“Jumping Into Iraq Headfirst”

DAHR JAMAIL – Riding into Iraq at the back of a humanitarian aid convoy in 2003 to share the voices not often heard in war. 

Could you describe the moment you arrived in Iraq — what was the first “scene” that you saw?

I drove in, because at the time — in November 2003, about six months after Baghdad fell — that was the only way to get to the city; there were no civilian flights into the country. I drove from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad. The first scenes were of chaos: nothing was working; horrific traffic jams; no traffic lights; no electricity; US tanks rolling down the streets. There was so much chaos that my head spun; I saw complete bedlam, a country that was simply not functioning. 

I suppose that I had heard so much of the propaganda myself: the American claims about rebuilding the country and the infrastructure. I saw the opposite; six months on, I expected to see some improvement. In retrospect, it was a bit naive of me to expect that, given what I know now. 

You were on the ground following the “liberation,” for lack of a better word. What was the prevailing sentiment among Iraqis immediately after the “liberation,” and was there a moment at which this view changed?

The most accurate descriptor for the operation is an invasion followed by an occupation. Most Iraqis, I can assure you, do not refer to it as a “liberation.” When I spoke with them about this issue back in 2003, Iraqis were very clear: they knew the Americans were coming for the oil. They hated Saddam, and were glad that he was gone; they were hoping that the Americans would follow through on their promises to rebuild the country. If the Americans had fulfilled even just a third of their promises, that would have been fine: even that small amount would have been better than sanctions and a dictator. And so Iraqis waited for this to happen. When I spoke with them in November 2003, it was just about the end of that “waiting period” wherein not only had they not seen anything positive happen, but they had only seen everything become worse. This was hard for them to believe: how could things be worse than a dictator and sanctions? November became December, and I was already starting to see protests against the occupation, both in Baghdad and places like Fallujah. Fallujah had heated up until it was nearly a no-go-zone for the US military. 

The situation turned very abruptly against the Americans just about the time I went into the country on my second trip, which was in April 2004, when Paul Bremer labelled Muqtada Al Sadr a criminal and a terrorist almost simultaneously with the beginning of the first siege in Fallujah. The Americans had essentially declared war on a giant segment of the Sunni and Shia populations at the same time. It was at this point that things became very hot — everyone was fighting against the Americans. It became very clear to Iraqis at this point — in March and April of 2004 — that the Americans were strictly occupiers. 

What challenges existed from the United States military in terms of censorship and prior restraint?

I never faced anything directly aimed at me because I was a journalist or because I was independent. After my exploits in Fallujah, I found out after the April 2004 siege that I was blacklisted, so I could not embed with combat troops if I wanted to. But that was no loss for me. That is the only issue that I have run across. Today, if I call the military and talk to a Public Affairs Officer I am going to get treated just like any other journalist. Being blacklisted is the only overt resistance I have ever run across. 

What were these “exploits” in Fallujah?

 I simply went into the city during the April 2004 siege and reported on what I was seeing. Civilians were being targeted, medical workers were being sniped, women and children being killed, bombed, and sniped deliberately by the US military. The city’s infrastructure was being cut, the soldiers were using collective punishment, which is a war crime, illegal weapons were being used. And I reported this. These reports were especially hard for the military to accept because they came during a time when there was, for example, only one Al-Jazeera Arabic cameraman in the city. During truce negotiations with the resistance in the city, one of the preconditions for the treaty from the American perspective was that the resistance had to force that cameraman to leave the city. That is illustrative of the lengths to which the military was willing to go to keep the media out of the city. So me, as an American, going in to report essentially what this cameraman was showing, did not earn me the gratitude of the US military. 

Were you ever fearful for your own life during your time in Iraq?

There were several moments. We went into Baghdad when the city was essentially still under siege. We snuck in through a back road, on a bus carrying humanitarian supplies. There were drones overhead all night; you could hear the helicopters and the jets, and I saw several bombings. 

I was very scared going in, but then I adjusted to the situation. I found out late that these are the preconditions for getting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is amazing what you can adjust to, but when you come out from the conflict zone, you need to decompress. If you don’t do that the right way, you will get PTSD. I did not know that at the time, but that was basically what was happening. 

I was shot at a couple of times. I had a big car bomb go off right by my hotel, which brought down some of my room. But all of that being said, I was never directly targeted. It was just because that was, and to a large extent, still is the situation in the country. If you are there long enough, you are bound to be near this kind of violence when it happens. 

You talk about having to desensitize yourself from the situation, but is there any one person you remember from your time ‘in country’?

Absolutely, my main interpreter, whose name is Harb, stands out in my memory. We are still very close. His story gives a good example of the ‘Iraqi situation’ — he and his wife were two of the two million Iraqis who fled to Syria. They now live in Damascus, but are trying to leave that city because all hell is breaking loose there.

When you work with a good “fixer” in a place like that over a sustained amount of time, you become incredibly close. Any journalist working in a war zone where he doesn’t speak the language knows that he is only as good as his fixer. I owe him immensely for any honors I receive for my work. 

Could you describe the situation on the ground following the pullout of US combat troops from the country — is there a sense of optimism about the country’s future? What, if anything, has changed?

The mood in Iraq during my last visit — which was December 26 through January 10 — was quite grim. While most Iraqis were glad the US had pulled out its military and bases, the mood now is grim, largely because infrastructure remains in shambles, and Prime Minister Maliki is consolidating political power whilst simultaneously cracking down on the Iraqi media, as well as foreign media. He is being perceived as a “Shia Saddam,” and there are rumors in Baghdad of another sectarian war, this time with the Shia, backed by the government, purging Baghdad of Sunnis. Iraq’s future looks bleak, with nothing on the horizon to indicate a change for the better. Many Iraqis I spoke with, including my fixers, were trying to find ways to leave the country.

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DAHR JAMAIL is the Online News Producer for Al Jazeera English in Doha, Qatar. He spent nine months in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 as one of the few “unembedded” independent US journalists in the country, reporting on the Iraq War and its human costs. He has received the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Award for Journalism, the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage, and four Project Censored awards.

The international magazine, Mother Jones, noted that “Every conflict spawns a handful of journalists who are willing to not only brave the war zone but to seek out the stories ignored by the press pack. The Iraq war has brought us Dahr Jamail.”

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