The Obama administration says the last combat brigades have left Iraq. Is this the end of the Iraq war or just a rebranding of the US occupation? More than 50,000 troops remain in Iraq as well as 4,500 special operations forces and tens of thousands of private contractors. The US embassy in Baghdad is the largest in the world — the size of eighty football fields. We get a perspective on the so-called withdrawal rarely heard in the US media: that of two Iraqis, Raed Jarrar of Peace Action and Yanar Mohammed of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: We begin today’s show on Iraq. If you happened to have tuned into the NBC Nightly News on Wednesday night, you might have been led to believe the Iraq war was all but over. NBC news anchor Brian Williams led the evening’s broadcast with an exclusive story on the war.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, who’s covered this war for so many years for us, with us from a moving convoy in the Iraqi desert tonight. And Richard, I understand your reporting of this at this hour tonight constitutes the official Pentagon announcement, correct?
RICHARD ENGEL: Yes, it is. Right now we are with the last American combat troops, and they are in the process of leaving this country right now. We are with the 4/2 Stryker Brigade. I’m broadcasting right now live from the top of a Stryker fighting vehicle. There are 440 American troops in this convoy. As soon as they cross border into Kuwait — and it is not far to the border, just about thirty miles from here — as soon as all these soldiers leave Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the combat mission in Iraq, will be over.
JUAN GONZALEZ: That was NBC’s Richard Engel in Iraq near the Kuwaiti border with his exclusive report that NBC described as, quote, the "official Pentagon announcement" of the withdrawal.
Although the withdrawal has been hailed as a major milestone in the Iraq war and an end to combat operations, 50,000 US troops will remain in Iraq after the end of this month to help with training and logistics. In addition, the US is keeping 4,500 special operations forces in Iraq to carry out counterterrroism operations. Tens of thousands of private contractors will also remain in the country.
State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley acknowledged earlier this week that the withdrawal of the combat brigades would lead to a doubling in the number of private contractors employed by the State Department
P.J. CROWLEY: Where the military has provided security in the past, we now have to provide that security. This is a case where contractors actually — for what we think is a transitory requirement, this is where contractors actually are fruitful. We’re able to ramp up an effort for a temporary period of time and then reduce that effort as the security situation improves.
REPORTER: So you’ve begun contacting them — DynCorp or Xi security?
P.J. CROWLEY: Yeah, we have — we have very specific plans to increase our security, you know, because — as the military is leaving. This will be expensive.
AMY GOODMAN: The State Department will use private contractors to guard the massive US embassy in Baghdad, the largest embassy in the world, as well as US consulates in Basra and Erbil and embassy branch offices in Kirkuk and Mosul.
The withdrawal of the US combat brigades also comes at a pivotal moment for Iraq. Elections were held in March, but a new government still hasn’t been formed. And Baghdad is still reeling from Monday’s suicide bombing outside an army recruitment center that killed at least sixty recruits. It was the deadliest attack in Iraq this year.
To talk more about the situation, we’re joined by two Iraqis. Raed Jarrar is in Washington. He is Iraq consultant for American Friends Service Committee and a senior fellow at Peace Action. Yanar Mohammed is joining us from Toronto. She’s president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq.
Raed, let’s begin with you. Can you assess what the situation on the ground is right now?
RAED JARRAR: I don’t think what happened this week or what will be happening by the end of this month will have any real implications on the situation on the ground, because most of the US troops, the combat forces, have left Iraqi cities and towns and villages last June. So there are no real implications of what is happening now on the situation.
The situation in Iraq is extremely bad. It’s very bad. The services that the Iraqi public are receiving are dysfunctional. People don’t have access to very basic services like water, electricity, sewage, education and healthcare. The political situation is deteriorating. It’s very bad. Iraq does not have a government almost after six months of the election. And the security situation is extremely bad, as well.
But these are two different tracks, though. From an Iraqi perspective, although a majority of Iraqis, maybe a national consensus, would agree that the situation is extremely bad in Iraq, that Iraq is still broken, there is still a majority of Iraqis who want this occupation to end. So it’s not like Iraqis believe that prolonging the occupation would fix what this occupation has broken.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Raed Jarrar, what about this issue of the seeming paralysis of the government in being able to, following elections — months have passed without a clear agreement on who will continue to run the government in Iraq?
RAED JARRAR: There are a number of reasons that have led to this delay. I mean, first of all, the election itself was a very important and positive development in Iraq, because the Iraqi public did vote for parties that has more nationalist tendencies, parties that are for ending the occupation, parties that are for ending sectarian divisions and sectarian allocationism in the government. So the election itself was good news.
Now, the reasons why the election has taken a long time to form the government, we’ve been having around — it’s been almost six months now. There are some external reasons — the fact that some regional governments, including the Iranian government, have been interfering in the process negatively. Some other interventions have been slowing down the process. And there are some domestic reasons — the inability of some Iraqi leaders to put their differences aside and move forward. But the main reason why we have this deadlock now is the fact that Iraq does not have a functional democracy. We cannot expect to have a functional democracy from Iraq that was imposed by a foreign occupation. That is why millions of Iraqis, including myself, said from the beginning this occupation should not have started, should not start, from the beginning, because there is no such thing as implanting a functional democracy from outside. It’s a broken system. It has many problems. But although, you know, the situation is very bad, I still have hope that Iraqi political leaders will manage to create a new government within the upcoming weeks.
AMY GOODMAN: On this issue, Raed, of Iraq’s failure to form a new government after the March election, this is what the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki said earlier this month.
PRIME MINISTER NOURI AL-MALIKI: [translated] I’m sure that if the next prime minister is weak and not supported by the majority of political blocs, entities and Parliament, the big danger is that it will affect the unity of Iraq and the security situation. Militias and gangs will return. Al-Qaeda will return. There will be conflicts. There are many people lurking who are waiting to seize any gap. We need a man who knows the map of existing challenges, diplomatic, external and internal relations, national unity, national reconciliation, and the unity of Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki earlier this month. Raed, your response?
RAED JARRAR: I think this is a very destructive way of dealing with the situation by Mr. al-Maliki. Choosing the next prime minister is not like hiring a new employee, and they’re putting, you know, some requirements for the new prime minister. There are existing regulations and constitutional articles that show us how to choose the next prime minister. The prime minister should be chosen in accordance to the election results. Whomever won the — whomever is the head of the largest bloc in the Parliament gets to become the prime minister. Unfortunately, many Iraqi politicians, including Mr. al-Maliki, are trying to circumvent the results of the election and trying to make it an issue of, you know, who to choose based on their qualifications, rather than going back to the election results and abiding by what the Iraqi people have said.
AMY GOODMAN: Raed Jarrar, Iraq consultant for American Friends Service Committee, senior fellow at Peace Action. When we come back, we’ll also be joined by Yanar Mohammed. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest, Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq.
Yanar, usually you’re in Iraq, but right now you’re in Toronto. Your thoughts on this moment, how important it is? What is happening on the ground with women?
YANAR MOHAMMED: To tell you the truth, if I wouldn’t have seen it on CNN, I wouldn’t have been aware of it at all. And it’s only two weeks since I’ve left Baghdad, and I’m going back in a few days. You don’t see the US troops on the streets anymore. They are in their bases. They are running the politics totally on their own terms, for their own interests. But they don’t have — they don’t need to have their troops on the ground. They have trained the Iraqi army to do the same oppressive acts that they do to the people on the ground. The number of detainments, the oppression against people everywhere, the Iraqi army is doing a very good job at that. They are representing the same tactics, so the US troops don’t need to be there, as long as the US politics have been put in place.
So, what do we feel about that? Well, we have heard in the report earlier that it was called Operation Iraqi Liberation or Iraq Freedom. In our opinion, we are back to point zero now. At this point, organizing — freedom of organizing does not exist, because as — I don’t know how many people in the US have heard that workers are not allowed to organize. Unions have been banned to organize in some of the ministries in Iraq. Civil society organizations are also being harassed by some facilities put in place by the government. And the democracy that has been imposed on Iraq by this occupation has brought forward a prime minister who runs prisons. Nouri al-Maliki runs a prison, and everybody knows that. The Human Rights Watch has written a report about it. He runs a prison where hundreds of men have been tortured. And I’m not speaking five years ago, six years ago; this was found out in April 2010. Nouri al-Maliki runs a prison in Baghdad where hundreds of men have been tortured Abu Ghraib-style. And we all know where those lessons have come from.
So, the fact that the troops are leaving is good, by itself, if you look at it as a separate fact of what’s happening on the ground. But what’s happening on the ground, there are no freedoms. We are back to the same dictatorship that we had in Saddam’s time. No freedom to organize for workers. Women are afraid to speak out. We are being harassed by some facilities of the government. And when we go back home to hide, trying to get some security, we don’t find electricity. We get water a few hours a day. And to tell you the truth, I ran from the heat in Baghdad, because I couldn’t tolerate it anymore. And that’s why I’m here in Toronto now. And it’s very hard to live an ordinary life if you are in Iraq now.
All stories of democracy — excuse me, we do not feel them in Iraq. And we are working in organizations. We are sometimes speaking politics. We are not ordinary people. We are a good gauge for these things. We don’t feel any of this. The Prime Minister, when he is the head of a prison, this is not a democracy to have. And the deadlock that’s on the dysfunctional government, it was expected. Nouri al-Maliki, having been prepared for — to take over in the last four years, would not let go of his chair easily. And what he said over the interview, there was a part that was missed in the translation. He says that a weak man cannot take over. When he says a weak man cannot take over, he means he is the strong man, because he is supported by the US policies. That’s the message in there. That’s his message to his colleague, Allawi —-
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yanar Mohammed?
YANAR MOHAMMED: —- that he is the one who’s chosen.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yanar Mohammed, I’d like to ask you — here in the United States, obviously, the media coverage is suggesting this is the end of the Iraq war that began with the invasion of 2003. But obviously you are aware, as millions of Iraqis are, that the conflict between the US and Iraq now is almost twenty years old from those days in '90, ’91, with the — Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. Your sense now, twenty years later, of the overall impact of the US hostilities — the bombing campaigns, the sanctions and then the invasion — on life in Iraq?
YANAR MOHAMMED: You need to have a cameraman visit Baghdad and see how destroyed the city still is. All the buildings look like they are thirty years old. And the streets are — the way I go from my house to my work, all the streets are bumpy, and none of them is fixed. The corruption, the level of corruption in Iraq is one of the highest in the world. The amounts of money that have been lost, meanwhile, in the last seven years and a half, I cannot even say the number. I cannot imagine it. So, using false words of democracy are good for the media in the US, but in reality, in our lives in Baghdad, level of unemployment is so high. And if CNN says it’s something around 60 percent level of employment, well, most of those are in the army, are in the police — young men who have to get some kind of job and later on get bombed while standing in a lineup. Level of unemployment among women is, I would say, 80 percent. How are we living? Scarce electricity, services, and everything is so expensive.
AMY GOODMAN: When you say "scarce electricity," Yanar, what do you mean by "scarce electricity"? How much electricity do you have a day in Baghdad?
YANAR MOHAMMED: In my home, which is central Baghdad, I get almost three hours of electricity a day, and I have to pay somewhere between $150 and $250 for the guy who sells electricity next door. It means that the government finds herself not responsible of providing me with electricity. In the time when the temperature is 55 Celsius, you cannot stand in the street, you cannot sit in a room. You’re sweating. And the levels of deaths that happen with this high temperature is no concern of the Minister of Electricity, who is busy oppressing the workers who work in his ministry. He has banned unionizing, and he has been put on — he has two ministries. So, to make a long story short, our lives are so difficult in Iraq. And the confrontation with the US policies, for us, are getting harsher every — day after day. And we find out that we have to buy the oil that comes out of our own ground in a very high price that is not our — that isn’t proportional with the level of pay that we have. Unemployment is so high.
AMY GOODMAN: Yanar Mohammed, just for the record —-
YANAR MOHAMMED: And the other thing, as a women’s organization -—
AMY GOODMAN: — for the US audience — just for the record, for the US audience, when you talked about 55 degrees Celsius, that’s, what, about 131 degrees Fahrenheit, is what Yanar Mohammed is talking about.
The presence of the US, the embassy — eighty (80) football fields — the private security, the private companies. You know, Erik Prince, who’s the head of Blackwater, just moved to the United Arab Emirates. They don’t have an extradition treaty with the United States, as Blackwater is embroiled in various charges about its involvement in murder and torture. Can you talk about what the presence of the private security firms mean — they’re going to be doubling — and what this massive, the largest US embassy in the world means still in Iraq?
YANAR MOHAMMED: In what used to be called in Iraq the presidential palace, now there is a zone that none of us regular people can reach to. It is surrounded by almost five high concrete walls. And among these concrete walls, you have to be searched almost five times before you go inside. And if you don’t have three IDs on you, you will not reach into that zone. So the American embassy is something that we have not seen. I’ve just read about it in the magazines. You may know more about it than I do, while it is in our country.
As for what the — what we call — you call them the private contractors. We call them faraq al-qadera [phon.], which means the dirty gangs or dirty mobs, who are giving — I think most of them are working as bodyguards for the parliamentarians and for the VIPs in Iraq. And you have to be real careful when you see one of those convoys in front of you, because they have no problem shooting anybody in their way or hitting your car or jeopardizing your life. They are the ones that you need to be careful from. And you cannot stop them and ask them, "What’ss your ID? Are you American, or are you Iraqi?" because they have employed a big number of Iraqi young men who cannot find any other jobs, and they have taught them their same ways, unfortunately.
This point brings me to another conclusion. After seven-and-a-half years, we have a big population of young men who can work only as military. They are very good at killing. And after seven-and-a-half years, we are very aware who are the Sunni and who are the Shia. We are very aware who are the Arabs, the Kurds and the Turkmens and the rest of the ethnicities. We are very aware of all the reasons that could fight — that could start a civil war at any point. We have been given very strong lessons in the so-called democracy. They have very good reasons to kill each other for no reason at all.
AMY GOODMAN: Yanar Mohammed, I want to thank you for being with us, president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. And, of course, we’ll speak to you when you’re in Iraq, as well.