WHEN U.S. and coalition troops invaded Iraq in March 2003, many Iraqis hoped that at least their conditions of life would improve–after a decade and a half of living under the strictest system of economic sanctions ever known. Now, they know different. “I believed when they said they came to help us,” said Hossein Ibrahim in an interview with a Christian Science Monitor reporter. “But now I hate them, they are worse than Saddam.”
ANTHONY ARNOVE is the editor of the South End Press collection Iraq Under Siege, and co-author, with Howard Zinn, of Voices of a People’s History of the United States. His latest book, Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, will be published by the New Press next spring. Here, Anthony looks at the racist logic of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
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LIFE IN occupied Iraq today is so grim that many Iraqis say it was better during the deadly years of United Nations sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. In much of the country, there is less electricity than before the March 2003 U.S. invasion–with predictable consequences, including “patients who die in emergency rooms when equipment stops running,” the New York Times reports.
Despite the billions handed for reconstruction work to George W. Bush’s friends at Bechtel and Halliburton, “[n]early half of all Iraqi households still don’t have access to clean water, and only 8 percent of the country, excluding the capital, is connected to sewage networks,” USA Today reports.
Hospitals in Iraq are a shambles. “At Baghdad’s Central Teaching Hospital for Children, gallons of raw sewage wash across the floors,” Jeffrey Gettleman reported in the New York Times. “The drinking water is contaminated. According to doctors, 80 percent of patients leave with infections they did not have when they arrived.”
“It’s definitely worse now than before the war,” Eman Asim, who oversees 185 public hospitals, told the Times. “Even at the height of sanctions, when things were miserable, it wasn’t as bad as this.”
Unemployment has skyrocketed, in large part because of decisions made by the occupation authorities.
After the invasion, L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, disbanded Iraq’s 350,000-person army and fired thousands of state workers who were members of the Baath Party–despite the fact that party membership was required for most jobs in Iraq. More than half of Iraqi workers are unemployed, and Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari has announced plans to shred more public-sector jobs as the Iraqi government carries out the privatization plans written by U.S. economists.
“Liberated” Iraqis repeatedly have noted the irony that the U.S. occupation authorities and the contractors working on lucrative no-bid and cost-plus contracts don’t trust Iraqis to work for them, and instead are paying millions of dollars to import foreign workers who earn many times the average Iraqi’s annual income. “[W]hen the full history of this bloody circus is written, people will look back slack-jawed at the scale and brazenness of the occupation’s corruption and incompetence,” journalist Christian Parenti writes in The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq.
Of the $18.4 billion Congress appropriated for “reconstruction” in Iraq, less than half has been spent, and some $100 million has disappeared without any accounting, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Instead of rebuilding Iraq, money is flowing to corporate friends of the Bush administration. “[M]ore than 150 U.S. companies were awarded contracts totaling more than $50 billion, more than twice the GDP of Iraq,” writes researcher Antonia Juhasz. “Halliburton has the largest, worth more than $11 billion, while 13 other U.S. companies are earning more than $1.5 billion each. These contractors answer to the U.S. government not the Iraqi people.”
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THIS PRINCIPLE of accountability applies to every aspect of the occupation of Iraq. Real authority rests not with Iraqis, but with occupation forces. As the Pakistani writer Tariq Ali points out in Bush in Babylon, we are seeing in Iraq a clear example of “imperialism in the epoch of neoliberal economics.”
The Coalition Provisional Authority renewed the anti-worker trade union laws of the Hussein regime and lowered taxes on business in Iraq to levels only dreamed about by U.S. corporations.
“The Bush administration has drafted sweeping plans to remake Iraq’s economy in the U.S. image,” the Wall Street Journal reported soon after the invasion began. As New York Times economics columnist Jeff Madrick points out, the economic plans for Iraq are likely to cause “widespread cruelty.”
In addition to economic insecurity, physical insecurity for ordinary Iraqis has greatly increased. Women who formerly worked as educators or doctors now speak of being imprisoned in their homes, afraid to leave. They see hard-won social and political rights being eroded. Children who formerly attended school are now kept at home by parents fearful of sending them out in public.
And at any moment, Iraqis know their doors may be battered down by U.S. or British troops, with family members humiliated, arrested and taken off to be detained, tortured or murdered.
Dexter Filkins of the New York Times opened a window into the reality of occupation in an October 2005 profile of Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman, an aggressive Army captain of the Fourth Infantry Division’s 1-8 Battalion. After the death of a soldier in the unit, Sassaman declared that his unit’s “new priority would be killing insurgents and punishing anyone who supported them, even people who didn’t.”
As Filkins wrote, “On a mission in January 2004, a group of Sassaman’s soldiers came to the house of an Iraqi man suspected of hijacking trucks. He wasn’t there, but his wife and two other women answered the door. ‘You have 15 minutes to get your furniture out,’ First Sgt. Ghaleb Mikel said. The women wailed and shouted, but ultimately complied, dragging their bed and couch and television set out the front door. Mikel’s men then fired four antitank missiles into their house, blowing it to pieces and setting it afire.” As Mikel explained, “It’s called the ‘leave no refuge’ policy.”
U.S. soldiers have also taken to quartering troops in Iraqi homes and schools. “Requisitioning homes or other buildings has been widespread in Iraq for U.S. troops on missions who stay far away from bases, sometimes for several days or weeks,” the Associated Press reports.
“They broke into my house before Ramadan and they are still there,” Dhiya Hamid al-Karbuli recounted to a reporter. “We were not able to tolerate seeing them damage our house in front of our very eyes…I was afraid to ask them to leave.” “Marines have been making camp in seized houses,” the New York Times reported from Husayba, the site of a major assault in November 2005, in which “[f]ighter jets streaked overhead, dropping 500-pound bombs” on the town.
Neither the Associated Press nor the Times seemed to have remembered that the quartering of troops was one of the primary complaints of American colonists against King George and the British–as described in the Declaration of Independence: “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power. He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation: For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us: For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States…”
But the feelings of Iraqis don’t really matter in U.S. calculations. As Col. Stephen Davis, of the Second Marine Division, who headed the Husayba assault, explained, “We don’t do a lot of hearts and minds out here, because it’s irrelevant.”
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EVERY DAY, people are being harassed, killed, arrested and tortured only for the crime of being Iraqi.
A Red Cross investigation found that the U.S. military has engaged in a “pattern of indiscriminate arrests involving destruction of property and brutal behavior towards suspects and their families” in Iraq. “Sometimes, they arrested all adult males present in a house,” the report states, “including elderly, handicapped or sick people.” Of the people detained at Abu Ghraib prison, even U.S. military intelligence officers estimated that 70 to 90 percent were arrested “by mistake.”
U.S. soldiers have been trained to view Iraqis–just like they were once trained to view the people of Vietnam–as less than human. Soldiers call Iraqis “hajis,” just as they once called the Vietnamese “gooks.”
A clear message has been given to troops from the highest levels of political and military authority: Iraqi deaths and Iraqi suffering do not matter.
A recent Human Rights Watch investigation found that U.S. military personnel routinely torture Iraqis for “sport.” The investigation documented widespread use of torture, “often under orders or with the approval of superior officers.”
Soldiers in the 82nd Airborne described beating Iraqis “to amuse themselves.” “Sergeant A,” from the 82nd Airborne Division, told Human Rights Watch how occupation troops would routinely “fuck a PUC” or “smoke a PUC” (a “PUC” is a “Person Under Control,” a term used to differentiate Iraqi detainees from prisoners of war, who have legal protections the Bush administration does not want to recognize).
“To ‘Fuck a PUC’ means to beat him up,” the sergeant said. “We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs and stomach, pull them down, kick dirt on them. This happened every day. To ‘smoke’ someone is to put them in stress positions until they get muscle fatigue and pass out. That happened every day. Some days, we would just get bored, so we would have everyone sit in a corner and then make them get in a pyramid. This was before Abu Ghraib, but just like it. We did that for amusement.”
Torture is just one symptom of an occupation that constantly shows contempt for the people it claims to have liberated. U.S. forces have engaged in numerous prohibited forms of collective punishment against the Iraqi population.
Though the United States refuses to count the number of dead Iraqis, an October 2004 study by The Lancet, Britain’s leading medical journal, estimated 98,000 “excess deaths” in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. This figure is actually conservative, as it excludes deaths in the “mortality cluster of Falluja”–the site of some of the deadliest U.S. military attacks. According to the survey, “The risk of death from violence in the period after the invasion was 58 times higher…than in the period before the war.”
Under these conditions, it is no surprise that strong majorities of Iraqis view U.S. troops not as liberators but as occupiers.
Meanwhile, the death toll has also continued to climb for U.S. soldiers, and is now more than 2,000. Injuries are also mounting. One in six soldiers returning from Iraq reports experiencing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, leading to high rates of depression and suicide. Soldiers who came to Iraq believing they were protecting the world from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or liberating Iraqis now find they are instead being asked to subjugate a population that does not want them there.
“[W]hen I first went to Iraq, I actually believed what the government was saying, that we were searching for weapons of mass destruction, we were making the country safe for democracy, and things like that,” one soldier who applied for conscientious objector status recently told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! “But when we got there, I quickly found another story. I very quickly found that the Iraqis didn’t want us there…If soldiers had come into our country and had invaded us and had come into our homes, then I would have fought back, too.”
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THE ONLY way to liberate Iraq today is to end the occupation, and bring the troops home now. To do so, we’ll have to challenge all the racist lies that Iraqis are incapable of running their own country, or that the United States must remain in Iraq to confront “the terrorists.” This war has nothing to do with terrorism or liberation. From the beginning, it has been about oil and its role in sustaining the United States as a global capitalist empire. Racism has been used to sell the war to a public, but people are increasingly seeing through the lies.
Today, a clear majority of people in the United States now believe the invasion of Iraq wasn’t worth the consequences and should never have been undertaken. A Washington Post-ABC poll this month found that “Bush has never been less popular with the American people.” In a September New York Times-CBS News poll, support for immediate withdrawal stood at 52 percent. Seventy-nine percent of African-Americans think the war in Iraq was mistake. Approval of President Bush among African-Americans is 2 percent, a statistical anomaly.
Millions of people sympathize with the aims of the antiwar movement, but have not yet been mobilized for actions. We need to involve these wider audiences in our movements, and to connect local actions with coordinated national actions that can help people overcome the pervasive sense of isolation and atomization that so many feel.
As with the movement to end the war on Vietnam, we will have to fight on many fronts: supporting counter-recruitment, confronting government and military officials about the human costs of this war and the lies they use to justify it, exposing war profiteers, encouraging and protecting soldiers who speak out and who resist their orders or service, working with veterans and military families–and all along arguing, patiently yet urgently, with everyone around us that we need to end the occupation now.