AT A time when Donald Rumsfeld admits that Iraq is no safer now than it was at the end of the war, American opinion polls show that Americans think the Iraq war is turning into another Vietnam and that troops should come home, it‘s fascinating to examine how the American administration has tried to keep secret what has been happening in Iraq.
A British writer Naomi Klein wrote late last year: "In Iraq, US forces and their Iraqi surrogates are no longer bothering to conceal attacks on civilian targets and are openly eliminating anyone — doctors, clerics, journalists — who dares to count the bodies."
The American embassy in London complained to Naomi Klein and to the Guardian newspaper about her article, taking particular exception to her use of the word "eliminating", a euphemism, of course, for "killing". The embassy suggested that this was a baseless charge and pressed Naomi Klein to present the evidence to back her case. She has now done so.
She says that the first American attack on Fallujah last year caused uprisings across Iraq because of reports that the Americans had killed hundreds of civilians. This information was gathered from three main sources — Fallujah General Hospital, Arab TV journalists and clerics. The American forces withdrew from Fallujah and Donald Rumsfeld accused the Arab TV networks of vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable reporting. The Defence Department said Fallujah General Hospital was a centre of anti-American propaganda.
When in November last year US troops once again laid siege to Fallujah, according to Naomi Klein, they included a new tactic: "eliminating doctors, journalists and clerics who had drawn public attention to the civilian casualties the first time around. According to The New York Times the Fallujah General Hospital was selected as an early target. It was placed under American military control to prevent its staff reporting on civilian dead and wounded.
The Los Angeles Times quoted a doctor as saying that the Americans stole the medics‘ mobile phones to prevent them from communicating with the outside world. And when fighting moved to Mosul, US forces immediately seized control of the hospital there.
Meanwhile the Arab TV network Al-Jazeera had no cameras on the ground because the Americans had banned it from reporting in Iraq indefinitely. Al-Arabiya had a reporter in Fallujah but US troops quickly arrested him and held him for the length of the siege. Likewise those clerics who spoke out against the killing in Fallujah were arrested. US forces stormed a prominent Sunni mosque killing three people and arresting 40, including the chief cleric, another opponent to the Falluja siege.
The image of the second siege of Fallujah came almost exclusively from American reporters imbedded by American troops and, as Klein says, independent journalists who had covered the first siege from the civilian perspective had been effectively emasculated. At stake here are several important issues.
First is that the Americans are determined that the public should not judge the progress of the war, as it did in Vietnam, by how many of the enemy the Americans killed. As General Tommy Franks of US Central Command has emphasised: "We don‘t do body counts". As Klein says: "The question is; what happens to the people who insist on counting the bodies — the doctors who must pronounce their patients dead, the journalists who document these losses, the clerics who denounce them?"
She makes a convincing case that these voices are being systematically silenced by a variety of means from mass arrests to raids on hospitals, media censorship, bans, and even overt physical attacks. In her reply to the US embassy she accuses the American administration of waging two wars in Iraq: a war against the Iraqi people which has claimed an estimated 100,000 lives, and a war on witnesses. In my view she makes her case.
Phillip Knightley is a widely published columnist based in London