Last Friday I was at the University of Texas,
Austin, giving a presentation on Iraq. After dumping an hour's worth of horrible
"real news" about Iraq, I was asked the question I have by now learned to expect:
"Is there anything good happening there at all?" I understand why people ask
this. There must be some hope, somewhere, right?
I suggested that there are always the military press releases folks can go
to, for an "upper" about Iraq. Here I recounted one of these bogus "news" reports.
Released during my second stint in Iraq, a report of May 21, 2004, stated: "The
Coalition Provisional Authority has recently given out hundreds of soccer balls
to Iraqi children in Ramadi, Karbala, and Hilla. Iraqi women from Hilla sewed
the soccer balls, which are emblazoned with the phrase, 'All of Us Participate
in a New Iraq.'"
That same evening after my presentation, I received
an e-mail from a doctor friend in Baghdad. The e-mail pertains to the question
I was asked, so I quote it here:
"Dear Mr. Dahr, I am wondering why? Americans and coalition forces were
supported by pro-Iranian militias, like the Badr Organization! The support and
help of Iraqi Shi'ites at first helped to somewhat stabilize and maintain the
occupation. Death squads trained by the coalition forces are working day and
night under cover of the Ministry of Interior, attacking innocent people: both
Sunnis and Shi'ites!!!! In spite of knowing very well who is doing what, we
still see no improvement in the security situation. On the contrary, the situation
is getting worse. I have many colleagues, doctors and other professionals, who
are now begging for help to get out of Iraq for their lives and for their families'
lives! The only losers are the Iraqis. The only Iraqis who are benefiting from
this war are those who spend all their life outside Iraq and are now living
in their big castle, the green zone!!!!! Everyone now knows that the invasion
of Iraq was carried out upon falsified testimonies and lies!!!! What is going
on on the ground differs a lot from what the media tells!!!!! I mean that."
As bad as things are in Iraq today, it may come as a surprise to many people
in the U.S., including many who never supported the illegal invasion and occupation
to begin with, that Iraq has been a disaster from the first day of the invasion.
Each time I hear this question, several scenes from my time there flash through
my mind, and I am left pondering whether anything good has happened in Iraq
since the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion.
I recollect my experience of May 22, 2004, the
day after the soccer ball report. This was weeks after news of American soldiers
torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib had hit the corporate media. The first mock
court martial had just convicted one of the soldiers complicit in the atrocities
when I decided to go to Abu Ghraib. I wanted to meet and interview the family
members who were attempting to get into the prison to see and talk to their
loved ones detained there.
Prior to this trip, my interpreter and I had interviewed a man who had been
tortured horrifically in Abu Ghraib. He had laughed, "The Americans brought
electricity to my ass before they brought it to my house!" At the dusty, dismal,
heavily guarded, razor-wire-ensconced area outside Abu Ghraib, many more horror
stories awaited us. Despair and hopelessness pervaded the atmosphere as grieving
family members waited, hoping against hope to be granted their chance to visit
a dear one inside that gruesome compound.
Congregated on that patch of barren earth were men and women and wailing children.
Their anguish matched their outrage as they remained unable to gain access to
their loved ones held in the prison, or to procure any information about them.
Sitting on the hard-packed dirt in his white dishdasha, his head scarf languidly
flapping in the dry, hot wind, Lilu Hammed stared at the high walls of the nearby
prison. It was almost as if he were attempting to see his 32-year-old son Abbas
through the tan concrete.
He sat alone, his tired eyes fixed unwaveringly upon the heavily guarded Abu
Ghraib. When my interpreter asked him if he would speak with us, several seconds
passed before Lilu slowly turned his head to look up at us. "I am sitting here
on the ground now, waiting for God's help."
His son had been in Abu Ghraib for six months, following a raid on his home
that produced no weapons. The young man had never been charged with anything.
Lilu held a crumpled visitation permission slip in his hand that he had just
obtained, which allowed for a brief reunion with his son… on the 18th of August,
still three months away.
A pack of Humvees drove past, leaving us engulfed in a cloud of dust. A woman
standing near us exclaimed, "We hope the whole world can see the position we
are in now!"
I scan my memory further and recall Nov. 11, 2004. My interpreter showed up
at my hotel in a very somber mood. The previous night, after the curfew began
at 9:30 p.m., U.S. military helicopters had been circling his neighborhood until
3 a.m. "How can we live like this?" he asked, holding up his hands. "We are
trapped in our own country." He confessed, "You know, Dahr, everyone is praying
for God to take revenge on the Americans. Everyone!"
Later that night, another Iraqi friend showed up at my room with a wild look
in his eyes, sweat beads on his forehead. "My friend has just been killed, and
he was one of my best friends. I can't imagine that he is dead, really, but
I guess it is okay." He told me about his friend's family. "They are so poor,
they live 21 people in a house with three bedrooms, and they are good people."
This wasn't all. A relative of his had been missing for six days. That day,
his body was brought to his family by someone who found it on the road. The
body, which showed visible signs of torture, had two shots in the chest and
two in the head. The four bullet shells that had killed him had been placed
in his trouser pockets.
"I am crazy today with this news, Dahr," my friend exclaimed, his hands up
in the air. "The number of people killed here is growing so fast everyday, it
is sh*t." He hung his head back and took a deep breath, then slowly exhaled.
He reminisced how his whole life had been the same in Iraq but never as bad
as at that point. "When I was a child, it was common to have some family member
or the other killed in the war with Iran," he said, "but now, everyone is dying
On Nov. 12, 2004, following this grim discussion with my two interpreters,
I remember meeting with Dr. Wamid Omar Nadhme, a senior political scientist
at Baghdad University. An older, articulate man who vehemently opposed the regime
of Saddam Hussein, he had by then grown critical of the U.S. policy that was
responsible for the violence and chaos devouring his country.
Commenting on the current situation, he told me: "I can assure you, it is well
over 75 percent of Iraqis who cannot even tolerate this occupation. The right-wing
Bush administration is blinded by its ideology, and we are all suffering from
this, Iraqis and soldiers alike." I cannot forget his concluding remarks to
me. "Iraq is burning with wrath, anger, and sadness."
Another telling instance of how nothing good happens in Iraq reached me on
Nov. 19, exactly a week after my meeting with Dr. Nadhme. I received a call
from one of my interpreters, who at the time was in his mosque for the Friday
prayers. I could hear the deafening roar of hundreds of people chanting, "Allahu
Akbar" (God is Greatest). The sound reverberated in the confined area behind
his panicking voice: "I am being held at gunpoint by American soldiers inside
Abu Hanifa mosque, Dahr." His incredulous bewilderment was palpable as he yelled,
"Everyone is praying to God because the Americans are raiding our mosque during
He kept making short calls, updating me on the atrocity. After a few sentences
of information he would hang up. His intermittent running commentary from within
the mosque where he was trapped remains one of my most eerie experiences of
Iraq. In the gap between his calls, I would quickly type in the last bit of
information before he would call back with more.
"They have shot and killed at least four of the people who were at prayer,
and at least 20 are wounded now! I cannot believe this! I can't let them see
me calling you. I am on my stomach now, and they have guns aimed at everyone.
There are so many people inside the mosque, and it is sealed. We are on our
bellies and in a very bad situation."
I could hear the screaming in the background amidst gunfire. The soldiers eventually
released the women and children along with the men who were related to them.
It was sheer luck that my interpreter escaped that day. He was released because
a boy approached him asking him to act as his father.
When later he came to my hotel, he was distraught and crying.
"I am in a very sad position. I do not see any freedom or any democracy.
If this could lead into a freedom, it is a freedom with blood. It is a freedom
with emotions of sadness. It is a freedom of killing. You cannot gain democracy
through blood or killing. You do not find the freedom that way. People were
going to pray to God and they were killed and wounded. There were 1,500 people
praying to God, and they went on a holiday where people go every Friday for
prayers. And they were shot and killed. There were so many women and kids lying
on the ground. This is not democracy, neither freedom."
He had recorded
the entire thing on the small tape recorder that we used while interviewing
These memories are but a glimpse of the horrible reality that the Iraqi people
are suffering on a daily basis under U.S. occupation. The only change that occurs
is a worsening of conditions; it's a pattern I have witnessed from the beginning.
Now: For Us and Them
At least 122 Iraqis died over the last weekend.
These were only the reported deaths. The total number of Iraqis killed thus
far as a result of the occupation is most likely close to a quarter of a million.
Also last weekend, a British military helicopter was shot down in Basra, killing
five soldiers. This sparked a confrontation between British troops and Basra
residents, who pelted the occupation troops with petrol bombs and stones while
shouting profanities at them. Two British tanks and a Land Rover were set ablaze.
In the first week of May, 20 occupation soldiers have been killed in Iraq, bringing
the total number to at least 2,420.
At one point during that presentation in Austin, I attempted in vain to describe
to the audience what life in Baghdad is like. It was in vain, because how can
anyone in the United States begin to imagine what it is like to be invaded,
to have our infrastructure shattered, to have occupying soldiers photographing
detained Americans in forced humiliating sexual acts and then to have these
displayed on television, to have our churches raided and worshippers therein
shot and killed by occupation troops?
It is only when more people in the U.S. begin to fathom the totality of the
destruction in Iraq that one may expect to hear the public outcry and uprising
necessary to end the occupation and bring to justice the war criminals responsible
for these conditions. Until that happens, make no mistake: all of us participate
in a new Iraq, our hands dyed in the blood of innocents.
Reprinted courtesy of Truthout.org.