Life and politics in Iraq: soldier, journalist offer their views

This Web supplement is part of a feature story, Pain of Iraq war finds its way to Vancouver.


Dahr Jamail on his time in Iraq and why America is not out of the woods yet

Coming out of Iraq and recently in Vancouver promoting his book, Beyond the Green Zone (Haymarket Books, $19.98), unembedded American journalist Dahr Jamail gives the Straight the low down on the world's most dangerous country.

Dahr Jamail

Dahr Jamail, on the First Battle of Fallujah (April 2004):

"It was intense, it was scary. I mean the whole country was on fire, outside of Kurdistan. Every night, you could put on the satellite TV and watch BBC or Jazeera and they would put a map of Iraq on there and they'd put these little fire graphics in every city where there were clashes and basically, everything from Ramadi-south had fires on it. Because simultaneously, it was the first Sadr uprising and then they attacked Fallujah. And all hell broke loose. There was fighting everywhere. And what was equally scary was right when we came out of Fallujah, in early April, was when kidnappings started....We spent three days holed up in an apartment, just sending Iraqis out to get food. Because that, on top of the whole country just melting down, it was completely insane. There were several days when it was just me and a couple of my friends and we were like, 'Okay, when do we go? When do we go?' And going and checking on the aircrafts and are there flights available? Cause all the flights were completely booked. So there were times when we did feel trapped, like we couldn't even leave even if we wanted to. So it was really scary."

On the Second Battle of Fallujah (November-December 2004):

"I didn't go into the city, I mean, no journalists could get in. I knew a couple of guys who did get in, but they ended up being detained by the Americans and their translators got put down the black hole of the military detention system. But basically, the city was leveled. They used white phosphorous and cluster bombs and tons of artillery, insane amounts of airpower. And they ended up destroying about 70 percent of the city and killing about 5000 people, probably three-quarters of them civilians. So they just totally devastated it and it remains destroyed to this day, with 80 percent unemployment, huge, entire blocks that are just piles of rubble. They made an example of Fallujah. And as I write in the book, Fallujah became a monument, not just of resistance to the occupation and American imperialism, put a monument to the brutality of the occupation."

On the November 2007 decrease in violence:

"There are numerous factors. First of all, it is unarguable that US troop deaths are way down. There is way fewer attacks, but the reality is, there are two primary reasons for that. One: Muqtada al-Sadr has his militia on stand down. They're reorganizing, they're retooling, they're rearming, they're retraining, and they're on stand down, so that's a big element of it. Another is that the Iraqi resistance itself is on a stand down, for the most part....The resistance as a whole, in classic guerilla warfare fashion, has said, 'Okay, our adversary is sending in a whole bunch of extra troops right now to this area, so we're just going to sit back and wait them out. This is our country; we're not the ones that are going to have to leave eventually'....When that happens, we can look for the resistance to come back at levels we haven't seen before. And then the other main reason is that the US is doing in al-Anbar province...what they did in Fallujah after the April '04 siege, after they failed to take the city. They basically bought off the fighters in the city, they paid them, they gave them guns, ammo, trucks, flak jackets, walkie-talkies, this sort of thing, and said 'Okay, Iraqis are controlling the security'....They've pumped over $17 million so far into former-resistance fighters, (they call them 'concerned local citizens',)...and they're paying them $300 a month of US taxpayer money and they have 26,000 of them so far and they are trying to get 10,000 more. And of course, these people collaborating with them now are happy to get the money, they're happy to get the weapons, training, and they're getting really good intel on the Americans. So that's another reason that right now, it's dampened down."

On alleged U.S.-enforced collective punishment:

"That was another thing I started seeing early on. I went up to Ramadi within the first week of my time there and when I was there, the whole city, there was no water, no electricity. Basically, any time there was an attack or a series of attacks on patrols in cities, particularly in places like Ramadi and Samarra and Fallujah and Bakuba, I started to see this trend that the US would just cut all of the water and electricity to the city. And sometimes, if it was really bad, they would even try to seal off the city and keep food out or keep medical stuff out. So collective punishment. And it happened because the neocons, the people like Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, really believed their own rhetoric, that there wasn't going to be a resistance and the Iraqis would want McDonalds and Walmarts and neoliberal policies in their country. And then when the resistance happened, they got scared and they needed to figure out what to do about it. And so they flew over Israeli counterinsurgency experts to Fort Bragg and they started training up military people. And then almost immediately, we started seeing it employed in Iraq and it continues to this day. They went for pros."

On the current government of Iraq:

"Less than one percent of Iraqis, according to Iraqi polls, support the government. And the joke my friends in Baghdad tell me today is that that one percent is the government themselves. They hate them, they're puppets....They hate them because there is no representation whatsoever. The people that risked their lives to vote on Jan 30, '05, did so because they were promised that there would be a timetable [for a U.S. withdrawal] called for. And that was the first thing that didn't happen once Rumsfeld went out there and had a chat with the new government a couple of weeks later. They are loathed and they'll have to leave with the Americans....This government will have to go. This government would not last two days without the Americans propping it up."

Ian Combs

Ian Combs on his first tour of duty in Iraq and what America is doing right

On his way to Vancouver to spend the holidays with family, U.S. Army specialist Ian Combs took time out of his vacation from Iraq to tell the Straight that it's not all bad in Baghdad.

Ian Combs, on learning Arabic and working with Iraqis:

"When you're out walking the streets everyday, spending hours on end, hanging out with the police or the army or whatever, it helps a lot. There are usually guys that are willing to hang out. And we're just like them and they're just like us. You've got your cool people and you've got your assholes and everything in between. I made a few friends over there and they're not lifelong buddies and we're not writing each other emails, but you know, you see the same guys everyday and say, 'Hey, what's up man?'....There were some good times."

On reports of U.S. soldiers acting without accountability:

"As far as on our end of it, I don't know where [the media is] getting that from....I've been involved in stuff where we did arrest a guy who blew up one of our trucks. We tracked him down with a helicopter to a house, went in, scooped him up, brought him back, took him in, and turned him over to the police. And they kicked him up north to Baghdad and two months later I was testifying against him in a court on the bank of the Euphrates. Which is kind of a trip, you know; here's where Hammurabic law was invented and here we are in a court of law. I've never seen anything where a guy went to a kangaroo court, was railroaded or unjustly imprisoned. On our side of things, there is definitely a lot of effort going to the presumption of innocence."

On the November 2007 decrease in violence:

"I went over their very skeptical; skeptically neutral. I didn't want to make up my mind one way or the other, before I had been there. For the first 10 months or so, I was like, 'We totally botched it. This is useless, this is pointless. I mean, it's a noble goal and a noble idea, but we're just not getting it done.' And then the last few months, I did a total 180. Things really changed around over there. Partly, it was the change in command, when General Patreus took over....Prior to that, it was being run by the politicians and it was just terrible....So you've got different tactics, first of all, which is general Patreus and the surge and everything. The Mahdi themselves, they've lost a lot of popular support. They started off as a grassroots movement, by Shiites for Shiites...And it basically turned into the mafia over there...they lost a lot of support with the Iraqis when they changed and basically became thugs. The Sunnis as well, they originally invited in al-Qaeda saying, 'Hey, we're Sunnis. We need you to protect us. You can fight Americans, you can fight British, all these crusaders.' And al-Qaeda ended up trying to run the show, imposing Shariah and medieval religious laws....And the Sunni sheikhs turned on them and they're fighting each other."

On the problem with the American media:

"It's just the general attitude. I mean, Fox News especially. Fox News just makes me want to vomit. They just spin everything out of proportion. They're just fear mongering, more than anything, just promoting this sense of hysteria and fear and terror and violence. It just makes me sick, watching it. Especially when it centers on events I've been involved in and I know what happened. And then seeing it reported, its just like, 'Oh my god, here we go'. They just twist it to their own ends."

"On his last week in Iraq and a brush with death:

"It was kind of exciting. It kind of sucked too because I had the last patrol and I went out and we came back in and it was like, 'Ya! I'm not going out anymore; this is awesome.' And then they sent me out again so I went out again, which sucked cause I was sure I was going to die. That one last patrol, of course I'm going to die. And actually, I almost did. I was on the roof of a police station and it was three in the morning and I was pulling guard with a couple of guys up there. And I really had to take a leak so I just started peeing against the wall. And all of the sudden I hear this snapping and this sizzling and popping sound and I look down and there is a live wire by my feet and it is shorting out and there are little sparks flying and I'm just like, 'Oh my god!' Not how I wanted to go at all."