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2014-06-23

"Baghdad is a Frightened City": As ISIS Gains Ground, Iraqi Capital Gripped by Fear & Uncertainty

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Secretary of State John Kerry made a surprise trip to Baghdad today to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Ahead of his arrival, Kerry signaled the Obama administration is prepared to drop support for Maliki, calling for leadership "prepared to represent all of Iraq." Kerry’s visit comes as Sunni militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have captured more territory. Over the weekend, ISIS militants seized three border crossings with Syria and Jordan, as well as four nearby towns. An Iraqi government airstrike, meanwhile, has reportedly killed at least seven civilians and wounded 12 others in the ISIS-held Tikrit. Residents say army helicopters fired on civilian cars lined up at a gas station. The Iraqi government is claiming it only killed insurgents. We go now to Baghdad to speak with Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent.

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a surprise trip to Baghdad today to meet with Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Ahead of his arrival, Kerry signaled the Obama administration is prepared to drop support for Maliki, calling for leadership, quote, "prepared to represent all of Iraq." Kerry’s visit to Baghdad comes as Sunni militants with the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria, ISIS, have captured more territory. Over the weekend, ISIS militants seized three border crossings with Syria and Jordan, as well as four nearby towns. An Iraqi government airstrike, meanwhile, has reportedly killed at least seven civilians and wounded 12 others in the ISIS-held Tikrit. Residents say army helicopters fired on civilian cars lined up at a gas station. The Iraqi government is claiming it only killed insurgents.

We go directly to Baghdad, where we’re joined by Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent. One of his recent headlined articles is "In Baghdad, a City Gripped by Fear, News is Priceless—But ISIS Is Winning the Propaganda War."

Patrick, talk about what you’re experiencing right now in Baghdad.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, Baghdad is a very frightened city. Nobody quite knows what’s going to happen. You know, news keeps coming in of further gains by ISIS, or DAIISH, as it’s always called here. The whole of Anbar province, this enormous province to the west, has fallen. And they’re only—ISIS is only about an hour’s drive to the north. Of course, Baghdad is a big, enormous city, six or seven million people. The majority are Shia. So people say, "Well, they’ll never break through because of all these armed Shia." But, you know, the fact remains that since the fall of Mosul, the government hasn’t won any victories, and the—and ISIS has gone on taking more cities. You see militiamen in the streets of Baghdad. Prices of everything have gone up. A lot of people have got out of the city, big queues outside the passport office. So there’s is an atmosphere of barely suppressed panic.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of Kerry being in Baghdad right now, and what message he is sending to Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, the message is clearly, you know: "Leave. Go. We need a new prime minister, and we need a new political leadership." And that will probably happen. The sense I get with all these diplomatic maneuvers, with Kerry, with the Iranians, with the Iraqi government, are all in slow time, but the advance of ISIS and the extreme Sunni Islamists, you know, is much faster than that. They’re really dictating the pace. So, you know, there’s no doubt that Maliki has been a disastrous prime minister. Nobody else could have spent that amount of money and had that size an army and just seen it dissolve. But to get somebody better and to get things up and running is going to take time, and the time isn’t really there.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the message that Kerry is sending? I want to turn to comments of the secretary of state. This is the secretary of state speaking in Cairo a day before the big verdict came down today on the Al Jazeera reporters who have now been convicted and sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison. This is what he said in Cairo.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: We will help Iraqis to complete this transition if they choose it. If they want, they have an opportunity to choose leadership that can represent all of Iraq, a unity government that brings people together and focus on ISIL. And I am convinced that they will do so, not just with our help, but with the help of almost every country in the region, as well as others in the world who will always stand up against the tyranny of this kind of terrorist activity.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the role of the United States in whether Maliki will retain power, and also, Patrick Cockburn, the role of Iran?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, you know, listening to Kerry, I get the sort of feeling that he hasn’t quite got a grip on the situation. I mean, the people who have taken Mosul and taken most of northern and western Iraq really aren’t interested in a unity government. What they’ve been doing is killing Shia in large numbers. Shia villagers, just out of Kirkuk, were driven out of their homes—I think it was yesterday—and machine-gunned. Twenty-one tribal chiefs from the same area were reported executed. You know, that’s what ISIS, the Islamic State, is all about.

So, you know, we could—the idea is, you could have a government which will include Sunni and Kurds, which we sort of have already in Baghdad, but this would be more representative, and then the main leaders of the Sunni community, apart from ISIS and some of the Baathists, would so rally to the government. But it’s by no means clear that would happen, because the situation has changed, because these towns are now under the control of ISIS, and it will be very difficult to get them out. So, I think there’s a certain amount of—quite a lot of wish fulfillment and fantasy in what Kerry is saying.

You asked about Iran. The Iranians, one, they want to protect this government. They want to protect Baghdad. They want to—but at the same time, they don’t want to see a new government installed, which, in their eyes, would see Maliki, who’s sort of pro-Iranian or under Iranian influence, by a prime minister who’s under American influence. You know, this has not been good news for the Iranians, what has happened. The government that they supported, you know, is very clearly a dysfunctional and disastrous government. So they’re arguing, "Well, we’ll keep it in—the first thing is to deal with this attack from ISIS, and then we’ll think about changing the government." But, of course, if that attack is dealt with, the government won’t change. And if the government doesn’t change, then it’s very unlikely there’s going to be much progress in the war.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to voices of Baghdad residents. Ahmed is opposed to U.S. military intervention in Iraq.

AHMED: [translated] It cannot be solved through military intervention. It has to be solved through diplomatic and political channels. This is our message to Obama. We say to him that we do not want him to send reinforcements or an aircraft carrier. This cannot help us. The situation in Iraq is very critical, and it needs quick solutions.

QASSIM HASHIM: [translated] We hoped for such a stand. It is the American forces’ duty to protect the Iraqi people and its institutions, as stipulated in the Strategic Framework Agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to turn to comments made in protests in the United States. There have been protests against any kind of U.S. intervention in Iraq. This is antiwar protesters gathering outside the White House this weekend. Mara Verheyden-Hilliard was one of them.

MARA VERHEYDEN-HILLIARD: We’re here today to stand in opposition to any new war in Iraq. The U.S. government, the Obama administration, has said that they are sending 300 advisers into Iraq. He said that he will consider bombing as he determines whether there are appropriate targets. And the simple fact is, what we’re seeing in Iraq today is purely the result of U.S. militarism and U.S. intervention. This is a country that before the shock-and-awe invasion, the people of Iraq were not divided along sectarian or religious lines.

AMY GOODMAN: Another group of protesters stood next to the antiwar protesters holding Iraqi flags. Some of them called on U.S. President Obama to intervene in the crisis unfolding in Iraq, like David Barrows. I thought we had that clip, but let’s turn back to Patrick Cockburn, who is in Baghdad right now, hearing these different voices both in Iraq and in the United States. Patrick?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, I mean, I can see the arguments on both sides. But, you know, there’s no question that ISIS is closing in on Baghdad. But the people of Baghdad, who are mostly Shia, will fight, because they think they’ll be massacred if they don’t. You know, who is responsible for this? Well, you know, Maliki was put in, made prime minister by the United States, by the American ambassador. Later, then Washington regarded him as becoming—coming under the influence of Iran. So, in a way, it has been the fact that Iraqi leaders have been determined by outside powers which has led to the present disastrous situation. There simply haven’t been leaders here who have sufficient support. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick? We may have just lost Patrick Cockburn. We’ll go to a break and see if we can get him back on. Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for The Independent who’s been reporting from Baghdad. One of his recent pieces is headlined, "In Baghdad, a City Gripped by Fear, News is Priceless—But ISIS Is Winning the Propaganda War." As we attempt to get him back on, we’re going to go to another clip. This is a clip that is of David Barrows, a peace protester who was in the White House—outside, this weekend.

DAVID BARROWS: Well, I’m here because I don’t want another war to start. I don’t want bombing. I’m sick of these bombings. They do absolutely no good. You know, we’re bombing in Yemen. We’re bombing all over the place. We’re killing women and children and men who have nothing to do with war. It really makes me sick. I mean, I was born in this country. I just wonder what’s going on with the American people? Wake up, America! You’ve got to stop doing this terrorism. That’s what we’re doing. We’re becoming a people of terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: That was David Barrows, a peace protester outside the White House this weekend. Let’s go to break and see if we can get Patrick Cockburn back on. Sounds like we just got him. Patrick, we’ve been hearing voices of people who are for and against U.S. intervention. Can you talk about the military advisers, as President Obama is calling them, the 300 or so advisers that are being sent to Iraq? Patrick, are you with us?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, I suppose that one of their main objectives would be to find out what the real situation is on the ground. You know, for such an enormous government with—well, you know, there’s meant to be 350,000 men in the Iraqi army. They’ve spent $41-$42 billion in the last three years. But this army seems to have disappeared, hasn’t really fought for the last two weeks. So I guess they’ll want to find out why.

I think one must understand there are limitations to what the United States can do here. A lot of the debate in the U.S., looked at from abroad, seems to assume that the U.S. has sort of powers to wholly change things on the ground here, which I sincerely doubt. But, you know, so will they change anything? Well, they’ll probably give some—a little bit more confidence to the Iraqi army. If there was airstrikes, I suppose the Iraqi army would like it. But remember, you know, that five or six years ago, there was enormous, enormous U.S. Army here, there were plenty of airstrikes, and it really didn’t get anywhere. So, I wonder how much effect it will really have now.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Cockburn, I want to thank you for being with us, Middle East correspondent for The Independent. We will link to your articles in The Independent at democracynow.org. We’ll go to break now and hear about the decision of the Presbyterian Church to divest from three companies doing business with Israel. Stay with us.

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