- "Sometimes I think it should be a rule of war that
you have to see somebody up close and get to know him before you can shoot
- - Colonel Potter, M*A*S*H
- Name them. Maim them. Kill them.
- From the beginning of the American occupation in
Iraq, air strikes and attacks by the U.S. military have only killed "militants,"
"criminals," "suspected insurgents," "IED [Improvised
Explosive Device] emplacers," "anti-American fighters,"
"terrorists," "military age males," "armed men,"
"extremists," or "al-Qaeda."
- The pattern for reporting on such attacks has remained
the same from the early years of the occupation to today. Take a helicopter
attack on October 23rd of this year near the village of Djila, north of
Samarra. The U.S. military claimed it had killed 11 among "a group
of men planting a roadside bomb." Only later did a military spokesperson
acknowledge that at least six of the dead were civilians. Local residents
claimed that those killed were farmers, that there were children among
them, and that the number of dead was greater than 11.
- Here is part of the statement released by U.S. military
spokeswoman in northern Iraq, Major Peggy Kageleiry:
- "A suspected insurgent and improvised explosive
device cell member was identified among the killed in an engagement between
Coalition Forces and suspected IED emplacers just north of Samarra....
During the engagement, insurgents used a nearby house as a safe haven to
re-engage coalition aircraft. A known member of an IED cell was among the
11 killed during the multiple engagements. We send condolences to the families
of those victims and we regret any loss of life."
- As usual, the version offered by locals was vastly
different. Abdul al-Rahman Iyadeh, a relative of some of the victims, revealed
that the "group of men" attacked were actually three farmers
who had left their homes at 4:30 A.M. to irrigate their fields. Two were
killed in the initial helicopter attack and the survivor ran back to his
home where other residents gathered. The second air strike, he claimed,
destroyed the house killing 14 people. Another witness told reporters that
four separate houses were hit by the helicopter. A local Iraqi policeman,
Captain Abdullah al-Isawi, put the death toll at 16 - seven men, six women,
and three children, with another 14 wounded.
- As often happens, the U.S. military, once challenged,
declared that an "investigation" of the incident was under way.
- And So It Goes
- On October 21st, two days before that helicopter
strike near Djila, American soldiers, again aided by helicopters, but this
time in a heavily populated urban neighborhood, claimed to have killed
49 "armed men" in a "gun battle" in Sadr City, a sprawling
Shi'ite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. Then, too, the military initially
insisted "no civilians were killed or injured." A Shi'ite citizens'
council and other Shi'ite groups responded that many innocent bystanders
had died. Among the 13 dead mentioned in initial reports by local Iraqi
police were three children and a woman. Other Iraqi authorities announced
that 69 people had been injured.
- The U.S. military had no explanation for the widely
varying American and Iraqi tallies of casualties.
- The official American account went like this:
- "The operation's objective was an individual reported
to be a long time Special Groups member specializing in kidnapping operations.
Intelligence indicates he is a well-known cell leader and has previously
sought funding from Iran to carry out high profile kidnappings. Upon arrival,
the ground force began to clear a series of buildings in the target area
and received sustained heavy fire from adjacent structures, from automatic
weapons and rocket propelled grenades, or RPGs. Responding in self-defense,
Coalition forces engaged, killing an estimated 33 criminals. Supporting
aircraft was also called in to engage enemy personnel maneuvering with
RPGs toward the ground force, killing an estimated six criminals. Upon
departing the target area, Coalition forces continued to receive heavy
fire from automatic weapons and RPGs and were also attacked by an improvised
explosive device. Responding in self-defense, the ground force engaged
the hostile threat, killing an additional estimated 10 combatants. All
total, Coalition forces estimate that 49 criminals were killed in three
separate engagements during this operation. Ground forces reported they
were unaware of any innocent civilians being killed as a result of this
- To be fair, the military admitted that the target
of this manhunt was not, in fact, among those captured or killed.
- After the "operation," television news
outlets broadcast images of grieving families in the streets of Sadr City.
One man reported that his neighbor's 6-year-old child had been killed,
and a 2-year-old wounded. Arab television outlets caught scenes of ambulances
with wailing sirens carrying the injured to the Imam Ali hospital, the
largest in Sadr City, where doctors were shown treating the casualties,
- Typically with such incidents, those 49 dead "criminals"
turned back into civilians when local police began checking, including
two (not three) children in their final count.
- Iraqi Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki vowed an investigation
for which U.S. military officials offered to form a joint committee; but,
as is so often the case in such "investigations," there have
been no follow-up reports. In this "incident," the U.S. military,
as far as we know, still stands by its assertion that no civilians were
killed or wounded.
- Two months earlier, in a similar incident, the U.S.
military claimed 32 "suspected insurgents" killed during an air
strike, also in Sadr City, a claim disputed by Iraqis in the neighborhood,
followed by the usual promise of an investigation - of which, once again,
nothing more was heard.
- "Tactical Perception Management"
- For perspective, let me take you back to Iraq in
November 2003. I had been there less than a week on my first visit to that
occupied country when the U.S. military reported a raging firefight between
American forces and 150 of Saddam Hussein's former Fedayeen paramilitary
fighters. According to General Peter Pace, then vice chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, American soldiers, on being attacked by the group, had
responded fiercely and killed 54 of them. "They attacked and they
were killed, so I think it will be instructive to them," General Pace
had smugly observed.
- Most of the Western media simply chalked up the number
of "insurgent" dead at 54 and left it at that. Local media in
Baghdad, as well as outlets like Al-Jazeera, were, however, citing very
different figures taken directly from the hospital in Samarra where the
wounded were being treated. Doctors there announced a count of eight killed
in the incident, including an Iranian pilgrim, and 50 Iraqis wounded.
- I traveled to Samarra that week, visited the morgue
at Samarra General Hospital, spoke with wounded Iraqis at the hospital,
and interviewed one of the leading sheikhs of the city as well as several
eyewitnesses to the event. What I found was general agreement that a U.S.
patrol had, in fact, come under attack - but by only two gunmen while delivering
money to a downtown bank. Jumpy American soldiers had responded with a
spray of fire that had killed neither of the attackers, but eight civilians,
while wounding 50 others. The streets in the city center, where the firing
took place, were riddled with bullets.
- The military, nonetheless, stood by their figure
- 54 dead - and insisted that the enormous force of "insurgents"
had attacked with mortars, grenades, and automatic weapons.
- A man I interviewed, who had been in his tea stall
in the vicinity and witnessed most of the incident, summed up the local
reaction this way:
- "The Americans say the people who fought them are
al-Qaeda or fedayeen. We are all living in this small city here. Why have
we not seen these foreign fighters and strangers in our city before or
after this battle? Everyone here knows everyone, and none have seen these
strangers. Why do they tell these lies?"
- Another man at the scene had drawn my attention to
a parked car scarred with 112 bullets. As I was photographing it, a man
with two children at his side approached. They were, he said, the children
of his brother who had been killed by the gunfire.
- "This little boy and girl, their father was shot
by the Americans. Who will take care of this family? Who will watch over
these children? Who will feed them now? Who? Why did they kill my brother?
What is the reason? Nobody told me. He was a truck driver. What is his
crime? Why did they shoot him? They shot him with 150 bullets! Did they
kill him just because they wanted to shoot a man? That's it? This is the
reason? Why didn't anyone talk to me and tell me why they have killed my
brother? Is killing people a normal thing now, happening every day? This
is our future? This is the future that the United States promised Iraq?"
- My life as an independent reporter in his country
was just beginning and his questions felt like so many blows to the gut.
Of course, I was the only American reporter there to hear him and I was
then writing for an email audience of under 200. This is what it means,
in Pentagon terms, to dominate not only the battlefield, but the media
landscape in which that battlefield is reported. And that sort of domination
was, it turned out, very much on Pentagon minds in that period.
- Within days of the incident, for instance, the New
York Times published an article about how the Pentagon had awarded
a contract to SAIC, a private company, which was to investigate ways the
Department of Defense could use propaganda for more "effective strategic
influence" in the "war on terror." The Pentagon referred
to this potential propaganda blitz (which would eventually come back to
haunt Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) as a "tactical perception
management campaign." The title of the document SAIC produced was
"Winning the War of Ideas."
- On December 2, 2005, the U.S. military would admit
that the Lincoln
Group, which described itself as "a strategic communications &
pubic relations firm providing insight & influence in challenging &
hostile environments," had been hired by the Pentagon to plant pro-American
good-news articles in the new Iraqi "free" press that the Bush
administration was just then touting. This was exposed during a briefing
with Senator John Warner of Virginia, head of the Senate Armed Services
- The admission would not, as one might have expected,
prove a step towards deterrence. Not only did the Lincoln Group get further
contracts, but a wide range of similar tactics continue to be employed
by the military in Iraq today with even greater impunity. In Iraq, the
propaganda and misinformation have, in fact, been continual and on a massive
scale. And, of course, the regular announcements of Iraqi "insurgent"
or "criminal" deaths in American operations have never stopped,
nor have the announcements of "investigations," when those claims
are seriously challenged on the ground - investigations which, except in
a few cases, are never heard of again. All this is a reminder of something
W. Bush once said: "See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating
things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of
catapult the propaganda."
- The Military Wrist Is Slapped
- Even when one of those investigations did lead somewhere,
that somewhere was almost invariably a dead end. Take Haditha. Witnesses
told reporters that, on November 19, 2005, in the western town of Haditha,
24 Iraqi civilians had been slaughtered by U.S. Marines. It was no secret
that the Marines had shot men, women, and children at close range in retaliation
for a roadside bombing that killed one of their own.
- The Washington Post quoted Aws Fahmi, a Haditha resident
who was watching
from his home as Marines went from house to house killing members of three
families. He had heard Younis Salim Khafif, his neighbor across the street,
plead in English for his life and the lives of his family members. "I
heard Younis speaking to the Americans, saying: 'I am a friend. I am good,'"
Fahmi said. "But they killed him, and his wife and daughters."
- A Post special correspondent and U.S. investigators
in Washington reported that some of the dead were women attempting to shield
their children. According to death certificates, the girls killed in Khafif's
house were aged 14, 10, 5, 3, and 1.
- After the news broke in the U.S., the military ordered
a probe of the incident. An Iraqi had actually managed to film the interiors
of the blood-soaked houses as well as scenes of the wounded at the Haditha
hospital, and had recorded statements of eyewitnesses to the massacre.
- Even now, two years after the massacre, investigations
continue. Anonymous Pentagon officials having admitted to reporters that
there is an abundance of evidence to support charges against the accused
Marines of deliberately shooting civilians, including unarmed women and
children. Currently, Marine Corps and Navy prosecutors are reviewing the
evidence, and will likely ask for further probes.
- As for the charges levied against the soldiers involved
in the massacre, on April 2nd of this year, all of the charges against
Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz, who was accused of killing five civilians, were
as part of a decision that granted him immunity to testify in potential
courts-martial for seven other Marines charged in the attack and in its
alleged cover-up. On August 9th, all murder charges against Lance Cpl.
Justin Sharratt and charges of failing to investigate the incident against
Capt. Randy Stone were dropped by Lt. Gen. James Mattis, well-known for
fighting in Afghanistan, "It's fun to shoot some people." On
August 23rd, the investigating officer suggested that charges against Lance
Cpl. Stephen Tatum be dropped as well. On October 19th, Tatum's commanding
officers decided the charges should be lowered to involuntary manslaughter,
reckless endangerment, and aggravated assault. More recently, on September
18th, all charges against Capt. Lucas McConnell were dropped, and the investigating
officer recommended that charges be similarly dropped against Lance Cpl.
- On October 3rd, an investigating officer of an Article
32 hearing (a proceeding similar to a civilian grand jury) recommended
that Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich be tried for negligent homicide in the
deaths of two women and five children, and that the murder charges for
his involvement in the killing of 17 innocent civilians, be dropped. In
other words, so far, no one has gone to jail for the massacre in Haditha.
- It is now commonplace for such investigations, regarding
heinous crimes against Iraqi civilians, to drag on for months or even years.
Equally commonplace: On completion of these investigations, the low-level
soldiers, who are charged with the crimes, are often either cleared entirely
or given laughably light sentences by military courts.
- On November 8th, for instance, Staff Sgt. Michael
Hensley, a sniper, was found
not guilty by military judges on three charges of premeditated murder
for killing three Iraqi civilians. He was instead convicted only of placing
an AK-47 rifle with the remains of a dead Iraqi during one of his missions
- as evidence that the man was an "insurgent."
- In January 2004, 19 year-old Zaidoun Hassoun, and
his cousin Marwan Fadil were forced off a ledge into the Tigris River in
Samarra at gunpoint by U.S. soldiers. Fadil survived. He testified that
the soldiers, after forcing the two into the water, had stood by laughing
as Hassoun drowned.
- Sgt. 1st Class Tracy Perkins was the only soldier
tried in the case. Defense attorney Captain Joshua Norris suggested that
Perkins could not be convicted of manslaughter because there was "no
body, no evidence, no death." He was, in fact, cleared of the involuntary
manslaughter charge in a military court on January 9, 2005 and instead
was reduced in rank by one grade and sentenced to six months in a military
prison for assault.
- Similarly, on June 6, 2006, three British soldiers
were cleared of charges of killing 15-year-old Ahmed Jabber Kareem in May
2003 by forcing him into a Basra canal.
- Iraqis Dehumanized
- None of this - from the unending "incidents"
themselves to the way the Pentagon has dominated the reporting of them
- would have been possible without a widespread dehumanization of Iraqis
among American soldiers (and a deep-set, if largely unexpressed and little
considered, conviction on the American "home front" that Iraqi
lives are worth little). If, four decades ago, the Vietnamese were "gooks,"
"dinks," and "slopes," the Iraqis of the American occupation
are "hajis," "sand-niggers," and "towel heads."
Latent racism abets the dehumanization process, ably assisted by a mainstream
media that tends, with honorable exceptions, to accept Pentagon announcements
as at least an initial approximation of reality in Iraq.
- Whether it was "incidents" involving helicopter
strikes in which those on the ground who died were assumed to be enemy
and evil, or the wholesale destruction of the city of Fallujah in 2004,
or the massacre at Haditha, or a slaughtered
wedding party in the western desert of Iraq that was also caught on video
tape (Marine Major General James Mattis: "How many people go to the
middle of the desert.... to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?
These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let's not be naive."),
or killings at U.S. checkpoints; or even the initial invasion of Iraq itself,
we find the same propaganda techniques deployed: Demonize an "enemy";
report only "fighters" being killed; stick to the story despite
evidence to the contrary; if under pressure, launch an investigation; if
still under pressure, bring only low-level troops up on charges; convict
a few of them; sentence them lightly; repeat drill.
- At the time of this writing, the group Just Foreign Policy
has offered an estimate of Iraqis killed since the U.S.-led invasion and
occupation. Their number: 1,118,846. Consider that possibility in the context
of the latest round of news from Iraq about lessening violence.
- The estimate is based on figures from a study conducted
by researchers from Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. and al-Mustansiriya
University in Baghdad, and published in October 2006 in the British Medical
Journal, The Lancet, which found 655,000 Iraqis had died as a direct result
of the Anglo-American invasion and occupation. The report methodology has
been called "robust" and "close to best practice" by
Sir Roy Anderson, the chief scientific advisor to Britain's Ministry of
Defense. Since that time, in addition to Just Foreign Policy, the British
research polling agency Opinion Research Business has extrapolated a figure
of 1.2 million deaths in Iraq. Based on this, veteran Australian born journalist
John Pilger wrote
recently, "The scale of death caused by the British and U.S. governments
may well have surpassed that of the Rwanda genocide, making it the biggest
single act of mass murder of the late 20th century and the 21st century."
- It is an indication of the success of an effective
Pentagon "tactical perception management campaign," of the way
the Bush administration has continued to "catapult propaganda,"
and of the dehumanization of Iraqis that has gone with it, that the possibility
of the number of dead Iraqis being in this range has largely been dismissed
(or remained generally undealt with) in the mainstream media in the United
States. Add to that the refusal of the U.S. military to bring justice to
those charged with some of these heinous crimes, the lack of accountability,
and an establishment media which has regularly camouflaged the true nature
of the occupation, and we have the perfect setting for a continuance of
industrial-scale slaughter in Iraq, even while the news highlights the
likes of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan and their adventures in various
- In what could reasonably serve as a summary of the
American occupation of Iraq, the eighteenth century philosopher Voltaire
wrote, "It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished
unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets."
- Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist, is the
author of the just-published "Beyond
the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq"
(Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from occupied Iraq for eight months
as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey over the last four years.
He writes regularly for TomDispatch.com, Inter Press Service, Asia Times,
and Foreign Policy in Focus. He has contributed to The Sunday Herald, The
Independent, The Guardian, and The Nation, among other publications. He
maintains a website, Dahr Jamail's
Mideast Dispatches, with all his writing.