Iraqi Silence Indicts U.S. Occupiers

Times Staff Writer

Amid the angry condemnations across America, Europe and much of the Arab world over the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, Iraqi voices have been, by and large, muted.

But the generally subdued response among mainstream Iraqis is a harsh indictment in its own right, Iraqi pollsters and outside experts say. To many Iraqis, the abuse of prisoners came as no surprise. To hear them tell it, the experience of the American occupation was already one of degradation, disappointment and discomfort, and despite months of steady complaints, few U.S. officials seemed to listen.

Saddoun Dulaimi, a pollster whose firm works with a number of U.S. contractors, is among those who said he forwarded information about mistaken arrests by American troops to the U.S.-led occupation authority.

“But I received no response,” he said.


The widespread and increasing resentment toward the U.S. is reflected in polling results over the last several months. Support for the U.S. presence here eroded dramatically well before photographs of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses came to light, according to two reputable polling organizations, the Iraqi Center for Research and Strategic Studies and the Independent Institute for Research and Civil Society Studies.

Between October and April, the percentage of Iraqis viewing the United States as an occupier rather than a liberator or peacekeeper more than doubled -- from 43% to 88%, according to Dulaimi’s Center for Research. The Independent Institute had almost identical numbers for the same question.

Similarly, the percentage of Iraqis wanting the U.S. troops to immediately leave the country rose from 17% in October to 57% in April, according to the Center for Research. Both polls rely on samples of between 1,200 and 1,600 people in at least five cities around the country. Interviews are done in person by Iraqi surveyors.

In what appears to be a closely related opinion shift, public support has risen dramatically for cleric Muqtada Sadr, who has been trying to rally a populist uprising against the U.S. occupation. Three months ago, 2% to 3% of Iraqis said they supported or strongly supported him; since his militia’s confrontations with the U.S., more than 50% of those polled either somewhat support or strongly support him, according to the Center for Research.


“We must pay attention to these numbers,” said Dulaimi. “Why have they happened? Because the Iraqi people have experienced a series of humiliations, so they are not surprised by what happened at Abu Ghraib.”

To be sure, there have been explicit responses in Iraq to the prisoner abuse scandal. A cleric close to Sadr invoked the scandal last week when offering a monetary reward for the killing or capture of American soldiers. And the captors of American civilian contractor Nicholas Berg claimed on videotape that they were beheading him to avenge the abuse of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib.

But interviews with numerous Iraqis appear to confirm Dulaimi’s view that accumulated individual humiliations over several months, rather than the recent Abu Ghraib publicity, have been a major cause of growing antipathy toward the occupation.

Jabar Jawal’s case is typical. On June 18, a U.S. soldier helping to supervise the distribution of cooking gasoline was assassinated by a gunman who shot him in the back of the head at point-blank range. Within minutes, U.S. troops hunting the killer were swarming the nearby neighborhood where Jawal, a day laborer, lived.


Soldiers stormed through the dirt streets, kicking open doors.

Jawal and his extended family of 12 was home when the soldiers arrived. They ordered the women brought outside and pulled apart the house, dumping the contents of drawers on the floor, forcing open a dowry chest and even slicing some pillows. “I have no idea what they are looking for,” Jawal screamed in Arabic as the soldiers left his house. He looked down at his elderly mother who was shaking and set his jaw in fury. “My mother is disabled, why did they make me take her out of the house?”

After a fruitless search, the soldiers learned from compatriots that the assailant had fled in a different direction. The soldiers rushed away without a word of apology or explanation.

The recurrence of such episodes was amplified by a report from the International Committee of the Red Cross this year that documented a wide range of humiliation and abuse by U.S. forces. The report noted that “ill-treatment during capture was frequent” and that it often included “pushing people around, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking and striking with rifles.” The report also noted that, by U.S. officials’ own admission, between 70% and 90% of tens of thousands of detentions turned out to be erroneous.


Those Iraqis who experienced arbitrary detention and torture at the hands of Saddam Hussein are more measured in their criticism of U.S. troops’ conduct, acknowledging that Hussein’s abuses were far worse than those of the U.S. troops. But even such people often point out that the abuses suffered in the last year are particularly painful because they have been committed by an alien occupier. Others shrug and say that the comparison with Hussein merely highlights that U.S. soldiers are in the same league as Hussein’s enforcers.

The U.S. military, whose soldiers have been under escalating attack since shortly after toppling the Hussein regime, may well have had ample reason for many of their “offensive missions” -- that is, aggressively raiding particular homes and arresting some people based on uncertain evidence.

Moreover, military officials repeatedly describe the abuses at Abu Ghraib as the misdeeds of a tiny number of soldiers that do not reflect most troops’ conduct either in prisons or elsewhere.

“There are 135,000 other soldiers that are doing the right thing every day,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.


But whatever the justifications of the military have been, its frequently tough practices and the perception among Iraqis that they are often gratuitous have taken a serious toll on U.S. standing.

“The Iraqis were already experiencing disappointment and humiliation from the Americans, and it has increased throughout the Americans’ time here, so ultimately, when Abu Ghraib happened, for us it was part of a continuum,” said Sheik Hassan Tuaima, a soft-spoken Shiite cleric who teaches the Koran at a popular Baghdad seminary.

Tuaima said that three weeks ago, the U.S. military raided a house just across the street from him, where an old man lived with his family. He said the soldiers kicked the man, who fell unconscious, and then arrested two of his sons. Two days later, the military released the sons and offered an apology to the elderly man, who had been hospitalized.

Although the story could not be independently verified, it is of a piece with many similar stories. Though most cases do not involve serious physical abuse, almost all result in some sense of humiliation.


Nissa Nisan, 54, said his family was fast asleep at 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 20 when at least five U.S. soldiers leaped over the wall surrounding their small home, cut the padlocks off their doors and broke the windows. Other soldiers entered through the roof. Nisan’s account was corroborated by neighbors, and the shattered glass and cut locks were easy to see.

“They put a bag over my head and dragged me and my son outside, tied our hands and made us kneel on the cold pavement. They kept asking me what I knew about the Wahhabis and I kept telling them, ‘I cannot explain about them because I don’t know anything about their program. I am a Christian,’ ” said Nisan. Wahhabism is an ultraconservative sect of Sunni Islam. “All the neighbors were watching; they humiliated me in front of my [four] children,” he said, his hands shaking and his eyes filled with tears.

After noticing a small, fake Christmas tree still up on the coffee table and a large crucifix hanging on the wall, the soldiers apologized.

“They were looking for house No. 37 and we are No. 27,” Nisan said.


Such stories often reverberate through an entire neighborhood, reflecting the phenomenon of “six degrees of separation” within this tightknit society. If one person in a town of 3,000 has his home searched, his son arrested and his wife ordered out of her bed in her nightgown, most townspeople will hear about the incident and are likely to feel almost as insulted as the family that experienced it.

The hostility engendered by these personal encounters with occupation forces appears to have been exacerbated by two other factors: Iraqis’ overall sense that the occupation has shown little respect for their country and a deepening frustration over poor living conditions -- few jobs, scarce electricity and rampant crime.

“From the beginning of the conflict, the United States and the United Kingdom underestimated the importance of Iraqi nationalism and the importance of treating Iraqis in a respectful way,” said Joost Hiltermann, the director of the International Crisis Group’s Jordan office, which also covers Iraq. The Brussels-based ICG is a think tank that does research and reporting on areas of conflict around the world.

“The unwillingness of the U.S. to order a halt to the looting of symbols of the Iraqi nation in which Iraqis had a deep sense of pride, such as the National Museum and the library, as well as dissolving the Iraqi Army, which has been in existence for 83 years and is viewed as a symbol of the nation, not as an arm of Saddam Hussein’s regime -- those acts were viewed as very deeply wounding, as acts of humiliation and gratuitous,” Hiltermann said.


Resentment of U.S. troops’ actions has not been lessened by any perceived improvement in daily life. Many Iraqis interviewed simply denied that the United States had done anything that materially improved their lives. The 2,000-plus schools that the United States describes as having been renovated are said by Iraqis to have been merely repainted; the electricity that U.S. officials boast is now on for three hours at a time is seen by Iraqis as more unstable than it was under Hussein.

While some admit that ridding the country of Hussein is a concrete benefit, the freedoms that followed from that, such as the free press, the ability to protest and the opening to the outside world seem to weigh little in contrast to Iraqis’ deep unease about the lack of security and jobs.

“In the beginning, after the Americans arrived, we were living in a state of hope,” Tuaima said. “But then month by month we saw how they were behaving and ... it has ebbed away.”