An Iraqi mourner waves an old flag during the funerals of victims killed in clashes with security forces in Fallujah, January 26, 2013. (Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudani)
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Back then, everybody was writing about Iraq, but it’s surprising how few Americans, including reporters, paid much attention to the suffering of Iraqis. Today, Iraq is in the news again. The words, the memorials, the retrospectives are pouring out, and again the suffering of Iraqis isn’t what’s on anyone’s mind. This was why I returned to that country before the recent 10th anniversary of the Bush administration’s invasion and why I feel compelled to write a few grim words about Iraqis today.
But let’s start with then. It’s April 8, 2004, to be exact, and I’m inside a makeshift medical center in the heart of Fallujah while that predominantly Sunni city is under siege by American forces. I’m alternating between scribbling brief observations in my notebook and taking photographs of the wounded and dying women and children being brought into the clinic.
A woman suddenly arrives, slapping her chest and face in grief, wailing hysterically as her husband carries in the limp body of their little boy. Blood is trickling down one of his dangling arms. In a few minutes, he’ll be dead. This sort of thing happens again and again.
Over and over, I watch speeding cars hop the curb in front of this dirty clinic with next to no medical resources and screech to a halt. Grief-stricken family members pour out, carrying bloodied relatives—women and children—gunned down by American snipers.
One of them, an 18-year-old girl has been shot through the neck by what her family swears was an American sniper. All she can manage are gurgling noises as doctors work frantically to save her from bleeding to death. Her younger brother, an undersized child of 10 with a gunshot wound in his head, his eyes glazed and staring into space, continually vomits as doctors race to keep him alive. He later dies while being transported to a hospital in Baghdad.
According to the Bush administration at the time, the siege of Fallujah was carried out in the name of fighting something called “terrorism” and yet, from the point of view of the Iraqis I was observing at such close quarters, the terror was strictly American. In fact, it was the Americans who first began the spiraling cycle of violence in Fallujah when US troops from the 82nd Airborne Division killed 17 unarmed demonstrators on April 28 of the previous year outside a school they had occupied and turned into a combat outpost. The protesters had simply wanted the school vacated by the Americans, so their children could use it. But then, as now, those who respond to government-sanctioned violence are regularly written off as “terrorists.” Governments are rarely referred to in the same terms.
10 Years Later
Jump to March 2013 and that looming 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion. For me, that’s meant two books and too many news articles to count since I first traveled to that country as the world’s least “embedded” reporter to blog about a US occupation already spiraling out of control. Today, I work for the Human Rights Department of Al Jazeera English, based out of Doha, Qatar. And once again, so many years later, I’ve returned to the city where I saw all those bloodied and dying women and children. All these years later, I’m back in Fallujah.
Today, not to put too fine a point on it, Iraq is a failed state, teetering on the brink of another sectarian bloodbath, and beset by chronic political deadlock and economic disaster. Its social fabric has been all but shredded by nearly a decade of brutal occupation by the US military and now by the rule of an Iraqi government rife with sectarian infighting.