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October 24, 2005

Journalist Dahr Jamail draws capacity crowd for Iraq update

By Jennifer McNulty

Journalist Dahr Jamail chose his words carefully when trying to answer a young boy's question about the U.S. bombing of Fallujah.

Journalist Dahr Jamail
Cowell College provost Deanna Shemek joins Dahr Jamail as he meets with audience members following his talk.
Photo: Jennifer McNulty

"The military has to follow orders from above," said Jamail, one of few independent U.S. journalists covering the war in Iraq, who spoke to a capacity crowd at the UCSC Music Center Recital Hall on October 19.

"Even when their own commanders don't agree with the orders, the military has to follow orders. They are being put in horrible circumstances, where horrible things are happening to them, and they are doing horrible things."

A special correspondent for Flashpoints, the BBC, Democracy Now, and other media outlets, Jamail doesn't often field questions from 8-year-olds. But he has spent eight months in occupied Iraq, chronicling what he called the "failed policy" of the White House, and his audience was spellbound throughout his 90-minute slide-show presentation.

Fallujah is a "microcosm" of the war, he said. 

"At the time of the invasion, Fallujah welcomed the Americans," said Jamail. But three weeks later, when U.S. forces occupied an elementary school, residents protested. Classes were scheduled to begin the next day, and they wanted their children to be able to attend school, he said. The protest was met by gunfire, and 17 people were killed, according to Jamail.

That day marked the birth of the resistance movement in Fallujah, but hostilities escalated steadily as the military brought in U.S. contractors--"I prefer to call them mercenaries, because that's what they are," added Jamail--because they are not bound by military rules of engagement. "They conduct covert operations and assassinations," he said. "They literally raped and pillaged."

The first U.S. siege of Fallujah took place in April 2004 following the widely reported gruesome slaying of four contractors, whose remains were hung from a bridge. Even then, according to Jamail, U.S. military leaders didn't want to seize the city.

"They wanted to work on reconstruction and try to earn the trust of the Iraqis," he said, noting that it was the White House that issued a direct order for the siege. The failure of that attack led to the November 2004 siege, during which 4,000 civilians were killed. It constituted the most intense urban fighting of the war, said Jamail.

As part of his presentation, Jamail screened a new independent film, Caught in the Crossfire: The Untold Story of Falluja. The film's footage of the suffering of displaced residents and the decimation of the city, 60 percent of which was bombed to the ground by U.S. forces last November, had prompted the young boy's query.

Today, U.S. commanders in Iraq compare battling Iraqi resistance to stepping on a half-filled water balloon, said Jamail, "You step on one part, and it squeezes out the other side."

The U.S. media is ignoring the story of civilian suffering in Iraq, said Jamail, who blamed poor coverage on corporate ownership of the media, reporters who try to cover the war from their hotels, and the Pentagon's efforts to avoid a repeat of the Vietnam War, when horrific images on the nightly news eroded public support for the war.

One of the most "undertold" stories of the war is the widespread use of depleted uranium in bullets, missiles, and bombs. Spent artillery is leaving a legacy of radioactive dust across Iraq, said Jamail, noting that more than 1,200 tons of depleted uranium have been used in Iraq so far--three times the amount used in the 1991 Gulf War. Depleted uranium has been identified as "a main component" of Gulf War syndrome, and leukemia rates in Iraq among children aged 1 to 5 increased 26-fold between 1990 and 2003, he said.

Jamail cited a U.S. Army survey that found 56 percent of units currently in Iraq have low or very low morale, and a report by the Army's Surgeon Generalthat 30 percent of U.S. military personnel have reported mental health problems within three months of returning from Iraq. "My intent is not to demonize soldiers," said Jamail. "They are victims of failed policies as much as the Iraqi civilians. Anyone, anywhere, anytime, could attack them. Overall, they've been put in the middle of a very bad situation."

Jamail also discussed his invited testimony before the World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI) in June, describing the rampant torture of detainees, the catastrophic state of the health care system in Iraq, and a summary of conditions "on the ground" after two-and-one-half years of the occupation. The WTI is a worldwide network of local groups and individuals opposed to the war. Among the highlights of his testimony:

• Abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison are the "tip of the iceberg," with torture common in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and third-country dungeons.

• U.S. medics, doctors, and nurses are complicit in torture of detainees.

• Hospitals face critical shortages of medicine, supplies, and equipment, and requests are being ignored. One hospital director said his facility receives only 15 percent of the water needed for basic sterilization.

• Hospital raids by U.S. military forces that prevent doctors from providing care now appear to be "standard operating procedure."

• Iraqis regularly endure long lines to purchase gasoline, sometimes waiting for two days.

• Electricity in much of the country is available for only three hours a day, and even the "best areas" of Baghdad receive electricity for only six to eight hours a day.

• Unemployment has reached 70 percent.

• Clean water is scarce, raw sewage is common, and diseases, including diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, and hepatitis, pose a growing threat to public health.

Among the many sponsors of Jamail's appearance were Cowell provosts Deanna Shemek and Tyrus Miller, the Center for Cultural Studies, the Politics Department, the Women's Center, and Colleges Nine and Ten.


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