Published in Z Magazine, September 2007
As the destruction of Iraq has progressed, the country beyond the walls of the Green Zone in Baghdad has become deadly for journalists. Western reporting on the war, which was corrupted from the start by the Pentagon’s psychological warfare “embedding” program, has now degenerated to a mainly stenographic exercise orchestrated by the Centcom press office. The echo chamber of the U.S. corporate media fleshes out this artificial construct to create an alternate, virtual Iraq in the minds of U.S. media consumers, feeding a political debate that bears no relation to the real war that our government and armed forces are waging, the country it is destroying, or the lives of its 27 million inhabitants.
But what have our government and our armed forces really done to the country and people of Iraq? Despite the historic failure of Western journalism, there are plenty of sources of information for anyone who wants to know.
Despite an awkward complicity in the events it describes, the UN has published regular reports on the “Situation in Iraq.” Its human rights reports (www.uniraq. org/aboutus/HR.asp) in particular have documented the terrible consequences of the U.S. invasion and occupation for the population and have contained increasingly frank assessments of the U.S. failure to restore a legitimate or functioning government. The Global Policy Forum, which monitors policy-making at the UN, is another excellent resource (www.globalpolicy.org).
Les Roberts of Columbia University has led two international teams of epidemiologists to assess the full scale of violent deaths in Iraq since the invasion, and these reports have been published in Britain by the Lancet medical journal. On March 26, 2007, the BBC published a memo from Sir Roy Anderson, chief scientific adviser to Britain’s Ministry of Defense, in which he described the epidemiologists’ methods as “close to best practice” and their study design as “robust,” exposing the cynicism with which the British and U.S. governments have dismissed their work. Articles in other academic and medical journals have also made important contributions to an understanding of the crisis.
Iraqi bloggers like Riverbend and Khalid Jarrar have given us an inside look at life under occupation, while independent journalist Dahr Jamail, veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, and a few of their colleagues have reported news that their counterparts have missed or ignored. And we must not forget that at least 163 journalists have been killed in Iraq, including Yasser Salihee of Knight Ridder, who was shot by a U.S. army sniper as he investigated the chain of command of the Interior Ministry death squads that were unleashed on Baghdad in 2005.
While Americans puzzled over a steady stream of tell-all (or not) books by insiders and former officials, the British public gained access to a series of declassified and leaked documents that revealed much more about the planning and selling of the war. What follows is a point by point history of the crisis, based on the most reliable sources, with an emphasis on facts that the U.S. media have ignored or downplayed.
1. Regime change in Iraq was a long-standing objective of U.S. policy. The CIA has a history of failed coups in countries all over the world, as well as some successes, but the one it planned with Iyad Allawi in June 1996 was exceptional in the totality of its failure. It completely destroyed the CIA’s network of informers and potential agents inside Iraq. On the eve of the coup, the CIA’s satellite communication with its network of plotters in Iraq went dead overnight. The Iraqi government had obtained one of the CIA’s satellite receivers at an early stage in the planning of the coup and knew every detail of the plot, as well as the identity of every Iraqi involved. It had arrested them all.
2. Regime change in Iraq remained the ultimate goal of U.S. and British policy throughout the 1990s. UN inspectors were convinced by 1995 that Iraq’s banned weapons had been destroyed by order of Saddam Hussein in 1991, but the UN continued inspections in an effort to prove to the U.S. and British governments that no weapons had been hidden and retained. This was a fool’s errand, since these mythical weapons were an essential part of the U.S. and British rationale for continued sanctions and the CIA’s pretext for regime change, and they were not prepared to give these up. Then, in 1998, the U.S. Congress drafted a bill to formalize “regime change” in Iraq as the official policy of the United States government. It passed overwhelmingly in the House and unanimously in the Senate. Thus, when the Bush administration took office in 2001, the stage was already set for the policy that the neoconservatives had been advocating since the first Gulf War—the invasion of Iraq and its destruction as an independent power in the Middle East.
3. On March 8, 2002, the British government began a formal policy review on Iraq in response to an initiative from Washington. The U.S. was proposing “a new departure” on Iraq, abandoning containment and planning to invade the country to effect “regime change.” Only four days later, at a private dinner in Washington, British foreign policy adviser David Manning told Condoleezza Rice that Tony Blair “would not budge in (his) support for regime change,” indicating that Bush and Blair were now committed to this policy. Five days later, British Ambassador Christopher Meyer reported to Manning that he had given Paul Wolfowitz the same message: “We backed regime change, but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option....” Other leaked Downing Street documents provided more background to this decision, including a warning from British Law Officers that, “Of itself, Regime Change has no basis in international law.”
4. To create political support for the invasion, the U.S. and British governments fabricated evidence and stoked fears of non-existent nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. In reality, experts understood that none of the chemical and biological agents sold to Iraq in the 1980s could still be potent as strategic weapons in 2003 (“Facts needed before Iraq attack,” CNN, July 17, 2002). And the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had debunked the allegation of nuclear procurement based on some 81 millimeter rocket casings even before Bush included it in an infamous State of the Union speech. None of this was secret at the time, so that one has to view U.S. performances at the UN and elsewhere as part of an effort to manipulate domestic public opinion rather than as a serious attempt to win international backing for the invasion.
5. On March 7, 2003, Britain’s attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, gave Blair his 13-page “Full Legal Advice” regarding the war plan. He rejected the Bush doctrine of preemption: “This is not a doctrine which, in my opinion, exists or is recognized in international law.” He reiterated the British view that military action would not be legal without a new Security Council resolution, as only the Security Council could make the two critical determinations: whether Iraq was in violation of the 1991 ceasefire resolution and whether its violations were serious enough to revive the 1990 authorization of military force. He emphasized that the U.S. was the only country that rejected this view. In any case, he insisted that any military action justified by UN resolutions must be limited to what was necessary to enforce the terms of the 1991 ceasefire. As he had told Blair several times since March 2002, “Regime Change cannot be the objective of military action.” He warned Blair that he could face prosecution for aggression or murder if he went ahead with the plan.
6. Twelve days later, the United States and Britain invaded Iraq, with token support from Australia, Denmark, and Poland. Three British law officers resigned, including Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the deputy legal adviser to the Foreign Office. Her letter of resignation was obtained by the BBC under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act and published on March 24, 2005. She referred to the invasion as a “crime of aggression,” and this view is shared by most international diplomats and legal experts. Kofi Annan, then Secretary General of the UN, called it “illegal” in a BBC interview on September 16, 2004. Former Nuremberg Chief Prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz, like Wilmshurst, defined it as “aggression,” the same crime for which German leaders were convicted, and in some cases hung, at Nuremberg.
7. The U.S. and Britain bombarded Iraq with about 29,000 bombs and missiles during the first phase of the war, but a familiar propaganda campaign surrounding the use of precision weapons preempted precise media coverage of their performance or effects. Rob Hewson, the editor of Jane’s Air Launched Weapons, estimated that 75 to 80 percent of these weapons struck within 40 feet of their target, meaning that at least 5,000 bombs and missiles struck something else. When they are accurate, even the smallest of these weapons, the Mark 82, 500 pound bomb, destroys everything within a radius of 40 to 400 feet depending on building construction, making their detonation in inhabited areas a horrific nightmare. Even more hellish, Iraqi troop concentrations were incinerated by Mark 77 napalm, a modern version of the napalm used in Vietnam. On August 8, 2003, after debunking U.S. denials based on semantics, the Sydney Morning Herald confirmed its original report that the U.S. had used napalm, adding that the Rock Island arsenal in Illinois received an order from the U.S. Marine Corps for 500 new napalm bombs soon after the invasion to replenish its stocks. Les Roberts and his international team of epidemiologists concurred with reports by the Iraqi health ministry that 60 to 80 percent of violent civilian deaths in various periods during the first two years of the war were caused by “coalition” forces, not by “insurgents,” and that most of these were the result of air strikes.
8. The brutality of the occupation has been well documented, but the underlying mis-education of U.S. troops has not. U.S. military personnel receive negligible training in the laws of war, usually one hour during basic training and another one hour briefing on deployment to a war zone. Troops in Iraq receive no specific training on the responsibilities of occupying forces under the 4th Geneva Convention, even though Article 144 of the Convention requires that members of any occupation force “must possess the text of the Convention and be specially instructed as to its provisions.” Instead, U.S. troops have been brainwashed to instill a hostile attitude toward the population, notably by rumors of secret evidence connecting Iraq to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. “The higher-ups know things they can’t tell us,” as a junior officer told Air America. The results of this insidious subversion of military law speak for themselves. On July 14, 2007, a U.S. Marine told a court martial in California that “Marines consider all Iraqi men part of the insurgency,” a view admitted by 17 percent of U.S. troops in Iraq in a recent Pentagon study. The same witness (for the defense) justified killing wounded Iraqis because, “If somebody is worth shooting once, they’re worth shooting twice.” A post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on July 1, 2004, found that 14 percent of soldiers in the 3rd Infantry Division and 28 percent of marines in the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force reported being “responsible for the death of a civilian” in Iraq. Seymour Hersh also reported in the New Yorker as early as December 15, 2003 that U.S. special forces trained by Israeli assassins in Israel and North Carolina were prowling the streets of Iraq by night on what Rumsfeld called “manhunts” to murder people suspected of supporting the resistance.
9. Like hostile military occupations throughout history, the U.S. and British occupation of Iraq has confronted every member of the Iraqi population with a terrible predicament: the life and death choice between resistance and collaboration. Because the international community has failed to respond to the illegal invasion of Iraq and has treated it as a fait accompli in several UN Security Council resolutions, there is no middle ground available to the civilian population. After four years of occupation, those who were at first willing to trust their invaders (against every historical precedent) have seen no restoration of legitimacy or sovereignty. The so-called Iraqi government in the Green Zone can neither challenge the interests of its U.S. masters nor provide basic services to the population. The 60 percent unemployment caused by the war has made it possible to recruit young men to its armed forces, but it inspires no loyalty from most of them, and many are also active in the resistance. Two million more Iraqis have been driven out of their country to live in social, political, and economic limbo in Syria and Jordan.
10. In February 2004 the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a report that documented extensive and systematic violations of international humanitarian law in the treatment of prisoners by U.S. and British forces in Iraq. While the published pictures from Abu Ghraib caused a localized public scandal, the U.S. government has tortured and abused prisoners throughout its network of prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba, as well as in CIA-run prisons in Romania, Mauretania, Diego Garcia, and elsewhere. Human rights groups have amassed incontrovertible evidence of systematic torture, authorized at the highest levels, throughout this gulag, including death threats, mock executions, near-drowning, excruciating stress positions, hypothermia, sleep deprivation, electric shocks, various forms of sodomy, and endless beatings, to say nothing of more psychological forms of torture such as sexual humiliation and torture of family members. In February 2006, Human Rights First issued “Command’s Responsibility,” a report on 98 deaths in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, endorsed by 2 retired generals and an admiral. The dead included 8 people confirmed tortured to death; another 37 suspected or confirmed homicides; and a tell-tale lack of information about 48 more who died of “undetermined” or “unannounced” causes.
11. The U.S. assault on Fallujah was yet another war crime of historic proportions. Civilians were encouraged to leave the city before the attack, but males between the ages of 15 and 55 were prevented from leaving and were turned back at checkpoints. From the night of November 5, 2004, most of the city was heavily bombarded, despite a UN estimate that 50,000 civilians remained in the city, notably the sick and elderly and those taking care of them. One of the first targets was the Nazzal Emergency Hospital, which was bombed to the ground in the early hours of the first morning, killing doctors, staff and patients. The city was declared a “weapons free” zone, meaning that anyone alive could be treated as hostile and shot on sight. Survivors described elderly men and women being shot in the street and wounded people trying to reach the main hospital being killed by American snipers from the hospital roof. AP photographer Bilal Hussein saw a family of five machine-gunned as they tried to swim the river to safety. (He was detained by U.S. forces on April 12, 2006 and is still being held without charge, apparently to prevent such independent journalism.) After initial denials, U.S. officials admitted using napalm, as well as white phosphorus, which is banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention. When forced to admit they had used “Willy Pete,” they claimed that the CWC did not apply because it was used as an incendiary weapon as opposed to a chemical one. The CWC, of course, makes no such distinction. Sixty-five percent of the buildings in this former city of 300,000 people were damaged beyond repair. How many bodies were buried in the rubble is still unknown.
12. The central front in the propaganda war over Iraq has been the effort to portray the continuing violence as the result of a “sectarian” conflict or civil war between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis, with foreign occupation forces as peacekeepers or “referees.” Americans have been led to believe that our troops have become embroiled in a centuries old blood feud. Nothing could be farther from the truth—there is no precedent for sectarian violence on this scale in Iraq. In fact, the opposition to the British-backed monarchy formed a strong secular, nationalist political identity that endured through successive Iraqi governments after 1958. The sectarian aspect to the present crisis is the direct result of U.S. policy, which set out to destroy this tradition of secular, nationalist politics in order to establish a compliant occupation government by exploiting ethnic and sectarian differences. Western reports of “sectarian violence” and speculation over the prospect of “civil war” began as part of the lead-up to the deeply flawed election organized by the occupation forces in January 2005. Yet an analysis of reported violence between Iraqis that month revealed other motives for nearly every single violent incident: 43 percent were attacks against the U.S.-backed security forces; 36 percent were directly related to the phony election; 11 percent targeted officials of the “interim government”; 5 percent of the victims worked for the U.S. in other capacities; and the remaining 5 percent were insufficiently documented to identify any motive at all. Not a single incident was ascribed simply to sectarian hatred.
13. Following the installation of the “transitional” regime in February 2005, some Sunni resistance forces came to see the entire Shiite and Kurdish sectors of the population that had participated in this corrupt political process as collaborators. Attacks against civilians by resistance forces have played into the hands of Centcom public relations and have become the focus of much Western reporting. Few Americans realize that 85 to 90 percent of all resistance operations have been against military targets, with at least 70 percent against foreign occupation forces (based on the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index). As the latest UN human rights report points out, “The distinction between acts of violence motivated by sectarian, political, or economic considerations was frequently blurred as a multitude of armed and criminal groups claimed responsibility for numerous acts of terror.” In this environment Centcom has easily shaped reports of violence in the media as either sectarian or al Qaeda-related, in spite of evidence of greater and more systematic violence against civilians by both U.S. forces and Iraqi forces recruited, trained, and directed by the U.S.
14. Violence by U.S.-trained auxiliary forces took a new and deeply disturbing turn after the U.S. recruited and trained Special Police Commando units for the Iraqi Interior Ministry in 2004 and 2005. The training of these forces was supervised by retired Colonel James Steele, who was sent to Iraq as counselor for Iraqi Security Forces to Ambassador John Negroponte. Steele is a former commander of U.S. military advisors in El Salvador who also worked secretly as a principal member of the Iran-Contra operation, overseeing arms shipments to the Contras in Nicaragua from Ilopango air-base in El Salvador. His role in Iran-Contra became public after he failed a polygraph test and confessed to the FBI, but his background in the dirty war in El Salvador is even more disturbing in light of the common pattern of thousands of atrocities committed by his trainees in both El Salvador and Iraq. Negroponte remains a shadowy figure in the background in both cases whose role deserves to be thoroughly investigated (see the “Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters” and Dennis Kucinich’s letter to Donald Rumsfeld in the Congressional Record for May 4, 2006).
15. The newly formed SCIRI “transitional” regime merged its Badr Brigades militia into these interior ministry forces under interior minister Bayan al-Jabr, a senior Badr commander. His senior U.S. advisor was former DEA Chief of Intelligence Steven Casteel, a veteran of the drug wars in Latin America. These forces were unleashed on Baghdad in April and May 2005, beginning a campaign of detention, torture, and extrajudicial execution that has claimed tens of thousands of victims. Yasser Salihee’s reporting for Knight Ridder, a UN human rights report in September 2005, and a well-publicized U.S. raid on an Interior Ministry torture center exposed the nature and dimensions of this campaign, but it continued unabated, protected by denials of responsibility from Casteel and other U.S. officials. As this campaign failed to terrorize the Sunni population of Baghdad into submission, U.S. forces supplied increasing levels of direct ground and air support to the Interior Ministry death squads, eventually reverting to a primary role in attacks on many parts of Baghdad during Operation Together Forward in 2006 and the “surge” in 2007. (See the UN Human Rights Report for July and August 2005 and subsequent interviews with its author, John Pace; also Tom Lasseter and Yasser Salihee, “Sunni men in Baghdad targeted by attackers in police uniforms,” Knight Ridder Newspapers, June 27, 2005; “Revealed: grim world of new Iraqi torture camps,” the Observer, July 3, 2005; and Dahr Jamail and Arkan Hamed, “Baghdad slipping into civil war,” Inter Press Service, April 19, 2006.)
16. While “reconstruction” has proved to be pure propaganda in most cases, the U.S. has spent billions of dollars on construction at its own military bases in Iraq and, most importantly, at the 104-acre occupation headquarters it is building in the Green Zone. This is officially a U.S. embassy, but it is ten times the size of the largest actual embassy in the world, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and it is clearly not designed as a diplomatic mission to a sovereign country. As the rest of the country is gradually demolished by daily air strikes and artillery fire, work on U.S. occupation headquarters has proceeded around the clock seven days a week. Construction workers from India, Pakistan, and the Philippines complain that they are beaten when they do not work hard enough and that they are “treated like animals.” Four years into the war, Bush has finally acknowledged U.S. plans for long-term bases in Iraq, comparing them to the U.S. military presence in South Korea.
17. Even more revealing of U.S. goals in Iraq is the history of its plans for the future of Iraq’s oil. Ibrahim Bahr al Uloum, the oil minister in the current puppet government, is a former exile who was a member of the U.S. State Department’s pre-invasion Oil and Energy working group, which concluded that Iraq “should be opened to international oil companies as quickly as possible after the war” and favored “production sharing agreements” with Western oil companies as the most promising vehicle for doing this. The latest U.S. legislation funding the war in Iraq makes continued U.S. support for the puppet government conditional on the Iraqi Council of Representatives’ approval of a hydrocarbon law that adopts precisely this development model. It would replace the nationalized Iraqi oil industry with a privatized system in which Western oil companies would share in production revenues and control the allocation of contracts. The Iraq National Oil Company would only retain 17 of the 80 known oil fields in Iraq and Western companies would assume no obligation to reinvest profits in Iraq, employ Iraqi workers, or partner with Iraqi companies. The potential profits to Western oil companies from Iraqi oil under this scheme could conceivably exceed their profits from the rest of their worldwide operations combined (see Kucinich’s statement about the hydrocarbon law in the Congressional Record for May 23, 2007; also Global Policy Forum).
18. Based on the studies in the Lancet, between half a million and a million Iraqis have been killed in the war. Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, has been destroyed by a slow-motion version of the assault on Fallujah. While besieging towns throughout central and northern Iraq, U.S. forces have imposed collective punishments that flagrantly violate international law: sealing them off with razor wire fences; cutting off electricity, food, water, medicine and other essential supplies; then conducting raids and calling in artillery and air strikes on “suspected insurgents.” This model is now being adapted to parts of Baghdad that are resisting the new U.S. offensive, over the impotent protests of the puppet government. The U.S. campaign of ethnic cleansing against Sunni Arabs has already killed between 5 and 15 percent of the pre-war population of 5 or 6 million, turned another 15 to 25 percent into refugees in their own country, and driven 30 to 40 percent out of the country. This year’s escalation of the war is a desperate effort to kill, terrorize, and expel more Sunni Arabs before the political balance tips decisively against the occupation, both in Iraq and in the United States. By the standards applied in other conflicts since the 1990s, this surely qualifies as genocide.
19. In August 2004 U.S. forces attacked the Shiite enclave and sacred city of Najaf, which was under the control of followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. Since then, al Sadr has avoided widespread armed confrontation with the occupation forces, and has instead quietly expanded his base of support throughout the southern half of the country and the Shiite population of Baghdad. The American strategy to deal with the Sunnis first and worry about al Sadr later has backfired. After four years, the Sunni resistance is more active than ever, conducting about 150 operations per day over the past year, while al Sadr has become the principal leader of the Shiite population. His limited cooperation with the U.S.-backed regime in the Green Zone and generally peaceful opposition to the occupation has been a skillful balancing act that has saved much of the population from greater bloodshed and enhanced his own position. He has also reached out to Sunnis in the spirit of Islamic and Iraqi unity to try and rebuild a united nationalist political front that can ultimately govern the country.
20. The latest UN human rights report states that 54 percent of Iraqis are now living on less than $1 per day, including 15 percent on less than 50 cents per day; 68 percent have no safe water to drink; and 2,000 doctors have been killed and another 12,000 have fled the country, reducing the number of doctors in the country by 42 percent. The U.S. offensive in Baghdad has raised the prison population from 31,000 to 38,000, with most of the new prisoners in the custody of the U.S. or the Interior Ministry. This is of concern to the UN because prisoners are likely to be tortured or murdered in Interior Ministry jails, while those in U.S. jails are accorded the least rights of all, and are often detained indefinitely without charge or trial. The UN is also concerned about detentions by the Kurdish regional government—there have been demonstrations in Irbil by relatives of people who have disappeared without trace after being arrested by Kurdish authorities. The Central Criminal Court set up by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad has sentenced 256 people to death, and has already executed 85 of them. New emergency regulations have expanded the death penalty to apply to property crimes like theft and destruction of property. Most trials, including capital cases, last only 15 to 30 minutes, and the judges’ deliberations on guilt and sentencing are even faster. The UN report found that criminal courts in Iraq “fail to meet minimum fair trial standards,” citing a long list of irregularities, and noted that “such trials are increasingly leading to the imposition of the death penalty.”
A common claim by supporters of the war is that the illegality of the U.S. invasion is irrelevant to Iraq’s current problems. A staffer at Senator Bill Nelson’s office told me recently, “That’s in the past. The question is what to do now.” On the contrary, the illegitimacy of the U.S. position in Iraq lies at the very heart of the ongoing crisis. The U.S. government invaded another country for strategic and commercial reasons, in violation of its most solemn treaty obligations under the UN Charter, but it has failed to impose its will by force on the population. Every day that it continues to wage this war and to kill or drive Sunni Arabs out of the country compounds the seriousness of the international crime it has committed. While UNSC Resolution 1546 and subsequent resolutions have made a weak attempt to chart a course toward a genuine restoration of Iraqi sovereignty and independence, this has been doomed to failure by the U.S. government’s refusal to relinquish the original goals of the invasion or to give up the illegitimate and murderous role it is playing in Iraq’s affairs in pursuit of those goals.