Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Dahr Jamail Speaks in San Diego November 15

Independent Journalist Went to Iraq — Unembedded


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

In late 2002, Dahr Jamail was living a quiet existence in Alaska, making a living as a guide to tourists climbing Alaska’s spectacular mountains and a free-lance contributor to local papers. But living in the northernmost part of the United States gave him unusual access to media reports not only from U.S. sources but also from other countries as the Bush administration began its inexorable run-up to the war in Iraq. He noted that the U.S. media mostly repeated the claims of the Bush administration that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had developed weapons of mass destruction, had ties with al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist organizations, posed a threat to world peace and needed to be removed from power, by force if necessary. By contrast, media in other countries were considerably more skeptical both of Bush’s rush to war and the claims being made in support of the upcoming invasion and occupation.

Jamail’s life changed when he decided that the only way he could resolve the contradiction was to go to Iraq and report on the war himself, not as an official journalist “embedded” with a military unit but on his own in the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi communities. It took him until November 2003 to raise the money and arrange the trip. For the next year and a half, he would spend eight months “in country,” interviewing witnesses to the U.S. sieges of Falloujah in April and November 2004 and exposing, among other things, how U.S. soldiers deliberately targeted health care, water and other infrastructure in one of America’s many violations of international law in prosecuting this war.

Though Jamail’s last tour in Iraq ended in early 2005, “The events that happened when I was there have a lot of effect on what’s happening now,” he told a packed audience of 200 in Bard Hall at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest November 15. It was Jamail’s second trip to San Diego. He had previously spoken here June 2, 2006 along with fellow independent journalist Mark Manning to promote Manning’s film Caught in the Crossfire, dealing with the Iraq war and particularly the sieges of Falloujah and the virtual destruction of this Iraqi city by U.S. forces. This time he was pushing a book of his own, Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, collecting material he published first as e-mails to interested recipients, then as entries on a blog and later as articles in The Nation and other progressive publications.

Jamail remembered how his determination to visit Iraq started: when he heard Andrew Card, then President Bush’s chief of staff, say on September 6, 2002 that the reason the Bush administration hadn’t made its case for invading Iraq earlier was that, from a public-relations standpoint, “You don’t introduce new products in August.”

“I didn’t see much critique in the [U.S.] mainstream media about the use of PR to sell a war,” Jamail recalled. “But that’s exactly what Card did. The very next day, September 7, 2002, Bush and [British prime minister Tony] Blair said they had evidence from the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iraq was six months away from developing nuclear weapons. No such evidence existed.” Jamail wondered, if he could see through that claim from a remote perch in Alaska, “Why did the mainstream media let that whopper go by? It’s my job as a journalist to monitor the centers of power.” Instead of criticizing Bush and Blair, however, on September 8 the New York Times published a ringing endorsement of their claims as a front-page news story by Michael Gordon and the now-disgraced Judith Miller, quoting “anonymous Bush administration officials” as saying that Iraq had stepped up its nuclear program — and then vice-president Dick Cheney appeared on TV citing that as a justification for the war and using the New York Times as his source.

“That was when my red line got crossed,” Jamail recalled. “I figured out how to go into Iraq. I didn’t know what a blog was. All I was going to do was send e-mails out. Then I started posting on various Internet sites and getting paid. I worked in and out of Iraq from November 2003 to February 2005. I was passionate because, as bad as the complicity of the mainstream media in selling the war had been, their coverage of the actual war and occupation has been even worse.”

One of Jamail’s biggest limitations in covering Iraq was that, despite his Arab-sounding name — acquired from a Lebanese ancestor who emigrated to the U.S. in 1904 — he did not speak Arabic. Throughout his book, he praises the dedication and courage of his interpreters, who enabled him to do person-on-the-street interviews and shared the risks he ran as an independent journalist outside the “embed” system. Though he wasn’t present for the actual U.S. attack on Falloujah in April 2004, he went to the city immediately afterwards and documented the attempts of Iraqis to care for the wounded — and the active targeting of hospitals, clinics and ambulances by U.S. forces.

Jamail calls March 31, 2004 — the day four mercenaries, so-called “contractors,” for the now-infamous private company Blackwater were captured and executed in Falloujah by Iraqi resistance fighters, who subsequently mutilated their bodies and put them on public display — “year zero, day zero” of the Iraqi resistance. Contrary to the statements of U.S. government and military officials, Jamail said, “Falloujah was not a pro-Saddam city. Before the invasion, he made a deal with the city, ‘You leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone.’ In 2003, U.S. soldiers who swept through Falloujah were not attacked. The tribes in Falloujah picked a pro-U.S. leader to work with Americans.”

All that began to change on April 29, 2003, Jamail said. That day, Falloujah residents staged a protest in front of a schoolhouse that had been taken over by the U.S. military as a command center. Concerned that their children would have no place to go to school, the protesters demanded that the military vacate the site and allow it to be used as a school again. The U.S. military responded by firing on the crowd of demonstrators. “The next day,” Jamail recalled, “there was another demonstration that was fired upon, and three Iraqis were killed.”

By March 2004, according to Jamail, the situation for the U.S. military in Falloujah had deteriorated so much that “the U.S. army couldn’t run a patrol for more than 30 minutes without being shot at.” So instead of doing the patrols themselves, they assigned the Blackwater mercenaries to do it for them. “By then,” Jamail said, “everyone in Iraq was aware of the private mercenaries with their white SUV’s and guns, shooting at everyone. So when they had an attack possibility on March 31, 2004, they took it, attacked the two-car convoy and did horrible things to their bodies. What wasn’t reported [in the U.S. media] was that every imam [religious leader] in the city condemned this as anti-Muslim and said that, given time, they would find these people and turn them over.”

The U.S. military commanders on the ground were actually willing to go along with the imams and see if justice could be done without an attack, but they were overruled by their superiors in the White House and the Department of Defense. “The order to besiege the city came from the White House,” Jamail said — and though he didn’t know why at the time, he said fellow independent journalist Jeremy Scahill’s exposé of the connections between the Bush administration and Blackwater has convinced him that Bush and his staff saw the attack on Blackwater mercenaries in Falloujah as a personal attack on them.

“I went into Falloujah because there were horrible reports of civilian casualties,” Jamail said. “We went in as part of a humanitarian mission sponsored by an Iraqi NGO [non-governmental organization], carrying rubber gloves and basic medicine and supplies. Several of us went, and we chose April 9 [to enter the city] because, according to the U.S. military, a cease-fire was in place and there was a truce.” That couldn’t have been more wrong. When they actually went into Falloujah on April 9 “I saw warplanes dropping bombs, helicopters strafing and sporadic fighting,” Jamail recalled.

“The U.S. military failed to take Falloujah in April 2004,” Jamail said. “In May, doctors told me 736 people had been killed in the siege, and at least 60 percent were civilians. On November 8, 2004 the U.S. started the second siege of Falloujah. Approximately 5,000 Iraqis died and most of the city was heavily damaged or destroyed. Some neighborhoods have no water, there are no vehicles allowed in the city, and Iraqis have to go through a biometric identification system, including fingerprints, retina scans and bar codes, before they can enter or leave the city. That is the ‘success story’ being held up as a model today for why things are more quiet in al-Anbar during the ‘surge.’”

Though Falloujah is the most extreme example he cited, Jamail brought facts and figures to show what an unmitigated disaster the U.S. occupation has been for virtually all Iraqis. “By every measure, the Iraqi infrastructure is worse than under Saddam and under the sanctions [imposed by the United Nations at the behest of the U.S. when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, and not lifted until 2003], when 500,000 Iraqis died. Unemployment during the sanctions was 32 to 33 percent. Today it’s 60 to 70 percent. There hasn’t been one day [since the invasion] when oil exports were as high as they were under the sanctions. Child malnutrition has increased 90 percent, and 45 percent of the Iraqi population is living under dire poverty — defined as an income of less than $1 per day.”

Asked why the hope of Bush administration officials that Iraq would be able to pay for its own occupation with oil revenues hasn’t worked out, Jamail again cited that oil production statistic and added, “Just to have the occupation in place costs over $2 billion per week. Projected just a bit into the future, the cost of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is well over $2 trillion. The people who made that prediction didn’t think there would be a resistance. One priority of the Iraqi resistance is to block the oil privatization legislation [a major demand of the U.S. and one of the much talked-about ‘benchmarks’ for U.S. withdrawal and restoration of Iraqi sovereignty] and attack and sabotage pipelines. Another reason the oil profits haven’t materialized is corruption, both from Halliburton and the Iraqi government.”

Jamail cited recent reports that Ahmed Chalabi, the disgraced Iran-aligned Shi’a leader who was the Pentagon’s first choice for a post-Saddam Iraqi leader, is back in power and has been appointed to head the effort to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure — even though he was convicted of embezzlement in absentia decades ago in Jordan after a bank he owned there failed spectacularly.

Asked by Activist San Diego founder and director Martin Eder what sort of movement it will take to end America’s quest for empire in general and the Iraq occupation in particular, Jamail said, “We’re in very dark times. This country is in big trouble. We can look at what ended Viet Nam: a fierce Viet Namese resistance and a fierce GI resistance. By the end of Viet Nam half the troops wouldn’t follow orders, and that makes it hard to fight a war.” Though he acknowledged that resistance within the U.S. military to Iraq hasn’t reached nearly the level it did in Viet Nam — to the point where there were frequent allegations of soldiers “fragging” (killing) their officers — Jamail regards it as a positive sign that the membership in Iraqi Veterans Against the War (IVAW) is doubling every year and half the members are active-duty military.

“I’ve interviewed GI’s in Iraq who say they’re doing ‘search and avoid’ missions,” Jamail said. “One said, ‘We were driving around to get blown up. Our commanding officer would get more medals the more people were being killed, so we’d park in a date field, listen to music and hang out.’ I interviewed another active-duty soldier elsewhere in Iraq at a different time, and he said much the same thing. That’s probably another reason why the number of U.S. troops being killed in Iraq is down” — a fact regularly cited in the U.S. media as indicating the “success” of Bush’s “surge” strategy.

Jamail offered little but contempt for the Democratic party and its inability or unwillingness to challenge the Bush administration on the war. He called the three leading contenders for the Democratic Presidential nomination — Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards — “so-called ‘Democrats’” for refusing to rule out a combat role for U.S. troops in Iraq until 2012, when the next President’s first term will end. “Mainstream Democrats are saying, ‘We have to be reasonable, we can’t pull out at once or there’ll be a civil war,’” Jamail said.

By contrast, he cited polls of Iraqis themselves saying that 85 percent favor an immediate U.S. withdrawal — and only 1 percent support the current Iraqi government. (Jamail added that the joke around Iraq is that that 1 percent is the current Iraqi government.) “Before anything like peace and stability can happen in Iraq, three things have to happen,” Jamail said. “First, a total military withdrawal by the U.S. Second, refunding the reconstruction contracts so they go to Iraqi companies instead of Halliburton. Third, payment of full damages from the war and occupation. Only then can the reconstruction begin.”