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Travels in American Iraq

Travels in American Iraq
By Reviewer: Scott Burchill
August 28, 2004

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TRAVELS IN AMERICAN IRAQ, By John Martinkus, Black Inc, $24.95

The striking paradox of contemporary journalism is that a proliferation of media sources and providers across a range of electronic platforms has not produced a greater diversity of perspectives. Despite claims to the contrary, even so-called alternative media such as cable news services and blogging have tended to adopt conventional ideological postures. The menu has grown but the food tastes much the same.

The independent freelance journalist is more important than ever, especially with so many fast-moving and complex stories to tell. We should therefore be grateful that John Martinkus, who has produced impressive accounts of East Timor's struggle for independence and Indonesia's war against the people of Aceh, has turned his attention to life in occupied Iraq.

Despite being a witness to state military repression in South-East Asia, Martinkus' account of his seven weeks in Iraq earlier this year is refreshingly free of prejudice, official orthodoxy and reflex opposition. He is not from the jaded, seen-it-all-before school of celebrity journalism where the reporter, rather than the location and its people, is the central figure in the story.

The verisimilitude of his approach allows the reader to share his direct experience of the anger, confusion and violence that the US-led occupation of Iraq has produced in Baghdad, Fallujah, Karbala, Kirkuk and Basra. Seventeen months on, Iraq is a long way from the liberal democratic paradise the Bush Administration promised.

Beyond the simplicities of the terrorism versus democracy discourse lies a complex series of interwoven vignettes that Martinkus explains clearly and concisely. This is a privatised occupation where security contractors such as DynCorp undertake the work traditionally carried out by the US military and the CIA.

It's a world in which Shiite, Sunni and Kurd struggle to maintain their separate identities while paying lip service to the artificial British creation that is the modern Iraqi state. It's also the parallel universe of the Green Zone where the Coalition Provisional Authority and its successor hide from the very people whom they claim to have liberated.

With little human intelligence about the insurgency, no clear understanding of who comprises it, how they recruit cadres and co-ordinate their attacks, or even what their ultimate political goals might be, the failure of Washington's counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq comes as little surprise after reading Martinkus' vivid account.

Despite repeated claims that the insurgency consists of no more than 5000 people, a recent Associated Press report suggests that current estimates of 20,000 fighters are more accurate.

"Almost all the guerillas are Iraqis - often led by tribal sheikhs and inspired by Sunni Muslim imams - fighting for a bigger role in a secular society, not a Taliban-like state," argues the report, a view sharply at odds with claims by the Bush Administration and the Howard Government "that fighting is fuelled by foreign warriors intent on creating an Islamic state". As one US military official in Baghdad puts it, "we're not at the forefront of a jihadist's war here".

Attempts by Washington, London and Canberra to link their war in Iraq to the global struggle against Islamic terror means they have "overemphasised the roles of foreign fighters and Muslim extremists", leading analyst Anthony Cordesman to argue that "too much US analysis is fixated on terms like 'jihadist', just as it almost mindlessly tries to tie everything to (Osama) bin Laden. Every public opinion poll in Iraq supports the nationalist character of what is happening".

This view squares with what Martinkus is told as he travels the length and breadth of Iraq, often at considerable personal risk. "We have poorly educated people who see freedom and democracy as killing without being punished . . ." claims one of his interlocutors. "The resistance is a kind of punishment for the broken promises of the Americans . . ." argues another.

In a war where civilian casualties are not reported or possibly even counted by the occupying forces, where the capture of Saddam has had little if any effect on efforts by the coalition to pacify the country, and where virtually every terrorist attack is blamed on alleged mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi without any evidence being produced, Washington will not understand that "those who were against Saddam are now also against the Americans". John Martinkus can tell them why.

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