What I saw in Fallujah

Dahr Jamail set out to report the truth about the US invasion of Iraq and its terrible impact on dai

On the day martial law was declared, US tanks began rolling into the outskirts of Fallujah, while war planes continued to pound the city with as many as 50,000 residents still inside. Iyad Allawi, the US-installed interim prime minister, laid out the six steps for implementing his "security law". These entailed a 6pm curfew in Fallujah, the blocking of all highways except for emergencies and for government vehicles, the closure of all city and government services, a ban on all weapons in Fallujah, the closure of Iraq's borders with Syria and Jordan (except to allow passage to food trucks and vehicles carrying other necessary goods), and the closure of Baghdad International Airport for 48 hours.

Meanwhile, in the US, most corporate media outlets were busy spreading the misinformation that Fallujah had fallen under the control of the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. There was no available evidence that Zarqawi had ever set foot inside the city. It was amply evident that the resistance in the city was composed primarily of people from Fallujah itself. However, that did not deter the establishment media, which portrayed the assault on the city as a hostage intervention situation.

As they had done during the April siege, the military raided and occupied Fallujah general hospital, cutting it off from the rest of the city. On 8 November 2004 the New York Times reported, "The assault against Fallujah began here Sunday night as American Special Forces and Iraqi troops burst into Fallujah General Hospital and seized it within an hour." Of course, this information was immediately followed by the usual parroting of US military propaganda, "At 10pm, Iraqi troops clambered off seven-ton trucks, sprinting with American Special Forces soldiers around the side of the main building of the hospital, considered a refuge for insurgents and a centre of propaganda against allied forces, entering the complex to bewildered looks from patients and employees."

Harb al-Mukhtar, my interpreter and driver, arrived at my hotel the next morning in a sombre mood. "How can we live like this, we are trapped in our own country. You know Dahr, everyone is praying for God to take revenge on the Americans. Everyone!" He said even in their private prayers people were praying for God to take vengeance on the Americans for what they were doing in Fallujah. "Everyone I've talked to the last couple of nights, 80 or 90 people, have admitted that they are doing this," he said as I collected my camera and notepad to prepare to leave. Out on the streets of Baghdad, the anxiety was palpable. The threat of being kidnapped or car bombed, or simply robbed, relentlessly played on our minds as Harb and I went about conducting interviews that had been prearranged. We tried to minimise our time on the streets by returning to my hotel immediately on completing interviews. The security situation, already horrible, was deteriorating further with each passing day.

That night, when Salam Talib arrived at my hotel to work on a radio despatch with me, he had a wild look in his eyes and sweat beads on his forehead. "My friend has just been killed, and he was one of my best friends," he said staring out my window. Salam went on to tell me that a relative of another of his friends had been missing for six days. "This morning, his body was brought to his family by someone who found it on the road. The body had been shot twice in the chest and twice in the head. There were visible signs of torture, and the four bullet shells that were used to kill him had been placed in his trouser pockets. This news has driven me crazy, Dahr. The number of people killed here is growing so fast every day," he said, his hands raised in that familiar gesture of despair. "When I was a child, it was common to have some family member who was killed in the war with Iran. But now, it feels as though everyone is dying every day."

Not yet one full week into the latest assault on Fallujah, the flames of resistance had engulfed much of Baghdad and other areas in Iraq. In Baghdad alone, neighbourhoods like Amiriyah, Abu Ghraib, Adhamiya and al-Dora had fallen mostly under the control of the resistance. In these areas, and much of the rest of Baghdad, US patrols were few and far between, since they were being attacked so often. People we interviewed showed no surprise at fighting having rapidly spread across other cities. It was expected, because the general belief was that the resistance had fled Fallujah prior to the siege. Most of the fighters had melted away to other areas to choose effective methods to strike the enemy. Fighting had thus spread across much of Baghdad, Baquba, Latafiya, Ramadi, Samarra, Mosul, Khaldiya and Kirkuk just days into Operation Phantom Fury.

Media repression

Media repression during the second siege of Fallujah was intense. The "100 Orders" penned by former US administrator Bremer included Order 65, passed on 20 March 2004, which established an Iraqi communications and media commission. This commission had powers to control the media because it had complete control over licensing and regulating telecommunications, broadcasting, information services, and media establishments. On 28 June, when the US handed over power to a "sovereign" Iraqi interim government, Bremer simply passed on his authority to Iyad Allawi, who had long-standing ties with the British intelligence service MI6 and the CIA. The media commission sent out an order just after the assault on Fallujah commenced ordering news organisations to "stick to the government line on the US-led offensive in Fallujah or face legal action". The warning was circulated on Allawi's letterhead. The letter also asked the media in Iraq to "set aside space in your news coverage to make the position of the Iraqi government, which expresses the aspirations of most Iraqis, clear".

On the ground, aside from the notorious bombing and then banning of al-Jazeera, other instances of media repression were numerous. A journalist for the al-Arabiya network, who attempted to get inside Fallujah, was detained by the military, as was a French freelance photographer named Corentin Fleury, who was staying at my hotel. Fleury, a soft-spoken, wiry man, was detained by the US military along with his interpreter, 28-year-old Bahktiyar Abdulla Hadad, when they were leaving Fallujah just before the siege of the city began. They had worked in the city for nine days leading up to the siege, and were held for five days in a military detention facility outside the city.

"They were very nervous and they asked us what we had seen, and looked through all my photos, asking me questions about them," he said as we talked in my room one night. He told me he had photographed homes destroyed by US war planes. Despite appeals by the French government to the US military to free his translator and return Fleury's confiscated camera equipment and his photos, there had been no luck in attaining either. (When I had last seen Fleury in February 2005, Hadad was still being held by the US military.)

The military was maintaining a strict cordon around most of Fallujah. As I could not enter the city, I set out to interview doctors and patients who had fled and were presently working in various hospitals around Baghdad. While visiting Yarmouk Hospital looking for more information about Fallujah, I came across several children from areas south of Baghdad. One of these was a 12-year-old girl, Fatima Harouz, from Latifiya. She lay dazed in a crowded hospital room, limply waving her bruised arm at the flies. Her shins, shattered by bullets from US soldiers when they fired through the front door of her house, were both covered by casts. Small plastic drainage bags filled with red fluid sat upon her abdomen, where she took shrapnel from another bullet. Her mother told us, "They attacked our home, and there weren't even any resistance fighters in our area."

Victims' testament

Fatima's uncle was shot and killed, his wife had been wounded, and their home was ransacked by soldiers. "Before they left, they killed all our chickens." A doctor who was with us looked at me and asked, "This is the freedom. In their Disneyland are there kids just like this?"

Another young woman, Rana Obeidy, had been walking home in Baghdad with her brother two nights earlier. She assumed the soldiers had shot her and her brother because he was carrying a bottle of soda. She had a chest wound where a bullet had grazed her, but had struck her little brother and killed him. In another room, a small boy from Fallujah lay on his stomach. Shrapnel from a grenade thrown into his home by a US soldier had entered his body through his back and was implanted near his kidney. An operation had successfully removed the shrapnel, but his father had been killed by what his mother described as "the haphazard shooting of the Americans". The boy, Amin, lay in his bed vacillating between crying with pain and playing with his toy car.

Later, I found myself at a small but busy supply centre in Baghdad set up to distribute goods to refugees from Fallujah. Standing in an old, one-storey building that used to be a vegetable market, I watched as people walked around wearily to obtain basic foodstuffs, blankets or information about housing. "They kicked all the journalists out of Fallujah so they could do whatever they want," said Kassem Mohammed Ahmed, who had escaped from Fallujah three days before. "The first thing they did was bomb the hospitals because that is where the wounded have to go. Now we see that wounded people are in the street and the soldiers are rolling their tanks over them. This happened so many times. What you see on the TV is nothing. That is just one camera. What you cannot see is much more."

There were also stories of soldiers not discriminating between civilians and resistance fighters. Another man, Abdul Razaq Ismail, had arrived from Fallujah one week earlier and had been helping with the distribution of supplies to other refugees, having received similar help himself. Loading a box with blankets to send to a refugee camp, he said, "There are dead bodies on the ground and nobody can bury them. The Americans are dropping some of the bodies into the Euphrates River near Fallujah. They are pulling some bodies with tanks and leaving them at the soccer stadium." Another man sat nearby nodding his head. He couldn't stop crying. After a while, he said he wanted to talk to us. "They bombed my neighbourhood and we used car jacks to raise the blocks of concrete to get dead children out from under them."

Another refugee, Abu Sabah, an older man in a torn shirt and dusty pants, told of how he escaped with his family, just the day before, while soldiers shot bullets over their heads, killing his cousin. "They used these weird bombs that first put up smoke in a cloud, and then small pieces fell from the air with long tails of smoke behind them. These exploded on the ground with large fires that burned for half an hour. They used these near the train tracks. When anyone touched those fires, their body burned for hours."

This was the first time I had heard a refugee describing the use of white phosphorous incendiary weapons by the US military, fired from artillery into Fallujah. Though it is not technically a banned weapon, it is a violation of the Geneva Conventions to use white phosphorous in an area where civilians may be hit. I heard similar descriptions in the coming days and weeks, both from refugees and doctors who had fled the city.

Several doctors I interviewed had told me they had been instructed by the interim government not to speak to any journalists about the patients they were receiving from Fallujah. A few of them told me they had even been instructed by the Shia-controlled Ministry of Health not to accept patients from Fallujah.

That night I interviewed a spokesman for the Iraq Red Crescent, who told me none of their relief teams had been allowed into Fallujah, and the military said it would be at least two more weeks before any refugees would be allowed back into their city. Collecting information from doctors in the city, he had estimated that at least 800 civilians had been killed so far in the siege.

The second assault on Fallujah was a monument to brutality and atrocity made in the United States of America. Like the Spanish city of Guernica during the 1930s, and Grozny in the 1990s, Fallujah is our monument of excess and overkill. It was soon to become, even for many in the US military, a textbook case of the wrong way to handle a resistance movement. Another case of winning the battle and losing the war.

Conquerors' truth

I would like to say that I decided to go to Iraq for philosophical reasons, because I believe that an informed citizenry is the bedrock of any healthy democracy. But I went to Iraq for personal reasons. I was tormented by the fact that the government of my country illegally invaded and then occupied a country that it had bombed in 1991. Because the government of my country had asphyxiated Iraq with more than a decade's worth of "genocidal" sanctions (in the words of former United Nations Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq Denis Halliday). The government of my country then told lies, which were obediently repeated by an unquestioning media in order to justify the invasion and occupation. I felt that I had blood on my hands because the government had been left unchecked.

My going to Iraq was an act of desperation that has since transformed itself into a bond to that country and so many of her people. There were stories there that begged to be heard and told again. We are defined by story. Our history, our memory, our perceptions of the future, are all built and held within stories. As a US citizen complicit in the devastation of Iraq, I was already bound up in the story of that country. I decided to go to learn what that story really was.

While the vast majority of the reporting of Iraq was provided by journalists availing themselves of the Pentagon-sponsored "embed" programme, I chose to look for stories of real life and "embed"myself with the Iraqi people. The US military side of the occupation is overly represented by most mainstream outlets. I consciously decided to focus on the Iraqi side of the story. The story of the many oppressed peoples of the world is rarely recorded by the few who oppress. We are taught that the truth is objective fact as written down by the conquerors.

The above is extracted from "Beyond the Green Zone: Despatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq" (Haymarket Books, £13.99), which is available from 8 November

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq uncovered

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

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The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq uncovered