When journalist Aaron Glantz drove into Iraq from Jordan in a battered orange and white checkered taxi on April 29, 2003, he was surprised to find most of the civilian neighborhoods in Baghdad relatively unscathed by the U.S.-led bombing campaign.
“It occurred to me for the first time that the Pentagon might be telling the truth,” he writes in a new book about the ill-fated occupation, How America Lost Iraq (Penguin, 2005).
On assignment for the antiwar Pacifica radio network, Glantz, who also reported for IPS from Iraq for more than a year, rented a room and spent his time interviewing numerous ordinary Iraqis. They were less than enthusiastic that their country was crawling with U.S. soldiers, but nevertheless held out hope for a better future.
Over cookies and tea in his home, Manu Nur, an Iraqi Christian, tells Glantz, “Sure, things are difficult now, but it is only temporary. So there’s no electricity. The Americans will fix it.”
“You know, people here have been oppressed so long. For 35 years, they have had the Ba’ath Party. They have not been able to say anything, so the first response will be to go to the gun,” Nur says. “There are no police now because America has dismissed Saddam’s forces. This will take time but everything will be okay. It will be much better than before.”
Fast-forward to a year later: the water is still dirty and the electricity sporadic. Schools are open, but parents are afraid to let their children walk the streets to get to class. Conservative estimates put unemployment at 70 percent.
“When the Americans first toppled Saddam Hussein, most Iraqi people were happy, but the U.S. government squandered that trust they appointed their government,” the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), “and rounded up dissidents and threw them into Abu Ghraib,” he writes. “They failed to restore the electricity, and gave all the jobs to a handful of well-paid foreign contractors.”
The U.S.-run Development Fund for Iraq the successor to the United Nations oil-for-food program is now mired in scandal, with billions of dollars unaccounted for, much of it in cash. More than 1,700 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians are dead, and the number of car bombings has risen from 18 in June 2004 to 135 last month.
Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld recently admitted in a television interview that the insurgency could continue for another 12 years.
Still, Glantz does not believe that the hawks in Washington deliberately set out to destabilize or loot the country.
“I think the U.S. has primarily made mistakes in rebuilding Iraq rather than screwing things up on purpose,” he told IPS. “For example, I think many good people in the CPA thought Iraq was and still is ‘not ready’ for democracy. I think they’re wrong.”
“Their fault is that they support democracy only if the government elected is friendly to the Bush administration’s geo-strategic ends.”
One of the greatest tactical errors, he believes, was the siege of Fallujah in April 2004, which included massive air and artillery strikes, and even the targeting of ambulances by U.S. Marine snipers. With more than 200 mosques, Fallujah is one of the most important places to Sunni Islam in the region.
In the end, the city’s soccer stadium had to be converted into a cemetery for the hundreds of civilians killed in the assault, ordered in retaliation for the deaths of four U.S. military contractors.
“There was not enough space in the city’s graveyards,” explains Fadel Abbas Khlaff, who helped bury the dead and later joined the insurgency.
When Glantz goes to the soccer stadium, he encounters Ahmed Saud Muhasin al-Isawi, who has just identified the graves of two teenage cousins.
“They stayed in their houses and didn’t go outside, but they’re still dead,” al-Isawi says. “How could they [the U.S.] do this? Even the little children and families are dead.”
The widely publicized scourging of the city, which ended in May with a truce between Coalition forces and local fighters, irreparably damaged any credibility the U.S. forces had as “liberators,” Glantz believes.
“I think one of the biggest problems the Bush administration has is that they think they are fighting a finite number of terrorists in Iraq and if they just kill them all the insurgency will go away,” he said in an e- mail interview.
“But what Bush doesn’t realize or doesn’t understand properly is that every innocent person killed in Iraq has a family and when that person is killed there may be dozens of new supporters of armed resistance in Iraq.”
While Glantz’s tale of his time in Iraq stands alone as a straightforward journalistic account of the occupation’s first year, it is the dozens of interviews with Iraqis from all walks of life doctors, politicians, religious leaders, Kurdish separatists, and members of the former Ba’athist regime that make the narrative so compelling, and unique.
In an era of so-called embedded reporting, when the voices of the Iraqi people are virtually silent on U.S. mainstream airwaves, Glantz conveys the heartbreaking, emotional, and often conflicted perspectives of a nation that has traded one brand of oppression for another.
“When I got back to the U.S. in May 2004, I was shocked to see that no one in the U.S. had any idea of what happened in Fallujah,” Glantz told IPS. “They did not see the same pictures that people in the rest of the world saw of the football stadium being turned over and replaced with hundreds of dead men, women, children, and the elderly.”
“Maybe that would have helped. Maybe it would have helped if news networks in the U.S. did not exclusively embed with the U.S. military, but gave at least equal time to 25 million Iraqis.”