- The devastation of Iraq? Where do I start? After working
7 of the last 12 months in Iraq, I'm still overwhelmed by even the thought
of trying to describe this.
- The illegal war and occupation of Iraq was waged for
three reasons, according to the Bush administration. First for weapons
of mass destruction, which have yet to be found. Second, because the regime
of Saddam Hussein had links to al-Qaeda, which Mr. Bush has personally
admitted have never been proven. The third reason -- embedded in the very
name of the invasion, Operation Iraqi Freedom -- was to liberate the Iraqi
- So Iraq is now a liberated country.
- I've been in liberated Baghdad and environs on and off
for 12 months, including being inside Fallujah during the April siege and
having warning shots fired over my head more than once by soldiers. I've
traveled in the south, north, and extensively around central Iraq. What
I saw in the first months of 2004, however, when it was easier for a foreign
reporter to travel the country, offered a powerful -- even predictive --
taste of the horrors to come in the rest of the year (and undoubtedly in
2005 as well). It's worth returning to the now forgotten first half of
last year and remembering just how terrible things were for Iraqis even
relatively early in our occupation of their country.
- Then, as now, for Iraqis, our invasion and occupation
was a case of liberation from -- from human rights (think: the atrocities
committed in Abu Ghraib which are still occurring daily there and elsewhere);
liberation from functioning infrastructure (think: the malfunctioning electric
system, the many-mile long gas lines, the raw sewage in the streets); liberation
from an entire city to live in (think: Fallujah, most of which has by now
been flattened by aerial bombardment and other means).
- Iraqis were then already bitter, confused, and existing
amid a desolation that came from myriads of Bush administration broken
promises. Quite literally every liberated Iraqi I've gotten to know from
my earliest days in the country has either had a family member or a friend
killed by U.S. soldiers or from the effects of the war/occupation. These
include such everyday facts of life as not having enough money for food
or fuel due to massive unemployment and soaring energy prices, or any of
the countless other horrors caused by the aforementioned. The broken promises,
broken infrastructure, and broken cities of Iraq were plainly visible in
those early months of 2004 -- and the sad thing is that the devastation
I saw then has only grown worse since. The life Iraqis were living a year
ago, horrendous as it was, was but a prelude to what was to come under
the U.S. occupation. The warning signs were clear from a shattered infrastructure,
to all the torturing, to a burgeoning, violent resistance.
- Broken Promises
- It was quickly apparent, even to a journalistic newcomer,
even in those first months of last year that the real nature of the liberation
we brought to Iraq was no news to Iraqis. Long before the American media
decided it was time to report on the horrendous actions occurring inside
Abu Ghraib prison, most Iraqis already knew that the "liberators"
of their country were torturing and humiliating their countrymen.
- In December 2003, for instance, a man in Baghdad, speaking
of the Abu Ghraib atrocities, said to me, "Why do they use these actions?
Even Saddam Hussein did not do that! This is not good behavior. They are
not coming to liberate Iraq!" And by then the bleak jokes of the beleaguered
had already begun to circulate. In the dark humor that has become so popular
in Baghdad these days, one recently released Abu Ghraib detainee I interviewed
said, "The Americans brought electricity to my ass before they brought
it to my house!"
- Sadiq Zoman is fairly typical of what I've seen. Taken
from his home in Kirkuk in July, 2003, he was held in a military detention
facility near Tikrit before being dropped off comatose at the Salahadin
General Hospital by U.S. forces one month later. While the medical report
accompanying him, signed by Lt. Col. Michael Hodges, stated that Mr. Zoman
was comatose due to a heart attack brought on by heat stroke, it failed
to mention that his head had been bludgeoned, or to note the electrical
burn marks that scorched his penis and the bottoms of his feet, or the
bruises and whip-like marks up and down his body.
- I visited his wife Hashmiya and eight daughters in a
nearly empty home in Baghdad. Its belongings had largely been sold on the
black market to keep them all afloat. A fan twirled slowly over the bed
as Zoman stared blankly at the ceiling. A small back-up generator hummed
outside, as this neighborhood, like most of Baghdad, averaged only six
hours of electricity per day.
- Her daughter Rheem, who is in college, voiced the sentiments
of the entire family when she said, "I hate the Americans for doing
this. When they took my father they took my life. I pray for revenge on
the Americans for destroying my father, my country, and my life."
- In May of 2004, when I went to their house, a recent
court-martial of one of the soldiers complicit in the widespread torturing
of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib had already taken place. He had been sentenced
to some modest prison time, but Iraqis were unimpressed. They had been
convinced yet again -- not that they needed it -- that Bush administration
promises to clean up its act regarding the treatment of detained Iraqis
were no less empty than those being offered for assistance in building
a safe and prosperous Iraq.
- Last year, the empty promises to bring justice to those
involved in such heinous acts, along with promises to make the prison at
Abu Ghraib more transparent and accessible, fell on distraught family members
who waited near the gates of the prison to see their loved ones inside.
Under a scorching May sun I went to the dusty, dismal, heavily-guarded,
razor-wire enclosed "waiting area" outside Abu Ghraib. There,
I heard one horror story after another from melancholy family members doggedly
gathered on this patch of barren earth, still hoping against hope to be
granted a visit with someone inside the awful compound.
- Sitting alone on the hard packed dirt in his white dishdasha,
his head scarf languidly flapping in the dry, hot wind, Lilu Hammed stared
unwaveringly at the high walls of the nearby prison as if he were attempting
to see his 32 year-old son Abbas through the concrete walls. When my interpreter
Abu Talat asked if he would speak with us, several seconds passed before
Lilu slowly turned his head and said simply, "I am sitting here on
the ground waiting for God's help."
- His son, never charged with an offense, had by then been
in Abu Ghraib for 6 months following a raid on his home which produced
no weapons. Lilu held a crumpled visitation permission slip that he had
just obtained, promising a reunion with his sonthree months away, on the
18th of August.
- Along with every other person I interviewed there, Lilu
had found consolation neither in the recent court martial, nor in the release
of a few hundred prisoners. "This court-martial is nonsense. They
said that Iraqis could come to the trial, but they could not. It was a
- At that moment, a convoy of Humvees full of soldiers,
guns pointing out the small windows, rumbled through the front gate of
the penal complex, kicking up a huge dust cloud that quickly engulfed everyone.
The parent of another prisoner, Mrs. Samir, waving away the clouds of dust
said, "We hope the whole world can see the position we are in now!"
and then added plaintively, "Why are they doing this to us?"
- Last summer I interviewed a kind, 55 year-old woman who
used to work as an English teacher. She had been detained for four months
in as many prisonsin Samarra, Tikrit, Baghdad and, of course, at Abu Ghraib.
She was never, she told me, allowed to sleep through a night. She was interrogated
many times each day, not given enough food or water, or access to a lawyer
or to her family. She was verbally and psychologically abused.
- But that, she assured me, wasn't the worst part. Not
by far. Her 70 year-old husband was also detained and he was beaten. After
seven months of beatings and interrogations, he died in U.S. military custody
- She was crying as she spoke of him. "I miss my husband,"
she sobbed and stood up, speaking not to us but to the room, "I miss
him so much." She shook her hands as if to fling water off themthen
she held her chest and cried some more.
- "Why are they doing this to us?" she asked.
She simply couldn't understand, she said, what was happening because two
of her sons were also detained, and her family had been completely shattered.
"We didn't do anything wrong," she whimpered.
- With the interview over, we were walking towards our
car to leave when all of us realized that it was 10 pm, already too late
at night to be out in dangerous Baghdad. So she asked us instead if we
wouldn't please stay for dinner, all the while thanking me for listening
to her horrendous story, for my time, for writing about it. I found myself
- "No, thank you, we must get home now," said
Abu Talat. By this time, we were all crying.
- In the car, as we drove quickly along a Baghdad highway
directly into a full moon, Abu Talat and I were silent. Finally, he asked,
"Can you say any words? Do you have any words?"
- I had none. None at all.
- Broken Infrastructure
- Everything in Iraq is set against the backdrop of shattered
infrastructure and a nearly complete lack of reconstruction. What the Americans
turn out to be best at is, once again, promises -- and propaganda. During
the period when the Coalition Provisional Authority ruled Iraq from Baghdad's
Green Zone, their handouts often read like this one released on May 21,
2004: "The Coalition Provisional Authority has recently given out
hundreds of soccer balls to Iraqi children in Ramadi, Kerbala, and Hilla.
Iraqi women from Hilla sewed the soccer balls, which are emblazoned with
the phrase 'All of Us Participate in a New Iraq.'"
- And yet when it came to the basics of that New Iraq,
unemployment was at 50% and increasing, better areas of Baghdad averaged
6 hours of electricity per day, and security was nowhere to be found. Even
as far back as January, 2004, before the security situation had brought
most reconstruction projects to the nearly complete standstill of the present
moment, and 9 months after the war in Iraq had officially ended, the situation
already verged on the catastrophic. For instance, lack of potable water
was the norm throughout most of central and southern Iraq.
- I was then working on a report that attempted to document
exactly what reconstruction had occurred in the water sector -- a sector
for which Bechtel was largely responsible. That giant corporation had been
awarded a no-bid contract of $680 million behind closed doors on April
17, 2003, which in September was raised to $1.03 billion; then Bechtel
won an additional contract worth $1.8 billion to extend its program through
- At the time, when travel for Western reporters was a
lot easier, I stopped in several villages en route south from Baghdad through
what the Americans now call "the triangle of death" to Hilla,
Najaf, and Diwaniyah to check on people's drinking-water situation. Near
Hilla, an old man with a weathered face showed me his water pump, sitting
lifeless with an empty container nearby -- as there was no electricity.
What water his village did have was loaded with salt which was leaching
into the water supply because Bechtel had not honored its contractual obligations
to rehabilitate a nearby water treatment center. Another nearby village
didn't have the salt problem, but nausea, diarrhea, kidney stones, cramps,
and even cases of cholera were on the rise. This too would be a steady
trend for the villages I visited.
- The rest of that trip involved a frenetic tour of villages,
each without drinkable water, near or inside the city limits of Hilla,
Najaf, and Diwaniya. Hilla, close to ancient Babylon, has a water treatment
plant and distribution center managed by Chief Engineer Salmam Hassan Kadel.
Mr. Kadel informed me that most of the villages in his jurisdiction had
no potable water, nor did he have the piping needed to repair their broken-down
water systems, nor had he had any contact with Bechtel or its subcontractors.
- He spoke of large numbers of people coming down with
the usual list of diseases. "Bechtel," he told me, "is spending
all of their money without any studies. Bechtel is painting buildings,
but this doesn't give clean water to the people who have died from drinking
contaminated water. We ask of them that instead of painting buildings,
they give us one water pump and we'll use it to give water service to more
people. We have had no change since the Americans came here. We know Bechtel
is wasting money, but we can't prove it."
- At another small village between Hilla and Najaf, 1,500
people were drinking water from a dirty stream which trickled slowly by
their homes. Everyone had dysentery; many had kidney stones; a startling
number, cholera. One villager, holding a sick child, told me, "It
was much better before the invasion. We had twenty-four hours of running
water then. Now we are drinking this garbage because it is all we have."
- The next morning found me at a village on the outskirts
of Najaf, which fell under the responsibility of Najaf's water center.
A large hole had been dug in the ground where the villagers tapped into
already existing pipes to siphon off water. The dirty hole filled in the
night, when water was collected. That morning, children were standing idly
around the hole as women collected the residue of dirty water which sat
at its bottom. Everyone, it seemed, was suffering from some water-born
illness and several children, the villagers informed me, had been killed
attempting to cross a busy highway to a nearby factory where clean water
was actually available.
- In June, six months later, I visited Chuwader Hospital,
which then treated an average of 3,000 patients a day in Sadr City, the
enormous Baghdad slum. Dr. Qasim al-Nuwesri, the head manager there, promptly
began describing the struggles his hospital was facing under the occupation.
"We are short of every medicine," he said and pointed out how
rarely this had occurred before the invasion. "It is forbidden, but
sometimes we have to reuse IV's, even the needles. We have no choice."
- And then, of course, he -- like the other doctors I spoke
with - brought up their horrendous water problem, the unavailability of
unpolluted water anywhere in the area. "Of course, we have typhoid,
cholera, kidney stones," he said matter-of-factly, "but we now
even have the very rare Hepatitis Type-Eand it has become common in our
- Driving out of the sewage filled, garbage strewn streets
of Sadr City we passed a wall with "Vietnam Street" spray painted
on it. Just underneath was the sentence -- obviously aimed at the American
liberators -- "We will make your graves in this place."
- Today, in terms of collapsing infrastructure, other areas
of Baghdad are beginning to suffer the way Sadr City did then, and still
largely does. While reconstruction projects slated for Sadr City have received
increased funding, most of the time there is little sign of any work being
done, as is the case in most of Baghdad.
- While an ongoing fuel crisis finds people waiting up
to two days to fill their tanks at gas stations, all of the city is running
on generators the majority of the time, and many less favored areas like
Sadr City have only four hours of electricity a day.
- Broken Cities
- The heavy-handed tactics of the occupation forces have
become a commonplace of Iraqi life. I've interviewed people who regularly
sleep in their clothes because home raids are the norm. Many times when
military patrols are attacked by resistance fighters in the cities of Iraq,
soldiers simply open fire randomly on anything that moves. More commonly,
heavy civilian casualties occur from air raids by occupation forces. These
horrible circumstances have led to over 100,000 Iraqi civilian casualties
in the less than two year-old occupation.
- Then there is Fallujah, a city three-quarters of which
has by now been bombed or shelled into rubble, a city in whose ruins fighting
continues even while most of its residents have yet to be allowed to return
to their homes (many of which no longer exist). The atrocities committed
there in the last month or so are, in many ways, similar to those observed
during the failed U.S. Marine siege of the city last April, though on a
far grander scale. This time, in addition, reports from families inside
the city, along with photographic evidence, point toward the U.S. military's
use of chemical and phosphorous weapons as well as cluster bombs there.
The few residents allowed to return in the final week of 2004 were handed
military-produced leaflets instructing them not to eat any food from inside
the city, nor to drink the water.
- Last May, at the General Hospital of Fallujah, doctors
spoke to me of the sorts of atrocities that occurred during the first month-long
siege of the city. Dr. Abdul Jabbar, an orthopedic surgeon, said that it
was difficult to keep track of the number of people they treated, as well
as the number of dead, due to the lack of documentation. This was caused
primarily by the fact that the main hospital, located on the opposite side
of the Euphrates River from the city, was sealed off by the Marines for
the majority of April, just as it would again be in November, 2004.
- He estimated that at least 700 people were killed in
Fallujah during that April. "I worked at five of the centers [community
health clinics] myself, and if we collect the numbers from these places,
then this is the number," he said. "And you must keep in mind
that many people were buried before reaching our centers."
- When the wind blew in from the nearby Julan quarter of
the city, the putrid stench of decaying bodies (a smell evidently once
again typical of the city) only confirmed his statement. Even then, Dr.
Jabbar was insisting that American planes had dropped cluster bombs on
the city. "Many people were injured and killed by cluster bombs. Of
course they used cluster bombs. We heard them as well as treated people
who had been hit by them!"
- Dr. Rashid, another orthopedic surgeon, said, "Not
less than sixty percent of the dead were women and children. You can go
see the graves for yourself." I had already visited the Martyr Cemetery
and had indeed observed the numerous tiny graves that had clearly been
dug for children. He agreed with Dr. Jabbar about the use of cluster bombs,
and added, "I saw the cluster bombs with my own eyes. We don't need
any evidence. Most of these bombs fell on those we then treated."
- Speaking of the medical crisis that his hospital had
to deal with, he pointed out that during the first 10 days of fighting
the U.S. military did not allow any evacuations from Fallujah to Baghdad
at all. He said, "Even transferring patients in the city was impossible.
You can see our ambulances outside. Their snipers also shot into the main
doors of one of our centers." Several ambulances were indeed in the
hospital's parking lot, two of them with bullet holes in their windshields.
- Both doctors said they had not been contacted by the
U.S. military, nor had any aid been delivered to them by the military.
Dr. Rashid summed the situation up this way: "They send only bombs,
- As I walked to our car at one point amid what was already
the desolation of Fallujah, a man tugged on my arm and yelled, "The
Americans are cowboys! This is their history! Look at what they did to
the Indians! Vietnam! Afghanistan! And now Iraq! This does not surprise
- And that, of course, was before the total siege of the
city began in November, 2004. The April campaign in Fallujah, which resulted
in a rise in resistance proved -- like so much else in those early months
of 2004 -- to be but a harbinger of things to come on a far larger scale.
While the goal of the most recent siege was to squelch the resistance and
bring greater security for elections scheduled for January 30, the result
as in April has been anything but security.
- In the wake of the destruction of Fallujah fighting has
simply spread elsewhere and intensified. Families are now fleeing Mosul,
Iraq's third largest city, because of a warning of another upcoming air
campaign against resistance fighters. At least one car bomb per day is
now the norm in the capital city. Clashes erupt with deadly regularity
throughout Baghdad as well as in cities like Ramadi, Samarra, Baquba and
- The intensification is two-sided. With each ratchet upwards
in violence, the tactics by the American military only grow more heavy-handed
and, as they do, the Iraqi resistance just continues to grow in size and
effectiveness. Any kind of "siege" of Mosul will only add to
- Despite a media blackout in the aftermath of the recent
assault on Fallujah, stories of dogs eating bodies in the streets of the
city and of destroyed mosques have spread across Iraq like wildfire; and
reports like these only underscore what most people in Iraq now believe
-- that the liberators have become no more than brutal imperialist occupiers
of their country. And then the resistance grows yet stronger.
- Yet among Iraqis the growing resistance was predicted
long ago. One telling moment for me came last June amid daily suicide car
bombings in Baghdad. While footage of cars with broken glass and bullet
holes in their frames flashed across a television screen, my translator
Hamid, an older man who had already grown weary of the violence, said softly,
"It has begun. These are only the start, and they will not stop. Even
after June 30." That, of course, was the date of the long-promised
handover of "sovereignty" to a new Iraqi government, after which,
American officials fervently predicted, violence in the country would begin
to subside. The same pattern of prediction and of a contrarian reality
can now be seen in relation to the upcoming elections.
- Three weeks ago, a friend of mine who is a sheikh from
Baquba visited me in Baghdad and we had lunch with Abdulla, an older professor
who is a friend of his. As we were eating, Abdulla expressed a sentiment
now widely heard. "The mujahideen," he said, "are fighting
for their country against the Americans. This resistance is acceptable
- The Bush administration has recently increased its troops
in Iraq from 138,000 to 150,000 -- in order, officials said, to provide
greater security for the upcoming elections. Such troop increases also
occurred in Vietnam. Back then it was called escalation.
- What I wonder is, will I be writing a piece next January
still called, "Iraq: The Devastation," in which these last terrible
months of 2004 (of which the first half of the year was but a foreshadowing)
will prove in their turn but a predictive taste of horrors to come? And
what then of 2006 and 2007?
- Copyright 2004 Dahr Jamail. All Rights Reserved