Saturday, January 08, 2005

Iraq: The Devastation

By Dahr Jamail

Friday 07 January 2005

The devastation of Iraq? Where do I start? After working 7 of the last 12 months in Iraq, I'm still overwhelmed by even the thought of trying to describe this.

The illegal war and occupation of Iraq was waged for three reasons, according to the Bush administration. First for weapons of mass destruction, which have yet to be found. Second, because the regime of Saddam Hussein had links to al-Qaeda, which Mr. Bush has personally admitted have never been proven. The third reason - embedded in the very name of the invasion, Operation Iraqi Freedom - was to liberate the Iraqi people.

So Iraq is now a liberated country.

I've been in liberated Baghdad and environs on and off for 12
months, including being inside Fallujah during the April siege and
having warning shots fired over my head more than once by soldiers. I've
traveled in the south, north, and extensively around central Iraq. What
I saw in the first months of 2004, however, when it was easier for a
foreign reporter to travel the country, offered a powerful - even
predictive - taste of the horrors to come in the rest of the year (and
undoubtedly in 2005 as well). It's worth returning to the now forgotten
first half of last year and remembering just how terrible things were
for Iraqis even relatively early in our occupation of their country.

Then, as now, for Iraqis, our invasion and occupation was a case of
liberation from - from human rights (think: the atrocities committed in
Abu Ghraib which are still occurring daily there and elsewhere);
liberation from functioning infrastructure (think: the malfunctioning
electric system, the many-mile long gas lines, the raw sewage in the
streets); liberation from an entire city to live in (think: Fallujah,
most of which has by now been flattened by aerial bombardment and other

Iraqis were then already bitter, confused, and existing amid a
desolation that came from myriads of Bush administration broken
promises. Quite literally every liberated Iraqi I've gotten to know from
my earliest days in the country has either had a family member or a
friend killed by U.S. soldiers or from the effects of the
war/occupation. These include such everyday facts of life as not having
enough money for food or fuel due to massive unemployment and soaring
energy prices, or any of the countless other horrors caused by the
aforementioned. The broken promises, broken infrastructure, and broken
cities of Iraq were plainly visible in those early months of 2004 - and
the sad thing is that the devastation I saw then has only grown worse
since. The life Iraqis were living a year ago, horrendous as it was, was
but a prelude to what was to come under the U.S. occupation. The warning
signs were clear from a shattered infrastructure, to all the torturing,
to a burgeoning, violent resistance.

Broken Promises

It was quickly apparent, even to a journalistic newcomer, even in
those first months of last year that the real nature of the liberation
we brought to Iraq was no news to Iraqis. Long before the American media
decided it was time to report on the horrendous actions occurring inside
Abu Ghraib prison, most Iraqis already knew that the "liberators" of
their country were torturing and humiliating their countrymen.

In December 2003, for instance, a man in Baghdad, speaking of the
Abu Ghraib atrocities, said to me, "Why do they use these actions? Even
Saddam Hussein did not do that! This is not good behavior. They are not
coming to liberate Iraq!" And by then the bleak jokes of the beleaguered
had already begun to circulate. In the dark humor that has become so
popular in Baghdad these days, one recently released Abu Ghraib detainee
I interviewed said, "The Americans brought electricity to my ass before
they brought it to my house!"

Sadiq Zoman is fairly typical of what I've seen. Taken from his home
in Kirkuk in July, 2003, he was held in a military detention facility
near Tikrit before being dropped off comatose at the Salahadin General
Hospital by U.S. forces one month later. While the medical report
accompanying him, signed by Lt. Col. Michael Hodges, stated that Mr.
Zoman was comatose due to a heart attack brought on by heat stroke, it
failed to mention that his head had been bludgeoned, or to note the
electrical burn marks that scorched his penis and the bottoms of his
feet, or the bruises and whip-like marks up and down his body.

I visited his wife Hashmiya and eight daughters in a nearly empty
home in Baghdad. Its belongings had largely been sold on the black
market to keep them all afloat. A fan twirled slowly over the bed as
Zoman stared blankly at the ceiling. A small back-up generator hummed
outside, as this neighborhood, like most of Baghdad, averaged only six
hours of electricity per day.

Her daughter Rheem, who is in college, voiced the sentiments of the
entire family when she said, "I hate the Americans for doing this. When
they took my father they took my life. I pray for revenge on the
Americans for destroying my father, my country, and my life."

In May of 2004, when I went to their house, a recent court-martial
of one of the soldiers complicit in the widespread torturing of Iraqis
in Abu Ghraib had already taken place. He had been sentenced to some
modest prison time, but Iraqis were unimpressed. They had been convinced
yet again - not that they needed it - that Bush administration promises
to clean up its act regarding the treatment of detained Iraqis were no
less empty than those being offered for assistance in building a safe
and prosperous Iraq.

Last year, the empty promises to bring justice to those involved in
such heinous acts, along with promises to make the prison at Abu Ghraib
more transparent and accessible, fell on distraught family members who
waited near the gates of the prison to see their loved ones inside.
Under a scorching May sun I went to the dusty, dismal, heavily-guarded,
razor-wire enclosed "waiting area" outside Abu Ghraib. There, I heard
one horror story after another from melancholy family members doggedly
gathered on this patch of barren earth, still hoping against hope to be
granted a visit with someone inside the awful compound.

Sitting alone on the hard packed dirt in his white dishdasha, his
head scarf languidly flapping in the dry, hot wind, Lilu Hammed stared
unwaveringly at the high walls of the nearby prison as if he were
attempting to see his 32 year-old son Abbas through the concrete walls.
When my interpreter Abu Talat asked if he would speak with us, several
seconds passed before Lilu slowly turned his head and said simply, "I am
sitting here on the ground waiting for God's help."

His son, never charged with an offense, had by then been in Abu
Ghraib for 6 months following a raid on his home which produced no
weapons. Lilu held a crumpled visitation permission slip that he had
just obtained, promising a reunion with his son...three months away, on
the 18th of August.

Along with every other person I interviewed there, Lilu had found
consolation neither in the recent court martial, nor in the release of a
few hundred prisoners. "This court-martial is nonsense. They said that
Iraqis could come to the trial, but they could not. It was a false

At that moment, a convoy of Humvees full of soldiers, guns pointing
out the small windows, rumbled through the front gate of the penal
complex, kicking up a huge dust cloud that quickly engulfed everyone.
The parent of another prisoner, Mrs. Samir, waving away the clouds of
dust said, "We hope the whole world can see the position we are in now!"
and then added plaintively, "Why are they doing this to us?"

Last summer I interviewed a kind, 55 year-old woman who used to work
as an English teacher. She had been detained for four months in as many Samarra, Tikrit, Baghdad and, of course, at Abu Ghraib. She
was never, she told me, allowed to sleep through a night. She was
interrogated many times each day, not given enough food or water, or
access to a lawyer or to her family. She was verbally and
psychologically abused.

But that, she assured me, wasn't the worst part. Not by far. Her 70
year-old husband was also detained and he was beaten. After seven months
of beatings and interrogations, he died in U.S. military custody in

She was crying as she spoke of him. "I miss my husband," she sobbed
and stood up, speaking not to us but to the room, "I miss him so much."
She shook her hands as if to fling water off them...then she held her
chest and cried some more.

"Why are they doing this to us?" she asked. She simply couldn't
understand, she said, what was happening because two of her sons were
also detained, and her family had been completely shattered. "We didn't
do anything wrong," she whimpered.

With the interview over, we were walking towards our car to leave
when all of us realized that it was 10 pm, already too late at night to
be out in dangerous Baghdad. So she asked us instead if we wouldn't
please stay for dinner, all the while thanking me for listening to her
horrendous story, for my time, for writing about it. I found myself

"No, thank you, we must get home now," said Abu Talat. By this time,
we were all crying.

In the car, as we drove quickly along a Baghdad highway directly
into a full moon, Abu Talat and I were silent. Finally, he asked, "Can
you say any words? Do you have any words?"

I had none. None at all.

Broken Infrastructure

Everything in Iraq is set against the backdrop of shattered
infrastructure and a nearly complete lack of reconstruction. What the
Americans turn out to be best at is, once again, promises - and
propaganda. During the period when the Coalition Provisional Authority
ruled Iraq from Baghdad's Green Zone, their handouts often read like
this one released on May 21, 2004: "The Coalition Provisional Authority
has recently given out hundreds of soccer balls to Iraqi children in
Ramadi, Kerbala, and Hilla. Iraqi women from Hilla sewed the soccer
balls, which are emblazoned with the phrase 'All of Us Participate in a
New Iraq.'"

And yet when it came to the basics of that New Iraq, unemployment
was at 50% and increasing, better areas of Baghdad averaged 6 hours of
electricity per day, and security was nowhere to be found. Even as far
back as January, 2004, before the security situation had brought most
reconstruction projects to the nearly complete standstill of the present
moment, and 9 months after the war in Iraq had officially ended, the
situation already verged on the catastrophic. For instance, lack of
potable water was the norm throughout most of central and southern Iraq.

I was then working on a report that attempted to document exactly
what reconstruction had occurred in the water sector - a sector for
which Bechtel was largely responsible. That giant corporation had been
awarded a no-bid contract of $680 million behind closed doors on April
17, 2003, which in September was raised to $1.03 billion; then Bechtel
won an additional contract worth $1.8 billion to extend its program
through December 2005.

At the time, when travel for Western reporters was a lot easier, I
stopped in several villages en route south from Baghdad through what the
Americans now call "the triangle of death" to Hilla, Najaf, and
Diwaniyah to check on people's drinking-water situation. Near Hilla, an
old man with a weathered face showed me his water pump, sitting lifeless
with an empty container nearby - as there was no electricity. What water
his village did have was loaded with salt which was leaching into the
water supply because Bechtel had not honored its contractual obligations
to rehabilitate a nearby water treatment center. Another nearby village
didn't have the salt problem, but nausea, diarrhea, kidney stones,
cramps, and even cases of cholera were on the rise. This too would be a
steady trend for the villages I visited.

The rest of that trip involved a frenetic tour of villages, each
without drinkable water, near or inside the city limits of Hilla, Najaf,
and Diwaniya. Hilla, close to ancient Babylon, has a water treatment
plant and distribution center managed by Chief Engineer Salmam Hassan
Kadel. Mr. Kadel informed me that most of the villages in his
jurisdiction had no potable water, nor did he have the piping needed to
repair their broken-down water systems, nor had he had any contact with
Bechtel or its subcontractors.

He spoke of large numbers of people coming down with the usual list
of diseases. "Bechtel," he told me, "is spending all of their money
without any studies. Bechtel is painting buildings, but this doesn't
give clean water to the people who have died from drinking contaminated
water. We ask of them that instead of painting buildings, they give us
one water pump and we'll use it to give water service to more people. We
have had no change since the Americans came here. We know Bechtel is
wasting money, but we can't prove it."

At another small village between Hilla and Najaf, 1,500 people were
drinking water from a dirty stream which trickled slowly by their homes.
Everyone had dysentery; many had kidney stones; a startling number,
cholera. One villager, holding a sick child, told me, "It was much
better before the invasion. We had twenty-four hours of running water
then. Now we are drinking this garbage because it is all we have."

The next morning found me at a village on the outskirts of Najaf,
which fell under the responsibility of Najaf's water center. A large
hole had been dug in the ground where the villagers tapped into already
existing pipes to siphon off water. The dirty hole filled in the night,
when water was collected. That morning, children were standing idly
around the hole as women collected the residue of dirty water which sat
at its bottom. Everyone, it seemed, was suffering from some water-born
illness and several children, the villagers informed me, had been killed
attempting to cross a busy highway to a nearby factory where clean water
was actually available.

In June, six months later, I visited Chuwader Hospital, which then
treated an average of 3,000 patients a day in Sadr City, the enormous
Baghdad slum. Dr. Qasim al-Nuwesri, the head manager there, promptly
began describing the struggles his hospital was facing under the
occupation. "We are short of every medicine," he said and pointed out
how rarely this had occurred before the invasion. "It is forbidden, but
sometimes we have to reuse IV's, even the needles. We have no choice."

And then, of course, he - like the other doctors I spoke with -
brought up their horrendous water problem, the unavailability of
unpolluted water anywhere in the area. "Of course, we have typhoid,
cholera, kidney stones," he said matter-of-factly, "but we now even have
the very rare Hepatitis Type-E...and it has become common in our area."

Driving out of the sewage filled, garbage strewn streets of Sadr
City we passed a wall with "Vietnam Street" spray painted on it. Just
underneath was the sentence - obviously aimed at the American liberators
- "We will make your graves in this place."

Today, in terms of collapsing infrastructure, other areas of Baghdad
are beginning to suffer the way Sadr City did then, and still largely
does. While reconstruction projects slated for Sadr City have received
increased funding, most of the time there is little sign of any work
being done, as is the case in most of Baghdad.

While an ongoing fuel crisis finds people waiting up to two days to
fill their tanks at gas stations, all of the city is running on
generators the majority of the time, and many less favored areas like
Sadr City have only four hours of electricity a day.

Broken Cities

The heavy-handed tactics of the occupation forces have become a
commonplace of Iraqi life. I've interviewed people who regularly sleep
in their clothes because home raids are the norm. Many times when
military patrols are attacked by resistance fighters in the cities of
Iraq, soldiers simply open fire randomly on anything that moves. More
commonly, heavy civilian casualties occur from air raids by occupation
forces. These horrible circumstances have led to over 100,000 Iraqi
civilian casualties in the less than two year-old occupation.

Then there is Fallujah, a city three-quarters of which has by now
been bombed or shelled into rubble, a city in whose ruins fighting
continues even while most of its residents have yet to be allowed to
return to their homes (many of which no longer exist). The atrocities
committed there in the last month or so are, in many ways, similar to
those observed during the failed U.S. Marine siege of the city last
April, though on a far grander scale. This time, in addition, reports
from families inside the city, along with photographic evidence, point
toward the U.S. military's use of chemical and phosphorous weapons as
well as cluster bombs there. The few residents allowed to return in the
final week of 2004 were handed military-produced leaflets instructing
them not to eat any food from inside the city, nor to drink the water.

Last May, at the General Hospital of Fallujah, doctors spoke to me
of the sorts of atrocities that occurred during the first month-long
siege of the city. Dr. Abdul Jabbar, an orthopedic surgeon, said that it
was difficult to keep track of the number of people they treated, as
well as the number of dead, due to the lack of documentation. This was
caused primarily by the fact that the main hospital, located on the
opposite side of the Euphrates River from the city, was sealed off by
the Marines for the majority of April, just as it would again be in
November, 2004.

He estimated that at least 700 people were killed in Fallujah during
that April. "I worked at five of the centers [community health clinics]
myself, and if we collect the numbers from these places, then this is
the number," he said. "And you must keep in mind that many people were
buried before reaching our centers."

When the wind blew in from the nearby Julan quarter of the city, the
putrid stench of decaying bodies (a smell evidently once again typical
of the city) only confirmed his statement. Even then, Dr. Jabbar was
insisting that American planes had dropped cluster bombs on the city.
"Many people were injured and killed by cluster bombs. Of course they
used cluster bombs. We heard them as well as treated people who had been
hit by them!"

Dr. Rashid, another orthopedic surgeon, said, "Not less than sixty
percent of the dead were women and children. You can go see the graves
for yourself." I had already visited the Martyr Cemetery and had indeed
observed the numerous tiny graves that had clearly been dug for
children. He agreed with Dr. Jabbar about the use of cluster bombs, and
added, "I saw the cluster bombs with my own eyes. We don't need any
evidence. Most of these bombs fell on those we then treated."

Speaking of the medical crisis that his hospital had to deal with,
he pointed out that during the first 10 days of fighting the U.S.
military did not allow any evacuations from Fallujah to Baghdad at all.
He said, "Even transferring patients in the city was impossible. You can
see our ambulances outside. Their snipers also shot into the main doors
of one of our centers." Several ambulances were indeed in the hospital's
parking lot, two of them with bullet holes in their windshields.

Both doctors said they had not been contacted by the U.S. military,
nor had any aid been delivered to them by the military. Dr. Rashid
summed the situation up this way: "They send only bombs, not medicine."

As I walked to our car at one point amid what was already the
desolation of Fallujah, a man tugged on my arm and yelled, "The
Americans are cowboys! This is their history! Look at what they did to
the Indians! Vietnam! Afghanistan! And now Iraq! This does not surprise

And that, of course, was before the total siege of the city began in
November, 2004. The April campaign in Fallujah, which resulted in a rise
in resistance proved - like so much else in those early months of 2004 -
to be but a harbinger of things to come on a far larger scale. While the
goal of the most recent siege was to squelch the resistance and bring
greater security for elections scheduled for January 30, the result as
in April has been anything but security.

In the wake of the destruction of Fallujah fighting has simply
spread elsewhere and intensified. Families are now fleeing Mosul, Iraq's
third largest city, because of a warning of another upcoming air
campaign against resistance fighters. At least one car bomb per day is
now the norm in the capital city. Clashes erupt with deadly regularity
throughout Baghdad as well as in cities like Ramadi, Samarra, Baquba and

The intensification is two-sided. With each ratchet upwards in
violence, the tactics by the American military only grow more
heavy-handed and, as they do, the Iraqi resistance just continues to
grow in size and effectiveness. Any kind of "siege" of Mosul will only
add to this dynamic.

Despite a media blackout in the aftermath of the recent assault on
Fallujah, stories of dogs eating bodies in the streets of the city and
of destroyed mosques have spread across Iraq like wildfire; and reports
like these only underscore what most people in Iraq now believe - that
the liberators have become no more than brutal imperialist occupiers of
their country. And then the resistance grows yet stronger.

Yet among Iraqis the growing resistance was predicted long ago. One
telling moment for me came last June amid daily suicide car bombings in
Baghdad. While footage of cars with broken glass and bullet holes in
their frames flashed across a television screen, my translator Hamid, an
older man who had already grown weary of the violence, said softly, "It
has begun. These are only the start, and they will not stop. Even after
June 30." That, of course, was the date of the long-promised handover of
"sovereignty" to a new Iraqi government, after which, American officials
fervently predicted, violence in the country would begin to subside. The
same pattern of prediction and of a contrarian reality can now be seen
in relation to the upcoming elections.

Three weeks ago, a friend of mine who is a sheikh from Baquba
visited me in Baghdad and we had lunch with Abdulla, an older professor
who is a friend of his. As we were eating, Abdulla expressed a sentiment
now widely heard. "The mujahideen," he said, "are fighting for their
country against the Americans. This resistance is acceptable to us."

The Bush administration has recently increased its troops in Iraq
from 138,000 to 150,000 - in order, officials said, to provide greater
security for the upcoming elections. Such troop increases also occurred
in Vietnam. Back then it was called escalation.

What I wonder is, will I be writing a piece next January still
called, "Iraq: The Devastation," in which these last terrible months of
2004 (of which the first half of the year was but a foreshadowing) will
prove in their turn but a predictive taste of horrors to come? And what
then of 2006 and 2007?

Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist from Anchorage, Alaska. He
has spent 7 of the last 12 months reporting from inside occupied Iraq.
His articles have been published in the Sunday Herald, Inter Press
Service, the website of the Nation magazine, and the New Standard
internet news site for which he is the Iraq correspondent. He is the
special correspondent in Iraq for Flashpoints radio and also has
appeared on the BBC, Democracy Now!, Free Speech Radio News, and Radio
South Africa. This is his first piece for<


At October 23, 2005 at 7:31 AM, Blogger Tim said...

This is an interesting blog ! I'm bookmarkarkimg you and will re-visit :o)

I also have a water bug site. It pretty much covers
water bug related stuff.

Come and check it out if you get time :-)


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