I visited Baghdad as a reporter a few years before the US invasion. There were posters and statues of the ousted President Saddam Hussein everywhere. But not one checkpoint.
Those lucky enough, or maybe unfortunate enough to report from the occupied Iraqi capital after March 2003, must have noticed how things have changed. It seems as if for every torn poster or knocked-down statue, there should be a checkpoint erected and manned by frightened or angry US troops ready to open fire without warning.
And they often do, killing entire families on the spot under various pretexts: “The car was speeding," “the driver wouldn’t respond to various signals,” “the passengers acted suspiciously,” and so forth.
A Newsweek photo gallery, recently posted at MSNBC.com and titled “Suddenly Orphaned," brings to life one of the tragically frequent “incidents” experienced by Iraqi civilians at the hands of occupation troops. A “speeding” car was acting “suspiciously” in the Iraqi town of Tal Afar. The driver was “ordered” to stop, yet “failed” to do so, despite clear “hand signals," and “warning shots."
The well trained soldiers “had no other choice” but to open fire, killing a mother and father of six. Soldiers quickly “assessed” the situation, dragging six little blood-spattered kids out of the car, forced them to their knees before the US troops, whose feet were also splattered with the Iraqi civilian blood.
The tragedy was anything but rare. It just happened that photographer Chris Hondros was there to witness it and to relay it to us. The Newsweek photo gallery, however, assured us that the wounded children were carried compassionately to a nearby hospital and that the “Army had immediately ordered an investigation,” which became the end in itself.
Of course, we have every right to question the Army’s account in every reported “incident.” After all, the war itself was the accumulation of a remarkable edifice of lies, devised by a group of unabashed politicians, Army brass and media pundits. They’ve all warned us from the start, that “psychological warfare” was about to unwind: a way of justifying – in advance – the web of deceit that would soon follow.
But while the clique of administration officials running the show from Washington is cunning and resourceful in its ongoing parade of lies, the ill-devised and cliché-like justifications for their many blunders show that military men are yet to master the craft.
How can they possibly expect us to believe that the killings of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians at the hands of the US military were a series of unfortunate events? That the shoot-to-kill policy still being used against independent and unembedded journalists was an inadvertent outcome of beleaguered troops mistaking a journalist’s binoculars for antiaircraft guns and the outsized Palestine Hotel – where journalists were based in the early days of war – for an Iraqi Army installation? (Why does Don Quixote, who fought windmills, mistaking them for oppressive giants, come to mind?)
The US Army has absolved its troops – save a few who callously photographed themselves torturing and sexually abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib – from any wrongdoing. The message was: Do with Iraqis what you must; just don’t leave any indicting evidence behind.
Iraq’s series of unfortunate events, especially at US military-manned checkpoints, continue unabated. One such episode that recently got its fair share of media coverage was the killing of an Italian intelligence officer Nicola Calipari on May 4. Calipari gave his life to save the recently freed Italian hostage Giuliana Sgrena.
Sgrena was taken hostage by a group of Iraqi militants who demanded an immediate withdrawal of the 3000-strong Italian troops from their country. While the demand itself is legitimate, the method used to achieve it was callous and cowardly, threatening the life of one very courageous anti-occupation journalist who worked for the Italian daily, Il Manifesto.
Sgrena and others, who chose to narrate the war from the mouths of Iraqi civilians, were a thorn on the side of the US administration. She interviewed women prisoners released from Abu Ghraib and visited Fallujah, the defiant city of 300,000 completely destroyed by the US Army. The details she conveyed were harrowing, to say the least.
When the 56-year-old journalist was released, her close encounter with death was anything but over. Agent Calipari hurriedly escorted her to the Baghdad airport, only to be “ambushed” along the way by US troops who showered their car with 300-400 bullets, according to news reports. The results were deadly. Calipari was instantly killed as he dove on top of Sgrena to shield her. Sgrena was also wounded.
According to Pier Scolari, Sgrena’s companion: “The Americans and Italians knew about (her) coming. They were 700 meters (yards) from the airport, which means that they had passed all checkpoints. Giuliana had information, and the US military didn’t want her to survive.”
Segrena, who insisted that the car was not speeding, that there were no checkpoints, no hand signals, not even warning shots, supported Scolari’s statement. “I remember only fire,” she wrote from Rome’s Celio military hospital. “At that point a rain of fire and bullets came at us, forever silencing the happy voices from a few minutes earlier.”
But the relationship between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and George W. Bush is just too “special” to be compromised by another “unfortunate” event and the life of some unknown “although courageous” officer.
The US military responded once again, claiming that they “had immediately ordered an investigation.” The US administration also offered its customary response, dismissing the allegations of intentional murder as conspiratorial nonsense.
The US mainstream media reported on the story, failing not to unreservedly mention that Sgrena was a “self-identified communist” working for a communist newspaper. The subtly implied notion was that Giuliana Sgrena is an ideological nutcase and was not to be trusted.
Strangest of all was the Italian government’s response, offered by Communications Minister Maurizio Gasparri. He told ANSA, Italy’s news agency: “The military mission must carry on because it consolidates democracy and liberty in Iraq.” Considering that the majority of Italians oppose the war, Gasparri apparently values democracy in Iraq over democracy in his own Italy.
In the end, one can only offer condolences and a simple thank you to Il Manifesto, to Sgrena and the Italian people, who are still chanting for “peace” despite their government’s brutal drive for war. As for Calipari – designated a “martyr," and rightfully so by his people – audacity has a price, and he paid it willingly.
For the tens of thousands of Iraqi victims, justice shall be delivered one day. But for this sorrowful case, justice will likely slip away, as it has in many others. “Collateral damage” – as America’s wars have profusely taught us – is a reality of war, and in war, nothing is guaranteed: not human rights, not human dignity and certainly not human decency.