The Intrepid Donna Mulhearn

DSC_6392 Donna Mulhearn in Fallujah

While the media was gearing up last month for the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, Donna Mulhearn was getting off a plane, the memory of six Iraqi cities still clinging to her like dust and ashes. You see, among the din of talking heads and armchair analysts in the mainstream bubble, she’s now better equipped than most of us to lecture and speculate on the state of Iraq after Saddam — because she cared enough to find out for herself.

It goes without saying that Mulhearn, an Australian with a head full of steam, is of a minority today. The news network embeds pulled up stakes years ago. Non-governmental Agencies (NGOs) operating in Iraq are largely run by local people. The only westerners left are either operating out of the multimillion dollar fortress they call the U.S embassy in the old Green Zone, or are intrepid journalists/activists like Mulhearn, armed with little more than a laptop and a camera and a burning desire to find things out.

Sometimes these brave scribes cross the wrong people – like when French journo Nadir Dendoune was imprisoned near the formerly Christian Baghdad neighborhood of Dora in February as he was conducting interviews and taking photographs to mark the anniversary of the invasion. Officials claim he wasn’t registered as a journalist under “the law.” He was sprung in early March after paying more than 10 million Iraqi dinars ($8,600 US cash). Press advocates say this is all part of a crackdown on the media that has had some tangible effect – we rarely see video footage anymore of places like downtown Baghdad or Sunni areas where protests have been raging for a year. Opaque regulations for the media have made this a tricky place to operate.

Which makes Mulhearn’s repeated trips to Iraq quite an audacious prospect — all the more so because she doesn’t claim to be an objective news gatherer. She is an antiwar activist, a humanitarian and a researcher who collects stories and images, and on this last mission, with the help of videographer David Bradbury, she’s a future documentary filmmaker, caught back up with Mulhearn at her home in Sydney via Skype two weeks ago, amid a flurry of interviews she was doing with Australian media about her month-long trek, which took her to Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah, Najaf, Basra and Hillah – all places that saw extraordinary violence throughout the war. We wrote about her previous trip to Fallujah in December. It was there that Mulhearn had documented the high rate of infant mortality and birth defects, which she (and a growing community of doctors and researchers) believe is due to toxic environmental contamination leftover from the heavy bombardments. This may include the radioactive remnants of depleted uranium (DU), used by the Americans in tank shells and as a penetrative element in its aircraft munitions. U.S officials deny that DU is the cause of birth defects and cancer in places like Basra and Fallujah, but acknowledge, however vaguely, that DU was used in the both Iraq invasions – 1991 and 2003.

A comprehensive report of DU-contaminated sites in Iraq by Norwegian researchers was released in January and can be found here.

Life in Basra today Credit: Mulhearn
Life in Basra today Credit: Mulhearn

But this trip for Mulhearn turned out to be much more than charting the increasing horrors in the hospitals there, but a first look at a post-war country struggling to rise from the rubble of poverty and occupation, and against a political reality that has once again pitted one sectarian group against another. More importantly, it’s about the near-constant threat of violence, despite the fact the foreign troops are gone and the war supposedly “over.”

“Two bombs a week – 50 killed on Monday, 80 people hurt (just before the anniversary), about three hundred dead a month” she said. “But it’s gone off the radar in terms of the news. After next week, it will go back to being ignored.”

Not if she has anything to do with it. “We got a lot of footage,” she said. “In a way we don’t know where to start. We wanted to focus on the environmental issue. But then all these other issues rose up in our faces.”

So we asked a few questions, and let Mulhearn talk.

On Basra (a Shia city that was occupied by the British during the war): “I was really taken aback about the state of the city – it was very worn and crumbling, and very poor,” she said. “In the past, I had never considered Iraq a third world country… but what I saw in Basra was slums that I would equate with parts of Asia and India. People would just set up on naked ground and make shacks with open sewers.”

She pointed out Iraq is still a land of internally displaced people, with the latest United Nations count at 1.3 million who have yet to return to their homes since the war broke out, and are likely living somewhere else in the country. Mulhearn guessed that many of them are inhabiting the makeshift street shanties in Basra.

“I was driving around with my (Iraqi) doctor friend. He was almost apologizing. I was quite shocked at the level of poverty. The other (shock) was the environmental issue. Industrial pollution caused by the nearby oil and gas industries. They are throwing pollution wherever they want, in the land, in the river, in the soil,” she said, describing open fires on the horizon from the refineries and “black smoke all around.”

“It was sad, the physical ailing of the infrastructure, the river – it was just putrid – and the water from the tap it was — it looked like it just came from the ocean. Some were saying they lost so many palm trees because of the environmental degradation over the years” and were raising money to replant them, one by one, Mulhearn recounted.

This and the detritus of two wars dating back to the first Gulf War “have made for a very unhealthy community there in Basra,” she added, pointing out that much of the recycled but still presumably radioactive scrap materials have found their way into local homes, and there’s “a lot of the tanks lying around for a long time and kids have been playing on them.”

“Why wasn’t the international community, the US and UK, cleaning this up? The Iraqis are doing whatever they can do day by day, but this is a huge effort. The cancers are continuing and the birth defects are continuing.”

She said hospital officials “were quite frightened to speak to us … because of perceived threats from the government,” but they confirmed to Mulhearn and Bradbury that the number of abnormal births, like Fallujah, was growing.

She said she witnessed a single attempt by a local activist to plan a demonstration there – partly in protest of the conditions in Basra, and partly in solidarity with the protests occurring daily in the Sunni areas in central Iraq – but the man was arrested and thrown into jail until he renounced his activities. “He resisted,” according to Mulhearn. “They came with a list of threats to his family. He gave up and canceled the demonstration.”

On Najaf (the holiest of Shia cities, site of 2004 and 2007 battles):

“It is the base of Iranian influence in Iraq,” Mulhearn maintained (and NBC’s Richard Engel concurred, in a March 27 report). Iranian hotels, restaurants, and business enterprises are sprouting up and now dominate Najaf today, and in the streets, “people are speaking Persian instead of Arabic,” she told us. Here, she added, the clerics hold the greatest authority, which extends beyond the city limits and right to the heart of government in Baghdad and across the Shia-Muslim world. “Politicians go to Najaf to get the blessing from the clerics and the religious leaders.”

As for the city, Najaf’s streets, its cemetery (one of the world’s largest), and holy sites (including the revered Imam Ali Mosque), were backdrops to major fighting at the peak of the insurgency (2004 and 2007). Across the city, centuries were made rubble in a blink of an eye. Countless Iraqi fighters and civilians were killed. The U.S took some 100 casualties, including 13 killed, in the 2004 battle with the Mahdi Army.

“It still doesn’t look right,” Mulhearn said, except for “Kufa University – it’s huge and new and has all the bells and whistles.”

“The people there were, of course, pro-government,” she added, but they don’t necessarily “approve” of Shia Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

On Al Anbar Province (Fallujah, Ramadi): Unlike the massive demonstrations in Egypt two years ago, the protests within the Sunni triangle have drawn scant attention from the western media, despite the fact they’ve been fairly active since March 2011. Following the arrest of bodyguards assigned to Iraqi finance minister (Sunni) Rafia al-Issawi in December, there have been persistent demonstrations every week in Fallujah, Ramadi, Baghdad, Samarra and other Sunni cities, involving a dedicated core of activists undeterred by government threats and seeming futility. Nonetheless, the al-Maliki government is, as described above, making it difficult for media to get at the protests, according to Mulhearn. She and Bradbury were stopped at myriad checkpoints and were only able to pass after showing official looking papers offered to them by a friendly NGO, or in other cases, just plain luck.

Anti-government protest in Fallujah in March Credit: Mulhearn

“They are really clamping down on the media,” she added. “We were stopped at every checkpoint and questioned at every checkpoint. It was exhausting. There was a sense of paranoia. We were never allowed to film in any public places without a permit,” and those permits are becoming nearly impossible to obtain.

She said Baghdad was on government lockdown every Friday to deter protesters. There were similar weekend roadblocks on the main highway linking Ramadi and Fallujah. Despite this, she added, the protests were garnering some 250,000 people a week. “(Maliki) is isolating them,” he said. Nevertheless, she called the March demonstration she attended with Bradbury in Fallujah, “really quite amazing.”

Sunni demands? An end to sectarian discrimination in government employment, and in the justice system, where reports indicate widespread abuse and corruption against the Sunni population under current anti-terrorism laws. Mulhearn said there are an estimated 5,000 prisoners behind bars without charge. At one point, the government released 11 women due to pressure from the protesters, though there are hundreds more who activists say have been thrown in jail on surreptitious grounds and terribly abused, some even taken as “hostages” until their husbands could be apprehended instead.

“They want to live in Iraq where they won’t be discriminated against,” she noted, a sad irony, as the war had been fought, in part, to remove a Sunni dictator whose reign had thrived on tyranny over the Shia majority.

“It seems like the new Iraq is becoming more like the old Iraq. When the word democracy is mentioned here it is usually met with a big belly laugh. They have seen this all before. Most people refer to (al-Maliki) as a dictator,” Mulhearn asserted.

In January, five protesters were killed and 60 injured after the army opened fire in the first such confrontation since the December demonstrations began. Since then, security forces hover and place obstacles, but so far, the events have been largely peaceful, said Mulhearn. “The protests have been non-violent — they do their Friday prayers, and then they yell and throw their fists in the air and that’s it.”

But where those moments might have been most inspiring to Mulhearn, returning to the general hospital in Fallujah had quite the opposite effect.

“That was as sad as ever,” she lamented. “There were about five babies born that we met – two of them died. It’s ongoing.” She said the doctors there are desperate – they complain they don’t even have a proper ultrasound machine so that they might detect prenatal abnormalities early on in the pregnancies. Research is painfully behind, and the government has yet to invest in ways to address the frightening realities there. “In Fallujah, they feel this is the politics going on. They really hate the government.”

Iraqi baby born with birth defects in Falluhjah Credit: Mulhearn

Mulhearn, who once served as a “human shield” in Baghdad to protest the war in 2003, and was distributing aid in Fallujah during the intense street fighting of April 2004 (even briefly abducted!), sits with the parents of these ill-fated infants. She takes photographs. She has been known to weep. A lot. She is sure to look up Iraqi friends she knew on previous sojourns to make sure they are doing okay. Some she looks for, but cannot find. But she keeps going back.

The 10th anniversary has left a bitter taste in her mouth and she explains:

“It’s off the radar here (in Australia). The interviews I did came just because of the 10-year anniversary … some media ignored it all together, some did token stories … what everyone does is they try to bring the issue of the invasion and occupation down to the one question: is Iraq better off now? When Iraqis hear that question they are bewildered. What it implies is that Saddam is gone but nothing else changed, everything remained the same. I say, let’s look at the other side of the ledger. But the question doesn’t allow that.

“The most honest question is, Saddam is gone but what else has gone on in that 10 years? Now al Qaeda is running around killing 300 a month – is that better off? Before the invasion they never had car bombs, they never that terrorism. They had one source of violence and that was Saddam. Now the Christian community and other minorities are on the verge of extinction. Now it’s getting messy. It’s so bad that people are choosing to live as refugees in neighboring Jordan.”

“Is Iraq a better place, no,” she charged. “Not when you look at the other side of the ledger.”

Mulhearn is working on an upcoming documentary and is collaborating on a book about the U.S occupation and bombardment of Fallujah in 2004 (Fallujah: the propaganda, the battles, the legacy)

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.