Anatomy of a Civil War: Writer Nir Rosen on Iraq's Descent Into Chaos

November 27, 2006

Freelance journalist and author Nir Rosen joins us to discuss the latest developments in Iraq and the Middle East. Rosen says, "[The U.S.] destroyed Iraq. There was no civil war in Iraq until we got there and took certain steps to pit Sunni against Shia. We need to know that we are responsible."[includes rush transcript]

In his latest article, "Anatomy of a Civil War: Iraq’s descent into chaos", Rosen writes, "Shia religious parties such as the Iran-supported Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (its name a sufficient statement of its intentions), or SCIRI, controlled the country, and Shia militias had become the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army, running their own secret prisons, arresting, torturing, and executing Sunnis in what was clearly a civil war. And the Americans were merely one more militia among the many, watching, occasionally intervening, and in the end only making things worse. Iraqis’ hopes for a better future after Saddam had been betrayed."


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

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. We are talking to former California State Senator, Tom Hayden who has written a piece in the Huffington Post, whose latest documents reveal secret talks between US and Iraqi Armed Resistance. And we are joined in our studio by Nir Rosen, a freelance writer fellow at the New America Foundation. His latest article is called Anatomy of a Civil War: Iraq’s Decent into Chaos. He’s the author of In the Belly of the Green Bird. Nir just returned from the middle east a few hours ago.

Nir, I wanted to get your response to what Tom Hayden has laid out. This plan, which paraphrased, Tom Hayden says, is about a back channel link with insurgent groups that would, while leaders of the organized resistance seeking immediate meetings with top American generals towards the goal of a cease-fire. The former Baathist dominated National Army, Intelligence Services and Police, whose leaders currently are heading the underground resistance would be rehired. Multinational force activities aimed at controlling militias would be expanded. The US controlled multinational force MNF1 would be redeployed to control the eastern border with Iran. A status forces agreement would be negotiated immediately permitting the presence of troops in Iraq for as long as ten years. Amnesty and prisoner releases would be negotiated between the parties, with the Americans guaranteeing the end of torture of those held in detention centers and presen—prisons of the current Shia controlled Iraqi state. The de-Baath-ification edicts issued by Paul Bremer would be rescinded, allowing tens of thousands of former Baathists to resume military and professional service. An American commitment to financing reconstruction would be continued, and the new Iraqi regime would guarantee incentives for private American companies to participate in the rebuilding effort. And finally war debt relief for Kuwait and other countries. Tom, did I miss anything?

TOM HAYDEN: No. To the general question, I’d really like Nir’s evaluation. What is Cheney doing in Saudi Arabia. Why are Bush and Rice really going to see al-Maliki this week? There’s something up. I don’t know what it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll put those questions to Nir Rosen, but start with this plan.

NIR ROSEN: Well, step into any of the top hotels in Amman, Jordan and you are likely to find people who are affiliated with the resistance, because they use Jordan as a safe haven. So many of the leadership does, wealthy people who sponsor the very many different groups of the resistance, but — and they’ve been making these demands for a couple of years now, impossible as they are. And the Americans have been meeting unofficially in Iraq and outside Iraq, people from the resistance. And a year ago there were meetings in Cairo between the Iraqi Government and member of the resistance. And none of this has ever amounted to anything, because Shias own Iraq now. Sunnis can never get it back. There’s nothing Americans can do about this.

So, for Sunnis, whether these reports are true or not, for Sunnis to ever imagine that they could ever regain power, that the Baathists could ever be restored to power, that Americans actually matter in Iraq anymore is naïve in the extreme. Iraq is Shia now. They have the majority, the security forces, they have the militias. What you are going to see in Iraq I think, in Baghdad especially, is a virtual genocide of the Sunnis. And the Americans are going to be unable to stop that.

As for the Bush and Maliki meeting, I think both Bush and Maliki are absolutely irrelevant in Iraq. Neither one of them has any power. Maliki has no militia to speak of. Bush has militia, the American army, one of the many militias operating in Iraq. But the American Army is lost in Iraq, as it has been since it arrived. Striking at Sunnis, striking at Shias, striking at mostly innocent people. Unable to distinguish between anybody, certainly unable to wield any power, except on the immediate street corner where it’s located. So, it just doesn’t matter.

And the idea of a strong man is also, sort of a bit too late. The strong man would have to have his own militia, and his own popular support. Well, the only people who have that are Muqtada al-Sadr, who has the Madi Army, some of the Kurdish militias in the north, or Abdul Aziz Hakim, who has the Badr Brigade. And, we’re certainly not going to hand Baghdad over to the Kurds because the Shias would slaughter them. And we already handed Baghdad over and much of the country to the Shia militias. So there is no strong man solution.

There is this romantic idea lately that you could have a coup and replace the Maliki regime with somebody else, because Iraq has a history of coups. But, Iraq’s history of coups, occurred when Baghdad was the only large city in the country, and you could simply switch leader in Baghdad and you’d have a new leader. Now you have about 10 or 12 city states in Iraq: Mosul, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Basra, Amara, Ramadi, each one is disconnected from other, each one controlled by its own militias. You could put anybody you wanted in Baghdad, it just wouldn’t make a difference outside of Baghdad. And the guy you put in Baghdad would have to have power in Baghdad, which means street power, which means Muqtada al-Sadr.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about Muqtada al-Sadr. You’ve been in Iraq a long time. And now the newspapers of the weekend saying Muqtada al-Sadr replaces Osama Bin Laden as the world’s great enemy. Tell us who he is, and your experience of him over the years.

NIR ROSEN: Well, he arose from seemingly nowhere, although he comes from a very important clerical family. It’s believed that his father, Muhammad Sadeq Sadr was killed by Baathists in 1999.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s who Sadr city is named for?

NIR ROSEN: Yes. And, Muqtada very quickly became the voice of the disenfranchised, poor, Shia majority, especially young men. Virtually every single young Shia male in Iraq supports Muqtada Sadr today. And certainly his men dominate the police, they dominate the army. When you hear about people dressed as police officers, or dressed as security forces, kidnapping somebody, you’re just hearing about supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr’s, who are members of the police, kidnapping somebody. He’s been very anti-American from the beginning, very nationalistic, unlike perhaps, Abdul Aziz Hakim, of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution fin Iraq, who was perceived as coming on the back of American tanks, and being sort of sponsored by Iranians. Muqtada can claim he’s always been there and suffered with the Iraqi people. He can disparage Ayatollah al-Sistani for being the quietest, for being Iranian-born. He has a national’s credentials. And for quite a while, he was actually fighting alongside Sunni resistance members.

In 2004, you had Muqtada’s people supporting the Sunni resistance in Fallujah, you had Sunni resistance helping Muqtada’s people in Najaf, in Sadr City, and there was a brief moment where you thought that there could be Sunni/Shia unity against the Americans at least. And if there was anything good that the American’s had done it was to unite the Sunni’s and Shia’s against them. But that all fell apart by 2005, or by the end of 2004. And since then, Muqtada al-Sadr, his militia, have taken the lead is sectarian attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: You describe in the piece you did for Boston Review, The Anatomy of a Civil War, which is over 40-pages, an experience you had when he came speak, not knowing actually that he’d be speaking, and who the people were with him.

NIR ROSEN: It was like beg at a Michael Jackson concert. There were more than 10,000 people in the mosque, Kufa Mosque, just outside Najaf. And the crowd went just crazy when they saw him.

AMY GOODMAN: They didn’t expect he’d be speaking there?

NIR ROSEN: They were expecting his deputy, who normally speaks, because Muqtada has reduced his public appearances for security reasons. So, it was quite a surprise, and afterwards —

AMY GOODMAN: Who did he come with? Who were his aides?

NIR ROSEN: Both his aides are young men, Ali al-Baghdadi and Adel al-Nuri, one of them is married to his sister. It looks like you are dealing with a gang basically. They are young men, sort of cocky. They have the support of hundreds of thousands of people. Men and women, women were there and they were just as excited as men. I’d never seen so many children in a Mosque before. The crowds just went crazy when they saw him, and afterwards, they all rushed the fence to shout their support for him. He can really get the largest number of Iraqis on the street willing to fight with the snap of his fingers.

AMY GOODMAN: And, what did he say that day?

NIR ROSEN: His primary message was directed at the Americans, an anti-occupation message. And at the more subtle attack on the Sunnis. He’s never gone directly at Sunni’s, he’ll call them Saddamists, or Takfiris, those who call Shia’s infidels, Wahabis. And he’s alleged that there’s an alliance between, and this is a wide spread belief amongst Shia’s in Iraq, that there’s an alliance between the Americans and Sunnis. That the Americans, for the past year at least have switched sides and started supporting the Sunnis and very many Shias, especially among Muqtada al-Sadr’s people, believe this view. In my view this is also something we’ll start seeing soon.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Tareq Aziz, a name from the past, where is he now?

NIR ROSEN: I think he’s quite ill in an American prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Hayden you wrote about Tareq Aziz?

TOM HAYDEN: No, the newspaper Al-Qudz Al-Arabi said that Baker had a meeting with one of Saddam Hussein’s lawyers and informed him that Tareq Aziz could be released by the end year and serve as a negotiator with the ex-Baathists on that front. Somebody should just ask if this happened or not happened. Why is everybody gossiping about it and we don’t even hear of it.

I agree with Nir’s analysis very much. I just want to point out that it’s not inconsistent with an effort to restore the Sunnis to some partial power and security in the western region. I don’t know about Baghdad. But, these plans do not suggest the return of the Baathists to power in the least. Simply a cease-fire so that that front quiets down and the Americans can go after Muqtada al-Sadr perhaps.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Nir Rosen, what do you expect now with Bush and Maliki, two people you say don’t have power, meeting. Muqtada al-Sadr saying he’s going to pull out all of the representatives if Maliki does have this meeting with President Bush. Maliki goes into Sadr City and he’s stoned, or they throw stones at his convoy.

NIR ROSEN: Well, Muqtada is still the main supporter for the Maliki government, and they do have an alliance, and Muqtada’s militia is kind of Maliki’s militia. Maliki belongs to the Da’wa party which has no real militia of its own. I think people in Sadr city were just very upset because they have suffered so many attacks. Although they do criticize Maliki for being a collaborator, in the sense that he leads the government that the Americans support, but then again Muqtada Sadr has people in the government.

I think what you’ll see — is that you can never tell with Muqtada, because he always plays this game of brinksmanship, threatening to do something and you never know if he’s going to do it or not. I don’t think he would necessarily gain from withdrawing from the government at this point. What you would see would be some sort of symbolic statement, by Bush and Maliki that they’re going to do their best to bring Iraqi’s together.

There’s been a shift lately since the Americans realized that Iraq is a failure, of blaming the Iraqi’s. The Iraqi’s need to step up, the Iraqi’s have to choose democracy, the Iraqi’s have to choose freedom. It is very popular for us to blame the Iraqi’s for the chaos that we’ve brought upon them. And, I think this will perhaps be something for the cameras in the US’s intent by Bush to show that he’s going to make Maliki, you know, seize the reigns of his country, or something absurd like that, because Maliki has no power of his own. The Iraqis actually did chose democracy, we just never gave them that democracy that they were demanding.

AMY GOODMAN: Nir Rosen, you’ve just returned in the last hours from the Middle East. You were last in Lebanon, you were in Syria, you’ve been in Iraq for several years reporting. Yesterday, on This Week with George Stefanopolis, King Abdullah of Jordan was there, he said there are three civil wars that could be happening at once, Palestine and Isreal, in Iraq and in Lebanon. Your assessment of this?

NIR ROSEN: Well, there is a civil war in Iraq. There’s been for a couple of years now. There’s a low-scale civil war in the Palestinian occupied territories, but Jordan is in part, responsible for that, because the Americans and the Jordanians have been supporting Fatah thugs, led for example by Mahmoud Ahmad, against the popularly elected Hamas government, which they fear. And Jordanian Special Forces have been training, what I think they call the "Badr brigade", which is Palestinians who support Fatah against Hamas, they’re a militia, so I think he has a great deal responsibility for the chaos in the Palestinian Territories, occupied Palestine. However, in Lebanon, I think concerns are exaggerated. Having just spent three months there, I don’t perceive the likelihood of civil war in Lebanon to be a problem right now. Much has been made of the assassination of Pierre Gemayel last week. And the American media portrait it as if ArchDuke Franz Ferdinand had been killed, or John F. Kennedy, but really this guy was a fairly insignificant politician. And not a vocal anti-Syrian critic. He does come from a party with fascist links that massacred thousands of Palestinians. Which nobody seems to mention.

AMY GOODMAN: Which Party?

NIR ROSEN: The Phalanges. They were responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982. It’s important people mention this when they lionize this guy who belongs to basically one of the worst death squads in Lebanon. He was hardly democratic. Just like anybody else in Lebanon. But there’s no risk of civil war right now in Lebanon, I think what you’ll see is a continued state of insecurity, instability, occasional assassinations. But, there’s nobody to really fight the civil war, because you need two sides, and you have Hezbollah certainly, extremely powerful, but there’s nobody on the other side to fight them. I think America would like there to be a civil war in Lebanon, I think Isreal would like that. I think they would like to weaken Hezbollah in a way they failed to do during the war, but I don’t think that its very likely at this very moment.

AMY GOODMAN: And the discussion of possible direct negotiations of Iran and Syria and the possibility that that’s what the Iraq Study Group is going to recommend?

NIR ROSEN: I think it’s clear that they will, and that I think it’s great that the US talks to Iran and Syria, its long over do. However, there is this belief that Iran and Syria have and have had this huge role in the violence in Iraq. And I just don’t think that’s true. If anything, Iran and Syria have always been concerned about the instability in Iraq. They are the neighbors of Iraq and if anybody can be threatened by the instability, it’s them.

In Syria right now you have about 3 or 4 thousand Iraqi refugees crossing the border everyday, that’s going to destabilize Syria. You already have nearly a million Iraqi refugees in Syria today. Iran certainly wants a strong Shia Iraq as a close ally and a friend, much more than they want Saddam Hussein in charge. But, Iran isn’t sponsoring the violence, neither is Syria. And so the belief that foreign countries can make things better I think is naïve, because the violence in Iraq has its own internal logic. It’s civil war. All the arms are there, the hatred is there. And, it’s not being fought by two large sides. It’s being fought in neighborhoods between different mosques, between different blocks, between different gangs. Power isn’t in the green zone, power isn’t in Iran, in Syria, in Jordan. It’s not in the White House. It’s very localized. Just different neighborhood clashes—

AMY GOODMAN: And what would happen if the US just withdrew troops?

NIR ROSEN: The same thing happening now, the civil war would continue. At some point Shias will make a move, a large move against the Sunnis in Baghdad. You’ll find a day when there are no Sunnis left in Baghdad. Saudi Arabia and Jordan are of course panicking about this, and they are hoping that the US will in some way arm or support Sunni militias. It’s hard for me to imagine that Sunni nations in the region will stand by and watch Sunnis pushed out of Baghdad. And Baghdad becoming really a Shia city. Because there is this Sunni terror of the Shia threat. So you’ll see greater support from Saudi Arabia, from Jordan, perhaps from Yemin, from Egypt, for Sunni militias. Funding, things like that. And the civil war will spread and become a regional one. And I think Jordan will cease to exist as it does now. Eventually, because you’ll have the Anbar Province of Iraq joining somehow—you already have one million Iraqi’s in Jordan at least. You walk down the streets of Jordan, you hear Iraqi Arabic as much as any other kind.

AMY GOODMAN: What is Dick Cheney doing in Saudi Arabia?

NIR ROSEN: Well, some of it has to do with the Palestinians I believe. He’s hoping that the Saudis can do something. I think this is just desperation. I imagine that he’s hoping Saudis can wield some power, both with the Sunnis of Iraq and with the Palestinians. I don’t really have any idea. I think the Saudis are probably a bit disappointed with the Dick Cheney they know now, compared to the Dick Cheney they knew in the Gulf War, who was a very different man.

AMY GOODMAN: In what sense?

NIR ROSEN: Well, back then, he seemed much more of a pragmatist. Not influenced by this neo-con ideology that dominates the White House today. He was against for example removing Saddam in 1991, he thought it was a bad move, and then he changed his mind. So, I’m not sure what he’s doing in Saudi Arabia, but I don’t think it matters very, I don’t think American can do much good in the region and they can probably continue to do a little more harm.

AMY GOODMAN: And this issue of Iraqi refugees, what you were looking at in this latest trip, where you were in Jordan and Syria, and in Lebanon. How many Iraqi refugees are there?

NIR ROSEN: Nobody knows for sure, but it appears that, you have internally displaced people in Iraq, maybe 300,000. And that number is of course growing everyday. And as I said you have several thousand Iraqis streaming into Syria everyday. And you have 800,000 or one million Iraqis in Syria today. You have about one million Iraqis in Jordan today. You have a couple of hundred thousand Iraqis in Egypt today. I’m told there are some in Yemen as well. I think there are 30-40 thousand in Lebanon.

In the beginning, in the first year or two, it was the wealthy Iraqis coming out, who just wanted a better life. But, now it’s desperate people with nothing. People who’ve been threatened with death. People who’ve sold their car just to escape. The Jordanians have rescued — have closed the land border. There is a sign on the Jordanian border saying no man 18-35 can enter Jordan from Iraq. One thing Iraqis are doing is not taking any of their belongings. Because if you’re in a taxi coming to Jordan from Iraq with all your suitcases piled on top of the car, the Jordanians will turn you away.

So people are coming with nothing, leaving with nothing. And the Americans are putting a great deal of pressure not to have them recognized as refugees. Because if you call Iraqi refugees, refugees, you’re implying that Iraq is chaotic, it’s hopeless. So there is not much funding going to help these people.

This is going to be I believe, one of the greatest refugee crises that we’ve seen in the past few years.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Nir Rosen, in speaking with people, in speaking with many Iraqis and living there, what you think needs to be the solution right now.

NIR ROSEN: There is no solution. We’ve destroyed Iraq and we’ve destroyed the region, and Americans need to know this. This isn’t Rwanda where we can just sit back and watch the Hutus and Tutsis kill each other, and be like wow this is terrible should we do something? We destroyed Iraq. There was no civil war in Iraq until we got there. And there was no civil war in Iraq, until we took certain steps to pit Sunnis against Shias. And now it is just too late. But, we need to know we are responsible for what’s happening in Iraq today. I don’t think Americans are aware of this. We’ve managed to make Saddam Hussein look good even to Shias at this point. And what we’ve managed to do is not only destabilize Iraq, but destabilize Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran. This is going to spread for decades, the region won’t recover from this, I think for decades. And Americans are responsible .

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think troop withdrawal now, if not an answer, a necessity?

NIR ROSEN: Troop withdrawal, if I was an American, then I would want troop withdrawal, because why are Americans dying in Iraq? Every single American who dies in Iraq, who is injured in Iraq, dies for nothing. He didn’t die for freedom, he didn’t die to defend his country, he died to occupy Iraq. And if withdrawal the troops you’ll have less Americans killing Iraqis. Everyday the Americans are there they kill innocent Iraqis, they torture innocent Iraqis, and the occupy Iraqis and terrorize Iraqis. They should leave today.

AMY GOODMAN: Nir Rosen, I want to thank you for being with us. And Tom Hayden, former Californian State Senator thank you for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Email icon redDaily News Digest