Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq
In 1937 George Steer’s report on Guernica in the Times (London) turned what would have otherwise been a footnote in history into a metaphor for naked aggression against a defenceless civilian population. While Guernica was not the worst of the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis assisting Franco’s Fascists during the Spanish Civil War, the vivid account of the savagery conjured up in Steer’s descriptive reportage brought home for many horrors of a conflict hitherto deemed distant and insular. A comparable role was played by Seymour Hersh in 1969 exposing the massacre and subsequent cover up at My Lai, turning public opinion at home decisively against the war. In 2004, an account of a similar tragedy, albeit on a much larger scale, was dispatched to the Inter Press Service from the ruins of Fallujah by Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist of exceptional courage, except no publication in the mainstream picked up the story as nationalist (or perhaps commercial) imperatives trumped journalistic responsibilities. The news however percolated in the farther reaches of cyberspace for a year; meanwhile several other Fallujah-scale catastrophes were inflicted on the people of Iraq with a similar media reaction. Only when a documentary on the Italian RAI TV corroborated the reports of the use of chemical weapons with footage and soldiers’ testimony, could the story no longer be suppressed and newspapers in Britain finally had to publish it.
Fallujah is but one in the stream of episodes recounted in Dahr Jamail’s exceptional new book, Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq. Had these reports been published in a timely fashion a very different reaction could have been expected possibly generating a public outcry.
What sets Dahr Jamail apart from numerous other foreign correspondents is that his work exhibits a freshness absent in much of the mainstream, possibly explained by the fact that Jamail wasn’t schooled in the American tradition of journalism. He never conflates objectivity with balance. He reports objectively the traumas suffered by survivors of a family whose home was demolished on top of their heads without feeling any obligation to ‘balance’ the report with the anodyne denials of a Pentagon spokesman. His journalism is infused with empathy for the victims: he is discerning of the injustices perpetrated against them and consequently understands their resentments.
Eduardo Galeano, the great Uruguayan writer, once characterized photographers as of a vertical or horizontal type. The horizontal type displayed empathy for his subject and respected its dignity. In contrast, vertical reporters parachuted into an area, corralled the subjects they needed, took photos, and quickly disappeared from the scene; the subject’s dignity was trampled upon. The same characterization would apply to journalism; and Jamail is a horizontal journalist.
Unlike mainstream journalists, Jamail is not constrained by the ideological parameters within which most operate. For him the war is unjust not only for abrogating international law, but because its inevitable victims are a defenceless civilian population already ravaged for over a decade by two inhuman regimes: Saddam Hussein’s and the genocidal US-UK sanctions. While for the most part critical journalism at the liberal end of the spectrum has obsessed with US mistakes in Iraq, for Jamail, the US in Iraq is the mistake. It is perhaps this crucial insight that impelled the accomplished Alaskan mountaineer to seek the truth for himself bypassing the filter of mainstream media. In doing so, while most in the mainstream chose the safety of US armour as ‘embedded journalists’, Jamail opted for the comfort of strangers pitted in this involuntary struggle against US imperial aggression.
A People’s History of Occupied Iraq
"A naked language that speaks for the naked of the earth. Nothing superfluous in these images, miraculously free of rhetoric, demagogy, belligerence."
A veteran of the antiwar protests, Jamail’s initiation into the Iraqi reality came early, when at the al-Monzer Hotel in Amman, Sabah, an Iraqi university student related the story of an acquaintance having her home broken into by US troops, and her mother shot. Sabah himself ended up in the notorious Abu Ghraib after having been found in the custody of an armed group who had kidnapped him along with the British journalist he for whom he was translating.
Jamail arrived in Baghdad to find it largely intact, with most buildings having escaped the wave of ‘shock-and-awe’ destruction. However, despite the billions allocated for reconstruction, he found little sign of it anywhere. His visit to the hospital instead reveals the shocking statistic of a 300% increase in burn victims as in the absence of electricity most have turned to kerosene heating.
Resistance activity at this point was sporadic – 35 attacks a day according to Gen. Sanchez. However, Jamail detected growing resentment, compounded by the shortages in healthcare supplies, food, water, electricity; the random brutality; and the cultural insensitivity. Jamail invariably found official pronouncements at odds with the reality on ground, but the mainstream western media remained eager, pliant and gullible. His scepticism found confirmation in Samarra where the 54 ‘insurgents’ reported killed by the Pentagon on November 30, 2003 turned out to be 8 civilians felled in a random hail of American bullets. The story was nevertheless reported verbatim in US and UK, and this was merely an early iteration of a pattern of spin that has since become a permanent feature of the war’s coverage. SAIC and the Lincoln Group are merely the better known elements in Pentagon’s massive propaganda enterprise.
Baghdad in late 2003 was safe enough for journalists to walk openly; it was also safe enough for them to witness the surreal spectacle of a pro-occupation march organized by – the occupation, of course. For real Iraqis on the other hand despair was already settling in. Instead of freedom, there is arbitrary arrest and the ubiquitous checkpoint; instead of prosperity, perennial blackout and the inevitable ration queue; instead of security, there is rampant kidnapping and murder. Incidences of cancer are high from the extensive use of Depleted Uranium; so are birth defects. Malnutrition is rampant, and many children suffer stunted growth. Iraq was delivered from a sanctions regime to a brutal occupation.
The Resistance is Coming
"In Andalusia I was once told of a very poor fisherman who went about peddling shellfish in a basket. This poor fisherman refused to sell his shellfish to a young gentleman who wanted all of them…for the simple reason that he took a dislike to the young gentleman. And he simply said to him: “I am the master in my hunger”"
Shortly before the turn of the first year of occupation, in a queue at a black market petrol station Jamail is delivered a sobering promise: ‘This is not the resistance. The resistance is coming. You wait!’ The joy at Saddam Hussein’s much celebrated capture – the first in a series of what would be numerous ‘turning points’ – turned out to be short lived. Soon afterwards, Fallujah and the South erupt. The occupation’s heavy-handed response to a peaceful protest by parents demanding US soldiers leave their children’s’ school had already turned a hitherto pacific city against them. The death of four mercenaries – ‘civilian contractors’ in Pentagon-speak – was used by the occupation as pretext for a siege, inadvertently leading to the war’s first real turning point. However, the importance of this incident may be overstated. As Jamail points out, a series of earlier confrontations had already anticipated the ultimate showdown. Frequent use by the occupation of arbitrary indiscriminate violence already had the population seething even as it appeared to endure quietly on suface. In Baghdad, an assault on the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s offices and the shutting down of his paper, al-Hawza, had already pitted the occupation against Sadr’s Mahdi Army. With the indiscriminate assault on Fallujah, which coincided with al-Sadr’s uprising, the levee finally broke unleashing a full fledged insurgency.
Beginning on April 4, 2004 the siege of Fallujah was brutal even by Israeli standards (whose lessons from Jenin US claimed to have put into practice during the siege) . Before the eventual defeat and withdrawal of the US forces on May 1, Fallujah was the site of several war crimes, including indiscriminate bombing; attacks on hospitals; sniping at ambulances; and the use of chemical weapons and cluster munitions on a civilian population. As part of a relief convoy delivering medicine to the besieged city, Jamail witnessed the devastation first hand. The gut-wrenching scenes from the dilapidated hospital; the portrait of shattered lives deprived of limbs and dignity; the image of Ambulances with their windows shot through by snipers; a football stadium turned into ‘Martyr’s Cemetery’ (with women and children comprising more than half the victims) – it all makes for harrowing reading and would be hard to relate to if it were not mitigated somewhat by a portrait of a resilient population unwilling to bow.
April 4 was also the day that the Mahdi Army rose up against the occupation in Baghdad, Najaf and Basra. Fighting soon engulfed most of the south. By the time al-Sadr withdrew his militia from Najaf and Kufa on June 6, in a ceasefire mediated by Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani, American forces may have claimed military victory, but al-Sadr had won the political battle, establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with.
To the occupation’s dismay, the twin assaults had the unanticipated effect of uniting Sunni and Shia; in Fallujah a joint demonstration even broke through US checkpoints chanting, ‘Sunni, Shia – we are united against Americans and fight for our country together!’ May 2004, saw more joint Shia-Sunni marches, this time in Baghdad’s Sunni district of al-Adhamiya, once again united in their opposition to the occupation.
Still licking its wounds from the earlier humiliation, the US prepared for another assault on Fallujah in November 2004. Orders were given soon after Bush’s re-election, and the mainstream media reported in characteristic fashion, with the New York Times putting pictures of bound and tied patients at the Fallujah hospital on its front page. The devastation left by the second assault was even more extreme that during the first siege of Fallujah with the occupation forces accused of breaches of the Geneva convention on several counts. The occupation had already cut water, food and power, leading two thirds of the city’s population to flee; 36,000 of the city’s 50,000 homes, 60 schools and 65 mosques were left in ruins according to the city’s compensation commissioner. Of the thousands killed, 60-80 percent were women and children. Jamail was the first to report on the use of chemical weapons in Fallujah. Ignored at first (earning the story the number 2 underreported story of the year award by Project Censored), his story was published a year later only when it became big news in the rest of the world.
So how successful was this costly effort in pacification? On 2 January 2005, 30,000 defiant citizens took to the streets demanding US occupiers leave their city.
The Salvador Option
"Eyes of a child looking on death, not wanting to see it, unable to look away. Eyes riveted on death, snared by death - death that has come to take those eyes and that child. Chronicle of a crime."
As the woes of the occupation multiplied in 2004, it called in two veterans of the Central American and Vietnam dirty wars: John Negroponte and James Steele. Negroponte’s appointment coincided with the first rumours of a proposed Salvador Option: the use of Shia and Kurdish death squads to neutralize the Sunni insurgency (Sy Hersh had already reported on a similar Israeli program, known as Plan B, which had been operative in the Kurdish region since 2003). Under the tutelage of the SCIRI(now SIIC)-run Ministry of Interior, death squads comprising mostly of the Badr Brigades and some elements of the Mahdi Army embarked on the murder of Sunnis which soon spiralled into a sectarian war as the Sunnis began to retaliate. The sectarian strife organized and instigated by the occupation took a life of its own to the degree that by the time of writing, Jamail identifies death squads as the leading cause of death in Iraq. Hospitals themselves were not exempted by the death squads, where the injured or their relatives could be picked up, tortured, and executed if they bore the wrong name. Checkpoints served a similar function.
The Corporate Bonanza
"Sick with the plague of death, this world that eradicates the hungry instead of hunger produces food enough for all of humanity and more. Yet, some die of starvation and others of overeating."
The corporate plunder of Iraq is by this time well known. Jamail’s research uncovers the particularities of the failed reconstruction in damning detail. Making a killing, there is Dick Cheney’s former company, Halliburton (in which he still holds stock options), along with Bechtel, with the former Secretary of State George Schultz on its board (Shultz also happened to be the Chairman of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, an organization closely linked to the neocon architects of the war at the Project for the New American Century and American Enterprise Institute, both of which share office space). It is also not by chance that the neocon’s choice for Iraq’s proconsul, Paul Bremer, happens to be a former Bechtel director. However, it soon transpired that in the lawlessness of occupied Iraq, even the excessively generous terms of the cost-plus contracts (meaning a fixed rate of profit above flexible costs) could not dampen the desire for plunder of these predatory corporations. While Halliburton was soon caught overcharging the military for fuel, Jamail’s investigations of Bechtel in Najaf, Hilla and Diwaniyah revealed little progress beyond some freshly painted walls. This did not prevent Bechtel from raking in $2.3 billion worth of contracts by the time they ceased activities in November 2006. Power supply is still limited, with most of the cities receiving no more than a few hours of electricity a day. Potable water is still scarce and with water treatment facilities mostly out of operation, waterborne diseases are widespread. Use of contaminated water has brought with it other diseases, hitherto unheard of in Iraq, such as Hepatitis-E.
As it turns out, only $333m of the $18b allocated for reconstruction had actually been used. $9b simply went missing. There has been little improvement in the situation since.
According to a July 2007 US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction report, even though the occupation has spent all of the $21b allocated by the US, and $20b of Iraqi money, Baghdad still receives only 8.1 hours of electricity a day, only one in three homes has water, water still has to be purchased in Basra, raw sewage spills out onto streets in most cities; in Najaf and Basra only half the homes are connected to municipal sewage pipes. Of the 142 primary healthcare facilities included in the reconstruction plans, only 8 are operational. Despite all this, Ed Harriman reports in the London Review of Books, Bechtel’s bills were settled promptly, even though it charged “more than 40 per cent of the contract value as ‘support costs’, and claimed $250 million in ‘a large miscellaneous category’ under the heading ‘Other’”.
Not Curtains Yet
"Reality speaks a language of symbols. Each part is a metaphor of the whole…These faces that scream without opening their mouths are “other” faces no longer. No longer, for they have ceased being conveniently strange and distant, innocuous excuses for charity that eases guilty consciences."
With more or less a million Iraqis dead, 2 million driven into Syrian-Jordanian refugee camps, 2 million internally displaced; an increasingly brutal occupation, escalating violence, a raging sectarian war; fears of disintegration compounded by the threats of a new war – the fiasco has yet to see its denouement. While initiative may have shifted in favour of the resistance, the narrative is still being shaped by the US and its media surrogates. Complicating the picture is the virtual absence of independent voices reporting from the region. Today, the only ones venturing beyond the fortified walls of the Green Zone are usually riding US Humvees or tanks – their perceptions of the war hence are accordingly tainted. At least 112 journalists have been killed in Iraq, all except seven of them non-embedded (a number far higher than of those killed in the Vietnam war). As the veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn points out, the occupation authorities now have the freedom to make any claim, however fantastic, since in order to disprove it one would have to risk certain death. The biggest contribution of Jamail’s book, therefore, is furnishing the evidence for the consistent gap between official pronouncements and facts on the ground. Packed with eyewitness testimonies gathered at considerable personal risk, the book is as much an indictment of the dehumanizing and inhuman reality of the occupation as it is a monument to the ideal of journalism so often talked about but for once put in practice – it is a journalism displaying courage. More than anything, the book is a sad reflection on the state of our society which in its complacent inaction is complicit in the horrors perpetrated abroad. Its feeble protestations, often inspired by a need to relieve guilty conscience, are far outweighed by its willingness to tolerate the most horrific of crimes, so long as they are accompanied by the appropriate high-minded rhetoric. Its capacity to allow civilizational myths, faith in its constitutionally benevolent disposition, to supersede reality inspires both shock and awe. It is also a reflection on the deep-seated malaise that produces the porno-torturers of Abu Ghraib or the moral rot that manifests itself in the butchery at Haditha. The inescapable conclusion here, one summed up a long time back by I. F. Stone in his pithy aphorism, is ‘governments lie’. Let no one be deceived by fatuous oxymora such as ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘benign occupation’ any more.
– Notes –
1. All quotations from Eduardo Galeano’s introduction to Sebastião Salgado’s An Uncertain Grace
2. For more on the devastating effects of the sanctions, see the fine collection edited by Anthony Arnove, Iraq Under Siege and Hans von Sponeck’s A Different Kind of War.
3. SAIC played a key role in pushing for war against Iraq from which it has profited extravagantly. There was a major conflict of interest as one of its employees, David Kay, played a key role in ratcheting up the WMD threat in his capacity as a UN Inspector. The organization which was connected to Paul Wolfowitz through his girlfriend Shaha Riza received no-bid contracts worth $100m even before the war started. In Iraq it was tasked with setting up an Arabic-language propaganda network. Lincoln Group played a similar role for the international media by taking reports of US failures in Iraq and putting a positive spin on them. (For SAIC, see Donald Barlett and James Steele, “Washington’s $8 Billion Shadow”, Vanity Fair, March 2007; for Lincoln Group, see Andrew Buncombe, “The US Propaganda Machine: Oh, What a Lovely War”, The Independent, 30 March 2006)
4. “Israel Assists U.S. Forces, Shares Lessons-Learned Fighting Terrorists: Fallujah Success Capitalized on IDF Know-How”, JINSA Online, 27 December 2004
5. In its eagerness to reproduce establishment propaganda, the paper seemed blissfully unaware of the fact that it was publishing evidence of a war crime under International Law (for more on NYT’s disdain for International law, see Howard Friel and Richard Falk’s The Record of the Paper)
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad