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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
American soldiers had no mission and viewed Iraqis as “the enemy” through a prism of “us and them.” An officer returning from a fact-finding mission complained of “a lot of damn good individuals who received no guidance, training or plan and who are operating in a vacuum.” Inside the G2, or intelligence, section of the Army’s civil affairs headquarters in Baghdad, on a bulletin board I saw an anecdote meant to be didactic. It told of American soldiers suppressing Muslim Filipino insurgents a century before. They dipped bullets in pig’s blood and shot some Muslim rebels, to send a warning to the others. A Latino civil affairs officer, fed up with Iraqis, explained that the only solution was to shut down Baghdad entirely. Military civil affairs officers are supposed to provide civil administration in the absence of local power structures, minimize friction between the military and civilians, restore normalcy and empower local institutions. One brigade commander explained to a civil affairs major that “I am not here to win hearts and minds, I am here to kill the enemy.” He failed to provide his civil affairs team with security, so it could not operate.
One morning in Albu Hishma, a village north of Baghdad cordoned off with barbed wire, the local U.S. commander decided to bulldoze any house that had pro-Saddam graffiti on it, and gave half a dozen families a few minutes to remove whatever they cared about the most before their homes were flattened. In Baquba, two 13-year-old girls were killed by a Bradley armored personnel carrier. They were digging through trash and the American rule was that anybody digging on road sides would be shot.
The 4th Infantry Division was especially notorious in Iraq. Its soldiers in Samara handcuffed two suspects and threw them off a bridge into a river. One of them died. In Basra, seven Iraqi prisoners were beaten to death by British soldiers. A high-ranking Iraqi police official in Basra identified one of the victims as his son. It is common practice for soldiers to arrest the wives and children of suspects as “material witnesses” when the suspects are not captured in raids. In some cases the soldiers leave notes for the suspects, letting them know their families will be released should they turn themselves in. Soldiers claim this is a very effective tactic. Soldiers on military vehicles routinely shoot at Iraqi cars that approach too fast or come too close, and at Iraqis wandering in fields. “They were up to no good,” they explain. Every commander is a law unto himself. He is advised by a judge advocate general who interprets the rules as he wants. A war crime to one is legitimate practice to another. After the Center for Army Lessons Learned sent a team of personnel to Israel to study that country’s counterinsurgency tactics, the Army implemented the lessons it learned, and initiated house demolitions in Samara and Tikrit, blowing up homes of suspected insurgents.
It is hard to be patient when mosques are raided, when protesters are shot, when innocent families are gunned down at checkpoints or by frightened soldiers in vehicles. It is hard to be patient in hours of izdiham, or traffic jams, that are blamed on Americans closing off main roads throughout Baghdad. The Americans close roads after “incidents” or when they are looking for planted bombs. Their vehicles block the roads and they answer no questions, refusing to let any Iraqi approach. Cars are forced to drive “wrong side,” as Iraqis call it, with near fatal results. Iraqis have become experts in walking over the concertina wire that divides so much of their cities: First one foot presses the razor wire down, then the other steps over. They are experts in driving slowly through lakes and rivers of sewage. They are experts in sifting through mountains of garbage for anything that can be reused.
It is hard to relax when the soldier in the Humvee or armored personnel carrier in front of you aims his machine gun at you; when aggressive white men race by, running you off the road as they scowl behind their wraparound sunglasses; when soldiers shoot at any car that comes too close. Iraqis in their own country are reminded at all times who has control over their lives, who can take them with impunity.
An old Iraqi woman approached the gate to Baghdad international airport. Draped in a black ebaya, she was carrying a picture of her missing son. She did not speak English, and the soldier in body armor she asked for help did not speak Arabic. He shouted at her to “get the fuck away.” She did not understand and continued beseeching him. The soldier was joined by another. Together they locked and loaded their machine guns, chambering a round, aiming the guns at the old woman and shouting at her that if she did not leave “we will kill you.”
The explosive-sniffing dog in front of the Sheraton and Palestine hotels is hated by the Iraqi security guards as well as the American soldiers who stand there because it, like the rest of us who live in the area, is subject to olfactory whims as it imagines every day that it smells a bomb, forcing them to close off the street for several hours. Two of my friends were arrested for not having a bomb last week when the dog decided their bag smelled funny. They were jailed for four days.
Imagine. The American occupation of Iraq has lasted over three years. The above stories are based on my two weeks with one unit in a small part of the country. Imagine how many Iraqi homes have been destroyed. How many families have been traumatized. How many men have disappeared into American military vehicles in the night. How many crimes have been committed against the Iraqi people every single day in the course of the normal operations of the occupation, when soldiers were merely doing their duty, when they were not angry or vengeful as in Haditha. Imagine what we have done to the Iraqi people, tortured by Saddam for years, then released from three decades of his bloody rule only to find their hope stolen from them and a new terror unleashed.
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