Meeting Resistance has now been playing in theatres for a little while and we've recently returned from a trip to Baghdad where we were invited to screen the film to men and women serving in the military and diplomatic staff in the US embassy. As a result of all this we have obviously been asked many more questions than we have dealt with above and thought it would be useful to provide an update to our website FAQ section.
Given the information people receive each day from even the most reputable news organizations the general public can be forgiven for believing that the Iraqis are primarily fighting each other. But the reality is quite different and much more complex. Our response to this question has several layers: one that explains the US military 'Information Operations', one that reveals public opinion about occupation and sectarianism in Iraq and one that reveals the targets of attacks in Iraq.
Information Operations: The source of most of the information that leads us to that conclusion reflected in the question above is the United States military. A very important - if not the most important "battle space" for an army that is involved in a protracted counter-insurgency war is the 'information battle space'. That is, "Information Operations". The purpose of IO is to drive a wedge between the insurgency and its support base in the community.
The US military can attempt to achieve this wedge by putting out releases to the Iraqi public indicating that the United States is engaged in a struggle with fringe elements of Iraqi society: Foreigners, religious extremists, anti-Iraqi forces and common criminals, and that those elements are waging war on the community. If the US military can undermine the ability of the insurgency to effectively function within the society, they will have had a significant victory in the information battle space. The fact that the military is doing this shouldn't be heard as a criticism of the military - it's expected of them. However, it is a detail of which many people are unaware.
We see at least two drawbacks in this approach. The first is that consistent polling among the Iraqi public suggests that either they know a different story or simply don't believe the US military - hence it has so far been ineffective. Second, in this information age, the military can't carry out 'information operations' to be consumed by the Iraqis alone. Everything the US military says also gets picked up by the Western mainstream media. As a result the United States public has become a primary consumer of IO, but we do not having the same local knowledge the Iraqis use to dismiss it. Hence, the US public has come to believe that the insurgency is composed of fringe elements of the Iraqi society that can be isolated and killed.
Public Opinion: Having done the reporting for Meeting Resistance and learned so much about the foundations and motivations behind the insurgency much of what we read each day just doesn't make sense and is highly contradictory to what we came to know about the rich social culture in Iraq. When we see something that doesn't make sense we ask more questions.
We have managed to remain reasonably up to date by not being so reliant on conventional sources and looking a little further afield for information and data that better answers the questions we have on a daily basis.
Two of the most recent opinion polls we have seen - and polling has been quite consistent throughout the war - are:
Commissioned by BBC/ABC in August 2007. The full pdf of the report is halfway down the page.
Commissioned by Worldpublicopinion.org in September 2006. There is a link to the full pdf at the top of the page.
Some examples of what these polls reveal are that more than three quarters of Iraqis believe that US-led coalition forces provoke more violence than they prevent and 71% want those troops out of Iraq within a year. The majority of Iraqis approve of attacks against coalition forces (92% of Sunni's, 62% of Shi'a and 15% of Kurds) but disapprove of al Qaeda in Iraq. We also learn that 98% of Iraqi Arabs reject the idea of the division of the country along sectarian lines and demand a single unified country with a strong central government rather than the heavily de-centralized political future that has been drawn up for them under occupation. 100% of those polled unequivocally condemn the targeting of civilians in Iraq.
Which leads us to the next point, information about the targets of attacks in Iraq.
Attack Targets: The US Department of Defence provides mandatory reports to Congress on the security and stability situation in Iraq on a quarterly basis. From these we have been able to see that throughout the past five years [May 2003 - May 2008] the majority of "significant attacks" (on average, about 73%) have targeted US-led coalition troops. 15% of significant attacks target Iraqi police and army, and the remaining 12% target civilians. An annotated version of the DoD graph can be found here.
In spite of the fact that so many of the attacks are aimed at the US military and its coalition partners in Iraq, the overwhelming majority of casualties fall on the civilian population who, obviously, do not have the benefit of armoured vehicles and personal body-armour to protect them from death and injury. Nor do they have access to the US military's excellent medical support that manages to keep many US soldiers alive who would have died from similar injuries on the battlefield during Vietnam.
All the quarterly reports can be found at:
During our post-screening question and answer sessions we often refer to a McClatchy Newspapers report about the 2003 National Intelligence Estimate that essentially reported the same findings as Meeting Resistance. This report can be found here:
A good data-based roundup of much of this can be found in the regularly updated Iraq Index produced by the Brookings Institute, culling information from the sources named above and many others and containing quite extensive source notes. The latest index and the full archive can be found at:
There are, of course, other sources from which good, neutral information can be gleaned such as the declassified areas of National Intelligence Estimates and National Intelligence Council reports, the regular reports by the Government Accountability Office and the occasional news story that has, for example, dealt with the make-up of the US held detainees in Iraq.
Further Information: Another source of information are bloggers. Two that are particularly valuable are Missing Links and Abu Aardvark. Both of these provide translation and analysis of Arabic news and commentary sources in addition to monitoring the web presence of various Iraqi insurgent groups and jihadist message boards. Although some of the information on the message boards is simply propaganda there is much to be learned and understood from this information and particularly from some of the culturally based interpretation of its meaning.
Arabic and the culture in which it is spoken are subtle and indirect in their chosen means of communication and the effort that "Badger" at Missing Links puts into the exploration of possible meanings is extraordinary. Whether it's the latest bin Laden tape or the opinion of a star columnist on a Syrian newspaper, Missing Links always provides an opportunity to view the all too important other side in such a multi-faceted debate.
Abu Aardvark is Marc Lynch an Arabic speaking professor of Political Science in Washington DC. He specializes in communication in the Arab world. His blog allows us to hear voices and viewpoints that would otherwise be ignored or hidden and we would be left bereft of vital information that will test our biases and prejudices.
Missing Links is at: http://arablinks.blogspot.com/
Abu Aardvark is at: http://abuaardvark.typepad.com/abuaardvark/
Much is said in the United States about the history of Iraq and the attitudes and aspirations of the Iraqi Shi'a. To have many of the factual inaccuracies ironed out, a visit to the website of the Norwegian scholar Reidar Visser is a must. Dr Visser is probably the foremost English language authority on the history and modern day politics of the Shi'a of Iraq. His clear and quiet writing style belies a passion for his subject for whose ambitions as Iraqis he is an energetic champion.
Reidar Visser is at: http://www.historiae.org/
By continuing to keep up with events over the last three years using the tools we've listed above we're quite sure that if we had finished shooting Meeting Resistance in 2007 the resulting film would be fundamentally the same as the one we now have. The nationalist insurgency that has caused so many problems for the American project in Iraq has remained, essentially, the same as it was in 2003/4. The main difference is that the volume has been turned up. In addition to the data collection referenced above, as we have shown the film in Baghdad to US military and diplomatic staff, as well as to the public here in the US - more than a few times we have been approached by individuals who work in Iraq, speak Arabic, speak and listen to Iraqis every day - they tell us that the film is still a very accurate portrayal of what they encounter, with one such military man saying recently, "This is the most accurate depiction I've seen anywhere of what is happening in Iraq."
The civil war that now rages in Iraq is a separate issue which, although fuelled by the occupation, has its own dynamics and is usually being fought out by a different set of actors to those we concentrated on for the film. The amount of 'violent energy' being directed at the civil conflict, we would argue, is also much lower than that being directed at the US-led coalition forces. We also encourage you to consider some of what is painted as sectarian violence in Iraq as political violence - a playing out of who will run the country and how.
If you have other valuable sources of information that we haven't addressed here, please let us know.
Before we worked on the film, Steve and I worked in Iraq as freelance photographers from just before the war in March 2003 through to the end of June 2003. As we worked on various projects we came across people and incidents that indicated there was opposition to the US military presence in Iraq. We decided that it was an important story and that we wanted to work on it. In order to not compete with each other as journalists - since we were both photographers - we decided to expand our journalistic skills. I used our reporting as the foundation for the text and pictures of a magazine piece (Vanity Fair, July 2004 issue "Ordinary Warriors") and Steve picked up a video camera to develop the project as a documentary film. During the summer of 2003 we took a six-week break, watching from the UK and US as the level of violence seemingly increased in Iraq every day. Convinced that our instincts were right - that this was a story fundamental to the war that was not being significantly covered - we returned to Iraq to work on the project together in August of 2003.
We returned to Baghdad in early August of 2003 thinking that we would work on the project for six weeks. We got further than we thought we would more quickly than we had anticipated. Because we'd gotten further faster than we expected, and because we found the story was not being covered, we decided to continue the reporting until we had a sense of how things were changing over time and there was some closing point for the story. That took ten months. As time went on and we were able to gather the dozen or so figures that we interviewed in depth - and do repeated interviews with some of them - we realized how critical what we knew about Iraq was to understanding the ever-escalating violence in the country.
I had come across a man in the Adhamiya neighborhood of Baghdad in May of 2003 while working on another story and he had told me that he was 'part of the resistance'. In August, when we started, we went back to try to find him. That man came to be called 'The Teacher' in the film. Quickly after meeting him we met another man who was involved in the fighting and we managed to interview him as well. He became 'The Traveler'. From that point on we decided to focus the film on this one small neighborhood of northern Baghdad because of the success we felt we were having in the community and because of its' historic trading and tribal ties to the Sunni Triangle - of which Falluja, Ramadi and Anbar Province are parts.
After getting those first two interviews we did what we called 'fishing' - looking for people to interview. We went almost every day to Adhamiya, sitting in the teashops - sipping tea, smoking cigarettes, chatting about all manner of things with whoever spoke with us - and inevitably steering the conversation to politics and the budding resistance. After those conversations sometimes we were approached by an individual who would ask who we were and what we were interested in. We would indicate that we wanted to interview people who were directly engaged in the fighting against coalition troops. Sometimes they would say they were not involved, or simply beg off. Other times they would set an appointment for us to talk.
Finding, identifying and interviewing the characters took tremendous time, patience and persistence. When it was possible we did multiple interviews with the characters. During the first interview with each character we had a long list of questions that we asked each one about their background, political and religious attitudes. When we got to do repeated interviews - as we did with six of the characters - our questions focused on clarifying elements from the first interview, asking about events that had transpired since then, and asking questions that might help us corroborate or contradict what other subjects had been telling us in the intervening time.
Our first question to ourselves about the individuals we were interviewing was always 'do we find them credible'? We spent a lot of time translating and transcribing the interviews we had conducted - some of which were four or five hours long - and discussing the content and meaning of them. Practically, we created a matrix of different sources for information about what was happening in the country and for the movement we were observing. Perhaps one of the most fundamental way we tested their revelations to us was whether what they told us came to pass. For example, the first time we heard that some groups were looking for special explosives to build small but powerful bombs was in mid August 2003 - when the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) had not yet become the main method used to attack coalition forces.
However, to build our 'matrix' of cross referenced information our sources inside the resistance were not the only way we found out what was happening. We responded to and reported on attacks and bombings around Baghdad as every other journalist did - but looking for specific kinds of information and detail that might support or contradict what we were being told. We read as much as possible to see what other journalists were writing and finding - both about attacks, and any interviews that were done with 'resistance fighters'. When journalists were kidnapped and released we carefully looked over what they said about their captors. These elements combined to form our questions for follow up interviews and eventually the film itself.
Over the period of time that we worked on the project it became increasingly dangerous for those who were in any insurgent organization to identify themselves as such to anyone, even their families. US military raids and sweeps, cash rewards for insurgent members and militias were all geared towards ferreting out those active in fighting against the coalition forces. It became clear to us that saying you were part of a resistance cell just for the bragging rights was not only stupid, but quite possibly deadly. The Iraqis knew this much more intimately than we did. Additionally, their behavior factored in: Most of them had the cautious nature - the physical and emotional bearing - of people who knew what they were doing was dangerous to them and could get them killed.
To the dismay of our families, the short answer is that we didn't really have any guarantee of safety while we worked on this story. Like all other journalists working in Baghdad at the time we were the possible victims of random violence - being in the wrong place at the wrong time when an ambush occurred, an IED or a car bomb were detonated, being killed by coalition forces or Iraqi Police during the response to an attack, or being kidnapped. But we were also exposed to the specific dangers of this story; that the fighters we were interviewing would turn on us, or that one of the many intelligence services, militaries or militias in the country would find out what we were doing and decide to rough us up or kill us to find out what we knew. We are very lucky that none of the possible things that could have gone wrong did. Not all journalists who have been working in the country have been as lucky.
However, unlike many of our colleagues, we did not take the ever increasing security precautions of armored vehicles, private bunkered housing, security professionals to analyze our activities and provide logistical, communications and physical safety support or armed guards. Nor did either of us ever carry a weapon. We were vulnerable. Vulnerable in regular 'soft' cars, local taxis, clearly foreigners and - we hoped - clearly journalists. We think that that vulnerability worked to our tremendous advantage on this story - and that in fact if we had been less vulnerable we would not have been able to accomplish what we did.
We stopped when it became no longer possible to work and we felt we had done everything we could to understand the movement that was happening before it went entirely underground. The characters we had repeatedly interviewed through the fall and winter had quickly dropped off - unable or unwilling to talk to us. The last interview we did was in May 2004 with 'The Warrior' - and his commander had finally put his foot down and told him he was never to see or talk to us again. The window that provided the glimpse into the resistance and had been quickly closing since we arrived was now shut. It had become dangerous for Iraqis even to be seen talking to a foreigner, who were all suspected of being foreign intelligence or military. Any Iraqi suspected of collaboration with a foreign intelligence was on very thin ice. Translators working for the US military and even for journalists were being killed for their association with foreigners.
The country had also gone through a powerfully violent eruption in April 2004 with Falluja under heavy US attack after the killing of four Blackwater Security contractors. Simultaneously, Moqtada Sadr's followers were rising up against the American forces. It was the occupier's nightmare: Sunni and Shia fighting them at the same time from different corners and for different reasons and sometimes even joining forces. Then the Abu Ghraib story broke and the country paused, horrified. The individuals we were still in touch with at that point talked with a new sense of justification and vigor about their fight. But they were also saying that they could no longer meet us.
For the project the events of April 2004 capped the first year of the insurgency and revealed the powerful combustion that was possible in Iraq, and that we understood why events were unfolding as they were. The first year of the movement - what it was about, how it had changed, developed, progressed and adapted - were things we understood. It was time for us to put the story we had reported before the public. The dwindling access our characters were allowing us combined with increased violence towards foreigners and the very real threat of kidnapping meant that it was time to wrap up and go. The kind of work we had been doing, and the working method we'd been using had become un-tenable. We drove out of Iraq on the long road to Amman, Jordan at the end of May 2004.