Scribes of the Empire

An Interview with Dahr Jamail

On March 15 2003, the eve of war, US President George Bush delivered the following radio address to the American people:

“Good morning. This weekend marks a bitter anniversary for the people of Iraq. Fifteen years ago, Saddam Hussein’s regime ordered a chemical weapons attack on a village in Iraq called Halabja. With that single order, the regime killed thousands of Iraq ‘s Kurdish citizens. Whole families died while trying to flee clouds of nerve and mustard agents descending from the sky. Many who managed to survive still suffer from cancer, blindness, respiratory diseases, miscarriages, and severe birth defects among their children.

The chemical attack on Halabja — just one of 40 targeted at Iraq ‘s own people — provided a glimpse of the crimes Saddam Hussein is willing to commit, and the kind of threat he now presents to the entire world. He is among history’s cruelest dictators, and he is arming himself with the world’s most terrible weapons.” [1]

In November 2004, over a year into the occupation, Dahr Jamail, an independent and unembedded American journalist issued the following dispatch from occupied Iraq:

“The U.S. military has used poison gas and other non-conventional weapons against civilians in Fallujah, eyewitnesses report.

“Poisonous gases have been used in Fallujah,” 35-year-old trader from Fallujah Abu Hammad told IPS. “They used everything — tanks, artillery, infantry, poison gas. Fallujah has been bombed to the ground.”

Hammad is from the Julan district of Fallujah where some of the heaviest fighting occurred. Other residents of that area report the use of illegal weapons.

“They used these weird bombs that put up smoke like a mushroom cloud,” Abu Sabah, another Fallujah refugee from the Julan area told IPS. “Then small pieces fall from the air with long tails of smoke behind them.

He said pieces of these bombs exploded into large fires that burnt the skin even when water was thrown on the burns.” [2]

A year later in November 2005 the US military admitted use of ‘white phosphorus as a weapon in last year’s offensive in the Iraqi city of Falluja’, though they ‘denied that white phosphorous constituted a banned chemical weapon’ despite evidence to the contrary. Gabriele Zamparini uncovered a declassified document from the US department of defence, dated April 1991, and titled “Possible use of phosphorus chemical” that stated: [3]

“During the brutal crackdown that followed the Kurdish uprising,” it alleges, “Iraqi forces loyal to President Saddam may have possibly used white phosphorus (WP) chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels and the populace in Erbil … and Dohuk provinces, Iraq . The WP chemical was delivered by artillery rounds and helicopter gunships … These reports of possible WP chemical weapon attacks spread quickly … hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled from these two areas.” [4] [5]

We can be reasonably sure that without courageous journalists like Dahr Jamail crimes such as these, which expose the emptiness of the rhetoric that bolstered support for the war, would never have been revealed.

Dahr Jamail’s story began in early 2003 when working as a mountain guide on Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America. As the drum beat for war raged Jamail became infuriated by how he saw the corporate media cooperating with the Bush administration.

He saw only two options, ‘either stay in Alaska and suffer the frustration and impotence of watching all this happen or take a risk to get the information he knew to be the truth out to others’. So armed with a laptop computer, a digital camera, and a plane ticket Jamail, a fourth-generation Lebanese American who grew up in Houston, Texas, travelled to Iraq.

In the “eight months between November 2003 and February 2005, Jamail reported “collateral damage” far beyond what the military or embedded journalists acknowledged. He wrote of soldiers shooting people in prayer at a Baghdad mosque… and of men and women who bore white flags being shot in the Euphrates River as they tried to swim to safety. Jamail also watched those profiting from the war, reporting examples of blurred lines between the military and corporations operating in Iraq .” [Extract from ‘American’s who tell the Truth’] [6] [7]

His dispatches have been published by the Inter Press Service, The Asia Times and The Nation. He has also reported for Democracy Now! and the BBC. His new book ‘Beyond the Green Zone‘ relays the complete story of how one man put the major news organisations to shame.

[DJ – Dahr Jamail, MB – MediaBite, Miriam Cotton and David Manning]

MB: In a December 2007 interview you said: “Any real change [in the US] will only come from a popular uprising here. I just keep wondering what more it will take to mobilize people so they begin to act as responsible citizens of a democracy, as we drift deeper into a fascist police state every day.” There are a lot of people outside the US who often wonder about this too – do you think there is any sign that that the US public will take action any time soon? [8]

DJ: Currently, the so-called anti-war movement in the U.S. is in shambles. It is fragmented, and the larger groups involved appear to be unable to agree on anything regarding unity.

Considering the Bush administration is continuing its bellicose rhetoric towards Iran, even keeping the use of nuclear weapons on the table while doing so, if this isn’t enough to energize and stimulate an anti-war movement towards unity and action, I don’t know what is. Frankly, I think it is going to take economic meltdown, something that causes millions of people to feel more directly how detrimental the policies of the Bush administration are to them, to get them into the streets.

That said, I’m encouraged to see grassroots activities and organizing everywhere I have been giving presentations lately. For me, the hope is in the individual on a grassroots level now.

MB: In an interview that you conducted with Samir Khader, Programme Editor of Al Jazeera, he said ‘I don’t think there is one single Arab country that respects human rights.’ What do you think about that statement?

DJ: I would agree with him. When we look at the governments of the Arab countries, whether we’re talking about Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, pick any of them, there simply isn’t a government I see that respects human rights. These are all authoritarian regimes that repress any political opposition via imprisonment, torture, and when we talk of Saudi Arabia, beheading.

Of course it’s important to note that most of these countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, are heavily supported by the U.S., and so called “allies.”

MB: In the same interview with Samir Khader he also said ‘Democracy is not elections. Democracy is something else.’ What do you think Khader means by this? [9]

DJ: I believe he means that democracy is people governing themselves. For example, look at the “elections” in Iraq in January 2005. We all know the photos of the purple fingered Iraqis here in the U.S. But look at what the result of these elections has been. Instead of a brutal, secular dictatorship in Iraq (Saddam Hussein), who was supported by the U.S. of course, now it has been replaced by a theocracy, a religious dictatorship, now also supported by the U.S.

Current polls show well over 80 percent of Iraqis favour an immediate withdrawal of occupation forces. Less than 1 percent of Iraqis support their current “government.” So when the vast majority of Iraqis favour withdrawal, and basically nobody in Iraq supports the U.S.-backed theocratic government, and we have high ranking members of that government like Iraqi defence minister Abdul Qadir, saying on Jan. 14 that Iraq will not be able to take full responsibility for its internal security until 2012, or defend its borders from external threats until at least 2018, what does this show the Iraqi people?

This shows them that there is a U.S. puppet government that has no interest in representing the will of the majority of Iraqis.

And this is but one example of the lack of true democracy in most places around the Middle East. Most of these countries are undemocratic police states.

MB: Al Jazeera has been widely observed to have changed tack in recent times – to have curtailed its criticism of Saudi Arabia , for instance. In a January 4th piece in The New York Times about changes in Al Jazeera’s policy, Robert Worth said:

“The policy also illustrates the way the Arab media, despite the new freedoms introduced by Al Jazeera itself a decade ago, are still often treated as political tools by the region’s autocratic rulers.”

What do you think of the NYT’s coverage of the war and of the Bush administration? [10]

DJ: I think the NYT’s coverage of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the Bush administration, with the exception of a few reporters, has been dismal. It’s been laughable. How can anyone forget the “reporting” of Judith Miller before the invasion, and Michael Gordon who assisted in writing the bogus WMD stories which proved so pivotal in selling the invasion to the American people. Gordon, of course, still writes for the times about Iraq to this day.

There are countless other examples we could point to in the Times, of their coverage in Iraq looking more like Pentagon press releases rather than real journalism accurately portraying the horror of what is actually happening on the ground.

Regarding the Bush administration, coverage has overall been poor as well, with the usual stenography posing as journalism, although there have been exceptions with stories about illegal wire-tapping, extraordinary rendition, and a few other topics.

MB: In the light of the controversy over the New Hampshire primary result which gave Hilary Clinton a surprise win despite all of the exit polls and most others predicting she would lose – and with mounting suspicion that the result may have been fixed – what do you think of US media treatment of US Presidential candidate Denis Kucinich?

DJ: It does not surprise me that a presidential candidate in favour of immediate, unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq, reparations being paid to Iraqis, and launching investigations of many members of the Bush administration is ignored or flailed by the U.S. establishment media. Keeping in mind that, for example, NBC being owned by General Electric, a huge Republican Party contributor and arms manufacturer has little interest in a politician who does not support wars. So it doesn’t surprise me, and I’m sure it will continue. The establishment media in the U.S. is akin to state media in Jordan, or Syria …the problem is that most Americans fail to understand that.

MB: With regards sectarianism in Iraq , your writing, and especially your latest piece ‘The Myth Of Sectarianism’, points towards something far more complex than the mainstream narrative of majority Shia vs minority Sunni. Does this simplification result simply from journalistic laziness, an elementary misunderstanding of the society or something else?

DJ: I think it results from both journalistic sloth, elementary misunderstanding of the society and history, but mostly from most establishment journos being scribes of the empire. When we look at the consistent flag-waving that is accepted as journalism regarding Iraq, and how there is always this deferring to the administration’s policies in Iraq, how can we expect critical reportage which shows the U.S.-backed death squads in Iraq, and other policies which have caused, fuelled, and continued violent sectarianism and power struggles?

I think that so many establishment media reporters, like so many Americans overall, fail to allow themselves to see the brutal nature of this empire, and what it is costing the rest of the world. I think that occurs because it’s a terrifying prospect to accept that we here in the U.S. now live in a police state, the leaders of which are bent on global domination, and nothing short of a full-scale resistance movement here, or total economic meltdown, is going to change that.

MB: What do Iraqis make of mainstream Western reporting? That of embedded journalists etc. and how would they react to headlines such as this, following the first Iraqi elections under occupation: ‘Poll success eclipses past blunders for US’ from the well respected ‘liberal’ institution the Irish Times.

DJ: Most Iraqis I’ve discussed Western establishment media reportage regarding Iraq agree with everything I’ve said here. That it is dismal, state-biased, flag-waving “propaganda disguised as journalism,” as veteran journalist John Pilger describes it.

MB: The war and occupation, and singular events within it, are often described in the mainstream media, and to some extent in the alternative media, in terms of ‘mistakes’ and ‘failures’. Would it be fair to say that in some or many cases this serves only to obscure the reality? i.e. where deliberate policies have caused unpalatable consequences the policy is referred to as a ‘mistake’ instead of say a ‘crime’.

DJ: Yes, I agree with that. Let’s imagine the U.S. was invaded and occupied by China in 20 years. If we convert Iraqi numbers into the U.S., noting that the population of the U.S. is ten times that of Iraq, that would mean 10 million Americans would be dead, 50 million would be refugees, 40 million would be in need of emergency aid, and over 30 million were wounded. How would Americans then react to a Chinese media which reported on “mistakes” or “failures” of their occupation authorities in the U.S. which caused these catastrophic numbers?

When we flip things around, we quickly see the racist, imperialist nature of much of the Western establishment media “reportage” on the occupation.

MB: Without wanting to put you in a position of ‘speaking for Iraqis’; and putting aside the inevitable denial by the warmongers themselves, from your experience how do you think Iraqis feel about the ‘great debate’ over the number of casualties due to the invasion and occupation among the anti-war community? Or are they aware of it at all?

DJ: I know many who are aware of it, and they are disgusted at any organization, like Iraq Body Count for example, which so grossly under-counts the true number of Iraqi dead. I’m in touch with many Iraqi doctors in different parts of Iraq who believe that even the Lancet survey, which estimated 655,000 Iraqis had been killed, is far too low.

MB: You have commented before that the anti-war movement cannot choose ‘what is or isn’t the legitimate resistance’, just as they couldn’t or didn’t stop the war. Are the calls for a more ‘acceptable’ resistence by some in the anti-war movement the result of our insulated realisation of war itself, detachment through TV? [11]

DJ: I think that is likely. That, coupled with a lack of imagination. What I mean by that is most people here in the U.S. have no idea what war looks, feels, smells, tastes, or looks like. And certainly not this occupation of Iraq. Thus, they haven’t an idea of how brutal the occupation is, what U.S. troops and mercenaries are doing to Iraqis on a daily basis, and how they (Americans) might react if they were in the Iraqis’ shoes.

It doesn’t take much imagination to ponder the question, if my country were invaded illegally, my neighbours killed, my son taken from my home and put in a prison where we all knew people were being tortured horribly, my city destroyed, the economy of my country eviscerated, illegal weapons used on my countrymen, might I take up arms against the occupier?

But, apparently, most Americans won’t consider this. Thus they fail to understand the Iraqi resistance, and some of the tactics being used against the occupiers.

MB: Being one of the very few independent and unembedded Western journalists having spent considerable time in occupied Iraq are you surprised that more mainstream news media don’t seek you out for informed analysis based on first hand accounts? A search of the Irish ‘liberal’ broadsheets reveals only one mention of your name (their British counterparts don’t fare much better) – a 2005 comment piece by former Irish Times columnist Eddie Holt. RTE, the Irish public service broadcaster, interviewed you once in 2004 following the murder of Margaret Hassan. So we can be pretty sure they are well aware of your credentials, yet consistently fail to expose your work to the public. [12] [13]

DJ: No, I’m not surprised by this at all. Again, to have me on a national program would be antithetical to their heavy pro-state biased reportage. I have no illusion they would have me on National Public Radio, or a national television station, talking about U.S. war crimes, the U.S. empire, and the Project for the New American Century. If their cowardly so-called journalists won’t do it, why on earth would they have a guy like me on to talk about it?

MB: Are the permanent US military bases in Iraq a consolidation of control or the basis for further invasion and intervention? Do you foresee a journey to report from Iran?

DJ: It’s both. The permanent bases serve two main purposes-safeguard control of Iraq’s oil into the future, as well as serving as a beach-head for the U.S. military for further adventures in Iran, and other countries in the Middle East in the future.

As for reporting from Iran, I can’t say yet if I’ll be heading there or not. But I do believe that if this administration has its way, there will be a massive bombing campaign against Iran within a years time from now.

6. Extract from ‘Beyond the Green Zone’
7. Extract from Dahr Jamail’s biography at ‘Americans Who Tell the Truth’

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