How to Destroy Democracy

The name of the celebrated crackdown on Iraqi guerrillas and civilians by US occupation forces is Operation Iron Hammer. One wonders what boneheads conceived it, because it has been a disaster that is destroying the final attempts by some intelligent Americans to get the Iraqi population to move to the side of the invaders. I have just had an email from a person in Iraq that I can’t quote directly because it might give him away. Now this fellow is 100 percent Flag, Patriotism, Army and all that is Good about America. We have been friends for almost twenty years, and never have I known him to be in the slightest fashion critical of any commander-in-chief ; even Clinton, whom I knew he despised. And he wrote me that “Brian, this war sucks . . .”

On 13 November last year, Fox News, the Bush administration’s media outlet, which would be a joke were it not so effective in brainwashing the public, announced on Pentagon cue that occupation troops “launched a planned and coordinated operation codenamed Iron Hammer that targeted pro-Saddam loyalists…Based on intelligence…US infantry set a number of traps all over Baghdad. Several of those traps…were activated almost simultaneously Wednesday night. In the most dramatic action, about a dozen Bradley armored vehicles used 25mm cannons to destroy a warehouse used by anti-US forces in southern Baghdad. A special forces AC-130 Spectre gunship also took part from the air, targeting the warehouse with precise fire. ‘The facility is a known meeting, planning, storage and rendezvous point for belligerent elements currently conducting attacks on coalition forces and infrastructure,’ the Pentagon said.”

Baloney. Let’s take it from the top. “A planned and coordinated operation.” Well, my goodness, so it was actually planned and coordinated, was it? Do you know what was in the ‘warehouse’ that was riddled dramatically with cannon-shells?

Nothing. It was empty.

And after the Bradleys had a yippee shoot the empty warehouse was attacked by a C-130 firing 105mm shells. This is what in Vietnam we used to call ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’. Puff, in early Vietnam days, was an old DC-3 aircraft filled with machine guns, then it morphed to a Hercules transport with much more firepower.

The warehouse was a storage facility, said the Pentagon. But there were no stores. The warehouse was a meeting and planning place, said the Pentagon. But nobody was meeting or planning. The warehouse was a rendezvous point, said the Pentagon. But nobody was rendezvousing. The entire fireworks show was a pointless (and very expensive) farce, and alienated hundreds, perhaps thousands of Iraqis (although some laughed at what they considered an absurd demonstration of petulant impotence. Why not wait until guerrillas were using the building and send in infantry to kill them?). It didn’t kill a single member of the resistance, but at least it didn’t kill people who had nothing to do with guerrilla strikes against occupation troops. Unfortunately, this is what is being done by US soldiers with increasing frequency, and it’s time somebody asked official questions about this type of operation.

We keep being told that shootings of civilians are in accordance with the Rules of Engagement. Here is part of a Reuters’ despatch of September 22 : “US troops followed military rules when they fatally shot a Reuters television cameraman last month as he videotaped near a US-run prison in western Baghdad, a military spokesman said Monday. “Although it’s a regrettable incident, the investigation has concluded US forces personnel acted in accordance with the rules of engagement,” Lt-Col George Krivo said by telephone from Baghdad…Krivo, spokesman for Lt-Gen Ricardo Sanchez, commander of US-led ground forces in Iraq, said the military was not publicly releasing the report and declined to give details on any of the specific findings. Krivo refused to divulge the rules of engagement that he said [were] followed in Iraq.”

So: the army won’t tell anyone how a media representative was killed ; it says the incident was “regrettable” ; and it refuses to give details of the findings of a military tribunal or let anyone know on what basis the shooting was approved. And we are expected to believe that the killing was lawful because we are told it was lawful by the people who did the killing. (“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” [Yossarian] observed. “It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.)

Why no details? It can’t be because of a threat to national security, the usual excuse for refusing to provide information, for there are no national security implications of any sort. It can’t be because relatives of a US soldier might be grieved were it made known what really happened, as no US soldier was killed or wounded. It can’t be because there were ‘intelligence methods’ at risk (another catchall justification for refusing to tell the public what’s going on), as there was no intelligence – in any sense – involved. What are we left with? Just the plain answer that there is something very murky that the Pentagon wants to keep quiet at all costs.

Then there is the more recent case of killing Iraqi civilians as they drove past a convoy last week. You won’t know much about this if you rely on US media (52 words in the Washington Post, for example), so here is the (war-supporting) Daily Telegraph (London) of January 10 on the incident. “For Iraqi drivers…mile-long [US] supply convoys trundling slowly across the immense desert landscape present a frustrating impediment, often doubling journey times. Rather than wait, many attempt to pass the military columns, watching and waiting for a soldier astride a mounted machinegun to wave a casual ‘OK’. But passing lines of trucks and humvees is always a tense affair, with drivers on both sides fearful of their opposite numbers. “I was in a taxi with four other people including the driver,” said Mr Ahmed. “We were stuck behind a US convoy just outside Tikrit when the soldier on the rear vehicle lifted his hand from the trigger of his gun and clearly motioned us to pass. Cautiously we overtook on the right-hand side, then suddenly the gunner on the front vehicle swivelled his gun towards us and started firing.” Mr Ahmed said he ducked under the taxi’s dashboard as bullets ripped through the car, killing the driver. When he recovered consciousness the car had careered off the road. In the back seat he found the other passengers, including a mother and her six-year-old son, had also been shot dead. “The soldier just kept firing for five to six seconds, but the convoy didn’t stop for us,” said Mr Ahmed. “I was hit in the lung”.”

A US army spokeswoman, Major Aberle, said “We would love to get to the bottom of this”. Well, why not get to the bottom of it, Major Aberle? You are in the most efficient army in the world, with every space-age device and appliance. You can identify what convoy was at a particular spot within a given time-frame. There are such things as convoy logs, check points, continuous radio communication, and that old-fashioned thing called leadership which when properly applied results in commanders at all levels knowing what is going on in his or her command. Are we seriously saying it is impossible to find out in which convoy a machine gunner killed four people? Is it possible for a soldier to engage a civilian car with a sustained-fire weapon for five seconds (a very long time ; almost 70 rounds of lethal lead), causing the vehicle to crash, without some record being kept of his action?

If the answer is No, then let’s have the explanation. If the answer is Yes, then it is obvious discipline has gone to hell in a handcart. Is it possible that a machine gunner who opened fire on people he suspected of being terrorists did not report the fact that he had done so? (“Hey, I killed four terrorists : a taxi-driver terrorist, and another terrorist and a woman terrorist and her son, a six year-old terrorist.”) This was a major incident — or at least it was to those who were killed, and their families. The car crashed after the machine-gunner’s bullets ripped through the occupants ; is this not worthy of reporting to higher authority? What are the rules of engagement? Could it be that a yippee shoot resulting in the death of civilians can take place without the killings even being notified up the chain of command? If the machine-gunner reported the incident, then what was done about the report?

Are we to believe that a soldier of a country that is proud of democracy and freedom can wipe out four civilians without being taken to task concerning his action? Lt-Col Steve Russell, whose battalion area includes Tikrit (he who is ever-ready with a media comment), pronounced “I believe we have a moral obligation to find out what occurred.” Yes indeed, there is a moral obligation. And there is also a legal obligation for the occupying power to abide by Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which states that “Protected persons [i.e., civilians under the control of the occupying power] are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons…They shall at all times be humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof . . .”.

Unfortunately the Fourth Geneva Convention is irrelevant because there is no declaration by the occupying power of its Rules of Engagement. Do these Rules include permission to kill civilians? We don’t know. But who in America dares ask a question in public about US killings of Iraqi civilians?

Few people in America can or will ask that sort of question, and certainly no such query is being posed by any of the Democrats who want to be selected as their party’s nomination to contest the presidency this year. (And how many US academics have dared declare their opinions about the war on Iraq? How many of them have moved their backbones from the supine to the vertical position? But that’s another story.)

To criticize a US soldier is to court political death. Not one politician (and few academics) in the whole country would dare state, for example, that it is scandalous that three US soldiers should have beaten Iraqi prisoners. These criminals were discharged from the army but suffered no other penalty for their vicious conduct. One of the soldiers, Master Sergeant Girman, “was charged with knocking a prisoner down, repeatedly kicking him, and encouraging her subordinates to do the same.” ‘HER’? Master Sergeant Girman, it seems, is a woman, and there is no doubt she was guilty of disgusting cruelty against a fellow human being. The mind reels. There was no publicity about this squalid affair, but it is a much more important story than the staged propaganda non-rescue of pretty Jessica Lynch.

Operation Iron Hammer, conceived by boneheads, continues to destroy the credibility of the United States day by day. The very title conveys a ‘them and us’ diktat, dividing occupation forces from those whom they were supposed to be liberating. There are few ordinary people in Iraq who now believe that American soldiers are their friends. No wonder. And there are few of us out here who believe the official accounts of US killing of civilians, simply because the evidence of countless incidents of deliberate and accidental mayhem is so compelling.

Occupation troops have killed fifteen civilian police in three botched operations since September, the latest of which was on January 10 when, as Reuters reported, “US soldiers shot and killed two Iraqi policemen embroiled in a family feud after mistaking them for assailants, the US military said Saturday. A military spokesman said soldiers…were sent to respond to reports that two families were fighting. When they arrived they saw two men carrying weapons and wearing long coats firing at a house. “As the soldiers approached the men attempted to flee”, said Major Josslyn Aberle…”The soldiers pursued them, shouting warnings and firing warning shots but the men did not respond. They killed one outright and another died before reaching hospital”.” So the soldiers shouted warnings. In Arabic? What did they shout? Were the soldiers themselves being threatened? How were the men supposed to respond to “warning shots”? This was a shambles, resulting in crashing morale for the Iraq police and yet even more bitter contempt and loathing for occupation forces.

Flames of hatred are high, and are fed by factual reports that never see the light of day in Britain or the US. Take this one, from Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly of 14 January. [Some material has been omitted, for space reasons.]

“It was simply not his day ; Mohamed had no idea what was in store for him as he drove through the Karada area of Baghdad on 7 August. He ran into the usual traffic jam in the main shopping street, but what Mohamed didn’t know was that an American patrol had run into an ambush just two kilometres down the road. Two soldiers had been killed; the perpetrators escaped and the Americans had set up the usual roadblock – hence the traffic jam. Unaware of the situation, Mohamed turned off the main road into a side street, and the trap was sprung. “About half a dozen soldiers rushed towards the car pointing weapons in my face,” he recalled. “I was terrified and stayed in the car. Then they dragged me out of the car, threw me to the ground and handcuffed me.” In the heat of the moment, while lying on the ground, he shouted the infamous American ‘f’ word at the soldiers. Somebody hit him in the back. He was left lying on the ground with guns pointing at him for about half an hour. His car was searched but no weapons were uncovered…[They found a bottle of Scotch.]

“[He] was taken to the American headquarters in the Sajud Palace, a former residence of Saddam Hussein’s, and was left outside in the tennis court with other recently-arrested for six hours before his first interrogation. During the interview, a US officer questioned him about his relationship with the terrorists. The conversation became quickly heated when Mohamed, who speaks English, noticed that the Lebanese translator was not translating his responses properly. Mohamed was hit from behind on the back of the head and he vomited on the officer’s desktop: the interrogation lasted another two hours.

“Mohamed spent the following 36 days in a camp at the edge of the prison together with 500 prisoners, surrounded by walls, barbed wire and watch towers…Mohamed, the only prisoner who spoke some English, soon became the official camp translator, and he also became friendly with some of the soldiers. “A lot of them were homesick,” was how he described their state of mind. One of the soldiers had just lost his father, and the wife of another had given birth; and none of them had the chance to go home. “When I get home,” a sergeant told Mohamed, “I will never again vote for George Bush.” The same sergeant, by now on friendly terms with Mohamed, checked the computer regularly for any details about his release. And finally the news arrived. “Tomorrow you’re to be released, and you’ll be freer than any US soldier here.” “All the best, and sorry for the unpleasant situation,” said an officer to Mohamed as he was leaving the prison, adding that, “there was actually no reason for you spending the last month here”.” That’s Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The recent and much-heralded (non)release of civilians held captive illegally was a complete disaster and caused untold suffering among thousands of families who have no reason to be grateful for their “liberation”. It was spectacularly badly managed, and reflects appallingly on the administrative capabilities of the ‘Coalition Provisional Authority’, which appears incapable of conducting even the simplest task efficiently. The message getting through to Iraqis is that the occupying power acts with ham-handed incompetence mixed with casual brutality. The current handling of the occupation is not just faulty, it is ineffective to the point of political and administrative chaos. The ever-changing Bush policies on future governance would be laughable were they not so bungled that nobody now knows what is to happen in six months time.

That is not the way to win trust and respect throughout Iraq and the world. Along with the killing of fleeing policemen and the occupants of taxis passing convoys, it has exactly the opposite effect. But perhaps this doesn’t worry Bush and his people. We are only too well aware of the overweening arrogance of those presently in power, and obviously the daily addition of a few thousands to the millions worldwide who detest the condescension and brutality of imperial Washington matters little in their scheme of things. Cicero wrote (in the First Philippic) “Let them hate me so long as they fear me” and this is a fair summation of what Bush zealotry is all about. The Bush administration loves the gun-blazing drama of such stupidly-named operations as Iron Hammer, but Iraqis know the dire results from first-hand experience of monstrous slaughter.

As I end this piece, an item in the New York Times of 13 January has appeared on the screen : “. . . a bomb exploded on the median of Palestine Street after the two Humvees had passed it, said Feras Ali, 42, a resident on the block. The explosion shattered the windows of nearby houses. The Humvees, which witnesses said did not appear to have been damaged, then turned in the wide road, which was slick from a driving rainstorm, they said. Soldiers opened fire on the family in the station wagon traveling behind them, said the witnesses, relatives of the victims, and Lieutenant Ali, the police officer. The station wagon crashed into a wall about 200 feet past where the bomb had exploded, and soldiers soon began pulling bodies out, the witnesses said.”

Iron hammer strikes again. It can be concluded only that the secret Rules of Engagement permit this sort of murder. The US has lost all credibility in Iraq, which is facing a bleak future. But how long is random killing of civilians to be permitted to continue? Is there a public figure who will dare question it? Don’t hold your breath.

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes about defense issues for CounterPunch, the Nation (Pakistan), the Daily Times of Pakistan and other international publications. His writings are collected on his website:

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Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.