John Martinkus is a respected author and journalist, one of the few to raise awareness of the plights of the people of East Timor, West Papua and Aceh. More recently he has turned his attention to Iraq, where he was kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents in 2004. Speaking with Rich Bowden, Martinkus talked frankly of his kidnapping, and the Australian government's reaction to it, as well as the situation in Iraq.
What did you see in Iraq, when you travelled there in 2004?
I've been there three times last year, I was there February-March, then June-July and again in September-October. Each time I go back, the US troops and administration officials you deal with really do believe they were doing the right thing, really do believe that they were pushing towards a democratic Iraq and that it was a good thing that Saddam Hussein had been overthrown.
And a lot of Iraqis agreed [at first]. They were very glad that Saddam was deposed. It was rare to find someone who actually supported Saddam or wanted that regime back. However as the year progressed, and the scale of the fighting grew, you would see this very gradual change among even moderate Iraqis in response to the way the Americans have tried to conduct the counter-insurgency.
The really big crunch was in April when the marines tried to go into Fallujah; because [there] was such a disregard for civilian casualties by the US military; a lot of previously moderate Iraqis were quite disgusted.
Bear in mind, the Abu Ghraib revelations [of US soldiers torturing prisoners] came out shortly after that and this confirmed what a lot of Iraqis had been talking about. People who had previously been either ambivalent or even supported the American presence were now rejecting it and if they were not actively fighting then at least sympathising with those who were.
The reality of how little control the [occupying] coalition has really strikes you when you go there now. For example there are only two hotels in all of Baghdad that are safe to stay in and they are only safe because they are ringed by troops and have security guards and 18-foot blast walls to stop car bombs. It's got to the point now where even travelling from those hotels to the Green Zone across the river where all the administration is, is an extremely dangerous exercise.
You can't carry out reconstruction work when you can't leave your fortified compound.
It's very difficult [to see a solution] unless one of two things happen; the US withdraws or it gets more troops in to regain control of the situation. Washington's proposed solution, to train the Iraqi army and police and hand security back to them, just isn't happening and it's not effective enough.
The media seems to have trouble coming up with a satisfactory description of the Iraqi insurgents. Can you tell us exactly who they are and what motivates them?
That's very difficult and the reason why no-one can really tell is that — certainly no foreign reporters — have really tried to find out exactly who they are. The reasons for that are that it is incredibly dangerous.
But there is no unified central clan. It's almost like a localised thing, different groups, different areas — fighting independently and amongst that you've also got certain groups that have got funding from say, Saudi Arabia and other groups who may be getting funding from Baath sympathisers in Syria. The US administration does play up the foreign influence. But the Iraqi resistance group that took me hostage, for example, were Iraqis who were not fighting for money but were simply fighting to free their country of the Americans.
Their major motivation, from what I could tell, seemed to be a hatred of the occupying forces bred from the treatment the community had received from those forces. On top of that, they also saw the exploitation of the natural resources [in Iraq] such as the oil as the prime motivation for the occupation and that was a great affront to them. They said that Iraq is a wealthy country and has lots of oil, they were very nationalistic and saw the whole pretext for the occupation as part of a grab for resources.
Also it as though there's an evolving religious aspect as well regarding fighting the infidels, fighting for Islam. So you've got all these different groups with varying degrees of religious motivation. In Fallujah for example, back in June/July there were about 30 different resistance groups. Some were associated with tribal leaders, some of them were from other parts of the country, and some were foreigners.
Can you describe for us your kidnapping in Iraq?
The kidnapping itself was very intense because I did not know what was going to happen and I was trying to convince those guys to release me. One of the two hotel compounds where the journalists stay is situated just across from the Australian embassy and I was in a vehicle coming out of that compound and pulled out into the road outside the front of the embassy and was basically carjacked.
The [Australian] foreign minister waited until I was out of Baghdad [following my release] and on a flight to Annan before making a statement that I had been in an area where I had been advised not to go.
I was outraged; I had actually informed the Foreign Affairs Department what had taken place. I felt I had an obligation to do so because it was obvious that that area was no longer safe if that happened to me. I informed all the other journalists in Baghdad immediately as well.
When they kidnapped me, they said they wanted to interrogate me and later told me they believed I was either a CIA or Mossad agent and had started following me when I left the Green Zone. They didn't know who I was and were trying to capture a foreigner for political purposes and I had to convince them that I wasn't associated with the coalition, that I was a reporter.
Basically their ideology, their mentality and their tactics are to kill or kidnap anyone associated with the coalition and government, whether they be Iraqis working for the US or people like the Nepalese cleaners who they killed, and say truck drivers. They are trying to stop the coalition operating in Iraq.
Did your kidnappers know you were Australian?
Yes, I told them. I was totally straight with them and basically that was where the internet came in. I told them to go and check. I said look me up, I'm a journalist, I don't work for the intelligence services and I've got nothing to do with the coalition. I gave them my card and showed them my ID. Then they went away and came back about an hour later and it was obvious from the questions they began asking then that they had checked me out.
They began asking questions about other topics I'd covered like Aceh and East Timor and they also were aware of another book I had written on Iraq earlier in the year because they had checked it out. So with all these things I was basically confirming my identity to them and it was on the basis that I was who I said I was that they released me.
Did they give out any information as to which group they belonged to?
No, they didn't willingly. However, when they made a video the banner they put me in front of was a Tawhid Wa'al Jihad [which the US claims is linked to Abu Musab al Zarqawi] banner, which much to my horror, was the same banner that had accompanied the Ken Bigley videos which was all happening at the same time.
Journalists in Baghdad are very aware of those kinds of details because we have to report them and you remember them, and that really scared me because until then I hadn't any indication of who they were. Also the way they addressed each other showed that there was a different command structure in place between being blindfolded to being interrogated by the leader. There were two different leaders.
They were Iraqis, not foreigners. They said there were foreigners fighting with them in places such as Fallujah but that they were subordinate to Iraqis in their organisation. They vehemently denied that Zarqawi even existed, they said he was a fabrication to create a pretext for continued American operations in Fallujah.
It's hard to describe what went through my head in these times but I was trying to figure out who these people were and how I could say the right thing to facilitate my release. Then to come into the political point scoring [by the Australian government] following my release was a very unpleasant experience.
Another unpleasant experience you had was back in March 2004 when you were close to the Ashoura bombings when a number of explosions during a religious festival killed 271 pilgrims. Can you tell us how this experience affected you?
That was something I would never want to see again. It was truly horrible. To see what actually happens to people, to see how they die in those kinds of incidents, which as you know, happens almost daily now in Baghdad car bombings of people waiting in queues, that sort of thing. But to witness at really close range and to witness the immediate aftermath of it, really puts you into shock.
This was why it angered me when I was being criticised by certain members of the press [who accused me of] supporting terror. When you actually see the consequences of what happens close up as a result of having seen that, I can have, I suppose, more of an understanding of how bad acts of these kinds of things are. It's not something I talk about lightly.
From Green Left Weekly, March 2, 2005.
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