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Iraq: Seven Years of Occupation

On April 9, 2003, exactly seven years ago, Baghdad fell under the US-led occupation. Baghdad did not fall in 21 days, though; it fell after 13 years of wars, bombings and economic sanctions. Millions of Iraqis, including myself, watched our country die slowly before our eyes in those 13 years. So, when the invasion started in March of 2003, everyone knew it was the straw that would break the camel's back.

I still remember the day of the fall of Baghdad very clearly, as if it happened yesterday. My family and I had fled to my uncle's home in southern Baghdad because our neighborhood, located near Baghdad's airport, was bombarded by US airplanes in the days before. I remember the first US tank rolling down the street with a US soldier, wearing black gloves, waving his hand and some people waving back. That was one of the sadist day of my life, not only because Baghdad fell under a foreign occupation, but also because I knew it would be the beginning of another disastrous chapter in Iraq's history. Now, when I look back at all that happened under the occupation, I find that I was, unfortunately, right.

In the last seven years, one million Iraqis have been killed and millions more injured and displaced from their homes. The country's infrastructure was destroyed and Iraq's civil society has been severely damaged. A video posted this week by WikiLeaks is not an exception to how the US occupation operated in Iraq all along, but rather an example of it. While the video is shocking and disturbing to the US public, from an Iraqi perspective it just tells a story of an average day under the occupation. But even from the Pentagon's perspective, that attack was nothing exceptional. Reuters demanded an investigation into this particular attack because two of its employees were killed in it, and the Pentagon has already conducted an investigation that cleared all soldiers who took part of the attack of any wrongdoing. The video does not show an operation that went wrong, or where "rules of engagement" were not followed. It is simply how the US military has been doing business in Iraq for seven years now.

What is equally disturbing is the mainstream media coverage of the event. For example, in a piece published the day of the attack, The New York Times reported that two Iraqi Journalists were killed "as US forces clash with Militias." The New York Times' piece confirmed "American forces battled insurgents in the area" and covered the following statement from the US military:

The American military said in a statement late Thursday that 11 people had been killed: nine insurgents and two civilians. According to the statement, American troops were conducting a raid when they were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The American troops called in reinforcements and attack helicopters. In the ensuing fight, the statement said, the two Reuters employees and nine insurgents were killed. ''There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,'' said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for the multinational forces in Baghdad.

Now, after the video was leaked, we know that none of this is true. Iraqis killed in the attack were not "insurgents." US troops were not "hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades," the attack helicopters were not "called in" in response to hostilities and there was no "ensuing fight" that caused the massacre. In fact, after watching the video, there is no question that the US forces were clearly NOT engaged in combat operations against a hostile force. In addition to making the entire story up, the Pentagon has very conveniently omitted the part about the two children being injured.

This story is similar to hundreds of other stories printed by The New York Times and other mainstream media during the last seven years. Imagine how many tens of thousands of Iraqis who were labeled as "insurgents" and "militias" were killed and injured the same way. Imagine how many Iraqi children were killed and injured without a mention by the Pentagon or mainstream media. A number of international organizations, including Amnesty International, are now calling for an independent and impartial investigation into the July 12, 2007, helicopter attack shown in the leaked video. But I think this leaked video tells a bigger story than the attack itself. It tells a story of systemic, cold-blooded murder, and the shameful cover up by mainstream media and silence by international organizations.

Remembering the last seven years and conducting investigations is important, but what is more important and urgent is to end this occupation. This month marks both the seventh year of occupation and the beginning of the combat forces withdrawal in accordance with President Obama's plan. The current plan for US withdrawal is based on two sets of time-based deadlines. Obama's own plan to withdraw combat forces between April and August 31, 2010, and the bilateral security agreement's deadline for the withdrawal of all troops and contractors and shutting down all US bases by December 31, 2011.

While the Bush administration adopted a conditions-based withdrawal plan based on the mantra "as Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," the withdrawal doctrine under Obama has been time-based, not linked to conditions on the ground. The main problem with a condition-based withdrawal plans is that it creates an equation where deteriorating conditions lead to an extension of the military occupation. Unfortunately, many groups would like to see the US occupation of Iraq continue. Some groups, such as the Iraqi ruling parties or the military industrial complex in the United States, believe the occupation is in their self-interest. Others, such as al-Qaeda, hope to cripple the United States by keeping it engaged in a conflict that is taking an enormous toll on human lives, money and global reputation. And still others, such as Iran and other regional players, fear the re-emergence of a strong independent and united Iraq that would change the power balance in the Middle East.

The conditions on the ground are rapidly deteriorating in Iraq. After last month's general election, there is a dramatic spike in violence and growing threats to the security and political stability of the country. This week alone, hundreds of Iraqis were killed and injured because of car bombs, assassinations, and other armed attacks. Meanwhile, the Iraqi political establishment is struggling to form the new government. The US war machine is already trying to use this deterioration as an excuse to delay or cancel the withdrawal plan, or at least link it to conditions on the ground.

Going back to a condition-based plan will cost the US hundreds of billions more, will result in the deaths of countless more US soldiers and Iraqi civilians and, most importantly, will not bring Iraq closer to being a stable and prosperous country. The US occupation has never been a part of the solution and it will never be. Delaying or canceling the US withdrawal will only diminish what's left of US credibility and will add another layer of complications to the war-torn country. Many national US organizations, including Peace Action, are calling for a national day of action today to ask Congress and the White House to stick to the time-based withdrawal plan and bring the US combat forces as promised before the end of August.

The US has been engaged in military hostilities with Iraq and Iraqis since 1991. Even when Obama abides by the security agreement and ends the occupation next year, the US responsibility to compensate and help Iraqis help themselves will not be over. Our responsibility starts by ending the 20-year war, but it doesn't end there.

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