Haifa Zangana is an Iraqi novelist and former prisoner of Saddam Hussein's regime. She is also the author of A City of Widows and a guest columnist for the Guardian newspaper. In the following editorial, she captures the scope of the war's many atrocities:
“The lies over weapons of mass destruction originally used to justify the war; the torture of prisoners, including women and children, in Abu Ghraib and beyond Abu Ghraib; the obscenity of the Anglo-American ‘liberation morality'; the daily bloodshed and mayhem; the racism of the occupiers; the humiliation of the occupied; the destruction of the infrastructure; the killing of over 100,000 civilians; the siege and bombardment of cities; the use of DU and white phosphorus; collective punishment, destroying mosques, schools and houses; arbitrary arrests; the more than 30,000 detainees in various US-UK controlled prisons and camps; the women arrested as hostages.”http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/
Three months before the US launched its invasion of Iraq, I was in Baghdad as part of a peace delegation intending to express their solidarity with the Iraqi people, come what may. While I was there, I received news that my elderly father had slipped on ice and broke his hip while getting out of his car, and would have to spend several months in the rehabilitation wing of a local hospital. So I decided to return to the US in order to manage his affairs.
On New Year's Eve, the day before I left, I paid a visit to a family I had met five years earlier during my first time in Iraq. Recovering from a bout with the flu, I asked if I could lie down for a short rest. Khadija*, a widow and mother of 8 children, cleared off the couch in the living room for me. As I made myself comfortable, she covered me with one of her black, head-to-toe abayas then tiptoed away. Drifting off to sleep, I listened, as if to a lullaby, to the familiar sounds of Khadija's oldest daughter Amal in the kitchen preparing a kettle of tea while her two younger sisters, sitting on the floor close to me, softly recited verses from the Qur'an.
After my nap and several glasses of sweet Iraqi tea, I thanked Khadija and her children for their hospitality and got ready to leave. I didn't know when I would return to Iraq. More importantly, I didn't know if I would ever see this family or any of the other Iraqi families that were so much a part of my life. War seemed inevitable and imminent, and these families, because they were poor, would have no place safe to go.
Khadija put on her abaya and walked with me to the street in front of her home, which at the time was one floor of a rundown concrete dwelling. Without the slightest hesitation, we gave each other a parting embrace. The intimacy we so briefly shared lasted only a moment but that moment, as fleeting as it was, represented all the trust and the love we had come to feel toward each other.
That was the last time I saw Khadija and her family and the last time I was in Iraq. A few months later Chancellor Bush sent his shock troops into Iraq, and turned the country into a hemorrhaging wound that may never completely heal. Since the beginning of that illegal, immoral war of aggression, I have kept a journal that tracks not only the wider events of the war and occupation but also my ongoing involvement with Iraqi families in Baghdad.
In the following passage from 2003, I refer to an Iraqi artist and longtime friend who shared with me some of her thoughts about the initial phase of the invasion and what she believed would eventually happen:
“We talked about today's events — the demise of the regime, the toppling of Saddam's statue, the cheering of the multitudes, the throwing of flowers at the Marines. Layla believes those who are cheering do not represent the Iraqi people. Rather, she says, they are the illiterate, the uneducated who could always be counted on to cheer for Saddam when he was still in power and when the government organized public rallies. Many of them are thieves, Layla said, the same thieves Saddam released from prison before the war. And now, according to Layla, they are looting government buildings and private homes. She feels the ‘real Iraqi people' will never accept an American occupation, and don't want the Americans in their country. Layla also believes a second war will now begin as the people fight among themselves in a struggle for power. So Iraq will become a very dangerous place for everyone.”
As it turned out, Layla was uncannily prescient in her vision of Iraq's future under US occupation. The country soon devolved into one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Much of the violence could be attributed to the US and its coalition partners as they attempted to crush the ensuing resistance to their presence. In 2009 I interviewed an Iraqi woman who had escaped with her children from Baghdad and sought refuge in Amman, Jordan, where we met. A middle-aged professional, Zeena was born and raised in the city of Falluja, which suffered two onslaughts by US forces with British support. The first took place in April of 2004; the second occurred in November of the same year. At the time, Zeena had no experience of cluster bombs, whose impact she describes in the following transcribed passage:
“[All night long we don't know] what's going on, who is fighting . . . The [American] airplanes throw the bombing, and it had been exploded in the air and harms so many families, not only one family. So many houses had been damaged by this bombing. One big bomb the airplane throw it and then it explodes everywhere, becomes very small and kills so many, so many families at night the whole night until the morning. [There is] bombing, fire, fire everywhere! Do you know my baby what did he do? The whole day [he is] crying, ‘Oh mama, what's going on?'”
Later in the interview, Zeena described the aftermath of the bombing:
“After the battle, so many bodies in the streets. Nobody can lift them so the families have gathered and tried to share the job and lift the bodies and buried them in the football field. Okay? So it had been turned into a graveyard. No ambulance, no hospitals working at that time. So the bodies had a very bad smell after two weeks staying in the hot sun, so they become rotten. . . [the Americans] bombed the mosques. Oh, my God, I think you did not witness the shooting of the old man inside the mosque by American soldiers. He's unarmed. The soldiers shoot him. And another man he's hiding himself, blanket over him. ‘Please don't shoot me!' he shouted. ‘I surrender, I have no guns.' But the soldier shot him and this made a big problem at that time.”
These two assaults on the city of Falluja caused the deaths of hundreds of civilians, destroyed thousands of homes and an estimated 70 mosques and 50 schools. The assaults also completely destroyed the city's power plant, 50% of its drinking water distribution system, and 70% of its sewage system.http://www.scribd.com/doc/38397725/Testimonies-of-Crimes-Against-Humanity-in-Fallujah
In addition to dropping cluster bombs and 1,000 pound bombs, US/UK forces deployed two particularly sinister weapons: depleted uranium munitions and white phosphorous. According to recent medical studies, the use of these weapons has led to a significant increase in the incidence of cancer, leukemia, infant mortality, birth abnormalities, and “injuries similar to those found among the survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.” (The International Journal of Environmental Studies and Public Health - (IJERPH) Basel -Switzerland ( no 7 . 7/6/2010 pp 2828-2837) )
The destruction of Falluja, I would argue, is a microcosm of what has befallen the entire country under the iron boots of the US imperium and its “coalition partners.” For nearly nine years, along with hordes of unaccountable mercenaries, they trampled upon the dignity and heritage of the Iraqi people, subjecting thousands of men, women, and even children to torture, imprisonment, and death. I would also argue that the occupation created the conditions in which sectarian conflict could become even more murderous than the industrial strength violence of the occupiers, whose “achievement” Barack Obama saw fit to commend at Fort Bragg in North Carolina:
“This is an extraordinary achievement, nearly nine years in the making. And today, we remember everything that you did to make it possible. ... Years from now, your legacy will endure. … In the whispered words of admiration as you march in parades, and in the freedom of our children and grandchildren. ... So God bless you all, God bless your families, and God bless the United States of America. ... You have earned your place in history because you sacrificed so much for people you have never met.”
That last phrase bears repeating: “. . . you sacrificed so much for people you have never met.” How about a few uplifting words for all the people that portions of the US military did meet and spat upon, kicked, terrorized, tortured, and killed. Iraq Body Count recently claimed that “over 162,000 people, over 80% of them civilians, were killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003.” http://www.commondreams.org/further/2012/01/03-1
Using a controversial methodology, a team of epidemiologists from John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated in 2006 that over 655,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the US invasion. They published the results of their study in The Lancet, a British medical journal. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/oct/11/iraq.iraq
Because of the inherent difficulty in determining mortality rates and numbers in a war zone, we may never come close to knowing the real death toll in Iraq. But for the survivors what matters most is not the number but the numbing absence of loved ones. Whether killed by occupation troops, military contractors, or members of a militia, they might still have been alive had the US never invaded.
What is this “legacy” President Obama extolled in his address to soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg? For the Iraqi families I have remained in contact with throughout the occupation, there is very little work, deepening poverty, a few hours of electricity each day, the constant fear of car bombs and a resumption of sectarian and random violence, and a diet of rice and bread with the occasional tomato or piece of fruit.
In 2009 Oxfam with its Iraqi partner the Al Amal Association conducted a study of Iraqi women who have been affected by the war and occupation of their country. (http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/in-her-own-words-iraqi-women-talk-about-their-greatest-concerns-and-challenges-112541)
Of the 1,700 respondents, the largest group of women interviewed were women who lost their husband or sons and are especially at risk as breadwinners for their families. According to Oxfam, there may be an estimated 740,000 widows in Iraq as a consequence of the war. Many women who are not widowed have become heads of their household because their husbands or sons have been disappeared or suffer from physical or mental illness.
Although the overall security situation has improved since 2007, the humanitarian crisis that has gripped Iraq since the beginning of the war has not entirely subsided. While hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of Iraqis, fled into neighboring countries to escape the civil war, many women who are now breadwinners have been forced to leave their homes because of violence or the need to find work. They and their families often end up living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions.
A large percentage of the women in the Oxfam survey reported inadequate access to essential services such as clean water, electricity, sanitation, suitable shelter, and health care. These services are either lacking or are severely degraded from the war and the preceding 13 years of US-backed sanctions. One of the conclusions reached by Oxfam and the Al Amal Association is that “countless mothers, wives, widows and daughters of Iraq remain caught in the grip of a silent emergency. They are in urgent need of protection and – along with their families – are in desperate need of regular access to affordable and quality basic services, and urgently require enhanced humanitarian and financial assistance.”
Iraq — a country traumatized by three major wars since 1980, a crippling embargo, a brutal occupation, and a civil war that may yet flare up again — will long remember the “extraordinary achievement” made possible by the US military juggernaut. Before we invaded Iraq, former Secretary of the Defense Donald Rumsfeld predicted the Iraqis would greet US troops as liberators and shower them with flowers and rice. I would like to close this essay with my own vision, not of the start but of the end of hostilities (from myIraq Journal , December 23, 2011):
“On all the roads and highways that lead from US military bases in Iraq the people are standing shoulder to shoulder. They are smiling and waving and tossing handfuls of rice at the soldiers marching past them. Goodbye, farewell, good riddance, the people are shouting in one glorious voice to all the combat brigades finally leaving their country, to all the Humvees, trucks, and tanks rumbling along in a seemingly endless convoy.
“Roses and jasmine fall from the sky as if the very atmosphere were happy to see the soldiers go. Thrilled by this long-awaited exodus, even the date palms stand straighter and taller. And the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, once sluggish and running red with the blood of martyrs, now flow with renewed purpose and vigor. The Yanks are going home. The occupation is over — for now, at least.”
*With the exception of the author Haifa Zangana, the names of all the Iraqi women mentioned in this essay have been changed in order to protect their identities.
George Capaccio is an activist, a professional storyteller, and a freelance writer for educational publishers. Between 1997 and 2003, he made nine trips to Iraq as a member of various humanitarian organizations. His email is: Georgecapaccio@verizon.net