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 learnt 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 email from a doctor friend in Baghdad. The email 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 Shiites 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 Shiites!!!! 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 US, 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 US-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 6 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 November 11, 2004. My interpreter showed up at my hotel in a very somber mood. The previous night, after the curfew began at 9:30 pm, US military helicopters had been circling his neighborhood until 3 am. “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 shit.” 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 every day.”
On 12 November 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 US 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% 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 November 19th, 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 Friday prayer!”
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 4 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 people.
These memories are but a glimpse of the horrible reality that the Iraqi people are suffering on a daily basis under US 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 US 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.