On this week’s episode of Unauthorized Disclosure, Kevin Gosztola and I interviewed Truthout staff reporter Dahr Jamail about his latest article on the ongoing crisis in Fallujah, where the US-installed Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is slaughtering civilians.
Jamail, one of the only American journalists still reporting on Iraq, highlights the parallels between the current siege of Fallujah and the crimes committed by US military there in 2004.
US combat troops may have left Iraq, but the war is far from over. As Jamail explained, the sectarian divisions fueling the ongoing violence are a direct result of the US occupation, when America trained and armed Shia death squads to eradicate the predominantly Sunni armed resistance, a strategy that was executed by the same men responsible for training death squads in Latin America in the 1980s. “The sectarianism was brought in by the American tanks,” said Jamail. As a result, Iraq is far worse off than it ever was under Saddam Hussein. In fact, as Jamail explained, many Iraqis refer to Maliki—who’s private security forces torture, rape and kill Sunnis—as the “Shia Saddam.”
This comes on top of skyrocketing rates of congenital birth defects and rare cancers that are significantly worse than the rates documented in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Jamail called this “one of the lingering ongoing war crimes that is residual from the US occupation.”
In the discussion portion of the episode, Kevin and I talk at length about the corporate media’s hypocritical reaction to the on-air resignation of RT anchor Liz Wahl compared to their smearing of Abby Martin, host of RT’s Breaking the Set, following her brave on-air declaration of journalistic independence in response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Mainstream outlets love to label RT a propaganda network for toeing the Russian line on certain issues, but the truth is that the the establishment US press is no better. We also discuss the brutal treatment of CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin at the hands of Egypt’s military coup regime.
Here is the transcript of our interview with Jamail:
RANIA KHALEK, Dispatches from the Underclass: Could you talk about what’s going on in Fallujah right now?
DAHR JAMAIL, Staff reporter for Truthout: The context that kind of led to the situation began over a year ago but essentially with the current present situation a little over a month ago the Iraqi government started shelling the city of Fallujah. They circled it off and claimed that the city had been taken control of by ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a group that was affiliated with al Qaeda, that they had taken control of the city.
The reality is, while ISIS did have a small presence within the city, the city remained largely under control of the tribes in the area and of course the people living in the city and so they were trying to deal with the situation themselves. They did not want those people present in the city either but nevertheless the Maliki government sealed off the city, stopped medical supplies from being allowed in, started shelling the city and as of just a few days ago according to doctors that I interviewed in the city there were 109 civilians had been killed and 632 wounded including several dozen women and children killed and wounded.
So it’s a crisis situation. It’s ongoing. It’s displaced about 300,000 people around Al Anbar province. The UN has called for an end of what the Maliki government is doing as have other NGOs operating in the areas but unfortunately it is ongoing as we speak.
KHALEK: For listeners who are unfamiliar with Fallujah and its recent history, could you talk about what happened in 2004 with the US military and the parallels between that siege of Fallujah and what the Iraqi government is doing now?
JAMAIL: Yes, I’m glad that you brought that up because there’s striking resemblances of what happened in 2004, keeping in mind what I just described with ISIS and the Maliki government and the Maliki government using ISIS as the pretext to basically seal off and attack the city and engage in collective punishment.
Back in 2004 the Bush administration again under the pretext of, well terrorists and al Qaeda had taken control of Fallujah and so now we need to go in and clear the city out. Reality was the people of Fallujah simply did not want to be occupied and had up until that point effectively pushed the US military out of the city. And so in April of 2004 the Bush administration decided, okay we’re going to go in and take control of the city. They launched a siege that failed because there was enough media exposure of the rampant killing of civilians happening by the US military that they were forced to stop. They then kept the city relatively sealed off until November, about six months later.
They waited until just after the presidential election in the United States took place and then once it was clear that Bush maintained office, on November 8 they launched a second siege of the city, which essentially leveled a better part of the city. Something like 60 percent of all the buildings in the city received some form of damage or were completely destroyed and one Iraqi NGO operating in the city estimated upwards of 5,000 people had been killed.
And again that siege much more similar to the current situation in that the Bush administration tried to portray the situation as literally a hostage intervention operation. They claimed that a Jordanian terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had taken control of the city and that what the US military was doing was trying to liberate the people of Fallujah despite the fact that to date there’s never been any evidence presented that that man ever took a step inside Fallujah and everyone I talk with inside the city said, “yeah, that was just nonsense we’ve never even heard of the guy.” Once again it was just the people of Fallujah trying to defend their city against what they saw Was a foreign occupier.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA, Firedoglake: Dahr, what can you say about the current influence or presence of the United States? I know you told me while we were preparing for the interview, there’s no US troops but there’s still contractors. And what is the status of arms sales in possibly making tensions worse?
JAMAIL: Yes, there’s really kind of a behind-the-scene kind of soft power relationship now between the US government and Maliki government.
We have to keep in mind that the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is who the US decided to keep as prime minister. I mean this is a guy who actually had already lost an election against another opponent but because he was able to strong-arm his way into office in the first place and then stay in there despite losing an election against Ayad Allawi because the US wanted to keep him there. He was basically toeing the US line more than anybody else, but bearing in mind that the US, when they did pull out, they disassembled all their bases and they did pull out all the formal combat troops.
There might be a few US trainers or guards remaining inside the green zone. But for the better part it’s mostly several thousands contractors left. It was 17,000 when the US pulled out. Now it’s down under 10,000 and continuing to dwindle.
So that said, the main way that the US is maintaining power and control is that they’ve sold over $20 billion worth of arms to the Maliki government in the forms of helicopters, tanks, missiles, ammunition, communications equipment and training as well as when this Fallujah situation first sparked six weeks ago, if you remember I believe it was back in January, the Obama administration put a rush on shipping artillery equipment and missiles over to the Maliki government again to be used against the people of Fallujah.
KHALEK: Dahr, I wanted to ask you about, well, you’ve done a lot of reporting on the astronomical rates of birth defects and rare cancers in cities like Fallujah. So I’m wondering, could you talk a little bit about the US role or the potential US responsibility for those high rates that I believe rival in some cases the rates we saw in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after they were bombed by the United States? And also, when you’ve spoken to the doctors, who I imagine are already stretched thin in Fallujah with all the health disparities they have to deal with, have they talked to you at all about how they’re able to deal with those kinds of rare cancers when they’re having trouble getting basic medical supplies in at the moment?
JAMAIL: Absolutely. I don’t really think there’s any question as to what caused these defects. The cancer rates in Fallujah have gone up astronomically since both US sieges. In 2004, they had cancer rates on par with average cancer rates throughout the rest of Iraq, at least the parts of Iraq that hadn’t been bombed during the 1991 first Bush war on Iraq and so much depleted uranium munitions were used then. But compared to the average baseline in Iraq, Fallujah was right there.
And then in 2004, during both US sieges, there was massive amounts of depleted uranium munitions, which is basically a low grade radioactive weapon, used across Fallujah. I’ve interviewed a lot of the US soldiers engaged in both sieges that said, “yeah, we used it and we fired tank shells with it. We used lots of bullets with it from our guns, from helicopters, etc.” And then other toxic weaponry like white phosphorous, which was well-documented that it was used.
And so in the wake of that, from 2004 until the present day, we’ve seen a massive uptick in the rates of cancer and congenital birth defects in Fallujah. I’ve been in there several times since both of those sieges and most recently this past March I went to Fallujah and I interviewed Dr. Samira Alani. She’s the head pediatrician at Fallujah General Hospital and she said, “Look we don’t get any support from the Ministry of Health. I am the only person here logging this. We don’t have enough help. We’re not getting any support from Baghdad.” Again, because the Maliki administration is extremely sectarian and is basically not assisting Fallujah because it’s in Al Anbar province, which is primarily Sunni. But she said, “I alone am documenting between six and eight cases a day of congenital birth defects.” She said, “We’re seeing things that there’s literally not medical terminology to explain.”
And I saw a lot of these babies myself and a lot of the photos that she shared with me and they’re really horrifying, just the most horrible birth defects you can imagine. And this is against the backdrop of cancer rates in Fallujah actually are more than 14 times what the cancer rates were in the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
So that gives you an idea of how extreme the situation there is. They do not have enough diagnostic equipment. She said, “Look, it’s so bad that literally we can’t test people but more and more people are just becoming even too afraid to even have babies any more.” And she said that she’s a one-person show trying to keep up with it, really engaged in this herculean task of logging as well as trying to help people that are giving birth to babies that have these deformities.
But it is really one of the lingering ongoing war crimes that I think is residual from the US occupation there who absolutely bears responsibility.
GOSZTOLA: Dahr, what about the residual effects that continue to go throughout Iraq as a result of the occupation that involve the fact that there are security forces that are torturing people? You’ve got these high rates of rape, these reported instances of detentions, of people’s rights being violated basically. Can you address that development?
JAMAIL: Yes, I’ve written about this quite a bit in the last year because the Maliki regime, I mean there’s so many Iraqis now that are referring to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as basically a Shia Saddam, that he’s a strongman.
He’s built his own private mukhabarat, his own private intelligence services. He has his own private security forces and militias and he runs his own string of prisons and this has been well-documented by Amnesty International as well as other NGOs and human rights organizations and there’s so many people that I’ve spoken to who’ve been in his prisons.
Women who’ve told me point blank, yes, they were in there, they were raped several times, beaten, spit upon. I’ve interviewed men that said, yes, the Maliki prison personnel are using techniques, really awful methods of torture, like hanging people from their ankles while they electrocute them; splashing cold water on them while they electrocute them; beating people with metal pipes, leather straps, things like this; bringing in people’s female relatives and raping them in front of them. I mean, really horrific nightmarish torture methods. And that in addition to going in and just raiding homes.
So basically, Maliki’s been carrying out sectarian warfare against a lot of the Sunni population of Iraq and that is what people in Anbar province started demonstrating about every Friday from December of 2012 up until now and those demonstrations and the demands these people were making for basic human rights to be respected. Stop the detentions, stop the torturing, stop targeting Sunnis just because they’re Sunnis—those were the demands and when I was in Fallujah this past March, I went to some of these demonstrations and that’s precisely what these people were asking for and instead of meeting those demands, basically violence started breaking out across Anbar and in parts of Baghdad as a result of Maliki’s strong-arm tactics and then of course the Maliki administration used that violence to justify going in and doing to Fallujah what they’re doing right now.
GOSZTOLA: But Dahr, quick follow-up here. Isn’t this something that General David Petraeus had embraced in Iraq and doesn’t the US military leadership bear some responsibility for the fact that Iraq is using these tactics against Iraqis?
JAMAIL: Oh absolutely. This is basically residual fallout of US policy during the occupation because I remember when I was in Baghdad in 2004 when Zalmay Khalilzad, one of the neocon architects of the original invasion plans, decided, okay we’re going to appoint John Negroponte as US ambassador to Iraq and then Negroponte brought in a retired Colonel James Steele to run his security affairs.
And these are the same two guys that were implicated, and this is well-documented, during the Reagan administration in Central America in the 1980s, for setting up and running the death squads. Well that is precisely what they did in Iraq. They organized, trained and ran sectarian based death squads, Shia death squads. They pulled them from the Badr Brigade Shia militia, among others, and they started sending them out to do the dirty work to target the Sunni because it was the Sunni who were conducting most of the violent opposition to the US occupation.
So once the US pulled out, what’s left is that whole apparatus of these sectarian death squads that is basically still running around targeting Sunnis. And that is again very critical context to remember when we talk about and when we look at what’s happening in Iraq today. It explains a lot. It’s why there is this really broad Shia-Sunni divide that never existed like this before the US occupation and it’s really now what’s tearing the country to pieces.
KHALEK: On that note Dahr I want to ask you, because everything you’re talking about is the kind of context that’s often missing in reports about Iraq, at least in the mainstream establishment US press it’s always portrayed as this sectarian violence is fueling everything, it’s just these sectarian divisions and we never hear about these sort of underlying divisions that you just laid out. So are there particular outlets or particular reporters other than yourself obviously that you can point listeners to to get that kind of information or is it just kind of being ignored overall?
JAMAIL: Well, in the past it was easier, there were several people writing about it but now unfortunately since the US has left Iraq most people have stopped reporting on it and most people have stopped reading it.
But from time to time you will see something good from John Pilger or Robert Fisk who will still circle back around write about the sectarian issue in Iraq and some of the things that I just spoke of as well as how it used to be in Iraq before the occupation, the fact that there wasn’t this huge Sunni-Shia divide, that in fact Iraqis grew up in neighborhoods and never knew if their neighbor was Sunni or Shia. It just wasn’t an issue. The sectarianism was brought in by the American tanks. That’s what I heard early on in the occupation.
But it is increasingly difficult to find folks writing about anything about Iraq today because unfortunately like I said most readership, at least in the West, they don’t—it’s like the dirty little secret. Nobody really wants to talk about it anymore even though it’s this huge festering disaster.
GOSZTOLA: But Dahr, you’ve talked to people who fought in the Iraq war. Does this get to the main issue? And I sort of saw this when things were blowing up last year, that a lot of soldiers are having to confront this reality that the country was made worse by the United States.
JAMAIL: Very much so, yeah. And there’s still several veterans that are very active in being vocal about what’s going on and the legacy that they left. I mean one individual I know personally, Ross Caputi, who took part in the November 2004 siege of Fallujah and actually less than two months ago had an excellent article in The Guardian condemning what was going on because he felt morally responsible for creating the conditions that led to what the situation is in Iraq today.
So there are many that are racked with guilt and struggling with that as well as having to cope with the fact that they went over there and did horrible things themselves and had friends killed or wounded and then come back and realize, guess what, it was all for nothing. It was all just so certain private US and other western companies could go in there and make a whole lot of money in a short amount of time.
And that’s why when you look at the plight of the veterans, which is ongoing—and we have more veterans killing themselves today than are dying overseas in any kind of combat operations and that’s been the case for years now which is a stunning statistic—but that’s why when you hear about the massive incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicides and alcohol and drug addition and all these other myriad problems facing US vets when they come home, I mean that’s what it is. It’s essentially untreated PTSD.
These folks aren’t getting the support they need from the government, from the VA to deal psychologically and often times physically with what they’ve been through and what they created and, you know, how do they live with that?
KHALEK: Well lots of crimes on top of another it sounds like. Thank you so much Dahr for taking the time to speak with us. It’s such an important story and we hope to continue having this conversation in the future. And thank you again for your reporting. It’s really vital. It’s the only article I’ve seen that’s this comprehensive at the moment on Fallujah. So yeah thank you so much for all the work you’ve done on this.
JAMAIL: Oh my pleasure, thank you both for having me.