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Juan Cole on Civil War in Iraq, the Hyping of WMD Intel on Iran, and How The Lebanon War Has Weakened Israel

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University of Michigan professor and blogger Juan Cole reviews recent news from the Middle East and discusses Hugo Chavez’s “devil” comment at the United Nations. [includes rush transcript]

  • Juan Cole Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He runs an analytical website called “Informed Comment” where he provides a daily round-up of news and events in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Right now, we’re going to turn back to an interview I did on Friday, when we stopped in Ann Arbor and we broadcast from the University of Michigan. There, we spoke to Juan Cole. He is professor of Middle Eastern history. I asked him about the situation in Iraq.

JUAN COLE: — a United Nations report on Iraq, which was extremely disturbing. There was a 15% increase in deaths reported in Baghdad in July and August, nearly 7,000 dead between the two months, up from May and June, which were already horrible. 90% of these deaths seem to be death squad killings. People show up dead in the streets in the morning. The United Nations talked about torture. The bodies show signs of acid, chemicals, drills into joints, into the head. It’s horrible.

AMY GOODMAN: The UN Rapporteur on Torture says the situation is worse now than under Saddam Hussein.

JUAN COLE: Well, I think it’s difficult to quantify these things. My own feeling is that if you averaged out the deaths attributed to the Baath Party from 1968 to 2003, up until February or so, the average was still about the same. There seemed to be an average rate of horrible death and torture in Iraq. But in the last six months, since the golden dome at Samarra was blown up, a Shiite shrine, that provoked death squads to attack Sunnis in revenge since that time. And, of course, then there have been Sunni reprisals. The rate of killing has increased alarmingly.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you see as the cause right now?

JUAN COLE: Well, there’s a behind the scenes, late at night in the alleyways, a civil war going on between Shiites, Iraqis, and Sunni Arabs. And this is a war that has many dimensions. It is a turf war. It’s about ethnically cleansing neighborhoods, controlling territory. It’s about rivalry over control of resources, including petroleum smuggling and antiquities smuggling, other kinds of smuggling. It is a political contest, to position themselves for when the Americans leave. But it is, it’s certainly at this rate of death a civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: Civil war.

JUAN COLE: Without any doubt.

AMY GOODMAN: Unqualified.

JUAN COLE: Unqualified.

AMY GOODMAN: Sectarian civil war?

JUAN COLE: Well, it is sectarian in some places, in the sense that it’s between two religious groups, the Sunni Arabs and the Shiites. It’s not always being fought on religious grounds alone. And there are places like Kirkuk where it’s ethnic, it’s between Arabs and Kurds or between Turkmen and Kurds. So it is multidimensional. If can you find an ethnic marker between two Iraqis that’s different, it can be the basis for violence right now.

AMY GOODMAN: What about daily life right now for Iraqis? What is a day like?

JUAN COLE: Well, of course, it’s a big country, and so it differs very much from city to city, from region to region. If you were up north in the Kurdistan region — Erbil, Dahuk, Sulaimania — it’s good times. It’s economic boom. They’re building suburbs. There’s a Disneyland at Sulaimania. You can’t tell, from what people tell me, that anything is going on.

But if you move south slightly to Kirkuk, there are bombings, there are assassinations, there’s ethnic tension. If you move on down to Mosul, there are entire neighborhoods apparently that are controlled by the guerrilla movement. And then as you come down to Baghdad and Ramadi, it’s truly horrible. There’s a feeling of no security. Shops have difficulty opening. They’re often closed. They close up at 2:00 if they are open. There have been reports that the bustling famous book market on Mutanabbi Street is a ghost town; nobody goes there. And people are afraid to go out.

AMY GOODMAN: Are the parliamentary leaders continuing to meet?

JUAN COLE: Parliamentary leaders meet, but in the Green Zone, which is to say behind concrete barriers and behind Marine guards. In this summer, Grand Ayatollah Sistani complained bitterly that 60% of them were out of the country. It was just safer to be in London. He said you can’t run a legislature like that. And so, the meetings of parliament often have a hundred parliamentarians missing. That’s par for the course.

And they do meet. They do try to hammer out agreements, but they don’t have much power. They don’t have the ability to give commands and have them obeyed, for the most part. Some of them are party leaders or militia leaders in their own right, and they have a little more power. But apparently they’re losing control of the grassroots. There was fighting in the city of Diwania not so long ago by Mahdi Army militiamen against the local Shiite government. Moqtada al-Sadr’s people say he didn’t order it. That was something that the local leader decided to get into. Well, it means he’s not in control of the Mahdi Army in Diwania. And I think that’s typical now. Iraq is becoming more and more fractured.

AMY GOODMAN: What do the sides want?

JUAN COLE: Well, in a way, it’s what they don’t want. The Sunni Arabs don’t want to be completely dominated by the Shiite religious parties, whom they code as being very close to Iran, and by the Kurds. The Sunni Arabs are afraid that essentially they’ll be cut out of the deal. They don’t have natural resources in their part of the country, in west and north Iraq. They don’t have petroleum fields. There’s a big field around Kirkuk, which is in Kurdish-controlled territory. There’s a big field down at Ramallah in south Iraq that the Shiites control.

And the Shiites and the Kurds increasingly are moving towards semi-autonomy. I mean, this is almost like, you know, remember when the Soviet Union broke up, that for a while they said, 'Well, we'll still be together somehow. It will be the commonwealth of independent states.’ Well, Iraq is moving towards being a commonwealth of independent provinces. And the Sunni Arabs are afraid that this movement by the Shiites and the Kurds will leave them high and dry.

The Shiites resent deeply the violence that the Sunni Arabs have resorted to in order to prevent the Shiites from coming to power, from exercising that power, from moving towards greater autonomy from the central government. You know, the Sunni Arab guerrilla groups have been horrible in their tactics. They’ll bomb a wedding in a city like Hillah. And then they know that evening, in Islamic law, you immediately have the funeral. They’ll come back and bomb the funeral that evening, hit the same group of people again. So, if that happens every week for a while all around the country, eventually people just hate each other.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Professor Juan Cole here at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In fact, we’re sitting in a classroom. You talk about the Kurds. BBC is reporting that Israel is training the Kurds.

JUAN COLE: Well, BBC is reporting that there is an Israeli company or two that’s been giving training to Kurds using ex-Special Ops forces. These are private security guards now who are giving training.

AMY GOODMAN: Not at the behest of the Israeli government?

JUAN COLE: Well, we don’t know exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: Or proxy?

JUAN COLE: We don’t know exactly what is the relationship. There have been rumored to be good relations between the Kurdish regional government and the Israelis for some time. And there have been earlier reports by Sy Hersh of Israeli intelligence agents operating in Kurdistan, in fact spying on Iran from Kurdistan. So if ex-Special Ops Israeli security companies are providing training to the Kurdish peshmerga, this is not a huge surprise. It would violate Iraqi law.

But Kurdistan increasingly is not operating under Iraqi law. They give out their own visas. They invite foreign companies to come and do prospecting without telling Baghdad. They recently have decided they’re not going to fly the Iraqi flag anymore. I mean, you have an independent country here that has its own army. It says the federal troops may never step foot on Kurdish soil. So Iraq has become, for the Kurds, a mere fig leaf. They are doing whatever they want to do, and they don’t want to anger Iran and Turkey to the extent of provoking hostilities, so they don’t declare independence, but they are operating as though they are independent in all but name.

AMY GOODMAN: The Iranian president said in New York when he was at the United Nations that his government doesn’t need a nuclear weapon, is open to negotiations on suspending nuclear activities. Your assessment of where this all stands?

JUAN COLE: Well, the Iranian government has all along maintained that it’s not trying to get a nuclear weapon. Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei, who’s the theocrat of Iran and sets law, says that atomic bombs are immoral in Islamic law. You can’t use them because they inevitably kill large numbers of innocent civilians, which is contrary to the rules for waging war in Islam. It can only be waged properly against combatants. And so, Khamenei has forbidden atomic weapons.

The Iranian government has all along maintained that it has no weapons program. And no weapons program has been found. The International Atomic Energy Agency is frustrated that the Iranians haven’t always been transparent. They haven’t declared all of their experiments. There are facilities that they haven’t allowed visits to. And so there are suspicions as to why all this should be and what the Iranians are up to. But the report says they haven’t been able to testify that there is a weapons program. So what President Ahmadinejad said was consistent with Iranian policy all along.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Juan Cole teaches at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. We’ll come back to our conversation. We’ll talk about whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We did this interview on Friday at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where I spoke with Professor Juan Cole. I asked him about a new controversial congressional report that alleges that Iran is further ahead in the development of nuclear weapons than previously believed. I asked him if this is similar to the misinformation campaign in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

JUAN COLE: I think there’s enormous amounts of hype coming out of Washington and out of John Bolton’s office at the UN about Iran. Allegations are constantly made. In fact, the news media tend to fall into this trap, because Iran does have a nuclear energy research program, which is permitted under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which they are signatories. And they do have inspections. They have regular inspections. Those inspections have not been completely satisfactory.

But no country that’s been under the NPT has ever developed nuclear weapons. And Iran — it’s a little mysterious. Why would they sign onto this if they were in fact violating it? Why not just — now, there’s nothing that requires you to join. India didn’t. Pakistan developed a bomb, and these were permitted to India and Pakistan. That’s another question as to — you know, it’s a dangerous neighborhood. Israel has several hundred nuclear weapons and has brandished them, threatened neighbors with them.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmadinejad doesn’t raise that very much, actually, does he?

JUAN COLE: No, Ahmadinejad — well, Ahmadinejad does. I mean, he does talk about the hypocrisy. But it’s because he’s saying, ’We’re not trying to get them in the first place,’ so that’s not his argument. The people who raise the hypocrisy argument about Israel’s arsenal, and now India and Pakistan’s, which all seem to be just fine with Washington — there’s no crisis about that — the people who raise that mostly are the Egyptians and the Saudis and the Arab world, which would like a nuclear freeze-out. They don’t want Iran having nuclear weapons. They wish that Israel would give its up. They are not enthusiastic about India, and so forth. So it’s become an increasingly dangerous neighborhood.

And the argument is made in Washington that there are vents somewhere in these facilities that show that there are deep bunker facilities that we don’t know about, that they’re up to something. And then allegations are made that the Iranian state is peopled by crazy people. The argument is — it’s a frankly racist argument — that you’re dealing with madmen here, and therefore they may not be allowed to get nuclear weapons.

I mean, I’m against proliferation myself. I think it’s better that fewer countries that have these things, the better off the whole world is. But the Iranian state hasn’t invaded aggressively another country for 200 years. It hasn’t demonstrated itself to be peopled by wild men. And it is an authoritarian government — one can criticize that on various grounds — but it’s not been an aggressive government. It’s not like Saddam Hussein.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cole, Ahmadinejad’s comments have come up again, as he comes to the United States, about denying the Holocaust.

JUAN COLE: Yes, Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier. He has a thing about Jews and Israel and the Holocaust that comes across very clearly when he talks about it. It’s a kind of paranoia or fixation. And, you know, Ahmadinejad is not a really educated man. He’s got an engineering degree. He’s from what we call the bazaari class. This is people who, from a shopkeeping background or hung around at mosques, and kind of self-educated, and so forth. So he’s not a man of the world.

His predecessor, President Mohammad Khatami, lived in Germany for seven years and has written, using the German sociologist Jurgen Habermas’s theories of civil society. Khatami has written on dialogue of civilizations and open society, and so forth, and has reprimanded Ahmadinejad for his bizarre statements about the Holocaust. So this is not, you know, an Iranian government stance or an Iranian stance. This is something that’s peculiar to Ahmadinejad.

And remember, the Iranian president is powerless, virtually. The commander-in-chief of the armed forces is Khamenei, the Supreme Juridprudent. Ahmadinejad can consult on the appointment of cabinet ministers and ambassadors, but there are very few orders that he could give of any significance in the Iranian system. He’s kind of like our Secretary of the Interior or something. So what he thinks about things isn’t that important.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Juan Cole, the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has slammed a Republican report on Iran and nuclear weapons.

JUAN COLE: Well, there’s a congressional report on Iran, which came out and was extremely sloppy and made all kinds of false allegations. There’s a caption at one point that says that Iran is enriching uranium to weapons grade. There is no evidence of that whatsoever.

Indeed, you know, people don’t know the technicalities of it, and I’m not an expert on it myself, but I do know the Iranians are using small refrigerator-size centrifuges — they have about 164 of them — to enrich uranium for energy purposes. And that’s a whole different deal than if you were making a weapon. If you were making a weapon, you would need 16,000 centrifuges, and they’d have to be hooked up in a special way that they do something called cascading, so that the fissionable material has the right form for making a bomb. Well, the Iranians don’t have 16,000 centrifuges. They have 164. And they say that they’ve managed to enrich to 2.5%. You need to enrich to something like 80% in order to make a weapon. And being able to enrich to the amount needed to make fuel is a different order of magnitude.

AMY GOODMAN: Who wrote the Republican report?

JUAN COLE: Well, it was actually written by a staffer named Fleitz, who used to work for John Bolton. And this kind of use of false allegations against Iran and innuendo and intimations that they’ve got a weapons program that is far advanced, this is typical of Bolton and the far right wing of the Republican Party.

AMY GOODMAN: A lot was made of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez talking about President Bush as a devil. Can you talk about President Bush’s language over time?

JUAN COLE: Well, my argument is that Bush started this, with his use of the phrase “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address, and I think it’s shameful. I think that we are a secular country. Our law does not — in fact, our law forbids the government from favoring any particular religion or for favoring religion over secular people. And the use of the word “evil” or “devil,” these are theological terms. Personally, I don’t believe in a personal Satan, and I resent my elected officials dragging me into a discourse about the world, in which whole countries are made satanic.

And what does that mean? It means you can’t talk to them. They’re evil. You can’t sit down with them and negotiate. It takes diplomacy off the table. And once you take diplomacy off the table, what’s left? Ultimatums and war. So this absolutist language, this theological language drags the secular republic into being a warmongering theological state, just in the essence of it. And Bush, when he starts calling other countries and leaders “evil,” well, aren’t they going to do the same thing to him? The immaturity and the clownishness of Hugo Chavez’s comments were widely commented on, but nobody in the American mainstream press seems to think that Bush was being immature and clownish in talking about Iran as part of an axis of evil.

AMY GOODMAN: And the term “Islamofascism”?

JUAN COLE: Well, the term “Islamofascism” is a form of bigotry. It is an attempt to tie a great religious tradition, to which a very substantial portion of humanity belongs, and has belonged through the last millennium, to a Western secular political tendency, the fascist movement of the 1930s, which, by the way, wasn’t influential in the Middle East among the Middle Eastern masses, and the intellectuals in Cairo denounced it. And it’s just horrible to tie Islam and the Koran and the ideals of the Islamic religion, to try to tie them to Hitler and Mussolini. You know, if somebody were to do this to Christianity or Judaism, there would be an enormous outcry, but it’s alright to do it to Muslims.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Egypt right now and the statements of the President Mubarak’s son?

JUAN COLE: Well, Gamal Mubarak is very potentially the successor in Egypt. They are republics in the Arab world, but sometimes they have an almost monarchical succession. Bashar al-Assad in Syria succeeded to Hafez al-Assad. So a lot of people think that Gamal is being positioned to take over when his father steps down. Hosni Mubarak, the leader of Egypt, has presided over a long period of political stability in the country, but he is 78, and there will be a transition in the near future.

Gamal now has come out and said that Egypt needs civilian nuclear energy and has been carrying out, off and on, small experiments, and that this may get revved up. And he also came out and rejected the Bush administration’s ideas for the greater Middle East, which is a codeword for U.S. imposing, in various ways, through pressure or military action, what it calls democracy on the region.

Mubarak represents a tradition in Egypt of military rule — in business suits, but basically it’s a military government — which puts a limit on where society can go. And they are very afraid that one person, one vote, free and open politics, might lead to the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist religious trend, which has authoritarian tendencies, might take over the country, and so he’s very much against going too far in what Bush calls “democratization,” and he’s rejected it.

AMY GOODMAN: Israel and Lebanon, the Arab League is now pushing a new proposal called the Beirut compromise or proposal.

JUAN COLE: Well, the problem with the situation between Israel and Lebanon is that the war was inconclusive. The Israelis didn’t get what they were looking for, and neither, I think, did the Hezbollah. Lebanon is a very divided society, and it has been badly hit. It’s probably been set back in its economic development 20 years. Towards the end of the war, the Israelis released, it is estimated, up to a million cluster bombs in the south. These — a lot of cluster bombs don’t explode. So there are these bombs lying around all through South Lebanon that children will pick up, and already a dozen people have died from them. And this is a war crime, quite frankly. I mean, Hezbollah committed war crimes during the war, in targeting civilian cities like Haifa in a random sort of way, and Amnesty International has denounced them, and that’s true. But this is a massive war crime, to let loose this number of cluster bombs in South Lebanon.

AMY GOODMAN: Estimates of what? Up to 350,000?

JUAN COLE: Even more, and there was — it was done in the last days of the war, so it wasn’t even being done for obvious military purposes. This was a political act. It was an attempt to make South Lebanon inhospitable to human habitation, which is a violation of the Geneva Conventions and simple ordinary morality. And, of course, it wouldn’t work. The Lebanese farmers are going to go back to their farms, and if there are cluster bombs, then they’ll just have to try to deal with them.

So there was a mindset during this war of punitiveness towards the whole Lebanese public. It wasn’t a war just with Hezbollah. I mean, they took out bridges up at Jounieh, which is a Christian port. They hit Tripoli port. They bombed Achrafieh, a Christian area of Beirut. They bombed the airport. I mean, the whole country was attacked, not just the Hezbollah. And it was an attempt to turn the Lebanese against one another, and it didn’t work. The Lebanese, although they have their differences, had a civil war, and they know what that is, and they weren’t going to have another one to please the Israelis.

AMY GOODMAN: How has the war between Israel and Lebanon changed the political landscape of the Middle East?

JUAN COLE: Well, it has definitely weakened Israel’s position. Israel is the regional superpower in that part of the world. It’s the only nuclear power in the Middle East, and it had been known to easily defeat Arab armies in 1967, even in 1973, where they were surprised they riposted quite well. And they marched into Beirut in 1982 with very little trouble. So this is the first time that they’ve launched a military push of this sort and failed in their war aims. They’ve been — they were stymied by Hezbollah. Merkava tanks were — their armor was penetrated by Hezbollah RPGs. The Hezbollah seems to have been able to listen in on some of their communications and therefore to know their plans.

AMY GOODMAN: Is Ehud Olmert going to survive?

JUAN COLE: Oh, I think that he’ll survive. There’s not very much of an alternative. If Labor hadn’t been so stupid as to enter this unity government and Amir Peretz hadn’t been so stupid as to offer to become the Defense Minister, then Labor could have positioned itself as able to do a better job, but in a way Labor was tainted, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Which leaves…?

JUAN COLE: Which doesn’t leave much. I mean, people have turned away from the Likud Party. It only got nine seats. And so that’s why I say, I mean, I think the government will limp along, just because there’s nothing obvious to replace it with, but Olmert has certainly been weakened.

AMY GOODMAN: You survey the Arab press. How does it compare to the U.S.?

JUAN COLE: Well, it’s like night and day. In the Arab world, the first value people are looking for is local independence, and they judge everything that happens by how it affects their local independence. It’s kind of an analogy to people who are concerned about state’s rights in the United States, so they don’t want the federal government being in their business in a big way. Well, for the Arab world and for the Middle East generally, the United States is like the federal government. I mean, it is a presence in everybody’s lives. It shapes people’s policies; it shapes their lives, their culture and so forth.

And so, from their point of view, there was never any question, for the most part, in the Arab world, outside Iraq, that the American presence in Iraq would be bad for people. The opinion polls all showed this. And they felt, you know — they had had a long experience with European powers coming in and ruling them, the French in Algeria and the British in Egypt, and so forth. And it always seemed to them a bad deal. So they had no question that the Iraq misadventure would go bad, and so they’re not surprised at all that it has.

And from their point of view, the Lebanon war was an act of naked, unbridled Israeli unprovoked aggression on the whole country of Lebanon. It wasn’t, as the western press depicts it, you know, the natural reaction of the Israelis to their soldiers being attacked and kidnapped.

And so it’s a completely different point of view on the world that is in the region. It’s one that is very little heard and can be very little heard in the western media, and it’s unfortunate. It means that there’s a discourse in the United States that’s different from the discourse in the Middle East, indeed different from the discourse in Europe. I mean, the United States is a peculiarly insular society in which the reference points are very much internal. If a Republican senator or congressman isn’t saying something, then it’s very difficult to say it and have it be heard, aside from on Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Juan Cole, he teaches history at the University of Michigan and runs the website, ” Informed Comment,” about the latest developments in Iraq.

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