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Dahr Jamail Returns to Iraq to Find Rampant Torture and a Failed State Living in “Utter Devastation”

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Investigative journalist Dahr Jamail reported for Democracy Now! throughout the early stages of the U.S. invasion of Iraq 10 years ago. Now with Al Jazeera, Jamail has just returned from Iraq once again, finding what he calls a “failed state” living in “utter devastation.” In part one of our interview, Jamail discusses the harrowing security situation for Iraqis living in fear of bombings, executions and kidnappings, the widespread torture in Iraq’s prisons, and the breakdown of security in what he calls a “lawless state.” Jamail is the author of “Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq” and “The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.” [includes rush transcript]

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led attack on Iraq, a series of deadly bomb blasts has hit the capital city of Baghdad. The first attack came early morning Tuesday and killed a Finance Ministry official. It was followed by more than a dozen bombings that targeted a vegetable market, a bank and a restaurant. At least 65 people were killed, and hundreds more were wounded. The spate of violence comes as many Iraqis are reflecting on what has changed in their country since the invasion, which led to the ouster of longtime leader Saddam Hussein. Many say they have yet to see any of the benefits they were promised.

GHALI AL-ATWANI: [translated] The decision to go to war in Iraq was incorrect. Firstly, Iraq was put under Chapter VII. Then the war was waged. Nothing has changed in Iraq. There was Saddam’s dictatorship before, but now there’s a collective dictatorship in Iraq. What has changed in Iraq? The economic situation is very bad. The public services are in poor condition. Baghdad was flooded with water because of heavy rains. So the Americans always bring destruction and death in every place they go and invade.

AMY GOODMAN: The almost nine-year U.S. occupation of Iraq led to the deaths of at least 134,000 Iraqi civilians and contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands more. Many in Iraq continue to suffer the consequences of the invasion.

Later we’ll also talk about the war’s impact on U.S. military veterans, but first we’re joined by longtime Democracy Now! contributor Dahr Jamail, now an investigative reporter for Al Jazeera English in Doha. If you watched our coverage during the 10 years of the invasion, you will remember his reports from Fallujah and elsewhere. Dahr recently returned to Baghdad, where he filed several major reports. His recent stories for Al Jazeera include “Maliki’s Iraq: Rape, Executions and Torture” and “Iraq: War’s Legacy of Cancer.” He’s also reported on the million displaced Iraqis who are struggling without government aid. Dahr Jamail is the author of Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq and The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Welcome welcome back to Democracy Now!, Dahr. It’s good to have you with us. We last saw you when we were in Doha, as well. That’s where you are, at the studios of Al Jazeera. Dahr, talk about what you found in your most recent trip to Iraq.

DAHR JAMAIL: Well, it’s a huge question, Amy, because the situation in Iraq today, 10 years after the U.S.-led invasion and occupation began, it’s just utter devastation. It’s a situation where, overall, we can say that Iraq is a failed state. The economy is in a state of crisis, perpetual crisis, that began far back with the institution of the 100 Bremer orders during—under the Coalition Provisional Authority, the civil government set up to run Iraq during the first year of the occupation. And it’s been in crisis ever since.

The average Iraqi is just barely getting by. And how can they get by when there’s virtually no security across much large swaths of country to this day, where, you know, as we see in the headlines recently, even when there’s not these dramatic, spectacular days of dozens of people being killed by bombs across Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, on any given day there’s assassinations, there’s detentions, there’s abductions and people being disappeared and kidnapped? One of the demands, for example, of the ongoing Sunni protests in Fallujah and across much of Al Anbar province is to ban silencer weapons, as they describe them, because there are so many hidden executions happening. Iraq has basically become a lawless state where the government is laughingly referred to oftentimes as the “sidewalks government,” because one of the only things visible that they’ve actually accomplished is to install some new sidewalks across parts of Baghdad.

But it’s really hard to describe the amount of devastation. I mean, we’re having to talk about a country where, since 2003 began, we can cite the Lancet study that was published in the peer-reviewed Lancet medical journal in 2006, which way back in that time, seven years ago—excuse me, seven years ago now, found 655,000 excess deaths in Iraq. And that’s now a grossly outdated study, particularly given the level of violence we saw in 2006, 2007, and the low-level chronic violence that perpetuates to this day.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dahr Jamail, a lot of people say that what’s going on in Iraq now is not so much the result of the U.S. invasion but rather sectarian war between Sunnis and Shias. Could you respond to that? Do you agree?

DAHR JAMAIL: I don’t agree. I think all of this is a direct result of—either direct or indirectly a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation and the strategy applied. I mean, we saw something come out just last week in a joint investigation of BBC Arabic and The Guardian, which gave hard evidence, insider evidence, of the machinations of the U.S. using retired Lieutenant Colonel James Steele, infamous during the Reagan administration of orchestrating so many of the death squads in Central America along with Negroponte. Well, Negroponte happened to be the U.S. ambassador to Iraq for some of the occupation and, of course, brought in his old buddy James Steele to set up the same types of tactics, the detentions, the types of torture techniques that we’re seeing rampant across today—across Iraq today, the blatant attempts to foment sectarian violence, sort of a divide-and-conquer policy. Even Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld under Bush, back around 2006, 2007, referred to kind of casually using the “Salvador Option” in Iraq, and that’s precisely what he was describing.

So, the sectarianism fomented where, you know, we don’t have a natural sectarianism or animosities between the sects in Iraq, but it was only after the occupation began and these strategies were applied by the Bush administration that we saw the violence, the purging in the mixed neighborhoods, that continues to this day, and the sectarianism, and basically turning Iraqis against one another very effectively. And this is a direct result of the Bush administration policy, as well as bringing in Maliki as prime minister himself.

We have to remember that when neoconservative Zalmay Khalilzad was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Maliki was basically the guy that the U.S. government and Iran could agree with as having as prime minister. And so, there wasn’t a whole lot of democracy involved in that whatsoever. I say, tongue in cheek, he was basically appointed by Zalmay Khalilzad and agreed upon by the powers that be in Iran, and he of course remains prime minister to this day despite—we’ve had elections that clearly he has not won, yet he remains in power.

AMY GOODMAN: Dahr, I wanted to go to that Guardian/BBC Arabic report that found that a key U.S. general behind the effort, James Steele, as you said, had firsthand knowledge of brutal torture carried out by Iraqi surrogates but did nothing to stop it. Steele served as then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s liaison with Iraq’s Special Police Commandos. His stint in Iraq came 20 years after overseeing the U.S. special operations forces that trained government death squads in El Salvador. Speaking to The Guardian, an Iraqi general said Steele was unfazed when the torture of a young prisoner interrupted his lunch.

GEN. MUNTADHER AL-SAMARI: [translated] One of the detainees was screaming. By chance, James Steele was there outside, washing his hands. He opened the door and saw the detainee. He was hanging by his legs, upside down. James Steele didn’t react at all when he saw this man. It was just normal. He closed the door and came back to his seat in the advisers’ room.

AMY GOODMAN: Steele was a colonel. Dahr Jamail?

DAHR JAMAIL: Well, he’s a veteran of that kind of tactic. This goes way back to the ’80s all across Central America, which, you know, he clearly had plenty of opportunity to streamline his techniques. And that type of torture described in the clip that you just played is rampant.

The story that I did, talking primarily about the tactics and strategies being used by Maliki’s security forces, and particularly within the prisons—first of all, we have a situation where detentions across Iraq, primarily in Sunni-dominated parts of Baghdad, as well as in areas like Fallujah, predominantly Sunni cities, where people are being detained, en masse at times, nightly home raids, same type of stuff that the U.S. military used when they were in Iraq. And then the types of torture being described coming out of the prisons is truly horrific: people being hung by their ankles for days at a time while their heads are in buckets of water on the ground; people having their hands tied behind their backs and then hung from their hands for sometimes days at a time; electrical shock being used on people’s limbs, on their genitals, on their tongues; men being raped by broom handles as well as bottles; women in prison being raped. I spoke with one woman released just over a week ago at this point, talking about how she had been in prison for four years and was raped repeatedly by Iraqi forces.

Other types of techniques being used—and again, all of this comes back to the types of workings of Colonel James Steele, where as people are being—men are being threatened. And I interviewed several Iraqis who said this, that when they were detained, they said, “Look, they threatened me that if I didn’t talk and give them the information they wanted or give them some names that would help them acquire the information that they wanted,” that their sisters, their mothers, their wives would be brought in and raped repeatedly in front of them. So, of course people would just start giving them anything that they thought they wanted to hear.

But the types of torture is ongoing. It’s rampant. It’s one of the driving factors as to why we’re seeing massive Friday protests now, well into the three month, across Al Anbar province and the Adhamiyah district of Baghdad, where Sunnis are demanding a halt for the detentions, a halt of the so-called Article 4, which is the legislation passed and being used in the Iraqi government that—basically where they took a page out of the Bush playbook of giving them carte blanche to arrest anybody for any reasons under the guise of terrorism charges, of suspected terrorism, and then they can be held indefinitely. I spoke with people both at Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch about this, and they said one of the problems now is, it’s the detentions and the being held secretly is so rampant now by the Iraqi security forces that there isn’t really even a need for secret prisons anymore. Remember a ways back, we had—it all came out that there were secret Maliki prisons. Well, now, today in Iraq, they’re referring—they’re being referred to by a lot of Iraqis as “secret prisoners,” because people are being detained, their families aren’t—there’s no law requiring that the families be notified, nobody knows where these people are. They can be held in any prison anywhere in broad daylight, because no name is being registered anywhere. So, literally, we have untold numbers of people being detained, being treated horrifically.

And as people in Fallujah have told me, they said, “Look, we think that the Maliki regime tactics are even worse than the Americans,” because when the Americans—when they detain people, there was at least hope that they would eventually be released, and likelihood that they would. Under Maliki, that hope is gone; there’s not a hope. The Fallujahns also referred to as the Americans therefore being at least somewhat more merciful than the tactics being employed by the Maliki regime, because people are being detained and not being heard from again, except in one instance, I interviewed the mother of a young man. He was 17 years old when he was detained. He was held for a year and a half. They never could find him, until she received a phone call from him saying, “Look, I’ve been a prisoner in these prisons, and I’m getting one last phone call to say goodbye to you, because tomorrow I’m going to be executed.”

AMY GOODMAN: Dahr Jamail, we’re going to come back to you. Dahr Jamail, investigative journalist who has just returned from Iraq, he’s speaking to us from Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with him in a minute.

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Ten Years Later, U.S. Has Left Iraq with Mass Displacement & Epidemic of Birth Defects, Cancers

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