Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, I linked to a photo essay at Mother Jones excerpted from the book, "Unembedded," which presents the effects of the Iraq war through photographs taken by four independent Iraqi and British photojournalists.

Now, the images captured by Kael Alford, Rita Leistner, Thorne Anderson, and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad are being featured at BAGnewsNotes, a blog that analyzes news images. Rita Leistner's shot of a young follower of Muktada al-Sadr in Sadr City, the vast, desperately poor Shiite slum on the edge of Baghdad, is on view in today's post.

Leistner herself gives us the context in which the photo was taken, helping us to understand what we are seeing.

I took this photograph on Aug. 6, 2004, in Sadr City, a sprawling slum on the outskirts of Baghdad of two million poor and disenfranchised Shiite Muslims. They name their neighbourhood after the father of Muktada al-Sadr, the young rebel cleric at the head of the Mahdi Army. We call them insurgents, but they call themselves "the resistance to the American Occupation." Muktada's image is everywhere. (You can see him in this photograph with his round face and turban on a poster in the distance on the far left side of the frame.) Almost every newborn male child you meet in Sadr City these days is named Muktada.

What I found most instructive, though, were Leistner's comments on the war itself, and the effect it has had on Iraqis:

Sometimes people ask me if the situation in Iraq has gotten better since coalition forces overthrew Saddam Hussein in March 2003. The question always amazes me, because I wrongly take for granted that everyone has seen what I have seen of the glaring disintegration of security, amenities, employment, and rights and freedoms of the people in Iraq over the last two and a half years.

Iraq today is wrought with the danger of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations. In many quarters, electricity has still not been restored since the power grid was destroyed by American bombs. Without electricity there is no water, no sanitation, and no added security of lights at night. Religious extremists who were kept underground during Saddam's secular, if brutal, reign have resurfaced, and this resurgence of fundamentalism has been bad news for women. Among the most educated in the world, Iraqi women once knew rights unfamiliar to many women in the Islamic world. These rights are disappearing, and there is a resurgence of honour killings - a traditional code making it legal to kill women perceived as having dishonoured their families. Women who used to walk uncovered in Baghdad are now wearing abayas out of fear of beatings or assassinations.

For the vast majority of Iraqis, the American occupation has made life worse, not better. What for Western eyes are brief newsflashes of yet another bombing in Baghdad, or reports of sieges on small towns we've never heard of, for Iraqis are a living nightmare.

It is against this bleak and complicated backdrop that recruitment to the armed resistance is thriving. The American presence in Iraq provides the different groups with a common enemy and a rhetorical and religious justification for violence. Driven by joblessness, poverty, and a lack of common purpose, new recruits are enthusiastic to take up the fight.

I wish that every member of Bush's White House cabal would be required to read this. I wish that every cheerleader for the war in Congress and every right-wing pundit and every conservablogger who pontificates about the "triumph of democracy in Iraq" and approvingly quotes wealthy Iraqis who haven't lived in Iraq for decades about how "every purple finger is a bullet to the chest of the terrorists" would be forced to read this account, from someone who has actually seen what life is like in postwar, occupied Iraq.

Not that it would move them or instigate a change of heart about the terror being rained down on Iraqis by their "liberators." But at least they could not pretend they had not heard a different set of voices.

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