Events in Iraq dramatically reveal that the U.S. occupation is out of control. In April, U.S. Marines began a siege of the city of Falluja following the deaths and mutilation of four American private contractors. Intense battles ensued, including street-to-street fighting between Marines and Iraqi insurgents during the day, followed by attacks from U.S. gunships and jets at night. During the lulls in fighting, casualties were collected and the dead buried in the soccer stadium.
The U.S. was planning a final all-out assault, but at the last minute backed off and placed a former Iraqi Army general in charge of security. Heavy fighting and intense bombing throughout Iraq killed nearly 140 American troops and 10 times that many Iraqi civilians in April, with unknown hundreds more wounded.
One of the first journalists into Falluja after the lifting of the siege, London Observer reporter Patrick Graham, quoted Dr. Mohammed Samarae's descriptions of the casualties treated at his hospital. "Ninety percent of the injured were civilians - children, old people, women." The characteristics of the wounds show they were American inflicted, said the doctor. "We have had a lot of experience of U.S. weapons." Mustafa Hamid, a 22-year-old student, said, "All these people were killed because of four dead American soldiers . The Americans are killing people who had nothing to do with the death of those four soldiers."
I was in London the first week of May. The lead story in the British media (and the U.S. press) was the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American and British soldiers. The painful irony escaped nobody - after going to war to liberate the Iraqi people from the brutality of Saddam Hussein and his torture chambers, some of the liberators are now accused of brutalizing and torturing Iraqi detainees - in the same Abu Ghraib prison used by Saddam.
The news was full of the horrible details: prisoners severely beaten, stripped naked and humiliated, sexually threatened and sodomized, deprived of sleep and psychologically intimidated. Pictures of a hooded inmate with wires attached to his body have traveled around the world, especially the Arab world. Forcing nude prisoners to pile up in human pyramids to be photographed and mocked will be perceived as especially degrading in the Muslim "honor-shame culture."
An official military investigation reported evidence of "war crimes" against the inmates and found that military police and intelligence officials had committed "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" and that personnel were directed to "set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses." The investigation reportedly began in January when a soldier turned over evidence of the abuse, including photographs. The soldier said, "There are things going on here that I can't live with." But it was only admitted by the U.S. military and government when pictures were obtained by the media.
Both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair rightly expressed their condemnation of such behavior but insisted it was isolated on the part of a few individuals. But Amnesty International reports "patterns of torture," with "scores" of allegations dating back to last July, and says the current situation is just "the tip of the iceberg." Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski, the former head of U.S. military prisons in Iraq (who was relieved of her command) also described "patterns of abuse." She and others say that military intelligence officers and "private contractors" were directing the intimidation and mistreatment of prisoners. Karpinski claims she warned her superiors about problems at the prison, but they ignored her because "they wanted it to go away." The International Committee for the Red Cross says it had repeatedly asked American authorities to take "corrective action."
Since I returned to the States, there have been more horrifying revelations, including reports of as many as 25 deaths of prisoners, and many more photographs. President Bush appeared on Arab television to describe the abuse as "abhorrent" and pledged that "we will find the truth, we will fully investigate."
THE DEBATE IN the weeks ahead will likely center on "bad apples" versus the great majority of American servicemen and women who wouldn't do such things (which is undoubtedly true), whether the punishment goes high enough in the chain of command, and whether the so-called "private contractors" (let's just call them mercenaries) are accountable enough. Some are calling for an "independent investigation" and some members of Congress are asking for the resignation or firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Both are excellent ideas.
But as important as those questions are, they mostly miss the heart of the matter. Such abuse and atrocities are the direct consequence of military occupation. They always have been, and they will continue to be. It is simply the cycle of violence.
The administration's plans to increase deployment and continue nearly 140,000 troops through the end of 2005 is not the solution. It will, if anything, make the situation worse. Here is the real issue: The Americans and the British cannot and should not run Iraq. The American-led occupation is leading to more suffering on all sides, and it will just get worse. The American occupation must be stopped and the rebuilding of Iraq must begin, but under international authority and control. The United Nations must be given the full political authority to appoint a transition Iraqi government and lead the process to clear elections and real Iraqi sovereignty. Security is, indeed, the immediate question, but a unilateral American military presence will never be able to provide it. We are the targets now and the biggest cause of the security problem. The international community must not simply be brought in to help the U.S. agenda to succeed; it must be given the authority to repair Iraq.
American occupation is not the solution; it is the problem. And it must end.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.