Incident on Haifa Street

The insurgency in Iraq has altered; U.S. power, even in our most fortified strongpoints, is blinking off.

| Mon Sep. 20, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

Are there any statistics from Iraq in recent weeks which don't indicate trouble? Oil production, which Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz once swore would fund the reconstruction of a democratic Iraq, is now crippled and well below prewar levels, while attacks on oil pipelines and facilities have risen sharply; American deaths are on the rise (53 for just over half of September) as are the numbers of our wounded, as are attacks on American troops, which are now averaging more than 80 a day, "four times the number of one year ago and 25 percent higher than last spring"; while the strains on American Guard and Reserve units, being called up ever more frequently, grow greater by the week; Iraqi civilian casualties have soared in recent weeks; and on the rise are the killings of Iraqi policemen, targeted by the insurgency, but also of translators, cleaning women, clothes washers, carpenters, anyone in fact who works with the occupying forces; "no-go" areas for American troops have been increasing steadily as parts of Iraq simply blink off the American map; the kidnapping of foreigners has risen as evidently has the under-the-table payment of ransom demands; the number of car-bombings has gone up and they are being ever more carefully coordinated; estimates of the numbers of insurgents and their supporters have been rising rapidly; more mortar shells are being dropped on U.S. bases; desertions from and the infiltration of the Iraqi battalions the American military has been training are high and possibly on the rise; the sophistication and deadliness of guerrilla attacks is on the rise; the number of CIA agents in the country has risen; American air strikes on heavily populated neighborhoods of Iraqi cities are on the rise; the fighting is still spreading (as the battles around Tal Afar, near the Turkish border, indicated last week); more schoolchildren are dropping out of school at ever earlier ages to help support their families; more highways are too dangerous to drive; the number of countries supporting the "coalition" with even handfuls of troops has been falling as have the numbers of troops in allied contingents; the number of articles in leading American newspapers announcing that large swathes of Iraq have passed from American control is on a precipitous upward curve; the number of military experts ready to declare the war in Iraq in some fashion lost is also on a steep upward climb; while -- and nothing could be more devastating than this -- on advice from its new staff and ambassador in Baghdad, the Bush administration has gone back to Congress to switch $3.4 billion in Congressionally mandated reconstruction funds from two of the most important areas of daily life -- the generation of electricity and the purification of water supplies ("'Maku Karaba, Maku Amin' -- no electricity, no security -- is still the cry of Iraqis on the street") -- largely to "security"; that is, to the creation of Iraqi forces that will nominally fight under the banner of Iyad Allawi's regime but essentially under American command. (Does no one remember Richard Nixon's disastrous "Vietnamization" program?) The only number in this last month that seems not to have risen precipitously, but has remained doggedly at zero is the number of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, biological or chemical) in Saddam Hussein's possession before the invasion began.

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But let's turn from the large and statistical to a single incident that made the news repeatedly last week, an incident on Baghdad's Haifa Street, known locally as "Death Street" for the regular ambushes that take place there. The thoroughfare, part of a Sunni neighborhood in the capital that has been a hotbed of opposition to the Americans, lies across the Tigris river from, but only several hundred yards away from what's now being called the "International Zone" (as in neocolonial Shanghai) but is better known as the Green Zone, the highly fortified area where the U.S. embassy and the Allawi government have existed, until recently, in air-conditioned (relative) splendor.

On Saturday night, September 11, unknown guerrillas began pounding the Green Zone with mortars. The area had certainly been mortared before, but on a distinctly hit-and-run basis. This time, there was evidently far more mortaring and far less running. The initial September 13 New York Times report (Sabrina Tavernise, "Scores Are Dead After Violence Spreads in Iraq") commented that "rarely has the bombardment [there] been so persistent and intense." When the intermittent mortaring hadn't stopped by morning, the Americans sent out troops to locate the guerrillas and undoubtedly fell into a planned ambush, one aspect of changing tactics as the insurgency grows ever stronger. ("Militants," reports Kim Housego of the Associated Press, "now follow up roadside bomb attacks with a deluge of rocket-propelled grenades instead of fleeing, or fire off mortar rounds to lure soldiers out of their base and into freshly laid mine fields, [U.S.] military commanders say.")

Those troops, in turn, came under fire, or were attacked by a suicide car bomber or a car bomb, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles were then sent out to rescue them. One of the Bradley's was subsequently disabled on Haifa Street, possibly by a suicide car bomber or a car bomb, and its crew promptly came under fire. In the course of all this, six American soldiers were wounded, including two of the Bradley crewmen who were quickly rescued and evacuated leaving the wrecked vehicle behind. Later, a crowd gathered, including children; the black and yellow banner of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad terrorist group was brought out; members of the Arab media appeared to do TV reports; time passed -- three hours according to the BBC -- and then two American helicopters returned, made several passes over the vehicle with the black banner by now stuffed in the Bradley's gun barrel and the guerrilla fighters evidently long gone.

At that point, according to Patrick J. McDonnell of the Los Angeles Times, the helicopter pilots let loose a barrage of "seven rockets and 30 high-caliber machine-gun rounds onto a crowded Baghdad street," an action American officials later deemed "an appropriate response." The vehicle was pulverized and thirteen people, evidently mainly bystanders including a girl, died and many more were wounded. Most important, in terms of the attention the incident has received, Mazen Tomeizi, a Palestinian producer for the al Arabiya satellite network of Dubai was killed in the attack while on camera, his blood spattering the lens, and Seif Fouad, a Reuters cameraman, was wounded. The scene of Tomeizi dying, while crying out, "Seif, Seif! I'm going to die. I'm going to die," which briefly made prime-time news in the U.S., was shown over and over again on Arab networks, to local and regional outrage.

The American military promptly offered three explanations for the attack in crowded Baghdad: the helicopters were providing covering fire for withdrawing American troops; the Bradley had "sensitive equipment and weapons" that might be looted by "anti-Iraqi forces" ("The helicopters `fired upon the anti-Iraqi forces and the Bradley preventing the loss of sensitive equipment and weapons,' the [U.S.] statement said. ‘An unknown number of insurgents and Iraq civilians were wounded or killed in the incident'''); and that the helicopters took ground fire from the crowd as they passed overhead (though TV film of the incident indicates that no firing came from around the Bradley itself, at least in the moments before the attack, nor can the sound of gunfire be heard before the helicopters let loose their missiles).

The first of these explanations was withdrawn the next day. The second has been largely withdrawn since. The third -- that the helicopters were just returning fire -- stands along with a claim that, according to the LA Times' McDonnell, "it was unclear what caused the casualties -- volleys from the helicopters, explosions from ammunition in the Bradley or insurgent fire." The fog of war is, of course, a convenient hiding place for military officials in situations like this as, after a fashion, it was for military investigators of the acts seen in those photos at Abu Ghraib. There, as Mark Danner pointed out recently in the New York Review of Books, they spoke of "'misinterpretation/confusion incidents' (those committed by military intelligence soldiers, who, however, were ‘confused' about what was permitted at Abu Ghraib as a matter of policy)."

Self-defense based on ground fire was, in fact, the basis on which, according to Dexter Filkins of the New York Times, the commander of American forces in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli would, by week's end, explain the deaths on Haifa Street. He took a rare step (for Americans in Iraq), addressing Arab and Western reporters in a conference room at "Camp Victory," the ill-named American military headquarters, on the incident ("We wanted to explain, particularly to the Iraqi people, that we do everything we can to eliminate collateral damage."), defending the military's acts ("The actions of our soldiers and pilots were well within their rights."), sympathizing with the families of the dead ("I grieve their losses and give my condolences to their families."), but not, of course, apologizing.

Among the unacceptable military explanations for the deaths on Haifa Street: Frustration, anger ("The Army said it was not the sight of the insurgent flag on the Bradley vehicle that triggered the helicopter strike."), or revenge (think: punishment) as in Falluja last April; and certainly not the fear of sending troops a few hundred yards from the Green Zone into a possible further ambush. Many Iraqis are naturally outraged that American helicopters missiled a crowd in downtown Baghdad, whatever the reason. (Imagine the same thing happening on, say, Connecticut Avenue in Washington or upper Broadway in New York.) But what are we to make of this? What does the incident on Haifa Street tell us about our situation in Iraq?

From no-go to free-fire zones

For the last weeks, there have been a number of front page stories in major papers about the way in which the insurgency in Iraq has altered. On Wednesday, for instance, Farnaz Fassihi and Greg Jaffe of the Wall Street Journal had a front page piece headlined "Rebel Attacks in Iraq Reveal New Cooperation" with passages like:

"Iraq's once highly fragmented insurgent groups are increasingly cooperating to attack U.S. and Iraqi government targets, and steadily gaining control of more areas of the country… 'The insurgents are no longer operating in isolated pockets of their own. They are well-connected and cooperating,' said Sabah Kadhim, a senior adviser to Iraq's Interior Ministry, which oversees the police and security around the country."

In the meantime, information about the first CIA National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq since the infamously cooked NIE of October 2002 -- this one initiated before former Director George Tenet left the Agency and perhaps a case of Tenet's revenge -- was leaked to Douglas Jehl of the New York Times. That paper then front-paged its gloomy scenarios. These ranged from the maintenance of a "tenuous," strife-torn country to outright civil war. ("A classified National Intelligence Estimate prepared for President Bush in late July spells out a dark assessment of prospects for Iraq, government officials said Wednesday.") But until the incident on Haifa Street, recent reporting had focused on the loss of Falluja or Ramadi or Samarra or Baquba or the way the "Sunni Triangle" was blinking off the American map of Iraq. What was remarkable about the incident on Haifa Street was that a part of Iraq only hundreds of yards from one of our most fortified strongpoints was blinking off as well -- so much so that when our commanders decided to take out a disabled vehicle or offer payback, they chose to do so from the air.

Though headlines about bombing runs over Falluja are increasingly commonplace, the use of air power is certainly one of the great missing stories in our ongoing war in Iraq. I've seen a single, modest AP piece by Robert Burns featuring the subject -- but no overviews at all; no strategic discussions of the subject even as our military comes to rely ever more on air power for attacking in urban Iraq; and certainly no legal or moral discussions of the programmatic bombing of heavily populated urban areas. Nothing.

In our ability to let loose destructive power at great distances and by air, the United States military is undoubtedly unparalleled as a power today. And yet here's the counterintuitive way you have to think about American airpower in Iraq: Watch where the bombs and missiles are falling -- starting with Falluja and ending up on Haifa Street -- and you can map almost exactly where American power is blinking off. The use of air power, in other words, is a sign of American weakness. Its use maps our inability to control Iraq. To the extent that you can monitor our air power, you'll know much about what's going badly in that country, in part because the resort to air power in a guerrilla war means the surefire alienation of the contested population. It means that you've given up on "hearts and minds," to use a classic Vietnam-era phrase, and turned to the punitive destruction of bodies and souls.

Air power -- as in Vietnam -- is a harder story to cover than ground fighting. The planes take off; the reporters don't follow. And yet, for any reporter looking for a good story, there's a great -- if horrific -- one here, one with deep history in Iraq. After all, when the Brits found they couldn't control the country in the 1920s, they pioneered the use of air power as a weapon of bloody punishment and retribution in the resistant villages of Iraq.

(There is, by the way, another intertwined missing story here: that of Western reporters in Baghdad and what they can actually report -- which seems to be next to nothing. If you listen to the New York Times' John Burns and other American reporters taking up their nighttime jobs as pundits on shows like Nightline or Charlie Rose, they sometimes do discuss, at least in passing, the extreme limitations on their ability to report in person on any story from Iraq. But have you seen a single piece in any American paper on a day in the life of a reporter in Baghdad? I think not, although for many western reporters it is clearly now increasingly perilous simply to leave one's fortified post or hotel to report within the confines of Baghdad itself, no less travel anywhere in the country.

If anything, parts of Iraq began blinking off the map of American reportage long before they disappeared from the military map of the country. Now our reporters, unless embedded with American forces, are largely trapped in restricted parts of Baghdad, waiting for the war to come to the Green Zone. Most of the major papers have hired Iraqi reporters to help them out, but don't imagine for a second that what you're reading is simply the news from Iraq. Note, for instance, that when the helicopters struck in Haifa Street, only several hundred yards from the Green Zone, Arab television was there but, as far as I could see, not CNN or the networks. The reasons for all this are quite understandable. Iraq is now a desperately perilous place for unarmed, or even armed, westerners. I won't be surprised when the first American news organizations, like the last of the relief organizations, simply decide to pull out. What's far less understandable is that the conditions for reporting in Iraq, for our "news" on Iraq, go largely unreported.)

In the meantime, as the incident in Haifa Street indicated, Iraq is blinking off the map of Iyad Allawi's government as well. Unlike Hamid Karzai ("the mayor of Kabul") in Afghanistan, Allawi turns out not even to be the mayor of Baghdad. The vast Shiite slum of Sadr City in the capital, with two million residents, has long been a near no-go area for American or allied Iraqi troops. But what the incident on Haifa Street made clearer is that a neighborhood only the equivalent of three football fields from one of the most fortified spots in Iraq has also slipped from American -- and Allawi – control, and so has become a target for air power.

Perhaps the week's most remarkable story appeared in the conservative British Financial Times which in its editorial pages only the week before had called for some kind of staged withdrawal of American and British forces from Iraq. In a September 15 piece headlined, "Green Zone is ‘no longer totally secure,'" James Drummond and Steve Negus reported that:

"US military officers in Baghdad have warned they cannot guarantee the security of the perimeter around the Green Zone, the headquarters of the Iraqi government and home to the US and British embassies, according to security company employees. At a briefing earlier this month, a high-ranking US officer in charge of the zone's perimeter said he had insufficient soldiers to prevent intruders penetrating the compound's defences.

"The US major said it was possible weapons or explosives had already been stashed in the zone, and warned people to move in pairs for their own safety. The Green Zone, in Baghdad's centre, is one of the most fortified US installations in Iraq. Until now, militants have not been able to penetrate it."

This is a remarkable development actually, far worse than anyone is yet saying, and our response is to loose air power on the situation. We still generally claim, of course, that our strikes whether in Falluja or on Haifa Street, like the Israeli targeted assassinations in Gaza and the West Bank on which they were originally patterned, are "surgical," "targeted," "precise," and carefully planned to avoid "collateral damage." But reports from hospitals in Falluja and elsewhere indicate that, as is hardly surprising when you bomb heavily populated civilian areas, this is at best a fantasy of military planners. In fact, we already seem to be in a process -- familiar enough from our Vietnam experience -- by which "no-go" areas will slowly be transformed into "free fire zones."

Just this Sunday, a New York Times front-page piece by Dexter Filkins (U.S. Plans Year-End Drive To Take Iraqi Rebel Areas) reports that, according to an unnamed senior American commander, "the military intend[s] to take back Falluja and other rebel areas by year's end" -- after, that is, the November elections in the U.S. but before the scheduled Iraqi ones.

Here, then, is a vision of Iraq's future (and ours) not to be found in the latest National Intelligence Estimate: Barring some spectacular negotiated deal, we "take," which would mean "flatten," Fallujah. (For comparison, just consider what happened to the old city of Najaf, blocks of which are now in rubble after a couple of weeks of fighting which ended dramatically with a 2,000 pound bomb being dropped on a hotel near the holy shrine of the Imam Ali.) Imagine further whole swaths of urban Iraq being turned into free-fire zones and transformed into rubble -- and an ever larger insurgency.

It is in this context that our President now rejects the CIA's July National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq and speaks of continuing "progress" in that country. It is in this context that his press spokesman decries "handwringers" and "pessimists." It is in this context that he and his vice-president continue to shellac another layer of fantasy onto what Jonathan Schell in his most recent column in the Nation (Organizing Amnesia) calls the "delusions that have been laid down now, layer after layer, for more than fifty years." In much of this, from early reporting on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction through our vaunted "transfer of sovereignty" to the Allawi interim government, our media and the whole pundit class has been conjoined with the administration in delusional activities.

But those Iraqi insurgents threatening to make their way into the Green Zone also threaten to make their way into George Bush's fantasy Iraq (as the Vietnamese once fought their way into another President's fantasy of battlefield and political "progress"). Parts of Iraq are already blinking off the President's map. The only question is whether he can hold his fantasyland together through November 2. On this, his opponent has been of great aid and comfort.

Read regular posts by Tom Engelhardt at Tomdispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.