This is my latest piece for Truthout.org.
I. Rashomon in Iraq
Mass death came again to the Iraqi town of Ishaqi last Friday. Nine months after an American raid that killed 11 civilians, including five children under the age of five, another ground and air assault on suspected insurgents in the area left behind a pile of corpses, including at least two children. As with the earlier incident, Friday's attack has produced conflicting stories of what really happened, but the end result is clear: a multitude of grieving, angry Iraqis further embittered against the American occupation.
The latest Ishaqi attack – with "only" 20 fatalities – is of course a mere sideshow in the garish carnival of death that is Iraq today. But in many respects it is a microcosm of the largely unseen reality of the war that grinds on day after day behind the obscuring fog of political rhetoric enshrouding both Washington and Baghdad. In this return to Ishaqi, we find many of the elements that have kept Iraq an open, gaping wound with little chance for healing: constant airstrikes on populated civilian areas, iron-fisted house raids, propaganda ploys, dubious intelligence, disdain for the locals – and the employment of mysterious units that may be blended with government-run (even American-run) death squads.
So what happened on December 9 in the village of Taima in the Ishaqi district, on the shores of Lake Tharthar? The official U.S. military version states that unidentified "Coalition Forces" entered the village shortly after midnight and targeted a location "based on intelligence reports that indicated associates with links to multiple al-Qaeda in Iraq networks were operating in the area." During a search, they took heavy fire from a nearby building. Returning fire, they killed "two armed terrorists" but couldn't quell the attack, so they called in an airstrike that killed "18 more armed terrorists," including two women. Of the latter, the military press release said that "al-Qaeda in Iraq has both men and women supporting and facilitating their operations unfortunately." The unspecified raiders then uncovered a cache of terrorist arms which they photographed and subsequently destroyed.
The identification of the victims as terrorists was made through a "battle damage assessment," said U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver. "If there is a weapon with or next to the person or they are holding it, they are a terrorist," he said.
Yet as Bloomberg News points out, almost every Iraqi keeps a gun – or several guns – in their homes. Indeed, the whole nation has long been armed to the teeth, with even heavy weaponry in private hands throughout the reign of Saddam Hussein. In fact, as Patrick Cockburn notes in his excellent new book, The Occupation, Saddam once had to resort to a national buy-back scheme to try to reduce the level of heavy weapons on the streets. One tribe even showed up with three tanks – "which they were prepared to turn over for a sizeable amount of money." This doesn't mean that the official report of the Ishaqi incident is necessarily wrong, of course. But neither is it a fact that every dead Iraqi found near a weapon in a bombed-out private house is a terrorist.
American spokesmen provided two photos of weapons caches they said were recovered from the airstrike. One pictured showed a set of damaged, battered, dust-covered AK-47s, pistols, grenade launchers and ammo clips. The other photo showed a notably pristine-looking set of "explosives, blasting caps and suicide belts," as the military press release described them.
Garver firmly refused to identify the troops involved in the raid; he wouldn't even say if they were American, Iraqi, or from some other Coalition ally, the Daily Telegraph reports. "There are some units we don't talk about," he said. But the conclusions of the official report were unequivocal: 20 terrorists killed, no collateral damage – an exemplary feat of arms that brought the Coalition "another step closer to defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq and helping establish a safe and peaceful Iraq."
But local officials from the U.S.-backed Iraqi government had a different view: they said the raid was a bloodbath of innocent civilians. Ishaqi Mayor Amir Fayadh said that 19 civilians were killed by the airstrikes that destroyed two private homes. Fayadh said that the victims included seven women and eight children. An official in the regional government of Salahuddin said six children had been killed. All Iraqi officials agreed that the victims were mostly members of the extended families of two brothers in the town, Muhammad Hussein al-Jalmood and Mahmood Hussein al-Jalmood, the NYT reports. Both Fayadh and Abdullah Hussein Jabbara, deputy governor Salahuddin, insisted that the families had nothing to do with al Qaeda. Locals claimed that the terrorist paraphernalia at the site, such as the "suicide belts," had been planted. American officials denied the charge.
Soon after the attack, reporters and photographers from Associated Press and Agence France Presse arrived on the scene. They took pictures, shot video and talked to grieving members of the al-Jalmood family. Local police gave them the names of at least 17 of the victims, which indicated they were from the same family. The names of at least four women were among them. Many of the bodies had been charred and twisted beyond recognition; some were "almost mummified," AP reports. However, AFP videotaped at least two children among the dead.
When shown the pictures later, Garver said: "I see nothing in the photos that indicates those children were in the houses that our forces received fire from and subsequently destroyed with the airstrike." He did not speculate on where the dead children being mourned by family members after being pulled from the rubble of the bombed-out houses might have come from otherwise. Perhaps the al-Jalmoods kept them in cold storage for just such a propaganda opportunity?
II. Seeding Insurgency and Civil War
The next day, hundreds of angry residents from the Ishaqi area carried
the raid victims to their graves while firing weapons and "condemning
the mass killing by the occupation forces," as Reuters reports. But the
story quickly faded from the newswires, replaced by more Beltway
jawboning about the Baker Group report and rampant rumors of Iraqi
leader Nouri al-Maliki's impending ouster.
Yet many questions about the Ishaqi incident remain. First, how to reconcile the wildly different accounts of the U.S. military and the officials of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government? Someone is not telling the whole truth. Either there were only 20 dead "armed terrorists" at the scene – with only two women and no children – or else the raid did indeed kill several civilians, including at least two children, by calling down an airstrike on a residential area that took out belligerents and non-combatants alike. (That shots were exchanged in the darkness of the midnight raid is not in dispute.)
The refusal to identify the unit involved is also puzzling, especially in the terms Garver used: "There are some units we don't talk about." This was not a general refusal to identify specific military outfits to avoid possible reprisal; in any case, local residents would certainly know which Coalition units were quartered in the vicinity. The phrase seemed to refer to a more shadowy force: perhaps the "Iraqi special forces unit" created and paid for by the Bush Administration to act outside the control of "sovereign" Iraqi government, as Spencer Ackerman noted in The New Republic last week.
This freebooting secret police unit was formed under the "interim government" of CIA asset and former anti-Saddam terrorist chieftain Iyad Allawi. It is commanded by General Muhammed Shahwani, who made it clear to Allawi's successors, the "democratic" leaders of "sovereign" Iraq, Ibrahim al-Jafari and Maliki, that they cannot fire him. The Americans also gave him control of the captured files of Saddam's hated Muhkabarat security agency. The Los Angeles Times reports that Shahwani's "special forces" have "participated in operations against suspected Shiite death squad members and high-level Iraqi insurgents." As Steve Gilliard and others have noted, these "special forces" likely grew out of the Iraqi militia that the Bush Administration formed in the summer of 2003, as the insurgency began to grow. Bush also reopened Saddam's infamous Abu Ghraib prison at the same time, despite solemn promises to destroy it. As I noted in the Moscow Times in August of that year:
"Yes, the sahibs in Bush's Iraqi Raj are now doling out American tax dollars to hire the murderers of the infamous Mukhabarat and other agents of the Baathist Gestapo – perhaps hundreds of them. The logic, if that's the word, seems to be that these bloodstained 'insiders' will lead their new imperial masters to other bloodstained 'insiders' responsible for bombing the UN headquarters in Baghdad – and killing another dozen American soldiers while Little George was playing with his putts during his month-long Texas siesta.
"Naturally, the Iraqi people – even the Bush-appointed leaders of the Potemkin 'Governing Council' – aren't exactly overjoyed at seeing Saddam's goons return, flush with American money and firepower. And they're certainly not reassured by the fact that the Bushists have also re-opened Saddam's most notorious prison, the dread Abu Ghraib, and are now, Mukhabarat-like, filling it with Iraqis – men, women and children as young as 11 – seized from their homes or plucked off the street to be held incommunicado, indefinitely, without due process, just like the old days. As The Times reports, weeping relatives who dare approach the gleaming American razor-wire in search of their 'disappeared' loved ones are referred to a crude, hand-written sign pinned to a spike: 'No visits are allowed, no information will be given and you must leave.' Perhaps an Iraqi Akhmatova will do justice to these scenes one day."
These groups were later joined by homegrown militias taken up by American commanders and given arms and money to do the shadowlands "wet work" that U.S. forces could not do. This was the "Salvador Option" that American officials began discussing publicly in early 2005: emulating the death squads backed by the Reagan and Bush I administrations in their "counterinsurgency" proxy wars in Central America during the 1980s, when tens of thousands of people were murdered. In fact, Bush II brought in U.S veterans of the death squad days to train the new Iraqi militias. Bush also provided a "state-of-the-art command, control and communications center" to coordinate the operation of his Iraqi "commandos," as the Pentagon's own news site, DefendAmerica, reported in December 2005.
It was not long after this that the militia activity began the dizzying, horrifying rise that shows no signs of abating. Meanwhile, the sectarian militias of the Iraqi parties empowered by Bush's invasion have long infiltrated the army, police and various government ministries. With the entire county now riddled with militias waging a hydra-headed civil war, it has become a cliché of Washington political chat to say that U.S. military forces are in danger of becoming "just another militia" in Iraq. But behind that turn of phrase is a darker truth: the Bush team itself formed many of the first militias set loose upon Iraq, thus seeding the bloody strife now consuming the land.
Given this history, one would like to press Lt. Col. Garver a bit further and ask: Are these the kind of "units we don't talk about" that carried out the raid in Ishaqi last Friday? If not, why won't you identify the troops whose successful operation – with clean kills and no "collaterals" –brought us another step closer to "establishing a safe and peaceful Iraq"?
III. The Midnight Hour
They did what they were told. They moved into the village. They began searching some buildings. Someone started shooting at them. They killed a couple of people but the bullets kept coming. So they did what threatened U.S. troops routinely do to protect themselves: they called for an airstrike. A plane came down and dropped a couple of bombs or fired some missiles in the darkness. Two houses blew up. There was screaming, burning bodies, smoking rubble, some nasty hardware all around. All the corpses that they could see, what was left of them, looked like terrorists. A couple of women there, maybe. Guns nearby. Terrorists.
As the sun came out, perhaps the villagers of Taima emerged from their hiding places and began to dig through the rubble of the al-Jalmoods' houses. Here was the body of a 10-year-old boy, captured on film by AP, as someone cradled his lifeless head. Here were women kneeling in the dust to keen over charred remains. Here were police gathering the names, trying to count the dead.
It was a scene reminiscent of last March, when the people of the nearby Ishaqi district village of Abu Sifa brought out their dead from a similar airstrike on accused al Qaeda operatives. Then however, the scene was more horrific: five young children laid out on rugs, their bodies unmarked except for apparent bullet holes in their heads. The charges too were more serious: not just a raid allegedly gone awry with overkill and collateral damage, as last Friday, but a systematic execution of civilians in their homes, then an airstrike called in to cover up the crime. The Pentagon investigated the earlier incident and exonerated itself a few weeks later, although it never explained the discrepancy between its body count – one man, two women and a child – and the overwhelming photographic and eyewitness evidence of local Iraqi officials and Western news agencies of 11 casualties, including the five children.
There will likely be no Pentagon investigation of the latest mass killing in Ishaqi. Certainly there will never be an independent probe that could establish the truth of what really happened in that midnight hour. If it involved ordinary troops, and not Bush's shadowy death squads and hired guns, it was probably not, technically speaking, an atrocity, not a planned murder of civilians, but a simple skirmish with hostile forces in the dark – terrorists, insurgents, militiamen, gangsters – or with innocent homeowners defending their property, or maybe an inextricable mix of the two. It was just another night in Iraq, another raid, another blood-letting, another outcry of anguish.
Meanwhile, the makers of the true atrocity, the great atrocity – the unprovoked, unsanctioned, unnecessary act of aggression responsible for all the mass Iraqi deaths in Ishaqi and across the land, all the dead and maimed Americans, all the ruin, all the senseless pain and suffering – will be making the rounds of sumptuous Christmas parties in the coming days. They'll be feasting and toasting, dancing and laughing, swathed in the pomps of wealth and power, forever secure against the consequences of the evil they have done.
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