Robert Fisk, can you tell us about the situation you found in Iraq?
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clearer example of an army that thought it was an army of liberation and has become an army of occupation. You get different kinds of behaviour from the Americans. You got this very nice guy, Phil Cummings, who was a Rhode Island cop, very sensitive towards people, didn’t worry if people shouted at him. He remained smiling. He just said that ‘if people throw rocks or stones at me, I give them candies’. There was another soldier who went up to a middle aged man sitting on a seat and said, ‘If you get out of that seat, I’ll break your neck,’ and there was quite a lot of language like that as well. There were good guys as well as bad guys among the Americans as there always are in armies, but the people who I talked to, the sergeants and captains and so on – most of them acknowledged that something had gone wrong, that this was not going to be good.
One guy said to me, ‘every time we go down to the river’ – he was talking about the river area in Fallujah which is a tributary of the Tigris – ‘it’s like Somalia down there. You always get shot at and stones thrown at us’. Some of the soldiers spoke very frankly about the situation in Baghdad. I heard twice, once from a British Commonwealth diplomat and once from a fairly senior officer in what we now have to call the coalition, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), that Baghdad airport now comes under nightly sniper fire from the perimeter of the runway from Iraqis. Two of them told me that every time a military aircraft comes in at night it’s fired at. In fact some of the American pilots are now going back to the old Vietnamese tactic of corkscrewing down tightly onto the runways from above rather than making the normal level flight approach across open countryside because they’re shot at so much. So there is a very serious problem of security.
The Americans still officially call them the remnants of Saddam or terrorists. But in fact, it is obviously an increase in the organised resistance and not just people who were in Saddam’s forces, or who were in the Ba’ath Party or the Saddam Fedayeen.
There is also increasing anger among the Shi’ite community, those who were most opposed to Saddam. I think what we’re actually seeing is a cross-fertilisation. Shi’ites who are disillusioned, who don’t believe they have been liberated, who spent so long in Iran, and they don’t like the Americans anyway. Sunni Muslims who feel like they’re threatened by the Shi’ites, former Saddam acolytes who’ve lost their jobs and found that their money has stopped. And Kurds who are disaffected and are beginning to have contacts. That, of course, is the beginning of a real resistance movement and that’s the great danger for the Americans now.
There’s a front page piece in the New York Times that says, ‘GI’s In Iraqi City Are Stalked By Faceless Enemies At Night’. The journalist Michael Gordon writes about how organised the resistance is, how it seems to come alive at night, and that some attacks are premeditated, involve cooperation among small groups of fighters including a system of signalling the presence of American forces: talking about the use of red, white and blue flares when forces come and then the attacks begin.
Yes, I’ve heard this. I also know that in Fallujah, for example, there’s a system of honking the horns of cars: when the American convoy approaches, there’s one honk on the horn. When the last vehicle goes by the same spot, there’s two honks on the horn, and the purpose is to work out the time element between the first hooter and the second, because by that they know how big the convoy is and whether it’s small enough to be attacked.
One of the problems with the Americans, I think, is that the top people in the Pentagon always knew that this wasn’t going to be when human rights abuses ended, that there would be flowers and music for the soldiers and everyone lives happily every after and loves America. You may remember when Rumsfeld first came to Baghdad (something Bush didn’t dare to do in the end) he made a speech which I thought was very interesting, and rather sinister in the big hangar at Baghdad airport. He said we still have to fight the remnants of Saddam and the terrorists in Iraq. I thought, ‘hang on a minute, who are these people?’ And it took me a few minutes to realise that he was laying the future narrative of the opposition to the Americans. That is when the Americans get attacked – it could be first of all laid down to remnants of Saddam, as it is the remnants of the Taliban who seem to be moving around in Afghanistan. If you were to suggest that it was a resistance movement, it would suggest the people didn’t believe they had been liberated and, of course, all good-natured peace-loving people have to believe they were liberated by the Americans, not occupied by them.
What you’re finding is a whole series of blunders by Paul Bremer, the American head of the so called coalition forces, at least coalition authority in Baghdad. First of all, he dissolved the Iraqi army. Well, I can’t imagine an army that better deserves to be dissolved. But that means that more than quarter of a million armed men overnight are deprived of their welfare and money. Now if you have quarter of a million armed Iraqis who suddenly don’t get paid any more, and they all know each other, what are they going to do? They are going to form some kind of force which is secret, which is covert – then they will be called terrorists. Then of course they will be saying to people, why don’t you come and join us?
It was very interesting that in Fallujah a young man came out to see me from a shop just after the American searches there had ended. He said some people came from the resistance a few nights ago and asked him to join. I said, what did you say, and he said, I wouldn’t do that. But now, he said, I might think differently.
I met a Shi’ite Muslim family in Baghdad who moved into the former home of a Saddam intelligence officer. This family had been visited three nights previously by armed men who said, you better move out of this house. It doesn’t belong to you unless you want to join us. The guy in Fallujah said that the armed men who came to invite him to join the resistance had weapons, showed their mukhabarat intelligence identity cards, and said we’re still being paid and we are proud to hold our ID cards for the Ba’ath Party. So now you have Fallujah and other towns like it that are very unlike Tikrit, and are very much pro-Saddam. Fallujah is the site of a great munitions factory. It gave people massive employment. They all loved Saddam in the way Arabs are encouraged to love dictators or go to prison. But nonetheless, there is an embryo of a serious resistance movement now.
On top of this, you can see the measure of what I think is basically desperation. Paul Bremer has now asked the legal side of the CPA to set up the machinery of Iraqi press censorship. In other words, Iraqi newspapers are going to be censored. ‘Controlled’ I think is the official word they use, but that means censorship. That is the kind of language that Saddam used. Iraqis are used to a censored press; after all, they lived with it for more than 20 years under Saddam Hussein.
Now, when you question the Americans about it, first of all they deny it. Then the British half accept it; then other people involved in the coalition say, well, it’s probably true, yes, it is true.
But the problem is the wild stories appearing in the Iraqi press. One paper called The Witness, a Shi’ite Muslim paper, was saying that Americans are going with Iraqi prostitutes, American troops are chasing Iraqi women, that Muslim women are being invited to marry Christian foreigners, that this is worse than it was under Saddam. Other newspapers carry reports of American beatings and they also carry reports of the opening of mass graves. So they’re not totally one sided against the Americans.
But you can see how the ‘occupation forces’ – let’s call them by their real name – are troubled by this kind of publication because it seems to them to provoke or incite animosity towards the ‘liberators’ of Iraq. The problem is also that the imams in the mosques are saying the same thing about the Americans. One American official said that it may be necessary to control what the imams were saying in the mosques. Well, this is preposterous. I sat on Rashid Street in Baghdad a few days ago and listened to the loudspeaker carrying the sermon of the imam from within the mosque. I think he was saying the Americans must leave immediately, now. Well, under the new rule presumably he’s inciting the people to violence. What are the Americans going to do? Arrest all the imams in the mosques, arrest all the journalists who won’t obey, close down the newspapers?
What Bremer wants to do is control – control the press, control the imams, and it doesn’t work.
One of the big problems at the moment is the Americans and, to some extent the British, are ensconced in chic gleaming marble palaces. They sit with their laptops trying to work out with Washington how they’re going to bring about this new democracy in Iraq. They rely, for the most part, on former Iraqi exiles who never endured Saddam Hussein, and who are hovering around making sure that they get the biggest part of the pie possible. When they leave the palace, when they go onto the dangerous streets of Baghdad, they leave in these armoured black Mercedes with gunmen in the front and back, soldiers, plainclothes guys with weapons and sunglasses. Some Iraqis said to me the other day. ‘Who did you think was the last person we saw driving through town like this?’ I said, ‘Saddam Hussein?’ They all burst out laughing. ‘Of course,’ they said, ‘exactly the same.’
I was in a small hotel called the Al Hama the other day. I was just going down to have a meal and came across two westerners, one with a pump action shotgun, the other with a submachine gun passing me in the hallway. I said, ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘Well, who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m a guest in the hotel. You have guns. Who are you?’ He said, ‘We work for DOD.’ ‘Department of Defence, right?’ I said (But he was obviously English – he had a British accent.) ‘Hang on a second – you’re not American.’ ‘No, we’re a British company that is hired to look after DOD employees in Baghdad. That’s why we’re armed.’ I said, ‘Who gives you permission to have weapons?’ He said, ‘The coalition forces. We’re here protecting them.’
Now, how often have Iraqis seen armed plainclothes men moving in and out of hotels? These guys are not going to string them up by their fingernails and electrocute them in torture cells, but the image is the same. The armoured escort, limousines in the street, soldiers kicking down the doors searching for ‘terrorists’. The press censorship plans. Plainclothes armed men going into a hotel asking who you are. This is the same system as before. It has this kind of ghastly ghostly veneer of the old regime about it.
CNN is reporting that Ahmed Chalabi, who has addressed the Council on Foreign Relations, is saying that Saddam Hussein is moving in an arc around the Tigris River starting north east of Baghdad. He said finding Saddam would just be a matter of knowing who to talk to. He says that based on information from credible sources he believes the former Iraqi president wants revenge and has obtained two suicide bombing vests for attacks on US forces. Chalabi says Saddam is paying bounty for every US soldier killed. What is your response?
I long ago gave up putting any credit in anything that Ahmed Chalabi says. The real issue is not where Saddam Hussein is – he could be sitting in Minsk or Belarus or he could be sitting in Tikrit or in the Iraqi countryside somewhere. Obviously there were plans to hide him in advance. But this goes back to the degree of real effort to find him. Just look back – the Americans were going to capture Osama Bin Laden, yet he’s still on the loose. They were going to capture Mullah Omar – he’s only got one eye, not difficult to identify. But he’s still on the loose. We can’t get vice-president Ramadan in Iraq or Uday Hussein, the son of Saddam. We can’t get Saddam himself or Naji Sabri, the foreign minister.
I was sitting in a restaurant in Baghdad a week and a half ago. At the next table next to me was Saddam’s personal translator. I sort of did a double take. I said, ‘Hi, how are you?’ I knew the guy. I’d known him for years and years. I said, ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘No problem.’ He was having a beer with friends, and he walked out. This is the same restaurant that later on I saw Paul Bremer walk into with several special forces men to protect him and his guests for dinner. I have to ask myself sometimes what’s going on. Ahmed Chalabi says that Saddam is moving in an arc. He may be moving in a circle or square for all I know but it’s clear he’s still alive and that’s the point.
This is an edited interview from Znet. See the full version on www.zmag.org.
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