by Dahr Jamail
Jamail's Iraq Dispatches
The devastation of Iraq?
Where do I start? After working 7 of the last 12 months in Iraq, I'm still
overwhelmed by even the thought of trying to describe this.
The illegal war and occupation
of Iraq was waged for three reasons, according to the Bush administration.
First for weapons of mass destruction, which have yet to be found. Second,
because the regime of Saddam Hussein had links to al-Qaeda, which Mr. Bush
has personally admitted have never been proven. The third reason -- embedded
in the very name of the invasion, Operation Iraqi Freedom -- was to liberate
the Iraqi people.
So Iraq is now a liberated
I've been in liberated
Baghdad and environs on and off for 12 months, including being inside Fallujah
during the April siege and having warning shots fired over my head more than
once by soldiers. I've traveled in the south, north, and extensively around
central Iraq. What I saw in the first months of 2004, however, when it was
easier for a foreign reporter to travel the country, offered a powerful --
even predictive -- taste of the horrors to come in the rest of the year (and
undoubtedly in 2005 as well). It's worth returning to the now forgotten first
half of last year and remembering just how terrible things were for Iraqis
even relatively early in our occupation of their country.
Then, as now, for Iraqis,
our invasion and occupation was a case of liberation from -- from human rights
(think: the atrocities committed in Abu Ghraib which are still occurring daily
there and elsewhere); liberation from functioning infrastructure (think: the
malfunctioning electric system, the many-mile long gas lines, the raw sewage
in the streets); liberation from an entire city to live in (think: Fallujah,
most of which has by now been flattened by aerial bombardment and other means).
Iraqis were then already
bitter, confused, and existing amid a desolation that came from myriads of
Bush administration broken promises. Quite literally every liberated Iraqi
I've gotten to know from my earliest days in the country has either had a
family member or a friend killed by U.S. soldiers or from the effects of the
war/occupation. These include such everyday facts of life as not having enough
money for food or fuel due to massive unemployment and soaring energy prices,
or any of the countless other horrors caused by the aforementioned. The broken
promises, broken infrastructure, and broken cities of Iraq were plainly visible
in those early months of 2004 -- and the sad thing is that the devastation
I saw then has only grown worse since. The life Iraqis were living a year
ago, horrendous as it was, was but a prelude to what was to come under the
U.S. occupation. The warning signs were clear from a shattered infrastructure,
to all the torturing, to a burgeoning, violent resistance.
It was quickly apparent,
even to a journalistic newcomer, even in those first months of last year that
the real nature of the liberation we brought to Iraq was no news to Iraqis.
Long before the American media decided it was time to report on the horrendous
actions occurring inside Abu Ghraib prison, most Iraqis already knew that
the "liberators" of their country were torturing and humiliating
In December 2003, for
instance, a man in Baghdad, speaking of the Abu Ghraib atrocities, said to
me, "Why do they use these actions? Even Saddam Hussein did not do that!
This is not good behavior. They are not coming to liberate Iraq!" And
by then the bleak jokes of the beleaguered had already begun to circulate.
In the dark humor that has become so popular in Baghdad these days, one recently
released Abu Ghraib detainee I interviewed said, "The Americans brought
electricity to my ass before they brought it to my house!"
Sadiq Zoman is fairly
typical of what I've seen. Taken from his home in Kirkuk in July, 2003, he
was held in a military detention facility near Tikrit before being dropped
off comatose at the Salahadin General Hospital by U.S. forces one month later.
While the medical report accompanying him, signed by Lt. Col. Michael Hodges,
stated that Mr. Zoman was comatose due to a heart attack brought on by heat
stroke, it failed to mention that his head had been bludgeoned, or to note
the electrical burn marks that scorched his penis and the bottoms of his feet,
or the bruises and whip-like marks up and down his body.
I visited his wife Hashmiya
and eight daughters in a nearly empty home in Baghdad. Its belongings had
largely been sold on the black market to keep them all afloat. A fan twirled
slowly over the bed as Zoman stared blankly at the ceiling. A small back-up
generator hummed outside, as this neighborhood, like most of Baghdad, averaged
only six hours of electricity per day.
Her daughter Rheem, who
is in college, voiced the sentiments of the entire family when she said, "I
hate the Americans for doing this. When they took my father they took my life.
I pray for revenge on the Americans for destroying my father, my country,
and my life."
In May of 2004, when
I went to their house, a recent court-martial of one of the soldiers complicit
in the widespread torturing of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib had already taken place.
He had been sentenced to some modest prison time, but Iraqis were unimpressed.
They had been convinced yet again -- not that they needed it -- that Bush
administration promises to clean up its act regarding the treatment of detained
Iraqis were no less empty than those being offered for assistance in building
a safe and prosperous Iraq.
Last year, the empty
promises to bring justice to those involved in such heinous acts, along with
promises to make the prison at Abu Ghraib more transparent and accessible,
fell on distraught family members who waited near the gates of the prison
to see their loved ones inside. Under a scorching May sun I went to the dusty,
dismal, heavily-guarded, razor-wire enclosed "waiting area" outside
Abu Ghraib. There, I heard one horror story after another from melancholy
family members doggedly gathered on this patch of barren earth, still hoping
against hope to be granted a visit with someone inside the awful compound.
Sitting alone on the
hard packed dirt in his white dishdasha, his head scarf languidly flapping
in the dry, hot wind, Lilu Hammed stared unwaveringly at the high walls of
the nearby prison as if he were attempting to see his 32 year-old son Abbas
through the concrete walls. When my interpreter Abu Talat asked if he would
speak with us, several seconds passed before Lilu slowly turned his head and
said simply, "I am sitting here on the ground waiting for God's help."
His son, never charged
with an offense, had by then been in Abu Ghraib for 6 months following a raid
on his home which produced no weapons. Lilu held a crumpled visitation permission
slip that he had just obtained, promising a reunion with his son…three
months away, on the 18th of August.
Along with every other
person I interviewed there, Lilu had found consolation neither in the recent
court martial, nor in the release of a few hundred prisoners. "This court-martial
is nonsense. They said that Iraqis could come to the trial, but they could
not. It was a false trial."
At that moment, a convoy
of Humvees full of soldiers, guns pointing out the small windows, rumbled
through the front gate of the penal complex, kicking up a huge dust cloud
that quickly engulfed everyone. The parent of another prisoner, Mrs. Samir,
waving away the clouds of dust said, "We hope the whole world can see
the position we are in now!" and then added plaintively, "Why are
they doing this to us?"
Last summer I interviewed
a kind, 55 year-old woman who used to work as an English teacher. She had
been detained for four months in as many prisons…in Samarra, Tikrit,
Baghdad and, of course, at Abu Ghraib. She was never, she told me, allowed
to sleep through a night. She was interrogated many times each day, not given
enough food or water, or access to a lawyer or to her family. She was verbally
and psychologically abused.
But that, she assured
me, wasn't the worst part. Not by far. Her 70 year-old husband was also detained
and he was beaten. After seven months of beatings and interrogations, he died
in U.S. military custody in prison.
She was crying as she
spoke of him. "I miss my husband," she sobbed and stood up, speaking
not to us but to the room, "I miss him so much." She shook her hands
as if to fling water off them…then she held her chest and cried some
"Why are they doing
this to us?" she asked. She simply couldn't understand, she said, what
was happening because two of her sons were also detained, and her family had
been completely shattered. "We didn't do anything wrong," she whimpered.
With the interview over,
we were walking towards our car to leave when all of us realized that it was
10 pm, already too late at night to be out in dangerous Baghdad. So she asked
us instead if we wouldn't please stay for dinner, all the while thanking me
for listening to her horrendous story, for my time, for writing about it.
I found myself speechless.
"No, thank you,
we must get home now," said Abu Talat. By this time, we were all crying.
In the car, as we drove
quickly along a Baghdad highway directly into a full moon, Abu Talat and I
were silent. Finally, he asked, "Can you say any words? Do you have any
I had none. None at all.
Everything in Iraq is
set against the backdrop of shattered infrastructure and a nearly complete
lack of reconstruction. What the Americans turn out to be best at is, once
again, promises -- and propaganda. During the period when the Coalition Provisional
Authority ruled Iraq from Baghdad's Green Zone, their handouts often read
like this one released on May 21, 2004: "The Coalition Provisional Authority
has recently given out hundreds of soccer balls to Iraqi children in Ramadi,
Kerbala, and Hilla. Iraqi women from Hilla sewed the soccer balls, which are
emblazoned with the phrase ‘All of Us Participate in a New Iraq.'"
And yet when it came
to the basics of that New Iraq, unemployment was at 50% and increasing, better
areas of Baghdad averaged 6 hours of electricity per day, and security was
nowhere to be found. Even as far back as January, 2004, before the security
situation had brought most reconstruction projects to the nearly complete
standstill of the present moment, and 9 months after the war in Iraq had officially
ended, the situation already verged on the catastrophic. For instance, lack
of potable water was the norm throughout most of central and southern Iraq.
I was then working on
a report that attempted to document exactly what reconstruction had occurred
in the water sector -- a sector for which Bechtel was largely responsible.
That giant corporation had been awarded a no-bid contract of $680 million
behind closed doors on April 17, 2003, which in September was raised to $1.03
billion; then Bechtel won an additional contract worth $1.8 billion to extend
its program through December 2005.
At the time, when travel
for Western reporters was a lot easier, I stopped in several villages en route
south from Baghdad through what the Americans now call "the triangle
of death" to Hilla, Najaf, and Diwaniyah to check on people's drinking-water
situation. Near Hilla, an old man with a weathered face showed me his water
pump, sitting lifeless with an empty container nearby -- as there was no electricity.
What water his village did have was loaded with salt which was leaching into
the water supply because Bechtel had not honored its contractual obligations
to rehabilitate a nearby water treatment center. Another nearby village didn't
have the salt problem, but nausea, diarrhea, kidney stones, cramps, and even
cases of cholera were on the rise. This too would be a steady trend for the
villages I visited.
The rest of that trip
involved a frenetic tour of villages, each without drinkable water, near or
inside the city limits of Hilla, Najaf, and Diwaniya. Hilla, close to ancient
Babylon, has a water treatment plant and distribution center managed by Chief
Engineer Salmam Hassan Kadel. Mr. Kadel informed me that most of the villages
in his jurisdiction had no potable water, nor did he have the piping needed
to repair their broken-down water systems, nor had he had any contact with
Bechtel or its subcontractors.
He spoke of large numbers
of people coming down with the usual list of diseases. "Bechtel,"
he told me, "is spending all of their money without any studies. Bechtel
is painting buildings, but this doesn't give clean water to the people who
have died from drinking contaminated water. We ask of them that instead of
painting buildings, they give us one water pump and we'll use it to give water
service to more people. We have had no change since the Americans came here.
We know Bechtel is wasting money, but we can't prove it."
At another small village
between Hilla and Najaf, 1,500 people were drinking water from a dirty stream
which trickled slowly by their homes. Everyone had dysentery; many had kidney
stones; a startling number, cholera. One villager, holding a sick child, told
me, "It was much better before the invasion. We had twenty-four hours
of running water then. Now we are drinking this garbage because it is all
The next morning found
me at a village on the outskirts of Najaf, which fell under the responsibility
of Najaf's water center. A large hole had been dug in the ground where the
villagers tapped into already existing pipes to siphon off water. The dirty
hole filled in the night, when water was collected. That morning, children
were standing idly around the hole as women collected the residue of dirty
water which sat at its bottom. Everyone, it seemed, was suffering from some
water-born illness and several children, the villagers informed me, had been
killed attempting to cross a busy highway to a nearby factory where clean
water was actually available.
In June, six months later,
I visited Chuwader Hospital, which then treated an average of 3,000 patients
a day in Sadr City, the enormous Baghdad slum. Dr. Qasim al-Nuwesri, the head
manager there, promptly began describing the struggles his hospital was facing
under the occupation. "We are short of every medicine," he said
and pointed out how rarely this had occurred before the invasion. "It
is forbidden, but sometimes we have to reuse IV's, even the needles. We have
And then, of course,
he -- like the other doctors I spoke with – brought up their horrendous
water problem, the unavailability of unpolluted water anywhere in the area.
"Of course, we have typhoid, cholera, kidney stones," he said matter-of-factly,
"but we now even have the very rare Hepatitis Type-E…and it has
become common in our area."
Driving out of the sewage
filled, garbage strewn streets of Sadr City we passed a wall with "Vietnam
Street" spray painted on it. Just underneath was the sentence -- obviously
aimed at the American liberators -- "We will make your graves in this
Today, in terms of collapsing
infrastructure, other areas of Baghdad are beginning to suffer the way Sadr
City did then, and still largely does. While reconstruction projects slated
for Sadr City have received increased funding, most of the time there is little
sign of any work being done, as is the case in most of Baghdad.
While an ongoing fuel
crisis finds people waiting up to two days to fill their tanks at gas stations,
all of the city is running on generators the majority of the time, and many
less favored areas like Sadr City have only four hours of electricity a day.
The heavy-handed tactics
of the occupation forces have become a commonplace of Iraqi life. I've interviewed
people who regularly sleep in their clothes because home raids are the norm.
Many times when military patrols are attacked by resistance fighters in the
cities of Iraq, soldiers simply open fire randomly on anything that moves.
More commonly, heavy civilian casualties occur from air raids by occupation
forces. These horrible circumstances have led to over 100,000 Iraqi civilian
casualties in the less than two year-old occupation.
Then there is Fallujah,
a city three-quarters of which has by now been bombed or shelled into rubble,
a city in whose ruins fighting continues even while most of its residents
have yet to be allowed to return to their homes (many of which no longer exist).
The atrocities committed there in the last month or so are, in many ways,
similar to those observed during the failed U.S. Marine siege of the city
last April, though on a far grander scale. This time, in addition, reports
from families inside the city, along with photographic evidence, point toward
the U.S. military's use of chemical and phosphorous weapons as well as cluster
bombs there. The few residents allowed to return in the final week of 2004
were handed military-produced leaflets instructing them not to eat any food
from inside the city, nor to drink the water.
Last May, at the General
Hospital of Fallujah, doctors spoke to me of the sorts of atrocities that
occurred during the first month-long siege of the city. Dr. Abdul Jabbar,
an orthopedic surgeon, said that it was difficult to keep track of the number
of people they treated, as well as the number of dead, due to the lack of
documentation. This was caused primarily by the fact that the main hospital,
located on the opposite side of the Euphrates River from the city, was sealed
off by the Marines for the majority of April, just as it would again be in
He estimated that at
least 700 people were killed in Fallujah during that April. "I worked
at five of the centers [community health clinics] myself, and if we collect
the numbers from these places, then this is the number," he said. "And
you must keep in mind that many people were buried before reaching our centers."
When the wind blew in
from the nearby Julan quarter of the city, the putrid stench of decaying bodies
(a smell evidently once again typical of the city) only confirmed his statement.
Even then, Dr. Jabbar was insisting that American planes had dropped cluster
bombs on the city. "Many people were injured and killed by cluster bombs.
Of course they used cluster bombs. We heard them as well as treated people
who had been hit by them!"
Dr. Rashid, another orthopedic
surgeon, said, "Not less than sixty percent of the dead were women and
children. You can go see the graves for yourself." I had already visited
the Martyr Cemetery and had indeed observed the numerous tiny graves that
had clearly been dug for children. He agreed with Dr. Jabbar about the use
of cluster bombs, and added, "I saw the cluster bombs with my own eyes.
We don't need any evidence. Most of these bombs fell on those we then treated."
Speaking of the medical
crisis that his hospital had to deal with, he pointed out that during the
first 10 days of fighting the U.S. military did not allow any evacuations
from Fallujah to Baghdad at all. He said, "Even transferring patients
in the city was impossible. You can see our ambulances outside. Their snipers
also shot into the main doors of one of our centers." Several ambulances
were indeed in the hospital's parking lot, two of them with bullet holes in
Both doctors said they
had not been contacted by the U.S. military, nor had any aid been delivered
to them by the military. Dr. Rashid summed the situation up this way: "They
send only bombs, not medicine."
As I walked to our car
at one point amid what was already the desolation of Fallujah, a man tugged
on my arm and yelled, "The Americans are cowboys! This is their history!
Look at what they did to the Indians! Vietnam! Afghanistan! And now Iraq!
This does not surprise us."
And that, of course,
was before the total siege of the city began in November, 2004. The April
campaign in Fallujah, which resulted in a rise in resistance proved -- like
so much else in those early months of 2004 -- to be but a harbinger of things
to come on a far larger scale. While the goal of the most recent siege was
to squelch the resistance and bring greater security for elections scheduled
for January 30, the result as in April has been anything but security.
In the wake of the destruction
of Fallujah fighting has simply spread elsewhere and intensified. Families
are now fleeing Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, because of a warning of
another upcoming air campaign against resistance fighters. At least one car
bomb per day is now the norm in the capital city. Clashes erupt with deadly
regularity throughout Baghdad as well as in cities like Ramadi, Samarra, Baquba
The intensification is
two-sided. With each ratchet upwards in violence, the tactics by the American
military only grow more heavy-handed and, as they do, the Iraqi resistance
just continues to grow in size and effectiveness. Any kind of "siege"
of Mosul will only add to this dynamic.
Despite a media blackout
in the aftermath of the recent assault on Fallujah, stories of dogs eating
bodies in the streets of the city and of destroyed mosques have spread across
Iraq like wildfire; and reports like these only underscore what most people
in Iraq now believe -- that the liberators have become no more than brutal
imperialist occupiers of their country. And then the resistance grows yet
Yet among Iraqis the
growing resistance was predicted long ago. One telling moment for me came
last June amid daily suicide car bombings in Baghdad. While footage of cars
with broken glass and bullet holes in their frames flashed across a television
screen, my translator Hamid, an older man who had already grown weary of the
violence, said softly, "It has begun. These are only the start, and they
will not stop. Even after June 30." That, of course, was the date of
the long-promised handover of "sovereignty" to a new Iraqi government,
after which, American officials fervently predicted, violence in the country
would begin to subside. The same pattern of prediction and of a contrarian
reality can now be seen in relation to the upcoming elections.
Three weeks ago, a friend
of mine who is a sheikh from Baquba visited me in Baghdad and we had lunch
with Abdulla, an older professor who is a friend of his. As we were eating,
Abdulla expressed a sentiment now widely heard. "The mujahideen,"
he said, "are fighting for their country against the Americans. This
resistance is acceptable to us."
The Bush administration
has recently increased its troops in Iraq from 138,000 to 150,000 -- in order,
officials said, to provide greater security for the upcoming elections. Such
troop increases also occurred in Vietnam. Back then it was called escalation.
What I wonder is, will
I be writing a piece next January still called, "Iraq: The Devastation,"
in which these last terrible months of 2004 (of which the first half of the
year was but a foreshadowing) will prove in their turn but a predictive taste
of horrors to come? And what then of 2006 and 2007?
Dahr Jamail is an
independent journalist from Anchorage, Alaska. He has spent 7 of the last
12 months reporting from inside occupied Iraq. His articles have been published
in the Sunday Herald, Inter Press Service, the website of the Nation magazine,
and the New Standard internet news site for which he was the Iraq correspondent.
He is the special correspondent in Iraq for Flashpoints radio and also has
appeared on the BBC, Democracy Now!, Free Speech Radio News, and Radio South
article was originally published at Dahr Jamail's website: http://dahrjamailiraq.com/
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