Unembedded Reporting From Iraq: An Interview with Dahr Jamail

Written by Benjamin Dangl
Monday, 31 October 2005

In 2003, tired of the US media’s inaccurate portrayal of the realities of the Iraq War, independent journalist Dahr Jamail headed to the conflict himself. Instead of following in the footsteps of mainstream media’s embedded, “Hotel Journalists,” Jamail hit the Iraqi streets to uncover the stories most reporters were missing. His countless interviews with Iraqi citizens and from-the-ground reporting have offered a horrific look into the bowels of the US occupation. From covering the bloody siege of Falluja to breaking a story on Bechtel’s failure to reconstruct water treatment plants, his writing and photographs depict an Iraq that is much worse off now than it was before the US invasion. As one Abu Ghraib detainee explained to Jamail, “the Americans brought electricity to my ass before they brought it to my house.”
Dahr Jamail was born and raised in Houston, Texas and attended college at Texas A&M University where he majored in Speech Communications. In breaks from a subsequent job working in an air monitoring laboratory on Johnston Island, a US territory in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he traveled to places such as Indonesia, Nepal, Mexico, Chile and Pakistan. An avid mountain climber, Jamail moved to Alaska in 1996 to climb Denali and is based there to this day.

Jamail’s world traveling opened his eyes to the negative impact of US foreign policy and how wealth in the US was possible, as he said, “at the expense of the rest of the people in the world.” He had been working as a freelance journalist in Anchorage, Alaska throughout the 2000 presidential elections and 9/11, both events which considerably politicized the paper he worked for. After the Iraq War began in 2003, Jamail said he decided to go to Iraq to “cover the stories that weren’t getting the coverage they deserved in the mainstream media.”

One of the few independent journalists reporting from the war zone, Dahr’s articles on Abu Ghraib prison torture, media repression in Iraq and the state of Iraqi hospitals under occupation have shown a side of the war which is ignored by many journalists operating in Iraq.

The honest feedback he has collected in his interviews show an Iraq hardly improved by the occupation. Abdul Braahim, a doctor Jamail interviewed in Baghdad, said, “All kinds of diseases are present now which weren’t before the invasion.” A lack of clean water and electricity has contributed to this. Another doctor explained that his hospital has seen no assistance from foreign countries, “they send only bombs.”

A recent poll conducted for the British Ministry of Defense showed that 82% percent of Iraqis oppose the occupation and less than 2% support it. According to the same poll, 45% of Iraqis believed attacks on US troops were justified.

Jamail believes the following steps are necessary to establishing peace in Iraq: full, immediate withdrawal of occupation forces, full compensation to Iraqis for damage and death, and that all reconstruction efforts be reopened for bidding, giving Iraqi companies preference.

In this interview Jamail discusses his day to day efforts to stay safe while working in Iraq, public opinion among Iraqis regarding the occupation, how the US is instigating civil war in the country, and advice to independent journalists and anti-war activists.

Benjamin Dangl: Please describe the day to day work you had to do to stay safe while reporting from Iraq.

Dahr Jamail: That’s the biggest challenge now facing journalists in Iraq; A, safety and B, having enough trust with the people they’re interviewing. There’s no way around the danger. The odds are you’re going to run into some problems at some point. You have to rely a lot on luck and try to minimize the time you have to spend around US soldiers and police stations that are usually the targets. It’s helped me to have an interpreter to understand the mind set of people and their timidity, so that he can talk to them in the right way to make that happen. Having an excellent interpreter is your only hope.

BD: What is public opinion like in Iraq regarding the US occupation?

DJ: The poll numbers [from the recent British Ministry of Defense poll] are a little lower than what I found on the ground. I would have confirmed those poll numbers a long time ago. The one that I have found to be a little low is 45% that thought it was okay to attack occupation forces. I would say its more like 60-70%. I would say that the percentage of Iraqis I found to be against the occupation is more like 80-90 %. I would’ve found that to be true about a year ago, particularly after Abu Ghraib.

BD: What do you think of the argument that US troops should stay in Iraq in order to prevent civil war?

DJ: The argument that the US has to stay in Iraq in order to prevent civil war is racist and imperialist and is made by people who don’t understand what is going on on the ground in Iraq. The US is using tactics that heighten the probability of civil war by rushing through this Washington DC- imposed timeline for the political process. That coupled with using state-sponsored civil war, where they have a US-backed Iraqi puppet government that is using the Kurdish and Shia army to fight a primarily Sunni resistance. While most people are loath to the idea of civil war, it is being instigated by the US and their puppet government.

The US pulling out is going to begin the process of stabilization in Iraq as well as be the first move to give Iraqis true sovereignty. The Iraqi people are fully capable of resolving their differences and setting up their own government just as did after the British pulled out.

BD: Has the growing independent journalism movement in the US made the media coverage of the Iraq war any different from coverage of Vietnam and the first Gulf War?

JD: The media situation [in the US] now is so dramatically different than Vietnam and the Gulf War because of total corporate control of mainstream media outlets. In our best moments independent coverage in Iraq has served as a counterweight to the propaganda being spewed by corporate media. Those who know where to look – Democracy Now, internet and radio resources – do get a different coverage of Iraq. But 80% of Americans still get their news from the TV. Those people will be unaffected by any work that we do.

BD: Are there many other journalists in Iraq that are working like you?

DJ: There are a few other people working independently. One American guy, a film maker and there are more from other countries that work independently. It’s very few because the security is so bad. Working independently brings with it the financial struggles as well.

BD: What’s your message to anti-war activists and independent journalists in the US?

DJ: First, I’d like to just mention that it seems like the anti-war movement takes these breaks when there are these periods of not much movement. Fortunately, right now it seems as though it’s picking up steam, which is hopeful. Those in the anti-war movement that feel they don’t need to stay engaged or that they can give up, that aren’t working as hard as they can to end this, are complicit. We’re all responsible for allowing the US to be there, and the Iraqi people are paying the price. We owe it to them and the rest of the world to resolve this situation is as soon as possible.

For anyone interested in getting involved in independent media, now is the time. The media reform movement is happening. We need as much honest grassroots journalism as we can get. If people can go out and do this work, you will be supported. The need is great enough. People will know the truth when they see it. It’s the perfect time to get involved if you’ve given it even a passing thought before.

For more on Dahr Jamail’s work and writing, go to his website: http://dahrjamail.net/ Benjamin Dangl is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events.