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Iraq Intifada: U.S. Faces New Resistance Front As Shiites Join Armed Uprising

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The U.S. is facing a nightmare scenario in Iraq, fighting on two fronts against both Sunni and Shia militants after Shiite Iraqis staged an armed uprising against occupying forces this past Sunday. We go to Baghdad to speak with independent journalist and author Naomi Klein and we speak with Middle East expert Professor As’ad AbuKhalil. [includes rush transcript]

The Bush administration is facing a nightmare scenario in Iraq, fighting on two fronts against both Sunni and Shia militants.

The center of armed resistance to the U.S.-led occupation has predominantly come from Sunni-dominated areas. But the U.S. occupation entered a new phase this past Sunday as Shiite Iraqis staged an armed uprising against the occupying forces in four cities.

A total of at least 50 Iraqis and 10 U.S. troops died Sunday. Hundreds were injured. Up to 30 Iraqis were killed in clashes in the Sadr-City suburb of Baghdad alone, the worst the capital has seen since its fall to U.S. troops a year ago.

American officials yesterday announced an arrest warrant for the young Shiite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, who called for the uprising after the U.S. forces shut down one of his newspapers and arrested one of his top aides.

The new resistance front comes less than three months before the U.S. is due to hand over power to an Iraqi government. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s top US administrator, cancelled a visit to Washington to deal with the crisis and military commander, General John Abizaid, was considering the reinforcement of his 105,000-strong army of occupation. The Guardian of London reports that Gen. Abizaid gave 48 hours to come up with ideas on where fresh troops, American or allied, could be found.

In the face of two resistance fronts, the U.S. has opted for a high-risk strategy of attempting to crush both of them simultaneously.

U.S. forces yesterday used Apache gunships to attack targets in Baghdad for the first time since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, opening fire over the Shia neighborhood of Shulla.

Meanwhile, a force of some 1,300 US marines and Iraqi troops began moving into the Sunni-dominated town of Fallujah. The town has been sealed off but witnesses speak of shelling and blasts and the use of helicopter gunships. This according to the BBC. The US has vowed to “pacify” Fallujah, after four US mercenaries were killed, torched and dismembered last week.

Meanwhile back in Washington, President Bush repeated the White House line saying, “The message to the Iraqi citizens is they don’t have to fear that America will turn and run, and that’s an important message for them to hear.”

  • * Naomi Klein*, award-winning journalist and author of Fences and Windows: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate and No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. She joins us on the phone from Baghdad.
  • As’ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus and visiting professor at UC, Berkeley. He is the author of several books including Bin Laden, Islam, and America’s New War on Terrorism. He runs a new blog called “The Angry Arab News Service”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to As’ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at California State University, visiting professor at U.C. Berkeley, author of several books, including, Bin Laden, Islam, and America’s New War on Terrorism. He runs a news blog called the “The Angry Arab News Service” at Welcome to “Democracy Now!”

AS’AD ABU KHALIL: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you explain what you understand is now happening in Fallujah?

AS’AD ABU KHALIL: Well, I’m still recovering from the statements of Bush that you referred to. I think it is incredible that he feels that the message he needs to send is that the United States is not going to run. That’s exactly what the Iraqis would like, that the United States pull back and run out of Iraq. I think also yesterday when he made references to Muqtada al-Sadr , he said, “This is a question of democracy vs. people who are opposed to democracy.” I think these statements may go well somewhere in Iowa and Oklahoma; but for the Iraqis, they have watched in amazement over the last few months, watching the United States fighting tooth and nail against the prospects of democracy and elections, while there is an Ayatollah in southern Iraq who has not left his house in six years, calling on the United States to adhere to its old promises of holding elections inside the country. I think what’s going on is extremely vague. I have always believed that once the rage and antipathy to the United States occupation sweeps to Shiite areas, the countdown for America’s withdrawal from Iraq could begin. If Ayatollah Sistani, the grand Ayatollah of Iraq, is now pressured by the street, as there are indications he is being pressured to give his agreement for some kind of Shiite resistance against the occupation, I think a two-sentence statement from him would read as an obituary for the American colonial adventure inside the country.

What is amazing is that the United States is always trying to put the best face on events. Muqtada Al-Sadr is not somebody who can be linked, for example, to Al Qaeda or these groups, because these were heavy fanatics of the Bin Laden ilk, have only antipathy to everything that is Shiite. He also cannot be linked to Saddam die-hards, which is a common refrain by the American officials whenever they talk about Sunni fundamentalists. In this case, this is somebody who is, along with the Shiites, more anti-Saddam than anybody else. Also, some of the demands that they are offering, is that they feel the occupation has dealt very kindly with some of the functionaries of Saddam’s regime, who are being brought back for the intelligence and military apparatus of the new government that is being set up. This is certainly not a minuscule percentage of the population, as an American official told the New York Times yesterday. This is a movement, a mass movement, and Muqtada al-Sadr , who is not some charismatic figure, and I am always struck by his clerical lack of credentials, and the fact that his command of Arabic is not impressive, his discourse is rather crude and vulgar, he is known for a hot temper; and yet he has kept it alive under the anger against the American occupation. And Paul Bremer, among the many dumb mistakes he has done over the months, decided to close down a paper that was not attracting much attention. Robert Fisk, in the Independent has reported that the real reason for closing that paper is because of its satirical pieces against the person of Paul Bremer. In the future when they start debating who lost Iraq, people will remember this event as being a watershed.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor AbuKhalil, what about this idea of the US fighting on two fronts against Sunnis and Shia?

AS’AD ABU KHALIL: Well, in fact, it could very well be one front. Yesterday, I watched detailed coverage on Al Manar TV and Al-Jazeera, and what struck me is that one correspondent for Al Manar TV said that when he was covering the events in al-Sadr City, which is predominantly Shiite, and in al-Azamia, which is Sunni-dominated, he said a lot of the fighters in the streets were insisting on national unity, and some of the slogans being chanted emphasized that Sunnis and Shias fight together. So I would say that the blunders of the United States may do the unthinkable, which is to unite the resistance into Sunni and Shiite alike. Yesterday the coverage I noticed also that we don’t hear about the external terrorist conspiracies and infiltration into the country anymore, especially after they sealed the border. Now we know the truth that has been hidden from the Americans for a very long time, which is that the resistance and attacks against the Americans is largely due to a homegrown domestic and indigenous movement inside the country. The reports yesterday indicated that the people of al-Azamia district in Baghdad, for example, were one and the same with the resistance. They were hiding the fighters, feeding them, sheltering them. That is a new phenomena. We are not talking about some little tiny movement that the United States can flesh out in a two- or three-day operation. This is really big, and it could very well get bigger. The United States will lose if it stays, will lose if it leaves the country. That’s one scenario that the Bush administration did not contemplate when they talked about changing the Middle East. They did change the Middle East into a more messy and bloody Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Professor As’ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science, a visiting professor at U.C. Berkeley. We are joined on the line now by Naomi Klein, award-winning independent journalist, author of Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate, among other books. She is in Iraq right now. Welcome to “Democracy Now!,” Naomi Klein.

NAOMI KLEIN: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us where you are and what you are seeing?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, we have just left Sadr City, which was the site of, as you know, very heavy fighting for the last couple of nights. There have been a lot of deaths. We also came from Shulla, which was the sit of the heaviest fighting in Baghdad last night. We tried to go to Najaf, but it’s been sealed off. Sadr City is similarly locked down right now. We saw at the entrance to Sadr City, about five tanks and a total of ten US military vehicles, a lot of barbed wire, a ton of checkpoints. The poor Shiite areas of Baghdad are starting to look like Gaza, and this occupation is becoming much, much more heavy-handed. In Shulla we went to the headquarters of Muqtada al-Sadr , and last night the US tanks came and killed four of their guards, and we were at the funeral procession this afternoon. They just picked them off the roof. The roof of the Sadr headquarters in Shulla is covered in blood and flesh, and people are..(INAUDIBLE).

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Naomi Klein in Iraq. You were in Firdos Square, where the US military pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein?

NAOMI KLEIN: Yes, I was, during the demonstrations, and there’s a statue that replaced the statue of Saddam Hussein, and it was covered by Muqtada supporters with photographs of Muqtada al-Sadr . We were there when the newly created Iraqi security force which was created by the occupying powers here, and it’s commanded by them. They basically are being used as kind of cannon fodder. They’re being sent out front to fire on peaceful demonstrators. We were there when they did that in the square, just outside of the square. And they evacuated the Palestine and Sheraton hotels because they had this idea that the crowds were going to storm them. They didn’t even try. They are really building up hysteria in that way, but one of the interesting things about that incident was we saw the newly created Iraqi police and security forces putting on ski masks before they went into the crowd and shot the unarmed demonstrators. And it’s clear that they were doing this to protect their identities because they can’t go back to their neighborhoods after they do this.

This really ties in with why Muqtada is being targeted, because, of course, he has his own army, which is the Mahdi Army. The Mahdi Army in many ways is a creation of Muqtada al-Sadr, but also of Paul Bremer, because it exists because the CPA and Paul Bremer have failed so miserably to provide security for the Iraqi people. That is the duty of an occupying power. It just doesn’t exist in Iraq. This army was created in July. They were created to fill the vacuum that Bremer created. The do things like direct traffic. They protect the holy sites, which the military forces here have done such a miserable job of doing. They protect the clerics. They also provide basic services, you know, because of the reconstruction has been so very slow.

AMY GOODMAN: You also write that the new statue that the US military put up in Firdos Square of faceless people has now been plastered with photographs of al-Sadr ?

NAOMI KLEIN: Yes, it has. I’m not sure whether they have taken them down by now. I’m sure they were quick to remove them. They probably didn’t much like the symbolism. Muqtada al-Sadr’s status as a cult hero is amplifying by the hour. It’s interesting because when we arrived here a month ago, there actually was a fair bit of skepticism about Muqtada al-Sadr because he’s very young. He’s only 30. There were a lot of people who expressed to us their uncertainty. They saw him as kind of hotheaded, as overly rivalous with Sistani, and overly ambitious. You don’t hear those criticisms now, because, of course, he’s under fire right now. His mosque is surrounded. People are defending him, including Sistani, who says their case is a lawful one, which is a very carefully worded statement. And you just see his face absolutely everywhere. He is portrayed by his followers as a kind of cross between Khomaini and Che Gueverra. He is seen as a more forceful, more militant, leader than Sistani because Sistani’s route, the route he chose, the diplomatic route, through the UN has not worked, and this is because the UN really has not backed the demands for direct elections. It looks like they’re about to give their stamp of approval to the interim constitution which is seen as a deeply illegitimate document here. Because of this diplomatic route has failed, many, many more people are turning to Muqtada al-Sadr, and also they really are turning him into a hero and into a martyr.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor AbuKhalil, what about the elevation of al-Sadr ?

AS’AD ABU KHALIL: I didn’t hear anything that was said by Naomi by the way.

AMY GOODMAN: She talked about she is on the ground in Iraq, and talked about how when she first came, a lot of skepticism was being raised about Al-Sadr and now his elevation.

AS’AD ABU KHALIL: Well, al-Sadr basically represents a major segment of the Shiite lumpen proletariat in Sadr city, as well as southern Iraq. We also have to say that in many cases in occupation, sometimes the actions of occupation produce new forces that did not exist before. I lived in south Lebanon during the Israeli occupation, and I witnessed how the practices and the brutality of the Israeli occupation produced forces like Hizbullah that did not exist even a year before. And Muqtada al-Sadr, the Americans keep saying does not represent the majority of Shiites. He does not need to represent the majority of Shiites. The Bolshevik revolution was one where the Bolsheviks were not a majority of the population in Russia. I think that they underestimate the significance of what’s going on in Iraq today at their own peril; and they have done that for the last year.

What is significant about Muqtada al-Sadr is that the potential exists for the creation of the movement that would no more be confined to one locality or one sect or another. But how is the United States going to wind up only feeling safe in the Kurdish region of the country. I also feel that it’s important to note the precariousness and the hollowness of the American structures of power in the country. I have read in an Arabic newspaper this morning about how the Americans created police forces, security forces, how they voluntarily surrendered their positions, their headquarters, and their weapons to Muqtada al-Sadr’s people, and some of them joined the movement, in fact. So the United States basically will face the same fate that Israel faced when they had to rely on a surrogate army in south Lebanon. When Israel decided to pull out in the year 2000, these people ran for their lives, literally, across the border, because the people were chasing them one by one. I think that this could happen to the American allies and collaborators inside the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, last word from Baghdad.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. I think, you know, we are hearing from the Bush administration, this talk of civil war in Iraq. I think it’s really important to understand this is not a civil war. It’s an uprising against a foreign occupation. It’s erupting all over the country. Iraqis are not fighting each other. They are fighting the United States. They’re fighting the coalition forces. It used to be just the Sunnis doing the fighting. Now it’s the Sunnis and the Shiites, who are both fighting the occupation forces. If anything, they’re more united, and less divided. Basically what Paul Bremer has done is united the country against him. The other thing I just want to say is that this was not sparked by Sadr himself. It was actually provoked by Paul Bremer, in a series of actions: of targeting the newspaper, arresting his deputies, surrounding his mosque, and now issuing a warrant for his arrest. They really goaded him into this.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. We have been speaking with Naomi Klein, independent journalist on the ground in Iraq. And Professor As’ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at California State University Stanislaus, visiting professor at U.C. Berkeley. This is “Democracy Now!.”

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