Revolution#127, April 20, 2008
Dahr Jamail: Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq
In late 2003, angry at the failure of the U.S. media to accurately report on the realities of the war in Iraq for the Iraqi people, Dahr Jamail went to Iraq to report on the war himself. Jamail has spent a total of eight months in occupied Iraq as one of only a few independent U.S. journalists in the country. He has also reported from Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. His dispatches have been published in newspapers and magazines worldwide, and they can be read on his website (dahrjamailiraq.com).
Dahr Jamail’s book, Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, was published in late 2007 (Haymarket Books). Historian Howard Zinn said, “Jamail does us a great service, by taking us past the lies of our political leaders, past the cowardice of the mainstream press, into the streets, the homes, the lives of Iraqis living under U.S. occupation.”
Revolution recently talked with Dahr Jamail.
Revolution: You’ve written, “If the people of the United States had the real story about what their government has done in Iraq, the occupation would already have ended…” What does the occupation mean to the Iraqi people?
Dahr Jamail: The occupation has meant the total evisceration of the country. There are between 1.1 and 1.3 million dead. There are at least 4.4 million Iraqis displaced from their homes and, according to Oxfam International, another 4 million in need of emergency assistance. Meaning that if they don’t get access to safe drinking water, food, and medical attention when necessary, they are literally at risk for their lives. When we consider that Iraq’s overall population was 27 million five years ago when the war was launched, now it’s just under 25 million; when we add those numbers up, that’s 9 million people out of 25 million people—well over a third of the total population of the country—are either displaced, in need of emergency aid, or dead. And this is against a backdrop of between 40% to 70% unemployment. Seventy percent of the country does not have access to safe drinking water. There is 70% inflation. The medical infrastructure is in total shambles. Childhood malnutrition has increased 9% even compared to the sanctions, a period that killed half a million Iraqi children. That’s the state of the country today and that’s the result of five years of occupation. And there’s certainly no reason for us to think that this is going to change.
Revolution: The U.S. talks a lot about the success of the large increase in U.S. troops in Iraq that they call the “surge.” What is the real impact of the “surge,” especially for the Iraqi people?
Jamail: The number of people displaced from their homes has quadrupled under the “surge.” We’re looking now at the endgame of a U.S.-backed sectarian strategy of divide and conquer. Sectarian warfare between the Sunni and Shia has intensified to the point where in Baghdad, a city of 6 million people, one out of four people is displaced. And that’s also thanks in large part to the surge in addition to U.S.-backed death squads and other policies encouraging and promoting sectarianism.
Also as part of the “surge” we have the U.S. backing the so-called “Awakening groups,” which now are an 80,000-strong Sunni militia that is now an effective counterbalance to the Shia-supported government. One of the goals of the “surge” is supposed to be to promote reconciliation, but I would argue that it’s having the opposite effect. Instead of being closer to reconciliation, we are closer to all-out civil war between various sects and political groups now than we ever were before the “surge.” And that’s a direct result of U.S. policy.
Revolution: What about U.S. claims that the “surge” has decreased the deaths in Iraq?
Jamail: I would also have to note that last month saw an increase of 33% in Iraqi civilian casualties. So there’s that hard reality to contradict the propaganda of the Bush administration.
But it is a fact that American troop deaths have decreased. They started to decrease about seven months ago, at about the same time that Muqtada al-Sadr put his militia on stand-down. So there’s that factor. And the Awakening groups I talked about earlier are also another factor, where the U.S. is literally paying off former resistance fighters, some of them known Al Qaeda members. They are paying them $300 a month to stand down and not attack Americans.
So the great irony is that we have once again the U.S. with Al Qaeda on the U.S. payroll, just as was the case in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Revolution: What role has the United States played in the growth of sectarian violence in Iraq?
Jamail: In order to understand the growth of the sectarian violence in Iraq, you have to go back to Central America in the 1980s when John Negroponte was the U.S. ambassador—Reagan’s ambassador—to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. It’s widely documented now that he was instrumental in forming and backing the right-wing death squads there. He couldn’t have done that without the help of Colonel James Steele, who came on toward the end of his tenure there and also helped set up these paramilitary death squads.
Fast forward to Baghdad in December 2004, and who is the U.S. ambassador there? It’s John Negroponte. And we have a retired Colonel James Steele, whose title is Counselor for Iraqi Security Affairs. And these two men again go at it, setting up sectarian-based death squads, running them through the U.S.-funded Ministry of Information, pulling them directly from the Shia Mahdi Army and the Badr organization and the Kurdish Peshmurga, and sending them out to target leadership and key sympathizers of primarily Sunni resistance. There were already strains and divides, to be sure, between Shia and Sunni in political struggles, but the death squads set in motion the wanton sectarianism and killing, the segregation of the neighborhoods that we’re looking at the end result of today, where Baghdad is now a city that is set up primarily by “are you Shia or are you Sunni?”
Revolution: You describe yourself as an “unembedded journalist.” How do you contrast the role that you play with mainstream reporters that most people rely on for their coverage of the war?
Jamail: The embedded journalists act as informants for the government side of the story. You’re always going to get that perspective and you’re never going to really get the Iraqi side of the story or even a true view of the U.S. soldier’s side of the story. For example if you talk about embedded journalism—and I don’t spend too much time on this because I think it’s pretty clear to people now, across the political spectrum, that embedded journalists are a fraud and nothing but propagandists—but I want to underscore what I’m saying
by pointing to the events last weekend [March 13-16] in Silver Spring, Maryland, where we had the Winter Soldier event put on by Iraq Veterans Against the War. We had 50 Iraq War veterans and Afghanistan War veterans up there on stage talking about atrocities and things that they did while they were in Iraq, showing photos and footage. And again, with few exceptions, where was the mainstream media? Instead, reporters ignored it. In the week leading up to Winter Soldier, if you listened to National Public Radio you heard stories with soldiers in Iraq talking about how great things were. Where was NPR covering the Winter Soldier event? That’s my point, that it goes on not just in Iraq but right back here as well.
Revolution: Where did the policy of embedded journalists come from?
Jamail: You’ve always had embedded reporters. In its current form, it really started in the 1991 war when the Pentagon, as a means of information control, set up the embedded program to keep reporters under their wing and control where they went, what they saw, and how they reported it. They did a trial run with the embed program. It went great. Ninety percent of the reporters wanted to come back and do it again, so the military felt this was great, let’s run with it.
And they did. They greatly augmented it and applied it to this war. And again with great success, because if you’re going to embed as a journalist you have to sign forms giving the military control over what you write, and they’re going to control, of course, what you photograph, when you take pictures and when you don’t, etc. That’s the embed program. It’s specifically set up by the Pentagon to control information, and it’s been quite effective.
Revolution: When the Iraq war started five years ago, you were working as a ranger and a guide on Mount Denali in Alaska, with no journalistic experience. How did you end up going to and reporting on Iraq?
Jamail: I was against the war when it started, and as I watched the way the media covered the war, I felt completely lied to and betrayed. I knew enough about journalism to know that what I was seeing was not journalism, that it was propaganda. I was so outraged that I kind of went for my own mental health. I felt that I needed to do something other than the usual things that we are supposed to do to express dissent, like write letters of concern to our elected representatives. I felt then and I feel today more than ever that we’ve long since passed that point. It’s going to take more than letters of concern to so-called officials to change things here. And I felt that controlling the information was a very powerful and effective tool, if not the most powerful, that the government has; and that one thing I could do to fight against that was to go to report on things. So that’s what I decided to do.
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