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2005-04-28

Iraq Through the Eyes of Unemebedded, Independent Journalist Dahr Jamail

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Dahr Jamail, one of the few independent, unembedded journalists reporting in Iraq for months, joins us in our firehouse studio to discuss the siege of Fallujah, detention of Iraqis, so-called "reconstruction" and much more. [includes rush transcript]

One of the most enduring images of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal is the photograph of a prisoner cloaked in black, standing on a box with wires attached to his outstretched arms.

Now, the man depicted in the photo has reportedly been identified. He is speaking out on this week’s edition of the PBS newsmagazine "Now." His name is Haj Ali. He was a mayor of a Baghdad suburb and a member of the ruling Baath Party, when he was snatched off the street in late 2003 and transported to Abu Ghraib, despite denying involvement in the insurgency.

In the interview, Ali says, "They made me stand on a box with my hands hooked to wires and shocked me with electricity. It felt like my eyeballs were coming out of their sockets. I fell, and they put me back up again for more."

Today is the first anniversary of the publication of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. We turn now to Iraq.

We turn now to Iraq. An article in the British newspaper the Guardian titled "This Is Our Guernica" reads:

"In the 1930s the Spanish city of Guernica became a symbol of wanton murder and destruction. In the 1990s Grozny was cruelly flattened by the Russians; it still lies in ruins. This decade"s unforgettable monument to brutality and overkill is Falluja, a text-book case of how not to handle an insurgency, and a reminder that unpopular occupations will always degenerate into desperation and atrocity."

Those are the words of journalist Dahr Jamil. He spent many months in Iraq as one of the only independent, unembedded journalists there. He published his reports on a blog called DahrJamailIraq.com and was a regular guest on Democracy Now! He joins us in our firehouse studio today.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now!

DAHR JAMAIL: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. Can you talk more about this image of the Guernica, and what Iraq and specifically Fallujah has meant?

DAHR JAMAIL: Fallujah, which was the symbol of the resistance in Iraq to the U.S. occupation and throughout the Middle East at that point is now 70% estimated to be bombed to the ground, no water, no electricity. People who want to go back into that city have to get retina scans, all ten fingers fingerprinted, then they’re issued an ID card. People inside the city are referring to it as a big jail. It is a horrendous situation, and we still have hundreds of thousands of refugees as a result. And the goal of the mission of sieging Fallujah as announced by the U.S. military was to capture the phantom Zarqawi and to bring security and stability for the elections, and what’s left is a situation where Fallujah is in shambles, and the resistance has spread throughout the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is doing the retina scans, the fingerprinting?

DAHR JAMAIL: The U.S. military is doing all of this.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many people are kept out of Fallujah now? How many people actually live there? How many were there to begin with?

DAHR JAMAIL: The latest estimate is of a city of 350,000 people, that 50,000 now have returned back inside the city.

AMY GOODMAN: And what’s happened? Where have the others gone?

DAHR JAMAIL: They are still in refugee camps. There are refugee camps all around the outskirts of Fallujah, throughout many areas of Baghdad, even parts of Iraq south of the capital city. They are living in, of course, horrible conditions. There’s running water at some of these refugee camps, none at others. No electricity. They are depending primarily on other Iraqis for aid, which is a very difficult situation, because now we have an estimated 65% unemployment in Iraq. Basic infrastructure remains in shambles. And this is a community then that is trying to support over 300,000 refugees at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Now that you have come back, what is the contrast or the difference between what you learn about Iraq when you are here versus when you are there on the ground?

DAHR JAMAIL: Well, watching the corporate media back here, I see the disparity between that and what’s actually happening on the ground continue to grow. If we look at corporate media, we’re led to believe that after the January 30 elections, things are better in Iraq. We have a democracy there. Yes, it’s — there’s still a little chaos, but things are getting better, but that is not the facts at all when we look at just the numbers. We have still an average of over a soldier a day dying, ten times that number wounded, infrastructure in shambles, and things continue to get worse. At least a car bomb a day in Baghdad and insecurity throughout most of the rest of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dahr Jamail, unembedded reporter in Iraq, now back in the United States. We’ll come back to talk with him in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest in studio, Dahr Jamail, who runs the blog, DahrJamailIraq.com, just returned from Iraq, was there for eight months and reported to us on a somewhat regular basis. You are talking about Fallujah. What about the use of chemical weapons there? Last November, you reported the U.S. military has used poison gas and other non-conventional weapons against civilians in Fallujah. How do you know this?

DAHR JAMAIL: Many of the refugees I interviewed throughout November, just after the beginning of the siege, and then people who had been coming out of the city even into December, continued to report the use of chemical weapons in Fallujah, but really, one of the most important sources I have for this is an Iraqi doctor that I interviewed on the outskirts of Fallujah, and he said that he had worked as a medic during the Iran-Iraq War, he had treated Iraqi soldiers who had been hit with Iranian chemical weapons, so he knew what these types of injuries look like. And he said that he had treated people from Fallujah with the same types of injuries, as well as another Iraqi man that I had interviewed who went into the city, brought in by U.S. soldiers to help bury bodies, and that he had seen many bodies that he believed to have been hit by chemical weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: On March 3, Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli of the Iraqi Health Ministry held a news conference accusing the U.S. of using internationally banned chemical weapons, including nerve gas, during the assault. Do you have any more information on that?

DAHR JAMAIL: That report, actually, yes, I have read that and am aware of that. And it’s just further confirmation of the fact that the — another, related to that what the doctor said that I had interviewed was that he was willing to go in and try to dig up some of these bodies that they were forced to bury by the U.S. military there in Fallujah, because he said that he is 100% certain that these types of weapons had been used, and he, among so many other people inside the city, are pleading for an international investigation of the types of these — of what illegal weapons were used there, because they are absolutely certain they were chemical weapons, cluster bombs, fleshettes, types of napalm and various other weapons, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Dahr, on your blog, you continually talked about everyday Iraqis and the kind of obstacles they faced, what it was like just to live there. Give us that full picture that we so rarely can get.

DAHR JAMAIL: Well, the situation in Iraq is devastating. It’s difficult to be there and see it day in and day out where there’s no security whatsoever. There’s complete lawlessness in the capital city and most other cities. The situation in the hospitals is an ongoing health care crisis. They’re lacking medicines and basic supplies and things they need. Then we have the refugee situation where people are all over the city, hundreds of families in various places, trying to survive. It’s really quite — it’s the ongoing refugee situation we have that — over 300,000 there. We have rampant fuel crisis going on where people are waiting one, sometimes two days, to fill the tanks of their cars. We have the military responding to the security situation by closing various streets in Baghdad. At least 100 streets are now closed in the capital city to try to bring some sort of order to the situation. Gas lines stretching sometimes between six and ten miles. People waiting between one and two days to fill the tanks of their cars. Gasoline is being rationed. Even plates one day, odd the next. People are allowed seven-and-a-half gallons when they fill their tanks. Electricity in the better parts of Baghdad is about eight hours. In most places, including up in the north in the Kurdistan region, we have three hours or less of electricity per day and infrastructure is in worse shape in all of the main areas than it was prior to the invasion.

AMY GOODMAN: We spoke with Giuliani Sgrena the other day, who was kidnapped in Iraq, and then ultimately as she was getting out, the U.S. military opened fire on her car, killing the Italian intelligence official who helped to get her out and wounding her. But just the danger every day of reporting unembedded for month after month, how did you do it?

DAHR JAMAIL: Well, the level of anxiety is extremely high. And I would do my best to fit in. I felt that no security was my security, and growing a beard and going out, varying the times I go out, and not advertising the fact that I am an American. And it is a very stressful situation, but if you are going to work in Iraq as a journalist, you have to leave your hotel, if you are going to do your job. So, it’s an accepted risk by myself and other colleagues I know who preferred to operate that way, rather than staying in their hotels or just going to military press conferences or embedding with the military.

AMY GOODMAN: On this anniversary of the release of the photos, the Pentagon had had them for months before of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, what was the effect of those photos in Iraq?

DAHR JAMAIL: Well, everyone in Iraq already knew that this sort of treatment was happening, from almost the beginning of the occupation and not just in Abu Ghraib, but in military detention facilities throughout the country. These reports had been coming in for months. People were very well aware of the fact that there was sexual abuse, physical violence, death, rape, this sort of a thing happening from the beginning. But when those photos came out, this confirmation and having it broadcast to the world just confirmed all of these beliefs by Iraqis, and it really demolished what credibility may have been left at that point for the occupation forces. That credibility was shattered with these photographs. And I want to be real clear that this situation is ongoing. It’s not stopped. Just because the corporate media decided to show these photos and really talk about this story for a while, then they decide that, well, there’s a few soldiers that are held responsible. Let’s try the bad apples, and this is going to put the lid back on the situation. But that has not changed the fact that the number of prisoners in Iraq is increasing. It has increased dramatically in the last few months. And the type of treatment going on in the prisons is exactly the same as it was when those photos were released.

AMY GOODMAN: And where are the prisoners held, when you talk about the other detention facilities?

DAHR JAMAIL: At so many of the military detention — military bases, there are detention facilities. For example, at Baghdad Airport, there’s a large detention facility there. Iraqis in Baghdad call it Guantanamo Airport. Many other military installations such as one up near Tikrit, I know specifically that has a good sized detention facility. But they’re really spread all around Iraq, even in many parts in the south.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dahr Jamail. And he is just back from Iraq. There’s some interesting news today. Downing Street has published the Attorney General’s full advice on the legality of the Iraq war after part of it was leaked to the media. In the March 7, 2003, documents — that was just before the invasion — Lord Goldsmith told Tony Blair, a second U.N. resolution was the safest legal course. Ten days later his advice to Parliament raised no such concerns about legality. Michael Howard suggested M.P.s had been tricked into voting for war. Charles Kennedy urged Blair to come clean. Blair defended his actions. In the advice Lord Goldsmith warned there were a number of ways in which opponents of war could bring legal action. "We cannot be certain they would not succeed," he said. "Adding a second resolution might be the way of preventing such legal action succeeding." Lord Goldsmith continued, "Finally, I must stress that the lawfulness of military action depends not only on the existence of a legal basis, but also on the question of proportionality." He added, "It must be proportionate to the objective of securing compliance with Iraq’s disarmament." That, a report from the B.B.C. today. Your response?

DAHR JAMAIL: Well, it’s almost a moot point at this point, because it couldn’t be any clearer that this invasion of Iraq and ensuing occupation have really nothing to do, at least if we go by Bush administration standards, nothing to do with what is legal, what is right, what is best for Iraqis, and certainly not what is best for this country. So, there are no weapons of mass destruction. There’s no links with al Qaeda. There’s no terrorist training camps there, anything like this. And now we have this ongoing occupation with no end in sight. 14 permanent U.S. military bases there. Four done, ten more in the works. More money just sailed through the government to fund that. So, what is the point of even talking about legality at this point? It’s very, very clear that this situation, and the Bush administration perpetuation of it has — they really are not concerned with what’s legal and what’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dahr Jamail, just back from Iraq. What about the elections? What effect did they have on Iraqis? And you’re talking about the situation being very bad right now. Did the elections improve anything, and do you hold out any hope now that this government is being constituted?

DAHR JAMAIL: I certainly want the situation in Iraq to improve in any way possible, because the devastation there is everywhere. It’s really unbearable for Iraqis today, and certainly hope that the elections would bring about some sort of improvement, but to date, they have not. They only just very recently actually filled the cabinet position, so it took them 12 weeks to actually form a government. Now they have well under a year to attempt to agree and author a constitution. But the bottom line, I think, how do we judge if the elections were a success? Not by something — the fact that something resembling elections occurred in Iraq, but rather, have they improved the life of Iraqis and brought about better security, bought about a solution to the gas crisis, bought about some solution to the 65% unemployment rate? Things like this, and to date, they have not. To date, they have — situations on the ground just continue to deteriorate, a little by little, each passing day.

AMY GOODMAN: We have the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair, General Richard Myers saying, in terms of incidents, it’s right about where it was a year ago, talking about the ability of the Iraqi resistance to wage attacks not diminishing over the past year. The U.S. reporting the number had decreased shortly before the election, but recent weeks have seen a surge in violence. Who is the resistance right now?

DAHR JAMAIL: Right now, the resistance is so many groups. It’s really not the best thing to talk about it as one entity. It’s really comprised of so many different groups. It definitely started out as mostly ex-military, Bremer essentially created the resistance when he disbanded the military and Ba’athists. But at this point it, it’s more and more average Iraqis, people who have had family members killed and humiliated by occupation forces. It’s not 100% Sunni. There are now some Shia members in it. And as far as foreign fighters, it’s a very, very low percentage of those who are actually involved within the resistance.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week we had a debate between Naomi Klein and Erik Gustafson who was an Iraq war vet from ten years ago, Naomi Klein, the well-known author, writer, journalist, about whether the troops should withdraw immediately the U.S. troops, the so-called coalition troops. What effect do you think that would have?

DAHR JAMAIL: I think it would begin a process of Iraq becoming a truly sovereign nation. I think it would bring lesser casualties to the Iraqi people, because the U.S. military is the leading cause of death and suffering right now in Iraq. The majority of the deaths in Iraq under the occupation are at the hands of the U.S. military, primarily by U.S. warplanes dropping bombs on people’s homes and neighborhoods. So, that would stop. That would help the situation on the ground. That would bring greater stability to the situation there. There would certainly be chaos. It would certainly — the instability would continue, but I think talk of the U.S. pullout can’t occur without including the fact that all of the contracts on the ground there for the reconstruction would have to be reopened to bidding, giving Iraqi concerns first priority. They know how to rebuild their country. They have already done this. And they’re not being allowed to do so at this time. And then, of course, full compensation paid to Iraqis who have suffered during the occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: Do people have a sense that that will happen?

DAHR JAMAIL: No. People are — it’s quite clear at this point, because people who voted that I interviewed did vote because they felt it was going to bring about an end to the occupation. And it’s very clear at this point especially that this government has no intention of forcing the U.S. to put a timetable for withdrawal, so really it still looks as though there’s no end in sight.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you plan, Dahr, to return to Iraq?

DAHR JAMAIL: I do plan to return. I am not entirely certain exactly as to when, but I will go back.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us, as people follow the news now, from here in the United States. This weekend, May 1, there are also going to be a number of protests moving in on the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the bombs in Hiroshima, protesting war in New York in Central Park. There’s going to be a march from the U.N. to Central Park. What do you think it’s important for people to understand?

DAHR JAMAIL: That this administration has no intention of withdrawing from Iraq, and the only way that this is going to happen is if they are forced to withdraw, because they’re certainly not going to do it on their own volition.

AMY GOODMAN: Dahr Jamail, just back from Iraq. His website is DahrJamailIraq.com. And we will also link to it at democracynow.org. And you spell it DahrJamailIraq.com, since so many people call and write to us and ask, "How do we find that site?" Thank you.

DAHR JAMAIL: Thank you. Amy.

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