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Libya and the Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

In Baghdad at the end of last year Waled Hamid brought a peculiar court case against a man who had sold him a house.  Mr Hamid said the vendor deliberately failed to tell him that the house was haunted and was in an area notorious for ghosts that scream and hammer on the doors of houses at night.

The reason for the presence of these ghosts is simple. Mr Hamid, previously unfamiliar with the area where his new home is located, had inadvertently bought a house not far from Abu Ghraib prison. The place is regarded with horror by Iraqis because so many thousands were tortured and executed here under Saddam Hussein and, after his fall, other prisoners were mistreated and sexually abused by the Americans in 2003-4.

Mr Hamid says that he did not realize that the area around Abu Ghraib was inhabited by the ghosts of murdered prisoners until after he had moved in. Now he says that he and his family are frightened and even their dogs and cats are acting strangely. He wants his money back so he can live somewhere else in Baghdad.

The publication of pictures showing Iraqi prisoners being abused and humiliated by American soldiers was one of the crucial turning points in the war in Iraq. It showed that the US takeover of the country was as brutal and self-interested as most imperial occupations. For Iraqis and foreigners alike the photographs discredited the idea that the Americans were interested in bringing freedom and democracy.

It is worth looking at the grim aftermath of foreign intervention in Iraq as British, French and American involvement in Libya grows by the day. Both actions could be justified on humanitarian grounds (though Saddam committed infinitely worse atrocities than any attributed to Gaddafi). In Libya foreign powers are at the start of a process aimed at overthrowing an indigenous government, while in Iraq the shattering consequences of foreign intervention on the daily lives of people like Mr Hamid remain all too evident long after the foreign media has largely departed.

This is the weakness of journalism. It reports, and its consumers expect it to report, what is new. The abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which once seemed so shocking, has become old news and no longer relevant. But for Iraqis the ghosts of an atrocious past still walk and shape the fears and hopes of the living. A useful antidote to the preoccupations and narrow news agendas of the foreign media is the excellent Institute of War and Peace Reporting, which publishes stories from local journalists, and from which I learned the story of the ghosts of Abu Ghraib.

Iraq slipped off the international media map in 2008 just as Afghanistan had done in 2002, in both cases on the mistaken premise that the enemy was defeated and the war was over. From about 2009 news editors began to notice that the Taliban was back in business and the Afghan war was on again. Now it is once again disappearing from the headlines as there is a surge of journalists into Libya to cover a new war.

War has always been the meat and drink of international journalism. The same is true of home-grown violence. “If it bleeds it leads,” is the well-tried editors’ rule. But how well is war reporting being done as the Arab world is convulsed by uprisings against the police states that have ruled it for so long?  Will it do better than it did during the conflict in Iraq?

A problem is that the causes, course and consequence of wars are vastly complicated, but the reporting of them is crudely simple minded. Saddam was once condemned as the source of all evil in Iraq just as Gaddafi is today demonized as an unrelenting tyrant. This picture fosters the lethally misleading belief that once the Satanic leader is removed everything will fall into place, and, whatever the failings of  new leadership, it is bound to be better than what went before.

The reasons why so much of the media have headed for Libya rather than covering uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen or Syria are simple enough. There is a real war there and the US, Britain and France are involved in it. It is also easy to get access to Libya without being stopped at the border at a time when it is becoming difficult or impossible to get new visas to enter the other three Arab countries where there have been serious uprisings.

The Mukhabarat across the region has decided that the presence of foreign journalists only exacerbates unrest and the best policy is to keep them out. In Yemen the authorities at the main airport have been refusing entry even to the country’s few bona fide tourists on the suspicion that they might secretly be journalists.

Crossing the Egyptian-Libyan border is, by way of contrast, not a problem, though the road journey from Cairo to Benghazi is a tedious16-20 hour drive. Once in eastern Libya, dealing with the interim Transitional Council is easy since the council’s main, and possibly its only skill, is dealing with the foreign media. The council grew out of street protests and this is what it is still good at doing. Anti-Gaddafi demonstrators are much better organized than anti-Gaddafi militiamen.  It would be difficult, in fact, to be worse organized than the rebel fighters streaming backwards and forwards from the front in their pick-ups. It is in taking too seriously these Gilbert-and-Sullivan type advances and retreats that the media becomes seriously misleading. The skirmishing in the small city of Ajdabiya an hour-and-a-half’s drive south of Benghazi comes across in reporting as if it was akin to the battle of Stalingrad. Neither side has the numbers or the experience to set up fortified posts in the city or make a serious effort to hold it. In Misrata fighting is more intense but never as fierce as Beirut at the height of the civil war.

All this matters because the exaggeration of the military strength of the rebels has led to a misunderstanding of the consequences of NATO involvement. President Obama, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy started by claiming they were launching air strikes to defend civilians. This has since escalated into saying that the aim of the war is to get rid of Gaddafi.

The implications of these two aims, given the present political and military balance of power in Libya, have never been made clear. NATO is not just aiding the rebels, but has already largely replaced them as Gaddafi’s main military opponent. If he goes down it will be because of massive foreign intervention. Secondly, it is absurd to demand as a precondition of a ceasefire that Gaddafi should go, because only he can deliver a ceasefire. His departure ought to be the objective of negotiations that would take place after a ceasefire, which would have to be policed by non-NATO troops, to have any credibility.

When all this is over what will Libya look like? The country is gripped by civil war whatever the rebels may say and its legacy of hatred, like the troubled ghosts of Abu Ghraib, will take decades to disappear.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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