Unembedded in Iraq: From Bechtel’s broken water pumps to the battle of Fallujah, Dahr Jamail’s upcoming new book tells the story of the occupation through Iraq’s eyes.
Issue #
110

kidssoldierImmediately after the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, U.S. forces raided a secondary school and detained 16 children for having a “pro-Saddam Hussein demonstration.”
By Dahr Jamail

From Bechtel’s broken water pumps to the battle of Fallujah, Dahr Jamail’s upcoming new book tells the story of the occupation through Iraq’s eyes.

Now a reknowned war correspondent, Dahr Jamail was working in 2003 as a freelance writer and a mountain guide in Alaska’s Denali National Park while the mainstream media was hyping the invasion of Iraq.

“I had done all the usual actions of attempting to speak up and effect change at home — calling and writing Senators/Congresspeople, attending teach-ins, spreading information,” Jamail said in a Dec. 2004 interview with antiwar.com. “I knew then that the minds of the American public had been misled by the corporate media who mindlessly supported the objectives of the Bush regime, and [that] reporting the true effects of the invasion/occupation on the Iraqi people and U.S. soldiers was what I needed to do.”

Jamail, a fourth-generation Lebanese American, saved his money, bought a ticket to Iraq, and began posting frontline dispatches on his blog, dahrjamailiraq.com. As the insurgency expanded and the mainstream media retreated into well-guarded enclaves, his unembedded coverage brought to life everything from the day-to-day struggles of Iraqis living under occupation to the U.S. atrocities in the first Battle of Fallujah.

The following excerpts are from Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, a synthesis of Jamail’s reporting from 2003-2005, which will be released by Haymarket Books on Oct. 15.

STAGE-MANAGED LIBERATION

Writing from Baghdad in early December of 2003, Dahr Jamail described two street scenes typical of life under the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority.
Roughly 500 people, who conveniently lined up on the street in front of the journalist-filled Palestine Hotel, were preparing to march the few blocks toward Firdos Square. Out in front was a line of young children, roughly ten years of age, carrying small bouquets of flowers. Following them were two drummers and a very bad trumpet player who blew the same terrible song over and over as the procession made its way down the street. Many in the crowd carried banners that read, “Thank You CPA for Freeing Iraq,” and others of similar content, while armed guards buffered the small group from the public. As they marched past concrete blast barriers that had “Troops Out Now” and “America go home!” spray-painted in red in English on them, the tiny procession wasn’t too convincing to the few onlookers who were present. (This was the first of many stage-managed “demonstrations” I was to witness in occupied Iraq.)

Walking back to our hotel, we passed a small, decrepit petrol station with two lines of cars stretching as far as we could see, waiting for gas. There was a separate line for black-marketers, who were lined up with their jerrycans and plastic jugs awaiting their chance. The black market was burgeoning. Those who could afford the extra cost were less willing to wait in the ever-lengthening lines as the gas crisis worsened.

The blackmarketers took their plastic jugs to the petrol stations, filled them, walked down the street a few meters and used siphons and plastic funnels to pour gas into the empty tanks of those able to pay a little extra. Everyone from small children to elderly men on crutches was doing this. Meanwhile short-tempered Iraqis were jamming their cars toward the pumps, some having slept overnight in their cars in order to keep their place in line.

“And the Americans try to tell us this war was not about our oil,” yelled a man while pushing his car. He agreed to talk with us as long as we stayed out of his way. “Even under that bastard Saddam we never had benzene [gasoline] shortages!” I’d seen these lines all over Baghdad. Gas lines were so thick in some areas that traffic would often get choked down to a single lane, further aggravating the already impossible chaos of Baghdad’s auto congestion.

streamA man in a village in southern Iraq demonstrates how Bechtel left his village without access to clean water.

BECHTEL LEAVES IRAQIS HIGH AND DRY

Barely a week after the fall of Baghdad, on April 17, 2003, the San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation was awarded a “cost-plus-fixed-fee” contract worth up to $680 million for reconstruction projects in Iraq. Its mandate included rebuilding Iraq’s much-needed water-treatment plants. In January 2004, Jamail ventured south of Baghdad to investigate Bechtel’s work on the water infrastructure.

The first city we came upon was Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad. We pulled off the paved highway onto a bumpy road. Leaving a growing plume of dust behind us, we slowly approached a crumbling farmhouse situated amid vegetable fields and date palms.

An old man with a weathered face that bore the attrition of exhaustion met us in front of his home. His first words to us were a plea for help — for drinking water, for some work, for anything that could ease his struggle. As we spoke with him, he walked us to a scrappy water pump that sat lifeless near an empty container.

A rubber hose cracked from the blistering sun was coiled limply on the dirt, near a hole that he said he tried to fill with water with his pump whenever their two hours of electricity appeared. Essentially, they had no electricity, and what little water they did get was loaded with salt from the region, and left those who used it sick with nausea, diarrhea, kidney stones, cramps and cholera.

Besides apprising us of the desperate water situation, the old man asked us if we could help him find his cousin. “We just want to know if he’s dead so we can bury the body.” In a village just outside of Hilla, several men told a similar story. There was no running water to speak of and barely two to four hours of electricity per day, during which they tried to run their feeble pumps to draw contaminated water from a polluted stream for their families to use. An old man named Hussin Hamsa Nagem bemoaned, “We are all sick with stomach problems and kidney stones. Our crops are dying.”

Later that afternoon, at another small village between Hilla and Najaf, we found that fifteen hundred people had no other source of drinking water than the dirty stream that trickled by their homes. Most people in the village suffered from dysentery, many had developed kidney stones, and a huge number had cholera.

After spending a night in Najaf, we visited yet another village on the outskirts of the city. Here, the people had taken an initiative and collected funds from each house in order to install new pipes. But in the absence of regular electricity and water from the Najaf center, their initiative could bear no fruit.

The villagers had dug a large hole in the ground, where they tapped into already existing pipes to siphon water. At night, when there was a supply of electricity, water from the tapped pipes collected in the dirt hole. The morning of our visit, we watched the operation. Children stood around as women collected what little bit of dirty water remained in the bottom of the hole.

Here, too, waterborne diseases such as dysentery and cholera, plus nausea, diarrhea, and kidney stones, were widespread. Women had to walk half a mile down to a stream to collect water for their homes.

In the same stream other women had to do their water-related chores, like dishes and laundry. Eight children from the village had been killed when attempting to cross the busy highway on their way to a nearby factory in order to retrieve clean water. Some children had even drowned in this stream while collecting water.

Mr. Mehdi was the engineer and assistant manager at the Najaf water distribution center. With help from the ICRC and the Spanish Army, the center had initiated some of the rebuilding on its own. Mehdi told me Bechtel had begun working on the Arzaga Water Project to help bring water into the city center of Najaf. He said Bechtel had started the previous month, painting buildings, cleaning and repairing storage tanks, and repairing and replacing sand filters. This was the only project Mehdi knew of that Bechtel had been working on in Najaf. He told us, “Bechtel is repairing some water facilities, but not improving the electricity any, which is also their responsibility. Their work has not produced any more clean water than what we already had. Bechtel has not spoken with us, or promised to help us do anything else.” There had been no work on desalinization, which was critical in the area, nor any other purification processes.

I asked Mehdi how successful Bechtel had been in restoring electrical service to his water facility. “At least thirty percent of Najaf doesn’t have clean water because of lack of electricity,” he said. Najaf has a population of roughly 600,000 people.

Bechtel had claimed it would have the Najaf sewage treatment plant fully restored and functioning by June 2004. (When I was in Iraq from April through June 2004, the treatment plant was still not functioning anywhere near capacity.)

grave yardAccording to residents and doctors in Falluja, U.S. military snipers were killing so many people and shooting so often that residents were forced to turn a soccer field into a cemetery.

FALLUJAH UNDER SIEGE

Following the deaths of four Blackwater mercenaries in Fallujah on March 31, 2004, U.S. forces besieged the city. Reports of hundreds of civilians being killed helped spark joint Sunni and Shiite revolts that nearly overwhelmed the U.S. occupation. Facing an international outcry, Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer, III announced on April 9 “a unilateral suspension of offensive operations in Fallujah.” The following day, Jamail and other journalists joined a humanitarian-aid convoy to Fallujah to find a city still under attack.

Fallujah seemed devoid of all people other than groups of mujahedeen who stood on every other street corner. Most residents had either evacuated or chosen to hide in their homes. The marines had occupied the northeastern edge of Fallujah, but most of the town was occupied by local Sunni as well as Shi’ite members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army, who had come in from Baghdad and the south.

There seemed to be separate groups of mujahedeen in charge of different parts of the city and the various roads in and out of it. Between the clearly marked territories of the mujahedeen and the marines was a no-man’s-land. Sounds of sporadic gunfire, warplanes and bombs were punctuated by an electrically charged silence, a push-pull of frenetic deadly action followed by more of the dreadful, anticipatory silence.

We rolled toward the one small clinic where we were to deliver our medical supplies. The small clinic was managed by Maki al-Nazzal, who was hired just four days ago. He was not a doctor. The other makeshift clinic in Fallujah was in a mechanic’s garage. He had barely slept in the past week, nor had any of the doctors at the small clinic. Originally, the clinic had just three doctors, but since the U.S. military bombed one of the hospitals and were currently sniping at people as they attempted to enter or exit the main hospital, effectively there were only these two small clinics treating the entire city.

The boxes of medical supplies we brought into the clinic were torn open immediately by the desperate doctors. A woman entered, slapping her chest and face, and wailing as her husband carried in the dying body of her little boy. Blood was trickling off one of his arms, which dangled out of his father’s arms. Thus began my witnessing of an endless stream of women and children who had been shot by the U.S. soldiers and were now being raced into the dirty clinic, the cars speeding over the curb out front, and weeping family members carrying in their wounded.

One eighteen-year-old girl had been shot through the neck. She was making breathy gurgling noises as the doctors frantically worked on her amid her muffled moaning. Flies dodged the working hands of doctors to return to the patches of her vomit that stained her black abaya.

Her younger brother, a small child of ten with a gunshot wound in his head from a marine sniper, his eyes glazed and staring into space, continually vomited as the doctors raced to save his life while family members cried behind me. “The Americans cut our electricity days ago, so we cannot vacuum the vomit from his throat,” a furious doctor told me. They were both loaded into an ambulance and rushed toward Baghdad, only to die en route.

Another small child lay on a blood-spattered bed, also shot by a sniper. The boy’s grandmother lay nearby, shot as she was attempting to carry children from their home and flee the city. She lay on a bed dying, still clutching a bloodied white surrender flag. Hundreds of families were trapped in their homes, terrorized by U.S. snipers shooting from rooftops and the minarets of mosques whenever they saw someone move past a window.

Blood bags were being kept in a food refrigerator, warmed under running water before being given to patients. There were no anesthetics. The lights went out as the generator ran dry of fuel, so the doctors, who had been working for days on end, worked by light provided by men holding up cigarette lighters or flashlights as the sun set. Needless to say, there was no air-conditioning inside the steamy “clinic.”

One victim of the U.S. military aggression after another was brought into the clinic, nearly all of them women and children, carried by weeping family members.

Those who had not been hit by bombs from warplanes had been shot by U.S. snipers. The one functioning ambulance left at this clinic sat outside with bullet holes in the sides and a small group of shots right on the driver side of the windshield. The driver, his head bandaged from being grazed by the bullet of a sniper, refused to go collect any more of the dead and wounded.

Standing near the ambulance in frustration, Maki told us, “They [U.S. soldiers] shot the ambulance and they shot the driver after they checked his car, inspected his car, and knew that he was carrying nothing. Then they shot him. And then they shot the ambulance.

… The stream of patients slowed to a sporadic influx as night fell. Maki sat with me as we shared cigarettes in a small office in the rear of the clinic. “For all my life, I believed in American democracy,” he told me with an exhausted voice. “For 47 years, I had accepted the illusion of Europe and the United States being good for the world, the carriers of democracy and freedom. Now I see that it took me 47 years to wake up to the horrible truth. They are not here to bring anything like democracy or freedom.”

According to residents and doctors in Falluja, U.S. military snipers were killing so many people and shooting so often that residents were forced to turn a soccer field into a cemetery.

bodiesBodies in a cooler at the morgue of Baghdad’s Yarmouk Hospital. Even before the Jan. 30, 2005 elections, morgues across the capital city were filled to capacity on nearly a daily basis.

SHOOT FIRST, ASK QUESTIONS NEVER

Shortly after the first Battle of Fallujah, Jamail returned to Baghdad to find a people being ground down by the war.

Seventeen-year-old Amir was crying during much of the interview. “We were coming home from work, and were shot so many times,” he said with deep anguish and frustration. “Walid told me to leave the car because he was hurt and needed help.”

Walid Mohammed Abrahim was a carpenter, and Amir worked as his apprentice. On May 13, U.S. troops occupying an Iraqi police station in the al-Adhamiya district of Baghdad gunned down their small car as they traveled home after a long day of work. “I still can’t believe Walid is killed,” whimpered Amir, crying inside the home of Abrahim’s brother. “He is like my brother, he was so decent and honest. So many people are killed because of their crazy, haphazard shooting.” U.S. troops riddled the car with more than 25 bullets.

While they were driving past an Iraqi police station, a resistance fighter fired upon the station from a building on nearly the opposite end of the station from their car. But, being the closest moving object, Walid and Amir were the most convenient suspected targets.

Abrahim’s brother, Khalid Mohammed Abrahim, was beside himself with grief. “All my brother was doing was coming home from work.” He explained that his brother was a kind man, with no involvement in the resistance, and did not even own a weapon. “Why has my brother been killed? They searched his car and knew he was innocent. All we seek is for God to give us patience to deal with such conditions.” Later that afternoon, I went to the home of an Iraqi policeman who had been at the station that night and who agreed to confirm the incident on condition of anonymity. He said Mr. Abrahim had passed the police station on his way home to Adhamiya at 2:00 a.m.

Due to much celebratory gunfire earlier in the night, following the Iraqi soccer team’s victory over Saudi Arabia, which earned them a trip to the Olympics, U.S. soldiers had occupied the police station in the district. The police report of the incident stated that Abrahim’s car was shot 29 times, with Abrahim suffering two gunshots in the head and five in the chest. Another policeman who was at the station when the incident occurred, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that when several men attempted to pull Abrahim from the car, U.S. troops opened fire on them. “This is the usual policy of the Americans. They always shoot first, because there is nobody to punish them for their mistakes.”

“It was the Americans who shot Mr. Abrahim, and not Iraqi police, because none of us were even allowed on the roof,” he stated firmly, before adding that he personally had between 150 to 200 files of incidents in which U.S. occupation forces had killed innocent Iraqis, and that several other Iraqi policemen at his station had a similar number.