After U.S. Sanctions & Wars Tore Iraq Apart, Can American-Led Strikes Be Expected to Save It?

October 02, 2014


Sinan Antoon

an Iraqi poet, novelist and translator. He is a professor at New York University, where he teaches Arabic literature. His most recent book translated into English is called The Corpse Washer. He is co-founder and co-editor of Jadaliyya ezine.

Islamic State militants have reportedly made advances in both Iraq and Syria despite an escalating U.S.-led bombing. In Iraq, militants are said to have seized control of the town of Heet in Anbar province. In Syria, militants have advanced on Kurdish towns near the Turkish border, forcing tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds to flee in recent days. The United Nations says more than 1,100 Iraqis were killed in violence last month. The actual toll is far higher because it does not include deaths in areas controlled by the Islamic State. The United Nations says the Islamic State has carried out mass executions, abducted women and girls as sex slaves, and used children as fighters. The United Nations also says airstrikes by the Iraqi government have caused "significant civilian deaths and injuries." This comes as the White House has confirmed it has relaxed standards aimed at preventing civilian deaths for the U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. We discuss the developing situation with Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi poet, novelist and translator. A professor at New York University, Antoon is co-founder and co-editor of Jadaliyya ezine.


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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Militants from the Islamic State have reportedly made advances in both Iraq and Syria over the past 24 hours despite the escalating U.S.-led air campaign. In Iraq, militants are said to have seized control of 90 percent of the town of Heet in the province of Anbar. In Syria, militants have advanced on Kurdish towns near the Turkish border, forcing tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds to flee across the border in recent days. The advances by the Islamic State come as British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged ground troops will be needed to fight the militants in Iraq and Syria.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: These people, they are evil, pure and simple. They kill children, rape women, threaten nonbelievers with genocide, behead journalists and aid workers. Now, some people seem to think we can opt out of this. We can’t. As I speak, British servicemen and women are flying in the skies over Iraq. They saw action yesterday. And there will be troops on the front line, but they will be Iraqis, Kurds and Syrians, fighting for the safe and democratic future that they deserve.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On Wednesday, the United Nations revealed at least 1,119 Iraqis were killed in violence in September, but the actual toll is far higher because the U.N. figure does not include deaths in areas controlled by the Islamic State. The U.N. report said militants from the Islamic State carried out mass executions, abducted women and girls as sex slaves, and used children as fighters in systematic violations that may amount to war crimes. The U.N. also criticized the Iraqi government for causing, quote, "significant civilian deaths" by carrying out airstrikes on villages, a school and hospitals in violation of international law.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the White House has confirmed it’s relaxed standards aimed at preventing civilian deaths for the U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. According to Yahoo News, the Obama administration has acknowledged a policy announced last year calling for "near certainty" of no civilian casualties in drone strikes will not apply to the current bombing. The admission came in response to queries about a strike that killed up to a dozen civilians in the Syrian village of Kafr Deryan last week.

To talk more about the crisis in Iraq and Syria, we’re joined by Sinan Antoon. He’s an Iraqi poet, novelist and translator, a professor at New York University, where he teaches Arabic literature. His most recent book translated into English is called The Corpse Washer. He is here in our New York studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

SINAN ANTOON: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Your response to the U.S. bombing—and now expanded to Britain, and they say other allies are supporting the bombing—of Iraq, your home country?

SINAN ANTOON: Well, my response is that this is just more of the same that we’ve been having in this so-called war on terror. So, I fail to see what this is supposed to produce. What is the vision for the region that will emerge, or what will happen on the ground, after all of this bombing? We know from previous experiences that this type of action—military, indiscriminate military bombing—and the approach that the United States and its allies are using, will actually only create more terrorism. It will only create conditions in which groups such as ISIS, that will have different names, will emerge. So, it’s not a solution at all. But sadly, I mean, most of the population seems to be behind this decision. So that’s my response. And it’s the response of a lot of people on the ground in Iraq and Syria who are not with the Assad regime, of course, or against it, but they are against this type of military bombing, that does not, and has not, produced the supposed results that it promised.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But how do you respond to people who say that the brutality of the Islamic State, or ISIL or ISIS, has been such that it warranted some kind of military response?

SINAN ANTOON: Well, is this military response weakening ISIS? I mean, we just heard this morning that they’ve taken over another city in western Iraq. They’re almost a mile away from Baghdad. The way they operate, they are very mobile, they’re more fluid, and the Iraqi army, with all of its problems that have caused this, is really not in a position to fight ISIS. It doesn’t seem so. And it’s not going to change overnight. And these strikes might, you know, change the opinions in London and Washington, but on the ground, it doesn’t seem that they’re making any difference. ISIS will go on beheading. And they’ve taken on—they’ve occupied new towns. So, it is, in a way, similar to what happened in Afghanistan, in a way. There might be a victory here, but the Taliban are still there, aren’t they? I mean, this is—again, the paradoxical thing about this war on terror is that it keeps on producing more terror. And so, it’s an endless war, in a way.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who ISIS is, who these forces are of the Islamic State.

SINAN ANTOON: Well, ISIS is the later iteration of, you know, the Islamic State in Iraq, which was operating four or five years ago. But it is, in a way—I mean, if we go back to 2003, it’s the descendent of one of those groups that left Afghanistan and came to Iraq after 2003. But it’s the product of, in one way, the situation created in Iraq because of the U.S. invasion, of dismantling the Iraqi state and then creating a state that is so weak and corrupt that it cannot really deliver services, nor can it protect the borders and its citizens. So, Iraq, like Afghanistan early on, way before, became a place where, you know, the borders are porous and permeable, so a lot of angry young men, a lot of potential terrorists, can then go to Iraq and do whatever they want. And, of course, the crisis in Syria in the last two, three years also made more chaos possible, and the Iraq-Syria border was very easy to cross in both directions, so that gave ISIS free rein in the areas. In addition to that, of course, we cannot forget nor underestimate the way the Maliki government dealt with its own political problems in certain parts of the country by not responding to the demands of a lot of protesters, by labeling all opposition as terrorist. And, I mean, early on, before Mosul, large parts of western Iraq had fallen to ISIS already. So, this is all just more of the same.

AMY GOODMAN: Maliki, of course, got billions from the United States in his years as prime minister.

SINAN ANTOON: Yes, of course, he did. But, I mean, it’s—all of this—all of these symptoms were all there. We know, in the past five, six years, the Iraqi regime is always in the top five of the most corrupt regimes in the entire world. And the military itself, the Iraqi army, is very, very corrupt and very inefficient. There are all these names of soldiers who never show up, actually, and their officers take their salaries.

AMY GOODMAN: Maliki seriously antagonized the Sunnis, keeping them out of office and serving in the military, etc. Do you think, if the U.S. had not shored him up to the extent that they did, he would have fallen earlier?

SINAN ANTOON: I really don’t know, and I don’t think it matters right now. I mean, the problem is now we’re dealing with the consequences not just of Maliki’s politics—of course, primarily his politics—but everything that has been happening for the last eight years and never really having a—really, a vision or a strategy.

And I just want to point out that it’s important to remember the timing of the U.S. intervention. You know, ISIS took over Mosul and took over all of these villages, and it’s only when ISIS was close to Erbil, where there is a CIA office and where there are corporate oil interests, that then the United States moved much faster. So, again, please, we always have to repeat that. This has nothing to do with humanitarian issues. Nothing at all. I mean, we, I think, citizens, have to learn after all these years, and especially the last 10 years, that humanitarian issues are not—are not the reason why there is any intervention. We always have to look at geopolitics, and maybe, of course, dealing with some opposition or rising voices of criticism in the metropolis.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, over the weekend, President Obama spoke on CBS’s 60 Minutes and said the U.S. did not foresee the rise of the Islamic State. Let’s go to a clip.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria. Essentially, what happened with ISIL was that you had al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was a vicious group, but our Marines were able to quash with the help of Sunni tribes. They went back underground. But over the past couple of years, during the chaos of the Syrian civil war, where essentially you have huge swaths of the country that are completely ungoverned, they were able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you respond, Sinan Antoon? That was President Obama speaking to CBS over the weekend. Could you respond to what he said?

SINAN ANTOON: I mean, this is a very simplistic narrative about how—and the Marines were not able, actually, to quash al-Qaeda. That’s not the case. And I just have to say also again that al-Qaeda in Iraq is the product of the United States’ invasion of Iraq. We did not have al-Qaeda before. But so, he says the chaos because of the Syrian crisis. Well, precisely, what was the United States’ position or strategy during the Syrian crisis? And it’s not true. You know, there were so many voices and so many observers and critics pointing out that not doing anything, and that doesn’t mean military intervention, but that the situation in Syria was going to produce all of this chaos and this massive violence. So it’s not like we did not know of the dangers involved. And it’s amazing that after everything that has happened in this country, here we go again. It’s interesting. It’s the same scenario, in a way. It’s "Oh, well, intelligence failure, we underestimated, and we didn’t know." I mean, this is quite, quite sad, actually, and it’s tragic.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What do you think the main failures of U.S. policy with respect to Syria have been? What should they have done differently?

SINAN ANTOON: Well, they never really had a strategy. OK, so, you know, I’m not one for military intervention necessarily or bombing, but there was never really a strategy. And frankly, whether it’s Syria or Iraq, the United States’ allies, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Turkey, are all responsible for fueling this and for—you know, Turkey for allowing all of these foreign fighters, terrorists, to go into Syria; and Saudi Arabia and Qatar for financing these groups and ISIS; and Saudi Arabia for shipping, amongst many other countries, so many of its young angry men, who become terrorists, to Iraq. I mean, that was happening all the way from 2003. And nothing was done really to—at least for Iraq, to make sure that the country’s borders are protected.

AMY GOODMAN: So explain the politics now of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, UAE, Bahrain, all joining with the United States and now Britain. And can you respond to the Iraqi prime minister, the current one, Haider al-Abadi, saying he totally opposes Arab nations joining in airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq?

SINAN ANTOON: Well, I think—I don’t know—he’s catering to his own constituents inside Iraq, because, frankly, I mean, again, there’s a paradox here. We know that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are financing and were supporting ISIS and all of these other factions in order, of course, to gain influence on the ground in Syria and Iraq. So now they are participating in a bombing campaign against these groups that they, we know, had financed. And, I mean, but once again, it’s this broad coalition that everyone is going in, because that’s—so, the war on terror also allows all of these regimes themselves to exploit the war on terror for their own, you know, internal agendas. But I would understand why Iraqis and the prime minister, you know, has problems with these countries coming in. And there’s the other issue of sovereignty. I mean, it’s terrible because the Iraqi state doesn’t have control over large swaths of the country, but it’s also, as one blogger said, that Iraqi airspace now is just open for bombing.

AMY GOODMAN: Is Iraq over as we know it?

SINAN ANTOON: Well, you know, Iraq has been changing, and Iraq is disintegrating, whether we like it or not. And a lot of observers think that it’s on its way to some type of division. But, I mean, the Iraq, when did we know it, or as we’ve known it, I mean, it’s been disintegrating since 2003, and even before. The invasion and the occupation and the system that the United States put in place perhaps accelerated all of these divisions and all of these forces on the ground. But, of course, you have a country in which, you know, a major city is under the control of a terrorist organization. We have, just recently, a million-and-a-half people who are displaced, who don’t have any services. Cities are falling as we speak. After all of these months of knowing what the danger of ISIS is, they are an hour away from the capital. So, I mean, no one knows what will happen to Iraq exactly, but disintegration is more likely.

But once again, I just—it’s important to pose the question: What is this campaign supposed to produce? What kind of region is going to be in five or 10 years? Obama and the others never tell us. What do they envision? Just endless wars in this region? Because this is going to help, you know, create more disintegration and chaos—


SINAN ANTOON: —and destroying the social fabric, sorry, and killing all of these civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what an alternative is. In the corporate media, the response is always, "What are we supposed to do? Nothing?" as if diplomacy is doing nothing. But talk about what you think would be an approach for your country, for Iraq, and for Syria, as well.

SINAN ANTOON: Well, I don’t know, because, I mean, for whom—this would assume that those in power have good intentions in regards to Iraq and Syria. But I would say that a true regional conference that brings in all the states that are involved and that have influence on the ground—Syria, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar—and basically a revision of all of these—a revising and a reconsideration of all of these policies, because obviously they will only produce more of the same.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you’ve also said in a recent piece that you wrote for The Washington Post that in order to understand why Iraq is in the state that it’s in, we have to look far before the U.S. invasion of 2003. So could you elaborate on what’s been happening in Iraq since the 1980s that’s led to the situation that we’re in now?

SINAN ANTOON: Yes, the piece I co-wrote with a colleague, Zaid Al-Ali, was in response to the usual way in Washington, in the mainstream media, Iraq is dealt with. And just going back to 2003 and speaking of mistakes is what I call the corporate approach, which is very ahistorical. So, not to attribute it all to the U.S. and its sanctions and wars, but to understand how a country could disintegrate like that, one has to understand the effects of dictatorship and the militarization of society in the '80s under the Saddam Hussein regime. But, frankly, and I've said this many times before, one has to take into consideration that in 1991 the United States of America bombed Iraq, to quote James Baker, "back to the pre-industrial age." It destroyed the infrastructure of the country, which was very developed. And then the economic sanctions, which are the most severe in the 20th century, were maintained on Iraq until 2003, and those economic sanctions really changed everything about the country. It drove its economy to near collapse, drove at least three million mostly of its middle class and intelligentsia to leave the country, killed a lot of innocent civilians. I mean, we all know, and the viewers know—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you explain, specifically, what were the range and the extent of the sanctions that Iraq faced at that time?

SINAN ANTOON: Well, the sanctions did not allow Iraq to export oil, and it also barred it from importing many of the necessities. And they had this evil list that was supposed to call dual-use items, so any item that could be interpreted to be of dual use for military purposes was banned. And the most egregious example is lead pencils, for example, because the lead inside them could somehow be used to produce weapons, or ambulance cars, because then they could have a gun attached to their top, and then... So, it was really—I mean, early on, it was very obvious that these sanctions were not weakening the regime; they were strengthening the regime, and they were just hurting the innocent civilians. A lot of U.N. officials resigned early on, because they—you know, it was unconscionable to be party to this kind of policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, Madeleine Albright, then secretary of state, was asked the famous question on 60 Minutes, that 500,000 children have died as result of sanctions, "Do you think the price is worth it?" And she said yes.


AMY GOODMAN: She later said, when she was out of office, she regretted her answer.

SINAN ANTOON: Yes, but it’s always these short-term solutions that end up in long-term disasters. It’s the myopia of U.S. foreign policy. But also that, you know, others—let’s face it—others, non-Europeans, are disposable. I mean, their lives are not as worthy as other lives, and you can sacrifice them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what is Iraq like today?

SINAN ANTOON: What is Iraq like today? You know, it’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Everyday life, when you call back to your family.

SINAN ANTOON: Everyday life is unimaginable for any of us, because, you know, if you speak of services, people don’t have electricity, is still very problematic. Everyone needs a generator. But public safety—there are bombings every day almost, everywhere. So, the normal life that we all take for granted is not available to Iraqis. They live in fear. They live under the threat of death at any moment. The services are not provided in Baghdad or even other places. And they don’t know what type of future they have. They are always living under the threat. And now even Baghdad is living under the threat of ISIS and its supposed sleeper cells that are there.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in his own words. On Wednesday, he spoke to the BBC’s Lyse Doucet.

PRIME MINISTER HAIDER AL-ABADI: This threat is a threat to Iraq, a threat to the international coalition, a threat to Iran. So let us work together in Iraq to push that threat, to eliminate that threat. And I think there’s interest for everybody. I feel comfortable in this, because I’m sure now the Gulf states, the regional, Iran, the international community coalition, they feel this threat is on them, so there is a common interest, which help me to work with all of these together to get rid of the threat. I think—

LYSE DOUCET: But the Arab states are not helping you. They’re bombing in Syria. They’re not bombing in Iraq.

PRIME MINISTER HAIDER AL-ABADI: But that is a benefit to us. That’s a bonus, because without that, I cannot defeat ISIS in Iraq. In able to defeat ISIS, ISIS bases must be destroyed in Syria, and they must be eliminated. And that is a part of the process. I cannot, as an Iraqi prime minister, to launch an attack on Syria or to be seen as being the [inaudible] of that attack against Syria, because this is a neighboring country to us. But I welcome any international effort to remove that threat from Syrian territory, which is threatening Iraq.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was prime minister—Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaking to the BBC on Wednesday. So, Sinan Antoon, can you respond to what he said and specifically also elaborate on the point you made earlier about the internal agendas of some of these regional states—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc.?

SINAN ANTOON: I mean, Saudi Arabia, since 2003, has always been supporting certain factions and political forces in Iraq that were at times working against any, you know, resolution to all of its crises. So, I mean, obviously, they don’t have the interest of the Iraqi population in mind. So they are implicated in what was happening in Iraq, because since 2003, but also before, Iraq was very weak. So all of these countries began to have more influence on the Iraqi internal politics. Most of Iraqi politicians are beholden to, more or less, foreign powers. That’s a problem. Many of them, the ones that lean to Iran, because they belong to the pro-Iranian parties and militias, and a lot of the Sunni politicians also have been somehow drawn into either Turkey or Saudi Arabia and Qatar. So, that’s the situation that we live in, as I said before. The Iraqi regime—but the Iraqi political class is very, very, very corrupt. And frankly, most of them are not patriotic. And that’s how most Iraqis feel. They’re very corrupt.

AMY GOODMAN: Sinan Antoon, we want to thank you for being with us, Iraqi poet, novelist, translator, professor at New York University, where he teaches Arabic literature. His most recent book is called The Corpse Washer. He translated it into English himself.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana. Stay with us.

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