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2004-09-15

"The Americans Scarcely Control Any of the Country"–Iraq Descends into Chaos

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The death toll in Iraq over the past four days has risen to over 150, the vast majority of them Iraqi civilians. We go to Baghdad to speak with journalist Luke Harding of the London Guardian about the explosion of violence as well as the U.S. military’s lack of control in the country and the dangers of reporting from Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

At a gathering of the Arab League in Cairo Tuesday, chief Amr Moussa said "the gates of hell are open in Iraq."

His comments came a day after some 60 people were killed throughout Iraq. Wednesday marked another day of bloodshed as clashes between US forces and the Iraqi resistance in the Al-Anbar province left 10 Iraqis dead. Al-Anbar includes the western cities of Fallujah and Ramadi which lie in the control of the Iraqi resistance.

Meanwhile the BBC is reporting that three unidentified bodies have been found on a road north of Baghdad. The bodies, which were dumped in nylon bags, were discovered by members of the Iraqi National Guard. One report said the heads were found strapped to the corpses" backs.

The news comes 24 hours after dozens of people were killed throughout Iraq in a day of extreme violence. In Baghdad a car bomb close to an Iraqi police station killed 47 people and injured 100 others. It was the deadliest such attack in Iraq since July, when 68 people were killed by a car bomb outside a police station in Baquba. Hours after the Baghdad explosion, gunmen opened fire on a police minibus in Baquba killing 12 policemen and one civilian. The US military says three US troops were killed in separate attacks, two in Baghdad and one in the northern city of Mosul.

  • Luke Harding, reporter with the London Guardian. He joins us on the phone from Baghdad.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Baghdad to Luke Harding. He is with the London Guardian. Welcome to Democracy Now!

LUKE HARDING: Hello, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us, Luke. Can you describe the situation today?

LUKE HARDING: Well, today I have to say it’s comparatively quiet here in Baghdad. But I think probably not for very long. Yesterday, as you said, was a horrendous day here. There was an enormous car bomb in Haifa Street, which was also the scene of massive fighting on Sunday. I have been in Baghdad for about a month now and I have to say that the impression that I get and other journalists covering events here have is only that things are getting worse, to the point where it’s increasingly hard to find anybody who is confident that elections which are scheduled for January of next year, all across Iraq, are going to take place and really the sense that I have is we’re sort of lurching from crisis to crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the car bombing yesterday that you wrote about in the London Guardian?

LUKE HARDING: Yes. It was a terrible scene. I got to the scene of the car bombing about 45 minutes, an hour after it happened. What happened was that this insurgence left the car basically outside Al-Karkh police station near Haifa Street. Now, what was happening yesterday morning is that dozens of young Iraqis were queuing up to join the Iraqi police. They had folders with them, passport photos, and they were literally blown into pieces. When I got there, I found burning cars, blown out shops, pools of blood all over the pavement. You know, the Iraqi police, who were performing the gruesome task of retrieving human remains, which had been blown into trees and into rooftops. I have seen some really appalling things in Iraq, but yesterday’s bomb was one of the worst things that I have seen, I have to say.

AMY GOODMAN: The headline of your piece is "Iraq: A Descent Into Civil War." What do you mean by that?

LUKE HARDING: I think we have to be careful about the terms that we use in describing the violence going on here, but certainly the sense that I have is that the insurgency, which has been going on for more than a year now against the American and against the British occupation of Iraq is adapting, is changing. What we saw six, nine months ago is the resistance, the insurgents trying to kill American soldiers and attacking predominantly American targets. What we have seen laterally is a sort of change of tactics, if you like, by the resistance who really are now targeting Iraqis. They’re killing anybody they regard as a collaborator. They’re killing peace officials, people who work for the government, translators, provincial governors outside Baghdad. They’re doing it ruthlessly and doing it very, very effectively. I think the point of my article was that now what we’re seeing is a new and kind of deadly phase where predominantly, it’s Iraqis killing Iraqis.

AMY GOODMAN: I think in this country, the situation is hardly being described now. This whole region, Ramadi, Fallujah, being in the control of the resistance, is that accurate?

LUKE HARDING: That’s true. It really is true. What we have seen is over the past few months, the U.S. military has basically given up on a number of sort of key Sunni towns west of Baghdad, since April, since the siege there in April between the insurgents and U.S. military. The U.S. military has not gone into Fallujah. It doesn’t control Ramadi either. It scarcely controls Sumara. It has a patchy presence in Bakuba. It doesn’t even control large chunks of Baghdad. In Sadr City, there’s been violent fighting between the U.S. and between supporters of Moqtada al Sadr, his Mahdi army. As I said, the past few days, we have seen massive fighting in Haifa Street, which is literally a ten minute stroll away from the green zone which houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraq’s I would say increasingly enfeebled interim government. And really, the sense one has here, living in Baghdad, is that the Americans, if you like, scarcely control any of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Luke Harding who writes for the London Guardian. He is in Baghdad right now. The unelected Prime Minister Allawi, has fired his national security adviser. What’s the significance of this?

LUKE HARDING: Yes, I think this was — you’re right, this is a sort of clash over tactics that the national security adviser, Mr. Rubaie, who has now lost his job and has been sort of sidelined, I think had been advocating a more conciliatory strategy towards the insurgents. I think Allawi, as far as I can tell, he talked to us over the weekend, his approach seems to be fairly clear. He’s basically saying to the rebels, if they join the mainstream political process, there will be all sorts of reconstruction, there will be all sorts of financial benefits for their areas, but if they don’t, he has made it very clear, they will be wiped out. They will be crushed militarily. And his strategy is extremely uncompromising, if you like. The big question is whether this insurgency can be defeated by military rather than political means. My sense is that any defeat has to be political at this stage, trying to wipe out Iraq’s resistance is simply not going to work.

AMY GOODMAN: Luke Harding, you spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, so there’s some interesting comparisons here. In our headlines, we read about how the former chief of the C.I.A. unit tracking Osama bin Laden said that there are fewer experienced case officers dealing with bin Laden now than before the September 11 attacks. Also, the issue of U.S. troops controlling the area outside of the capital, Kabul, Baghdad. Can you talk about these comparisons?

LUKE HARDING: Yes. I did spend a lot of time in Afghanistan. Of course, the big difference there is simply in the number of troops. There are only roughly around12,000 or perhaps as many as 15,000 American troops in Afghanistan, and more than 150,000 in Iraq. But certainly in Afghanistan, the U.S. military controls very little of the country, and indeed, the Afghan government controls very little of the country outside of the capital, Kabul, mostly to the south. Most of the south east of Afghanistan has dissolved back towards the Taliban, who have been a kind of increasingly kind of troublesome and resurgent force in recent months. Now, in a sense the situation in Iraq is far graver, because the American military has a huge presence here and yet at the same time, it seems unable to kind of create a climate where there’s sort of basic security. What I think is kind of so catastrophic at the moment is really the number of ordinary Iraqi civilians who are just being killed in this environment. The death toll is now running at around 100-plus a day. And these are ordinary Iraqis who have the same kind of aspirations as you do or we do or people in Britain do or people in America do. Really they don’t like the occupation. They don’t support the resistance, either. Really, what they want is just sort of peace and security and opportunity to live the life that we all take for granted.

AMY GOODMAN: And have you heard any more about these decapitated corpses, three of them, that were found in Baghdad by the Iraqi national guard?

LUKE HARDING: Um, I have gotten no details as to who these people are. It’s impossible to know at this stage. But of course, the bigger picture is that there have been a spate of kidnappings in recent weeks. Obviously, we know about the two French journalists who were kidnapped last month, two Italian women who were kidnapped not far from my hotel in Baghdad about ten days ago, as well as the sort of westerners who have been kidnapped and scores of Iraqis who have been kidnapped as well. All of those who, as I said, are suspected of having collaborated with the occupation, seem to be meeting the same recent fate, they have their heads chopped off and their bodies are dumped at the side of the road. Sadly, this kind of thing is all too common here.

AMY GOODMAN: Though of course in the case of the two Simonas, the Italian aid workers along with their two Iraqi colleagues, they opposed the occupation for ten years. Luke Harding, how are you protecting yourself? How do you even report?

LUKE HARDING: That’s a very good question. Well, I mean, we do what we can, and we try and report that there’s a dwindling band, if you like, of journalists, you know, foreign journalists, western journalists and different of us here still in Baghdad. We — I mean, I have grown a beard. All of the male reporters here have grown beards. All of the women reporters whenever they leave the hotel, they put a veil over their heads. Very often, when I’m stuck in traffic I hide in the back of the car with a towel over my head. We do leave Baghdad. I spent two weeks covering the siege in Najaf, but really leaving the capital means to a certain extent risking your life. And even traveling inside Baghdad is no longer as safe as it once was. We do everything that we can, but I guess I and most my colleagues just hope that we carry on being lucky.

AMY GOODMAN: In a minute we’re going to talk about the Palestinian reporter, Mazen al-Tumeisi, who was killed when he went out to the burning humvee and U.S. helicopter gunship bombed it, killing many around, including the Palestinian journalist for Al Arabiya. Did you know him?

LUKE HARDING: I didn’t know him, but a colleague of mine, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who’s a columnist for the Guardian and also a freelance photographer for Getty Images was there with him, and we have talked obviously, about what happened Sunday. I have to say that it’s fairly appalling. Sunday was very bad day in Baghdad. There were mortar explosions going on from the very early morning, and then what appears to have happened is that a U.S. patrol, going into Haifa Street which is sort of a notorious center for the resistance, was ambushed with a car bomb which set the Bradley on fire. Now, the reporter you mentioned from Al Arabiya and my colleague Ghaith and some other journalists went very quickly to the scene on Haifa Street, and they were taking photographs of the group of Iraqis, unarmed Iraqis dancing round the burning Bradley when two American helicopters, like the ones you might be able to hear going above at the moment, simply opened fire on the crowd. They open fire on a crowd of unarmed demonstrators. They killed at least 13 people and wounded many more. My colleague Ghaith was wounded very minorly in the head. He needed two stitches. Most of the other people he was with at the time died in front of him. This was a terrible incident. The U.S. military claims it received small arms fire, but really, I think anybody who was there can tell you this was not the case. This struck me as the kind of incident which is all too frequent here where there are attacks on the U.S. military and then the U.S. military responds often very indiscriminately, inevitably killing many Iraqi civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: Luke Harding, I want to thank you for being with us. Be safe. Luke Harding from the London Guardian talking to us from Baghdad. This is Democracy Now!

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