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Accounts Unsettled

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Issue: 18 Section: Features Iraq Topics: media

May 27, 2004

Accounts Unsettled

Independent reporting from Iraq

by Dru Oja Jay

An ambulance destroyed by US forces during the "siege of Fallujah". Jamail argues that corporate news outlets are willfully oblivious to war crimes and atrocities committed by occupying forces. photo: Dahr Jamail/New Standard News
The past two weeks have seen a remarkable effort on the part of the US government and numerous media outlets to directly contradict reality. The single most remarkable instance of the contradiction came from US military spokesman Mark Kimmitt, who said that "the stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children are not legitimate news sources. That is propaganda, and that is lies."

The astoundingly frank exhortation to shun plainly evident reality in favour of official spin came amid US claims that 95% of the 600 killed and thousands wounded during the military siege of Fallujah were "fighters". An estimated 60,000 people were displaced. Thanks to independent reporting and other direct accounts, we know these assertions to be blatantly misleading.

If disinformation can be so effective in one instance, it should sharpen our sensibilities in a general way as well. The following excerpts reports from soldiers, activists, and independent reporters in Iraq represent a series of hints at the reality that is missing from corporate media coverage of Iraq. -- Dru Oja Jay

* * *

From an interview with Lance Corporal Mike Hoffman of the US Marine Corps. Hoffman participated in the initial invasion of Iraq, and is now a member of Philadelphia Veterans for Peace. The interview appeared in Traveling Soldier magazine (traveling-soldier.org).

B: Now, I know from what you've said in the past that even before you went you had some questions about the war. What I'm wondering is this: how the actual experience of being there influenced your opinion?

H: It really added a great deal of resolution to my ideas because after being there I saw what it really meant. I saw the destroyed villages, I saw guys there with lives taken on both sides and lives destroyed by what happened there and by what people did over there.

B: The media have reported that since the 3rd Infantry Division really raised hell about not going home, there's been a clamp down that soldiers are not free to express opinions against the war. Does this apply to Marines also?

H: It applies to everyone. There was a clamp down before that happened. They told us what we could and couldn't say to the media and the media was told what they could and couldn't report. And on top of that there was an unspoken pressure on everyone not to say the wrong thing. We all knew what the wrong thing was – anything critical of war or about what we thought was happening over there. Even though I'm out of the military when I came back to Fayetteville last night, even though I wasn't stationed here, there's another military town literally less than half an hour from where I was stationed, which is almost the exact same place. Even though I know I'm the military and I'm not part of it anymore, I still felt that pressure again just being here. Especially when it's so fresh it's really something hard to fight against.

B: Would you say from your own experience and others you've talked to that feelings among the rank-and-file of the armed forces are more or less or about the same in their criticism of the war – is it increasing or decreasing?

H: It's definitely increasing as the length of the occupation goes on 'cuz they don't see themselves getting anywhere. They're doing things almost like something they heard about in Vietnam where in Vietnam guys would go on patrol and they'd sit outside of the base and they'd make false radio reports. Instead, you've got guys who are sent on patrol and instead of a real patrol they jump in a humvee and drive through town as fast as possible to avoid any kind of confrontation. And that's not the point of a patrol. On a patrol you're trying to find intelligence, you're trying to make some difference there. These guys are just trying to get through without getting killed.

* * *

Jo Wilding is an English activist currently working on humanitarian projects in Iraq. The following is excerpted from her online diary, which can be found at wildfirejo.blogspot.com

Azzam is driving, Ahmed in the middle directing him and me by the window, the visible foreigner, the passport. Something scatters across my hand, simultaneous with the crashing of a bullet through the ambulance, some plastic part dislodged, flying through the window.

We stop, turn off the siren, keep the blue light flashing, wait, eyes on the silhouettes of men in US Marine uniforms on the corners of the buildings. Several shots come. We duck, get as low as possible and I can see tiny red lights whipping past the window, past my head. Some, it's hard to tell, are hitting the ambulance. I start singing. What else do you do when someone's shooting at you? A tire bursts with an enormous noise and a jerk of the vehicle.

I'm outraged. We're trying to get to a woman who's giving birth without any medical attention, without electricity, in a city under siege, in a clearly marked ambulance, and you're shooting at us. How dare you?


Saad has had four contracts from the Dutch military for school rehabilitation. He doesn't have much time for the likes of Bechtel who take contracts at inflated prices and just siphon off the money and don't do the work properly but he's more irritated still with the translators working for the Dutch army, who are diverting the contracts to their own relatives and friends, he said.

Yesterday a contract worth $91,000 was given to the brother of the translator, a nineteen year old with no experience as a building contractor or engineer. The money is good on these contracts and the translators know they can get away with securing them for their own families, even when they're not professionals. As a civil engineer with twenty years of experience, Saad felt aggrieved and decided to go and challenge the decision in court.

I was dubious that there were any processes through which he could challenge it, any system of judicial review for procedural impropriety, any appeals process. Sure enough, when I saw him later, he said nothing happened in court because the translator was a friend of the Dutch military.

But Saad says that everything is better now Saddam is gone. He doesn't care how long foreign troops stay or what they take, he says, as long as the Baathists are gone. It doesn't matter to him who runs the country so long as it's not the Baathists. He spent four months in the jail in the security police headquarters in 1994, showed us the scar on his ankle where a cigarette was put out. He pointed out the jail where he was held. "I burnt it with my own hands, " he said, miming striking a match. Bush, he said, is a gentleman.

The men and women in jail now without charge, trial, lawyers, without their families knowing where they are, he insists, are all from Falluja, Ramadi or Tikrit. Nothing will convince him that there are detainees from anywhere else in Iraq, nor that merely to be from those places is not a valid reason for internment. Everyone from the three towns was directly oppressing the people of the south, he says, every one, including the children.

Sometimes reconciliation seems a long way off.

* * *

The following is from "Baghdad Burning", the online commentary of an anonymous Iraqi programmer who is known as Riverbend: riverbendblog.blogspot.com

I've been reading articles about Chalabi being (very hopefully) on his way out. I can't believe it took this long for Washington to come to the conclusion that he is completely useless. Did anyone there actually believe he was going to be greeted as the leader of a new era? We were watching him carefully during the last few weeks, trying to see what he would do or say during the attacks on Falloojeh and all the fighting in the south. That was a crucial time… we were waiting for some reaction from the Puppets- any reaction. Some condemning words… some solidarity with the Iraqis being killed and left homeless and there was a strange sort of silence. One of them threatened to step down, but that was only after outraged Iraqis showed an inclination to eat them alive if something wasn't done about the situation…

Chalabi has only lately ventured out from under his rock (in the usual flashy tie) to cry out that Lakhdhar Il Braheimi, the special UN representative sent by Kofi to check out the possibility of elections, is completely and totally biased against Shi'a. So now Chalabi seems to consider himself a champion of Shi'a everywhere in Iraq. The amusing thing about this is the fact that, apparently, no one has told Chalabi that he has become the joke of the Shi'a community. We (Sunnis and Shi'a) tease each other with things like, "So… the Shi'a man of the moment is Chalabi, ah?!" and the phrase is usually received with an indignant outcry and a comparison of the man of the moment to… Britney Spears, for example.

I stare at him when he gives his speeches on television and cringe with the thought that someone out there could actually have thought he was representative of any faction of Iraqi society. I can hardly believe that he was supposed to be the one to target the Iraqi intellectuals and secularists. He's the tasteless joke Bush and Co. sent along with the soldiers and tanks to promote democracy- rather like one of those plastic blowup dolls teenage boys practice dancing with before the prom.

I also heard today that the Puppets are changing the flag. It looks nothing like the old one and at first I was angry and upset, but then I realized that it wouldn't make a difference. The Puppets are illegitimate, hence their constitution is null and void and their flag is theirs alone. It is as representative of Iraq as they are- it might as well have "Made in America" stitched along the inside seam. It can be their flag and every time we see it, we'll see Chalabi et al. against its pale white background.

* * *

From "Report from Fallujah--Destroying a Town in Order to Save it", by Rahul Mahajan. It was originally posted to Mahajan's web site, Empire Notes (empirenotes.org).

One of our translators, Rana al-Aiouby told me, "these are simple people." Without wanting to go along with the patronizing air of the remark, there is a strong element of truth to it. These are agricultural tribesmen with very strong religious beliefs. They are insular and don't easily trust strangers. We were safe because of the friends we had with us and because we came to help them. They are not so far different from the Pashtun of Afghanistan -- good friends and terrible enemies.

The muj are of the people in the same way that the stone-throwing shabab in the first Palestinian intifada were and the term, which means "youth," is used for them as well. I spoke to a young man, Ali, who was among the wounded we transported to Baghdad. He said he was not a muj but, when asked his opinion of them, he smiled and stuck his thumb up. Any young man who is not one of the muj today may the next day wind his aqal around his face and pick up a Kalashnikov. After this, many will.

Al-Nazzal told me that the people of Fallujah refused to resist the Americans just because Saddam told them to; indeed, the fighting for Fallujah last year was not particularly fierce. He said, "If Saddam said work, we would want to take off three days. But the Americans had to cast us as Saddam supporters. When he was captured, they said the resistance would die down, but even as it has increased, they still call us that."

Nothing could have been easier than gaining the good-will of the people of Fallujah had the Americans not been so brutal in their dealings. Tribal peoples like these have been the most easily duped by imperialists for centuries now. But now a tipping point has been reached. To Americans, "Fallujah" may still mean four mercenaries killed, with their corpses then mutilated and abused; to Iraqis, "Fallujah" means the savage collective punishment for that attack, in which over 600 Iraqis have been killed, with an estimated 200 women and over 100 children (women do not fight among the muj, so all of these are noncombatants, as are many of the men killed).

A Special Forces colonel in the Vietnam War said of the town, Ben Tre, "We had to destroy the town in order to save it, encapsulating the entire war in a single statement. The same is true in Iraq today -- Fallujah cannot be "saved" from its mujaheddin unless it is destroyed.

* * *

From an April 12 report by Dahr Jamail, entitled "Americans Slaughtering Civilians in Falluja". It was originally published by the New Standard (NewStandardNews.net).

Once we turned off the highway, which the U.S. was perilously holding onto, there was no U.S. military presence visible at all as we were in mujahedeen-controlled territory. Our bus wound its way through farm roads, and each time we passed someone they would yell, "God bless you for going to Falluja!" Everyone we passed was flashing us the victory sign, waving, and giving the thumbs-up.

As we neared Falluja, there were groups of children on the sides of the road handing out water and bread to people coming into Falluja. They began literally throwing stacks of flat bread into the bus. The fellowship and community spirit was unbelievable. Everyone was yelling for us, cheering us on, groups speckled along the road.

As we neared Falluja a huge mushroom caused by a large U.S. bomb rose from the city. So much for the cease-fire.

The closer we got to the city, the more mujahedeen checkpoints we passed -- at one, men with kefir around their faces holding Kalashnikovs began shooting their guns in the air, showing their eagerness to fight.

The city itself was virtually empty, aside from groups of mujahedeen standing on every other street corner. It was a city at war. We rolled towards the one small clinic where we were to deliver our medical supplies from INTERSOS, an Italian NGO. The small clinic is managed by Mr. Maki Al-Nazzal, who was hired just 4 days ago to do so. He is not a doctor.

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