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“Fear is Transmuting Into Anger”–Rahul Mahajan Reports on Resistance in Iraq

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We speak with author and antiwar activist Rahul Mahajan in Baghdad who was one of the only western reporters in Fallujah during the U.S. siege. He says: “The United States has completely lost control, and even the mildest of people are now absolutely enraged at what is being done in Fallujah, and want the United States out…anyone that didn’t have a gun today could pick up a gun tomorrow.” [includes rush transcript]

The situation in Iraq is dire. At least 60 U.S. troops have been killed over the past week, the highest number of the war, including the week of the invasion. Many more have been wounded. There are no reliable estimates of the number of Iraqi dead, but at least 800 have been reported killed in the last week alone–the actual number is likely much higher.

The top U.S. commander in the Middle East General John Abizaid is asking for the equivalent of two more combat brigades, or as many as 10,000 troops to keep American forces in Iraq at around 135,000.

Reports coming out of Fallujah indicate a massacre of some 600 Iraqis, including many women and children, at the hands of U.S. troops. Meanwhile, 3,000 US troops are massing around Najaf and US military commanders are talking about invading the city and capturing or killing Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Kidnappings are now rampant throughout the country. 9 Americans, including 2 soldiers are being held hostage in Iraq and six employees of Halliburton are missing. Three Russians and five Ukranians who were taken hostage yesterday were released earlier today. The three Japanese civilians taken last week remain hostages. Danish NGOs are leaving, and it seems likely that most civilian aid workers will now flee the country, setting back reconstruction immeasurably.

Meanwhile, at a press conference with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, President Bush responded to reporters’ questions on the situation in Iraq.

  • President Bush, Press Briefing, April 12, 2004.
  • * Rahul Mahajan*, author of “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond” (Seven Stories). He is running a new blog called Empire Notes at empirenotes.org. He has a Ph.D. in particle physics.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As we turn now to Rahul Mahajan, author of “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power In Iraq and Beyond”. He’s running a new blog called EmpireNotes.org. One of the only journalists in Fallujah during the U.S. siege of the town. We caught up with him late yesterday in Baghdad after he’d came out of Fallujah. This is Rahul Majajan.

RAHUL MAHAJAN: We were in Fallujah over part of Saturday, and Sunday morning before we left. I can tell you from whatever I have seen, there’s a big controversy now with the Arab press, Al-Jazeera, in particular reporting U.S. atrocities and war crimes in Fallujah, and the U.S. press tamely reporting Brigadier General Mark Kim’s claims no such thing is happening. I can tell you from what I have seen with my own eyes that Al-Jazeera is much closer to the truth. Al-Jazeera is saying that about half of the 600 people killed, at least, were women and children, and of course, larger number were — in total were non-combatants. I saw with my own eyes, many women and children who were injured and at least one who was quite certain to die. They have been reporting shooting at ambulances by snipers. Right now, the quote, “cease-fire” in effect, the primary mode of attack for the United States is not the heavy bombs they were using in the earlier stages but snipers on rooftops. I can tell you that I saw two ambulances, one of them had two bullet holes on the downward trajectory right in front of the driver’s side of the ambulance. They were probably direct hits on the heart of the ambulance driver. Another ambulance, again with one single, neat bullet hole. This is no way this was an accident. These were deliberate shots into the windshield of the ambulance to kill people sitting in the front seat. Given the circumstances in Fallujah at the time, with completely blacked out streets and ambulances with bright lights with the sirens blowing, I can’t imagine that the sniper could have mistaken them for something else.

AMY GOODMAN: Rahul, you are one of the few western reporters who have gotten into Fallujah. How you are operating there?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, it’s a very tricky situation. We had — there was one British reporter, Lee Gordon who had a number of Iraqi contacts, including a man with a nephew of a local sheikh, and was on good terms with many people, and could negotiate passes through the Mujahadin. So we had to first use American and British white faces to get us through the American roadblocks and then we had to use these connections to get us in there. I’m quite certain that we would be in very dire straits if we didn’t have people who knew very well the local resistance in Fallujah. While we were there it was mostly a relief operation. We took in medical supplies and evacuated some wounded back to Baghdad. It was difficult to do reporting. There was a lot of tension, and people at the hospital we were at were working feverishly to save a few lives with very inadequate supplies. But I did get to see a few things.

AMY GOODMAN: In your blog at empirenotes.org, you quote “Time” magazine “in some neighborhoods, the marines say anyone they spot in the streets is considered a bad guy.” says Marine Major, Larry Kafish, “It’s hard to differentiate between people who are insurgent or civilians. You just have to go with your gut feeling.” Your response.

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, it’s absolutely true. It is true that some of the young men in Fallujah have not picked up their kalasnikovs yet, but the resistance, the Mujahadin, they are the people of the town. They’re referred to as (inaudible) which means youth, just the way that the stone throwing boys, the first Palestinian antifada, were. It’s true that anyone that doesn’t have a gun today could pick up a gun tomorrow. That says, to me, not that they’re justified in killing any military age male or making sure they remain there in besieged Fallujah. Which is their policy. They’re not letting military age men out in general. They made an exception for us. We brought some wounded out. But it says, to me, that rather than saying that what they’re doing is justified, it says they’re in the wrong town in the wrong country, executing the wrong policy. If anyone could be the enemy, then you have no justification for being there. It is in fact the exact logic they used in large areas of Vietnam, in any of the three fire zones. For example, military aged males, if they were moving at all, they were targets, and they could be shot at indiscriminately.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Rahul Mahajan. He is author of the book, “Full Spectrum Dominance”. He is in Iraq right now, keeping a blog, empirenotes.org. He has just come out of Fallujah, is in Baghdad right now. You have been in Iraq a number of times. How does the sentiment of the population compare now to what it has been?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, I was here in January, and I interviewed people extensively. And in Baghdad, which is the only area I was in then, I could sense an incredibly widespread anger, an atmosphere of deep frustration. I mean, literally 90-plus% of the people in Baghdad would tell that you things are worse now than they were under Saddam Hussein. It was especially striking that doctors and hospitals told us they got less in the way of medical supplies then than they did under Saddam. But that anger and resentment hadn’t yet crystalized. The resistance in most areas was relatively marginalized. It is true that in Fallujah, it had a lot stronger rapor than (inaudible) and the rest of Alumbar(?) province. The Shia had not decided to move the violence. They were very much biding their time. And now all of that has just explosively changed in the space of ten days. At the same time the entire — whatever little legitimacy the occupation had, and it was very, very little, has completely collapsed. A number of people in the governing council have resigned. The rest of them are very silent. They oppose the brutality of the American policy in Fallujah, and they’re also now terrified of being killed by the Sunni Mujahadin or Al Sadr’s brigades if they say anything. The United States has completely lost control, and even the mildest of people are now absolutely enraged at what is being done in Fallujah, and want the United States out.

AMY GOODMAN: Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of the U.S. ground forces in Iraq, told reporters in the United States, in a video link from Baghdad, “The mission of U.S. forces is to kill or capture Muqtada Al Sadr,” What is your response, Rahul?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, this should show the complete lack of any kind of political thinking or political strategy to this whole thing. The first axiom in any kind of dealing with a movement like this is, when you want to look at a leader, you have to think about his followers. Capturing or killing Muqtada Al Sadr will make the (inaudible) army of his explode. It is going to instantly get every other shia cleric so that they cannot possibly do anything but condemn the U.S. actions. Sistani is going to have to come out more in force. And a number of Shia that are holding back now, because they don’t really follow Al Sadr, have told me, they said, if Sistani gives the call for war, then we will pick up our guns. It is the most idiotic thing they could think of doing.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the comparisons of Al Sadr to Saddam Hussein?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Al Sadr is an extremist. His — there are many people — obviously, he’s going to make sure that women who don’t wear their head scarves are abused in public and so on. It’s not going to be very pretty. I don’t know if it can be as abusive and repressive as Saddam Hussein. I don’t know if he can be as repressive as the U.S. occupation, but he’s not a good alternative. He’s just the alternative that was inevitable to arrive in a country where the United States went in and just deliberately created this impossible situation, taking away a government and putting in nothing with even a shred of legitimacy in its place.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the U.S. government saying that it is calm now in Fallujah, that there is a cease-fire?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, they were saying that when I was there, and there was no cease-fire. I mean, I think what they did was they spent a few days without dropping the 500-pound bombs, which is what they were using, 500-pound bombs on residential areas is a terrifying thing. They were not using those, so they called it a “cease-fire”. But, as I said, the snipers were sniping everywhere. There was a constant stream of wounded into the hospitals. This tiny little makeshift clinic had a dozen people come in, and there would have been far more if there weren’t entire sections of the town cut off by the snipers and incapable of getting someone from one place to the clinic without being killed. So I think the claim of a cease-fire was a joke and I see no reason to believe it now, either.

AMY GOODMAN: Rahul, what about the presence of mercenaries, of the growing private army outside of the U.S. army?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, I think that this is part of a standard trend of, just, making sure that the limited controls that are at least legally in place on actual U.S. government employees, like Congressional oversight, can be gotten around. And there are claims that the mercenaries don’t get proper training, although it’s not clear to me what kind of training the ordinary soldiers get. I think it’s just really — it’s part and parcel of the whole problem. There’s the corruption, the corporate cronyism in contracts, the use of private armies and private mercenaries, and it all goes to show just what a disaster this whole occupation is. I don’t think their conduct in particular is so vastly different from that of the ordinary military. I think it’s just an extension of the same problem.

AMY GOODMAN: How long do you plan to stay in Iraq?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, I had planned to stay until April 25th, but the situation has deteriorated rapidly. Foreigners are being kidnapped at an alarming rate, and humanitarian N.G.O.'s even some like the Italians' Bridges to Baghdad, who’ve been doing excellent work here for a very long time, are pulling out. Bridges to Baghdad is leaving tomorrow and other groups are thinking about leaving as soon as possible. So anything could happen,and I’m just trying to figure out day-to-day whether it makes sense to stay here. Already most of us are captives in our hotel, because, in fact, you can’t find translators who will take you around most of the time, because of the threats of their being the targets of violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell me, Rahul Mahajan, how you function each day when you go outside of the hotel? What do you do? How do you protect yourself?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Well, frankly, I don’t do anything to protect myself. I have the slight advantage that I look very much like many Iraqis. There are — a lot of them are darker skinned and indistinguishable from an Indian, which is my origin, so if I play deaf and dumb, I’m not particularly a target. Others, women, there’s — you won’t find a single foreign white woman in Iraq who doesn’t wear a head scarf whenever she leaves. You will see Iraqi women without a head scarf. You will never see an American woman without one. I have heard that even some of the more delicate-featured men, with very striking blond hair, do the same thing. But, in general, there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself. Everybody’s got a kalashnikov, and it’s just of matter of luck. I just try to keep my head down.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say that there is tremendous fear among the Iraqis?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: There was fear. There was a great deal of fear. But I see — I actually see Iraqis losing their fear, and seeing it translated into anger. The same people that have said, you know, “Al Sadr’s people are thugs”, well, some of them still say it, but now they say it, in a sense, “they’re our thugs and they’re protecting us against the brutal occupiers”. People of Fallujah say that the Mujahadin, they’re our boys and our people and, you know, we support them. So, I don’t think that the Iraqi people feel — I think that they do feel that there will be consequences. There are women in Baghdad who go around with uncovered heads who know that in Fallujah, if they do that, they’re very likely to be the subject of violence, but they still support the Mujahadin because they’re so much against the brutal occupation. So I see much less fear and much more anger.

AMY GOODMAN: And have you gotten an chance to talk to U.S. soldiers?

RAHUL MAHAJAN: Initially I did, when I was in Sadr city, a couple of days after the outbreak of violence there, and I talked to some young men who were posted there. They had only been in Iraq three weeks, so they were more friendly and easier to approach. There was one we tried to talk to who simply kind of waved at us in the way that most troops will do if they’ve been in the country a long time, they get extremely wary and nervous. But these guys talked to us. They were perfectly nice. They were very, very ignorant of what was going on in Iraq. They were there in Sadr city because of clashes with Al Sadr’s Madi army. So, I asked them, “What do you think about the stuff with Al Sadr. What do you think about the Madi army?” They said, “What? Who is that? Who are they? In fact one of them was very curious and came up and asked us several questions trying to figure out who these people were. They were thrown in here. They don’t know any Arabic. They don’t even know how to say, “please get away from the tank” in a respectful way, and they’re sent over here to kill people and die. And it is a shame. I haven’t been able to talk to any in more recent days.

AMY GOODMAN: Rahul Mahajan, he is speaking from Iraq.Author of “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power In Iraq and Beyond”. He is just out of Fallujah. This is Democracy Now!, the War and Peace Report, I’m Amy Goodman.

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