Un-embedded and uncut
An independent reporter seeks out the real Iraq
For Dahr Jamail, the decision to go to Iraq and report on the situation there wasn’t a difficult one, though friends and relatives told him it was a crazy idea. “I decided to go to report on what I felt was a pretty big blackout by the mainstream media,” Jamail told SN&R. “My main focus was how this was affecting the Iraqi people and soldiers.”
Jamail, 36, is a native of Houston and at the time lived in Anchorage, Alaska, working for a local newspaper there.
He since has gone to the war-torn country twice: in November 2003, for nine weeks, and then again in April 2004, when he stayed for three months, spending much of his time covering the siege of Fallujah. On his first trip, he flew into Amman, Jordan, and hired a driver to take him to Baghdad. Jamail’s great-grandparents were Lebanese, which helped him blend into areas most journalists covering the war haven’t gone into. He continued reporting from Jordan and Turkey until returning to the States this summer.
During his work in Iraq, he filed dispatches for several publications, including The Nation, the Sunday Herald (Scotland), The Guardian (London), Inter Press Service, the Asia Times and numerous others along the journalistic spectrum, ranging from Middle Eastern media to offbeat independent outlets. Reportage from an un-embedded journalist is “extremely rare” he said, adding that 90 percent of those publications contacted him once he started filing stories on his Web site, at www.dahrjamailiraq.com. “You have to look to the top—at corporate ownership of media. Because of regulations for most reporters, The New York Times or major TV representatives, they’re not allowed to leave their hotel unless they go to the Green Zone,” Jamail said, referring to the heavily fortified area in Baghdad where the U.S. embassy is. “Embedding is actually one of the most successful propaganda techniques used by the military of all times. You have to sign a form that signs all your info over to military censors. When you depend on people for your life, you are less apt to write negatively about them.”
That blackout by the mainstream media, he said, is a horrific omission of the destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, the ongoing detainment and torture of citizens, and the growing discontent of a country of 25 million people who are increasingly seeing American and U.N. troops as occupiers instead of liberators. From tales of electricity and water shortages to those of innocent civilians being abducted by troops and tortured, merely for being in the vicinity of insurgent activity, it’s a grim picture he paints.
Jamail left Anchorage on a whim. There, he had supplemented his income as a reporter doing forest rescue and social work. Now he’s in high demand, giving presentations mostly on the West Coast but also appearing in New York and Philadelphia. July 27, he was in Auburn at the Sierra Foothills Unitarian Universalists church before a crowd of about 120. The group ran the gamut from peace activists with cookie-cutter T-shirt slogans to senior citizens and members of Generation Y. The room filled up as he fiddled with a laptop, preparing a 15-minute film produced by a friend of his, called Caught in the Crossfire, which details the horrors of postwar Iraq and the human toll of the Fallujah siege.
The film depicts Iraqis who wait for two days in gas lines to obtain fuel, if they can afford it. Unemployment is at 70 percent. Electricity is available for three hours a day on average and with peak output in some areas of Baghdad six to eight hours per day.
While the fallout of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal still lingers, the practice of torturing prisoners continues on a daily basis in Iraq, Jamail explained during the presentation. He read verbatim from the testimony he gave at the World Tribunal on Iraq, held in Istanbul in June. It’s about a man he interviewed who was taken by the U.S. military and tortured at Abu Ghraib, and the crowd listened in rapt attention. A thick, contemplative silence enveloped the room as he proceeded.
“Like many who had been tortured horrifically, he still managed to maintain his sense of humor. CIA agents made him beat other prisoners. He was so tired that all he could do to beat other Iraqis was lift his arm and let it drop on other men,” Jamail read. The man also said he was deprived of sleep and received electricity to his genitalia and on the bottom of his feet.
“He said, ‘The Americans brought electricity to my ass before they brought it to my house,’” Jamail added.
In cities like Fallujah and Kirkuk, Jamail said, embedded reporters can’t go into the streets and talk to people. Instead, they are stuck in their hotels or in the Green Zone in Baghdad, largely revamping the press releases and briefings supplied to them by the military.
In Baghdad’s sprawling slum of Sadr City, the hospital faces shortages of supplies and receives 15 percent of the water it requires for basic sterilization. Doctors there have been forced to deal with increases in typhoid and cholera, and a resurgence of hepatitis B, he added. And he said the country is still dealing with the aftereffects of depleted uranium in munitions used in the 1991 war. Uranium is the hardest substance on Earth and is extremely effective in penetrating fortified targets. It also has a half-life of 4.5 million years.
Jamail said that in the southern city of Basra, which was shelled heavily with uranium, leukemia in children age 5 and under has increased to 26 times the previous rate.
Jamail’s interpreter in Iraq accompanied him to the Auburn presentation and answered several inquiries during the question-and-answer session following the presentation and slide show. He declined to give his name to SN&R because he is in America on a student visa.
“If I want to find somebody that has cancer, just go in your neighborhood [in Iraq]. You can find 10 [people] very easily,” he said. “My cousin is 16 years old, and she died by cancer.”
The crowd at that Auburn event was mostly supportive of Jamail’s message. But a young man wearing a gray T-shirt with “USMC” on it was not. In the question-and-answer session, he countered Jamail’s contention that the coalition forces have rendered Iraq’s cities into smoking hulks of ruination and despair.
“Lots of Iraqis … are killing each other,” said Nathan Youngman, a lance corporal with the Marines. “It’s not just Americans. Iraqis are doing the same thing.”
After the event ended, people broke off into small groups. Youngman, 20, is from Grass Valley and returned from a 10-month tour of Iraq in June. He was with a combat-services support battalion in the volatile northern portion of the country, sometimes manning a machine gun to protect troops his unit ferried through dangerous areas. He goes back for a second tour in February.
“I disagree with most of what he has to say,” said Youngman, in town on leave. “Many of the people love Americans. Lots of good things are happening [there]. I don’t think most of these people would understand seeing your buddies get blown up. All you hear about is the bad stuff. The people like it that we’re there.”
Youngman was decidedly in the minority here. But three women approached him to give their thanks for his service, relating tales of their own relatives in the military or just conveying appreciation for him. Youngman is about 6 feet tall and 150 pounds, all gristle and whipsaw youth. He looked more like a high-school upperclassman than a soldier entrusted with the lives of eight men in the back of a truck. It’s a reminder of how young some of the soldiers are who are fighting this war. The women who spoke with him told him they’re not against him, only the administration that sent him there and is about to send him back.