In the fall of 2003, I was driving between Ramadi and Fallujah in an old pick-up with Mohammed, a man in his late 30’s who was part of a small resistance group fighting the U.S. Army. There’d been an attack on an army convoy earlier that day, and American tanks had blocked the road to protect soldiers from further attacks and caused a traffic jam on the highway. Young boys carrying metal bowls went up and down the line of hundreds of parked cars offering free water to the people in them. This was a display of traditional Iraqi hospitality, now part of the nervous carnival atmosphere that prevailed each time U.S. soldiers were attacked along this highway.
If someone shot at the soldiers, heavy machine guns would open up with their hollow jackhammer thuds to drive bullets the size of a thumb through cars and people, tearing everything apart. This happened along this road a few times a week. Locals now called it the “Highway of Death.” Up ahead we could see a large truck with a crane removing the wreckage of a charred Humvee from a bridge where it had been blown up a few hours earlier.
Mohammed seemed focused on a swiveling turret and huge barrel pointing down the road at us from 30 yards away as we inched slowly toward a road-blocking M1 Abrams tank. Mohammed pondered the symbols and writing on the tank, talking aloud as he did this. “I guess they draw the skull to make the feeling inside of anyone who sees it that this is death, like pirates,” said Mohammed, pointing to a skull and crossbones stenciled on the tank’s armor. “What is ‘helter-skelter’—it means going in every direction, isn’t that right? In Arabic we say ‘shather mather.’”
After such an attack, I wasn’t eager to get too close to the U.S. Army, especially riding with someone like Mohammed. But he stopped the car and stared at the tank. “Wouldn’t it make you angry to have a foreign army here, doing this?” he asked me, as he looked my way, smiling. He seemed to like making me nervous. After we’d pulled back a bit and stopped, I asked what he was thinking.
“I like to get close to the tanks,” he said, his eyes still on its muzzle. “It gives a feeling that we are humans, that we are fighting for our rights. And it makes us feel free—not dependent on Saddam Hussein and his forces.”
This seemed a strange answer, formal and cryptic in Mohammed’s way. And it reminded me of something he’d told me: “We have a saying—the people of Mecca know the most about Mecca.” In Arabic, there is a saying for everything, most of them untranslatable. What this one meant is that this is his land, and no one can come here and expect to know it the way he does, a local farm kid who grew up hunting ducks and hanging out with his cousins by the river.
Reporting on the Resistance
Beginning during the late summer, I’d spent hundreds of hours with Mohammed. We had talked about politics and “friendships” between men and women in the West, but until this day I’d never gone near the U.S. Army with him. To do so was like we’d crossed some line, gone up to the edge of the looking glass and peered in. On the other side, everything was bigger—the tanks, the guns, and the bombs were on another scale of large. One felt their power. Mohammed was right: This was death.
His was also a comment about tactics. In May 2003, he and 15 others had formed a resistance group and began laying Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) on the highways and roads of Al Anbar, Iraq’s western province. By September, he confided, they had carried out about 20 “operations,” the term Iraqis use for attacks on American troops. As the fall progressed, Mohammed lost count.
“Do you think you can beat the Americans?” I asked Mohammed.
“That,” he replied, “is a very difficult question.”
I met Mohammed, who is now in Abu Ghraib prison, through relatives of his. We spent a lot of time together because he wanted to explain why he was fighting Americans. Others in his group were angry with him for talking to a Westerner. They viewed me as a potential spy. Mohammed spoke English, so this meant he didn’t have to worry about whether or not a translator would betray him. I was living in Baghdad and would make trips to his village, where I stayed with a young sheik whom I had met during the war.
From these visits, it became clear to me by early August that what was happening around Fallujah and Ramadi was very different than the way it was being reported in the Western press. In part, this could be explained by the fact that when the attacks began against U.S. soldiers that summer there seemed to be some reluctance on the part of the Western press to cover it. Nor were many journalists spending much time reporting on those who were members of the resistance forces. And there were reasons for this, too.
Reporting about the Iraqi resistance was not like it was with other rebel armies who are often media-conscious and go out of their way to court the Western press. In part, this was because there was no central command or goal—these forces began as an assortment of groups that slowly, over time, hooked up together. As a result, it was very difficult to get an understanding of their overall strength and their political ends, which varied enormously.
Lacking self-definition, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the U.S. Army stepped in and portrayed them in ways they believed would best “play” with an American domestic audience. And definitions shifted, given the timing and circumstance of each characterization. Resistance fighters were branded “Saddam loyalists,” which was certainly true in some cases. They could also be described broadly as “foreign fighters,” again true, but only in a relatively small number of cases. As time went by, they could be labeled as being “Taliban-like,” true for a small group of conservative Islamists but not true of someone like Mohammed or others in his group to whom he introduced me. Amid such confusing and shifting labels, it became very easy for the U.S. Army and the CPA to put forward a simplified “Good Guy/Bad Guy” caricature of the conflict, which, in actuality, had complexities to it that were important for Americans to understand. Yet these caricatures went relatively unchallenged by most of the Western media.
After spending a few months away from Iraq—having reported from there as the troops moved toward Baghdad—I returned in August of last year and came to report in this area. What I saw and heard hadn’t been reported much. The people in the area were involved in a complicated debate, often occurring among family members, about whether or not to support the U.S. occupation and make money (the default position of the traders and contractors in this area) or to fight. But when the U.S. Army (the 82nd Airborne Division) hit back hard against those who decided to fight, people there, in general, turned strongly against the occupation-government.
Defining the Resistance
But the complicated roots of this discontent weren’t reflected in much of the Western media. To Western eyes and ears, Fallujah and Ramadi became “bastions of Baathism” or Baathist enclaves. How accurate was this portrait, I wondered, and did Western audiences understand what these descriptions meant? In using these labels, were journalists relying on some kind of polling? (That was doubtful, given how hard that would be to do there.) Had they spent more than a day or two in this region of Iraq? How many people had they talked with? Did they mean to imply that the Duleimi and Jumeili tribes had the same relation to Saddam? What about the recalcitrant Albuweisi that had caused trouble for Saddam?
Details such as these—important to understanding the dynamics of what was happening here—were rarely, if ever, delved into by Western reporters. Interestingly, once the religious aspect of the resistance was made visible to Western eyes, those who lived in Fal-lujah were transformed suddenly into jihadis who wanted to set up a Talibanlike state.
Neither of these extreme characterizations—the secular or the religious—reflected reality. What they demonstrated, instead, was the confusion of journalists and the need felt by many of them to dramatize a complex situation in simpler language in order to make themselves sound knowledgeable and keep their news organizations dramatically engaged.
Reporting in Fallujah reached a nadir when a major U.S. newspaper reported that a group of Iranians had attacked the city’s police station in the spring of 2004. This was an absurd proposition and, of course, it hadn’t happened. But the overall portrait of the area was one in which extremists of one kind or another were in charge—it really didn’t matter which group it was. When the Marines went into Fallujah in April 2004 and killed hundreds of its residents (we don’t know how many), reporters had already described the town as one full of Saddam-loving Baathists, foreign fighters, and jihadis who needed to be shown a lesson or two. These reporters, uncertain about exactly who comprised the resistance, had relied too heavily on the confusing, simplified portrait given by the U.S. Army, who were themselves, after all, attempting to demonize the enemy to justify the military response.
People who live in places like Fallujah and Ramadi had a complex relationship with Saddam. It was just as easy to find people who hated the dictator as those who missed him. People were technocrats and former army personnel, as well as businessmen, who saw no future in the new Iraq. Of course, as time went on and fighting intensified, Saddam grew more popular. And as attacks on U.S. troops increased, descriptive terms like “former regime element” (FRE) and “anti-Iraqi forces” (AIF) came into more general use among spokesmen for the U.S. Army and CPA. Bizarre press releases were handed out in which Iraqis attacking American soldiers were called AIF—Iraqis called anti-Iraqis because they were fighting non-Iraqis.
This pattern of defining the enemy before he defines himself turned out to be a remarkably effective way of controlling press coverage. To explain, for instance, that this rebellion had tribal and religious aspects to it, a journalist would first have had to write around the Good Guy/Bad Guy terminology (which became formal U.S. Army wording) and then explain the tribal history under Saddam and delve into the complexities within Sunni Arab culture (a Sufi/Selafie split). Even finding the word to use to describe the anti-American fighters became a source of confusion and debate. Were they rebels? But that was too American sounding. Were they forming a “resistance”? No, that was too anti-Nazi sounding. Or were they insurgents and terrorists, the preferred terms of the U.S. administration?
During the fall of 2003, some journalists in the house in Baghdad where I was living invited a bright, ambitious Englishman for dinner who worked in the media department of the CPA. He stayed impressively on message all dinner, determined that that it was an “insurgency” run by “terrorists.” It was pretty clear that he had no idea who they were, but the nomenclature gave him a kind of certainty that was impressive. The rest of us, mostly freelance journalists, were not so certain.
The truth is that journalists reporting on these battles didn’t know who they were. As a result, many news outlets turned to the U.S. Army that, it turned out, was no better informed or, if they were, were not about to share what they knew honestly.
Challenges for Journalists
Reporting in Iraq following the invasion/liberation was like walking into a fog bank after leaving a dark room—it seemed brighter than before, but when your eyes adjusted you were still stuck in the gloom. Everybody had a different view of what happened under Saddam, what was happening under the Americans, and what would happen next. Without an agreed upon history, it was hard to come up with a cogent sense about what is going on now.
Few American reporters, with the notable exception of The Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid, spoke Arabic. The rest of us were unlikely to have a candid discussion with an Iraqi while an interpreter listened. It took months before people trusted you enough to tell you what was going on and have you trust what they said or, at least, understand where they were coming from. If Mohammed hadn’t spoken English, I doubt that I would have had access to what some of the people fighting U.S. troops were actually thinking—and even this limited understanding involved hundreds of hours of hanging out, driving around, or sitting in people’s houses.
There were a number of other problems for journalists who wanted to write about the resistance, which people in this area of Iraq call the “mukawama.” One barrier to move past was the U.S. and CPA propaganda machine with the enormous time and effort they put into micro-managing the media. I’ve talked to nongovernment organization workers who were contacted by the CPA and told not to talk to certain journalists. I was in the bureau of an American newspaper when the paper pulled an unpopular (with the CPA) journalist from an embed with a military unit because the White House had supposedly contacted that unit directly. Now the newspaper was worried for his safety. The bureau chief also decided to “lay off” the CPA that week, which meant not running any critical stories for a while.
Another problem about researching the resistance was checking the facts of what you were being told. How was it possible to be certain the people you were talking with were attacking Americans? To deal with this, a very good reporter I met decided to only write stories about resistance fighters who had been killed. That was better for fact-checking but difficult for interviews. The easiest way would be to go out with the mukawama, and that is what reporters do in other countries. They hang out with the rebels. But after 30 years of Saddam’s dictatorship, Iraqis tended to be very paranoid, especially those in the resistance.
I had other concerns, as well. How could I prove to an editor that people like Mohammed were actually in the mukawama, unless, of course, I went on an operation? I was reluctant to go on one of these for a number of reasons. It was insanely dangerous, because the men I met told me they attacked the U.S. Army directly by setting off IED’s, then firing rocket-propelled grenades. I agreed to go on an attack involving a train. Somehow this seemed less dangerous. But it was delayed, and I missed my chance.
However, the offer brought up a number of journalistic problems that I’ve not seen well examined. In other wars, going with a rebel group is standard work. But if reporters are arrested in occupied Iraq with a group of men who have just set off an IED that has killed U.S. soldiers, what is their legal standing? Are they accessories of some kind? I asked a friend in the Red Cross this question, but he wasn’t sure. This seems like new journalistic territory, and the lack of clear answers worried me, in part, because I was a freelancer and had no major institution to back me up.
Another worry I had was the level of surveillance carried out by U.S. military intelligence. Did they listen to journalists’ satellite phones? Were they watching our e-mails? I think I had a very exaggerated sense of their capabilities at first. I was worried, too, that I would somehow expose the people’s families to the violent and often incompetent force of a U.S. military raid. All of this made me extremely paranoid. Had the army, particularly the 82nd Airborne Division that operated in this area, raided their houses, there was a pretty good chance that someone in their family was going to get killed, since these kinds of deaths happened on a regular basis.
Underestimating the Resistance
Throughout the fall, it was difficult to gauge how U.S. forces were doing in the growing guerilla war in Ramadi and Fallujah. Because I lived in Ra-madi for a few weeks in September, I quickly realized that there was major, underreported insurgency going on. Yet listening to the press conferences, there was a clear sense that the U.S. Army was beating the Bad Guys. Out there, operations were happening every day. By October, maybe even earlier, my sense was that the army had lost control of Fallujah as well as the areas around Ramadi. But because journalists in Baghdad depended primarily on body counts (disproportionately low because of body armor), the frequency of these attacks went unnoticed until November when an astonishing 80 U.S. soldiers were killed. And, even then, the full strength of the mukawama was underestimated.
Had the U.S. media demanded the army to show more evidence of the “foreign fighters” in Ramadi and Fal-lujah and forced them to account for their words when they repeatedly said in press conferences that the ‘terrorists and insurgents’ were unpopular, then the U.S. Army might have had to deal with what was really happening there. Perhaps if journalists had been more thorough in their questioning and reporting, the army might have changed its tactics and stopped shooting as many civilians, rounding them up in large numbers for no reason (according to the Red Cross 90 percent of those arrested were innocent), and humiliating them on a regular basis in front of their families. And if this had happened, perhaps fewer Iraqis might have joined the resistance as a reaction to the U.S. Army tactics.
As Mohammed said to me: “The Americans are our best ally; we should give them a medal.”
At times, it seemed as if the occupation army was going out of its way to anger the local population. And, of course, when the photos of Abu Ghraib surfaced that anger was not possible to control, especially in places like Ramadi and Fallujah, where so many people had been arrested and sent to the prison.
Had the army’s statement received more scrutiny, they might have looked for a party to negotiate with instead of just “kicking Iraqi ass,” as they claimed in press conferences. Iraqis told me they believed the army made these mistakes on purpose so the fighting would continue and U.S. forces could stay in Iraq. This was one of the many conspiracy theories Iraqis developed to explain why the United States appeared to be making so many mistakes. Those Iraqis I spoke with found it hard to believe that any group of people could be so ignorant of their culture.
My sense, as a reporter, is that the army grew used to acting with impunity and having its interpretation of the guerrilla war repeated almost verbatim. Essentially, there was little or no genuine check or balance in this part of Iraq. It wasn’t until June 2004 that senior U.S. officers began to admit publicly that they had underestimated the resistance—some nine or 10 months after they should have known things were not going in their favor. In a way, the army and the CPA were almost too successful at selling their version of events. By the end of April, when it became clear how badly things were going in this area, it was hard to take what they said seriously any more.
Another problem was the Western press itself, whose members were caught up in their own pro- or anti-occupation debate. This debate had two parts. The European press was, on the whole, very unsympathetic to the U.S.-led occupation, and there was a fair amount of anti-American sentiment that, in turn, made some American reporters defensive. Among American journalists there was a debate about the war as well as the occupation. These personal debates served to blur the coverage considerably.
There were major journalistic failures, too, in the coverage of Ramadi and Fallujah. This is not to say that coverage of Iraq was a failure. Obviously, some remarkable reporting was and is being done by journalists working in very dangerous situations in a complex cultural environment. Increasingly a lot of it is being done by the Iraqi staff of various bureaus, especially translators who go alone into areas where it is too dangerous for foreigners to travel. But it seems more than coincidence that the area in which American reporting was often the weakest was also the area where the U.S. Army was having its greatest trouble.
As someone who had the rare chance to view things from another perspective, I would observe that the U.S. media portrayed powerfully what it was like to drive around inside American tanks. What they failed to do as well was help Americans understand more about what it is like for Iraqis to see the skull and crossbones and read “helter skelter” as a turret swivels around and points in their direction.
Patrick Graham, a freelance journalist, wrote “Beyond Fallujah: A Year With the Iraqi Resistance,” published in Harper’s in June 2004.