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“Iraq Has Really Become Somalia…A Collection of Different Militias” — Back from Baghdad, Journalist Nir Rosen Paints a Picture of a Broken Iraq

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Independent journalist Nir Rosen joins us in our firehouse studio soon after returning from three months in Iraq, his latest visit since moving to Baghdad to cover the US invasion in 2003. “It’s been propagated by the right and accepted by the left in the US that the surge, which is really an escalation of troops […] by 30,000 soldiers, somehow brought peace to Iraq,” Rosen says. “This is just an absolute lie. Violence has subsided somewhat in Baghdad, that’s true, but it’s not the result of the increase in American troops directly. It’s the result of a few other factors.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryAug 21, 2007“Iraq Does Not Exist Anymore”: Journalist Nir Rosen on How the U.S. Invasion of Iraq Has Led to Ethnic Cleansing, a Worsening Refugee Crisis and the Destabilization of the Middle East
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Reports out of Iraq say relative calm has returned to most cities today, as fighters loyal to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have obeyed his call to stay off the streets. More than 450 people were reportedly killed since Iraqi forces launched an offensive against Sadr’s Mahdi Army late last month. President Bush hailed the crackdown as proof of US success in shoring up the Iraqi military to fight on its own. But reports on the ground indicate the US military still led most of the attacks.

My first guest today has spent extensive time covering the US occupation of Iraq. Nir Rosen has just returned from three months in Iraq, his latest since moving to Baghdad to cover the US invasion in 2003. Nir has written for publications including The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Time and Harper’s. His latest dispatch from Iraq, “The Myth of the Surge,” appeared last month in Rolling Stone magazine last month. He is author of the book In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq, which comes out this month in a second edition. Nir Rosen joins us in our studio.


NIR ROSEN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: “The Myth of the Surge” — why is it a myth?

NIR ROSEN: Well, it’s been propagated by the right and accepted by the left in the US that the surge, which is really an escalation of troops — “surge” is just a euphemism — the escalation of troops by 30,000 soldiers, somehow brought peace to Iraq. And this is just an absolute lie. Violence has subsided somewhat in Baghdad, that’s true, but it’s not the result of the increase in American troops directly. It’s the result of a few other factors.

First of all, the violence in Iraq was always goal-oriented, it was logical: remove Sunnis from Shia areas, remove Shias from Sunni areas. That’s been virtually completed. There are almost no Sunnis left in Baghdad, a few pockets and that’s it. And likewise, Shias in Sunni areas have been removed. And militias and warlords have consolidated their control over various fiefdoms in Baghdad and elsewhere. So that’s one reason, that there’s less people to kill. The violence is down because you have less people to kill. It wasn’t going to last forever, although it’s still extremely violent in Iraq. And when I was there, quite a few times, there were dead bodies in front of my house, a guy shot in the head in front of my house. So it’s not exactly a peaceful place.

And then, there are two other factors for why the violence went down, what we can call the Sunni and Shia ceasefire. The Mahdi Army, Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, basically imposed a freeze, which has been mistranslated as a ceasefire, in late August 2007. And this coincided exactly with a dramatic decrease in violence, which shows just how responsible they were for much of the violence. And the reason why they imposed a ceasefire is because they realized that they were basically the main target for the increase in American troops. The Americans were going to go after them. So you might as well declare a freeze. They said they were going to reform themselves. They had got a bad reputation, because they were implicated in sectarian killings. Some of their guys were out of control. So they’re going to lie low and wait the Americans out.

Likewise, the Sunnis imposed a ceasefire, in a way. You had Sunni militias who were fighting the occupation. They were fighting al-Qaeda, because while al-Qaeda had initially come to many Sunni areas to protect them from the Americans and the Shias, they soon got out of control, and even Sunnis were feeling like they were living under a reign of terror by these radicals. They were undermining traditional Sunni authorities. They were disrupting smuggling routes. They were killing Sunnis, as well. So Sunnis were fighting the Americans, they were fighting al-Qaeda, and they were fighting the Shia militias, and they were really losing on every front. They had not succeeded in overthrowing the American occupation and seizing power in Iraq. They had been removed from Baghdad. The majority of the refugees outside of Iraq were Sunni. So they had lost.

And beginning in 2006, you saw them being much more introspective, resistance leaders in Baghdad and Syria and Jordan: “We’ve lost. What do we do now?” And they first went after al-Qaeda in many areas, with the backing of the Americans. This is a great deal for them. They lost, and here they are, now the Americans are off their back, and they now control territory. They’re called the Awakening groups, in many cases, but the Americans have called them various euphemisms: Sons of Iraq, Concerned Local Citizens, Critical Infrastructure Security, Iraqi security volunteers — basically former members of the resistance, what the Americans call “insurgents,” who have decided temporarily for a hudna, or a ceasefire, with the Americans to focus on their real enemy, the Iranians. And when they say Iranians, they mean all the Shias. When you talk to them, they say there are two occupations of Iraq: the American occupation and the Iranian occupation. To them, all Shias are basically Iranian fifth columnists, and they view the Iraqi government, to the extent that it exists, various Shia militias, as Iranians, who are going to fight them first, because the Americans are going to leave eventually.

So you have this two — the Shia and Sunni ceasefire and the decline in people to kill, the consolidation of control that we saw with various warlords and militiamen throughout Baghdad. Each neighborhood is walled off. You have a warlord or militiaman in charge of it, which actually makes things easier as a journalist, because there’s a guy you can go to to get a security guarantee. It also makes things easier for aid organizations like the Red Cross. They can now function as they do in Somalia, because Iraq has really become Somalia: different warlords controlling different areas.

Talk of the government is just absurd. There is no government in Iraq. It’s a collection of different militias, who, as we see, even fight among themselves. And we see in the recent Shia-on-Shia fighting, it’s not the government against the Mahdi Army; it’s one Shia militia, the Badr Organization that belongs to the Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council — sorry, Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council — it has different names — and Dawa, so basically the pro-American Shia militias backed by the Americans fighting the largest Shia movement in Iraq, the Sadrist movement, for control over turf, over resources, and of course over the control of the population in the upcoming elections, which may or may not happen.

And in fact, perhaps we can see it as a positive development, in a way, because this basically means the end of a Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq. There’s no more Shia bloc that can fight the Sunnis. In 2006, 2007, you saw Badr and the Mahdi Army collaborating to expel and kill Sunnis in Baghdad. And now that’s over. So now we might see cross-sectarian alliances between Sunni militias and the Mahdi Army fighting the pro-American Shia militias, like Badr or like Dawa.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the money the US is putting into, well, groups like the so-called — well, one of its names — the Awakening?

NIR ROSEN: Well, the Americans like to think that the reason why the Sunni militiamen, the Sunni resistance, has stopped fighting them is because they’re paying them, because from the American point of view, it was always about money. They never understood the importance of ideology or of occupation or of resistance. So, to them, people join the resistance because they needed a job and the resistance paid you, which is just absolutely ridiculous. I met with many of these people. Nobody joined the resistance for money. They joined because they believed there was an occupation that was threatening their lives or their country or their religion, or they didn’t like the way the new government looked, so they joined the resistance to fight the American occupation, not for money.

And now they joined these Awakening groups, again, not for money, but because they have another interest: “We’re not going to fight the Americans now, we’re going to fight the Iranians. Let’s get the Americans off of our back.” In a way, the Sunnis have actually bought the Americans, because now they control territory. The same militiamen who were killing of Shias, who were blowing up Americans just a few months ago, who were on the run, now control territory inside Baghdad and elsewhere, and it’s become safe for Sunnis to go the those areas, not only Sunnis from those areas, but even Sunnis who have fled Shia militias in other places can now go there. So you have safe Sunni territories. From there, different Sunni groups can join. They can establish a political movement, which they’re trying to do, and eventually try to retake Baghdad or at least re-fight the civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Nir Rosen. He is just back from Baghdad. What about what happened in Basra, a major defeat for Maliki — in fact, some rumors of him being replaced?

NIR ROSEN: There have been rumors of him being replaced for a while. You had a period where Democratic senators were pushing for his replacement. I don’t think he’s going to be replaced, because there’s no replacement, but that doesn’t really matter, because whoever’s in charge inside the Green Zone makes no difference. People in the Green Zone have never had an impact outside of the Green Zone. Maliki doesn’t have his own militia anyway, so he’s not exactly a very powerful individual, which is why he was chosen.

And the Americans deliberately engineered the position of the prime minister of Iraq to be very weak. He has been discredited a little bit from this, because he said that the Mahdi Army is worse than al-Qaeda, we’re never going to negotiate, we’re going to fight to the end. Then Muqtada al-Sadr tells his people to back off. Suddenly everything is OK again, and the fighting is over. So he comes across as a bit of a charlatan.

He also came across — or at least the idea of Iraqi Security Forces was proven to be also sort of a joke, because many of them defected. It’s well known that the Iraqi police, national police, are infiltrated or dominated by Mahdi Army supporters. But much of the Iraqi army is, too. So you saw the units of the Iraqi army, who are fighting the Mahdi Army, were recruited in the south, and many of them were loyal to the Supreme Council and to Badr. So nobody is loyal to the Iraqi state here. But what we also saw was that were it not for the American military, the Iraqi Security Forces would have lost completely. I mean, the Americans were their armor, the Americans were their air force. And if it wasn’t for that, then the Mahdi Army would have had no reason to call off its fighters.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Nir Rosen. We’ll be back with him in a minute. His book that’s coming out next month, The Triumph of the Martyrs: A Reporter’s Journey into Occupied Iraq. His latest piece in Rolling Stone, “The Myth of the Surge.” Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest, Nir Rosen, his book is coming out next month, The Triumph of the Martyrs. He’s just back from Baghdad. As we turn now, with the crackdown on the Mahdi Army last week came increasing reports of US air strikes killing Iraqi civilians. These are the voices of Iraqis following three recent US attacks in Hilla, Tikrit and Baghdad.

    HILLA RESIDENT: What is the reason behind attacking us? We did not fight them or attack a police center or military base. We did not threaten anyone or participate in demonstrations. No military actions in our area.

    TIKRIT RESIDENT: Those are five members from my family whom I should recognize. It was so hard for me to recognize them, as the bodies were charred. This is the American democracy. This is the human rights that Bush has called for.

    BAGHDAD RESIDENT: We condemn the US forces. They raided houses at midnight, exploding doors of houses and roofs, houses of peaceful families. They raided them for the sake of nothing, arresting women. They are believers in democracy, as they say, so why did they do this?

AMY GOODMAN: Nir Rosen, your response?

NIR ROSEN: It’s just mind-boggling. Five years after a war we call a war of liberation, which was, we were told, to liberate the Shias, we’re bombing Shias. We’re bombing Shia areas throughout Iraq, killing Shia civilians. I mean, clearly it’s been a complete catastrophe. And the US continues to kill Iraqi civilians. There’s this idea now that the Americans are just sort of beat cops patrolling Iraq’s streets, separating the two sides. That’s not true. Every day, they’re killing Iraqi civilians. They hold 24,000 Iraqi civilians in American prisons, at least 24,000. They haven’t been charged with any crime or found guilty of any crime. They can be held for years. They’re not handed over to the Iraqi authorities, which actually is a good thing, because they’d be treated much worse in an Iraqi prison. They detain juveniles. They raid houses and break down doors, drag the men out. It’s really still a very oppressive occupation. And a foreign occupation is a systematic imposition of violence on an entire nation. The occupation is not over.

AMY GOODMAN: The role of Iran in Iraq?

NIR ROSEN: It’s been greatly exaggerated by both the Americans and by Iraq’s Sunnis. I’ve never seen evidence of a negative role for Iran in Iraq, certainly less negative than the American occupiers. Iran, obviously, is quite happy that its Shia proxies — Supreme Council, Dawa and others — are in the government. So it’s definitely not trying to overthrow the Iraqi government, as it’s been accused. But I don’t view it as being a major backer of the militias, the Shia militias. I think certainly the Americans are more significant backers of the Shia militias, because they’ve always been in alliance with the Supreme Council, whose Badr militia is one of the main actors in the Iraqi Security Forces.

And Sunnis, throughout the Arab world, like to accuse all Shias of being Iranians, so in Lebanon, where I live, you hear Sunnis saying Hezbollah are Iranian agents. You hear President Mubarak of Egypt calling Shias fifth columnists for Iran. You hear King Abdullah of Jordan talking about a Shia Crescent and also promoting these conspiracy theories about Iranians trying to take over the Sunni world.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the presidential candidates and the Iraq occupation. Speaking on the fifth anniversary of the invasion, Senator Clinton seemed to sum up the view of the Democratic leadership, that Iraqis should take responsibility for themselves now that the US has given them what she called, quote, “the precious gift of freedom.”

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: I have been outlining plans as to what we can and must do to begin bringing our sons and daughters home. I am convinced that we can start within sixty days and do it in a responsible and careful manner, recognizing that the Iraqi government has to take responsibility for its own future, that we have given them the precious gift of freedom, and it is up to them to decide whether or not they will use it. But we cannot win their civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: Hillary Clinton, Senator Barack Obama and John McCain — you’ve been in Baghdad. Have you been following? And what have you observed?

NIR ROSEN: I haven’t seen the “precious gift of freedom” in Iraq. I mean, she’s just utterly contemptible. The Democrats in general are, because they’ve been blaming the Iraqis. I mean, we know that the Republicans are despicable, that this is their war, but the Democrats have also been blaming the Iraqis: “The Iraqis have to choose freedom. The Iraqis have to step up to the plate.”

The Iraqis were demonstrating for elections in April 2003. I was there, and many other journalists saw this, as well. We denied them freedom. We denied them sovereignty. We denied them their own government. We imposed a series of dictators on them: Garner, Bremer, Allawi. We created a civil war in Iraq, or at least we caused it. Iraq, a country that had never experienced a civil war, we did that to them. This isn’t like Rwanda, where we can just say these Hutus and Tutsis were killing each other, we had nothing to do with it. We did this to Iraq.

“Precious gift of freedom” — there’s freedom to kill whoever you want, there’s freedom for militias. The Americans certainly aren’t agents of freedom in Iraq. They’ve arrested tens of thousands of Iraqis. They’ve killed thousands of Iraqis. They’ve empowered militias in Iraq. There’s no Iraqi government. When she says that the Iraqi government has to step up, there is no Iraqi state. It provides no services. You have various militias in charge of various ministries. They’re weak. No electricity, no power, no security, no health services. It’s a failed state. It’s Somalia, with different militias controlling different areas.

AMY GOODMAN: Nir Rosen, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us, freelance journalist, fellow at New York University’s Center for Law and Security. His new book, well, it’s coming out in a second edition, The Triumph of the Martyrs: A Reporter’s Journey into Occupied Iraq. His latest article is “The Myth of the Surge” in last month’s Rolling Stone magazine.

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