Missing Voices in the Iraq Debate
Iraqis on “success” and “progress” in their country. Dahr Jamail
January 28 , 2008
This March 19 will be the fifth anniversary of the shock-and-awe air assault on Baghdad that signaled the opening of the invasion of Iraq, and when it comes to the American occupation of that country, no end is yet in sight. If Republican presidential candidate John McCain has anything to say about it, the occupation may never end. On January 7th, he assured reporters that he was more than fine with the idea of the U.S. military remaining in Iraq for 100 years. “We’ve been in Japan for 60 years. We’ve been in South Korea 50 years or so… As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. That’s fine with me.”
He said nothing, of course, about Iraqis “injured or harmed or wounded or killed.” In fact, amid the flurries of words, accusations, and “debates” which have filled the airways and add up to the primary-season presidential campaign, there has been a near thunderous silence on Iraq lately—and especially on Iraqis.
A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll indicated that 64% of Americans now feel the war in Iraq was not worth fighting. American opinion on the war and occupation, in fact, seems remarkably unaffected by the positive spin—all those “success” stories in the mainstream media—of these post-surge months. The media now tells us that Iraq is going to be taking a distinct backseat to domestic economic issues, that Americans are no longer as concerned about it.
Once again, with rare exceptions, that media has had a hand in erasing the catastrophe of Iraq from the American landscape, if not the collective consciousness of the public. What, it occurred to me recently, do my friends and acquaintances back in Iraq (where I covered the occupation for eight months during the years 2003-2005) think not just about their lives and the fate of their country, but about our attitudes toward them? What do they think about the “success”—and the silence—in America?
On October 6, 2004, George W. Bush proclaimed: “Iraq is no diversion; it is the place where civilization is taking a decisive stand against chaos and terror—and we must not waver.”
Iraqis, of course, continue to witness firsthand this “decisive stand against chaos and terror.” In our world, however, they are largely mute witnesses. Americans may argue among themselves about just how much “success” or “progress” there really is in post-surge Iraq, but it is almost invariably an argument in which Iraqis are but stick figures—or dead bodies. Of late, I have been asking Iraqis I know by email what they make of the American version (or versions) of the unseemly reality that is their country, that they live and suffer with. What does it mean to become a “secondary issue” for your occupier?
In response, Professor S. Abdul Majeed Hassan, an Iraqi university faculty member wrote me the following:
“The year of 2007 was the bloodiest among the occupation years, and no matter how successful the situation looks to Mr. Bush, reality is totally different. What kind of normal life are he and the media referring to where four and a half million highly educated Iraqis are still dislocated or still being forcefully driven out of their homes for being anti-occupation? How can the people live a normal life in a cage of concrete walls [she is referring to concrete walls being erected by the Americans around entire Baghdad neighborhoods], guarded by their kidnappers, killers, and occupation forces? What kind of normal life can you live where tens of your relatives and your beloved ones are either missing or in jail and you don’t even know if they are still alive or, after being tortured, have been thrown unidentified in the dumpsters? “What kind of normal life can you live when you have to bid farewell to your family each time you go out to buy bread because you don’t know if you are going to see them again? What is a normal life to Mr. Bush? If we’re lucky, we get a few hours of electricity a day, barely enough drinking water, no health care, no jobs to feed our kids…
“Little teenage girls are given away in marriage because their families can’t protect them from militias and troops during raids. Women cannot move unescorted anymore. What kind of educations are our children getting at universities where 60% of the prominent faculty members have been driven out of their jobs—killed or forced to leave the country by government militias? Is it normal that areas [on the outskirts of Baghdad] like Saidiya and Arab Jubour are bombed because the occupation forces are afraid to enter the areas for fear of the resistance? It is always easier to control ghost cities. It becomes very peaceful without the people.”
On January 8th, President Bush held video teleconferences with General David Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, as well as with the U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and with members of U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Iraq. Afterwards, he told reporters at a press conference, “It was clear from my discussions that there’s great hope in Iraq, that the Iraqis are beginning to see political progress that is matching the dramatic security gains for the past year.” Members of the PRTs, he claimed, had told him that”[l]ife is returning to normal in communities across Iraq, with children back in school and shops reopening and markets bustling with commerce.” Bush thanked members of those teams for “making 2007, particularly the end of 2007, become incredibly successful beyond anybody’s expectations.”
Mohammad Mahri’i, an Iraqi journalist, has a rather different take on the situation: “The problem with Bush is that his people believe him every time he lies to them,” he writes me. “His reconstruction teams are invisible and I wish they could show me one inch above the ground that they built.”
Maki al-Nazzal, an Iraqi political analyst from Fallujah who has been forced to live abroad with his family, thanks to ongoing violence and the lack of jobs or significant reconstruction activity in his city, which was three-quarters destroyed in a U.S. assault in November 2004, offered me his thoughts on the Western mainstream coverage of Iraq.
“The media should not follow the warlords’ and politicians’ propaganda. It is our duty to search for the truth and not repeat lies like parrots. The U.S. occupation is bad and no amount of media propaganda can camouflage the mess inside occupied Iraq. We are ashamed of the local and Western media [for] marketing the naked lies told by generals and politicians. Comparing two halves of 2007 is ridiculous. “Bush and his heroes, [head of the Coalition Provisional Authority L. Paul] Bremer, [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and now Petraeus always lied to their people and the world about Iraq. U.S. soldiers are getting killed on a daily basis and so are Iraqi army and police officers. Infrastructure is destroyed. In a country that used to feed much of the Arab world, starvation is now the norm. It is ironic that Iraq was not half as bad during the 12 years of sanctions. Our liberation has pushed us into a state of unprecedented corruption.”
General David Petraeus, U.S. surge commander in Iraq, insists that “we and our Iraqi partners will… continue to look beyond the security realm to help the Iraqis improve basic services, revitalize local markets, repair damaged infrastructure and create conditions that allow displaced families to return to their homes.”
Iraqis know differently. Al-Nazzal is realistic:
“Petraeus wants us to celebrate the return [to Baghdad] of 50,000 Iraqis who were starving in Syria, when five million remain in exile and internally displaced. What he conveniently forgets to mention is that those who returned found their houses either destroyed or occupied by others. He also wants to be praised for handing over the nation’s security to militias he allowed to form rather than to academics and technocrats. Iraq has no medicines in its hospitals, no electricity, no potable water, no real security, and no well-guarded borders. Nevertheless, some people say they are happy for what is going on in Iraq!”
Much as they would like to believe the claims of success and progress from American officials, Iraqis—surrounded by disaster—cannot do so.
37-year-old Sammy Tahir, a Kurdish education advisor living in Baghdad, offers the following assessment of the cautious but upbeat claims being made by Petraeus and others:
“No improvement in any service can be found in Iraq. On the contrary, we are much worse now and we are back to painting old buildings to make them look better. Kurdistan is still full of displaced Iraqis from southern and mid-Iraq.”
About this Mari’i writes:
“It was the generals who destroyed Iraq in the first place and I do not see any improvement in basic services. For example, most of Baghdad has been without electricity for about two weeks at the time of writing!”
Professor Hassan shares a similar view:
“What the Americans hadn’t destroyed by the end of the military operations of 2003, they have finished off over the past four years, and I don’t think that the occupation forces and their assigned government would like to do anything about the displacement of Iraqi families, simply because they are the ones who created that situation. “The sectarian violence, which led to this mass displacement, was initiated by the U.S. and its allies to divide the Iraqi community in accordance with American plans and the published ‘new’ Iraqi constitution, which emphasizes sectarian issues. The occupation would like to divide Iraq into small sectarian and ethnic regions to be able to easily command, control, and conquer them. The major objective of the occupation is to control oil production and reserves in Iraq and the Middle East region. Displacing families is, to them, acceptable collateral damage.”
According to Tahir:
“Children always went to school before the late 2007 crackdown and it was mainly the military operations that stopped them from doing so in some areas where the Americans attacked towns and villages. Bush has been saying the same words since 2003, but things have always gotten progressively worse in Iraq. He and his generals are destroying both Iraq and the U.S. by continuing this war. The U.S. economy will never hold against the expenses of war and Iraq is totally destroyed.”
During a surprise visit to Baghdad on January 15th, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said that last year’s “surge” of American forces was paying dividends and suggested that she could “help push the momentum by her very presence” in Iraq.
Mahri’i’s offers a lament for the American presence and those “dividends”:
“It seems that Americans do not care about what has been done to Iraq. They decorated Bremer, who is a war criminal, with top medals. [In December 2004, Bush bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on him.] Why not honor another criminal like Petraeus and other Bush administration officials with the same medals for lying to them while their soldiers and our people are getting killed?”
Tahir, on the other hand, has a warning: “It seems that all U.S. politicians and the majority of Americans think the way [Sen.] McCain does. But they should not think Iraq is Japan or South Korea.”
Mahri’i agrees: “Such leaders will write the final page of history for their country. If Americans keep electing such adventurers, then I can see the end of their country approaching fast.”
Professor Hassan states what is clearly on the minds of many Iraqis as the occupation grinds on and the American presidential race revs up, though she may be more charitable than many of her compatriots:
“Most Americans figured out the real reasons behind the invasion of Iraq and the terrible consequences of that war for them, currently and in the future. The American people I know are kind, considerate, and understanding. I am sure they will do what it will take to end this occupation. They know by now that this is not a war of the American people; it is the oil companies’ war, so why should they sacrifice their young men and women for oil companies’ greed?”
Last October, speaking of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation at Stanford University, where he is now a visiting fellow of the Hoover Institute, former CENTCOM Commander General John Abizaid told the audience, “Of course it’s about oil, we can’t really deny that.” General Abizaid’s comment came roughly a month after former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan wrote in his memoir, “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.”
While many in the U.S., along with Bush administration officials and leading presidential candidates (both Democratic and Republican) continue to refuse to grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe that is the occupation of Iraq, Iraqis don’t have the same luxury.
Early on in my time in Iraq, during the first year of the occupation, the Iraqis I met were generally quick to differentiate between the policies of the U.S. government and the desires of the American people.
Over time, after brutal U.S. military operations against cities like Najaf, Fallujah, Al-Qa’im, Samarra, and Ramadi, after Abu Ghraib, after Haditha, after the near-total collapse of their country’s infrastructure and the shredding of its social fabric, I began to witness occupation-weary Iraqis ceasing to draw that same critical line.
Recently, a resident of Baquba (who asked not to be identified by name for fear of retribution for talking to the media), told my Iraqi colleague Ahmed Ali, “The lack of security is a direct result of the occupation. The Americans crossed thousands of miles to destroy our home and kill our men. They are the reason for all our disasters.”
Abu Tariq, a merchant from Baquba, believes the U.S. military intentionally destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure. He told Ali,
“The Americans destroyed the electricity, water-pumping stations, factories, bridges, highways, hospitals, schools, burnt the buildings, and opened the borders for the strangers and terrorists to get easily into the country. The one who does all these things is void of humanity. I hate America and Americans.”
Abu Taiseer, another resident of Baquba, summed up Iraqi bitterness this way:
“At the very beginning of the occupation, the people of Iraq did not realize the U.S. strategy in the area. Their strategy is based on destruction and massacres. They do anything to have their agenda fulfilled. Now, Iraqis know that behind the U.S. smile is hatred and violence. They call others violent and terrorists while what they are doing in Iraq and in other countries is the origin and essence of terror.”
Jalal al-Taee, a retired teacher, told Ali what more Iraqis than ever likely believe:
“In Baquba, people have severe hatred towards the Americans and a large number of residents have become enemies of the U.S. army. The people of Diyala province have been oppressed and treated unjustly by the U.S. army and the [Baghdad] government. In order to improve the situation, the U.S. army should let the people of this city rule it by themselves.”
Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist, is the author of the recently published Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq (Haymarket Books, 2007). Over the last four years, Jamail has reported from occupied Iraq as well as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. He writes regularly for Tomdispatch.com, Inter Press Service, Asia Times, and Foreign Policy in Focus. He has contributed to the Sunday Herald, the Independent, the Guardian, and the Nation magazine, among other publications. He maintains a website, Dahr Jamail’s Mideast Dispatches, with all his writing.