In Iraq, information becomes ‘another victim of war’

by Andy Zipser, The Guild Reporter

In the litany of journalists casually, even deliberately, shot at in Iraq, no tale stands out as starkly as that of Giuliana Sgrena, the Italian reporter who was shot by American soldiers as she was being delivered from her Iraqi captors. Gravely wounded, she nonetheless fared better than the man whose body shielded hers, Major General Nicola Calipari, the number-two man in Italian military intelligence.

The aftermath of that encounter, like so much of what has happened in Iraq, was a barrage of contradictory statements in which the U.S. once again held itself blameless. U.S. officials said the car approached a U.S. checkpoint at a high speed and its driver ignored repeated attempts—including hand and arm signals, flashing white lights and warning shots— to have it stop. Sgrena and the driver, on the other hand, have contested almost every element of the U.S. story: they were driving slowly in preparation to make a turn, there were no warnings given, there was no checkpoint.

What there was, Sgrena and the driver have maintained, was a tank parked at least 30 feet off the road that opened fire after they had already passed, shattering the rear windows and giving the lie to statements that the American troops had shot out of fear for their lives. When a U.S. military investigation nevertheless cleared the troops of any wrongdoing, Italian officials participating in the investigation refused to endorse its findings. Italian prosecutors launched their own probe and announced, this past summer, that they were filing charges of murder and attempted murder against Mario Lozano, a soldier with the 69th Infantry Regiment.

Now Sgrena has published “Friendly Fire,” her own account of what transpired on the fateful night of March 4 as well as during her month of captivity. Snatched off the streets of Falluja after two years of reporting from Iraq, she was held in Baghdad as a bargaining chip by mujahideen seeking a withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq. Ultimatums were issued, deadlines set, videos of Sgrena in captivity aired. Then the deadlines would pass, triggering thoughts of how she was about to die, only to be followed by a new video, a new deadline. . . .

Because she was held in near-total isolation, “Friendly Fire” doesn’t have much to say about Sgrena’s captivity outside of her inner life, resulting in a somewhat claustrophobic account. At the same time, the book is strangely unmoored in time, shuttling back and forth among events with a dream-like logic that undoubtedly mirrors Sgrena’s own interior monologue. The result, for anyone seeking a better understanding of these events than can be gleaned from news articles, can be frustrating.

But what “Friendly Fire” does accomplish is to present the kind of unembedded insights about the Iraqi war that are rarely published in the U.S. press. Sgrena is no tyro, having reported frequently from Afghanistan and Iraq—as well as Somalia, Algeria and other global hot-spots—and her account is interwoven with reflections on what she has seen, much of it deeply disturbing.

A section titled “An Iraqi Chernobyl,” for example, details the toxic devastation inflicted on Iraq, not unlike the continuing legacy of Agent Orange that haunts Vietnam to this day. Approximately 3,000 barrels of radioactive waste and enriched uranium were looted from warehouses at the Tuwaitha Center for Nuclear Research, the waste strewn across the landscape so the emptied (and radioactive) drums could be used for water storage. Although Iraqi scientists subsequently found radioactive contamination of local groundwater, crops, livestock and homes, “the danger has already been forgotten, before the full effects have even been measured.”

Or consider the steadily rising incidence of domestic violence, and especially of “crimes of honor,” those deaths that frequently are acknowledged in autopsy reports as “killed in order to cleanse her disgrace.” The killing of women who endured abuse at Abu Ghraib—some of whom killed themselves, before anyone else could “avenge” the dishonor, Sgrena reports—are only the most extreme example of a growing religious intolerance that has converted a formerly egalitarian society into a misogynistic one. “The security for women that everyone calls for in Iraq means protection against the violence of the occupation, against terrorism, abuses of power, kidnapping and rape,” Sgrena writes. “But how can you protect the women who are beaten, tortured, and raped in their own homes every day?”

Yet another Iraqi development that only recently has received sustained attention is the inexorable increase of Iranian influence. Sgrena notes, for example, that the pre-eminent religious leader in Iraq, the Shiite Grand Ayatolla Ali al Sistani, is himself an Iranian (in contrast to the Sunni fundamentalists, who look to the Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia for inspiration). And it was the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who trained the Badr brigades, which have posed the greatest organized resistance to occupation forces while also escalating ethnic tensions with the minority Sunnis.

But Sgrena’s most telling insight may be regarding the devalued role of journalists in today’s age of instantaneous communication, a realization flowing out of her initial confusion over being abducted. Although she concedes the possibility had occurred to her, “I hadn’t seen how very possible it was.” She had, after all, been well received in the past, able to move about freely and greeted with hospitality wherever she went. And the refugees she interviewed were universally willing—even desperate—to tell their stories, to give the world an unfiltered look at the brutality unleashed against them on behalf of . . . what, exactly?

So to be grabbed from outside a mosque in Falluja, site of the most unrestrained use of American firepower in Iraq, was a shock. “But why did they seize me, in particular?” she broods. “The question torments me day and night. If they truly want to liberate their country, as they say they do, is it possible they don’t see that it would be better to let me do my job? Is it possible that the ‘resistance’—as my abductors define themselves—doesn’t care about documenting the conditions of the refugees in Falluja? When I pose the question, my abductors respond dryly: ‘This is war.’ ”

In time, staring at the walls of her room with little to distract her, Sgrena comes to understand the horrific inclusiveness of war today. Soldiers’ lives, even those of civilians, are just a down payment on conflicts that ravage the environment, strip away centuries of social development and pave the way for regimes that have little use for the free flow of information. “No one wants witnesses: neither the occupiers, who went to war on a pretext of lies, nor the occupied, who fear any revelations about themselves as they fight the occupation,” she writes. “Information becomes the enemy, another victim of war.”

Which, of course, makes the information gatherers dispensable at best, an opposition force at worst.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey