Dahr Jamail: “Only Militants, No Civilians”


Richard Moore

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    Iraq Has Only Militants, No Civilians: "Tactical Perception Management"

    By Dahr Jamail
    Monday 26 November 2007

"Sometimes I think it should be a rule of war that you have to see somebody up 
close and get to know him before you can shoot him."

- Colonel Potter, M*A*S*H
    Name them. Maim them. Kill them.

From the beginning of the American occupation in Iraq, air strikes and attacks 
by the U.S. military have only killed "militants," "criminals," "suspected 
insurgents," "IED [Improvised Explosive Device] emplacers," "anti-American 
fighters," "terrorists," "military age males," "armed men," "extremists," or 

The pattern for reporting on such attacks has remained the same from the early 
years of the occupation to today. Take a helicopter attack on October 23rd of 
this year near the village of Djila, north of Samarra. The U.S. military claimed
it had killed 11 among "a group of men planting a roadside bomb." Only later did
a military spokesperson acknowledge that at least six of the dead were 
civilians. Local residents claimed that those killed were farmers, that there 
were children among them, and that the number of dead was greater than 11.

Here is part of the statement released by U.S. military spokeswoman in northern 
Iraq, Major Peggy Kageleiry:

"A suspected insurgent and improvised explosive device cell member was 
identified among the killed in an engagement between Coalition Forces and 
suspected IED emplacers just north of Samarra.... During the engagement, 
insurgents used a nearby house as a safe haven to re-engage coalition aircraft. 
A known member of an IED cell was among the 11 killed during the multiple 
engagements. We send condolences to the families of those victims and we regret 
any loss of life."

As usual, the version offered by locals was vastly different. Abdul al-Rahman 
Iyadeh, a relative of some of the victims, revealed that the "group of men" 
attacked were actually three farmers who had left their homes at 4:30 A.M. to 
irrigate their fields. Two were killed in the initial helicopter attack and the 
survivor ran back to his home where other residents gathered. The second air 
strike, he claimed, destroyed the house killing 14 people. Another witness told 
reporters that four separate houses were hit by the helicopter. A local Iraqi 
policeman, Captain Abdullah al-Isawi, put the death toll at 16 - seven men, six 
women, and three children, with another 14 wounded.

As often happens, the U.S. military, once challenged, declared that an 
"investigation" of the incident was under way.

    And So It Goes

On October 21st, two days before that helicopter strike near Djila, American 
soldiers, again aided by helicopters, but this time in a heavily populated urban
neighborhood, claimed to have killed 49 "armed men" in a "gun battle" in Sadr 
City, a sprawling Shi'ite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. Then, too, the 
military initially insisted "no civilians were killed or injured." A Shi'ite 
citizens' council and other Shi'ite groups responded that many innocent 
bystanders had died. Among the 13 dead mentioned in initial reports by local 
Iraqi police were three children and a woman. Other Iraqi authorities announced 
that 69 people had been injured.

The U.S. military had no explanation for the widely varying American and Iraqi 
tallies of casualties.

    The official American account went like this:

"The operation's objective was an individual reported to be a long time Special 
Groups member specializing in kidnapping operations. Intelligence indicates he 
is a well-known cell leader and has previously sought funding from Iran to carry
out high profile kidnappings. Upon arrival, the ground force began to clear a 
series of buildings in the target area and received sustained heavy fire from 
adjacent structures, from automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades, or 
RPGs. Responding in self-defense, Coalition forces engaged, killing an estimated
33 criminals. Supporting aircraft was also called in to engage enemy personnel 
maneuvering with RPGs toward the ground force, killing an estimated six 
criminals. Upon departing the target area, Coalition forces continued to receive
heavy fire from automatic weapons and RPGs and were also attacked by an 
improvised explosive device. Responding in self-defense, the ground force 
engaged the hostile threat, killing an additional estimated 10 combatants. All 
total, Coalition forces estimate that 49 criminals were killed in three separate
engagements during this operation. Ground forces reported they were unaware of 
any innocent civilians being killed as a result of this operation."

To be fair, the military admitted that the target of this manhunt was not, in 
fact, among those captured or killed.

After the "operation," television news outlets broadcast images of grieving 
families in the streets of Sadr City. One man reported that his neighbor's 
6-year-old child had been killed, and a 2-year-old wounded. Arab television 
outlets caught scenes of ambulances with wailing sirens carrying the injured to 
the Imam Ali hospital, the largest in Sadr City, where doctors were shown 
treating the casualties, including children.

Typically with such incidents, those 49 dead "criminals" turned back into 
civilians when local police began checking, including two (not three) children 
in their final count.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki vowed an investigation for which U.S. 
military officials offered to form a joint committee; but, as is so often the 
case in such "investigations," there have been no follow-up reports. In this 
"incident," the U.S. military, as far as we know, still stands by its assertion 
that no civilians were killed or wounded.

Two months earlier, in a similar incident, the U.S. military claimed 32 
"suspected insurgents" killed during an air strike, also in Sadr City, a claim 
disputed by Iraqis in the neighborhood, followed by the usual promise of an 
investigation - of which, once again, nothing more was heard.

    "Tactical Perception Management"

For perspective, let me take you back to Iraq in November 2003. I had been there
less than a week on my first visit to that occupied country when the U.S. 
military reported a raging firefight between American forces and 150 of Saddam 
Hussein's former Fedayeen paramilitary fighters. According to General Peter 
Pace, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, American soldiers, on 
being attacked by the group, had responded fiercely and killed 54 of them. "They
attacked and they were killed, so I think it will be instructive to them," 
General Pace had smugly observed.

Most of the Western media simply chalked up the number of "insurgent" dead at 54
and left it at that. Local media in Baghdad, as well as outlets like Al-Jazeera,
were, however, citing very different figures taken directly from the hospital in
Samarra where the wounded were being treated. Doctors there announced a count of
eight killed in the incident, including an Iranian pilgrim, and 50 Iraqis 

I traveled to Samarra that week, visited the morgue at Samarra General Hospital,
spoke with wounded Iraqis at the hospital, and interviewed one of the leading 
sheikhs of the city as well as several eyewitnesses to the event. What I found 
was general agreement that a U.S. patrol had, in fact, come under attack - but 
by only two gunmen while delivering money to a downtown bank. Jumpy American 
soldiers had responded with a spray of fire that had killed neither of the 
attackers, but eight civilians, while wounding 50 others. The streets in the 
city center, where the firing took place, were riddled with bullets.

The military, nonetheless, stood by their figure - 54 dead - and insisted that 
the enormous force of "insurgents" had attacked with mortars, grenades, and 
automatic weapons.

A man I interviewed, who had been in his tea stall in the vicinity and witnessed
most of the incident, summed up the local reaction this way:

"The Americans say the people who fought them are al-Qaeda or fedayeen. We are 
all living in this small city here. Why have we not seen these foreign fighters 
and strangers in our city before or after this battle? Everyone here knows 
everyone, and none have seen these strangers. Why do they tell these lies?"

Another man at the scene had drawn my attention to a parked car scarred with 112
bullets. As I was photographing it, a man with two children at his side 
approached. They were, he said, the children of his brother who had been killed 
by the gunfire.

"This little boy and girl, their father was shot by the Americans. Who will take
care of this family? Who will watch over these children? Who will feed them now?
Who? Why did they kill my brother? What is the reason? Nobody told me. He was a 
truck driver. What is his crime? Why did they shoot him? They shot him with 150 
bullets! Did they kill him just because they wanted to shoot a man? That's it? 
This is the reason? Why didn't anyone talk to me and tell me why they have 
killed my brother? Is killing people a normal thing now, happening every day? 
This is our future? This is the future that the United States promised Iraq?"

My life as an independent reporter in his country was just beginning and his 
questions felt like so many blows to the gut. Of course, I was the only American
reporter there to hear him and I was then writing for an email audience of under
200. This is what it means, in Pentagon terms, to dominate not only the 
battlefield, but the media landscape in which that battlefield is reported. And 
that sort of domination was, it turned out, very much on Pentagon minds in that 

Within days of the incident, for instance, the New York Times published an 
article about how the Pentagon had awarded a contract to SAIC, a private 
company, which was to investigate ways the Department of Defense could use 
propaganda for more "effective strategic influence" in the "war on terror." The 
Pentagon referred to this potential propaganda blitz (which would eventually 
come back to haunt Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) as a "tactical 
perception management campaign." The title of the document SAIC produced was 
"Winning the War of Ideas."

On December 2, 2005, the U.S. military would admit that the Lincoln Group, which
described itself as "a strategic communications & pubic relations firm providing
insight & influence in challenging & hostile environments," had been hired by 
the Pentagon to plant pro-American good-news articles in the new Iraqi "free" 
press that the Bush administration was just then touting. This was exposed 
during a briefing with Senator John Warner of Virginia, head of the Senate Armed
Services Committee.

The admission would not, as one might have expected, prove a step towards 
deterrence. Not only did the Lincoln Group get further contracts, but a wide 
range of similar tactics continue to be employed by the military in Iraq today 
with even greater impunity. In Iraq, the propaganda and misinformation have, in 
fact, been continual and on a massive scale. And, of course, the regular 
announcements of Iraqi "insurgent" or "criminal" deaths in American operations 
have never stopped, nor have the announcements of "investigations," when those 
claims are seriously challenged on the ground - investigations which, except in 
a few cases, are never heard of again. All this is a reminder of something 
George W. Bush once said: "See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating 
things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of 
catapult the propaganda."

    The Military Wrist Is Slapped

Even when one of those investigations did lead somewhere, that somewhere was 
almost invariably a dead end. Take Haditha. Witnesses told reporters that, on 
November 19, 2005, in the western town of Haditha, 24 Iraqi civilians had been 
slaughtered by U.S. Marines. It was no secret that the Marines had shot men, 
women, and children at close range in retaliation for a roadside bombing that 
killed one of their own.

The Washington Post quoted Aws Fahmi, a Haditha resident who was watching from 
his home as Marines went from house to house killing members of three families. 
He had heard Younis Salim Khafif, his neighbor across the street, plead in 
English for his life and the lives of his family members. "I heard Younis 
speaking to the Americans, saying: 'I am a friend. I am good,'" Fahmi said. "But
they killed him, and his wife and daughters."

A Post special correspondent and U.S. investigators in Washington reported that 
some of the dead were women attempting to shield their children. According to 
death certificates, the girls killed in Khafif's house were aged 14, 10, 5, 3, 
and 1.

After the news broke in the U.S., the military ordered a probe of the incident. 
An Iraqi had actually managed to film the interiors of the blood-soaked houses 
as well as scenes of the wounded at the Haditha hospital, and had recorded 
statements of eyewitnesses to the massacre.

Even now, two years after the massacre, investigations continue. Anonymous 
Pentagon officials having admitted to reporters that there is an abundance of 
evidence to support charges against the accused Marines of deliberately shooting
civilians, including unarmed women and children. Currently, Marine Corps and 
Navy prosecutors are reviewing the evidence, and will likely ask for further 

As for the charges levied against the soldiers involved in the massacre, on 
April 2nd of this year, all of the charges against Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz, who
was accused of killing five civilians, were dropped as part of a decision that 
granted him immunity to testify in potential courts-martial for seven other 
Marines charged in the attack and in its alleged cover-up. On August 9th, all 
murder charges against Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt and charges of failing to 
investigate the incident against Capt. Randy Stone were dropped by Lt. Gen. 
James Mattis, well-known for claiming of fighting in Afghanistan, "It's fun to 
shoot some people." On August 23rd, the investigating officer suggested that 
charges against Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum be dropped as well. On October 19th, 
Tatum's commanding officers decided the charges should be lowered to involuntary
manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and aggravated assault. More recently, on 
September 18th, all charges against Capt. Lucas McConnell were dropped, and the 
investigating officer recommended that charges be similarly dropped against 
Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum.

On October 3rd, an investigating officer of an Article 32 hearing (a proceeding 
similar to a civilian grand jury) recommended that Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich 
be tried for negligent homicide in the deaths of two women and five children, 
and that the murder charges for his involvement in the killing of 17 innocent 
civilians, be dropped. In other words, so far, no one has gone to jail for the 
massacre in Haditha.

It is now commonplace for such investigations, regarding heinous crimes against 
Iraqi civilians, to drag on for months or even years. Equally commonplace: On 
completion of these investigations, the low-level soldiers, who are charged with
the crimes, are often either cleared entirely or given laughably light sentences
by military courts.

On November 8th, for instance, Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley, a sniper, was found 
not guilty by military judges on three charges of premeditated murder for 
killing three Iraqi civilians. He was instead convicted only of placing an AK-47
rifle with the remains of a dead Iraqi during one of his missions - as evidence 
that the man was an "insurgent."

In January 2004, 19 year-old Zaidoun Hassoun, and his cousin Marwan Fadil were 
forced off a ledge into the Tigris River in Samarra at gunpoint by U.S. 
soldiers. Fadil survived. He testified that the soldiers, after forcing the two 
into the water, had stood by laughing as Hassoun drowned.

Sgt. 1st Class Tracy Perkins was the only soldier tried in the case. Defense 
attorney Captain Joshua Norris suggested that Perkins could not be convicted of 
manslaughter because there was "no body, no evidence, no death." He was, in 
fact, cleared of the involuntary manslaughter charge in a military court on 
January 9, 2005 and instead was reduced in rank by one grade and sentenced to 
six months in a military prison for assault.

Similarly, on June 6, 2006, three British soldiers were cleared of charges of 
killing 15-year-old Ahmed Jabber Kareem in May 2003 by forcing him into a Basra 

    Iraqis Dehumanized

None of this - from the unending "incidents" themselves to the way the Pentagon 
has dominated the reporting of them - would have been possible without a 
widespread dehumanization of Iraqis among American soldiers (and a deep-set, if 
largely unexpressed and little considered, conviction on the American "home 
front" that Iraqi lives are worth little). If, four decades ago, the Vietnamese 
were "gooks," "dinks," and "slopes," the Iraqis of the American occupation are 
"hajis," "sand-niggers," and "towel heads." Latent racism abets the 
dehumanization process, ably assisted by a mainstream media that tends, with 
honorable exceptions, to accept Pentagon announcements as at least an initial 
approximation of reality in Iraq.

Whether it was "incidents" involving helicopter strikes in which those on the 
ground who died were assumed to be enemy and evil, or the wholesale destruction 
of the city of Fallujah in 2004, or the massacre at Haditha, or a slaughtered 
wedding party in the western desert of Iraq that was also caught on video tape 
(Marine Major General James Mattis: "How many people go to the middle of the 
desert.... to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization? These were 
more than two dozen military-age males. Let's not be naive."), or killings at 
U.S. checkpoints; or even the initial invasion of Iraq itself, we find the same 
propaganda techniques deployed: Demonize an "enemy"; report only "fighters" 
being killed; stick to the story despite evidence to the contrary; if under 
pressure, launch an investigation; if still under pressure, bring only low-level
troops up on charges; convict a few of them; sentence them lightly; repeat 

At the time of this writing, the group Just Foreign Policy has offered an 
estimate of Iraqis killed since the U.S.-led invasion and occupation. Their 
number: 1,118,846. Consider that possibility in the context of the latest round 
of news from Iraq about lessening violence.

The estimate is based on figures from a study conducted by researchers from 
Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. and al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, 
and published in October 2006 in the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, which 
found 655,000 Iraqis had died as a direct result of the Anglo-American invasion 
and occupation. The report methodology has been called "robust" and "close to 
best practice" by Sir Roy Anderson, the chief scientific advisor to Britain's 
Ministry of Defense. Since that time, in addition to Just Foreign Policy, the 
British research polling agency Opinion Research Business has extrapolated a 
figure of 1.2 million deaths in Iraq. Based on this, veteran Australian born 
journalist John Pilger wrote recently, "The scale of death caused by the British
and U.S. governments may well have surpassed that of the Rwanda genocide, making
it the biggest single act of mass murder of the late 20th century and the 21st 

It is an indication of the success of an effective Pentagon "tactical perception
management campaign," of the way the Bush administration has continued to 
"catapult propaganda," and of the dehumanization of Iraqis that has gone with 
it, that the possibility of the number of dead Iraqis being in this range has 
largely been dismissed (or remained generally undealt with) in the mainstream 
media in the United States. Add to that the refusal of the U.S. military to 
bring justice to those charged with some of these heinous crimes, the lack of 
accountability, and an establishment media which has regularly camouflaged the 
true nature of the occupation, and we have the perfect setting for a continuance
of industrial-scale slaughter in Iraq, even while the news highlights the likes 
of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan and their adventures in various rehab 

In what could reasonably serve as a summary of the American occupation of Iraq, 
the eighteenth century philosopher Voltaire wrote, "It is forbidden to kill; 
therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to 
the sound of trumpets."

Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist, is the author of the just-published 
"Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied 
Iraq" (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from occupied Iraq for eight 
months as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey over the last four 
years. He writes regularly for TomDispatch.com, Inter Press Service, Asia Times,
and Foreign Policy in Focus. He has contributed to The Sunday Herald, The 
Independent, The Guardian, and The Nation, among other publications. He 
maintains a website, Dahr Jamail's Mideast Dispatches, with all his writing.

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