Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk reports live from Baghdad. Fisk describes the "grotesque, gruesome, terrible" attacks in Fallujah, the contracted mercenaries that have infiltrated Iraq: "They swagger in and out with heavy weapons, with automatic weapons and pistols as if they’re cowboys" and the deteriorating situation throughout the country: "The violence and the insecurity, the sense of anarchy is greater." [includes rush transcript]
With less than 100 days to go before U.S. authorities hand over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government, attacks throughout the country kill both Iraqi civilians and occupation forces on a daily basis.
An emotional former President George H.W. Bush yesterday defended his son’s invasion of Iraq and lashed out at White House critics.
In a speech to the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association annual convention, the elder Bush said it is, "deeply offensive and contemptible" to hear "elites and intellectuals on the campaign trail" dismiss progress in Iraq since last year’s overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Meanwhile, in and around Fallujah today, up to nine people were killed, including five U.S. soldiers, in two separate attacks.
Witnesses described scenes of horror after gunmen targeted two civilian cars that residents said were carrying foreign nationals. The cars were set on fire and the burnt bodies of the occupants were dragged out, mutilated and dismembered by angry crowds.
Reuters reports some body parts were pulled off and left hanging from a pole, while two incinerated bodies were later strung from a bridge over the road and left dangling there.
In a separate incident, five U.S. soldiers were killed when their military vehicle ran over an improvised explosive device. The number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq has now reached 600.
- Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent.
AMY GOODMAN: Right now, though, we’re going to go to Iraq. We’re joined by Robert Fisk, veteran war correspondent with the London Independent for decades. With less than 100 days to go before U.S. authorities hand over sovereignty to an Interim Iraqi Government, daily attacks throughout the country kill Iraqi civilians and occupation forces alike. An emotional former president George Bush defended his son’s invasion of Iraq and lashed out at White House critics in a speech he gave to the National Petrochemicals and Refiners Convention, the elder Bush said, quote, "It is deeply offensive to hear intellectuals dismiss progress in Iraq since last year’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein." Meanwhile in and around Fallujah up to nine people were killed, including five U.S. Soldiers in two separate attacks. Robert Fisk is on the line with us from Iraq. Can you respond to the elder Bush’s statements, and what the situation is on the ground where you are? Robert Fisk, are you on the line? Robert Fisk, can you hear us?
ROBERT FISK: Hello.
AMY GOODMAN: Hi. Can you hear us?
ROBERT FISK: Yes, I can.
AMY GOODMAN: Could you, did you hear that statement of President George H.W. Bush defending George w. Bush’s invasion of Iraq saying it’s deeply offensive and contemptible to hear elites and intellectuals on the campaign trail dismissing progress in Iraq?
ROBERT FISK: Listen, I didn’t hear it for two reasons, one because I have no activity, even though Mr. Paul Bremer says we do, and secondly, because like most of my colleagues here, we are chasing a story of the killing of American citizens in the city of Fallujah. It appears that two sports utility vehicles carrying a number of armed men, one of whom appears to be American, was stopped in the city of Fallujah, about 60 miles west of Baghdad, and they were dragged from their vehicles. There are unconfirmed reports there were two, four, six, even eight foreigners, not all Americans in the vehicles, and two of whom we know have been murdered because I spoke just a few hours ago to a close Iraqi friend of mine who was in Fallujah and saw their bodies hanging upside-down from the side of Agirder Bridge over the Euphrates river. I’m sorry if I seem a little out of touch, the horrors of Iraq are rather close here and that’s what I have been following up at the moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain again, Robert Fisk, who you believe these people are?
ROBERT FISK: Well, at the moment, as usual here, there are conflicting reports. I tried to get to Fallujah this morning and early this afternoon and the road is now blocked. What we know is that two SUV vehicles were stopped, perhaps in traffic jams. We know from local people that the people inside were dragged out. Now, local people said that they’re bodies were stoned and mutilated. We do know because both Reuters and APTV had crews, Iraqi crews, of course, in Fallujah. Two of the dead were lying on the road beside the vehicle. Both appeared to be badly burned. One was actually on fire. You could see on film, which has not been shown in the West, but it is being shown in Arab television, which indeed, I have seen on the original tapes here in Baghdad, one man lying on his back with a white shirt pulled up above his waist and trousers on. His hands above him like claws burning, and on the tapes, you can see a crowd crying, "God is great," taking one of the corpses and tying yellow tape to the arms and the legs because the hands appeared to be missing and tying it behind the car and driving the car through the streets of Fallujah. My colleague presumably, my Iraqi friend, who is a translator, presumably saw these two bodies hanging upside-down on the bridge. We know that one of them did not have a head because he said so, and on the tapes that we have seen it, and one man comes to the virtually cremated body on the road, in the center of Fallujah on the main street, and actually kicks the head off. It’s a grotesque, gruesome, terrible scene. We don’t know if there were others in the cars. We assume there were. We have been told there were two women. We assume they may have been civilians traveling with a security escort. One piece of tape shows a flak jacket and another piece of tape shows an Iraqi holding two metal U.S. ID’s, identification badges. These are presumably the two bodies which my friend saw hanging from the bridge. He said quite horrifically that people of Fallujah were driving over the bridge as if nothing had happened. Certainly, on the tapes taken earlier, you can see traffic passing by the scenes of two burning sports utility vehicles in the main street. Now, we don’t know how many other people are in these vehicles, who they were or what their nationalities were. One piece of tape shows a U.S. truck. We don’t know more than that. We do know 12 miles away earlier a bomb, a roadside bomb blew up and blasted an American United States Marine Humvee to pieces and killed five U.S. Soldiers, presumably they were, the Marines will tell you they’re not soldiers, but U.S. Personnel. We presume they’re Marines, but we don’t know. We have no names. We have no confirmation of how many others were in the vehicles which were burned and from which the passengers were apparently extracted in Fallujah. There is apparently going to be a press conference from the occupying power, the Coalition Provisional Authority at 5:00 today, which is less than an hour from now Iraqi time. That’s all we know at the present. I tried to get to Fallujah. The road is blocked. The traffic is turning around. My friend told me when he was on the bridge and saw the bodies. There were no helicopters, no U.S. troops or policemen. The place was open. That’s all we know at the moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert, who is blocking the road?
ROBERT FISK: It’s impossible to tell. It seems to be U.S. Forces with U.S. And Iraqi policemen. I’m —
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Fisk. Yes, Robert, you have been to Iraq many times. During the bombing —
ROBERT FISK: I have been to Fallujah many times as well, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: During the bombing, after bombing, how do you compare the situation right now?
ROBERT FISK: Look, things are getting worse here. All Iraqis think so. Most of the journalists on the ground fear it is getting worse. The violence is getting worse. The trust in the Coalition Authority is getting worse. There’s little trust in the governing council appointed by the U.S. Consul Paul Bremer. Other things are getting better. There are more schools opening, more University students. New rail tracks have been laid in the south of Iraq. This is what the authorities keep telling us about, and it’s true. The problem is that the violence, insecurity, and sense of anarchy is greater. And Paul Bremer constantly reminds us we have less than 100 days from —
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Fisk in Iraq. As you can hear, it is not a great line, but we’re very fortunate to be able to talk to him. Robert, you are still there?
ROBERT FISK: Yeah, I am. Hold on a second while I try to realign this phone. I’m trying to point it towards the right satellite and I have to lean way over a balcony to do it.
AMY GOODMAN: Sure, as you are talking right now, you’re very clear.
ROBERT FISK: If I try to keep it like this?
AMY GOODMAN: Yeah. That’s excellent.
ROBERT FISK: Without interruption.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s very, very good. Robert, you have been writing about an army of thousands of mercenaries that have been appearing in Iraq’s major cities many of them former British and U.S. soldiers hired by the occupying authorities, Anglo-American authorities, and by dozens of companies. Can you talk about who they are, including former Apartheid Security.
ROBERT FISK: Well, I don’t know if they’re former Apartheid Security. They’re former South African policemen. They may even be post Apartheid policemen. They’re very young, so I wouldn’t automatically assume they worked for the Apartheid Regime. What does worry people is that Americans are replacing their troops at the Baghdad International Airport with Chilean forces which we know have been trained in the army there at the time of Pinochet. The real problem is we don’t know what their rules of engagement are. We don’t know where they stand vis-à-vis the war. If they are ambushed, do they fire back? If they kill innocent people are they responsible? Can they be made amenable to the law if they’re guilty? At my own hotel in Baghdad, some of the security services have set up shop and they’re young employees. They swagger in and out with heavy weapons, with automatic weapons and pistols as if they’re cowboys. They seemed to have learned their fighting spirits in Hollywood. It’s a little bit too much of, if I can put it frankly, spraying of testosterone on the ground. My colleagues feel this is making our own hotel dangerous and a possible target: undefended barracks. There are thousands of them, and it appears to be correct, there are now more British Mercenary Security Service men here than there are British soldiers in Iraq. The question many Iraqis were asking, is this the new face of the occupation? The Americans disappear, the British disappear, and this army of mercenaries wearing flak jackets and an assortment of weapons with little badges, some South African, some clearly British and some Americans are now supposed to be the security services? And of course we have the Iraqi police and the Civil Defense Corps, which is the Paramilitary Militia. If you go to Sumara, which I did recently, you get stopped at checkpoints by Iraqi paramilitaries wearing black facemasks standing next to U.S. Troops. What they do, why they do it, and what their real purpose is, we don’t know. They say when I talk to them, I don’t know who they are because I cannot recognize them, they wear the face mask to obscure their identity, in case they go home and get killed, which is understandable if you decide to work for the Americans in a place like Sumara. I would do the same. I wouldn’t do what they are doing, but if I was, I would be doing the same. The danger, as I said, is that we don’t have any rules of engagement. We don’t know under what rules they operate, if any at all. Some of the security companies are perfectly above-board. We know their names, and they carry their weapons concealed, but they themselves are complaining that they’re worried about some of the other mercenaries coming in. They may not have sufficient knowledge, expertise and certainly the way they walk around in the streets, the way they carry their weapons in vehicles suggests they’re not professionals.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re looking at the Forward newspaper from about a month ago in New York, reporting the U.S. has hired a South African security firm that is staffed by former henchmen of South Africa’s Apartheid Regime. The firm’s role in Iraq came to light after a South African security officer was killed in Iraq in January. The man works for Araness International as a former member of the Kavett, a brutal counter insurgency arm of the South African military that operated during the fight for independence in the 1980’s. Injured in the same attack was a former officer of South Africa’s secret police unit. Last august, the U.S. Awarded Araness an $80 million contract to protect 40 Iraqi installations and train 6,500 Iraqi guards.
ROBERT FISK: Can you still hear me? I think I lost you there a little bit.
AMY GOODMAN: Yes. I can hear you.
ROBERT FISK: Okay. Well, I did not read that. I don’t know of it. You have to realize, we’re also a little bit isolated here. I wouldn’t be surprised. All I was saying is that most of the South Africans I have seen and who they’re using, they’re putting a poster, a picture of the South African flag in the front of their vehicles, the new South African flag, of course, they appear to me to be have been too young to be part of the Apartheid Regime. Who their bosses are, we don’t know. Every time I approach these people, they’re secretive and they’re cautious. They won’t tell us what companies they work for. Last week, I made friends with a Lebanese American working for one security company who led me in his car with mine following(I travel in an ordinary Iraqi car) to an undefended villa in a southern Baghdad suburb where I met an American. His name was Jeff. He talked at great length about the expertise of his people, most of whom were American, some British. He said they worked in three tiers with close escort support; some of them did convoy support. He explained to me inside the so-called green zone, which to me is a red zone, because it’s attacked. This is the area called Brama, and the occupational authorities work and live, a former presidential palace of Saddam Hussein. At night the U.S. troops there are protected by ample security men. In other words, mercenaries are now paid to protect American troops. Outside of these mercenary forces are Iraqis who are armed and paid by the Americans. So, what you have is a kind of double sandbag. You have first of all Iraqis with weapons defending the Americans. Then security service men or security company men or mercenaries, if you like, and then after that, the Americans. It seems that the intention is to save American lives. And use the hired men and indeed Iraqis as sandbags. However, I should say that also this morning, five Americans — five American soldiers were killed about 12 miles from Fallujah. The scene of this very brutal killing. An explosive device blew up in the middle of the median of the highway and blew a huge hole in their Humvee vehicle. Five were killed. We don’t know how many were wounded. The Americans have stated that there are five dead, but we don’t know their identities.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, do you fear now for your own safety?
ROBERT FISK: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Thank you for the question. Look, I always fear for my own safety, but we’re journalists and our job is to go out on the ground and report. I don’t think journalists should be talking about their safety. The most — most of the people dying in Iraq are Iraqis. It’s very interesting that about a month ago, four women, two men and a baby were shot dead in a house in northern Iraq. Their bodies were discovered three days ago. The discovery got one paragraph in the A.P., the Associated Press News Agency. When Westerners are killed, as they were today, it’s the lead story in the television news it’s the front page of the newspaper. We have a very odd way of showing our concern for the Iraqis we allegedly came to liberate. It’s a very pronounced way of pointing out the horrors of death when our own people are brutally murdered. But if you are — if in the long term you are asking me what’s going to happen, the answer is I don’t know, yes, journalists are in danger. Journalists have been killed. Two weeks ago, the translator for the Voice of America was murdered along with his mother and daughter. A few days ago, the Time magazine translator was killed close to the time magazine office and house here in Baghdad. Certainly, the people who worked with the independents are concerned for their safety and I’m concerned for them and they’re concerned for me. I’m concerned for me. But at the end of the day, if we don’t go out on the street and report what actually is happening, if we’re just going to live in bunkers and behind concrete fortresses protected by Americans, we’re not going to be able to tell the truth about what’s going on.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, the Arabic News Network is accusing the United States of assassinating two of its reporters on March 18. The U.S. admits that its troops shot dead the journalists, but claimed it was an accident.
ROBERT FISK: Yes. I’m doing an investigation into this killing, and I can tell you about it, but I have to say in five or six minutes be I have to write my story for my newspaper tonight because it’s late in the afternoon here and my deadline is in London which is five hours different from you coming up.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 60 seconds before the end of our show.
ROBERT FISK: Okay. Well, I’ll tell you briefly. They were doing a story on the shelling or mortaring of the hotel. A Volvo car driven by a 67-year-old Iraqi man overtook them, apparently approaches the American checkpoint down the road which open fire. He had 36 bullets in him and died. The journalists’ car turned to cross the road to get away and fired at. The Americans said two days ago, at least according to the Brigadier General Mark Kimet, the Deputy Director of the American operations in Iraq, some of the bullets fired at the Volvo may have hit the journalists’ vehicle. Six rounds hit inside the vehicle. The cameraman’s brains are lying on the back of the vehicle in the police station where I saw them two days ago. The reporter was killed instantly, saying the driver’s name as he slumped dead on his shoulder. The Americans said they didn’t know they hit the vehicle, although two days later, according to the Iraqi police major, the American troops came to the police station and smashed the back window, thus eliminating some of the evidence that hit the round of the vehicle and cut open the spare tire attached to the rear door. I don’t know more than that at the moment, and I’m still inquiring into it.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, be safe. Thank you for being with us from Iraq, a War Correspondent with the London Independent. That does it for the show. Our website is democracynow.org.