Michael Otterman is a human rights consultant and author based in New York City. He has extensive experience investigating and advocating against human rights abuse — with particular focus on torture, terrorism and displacement. He is co-author of the recently published Erasing Iraq: The Human Costs of Carnage. He spoke with NLP’s Alex Doherty.
In Erasing Iraq you and your co-authors describe the enormity of the crimes committed by the United States and the UK against Iraq. Can you briefly describe those crimes for us?
The US war on Iraq did not start in ’03 — but in ‘91. This is a vital point, one often repeated by Iraqis I spoke with for this book. Wide-scale US-led destruction of Iraq began in the ‘91 Gulf War, especially in the utter decimation of Iraqi infrastructure — water treatment plants, sewerage plants, and power stations by US and allied forces.
UNICEF predicted that up to 500,000 Iraqis under five years old died between ‘91-‘98 as a result of the cascading public health effects of the loss of these facilities combined with a bankrupt Iraqi health care system. These were dire times — and countless items were banned. Iraqi epidemiologists estimate that in total, 1.2 million Iraqis died during the sanctions period. And during this time, more than 2 million fled Iraq while 1 million were displaced internally.
Then you have the 2003 invasion and violent aftermath. Estimates by epidemiologists hold the total at over 600,000 deaths — the majority of these violent deaths. The 2003 invasion also sparked the world’s largest urban refugee crisis. The 2003 invasion produced a tsunami of nearly 3 million more refugees and two million internally displaced. During the civil war’s peak in 2006, more than 30,000 Iraqis poured over the border from Iraq to Syria per month. Roughly 1 million remain in Syria, and hundreds of thousands are in Jordan. These Iraqi do not live in tents—instead they occupy poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of major cities.
Many of these people left thinking they would return in a matter of months. But despite the decline in violence, we have not seen wide scale returns to Iraq. The Iraqis I spoke with do not want to return to a country where electricity, clean water, sewerage is still a luxury. And in many cases, these Iraqis can’t go back due to serious safety concerns. Their homes have been destroyed or occupied by strangers. Neighborhoods that were once mixed are now strictly Shia, or Sunni. The very face of Iraq has changed amid the civil war and many refugees — especially those from ethnic or religious minorities — have no place in the new Iraq. These Iraqis live day to day mainly from handouts from UNHCR with very little hope. Taken together, roughly one in five Iraqis have been displaced. Millions have been killed. In order to quantify this tremendous human cost, we describe the lives of Iraqis — in their own words. In the book, we quote Iraqi diarists, bloggers, and refugees now scattered across the globe. Iraqi voices are largely absent in mainstream media coverage of Iraq. With Erasing Iraq, we sought to give them a much-needed voice.
How do you view the current political and economic situation in Iraq?
Ayad Allawi’s narrow win in the recent national elections was heartening. Relatively secular compared to Maliki and other leading candidates, Allawi’s victory reflects a shift away from fundamentalist impulses that have dominated since the invasion. The continued drawdown of US troops, and post-election reaffirmation by the Obama Administration of a military exit by the end of 2011, is also promising. Although the US will leave behind an embassy the size of Vatican City, plus countless military “advisors” and “trainers,” there is no doubt that US influence in Iraq is now at its lowest point in years. This represents a victory for Iraq sovereignty amid decades of US interference and aggression.
In Erasing Iraq you look in detail at the Iraqi refugee population - what are living conditions like for that population?
The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states that all signatories must “accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory the most favourable treatment accorded to nationals of a foreign country in the same circumstances, as regards the right to engage in wage-earning employment.” It also holds signatories not to return refugees to their country of origin against their will.
Unfortunately, Jordan and Syria — where the majority of Iraqi refugees in the Middle East reside — are not signatories to the Convention. In Jordan, hundreds of thousands live on the outskirts of Amman, mainly east of the city. They are not permitted to work, and until recently, Iraqi children were not permitted to attend public school. Some do work, but are cruelly exploited, earning about a dollar a day in dangerous industries. They have no rights under the law, and are subject to an array of humiliations. The majority lives a quiet life in the shadows slowly spending their life savings. I met several Iraqis that were deported by authorities for minor infractions. One man I met was set upon by a group of Jordanians who beat him and yelled at him to “go home.” The attackers dropped the Iraqi man off at police station, and in turn, he was arrested and taken to an immigration prison, then deported back to Iraq. These stories are common.
In Syria, Iraqis have more rights under the law — they are permitted to work and the children freely attend school. Still, most cannot find meaningful employment and live on handouts from the UNHCR. Like in Jordan, these Iraqis’ lives are frozen. They are unable to secure resettlement abroad, are not accepted by Syrian society, and cannot return home.
You describe Iraq as a nation undergoing “sociocide”. What do you mean by this term?
The term ‘sociocide’ was coined by Johan Galtung, but the concept was really developed by sociologist Keith Doubt in reference to war crimes in Bosnia. In Doubt’s view, sociocide is a deliberate form of collective violence directed upon lives, homes, and communities — plus cultural traditions and historical memory. In my book I argue the American project in Iraq constituted attempted sociocide. I employ the term not just due to the body counts alone, but also because of the intentional nature of the destruction.
The US-engineered sanctions were directed at the Iraqi people — engineered to make them suffer. The 2003 invasion also features elements of specific intent — especially in regards to Iraqi cultural destruction. When US troops stormed Baghdad, they were under orders not to stem looting at libraries and museums. It was not for lack of troops. US troops were stationed near the Baghdad Museum and the National Library, among other important sites, but were not directed to protect them. The only sites initially protected by US troops in Baghdad were the Oil Ministry and Ministry of the Interior. US commanders reportedly viewed the looting as a good thing. Unchecked looting was viewed as a means to help undermine the Baathist regime. There was also a sadistic belief held by commanders on the ground that the more chaos that occurred initially, the more the Iraqi people would appreciate the relative security and order later imposed by the US. This never really happened. And in the process, thousands of priceless artifacts that speak to our shared humanity — after all, the Tigris and Euphrates marked the earliest cradle of advanced civilization — were simply destroyed or stolen. This was a direct attack Iraqi culture, and humanity as a whole. Still, it was not a total sociocide. Iraqi culture still thrives amid all the challenges of the past two decades. The term attempted-sociocide is apt.
The insurgency against occupation forces has declined significantly from its peak in 2005/6 - to what do you attribute this decline?
The insurgency against occupation forces has declined in-step with a decreased US presence on the street. In 2008, 314 US troops were killed. In 2009, this number dropped to 149. So far this year only 17 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq.
It’s important to remember that violence across Iraq has declined relative only to the chaos of 05/06. It is certainly better in Iraq today then at that time — but Iraqis still suffer from suicide bombings, kidnapping and assassination almost everyday. Last year, more than 4600 civilians died from violent acts. This year, the number already has passed 700.
Why did the Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence drop? The effect of ‘the surge’ was negligible. What was important, however, was by late 2006, Sunni insurgent groups had essentially lost the civil war against rival Shias. Outgunned, outnumbered, they began to defect to US forces. Suddenly, the same insurgents that were blowing up US convoys turned to the US for protection — and we obliged. The United States distributed millions of dollars to the Sahwa (or Awakening) councils to handle local security. The handling of the councils later passed to the Iraqi government, who still pay off these militants, some 80,000 strong. Though there are wide scale reports that the government is often late on payments, or does not make them at all. This is a volatile situation that has yet to be resolved. Lethal reprisals against the weakened Sahwa continue.
How likely do you believe an American or Israeli attack on Iran is?
Israel hit Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 — it is definitely within their military will (and capacity) to strike Iran. I do not see the US attacking Iran — especially with Obama at the helm. During the Bush years anything seemed possible, but today I think we have an administration that sees the deeply counterproductive costs of such an attack with greater clarity.
What are the fundamental goals that shape US policy in the Middle East?
Oil trumps all other US concerns in the region. Amid the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter unveiled what’s today known as the Carter Doctrine — the United States’ policy on energy security in the Middle East. During his State of the Union address on January 23, 1980, Carter declared: “The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: It contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil.” He warned: “Let our position be absolutely clear. An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” This has been the guiding US foreign policy in the Middle East since this time — US involvement in Iraq should be viewed in this context.