With several academic studies now published on the subject and public apologies from the two most influential US newspapers, it is now widely understood that in the run up to the invasion of Iraq the mainstream media completely failed to hold government to account on both sides of the Atlantic. As Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post news website accurately pointed out, the "watchdogs acted more like lapdogs".
Less talked about is the mainstream media‘s subsequent failure to accurately report on the continuing occupation of Iraq, in particular the large, violent resistance that sprang up after the initial US/UK assault in March 2003.
Sheffield-born photojournalist and filmmaker Steve Connors believes most western journalists working alongside him in Iraq just after the fall of Baghdad "weren‘t all that interested in going out and doing this story" because they had "swallowed the party line – we are the good guys, they are the bad guys. The people who are resisting us are dead-enders, it was foreign fighters." Connors, 50, explains the right to resist is enshrined in the UN Charter, but "when we go and invade somebody‘s country all of a sudden their right to resist is not legitimate in our eyes."
Working closely with fellow journalist Molly Bingham, Connors soon came to understand it was "ordinary Iraqi people" who were resisting the occupation. Sensing an important story, they started hanging out in the teashops of Adhamiya, a northern suburb of Baghdad, spending ten months speaking to 45 Iraqis involved in the growing resistance movement.
Eleven of these interviews make up Connors and Bingham‘s superb 2007 documentary Meeting Resistance, a much-needed antidote to the crude propaganda that has been disseminated about those resisting the occupation. In the middle of conducting a statistical study of the resistance, a Professor of Political Science at BaghdadUniversity sums up the film‘s main findings: "the vast majority of resistance is a nationalist, popular resistance by Iraqis who have no relationship to the former regime."
Talking to me at a screening of the film at the BritishMuseum in London, Connors suggests the inconvenient truths they uncovered in Adhamiya are the main reason why they‘ve been unable to get their work out to a wider audience. Both the BBC and Channel Four declined to show the documentary, with the latter refusing to "believe these people were who they said they were." Despite this setback, Connors is upbeat as joiningthedocs.tv are releasing Meeting Resistance on DVD next month, and there will hopefully be a limited theatrical release in the near future too.
With the interviews occurring more than four years ago, is Meeting Resistance is still relevant to the situation in Iraq today? "There were more attacks in 2008 than there were when we finished making the film", Connors replies. "It peaked and then it went down again." He also quotes Department of Defence figures off the top of his head: "from May 2003 to May 2008, 73 per cent of attacks that were carried out in Iraq were directed at US forces. 12 per cent against civilians. 15 per cent against Iraqi security forces. So the main violent energy is being directed at the occupation."
The spike Connors refers to is the much heralded February 2007 US ‘surge‘, seen by many commentators and politicians as a huge success, including the new US president Barack Obama. In contrast, Connors argues the ‘surge‘ itself did little to reduce the overall levels of violence. "It was a set of political conditions that happened at the same time as the surge", he explains. "You had the Mahdi Army standing down, there was a sectarian cleansing of districts of Baghdad – there was nobody left to kill." He also points to the creation of the Awakening Movement, presented as a successful counterinsurgency operation by the US forces, as it supposedly increased security in Anbar province,. "What they have done essentially is chosen elements from some tribes and promoted them over other elements, upsetting a system that is hundreds of years old", he says. "I liken it to handing over Scotland Yard to the Kray twins. For a short-term tactical gain there is going to be a huge price to be paid for this. They are creating the conditions for another civil war, this time among the Sunni tribes." And Connors attributes the reduction in violence to one more glaring factor – "the Americans started to withdraw in that period, so they were not presenting targets."
Although he has previously reported from Sri Lanka, the violent break up of Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine, Connors is still shocked by the "state of chaos" in Iraq, the dire security situation making it very difficult to accurately estimate the number of Iraqi dead. He believes the Iraq Body Count figure of around 100,000 - calculated from cross-checked reports of violent deaths in English language media – is a gross underestimate, noting that in Iraq "especially in the summer, you can have someone killed and buried within two hours. There is no report of that death. Most people don‘t go to the morgue." And although the 2006 Lancet study that estimated 655,000 Iraqis deaths has been criticised by both the US and UK governments, Connors highlights that the epidemiological studies upon which the figures are based "have been accepted in virtually ever other conflict throughout the world".
"The reason we find it so difficult to accept, is because we are the bad guys this time. We have caused all this pain and suffering", he says.
Rather than arguing over the exact number deaths, Connors is quick to point out the central question "is the magnitude of the crime is the crime itself – and everything accrues from that. If you go back to the Nuremberg Principles, to commit aggressive war is the supreme crime. And what we did in Iraq is we committed aggressive war." Summing up, he laments, "Britain is as guilty as the United States. We are on the wrong side of history."
On the web: www.meetingresistance.com.
*An edited version of this interview recently appeared in the Morning Star. [email protected].