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Pluto Press
Erasing Iraq: The Human Costs of Carnage

Erasing Iraq: The Human Costs of Carnage


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745328980
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 04/15/2010
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Michael Otterman is an award-winning freelance journalist and human rights consultant. He was a recent visiting scholar at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. He is the author of American Torture (Pluto, 2007).

Richard Hil is honorary associate at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney and was senior lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Southern Cross University, Australia. He has co-authored and edited a number of books in the fields of criminology, youth justice, and child and family welfare.

Paul Wilson, OAM, is Professor and Chair of Criminology and Forensic Psychology, Bond University, Australia. He has written or co-written over 25 books on criminal justice.

Read an Excerpt



On July 5, 2008, Karim, our host and translator in Sweden, wandered nervously over to one of the fruit and vegetable stalls in Rinkeby, a working-class Stockholm suburb known for its high concentration of Iraqi and Somali immigrants. Karim knew one of the young men who worked at the stalls — Amir, a sullen-looking 30-year-old lugging boxes from the back of a truck. The stall manager hovered ominously in the background as we approached. Amir spoke in furtive, hushed tones. Readjusting the cigarette balanced precariously on his lower lip, Amir laughed at the suggestion that this drizzly, cold July day was typical of the Swedish summer. "Yes, yes, it's very cold." As if to emphasize the point, he wore a thick, woolly hat and gloves that would befit an Olympic skier. Slowly, mediated by Karim's translations, Amir began to talk to us in Arabic about his experiences in Iraq and Sweden.

Everything is Destroyed

In 2005, Amir fled with his sister from Mosul to Jordan and arrived in Rinkeby the following year. Amir is among the 80,000 Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers to enter Sweden since 2003. Having left behind his parents and four sisters in extremely dangerous circumstances in Iraq, Amir shrugged when asked about his new life in Sweden. "I had no choice," he said. "It was too hard, too dangerous in Mosul." From his swollen eyes it was clear that he missed his country — his friends, his extended family, Iraqi food, and familiar places. There was little joy in his face as he talked about life in Rinkeby. In a staid tone he muttered to Karim that his job was "okay" but "hard." Once more his boss walked by and uttered a barely audible injunction into Amir's ear.

Amir said he had high hopes when the American-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003. Finally, he thought, the country would be rid of the brutal Saddam Hussein. But he remembered the fear that he and his family experienced as bombs shattered many buildings in his neighbourhood:

Everybody was so scared, so frightened when the bombs began to fall. Many people were killed, many homes were destroyed ... They hit targets but many of the bombs destroyed neighbourhoods. Many, many people were killed. You could see bodies in the street.

Electricity and water supplies were cut off after the bombing started, and with that the initial feelings of euphoria turned first to confusion, then disillusionment, and finally anger. Amir recalled:

When the American soldiers came I thought it would be better than before. But they began to treat us badly. There was no food and no water, and we had no money ... We were all so hungry and thirsty. They kept stopping people, always asking us questions like: 'Where are you going? What are you doing?' At first my father welcomed them. We were happy that Saddam Hussein had gone because it would be good for us. Life would be better. But we saw things. The American soldiers stole many things from houses and other places. I saw this with my own eyes. I saw trucks taking sand from Mosul. I still don't know why. Big trucks, they took a lot of sand. We wanted to look but it was forbidden for us to look at what they were doing. And when they talked to us they say "fuck you" or "go back," pointing their guns at us. When people went to ask for food they were told to shut up ... These things made us feel very angry. We began to turn against the Americans because they gave us nothing. T hey were okay with the children, but not with us. They gave sweets to the kids.

At this point in the retelling of his story, Amir's boss reappeared and ordered him back to work. Amir pulled his woolly hat over his ears and sped off. The next day he was not at the stall.

Thousands of Iraqis live in the nearby Ronna district of Soedertaelje, an industrial town about 35km southwest of Stockholm. The assemblage of shops and apartments that make up Ronna's commercial hub also includes two cavernous community centers, one ostensibly for people from Syria and the other for a mixed group of Middle Easterners. The owner of the Syrian establishment rolled his eyes as he pointed to the other club, saying simply, "Problem, problem." In the latter club there were 20 or so men huddled around tables playing cards. Their collective, deep concentration was sometimes punctuated by guffaws of joy as a winner emerged. We headed inside.

At one table there were men from Lebanon, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The man from Iraq, in his early 60s, sat quietly in a neat suit observing the proceedings. "Where are you from?" asked our translator. The question was greeted with surprise. "Baghdad," he said. "When did you come to Sweden?" The man shifted in his seat. "I came in 2003, from Iraq. I lived there for most of my life, but now I live in Sweden." The man was expressionless as he went on to say how he was forced to flee Iraq in the face of the US invasion:

It was very bad. They bombed everything. It was all destroyed. We saw many dead people, many buildings destroyed by the bombing. We didn't know what to do, so we just left. We lost everything, all our savings, our home, and my possessions. We leave our friends and family behind.

Others around the table seem oblivious, as if they have heard it all before. "At least under the Saddam government there was order," he said. "Not like now where there is chaos, everything is destroyed and nothing works. I hear this from people in Iraq. I phone them, they tell me these things. It is very bad for them." When asked if he would ever go back, he replied: "I am too old now for this. I have lost everything. There is nothing to return to. I have some of my family here — that is enough. There is peace here in Sweden, not like in Iraq. We cannot go back." Abruptly, he pushed himself away from the table, rose, and slowly left the club; nothing is said to him, no goodbyes. The card games continued.

In late 2007, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) conducted a survey to determine the level of trauma experienced since 2003 by Iraqi refugees living abroad — who numbered roughly 2.4 million at that time. Of the 754 Iraqis interviewed in Syria, every single person — 100 percent — experienced a traumatic event in Iraq. According to the survey:

Seventy-seven per cent of the Iraqi refugees who were interviewed reported being affected by air bombardments and shelling or rocket attacks. Eighty per cent reported witnessing a shooting. Sixty-eight per cent said they experienced interrogation or harassment by militias or other groups, including receiving death threats, while sixteen per cent have been tortured. Seventy-two per cent were eyewitnesses to a car bombing and seventy-five per cent know someone who has been killed.

Every Iraqi we spoke with reported similar events: houses bombed, possessions lost, children kidnapped, lives destroyed. "Americans — when they hear one shot — even if it's like 10 kilometers away — they'll just open fire on everything," said Laith as he lit a cigarette with the small red heating coils warming his cramped two-room house in East Amman, Jordan. His two young sons — then aged seven and nine — were sitting on frayed mats on the cold concrete floor. It was January 2008, and the boys wore gloves and hats to fend off the winter chill. Laith's pregnant wife looked on, pacing nervously as her husband spoke.

"We left in October 2004," he said, as he exhaled and looked at his boys. "I had a shop out on the streets in Baquba," he continued. "There was groups of fundamentalists that started fighting the Americans, and they escaped somehow, and the Americans opened fire. The shop burned down." Compensation was impossible to come by:

I was supposed to get money from the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government says, "It's the Americans' fault so you go to the Americans and they will compensate you." How am I going to reach the Americans? How can I possibly talk to any Americans, or enter any American buildings? Because if the Islamic militias would see this, they'll think I am an American sympathizer and think I am working with them. So then I'd be in bigger trouble. So everything is gone.

Laith and his family stayed in Baghdad with his parents for one month, then came to Jordan. "Iraq is going from bad to worse. I never want to go back. The country will be divided," he said. "We've always lived in war," he added, while glancing at his children, now huddled around the small heater. "The war didn't start in 2003. Before that America used to bomb now and then — '98, '91. Over 20 years of war."

Interests Inimical to Our Own

On August 2, 1990, at 2:00 a.m., Iraq launched Special Forces units and four Republican Guard divisions into Kuwait — the small, neighboring emirate with the world's fifth largest proven oil reserves. US reaction was swift. "Our jobs, our way of life, our own freedom would all suffer if control of the world's great oil reserves fell into the hands of Saddam Hussein," said President George H.W. Bush on August 15, 1990. Five days later, Bush issued National Security Directive 45 to his chiefs of staff: "US Policy in Response to the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait." Channeling the principles of the Carter Doctrine, it began:

US interests in the Persian Gulf are vital to the national security. These interests include access to oil and the security and stability of key friendly states in the region. The United States will defend its vital interests in the area, through the use of US military force if necessary and appropriate, against any power with interests inimical to our own.

Willingness to use military force against Iraq was a clear break from former US policy. Saddam Hussein was a creation of the US — a regional strongman charged with checking Soviet and Iranian influence in the Middle East.

Saddam's ties with the CIA stretched back to the early days of the Cold War. In 1959, Saddam was part of a six-man team recruited by the CIA and tasked with the assassination of Prime Minister General Abd al Karim Qasim. Earlier that year, Qasim withdrew from the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact, a coalition also including Turkey, Britain, Iran and Pakistan. Qasim, who had overthrown the Iraqi monarchy in July 1958, also began purchasing arms from the USSR and promoted communists within his party. When the assassination attempt failed, the CIA helped Saddam escape Iraq and placed him in an apartment in Beirut, then Cairo. The CIA remained in contact with Saddam as the Baath Party seized power in 1963. Following the coup, Saddam returned to Iraq and the CIA provided him with lists of suspected communists. The men, according to UPI's Richard Sale, "were then jailed, interrogated, and summarily gunned down." In turn, Saddam became head of the feared al-Jihaz a-Khas, the secret intelligence apparatus of the Baath Party, then general of the Iraqi armed forces, and finally, in July 1979, president. Under Saddam, the US-Iraq relationship became even closer. During the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq war, the US sought to produce a stalemate to prevent one of the two states from dominating the region. The CIA regularly briefed Iraqi intelligence officials with satellite imagery of Iranian positions. According to US Commerce Department files obtained by Newsweek, the Reagan administration supplied Iraqis with helicopters and video surveillance technology, and permitted sales of "highly toxic" pesticides and "bacteria/fungi/protozoa" — precursor elements of biological weapons.

On December 20, 1983, Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of President Ronald Reagan, met with Saddam Hussein. According to a US State Department cable, Rumsfeld "conveyed the President's greetings and expressed his pleasure at being in Baghdad." According to one press account, the visit was organized "to improve relations between their two countries." Months later, Iraq employed chemical weapons against Iranian targets — the first of more than 100 gas attacks between 1984 and 1988. US helicopters, according to officials interviewed by Newsweek, were used to spray poison gas on the Kurds. When television footage emerged of an Iraqi chemical assault on Iranian-occupied Halabja in Iraq's Kurdish north, the White House was forced to make a rare public statement. The US condemned Iraq's use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but conditioned it by stating that there were "indications" — never proven — that Iran had used chemical weapons too.

The deployment of chemical weapons did little to stem US support for Saddam at the time. In April 1990, a delegation of US senators traveled to Iraq, instructed by George H.W. Bush to further improve relations between the two countries. The group — which included then Republican leader Robert Dole and assistant minority leader Senator Alan Simpson — flew into Baghdad and then, via an Iraqi Air Force plane, to Mosul for talks. The senators, according to US officials, were "eager to promote American farm and business interests." Dole later told reporters the meeting with Hussein was "excellent."

Three months later, on July 25, 1990, Hussein summoned to his palace April Glaspie, the United States ambassador to Iraq. According to an Iraqi transcript, later disputed by US officials, Glaspie noted the buildup of Iraqi troops on the Kuwaiti border and informed Hussein that "we have no opinion on the Arab–Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." Glaspie added: "I was in the American Embassy in Kuwait during the late '60s. The instruction we had during this period was that we should express no opinion on this issue and that the issue is not associated with America." Saddam invaded Kuwait two weeks later. Shifting geopolitical balances prompted the US to act militarily against its long-time ally. By 1990, the USSR was close to dissolving. According to Phyllis Bennis of the progressive Institute for Policy Studies: "The US wanted a way to make clear that, whatever happened to the Soviet Union, the US would remain the hyper power, the dominant force in the Middle East and throughout the world. The invasion of Kuwait provided a pretext to do that."

Unlike in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion, the US secured UN approval for its 1991 assault. In the Security Council, the US pushed for passage of Resolution 660, demanding that "Iraq withdraw immediately and unconditionally" from Kuwait. On August 6, the US brokered passage of Resolution 661, which banned the sale of all commodities to Iraq except "supplies intended strictly for medical purposes, and, in humanitarian circumstances, foodstuffs," until Iraq's withdrawal. Finally, on November 29, the US successfully lobbied for UN Resolution 678. This resolution gave Iraq a withdrawal deadline of January 15, 1991, and authorized "all necessary means to uphold and implement Resolution 660."

As the deadline neared, Yevgeny Primakov, the Soviet Union's Middle East envoy, brokered a last-minute withdrawal agreement with Iraqi officials in Baghdad. Primakov announced that "Saddam had conceded the key point that Iraq would have to withdraw from Kuwait." According to the Independent, the plan was "unceremoniously buried" by the White House. National Security Directive 54, dated January 15, 1991, reveals why the peace deal was scrapped. It began:

Access to Persian Gulf oil and the security of key friendly states in the area are vital to US national security ... The United States remains committed to defending its vital interests in the region, if necessary through the use of military force, against any power with interests inimical to its own. Iraq, by virtue of its unprovoked invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, and its subsequent brutal occupation, is clearly a power with interests inimical to our own.

On January 17, 1991, a US-led coalition of 34 countries began aerial bombardment of Iraq and an assault on Iraqi troops inside Kuwait. The invasion force consisted primarily of troops from the US (700,000), Saudi Arabia (100,000), the United Kingdom (45,400), Egypt (33,600) and France (14,600). Countries like Argentina, Denmark, and Hungary played a supporting role, offering services related to transport and logistics. The offensive, coined Operation Desert Storm, ostensibly targeted the Hussein regime but resulted in massive human suffering for Iraqi citizens — rich, poor, and all those in between. During the 42-day war, 88,500 tons of ordnance — over 210,000 individual bombs — were dropped on Kuwait and Iraq. According to journalist Geoff Simons, author of The Scourging of Iraq: Sanctions, Law and Natural Justice, this is a payload equivalent to seven Hiroshima-size atomic bombs. "For the period of the war," he wrote, "Iraq was subjected to the equivalent of one atomic bomb a week, a scale of destruction that has no parallels in the history of warfare. Moreover, whereas the horrendous destructive potential of an atomic bomb is focused on a single site the missiles and bombs ranged over the whole of Iraq."

Mouths Open Swallowing Bombs

Nuha al-Radi, an Iraqi painter and ceramist, found refuge in her family's country house north of Baghdad during the 1991 bombing. Daughter of a wealthy Iraqi diplomat, Nuha lived in India as a child and learned English in Delhi and Simla. She worked and exhibited in Beirut, but fled to Iraq during the Lebanese civil war. Her diary — first published in the literary journal, Granta, and later by Random House — is a unique English-language narrative of the invasion. Nuha's deeply personal account of the destruction of Baghdad foreshadows the eyewitness accounts of the second Gulf War written by Iraqi bloggers in 2003.


Excerpted from "Erasing Iraq"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Michael Otterman and Richard Hil.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction – Hearts of Stone
1. Iraqis Under Siege
2. Refugee Voices
3. Censoring Civilians
4. Dead Bodies Don’t Count
5. Iraqi Sociocide
Postscript – People of No Moment

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