Friday, June 09, 2006

Independent Journalists Visit, Report on Iraq
Jamail, Manning Show Film of Aftermath of U.S. Attack on Falloujah

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Mark Manning, a commercial deep-sea diver and underwater filmmaker for 22 years, does not at first seem like the most likely person to be the only videographer to capture images of the Iraqi city of Falloujah after the November 2004 U.S. attack. But he was, and he and fellow independent journalist Dahr Jamail came to the Thomas Jefferson School of Law June 2 to talk about it and show Manning’s film, Caught in the Crossfire, detailing the intensity of the attack on Falloujah and what it did to the people who lived there. The event, which also included long talks by Manning and Jamail, was sponsored by the San Diego chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild, the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice, Global Voices for Justice and Aware.

“I was actually making another film when Dahr met me in Jordan,” Manning recalled to the audience of about 100 people. “A number of families of U.S. and Iraqi servicemembers, who’d lost their sons in the war, wanted to get together for dialogue. They couldn’t get into Iraq so they had to shoot in Jordan. A number of Iraqis came over and started to talk about what had happened in Falloujah, and it was hard to believe they were experiencing annihilation of their families, towns and cities. They asked me to come back with them to Iraq and grow a beard, dress like an Iraqi, and see Iraq first-hand.”

Like John Howard Griffin, the 1960’s white writer who darkened his skin and shaved his head to experience life as an African-American in the South, Manning was aware from the moment he crossed the border and encountered his first U.S. checkpoint that he was going to be regarded as a second-class person as long as he maintained his disguise. “There’s a division between the Westerners in one place and the Iraqis in another,” he explained. “I blended in quite well and got to experience what it’s like to experience Iraq as an Iraqi.”

The first lesson he learned, Manning said, was “the Americans are not there to help us. Once you set up internal checkpoints, there is no more propaganda. The veil is lifted. If you walk or drive or just look the wrong way, you will be killed. The images are not, ‘We’re going to liberate you.’” That’s why, Manning added, his Iraqi acquaintances told him fellow American journalists would call him “brave” for living his life in Iraq as an Iraqi — even though he only did it for “three weeks to one month.”

Like Mark Manning, Dahr Jamail stumbled almost by accident into his career as a gadfly journalist and blogger in Iraq. “I was a mountain guide in Alaska,” he recalled. What got him interested in going to Iraq and covering the story himself was “the great disparity between what the U.S. mainstream media reported and what was in the European press or on Al-Jazeera.” Jamail said he held the U.S. media largely responsible for the war because in the run-up to it in 2002 and 2003 most mainstream media outlets uncritically reported the Bush administration’s propaganda about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, posing an immediate threat to the U.S. and having been involved in the 9/11 attacks — all of which, of course, turned out to be false.

“You cannot wage a war without rumors, without media, without propaganda,” Jamail said. “Media complicity is a situation I feel strongly about. In the Nuremberg tribunals, it was established that Hitler was able to do what he did largely because of his propaganda campaign, and at Nuremberg they said the primary function of the media during the war is not to incite people to violence. Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, [New York Times columnist] Thomas Friedman and [New York Times reporter] Judith Miller, and media outlets like CNN and Fox, are without a doubt guilty of inciting the public to violence. Would this war have even happened if these people had not done what they did?”

Manning specifically compared what actually happened in Falloujah during the two U.S. sieges against the city — the aborted one in April 2004 and the armed takeover and destruction of the town seven months later — with what Americans were told was going on by their media. “At first we were told that 250,000 civilians had been evacuated [before the November attack] and they’re O.K.,” Manning said. “Then there were no reports about civilians at all. Our crew went to a one-room farmhouse with 60 people and children everywhere. The civilians forced out of their homes were living in cars, chicken coops or holes in the ground.”

According to Manning, President Bush promised the citizens of Falloujah that “the rebuilding teams would be in right after the Marines,” but in fact there was no rebuilding effort at all, nor was there any effort to take care of the displaced civilian population. (One audience member rather grimly compared the situation Manning described in Falloujah to that in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.) “I never saw one aid station,” he said. “There was no aid coming into Falloujah. There was no attempt to do anything for the civilians. I was there in January 2005, two months after the attack, and the thing that shocked me the most was that my own country had done this.”

Manning said that when the first refugees returned to Falloujah following the attack, it was hard for them to adjust “because the whole place was destroyed. You’d see people wandering around just looking for their relatives. Mothers would show up; a lot of people left family members behind, and once it started they couldn’t leave. It was flat-out chaos and a disturbing, heartbreaking realization because it’s coming from your own government. … I had people coming up to me and saying, ‘Why did you do this? Why?’ I had to wrestle with this.”

According to Jamail, what happened to the Falloujans has been happening to virtually all Iraqis since the U.S. occupation, only slower. “The infrastructure in Iraq is worse than it was under Saddam Hussein, even under the sanctions,” he said. “Anyone with a pulse gets that security is basically nonexistent.” He cited the estimate of a team writing for the British medical journal Lancet that 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the war started — three times the begrudgingly produced estimate from the U.S. government — and said that since that figure was published in October 2004 it doesn’t include the death toll from the second Falloujah attack or anything that’s happened since. Jamail cited Les Roberts, one of the authors of the Lancet survey, as saying that it’s entirely possible that by now over 300,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the U.S. war.

Jamail said the U.S. isn’t treating its own military personnel much better than it’s treating the Iraqis. “We’re nearing 2,500 U.S. soldiers killed and 25,000 wounded, and a lot of them would have died except for modern medical technology,” he said adding that one thing that’s helping keep the U.S. wounded alive is the ability to fly them out of the country quickly for treatment at U.S. military hospitals in Europe. That may not be a good thing, he argued, because soldiers who would have died in a previous war are returning with “severe brain injuries, almost brain-dead” — and though there are already “almost 500,000 Iraq war veterans,” Jamail added, “Bush is cutting Veterans’ Administration funding by $10 billion.”

As for the situation faced by Iraqis themselves, Jamail said they’re suffering from the almost complete breakdown in law, order and public services brought about by the U.S. occupation. “Most people in Iraq don’t leave their homes unless they absolutely have to,” he said. “Thirty people per day are being kidnapped. … Militias are basically running much of Baghdad and almost all of southern Iraq. Iraqi homes have only three hours of electricity per day, which makes it impossible either to preserve perishable food or run air conditioning during the summer heat. Potable water is in short supply. … Unemployment is still above 50 percent, significantly higher than it was under the sanctions.”

One result Jamail cited has been a continuing nosedive in Iraqis’ health. “Even in the capital city there are major outbreaks of cholera,” he explained. “In the 1980’s Iraq had the best health care system in the Middle East; now, if a patient goes into a hospital, there’s an 80 percent chance they will leave with an infectious disease they didn’t have when they went in. Doctors and other professionals are leaving en masse because of the fear of kidnapping and assassination.”

Much of Jamail’s presentation was a detailed argument that the U.S. policies towards Iraq constitute war crimes — material one would ordinarily have expected to hear from the event’s M.C., Thomas Jefferson international law professor Marjorie Cohn, who played a major role in setting up the event. Speaking while the big news from Iraq was the accusation that Marines in the town of Haditha had massacred innocent civilians in retaliation for the killing of one of their company’s members — nearly a week before the killing of suspected al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi — Jamail accused the U.S. military of deliberately targeting not only individual civilians but also whole towns like Falloujah for “collective punishment,” in violation of the Geneva conventions.

One U.S. tactic that particularly angered Jamail was the deliberate targeting of hospitals and clinics. “The impeding of medical care has been repeated in many areas,” he said. “In Falloujah on November 7, 2004, the day the siege was begun, U.S. and Iraqi forces occupied Falloujah General Hospital. Two days later the U.S. bombed Falloujah’s clinic. The U.S. military refused to allow medical aid during or immediately after the siege.”

According to Jamail, the official explanation from the U.S. military for targeting hospitals and clinics was that they had been “circulating propaganda” during the previous failed siege of Falloujah in April 2004 — that is, doctors had been giving press conferences in the hospitals showing the kinds of injuries their clients were coming in with, thereby embarrassing the military and contradicting the claim that no civilians were being hurt in the siege. “Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, even an attack on a military hospital is a war crime,” Jamail said. “Military forces may not starve out civilians.”

Manning added that not only did U.S. forces target the Falloujah hospital and clinics before and during the attack, but after the city was secured the remaining clinics “were either bombed or purposely destroyed from the inside. There was a specific targeting of the clinics, and we don’t know why. That’s why Iraqis say, ‘To be sick is to die. To be wounded is to die.’” Manning thinks that most of the children he talked to for his film are dead by now because the U.S. so meticulously destroyed Falloujah’s health-care system.

Jamail claimed that the U.S. military and its Iraqi allies had targeted Falloujah’s civilians in other ways too. “The first thing the U.S. forces did in Falloujah was cut off the city’s water supply,” he said. “U.S. forces left Falloujah’s citizens to face this without help, and that’s a war crime.” And Manning, in his presentation, pointed out that each family in Falloujah had an average of eight to 10 children — so the attack was bound to kill eight to 10 times as many children as adults.

According to Jamail, the U.S. campaign in Falloujah also included an attack on non-embedded media people who tried to get the truth about the attack to the world. “Independent journalists trying to cover Falloujah have been shot at,” he said. “A U.S.-signed order gives the Iraqi government severe powers against the media — and now we’re seeing that at home too.” And, he added, contrary to the widespread belief that the now-notorious tortures at Abu Ghraib were aberrations, “at Abu Ghraib torture was going on almost from the beginning of the war, and is still going on to this day. The Bush administration still argues for the right to do these sorts of things to human beings.”

Asked why the U.S. military and the Bush administration pursued such an intense attack against Falloujah in apparent contradiction of their stated goal of winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, Jamail explained that the November 2004 attack on Falloujah was “a direct result of the April siege,” which itself was ordered to avenge the deaths of four Americans employed by the Blackwater private contractor in an ambush by Iraqi resistance fighters early in the year. Jamail said that the April attack failed because “enough journalists got in and brought back enough information from doctors that the siege was forced to stop because the truth was getting out.”

Indeed, Jamail said that the April siege went ahead against the recommendation of the Marine commander on the ground in Falloujah, who had already begun assigning his men to work with the Falloujans on helping rebuild their infrastructure. “The order from the April siege came directly from the White House, and that led to the November siege.”

Manning, responding to the same question, said that he couldn’t “put myself into the minds of the planners” of the attack, but “the Iraqis told me they thought [the Americans] were trying to make Falloujah an example to the rest of the Iraqi people” of what would happen to them if they actively, or even tacitly, supported the resistance. He also noted that the attack started just three days after Bush won the 2004 Presidential election. “That’s how Bush spent his ‘political capital,’” Manning acidly remarked. “I’m angry about our leaders and their insincere explanations.”

But if Manning is angry at the leaders of the U.S., he’s even angrier at the American people for having failed to rise up and demand an end to the war. He traces it back to the attacks on September 11, 2001 and what he calls America’s “hateful, racist response” to them. “We’ve attacked two countries without caring about the civilian damage,” he said. “We’ve paid more attention to basketball games than to the war. We’ve allowed it to happen.”

Manning made it clear that he doesn’t blame American servicemembers for the attacks on civilians in Falloujah and Haditha. “They saved my life twice and let our team go in with medicines when their commanding officers said no,” he explained. “The Marines are very efficient, and they’re trained to kill. If you tell them to set up hospitals, they will do that. If you tell them to screw the civilians and shoot everything that moves, they will do that. Bush is directly responsible for Falloujah and Haditha — and ultimately the American people are responsible for keeping him in office.”

Web sites for Dahr Jamail and Mark Manning:
Dahr Jamail:
Mark Manning: