I first began reporting from Iraq in November 2003 after seeing the disparity between the mainstream media and independent reports coming out of the country. I had done so much reading before my first trip that I felt I knew what to expect.
But the reality was much worse than I imagined. I was shocked by how brutal the occupation was and how intense the anti-American sentiment was among so many Iraqis. I saw how there was no reconstruction taking place. Every building was in a complete shambles.
Six months into the occupation, Iraqis were talking about how even under sanctions they were able to rebuild power stations and services, while here was the most powerful army in the world and they had achieved nothing. Billions of dollars had been allocated to reconstruction, yet no work had been done.
I was struck by the growing poverty among ordinary people. Before the invasion the jobless rate was 30 percent. By November 2003 it had risen to 40 percent. Now it is well over 50 percent. Jobs are so hard to come by now that many Iraqis have been reduced to begging or selling little bits and pieces.
The occupation has also degraded and brutalised Iraqi society. The British medical journal the Lancet estimated that over 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the occupation began.
There are probably five times that number who have been wounded and maimed. Lives have been destroyed, the infrastructure has been destroyed, and Iraq’s rich cultural heritage is under threat.
Even the ancient city of Babylon has been turned into a US military base, and thousands of years of history and priceless artefacts are being crushed under the tracks of US tanks.
On so many different levels Iraqi society and culture have been shattered by the occupation, and continue to be as it drags on.
Many Iraqis I have spoken to are desperate for their lives to improve, but after two years this hope is dying.
After the January national elections many Iraqis are waiting to see if the national assembly will bring some positive change, yet it is already apparent that the security is no better and the infrastructure is no better.
The elections have raised the focus on sectarianism primarily because the politicians, the Western media, and even the media in Iraq have made it an issue.
But if you ask an Iraqi if they are Sunni or Shia they answer they are just Muslims and Iraqis. The biggest danger is not sectarianism but ethnic strife between the Kurds and the Arabs, especially in the north.
The general consensus among Iraqis is that they all want the occupation to end, even if they disagree on when the US troops should leave.
Some want the US to leave immediately, others would be content with a timetable setting out a withdrawal. Iraqis want the raids on their homes to stop, they want an end to the patrols and—more than anything—they want an end to the heavy handed tactics.
The Western media claim the resistance is made up of Baathist diehards and foreign jihadis. Although these groups do exist, the majority of those who take part in the resistance attacks are just average Iraqis. These are people who have had family members detained, killed or humiliated by occupation forces and want revenge.
I have interviewed many members of the resistance, and they say that there are people coming to fight from other Arab countries, but they are a minority. The majority of resistance fighters are ordinary Iraqis who just don’t want their country to be occupied and are going to keep fighting the occupation forces until they’ve gone.
The ranks of the resistance are growing day by day. More people have been enraged by the occupation and are joining the resistance.
There are so many groups taking part in the resistance that it is wrong to think of it as being one organisation.
Many have different strategies, and even different political agendas, but the one thing they all have in common is they want an end to the occupation. There is no cohesive unified plan or ideology driving the resistance beyond the desire to end the occupation.
I visited Fallujah many times before the US assault last November. I was there during the first US siege in April 2004. Fallujah has come to symbolise Iraq under occupation.
Here was a town that did not like Saddam Hussein — the people saw themselves as victims and opponents of the old regime.
But after the US troops gunned down 17 people during a protest in the first months of the occupation, the city became radicalised and was transformed into a centre of resistance.
There is a saying in Iraq, “Fallujah is Iraq and Iraq is Fallujah.” This is because the pattern of attacks and raids is repeating itself across the country. Fallujah personifies what has happened to Iraq since the invasion.
I refuse to be an embed (embedded journalist), so my only contact with US troops is on checkpoints, or if I meet them when they are on patrol. What I have found is that morale is very low, and the longer they have been in Iraq the lower their morale is.
Many arrive believing they are protecting America, but after a short time they begin to see this as a lie.
Unfortunately I have also found that many of them are becoming brutalised by the occupation.
Because they are fighting a brutal guerrilla war, a survival mode kicks in and they start doing things that they will have to live with for the rest of their lives, like killing civilians or brutalising captives.
The bottom line is this occupation is not going to end soon. There are already permanent US military bases in the country.
The danger is that the US could end up at war at with Iran and Syria and also facing a huge uprising among the Shia.