Blogs > Cliopatria > The republic of fear

May 30, 2006 5:22 pm

The republic of fear

I highly recommend this chilling Washington Post article by Nir Rosen, who has been consistently impressive over the past three years. The current picture he paints of Iraq is one of brutality from all factions, resulting in an eerie similarity to Saddam era horrors and fears.

The opening line is frightening, and seems to come from someone both deeply saddened and angered by what he has lived in Iraq:

Every morning the streets of Baghdad are littered with dozens of bodies, bruised, torn, mutilated, executed only because they are Sunni or because they are Shiite. Power drills are an especially popular torture device.

He continues:

I have spent nearly two of the three years since Baghdad fell in Iraq. On my last trip, a few weeks back, I flew out of the city overcome with fatalism. Over the course of six weeks, I worked with three different drivers; at various times each had to take a day off because a neighbor or relative had been killed. One morning 14 bodies were found, all with ID cards in their front pockets, all called Omar. Omar is a Sunni name. In Baghdad these days, nobody is more insecure than men called Omar. On another day a group of bodies was found with hands folded on their abdomens, right hand over left, the way Sunnis pray. It was a message. These days many Sunnis are obtaining false papers with neutral names. Sunni militias are retaliating, stopping buses and demanding the jinsiya , or ID cards, of all passengers. Individuals belonging to Shiite tribes are executed.

Under the reign of Saddam Hussein, dissidents called Iraq"the republic of fear" and hoped it would end when Hussein was toppled. But the war, it turns out, has spread the fear democratically. Now the terror is not merely from the regime, or from U.S. troops, but from everybody, everywhere.

After descriptions of horrendous brutality committed by Sunnis, Shiites and Americans alike, he concludes:

Sectarian and ethnic cleansing has since (the Samarra bombing and 1000 Sunni retribution killings) continued apace, as mixed neighborhoods are"purified." In Amriya, dead bodies are being found on the main street at a rate of three or five or seven a day. People are afraid to approach the bodies, or call for an ambulance or the police, for fear that they, too, will be found dead the following day. In Abu Ghraib, Dora, Amriya and other once-diverse neighborhoods, Shiites are being forced to leave. In Maalif and Shaab, Sunnis are being targeted.

The world wonders if Iraq is on the brink of civil war, while Iraqis fear calling it one, knowing the fate such a description would portend. In truth, the civil war started long before Samarra and long before the first uprisings. It started when U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad. It began when Sunnis discovered what they had lost, and Shiites learned what they had gained. And the worst is yet to come.

The frustration in this article seems to come from the combination of witnessing the ongoing horrors, and his conclusion that they are getting worse. Some will undoubtedly label it biased, most from the comforts of the Beltway, but whatever ones beliefs on the wars rationale, there should be no doubt that passionate reporting like this is a reminder of the massive human cost of this conflict.

Update: Adesnik has a very good post up about this piece. Suffice it to say, my mushy sentimentalism post reading this horrific account stands in notable contrast to David's removed rationalism. I agree with some, but certainly not all of his critique. Sometimes, however, it is important to simply listen to the direct accounts of the horrors of war without contextualising them with policy analysis.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 5/31/2006


If your take on this is correct, then isn't this another case where the Administration is its own worst enemy, by not providing civilian casualty statistics?

Jonathan Dresner - 5/30/2006

Indeed, one might reflect on the fact that finding a dozen executed remains a newsworthy event.

Funny, I'm pretty sure that's how this whole piece started: reflecting on the significance of notable targetted killings. So, you've managed to talk your way right back to acknowledging that this is indeed significant....

Ralph E. Luker - 5/30/2006

My question to you remains: is there a shill for the Bush administration whose journalism you attack the way you attack Rosen's? The power of his article survives your snears about his being a supporter of the insurgents in Iraq. Finally, having had to correct David Adesnik on a number of points, I don't regard him as the last word on Rosen's journalism.

John H. Lederer - 5/30/2006

Mr. Luker, yes, I did avoid your question about my own beliefs and actions about other reporters.

My assertions about Nir Rosen's reporting being ideologically influenced did not depend on my own credibility (I might, in that famous aphorism, be a dog on the Internet).

I assumed that your attempt to divert the discussion to myself was a tacit admission that the opposing position about Nir Rosen was indefensible.

Google, of course, will quickly give you access to the works of Mr. Rosen and with a bit more effort, to his critics, so that anyone can judge.

Not even his friends are willing to take the position that his reporting is not ideologically driven, as in the quote I previously gave you from David Adesnik:
"My friend [Nir Rosen] is one of the most hardcore leftists I have ever met. His mission in Baghdad is to document and expose the inner workings of American imperialism. This is the same guy who insisted that the United States bombed Kosovo in order to expand into the Balkan marketplace."

Ralph E. Luker - 5/30/2006

Jason, Get real. You can't cite a single line in what Taylor Owen posted nor in what Nir Rosen published that "idealizes" Saddam Hussein's regime. If you begin your comment with a total mischaracterization of what a person has said, you're not likely to end up having made an intelligent comment.

Jason B Keuter - 5/30/2006

You're idealizing Sadaam's regime - an easy thing to do, since measures of relative peace and standards of living are heavily tainted by government propaganda, a glaring LACK of information and a marked tendency among westerners to believe rosey portraits in order to avoid the complications of intervening - which include getting your hands dirty.

I am inherently suspicious of the new found "realpolitik" of war opponents. Generally, war opponents remain consistent overtime - in terms of WHO opposes war. As for their ideology, it changes. Not necessarily a bad thing, but in the case of war opponents, the consistency with which ideology changes in order to oppose US military action points to simply being against US military action period.

The civil war in Iraq was close to an inevitability. The US presence in Iraq is arguably having the effect of minimizing the kind of bloodshed described in this post. The kind of violence in the Sudan or Rwanda is what the advocates of US isolation have to answer to. That is the "stability" of which you speak. Thanks to the lack of embedded journalists, the bloodshed is mostly statistical - not photos and live coverage for the west.

Many people to this day take at face value Soviet claims of providing universal health care and feel that the end of communism was a bad thing.

John H. Lederer - 5/29/2006

I plowed through all the news reports I could find for a few random days in May. (I don't pretend this was accurate, or scientific. I invite you to do a more scientific examination). My impression is that at least 75% of the casualties reported are from bombs. For there to be "dozens" of bodies found daily from religious executions within the remaining 25% would require a fearomely high fatality rate.

In fairness, I did find one estiate that would support Rosen's figure. An estimate of 2,500 dead in religious killings since Feb 22nd from a Baghdad "health official". The official is unnamed. (We do know from previous experience that the totals reported by some officials at the Baghdad morgue have been highly exaggerated to favor the the Sunni cause (see the crticism of the Washington Post's report of 1300 dead (mostly Sunni) based on "morgue officials", followeing the Askirya shrine attck that was at variance with that of other news organizations and the morgue's actual total). We do not know whetehr these "health officials" are the same officials.

I do not doubt that Sunnis are executed in substantial numbers, but not "in the dozens in numerous cities" every morning, nor even in the dozens every morning in Baghdad. Indeed, one might reflect on the fact that finding a dozen executed remains a newsworthy event.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/29/2006

Mr. Lederer, My point invited you to indicate when, if ever, you have objected to the reporting of insider journalists who wrote favorably of administration policies. You managed to avoid the challenge.

John H. Lederer - 5/29/2006

"Do you contest the fact that dozens of bodies turn up in the streets in numerous cities each morning?"

Certainly, I do. Do the math. Compare against most estimates of civilian casualties from all causes.

John H. Lederer - 5/29/2006

Mr. Luker:

Why do presume to know which which reporters I respect? You certainly don't.

Your difficulty might come from not perceiving a dichotomy. One can disfavor reporters whose reporting is influenced by their ideology. One can disfavor reporters whose reporting is influenced by an ideology one disagrees with. The two are not the same thing.

The difference, I suspect, is akin to one among historians.

Manan Ahmed - 5/29/2006

Since Rosen failed to point out that the Sun has arisen every day, obviously, the piece fails according to the Adesnik standards. Whatevez. It was a powerful piece and way closer to the everday brutality of life than whatever flowerings of democracy Rosen failed to take into account.

David Silbey - 5/29/2006

"And something more idyllic existed under Sadaam Hussein's regime - or was it preferable because reporters didn't cover it? Because we could wash our hands of it?"

In any case, it is surely possible to recognize Hussein's regime as being horrific and still say that the current occupation has been terribly mishandled. Neither excludes the other.

Taylor Owen - 5/29/2006

I agree. The problem is that taken on their own, each of these horrific moments can be dismissed as either one off events, or separated from the wider policy discourse. On the other hand, if they are pooled together to try to explicate the scale of the brutality, then the author is accused of bias.

Taylor Owen - 5/29/2006

Taken on purely rationalistic grounds, in the years leading up to this invasion, there were indeed higher levels of overall security than there is now - prevision of services, most measures of human development, and yes even the levels of extrajudicial killings were all significantly better. However, this ignores the past (mostly in the 80s) large scale atrocities committed by Saddam as well as the systemic culture of fear that he used to ensure his regime's survival. This is the very culture of fear and brutality that Rosen is comparing with contemporary sentiments. If we forces are truly there to help the IRAQI people, then this is a valuable comparison in my mind.
There are of course hundred of caveats to all of this, including: Is large scale instability worth it in the long run if it gets rid of a pretty horrendous dictatorship, was there a way of dealing with him that didn't result in such widespread chaos (such as an real attempt an internationalising the prewar engagement, or, after the decision was made, a semblance of a post war reconstruction plan), should we hold our own forces to a higher moral standard than those they are fighting, if so, what are the consequences of our significant moral breaches. There are of course many more, but I'll stop there.

Jason B Keuter - 5/29/2006

And something more idyllic existed under Sadaam Hussein's regime - or was it preferable because reporters didn't cover it? Because we could wash our hands of it?

Taylor Owen - 5/29/2006

Is it not important to look at the human dimension of this war. Do you contest the fact that dozens of bodies turn up in the streets in numerous cities each morning? If not, is this not something we should know about the war's status? Particularly since, at least at some level, there was a pretence of humanitarianism in this engagement. If we are going to use Saddam's abuses as reasoning for war (a case on which we can debate), then surely the ongoing horrors are of both moral, and strategic, importance?
I would also follow on Ralph's point and ask of which pro war American journalists you are equally dismissive? Would you bar Weekly Standard reporters from being embedded, or criticize Heritage foundation intenrs, doing their 'tours' of the green zone? If not, then your ideologically reasoned critique of Rosen is simply a call for a propagandist 4th estate during war time.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/29/2006

Your point also has no more merit than it did the first time. I can't recall a time when you ever raised a question about insider-reporting when it re-enforced a Bush administration position. Novak? Judith Miller? One of the problems with your favored inside reporters is that it favors massive inflation of executive powers (which you may live to regret under a Democratic administration) and a massive quagmire abroad, from which you have no exit strategy.

John H. Lederer - 5/29/2006;bheaders=1

Manan Ahmed - 5/29/2006

I have been tormented by the account of the two tennis players and their coach executed in Baghdad - presumably for wearing shorts, but who knows ...

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