Living On Lies
By Robert Fisk
26 October, 2003
was in the police station in the town of Fallujah when I realised the
extent of the schizophrenia. Captain Christopher Cirino of the 82nd
Airborne was trying to explain to me the nature of the attacks so regularly
carried out against American forces in the Sunni Muslim Iraqi town.
His men were billeted in a former presidential rest home down the road
- "Dreamland", the Americans call it - but this was not the
extent of his soldiers' disorientation. "The men we are being attacked
by," he said, "are Syrian-trained terrorists and local freedom
fighters." Come again? "Freedom fighters." But that's
what Captain Cirino called them - and rightly so.
Here's the reason.
All American soldiers are supposed to believe - indeed have to believe,
along with their President and his Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld
- that Osama bin Laden's "al-Qa'ida" guerrillas, pouring over
Iraq's borders from Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia (note how those close
allies and neighbours of Iraq, Kuwait and Turkey are always left out
of the equation), are assaulting United States forces as part of the
"war on terror". Special forces soldiers are now being told
by their officers that the "war on terror" has been transferred
from America to Iraq, as if in some miraculous way, 11 September 2001
is now Iraq 2003. Note too how the Americans always leave the Iraqis
out of the culpability bracket - unless they can be described as "Baath
party remnants", "diehards" or "deadenders"
by the US proconsul, Paul Bremer.
Captain Cirino's problem, of course, is that he knows part of the truth.
Ordinary Iraqis - many of them long-term enemies of Saddam Hussein -
are attacking the American occupation army 35 times a day in the Baghdad
area alone. And Captain Cirino works in Fallujah's local police station,
where America's newly hired Iraqi policemen are the brothers and uncles
and - no doubt - fathers of some of those now waging guerrilla war against
American soldiers in Fallujah. Some of them, I suspect, are indeed themselves
the "terrorists". So if he calls the bad guys "terrorists",
the local cops - his first line of defence - would be very angry indeed.
No wonder morale
is low. No wonder the American soldiers I meet on the streets of Baghdad
and other Iraqi cities don't mince their words about their own government.
US troops have been given orders not to bad-mouth their President or
Secretary of Defence in front of Iraqis or reporters (who have about
the same status in the eyes of the occupation authorities). But when
I suggested to a group of US military police near Abu Ghurayb they would
be voting Republican at the next election, they fell about laughing.
"We shouldn't be here and we should never have been sent here,"
one of them told me with astonishing candour. "And maybe you can
tell me: why were we sent here?"
Little wonder, then,
that Stars and Stripes, the American military's own newspaper, reported
this month that one third of the soldiers in Iraq suffered from low
morale. And is it any wonder, that being the case, that US forces in
Iraq are shooting down the innocent, kicking and brutalising prisoners,
trashing homes and - eyewitness testimony is coming from hundreds of
Iraqis - stealing money from houses they are raiding? No, this is not
Vietnam - where the Americans sometimes lost 3,000 men in a month -
nor is the US army in Iraq turning into a rabble. Not yet. And they
remain light years away from the butchery of Saddam's henchmen. But
human-rights monitors, civilian occupation officials and journalists
- not to mention Iraqis themselves - are increasingly appalled at the
behaviour of the American military occupiers.
Iraqis who fail
to see US military checkpoints, who overtake convoys under attack -
or who merely pass the scene of an American raid - are being gunned
down with abandon. US official "inquiries" into these killings
routinely result in either silence or claims that the soldiers "obeyed
their rules of engagement" - rules that the Americans will not
disclose to the public.
The rot comes from
the top. Even during the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, US forces
declined to take responsibility for the innocents they killed. "We
do not do body counts," General Tommy Franks announced. So there
was no apology for the 16 civilians killed at Mansur when the "Allies"
- note how we Brits get caught up in this misleading title - bombed
a residential suburb in the vain hope of killing Saddam. When US special
forces raided a house in the very same area four months later - hunting
for the very same Iraqi leader - they killed six civilians, including
a 14-year-old boy and a middle-aged woman, and only announced, four
days later, that they would hold an "inquiry". Not an investigation,
you understand, nothing that would suggest there was anything wrong
in gunning down six Iraqi civilians; and in due course the "inquiry"
was forgotten - as it was no doubt meant to be - and nothing has been
heard of it again.
Again, during the
invasion, the Americans dropped hundreds of cluster bombs on villages
outside the town of Hillah. They left behind a butcher's shop of chopped-up
corpses. Film of babies cut in half during the raid was not even transmitted
by the Reuters crew in Baghdad. The Pentagon then said there were "no
indications" cluster bombs had been dropped at Hillah - even though
Sky TV found some unexploded and brought them back to Baghdad.
I first came across
this absence of remorse - or rather absence of responsibility - in a
slum suburb of Baghdad called Hayy al-Gailani. Two men had run a new
American checkpoint - a roll of barbed wire tossed across a road before
dawn one morning in July - and US troops had opened fire at the car.
Indeed, they fired so many bullets that the vehicle burst into flames.
And while the dead or dying men were burned inside, the Americans who
had set up the checkpoint simply boarded their armoured vehicles and
left the scene. They never even bothered to visit the hospital mortuary
to find out the identities of the men they killed - an obvious step
if they believed they had killed "terrorists" - and inform
their relatives. Scenes like this are being repeated across Iraq daily.
Which is why Human
Rights Watch and Amnesty and other humanitarian organisations are protesting
ever more vigorously about the failure of the US army even to count
the numbers of Iraqi dead, let alone account for their own role in killing
civilians. "It is a tragedy that US soldiers have killed so many
civilians in Baghdad," Human Rights Watch's Joe Stork said. "But
it is really incredible that the US military does not even count these
deaths." Human Rights Watch has counted 94 Iraqi civilians killed
by Americans in the capital. The organisation also criticised American
forces for humiliating prisoners, not least by their habit of placing
their feet on the heads of prisoners. Some American soldiers are now
being trained in Jordan - by Jordanians - in the "respect"
that should be accorded to Iraqi civilians and about the culture of
Islam. About time.
But on the ground
in Iraq, Americans have a licence to kill. Not a single soldier has
been disciplined for shooting civilians - even when the fatality involves
an Iraqi working for the occupation authorities. No action has been
taken, for instance, over the soldier who fired a single shot through
the window of an Italian diplomat's car, killing his translator, in
northern Iraq. Nor against the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne who gunned
down 14 Sunni Muslim protesters in Fallujah in April. (Captain Cirino
was not involved.) Nor against the troops who shot dead 11 more protesters
in Mosul. Sometimes, the evidence of low morale mounts over a long period.
In one Iraqi city, for example, the "Coalition Provisional Authority"
- which is what the occupation authorities call themselves - have instructed
local money changers not to give dollars for Iraqi dinars to occupation
soldiers: too many Iraqi dinars had been stolen by troops during house
raids. Repeatedly, in Baghdad, Hillah, Tikrit, Mosul and Fallujah Iraqis
have told me that they were robbed by American troops during raids and
at checkpoints. Unless there is a monumental conspiracy on a nationwide
scale by Iraqis, some of these reports must bear the stamp of truth.
Then there was the
case of the Bengal tiger. A group of US troops entered the Baghdad zoo
one evening for a party of sandwiches and beer. During the party, one
of the soldiers decided to pet the tiger who - being a Bengal tiger
- sank his teeth into the soldier. The Americans then shot the tiger
dead. The Americans promised an "inquiry" - of which nothing
has been heard since. Ironically, the one incident where US forces faced
disciplinary action followed an incident in which a US helicopter crew
took a black religious flag from a communications tower in Sadr City
in Baghdad. The violence that followed cost the life of an Iraqi civilian.
Suicides among US
troops in Iraq have risen in recent months - up to three times the usual
rate among American servicemen. At least 23 soldiers are believed to
have taken their lives since the Anglo-American invasion and others
have been wounded in attempting suicide. As usual, the US army only
revealed this statistic following constant questioning. The daily attacks
on Americans outside Baghdad - up to 50 in a night - go, like the civilian
Iraqi dead, unrecorded. Travelling back from Fallujah to Baghdad after
dark last month, I saw mortar explosions and tracer fire around 13 American
bases - not a word of which was later revealed by the occupation authorities.
At Baghdad airport last month, five mortar shells fell near the runway
as a Jordanian airliner was boarding passengers for Amman. I saw this
attack with my own eyes. That same afternoon, General Ricardo Sanchez,
the senior US officer in Iraq, claimed he knew nothing about the attack,
which - unless his junior officers are slovenly - he must have been
well aware of.
But can we expect
anything else of an army that can wilfully mislead soldiers into writing
"letters" to their home town papers in the US about improvements
in Iraqi daily life.
of life and security for the citizens has been largely restored, and
we are a large part of why it has happened," Sergeant Christopher
Shelton of the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment bragged in a letter
from Kirkuk to the Snohomish County Tribune. "The majority of the
city has welcomed our presence with open arms." Only it hasn't.
And Sergeant Shelton didn't write the letter. Nor did Sergeant Shawn
Grueser of West Virginia. Nor did Private Nick Deaconson. Nor eight
other soldiers who supposedly wrote identical letters to their local
papers. The "letters" were distributed among soldiers, who
were asked to sign if they agreed with its contents.
But is this, perhaps,
not part of the fantasy world inspired by the right-wing ideologues
in Washington who sought this war - even though most of them have never
served their country in uniform. They dreamed up the "weapons of
mass destruction" and the adulation of American troops who would
"liberate" the Iraqi people. Unable to provide fact to fiction,
they now merely acknowledge that the soldiers they have sent into the
biggest rat's nest in the Middle East have "a lot of work to do",
that they are - this was not revealed before or during the invasion
- "fighting the front line in the war on terror".
one might ask, have the Christian fundamentalists had on the American
army in Iraq? For even if we ignore the Rev Franklin Graham, who has
described Islam as "a very evil and wicked religion" before
he went to lecture Pentagon officials - what is one to make of the officer
responsible for tracking down Osama bin Laden, Lieutenant-General William
"Jerry" Boykin, who told an audience in Oregon that Islamists
hate the US "because we're a Christian nation, because our foundation
and our roots are Judeo-Christian and the enemy is a guy called Satan".
Recently promoted to deputy under-secretary of defence for intelligence,
Boykin went on to say of the war against Mohammed Farrah Aidid in Somalia
- in which he participated - that "I knew my God was bigger than
his - I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol".
Secretary of Defence
Donald Rumsfeld said of these extraordinary remarks that "it doesn't
look like any rules were broken". We are now told that an "inquiry"
into Boykin's comments is underway - an "inquiry" about as
thorough, no doubt, as those held into the killing of civilians in Baghdad.
Weaned on this kind
of nonsense, however, is it any surprise that American troops in Iraq
understand neither their war nor the people whose country they are occupying?
Terrorists or freedom fighters? What's the difference?
Copyright: The Independent