Thursday, 6 September 2007

Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq

What Bush calls “progress in Iraq”

September 7, 2007 | Socialist Worker USA

DAHR JAMAIL has spent eight months in Iraq since 2003 as an “unembedded” reporter, providing an indispensable independent analysis of the disastrous U.S. occupation. His book Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq will be released this month, and Dahr will appear at meetings around the country in conjunction with its publication.

Here, he talks to ERIC RUDER about the fact and fiction of the Bush administration’s “surge” of combat troops and the future of Iraq.

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GEORGE BUSH seems to have already concluded, even before he gets the report from Gen. David Petraeus, that his troop “surge” has produced good results. What’s your assessment?

I THINK that all we need to do is look at the statistics. These hard facts counter the Bush administration’s propaganda that the surge is working.

More Iraqis have fled their homes during the period of the surge. There has been a 50 percent increase in the number of Iraqis detained in all U.S. detention facilities in Iraq. The number of U.S. troops killed has increased dramatically during the surge. Same with the number of soldiers wounded.

A majority of Baghdad remains out of the control of the U.S. military. And as usual, having one focused giant military push in one main area--that is, in Baghdad (although a few troops have gone to Anbar province)--has essentially spread the resistance all around the country to places where it didn’t have a strong presence before.

What else to read

Dahr Jamail’s articles and commentary on the Middle East are available at Dahr Jamail’s MidEast Dispatches Web site, along with images by Jeff Pflueger. His book Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, will be published later this year by Haymarket Books. You can preorder it now through

For daily news updates and analysis of Iraq, see the Electronic Iraq Web site, as well as Juan Cole’s Informed Comment Web site.

The crucial book on Iraq for antiwar activists is Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, now republished in an updated paperback edition from the American Empire Project with a foreword by Howard Zinn.

Two other books that provide valuable information and analysis about the U.S. occupation and the ensuing civil war are Patrick Cockburn’s The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq and Nir Rosen’s In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of Martyrs.

And of course, access to clean water, electricity and other services are still below pre-invasion levels.

WHAT DO you make of the withdrawal proposals from Democrats?

LET’S BE clear--none of the mainstream Democratic candidates (basically, everyone except Kucinich and maybe one of the other fringe candidates) has any intention of withdrawing U.S. forces.

The Democrats have twisted the word “withdrawal.” Most people think withdrawal means the withdrawal of all troops from Iraq. The reality is that they’re talking about possibly drawing down the number of troops--which makes for a permanent occupation.

A few months ago, Bush himself said that we need to be thinking about the U.S. presence in Iraq along the lines of South Korea, where troops have been for decades. This is nothing new for the U.S. There have been U.S. troops in Germany and Japan for six decades now.

The Democrats’ plan for Iraq--Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama--doesn’t differ one iota from the Bush administration or mainstream Republican goals. They have no exit strategy because there’s not going to be an exit.

AT A recent debate of Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton said she thought the U.S. should “stay focused” on keeping al-Qaeda “on the run, as we currently are doing in Anbar province.” Do recent events in Anbar province support this view?

FIRST, CLINTON’S statement is misleading because it suggests there have been some successes against al-Qaeda because of something the U.S. military has done. This is false. The reality is that Iraqi resistance groups have been fighting against al-Qaeda since almost the very beginning, when al-Qaeda started infiltrating Iraq’s borders, thanks to the U.S. occupation.

U.S. military commanders on the ground admit they have been unsuccessful in fighting al-Qaeda because they can’t find them. It’s actually the resistance groups that are the only ones having any successes in this respect.

Clinton is again just piggybacking on the Bush administration’s rhetoric that we have to “fight them there so that we don’t have to fight them here.” There is a small presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but even according to the U.S. military, they compose a single-digit percentile of the forces that are actually launching attacks on the U.S. military in Iraq.

Clinton’s claims also parallel the Bush administration’s assertion that there’s progress in Anbar province, and that Falluja is a model of success, but I like to defer to the facts on the ground.

Embedded reporters may parrot the military’s claim that new life is being breathed into Falluja thanks to the U.S., but one of my colleagues who lives there reports a very different story.

Yes, there are fewer attacks at the markets in Falluja, but that’s because the city is essentially dead. Unemployment is up over 80 percent, according to my source, and there are still tens of thousands of refugees who fled from the U.S. sieges in 2004 who have not come back because more than 70 percent of the city is totally destroyed.

Whole neighborhoods and quarters of the city have been without water and electricity since the 2004 siege. There’s rampant sickness in the city because there’s no medical care and no ambulances allowed to move. In fact, there’s been a ban on the use of all vehicles in the city since May.

We can say similar things about other cities in Anbar--Samarra, Ramadi--but we only have to look at the number of attacks on the ground. It’s still an extremely insecure place. There is no area in Anbar where U.S. soldiers walk around or go outside their bases without using armored vehicles or as part of a large operation.

A Blackhawk helicopter was shot down a few weeks ago right outside the U.S. base, which is a couple miles from Falluja. That killed four soldiers. There have been so many U.S. military operations and air strikes that the few people who remain there are basically staying in their homes.

THE U.S. seems to have an uneasy relationship with the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Why?

I DON’T spend too much time investigating the machinations of Iraq’s puppet government, precisely because it’s a puppet government. Just to give you an idea of how “democratic” it is, Maliki was installed by the Bush and Blair administrations.

If you think back, there were elections in January 2005, and the politicians elected were supposed to choose a prime minister. They did, and that person was Ibrahim Jaafari.

But he wasn’t toeing the line of the Bush/Blair administrations, so Condoleezza Rice and her UK counterpart Jack Straw flew out to Baghdad just a couple months after Jaafari became prime minister. By the time they left Baghdad, Jaafari was out, and Maliki was in.

Today, the Iraqi government has no popular support whatsoever. More than 90 percent of Iraqis now favor total U.S. withdrawal and are completely against the government. The government wouldn’t exist for five minutes without the U.S. occupation there.

People in Baghdad now say that whenever the Americans leave, all of these people will be riding out in the tanks with them, because they won’t be able to walk in safety anywhere in Iraq for the rest of their lives.

BUT IF Maliki is such a puppet, why is the U.S. upset with him?

THE U.S. is upset because he’s no longer doing exactly what they say. A recent example is Maliki’s visit to Iran. Bush ratcheted up the rhetoric against him and threatened him with “consequences” if he becomes too friendly with the Iranians. In Tehran, he met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and they made a deal to run a pipeline from Iraq to Iran, as well as other business deals.

Bush then continued his taunts, but Maliki went on to Syria, met with President Bashir Assad and declared that we can find friends elsewhere--in other words, we don’t need only the Bush administration. This creates friction, of course. Their puppet is loosening a couple of the strings and threatening to cut more.

On top of that, Maliki is becoming a whipping boy. He’s useful for the Bush administration to point to as the reason for everything that’s going wrong in the country. Bush assumes that most people in the U.S. are ignorant of the fact that the U.S. installed the man they’re blaming.

WHAT’S BEHIND the clashes between Moktada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization in Karbala?

IT’S COMPLEX. First, it’s important to understand that the recent clashes are not a new phenomenon. They are part of a larger ongoing conflict between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, which is the armed wing of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC).

SIIC was formerly the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and was formed as a mirror group of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iran. The SIIC is the religious and political wing governed by the dictates of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who came to Najaf from Iran in 1953.

So essentially, we have Moktada al Sadr, the anti-occupation nationalist cleric, and his Mahdi Army vying for control of the south of Iraq against SIIC and the Badr Organization. In Basra alone, there have more than 5,000 assassinations and tit-for-tat killings between these two groups in the last two years.

The recent clashes occurred during a massive pilgrimage to Karbala. Hundreds of thousands of Shia pilgrims were making their way to a shrine when guards from the Badr Organization opened fire on some of the Mahdi Army guards who were traveling with the pilgrims, according to one version of the story that I received from sources who had just come from that location.

There are other reports that a renegade loosely affiliated with the Mahdi Army attacked the guards of the Badr Organization, which set off the clashes.

Later on the same day, Sadr announced that he was halting all operations of the Mahdi Army for six months and didn’t say why. This indicates that maybe it was actually a renegade group, not directly under his control, which launched this attack.

In the 48-hour period following the clashes in Karbala, Mahdi Army members attacked SIIC offices in at least five different cities and did the same thing in several neighborhoods of Baghdad--attacking offices, setting them on fire, kidnapping and killing people. I think this ongoing--and savage--war will continue to escalate.

WHAT ARE the political differences between these groups?

ONE KEY difference is that the Badr Organization and SIIC have far cozier relations with Iran. Sadr also has ties to Iran, but he has been more consistently opposed to the U.S. occupation and pushing to maintain the national unity of Iraq, while the SIIC and the Badr Organization have been “playing ball” with occupation forces.

Make no mistake--Badr/SIIC are anti-occupation. But for the moment, they are trying to use the U.S. occupation powers and the U.S. military as leverage against their rival group, which is Sadr and his Mahdi Army.

Without that U.S. military leverage, Sadr and the Madhi Army are the most powerful force in Iraq. U.S. backing is critical to keeping SIIC/Badr from being overwhelmed by Sadr’s forces. Sadr essentially controls the majority of Baghdad, and the Mahdi Army, I would argue, already controls most of southern Iraq.

The important thing is that Sadr has gained so much more popularity during the occupation because he has consistently opposed it--while political games have cost the Badr Organization, SIIC and Sistani much of the power and respect they once had.

IN LATE August, Bush accused Iran of trying to destabilize Iraq. Is Iran responsible for Iraq’s “instability”?

THE PRIMARY force responsible for the violence, chaos and instability in Iraq is, of course, the U.S. military. Needless to say, it is the largest group of foreign fighters in Iraq.

They have caused more death in Iraq than any other single group. They are destabilizing the entire region. If you look at the level of violence across the Middle East today compared to before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, it’s night and day.

The Bush administration’s claim that Iran is responsible for the problems in Iraq--specifically, the attacks against U.S. forces--is hypocritical and even absurd. The U.S. is in no position whatsoever to say Iran has no right to have influence in Iraq--or even to have soldiers and weapons in Iraq. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

The U.S. has more than 160,000 heavily armed military personnel in Iraq. They are building permanent bases there with massive airstrips. They are flying an average of more than 60 combat missions a day in Iraq. I think the U.S. is “meddling” in Iraq a little more than Iran is.

Iran does give political support to groups in Iraq, but there is absolutely no evidence on the ground to back up the claim that Iran is giving these groups military support. The fact that they’ve found some weaponry in Iraq that has come from Iran is not proof at all that the Iranian government is itself involved.

There are now reports that U.S. weapons are turning up in Turkey. Does that mean that the U.S. government is directly arming groups in Turkey? Absolutely not. The U.S. itself admits that more than 190,000 U.S. weapons have gone missing. These are turning up in black markets all over the region, including Turkey.

The same is true of Iran. There are mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades, rockets and artillery shells from Iran that are turning up in Iraq, but that doesn’t mean the Iranian government has even knowledged that these weapons are crossing their borders into Iraq.

It’s also well documented that $8 billion in U.S. reconstruction funds went “missing” under the watch of the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority, which was set up and ran Iraq for the first year of the occupation. Was it spent in Iran? No one knows where this money is. Did it find its way into resistance coffers somehow? Was it used to finance weapons purchases? Again, no one knows.

DO YOU think the U.S. is preparing to attack Iran?

I ALWAYS caution people not to use logic in trying to predict what the neoconservatives in the Bush administration want to do regarding Iran.

We are at a very dangerous time. I wouldn’t call Bush a lame-duck president because he basically has the powers of a dictator. Enough of the laws of this country have been changed and parts of the Constitution have been shredded, so he can do whatever he wants.

Politically and in the polls, he doesn’t care--what does he have to lose? Anything that goes wrong, blame Bush, he’s out anyway, everyone knows that he’s a done deal. So why not go ahead and finish the job with Tehran?

“Everyone wants to go to Baghdad, real men want to go to Tehran,” was the slogan of the neocons in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And that’s the mindset right now. Israel has been calling for the U.S. to attack Iran since even before the invasion of Iraq.

All of the chatter I’m hearing from the ex-CIA analysts I’ve been talking to in recent weeks is that there are plans for an attack on Iran before the Bush administration leaves office, and the only thing that would stop it would be the prompt impeachment of Bush and Cheney.

We know for sure that there are U.S. plans for a massive propaganda campaign against Iran sometime this month in an attempt to justify why the U.S. must launch a strike against Iran. The American Enterprise Institute, all of the neocons, Fox News--these are just some of the mouthpieces ready to begin the propaganda offensive.

It’ll be a lot like during the propaganda campaign against Iraq, when Andrew Card said you don’t roll out new products until the fall. And it was September 7, 2002, when Bush and Blair at Camp David began accusing Saddam Hussein of trying to acquire nuclear weapons.

This blitz will continue into the fall. Personally, I think they’ll take time to let the propaganda work--I could be wrong--and let it filter down to the public that relies on mainstream news sources. I suspect a spring attack, again similar to what happened with Iraq, sometime between February and April 2008.

Seymour Hersh talked about what an attack would entail a while ago in an excellent piece in the New Yorker--massive air strikes and cruise missile attacks across Iran, and targets would include Iranian infrastructure and suspected sites where Iran is carrying out nuclear activities.

But what would happen if these attacks take place? As a Pentagon adviser told Hersh, “Southern Iraq will light up like a candle.”

The two largest Shia militias in the country are already vying for control in the south. Immediately, both of those militias--including Sadr, who has also visited Tehran and expressed solidarity with Iranians, and said that any attack on Iran is an attack on us--will immediately turn from fighting each other and go against the U.S. military.

The main supply line--basically the umbilical cord of the occupation--is a highway that runs from Kuwait to Baghdad. The U.S. military occupies one-third of the geographic area of Kuwait, right up near the Iraqi border. There’s a massive Kellogg Brown and Root truck yard there, and every day, an average of 2,000 supply trucks run from Kuwait into Baghdad, and then the supplies flow to bases around the country.

The supply line is already tenuous, at best. The truck convoys are guarded by Humvees and Bradleys, and sometimes with air support. And there are already daily attacks on this road.

That supply line will immediately be cut once those bombs start falling on Iran. All of the bases, the Green Zone and the rest of the U.S. military infrastructure will find themselves undersupplied.

The road will become unusable--as has long since happened along the main road from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad, because of Sunni resistance forces that operate in that region. The U.S. isn’t able to bring supplies from the massive bases in eastern Jordan because they can’t control that highway.

What’s more, Sistani has not once, throughout the entire U.S. occupation, called on his followers to take up arms against the occupation, but once Iran is attacked, I think we can safely assume that this will change, and we’ll see five, six, seven times more fighters willing to launch attacks against U.S. occupation forces.

There’s lots of bombastic rhetoric from the U.S. about how its military has already targeted critical sites throughout Iran. But Iran can say the same. It’s well known--anyone can get on the Internet and see where the U.S. bases are in Iraq. Those sites are already targeted by Iranian missiles.

Missiles will rain down on most of the U.S. bases in Iraq immediately. There will be dramatic numbers of U.S. military casualties when that happens.

The oil infrastructure of the Persian Gulf will be torched. Iran knows what that would do to the U.S. economy, when oil cross the $100-a-barrel threshold--to $200 or maybe $250 in the matter of a few days’ time.

Overnight, these are a few of the things that would happen. Around the region, there are other possible consequences. It could ignite another war between Hezbollah and Israel, which basically guarantees that Syria will become involved because Israel will attack southern Lebanon, then Iran starts using missiles against Israel, and Israel has more than 200 nuclear weapons.

Iran is already shelling areas of northern Iraq because Kurdish rebels, backed by the U.S., are launching incursions into Iran. Turkey has been shelling and even mounting incursions into Kurdistan for the same reasons--because Kurdish rebels have been killing Turkish soldiers and civilians for years now. Turkey has more than 140,000 troops on the border of Iraq, so the possibility of a Turkish invasion of Iraq looms if there’s another huge destabilizing event in the region.

These are just some of the highlights of how the region might unravel in the immediate aftermath of a U.S. attack on Iran.

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