by: Dahr Jamail, t r u t h o u t | Book Review
While most media continue to ignore the US-installed disaster in Iraq, author Nicolas Davies refuses to do so, and his book “Blood on our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq” could not be released at a better time.
This sweeping work covers US policy in Iraq that spans decades, and is written as a call to action for the US to begin following international law – not just in Iraq, but everywhere. For it was the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq that, more than perhaps anything else, continues to defile what is left of the tattered reputation of the US.
“The US foreign policy establishment’s response to this crisis of legitimacy has been to withdraw from the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ; to oppose both the formation and the functioning of the new International Criminal Court; to withdraw from other multilateral treaties; and to hire new experts and lawyers to devise far-fetched rationales for exempting US behavior from international legal constraints on a case by case but increasingly systematic basis,” writes Davies, in what is essentially a prelude to a brilliant analysis of why and how the US has systematically destroyed the country of Iraq.
“I started out with a firm conviction that everything the US was doing in Iraq was illegitimate and that everything we were being told about it was propaganda, and the outrage I felt made me determined to find and expose the reality behind the lies,” Davies told Truthout, “I was able to place events within a coherent context of criminal aggression, hostile military occupation, and popular resistance because that was the way I saw it all along.”
Studying US foreign policy has always been a passion for Davies. In addition to this, he added several books and articles on international law to his reading list, and went to work.
“A lot of my motivation to spend so much time researching and writing about all this came from the sense of despair I felt watching the aggressive US response to September 11th, as all the real and serious problems that afflict the lives of billions of people were placed on the back burner and subordinated to the agenda of US militarism,” Davies explained as his motivation for the book. “Media coverage took a deeply Orwellian turn, and it became a challenge just to figure out what was really going on, which I sort of needed to do for my own sanity anyway.”
In the chapter “A Brief History of Regime Change,” Davies tells how back in the mid-20th century, a CIA agent in Iraq who was working as an assistant military attaché at the Egyptian Embassy in Baghdad, hired a then 22-year-old Saddam Hussein to assassinate the Prime Minister of Iraq, Abd al-Karim Qasim on October 7, 1959. Hussein botched the job, and fled the country after being wounded in his leg by a fellow conspirator. The CIA rented him an apartment in Beirut to assist him in recovering from his injury, after which he moved to Cairo, where he was a frequent visitor to the US Embassy there, while still being paid by Egyptian intelligence.
After the US assisted Hussein in the Baathist coupe in Iraq that propelled him into a position of power, he became president, a time that launched his reign of power that coincided with the Iranian Revolution. In this way, Hussein was fully backed by the US due to Western fears of an Islamic Iran.
Davies addresses one of the broadest misconceptions about Iraq – that of Sunnis and Shiites being at odds with one another. Despite the fact that the primary conflict occurring in Iraq was always the guerilla war between occupation forces and the popular resistance forces fighting to free Iraq from foreign occupation, US propaganda increasingly portrayed a secondary “sectarian” conflict between Sunni and Shiite Arabs as the primary conflict happening in Iraq. According to this dominant rhetoric, the foreign occupation forces that invaded Iraq and plunged the country into chaos and violence then became well meaning, albeit sometimes frustrated, peacekeepers or referees.
Davies provides one of the more blatant examples of US-propaganda – that of the myth of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi being a key leader of the Iraqi resistance.
“Zarqawi’s role as the supreme leader of the Iraqi Resistance was equally fictitious,” he writes, “A U.S. military intelligence officer described his key role in American propaganda to a British reporter in March 2004: “We were basically paying up to $10,000 a time to opportunists, criminals and chancers who passed off fiction and supposition about Zarqawi as cast-iron fact, making him out as the linchpin of just about every attack in Iraq … Back home this stuff was gratefully received and formed the basis of policy decisions. We needed a villain, someone identifiable for the public to latch on to, and we got one.”
Davies articulates what those of us reporting from Iraq were seeing first-hand:
“The American media swallowed whole the myth that US forces had become embroiled in an intractable centuries-old blood feud. The stereotype of Iraqis consumed by ancient sectarian rivalries was soon so well established in America’s public imagination that it became a common theme for commentators and comedians. Even Americans who opposed the war in Iraq accepted this perverted caricature.”
Despite the fact that in Iraq people of the same tribe often belonged to different sects and social interaction and intermarriage among Sunni, Shiites and Kurds was commonplace among the secular majority of Iraqis, the mainstream media portrayed the opposite.
According to Davies, there was a calculated methodology behind this propaganda about Iraq. “As in other neo-colonial ventures, occupation officials scrambled ethnic, sectarian, tribal, class, economic, political, and geographic groups and interests in a complex society to create schisms that could be exploited to facilitate a “divide and rule” strategy.”
Since 1958, the single biggest threat to the US agenda in Iraq has been a strong tradition of secular nationalist politics. Under this umbrella, no truly independent Iraqi government was going to agree to the US terms of privatizing Iraq’s oil industry, nor to surrendering the country to US strategic interests.
Thus, Davies concludes on the topic of sectarianism, “The overblown but nonetheless destructive sectarian divisions were a direct result of this US strategy to divide and rule the country, not a new phase in some imaginary, long-running conflict between Sunnis and Shiites.”
Truthout asked Davies to explain what he sees as a deadly connection between propaganda and US imperialism as exemplified in Iraq. “The disconnect between the “virtual Iraq” in the minds of the Western public and the reality of illegal aggression, aerial bombardment and the assault on civilians and civil society with powerful battlefield weapons was too much to keep quiet about. I felt compelled to do whatever I could to expose the reality behind what struck me as the most sophisticated military propaganda campaign in history. The trends in policy and propaganda have continued along the same lines, and I hope the book will have some impact on their ultimate reversal.”
A direct link to this topic of sectarianism is that of the “dirty war” in Iraq. Davies writes that a dirty war “is a strategy of state terrorism and collective punishment against an entire civilian population with the objective of terrorizing it into submission.”
In November 2003, an $87 billion supplemental appropriation for the occupation of Iraq included $3 billion for a classified program headed by an Air Force brigadier general, most of which would be used to fund the paramilitaries for the next three years.
It was precisely this period in which news from Iraq eventually became dominated by reports of death squads and ethic cleansing, reports that were generally couched in the language of “sectarian violence.”
Davies outlines precisely how the death squads and other forces used to carry out the dirty war were formed:
Following the formation of Ayad Allawi’s interim government and John Negroponte’s appointment as US Ambassador in June 2004, Allawi declared a “state of emergency” and President Bush said that Allawi would have to “take tough measures.” An Iraqi-American named Falah al-Naqib was appointed to head the Interior Ministry of the interim government. He was the son of General Hassan al-Naqib, the former Chief of Staff of the Iraqi army who defected to the United States during the 1970s and was one of the founders of the Iraqi National Congress in 1992. Both Naqibs had long-term contacts with the CIA while in exile. In September 2004, Falah al-Naqib appointed his uncle, another former Iraqi general and Baath Party official named Adnan Thavit to lead a new paramilitary force called the Special Police Commandos.
These forces were formed under the direct supervision of Falah al-Naqib and Steven Casteel, who had run the interior ministry for the Coalition Provisional Authority. He stayed on in Iraq as Naqib’s Senior Adviser, reporting directly to Ambassador Negroponte. General David Petraeus, who was officially in charge of training new Iraqi security forces, was reportedly not informed of the Special Police Commandos’ existence until the new force was already established in the ruins of an old army base on the edge of the Green Zone, but he went along with Naqib and Casteel’s plans.
A retired Colonel James Steele then took charge of training the commandos, and he continued to work with them and accompany them on deployments until he left Iraq in April 2005. Steele, like Negroponte, is a veteran of prior US dirty wars in Cambodia and Central America. Prior to Steele having been appointed Counselor for Iraqi Security Forces by then US Ambassador of Iraq John Negroponte, Steele was vice president of Enron and had officially been sent to Iraq after the invasion as an “energy consultant.”
By late 2004, as I was seeing in Baghdad, death squad activity was rampant. This US policy, augmented by national elections in Iraq in 2005 that were largely boycotted by the Sunni population, created a perfect storm of violence that lasted another two and a half years that would prove to be, by far, the deadliest period thus far of the US occupation of Iraq.
Yet, as we have seen, this was blamed on “sectarianism” and the failures of the Iraqi people, not on the occupiers.
“This failure to connect the dots between related events that were already a matter of public record pervaded American reporting on the war in Iraq and US foreign policy in general,” writes Davies, “It facilitated a process by which events, actors, and issues became artificially separated and compartmentalized in the minds of readers. This fed a public discourse that was divorced from reality and was baffling to people in other countries where the media were not so deeply complicit in government propaganda operations.”
Davies’ believes that the ongoing US effort to use military power to control access to vital natural resources, as with Iraq’s oil, is “doomed to failure.”
He feels that this “means that the occupation will end, as surely as the Union Jack was lowered in Hong Kong and the other British naval bases where I grew up in the 50s and 60s, and after a shorter period of occupation.”
For Iraq, he sees the US having failed “in all of its goals” and adds, “A successful occupation of Iraq could have provided a base for attacking Iran and Syria, but now it complicates plans for attacking Iran as much as it supports them.”
When asked what he hopes “Blood on Our Hands” will accomplish, Davies is clear in his reply:
“I just want as many people as possible to read the book; for it to play a significant role in shaping the way thousands of Americans understand this truly ugly event in our history; and that this helps to build the popular resistance to American militarism that will ultimately bring a relatively peaceful end to the American Empire, and permit humanity to deal with all the other problems that we must face.”
The preface of the book was authored by Benjamin Ferencz, the chief prosecutor of the Einsatzgruppen Trial in Nuremberg in 1947.
“If the US is to regain its image as a moral leader in the world, we must return to the rule of law that applies equally to all,” Ferencz wrote, “As noted by Davies, change in policy is possible if the futility of past policies is recognized. The details will be found in the pages that follow.”
And, indeed, they are.