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

November 27, 2006


Nir Rosen

a freelance writer and a fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq. His latest article is called "Anatomy of a Civil War: Iraq’s Descent into Chaos." It was published in the November/December issue of Boston Review. He returned from the Middle East on Sunday.

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]


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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to former California State Senator Tom Hayden, who has written a piece in The Huffington Post_, two, his latest34834, "Documents Reveal Secret Talks Between U.S. and Iraqi Armed Resistance." And we’re 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—well, leaders of the organized resistance groups seeking immediate meetings with top American generals toward the goal of a ceasefire. 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 U.S.-controlled multinational force, MNF-1, would be redeployed to control the eastern border with Iran. A status of forces agreement would be negotiated immediately, permitting the presence of American troops in Iraq for as long as 10 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 prisons of the current Shia-controlled Iraqi state. The de-Baathification edicts issued by Paul Bremer would be rescinded, allowing tens of thousands of former Baathists to resume military and professional service.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. Just 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’re likely to find people who are affiliated with the resistance, because they use Jordan as a safe haven. Certainly, 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 of Iraq, people from the resistance. And a year ago, there were meetings in Cairo between the Iraqi government and members of the resistance.

And none of this has ever amounted to anything, because Shias own Iraq now. Sunnis can never get it back. And there’s nothing the Americans can do about this. So, for Sunnis to—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. And they have the majority. They have the security forces. They have the militias. What you’re 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 very many militias operating in Iraq. But the American Army is lost in Iraq, as it’s been since it arrived, striking at Sunnis, striking at Shias, striking mostly at 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 strongman is also sort of a bit too late. The strongman 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 Mahdi Army, some of the Kurdish militias in the north, or Abdul Aziz al-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 strongman solution.

There is this romantic idea lately that you can 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 a 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, Amarah, Ramadi—each one 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 for a long time. 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, Mohammad Sadeq Sadr, was killed by Baathists in 1999. And—

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 al-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, who are members of the police, kidnapping somebody. He’s been very anti-American from the beginning, very nationalistic, unlike perhaps Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who was perceived as coming on the back of American tanks and being sort of sponsored by Iranians. Muqtada can claim that he’s always been there, suffered with the Iraqi people. He can disparage Ayatollah Sistani for being a quietist and for being Iranian-born. He has a nationalist’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 the Americans had done, it was to unite the Sunnis and Shias at least against them. But that all fell apart by 2005 or by the end of 2004. And since then, Muqtada al-Sadr and 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 to speak, not knowing actually that he’d be speaking, and who the people were with him.

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

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

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, Baghdadi and Riyadh al-Nuri, Ali al-Baghdadi, Riyadh al-Nuri. One of them is married to his sister. And it looks like you’re dealing with a gang, basically. They’re young men, sort of cocky. And they have the support of hundreds of thousands of people, men and women. Women were there, and they were just as excited as the 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—a more subtle attack on the Sunnis. He’s never gone directly at Sunnis; he’ll call them Saddamists or takfiris, those who call Shias infidels, Wahhabis. And he’s alleged that there is an alliance between—and this is a widespread belief amongst Shias in Iraq, that there’s an alliance between the Americans and the 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. And in my view, this is also something we’ll start seeing quite soon.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Tariq 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 Tariq Aziz.

TOM HAYDEN: No, the newspaper, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, said that Baker had a meeting with one of Saddam Hussein’s lawyers and informed him that Tariq Aziz could be released by the end of the year and serve as a negotiator with the ex-Baathists on that front. Somebody should just ask, well, has 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 these—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 ceasefire 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 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 Dawa Party, which has no real militia of its own. I think people in Sadr City were just very upset, because they’ve 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 al-Sadr has people in that 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 Iraqis together.

There’s been a shift lately, since the Americans realized that Iraq is a failure, of blaming the Iraqis: "The Iraqis need to step up. The Iraqis have to choose democracy. The Iraqis have to choose freedom." Well, it’s very popular for us to blame the Iraqis for the chaos that we’ve brought upon them. And I think this will perhaps be something for the cameras in the U.S., an attempt by Bush to show that he’s going to make Maliki, you know, seize the reins of his country, or something absurd like that, because Maliki has no power of his own. And 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 have been in Iraq for several years reporting. Yesterday, on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, King Abdullah of Jordan was there. He said there are three civil wars that could be happening at once: Palestine in Israel, 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 is 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 Dahlan, 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 of 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 portray it as if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been killed, or John F. Kennedy. But in reality, 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 Phalangists. They were responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982. It’s very 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 in Lebanon right now. I think what you’ll see is a continued state of insecurity, instability, the occasional assassination. 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 Israel would like that. I think they would like to weaken Hezbollah in a way that they failed to do during the war. But I don’t think that it’s very likely at this very point.

AMY GOODMAN: And the discussion of possible direct negotiations with 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 they will, and that I think it’s great that the U.S. talks to Iran and Syria. It’s long overdue. 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 3,000 or 4,000 Iraqi refugees crossing the border every day. That’s going to destabilize Syria. You already have nearly a million Iraqi refugees in Syria today. Iran certainly wants a strong Shia Iraq, 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. 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 a 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. So, power isn’t in the Green Zone. Power isn’t in Iran, in Syria. It’s not in Jordan. It’s certainly not in the White House. It’s very localized, just different neighborhood clashes.

AMY GOODMAN: And what would happen if the U.S. just withdrew troops?

NIR ROSEN: Well, same thing that’s happening now: Civil war would continue. At some point Shias will make a move against—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, of course, are panicking about this, and they’re hoping the U.S. will in some way arm or support Sunni militias. It’s hard for me to imagine that the 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. And so you’ll see greater support from Saudi Arabia, from Jordan, perhaps from Yemen, 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 a million Iraqis in Jordan, at least. You go—you walk in the streets of Jordan, you’ll hear Iraqi Arabic as much as any other kind.

AMY GOODMAN: And 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. So I imagine 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, sort of not influenced by this—the neocon ideology that dominates the White House today. He was against, for example, removing Saddam in 1991 and thought it was a bad move. Suddenly he changed his mind. So I’m not sure what he’s doing in Saudi Arabia, but I just don’t think that it matters very much. I don’t think that America can do any 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, of course, is growing every day. And as I said, you have several thousand Iraqis streaming into Syria every day. And you have 800,000 or a million Iraqis in Syria today. You have about a million Iraqis in Jordan today. You have a couple of hundred thousand Iraqis in Egypt. I’m told there are some in Yemen, as well. I think there are 30,000 or 40,000 in Lebanon.

And in the beginning, 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 basically closed the land border. There’s a sign on the Jordanian border that says no man 18 to 35 can enter Jordan from Iraq. And one thing that Iraqis are doing is not taking any of their belongings, because if you’re in a taxi coming into 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 and just living with nothing. And the Americans are putting a great deal of pressure not to have them recognized as refugees, because if you call the Iraqi refugees "refugees," you’re implying that Iraq is chaotic, it’s hopeless. So, there’s not very much funding going to help these people. And 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, your—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 Hutus and Tutsis kill each other, and be like, "Wow! It’s 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’s just too late. But we need to know that we are responsible for what’s happening in Iraq today. And I don’t think Americans are aware of this, that 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 is, if not an answer, a necessity?

NIR ROSEN: Troop withdrawal—if I was an American, then I would want troop withdrawal, just 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 you withdraw the troops, you’ll have less Americans killing Iraqis. Every day the Americans are there, they kill innocent Iraqis, they torture innocent Iraqis, and they occupy Iraq and terrorize Iraqis. They should leave today.

AMY GOODMAN: Nir Rosen, I want to thank you for being with us. And, Tom Hayden, a former Californian state senator, thank you for joining us. When we come back, we go to New Orleans. Stay with us.

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