Right now, we have on the table a "possible exit
strategy" from Iraq – James A. Baker's Iraq
Study Group report [.pdf] – that, once
you do the figures, doesn't get the U.S. even close to halfway out the door
by sometime in 2008; and that report is already being rejected by the
Republican and neocon hard right; by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who
to plug for some form of "victory" ("The enemy must be defeated…") on his last
lap in Iraq, while still flaying the media for only reporting the "bad news";
by a president who is still on the IED-pitted road to success
("Not only do I know how important it is to prevail, I believe we will prevail…"),
has called for three other reviews
of Iraq policy (by the Pentagon, National Security Council, and White House)
in an attempt to flood
Washington with competing recommendations, and is probably on the verge
of "surging" 15,000-20,000 more U.S. troops into Baghdad.
All sides in this strange struggle in Washington would add up to so much political
low comedy if the consequences in Iraq and the Middle East, the oil heartlands
of our increasingly energy-hungry planet, weren't so horrific. As Andrew Bacevich,
historian, former military man, and author of The New American Militarism,
wrote recently in
the Boston Globe, Iraq's many contradictions "render laughably inadequate
the proposals currently on offer to save Iraq and salvage American honor. Dispatch
a few thousand additional U.S. troops into Baghdad? Take another stab at creating
a viable Iraqi army? Lean on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make 'hard decisions?'
One might as well spit on a bonfire."
Consider the strangeness of it all from the Washington perspective. The Iraq
Study Group essentially wants to infiltrate the already largely sectarian
army the Bush administration has set up in Iraq, an army incapable of handling
its own logistics or, in many cases, planning its own missions, with 10,000-20,000
American advisers to do what the U.S. military has been unable to accomplish
these last years. That largely Shi'ite (and Kurdish force) is already a
motor for further violence. Adding vast numbers of (still largely untrained,
surely resented, and undoubtedly resentful) advisers to it will only ensure
that the "Iraqi Army" remains functionally a thoroughly recalcitrant American
one into the distant future. This is the functional definition of a failed strategy
from the get-go, but given the geostrategic la-la land that George Bush and
Dick Cheney inhabit, it now passes for "realism" in our national capital.
For a touch of actual realism, it seemed reasonable to turn to those who have
been living out the results of Washington's mad plans these last years – actual
Iraqis. Independent journalist Dahr Jamail, who has written
regularly for TomDispatch on our occupation of Iraq and, from 2003 to 2005,
covered it in person, offers us at least a glimpse of the nightmare world that
George Bush's "cakewalk" into Iraq inflicted on those in its path. Here are
some of the people "stuff"
happened to. Tom
Iraq as a Living Hell
by Dahr Jamail
The situation in Iraq has reached such a point
of degradation and danger that I've been unable to return to report – as I did
from 2003 to 2005 – from the front lines of daily life. Instead, in these last
months, I have found myself in a supportive role, facilitating the work of some
of my former sources, who remain in their own war-torn land, to tell their hair-raising
tales of the new Iraq. While relying on my Iraqi colleagues to report the news,
which we then publish at Inter Press Service
and my Web site, I continue to
receive e-mails from others in Iraq, civilian and soldier alike.
What I know from these e-mails is that the articles on Iraq you
normally read in your local newspaper, even when, for instance, they cover
the disintegration of the Iraqi health system or the collapse of the economy,
are providing you, at best, but a glimpse of what daily life there is now
like. After all, who knows better what's happening than those who are living
I thought I might just give you a taste of the sort of private communications
I read every day. Take my primary interpreter during my eight months in Iraq,
Abu Talat. He was finally forced, like
hundreds of thousands of his fellow Iraqis, to flee to a neighboring country
due to the nightmarish security situation in Baghdad. Without a regular income,
he struggled even to pay the rent for an apartment in a Syrian city, and finally
had little choice but to return to Baghdad to sell what was left of his belongings.
On Nov. 18, he wrote me from there:
"I am trying to sell my car. However, prices have plummeted so low that
there is barely any active automobile dealing here, or any other marketing for
that matter. … Life ends at around 2-3 p.m., at which point Baghdad changes
into a city of horror. The sounds of mortars and clashes erupt all through the
night. (Two explosions just rumbled nearby, but we can't tell the exact location.)"
The next day he wrote:
"Today, while I was arranging for the car to be sold at the highest price
I could find, explosions burst almost 50 meters from the place where I was standing.
I was forced to hide under the car I was selling for over 2 hours. There were
ongoing clashes between the Iraqi Army and resistance fighters in broad daylight
in the middle of the capital!"
Even from semi-independent, Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, often described
as the most peaceful and prosperous region in the country, the news I get is
bleak. A Nov. 28 e-mail from a Kurdish friend (who is also a U.S. citizen) went
"It is worse than ever. The problem is that our U.S. government and the
Iraqi 'Government' tell the world that things are improving here when they are
not. All of the rebuilding bull crap is nothing but a scam that is worse than
the oil-for-food program [of the post-Gulf War I years]. We have ONE hour of
electricity a day now. I have power to turn on some lights and my computer by
way of a little generator that I hooked up to my office today. A gallon of gas
costs over $4 now, when the salary of an engineer is less than $200 a MONTH."
Terrible as life is when Iraqis across the country find themselves
essentially camping out in their own homes with few or no basic services,
it pales in comparison to life in Baghdad, the country's capital and home
to nearly one quarter of its population. A friend of mine, who works there
as a freelance cameraman, sent me this grim summary a couple of weeks ago:
"Life here in Iraq has become impossible because of the militias,
sectarian violence, and the occupation [U.S.] forces. Every day we see the
dead bodies near our homes which have been killed by militias. We watch how
the U.S. troops see these dead bodies and… do nothing to stop this violence.
Two of my brothers just left their houses and rented a new place because they
were living in a Shia area. They had to run away just because they are Sunni.
"Every day the U.S. troops raid so many houses in my area and arrest so
many innocent people. Yet, when the Americans arrest one of the [Shia] militia
members they release him the very next day! Why?
"I hope I can show you how the dogs have started eating the dead bodies
which lie in the streets of Baghdad now. I filmed one of the dead bodies while
there was a dog eating on it. The U.S. troops and Iraqi police leave the dead
bodies in the streets for one or two days… I think they intend to do this because
they want everyone, including the children, to see this. Three days ago my young
son saw some of the Shia militia as they killed an innocent Iraqi in front of
his eyes just near his school.
"Oh Dahr, I don't know what to say about my wounded country. Every Iraqi
wants to bomb himself because of this shit life. Now Iraq is nothing like it
was when you were here last, as bad as it was then. It has become very difficult
to find someone who smiles. Everyone is sad and crying. This is true and this
is our life now.
"The problem is that I know everything because I am filming so many people
who are suffering."
Then there are the e-mails I get from American soldiers or their family members.
In late October, I received one from a mother whose son is a Marine stationed
in Ramadi where the fighting between U.S. forces and Sunni insurgents has been
fierce and ongoing these last months.
"Many, many atrocities on both sides because of course the town has deteriorated
into nothing more than a horror flick. His e-mails are few because his outpost
was mortared and he lost computer connection with me. He has to go to the Army
side of the city and try to send e-mail from there. I've gotten one e-mail The
marines are not supplying the boys with working satellite phones. Instead they
give those, along with money for bribes, to the Iraqis in hopes of obtaining
information. So our marines sit there (only 400 patrolling half of Ramadi, a
town of 400,000… talk about war crimes). This is such a nightmare. If my son
survives, he'll be embittered forever. … This is a portion of his angry email.
… I found it very disturbing … please excuse the spelling, he's in a hurry and
exhausted when he writes … his point is to kill the Iraqis before they kill
him. Now it's just a race for life. Insane."
Her son's e-mail reads in part:
"I was gonna call you but the phone is broken. I hate this place more than
anywhere else i've been. I guess is a compilation of all the time I've done
overseas fighting. Bullshit fights, its really bringing me down. I can't wait
till all this is over…I'll be the biggest anti-war person this country will
have… at least against this war in Iraq....Let's go fight a different one somewhere
else cause this one is lost. I swear i wish you could spend a week over here…you
would know it's lost. You can't stop 'holy warriors,' especially in their territory.
Tonight we are about to go drop off generators to the enemy (Iraqi civilians)
hoping they will give us info about the enemy (bullshit storys). The shit your
tax dollars go to would make you puke. You really would puke. I almost do when
i think about it..... thomas jefferson would have a heart attack if he saw all
the shit goin on today. Oh well. I really hope it changes soon when Bush is
out…but i doubt it. I thinks its all Gods plan…he runs the show no matter what.
Fate and all that…its good to trust him. …
"I'll keep the machine gun lubed in hopes of killin em all at the first
opportunity for you. I love you ma and i know that no matter what you support
me. I hope you don't find this e-mail burdensome. Just hit delete if that's
His mother added:
"You can see how the war is destroying my son's morale, and whittling away
at his spirit. Now it's just a killing game."
On Nov. 29, I received the following e-mail from Abu Talat in Baghdad:
"In the early morning, explosions woke me up in this apartment in the center
of Baghdad. It was just before 5:30 a.m. when I heard four mortars exploding
in their very horrendous voices. The Ministry of Health was hit the day before
yesterday by not less than five mortars. This was followed by clashes which
continued for less than an hour. The fighters were using all kinds of guns,
starting with rifles and ending with real heavy weaponry.
"Another battle took place here after this. Since we are in a guarded area
near a police station and on the fourth floor, I had the advantage of watching
this entire battle from my balcony. It was a complete war battle, guns being
fired from all directions. All kinds of weapons were used by the militia fighters
who are also the 'Iraqi security forces,' including the American helicopters
which were hovering at a low altitude (just for moral support?). As if they
are only for monitoring not for fighting! The mortars spread to the morgue area
which is exactly behind the Ministry.
"Iraqi life has changed into some kind of hellish disaster. Sectarian feelings
are following us everywhere. Everywhere around Baghdad that you stop at any
of the checkpoints, which are spreading all over, the men hold their guns in
their hands. I assume each man knows how to use it, but the problem is: Is this
guard a Sunni or Shia? You cannot tell. The clashes I've been seeing haven't
spared any of the areas in the city, whether they are Sunni or Shia."
Keep in mind that we're talking about the capital of Iraq. Think Washington,
D.C., and try for a moment to imagine such daily scenes.
Recently, an Iraqi colleague and I wrote a news story about the abominable
conditions in Iraq's medical system – or what's left of it. Upon reading the piece,
a doctor in Baghdad, another of my contacts, sent me this:
"I haven't written to you for awhile … but your last dispatch about the
health conditions in Iraq incited me to do so. I write you while holding in
my mind and heart a lot of sorrow and pain for all the innocent people I am
encountering every day as victims of this blind violence. I have sorrow and
pain for a steadily vanishing future which once I had thought of as hopeful
– even after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Let alone my sorrow for the future
of my one-and-a-half year-old daughter.
"The Iraqi health system has never been this bad before, and it is growing
worse day by day. The Saddam regime always tried to show that the [UN] embargo
affected the health system to the bone. That regime tried to show the shortage
of medicines, equipment, and the high mortality rates of Iraqi children. Saddam
used to emphasize the bad conditions through the media, and especially the western
media, in an attempt to affect international public opinion.
"But what is happening today is the total opposite of this. The government
is practicing a marked suppression of any revelation of the reality of the health
system. This is obvious through the government's underestimation of the figures
of victims of violence and sectarian killing. It can also be exemplified by
their prohibiting any workers in the health facilities from speaking to the
media unless authorized. In many situations the government will give an optimistic
view of our disaster in a time when there are no signs for a favorable view.
"During Saddam's era we used to see western or even local media reporters
visiting hospitals, conducting interviews with patients and doctors. I wonder
why we can hardly see any now. It is a big question. Nobody now is aware of
the critical situation in our health institutions – once huge attractors of
therapeutic tourism in the Middle East. There has been a massive exodus of senior
consultants and junior doctors which means a great absence of experience. There
is a grave shortage of necessary medicines and other important logistics.
"Sectarian tension has its own enormous impact. Sunni people are afraid
to attend hospitals run by the Mehdi Army [Shia Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia]
which leaves them with very limited options. I have encountered many Sunni patients
in the hospital who use an alias to conceal their identity so that they could
have some help. Hospitals are heavily infiltrated by active cells of Shia militias,
which are ready to abduct anyone they do not like. Everyone here from the manager
of the hospital down the administrative pyramid must have the approval of the
Sadr officials. What adds to the disaster is that these people are not qualified;
they only have the privilege of being loyal to their political party.
"The latest trend of mass abductions and kidnappings puts me under great
pressure of fear and apprehension that someday I might be a victim myself. What
happened in the raid on the Ministry of Higher Education [up to 150 academics,
staff, and visitors were
abducted on November 14th when roughly 80 gunmen stormed a research institute]
is always echoing in my mind. Today the media announced two officials of those
who were kidnapped were found tortured, blindfolded, murdered, and dumped in
"The burden of violence and terror is further intensified by the very bad
performance of our hospitals. Now, many innocent people can't find the proper
care and the majority are fleeing to Iran, Syria, or Jordan for care. One of
these is my uncle, who couldn't find a working machine for lithotripsy for his
kidney stones in all of Baghdad, so he was advised to go to Syria.
"We doctors are under unbearable stress. Aside from the scores of injured
people we see daily, factors like limited experience and the horrible shortage
of supplies have caused many doctors problems. When faced with a complicated
case, doctors often refuse to handle the case and try to refer it elsewhere
since a doctor has reason to fear reprisal actions from the family if he fails
to manage the case successfully.
"One week ago, I was called to examine a 22-year-old college student afflicted
with 60% burns after a blast injury. He had his face and limbs mutilated. One
eye had been lost. Nearby was standing a decent-looking gentleman. His eyes
were full of tears with breaths full of throes. He was the boy's father. He
was murmuring, 'Those criminals targeted me but hit my boy. Why didn't they
just kill me instead?'
"It was an uneasy situation and I felt speechless. What kind of words would
mitigate his pangs? I thought to myself, but I couldn't find any to say to him.
So I couldn't do anything except have my long, plaintive face reflect my condolences.
That gentleman was a college professor and he explained to me, 'I will not remain
for a second. I just want my son to be fine so that I can take him and leave
this wrecked country.' I nodded my head agreeing with him and replied, 'Right,
it's a country that you and I can't live in anymore.'
"By nature I am not always morose like this, but sometimes a man is pushed
beyond his will."
The fact is, for most Iraqis, there is little hope left, though polls show
that over 70 percent of them still want all occupation forces out of their country.
I've long since abandoned asking myself the question: How much worse can it
get in Iraq? My Iraqi friends and colleagues tell me that one of the more popular
sayings in Baghdad nowadays is, "Today is better than tomorrow."
Jamail is an independent journalist who reported from Iraq for over eight
months from 2003-2005, as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Jordan. His
reports have been published by the Independent, the Guardian,
and the Sunday Herald in the U.K. He writes regularly for Inter Press
Service, as well as for TomDispatch.com, and is currently finishing a book about
his experiences in Iraq.
Copyright 2006 Dahr Jamail