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Defeat: British Journalist Jonathan Steele on Why America and Britain Lost Iraq

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As the fifth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq approaches, we speak with Jonathan Steele, one of the journalists who has covered the Iraq war since 2003. Steele is the senior foreign correspondent and in-house columnist on international affairs for the London Guardian. His latest book is Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: Next week will mark the fifth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. In the first of several speeches timed to coincide with the five-year mark, President Bush said his decision to invade will forever be the right one.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency; it is the right decision at this point in my presidency; and it will forever be the right decision.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Since the 2003 invasion, up to one million Iraqis have been killed, with no estimates on the number of those wounded. The war has also led to the world’s worst refugee crisis, with the UN estimating up to 2.5 million people displaced inside Iraq and more than two million who have fled to neighboring countries. Meanwhile, nearly 4,000 US soldiers have been killed and up to 30,000 wounded.

AMY GOODMAN: This weekend, hundreds of US veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will descend on Washington, D.C. to testify in the “Winter Soldier” hearings about their experiences in the two wars. The event is inspired by the Winter Solider tribunal held in 1971 by Vietnam War vets, including John Kerry. Democracy Now! will be there. We’ll be broadcasting from there tomorrow morning.

Jonathan Steele is one of the journalists who has covered the Iraq war since the beginning. He’s the senior foreign correspondent and in-house columnist on international affairs for the London Guardian, has written several books. His latest is called Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq. Jonathan Steele, joining us now in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to this side of the Atlantic, Jonathan.


AMY GOODMAN: There’s a lot of discussion here that the surge is working. What do you think?

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, it’s certainly true that the number of attacks on civilians has gone down, and that’s tremendously welcome. But there are many other reasons apart from the extra 27,000 US troops that have caused that. I think the main one is that the Sunni Arabs of Anbar Province, west of Iraq, have themselves got fed up with al-Qaeda, and they are saying to al-Qaeda, “We don’t want your tactics of suicide car bombs on Shia civilians, blowing up mosques, and so on.” And I think General Petraeus has been sensible enough, intelligent enough, to see that these people are allies, so if the US enemy is al-Qaeda, it’s also the enemy of the Sunni Arabs. And so, they’re working together. And al-Qaeda is, I think, on the back foot.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And to what extent has the ceasefire of Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers affected the general level of violence in the country?

JONATHAN STEELE: I think that is the second reason. Yes, you’re right. There’s been a six-month ceasefire declared last August. It’s just been renewed. Muqtada al-Sadr renewed it for another six months.

And I think the third reason is that, putting it a little bit starkly, it’s actually become harder to kill people. What do I mean by that? It’s just that the mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad, you know, where Sunni and Shia used to live side-by-side without even worrying or caring or even knowing what sect their neighbor was, they’ve all broken down, because if you’re a minority Shia living in a Sunni area, you’ve now moved out, and vice versa. And so, you’ve got a kind of sectarian relocation that’s gone on. And, of course, that makes it harder if — for these sort of death squads to come in, because they’re now going to areas where people feel much better protected, because they’ve got their own people all around them and they’ve got their local sort of vigilante groups protecting them.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Steele, just as we’ve gone on the air, this is some of the news that’s come over. Chaldean Catholic archbishop kidnapped in Iraq last month has been found dead, according to Italian bishops’ conference news agency. Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was found dead in the Iraqi city of Mosul, where he had been abducted. The agency quoted the auxiliary bishop of Baghdad, Monsignor Shlemon Warduni, as saying, “The kidnappers had buried him.” Also, this news from Baghdad: a parked car bomb exploded in a commercial district, killing eleven people, wounding fifty-seven.

What do we need to know about what’s happening on the ground right now?

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I think it just reinforces how terrible and ghastly the situation is. I mean, the Christian minority is probably the worst affected of all. I mean, virtually every Christian now has moved to the north or out of the country, if they’ve not been killed. I mean, they’ve had a really bad time. But as you say, the car bombs are still going. And although the level of attacks did go down from about July last year, they’ve leveled off; it’s about the same level that it’s been since November. And, of course, we’ve had something like twelve, I think, US soldiers killed in the last four or five days. So it’s — you know, the US is still taking these enormous casualties.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you about the issue of the hearts and minds of the Iraqis, because it seems to me that in the first months of the war, obviously, there was a lot of euphoria in Washington and among the supporters of President Bush on how well the war went. But I never forget, remarking to some of my journalistic colleagues, as soon as the Abu Ghraib crisis broke, I said in my mind, this is over, in terms of like our ability to win over the Iraqi people was basically killed at that point and that it was only a question, from that point on, when were we going to leave the country, not who was going to win the war. But your sense of the — through your reporting, of how the Iraqi people regard the United States and the occupation?

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I think the war was lost even before Abu Ghraib. I think the war was lost when they decided to have this open-ended occupation of the country without giving any date for withdrawal. I mean, I talked to lots of Iraqis just before the invasion in Amman. It was actually much easier to talk to Iraqis outside the country, where they could speak freely, than in Baghdad. And I got the sense that people were very, very torn about whether they wanted this invasion. I mean, just to give one simple example, from a Sunni butcher who I talked to who was in Amman — he had fled from the Saddam regime five years before, and he said — talking about the invasion, he said, “I want it to happen, I don’t want it to happen. I want Saddam to go, but I don’t want my country to be invaded,” so that already this issue of “Is it a liberation? Is it an occupation?” was dominant.

And I think I and many other reporters in those very first few days and weeks of the invasion, after the Saddam statue was toppled, already heard people saying, “We are occupied. Why are the Americans now staying on? Why don’t they go? What’s the agenda. You know, they got rid of Saddam.” And naturally, there’s patriotic resentment, that anybody would have if they saw tanks in their street from a foreign country, developed and developed and developed and then turned into armed resistance eventually.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Steele, you had eight extended trips to Iraq. In one of them, you, yourself, were kidnapped. And you talk about, in the overall book, how that demonstrates — you came to understand what was happening in Iraq. Talk about that terrifying experience of your own and what bigger story we can get from that.

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I think that it was an experience that showed me you can’t do normal reporting in Iraq. I had gone down to Najaf to find out what exactly had happened there in terms of an agreement that was said to have been reached between the US and the Muqtada al-Sadr people.

AMY GOODMAN: When was it?

JONATHAN STEELE: This was in July 2004. And so I talked to the Muqtada al-Sadr people, first of all, near the shrine in the central part of Najaf. Then I went to two US bases.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you by yourself?

JONATHAN STEELE: I was with a translator and a driver, Iraqi translator and driver. I couldn’t get into the US bases. They wouldn’t let me in. I hadn’t got a prior appointment. So I came back into town, and we were suddenly in a very congested area, where the traffic was hardly moving at all. And suddenly, a man stepped out in front of the car in a long Arab jalabiya and pulled a pistol out of his pocket and forced his way into the car. And two other men appeared. The driver and the translator were told to get into the back, so these people then got into the front and took over the car. And we were driven off, and I thought, you know, this is it. This is the moment, you know, every foreigner — and many Iraqis also get kidnapped, you know — fear. And we drove out of town, and I thought, oh, we’re going to some kind of safe house, and who knows what will happen?

But then we — they made a U-turn and started to move back into town. And I felt some sort of sense of relief, I don’t know why. I thought, you know, if it’s a safe house where you’re going to be held and perhaps killed, it’s somewhere going to be in the countryside. As we got back into town, I thought this — there may be something else happening here. And we actually went into the center of Najaf again. And the driver pulled out some kind of weird ID and showed some of these Muqtada al-Sadr guards, who were guarding their own checkpoints, this paper. And I realized I was actually being kidnapped or arrested by the Muqtada al-Sadr people, who thought I must be some kind of agent, because I had tried to get into the US base.

And eventually, we were able to talk our way out of it by saying, “Look, you saw that we didn’t get into the US base. If I had been an agent, they would have let me in. Whoever told you that I had been to the base and was watching us must have seen that we didn’t actually get in.” And so, then I was able to say, you know, “Why don’t you get the young sheikh who I interviewed this morning about your position on the issues, and I’m sure he’ll vouch for me.” And eventually, that’s what happened. So after a couple of hours or so, I was released. So I can’t claim it was anything like as dramatic an incident as some of the others that people have been through, but it just — it was very scary. And it showed that you can’t talk to both sides anymore in Iraq — on the same day, at least. Normal reporting is impossible.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In terms of the British public opinion, clearly it’s been against the war for quite some time, but the impact of the war on Britain?

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I think the British public had a majority against the war right from the beginning. There was a huge march. Over a million people marched through London just a month or so before the war. And there was a little blip in favor of the invasion while the British troops were actually still fighting, but as soon as the thing ended and the Saddam regime was toppled, then once again a majority felt time was up and the war was finished and people should bring the British troops home. And I see that that’s pretty much the opinion in the American public, too, now. I noticed today there was a poll in USA Today and Gallup polls saying 60 percent of Americans want a timetable for withdrawal. And, of course, that’s quite different from the Bush administration’s position.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is your sense as you travel this country, as a foreign journalist now in the United States, coming out of Iraq? You’re in the midst of this presidential campaign. What do you see is the solution right now?

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I think that’s absolutely right. There has to be a timetable for withdrawal. And I think that would change the entire political dynamic in Iraq. I mean, once Iraqis realize that the Americans are on the way out, they would be able to concentrate on their own issues. And I hope that the forces for reintegration and for stability and for calm and for compromise would begin to gain strength over those that move towards disintegration. But the crucial thing, I think, is that — I’ve already said that al-Qaeda is on the back foot now, because the Sunni Arabs don’t like it and their behavior. And I think once the Americans are known to be leaving and there’s evidence that it’s not a trick — they really are beginning to pull out — al-Qaeda’s rationale, so-called rationale, for being in Iraq completely falls away. And I think it will be much easier for Iraqis to say, “Look, one, a lot of foreigners are going, the Americans, and now you, you foreign Jihadi, militants from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, you go, too. We don’t need you.”

AMY GOODMAN: We have —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, increasingly, the Bush administration is trying to point the finger at Iran as the next -— or as the looming threat and its meddling in Iraq. Your sense of this new strategy of the Bush administration?

JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I think they’re trying to blame everybody except themselves. First, there’s a tendency to blame the Iraqis: it’s all the Iraqis’ fault. You know, we toppled Saddam; why aren’t they grateful to us? Why aren’t they welcoming us? Why aren’t they — why are they attacking us? Then it becomes, you know, why can’t they get their act together? Why is their government so hopeless? And now they’re shifting the attention to Iran and saying it’s all Iran’s fault.

I mean, the fault is that the United States and Britain illegally invaded a country quite unnecessarily. And so, the rate of killing now — you mentioned these figures at the beginning — the rate of killing annually is higher than it was in the thirty years of the Saddam regime dictatorship. So people are living much more uncertain lives. More people have been killed on an annual basis during these last five years than under the thirty years of Saddam, so that people like Tony Blair and Bush, who say the great thing is we toppled Saddam — that is true, they did topple Saddam — but they have actually increased the rate of killing for Iraqis than that that Saddam was doing.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Jonathan Steele. His book is Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq.

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