Iraqi soldiers guard the outside of a clinic in Baghdad, 2008.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Back then, everybody was writing about Iraq, but it's surprising how few Americans, including reporters, paid much attention to the suffering of Iraqis. Today, Iraq is in the news again. The words, the memorials, the retrospectives are pouring out, and again the suffering of Iraqis isn't what's on anyone's mind. This was why I returned to that country before the recent 10th anniversary of the Bush administration's invasion and why I feel compelled to write a few grim words about Iraqis today.
But let's start with then. It's April 8, 2004, to be exact, and I'm inside a makeshift medical center in the heart of Fallujah while that predominantly Sunni city is under siege by American forces. I'm alternating between scribbling brief observations in my notebook and taking photographs of the wounded and dying women and children being brought into the clinic.
A woman suddenly arrives, slapping her chest and face in grief, wailing hysterically as her husband carries in the limp body of their little boy. Blood is trickling down one of his dangling arms. In a few minutes, he'll be dead. This sort of thing happens again and again.
Over and over, I watch speeding cars hop the curb in front of this dirty clinic with next to no medical resources and screech to a halt. Grief-stricken family members pour out, carrying bloodied relatives—women and children—gunned down by American snipers.
One of them, an 18-year-old girl has been shot through the neck by what her family swears was an American sniper. All she can manage are gurgling noises as doctors work frantically to save her from bleeding to death. Her younger brother, an undersized child of 10 with a gunshot wound in his head, his eyes glazed and staring into space, continually vomits as doctors race to keep him alive. He later dies while being transported to a hospital in Baghdad.
According to the Bush administration at the time, the siege of Fallujah was carried out in the name of fighting something called "terrorism" and yet, from the point of view of the Iraqis I was observing at such close quarters, the terror was strictly American. In fact, it was the Americans who first began the spiraling cycle of violence in Fallujah when US troops from the 82nd Airborne Division killed 17 unarmed demonstrators on April 28th of the previous year outside a school they had occupied and turned into a combat outpost. The protesters had simply wanted the school vacated by the Americans, so their children could use it. But then, as now, those who respond to government-sanctioned violence are regularly written off as "terrorists." Governments are rarely referred to in the same terms.
10 Years Later
Jump to March 2013 and that looming 10th anniversary of the US invasion. For me, that's meant two books and too many news articles to count since I first traveled to that country as the world's least "embedded" reporter to blog about a US occupation already spiraling out of control. Today, I work for the Human Rights Department of Al Jazeera English, based out of Doha, Qatar. And once again, so many years later, I've returned to the city where I saw all those bloodied and dying women and children. All these years later, I'm back in Fallujah.
Today, not to put too fine a point on it, Iraq is a failed state, teetering on the brink of another sectarian bloodbath, and beset by chronic political deadlock and economic disaster. Its social fabric has been all but shredded by nearly a decade of brutal occupation by the US military and now by the rule of an Iraqi government rife with sectarian infighting.
Every Friday, for 13 weeks now, hundreds of thousands have demonstrated and prayed on the main highway linking Baghdad and Amman, Jordan, which runs just past the outskirts of this city.
Sunnis in Fallujah and the rest of Iraq's vast Anbar Province are enraged at the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki because his security forces, still heavily staffed by members of various Shia militias, have been killing or detaining their compatriots from this region, as well as across much of Baghdad. Fallujah's residents now refer to that city as a "big prison," just as they did when it was surrounded and strictly controlled by the Americans.
Angry protesters have taken to the streets. "We demand an end to checkpoints surrounding Fallujah. We demand they allow in the press. We demand they end their unlawful home raids and detentions. We demand an end to federalism and gangsters and secret prisons!" So Sheikh Khaled Hamoud Al-Jumaili, a leader of the demonstrations, tells me just prior to one of the daily protests. "Losing our history and dividing Iraqis is wrong, but that, and kidnapping and conspiracies and displacing people, is what Maliki is doing."
The sheikh went on to assure me that millions of people in Anbar province had stopped demanding changes in the Maliki government because, after years of waiting, no such demands were ever met. "Now, we demand a change in the regime instead and a change in the constitution," he says. "We will not stop these demonstrations. This one we have labeled ‘last chance Friday' because it is the government's last chance to listen to us."
"What comes next," I ask him, "if they don't listen to you?"
"Maybe armed struggle comes next," he replies without pause.
Predictably, given how the cycle of violence, corruption, injustice, and desperation has become part of daily life in this country, that same day, a Sunni demonstrator was gunned down by Iraqi security forces. Lieutenant General Mardhi al-Mahlawi, commander of the Iraqi Army's Anbar Operations Command, said the authorities would not hesitate to deploy troops around the protest site again "if the protesters do not cooperate." The following day, the Maliki government warned that the area was becoming "a haven for terrorists," echoing the favorite term the Americans used during their occupation of Fallujah.
In 2009, I was in Fallujah, riding around in the armored BMW of Sheikh Aifan, the head of the then-US-backed Sunni militias known as the Sahwa forces. The Sheikh was an opportunistic, extremely wealthy "construction contractor" and boasted that the car we rode in had been custom built for him at a cost of nearly half a million dollars.
Two months ago, Sheikh Aifan was killed by a suicide bomber, just one more victim of a relentless campaign by Sunni insurgents targeting those who once collaborated with the Americans. Memories in Iraq are long these days and revenge remains on many minds. The key figures in the Maliki regime know that if it falls, as is likely one day, they may meet fates similar to Sheikh Aifan's. It's a convincing argument for hanging onto power.
In this way, the Iraq of 2013 staggers onward in a climate of perpetual crisis toward a future where the only givens are more chaos, more violence, and yet more uncertainty. Much of this can be traced to Washington's long, brutal, and destructive occupation, beginning with the installation of former CIA asset Ayad Allawi as interim prime minister. His hold on power quickly faltered, however, after he was used by the Americans to launch their second siege of Fallujah in November 2004, which resulted in the deaths of thousands more Iraqis, and set the stage for an ongoing health crisis in the city due to the types of weapons used by the US military.
In 2006, after Allawi lost political clout, then-US ambassador to Iraq neoconservative Zalmay Khalilzad tapped Maliki as Washington's new prime minister. It was then widely believed that he was the only politician whom both the US and Iran could find acceptable. As one Iraqi official sarcastically put it, Maliki was the product of an agreement between "the Great Satan and the Axis of Evil."