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Dhar Jamail: Dispatches From Iraq – Jan 14-16

Dhar Jamail's Dispatches From Iraq

Destroying Babylon

January 16, 2005

The onslaught of Mosul has begun, as occupation forces are launching attacks into Iraq’s third largest city. While there are mass resignations of police and elections polling staff there, yet another new police chief has been awarded control of the 1,000 strong police force-which was over 5,000 men just two months ago.

In Ramadi fierce clashes continue between the bringers of “democracy” and those resisting the occupation. It is reported that five huge explosions hammered a US base near the city.

Samarra wasn’t without its share of “democracy” as US soldiers opened fire on a car of civilians. The military spokesman said warning shots were fired before the car was shot, wounding two people. Iraqi police, along with several witnesses however, reported the car was shot by a tank and four people died. Just yesterday a US soldier was killed in Samarra, along with four Iraqi soldiers.

Of course clashes persist in “stabilized” Fallujah. Remember how the reason Fallujah bombed to the ground was to bring stability and security for the “elections?” Remember how Iraq was invaded because the past regime had weapons of mass destruction?

Closer to home, an Iraqi Army patrol was attacked just south of the capital, injuring two of them. Horrible as that is, they fared better than 15 of their comrades who were kidnapped from a bus recently near Hit.

As the gas crisis persists and worsens by the day, 300 followers of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr began a sit-in today at the Oil Ministry-their chief complaint is the question, “Why does the US military have plenty of gasoline for their vehicles and Iraqis do not?”

Good question.

As I’m preparing for my day this morning the “green zone” is mortared as I make some coffee. Just like yesterday. And the day before that. And…well, you get the idea.

Of course these are only the highlights of the violence. Stories of the new “freedom” being enjoyed by Iraqis abound in daily life as well.

Abu Talat’s wife works in a bank and she told him many of the banks in Baghdad are paying their employees in advance for the next two weeks for fear of bank robberies during the “elections.”

We are driving by the Rashid Bank in the Karrada district if Baghdad as he tells the story.
Iraqi Army soldiers have sealed the road that runs in front of the bank, most of them standing around with their black face masks on smoking cigarettes, casually holding their Kalashnikovs.

“My wife told me that four billion Iraqi Dinars ($2.6 million) were looted from a vehicle recently that was traveling between Kut and Baghdad,” he says, “Three of the guards were killed while transporting the money to the Central Bank in Baghdad.”

In case a bank looting spree accompanies the “elections” we go to collect some funds I had wired to a local bank.

Most of the day has found our cell phones without signal. Recently the Iraqi “government” announced that in order to provide security for the polls on January 30, cell and satellite phones will be cut, and the use of cars will be “limited” the day before, of and after the “elections.”

I say “elections” because the Higher Commission for Elections announced that it won’t be releasing the names of the candidates prior to the “elections.” With four of Iraq’s 18 governorates unable to participate in them, an estimated 90% of the Sunni population not voting, a sizeable amount of the Shia boycotting and a very large percentage of Iraqis unwilling to vote because of the horrendous security situation, calling them elections seems a bit of a stretch.

Apaches rumble low overhead as we leave the bank and head over to al-Dora to visit some friends. We weave through some concrete barriers in the on-ramp to the highway.

Once at our destination, we share coffee with some friends. I ask one of them, a college student, how things are going.

“The problems are endless,” she tells me, “No electricity, no jobs, and there is never enough money.”

Her sister tells us there has been fighting in Dora everyday, and the electricity is usually cut when it occurs.

We talk some more before taking off, as it’s getting dark. I recall that a friend of mine from Baquba told me earlier today, when my mobile was actually receiving a signal, that there had been fighting there everyday, and many home raids. He had even been detained for five hours by the military. “I do not know why they detained me,” he told me, “This is the freedom-they are free to detain anyone here without a reason.”

We slowly make our way out of Dora, passing one black banner (death announcements) after another. Some of them tell the cause of death along with the person’s name.

“That man was killed by an explosion,” Abu Talat reads to me, “And that one by gunfire.”

The black banners are everywhere in Baghdad. Buildings, fences and walls are darkened by them at every turn. They’ve always been visible throughout the occupation, but now, like the beggars, they are everywhere.

The Guardian recently reported that “troops from the US-led force in Iraq have caused widespread damage and severe contamination to the remains of the ancient city of Babylon.”

The ancient city, south of Baghdad, has been used by US and Polish forces as a military camp during the occupation, despite objections from archaeologists.

A study conducted by archeological experts found cracks and gaps where people had tried to gouge out the decorated bricks forming the famous dragons of the Ishtar Gate,
“2,600 year-old brick pavement crushed by military vehicles, archaeological fragments scattered across the site, and trenches driven into ancient deposits.”

The story in The Guardian continues:

“Outrage is hardly the word, this is just dreadful,” said Lord Redesdale, an archaeologist and head of the all-party parliamentary archaeological group. “These are world sites. Not only is what the American forces are doing damaging the archaeology of Iraq, it's actually damaging the cultural heritage of the whole world.”

Tim Schadla Hall, reader in public archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, said: “In this case we see an international conflict in which the US has failed to take into account the requirements of the Hague convention ... to protect major archaeological sites - just another convention it seems happy to ignore.”

So Babylon is being destroyed. Along with the Iraqi people.


The Tsunami of Iraq

January 15, 2005

The morgues at the hospitals of Baghdad are filling to capacity. At Yarmouk Hospital in central Baghdad, the three freezers reek of decaying bodies, despite the temperature.

The smell rushes out at us as the doors are opened. I’ve smelled the burning bodies on the funeral pires in Nepal…but this is different. This smell…how do I describe it? But it never leaves me, long after we leave the hospital later.

The smell rushes out at us as the doors are opened. I’ve smelled the burning bodies on the funeral pires in Nepal…but this is different. This smell…how do I describe it? But it never leaves me, long after we leave the hospital later.

Many of the bodies are from Fallujah, obviously picked off the streets-parts of which are eaten by dogs. The bodies from Fallujah have the typical oddly discolored skin, along with other abnormalities.

I walk out of the first freezer straight into a metal pole. Two of the people with me, including Abu Talat, make sure I’m ok as I stand there stunned…I didn’t even feel the pole, just that it stopped me from proceeding to the next freezer.

Bodies are piled into the freezers and most are uncovered, but not all. The hardest visuals to get out of my head are those of the eyes.

The doctor with us says that most of the bodies have been shot…and are not from Fallujah. The violence against Iraqis continues unabated…worsening by the day.

I do my job…taking photo after photo of the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Many of the bodies are so old they are shrinking into themselves.

After the last cooler, we start to walk away. I am spitting, trying to get the smell to leave me…Abu Talat is staring off into distance. After I gag, the hospital worker who accompanied us to the coolers walks towards me with a small vial of scent, and begins rolling it across my upper lip.

“Shukran jazeelan (thank you very much),” I tell him, then he proceeds to do the same for Abu Talat, then we walk on.

We talk with the doctor more as we shuffle along. “The morgues in all the hospitals are filling with bodies everyday, most of them shot by soldiers,” she says, “But also from crime and accidents. So many dead civilians.”

We walk, well, kind of shuffle out of the hospital, towards the car.

“That is the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” I say to Abu Talat.

We get in the car and just drive.

“I don’t know what to do,” I tell him, “What do you want to do?”

He holds his hands up, expressing that he doesn’t know either. “Let’s just drive,” I say.

“Ok, I’m just trying to drive,” he replies.

I decide to go buy some supplies…grasping towards normalcy as I catch whiffs of the decaying bodies despite the nice smelling scent that was rubbed across my upper lip.

We buy some lunch only because it’s lunch time and we’re supposed to be hungry, then drive the rest of the way to the hotel.

My head is spinning, as is Abu Talat’s. “I am traumatized,” I tell him. “Yes, my head is spinning also,” he replies before adding, “I want to take a shower.”

“I wish I could shower from the inside,” I tell him.

“From the outside it’s very easy,” he says quietly, “But how do we clean from the inside?”

We go to my room and I begin writing. The food sits in its bag on the couch…Abu Talat says, “In Islam, if we touch a dead body, even if we just see one, we should shower,” he says while walking into the bathroom.

He pauses as he catches me staring out the window at nothing, “Hey, don’t think about it. I know it is hard.” I slowly look up at him as he adds, “It is harder on me, because I am Iraqi. My heart is shredding.”

He walks into the bathroom of my hotel room to take a shower, as I go back to writing this.

Nobody knows who these dead people are. The coolers are full. Others are full too, in the other hospitals.

He finishes and begins to pray as I start my shower, trying to wash the bodies away. It helps, some.

But it’s the eyes that got me. And they won’t go away.


Collective Punishment

January 14, 2005

It’s not a new tactic here in Iraq. The US military has been doing it for well over a year now. Last January 3rd, in the Al-Dora rural region on the outskirts of Baghdad, where beautiful farms of date palms and orange trees line the banks of the Tigris, I visited a farm where occupation forces had lobbed several mortars.

The military claimed they had been attacked by fighters in the area, while the locals denied any knowledge of harboring resistance fighters.

Standing in a field full of unexploded mortar rounds a farmer explained, “We don’t know why they bomb our house and our fields. We have never resisted the Americans. There are foreign fighters who have passed through here, and I think this is who they want. But why are they bombing us?”

At that time U.S. Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told reporters that Operation Iron Grip in this area sends “a very clear message to anybody who thinks that they can run around Baghdad without worrying about the consequences of firing RPG’s, firing mortars. There is a capability in the air that can quickly respond against anybody who would want to harm Iraqi citizens or coalition forces."

I counted 9 small tails of the mortar rounds sticking into the air in this small section of the field.

I asked if the family had requested that the Americans come remove the unexploded ordnance.

Mr. Shakr, with a very troubled look told me, “We asked them the first time and they said ‘OK, we’ll come take care of it.’ But they never came. We asked them the second time and they told us they would not remove them until we gave them a resistance fighter. They told us, ‘If you won’t give us a resistance fighter, we are not coming to remove the bombs.’”

He holds his hands in the air and said, “But we don’t know any resistance fighters!”

Also last winter I also reported on home demolitions in Samarra by the military. The consistent pattern then was that anytime an attack occurred against occupation forces, nearby homes/buildings/fields were then raided or destroyed by the military, along with complimentary electricity cuts for the villages and/or cities.

That pattern appears to remain the same, as I found today in another visit to the al-Dora region of Baghdad.

Seven weeks ago, after having suffered many attacks by the Iraqi resistance in the area, the military began plowing date palm orchards, blasted a gas station with a tank, cut the electricity which is still down, and blocking roads in the rural farming area.

As we drove deep into the rural farming area along a thin, winding road which parallels the Tigris River, a wolf trots across the road. Rounding a bend I saw a large swath of date palms which had been bulldozed to the ground. Large piles of them had been pushed together, doused with fuel, and burned.

“The Americans were attacked from this field, then they returned and started plowing down all the trees,” explains Kareem, a local mechanic, “None of us knows any fighters and we all know they are coming here from other areas to attack the Americans, but we are the people who suffer from this.”

Across the way are other piles of scorched date palms.

Mohammed, a 15 year-old secondary school student stands near his home explaining what he saw. “There is a grave of an old woman they bulldozed,” and then he points to the nearby road, “They destroyed our fences, and now there are wolves attacking our animals, they destroyed much of our farming equipment, and the worst is they cut our electricity.”

“They come by here every night and fire their weapons to frighten us,” he explains while pointing out an MRE on the ground, left from some soldiers who used the bulldozers.

“But we need electricity to run our pumps to irrigate our farms,” added Mohammed, “And now we are carrying water in buckets from the river instead and this is very difficult for us. They say they are going to make things better for us, but they are worse. Saddam was better than this, even though he executed three of my relatives.”

His mother, Um Raed, cannot stop talking about the electricity.

“If there are bombs why do they attack our homes,” she pleads, “Why don’t they follow the people who attack them? Why do they come to our family? All we need now is electricity so we can run our water pumps. I don’t need my house, but we need water. This is our planting season.”

Ihsan, a 17 year-old student, joins the conversation near the bulldozed orchard. “I was beaten by the Americans,” he explains, “They asked me who attacked them and I do not know. My home was raided, our furniture destroyed, and one of my uncles was arrested.”

Um Raed is asking him to talk about the electricity some more, but then adds, “Yesterday at 5:30pm they came here and fired their weapons for 15 minutes randomly before they left.”

I glance at the ground and see the casing of a 50 caliber bullet while she is speaking, “Nobody attacked them. Why are they doing this? We told them to come and search but they didn’t. They just shot their guns and left.”

She holds her arms in the air and pleads, “Please, please, we must have electricity. They destroyed two of our pumps and threw them in the river!”

A 20 year-old farmer sees us talking and walks up to us. “For almost the last 2 months, since they plowed these fields, we have had no electricity. “How can I irrigate my fields without pumps,” asks Khalid, “With no electricity there is no water. They come here every evening and fire their weapons, and now my house has no glass in the windows.”

I glance over at Um Raed’s home, which has bullet pock marks in the wall.

“Every night they come on their patrols and shoot everywhere,” added Khalid.

A 55 year-old blind farmer approaches us with his cane. He listens to the conversation then shares his experiences. “The problem now is no gas for our machines, then they shot our gas station with a tank,” he says while his eyes look over my shoulder, “These trees are hundreds of years old and they cut them. Why?”

“They destroyed so many of our fences,” he adds, “And now we have wolves attacking our animals. We are living on the food ration now, that is all. We only need to stop this hurting.”

While others listening are nodding, he continues on, “Every night I hear them come and shoot. During the beginning, when they searched our houses they didn’t steal. Now they steal from us. They didn’t hurt us at the beginning, but now they are hurting us so much!”

We walk a little ways down the road and Ahmed, a 38 year-old farmer talks with us. He’d been detained during a home raid on August 13th, 2003.

“I don’t know why I was arrested,” he explained of his journey through the military detention system for 10 months, which found him experiencing treatment like having mock executions, being bound and having his head covered for days on end, and being held at a camp near Basra in the scorching summer temperatures.

“At that camp they hung a sign where we stated that said, The Zoo,” he explained. He claims that his home and fields were searched and no weapons were found. His ten month detention included witnessing sexual humiliation of prisoners, and regular beatings.

“I watched black American soldiers put naked Iraqi women in a cell and then enter the cell,” he explains, “I heard the screams as they soldiers raped the women.”

Sheikh Hamed, a well dressed middle aged man approaches and suggests we move off the road in case a patrol comes through and begins shooting again.

After moving off the road he says, “These are our grandfathers’ orchards. Neither the British nor Saddam behaved like this. This is our history. When they cut a tree it is like they are killing one of our family.”

He says three of his cousins were executed by Saddam Hussein’s regime before adding, “We don’t want this freedom of the Americans. They are raiding our homes and terrorizing us at anytime. We are living in terror. They shoot and bomb here everyday. We have sent our families to live elsewhere.”

We are told the road is blocked, so we drive a little further along the Tigris to see four large concrete blocks rising out of a deep hole blasted in the road.

One of the men with us tells us that at the same time the date palm orchards were destroyed the road was blocked by first the military blasting it, then placing smaller concrete barriers.

People grew weary of walking to their homes from the roadblock, so farm tractors were used to pull the blocks and reopen the road. Yesterday the military brought larger barriers and the road is sealed yet again.

An 80 year old man carrying several bags of food gingerly makes his way through the barrier then shuffles on down the road towards his home.

Hamoud Abid, a 50 year-old cheery farmer meets us just past the roadblock and I ask him what the soldiers told him about the roadblock.

“They humiliate us when we talk to them,” he says, “They would not tell us when they will remove these blocks, so we are all walking now.”

He says the soldiers used to come ask him to search his fields and he would allow it, and give them oranges while they searched. “They searched them 10 times and never found anything, of course,” he explains, “But they came last time more recently and caused destruction to my wall. They were starting to knock over my trees when a tread fell off their bulldozer, so they left.”

But just before leaving, they destroyed his front gate and left a block of concrete as a calling card.

We begin to leave and Hamoud, despite this horrendous situation cheerily says, “You should stay. I will grill fish, and you can stay the night in my home.”

We decline and he insists we at least stay for lunch or chai, but we must be going.

As we drive back out the small, winding road two patrols of three Humvees each rumble past us headed towards where we’d just come from. Just after that two helicopters rumble low overhead towards the same area.

I just phoned the military press office in Baghdad and asked them if they can provide me information on why they are blocking roads, firing weapons, plowing down date palm groves, and cutting electricity in the Al-Arab Jubour Village in Al-Dora, as several of the residents there claim.

The spokesman, who won’t give me his name, said he knew nothing about such things, but that there were ongoing security operations in the Al-Dora area.


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