Jeremy Scahill interviews Dahr Jamail for The Nation

Dahr Jamail: Beyond the Green Zone


[posted online on February 8, 2008]

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dahr Jamail has spent more time reporting from Iraq than almost any other US journalist. His new book, Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, is a chronicle of his experiences there. He recently sat down with Nation correspondent Jeremy Scahill to talk about the supposed “success” of Bush’s troop surge, what would happen if Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton wins the White House and why he believes an immediate withdrawal from Iraq is the only way to peace. Here’s an edited transcript of that interview.

Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have indicated that US troops are not going to be withdrawn in any significant manner in the first term of a presidency. What do you think would happen if the US did withdraw immediately from Iraq?

We have a specific example of what would likely happen throughout Iraq if the US were to withdraw completely. When the Brits recently pulled out of their last base in Basra City late last year, The Independent reported that according to the British military, violent attacks dropped 90 percent. I think that goes to show that the Brits down in Basra, like the Americans in central and northern Iraq, have been the primary cause of the violence and the instability.

And I think it’s easy to see that when the US does pull out completely, we would have a dramatic de-escalation in violence. We would have increased stability and it would be the first logical step for Iraqis to form their own government. This time, it would actually have popular support, unlike the current government, where less than 1 percent of Iraqis polled even support it or even find it legitimate at all.

Now, obviously, we have a situation in Iraq right now that’s very different from the era of Saddam Hussein: Many pockets of power, various leaders who have their own armed factions, and a much more significant Iranian influence. How do you see that playing out in the absence of US troops? What do you think would happen among those various groups that are vying for power, and have a significant volume of weapons?

One of the key reasons Iran has the influence it does in Iraq right now is because the US itself appointed Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. We have to remember that he was in no way, shape or form democratically elected. After the January 30, 2005 elections, one of the first tasks of the government was to choose its own prime minister. It chose Ibrahim Al-Jaafari. And then when he wasn’t toeing the US-UK line enough, Condoleezza Rice and her UK counterpart, Jack Straw, flew to Baghdad. And right before they left from their trip, Jaafari was out, Maliki was in.

Maliki, head of the Dawa party, was in exile in Tehran for numerous years, and is basically a political figurehead of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), whose armed wing, the Badr Organization, has staunch Iranian support. It was basically formed in Iran and came into Iraq on the heels of the invasion forces. So I think, again, with [Maliki] out, and with other Iranian puppets in the government out, we would have more nationalist Iraqis who would certainly be able to start making moves toward reconciliation.

Who do you see emerging in a post-occupation Iraq if the US did leave? What are the major political forces in the country that could unify Iraq under one national flag?

It’s difficult to say at this point, but there are some political figures who do have popular support. There’s a Shia cleric, Sheikh Jawad al-Khalasi, who has mass popular support. He’s renowned for being able to bridge differences between Sunni and Shia political groups right now. There’s Dr. Wamid Omar Nadhmi, a Sunni, who also has that same effect. He’s relatively nonsectarian, compared to everyone else on the scene right now. They have started to form a shadow–I wouldn’t say government, but certainly political organization–that is a coalition of many different groups. There’s Al-Khalasi, there’s Dr. Wamid Omar Nadhmi, there’s Kurds, there’s Christians, there’s Turkomen, there’s numerous groups represented in this political structure that they have right now. It’s based primarily out of Syria, and sometimes they have meetings in Jordan, but this type of political structure would be able to come in and, I think, begin to fill what vacuum would be created.

You’ve spent a lot of time in Al-Anbar province and in Sunni areas of Iraq. And we’ve seen the United States and the commanders declare Anbar province a “victory.” We’ve also seen some Sunni puppet figures who have allied themselves with the United States assassinated in recent months, most prominently Abu Risha. What happened in Al-Anbar province?

What’s happening in Al-Anbar province today is akin to what the US did in Fallujah, when they were repelled out of the city during the April 04 siege. They essentially saved face by ceasing patrols and buying off the militants in the city. They put them on the payroll–mujahedeen basically started donning Iraqi police uniforms and Iraqi civil defense corps uniforms–and took over control of security of the city. When I interviewed them in May, they said this was the most peace they’d had in the city since before the invasion had ever taken place. They were quite happy with it, most people in the city were quite happy with that situation.

But essentially, the US plan ended up backfiring. Because they had to go back in the city in November, they didn’t want it to remain the only liberated city in the country. That fighting was far more violent and took so many more deaths, on both sides of the conflict, than even the April siege did. And so we have now a macro version of that same policy in Al-Anbar, where various tribal sheikhs who are willing to collaborate have stepped up. They’re taking millions and millions of dollars of US taxpayer money. They’re basically being bought off to not fight against the Americans, while simultaneously the Americans, for the moment in Al-Anbar, are sticking closer to their bases, and relying more on airpower than ground troops if any fighting breaks out.

And so right now, that’s why Al-Anbar is notably more quiet. But it’s a ticking time bomb. Because this is a policy where even US soldiers on the ground right now in Al-Anbar are expressing concerns. They know all too well that they’re now working with these people who, three days ago or three weeks ago, they were actually fighting. And some of these people are still lobbing mortars into their bases at night.

So we have tensions. We have the US military trying to ID all these people, so that when things become violent again, they’ll know who these people are and where to go get them, while simultaneously, these same fighters are, of course, gathering very, very valuable intelligence by being able to work with the Americans and go around with them.

You’ve spent about eight months in Iraq unembedded. A lot of your time was spent with ordinary Iraqis, documenting the suffering, the deaths, the civilian injuries. You’ve also spent time in other countries talking to Iraqi refugees. One of the things that’s lost in the mainstream coverage is the extent of the death that’s happened in Iraq. In fact, there was an AP-Ipsos poll not too long ago that found that a majority of Americans believed that fewer than 10,000 Iraqis had died since the start of the invasion. Give a sense of the scope of the death that has taken place in Iraq.

This is a good example of why the media coverage is still so horribly skewed. Even though a lot of people tend to think, “Well, the media is coming around a little bit, that it is showing that the occupation is not going well, and that there’s suffering.” But really, contrast what you may see in some of the larger media outlets with some of these figures from the ground in Iraq.

We look at, for example, how many people have died, based on figures primarily produced by The Lancet report in October ’06, which showed 655,000 Iraqis had been killed, or 2.5 percent of the total population of the country.

Another group, called Just Foreign Policy, has taken those figures and extrapolated from them based on more recent media reports, because that first survey, that Lancet survey, the legwork was carried out in July 2005. And so from that time until this time, with new data, it’s now estimated by the group Just Foreign Policy that over 1,100,000 Iraqis have been killed. In addition to that, we can estimate that, very conservatively, another 3 million are wounded. According to the UN these figures are too low as well; I’ve been told this by a UN spokesperson myself when I was in Syria last summer.

Current figures: 2.5 million internally displaced Iraqis in their own country, another 2.5 million refugees outside of the country. In addition to that, another 4 million Iraqis are in dire need of emergency assistance, according to an Oxfam International report released last July. When we take into account the fact that Iraq’s total population has fallen from 27 million, when the invasion was launched, to now roughly 23 million, when we add all those figures up, that means over half the total population of the entire country are either refugees–in or out of their country–wounded, in dire need of emergency aid, or dead.

In addition to that, we have the infrastructure, where on every measurable level, it’s worse now than it was after nearly thirty years of Saddam Hussein’s reign, and twelve years of genocidal sanctions. Even oil exports have not for one day been at or above pre-war levels–and this is where Iraq gets 90 percent of its income. Electricity: the average home has anywhere from zero hours of electricity per day to maybe six or seven hours on a really good day. Unemployment: It’s between 60 or 70 percent, vacillating right now. During the sanctions, it was roughly 33 percent, which is about what it was here during the Great Depression. So 60 to 70 percent unemployment, on top of that, 70 percent inflation. We have 45 percent of Iraqis living in abject poverty on less than $1 per day. Seventy percent of Iraqis don’t even have access to safe drinking water. So that gives you an idea of the magnitude of how horrific the suffering really has become. According to Refugees International, it’s the fastest-growing refugee crisis on the planet.

You haven’t been to Iraq for a number of months, but you are regularly in touch with Iraqis on the ground. In fact, a lot of the articles that you do you co-author with Iraqi colleagues still on the ground. Many of the journalists who do go to Iraq are trapped in the Green Zone– or what an Iraqi friend of mine calls the Green Zoo. And so, in a way, you may be in a better position to analyze what’s happening there, because of your regular contact with unembedded Iraqi journalists. Give us a couple of examples of news that’s not making it out of Iraq.

I was recently working on a story about Fallujah because one of my Iraqi colleagues lives there. And again, contrast this with what maybe you’ve been hearing about Fallujah. In fact, it’s even been held up by various Bush Administration officials over the last several months as a model city. Look, it’s calmer, things are better now, the plan is working, the surge is working. Well in Fallujah, according to my friend who lives there, the security measures that were imposed around the city by the US military during the November ’04 siege–the biometric data, the retina scans, the fingerprinting, the mandatory, bar-coded IDs for everyone trying to go in and out of the city. That remains, that has not changed at all. In addition to that, businesspeople estimate that there’s approximately 80 percent unemployment in the city. There are entire neighborhoods that still do not have electricity or running water since the November ’04 siege. There’s still tens of thousands of refugees from the city from the April ’04 siege, not even talking about November.

There’s been a vehicle ban, to one degree or another, imposed on the city since May. So how do you live in a city of 350,000 people, when the majority of the time, you can’t even drive a vehicle. Most people are either walking or literally using horse-drawn or donkey-drawn carts. And he quoted a man as saying, relatively recently, that yes, it is quieter in Fallujah today, but it’s the same quiet as a dead body is quiet. That there’s no normal life, that the hospital there doesn’t get medicines and things that it needs, because of the corruption of the Ministry of Health in Baghdad, and the bias that’s there. And just to give you an idea. That’s life in Fallujah today, where there’s literally no normal life.

And that’s in a city that the US is holding up as a victory?


I know your expertise is not necessarily US domestic politics, but like all of us, you’re following the presidential campaign. Do you see any marked difference for Iraqis in the event of a Hillary Clinton presidency or a Barack Obama presidency?

I don’t. They’ve both already officially taken the idea of total unconditional withdrawal of all occupation forces out of Iraq off the table, until after their first term, if one of them is elected. So it’s off the table already until 2013, even before one of them would come into power, if that is going to happen. In reality, they in no way are reflecting the will of the troops on the ground in Iraq, or the majority of Americans now who are opposed to the occupation. And certainly not respecting the will of the Iraqi people, where the most conservative polls I’ve found have shown that 85 percent, at a minimum now, of the total population of Iraq are completely opposed to the occupation and want it to end, right now.

Iraqis are willing to take the risk of what might happen if that much-discussed “power vacuum” is created. And the reality is that the only real first step to a solution in Iraq is full, immediate, unconditional withdrawal, while simultaneously re-funding all the reconstruction projects and turning them over to Iraqi concerns. So this idea of, “You break it, you buy it.” Well, there’s no buying happening. There’s nothing being done by Western contractors on the ground to improve the basic life necessities of any Iraqi in that country right now.

And the other factor is, which candidate is talking about compensation for the Iraqi people? Every Iraqi person who’s suffered from this situation deserves full compensation from this government. Because this is the government that perpetrated the war and continues on in this illegal occupation. So, I don’t see any of these mainstream candidates talking about any of these things, which are really essential if we’re going to talk about a solution to this catastrophe in Iraq.