“Every single citizen of the United States failed in their civic duty, as members of a democracy, to stop their unelected government from launching an illegal war of aggression against a sovereign country.”
Dahr Jamail has spent a total of 8 months in occupied Iraq as one of only a few independent US journalists in the country. In the MidEast, Dahr has also has reported from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Dahr uses the DahrJamailIraq.com website and his popular mailing list to disseminate his dispatches. He has recently written a book about his experiences: Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq.
The following interview was conducted via email with SoN editor, Cihan Aksan in March 2008.
State of Nature: How difficult is it to be an “unembedded” journalist?
Dahr Jamail: Today it is very difficult. I would argue that it has been easier for me to deal with the risks and dangers involved from working this way in Iraq and other places in the Middle East, than it has been to get my stories out into the mainstream media. The censorship from within and without the corporate media makes one’s head spin.
On the other hand, working this way in Iraq proved indispensable in earning the trust required from interview subjects. Simply by showing Iraqis that I didn’t feel I deserved any more security or protection than they had, usually was enough to show them that I would report their words accurately, and thus most of the time they would speak freely with me.
Photo by Dahr Jamail
SoN: You call the U.S. media “state stenographers”. Do you think that most mainstream journalists are outright collaborators with the state or that they are in fact – as some, like Noam Chomsky, would contend – part of the indoctrinated elite who have internalised the values of the system to such an extent that they are simply incapable of objective reporting?
DJ: I think that most mainstream media journalists have allowed themselves to become, as Chomsky contends, part of that indoctrinated elite. By choosing to go through J-school and adhere to the bogus myth of “objective” journalism, they have bought into the corporatization of information. This has led to the most insidious form of censorship, self-censorship, to become rampant amongst most corporate media “journalists.”
I had an argument with a “journalist” who works for a local Fox news affiliate in San Francisco. In short, I asked him how he felt about shovelling the crap that poses for “news” on Fox to the public, and he told me, “Hey, people don’t want the depressing stories. We’re just giving them what they want.” Of course this illustrates clearly that this is not journalism, but infotainment.
This is part of why it is so common to see the flag-waving that most embedded journalists are engaged in – to the point of never questioning the legality or morality of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and only instead asking if “mistakes were made.” Thus, by always coming down on the side of the state, for better or for worse, these “journalists” act like stenographers.
SoN: You cite personal reasons for going to Iraq. You were tormented by the war and its representation by the U.S. media. You write: “I felt that I had blood on my hands because the government had been left unchecked.” Would you say that the American people as a whole have blood on their hands?
DJ: Without question. Every single citizen of the United States failed in their civic duty, as members of a democracy, to stop their unelected government from launching an illegal war of aggression against a sovereign country. By definition, in a democracy “we the people” are the leaders, thus, we all have blood on our hands from this ongoing occupation. Each day it is allowed to continue indicates the total failure of our so-called democracy. Which of course begs the question, do we live in a democracy when the prevailing majority of Americans now oppose the occupation, and think the U.S. should withdraw, yet we have a “government” which refuses to act on the will of “we the people?”
Photo by Dahr Jamail
SoN: In the run up to the April 2004 siege, reports in the U.S. media outlets suggested that Fallujah was a lawless and violent city with strong ties to Saddam Hussein. It later became synonymous with the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other foreign fighters from al-Qaeda, and yet you witnessed a resistance comprised primarily of local people. What is the history of Fallujah? Why was its resistance to the U.S. military so effective?
DJ: Everything mentioned in this question is blatant propaganda used by the state to justify the total destruction of a city that had become a symbol of resistance against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, as well as global U.S. hegemony. Saddam never had total control of the city – he was not liked by most people of Fallujah, and maintained essentially a hands-off policy towards Fallujah.
People there did not like him or his rule. When the U.S. invaded Iraq and soldiers rolled into Fallujah, they were not attacked. The city put its best foot forward to work with the CPA and occupation authorities, and hoped the Americans would be fulfilling some of the glowing promises made regarding jobs, rebuilding, etc.
Problems started in late April 2003 when U.S. forces, while occupying a school, opened fire on demonstrators who wanted the school to be available for kids to use. 17 Iraqis were slaughtered, and thus the resistance was born in Fallujah. It increased rapidly, and by the time the four Blackwater mercenaries were killed on March 31, 2004, Fallujah was seething with anti-American sentiment, and rightly so.
When the U.S. failed to take the city during the April 2004 siege, Fallujah became a symbol of resistance, and had to be crushed. Thus, an intense propaganda campaign was launched, mainly painting the city as being controlled by Zarqawi, etc. All total rubbish. Even the U.S. military states that there were very, very few foreign fighters in the city, and everyone I know there, during all my interviews before, during and after that siege, told me they never believed Zarqawi had ever set foot in their city, and if he had, they would have kicked him out because they don’t want foreigners or terrorists in their city.
They U.S. used the most blatant propaganda I’ve seen in a long time to justify destroying the city and killing 5,000 of its residents.
SoN: You describe the use of weapons such as white phosphorous, cluster bombs and depleted uranium munitions, and the deliberate targeting of civilians as well as medical personnel, ambulances, hospitals and clinics in Fallujah. In the two separate sieges, the city was almost totally destroyed, thousands of people were murdered or forced to flee their homes and the most important articles of the Geneva Conventions were left for dead. And yet as Jonathan Holmes, the writer and director of the play “Fallujah,” asserts, there remains no sustained international outcry over the atrocities that has scarred the city for ever. Does the blame lie only with the lies and misrepresentations of our governments and corporate media? Or has the world become desensitised to human suffering?
DJ: I think it’s largely in the U.S. where the crimes committed in Fallujah remain largely accepted and unquestioned. Certainly the blame lies primarily on the U.S. government, military and the complicit corporate media which amplified and sold the lies to the American public. I think Americans, more than any other people in the world, have become quite desensitized to human suffering. For this I also blame the media…but it cuts deeper than that. Our education system is a joke, and people are being raised without any idea of what war really looks, tastes, smells, and feels like. They are being raised without history, without knowledge of what their own country was founded upon, and what its consistent foreign policy has been for over 100 years now. As long as this continues, of course with the help of the corporate media, how can we expect people to behave differently?
Most Americans don’t even know that they don’t know what is really going on in Iraq…this is a huge problem.
SoN: What happened in Fallujah was a crucial factor in uniting the Shia and Sunni populations of Iraq against the occupying forces. Yet later tribal links were re-established and ethnic and sectarian divisions deepened by the U.S., pushing the country to the brink of civil war. What methods were used to stoke the underlying tensions? Is the prospect of a joint struggle (at least between the Shia and Sunni communities) against the occupation now dead?
DJ: Spring of 2004 saw the closest we’ve seen so far to a Sunni/Shia unity against the occupation. The U.S. military learned about this, and imported John Negroponte and Ret. Col. James Steele into Baghdad, and put them to work in Fall 2004. These same two men worked together in Central America under the Reagan Administration, and set up right-wing death squads and paramilitary groups which were responsible for the deaths of tens, if not hundreds of thousands there. This is all extremely well documented.
Fast-forward to Baghdad in December 2004. Negroponte is the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, and Steele is the “counsellor for Iraqi security affairs.” Between them, they set up Shia and Kurdish death squads and run them through Iraq’s Ministry of Interior. These groups set in motion tit-for-tat killings, which then dramatically exploded in the aftermath of the Feb. 22, 2006 bombing of the Shrine of al-Askari in Samarra.
This is but one aspect. I argue there has been a deliberate policy of divide and conquer in Iraq from the beginning – from setting up the bogus Iraqi Governing Council under the CPA. The IGC was then peopled strictly along sectarian and ethnic lines. And today, we have the U.S. politically supporting a Shia dominated government in Baghdad whilst simultaneously arming, backing, and funding an 80,000 strong Sunni militia referred to as the Awakening Group. What better policy of divide to rule?
Photo by Dahr Jamail
SoN: Bechtel Corporation carried out reconstruction work under two contracts (worth $1.03 billion and $1.28 billion respectively) with USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. You have much to say on their political connections prior to these contracts, as well as their dismal reconstruction efforts. What exactly did they accomplish during their time in Iraq?
DJ: They were extremely successful in their corporate looting of over two billion dollars worth of U.S. taxpayer money, as well as Iraqi funds. The vast majority of their projects were never completed, and a large number never even started. The proof is on the ground today. Consider that it was Bechtel’s responsibility to provide reconstruction/rehabilitation of Iraq’s water treatment facilities. Today, according to Oxfam International, over 70 percent of Iraqis do not have access to potable water. 70 percent! Child malnutrition has increased 9 percent, compared to the sanctions when over half a million Iraqi children died from disease and malnutrition. Electricity – again blame Bechtel – the average home in Iraq today has less than five hours of electricity. How do you live without electricity when it is 130 degrees, and you can’t run fans, or air conditioners, or a refrigerator for food? Answer – you don’t.
SoN: One of the key “benchmarks” the Bush administration has asked the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government to meet is the passing of the oil law, which would all but privatise Iraq’s nationalised oil industry under product sharing agreements (or PSAs) and therefore open it to foreign oil companies. What are the different factors in determining whether or not this law will be passed?
DJ: The Basra Oil Union, which is over 15,000 members strong, is playing a big role in preventing this thus far, in addition to the majority of MPs in the Iraqi parliament being opposed to it. In addition, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr opposes the privatization of Iraq’s oil, and well over 2/3 of the population of the country oppose it. These, in addition to the fact that there are ongoing, near daily, acts of sabotage against Iraq’s oil infrastructure by the Iraqi resistance to keep the oil in the ground.
SoN: According to UNHCR, well over 4 million Iraqis are currently displaced from their homes. This includes 2.2 million internally displaced in Iraq, and up to 2 million refugees in neighbouring countries such as Syria and Jordan. What is being done to deal with this crisis? How are the countries in the region coping with the influx of refugees?
DJ: It is a catastrophe. Refugees International refers to the Iraqi refugee crisis as the “fastest growing refugee crisis” on the planet. Countries like Syria and Jordan have born the brunt of the burden, and taken far more refugees than any other country in the world. By contrast, the Bush administration has admitted under 3,000 Iraqis since March 2003, while Syria has absorbed over 1.5 million, and absorbs over 1,000 every single day right now.
UNHCR is drastically under funded and under staffed, and unable to cope with the crisis appropriately. This is in large part due to a shortage of donations from countries like the U.S. and U.K. who are primarily responsible for creating the crisis in the first place.
I can’t underestimate the gravity of the refugee crisis. It is changing the socio-demo-political graphics of the entire region. Anti-American sentiment is at an all-time high, and there is no reason whatsoever for this to abate.
SoN: In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy wrote: “[T]he aim of war is murder; the methods of war are spying, treachery, and their encouragement, the ruin of a country’s inhabitants.” Much is written on the subject of just and unjust wars today, with particular attention focused on the military adventures in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. You have witnessed the destruction and plunder of Iraq, and the murder and humiliation of its proud people. You have written about the terrible human suffering in war, when many others simply refused to do so. Do you think war can ever be justified?
DJ: No. Never. War always serves the state at the expense of the people. There is no justification for war. As British journalist Robert Fisk has said, “War is the total failure of the human spirit.”
SoN: Maliki’s government has just begun an offensive against the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army. What is the motive behind it when Sadr renewed his six month ceasefire last month? To what extent would you say that Maliki’s failure to make significant headway against the Shia militia is undermining both his authority and the US surge strategy?
DJ: Maliki was loathed by the Iraqi people before this latest debacle. Now, his total incompetence and impotence is on display for the world to see. This is not about taking out a “rogue militia,” as the corporate media trumpets.
At the end of February Maliki tried to push through legislation which would have banned the upcoming provincial elections. He tried to stop them because if there are legitimate elections in the south, Sadr will dominate because he has the numbers. Sadr is for a unified Iraq, and keeping Iraq’s oil for the Iraqis. Maliki is about selling out Iraq’s oil to the highest bidder, and forming the “soft partition” or carving up of Iraq into 3-4 rump states.
Maliki realized he couldn’t be so blatant as to ban the upcoming elections, so he withdrew his legislation and began preparing for this government offensive against Sadr in the south – to use force to break the Sadr movement in the south and prevent fair elections, so as to try to maintain control of the oil and the port in order to sell out Iraq.
We are witnessing another Maliki failure, for most of the government forces ARE the Mehdi Army, and they are literally taking off their uniforms and joining Sadr to fight Maliki. Sadr controls the south and much of Baghdad, and it is going to be very interesting to watch how Maliki tries to save face after this debacle.
Don’t forget, this is a U.S.-installed puppet who was not democratically elected, and this is an Iraqi government which enjoys less than one percent support from the Iraqi people.
Cihan Aksan is co-editor of State Of Nature. She left her native Turkey as a child after the 1980 military coup and lived and studied for many years in England. She has an MA in Continental Philosophy from the University of Warwick, and is now an independent writer. She is co-author of Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism (London: Pluto, 2012).