Incident on Haifa Street

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Quotes
of the Week:
“When
the Americans fire back, they don’t hit the people who are attacking
them, only the civilians,” said Osama Ali, a 24-year-old Iraqi who
witnessed the attack [in Baghdad]. “This is why Iraqis hate the
Americans so much. This is why we love the mujahedeen.” (Dexter
Filkins, Raising
the Pressure in Iraq
, the New York Times, Sept. 14)

“The
United States military seemed set to press ahead with more attacks
in Falluja. In areas just outside the city, American forces spoke
through loudspeakers and called for a local militant, Omar Hadeed,
to u2018come out and fight,’ witnesses said Monday.” (Sabrina Tavernise,
U.S.
Attacks Rebel Base in Falluja; 20 Are Killed
, the New York
Times, Sept. 14)

“Every
step of the way in Iraq there have been pessimists and hand-wringers
who said it can’t be done. And every step of the way, the Iraqi
leadership and the Iraqi people have proven them wrong because they
are determined to have a free and peaceful future. People said that
there couldn’t be a transitional administration law, and there was
one that was adopted by the Iraqi people. People said that there
couldn’t be a transfer of sovereignty by June 30th – and it happened
even before June 30th. So every step of the way, the Iraqi people
are proving the hand-wringers and the doubters wrong.” (White
House Press Secretary Scott McClellan
, Press Briefing, September
15.)

Incident
on Haifa Street

Are there any statistics from Iraq in recent weeks which don’t indicate
trouble? Oil
production
, which Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
once swore would fund the reconstruction of a democratic Iraq, is
now crippled and well below prewar levels, while attacks on oil
pipelines and facilities have risen sharply; American
deaths
are on the rise (53 for just over half of September)
as are the numbers of our
wounded
, as are attacks on American troops, which are now averaging
more than 80 a day, “four
times
the number of one year ago and 25 percent higher than
last spring”; while
the strains
on American Guard and Reserve units, being called
up ever more frequently, grow greater by the week; Iraqi civilian
casualties have soared in recent weeks; and on the rise are the
killings of Iraqi policemen, targeted by the insurgency, but also
of translators,
cleaning women
, clothes washers, carpenters, anyone in fact
who works with the occupying forces; “no-go” areas for American
troops have been increasing steadily as parts of Iraq simply blink
off the American map; the kidnapping of foreigners has risen as
evidently has the
under-the-table payment
of ransom demands; the number of car-bombings
has gone up and they are being ever more carefully coordinated;
estimates
of the numbers of insurgents
and their supporters have been
rising rapidly; more
mortar shells
are being dropped on U.S. bases; desertions
from
and the infiltration of the Iraqi battalions the American
military has been training are high and possibly on the rise; the
sophistication and deadliness of guerrilla attacks is on the rise;
the number of CIA agents in the country has risen; American air
strikes on heavily populated neighborhoods of Iraqi cities are on
the rise; the fighting is still spreading (as the battles around
Tal Afar, near the Turkish border, indicated last week); more
schoolchildren
are dropping out of school at ever earlier ages
to help support their families; more highways
are too dangerous to drive; the
number of countries
supporting the “coalition” with even handfuls
of troops has been falling as have the numbers of troops in allied
contingents; the
number of articles
in leading American newspapers announcing
that large swathes of Iraq have passed from American control is
on a precipitous upward curve; the
number of military experts
ready to declare the war in Iraq
in some fashion lost is also on a steep upward climb; while – and
nothing could be more devastating than this – on advice from its
new staff and ambassador in Baghdad, the Bush administration has
gone back to Congress to switch $3.4 billion in Congressionally
mandated reconstruction funds from two of the most important areas
of daily life – the generation of electricity and the purification
of water supplies (“‘Maku
Karaba
, Maku Amin’ – no electricity, no security
– is still the cry of Iraqis on the street”) – largely to “security”;
that is, to the creation of Iraqi forces that will nominally fight
under the banner of Iyad Allawi’s regime but essentially under American
command. (Does no one remember Richard Nixon’s disastrous “Vietnamization”
program?) The only number in this last month that seems not to have
risen precipitously, but has remained doggedly
at zero
is the number of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear,
biological or chemical) in Saddam Hussein’s possession before the
invasion began.

But let’s turn from the large and statistical to a single incident
that made the news repeatedly last week, an incident on Baghdad’s
Haifa Street, known locally as
“Death Street”
for the regular ambushes that take place there.
The thoroughfare, part of a Sunni neighborhood in the capital that
has been a hotbed of opposition to the Americans, lies across the
Tigris river from, but only several hundred yards away from what’s
now being called the “International Zone” (as in neocolonial Shanghai)
but is better known as the Green Zone, the highly fortified area
where the U.S. embassy and the Allawi government have existed, until
recently, in air-conditioned (relative) splendor.

On Saturday night, September 11, unknown guerrillas began pounding
the Green Zone with mortars. The area had certainly been mortared
before, but on a distinctly hit and run basis. This time, there
was evidently far more mortaring and far less running. The initial
September 13 New York Times report (Sabrina Tavernise, “Scores
Are Dead After Violence Spreads in Iraq”) commented that “rarely
has the bombardment [there] been so persistent and intense.” When
the intermittent mortaring hadn’t stopped by morning, the Americans
sent out troops to locate the guerrillas and undoubtedly
fell
into a planned ambush, one aspect of changing tactics as
the insurgency grows ever stronger. (“Militants,” reports Kim
Housego of the Associated Press
, “now follow up roadside bomb
attacks with a deluge of rocket-propelled grenades instead of fleeing,
or fire off mortar rounds to lure soldiers out of their base and
into freshly laid mine fields, [U.S.] military commanders say.”)

Those troops, in turn, came under fire, or were attacked by a suicide
car bomber or a car bomb, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles were then
sent out to rescue them. One of the Bradley’s was subsequently disabled
on Haifa Street, possibly by a suicide car bomber or a car bomb,
and its crew promptly came under fire. In the course of all this,
six American soldiers were wounded, including two of the Bradley
crewmen who were quickly rescued and evacuated leaving the wrecked
vehicle behind. Later, a crowd gathered, including children; the
black and yellow banner of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad
terrorist group was brought out; members of the Arab media appeared
to do TV reports; time passed – three hours according
to the BBC
– and then two American helicopters returned, made
several passes over the vehicle with the black banner by now stuffed
in the Bradley’s gun barrel and the guerrilla fighters evidently
long gone.

At that point, according to Patrick
J. McDonnell of the Los Angeles Times
, the helicopter pilots
let loose a barrage of “seven rockets and 30 high-caliber machine-gun
rounds onto a crowded Baghdad street,” an action American officials
later deemed “an appropriate response.” The vehicle was pulverized
and thirteen people, evidently mainly bystanders including a girl,
died and many more were wounded. Most important, in terms of the
attention the incident has received, Mazen Tomeizi, a Palestinian
producer for the al Arabiya satellite network of Dubai was killed
in the attack while on camera, his blood spattering the lens, and
Seif Fouad, a Reuters cameraman, was wounded. The scene of Tomeizi
dying, while crying out, “Seif, Seif! I’m going to die. I’m going
to die,” which briefly made prime-time news in the U.S., was shown
over and over again on Arab networks, to local and regional outrage.

The American military promptly offered three explanations for the
attack in crowded Baghdad: the
helicopters
were providing covering fire for withdrawing American
troops; the Bradley had “sensitive equipment and weapons” that might
be looted by “anti-Iraqi forces” (“The helicopters ‘fired
upon the anti-Iraqi forces
and the Bradley preventing the loss
of sensitive equipment and weapons,’ the [U.S.] statement said.
‘An unknown number of insurgents and Iraq civilians were wounded
or killed in the incident”’); and that the helicopters took ground
fire from the crowd as they passed overhead (though
TV film of the incident
indicates that no firing came from around
the Bradley itself, at least in the moments before the attack, nor
can the sound of gunfire be heard before the helicopters let loose
their missiles).

The first of these explanations was withdrawn the next day. The
second has been largely withdrawn since. The third – that the
helicopters were just returning fire – stands along with a
claim that, according to the LA Times’ McDonnell, “it was
unclear what caused the casualties – volleys from the helicopters,
explosions from ammunition in the Bradley or insurgent fire.” The
fog of war is, of course, a convenient hiding place for military
officials in situations like this as, after a fashion, it was for
military investigators of the acts seen in those photos at Abu Ghraib.
There, as Mark Danner pointed out recently in
the New York Review of Books
, they spoke of “‘misinterpretation/confusion
incidents’ (those committed by military intelligence soldiers, who,
however, were ‘confused’ about what was permitted at Abu Ghraib
as a matter of policy).”

Self-defense based on ground fire was, in fact, the basis on which,
according to Dexter
Filkins of the New York Times
, the commander of American
forces in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli would, by week’s end,
explain the deaths on Haifa Street. He took a rare step (for Americans
in Iraq), addressing Arab and Western reporters in a conference
room at “Camp Victory,” the ill-named American military headquarters,
on the incident (“We wanted to explain, particularly to the Iraqi
people, that we do everything we can to eliminate collateral damage.”),
defending the military’s acts (“The actions of our soldiers and
pilots were well within their rights.”), sympathizing with the families
of the dead (“I grieve their losses and give my condolences to their
families.”), but not, of course, apologizing.

Among the unacceptable military explanations for the deaths on Haifa
Street: Frustration, anger (“The
Army said
it was not the sight of the insurgent flag on the
Bradley vehicle that triggered the helicopter strike.”), or revenge
(think: punishment) as in
Falluja last April
; and certainly not the fear of sending troops
a few hundred yards from the Green Zone into a possible further
ambush. Many Iraqis are naturally outraged that American helicopters
missiled a crowd in downtown Baghdad, whatever the reason. (Imagine
the same thing happening on, say, Connecticut Avenue in Washington
or upper Broadway in New York.) But what are we to make of this?
What does the incident on Haifa Street tell us about our situation
in Iraq?

From
no-go to free-fire zones

For the last weeks, there have been a number of front-page stories
in major papers about the way in which the insurgency in Iraq has
altered. On Wednesday, for instance, Farnaz Fassihi and Greg Jaffe
of the Wall Street Journal had a front-page piece headlined
“Rebel Attacks in Iraq Reveal New Cooperation” with passages like:

“Iraq’s
once highly fragmented insurgent groups are increasingly cooperating
to attack U.S. and Iraqi government targets, and steadily gaining
control of more areas of the country… ‘The insurgents are no longer
operating in isolated pockets of their own. They are well-connected
and cooperating,’ said Sabah Kadhim, a senior adviser to Iraq’s
Interior Ministry, which oversees the police and security around
the country.”

In the meantime, information about the first CIA National Intelligence
Estimate on Iraq since the infamously cooked NIE of October 2002
– this one initiated before former Director George Tenet left the
Agency and perhaps a case of Tenet’s revenge – was leaked to Douglas
Jehl of the New York Times
. That paper then front-paged its
gloomy scenarios. These ranged from the maintenance of a “tenuous,”
strife-torn country to outright civil war. (“A classified National
Intelligence Estimate prepared for President Bush in late July spells
out a dark assessment of prospects for Iraq, government officials
said Wednesday.”) But until the incident on Haifa Street, recent
reporting had focused on the loss of Falluja or Ramadi or Samarra
or Baquba or the way the “Sunni Triangle” was blinking off the American
map of Iraq. What was remarkable about the incident on Haifa Street
was that a part of Iraq only hundreds of yards from one of our most
fortified strongpoints was blinking off as well – so much so that
when our commanders decided to take out a disabled vehicle or offer
payback, they chose to do so from the air.

Though headlines about bombing runs over Falluja are increasingly
commonplace, the use of air power is certainly one of the great
missing stories in our ongoing war in Iraq. I’ve seen a single,
modest AP
piece by Robert Burns
featuring the subject – but no overviews
at all; no strategic discussions of the subject even as our military
comes to rely ever more on air power for attacking in urban Iraq;
and certainly no legal or moral discussions of the programmatic
bombing of heavily populated urban areas. Nothing.

In our ability to let loose destructive power at great distances
and by air, the United States military is undoubtedly unparalleled
as a power today. And yet here’s the counterintuitive way you have
to think about American airpower in Iraq: Watch where the bombs
and missiles are falling – starting with Falluja and ending up
on Haifa Street – and you can map almost exactly where American
power is blinking off. The use of air power, in other words, is
a sign of American weakness. Its use maps our inability to control
Iraq. To the extent that you can monitor our air power, you’ll know
much about what’s going badly in that country, in part because the
resort to air power in a guerrilla war means the surefire alienation
of the contested population. It means that you’ve given up on “hearts
and minds,” to use a classic Vietnam-era phrase, and turned to the
punitive destruction of bodies and souls.

Air power – as in Vietnam – is a harder story to cover than ground
fighting. The planes take off; the reporters don’t follow. And yet,
for any reporter looking for a good story, there’s a great – if
horrific – one here, one with deep history in Iraq. After all,
when the Brits found they couldn’t control the country in the 1920s,
they pioneered the use of air power as a weapon of bloody punishment
and retribution in the resistant villages of Iraq.

(There is, by the way, another intertwined missing story here: that
of Western reporters in Baghdad and what they can actually report
– which seems to be next to nothing. If you listen to the New
York Times’ John Burns and other American reporters taking up
their nighttime jobs as pundits on shows like Nightline or
Charlie Rose, they sometimes do discuss, at least in passing,
the extreme limitations on their ability to report in person on
any story from Iraq. But have you seen a single piece in
any American paper
on a day in the life of a reporter in Baghdad?
I think not, although for many western reporters it is clearly now
increasingly perilous simply to leave one’s fortified post or hotel
to report within the confines of Baghdad itself, no less travel
anywhere in the country.

If anything, parts of Iraq began blinking off the map of American
reportage long before they disappeared from the military map of
the country. Now our reporters, unless embedded with American forces,
are largely trapped in restricted parts of Baghdad, waiting for
the war to come to the Green Zone. Most of the major papers have
hired Iraqi reporters to help them out, but don’t imagine for a
second that what you’re reading is simply the news from Iraq. Note,
for instance, that when the helicopters struck in Haifa Street,
only several hundred yards from the Green Zone, Arab television
was there but, as far as I could see, not CNN or the networks. The
reasons for all this are quite understandable. Iraq is now a desperately
perilous place for unarmed, or even armed, westerners. I won’t be
surprised when the first American news organizations, like the last
of the relief organizations, simply decide to pull out. What’s far
less understandable is that the conditions for reporting in Iraq,
for our “news” on Iraq, go largely unreported.)

In the meantime, as the incident in Haifa Street indicated, Iraq
is blinking off the map of Iyad Allawi’s government as well. Unlike
Hamid Karzai (“the mayor of Kabul”) in Afghanistan, Allawi turns
out not even to be the mayor of Baghdad. The vast Shiite slum of
Sadr City in the capital, with two million residents, has long been
a near no-go area for American or allied Iraqi troops. But what
the incident on Haifa Street made clearer is that a neighborhood
only the equivalent of three football fields from one of the most
fortified spots in Iraq has also slipped from American – and Allawi
— control, and so has become a target for air power.

Perhaps the week’s most remarkable story appeared in the conservative
British Financial Times which in its editorial pages only
the week before had called for some kind of staged withdrawal of
American and British forces from Iraq. In a September 15 piece headlined,
“Green Zone is ‘no longer totally secure,’” James Drummond and Steve
Negus reported that:

“US
military officers in Baghdad have warned they cannot guarantee
the security of the perimeter around the Green Zone, the headquarters
of the Iraqi government and home to the US and British embassies,
according to security company employees. At a briefing earlier
this month, a high-ranking US officer in charge of the zone’s
perimeter said he had insufficient soldiers to prevent intruders
penetrating the compound’s defences.

“The
US major said it was possible weapons or explosives had already
been stashed in the zone, and warned people to move in pairs for
their own safety. The Green Zone, in Baghdad’s centre, is one
of the most fortified US installations in Iraq. Until now, militants
have not been able to penetrate it.”

This is a remarkable development actually, far worse than anyone
is yet saying, and our response is to loose air power on the situation.
We still generally claim, of course, that our strikes whether in
Falluja or on Haifa Street, like the Israeli targeted assassinations
in Gaza and the West Bank on which they were originally patterned,
are “surgical,” “targeted,” “precise,” and carefully planned to
avoid “collateral damage.” But reports from hospitals in Falluja
and elsewhere indicate that, as is hardly surprising when you bomb
heavily populated civilian areas, this is at best a fantasy of military
planners. In fact, we already seem to be in a process – familiar
enough from our Vietnam experience – by which “no-go” areas will
slowly be transformed into “free fire zones.”

Just this Sunday, a New York Times front-page piece by Dexter
Filkins (U.S.
Plans Year-End Drive To Take Iraqi Rebel Areas
) reports that,
according to an unnamed senior American commander, “the military
intend[s] to take back Falluja and other rebel areas by year’s end”
– after, that is, the November elections in the U.S. but before
the scheduled Iraqi ones.

Here, then, is a vision of Iraq’s future (and ours) not to be found
in the latest National Intelligence Estimate: Barring some spectacular
negotiated deal, we “take,” which would mean “flatten,” Fallujah.
(For comparison, just consider what happened to the old city of
Najaf, blocks of which are now in rubble after a couple of weeks
of fighting which ended dramatically with a 2,000 pound bomb being
dropped on a hotel near the holy shrine of the Imam Ali.) Imagine
further whole swaths of urban Iraq being turned into free-fire zones
and transformed into rubble – and an ever-larger insurgency.

It is in this context that our President now rejects the CIA’s July
National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq and speaks of continuing
“progress” in that country. It is in this context that his press
spokesman decries “handwringers” and “pessimists.” It is in this
context that he and his vice-president continue to shellac another
layer of fantasy onto what Jonathan Schell in his most recent column
in the Nation (Organizing
Amnesia
) calls the “delusions that have been laid down now,
layer after layer, for more than fifty years.” In much of this,
from early reporting on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction through
our vaunted “transfer of sovereignty” to the Allawi interim government,
our media and the whole pundit class has been conjoined with the
administration in delusional activities.

But
those Iraqi insurgents threatening to make their way into the Green
Zone also threaten to make their way into George Bush’s fantasy
Iraq (as the Vietnamese once fought their way into another President’s
fantasy of battlefield and political “progress”). Parts of Iraq
are already blinking off the President’s map. The only question
is whether he can hold his fantasyland together through November
2. On this, his opponent has been of great aid and comfort.

September
21, 2004

Tom Engelhardt [send him
mail
] is editor of TomDispatch.com,
a project of the Nation
Institute
. He
is the author of several books, including The
Last Days of Publishing: A Novel
and The
End of Victory Culture
.

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