UN reporter Ian Williams exposes how the neocons are trying to turn an Iraq scandal over the oil-for-food program into a reason why the UN should stay out of Iraq. Tariq Ali examines the growiing anti-occupation resistance in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]
Today in Basra, Iraq some 800 supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held a demonstration in which they alleged that the British were responsible for the multiple suicide bombings in Basra earlier this week. In those bombings, 68 people were killed including 20 young children whose school bus was blown up as they traveled to school. The protesters carried signs saying that the people and the police are united under a religious imperative. Meanwhile, as fighting in the Iraqi city of Fallujah has intensified in recent days, it also appears that US forces are gearing up for a major offensive in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, which is a stronghold of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army.
The Associated Press today quotes senior military officers saying the order to attack Najaf will be made "at the very highest levels of the U.S. government," an indication that President Bush may have the final word on whether soldiers there begin an offensive.
Meanwhile, there are rumors that Bush himself made the decision that Fallujah would have to be massively punished for the desecration of the bodies of the US mercenaries killed there, and that Gen. John Abizaid strongly agreed. The Marines have now reportedly given the people of Fallujah just "days" to negotiate a final settlement, with an implied "or else."
As the killings continue in Iraq, a controversy is brewing at the United Nations over allegations of corruption within the so-called oil-for-food program. The former head of that program, Benon Sevan, has been accused of taking payment in the form of an oil allotment from Saddam Hussein’s government. Sevan denies the allegation. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said yesterday that if U.N. staff are found to be guilty "we will deal with them very severely."
These allegations come as the deadline approaches for what the Bush administration calls the handover of sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30th. This week, senior State Department and Defense officials told the Senate and House Armed Services Committees that the new Iraqi interim government scheduled to take control on July 1 will have only 'limited sovereignty' and no authority over United States and other military forces already there.
- Tariq Ali , author of several books including Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq and Clash of Fundamentalisms.
- Ian Williams, UN correspondent for The Nation and author of the forthcoming book Deserter: George Bush, Soldier of Fortune.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! the "War and Peace Report." democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman broadcasting from St. Louis. Juan Gonzalez is in New York. Today in Basra, Iraq, some 800 supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held a demonstration in which they alleged that the british were responsible for the multiple suicide bombings in Basra earlier this week. In those bombings, 68 people were killed, including 20 school children. Their bus blown up as they traveled to school. Protesters carried signs saying the people and the police are united under a religious imperative. Meanwhile, as fighting in the Iraqi city of Fallujah intensified over recent days, it also appears U.S. forces are gearing up for a major offensive in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, which is a stronghold of al-Sadr and his Mahdi army. The Associated Press today quotes senior military officers saying the order to attack Najaf will be made, quote, "at the very highest levels of the U.S. government — an indication president Bush may have the final word on whether soldiers will begin an offensive there." Meanwhile, there are rumors Bush himself made the decision that Fallujah would have to be massively punished for the desecration of the bodies of U.S. mercenaries killed there, and that General John Abizaid strongly agreed. The Marines have now reportedly given the people of Fallujah just days to negotiate a final settlement with an implied "or else." We’ll start with Tariq Ali who is here in St. Louis for the conference that is being sponsored by the Union for Democratic Communications. Tariq Ali, the author of many books on the middle east and Iraq, coming from Britain. Your response to this latest news. And welcome.
TARIQ ALI: Hi, Amy. Well, it’s very grim news. Basically the United States and the citizens of the United States should now be aware that the number of people who want the West to carry on occupying Iraq are a tiny minority. Most of them are collaborating with the occupation. The rest of the people want the United States out of Iraq. And as long as foreign troops remain in Iraq, you will have a resistance which will become increasingly violent. It was very interesting just before I left Britain, it was very interesting hearing Brigadier Carter, senior British officer in southern Iraq, saying that if 150,000 demonstrators marched outside our barracks, we would not open fire. That would be time to pack up our bags and leave. But I think this time has now come. It’s obvious that the occupation has become untenable. What is rarely reported here is the number of American soldiers coming back with nervous breakdowns. That’s very — you know, we’ve been talking about the photographs. But the numbers were coming back seriously wounded or mentally ill because of what they’re being made to do is hardly reported. And those numbers are higher than they were in Vietnam for the first four years.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Tariq Ali here in St. Louis. In New York, we’re joined by Ian Williams, and we also want to discuss, as the killings continue in Iraq, a controversy that’s brewing in the United Nations over allegations of corruption with the so-called Oil-For-Food Program. The former head of that program, Benon Sevan, has been accused of taking payment in the form of an oil allotment from Saddam Hussein’s government. Sevan denies the allegation. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday if U.N. staff are found to be guilty, "we will deal with them very severely." These allegations come as the deadline approaches for what the Bush administration calls the handover of sovereignty to Iraq on June 30. This week, senior State Department and Pentagon officials told the Senate Armed Forces Services Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, that the new Iraqi interim government scheduled to take control on July 1 will have only limited sovereignty and no authority over the United States and other military forces already there. Ian Williams, you have written about this in The Nation magazine and you have a book coming up called "Deserter: George Bush, Soldier of Fortune." Can you talk about the Oil-For-Food Program discussion, how it’s being framed?
IAN WILIAMS: Well, of the actual ones — not even solid piece of evidence, but the one allegation which is that one person in the U.N. Oil-For-Food program, Benon Sevan, got some money is something that needs looking into. Personally I know the guy, so I think it’s unlikely. He may have a price, all of us do, but I would have thought his was higher than this. The real issue is that the — sort of the people that have been making these allegations are trying to dump the whole of the $10 billion that Saddam Hussein got from oil smuggling on the U.N. I would — I think if you looked at the contrast between the Financial Times on Saturday morning and the New York Times, the Financial Times referred it to as the Iraqi Oil-For-Food Scandal, whereas the American press, taking the cue from the Wall Street Journal, which did the running on this originally, always refers to it as the U.N.-For-Food Scandal. And really I think if you look at the sources of this, it’s Ahmed Chalabi, who will almost certainly be ousted in any U.N.-brokered deal that comes out on June 30, regardless of anything else, and secondly the Wall Street Journal and the people who are writing it, you suspect that this is the neocons who 12 months ago said that the U.N. is dead and they cheered for it. And now they’re very peeved. But they can’t come out publicly in the Pentagon because, of course, the administration wants the U.N. to succeed in some form on June 30 for electoral reasons. But these neocons have got a pathological hatred of the organization, and I think that’s really what we’re seeing now, it’s sort of an internal fight in the administration that’s spilling over into the public.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Ian, you also raise in your article that this may also be the first big move in terms of challenging Kofi Annan for re-election as U.N. Secretary, can you talk a little bit about that?
IAN WILLIAMS: Well, he’s due for a third term. By many people’s lights, he is certainly possibly the most successful Secretary-General ever. We’re measuring by different terms for most other things. He’s annoyed fewer people and managed to walk the tightrope that the job needs. And there are some people in the U.N. administration who would very much like him to run for a third term. Once again, those same people we’re talking about have very strong ideas about this. Kofi Annan is the man who didn’t put himself behind the coalition invasion of Iraq. He’s the guy who actually said it was illegal on several occasions. And although George Bush seems not to have noticed, the neocons have thinner skins and are not going to forgive him for it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: When will that vote occur at the U.N.?
IAN WILLIAMS: The election campaign will really set up next year. Technically, the way — the Asians say "their turn" next. But I think most of the council would be pragmatic. Kofi Annan is not going to say I want the job. That would be a mistake. If he is at all considering it, it will be because the delegation comes to him and says, please, please, Kofi, will you stay on? And what’s happening in Iraq is going to impinge on that a lot because there’s so many different shades there. Kofi Annan does not want to be handed the job of being Viceroy of Iraq or being held responsible for it. Yet the reason that the U.S. administration wants the U.N. in there is that from June 30 they will be blaming any casualties in Iraq on the United Nations, not on the administration’s policy. Our boys will be there dying for the United Nations, which, of course, annoys the neocons, but provides a good excuse for George Bush.
AMY GOODMAN: I was just talking to a reporter who had come out of Iraq investigating Iraqi business and mainly U.S. corporation business corruption in Iraq. And he was saying how this whole Oil-For-Food corruption story is not very tough to get. In fact, it is being spoon fed to reporters by the U.S. government and the Iraqi National Congress, the I.N.C. He was saying that everywhere you turn, they’ll give you so-called secret documents that are proving that the U.N. was corrupt. Tariq Ali, your response to that?
TARIQ ALI: Well, I think Ian’s right on this. It’s Chalabi who’s been responsible for most of the misinformation that we’ve had on the Iraq war. Journalists have now admitted, senior journalists who should have known better that they were spoon fed stuff by Chalabi and this gang in order to convince a skeptical public that they needed to go to war, and they’ve now caught on to this when I’m sure there are far worse corruption stories in Iraq taking place even as we speak. This is a colonial occupation taking place in a neo-liberal world, where the Iraqi merchants, traders, capitalists, are not being given the chance as foreign companies are going in. I don’t know whether you noticed, Amy, but Britain which certainly could have expected more, given Blair’s loyalty, has been handed the contract for doing the sewage works in Iraq, which indicates that someone in the Pentagon has a sense of humor. They’ve given Blair the job he really has been doing for Bush ever since they decided to go to war. So, there are real stories to be tracked down in Iraq. This I don’t think is one of them. The real story for me, leaving corruption aside for a moment, is who carried out the killings in Karbala. Who is responsible for some of the attacks which are taking place in Iraq, which are being denied by everyone? Attacks which are designed to divide Shias from Sunnis, Shias from each other, etc. And that’s the story which someone should be tracking down, who is doing it? I don’t think it’s the British. I think Muqtada al-Sadr is wrong on that. But there is someone, because every single group in Iraq is denying it and normally they don’t deny these stories.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Tariq Ali, I’d liking to ask you, in terms of the apparent ability of the U.S. occupation forces to create greater unity between the Shiites and the Sunnis, and sort of a National Resistance Front against the occupation, any thoughts on that?
TARIQ ALI: Well, I think the — all the attempts to divide them failed because of what they did in Fallujah. I mean, basically the punishment of a town because of resistance groups inside it goes back to the Second World War. It’s the Germans, the Third Reich that started this whole thing of punishing a whole town for what some of the civilians or members of the resistance did. This was then carried through in Vietnam. If you remember the famous episode where that Major of the Marines said the only way we can save the town was to destroy it. Not even realizing the irony of what he was saying. And we have similar rhetoric now coming out of Iraq and, of course, the effect it has on Iraqis is exactly the opposite. When Fallujah was bombed and 700 people were killed, including quite a few women and children, according to reports coming out of the Arab world, on television, Shia and Sunni mosques in Baghdad united and sent joint convoys, similarly when you have the bombings in Najaf and Karbala, citizens in Fallujah lined up to give blood. So, the attempt to divide the Shias and Sunnis and shiias from each other is not working so far, and all the indications are that they’re getting closer together, which is not good for a colonial-style occupation.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to happen right now, Tariq Ali?
TARIQ ALI: Well, I think that the only reason to bring the U.N. in, I think Ian’s right. Bush wants it to save his bacon. To say that we handed over power, the U.N. is now in charge, where as it will not be in charge. It will be the armies on the ground that will be in charge. I think the U.N. could play a useful role as a face-saving device for the Americans and the West — the occupying countries to organize an orderly transition to a total pullout of all foreign troops. That’s got to happen so that the Iraqis can actually exercise their own sovereignty. Now this might mean that they might elect a government which, in fact, is now quite likely, which will demand Iraqi control of Iraqi oil and will demand its own foreign policy. It will probably have close relations and ties with the Iranians, and why not, that’s their right to do it. It’s what Sam Huntington has started calling the "democratic paradox", and the paradox being that sometimes democracy can produce governments you don’t like. But I thought that was the whole point of democracy.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Ian Williams, I’d like to ask you in terms of what you see in covering the United Nations or the U.N. role in helping to broker or create this transitional government that would take over on June 30.
IAN WILLIAMS: I think the role is almost symbolic. The U.N.'s role is to provide what one diplomat this week called a "virgin birth" for the new — whatever the new regime, whatever the new government is. It has to have a virgin birth, free of the taint of occupational sin. And the U.N. is one of the few organizations that can do this, that can kosher it. And, of course, if it had been more actively involved in the beginning, instead of being held off, it might have been more effective. But now Rahimi has to pull a rabbit out of his hat by June 30, he has to get it past the U.N. Security Council, many of whose members will have precisely the same type of arguments that we've just heard from Tariq about the command and control of the multinational force, and so it’s far from being a done deal. In the background of this, we have the rabbit that Rahimi did pull out of the hat in Afghanistan is getting skinned and boiled alive because the U.S. has refused to put any backing with the central government in Kabul against the war lords that it won the war with originally. It doesn’t auger well. But hovering over all of this, I think apart from any geo-strategic points of view, I think that Karl Rove and the White House will be looking at how this plays out for November, regardless of what happens to the Iraqis.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about right now? The uprising that is taking place in Iraq, in Fallujah, now we see Basra, Baghdad. Both the uprising and the mercenaries.
TARIQ ALI: Well, the mercenaries are a way now in which wars are going to be fought, Amy. They will not want their own soldiers to take so many hits. So, they hire people privately to go in and act as so-called security guards. This is another name for mercenaries. Mercenaries in a near-liberal age. Other countries are being asked also to send in more troops to take the hits. I was in Spain last — I was in Spain last week and the mood in Madrid and Barcelona was buoyant because the Spanish leader had been elected. In his first speech in Parliament as Prime Minister he said our troops are coming out. We’re not waiting until June 30. The whole country was celebrating a politician who is going to do what he said he would do. And I wish John Kerry, instead of attacking him, would learn from that. That if you offer the American people a choice, which on foreign policy is no different, some of them might not turn up to vote. I mean, Iraq and Palestine are two key issues. And on these issues, Kerry is essentially backing Bush, making very half-hearted criticism. Last night, I heard a democratic senator saying the key is to get Germany and France on side, I don’t care a toss about the United Nations. Fair enough if that’s what he believes. But it could lose the democrats the election if they don’t put up a stronger fight on foreign policy, which they don’t seem to be doing.
AMY GOODMAN: I really want to thank you. Go ahead, Juan.
JUAN GONZALEZ: No, I just want to ask quickly, Ian Williams, at the United Nations the response of some of the diplomats you talked to about Kerry’s very strange positions on Iraq.
IAN WILLIAMS: Well, it’s America. They just raise their eyes to have — it’s not so much Iraq. There’s a whole set of fuzzy logic there. A lot of U.N. diplomats will accept the fact that until the Iraqi security forces are built up, there will be a need for foreign troops, and that’s the message they’re getting from a lot of Iraqis as well. The real question is the command and control of those troops and as we’ve seen, in Fallujah, would the United Nations or the interim Iraqi government in whatever form it takes counter against the type of collective punishment we’re talking about? And one that — I think a disturbing story is following on Kerry’s other proclivities this week, is that the U.S. military has been getting aid and support from the Israeli defense forces for how to conduct this type of warfare. If you could look at one group of people that has been spectacularly unsuccessful in ending an occupation, of winning the hearts and minds of the population, then it has to be the Israeli defense forces, and that explains a lot for what is being carried out in Fallujah now.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Ian Williams, for joining us, U.N. correspondent for The Nation and author of the upcoming book "Deserter, George Bush: Soldier of Fortune" and Tariq Ali, author of many books including "Bush in Babylon: The Reclonization of Iraq." Thank you for joining us.