In March 2003 the United States began its occupation of Iraq; the phased withdrawal of troops began only recently, on June 30 of this year. What happened during those six years to the country's civilians is heartbreaking, and not widely reported. "Collateral Damage: America's War Against Iraqi Civilians" (Nation Books, 2008), co-authored by Laila Al-Arian and Chris Hedges, creates a portrait of U.S.-occupied Iraq -- an environment lethal to Iraqi civilians and still without democracy, the stated purpose of the invasion.
Now, with plans to withdraw U.S. forces completely by 2011, there's anticipation and a wary hope for at least some peace in the region. Meanwhile, the top commander in Afghanistan has called on President Obama to commit even more troops to that country. Can a counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan really yield a different result than the one we've gotten in Iraq? How much has Iraq really changed since June 30, and what does that change mean to its people? And how do they feel about the United States?
Ms. Al-Arian discussed these topics, as well as her father's ongoing legal battle, with Real Change last month. She currently produces Al Jazeera English, a 24-hour news channel.
Your book originated from a 2007 article featured in The Nation magazine, featuring numerous interviews conducted in 2006 with American troops who had served in Iraq. What stories did these veterans tell you, and what do these stories indicate about the U.S. occupation?
The veterans spoke about their experiences in Iraq, but specifically related to Iraqi civilians. One study we read in the Lancet Medical Journal estimated that as many as one million Iraqis were killed, and we wanted to know how these deaths were happening and learn the mechanics of the occupation. We asked the veterans whether they had witnessed or participated in the killing of Iraqi civilians, and how they viewed Iraqis. We learned of the thin line between combatant and civilian and a blatant racism pervasive in the military against Iraqis, Arabs and Muslims.
Our first section discusses convoys, which sustain the occupation by ferrying fuel, food and basic supplies around the country. They stretch 20-30 vehicles in order to protect the troops and completely disregard any traffic laws. They drive on the wrong side of the road, jump medians and drive cars off the road. They can shoot any Iraqi car that goes in between the convoy. And often the Iraqis don't realize they aren't allowed to disrupt a convoy. Their punishment for that is basically death.
We also looked at checkpoints, which are also essential to the military because they're used as safety measures. They're set up and military personnel inspect cars before they let them through. The soldiers told us that sometimes the checkpoints were so poorly set up that they could barely see them themselves. Sometimes a couple rocks were placed on the road to indicate a checkpoint. But any Iraqi who happened to drive through that poorly marked checkpoint without noticing it was liable to be killed.
There were often no investigations or any kind of accountability for these killings. A lot of soldiers told us that it was, "better to be judged by twelve than carried by six." They would rather face a possible court marshal (which basically never happened), than face the possibility of being killed. They were told that if they were threatened in any way, they could shoot.
Here's one incident we were told about: In January 2005 an elderly couple was driving through a poorly-marked checkpoint in Mosul, and were shot and killed. A soldier told us that the military drove by their bodies every day and nobody did anything. Finally the people of Mosul ended up burying them.
How did the troops feel about these experiences?
I think the feelings varied from one soldier to the next. I think a lot came back deeply disturbed by their experiences. Many of them told us they had nightmares or suicidal thoughts. They had comrades and friends in the military who had taken their own lives. This is actually a huge problem that the military is confronting now. The number of suicides has reached an all-time high. A lot of troops come home after their service, pretend it never happened and try to move on with their lives. But I think many courageous ones feel a moral responsibility to talk about their experiences, and I think that's really admirable. Many face hostility from their comrades; they're called traitors if they talk about civilian deaths. They do it at great risk.
"Collateral Damage" features exclusively the voices of combat veterans in Iraq. Why in particular did you choose to interview these individuals, and why did you choose not to interview Iraqi civilians for the book as well?
I think it's a matter of accessibility. We were working on it in the U.S. and it was much easier to find Americans to talk about their experiences in Iraq, rather than travel to Iraq, where the situation remains extremely dangerous. I also think a lot of journalists did extraordinary work interviewing Iraqis. For example, Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post wrote a book on the lives of Iraqi civilians.
I think the advantage we had was one of space and time. The troops were here in the States and could reflect back on their experiences. Talking to the civilians themselves is extremely important, and I hope to do it in the future. I hope more journalists do it as well.
You dedicated this book to your father, Dr. Sami Al-Arian, who was arrested in February 2003 for alleged terrorist activities and has since experienced a very long battle with the court system. What's the update with your father and what has this experience been like for your family?
My father was released on house arrest a little over a year ago. It's been tremendous being with him at home. He's under very restrictive conditions and isn't able to leave the house unless it's for court or a doctor's appointment. It's been a very difficult experience for our family. His case is still not over. He was acquitted in court and a jury found him innocent of the vast majority of the charges against him. Two of the jurors refused to fully acquit him and so the jury remains hung on some of the less serious charges. The government threatened to retry him; he signed a plea agreement and then prosecutors refused to honor it. A prosecutor in Virginia has been trying to force him to testify in a completely separate case. And my father said it's a violation of his plea agreement to testify in that case. Because of that, he's been charged with criminal contempt, which could potentially carry more prison time.
The judge in the case has made some very strong statements, saying that it appears that the government didn't honor their end of the plea agreement. She also said that the integrity of the Justice Department is at stake. We're waiting for the judge to rule whether to drop the charges and let him go, in which case he would be deported, or to proceed with the trial.
Has your father's experience influenced your work on Collateral Damage at all?
Seeing all the unfair, unbalanced and biased media coverage of my father's case has made me much more aware of the importance of being accurate as a journalist, having a code of ethics that I follow and telling both sides of the story. The importance of giving voice to the voiceless and providing a platform for people whose voices we never hear and whose faces we don't see is also important to me.
Do you think that the political climate in this country has changed since your father's arrest in 2003? Do you think things have improved, or do you think something similar could happen again?
I think it's changed somewhat with Obama. Obama has been good on issues such as health care. But I think with issues of justice, it's too early to see. So far we've seen some prosecutions that appear to be unjust: cases of the FBI infiltrating communities and having an informant provoke people. We also have Obama taking the same position as the Bush administration on the Bagram prison in Afghanistan. The detainees there want the right to habeas corpus, to challenge their detention in court, but the Obama administration has basically denied them that right. I think people who voted Obama into office need to be more outspoken about these issues.
How do you think life has changed for Iraqi civilians since the drawdown of troops starting this June and what are your thoughts about the plans for the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq by 2011?
The situation remains dangerous. I think a political reconciliation needs to happen, and everybody needs to be represented in government. Right now, certain groups have a monopoly on power, and as long as that continues the violence will continue. I think a withdrawal of U.S. troops is key to some sort of stability. As long as there's an occupation, certain armed groups will have a pretext for violence. But once the occupiers are gone, that pretext disappears, and support for these groups decreases. One of the veterans groups we interviewed, Iraq Veterans Against the War, states that one of their main tenets is a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops and reparations for the Iraqi people. This is a view that's even held by veterans.
What are your thoughts about the recent deployment of troops to Afghanistan?
I worry that the same problems that we describe in this book that happened in Iraq will happen in Afghanistan. There have been numerous aerial attacks in Afghanistan: bombings of wedding parties and family homes mistaken for military targets. A major similarity we've found between Iraq and Afghanistan is the use of false intelligence in carrying out raids. Maybe someone has a vendetta against another family, so they go to the military and tell them someone has a weapons cache in his house. The military then raids it and finds nothing. The military will once again start traveling in convoys, which they already do in Afghanistan but with more troops you'll have more convoys. There will be a larger occupation and raids of homes. And I'm afraid that, just like in Iraq, the occupation will not be able to sustain itself. We might as well just withdraw now.
How do you think the Iraq War has affected the opinions of people in the Middle East?
Very negatively. I think that the U.S., especially during the Bush administration, was seen as an occupier. The way the war was carried out -- based on the fact that Iraq allegedly had these weapons of mass destruction that were never found -- also negatively impacted views of the U.S. I think it was a huge blow to the credibility of the United States. The unemployment rate, education and literacy levels have all gotten much worse for the Iraqi people since the war.
How do you think the Iraq War has affected the relationship between Israel and Palestine?
I think people began to see similarities between the United States and Israel. It's seen as just another occupation in the Middle East of Arabic speaking people. You had the Israelis in Northern Iraq training the Kurds, who were leading a movement to separate themselves and to create Kurdistan. So not only did you have Israeli presence in the country arming a separatist group, but you also saw a lot of similarities, such as checkpoints. The same checkpoints that were in Iraq were also present in Palestine and the West Bank. There's also imprisonment. There are 11,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails and tens of thousands of Iraqis in American jails. But for years, there were American-run jails holding Iraqis, and many of them were never charged with a single crime and held there indefinitely. The same situation exists in Palestine.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
A few things. First of all, my father's website. If anyone wants to learn more about the case, it's www.freesaminow.com.
Even though we're drawing down troops from Iraq, a huge number of contractors are planning on staying. Many of these contractors are security contractors: in short, heavily armed former military, and they're looked at by the Iraqi
population no differently than the troops. In fact, they may be even more dangerous because they're less apparent. I encourage people to take a deeper look at Obama's war in Iraq, to encourage the Obama administration to withdraw not only troops, but contractors as well.
Also, the war in Afghanistan is viewed by many liberals as "the good war." But I would argue that it will have a negative effect on America's credibility in the way it's viewed by the Arab and Muslim world, especially if civilian casualties continue. I encourage people to pay close attention to what's happening in the war and to push the administration to make positive changes.