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Truth in Iraq

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Section: Accounts Iraq Topics: media

January 4, 2005

Truth in Iraq

An Interview with Dahr Jamail

by Jason Chesworth

Dahr Jamail is a freelance journalist who is currently covering the crisis in Iraq. He has spent over six of the past twelve months in Iraq and has served as a correspondent for The Nation, Democracy Now, Z Magazine, and New Standard News. His reports can also be found on his website: www.dahrjamailiraq.com. Jason Chesworth spoke with him by telephone on November 28th, 2004.

Jason Chesworth: Dahr, where are you right now?

Dahr Jamail: Right now I'm in central Baghdad. I'm not too far from the Green Zone area which is the main U.S. control base here in Baghdad.

Iraqis standing around a crater made by an explosion. Dahr Jamail's photography and reporting can be found at his web site.

And what brought you to Iraq?

I primarily came because I saw there was a glaring need in the West for more accurate reporting from the ground in Iraq, rather than just mainstream media reports of what were essentially regurgitated military press releases.

What kind of reception have you received from the Iraqi people?

Well that is really interesting because it's really changed pretty dramatically through my trips. I would go to report on stories, even during my first trip and people would see that we were media and immediately become angry because they had been interviewed, for example by other mainstream media sources and then would see the newscast go out and not have the Iraqi side of the story, and so people have become very reluctant to talk with journalists here. But then, it's necessary to have an interpreter who can explain to them that this is an independent journalist, he will print what you say, he will show your side of the story as well, you can trust me. Once that bridge is made, then people are very open, talk very frankly about things and then of course will receive us and treat us very well and invite us to meals and tea and things like this.

How have you been received by the American military there? Do they know you're there?

I don't know if they know I'm here, I mean, I'm sure if they wanted to they could, but frankly I do my best to avoid them mainly because of security. Because they are targets, there are so many attacks now on a daily basis on the military. In fact, any time a patrol goes down the street when we're driving around Baghdad, we always try to hang back from it, because you just never know when they're going to be attacked. I mean, even right now there's at least 80 attacks per day on the military throughout Iraq, so while I would very much like to interview soldiers more, I've done so in the past when it wasn't quite as dangerous, this trip I've just made it a point to try and avoid them.

Have you been to Fallujah?

I have, not this trip. On my first trip, I went there several times. My last trip was during the April siege of the city and I actually did manage to get inside of the city while fighting was going on and saw some very horrendous things. And then I went back there in May three different times after that siege ended and documented what had occurred inside the city during the fighting and saw, again, horrendous things. This trip I would very much like to go there, but no one is being allowed in the city aside from a few Red Crescent vehicles as of yesterday (Nov. 27th). The military remains in total control of the strict cordon around the city and no one is...no families are being allowed back in for at least two months now the military has said. And other journalists who have attempted to go gain access inside the city have been detained.

What would be the reason for not letting residents of Fallujah back into the city for the next two months?

The primary reason is because the city is completely destroyed. Everyone was well aware that the only way the military would be able to take a city like Fallujah, considering how entrenched the resistance is there, would be if they essentially went house to house and virtually destroyed the city and bombed it to the ground. And that is essentially what has happened. There is no water there, no electricity, there's unexploded ordnance all over the place and one of the primary reasons, beyond those, that the military won't let people back in there for quite some time is because there is ongoing fighting there on a daily basis. While the military does occupy most of the city, they're being attacked everyday in different sections of the city, sometimes very heavily from resistance fighters that are actually infiltrating the cordon to come into the city and continue attacking the military.

What do they feel would change in two months, that would benefit people in two months? Is the choice of letting them back in two months, it seems like a rather arbitrary figure because the city is still going to be flattened...is there a desire to go back, do they want to go back to their city...

Well, it's an extremely arbitrary date and I'm sure it will change one direction or another but, of course people want to go home. People, especially in Iraq, much much more so than in America are very very tied to where they're from and where they live and have much pride in where they live and they very much want to go home. They're very aware of the fact that their homes will most likely be destroyed, but they want to go back. That's where they live, where they're from. Most often, you have generations and generations that have lived in this one area. So, they do want to go back, even if they know they're going to have to rebuild from scratch. Some people still do hold out hope that maybe their house may be one of the few that did remain relatively unscathed and some of their belongings will still be there.

The thing about your dispatches that caught my eye was your coverage of the first siege in April. When we here in the West were told that there was a cease-fire happening, your dispatches reported to the contrary. What were your thoughts when you were reading the reports that there was a cease-fire, yet you knew that there were bombs going off in the city?

Yeah, it was really astounding to me, but at the same time, I guess I've become jaded enough having spent a number of months in Iraq and seeing how the military is operating here. That essentially they use the same tactics that the Israeli military uses in the Occupied Territories. There is so much propaganda and so much rhetoric and so, when I went into Fallujah for example, April 10th, it was during one of these "cease-fires", and as I was driving into the city there were mushroom clouds from bombs dropped by warplanes coming up out of the city and sporadic fighting all around and military drones flying everywhere. So it surprised me, but at the same time I'd seen enough of their denials and their outright lying about some of the tactics they've used in some of the operations they've conducted. To be in there during one of these so-called "cease-fires" and see that it was anything but a cease-fire wasn't so shocking, I guess.

Was it after the first siege in April that they basically evacuated all journalists out of the city?

Actually, that came a bit later. It was very dangerous for Western journalists to back into the city after April. I was very lucky to get in there in May the few times I did, because the resistance fighters didn't keep very strict control on who they'd let into the city because they were afraid that everyone would spy. While there were these so-called "peace-talks" going on between the resistance fighters in the city and one of the demands of the US military was for the people controlling Fallujah to have all journalists inside the city be removed before the siege. That was one of their conditions, because they simply didn't want people in there documenting these atrocities that are being reported by all of the refugees that are coming out.

I want to talk about some of these atrocities that are being reported, because they are very rare to find and you are the most constant source, but definitely not the only source. The new siege on Fallujah was ostensibly to rid it of what they call a "strong-hold" of insurgents. Am I correct in that statement?

Right, that was one of the main reasons, and the other was to create stability for the upcoming elections.

And they've been using their new bogey-man, Al-Zarqawi, saying that he has been leading the rebel forces from within Fallujah, correct?

That's what they said, yes.

Now, there was a press-release which I'm sure you're aware of and I'd like your insight on this.

The only place I've been able to find it was on MSNBC, and they said that members of his army put out a press-release indicating that Al-Zarqawi was in fact dead. They say here in the West that they haven't been able to substantiate that, but what are your thoughts?

It's really... Zarqawi does appear to be some sort of a bogey-man, ABC in fact even reported that he had been killed last March, most Iraqis don't even believe that this person even exists and certainly no-one I've even spoken with in Fallujah at any time, whether I was in there last December, January, April, May or any of the refugees I've spoken with over the last few weeks here in Baghdad have said they know, you know, that this person is in their city. It's been 100% of people not knowing anything about this person operating inside or through Fallujah, so certainly most people on the ground here in Iraq believe he's another U.S. propaganda fabrication much like Osama Bin Laden. Many people feel if he does exist, he's probably working for the CIA so they can pull him out and use him to justify these very heavy handed military operations.

So, we have the American military invading Fallujah, they were softening it up beforehand, and you've mentioned that you've seen some atrocities and you've reported some horrific, horrific events. And what I want to ask you about is, the illegal weapons that they've (American military) been using in Fallujah. Yours haven't been the only reports coming out. Have you heard of white phosphorus fire?

Yes many, many refugees have reported seeing that having been used.

And can you describe what that is?

They reported that they saw... it was a huge kind of bomb that would come down and explode, and then different parts of it would fall from the sky burning, leaving large trails of smoke behind and then the fires, when it would land on the ground would burn for a long, long time and then anyone who touched it would burn, and when attempted [sic] to dump water on them, it would continue to burn, even when they were wet, and it was just impossible to put it out.

Sounds a bit like napalm to me.

Yeah, or that as well, which wouldn't have been...it would have been easy for the refugees to get the two confused, although it wouldn't be surprising if napalm was used as well, because the Pentagon admitted to using that during the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

And what kind of a response do you... do you recall seeing what kind of response the International Community has had to this revelation that they're using illegal weapons?

I've seen...ah, no response from the International Community as far as governments go. Of course, Human Rights Watch and some other NGO's and independent organizations like that have been very, very outspoken about it and I know that lawsuits are being filed, but this is not a new thing. The repeated use of cluster bombs in Sadr City and Fallujah during the April siege and other parts of Iraq where there has been heavy fighting during the occupation has been very common. Of course very heavy-handed military tactics like snipers shooting civilians and deliberately targeting ambulances and things of this nature have also been common. There have been numerous different war crimes committed, but again, International condemnation from other governments just hasn't been there. It's only coming from independent journalists who are reporting this, eye witness accounts and also, organizations like Human Rights Watch.

You've mentioned the use of snipers repeatedly. When people were leaving the town, there was an exodus of refugees leaving Fallujah, even... you talk of people trying to cross the Euphrates river and getting shot at by snipers?

Yes, several different refugees told me, and this was a very common story; it came from people who had left Fallujah at different times, people who lived in different parts of the city. The story that they keep telling is that people were attempting to leave the city--to get away from the fighting to try to seek shelter. Many people tried to do this by swimming across the Euphrates river which goes right by Fallujah. When they did this, even people who were holding white flags, makeshift white flags or white garments over their heads to identify themselves as being not fighters, were shot by US snipers on the other side of the river.

And no discrimination between women, children the elderly or anything like that?

Definitely not, no. Everyone is saying that they just shot anyone that tried to cross the river, because apparently there had been some fighters crossing the river. So, in the end they ended up just shooting everyone and everything, whether it was someone swimming or attempting to use a boat to cross the river.

I realize I might be asking a painfully naive question, but, what could possibly be the reason for doing this?

Well, it's actually been made quite clear by US-appointed Prime Minister Allawi, who has come out and said this is a lesson to any other city in Iraq who supports Iraqi resistance. Essentially we're seeing played out on the ground here, George Bush's aggressive Foreign Policy. A statement he actually made just after the attacks of 9/11 in the U.S. when he said, "we will go after any group that supports"--he calls it Terrorism, in this case in Iraq they are a resistance, that's how everyone here refers to them--"we will go after the resistance themselves and we will go after anyone that supports them". So, we're seeing that now being played out on the ground where people in Fallujah, where so many people have no affiliation whatsoever with the fighters, and yet, we're seeing collective punishment, which actually, is a very, very common practice here in Iraq. Last week, Samara went eight straight days with no electricity and no running water in the entire city, because the resistance is controlling most of the city. And again, we have collective punishment of civilians who have nothing to do with the fighting and they just happen to live in the city. This is what we've seen occur in Fallujah, it's occurring in Ramadi now, in fact, even today two civilians in Ramadi were shot dead by U.S. snipers because they can't get into large parts of the city, so just like in Fallujah in April, they set up perimeters and then station snipers and basically just shoot everything that moves.

And they are doing this to teach them a lesson and soften them up.

Exactly, yeah, that's the rhetoric that's used, "to soften them up", to make the statement that any group who supports the resistance will meet the same fate as the resistance. Of course they call them 'terrorists', but again, that brings another point I want to make; that most people here do refer to the people fighting against the Occupation Forces as the Iraqi Resistance. And they feel that it is their right to resist the occupation that is in their country and attempting to occupy their land. So the military took advantage of this very obvious symbol of the resistance... and of Iraqi pride against the occupation, to drop the "Iron Hammer". In order to do that and to control the city, they've literally had to demolish it. The great irony is now, that they still don't have control of the city, what is left that is... and they've created several other 'Fallujahs', in different cities all around.

And they've actually characterized Fallujah as being a 'training ground' for the military to carry out these operations in other cities, is that correct?

Apparently so, yes, because they are essentially going to have to do something similar, maybe not of that scale, but similar tactics in Mosul, Ramadi, Samara, they're doing it now in the South, in several other smaller cities down there. There are many places around that, they're going to have to implement this house to house street-fighting and going into cities and trying to battle people who are very--you know, this is their home, they know the city very well and the only way... when you bring so much military hardware, there's always going to be mass civilian casualties and there's always going to be mass destruction of the city.

The first way that they approach these cities, the first targets that they take out are the hospitals, correct?

That's correct. The first target was...they actually did fire a couple of rockets even at the hospital, and then they promptly occupied the hospital, detaining doctors, interrupting operations that were in progress, detaining patients and essentially rendering the hospital useless. The main goal of this was to shut down the casualty reports that would be coming. That was a PR disaster for the military in the April siege. The huge casualty counts and the video coming out from inside the city of the civilians and the women and the children ended up causing so much pressure on the U.S. Government, that they had to cease their attempts to take the city then.

So what they did different this time was they just went in and essentially just shut down the hospital so that those reports could not come out, and this is one of the main reasons why we haven't had any up-to-date, really accurate accounts of civilians. And we won't for a long time, because the only aid thus far that has even been allowed in the city is a few Iraqi Red Crescent ambulances as of yesterday, and of course, they were very tightly controlled by the military in just a couple of areas. There are bodies still everywhere in the streets, no one can really know for sure how many have died. The military claims 2000 people died, the vast majority of them fighters, but all of the civilians coming out are saying basically the opposite, that at least 2000 people are dead and the vast majority are civilians.

What has been the response for you when you come back home?

Ah, it's been actually quite good, but the predominant response has been shock. Even people who read a lot of independent reports from Iraq and not just mainstream media, people who do read it closely and read various outlets and feel they are pretty up to speed on what's going on--when I come back and show these photos and tell these stories of what I saw there on the ground, people are always completely shocked. They basically say, "we knew it was really bad, we knew it was a horrible situation, but we didn't know it was that bad." And that's the predominant response that I get and it continues to this day. The fact that my reports and my photos are showing a different story than that which is portrayed in the media...the fact is that this is an absolute debacle, Iraq is completely shattered and most people just struggle here to survive on a daily basis.

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