It's a humid summer day in Houston, but, as he drives around town, Texas native Dahr Jamail's mind is thousands of miles away. Temporarily back from Iraq, where he works as an un-embedded reporter, Dahr Jamail spoke to CityBeat from somewhere on a Texas expressway.
"It's weird being back," he said, "especially being in a country that has invaded another and is currently occupying it.
"It's surreal. I miss Iraq."
Jamail, who went from mountain climbing in Alaska to a freelance career covering Iraq, has spent more than a year based in Baghdad, filing reports with publications such as The New Standard, The Nation and IPS.org, and radio shows such as Amy Goodman's Democracy Now. Thousands of people read his blog, and his articles are posted on websites from Bakersfield to the Bosporus. Jamail, 36, has developed a reputation for under-the-radar reporting and has been asked to present testimony on torture, the occupation, the state of hospitals and the general conditions in Iraq for the nongovernmental World Tribunals on Iraq in Rome and Istanbul.
He has reported on the April 2004 siege of Fallujah from inside the city, and documented the U.S. military's practice of targeting ambulances carrying resistance fighters and its use of depleted-uranium weapons. He chronicles the lives of ordinary Iraqis and U.S. Marines along with events such as a humanitarian-aid trip to the Iraq/Jordan border last December by Escondido resident Fernando Suarez del Solar, father of a fallen Marine.
One of only a handful of independent Western journalists, Jamail does his work sans flak jacket and sans bodyguards even though at least 15 un-embedded journalists have been killed. Lebanese on his father's side, Jamail tries to blend in, dressing like a local, traveling in a beat-up car with a friend who is also his interpreter and staying at a lower-cost hotel in a fortified compound in Baghdad.
"It's common sense," he said-"no one is going to talk with you with a bunch of big bodyguards behind you."
Still, Jamail has to take precautions. The journalist, who said that at one time the U.S. occupation considered him persona non grata, pointed out that 15 independent journalists have been killed by U.S. forces. He mentioned the incident in which U.S. soldiers shot up the car of ex-hostage Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena as it approached a checkpoint on the way to the Baghdad airport.
Neither the U.S. nor the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, he said, is interested in reporting that deviates from the official embedded line, namely that things are getting better and the insurgency is run by foreigners.
Jamail, who first went to Iraq in 2003, described the country outside the U.S.-fortified Green Zone, as deteriorating daily-access to electricity for less than five hours a day, questionable potable water sources, an absence of infrastructure and daily insecurity in the streets. Turkey is in the wings, waiting to pounce should the Kurds secede.
All this contributes, Jamail said, to a sense of a failed occupation. "Even Iraqis know that international conventions require the occupier to take care of the civilian population," he said.
The growing Iraqi resentment of the U.S. that so puzzles the American mainstream, Jamail said, is understandable if one considers what fuels it. Jamail, who has talked to hundreds of Iraqis, said that resentment stems from house-to-house searches, too many civilian deaths, the lack of progress in reconstruction two years after President Bush declared the war over, high unemployment and the lack of adequate food rations.
It is a resentment, he said, that also feeds the mostly Iraqi insurgency; Jamail dismisses reports that the insurgency is led by foreign strategists.
"That's just the corporate media repeating Bush's propaganda," he said. "It's not good PR to be fought by the Iraqis you came to liberate. And until the occupation ends, the U.S. military is the leading cause" of the insurgency.
Asked if most Iraqis see Iraq as a sovereign nation, Jamail told CityBeat that "across the board, Iraqis do not see sovereignty-they see that they are occupied. [Interim Prime Minister Iyad] Allawi's government is just an extension of the US."
Adds Jamail, "They are upset that there is no withdrawal [timeframe]" and that every Iraqi ministry has a US-appointed advisor.
And the much-vaunted elections in January of this year?
"The world sees them as illegitimate," he says, "occurring as they did under occupation."
Jamail charges that the election was marred by fraud-a charge levied also by the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh in a recent issue-and that only 40 percent of the population turned out to vote. Many did so because they thought the vote would at least help establish a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal. "And the government said no and the voters were had, causing even more to turn away."
It's not just a political failing that Jamail sees-he said the social fabric is tearing, too. "Under Saddam, Iraq was one of the most socially progressive Arab nations," Jamail said, noting that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in certain regions, coupled with increasing crime, has forced women back into their homes and into burqas.
Iraqis are not the only people Jamail talks to. He also senses frustration and confusion among the U.S. troops. "At first, they keep a stiff upper lip, but gradually they start to talk about the situation," says Jamail, who finds many soldiers "disgruntled, not clear as to why they are in [Iraq] and never quite sure when they are leaving. Morale is low."
Jamail himself thinks that the troops won't be leaving anytime soon, and he plans to keep covering Iraq, even if there might be times when the border is closed.
"Even if I couldn't write," he said, "at the end of the day it's about witnessing, bearing witness."
Jamail is currently on a lecture tour across the U.S. talking about his work and answering questions about the conditions in Iraq. "I cannot overstate the fact that it is imperative to pay close attention.... Like Vietnam, it will have long-reaching consequences.Dahr Jamail will be at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Hillcrest Friday, July 29, and at Palomar College in San Marcos Saturday, July 30.