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Iraqi Novelist Haifa Zangana: U.S. Troops Must Withdraw Now

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Zangana, a former prisoner under the Baathist regime in Iraq, speaks out against the occupation and increasing violence in Iraq. She also warns that hundreds of Iraqi academics have been assassinated since the war began. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to the war in Iraq. The latest bloodshed comes amid a spike of killings following the bombing of one of the holiest sites to Shiite Muslims. As many as 1,300 Iraqis were killed the week following the February 22nd bombing of the gold dome of the Askariya shrine in Samarra. It marked one of the bloodiest periods since the U.S. invaded the country nearly three years ago.

Today we are going to look at the targeting of one group that has received little attention — hundreds of Iraqi academics and scientists have been assassinated since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The exact figure of deaths is unknown; estimates range from about 300 to more than 1,000. Iraqi novelist Haifa Zangana wrote in the Guardian last month that Baghdad universities alone have lost 80 members of their staffs. These figures do not include those who have survived assassination attempts.

Zangana writes there is a systematic campaign to assassinate Iraqis who speak out against the occupation.

  • Haifa Zangana, an Iraqi-born novelist and artist, and former prisoner of the Baathist regime.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Haifa Zangana writes there is a systematic campaign to assassinate Iraqis who speak out against the occupation. She joins us here in London. She was a prisoner under the Baath regime. She left Iraq in the 1970s and eventually came here and lives in Britain. We welcome you to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t we start off by talking about this group of people that get very little attention?

HAIFA ZANGANA: Well, it started immediately after the occupation, and the main target used to be, then, scientists. And we believe that there was a list of scientists being handed over by the Baath regime under Saddam to the United Nations during the inspection period in Iraq, but we haven’t got really to the point of comparing the names of the killed scientists immediately after the occupation with that list. But we are working on it.

The main problem is, of course, it’s moved on to include academics and academics from wide-spectrum backgrounds, political backgrounds, and also various subjects, whether they are teaching English literature, Arabic poetry or Islamic studies. So it’s covering all and didn’t spare even women. We have four of our top law academics and other teaching other subjects being killed. And it is a systematic way. It’s unlike the rest of the killing and kidnapping. Usually you’ll be kidnapped in Iraq. There will be negotiations about your release. You pay the ransom, you’ll be released or not released. So there is this whole process of it.

In case of academics, it is systematic in the way you are shot or assassinated in the streets, mostly, while you’re leaving your university or going ahead to your house. And the shot is in the head, so there’s no chance of survival. And we — obviously, no one, none of those killings being investigated, whether by the interim government or the occupation forces. Also, I mean, the tragedy of the whole thing, in Iraq you cannot, because all occupation forces, plus diplomats, plus contractors, subcontractor, everybody involved with the occupation enjoy immunity, and we cannot prosecute them under Iraqi law or international law of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any idea who is doing it?

HAIFA ZANGANA: Well, I mean, if we go back to the beginning of the shooting, assassination of the scientists, the men that pointed — Iraqis, if you ask any Iraqi, they will say, “Well, the Mossad were involved,” because those are scientists, and Israel at one point in the 1980s, they targeted the nuclear plant in Iraq, so it’s connected within that. But the rest of the academics — but we, I mean, we don’t know exactly, because no investigation whatsoever.

People talk about it. People can really speculate about the killing or who’s — but mainly, the main issue is: why are they targeted? We feel this is a kind of intimidating. What connect all of them, the main factor is they are people who spoke against occupation. They are outspoken against occupation. A few cases we know about, they were speaking on television, satellite Arab TV, condemning the occupation and also the interim government. So that could indicate, with the chaos taking place in Iraq at the moment, that could implicate Badr Brigade, for example, occupational forces themselves directly, if they don’t like what they’ve been said, or anybody else.

The main issue is, we need an independent inquiry, independent questioning of what’s happening and whose responsibility is this in the end. This is a brain drain. This is going to affect future generations in Iraq, because we are losing our academics. Also, by this campaign of terror, we are sending people outside the country. They are escaping. Academics, teachers, consultants, they are escaping the country, leaving it. In fact, at the medical school in Baghdad University, and this is the oldest medical school in the whole Middle East, at the moment we have only two professors teaching, and they are based in Jordan. So they go back for exams time and they leave Baghdad, because of the lack of security. So what kind of level of qualifications are our doctors going to have under these circumstances?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Haifa Zangana, born in Iraq, imprisoned in Iraq under the Baath regime, escaped, came to Britain, and is a fierce critic of the occupation and invasion of Iraq. You write regularly for the Guardian here in Britain; also Al-Quds Al-Arabi, you have a weekly column. What about the situation now? Are you seeing a civil war or something near to it?

HAIFA ZANGANA: Well, it is, yes. We were really refusing to admit this for a long time. We thinking that Iraqi people are solid enough not to be dragged into this mayhem of killing, but it is happening. It is happening, not on the level of our neighbors killing neighbors, no, but it seems also it’s kind of organized civil war. It’s imposed civil war. It’s almost similar to the timetable imposed by the occupation, the political process that there should be the writing of constitution at this time, there should be an election at that time, regardless of the priority of Iraqi people, because what is ignored from the beginning, from day one of the occupation or what’s called liberation, Iraqi people and their priorities. So what’s happening now, we’re almost living into imposed with a timetable of civil war. They’ve been banging from day one, like asking you, “What are you? A Sunni or a Shia?” I would not dream nowadays of even giving an interview on the BBC without being asked whether I’m a Sunni and a Shia. That’s never happened before occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, there’s a sense, especially in the United States, maybe here as well and all over, there’s this discussion of sectarian violence, which gives us the sense of something that’s gone on for centuries. It’s sort of hopeless.

HAIFA ZANGANA: Well, in Iraq we never had any civil war, not in the last 1,500 years. So this is a totally novel idea.

AMY GOODMAN: When you were growing up, did you know who was Sunni and who was Shia?

HAIFA ZANGANA: Not at all. I mean, one day I was arguing with a close friend, who I had been brought up with, and we were discussing — he was defending the coalition now. And I said, “Why? Why are you doing this? What are you?” And apparently, he is a Christian. I didn’t even know that. This is someone, a close friend for 30 years. We do not really discuss these things. It’s not because we ignore it, no, but because we live together for such long time. The culture is one for the whole country.

And if you see, I mean, some of the prominent people who are against the occupation are either Christians, Assyrians, and some of the prominent people who supported the Saddam Hussein regime were either Christians, Assyrians or Kurds or all — if we want, one has to say something about the previous regime. We have to admit that previous regime altogether persecuted Iraqi people equally, at various stages, regardless of this — what kind of background or sect or religion or whatever. We never had that before.

But now, it is almost established as a daily fact. And, of course, the media is playing a very important role in that, in establishing it. They don’t look — I read the headline that Turkmani woman was killed by Sunnis. And you read into it, and you realize, well, this particular Turkmani woman, in fact, not being assassinated or shot because she was Turkmani; on the contrary, because she is working as interpreter for the American forces. So, this is a totally different story. And if you deal with it in this prospect, from this angle, it will be totally different than sectarian, but people choose now this manufactured labeling of Iraqis, and we are going through it.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is the answer right now?

HAIFA ZANGANA: The answer is, as from the beginning, we should not have war. Also, now we have the war, we have the occupation, and we are asked to move on. Let’s move on. Withdraw the troops. It is bad for the Americans. They are in a mess. It’s bad for the American troops [inaudible] British.

AMY GOODMAN: The whole discussion in the United States right now is if the U.S. troops pull out, the U.S. and some British troops, that there will be full-scale civil war, that the troops are preventing that war.

HAIFA ZANGANA: Yeah, but that’s — I mean, we heard that from the beginning. They were threatening us with a civil war day after day after day. And the things are getting worse by the day. If we see just a slight improvement, they are welcome to stay. If we can only see an extension of, instead of one hour electricity per day, let’s have three hours of electricity per day. They are welcome to stay. If we start drinking clean water rather than filthy water mixed with sewage, they are welcome to stay. If they are building our libraries, which have been burned and looted under their supervision, if they are building our museums, if they are helping to protect our archaeological sites — we have 10,000 archeological sites in Iraq, none of them is protected; it’s been looted completely, they’re digging them and moving them outside the country — if we see some troops, American or British, helping us, doing this, they are welcome to stay. They are our guests. But they are doing the opposite. They are really creating atmosphere of terror. The killing is continuing. They are a problem in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Haifa Zangana, what about the women in Iraq?

HAIFA ZANGANA: Women are abused. Women are really imprisoned in their houses, more or less, because it’s not safe for them to go outside. Women used to work, doctors. Doctors are leaving now. In general, we have the general problems, which is the whole thing, regarding all Iraqis, and also because of their gender, they are targeted more than anybody else.

AMY GOODMAN: How does the situation compare to under the Saddam Hussein regime?

HAIFA ZANGANA: Well, let me just say one thing. I never thought I would live to hear some Iraqis regretting getting rid of Saddam Hussein. We are going through this. I’ve never thought I’ll live that day, because we struggled, we fought against Saddam’s regime, continuously, all Iraqis did that.

AMY GOODMAN: You, yourself, were imprisoned under the Baath regime.

HAIFA ZANGANA: Yes, but I don’t regret it, because I’m not living continuously there, but some people are that. See how we’re being reduced —

AMY GOODMAN: You don’t regret that?

HAIFA ZANGANA: Not at all. Not at all. But that wasn’t the way. You see, there were alternatives. There were other options. None of the — either the British government or the U.S. administration looked into alternatives, looked into what Iraqi people really wanted. They confused the issue according to what they wanted. They confused the issue of getting rid of Saddam Hussein with occupation. Iraqis would not, would not accept occupation. If they have even — if they only had the chance of looking at one page of Iraqi history, they would have realized that.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of Saddam Hussein’s trial that’s going on now?

HAIFA ZANGANA: It’s a farce. It’s a complete farce. I think it’s a mockery of Iraqi’s suffering and pains.


HAIFA ZANGANA: Because a trial should be a real legal trial, so you can see justice done. You don’t make it into a farce, a laughable thing. Iraqis, they don’t even watch it any more. They lost interest. They think, “What’s going on? This is not really what justice should be done.” It should be a chance for people to look at their past, to understand their present, in order to make better future for us, not to repeat the cycle, the vicious cycle of torture, of imprisonment. It’s not happening, because they have doubts about it now. This is orchestrated by the Americans. Some people even think, “Well, he’s a hero,” they’re standing, saying something good against the Americans. So the whole thing has been turned upside-down, a mockery of justice we are witnessing there.

AMY GOODMAN: Haifa Zangana, as we flew into London, there were protests and vigils. It was the 100th day that the four Christian Peacemaker Team members had been held, kidnapped in Iraq. Norman Kember is a British citizen. He’s one of the four. And so, all the news one day was about him, with his friends speaking out. You’ve also written about them.

HAIFA ZANGANA: Yes. I think they were doing fantastic job there inside Iraq, and they were a group of people who, almost the last group of people staying there and working with the Iraqi people. In fact, the day they were kidnapped, they were collecting information regarding Iraqi detainees, and they were working on that list with some of the — a woman organization called Iraqi Women Will, regarding Iraqi women detainees. They were working together on that. And immediately after they left her office, that organization’s office, they were kidnapped.

So, why is that? I mean, I leave it to you to think why they’re being kidnapped. Are they really the kidnappers? Who are the kidnappers? Why the Iraqi interim government or the occupation forces doing something about them? No one knows. How come when the sister of the Ministry of the Interior was kidnapped, it took them a few days? Everybody knew about Baghdad. Baghdad, the whole city came to a standstill of looking for that lady, and she was released. And it’s good for her; she shouldn’t be kidnapped in the first place. But they knew how to deal with the problem. Why are they not dealing with this problem?

AMY GOODMAN: And Jill Carroll, the American freelance journalist?

HAIFA ZANGANA: She — I don’t know. I don’t know who is doing this and why, because we need journalists. We need independent journalists in Iraq. Everything going on, inside, the crimes, the killing, the slaughtering, going unreported at the moment. We are relying on the whole story coming out from here and there, and when Iraqis themselves talk about it or write about it, nobody believes them. They say, “Well, bring us figures and facts, and this and that.” We talked about Abu Ghraib prison one year, one year before it’s being declared this is the story that’s worth publishing in the western media. We were talking about torture, about people in prison. I wrote about it seven months before that.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the wife of the Prime Minister, an attorney herself, Cherie Booth, speaking out against torture this past week?

HAIFA ZANGANA: Well, that’s good. Anyone can speak about torture, but are they doing anything about it? We have a saying: talking is cheap. It’s free, actually. So you can talk forever. But what she is doing — what is, in fact, Tony Blair’s human rights [inaudible] for Iraq and [inaudible] is doing about torture in Iraq? Has she ever said anything about the use of phosphorus in Fallujah, the white phosphorus in Fallujah, about the MK-77, which is a new generation of napalm in Iraq, about the depleted uranium? Do you need — why is it selective? Why human rights becoming a selective issue?

AMY GOODMAN: Haifa Zangana, you brought in a poem you wanted to end with.

HAIFA ZANGANA: Yes, this is a poem by a woman poet. Her name is Nedhal Abbas, and she’s a mother of two. She wrote the poem immediately after the siege of Samarra. And Samarra, as we know recently, the al-Askari mosque in it, but last year there was the siege, where people were shot in the street by U.S. snipers, and during the siege, bodies were left in the streets and scattered. And, you know, in Islam, we have to bury our dead immediately, the same day or the day after. So people were — couldn’t even reach them, for the fear of their lives, being shot by the snipers. She is calling the city by its old name. It’s called “Sarre men ra’a,” and it means “a delight to the seer,” and she’s talking about it. “Sarre men ra’a.”

On a Friday morning in Sarre men ra’a,
a young man lays in pieces,
torn apart by snipers’ fire.
A woman in a black abaya passes by,
holding her toddler by the hand.
The child stares at the remains.
At the hand open to the sky,
he reaches for a touch,
could it be his father’s?

Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Haifa Zangana, thank you for joining us, novelist, artist, journalist, Iraqi, imprisoned there under the Baathist regime, fierce critic of the U.S. occupation and the invasion, and living now in Britain.

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