November 27, 2007

What do the Iraqis have to say?

With their documentary ‘Meeting Resistance,’ Molly Bingham and Steve Connors campaign for a new approach to understanding our enemies: Ask them“Meeting Resistance” screeningsNov. 30-Dec. 2 Baxter Avenue Theatres1250 Bardstown Road459-22887 p.m. & 9:30 p.m.In the spring of 2003, it looked as if the American adventure in Iraq might yield a stable, moderate friend in the Middle East. Rioting had subsided. Iraqi public opinion toward Americans was mixed but hardly damning. Saddam was in his spider hole.Since that time, about 4,000 Coalition troops, mostly Americans, have been killed and about 30,000 injured. No one has maintained a reliable tally of Iraqi civilian deaths, but it is quite likely in the six figures.What happened? There is no consensus. The Bush administration has gone from blaming Al Qaeda to blaming Iran. Many in Congress blame the Iraqi government. Policy analysts point to the Sunni-Shiite split. The documentary “No End in Sight” blames the botched rebuilding effort. These are all Americentric answers, though, generally arrived at by people who rarely leave Washington and who have a thin understanding of average Iraqis. Molly Bingham and Steve Connors, the filmmakers behind the documentary “Meeting Resistance,” are campaigning for a new approach to understanding our enemies: Ask them.That’s what Bingham and Connors did in 2003 and 2004. What they found is that many Iraqis just did not want us there. Simple as that.They interviewed self-professed insurgents, recorded their stories, discovered their tactics and motivations. They observed first-hand as the insurgency morphed from a loose group of individuals taking potshots to a highly trained resistance army. The fighters came from various backgrounds, but one thing these men and women made clear is that they are willing to fight as long as it takes to get occupying American forces out of their country.Worse, recent polls indicate the Iraqi populace increasingly agrees with the insurgents.In an interview, Bingham said: “This is our opinion: As long as we have soldiers in Iraq, they will get shot at. Americans have to deal with that.”Welcome to paradise city“Meeting Resistance” will screen this weekend in a limited engagement at Baxter Avenue Theaters. Unlike, say, “Iraq for Sale,” Robert Greenwald’s scathing indictment of war profiteers, this film has remarkably broad appeal; it has been shown both for the U.S. military (as a counterinsurgency training aid) and at the Al Jazeera film festival in Qatar (where it won the prestigious Doha award for feature-length film). The filmmakers have been interviewed on TV’s “Good Morning, America” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” and radio’s “Bob Edwards Weekend.”To me, “Meeting Resistance” is the most important documentary yet made on Iraq.Much of the positive response is surely attributable to the unique footage. The filmmakers were fortunate to shoot during the brief window between the fall of Saddam and the explosion of anti-Western violence that largely confined reporters to the Green Zone. The resulting footage is rare among English-language journalists: an Imam speaking out against the United States; a fighter teaching others how to make IEDs; a wife explaining her contribution to the resistance; a Syrian teenager whose eyes peer out from behind a keffiyeh.“Meeting Resistance” also benefits from having experienced journalists at the helm, as opposed to the well-meaning but inexperienced activists who have produced so many of the post-9/11 documentaries.Connors, a native of the United Kingdom, spent the better part of a decade as a military policeman, most of it amid the insurgency in Northern Ireland. As a reporter he has covered conflicts in places such as Bosnia and, after the invasion, Afghanistan. When war looked inevitable in Iraq, he went to cover the story. All told, he spent 15 months there.Bingham’s story is better known in these parts. An accomplished photojournalist, she comes from Louisville’s former first family of journalism — both her grandfather, Barry Bingham, and father, Barry Jr., are former publishers of The Courier-Journal.Molly Bingham was one of the few Westerners left in Hotel Palestine in 2003 when the bombs started falling on Baghdad. The Iraqi government arrested her on suspicion of spying and took her to the Abu Ghraib prison, where she spent eight days. Shortly before the fall of Baghdad, she was released to Jordan. When the dust cleared, she felt compelled to return.In an interview, Bingham said she returned “because I believed that I could work freely after Baghdad fell and I wanted to go do what I do: cover what was happening.”It was then, in the first few hectic days of the reconstruction, that she first met someone who professed to be a member of the resistance. Known only as The Teacher (the filmmakers asked not to be told real names), he explained that his neighborhood — Al Adhamiyah — had watched as a resistance made up largely of foreign fighters was crushed by Americans during the invasion; in fact, it was the last neighborhood in Baghdad to fall. He was ashamed that these foreign Mujahedeen had shown more pride in Iraq than the locals. He vowed to follow their example.From there, Bingham and Connors entered an underground of everyday Iraqis who were preparing to attack Americans, even though the U.S. government insisted there was no burgeoning insurgency.These men and women came from different religious sects and political persuasions. Most were, according to the directors, “at best, ambivalent” about Saddam. And yet they found one common thread: The insurgents were fiercely nationalistic and deeply insulted by the presence of a foreign army in their streets.According to the filmmakers, the Iraqis believed national pride and the respect of the Arab world were on the line. It’s important to remember that Iraq is near Mesopotamia, the birthplace of writing, and a country brimming with holy Islamic sites (the Adhamiyah fighters organized themselves around the revered Abu Hanifa Mosque). In the 20th century alone, the Iraqis fought the British, the Americans and the Iranians. Their cultural history and spirit are respected throughout the Arab world.Connors and Bingham noticed that their interview subjects had come to the insurgency by various paths. But, Connors said, “One common denominator is the internal strength that being Iraqi gave them.”Bingham added: “The Iraqis are viewed as being tough desert people.”The Warrior, a veteran of the first Gulf War, was deeply embittered toward Saddam’s regime when he was asked to rejoin the army on the eve of the American invasion. He had been imprisoned after the 1991 war for failing to fight to the death in putting down the Shiite uprising, and he thought he would sit this one out. But then he actually saw foreign troops in Iraq and he heard that many of his brothers-in-arms (themselves no doubt ambivalent about the Ba’ath Party) had been killed in the invasion.“When I saw I didn’t see an army I could fight,” he explains in the film. “I began to see just one thing: that we’d become an occupied country. When they occupied Iraq, they subjugated me, subjugated my sister, subjugated my mother, subjugated my honor, my homeland.”What insurgency?As 2003 rolled on, attacks on Coalition forces became more frequent. The United States lost more soldiers in November 2003 — 82 — than during the initial March invasion, when 65 were killed. In April 2004, the month the Abu Ghraib torture story broke in the international media, the monthly death toll was up to 135. The Bush administration was doing everything it could to marginalize the developing insurgency. According to the Bob Woodward book “State of Denial,” in 2003 the president said, “I don’t want anyone in the cabinet to say it is an insurgency. I don’t think we are there yet.” Eventually the violence became too obvious to downplay.“The U.S. military and our administration have painted as people on the margins of Iraqi society,” Bingham said — Ba’athi dead-enders, common criminals, members of Al Qaeda, religious extremists, foreign fighters. “What we found is that that is very much not the case.”She and Connors interviewed one foreign fighter, a Syrian teenager whose Imam encouraged him to join the Jihad. But the rest were quite typical Iraqis: a mother who couriered secret communications, an old man who spent much of his youth fighting alongside the Palestinians, an Imam who was jailed by Saddam, a man in his mid-20s who comes from generations of military service.Bingham said the people they met are “very much a part of and moving through the society, who in fact could not be effective in the way that they are without the tacit support, active or passive, of the Iraqi people.”Not only were these people more typical than the Bush administration let on, they were also more highly trained than our government described them. The filmmakers saw the beginning of a highly organized cell structure, with weapons procurement, training and communication systems that operated independently. Connors recognized the structure from his days in Northern Ireland.Then one day, one of their subjects took them to see a new type of weapon being made: an improvised explosive device.Its purpose? According to one interviewee, the so-called “IEDs” were designed to attack American convoys when they were away from civilians, thereby preventing an American response that could lead to Iraqi civilian deaths. The insurgent had been told to gather as much high-explosive material as possible, because this would be the preferred technique going forward.Bingham and Connors watched as these new weapons became the insurgency’s calling card. In July 2003, four American fatalities were caused by IEDs, according to icasualties.org, an independent Web site created by a Georgia software engineer in 2003 to track casualties in Iraq. By July 2004, that number had grown to 18. But this year, the monthly death toll from IEDs has largely ranged from 30 to 90, according to icasualties, along with a staggering number of horrible but non-fatal injuries.Gas on the fireIn the first few days after the fall of Baghdad, Connors, at least, had hope that the U.S. adventure in Iraq would have a positive outcome. But in the 10 months he spent making the film with Bingham, his hope steadily drained. First, of course, he discovered through his interviews that many insurgents had planned their resistance before Baghdad even fell to Coalition forces.Further, the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority only exacerbated problems in Iraq. For example, the oil laws set up in the early days of the occupation never found favor with many Iraqis and have largely created more suspicion of American motives. Also, the Americans seemed to be causing a civil war that few people wanted. When talking with the resistance fighters, the filmmakers noticed no great sectarian division among them, even though they were interviewing in the primarily Sunni neighborhood of Al Adhamiyah. This seemed to reflect a broad consensus among Iraqis they met that Arab ethnic identity, Iraqi national pride or even pan-Islamic interests trumped petty sectarian divisions. After all, in this Shiite majority country, there was no problem organizing a sufficiently large army to fight off Shiite-led Iran during the 1980s.But the American vision for Iraq seemed to emphasize sectarian religious identity over all others. Power in the new government was supposed to be doled out proportionately along those lines, which means power struggles would be fought under the auspices of sectarian differences. According to Bingham and Connors, this provoked Sunni-Shiite animosity in a country where the two groups had comparatively good relations.“I said in 2004 that the U.S. is fomenting civil war,” Connors said. “I don’t know if that’s the intent, but it’s certainly the practice.”They also found that Coalition forces frequently resorted to playing factions off of one another to help in their counterinsurgency. “Those factions have also been from different sects,” Bingham said, citing American ties to the Shiite Badr Brigade and the Kurdish nationalist forces of the Peshmerga as evidence that the United States has resorted to pitting Iraqis against each other.But perhaps more troubling for American interests were the breakdowns in discipline among Coalition forces and contractors. “Meeting Resistance” includes a graphic example —  footage of an American soldier firing a warning shot mere feet over the filmmakers’ heads, though they obviously posed no threat. Bingham thinks discipline varied from “unit to unit,” and she insisted that some of them were “very good.” But Connors said he saw “serious lapses” in the discipline of some platoons, of which, as a former MP, he is highly critical.The perceived brutality during the late 2004 crackdown on Fallujah didn’t help the United States’ reputation, but the most severe and irreparable damage came from the photos showing torture at Abu Ghraib, which emerged in April 2004. Months before the story broke, the filmmakers were told during interviews that dogs and electricity were among the techniques in use at the prison.Bingham told people she was skeptical that the United States would perpetrate such abuses, but when the story broke and the photos were circulated in Iraq via the Internet and the local press, she said she “had to eat a lot of crow.”She added: “Iraqis, understandably, held responsible for the atrocities committed in Abu Ghraib.” After that, the filmmakers noticed a clear hardening in Iraqi attitudes.What do they want, anyway? Watching “Meeting Resistance,” I kept asking myself, “How many Iraqis harbor similar resentments over the American occupation?”It required relatively little digging to find the deflating, inevitable answer. A joint ABC News/BBC/NHK poll, released in September, says that in February 2004, 39 percent of Iraqis thought the invasion was wrong. By 2007, that number has grown to 63 percent. The same poll showed that leaving out the largely autonomous Kurdish minority in the oil-rich north, nearly 9 out of 10 of Iraqis disapprove of the presence of Coalition forces in their country. Additionally, in February 2004, only 17 percent of Iraqis found it acceptable to attack U.S. forces; that number is now 57 percent.If we’re not in Iraq at the behest of the people, are we there to prevent Al Qaeda from taking over the country? The same poll indicates that Iraqis universally loathe Al Qaeda and disapprove of the group for bringing foreign fighters into the country, taking control of areas or attacking Iraqis. However, about half of Iraq tolerates the presence of Al Qaeda if the group is fighting American troops.While the film might deal with only a handful of people in one Baghdad neighborhood between 2003 and 2004, it is obvious now that the story that emerged presaged a growing resentment over the American occupation of iraq. These insurgents are not rogues but are instead a widely supported movement. This makes the very reasonable goals of reconstruction, democratization and pacification extremely difficult for Coalition troops.Just askBingham and Connors have their own opinions on possible solutions to the war (unsurprisingly, they tend to revolve around a quick withdrawal), but they are reluctant to spend much time discussing them. That would, they think, play into the trap American generals, politicians and analysts have fallen into for the past four years: answering for the Iraqis.Ultimately, what “Meeting Resistance” proposes is less a specific solution than a change in the way we think about Iraq. A smart answer to our struggles in Iraq can only be arrived at by paying attention to what the Iraqis are saying, and not just relying upon White House press briefings.Connors summed up their philosophy: “You have to be willing to listen. Information is coming in … you have to allow it to be tested.” Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com