By Jono Kinkade

Dahr Jamail, one of few independent, unembedded journalists on the ground in the Middle East, recently spoke at UCSC about his eight months in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

He is currently reporting for the Inter Press Service, and has been published in The Asia Times, The Nation, The Sunday Herald, Islam Online, the Guardian, Foreign Policy in Focus, and the Independent. Dahr Jamail’s reporting can be read on his website

*City on a Hill Press*: Why did you go to Iraq?

*Dahr Jamail*: The primary reason that I went was to make an effort toward giving people a more accurate picture of what was actually happening on the ground, because the picture we were being provided by the corporate media was so skewed and so dishonest. It was as much of a skewed picture of the occupation as the sell job of the war. I saw those trends continue and get even worse, and once the occupation was underway, I decided I wanted to go do something about it.

*CHP*: Why is much of the coverage inaccurate?

*DJ*: I think there are really two main reasons—one, corporate ownership, and two, state pressure. With corporate ownership, the most common example is the classic case of General Electric owns NBC, General Electric being a huge weapons manufacturer; it doesn’t behoove them to have a national television station broadcasting images of what happens when their products hit human beings.

The other main reason is direct state pressure. The famous example there I would point to is when the Washington Post ran a photograph of the inside of a cargo plane full of coffins covered by US flags, you know, with dead troops, they and all media were given an order not to run any more photos like that.

*CHP*: Currently, media coverage is focused on Iraq’s sectarian conflicts and the idea that Iraq is in civil war. How accurate is this coverage?

*DJ*: It is accurate that there is civil war, although they are reporting it a year after it began, and they are also not reporting who is responsible for starting it.

*CHP*: What do you mean by that?

*DJ*: In the Fall of 2004, when it was clear…that the second siege of Fallujah, rather than stopping the resistance, just spread it all over the country, [the US military] instituted a death squad program to try to target the leadership of the resistance. It was a program that even [former Secretary of State Donald] Rumsfeld referred to in January as the “Salvador option,” as reported in Newsweek. Basically, retired Colonel James Steele, who was counselor for Iraqi security forces and answered directly to [the previous US Ambassador to Iraq] John Negroponte, basically facilitated special forces operations, selecting members from the Shia and Kurdish militias to form death squads and then sent them out targeting leaders of the Sunni resistance, sympathizers, and Sunni religious leaders. Of course it is important to put that in the context that it is the same James Steele and the same Negroponte who set up death squads in Central America in the early and mid 1980’s. They basically just brought them into Baghdad to do the same thing, and they did it very well.

*CHP*: What do you see happening with the “surge” of 21,500 troops?

*DJ*: Well the surge is already happening, it was already happening before Bush already announced it, we had guys deployed to Kuwait…and they started sending them into Baghdad long before Bush even announced it. This so-called surge brings the level of troops up to just about the same level of the amount we had in January 2005 for the so-called elections on January 30, 2005, and what did that level of troops do then to help security? Absolutely nothing. If they really wanted to use military means to try to bring security into that country, they need to start with sending about 300,000 troops and then escalate from there.

*CHP*: As for alternatives to the surge, or proposals for withdrawal, what do the Iraqi people say?

*DJ*: I think we just go with the majority of what the Iraqi people want, and recent polls suggest that 90 percent of the Iraqi people want a withdrawal in less than a year’s time. That is what we should do. There is the argument about ‘fix it if you broke it’ or ‘stay the course,’ but those are all moot points. I think the most important thing is what do the Iraqi people want? They want us out, and that is the opinion that needs to be respected above all else.

*CHP*: And if the troops do withdraw?

*DJ*: Without a doubt the violence, the chaos, and the instability will continue for a bit, but the Iraqi people would then be sovereign and there would be the possibility then of having legitimate elections. Therefore you would have a government that really did have popular support. That is why ending the occupation would really be the first step toward stability in that country.

*CHP*: Do you have any comments about the recent protests across the United States, like the Jan 27 marches in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco?

*DJ*: It’s important to see that more and more people than ever actually are angry and willing to get out there and take some risks and try to do something about it that can change. I think it is going to take a lot more than permitted demonstrations on a weekend, I think that experiment has been run enough times to show that this government won’t listen to huge displays of people wanting to shift policy. I think it is going to take things more like demonstrations, without permits, non-violent of course, but doing things like direct actions and shutting down financial districts of cities and the ability for this government to conduct business as usual until it starts changing its policy. Until that starts happening on a wide scale, like it did during Vietnam, I really don’t think we can expect this government to change its policy, especially when Bush goes out of his way to say that he really isn’t interested in listening to the whims of the people.

*CHP*: Was this really about bringing democracy to Iraq or ending the ‘war on terror?’

*DJ*: Of course not, that is just empty propaganda used by various empires throughout history. It is all about geopolitical positioning of the US military, and it’s all about getting to that oil so that our government will control it and make it available to western countries, before countries, for example, like India, or China, or Russia can try to do the same.

*CHP*: Do you feel that the Iraqi people’s needs and wishes are being met, or even heard?

*DJ*: None whatsoever. In no way are they being heard. The voters were promised that if they voted for these various political coalitions that they would immediately demand a timetable for withdrawal. Of course, [that didn’t happen] because they weren’t allowed to do so from the people that pulled their strings, i.e., D.C.

*CHP*: What is life like for Baghdad residents?

*DJ*: Well, they are in a living hell, where they don’t have electricity—they have on average two hours per day—odds are they don’t have safe drinking water, there is basically no health care left because the hospitals are in a state of ruin, 70 percent employment, 70 percent inflation, security speaks for itself—there is none—30 kidnappings a day in Baghdad alone. Most of the people I know who are still in Baghdad are too afraid to leave their houses. Anyone who had the ability and a little bit of money has fled to Syria or Jordan, about a million refuges in each of those countries, almost two million refugees within Iraq itself, and it’s getting worse by the day. It’s untenable. It is not something that is sustainable. Something has to change immediately; it’s an absolute emergency situation.

*CHP*: What about the Iraqi deaths?

*DJ*: I always go with…the most recent one that came out on October 11 that was published in The Lancet by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health. That found 655,000 excess deaths in Iraq, which counts people who have died from a direct result of the US invasion and occupation. Now that survey is over a couple of months out of date, so the real number might even be significantly higher. It is, without a doubt, the most scientifically accurate and most recent figure that we have to go on.

*CHP*: What about Iran and Syria?

*DJ*: It’s looking pretty clear that the US, with two air craft carrier strike groups already in the Gulf, another one on the way, and probably another one, the Reagan, will deploy in mid March. In my opinion it looks like they will be hitting Iran sometime around April. That is coupled with all the propaganda going on in Israel, what the Israeli military is doing and what their government is saying, troop build-ups in eastern European bases. I really think that an aerial attack is going to happen in April sometime.

*CHP*: Will that spur other countries to get involved?

*DJ*: Well, it has serious potential to expand into a region-wide war, and that is very, very worrisome because, of course, China and Russia both have very strong economic links to Iran.