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Nir Rosen is a fellow at the New America Foundation and a free-lance writer. His book on postwar Iraq, "In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq" was published by Free Press in May 2006.
His articles from Iraq and elsewhere are available on www.nirrosen.com....
The Occupation of Iraqi Hearts and Minds
In Baghdad, coalition officials announced that 112 suspects had been arrested in a major raid near the Syrian border, including a high-ranking official in the former Republican Guard. “The general officer that they captured, Abed Hamed Mowhoush al-Mahalowi, was reported to have links with Saddam Hussein and was a financier of anti-coalition activities, according to intelligence sources,” a military spokeswoman said. “Troops from the 1st and 4th squadrons of the Third Armored Cavalry cordoned off sections of the town and searched 29 houses to find ‘subversive elements,’ including 12 of the 13 suspects they had targeted for capture,” she said.
That night the prisoners were visible on a large dirt field in a square of concertina wire. Beneath immense spotlights and near loud generators, they slept on the ground, guarded by soldiers. One sergeant was surprised by the high number of prisoners taken by the troop I was with. “Did they just arrest every man they found?” he asked, wondering if “we just made another 300 people hate us.” The following day 57 prisoners were transported to a larger base for further interrogation. Some were not the suspects, just relatives of the suspects or men suspected of being the suspects.
The next night the troop departed the base at 0200, hoping to find those alleged Al Qaeda suspects who had not been home during the previous operation. Soldiers descended upon homes in a large compound, their boots trampling over mattresses in rooms the inhabitants did not enter with shoes on. Most of the wanted men were nowhere to be found, their women and children prevaricating about their locations. Some of their relatives were arrested instead. “That woman is annoying!” one young soldier complained about a mother’s desperate ululations as her son was taken from his house. “How do you think your mother would sound if they were taking you away?” a sergeant asked him.
Three days after the operation, a dozen prisoners could be seen marching in a circle outside their detention cells, surrounded by barbed wire. They were shouting “USA, USA!” over and over. “They were talkin’ when we told ‘em not to, so we made ‘em talk somethin’ we liked to hear,” one of the soldiers guarding them said with a grin. Another gestured up with his hands, letting them know they had to raise their voices. A first sergeant quipped that the ones who were not guilty “will be guilty next time,” after such treatment. Even if the men were guilty, no proof would be provided to the community. There would be no process of transparent justice. The only thing evident to the Iraqi public would be the American guilt.
In November 2003 a major from the judge advocate general’s office working on establishing an Iraqi judicial process told me that there were at least 7,000 Iraqis detained by American forces. Many languished in prisons indefinitely, lost in a system that imposed the English language on Arabic speakers with Arabic names not easily transcribed. Some were termed “security detainees” and held for six months pending a review to determine whether they were still a “security risk.” Most were innocent. Many were arrested simply because a neighbor did not like them. A lieutenant colonel familiar with the process told me that there is no judicial process for the thousands of detainees. If the military were to try them, there would be a court-martial, which would imply that the U.S. was occupying Iraq, and lawyers working for the administration are still debating whether it is an occupation or liberation. Two years later, 50,000 Iraqis had been imprisoned by the Americans and only 2% had ever been found guilty of anything.
The S2 (intelligence) section in the Army unit I was with had not proved itself very reliable in the past—a fact that frustrated soldiers to no end. “You get all psyched up to do a hard mission,” said one sergeant, “and it turns out to be three little girls. The little kids get to me, especially when they cry.”
The reason for the lack of confidence in S2 was made clear by the case of a man called Ayoub. I accompanied the troop when it raided Ayoub’s home based on intelligence S2 provided: intercepted phone calls, in which Ayoub spoke of proceeding to the next level and obtaining land mines and other weapons.
On the day of the raid, tanks, Bradleys and Humvees squeezed between the neighborhood walls. A CIA operator angrily eyed the rooftops and windows of nearby houses, a silencer on his assault weapon. Soldiers broke through Ayoub’s door early in the morning and when he did not immediately respond to their orders he was shot with nonlethal ordinance, little pellets exploding like gunshot from the weapons grenade launcher. The floor of the house was covered in his blood. He was dragged into a room and interrogated forcefully as his family was pushed back against a garden fence. Ayoub’s frail mother, covered in a shawl, with traditional tribal tattoos marking her face, pleaded with an immense soldier to spare her son’s life, protesting his innocence. She took the soldier’s hand and kissed it repeatedly while on her knees. He pushed her to the grass along with Ayoub’s four girls and two boys, all small, and his wife. They squatted barefoot, screaming, their eyes wide in terror, clutching each other as soldiers emerged with bags full of documents, photo albums and two CDs with Saddam and his cronies on the cover. These CDs, called “The Crimes of Saddam,” are common on every Iraqi street, and as their title suggests, they were not made by Saddam supporters; however, the soldiers saw only the picture of Saddam and assumed they were proof of guilt.
Ayoub was brought out and pushed onto the truck. He gestured to his shrieking relatives to remain where they were. He was an avuncular man, small and round—balding and unshaven with a hooked nose and slightly pockmarked face. He could not have looked more innocent. He sat frozen, staring numbly ahead as the soldiers ignored him, occasionally glancing down at their prisoner with sneering disdain. The medic looked at Ayoub’s injured hand and chuckled to his friends, “It ain’t my hand.” The truck blasted country music on the way back to the base. Ayoub was thrown in the detainment center. After the operation there were smiles of relief among the soldiers, slaps on the back and thumbs up.
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