Dahr Jamail (Tomdispatch.com)
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…
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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.
Copyright Dahr Jamail 2008