We speak with leading Arab journalist Zaki Chehab about the insurgency in Iraq. Chehab was the first journalist to broadcast interviews with members of the Iraqi resistance and has covered conflicts in the Middle East for over 25 years. He discusses the different groups and individuals who make up the resistance in Iraq and why they are fighting, the role of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and much more. Chehab is author of “Inside the Resistance.” [includes rush transcript]
We turn now to Iraq where widespread violence killed at least 22 people on Tuesday. In eastern Baghdad, a car bombing near a Shiite mosque left at least 10 dead. Another blast in the capital killed a woman and her two young sons. Elsewhere in Baghdad, two employees of the United Arab Emirates embassy were slain as they left the building. Separate attacks across the country killed several more, including a judge and several Iraqi policeman.
On Monday, nine US troops were killed, making it the deadliest day of the year for the United States. 13 U.S. troops have already died this month, nearly half the number who died in all of March.
The latest bloodshed comes amid reports that Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has been forced to step down as the leader of a coalition of Iraqi militants. Huthaifa Azzam–whose father was a mentor of Osama Bil Laden–told an Arabic news channel that Zarqawi was replaced by an Iraqi two weeks ago. He claimed some were unhappy about Zarqawi’s tactics and tendency to speak for the insurgency as a whole. Huthaifa Azzam claims close contact with the insurgents and is the son of Abdullah Azzam, who is described by the BBC as “one of the seminal figures in the modern Jihadi movement in the Muslim world.”
Today we are going to take a look inside the Iraqi resistance with a leading Arab journalist. Zaki Chehab is one of the few reporters to have met the numerous groups and individuals that make up the armed resistance in Iraq. In fact, he was the first journalist to broadcast interviews with members of the Iraqi resistance. Born in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon, Chehab grew up during that country’s civil war. When he was 17, Israeli forces launched a heavy assault on the camp. Chehab covered the story for a local paper and has worked as a journalist ever since. He has covered the Middle East for over 25 years and has travelled through war zones from Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia.
Zaki Chehab is currently political editor of the London-based Al Hayat newspaper and the Arabic TV channel LBC. He is author of “Inside the Resistance: The Iraqi Insurgency and the Future of the Middle East”
- Zaki Chehab, political editor of the London-based Al Hayat newspaper and the Arabic TV channel LBC and author of “Inside the Resistance
Read article by Zaki Chehab: They Ask, We Ask: Was it Worse Under Saddam?
AMY GOODMAN: Today, we are going to take a look inside the Iraqi resistance with a leading Arab journalist. Zaki Chehab is one of the few reporters to have met the numerous groups and individuals that make up the armed resistance in Iraq. In fact, he was the first journalist to broadcast interviews with members of the Iraqi resistance. Born in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon, Zaki Chehab grew up during that country’s civil war. When he was 17, Israeli forces launched a heavy assault on the camp. Chehab covered the story for a local paper and has worked as a journalist ever since. He has covered the Middle East for over 25 years, has traveled through war zones from Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia.
Zaki Chehab is currently political editor of the London-based Al Hayat newspaper and the Arabic TV channel, LBC. He is author of Inside the Resistance: The Iraqi Insurgency and the Future of the Middle East. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
ZAKI CHEHAB: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, what about this latest news of Zarqawi?
ZAKI CHEHAB: Nothing confirmed. My information that Huthaifa Azzam, the person who was quoted saying this, has denied saying such thing in details. As you know, Huthaifa Azzam’s father is Abdullah Azzam, not Azzam Azzam, and Abdullah Azzam was the mentor of the Islamic Jihadist who first went to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invasion then. Abdullah, in general, was a moderate man. And many believes that he have distanced himself from day one from Osama bin Laden. At that time, Osama bin Laden, as you know, was like supported by the West, by the United States, by Saudi Arabia, by most of the modern Arab governments, who at that time was like, you know, happy to see the Soviets deep in trouble in Afghanistan. So, Huthaifa is based at the moment in Jordan after he left Islamabad. And I suspect how far he is in touch with these extreme elements, because for them he is a moderate man. So, the news about Zarqawi being sidelined or being put aside or being replaced is not really — can’t be confirmed by one source.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about who Zarqawi is?
ZAKI CHEHAB: Zarqawi, as you know, he’s — have approved by bin Laden, by al-Qaeda. He’s the Emir in what’s called, in al-Qaeda terms, the Emir of the Country of Two Rivers.
AMY GOODMAN: “The Country of Two Rivers” being Iraq?
ZAKI CHEHAB: Yeah, meaning Iraq, Bilad Al-Rafidain, which have two banks. So that’s a reference to Iraq, because there’s the main two rivers, which run all over the country. So, I think there are so many changes in Iraq, in terms of insurgency. And when you talk about what’s going on in Iraq, we have to differentiate between local insurgency and international insurgency, who’s like, you know, coming to Iraq from different Arab countries and even maybe from Western countries, as well. So, that’s why now a lot of things going on. There are some information, which can’t be confirmed about how far is the rift between the local insurgency and the international terrorist organization who are functioning in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: What would you say would be the percentage of foreign fighters and Iraqi fighters?
ZAKI CHEHAB: You know, Iraqi fighters making the main bulk of the insurgency. When we talk about foreign fighters in Iraq, they are just, we are talking about, a few hundred. There’s not more than that. And the main bulk, the main activities are carried by local Iraqis. It’s true that there are some sophisticated attacks taking place in Iraq against American-led coalition. But the fact that this kind of attack is always carried by local Iraqis, who are either, you know, ex-military personnel or intelligence, people who have exact knowledge of where to target from far distances. I don’t believe that a militant to have joined al-Qaeda in Iraq from Saudi Arabia or Yemen or Lebanon, at the age of 21, and just to go to Iraq in a few weeks, he would be capable of, like, shooting a plane or targeting an embassy or a headquarter for American forces or other allied forces with the United States. So, this is really carried by local Iraqis, who don’t mind that the responsibility for the media carried by al-Zarqawi, because these kind of people, they are looking for a role in the political future of their country. And if they are face to face with the American-led coalition in Iraq, then they have no future or no role to play in the political process. That’s why at some stage they don’t mind being like, you know, carry these attacks and al-Zarqawi can, you know, announce responsibilities.
AMY GOODMAN: Some people have questioned whether Zarqawi even exists. Do you believe he does?
ZAKI CHEHAB: Yeah, he exists. You know, I was in Baghdad just for the last election, and I met the head of Iraqi intelligence, who himself have confirmed to me that, yes, al-Zarqawi was arrested a year and two months ago. And he was arrested in Fallujah, and he was released the next night, because the local Iraqi police could not recognize his face. And he investigated the case. And to confirm this more than that, what he told me, he said a few weeks later, a suicide bomb attack took place in Baghdad next to the Jordanian embassy. And the suicide bomber was a Saudi, who survived the attack. And he questioned, my friend, who’s General Hussein Kamal — he’s the head of intelligence at the Ministry of Interior in Iraq ’til today — he said he questioned the survived terrorist.
AMY GOODMAN: The Saudi bomber.
ZAKI CHEHAB: The Saudi guy. And this Saudi guy, he told him that Zarqawi himself told him that he have survived a long-term arrest after being released in Fallujah, because the local police could not confirm his identity.
AMY GOODMAN: And this was soon after the siege of Fallujah in November of 2004.
ZAKI CHEHAB: Yes, I’m talking about — yeah, definitely. This happened in 2005.
AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Zaki Chehab. He’s the political editor of Al Hayat newspaper based in London. He’s author of Inside the Resistance. Can you talk about how you first made contact with the resistance, which actually goes back to you being a kid in the refugee camps in southern Lebanon with your pen pal?
ZAKI CHEHAB: Yeah. I grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon. And, you know, as every refugees, we have like limited resources. So, you know, we have like no luck in having — enjoying the civilized world, in terms of playing and gardens and, you know, public stuff. And I think our way of entertainment are either playing football or looking for old newspapers. And as my other pen pals was doing, I picked one of the, you know, addresses in one of the magazines, old magazines. And it happened that this guy I start corresponded with at the age of eight is an Iraqi from Fallujah. I had never been to Iraq before, you know, that; just I picked the name.
So, 35 years later, you know, straight after the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein, I went to cover the developments in Fallujah and the fighting and the confrontation. And after I finished my assignment, I decided to look for my pen pal. And the only thing I can remember of the old days is like his name and the secondary school I used to correspond with. So I kept — I went to a few mosques looking for him. They told me he left. He is living in Baghdad. He’s a doctor. He is well educated. He’s well off, and so many things. And it took me couple of days ’til I managed to trace him, and it happened that he was, as a doctor, having his surgery in al-Ramadi, the capital of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. So, anyway, I called him that day. We met. And we tried to catch up on a different level.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you find about his family, about his sons and about him and the Iraqi insurgency?
ZAKI CHEHAB: In fact, he told me, you know, the day we met him the first time. He brought his young kids or like, you know, graduated from medical schools in Iraq. One of them was a lawyer; other, a doctor; another, like a medical student; and the other was 16 years old, was about to take his A-levels. But the sad thing, when I met him a year later, he told me that three of his kids were arrested — four of them were arrested. Two were in Ramadi. One was in Abu Ghraib. And the other was in the south. And the reason is, for the arrest, is like his neighbor had betrayed him for no reason, just, you know — that’s really one of the biggest mistakes. So many people, you know, they try to take it on American-led coalition, but it’s just because, if you don’t like x, you just can say he is a member of the insurgency or resistance. And the result is it’s not okay people that knows that x have betrayed them, but the fact is, you know, the many mistakes committed by the way we handle the situation in Iraq have led to frustration and anger. And many have expressed this anger against the American-led coalition.
AMY GOODMAN: Were his sons in the insurgency?
ZAKI CHEHAB: No. I’ve just said, his son, one of them is a lawyer, one of them is a medical student, one of them is a practicing doctor, one of the was at A-levels. But at some stage, he was like offered to be the governor of al-Ramadi, and he turned the offer down. So the one who replaced him or who have occupied that space have betrayed him, that he’s like a supporter or sympathetic to the insurgency, and that it ended up —
AMY GOODMAN: What was the beginning of the insurgency? Would you bring it back to the siege of Fallujah?
ZAKI CHEHAB: Not really like this. You know, we have to be fair. I was one of many who felt that invading Iraq is wrong. But when I went to Iraq and I saw how Iraqis have welcomed the overthrow of the regime, I’ve changed my mind. I saw Iraqis in the Kurdish areas dancing after the fall of the regime. Majority of Shiites in the south have welcomed the fall of the regime.
And Sunnis, in general, it’s true that they were like conservative in their feeling, but I visited Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein. And I met the majority of leaders of a tribe. They were — all of them, they told me in a meeting they had in one of the farms that they were really not happy with Saddam Hussein, and they suffered from his regime like any others in the south and the north. But they couldn’t do anything about it. So they gathered six weeks after the fall of Tikrit to tell the world: we hated Saddam Hussein, and we have suffered under his hand as Sunnis, like Shias and Kurds. So, I changed. When I see the majority of Iraqis were happy to see Saddam Hussein, you know, I changed my mind.
What happened later is the kind of mistakes, how we handled the situation. There was no plan how to handle the situation in Iraq. You know, I was surprised a few weeks ago, when I read the memoirs of Paul Bremer, the American ambassador there.
AMY GOODMAN: The memoir of Paul Bremer.
ZAKI CHEHAB: Yeah. It was interesting to see him saying what he said. I was happy a few days ago to hear the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying for the first time, 'We have committed thousands of mistakes.' We should have handled this from day one, because handling the situation in Iraq in a proper way should have saved tens of thousands of Iraqi lives and, I’m sure, thousands of American and other lives.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Zaki Chehab. He is political editor of London-based Al Hayat newspaper and the Arabic TV channel, LBC. He has written the book, Inside the Resistance: The Iraqi Insurgency and the Future of the Middle East. We will come back to continue speaking with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Zaki Chehab, political editor of the London-based Al Hayat newspaper, Arabic TV channel, LBC, spent a good deal of time over the last few years in Iraq, has written the book, Inside the Resistance: The Iraqi Insurgency and the Future of the Middle East, and is writing a new book on Hamas. But back to Iraq, how you get around. One of the things you talk about is in this now, in light of the release of Jill Carroll, the freelance journalist who was writing for the Christian Science Monitor, how many Iraqis are kidnapped every day and Arab journalists that we don’t know about whose names we don’t know?
ZAKI CHEHAB: It’s really sad, because all we hear about is the kidnapping of a foreign journalist or a Western citizen in Iraq, but we never hear about the hundreds of Iraqis who are kidnapped every week. At least 16 Iraqi journalists were killed last year. 16. And many 'til today have disappeared, and no one's tracing them. Even hardly anyone knows their names. Some of them, they work for television station. Some of them, they work like for newspapers, local television station and others. And believe me, large numbers of journalists who just left their jobs, because they have been threatened. And they didn’t dare even to tell that we have been threatened, because they’re worried about life and their families. So they just left the jobs peacefully and stayed at home, because they’re being threatened. We talk about Iraqis. Since the fall of the regime, more than 300 Iraqi university intellectuals are being killed. 300. If you visit the capital of Jordan —
AMY GOODMAN: These are professors?
ZAKI CHEHAB: Professors and lecturers at Iraqi universities. If you visit Baghdad, the capital, you’ll find, you know, most of the intellectual Iraqis, most of the professional ones, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, have left the country, because they can’t afford to live the life they are facing now in Iraq. Everyone who all can afford to leave the country is leaving it, because if themselves they are not threatened as professionals, their kids are threatened. And so many kidnappings for small kids going to school, just because these gangs want money from their families. And just this is something that happens every day. What we can talk about, security of Iraq. If the sister and the brother of the Minister of Interior in Iraq today is being kidnapped, what about the local Iraqis, the poor Iraqi who have nobody guards to go around with him when he wants to go to his work or to carry on with his everyday life. Iraq is extremely in difficult situation. All the main roads between the capital and every single major city in Iraq is not safe.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you get around? How do you get around as a journalist?
ZAKI CHEHAB: You know, believe me, I used to go, and I used to tell my friends, you know, that I’m going to Iraq. But the last two, three trips I made to Iraq, I preferred not to tell anyone, because everyone was saying, “You are crazy to go there.” I know what kind of risks. I have traveled with many others. And one of them, after we crossed from the capital to the airport — this is just 20 minutes drive — he told me, “Zaki, all the way, the only one thing I was thinking about is how I was going to be kidnapped and the way I was going to die.” That’s really the kind of thoughts you have. But because of the job, you feel you have to go somewhere, you have to take the risks, you know. It’s mad.
You know, myself, if I see a foreign journalist, you know, kidnapped in Iraq, I would say he’s mad, because it’s really mad to go there. No one can secure a life. If you are with American forces, you can be attacked by the insurgents. If you are on your own, you can be targeted by the gangs. So it’s very difficult, and no one can secure a life. It’s just, you know, it’s danger, but we have to take the risk. And always it’s — you know, we have local correspondents there. But sometimes when you live in the situation for so long, it can be difficult for you to try to differentiate to know what’s exactly — what kind of development takes place. That’s why we have to take the risk.
The one thing, which is really of great importance, as well, because of the divisions in the country, if you are a Shia journalist, you can’t visit Sunni areas, because you would be treated in a suspicious way. So, I suspect that Sunni in the Sunni area will talk to a Shia journalist in an open way like they are talking to a Sunni one. And if you are a Kurd, you can’t travel in Sunni, and the opposite way. So it’s very difficult to depend on one single journalist to get the proper story. You have to, you know, look at the story from three different angles so you can make good judgment.
AMY GOODMAN: You say but you have to do it. Why do you have to do it?
ZAKI CHEHAB: You know, I feel I’ve got a duty. I love this country. I have been traveling to Iraq since 1978. It was my first assignment to Iraq. I remember I went there to cover the first Arab summit held in Iraq, after President Sadat of Egypt visited Jerusalem and Arab governments decided to boycott Egypt, so they called for an Arab summit in Baghdad in 1978. Then, Saddam Hussein was Vice President. Since that time, I’ve been visiting the country.
AMY GOODMAN: How has it changed?
ZAKI CHEHAB: A lot of changes. Iraq, for many who don’t know Iraq, is an open-minded society. Iraq have the best brains in the Arab world, if not the world. Large number of them have been educated in American universities, in British universities and Western universities. Iraqis was leading until very recently a very moderate life — drinks, night clubs, easy life. Women who played — always played a big role in society. It’s very sad to see Iraq slipping into a very, you know, small-minded, you know, way on different fronts. I’m sure when proper Iraqis have the right to make their views, you know, heard and listened to, they will say, you know, this is not the Iraq we want. Iraqis like to be given — Iraqis still today, you know, are willing to live with each other.
You know, many, the last few months, have talked about Iraq slipping into a sectarian war or a civil war. I suspect that Iraq will happen. It’s true that large number of killings taking place in Iraq, but the way Iraqi society is, you know, is made up, it is — make it difficult. Iraq has the largest mixed marriages in the Arab and Islamic world between Sunnis and Shiites. Up to 50% of Sunnis and Shia are married from each other. So I suspect that, you know, you can do something against your brother-in-law or son-in-law or, you know, something related to this. You know, I know ministers in Iraq. One of them is a very close friend of mine. She said, “I’ve got six sisters. I am a Shia. Five are them are married for Sunnis.” How we can go into civil war against each other? This is one.
If you ask the majority of Sunnis, “Do you mind being governed by Shia?” they will say no, or Kurd, they will say no. Most important how to convince each part of the society which make up Iraq, how to live together, how that they should work together. That’s really the most important task we are facing today. One of the biggest mistakes we have faced after the fall of the regime, that we have encouraged sectarianism when we decided to set up the governing council. We made this governing council from —
AMY GOODMAN: When you say “we,” who do you mean?
ZAKI CHEHAB: I mean the American-led coalition at that time. They built up the governing council based on Shia, Sunni, Kurds. They decided to say Shia majority, Sunni are minority. Kurds would be in the middle. Something like this. We started this, you know. We should have not done that. We should have like — we have looked forward to see Iraq proceeding into proper democracy — freedom of speech, human rights — expect all sorts of things. But the way things went wasn’t what we expected. Just only recently, we started talking about sectarianism. Yes, we have encouraged it. Now, we should stop it, by encouraging dialogue, by making each Iraqis feel that they are part of the new Iraq, and a safe Iraq, a secure Iraq, a stable Iraq is in the interest of all Iraqis.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the Iraqi insurgency, not the foreign fighters, but the different sectors that make it up?
ZAKI CHEHAB: Other mistakes far from the sectarian issue is, one, the army was dissolved. More than half a million Iraqi military personnel were sent home. They were not allowed to take part in the future army of their country. They were not allowed to be given jobs. This large number in the Sunni areas in the north, they made the main bulk of the insurgency.
The second decision taken and contributed to the increase in the number of insurgents are the debaathification policies, where every single member of the Baath Party was banned from taking a job. Why? Majority of Iraqis have joined the Baath Party during Saddam Hussein, because that was the only way to get a job in that government — in his government. If you are a student, no way you can get university degree and study in a university if you are not a member of the Baath Party. Why you should punish the majority of Iraqis who only joined the Baath Party just to earn their living? So, we should have different shape between the one who are criminals, the one who commit the crimes against these people, and the one who are just innocent. They joined the Baath Party like anyone, just as a procedure so they can get their degrees and study or work a job, and so on.
So I think if you want really to correct the situation, we should allow all Iraqi officers who have not committed anything against their country, against their people, to go back to the army and get on with their life. The same thing for the Baathists. If you’ve done so, I can assure you that 90% of the insurgency would just disappear. This is really one of the main issues, should be addressed as soon as possible, because the more we get closer to this stage, the more we can look for Iraq stable.
AMY GOODMAN: And the pressure on — the U.S. pressure on al-Jaafari to resign as prime minister?
ZAKI CHEHAB: Al-Jaafari, one of his biggest mistake — or to start, before we talk about al-Jaafari, I suspect that the United States was like prepared to see a pro-Iranian government in power, because the Shia-led coalition, who is in charge, is against American policies in Iraq. They are pro-Iranian, and definitely they will always keep this in mind. Whatever might affect Iranian interests in Iraq, they would be against it. And to see the American-led coalition investing heavily in rebuilding Iraq, the new Iraq, on a basis which like, you know, to be — to stand on its feet, to find Iraq, and our Interior Minister is pro-Iranian, and to find another security agencies in Iraq built on a broad Iranian support. This is not what the American wants. This is not what majority of Iraqis want. That’s why we start feeling the clash.
I heard there are so many efforts being made to convince al-Jaafari to step aside. But so far it failed because Jaafari was elected by the Shia-led alliance as their representative for the new government. And unless the American-led coalition succeeds in convincing other parts of the component of the Shia-led alliance to change Jaafari, then it’s not going to work. And the way things are approached, I think it shouldn’t be even-handed. We should not repeat the mistakes which had been committed in the past.
You know, few months ago, just straight 'til the election in Iraq, we used to hear many voices in Iraq saying we want a timetable for American withdrawal from Iraq. These days, we are not hearing anything like this from the Sunnis, themselves, who used to call for it. Why? Because the Sunnis, they established some kind of dialogue with the American-led coalition in Iraq. So they're on much better terms. And Sunnis today, they don’t mind the Americans staying longer. That’s why not a single voice being heard about this, mentioning this the last three months. Some kind of dialogue is already established, and I encourage this. It’s a positive thing they should have done being made a long time ago.
AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. talking about Iran and the possibility of attacking Iran, how does that affect the situation in Iraq right now?
ZAKI CHEHAB: I think many, many in Iraq and the region believe this is really, you know, it’s something to do with Iraq. You know, Iran practically have gained the upper hand in Iraq, because all the Shia-led alliance, either the al-Jaafari organization, Hizb al-Dawa, or Al Hakim organization or al-Sadr, they’re all well known for their Iranian sympathy and Iranian support. And I suspect that they will take any position, which might affect the Iranian position in terms of negotiation. That’s why many believe that the United States is keen to try to distance the groups from Iran, by one way or another, by saying, 'Okay, let's talk about what we should do concerning Iraq, and let’s separate the issue of Iraq from the nuclear dispute we have with Tehran.’ And I think I find it difficult, because Iranians are very good at bargaining. They usually listen when they feel the United States is in much stronger position to negotiate. They listen. And sometimes they are willing to go ahead, in terms of implementing some kind. But the more they feel that the United States is heavily involved in the Iraqi security situation, the more they say, 'Oh, we don't bother.’
AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds, but do you hold out any hope for Iraq?
ZAKI CHEHAB: I do have lot of hopes for Iraq, because it’s so easy to solve this by addressing the problems straightforward. Starting this dialogue with Iraqi influential Sunni tribes is something helpful, because it will lead to stability in the insurgents’ area, and then it will lead for more hope that Sunnis will be more involved in the political process. That’s what we are hoping. And any success in trying to convince al-Jaafari to step down and open the door for Adel Abdul Mehdi, who is like more acceptable than al-Jaafari in any future government, then we can talk about political process starting in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Zaki Chehab, I want to thank you for being with us. Inside the Resistance: The Iraqi Insurgency and the Future of the Middle East is his book.