Robert Fisk is a veteran war correspondent and one of the world’s most experienced journalists covering the Middle East. He has reported from across the Arab world for the past thirty years. His latest book is "The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East." He joins us in our Firehouse studio. [includes rush transcript]
In Iraq, at least 26 people died today when a suicide bomber struck a busy commercial district in Baghdad. Over 50 people were injured. In other reported violence, gunmen killed five people when they opened fire on Shia pilgrims in two separate incidents around the capital. Elsewhere in Bagdad, police said that since Saturday, they had found 20 bodies of men who were believed to be victims of Shiite death squads
The latest news comes as more than one thousand US and Iraqi troops have moved into the Shiite stronghold of Sadr city to conduct house-to-house searches and street patrols. It marked the largest operation into the area in more than three years.
Meanwhile in southern Iraq, British-led troops have uncovered an Iraqi government facility in Basra where Shiite forces were torturing prisoners and producing bomb-making equipment. The torture was going on inside the local headquarters of the Iraqi interior ministry"s domestic intelligence agency.
The news comes amid the backdrop of a planned security conference on the tenth of March in Iraq. The United States says it will attend the talks that include both Syria and Iran.
Robert Fisk is a veteran war correspondent and one of the world"s most experienced journalists covering the Middle East. He has reported from across the Arab world for the past thirty years. He was in Iraq in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, in the early 1990s during the Persian Gulf War and most recently during the U.S. invasion and occupation. He has also reported on the civil wars in Algeria and Lebanon, the Iranian revolution, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and Israel"s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
Robert Fisk joins me in our firehouse studio.
- Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent. He is the author of several books, his latest is "The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk is a veteran war correspondent, one of the world’s most experienced journalists in the Middle East. He has reported from across the Arab world for the past thirty years. He was in Iraq in the '80s during the Iran-Iraq War, in the early ’90s during the Persian Gulf War, and most recently during the US invasion and occupation. He has also reported on civil wars in Algeria and Lebanon, the Iranian revolution, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Robert Fisk joins me here in our firehouse studio for the hour. Welcome to Democracy Now!
ROBERT FISK: You’re making me feel old, Amy. All these talks of all the civil wars I’ve covered, I’m beginning to think it’s time I packed it all in.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, congratulations also on your 2006 Lannan Lifetime Achievement Prize for Cultural Freedom.
ROBERT FISK: Thanks very much, indeed. Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: You said last night at a large event at Town Hall in New York, where you were honored and you spoke, that you consider the award important as a flak jacket. Explain.
ROBERT FISK: Well, if you report the Middle East and you do it fairly and honorably and you criticize everyone, and that includes Israel, you’re going to get the sticks and stones, sometimes literally. You get a lot of flak. And when a journalist gets an honor like the Lannan Award or a journalistic award in Britain, OK, it’s flattering, it’s nice. All journalists like that. But particularly in the Middle East, it’s a way of showing that there are other people in the West who say, "You’re doing the right job. Keep it up."
And it’s also a lesson to those critics, particularly the particularly venomous ones, and you and I could think of them straightaway, who try to destroy your career by lying about you, by accusing you of being anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, you name it. It’s a way of saying, "Well, hold on a second. Look at this list of awards. Do you think these people are all the same? Do you not realize that this was for some reason?" So, it is a flak jacket. It’s a protection for journalists when we get awards for reporting in the Middle East, particularly in the Middle East.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, your last piece is about bin Laden hitting fifty.
ROBERT FISK: Yes. Well, I must say I did sort of mention in the same piece that I think bin Laden is pretty irrelevant now. You know, his creation is al-Qaeda, and it exists. It’s in being. The monster is born. Chasing bin Laden now, if indeed we are chasing bin Laden now, is a bit like chasing nuclear scientists and arresting them all after the invention of the atom bomb. The atom bomb exists. You can’t deconstruct it. So arresting the nuclear scientists won’t do any good.
And in a sense, you see, the same applies with bin Laden. His "achievement" — I put that in quotation marks — in his eyes, is the creation of al-Qaeda. Never before have we had a violent institution of this kind. And the only way to overcome it is to produce some justice, which, of course, we don’t want to do. We want more and more violence against al-Qaeda, which, of course, helps al-Qaeda. But the fact of the matter is that I think bin Laden has achieved, in his mind, what he wants. And now, if he dies of kidney failure, which I don’t think he’s going to do — I don’t believe these stories — or whether he falls off a cliff or gets bombed or arrested, I think it’s irrelevant, totally irrelevant.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your interviews with Osama bin Laden. How many did you do?
ROBERT FISK: I did three.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the first one.
ROBERT FISK: Well, the first one was in Sudan. A Saudi friend of his, who had fought with him against the Soviets in Afghanistan, who, mind you — he was now a journalist — he met me at an Islamic conference in Khartoum, and one Sunday morning, he said, "Robert, I want you to come and meet someone." And for him, it was a bit of a joke. He knew bin Laden was out in the desert, where bin Laden’s construction teams — he was, of course, in the construction business, as most his family were — had been building a new road from a little village to the main highway between Port Sudan and Khartoum to link up so that the villagers could take part in the national economy.
AMY GOODMAN: Bin Laden’s father was a great Yemeni construction magnate in Saudi Arabia?
ROBERT FISK: A billionaire so, yes. And, indeed, most of bin Laden’s — or some of bin Laden’s money came from the construction business. He built the roads upon which the Afghan guerrillas took tanks to fight the Russians. I mean, I actually went in an air raid shelter twenty-five feet high, built into the living rock of a mountain in Afghanistan, built by bin Laden during the Russian war, next to a camp built by the CIA, of course.
But, no, I went out with this guy. We went across the desert past pyramids you’ve never seen before. I mean, they’re not even in guidebooks. And we ended up in this desert village, and there was this man in this long white robe with all these kids dancing in front of him and people slaughtering chickens and goats and sheep. And my journalist friend, who knew bin Laden well, went up and spoke to him in his ear. And I saw bin Laden’s eyes flick towards me with palpable concern. He had never met a Western journalist before. And I was invited to meet him. I shook hands with him, and he thought I was going to ask him about terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, because he was already being implicated. There were comments by State Department officials that bin Laden was plotting world terror.
AMY GOODMAN: This is 1993.
ROBERT FISK: Yes. Pretty accurate, actually, if you think about it. But, anyway, that’s what was happening. So anyway, I wasn’t really interested in this. You know, my colleagues had written all this terror, terror, terror stuff. I wanted to know what created bin Laden during the war with the Russians, what happened to him, because, you know, the Saudis wanted to send a Saudi prince to lead an Arab legion against the Soviet infidels. Unfortunately, the Saudi princes were keener on living in Monte Carlo than going to Afghanistan, and bin Laden was the man who led the Arab legion.
So I said to him, "What was it like fighting the Russians? Tell me about fighting the Russians." And he talked for some time about the large number of his supporters — there wasn’t al-Qaeda in existence then — a large number of Arab fighters who died. There’s a mass grave near Jalalabad — he told me exactly where it was — with hundreds of his own fighters buried in it. And then he recalled an attack on a Russian firebase, a Russian artillery position in Nangarhar province — capital is Jalalabad. And he said, "As we were advancing, a mortar shell fell at my feet." And he waited for it to explode and kill him. And he said, "I felt sakina, a calmness" — it’s a religious idea that you are not worried about death, you are outside this world, you are linked in with God and the idea of another world, another life. And the mortar shell didn’t explode. There must be many people who wish that it had, but it didn’t.
And, obviously, it was quite clear talking to him that this was a very important moment in his life. He had conquered fear and the fear of death. And once you do that, you start discovering perhaps that you love death, but it’s not the same. You remember the famous phrase we always hear from suicide bombers, "You love life, we love death," which is the most frightening thing you can hear. And I think at that moment, that during that attack on the Russians — I mean, it was a Soviet base, a Soviet army base — I think that must have changed him in some way. But, you know, as I saw him each time, he changed, too. I mean, he was growing older.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re older than him?
ROBERT FISK: Yeah, I’m about ten years older than him. Yes, that’s right. I don’t think — I mean, he always — we never discussed age, but, I mean, he must have guessed I was slightly older than him. He was always very courteous towards me. And when he stopped to eat, I would sit on the ground with the al-Qaeda fighters and eat yoghurt and drink tea with him. He broke off occasionally to pray, as well, which I, of course, didn’t do with him.
But certainly, the next time I met him in Afghanistan, he was a much more angry man. He was filled with fury at the corruption of the Saudi royal family. He went into great detail on how many millions of dollars they stole on this occasion, how many princes have taken these dollars, and so on. And it looked at that stage as if what he really wanted to do was to overthrow the Saudi royal family and become caliph of Arabia. He didn’t say that, but I suspect. I mean, Arabia is what he’s interested in. At the end of the day, it’s Arabia, not because of oil, but because of the holy places of Mecca and Medina and his own religious Salafi beliefs.
But he was already beginning to talk about people having dreams. You know, in the Wahhabi sect, people believe in what I call "dreamology." They think that when they have a dream, it’s a message coming from somewhere outside the world. Obviously, you know, you can interpret the Prophet Muhammad’s receiving the message of God as being in a kind of trance or a dream. Remember, the first message he received, he talked about how he was wrapped in, and it was felt tight — that an angel wrapped him and squeezed him tight. And I think that bin Laden believes in dreams. I think a lot of al-Qaeda people do. They have ideas that come to them. We don’t. We believe that this is an inactive but still living brain taking over, just things come through like stars pass through the heavens, but I think they interpret them or want to interpret them, which is a very — something we basically gave up in the Middle Ages in Europe.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, but when we come back, tell us what he told you on that mountaintop in Afghanistan. We’re talking to Robert Fisk, the veteran war correspondent. His latest book, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, has just come out in paperback. His earlier book, Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon, is coming out in French, and he is traveling to Paris today for the launch of the book there. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for The Independent of London, voted best foreign correspondent for years by British reporters and editors. His latest book is called The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East. Robert, you’re talking about mountaintop in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden.
ROBERT FISK: Well, the last time I saw him, which was '97 — he did want to see me after 9/11, but I couldn't reach him. An American air raid was on the road in front of me on my way to see him. But the last time I saw him, he had moved from his hatred of the Saudis, which was still there, into a quite clear fury at the United States. He was starting to talk about them as being crusaders.
And, in fact, the last words he said to me, as we sat in a very freezing mountaintop — I spent the night with his al-Qaeda people in a tent sleeping. I woke up with ice in my hair. And the last words he said to me, and I have my notebooks, which, of course, I will research for this book, and his words were, "Mr. Robert, from this mountain upon which we are sitting, we destroyed the Soviet army and helped to destroy the Soviet Union," which was an element of truth, though obviously a usual bin Laden exaggeration. And then he said, "and I pray to God that He permits us to turn America into a shadow of itself." Those were his words. And in my notebook, which I actually took these words down in, I put two lines on each side of the quote. At the time, I wrote, "Rhetoric?" It wasn’t, of course.
And I remember that, you know, on 9/11, I said before, I think, to you, that I was crossing the Atlantic that day. The plane turned around, and I got back to Europe and saw, you know, the biblical crashing of the Twin Towers. I remember thinking, well, New York is now a shadow of itself, all that dust and fog going across the city. I was pretty convinced, from the start, that bin Laden was involved. I still am, of course.
AMY GOODMAN: You have chosen a section of your book —
ROBERT FISK: Highly subversive, highly subversive section.
AMY GOODMAN: — The Great War for Civilisation, to read, deleting any curses or anything like that, if you could read a piece.
ROBERT FISK: I’ve chosen a piece that has no bad language, which is permitted on British television, but not on American television. Yes, it fits in rather well with the news today and what you’ve just been talking about. It’s about the issue of our rationale of how we behave in Iraq.
[reading] "The Americans and British benefited from these accounts of terror under Saddam. Would you rather he was still here in Iraq torturing and gassing his own people? they would ask. Don’t you think we did a good thing by getting rid of him? All this, of course, because the original reasons for the invasion — Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, his links with the outrages of September 11th, Mr. Blair’s 45-minute warning — turned out to be lies. But it was a dark comparison that Bush and Blair were making. If Saddam’s immorality and wickedness had to be the yardstick against which all of our own iniquities were judged, what did that say about us? If Saddam’s regime was to be the moral compass to define our actions, how bad — how iniquitous — did that allow us to be? Saddam tortured and executed women in Abu Ghraib. We only sexually abused prisoners and killed a few of them and murdered some suspects in Bagram in Afghanistan and subjected them to inhuman treatment in Guantanamo. Saddam was much worse. And thus it became inevitable that the symbol of Saddam’s shame — the prison at Abu Ghraib — subsequently became the symbol of our shame, too.
“What was interesting was the vastly different reaction in East and West to our abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. We 'civilised' Westerners were shocked at the dog-biting and humiliations and torture 'our' men and women administered to the inmates. Iraqis were outraged, but not shocked. Their friends and relatives — some of whom have been locked up by the Americans — had long ago told them of the revolting behaviour of the American guards. They weren’t surprised by those iconic photographs. They already knew.
“By early 2004, an army of thousands of mercenaries had appeared on the streets of Iraq’s major cities, many of them former British and American soldiers hired by the occupying Anglo-American authorities and by dozens of companies who feared for the lives of their employees in Baghdad The heavily armed Britons working for well over 300 security firms in Iraq now outnumbered Britain’s 8,000-strong army in the south of the country. Although major US and British security companies were operating in Iraq, dozens of small firms also set up shop with little vetting of their employees and few rules of engagement. Many of the Britons were former SAS soldiers — hundreds of former American Special Forces men were also in the country — while armed South Africans were also working for the occupation authorities.
"The presence in Iraq of so many thousands of Western mercenaries — or 'security contractors,' as the American press coyly referred to them — said as much about America’s fear of taking military casualties as it did about the multi-million-pound security industry now milking the coffers of the US and British governments. Security firms were escorting convoys on the highways of Iraq. Armed plain-clothes men from an American company were guarding US troops at night inside the former presidential palace where Paul Bremer had his headquarters. In other words, security companies were now guarding the occupation troops. When a US helicopter crashed near Fallujah in 2003, it was an American security company that took control of the area and began rescue operations. Needless to say, casualties among the mercenaries were not included in the regular body count put out by the occupation authorities."
The latest figure that I have as a journalist now is that we now have in Iraq 120,000 Westerner mercenaries. That’s almost equal to the total number of American troops.
AMY GOODMAN: And in your experience in Iraq, —
ROBERT FISK: Ouch.
AMY GOODMAN: — having been there, how much did you run into these mercenaries?
ROBERT FISK: Oh, they would turn up and stay in the same hotel I was in. They turned up during checkpoints on roads, sometimes wearing hoods or masks. Why? Why hoods? Why masks? What were they doing? I would come across them driving vehicles through the streets of Baghdad, guns pointing out the window. "Get out of the way! Get out of the way! Get out of the way!" Tch-tch-tch-tch-tch, in the air. Very similar to the same gangs that Saddam used to use for security purposes to get people out of the way in vehicles. In fact, the way in which the occupation authorities have sealed off vast areas of Baghdad with walls is classic. It wasn’t as bad under Saddam. There weren’t so many walls, but it’s very similar to the same practice that Saddam’s regime used. In fact, in many ways, what we do has become a kind of pale mirror of the regime we got rid of. You know, hanging people and their heads come off when you hang them, this is incredible.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressman John Murtha, the former Marine who basically channeled the Pentagon and came out early on — he was first for the war, came out against and called for withdrawal — said yesterday that Abu Ghraib — that the US military should destroy Abu Ghraib, should pull the troops out of Saddam’s palaces and should close Guantanamo.
ROBERT FISK: Look, we’ve been through Abu Ghraib so often. First of all, it was liberated, and we all went in and saw the hangman’s noose and where Saddam’s people were executed. Then they announced they would have to use it briefly as a prison. I said — immediately I went to prison. I said, "They’ll use it as a prison again," because they always do, and they did. And then, one Iraqi historian said it should be turned into a museum of Saddam’s horror. This is Kanan Makiya, of course. And then, after the abuses were made photographically evident at Abu Ghraib, it was announced by the then-Iraqi government that it was going to be bulldozed to the ground. And then it was announced that, after all, it was still needed as a prison, so it would stay as a prison for more abuses, perhaps. And now, again, we have this suggestion it should be razed to the ground. Later on, it will be stated that it will be still needed as a prison. Then we’ll hear yet again that it has to be razed to the ground. You don’t realize, unless you go to Iraq, that this is a circular track. All the stories we report, we reported last year, and we’re going to report them again next year, believe me.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Dick Cheney. The so-called coalition of the willing in Iraq continues to shrink. Two members recently announced they’re withdrawing troops. Denmark says its battalion will pull out of Iraq by August and increase its troop presence in Afghanistan. This followed British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s announcement of a pending withdrawal of 1,600 British troops from Iraq. After Blair made the announcement, Vice President Dick Cheney issued what some called a tacit criticism of Britain’s withdrawal.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: I want you to know that the American people will not support a policy of retreat. We want to complete the mission. We want to get it done right. And then we want to return home with honor.
AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Dick Cheney.
ROBERT FISK: Well, you’ve got to remember that at one point it looked as if the Brits might pull out of the original invasion, and Rumsfeld made a statement rather similar to Cheney’s, saying, well, we can do it without them. You know, I mean, I’m still wondering what on earth Britain is doing in Iraq and how we ever got into it. You know, one of the extraordinary things at the moment about both Iraq and Afghanistan is that our leaderships, British just as much as Americans’, have lied continually. They’ve lied about weapons of mass destruction, links between Saddam and al-Qaeda, 45-minute warnings, as I said.
But this is the first war I’ve ever covered in which the leadership in the West bases its policies on its own lies. I mean, it’s one thing to lie to the people, and then you have your own policy of how to pursue a war, but to pursue the war on the basis of the lies you’re telling the people, this is an entirely new concept in war and strategy in foreign policy. I’ve never seen it before.
You know, you have Blair standing up now in the British parliament —- well, less and less, thank goodness; I mean, soon he’s going, because of Iraq, of course, and because of his relationship with Bush—- and he keeps saying the same thing over and over again: "I absolutely and completely believe I was right." And that’s not good enough. You know, we can all believe we’re right. We can jump off the Empire State Building believing we can fly, but we won’t fly, will we? And Blair actually thinks that his conviction, his own self-regard, is sufficient to make up for the factual mistakes that he makes. It’s OK, because he really believed it. That’s not the way you go to war.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think Tony Blair is pulling these troops out, although at the same time increasing troops in Afghanistan, and what do you think of that?
ROBERT FISK: I’ll tell you why I think he’s doing it. I think that the British military is having serious morale problems. I think that the British military commanders are getting to a point where they’re going to say, "We can’t do this anymore. We’re going to resign." When the Chief of Staff, Dannatt, made his statement at the Ministry of Defense about four months ago, in which he said, "Look, the longer we stay there, the more we’re exacerbating the situation," it was a great shock for Blair. This was not a retired officer like Mike Jackson, who I think very cowardly did not say those things when he was in office. This was a serving — this was the guy at the top of the British army, giving a clear warning: watch out.
And, you know, in Afghanistan, the British are in a very serious position. They’ve got units of only twelve or fifteen men in little villages, and they’re being attacked in company strength by the Taliban, very serious. I mean, I met a British soldier in London. I was giving a talk at the Dorchester about a week and a half ago. I was in London. A British officer was talking to me. He said, "You don’t realize how we are being overwhelmed in Afghanistan."
There was a very interesting comment from the British Ministry of Defense about a month ago — or five or six weeks ago. They said British troops are now in the most violent combat they’ve experienced since the Korean War. And British defense correspondents sort of put this up as a great sign: our chaps are fighting just like in Korea. And I thought, hang on a minute, that’s not the point. What happened in Korea? The Gloucestershire Regiment were overwhelmed by millions of Chinese troops crossing the Yalu River. We couldn’t stand up to the vast numbers of soldiers that were coming in from the north in Korea. They were just overrunning us, totally. And what was happening, I realized immediately, in Afghanistan is that soldiers were being so totally outnumbered, they were having to retreat out of villages. In one case, I understand, twelve British troops in a school in a village were facing 300 Taliban and had to call in US air strikes to destroy the rest of the village to save themselves.
You know, one story, which has not really come out in the American press — I know it’s a fact, because I’ve investigated it fully in Iraq — is that in the first battle of Fallujah — remember, when there was a ceasefire and then the Iraqis came back, then they had the second battle and they took the city and managed to destroy much of it — in the first battle of Fallujah, there were twelve US Marines guarding the mayor’s office at Ramadi, the neighboring city to the west, and they were attacked by hundreds of Iraqi insurgents, and that twelve-man US Marine unit was liquidated. They were totally eliminated. They were killed, all of them. They were wiped out. And that is not a story that’s gotten the front page, as far as I know, of the New York Times, but that’s what happened. So the dangers you see that we’re now facing, very much — I don’t mean to make too facile a comparison — very much the same dangers that the crusaders faced with overwhelming force from the Muslim armies of the 12th century, is that the local populations are now so full of fury and anger against us that they are attacking us in their hundreds, overwhelming force.
AMY GOODMAN: This latest news in Basra, British-led troops have uncovered an Iraqi government facility where Shia forces were torturing prisoners and producing bomb-making equipment?
ROBERT FISK: Look, everything’s getting better in Basra. That’s why we’re leaving, right? I mean, here we go again. You know, my colleague Patrick Cockburn wrote a very good piece in Iraq not long ago. He said the problem with British statements, or particularly Blair, who’s saying everything is getting better, is that to prove them wrong, you have to go to places where you will have your throat cut. So you can’t prove him wrong, so it’s OK, he’ll get away with it.
Look, there’s no doubt that the Iraqi interior ministry is totally — I mean, it’s impregnated with the insurgency, Shiite insurgency, Sunni and other parts. You know, from the very beginning, we used to have these reports: men in police uniform have kidnapped Margaret Hassan, men in army uniform besieged a police station, you know? And I used to say, hang on, there’s not a Wal-Mart factory in Fallujah with made-to-measure police uniforms. Bring in 300 more men, we’ve got the — no, these are policemen. These are Iraqi soldiers. The Iraqi security forces have been totally infiltrated by the insurgents of both sides. That includes interior ministry, prisons, police stations. This idea, oh, we’re going to build up the Iraqi forces until they can take over — you know, I love that line from Blair: from now onwards Iraqis in Basra will write their own history. Yeah, they sure will, when we go. It’s incredible the way they get away with it, these people.
AMY GOODMAN: And the latest news out of Afghanistan, thousands of angry demonstrators taking to the streets after US forces were involved in a panicked shooting, which left sixteen civilians dead and twenty-three injured — at least that’s how it was described — panic shooting in The Independent.
ROBERT FISK: No photos, please. That’s what you were talking about also. We will delete you if you take pictures. Look, this is happening over and over again in Baghdad. A car blows up, a suicide bomber attacks, so everyone in the area is shot at. You know, at the very beginning of the invasion, when the Americans reached Baghdad, there was a frightening circumstance of Highway 11, I think it was. I went there afterwards, and a US tank column was moving down the road. They were ambushed, and the tank commander believed that every car on the road was a potential suicide car, and he ordered his men to fire at every civilian car. So when I got to the scene, there were smoking cars. There were women, their clothes blasted off them, naked in the backs of vehicles, children lying with rugs over them, dead beside the road. It was a massacre. Now, there was an ambush by the Iraqis. The Americans were attacked there, but their response was to kill everything in sight. And I actually talked to the US tank commander — he’s quoted in my book by name — who said, "Look, I have to defend my men. I have a duty to defend my men. I’m sorry if innocent people get killed."
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for The Independent of London. His latest book is The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk is our guest, chief Middle East correspondent for The Independent of London. Robert, you head to Paris today for the French edition of Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon, then Cairo and Egypt for the Arabic edition coming out of The Great War for Civilisation?
ROBERT FISK: Yes. It goes onto the crack of doom. We also have, by the way, a Bosnian edition next year coming out in Sarajevo. There’s sixteen foreign language editions now.
AMY GOODMAN: But then, you pack up everything and you start your Middle East reporting again.
ROBERT FISK: Well, I’m still doing Middle East reporting. I mean, I was in Lebanon for the violence in the streets, of course, in January. Yeah, from about July onwards, I will be full-time back Afghanistan and Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, etc.
AMY GOODMAN: You mention Lebanon. Let’s talk about the situation there today. This is where you have been based for the last thirty years.
ROBERT FISK: Thirty-one, almost, now, yeah. Yes, I mean, I was, you know, like I suppose most Lebanese, I felt, up until July the 12th, the beginning of the war between Hezbollah and the Israelis last summer, that maybe Lebanon had a chance. You know, it was being rebuilt. There wasn’t enough money trickling down from the top to the bottom; it was still a lopsided society with the Shiites being the poor and the oppressed as usual. But I thought until we came across — you know, even when the Shiites pulled out of the government, which was a very serious matter because it meant that once again we were emphasizing the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics, that there might be some form of compromise.
But once we had that strike, which turned so violent — you know, I turned up on Corniche Mazraa in the western part of Beirut, and there must have been 7,000 people, Muslims, Shiites and Sunnis, chucking rocks and stones at each other. There were seven Lebanese soldiers trying to get between them. I went with them taking pictures. I mean, the stones were bouncing off the soldiers. People were chucking rocks from the top of sixteen-story buildings. It was very dangerous. I thought, civil war was going to restart that day.
And one of the dangerous things at that point was that the young people who were involved were too young to remember the civil war, which of course actually ended in 1990. They might have a faint memory. They would have heard their parents talking about it. And they didn’t realize how quickly it would escalate, how quickly you could deteriorate. Even Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah — well, the Hezbollah is a very disciplined organization, of course — was shocked at the speed with which his strike, his civil disobedience strike, descended into total street violence. Then, of course, two days later, guns came on the streets.
Very dangerous situation, because it keeps going back into a sort of semi-denial of the political crisis. We think, OK, well, Lebanon is out of the news, it’s OK again. But the reality is that Lebanon is in great danger of splintering apart again. And I went out, a short time, a short while ago, before I came to America, for dinner in a Sunni area of Beirut. It’s a mixed area, but mostly Sunni, and I remember saying, well, how are you getting on with your Shiite neighbors these days? And the woman at the table said, well, actually, most of them have gone on holiday. They’ve left their keys with their neighbors. They have gone to stay with relatives elsewhere.
Now, that’s how it begins. That’s how it happened in Baghdad, people moving out of Sunni areas, people moving out of Shiite areas, if they’re a different religion. One of the frightening things that happened during those January days of violence, including the area where there was shooting used, is that the scenes of street combat were on the same green line of the civil war. In other words, the old fracture between east and west, Beirut and parts of West Beirut, reopened at the exact — Hazmieh — exactly the same point. I spent parts of the civil war at Hazmieh watching the fighting, and there, on the same piece of road, it broke apart again. It’s like, you know, you keep stitching it up, and it comes undone.
AMY GOODMAN: What about Seymour Hersh’s report, where he says that the Bush administration and Saudi Arabia are pumping money for covert operations in many areas of the Middle East, including Lebanon, Syria and Iran, in an effort to strengthen Saudi-supported Sunni Islam groups and weaken Iranian-backed Shiites. Some of the covert money has been given to jihadist groups in Lebanon with ties to al-Qaeda.
ROBERT FISK: Look, Seymour Hersh said that we were going to invade Iraq, and I thought we wouldn’t, and he was right and I was wrong. So when Seymour Hersh says we’re going to bombard Iran, I remain silent. When Seymour Hersh tells me — he was in Beirut, of course; he met Nasrallah there — that we’re pumping money into Sunni extremist groups, I think, well, hang on a second, he got it right and I got it wrong on Iraq.
Look, the truth of the matter is that these various organizations — and there are some al-Qaeda-type groups, groupuscules, tiny ones in Lebanon, and I’ve met them — they don’t need money from outside. They’ve got money. Everyone in Lebanon who’s got weapons has money. It’s like the same nonsense: we talk about how the Iranians are teaching the Iraqi Shiite insurgents to make bombs. Iraqi insurgents know how to make bombs. They don’t need the Iranians to come and teach them. I don’t think a lot of money is reaching these people. What I do think is that these various extreme groups are quite possibly being mobilized or encouraged by elements within the — what we now call the American-supported Lebanese government — what a kiss of death that is for the Siniora government — encouraged to remain where they are and to be available in certain circumstances.
You know, a large number of the killings that have taken place in Beirut are not necessarily carried out by the Syrians. Hariri, I think, was a Syrian-engineered plot, yes. But, for example, Pierre Gemayel’s murder, a lot of Lebanese say, well, maybe it was another Christian group behind that. One of the things you find in Lebanon is that there are various groups, some of them Palestinian — we call them extremists or terrorists, whatever you like — who are available to help anyone. They can make temporary alliances. They don’t need to be given $5 million on the quiet by someone with American money.
The real danger now, you see, is that with an ideological government like you have and like we, I suppose, think we have, we constantly want to assist people who will join us in our campaign. You can go back to Afghanistan. We wanted the warlords on our side against bin Laden. Now we’re saddled with the warlords, which is why we can’t stamp out the opium trade or the drugs trade. In Iraq, we started —
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that, for people who may not understand the significance of drugs in Afghanistan.
ROBERT FISK: We basically used the Northern Alliance, Mujahideen, the non-Taliban, anti-Taliban alliance of guerrillas, who had fought a terrible, terrifying civil war of rape and murder in Kabul earlier, to combat on the ground the Talibans, so that we didn’t lose so many soldiers. The principle of war at the moment is that they die and we live, not the other way around or not both. And because then, in order to continue the control of Afghanistan, which we’re now losing in the south, we wanted to continue that control without casualties, we continued to employ with millions and millions of dollars the same warlords who had been running the poppy trade, as well as fighting Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.
You know, we forget that the UN in the beginning of 2001 said that the drugs exports of Afghanistan had fallen by 94% because the Taliban had banned drugs. The Tony Blair version is that Taliban were in the drugs trade and it was flourishing, and now it’s flourishing again. Once again, the narrative of history is simply wrong. That’s not what happened.
But in all these various — Iraq, again, who is funding the interior ministry militiamen who are murdering people? The interior ministry is funded by us. We use local gunmen and murderers to do our job for us and save our soldiers’ lives, not very successfully, but that’s what we do. And, of course, we’ll do the same if necessary in Lebanon with all these unsavory groups, all of whom have got blood on their hands. I mean, there’s one Lebanese politician — he’s a friend of mine, I know him very well — who ran a militia during the civil war, which brutally tortured its opponents, committed war crimes, and he met Condoleezza Rice a few days ago. I mean, you know, we will make friends with those who want to help us and whom we think are worthy of our support on the short term. And if — I mean, who did bin Laden used to work for when he was fighting the Russians? Us, you know? I mean, we use these unsavory — who was Saddam working for for most of his rule? Us. Who gave him the gas? The components came from the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Lebanon and to Palestine and Israel and to go to the issue of —
ROBERT FISK: Palestine doesn’t exist, unless you put quotation marks around it, Amy. There is no state of Palestine. And I don’t think there is going to be.
AMY GOODMAN: Why not?
ROBERT FISK: Unless the Palestinians can have a cohesive state without Jewish settlements dotted through it and have East Jerusalem as a capital, I cannot see there ever being a Palestinian state, in reality. I mean, you can print stamps or bank notes, and have Ramallah as your temporary capital. But unless we see UN Security Council Resolution 242 abided by by all sides —
AMY GOODMAN: Which says?
ROBERT FISK: Retreat of Israeli forces from territories occupied in the '67 War, in return for security of all states in the area, including, of course, Israel, and the absolute fact that you cannot legally acquire land through war. It is illegal to acquire land through war, which means the settlements or colonies for Jews and Jews only on Arab land are internationally illegal. Bush has already said there are facts on the grounds that won't be changed. He’s thus said that these illegal settlements can remain. He’s effectively torn up 242 a couple of years ago. Well, I suppose we can still, you know, have another 242 Resolution. It will be 17- or 18-something-or-other. But 242 remains. It was supposed to be the basis of the Oslo Agreement, which failed. It failed because we didn’t abide by 242.
Unless Israel goes back to its international frontiers, or at least the '67 frontiers, I don't think there’s going to be peace between Palestinians and Israelis, and I don’t think there’s going to be a Palestine. And most Palestinians realize this. It’s only we, who sit in our beautiful homes in New York or London or wherever in the West — or mine’s in Beirut, but that’s a different matter — who can talk about, oh, a one-state solution, a two-state solution, putting the peace process — was the cliché — back on track. Now, it’s a road map. You can’t put a road back on track, so I’m sure we’ll invent a new cliché for that. But this is woeful. It’s more self-delusion by us. It’s like Bush saying that the Israelis won the war against the Hezbollah. I’m not sure the Hezbollah did, but the Israelis certainly didn’t. Here again, we’re living on our own lies.
AMY GOODMAN: CBS reported just in the last few weeks, the UN estimates Israel dropped as many as four million bomblets in southern Lebanon during last year’s war with Hezbollah, with as many as 40% failing to explode on impact.
ROBERT FISK: Which is why thirty-four Lebanese have been killed, let alone wounded, since the war ended, by those bomblets. Most of them of course are civilians, or all are civilians, except for one soldier who was trying to defuse one. And many of those civilians, of course, are children, because they think they are toys. They pick them up. I’ve actually walked across a field and seen them lying there. Yes, and those bomblets were dropped after the ceasefire hour was stated, when the Israelis knew the war was going to end, and they soaked the ground with those bombs, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: In The Great War for Civilisation, you talk about the weapons manufacturers. What about the cluster bomb manufacturers?
ROBERT FISK: Well, you know, last night when I was speaking at Town Hall in New York, and I don’t like to cheerlead these things, because I’m a journalist, but I ask in my book and I ask people in Lebanon, as a newspaper reporter, why don’t the victims of these weapons, not just cluster bombs, but the Lockheed Martin, Boeing, AGM-114C air-to-ground missile — it hits an ambulance, it kills people, it did in 1996 — why don’t the victims or survivors sue the arms companies? I actually took — and I recall the story here — I actually took parts of, in fact, literally the whole US missile in bits that hit an ambulance, was fired on an ambulance by an Israeli helicopter, Apache, American-made, in ’96, killed three children, two women. And with the UN, I got all the bits of the missile, including bits from the corpses. And we found the computer plate, and it was made in Duluth, Georgia. We found the date on it.
I went to Duluth. I managed to get the missile parts out of Beirut to Paris with the help of airport security. In Paris, we got Amnesty International to send it to Washington as a DHL package. I didn’t want to turn up at JFK, you know, reporter found with explosive traces. Imagine Tom Friedman’s comment on that. And I got these parts of the missile down to Duluth in Georgia to confront the Boeing executives there, including the developer of the missile. They thought I was coming to write a piece about this wonderful missile that could be fired five miles away and go through a baseball loop, you know. And there was a sort of explosion in the boardroom as I laid out the pieces of the missile along with the photographs of the dead and wounded civilians hit by their missile, which was made there, the building next door to where we were talking.
AMY GOODMAN: And where did it kill people, that you had the example of?
ROBERT FISK: Southern Lebanon. Southern Lebanon. It was on a road — I was in front of the vehicle when it was hit. I was driving on the same road. That’s why I knew exactly — I saw the helicopter.
And the amazing thing was that when I got back to Beirut having run this story on the front page of the paper — it’s called "Return to Sender" — they didn’t want the pieces of the missile; actually, they kept them, but they didn’t put them in the Boeing museum — I was rung up by a NATO arms expert in Paris. He was a Frenchman. And he said, "That missile was not sold to Israel, it was sold to the US Marine Corps." And I said, how — "come to Paris." We met at the Lutetia Hotel — great secrecy — and he pulled out all the secret lists with NATO codes showing — if you read the computer codes on the missile side, which I can do, you can tell who it was sold to. And he showed me the "O1," US forces, and then "M" for Marines.
So I went back to Washington immediately, called up the Commandant of the Marine Corps, got taken by guys to a Marine base outside Washington, where men in civilian clothes, officers, sat around and went through it, said, "Well, look, we can tell you the story. These missiles were a batch of 360 sent with US Marines to Saudi Arabia in 1990, and we used half of them against the Iraqi army in the liberation of Kuwait in ’91. Those half that remained, we were instructed to drop off at the Haifa munitions pier in Israel as part of a quid pro quo weapons for the Israelis in return for their non-participation in the 1990 war against Iraq." So this missile started off, was sold to the Marines, taken to Saudi Arabia for use against the Iraqis, dumped on the Israelis and fired into an ambulance in southern Lebanon, and then taken by me back to its base in —
Now, when I did that, I said, "Hang on, why don’t these people sue Boeing? Is there no responsibility on behalf of the arms makers?" They say, "Oh, we’ve given it to the Marines. We’re selling it to Israel." Don’t they have a responsibility to follow through? We, in our jobs, have responsibilities. You know, if you misreport something, at some point you’re going to go on the screen and say, "I got it wrong." And so am I, if I make mistakes. But these guys are completely — they’re completely protected.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, we have thirty seconds. What would happen if the US attacked Iran?
ROBERT FISK: Hell disaster again. You try to get out of one war by starting another. I think the Iranians would find some way of hitting back, and it would not be the same kind of war, you see. We’re not talking about a land war. We’re talking about bombarding it. And the Iranians, both as a people, as well as all the mullahs, they would want to hit back again. It would be a war. It wouldn’t stop there. You can’t say, "OK, we’re going to stop bombarding. It will carry on." That’s a problem.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Robert Fisk is the author of The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, his earlier book, Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon, longtime Middle East correspondent for The Independent of London. Thanks for joining us.