begun housing the refugees of Fallujah by the hundreds, if not thousands. One family was said to have taken in eight entire families and would not allow anyone to remove any of them.

Around the other side of the mosque, we were introduced to Kassem, a fifty-four-year-old grandfather, blind in one eye and with a disabled leg.He worked as a guard at the mosque, and lived within the compound with his family, which included grandchildren. I noticed a bloody bandage on his forehead.We were told he had tried to stand up when the U.S. soldiers had crashed the door of his quarters and barged in on his family. Then, one of the soldiers had smashed Kassem's head with the butt of his M-16, knocking him to the ground. Kassem pointed to his leg and said, "When I fell to the ground they kicked me. They came to humiliate the people of Islam. Why else? We have no guns here, no mujahedeen. They want to destroy the Islamic religion."

We were taken to the martyrs' cemetery in the mosque courtyard. There I saw the fresh graves of the ten-year-old boy and his older sister who I had watched dying in the clinic in Fallujah. Earlier, Alber had told us,"I was against Saddam. I was jailed by his regime in 1996 for making pastries because at the time sugar was being rationed due to the sanctions.But the U.S. policy now in Iraq will fail 100 percent. No people here support them now."

"The managers of the U.S. policy here are not clever people," he calmly added,"When you come by terrorism, you create terrorism." Later, Harb took Rahul and me to interview Professor Adnan Mohammed Salman al-Dulaimi. Dulaimi was the director of the board that is in charge of all the Sunnis in Iraq, with more than ten thousand Imams under his control (and was to become a leading political figure in the upcoming elections.) A teacher for fifty-one years, his first words to us were, "Our situation is bad. We are struggling now."

He went on to tell us how in the past few days three mosques in Baghdad had been attacked by U.S. soldiers-Abu Hanifa, which I had reported, and two others on Palestine Street. The two issues he held responsible for most of the current problems were the high rate of unemployment and the dissolving of the Iraqi Army by Paul Bremer. Both were direct results of the occupation and needed to be addressed immediately if Iraq was to become stable. "Bush declared Iraq will be an example of democracy for the Middle East," he said. "What has happened here does not give that impression."

In Baghdad, chaos, uncertainty, fear, and anxiety reigned more than ever. Everyone awaited with apprehension the outcomes of Fallujah and Najaf. People I spoke with felt that if the United States launched a larger attack on either city, the already critical situation would explode in a way no one wanted to contemplate. (It took less than seven months for people's worst fears to materialize.)

The morning of April 17, a thundering explosion rocked my bed at just before 8:00. Many of us ran to the roof of our apartment building. The cracking of light weapons' fire echoed across the city, but we were unable to spot the location of the attack. This was often the case when bombs exploded in Baghdad. Life continued to be on edge as everyone awaited the outcome of the Najaf standoff between U.S. troops and Muqtada al-Sadr and his men. T

here was understandable concern about the eventuality of a U.S. strike at the sacred Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered Shia shrines in Iraq. I attended a press conference at the Ministry of Health, led by the Iraqi Minister of Health himself. It was held basically to stave off criticism that the administration was doing little to nothing to provide medical assistance to the residents of besieged Fallujah and other areas in the south that had seen conflict. What was stunning, however, was that the minister acknowledged that the U.S. military was intentionally targeting ambulances in Fallujah.He expressed outrage and stated that he had personally pressed the Interim Governing Council and Bremer for explanations about why these human rights violations and violations of the Geneva Conventions were occurring.

The Ministry of Health is housed near the Medical City, and on our way out I sadly watched a man with one leg and one of his hands heavily bandaged riding out of the hospital on a donkey. All the time, my face was slammed up against the acute level of poverty and struggle that many in Baghdad endured on a daily basis. In nearly every traffic jam, I looked out the window at women and children begging. Sometimes I gave some dinars, sometimes I stared at my feet and just stomached the sadness.

The daily flights leaving the Baghdad airport continued to depart full. Those of us who chose to remain continued to watch Najaf and Fallujah with great concern. I found tempers boiling everywhere I turned. The previous evening, an old Shi'ite man in his shop in Karrada had told me, "The situation here is worse than I can ever remember. I still can't understand their policy here. Where is the freedom they promised?"

We had news that some of our friends who had attempted to reenter Fallujah had been detained by mujahedeen for a night, so we decided to cover the siege by visiting hospitals in Baghdad, rather than risking another trip. Whenever they could manage to do so, doctors from Fallujah were carting wounded people to the capital. At the large, centrally located Yarmouk Hospital, we had a discussion on the situation in Fallujah with the lead doctor. He said that during the first days of the U.S. siege of Fallujah, many of the wounded had been brought to his hospital. "The Americans came here to question my patients, even though we tried to refer our patients to other hospitals to prevent them from being detained."

He sounded outraged by what he referred to as a massacre. "The Americans shot at some of our doctors who were traveling to Fallujah to provide aid. One of our doctors was injured when a missile struck his vehicle. I have also been told by my doctors in Fallujah that the Americans are targeting ambulances there, and at the main hospital. I have reports that the Americans are using cluster bombs. Patients we have treated from there are reporting the same." Using cluster bombs in civilian areas is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.He continued, "One of my doctors in Fallujah asked the Americans there if he could remove a wounded patient from the city. The soldier did not allow him to move the victim, and apparently said, 'We have dead soldiers here, too. This is a war zone.' The wounded man died. So many doctors and ambulances have been turned back from checkpoints there."

At al-Numan Hospital in Adhamiya, I spoke to a doctor who said, "We are treating an average of one gunshot wound per day, which is something we never saw before the occupation. This is due to the absence of law enforcement in Baghdad. The Iraqi police have weak weapons and nobody respects their authority."He told me when U.S. soldiers came to the hospital asking for information about resistance fighters,"My policy is not to give my patients to the Americans, or to provide them any information.

I deny information to the Americans for the sake of the patient. I don't care what my patients have done outside the walls of the hospital. I do my job and then let the patient go. Ten days ago, the Americans raided our hospital looking for people. It has been occurring since people started coming in from Fallujah, even though most of them are children,women, and the elderly."

When I asked if he had heard that the U.S. military was bombing civilians in Fallujah, he said, "Of course the Americans are bombing civilians, along with the revolutionaries. One year ago there was no revolution in Fallujah. But they began searching homes and humiliating people, and this upset people. The people became angry and demonstrated, then the Americans shot the demonstrators, and this started the revolution in Fallujah. It is the same in Sadr City." He grew angrier as he continued. "Aggression against civilians has caused all of this. Nothing happened for the first two months of the occupation. People were happy to have Saddam gone. And now, we hope for the mercy of God if the Americans invade Najaf."

Another doctor who wanted to remain anonymous stated that he saw the U.S. military dropping cluster bombs on the al-Dora area last December. "I've seen it all with my own eyes."He told me that, based on reports from field doctors presently working there, and statements taken from wounded civilians, it was obvious that cluster bombs were being used in Fallujah.

He also said many of the Fallujan victims he treated had been shot with dum-dum bullets, which are hollow-point bullets designed to inflict maximum internal damage. These are also referred to as "expanding bullets." Harb and I decided to drive over to the al-Karam Hospital, where a doctor,who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, informed us that one of the doctors from his hospital had just returned from the al-Sadr Teaching Hospital in Najaf because she was unable to work there. She reported to her hospital that Spanish military forces were currently occupying the hospital in Najaf because it was close to their base. The roof of the hospital overlooked their base, so soldiers had taken it over for strategic purposes. He was seething as he said,"The Americans don't care what happens to Iraqis."

One day, as we neared the end of April, Harb drove me to the other side of his neighborhood of Adhamiya. The setting sun was bathing the nearby groves of date palms in a dark orange when we pulled in front of the old but elegant home of Dr. Womidh Omar Nadhme, on the banks of the Tigris River, directly across from the sprawling Green Zone. We were escorted into his sitting room by one of his sons, before Dr. Nadhme entered. The old stately professor greeted us formally, then immediately lit a cigarette and engaged Harb in some small talk in Arabic before getting to my questions.An outspoken critic of the former regime, Dr. Nadhme was truly a nationalist and had always worked for the Iraqi people, rather than any particular sect or political party. It quickly became apparent to me that he had no qualms about criticizing U.S. policy."Once you abide by the policy of the U.S.A. you are not a terrorist anymore. In 1991 Syria was not a terrorist because they supported the war against Iraq. Syria opposed the recent invasion, so now they are a terrorist state," he explained.

When I asked what he thought about the Bush administration's claim that Iraq was the front line of the "war on terror," he replied, "Here, one would have to distinguish between terrorism and resistance. Terror was unseen here before the invasion. In Fallujah, it is not terrorism, it is resistance." We spoke of U.S. policy throughout the Middle East. When I asked the professor about Palestine, he said,"The crimes against humanity in Palestine are shown daily on the television. This does not indicate that the current U.S. administration is committed to democracy or human rights.How can the United States, a war criminal in Palestine, be accepted as a state-builder in Iraq?" We had a lengthy discussion on the reality in Iraq, where more and more Iraqis had long since woken up to the fact that the true U.S. agenda was not for their liberation or benefit but for the oil, and its own geostrategic military position."The American's war against Iraq is over," he told me,"Now we have the war of Iraq against America. It is a war of Iraqis fighting for their country, their homes, their money, and their lives."

The next evening, I interviewed a resistance fighter in Baghdad. I was taken to a preset location in advance and waited for him to arrive. I was nervously sipping tea with Harb when a tall, hulking man wearing a blue ski mask entered. He chose to be called "Ahmed." In a deep, coarse voice, he greeted us with "Salam Aleikum" and bade us be seated. "The media concentrates on the Americans, and does not care about Iraqis," he began. "This is not a rebellion, this is a resistance against the occupation." The twenty-six-year-old member of the growing Iraqi resistance used to work as a portrait photographer, and maintained his trade even as a member of the Iraqi Army,where he was a guard at the presidential palace.He insisted he was opposed to Saddam Hussein, and rejoiced when the U.S. military managed to topple his brutal regime. In fact, he didn't even fight in the war against the U.S. military during the invasion. But he grew weary of watching his fellow countrymen humiliated, mistreated, and killed by the aggression of the occupiers and, like so many others, he subsequently took up arms to fight against them.

"We were under great stress during the time of Saddam," he told me."He put me in prison.We were never loyal to Saddam, but now he is our representative, one of us because he is a native of Iraq, he is Muslim, and he is Iraqi." Ahmed was a member of a group of twenty fighters who carried out attacks. His group had a "narrow" relationship with other groups in the resistance, he said. "We meet on the day we have a job, then after we complete the job, we don't know each other until it is time for another job." His last job had been the day before we met. He claimed his group had carried out 250 attacks so far and he personally had participated in 70 of them.

How did he know when it was time to meet with his group? "When a house or city is attacked by the Americans,we meet and decide what job to do." His group used RPGs, IEDs, grenades, and Kalashnikovs. "We have all the arms," he said gruffly, "that we need to do our jobs."When asked who comprised the resistance, he held his hands out and replied, "There are Shia, Ba'athists, Sufis, tribalists, and Arab fighters."He added pointedly,"I have been fighting for a year now, and I have not seen one Al-Qaeda fighter, nor have I heard of one fighting in the resistance."He said that around half of the Iraqi police were members of the resistance, and the resistance was growing rapidly. That very week, five more men had joined his group.

He leaned forward and said, "As more Iraqis are provoked, more are joining the resistance. Even children who have had their parents killed by the soldiers are joining." Ahmed also told us that nobody in his group was paid, and many held regular jobs. "The Americans are the terrorists," he continued. "Their military has killed millions of people all around the world. Is killing people like this acceptable? I will stop fighting when the last American soldier leaves Iraq."

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