Iraqi Journalist Who Embedded with Shia Militias on Fighting ISIS & Why US Strategy is Bound to Fail

October 09, 2014


Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Iraqi journalist working with The Guardian. Over the summer, he embedded with militias around Baghdad and wrote the article, "On the frontline with the Shia fighters taking the war to ISIS." He was awarded the Orwell Prize for Journalism this year for his coverage of the war in Syria.

Patrick Cockburn

Middle East correspondent for The Independent. His new book is The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.

As ISIS continues to make advances in the face of U.S.-led airstrikes, we are joined by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi journalist working with The Guardian who recently embedded with Shia militias around Baghdad fighting the Sunnis. "The war that ISIS is raging on the Iraqi government is a coalition of many different tiny little wars," Abdul-Ahad says. "Everyone has his own grievances against the central government of Iraq, yet ISIS has managed to include them all under a single umbrella." Abdul-Ahad argues that any attempt by the United States and its allies to fight the Islamic State as a monolithic organization is bound to fail. "By sending more weapons, sending more money, you’re just adding to the fuel of the war. You need a social contract with the Sunnis of Iraq." We are also joined by Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent. His new book is "The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising."


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

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with Patrick Cockburn of The Independent, his new book, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, joining us from London; and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Iraqi journalist working with The Guardian, who was awarded the Orwell Prize for Journalism this year for his coverage of the war in Syria. He’s joining us via Democracy Now! video stream. He worked with—over the summer, embedding with Shia militias around Baghdad, and wrote a piece headlined "On the frontline with the Shia fighters taking the war to Isis." Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, I want to turn to comments that were made by Jeremy Scahill to ask you about who exactly is joining ISIS in Iraq and why ISIS is expanding at the rate that it is. Last week, Democracy Now! spoke to Jeremy, who first reported from inside Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion. He pointed out that a number of former secular Baath Party members were now fighting in ISIS. Let’s go to a clip.

JEREMY SCAHILL: The Obama administration, in engaging in this policy, is continuing a Bush administration outcome of the decision to invade Iraq. And that is, they’re empowering the very threat that they claim to be fighting. Who is ISIS? What is this group made up of? Is it just people that are radical Islamists that want to behead American journalists? No. One of the top—and this almost is never mentioned in corporate media coverage of this—one of the top military commanders of ISIS is a man named Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri al-Takriti. Who is Izzat Ibrahim? Izzat Ibrahim is the leading Baathist, who was on the deck of cards, that the United States has not captured. He was one of Saddam Hussein’s top military commanders. He was not just some ragamuffin Baathist. He actually was a hardcore general in the Iraqi military during the Iran-Iraq War, and he was a secular Baathist.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Jeremy Scahill speaking to Democracy Now! last week. So, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, could you talk about the former Baath members who are joining ISIS and also go back to the point that you raised earlier about the extent to which Shia militias in Iraq are now fighting exclusively along sectarian lines?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Well, [Nermeen], one of the biggest, you know, things we know about ISIS is what ISIS is telling us about themselves. We don’t know anything about ISIS from the inside. Everything we seem to know about ISIS is what ISIS is reflecting about itself. So, the whole issue of the Baathists joining ISIS is—you know, it’s a valid point. But also I would like to—you know, if I answer Jeremy’s point, it’s—ISIS is not one monolithic organization. The insurgency, the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, as Patrick knows very well, is not one dominated by ISIS. I went to Ramadi a few times before the fall of Mosul, and let’s remember that the whole Sunni war against the central government had started back in December 2013. So, in 2014, I went to Ramadi, and Ramadi had already fell out of the control of central government. The government had a few bases inside the city, but the streets were controlled by the insurgents. Who were the insurgents? They were a coalition of Baath army officers, former generals, different groups of the insurgency, all having their grievances with the Shia-dominated government in Iraq. So, the war that ISIS is waging on—at least in Iraq, on the Iraqi government, is a coalition of many different tiny, little wars. The Sunni insurgents in Ramadi are different from the Sunni insurgents in Diyala. The Sunni insurgents in Mosul are different from the guys in South Baghdad. So, everyone has his own grievances against the central government of Iraq, yet ISIS have managed to include them all and under a single one umbrella. So that is one, you know, very important point.

If we decide, if you decide, if America decides to fight ISIS as this monolithic organization, it’s bound to fail. You know, fragmented into its own components, what are the people of Ramadi fighting for? When I was in Ramadi in April, it wasn’t a Sunni-Shia war. It was a Sunni-Sunni war—Sunnis allied with the government of Iraq, Sunnis allied with the insurgents. Why these people of Ramadi are fighting against the central government of Iraq? Because the unequal distribution of wealth and economy, you know, amongst the tribes of Ramadi. The people of Diyala and the people of South Baghdad are fighting for a different cause. They’re fighting because they see their area dominated by the Shia, while in Ramadi you don’t see any Shia. So, that’s the main point that I would like to make, is this is not one monolithic war that stretches from the borders of Iran all the way to Lebanon, to Balbec. This is a combination of many different local wars.


GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: And if I want to go back—sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Ghaith, do you think there’s a military solution here?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: To be honest with you, I don’t think so. I mean, F-16s are the easy solution. You can, you know, march the planes into the air, bomb the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, and I can assure you, you will come back in the next two, three, four, five years, and you will bomb us again. I was bombed the first time when I was six years old by the Iranians, and I was bombed by the Americans again and again. This is the same cycle—I mean, unless you have a grand solution, a redistribution of wealth, a social solution, a solution that shows the Sunnis of Iraq, you know, this is—you’re part of this entity; you like it, you don’t like it, you’re part of it. Otherwise, we will continue this cycle.

You know, the Sunnis of Iraq made this—I mean, what I call what’s happening in Iraq at the moment, I call it the tragedy of the Sunnis. The Shia managed to consolidate their lines, and they’re secure in Baghdad. The Kurds are pushing down on. But tell me how the Sunnis of Mosul and Ramadi will manage to get rid of ISIS without destroying their own cities. So you need to assure the Sunnis. You need to bring the Sunnis to the table, and hold a loya jirga or whatever, and tell them there is another solution. They did this mistake in 2003, 2004, allied themselves with al-Qaeda. They did the same mistake in Syria in 2011. And now we’re back in 2014.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, can you say—do you hold out much hope for the new government of Haider al-Abadi and his ability to integrate the Sunnis more successfully than Nouri al-Maliki did?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Well, [Nermeen], you know, Haider’s been making all the right noises. You know, he disbanded all these authoritarian practices of Maliki. He’s disbanding the supreme military command post that he was holding, that Maliki was holding. So he’s doing all the right noises. But the problem in Iraq—and Patrick knows this probably more than I do—is it’s not a problem of a person. It’s not Abadi versus Maliki. The whole institution, the whole system, is so rotten to the core. Every single soldier is appointed after paying a bribe. Every military officer is appointed after paying a bribe. And the bribes are still being paid. If we go to the—you know, so the system of Iraq is a rotten system based on corruption.

If we go back to the militias, in June 2014, Iraq had four main Shia militias. At the moment, as we speak, Iraq has in the vicinity of 20 to 30 militias. So the same fragmentation that happened on the Sunni side in Syria amongst the rebels is happening in Iraq now. Why? Because people are pumping money in to go fight ISIS. So businessmen, tribal sheikhs will just create their own militias to go fight ISIS, because it’s a source of money. The Americans now, in Istanbul, in Amman, are shopping amongst former Iraqi generals, tribal sheikhs: "Who is willing to come and fight ISIS?" By pumping money, you’re just creating another layer of warlords to be added to the zillions of warlords who already exist in the Middle East. I know what I say kind of sounds kind of too romantic, but at the moment, by sending more weapons, sending more money, you’re just adding to the fuel of the war. You need a social contract with the Sunnis of Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking at Harvard University last week, Vice President Joe Biden accused Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies of funding Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq. He went on a kind of apology tour this week, talking to Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia. Let’s go to a clip of his speech.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Our biggest problem is our allies. Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends, and I have a great relationship with Erdogan, which I’ve just spent a lot of time with. The Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Vice President Joe Biden. He’s apologized for these comments. And I wanted to get both of your responses. Patrick Cockburn, you wrote a piece, "Isis militants: Twitter provides one of the few forums in which Saudis can discuss what they really feel—and it says they blame the clergy for Isis." And I wanted to get Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s response, as well. But Patrick first.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, yes, the ideology of ISIS is very similar to Wahhabism, the variant of Islam which is prevalent in Saudi Arabia, which is hostile to Shia, is hostile to Muslims who do not have the same tenets as Wahhabism, is hostile to Christians and Jews. And in many ways, what ISIS believes is the same as Wahhabism carried to its logical conclusion, that Shia are just not non-Muslims, but they’re apostates and polytheists who should be killed, which is what ISIS does. So, there is a very strong connection in the ideology of Saudi Arabia and that of ISIS.

Of course, there are other connections, too, as Biden pointed out. And although his apology has not been quite full, what he says, you know, is obviously true. And for a long time, American officials, off the record, would say exactly the same thing. And this, of course, creates enormous problems for the moment, because their allies aren’t quite allies, that for the Turks and the Saudis, yes, they’re a bit frightened of ISIS, but they quite like the idea that the ISIS is creating more problems for the Shia and the Kurds than it is for the Sunni. So, this very strange, ambivalent coalition is of people who don’t really want to wipe out ISIS and then keeping at arm’s length those that really are prepared to fight them.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, your response, and Saudi Arabia now saying they’re arming and financing the so-called moderate Syrian rebels?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Well, I hate to say this, that I find myself agreeing with an American vice president, but I think I do agree with him. I mean, at one point—

AMY GOODMAN: Before or after apology?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Oh, before apology. I mean, I don’t know why he’s apologizing. It’s so quite true. I mean, we’ve seen this. We’ve seen money poured into Syria. Everyone was so focused on, you know, destroying the Assad regime, without paying any attention to the consequences of this, even arming the Syrian rebels at the moment. This is a pure civil war. Just point to me this one brigade of Syrian rebels that is so-called moderate or something. This is a pure civil war. This is no different from the Somalia civil war. So imagine yourself kind of saying, "Oh, let’s arm this Somali kind of militia, because they are moderate." This is what’s the problem with Erdogan at the moment. He was so keen on toppling Bashar that, for whatever reason—you know, Bashar is a criminal, Bashar is not a criminal, this is something else—but at the moment, there is an absurdity of having the Saudis flying airplanes to bomb ISIS, that is not, to be honest, that different from the ideology of the Saudis themselves. So, it’s a pure hypocrisy at the moment.

And I think the Americans—and again, I find myself kind of in total sympathy with Obama and Biden—is finding themselves in a situation where they have to look, to shop for allies amongst the people who are not that interested in finding a solution—unless we break the cycle, unless we break the cycle, we disengage ourselves from toppling Bashar al-Assad. And let’s focus on ISIS and then continue the cycle. This is the brilliance of ISIS, by the way. ISIS is fighting seven enemies, and each of those seven enemies is the enemy of someone else. And that’s why they’re winning.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, and I want to thank you both for being with us, but we’ll certainly come back to this conversation. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is an Iraqi journalist, won the Orwell Prize for his reporting in Syria. He works with The Guardian. He embedded with Shia militias around Baghdad as they took on ISIS. And I want to thank Patrick Cockburn for joining us, from The Independent. His new book is called The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back from break, we look at a new film that is out. It’s a feature film, but it’s based on the real story of one of the most maligned investigative journalists in history, Gary Webb. Stay with us.

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