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Dahlia Wasfi and the Tragedy of Iraq

Mac McKinney: These two wars were also interspersed by severe sanctions against Iraq by Bill Clinton in the latter 1990s that led to hardship, impoverishment, even death for countless Iraqis, and through all these destructive events, Dahlia's and Ross's lives crossed, and here I was, interviewing them both.
Dahlia Wasfi

Dahlia Wasfi

Dr. Dahlia Wasfi and the Tragedy of Iraq, Part 1: Interviewing Ross Caputi, a Marine in Fallujah

March 20, 2011 was the eighth anniversary of the Bush/Cheney Administration invasion and occupation of Iraq, an occupation that has increasingly fallen below the radar ever since President Obama ordered all American combat brigades home by August 31 of last year. The last unit, the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, rumbled back into Kuwait around August 19th, handily beating the deadline.

However, the occupation did not end then, only any large scale American combat role. There were still some 50,000 American troops in country on September 1st, the day after combat was declared over, their official role to maintain order and stability as well as train Iraqi troops and security forces. However, in a treaty signed with the Iraqi government, ALL American troops are supposed to be out by December 31, 2011, but is that going to be end of the story?

The American Embassy in Baghdad, the Green Zone, is the size of some 80 footballs fields, and there are huge military bases throughout Iraq such as Joint Base Balad, ten massive square miles of Army and Air Force property housing thousands of military personnel. It is hard to imagine the United States, after spending billions on all of this, simply handing over the "keys to the castle" in nine months time and walking away.

Indeed, a recurring slogan coming out of official Washington has been that we want to maintain an "enduring presence" in Iraq. That would not be surprising, historically, because we still have forces in Japan and Germany, for example, some 65 years after the end of World War II.

The Unreturned played on March 16 at the Naro. (photo by Mac McKinney)

The Unreturned played on March 16 at the Naro. (photo by Mac McKinney)

In light of this anniversary of what has always been a highly controversial war, one that a large cross-section of humanity has condemned as illegal and immoral, the famed independent art house, the Naro Cinema in Ghent, Norfolk, also a well-known venue for alternative politics, dedicated Wednesday night, March 16th, to reflecting upon the human costs of the invasion.

The Naro locally premiered the recent award-winning documentary, The Unreturned, a very personal look at the plight of millions of Iraqi war refugees as seen through the struggles of five externally displaced Iraqis, only five of some five million plus refugees, internally and externally displaced by the war.

But more significantly, Dahlia Wasfi MD, international speaker, author and human rights advocate on and for Iraq, was the guest speaker at this event, brought to Norfolk through the efforts of local activists.

I myself was privileged to meet her the night before her speech over dinner at the Pasha Mezze, the very stylish Turkish restaurant on 22nd Street off Llewellyn, also in the Ghent section of Norfolk. Also joining us were three other progressive activists long in the trenches against the war in Iraq.

The assault on Fallujah (Photobucket Commons)

The assault on Fallujah (Photobucket Commons)

Dahlia was traveling with close friend and activist associate Ross Caputi, (actually they have just gotten married - congratulations) a former US Marine from Massachusetts who gradually turned peace activist after becoming profoundly disenchanted with the U.S. mission in Iraq. This was after he had participated in the cataclysmic assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in November of 2004, actually the second assault on this hapless city after an earlier, unsuccessful assault in April (Operation Vigilant Resolve) ended in blood-splattered stalemate.

What he witnessed was beyond the pale for his conscience, eating away at his psyche and leading him, ultimately, to separate early from the Marine Corps, which led to an odyssey of inward reflection, outward journey and ultimate commitment to the struggle for world peace. He is currently studying Linguistics at Boston University while participating in various on-campus activist groups such as the Anti-War Coalition.

We grabbed a large table in a corner of Pasha Mezze to avoid too many surrounding conversations while I spent the next two hours doing a leisurely, recorded dinner interview with Dahlia and Ross over drinks, dinner and dessert.

Ross Caputi, Marine grunt turned peace advocate (photo by Mac)

Ross Caputi, Marine grunt turned peace advocate (photo by Mac)

Dahlia herself comes from a very interesting background. Her father was born and raised in Basrah, Iraq, before earning a degree in chemistry in Baghdad, doing well enough to win an overseas government scholarship which led him to Georgetown University in DC to pursue a PhD, and where he met his future wife, another graduate student, "a nice Jewish girl from New York", to quote Dahlia.

From her website,, she continues, "Her parents had fled their homeland of Austria during Hitler's Anschluss and emigrated to the United States. Was it love at first sight? I don't know, but my sister was born in 1969, and I arrived in 1971. To pay back his scholarship, my father taught at Basrah University from 1972 to 1977; thus, my early childhood was in both Iraq and the United States."

So Dahlia is a woman whose ethnic history includes both the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust and the eventual angst of the Iraqi people who not only suffered for years under Saddam Hussein, but from two American-led wars, first in 1990-91 in what was referred to in the vernacular as the "Gulf War", and then again from 2003 to our present day's occupation of Iraq in the "Iraq War", also known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, an Orwellian phrase if ever there was one.

These two wars were also interspersed by severe sanctions against Iraq by Bill Clinton in the latter 1990s that led to hardship, impoverishment, even death for countless Iraqis, and through all these destructive events, Dahlia's and Ross's lives crossed, and here I was, interviewing them both.

At this point I want to turn my full attention to Ross, so what follows next in this article, Part 1 of this series on Dahlia, is the transcript of my interview with him. Next week we will dive into my interview with Dahlia.


Interview with Ross Caputi, Eye-Witness Combatant in Operation Phantom Fury, the November, 2004 Assault on Fallujah, Iraq

Mac: I'm interviewing Ross Caputi, who was in the Marine Corps for three years and deployed in Iraq from June 2004 until January 2005. He saw action inside Fallujah and we're discussing that right now.

Ross: Well, I was the company commander's radio operator (1st Battalion 8th Marines Alpha Company), so I wasn't near the guys kicking in doors, but that entire assault was basically a three week long firefight.

Mac: Were you going house to house, door to door?

Ross: Yep

Mac: Can you describe some of the action, who you were fighting against, and what you saw?

Ross: OK, so, on the very first day, November 7 (2004), the air assault was still going on and they loaded my unit up into trucks and then took us to the outskirts of the city, and as we're passing through the desert from Camp Fallujah to the outskirts of Fallujah proper, I did see a good number of women and children wandering into the desert, and as we were sitting on the outskirts of the city, probably about for a day, I did see the White Phosphorus. I saw us drop it from the sky.

t's difficult to say where it landed, whether it landed on the city or on the outskirts of the city. I think that's irrelevant because they knew perfectly well that civilians were living in the city and in the outskirts of the city, so either way, I'm pretty sure that's illegal.

And the following day, November 8, they trucked us into the city on AAV's and they dropped us off at what we were calling the Mayor's Complex - I don't know if the mayor used to actually work in that building or not - and basically from that part on we started a two or three week push from that point in the city, I think south, just going one building at a time, one house at a time, just going through normal people's houses.

Marines in Fallujah (Photobucket Commons)

Marines in Fallujah (Photobucket Commons)

It was very clear that people had lived in there just days prior; fridges were still full of food; there were still family photos up on the wall, and all their possessions were still in the house - they brought very little with them. And on the part of the Marines I was with, there was quite a bit of looting going on. There was a certain hysteria. Basically they believed that every person in the city was a pure, evil terrorist bent on some irrational hatred against America, with very little concern for the civilians that were involved.

Mac: Everyone was considered a terrorist, civilians and anyone with a weapon?

Ross: Well, anyone in the city, we thought, because we told them to go live out in the desert because we were such nice people, that we were doing this for them, and if they chose to ignore that and stay in the city, then that's because they wanted to fight against us, so they were fair targets.

That's the thinking. And that's partly because that's exactly what the chain of command told them, that there were 2000 hardcore international Jihadists inside the city; they were mostly foreign fighters, and that they were somehow controlling the city against the will of the civilians who lived there, and al-Zarqawi was orchestrating this whole thing [the military also claimed to be attacking the safehouses of "al-Qaeda in Iraq" led by the mysterious Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom, some declared, had established Fallujah as his operational base - no solid proof was ever found of this - Mac], so there's a lot of misinformation going on, and people believed that, and with the pressure because of the tense situation, the combat, the violence and everything else, this created a kind of hysteria, and, as [the push on] the city went on, atrocities started to happen in greater frequency and greater severity.

Civilians were killed; people were shot in the street. Marines, not all of them, but some Marines started stealing form the pockets of the dead resistance fighters, mutilating dead bodies. Entire sections of the city were bulldozed. I know at one point I saw a house was collapsed on top of two resistance fighters and a little boy. This was kind of just how it went on for about three weeks, and then when they trucked us out of the city, every house that I saw, if not totally demolished and leveled to the ground, had severe, severe damage to it.

Fallujans surveying damage from the US assault (Photobucket Commons)

Fallujans surveying damage from the US assault (Photobucket Commons)

Mac: What percentage of the city was destroyed would you say?

Ross: It's hard to say because I didn't see the entire city. My unit was just in this one section that was our area of operation, and of that section, every house had severe damage to it, severe structural damage.

Mac: So it was kind of like a turkey shoot.

Ross: Yeah, basically, I mean we used everything from air support, from 2000 lb bombs, to Hellfire missiles. On the ground we used tanks, bulldozers; we used C-4 to demolish houses; we used Mark-19 Grenade-launchers to demolish houses. We just basically used everything.

Mac: Wow! All ordnance used.

Ross: They say Depleted Uranium was used too. I certainly believe it's possible, but being an infantry man, we never handled Depleted Uranium, so I can't say that I witnessed that with my own two eyes.

Mac: Wasn't that normally used on their artillery shells anyway?

Ross: I think it's used on artillery rounds and tank rounds, but I'm not an artillery guy or a tank guy.

Mac: Did you see or hear snipers in action? I heard there were a lot of snipers shooting people.

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Ross: Well, I heard that there was a huge problem with this during the first assault [in April] on the city where snipers were just being really indiscriminate and were just shooting at anyone who was out in the street. During the second assault this was less of a problem because the people who were in the city were hiding in their houses. To my knowledge, they weren't shooting civilians to the extent they were in the first assault.

Mac: I did read a report of Iraqis stepping out of their houses and being shot though, so there was still some of that going on I imagine.

Ross: You know, I had friends who were snipers. They didn't tell me anything about that. I didn't directly witness that. From the guys I was with I do know of one incident. There was a civilian out in the street, he had something in his hands and somebody yelled, "He's got something in his hands!" and somebody shot him. And that's the only incident I know of that I can testify to 100% that somebody was shot dead in the street.

Punching through Fallujah with maximum carnage. (Photobucket Commons )

Punching through Fallujah with maximum carnage. (Photobucket Commons )

Mac: Once you were in the city, did you see White Phosphorus or Willie Pete being called in?

Ross: No, I think it was just used once on one incident during the bombing campaign before the ground troops got pulled in there.

Mac: So it was used to soften up the city?

Ross: You know, I asked a Lieutenant about it because I saw it kind of like floating down in the wind and it looked like an extremely inaccurate weapon, so I don't know, thinking "Oh, that can't be legal."

So I asked this Lieutenant next to me and he said, "It's legal because we weren't using it offensively. We were using it as a smoke screen. We were dumping it in the desert to screen what we were doing."

That sounds like bullshit, first of all because there was an incredible amount of smoke coming out of the city from all the bombing, and from my vantage point and his vantage point, there was no way he could know where we were dumping that. There just wasn't enough visibility. And secondly, there were no ground troops in the city, so what exactly were we screening? So it didn't make a lot of sense, his reply.

But that's the line we stick with. We don't deny using White Phosphorus anymore. They say they weren't using it offensively, so it was legal.

Mac: OK. Could you tell if some of it was actually drifting over the city?

Ross: No, I couldn't tell. There was just too much smoke. I couldn't see where it landed. It was pretty close though.

Carmelized remains of a White Phosphorus victim in Fallujah (Photobucket Commons)

Carmelized remains of a White Phosphorus victim in Fallujah (Photobucket Commons)

Mac: I've actually seen photos of bodies that were carmelized by WP, where their skin turns leathery and dark-brown.

Ross: I've seen that documentary put together by the Italian journalists. [see my article on White Phosphorus use in Fallujah - Mac]

Mac: Yeah, that's the one I'm referring to. And then I saw some still photos too. Did you see any bodies that were burned like that?

Ross: I didn't see any burned bodies.

Mac: So, did you see very many civilians running around during all these firefights, or was everyone just hunkered down?

Ross: The chain of command told us that there were zero civilians inside the city, that the only people left were these hardcore international Jihadists. On the very first day, though, we saw that that wasn't true. We saw civilians on the first day. We saw women and children trying to cross the street with a white flag. But the way we had justified like the way we were doing combat, in a way that there would be extreme levels of collateral damage, like using tanks in an urban center, was that we kept maintaining that there were no civilians in the city, so, I mean, from the very first day we knew that was bullshit, but we kept doing it anyway.

And we even started using this tactic called reconnaissance by fire, which is basically when you fire into a house to see what's inside. So if you fire into it and hear screaming and stuff, then you know there's people inside.

Mac: That's right out of the Geman Wermacht playbook!

Ross: But I've heard reports from friends from my same unit that they ran into civilians too. They take a very different point of view on this from me. They think that we were extremely compassionate toward civilians, that when we did see civilians in the city, that we called in trucks to truck them out into the desert. From their point of view we were being compassionate.

Mac: Before I forget, let me ask you a couple of background questions. Where are you from?

Ross: Fitchburg, it's like central Massachusetts.

Mac: And what prompted you to join the Marine Corps?

Ross: Free college, money, benefits, respect.

Mac: After the three weeks in Fallujah, then where did you end up?

Ross: What did I end up doing?

Mac: Yes

Ross: Well, I knew what we were doing was bullshit way before Fallujah, but I guess there was a certain level of hypocrisy I was willing to tolerate, but after Fallujah I couldn't stomach it anymore. I slowly made up my mind I wanted out, and was looking for different ways to get out, and within maybe six months, no, seven, eight months after Fallujah, I told them that I had (PTSD) and I wanted to get out, and they dragged me along for about nine months after that, so May, 2006 I ended up getting out of the Marine Corps.

Mac: Once you told them you wanted out, did they keep you at the command you were with for awhile?

Ross: The schedule that we were on, we were supposed to stay at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for a year and a half before deploying again, so they kept me in my unit and basically just made me errand boy, phone watch, barracks watch. I did that for about nine months straight, and that was it. There was a certain amount of harassment that went along with it, but nothing too severe.

Mac: When had your unit returned to Camp Lejeune?

Ross: Back in January, 2005.

Mac: How many Marines had a sympathetic position toward you?

Ross: Well at that point it really wasn't totally clear to me what my position was, so I couldn't really explain it to my friends. I knew something was wrong; I knew something wasn't sitting right with me, but I couldn't totally put it into words. I really thought I had PTSD back then, but now I just think I felt guilty about being involved with Fallujah, but now that I can fully articulate what was bothering me about Fallujah and our entire deployment in Iraq, our entire mission as Marines in general, everyone from my unit hates me. They call me a terrorist basically.

Mac: You're with us or against us! So, when you separated, did they give you an Honorable Discharge or a General Discharge?

Ross: General under Honorable Conditions.

Mac: How long before you decided to join Iraqi Veterans Against the War?

Ross: I'm not actually with them. I guess I am a member of March Forward, but I mostly just do campus activism. I run the Anti-War Coalition chapter at Boston U. I'm in Students for Justice in Palestine and I have my own project called the Justice for Fallujah Project, which is outside of the school I guess.

After I got out, I went to Italy for a year and a half and really didn't want to be involved in anything. I didn't want to live in this country. I didn't want to think about it, and then a year and a half later I came back and started getting involved in activism on the campus.

Mac: What are you studying?

Ross: Lingusitics, Italian and Spanish.

Mac: OK, thanks. Let me start asking Dahlia some questions now.


This is where I will end Part One, and then we will get heavily into what Dr. Dahlia Wasfi has to say about Iraq in Part Two.


mac mckinney

I suggest you visit Ross's praiseworthy Justice for Fallujah Project site online. The board of advisors includes such notable people as Noam Chomsky, Susan Akran, Dahlia of course, and noted journalist Dahr Jamail.

Mac McKinney