As Sadr Calls Off Truce In Najaf, We Speak With Robert Fisk On How Iraq Is About to Explode

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The famed British correspondent reveals how the so-called Iraqi government controls little in Iraq beyond Baghdad. And we speak with Christian Science Monitor report Scott Balauf who just left Najaf. [includes rush transcript]

In Iraq, Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr has called off his two-month truce with the US-backed forces and called for a holy war against the US and other coalition troops. Ahmed Shaybani, a spokesman for Sadr, said it was the U.S.-backed occupation forces who broke the truce by entering sacred areas of the holy city Najaf and damaging the shrine of Imam Ali.

Shaybani told the Washington Post “This is a revolution against the occupation force until we get independence and democracy.”

Sadr/s call for an uprising marks the biggest challenge yet to the new unelected Iraqi government.

The fragile truce began to unravel on Sunday when when police arrested a representative of Sadr in Karbala.

In a statement to followers yesterday Sadr said “Fight the blasphemous, fight the Americans.” Since yesterday, Sadr/s forces have been fighting US and coalition troops in Najaf, Basra, Nasiriyah and Baghdad.

Interior Minister Falah Naqib pledged yesterday to find and arrest Sadr. He said “We will not negotiate. We will fight these militias. We have power to stop these people, and we/ll kick them out of the country.”

The U.S. has responded to the uprising by bombing portions of the Sadr City district in Baghad and the holy city of Najaf.

Agence France Press reports at least 50 people have been killed and another 170 wounded in the fighting.

Meanwhile Iraq/s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has left the country to seek medical treatment in London. Sistani has wide influence over the country/s majority Shiites and has advocated moderation during the U.S. occupation.

We are joined on the phone by Robert Fisk, reporter for the London Independent. In an article published this week, Fisk predicted that Iraq was on the edge of explosion.

He writes “watching any Western television station in Baghdad these days is like tuning in to Planet Mars. Doesn/t Blair realise that Iraq is about to implode? Doesn/t Bush realise this? The American-appointed “government” controls only parts of Baghdad–and even there its ministers and civil servants are car-bombed and assassinated. Baquba, Samara, Kut, Mahmoudiya, Hilla, Fallujah, Ramadi, all are outside government authority. Iyad Allawi, the “Prime Minister,” is little more than mayor of Baghdad. “Some journalists,” Blair announces, “almost want there to be a disaster in Iraq.” He doesn/t get it. The disaster exists now.”

  • Robert Fisk, foreign correspondent for the Independent (UK). He recently left Iraq.
  • Scott Baldauf, Christian Science Monitor who left Najaf earlier today. He is the paper”s South Asia bureau chief.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk has just come out of Iraq. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ROBERT FISK: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. So describe, further, what you are seeing on the ground in Iraq.

ROBERT FISK: Well, when you are in Baghdad, you realize that parts of the city are probably still on the — under government control, that other parts like Sadr City which as huge Shiite slum area up to the north, the fighting of the last 24 hours proved that, when you leave Baghdad, however, which few journalists unfortunately do for the obvious and real dangers that face them, if you do as I did and drive down to Najaf you’ll find that for the first 70 miles of the journey the police have abandoned all the checkpoints. The road is littered with smashed police vehicles, burned-out American trucks. If you drive close to Fallujah, you’ll see in Ramadi that there is no government presence left in those cities. In Najaf, itself, when I got there, the police were at the holy city of Kufa but they couldn’t go into the city of Najaf because of the cease-fire agreement between Muqtar al-Sadr and the Americans. In fact, Muqtar al-Sadr actually has an air-conditioned office in the Imam Ali shrine, the great, gold leaf-domed shrine commemorating the death of the Imam Ali, in which the tomb is. When I went to see his right-hand man inside his office in the shrine I said, what are the terms of the agreement? He said, well, we have a map and the Americans are only allowed to use two roads. He actually produced a U.S. military map with two red crayon marks on it. I said what are those? He said they are the roads I allow them to go on. I drew the crayon and they accepted it. It appears that the six items of the cease-fire agreement was still under negotiation, and that was the lifting of all charges against Muqtar al-Sadr, who was charged last year for the murder of another Shiite prelate in Najaf. The problem is that that charge, which was issued by the same judge who later did the investigative opening trial of Saddam Hussein has largely been ineffective because the Americans can’t go into Najaf nor can the police attempt to arrest Muqtar al-Sadr. And now with the Shiite insurgency once again as it did in April bringing in the Sunni insurgents and making this a double, if you like, rebellion by those who disagree with the government, the fact of the matter is that nothing much that Ayad Allawi says has any effect. I mean he is now talking today about using martial law in the fight against terror. He can’t use martial law. He hasn’t got any soldiers and, those he has got he can’t use to reinvade Iraq and recapture all the cities he’s lost. He can parade some soldiers up and down the center of Baghdad probably, but the country has already gone except for the Kurds, who will later be betrayed because that seems to be their historical role. There is very little of Basra, which is really left under British or government control. Vast areas of the desert simply have no presence of the government at all. And as I say, the major cities one by one are effectively going to the insurgents. That doesn’t mean they’re actually ruled as people’s republics, though they might be soon, but they are no longer under government control. And Allawi and al-Yawer, the so-called president, all of whom are American created, American appointed, will not be able to crush this. They will have to try and do deals. They tried a deal a month ago over an amnesty, which the Americans rejected. But the Americans can’t crush the insurgency. They don’t want to because they’re already losing too many men and actually more than ever now. It is a very, very grave crisis, principally of course not for the Americans or the Allawi government but a grave crisis for the Iraqi people. I’ve been — the government — neither the American or Iraqi forces will issue statistics for ordinary Iraqis who are killed. I think this is a disgrace. It’s obliged to the U.S. and British forces under their mandate as it is to the government to care and look after the Iraqi people. While I’ve been going every few days to the mortuary in Baghdad and counting the number of people brought in dead through violence in just July. In the first 10 days of July, they received 250 corpses, men, women and children, violently killed. In the second 10 days, they brought in the corpses of 291, and the figure stood at more than 700 for Baghdad alone, by the end of July. Then you just quoted me, like turning on the television and watching CNN or the BBC in Baghdad, and I hear Tony Blair looking up with his schoolboy grin after his school debating society competition in the House of Commons saying Iraq is safer. It is simply not true.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, in your latest piece, “Can’t Bush and Blair See Iraq is About to Explode,” you say the stage management of this catastrophe in Iraq was all to evident at Saddam Hussein’s trial. Go from there.

ROBERT FISK: Well, for a start we were told it was going to be a real trial and it would be fair. Saddam was actually brought to Baghdad from the prison he’s in, which is in Qatar. It isn’t even in Iraq. The Americans dare not even hold Saddam in his own country. It’s in the Gulf state of Qatar on the big American base. They brought him in and led him to believe without specifically saying so, that he was being brought to listen to his death sentence and suffer his execution. So no wonder when CNN helpfully told us of his arrival he looked disoriented. He was. He thought he was going to the gallows. No wonder he had not been given a lawyer because then he would realize he was not going to the gallows. So he arrived without a lawyer. Then at one point he turns to Judge Juhi, the judge who is trying him and said, are you a lawyer? Is this a court? And we were supposed to have the impression that this was a kind of lunatic guy who had lost all sense of reality. But he had been led to believe this was going to be something quite different, the sort of drumhead court he reserved in his horrible regime for his enemies. And as it became obvious that this was going to be the opening stages, the investigative stage of a trial, Saddam became Milosevic-like in his determination to oppose what the court was trying to do. And we saw a man whose beard has obviously been grown for Islamic reasons. He rejected the chance to shave. And a man who was then censored by U.S. Military censors who would not allow us to hear him say, “this is a theater, Bush is the real criminal.” And then who attempted to cut the sound track of all the court proceedings. In fact, CNN and Al Jazeera managed to keep their sound running without the Americans realizing it. U.S. Military are good at tanks and guns but not TV cameras. The Americans then went on and did censor out the entire sound record of the other 11 defendants, including Tariq Aziz and the rest. So we don’t know, and there is no record of what they said at the investigative stage of their trial. Salem Chalabi, the American appointed Saddam opponent who has been running this odd tribunal, said in a newspaper interview in Baghdad two weeks ago that there would be no media at all present in the future trial of Saddam. Which is pretty much like trials were under Saddam.

ROBERT FISK: Salem Chalabi, the man who’s being investigated by the highest court of Iraq for the possible confiscating of hundreds of properties for the Chalabi family just after the U.S. Invaded Iraq?

ROBERT FISK: You’ll have to repeat that.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just asking isn’t Salem Chalabi the man who is being investigated by Iraq’s highest court for seizing hundreds of properties for the Chalabi family just after the U.S. invaded Iraq?

ROBERT FISK: Well the Chalabi family have been trouble from the start because Chalabi’s brother, Ahmed, is a convicted fraudster in Jordan and presented himself, he was the man who persuaded the pentagon and all the neoconservatives who of course lapped it up immediately that American troops would be greeted with flowers and music and love, which was not true. He was flown into Najaf by the pentagon with American forces at the end of the invasion. Because they intended to make him the president. And he now controls about — he has apparently somewhat less than 2% popular vote if there was ever an election, which I doubt there will be, because you can’t hold an election in a country like Iraq at the moment. So the whole Chalabi thing is just another stain on the government. I mean, the oddest thing of all that happened for me personally, was that when the trial was held, the judge was identified clearly on television by his face. All the Arabic language newspapers Ash-Sharq Al-Aswat , Az-Zamaan in Baghdad itself carried his name. Indeed, he had previously given an interview about his charges against Musa al-Sadre, in which he posed for photographs, yet Salem Chalabi then announced that I had broken a solemn agreement, which I know nothing about because there never was such an agreement, not to name the judge and that I was guilty of incitement to murder. So it tells you the difference even between those who live in the safe green zone like the Chalabis and those of us who are on the streets. We invade this country illegally. We kill at least 11,000 Iraqis and a newspaper reporter is guilty of incitement to murder because he named a judge who everyone knows the name of. This shows you the difference between reality and fantasy, which exists now in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, I’d like to ask you to stay on the line with us. We’ve also just gotten Scott Baldauf on the line. He is the Christian Science Monitor reporter who just came out of Najaf now in Baghdad. What is the situation in Najaf, Scott?

SCOTT BALDAUF: When we left Najaf, there was, the Friday prayers were just beginning. The message of the prayer was very tense. They were urging the fighters to stay on, hold on, and fight to the very end. God is on our side was a phrase that was repeated again and again. Fighters were clustered around the shrine of Ali. We were able to get inside the shrine complex and the — a couple of the guides from the mosque showed us areas where the minarets and dome had been chipped. This is a very holy site of course for the Shiite faith, and something that they were very upset about, and something that they felt honor bound to correct. Within the city, there is still some street fighting, but a lot of what we saw was mainly airborne by the U.S. Military. Some jets flying in and strafing enemy positions, their enemies, in highly packed residential areas. A lot of the residents have not been allowed to leave. There is no transport in and out. A lot of roadblocks have been set up. And frankly it’s a little too difficult for the people to get out of the old city of Najaf.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, U.S. Helicopters just sat down in Najaf?

SCOTT BALDAUF: That’s correct. We’ve gotten confirmation of course of the one. Two others are thought to have been shot down as well. We weren’t able to see those ourselves. This is the nature of the war there. They are flying very, very low. A lot of the fighters do get a chance to take a shot at the helicopters when they’re flying that low. It’s very dangerous.

AMY GOODMAN: And where is al-Sadr right now?

SCOTT BALDAUF: Well, the last we had heard he was in a safe house. I’m sure he is being moved around, probably at night. But again, nighttime is not all that safe for the Mahdi army. The U.S. has an advantage there with its night vision capabilities and all through the night we were hearing very heavy shelling and very heavy rocket fire from a lot of the airborne units, the helicopters and the, possibly warthogs though I couldn’t confirm that.

AMY GOODMAN: Jean’s France Press is reporting at least 50 people dead, at least 170 wounded. Does that sound realistic to you? You’re talking about the bombing of heavily residential areas.

SCOTT BALDAUF: Well, we got different stories from the same hospital. One doctor told us the same thing: about 50 were killed. The official record, however, we asked the — to see the official record. They only counted 11 dead. But at the time we were there, there were casualties being brought in. Some of them were being sent straight to the morgue. So the bookkeeping may not have been keeping up with the death toll.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Frisk, as you listen to this description in Najaf, your response?

ROBERT FISK: Well, it all sounds painfully familiar. And it all sounds painfully predictable. When you’re going to use American gun ships on a city like Najaf, and when as happened last April the American units involved then boasted it was an ideal battle because they hadn’t damaged the shrine, you can imagine how people feel when they did. One of the extraordinary things is the inability of the senior U.S. officers to comprehend what their presence and actions mean to millions of Muslims. If, for example, the Iraqi army invaded southeast England, and occupied it and staged a siege of say Canterbury — and then announced they should be proud of themselves because they didn’t damage the Canterbury Cathedral would we like the Iraqi army? You can make the same parallel in the United States. You can say what if they surrounded Rome and fired into Rome but say, “Well, we didn’t damage the Vatican.” It’s an extraordinary loss of ability to comprehend what the U.S. presence means. Just step back for a moment. Remember September 11, 2001. What on earth are American soldiers doing fighting in a siege of Najaf in Iraq? Against Shiite Muslims, who never had anything to do with September 11, 2001? If you see that, you’ll realize what U.S. Policy has led your country and indeed my country and indeed Iraq into.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, I wanted to play for you just a minute clip of general Colin Powell, the Secretary of State yesterday, being questioned at this largest gathering of North American journalists in history sponsored by the four major journalists of color organization. The highest percent concentration of African Americans had the largest percentage of people anti-war in this country, and this was the — a reporter from the National Association of Black Journalists questioning General Powell after Powell’s address. I’d like your response.

JOURNALIST: My question is, you know, the administration has been criticized for shifting rationale on Iraq as the original rationale has sort of unraveled. What we’ve boiled down to now is a situation where you’re saying it was right to remove Saddam Hussein because he killed lot of his people and intended to develop weapons of mass destruction. Based on that rationale, what other nations are at risk of having the same sort of action taken against them based on this new Bush doctrine?

COLIN POWELL: I don’t know of any other nation that we believe the point has been reached with that requires preemptive action of any kind. And as I mentioned earlier, we’re using diplomatic efforts. Military action is not our first choice. It is not something we immediately go to. The President has been very clear about this and in the case of Iraq, we took it to the U.N. And in the case of Libya we worked with our British colleagues. In Iran we’re working with the IAEA, and we’re working with the European Union ministers who have been designated to work on this–three ministers. And in North Korea we’re working with our friends. In the case of Iraq, the intelligence community and its best judgment was that they had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. In addition to the capability to develop them and an intention to have them. There’s no question about an intention and capability. But the intelligence community did not get it right apparently with the expected stockpiles. We haven’t found them yet. They’re still looking but I do not expect to see huge stockpiles found. But if that was the error, it’s an error, and we’ll have to figure out why we got that wrong, but the reality is that this was a regime that fully intended to move in this direction with intention and capability and the president made a judgment that it was not something that was acceptable to us, acceptable to the region and it was inconsistent with Iraq’s obligations under the Security Council resolutions. But we are not running around the world looking for places to preempt, because there are better tools available to the president to use, and he uses them. The strategy if you read it is a strategy of partnership, it’s a strategy of reaching out to countries in need, and yes, it is also a strategy that when we feel we are at risk, and we are unable to resolve that risk diplomatically or politically or with friends, working alongside of us, the president of the united states, any president of the United States, has an obligation to do what he believes is necessary to achieve his first goal as president and that’s to protect the nation.

AMY GOODMAN: General Colin Powell, Secretary of State answering the question of journalists at the Unity Conference yesterday in Washington, D.C. Your response, Robert Fisk?

ROBERT FISK: Well, he sounds like a U.S. Secretary of State who really doesn’t want — is rather embarrassed to be the U.S. Secretary of State. To start off by saying that they haven’t yet finished trying to look for weapons of mass destruction but he really doesn’t expect them to find any, and then to go on about Saddam’s capability of making them in the future or his intention to make them in the future, which bears no resemblance to the reasons the U.S. and Britain went to war, nor indeed is it what Bush still says was the reason they went to war. At a time when we know North Korea does have weapons of mass destruction. So if we get it right according to Mr. Powell, U.S. Policy is now to invade countries that might develop nuclear weapons in the future but to be a peaceful approach politically with countries that actually are a threat and have nuclear weapons. Well, if that’s U.S. foreign policy, well, U.S. voters are going to have a chance to find a new one very soon.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Robert Fisk of The Independent, just out of Iraq.

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