Editor’s note: Truthdig contributor Nir Rosen, an American reporter who has lived for the last three years in Iraq and who can pass as Middle Eastern, describes what it’s like to live under the boot of a culturally callous — and sometimes criminal — occupying force in Iraq. “The occupation has been one vast extended crime against the Iraqi people, and most of it has occurred unnoticed by the American people and the media.”
Three years into an occupation of Iraq replete with so-called milestones, turning points and individual events hailed as “sea changes” that would “break the back” of the insurgency, a different type of incident received an intense, if ephemeral, amount of attention. A local human rights worker and aspiring journalist in the western Iraqi town of Haditha filmed the aftermath of the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians. The video made its way to an Iraqi working for Time magazine, and the story was finally publicized months later. The Haditha massacre was compared to the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre, and like the well-publicized and embarrassing Abu Ghraib scandal two years earlier, the attention it received made it seem as if it were a horrible aberration perpetrated by a few bad apples who might have overreacted to the stress they endured as occupiers.In reality both Abu Ghraib and Haditha were merely more extreme versions of the day-to-day workings of the American occupation in Iraq, and what makes them unique is not so much how bad they were, or how embarrassing, but the fact that they made their way to the media and were publicized despite attempts to cover them up. Focusing on Abu Ghraib and Haditha distracts us from the daily, little Abu Ghraibs and small-scale Hadithas that have made up the occupation. The occupation has been one vast extended crime against the Iraqi people, and most of it has occurred unnoticed by the American people and the media.
Americans, led to believe that their soldiers and Marines would be welcomed as liberators by the Iraqi people, have no idea what the occupation is really like from the perspective of Iraqis who endure it. Although I am American, born and raised in New York City, I came closer to experiencing what it might feel like to be Iraqi than many of my colleagues. I often say that the secret to my success in Iraq as a journalist is my melanin advantage. I inherited my Iranian father’s Middle Eastern features, which allowed me to go unnoticed in Iraq, blend into crowds, march in demonstrations, sit in mosques, walk through Falluja’s worst neighborhoods.
I also benefited from being able to speak Arabic — in particular its Iraqi dialect, which I hastily learned in Baghdad upon my arrival and continued to develop throughout my time in Iraq.
My skin color and language skills allowed me to relate to the American occupier in a different way, for he looked at me as if I were just another haji, the “gook” of the war in Iraq. I first realized my advantage in April 2003, when I was sitting with a group of American soldiers and another soldier walked up and wondered what this haji (me) had done to get arrested by them. Later that summer I walked in the direction of an American tank and heard one soldier say about me, “That’s the biggest fuckin’ Iraqi (pronounced eye-raki) I ever saw.” A soldier by the gun said, “I don’t care how big he is, if he doesn’t stop movin’ I’m gonna shoot him.”
I was lucky enough to have an American passport in my pocket, which I promptly took out and waved, shouting: “Don’t shoot! I’m an American!” It was my first encounter with hostile American checkpoints but hardly my last, and I grew to fear the unpredictable American military, which could kill me for looking like an Iraqi male of fighting age. Countless Iraqis were not lucky enough to speak American English or carry a U.S. passport, and often entire families were killed in their cars when they approached American checkpoints.
In 2004 the British medical journal The Lancet estimated that by September 2004 100,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the American occupation and said that most of them had died violently, mostly in American airstrikes. Although this figure was challenged by many, especially partisans of the war, it seems perfectly plausible to me based on what I have seen in Iraq, having spent most of the postwar period there. What I never understood was why more journalists did not focus on this, choosing instead to look for the “good news” and go along with the official story.My first direct encounter with American Marines was from the Iraqi side. In late April 2003, I was attending the Friday prayers in a Sunni bastion in Baghdad. Thousands of people were praying and the devout flooded out of the mosque and laid their prayer rugs on the street and the square in front of it. A Marine patrol rounded a corner and walked right into hundreds of people praying on the street and listening to the sermon, even approaching the separate section for women. Dozens of men rose and put their shoes on, forming a virtual wall to block the armed Marines, who seemed unaware of the danger. The Marines did not understand Arabic. “Irjau!” “Go back!” the demonstrators screamed, and some waved their fists, shouting “America is the enemy of God!” as they were restrained by a few cooler-headed men from within their ranks. I ran to advise the Marines that Friday prayers was not a good time to show up fully armed. The men sensed this and asked me to tell their lieutenant, who appeared oblivious to the public relations catastrophe he might be provoking. He told me: “That’s why we’ve got the guns.”
A nervous soldier asked me to go explain the situation to the bespectacled staff sergeant, who had been attempting to calm the situation by telling the demonstrators, who did not speak English, that the U.S. patrol meant no harm. He finally lost his temper when an Iraqi told him gently, “You must go.” “I have the weapons,” the sergeant said. “You back off.”
“Let’s get the fuck out!” one Marine shouted to another as the tension increased. I was certain that a shove, a tossed stone or a shot fired could have provoked a massacre and turned the city violently against the American occupation. Finally the Marines retreated cautiously around a corner as the worshipers were held back by their own comrades. It could have ended worse, and a week later it did when 17 demonstrators were killed by American soldiers in Falluja, and several more were killed in a subsequent demonstration, a massacre that contributed to the city’s support of the resistance.
I believe that any journalist who spent even a brief period embedded with American soldiers must have witnessed crimes being committed against innocent Iraqis, so I have always been baffled by how few were reported and how skeptically the Western media treated Arabic reports of such crimes. These crimes were not committed because Americans are bad or malicious; they were intrinsic to the occupation, and even if the Girl Scouts had occupied Iraq they would have resorted to these methods. In the end, it is those who dispatched decent young American men and women to commit crimes who should be held accountable.