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“We Didn’t Create a Paradise in Iraq; We Created a Hell”–Independent Journalist Nir Rosen on 6th Anniversary of US Overthrow of Saddam Hussein

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As tens of thousands of Iraqis rally in Baghdad to mark the sixth anniversary of the fall of the city to US troops, we speak to independent journalist Nir Rosen, who is just back from Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: Tens of thousands of Iraqis staged a rally in Baghdad today to mark the sixth anniversary of the fall of the city to US troops. The rally was called by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The crowd burned an effigy of George W. Bush as it hung from a pillar where Saddam Hussein’s statue once stood in Firdos Square.

Speakers urged President Obama to withdraw all US troops from Iraq immediately. Obama, who flew into Baghdad on an unannounced visit on Tuesday, has ordered US combat troops to depart Iraq by the end of August 2010, leaving a residual force of up to 50,000 trainers, advisers and logistics personnel.

On Tuesday, Obama addressed troops at Camp Victory, a US base near the Baghdad airport.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is going to be a critical period, these next eighteen months. I was just discussing this with your commander, but I think it’s something that all of you know. It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. They need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Obama did not travel beyond the US military base. Time magazine wrote, quote, “In style, substance and photo ops, Obama’s unannounced stopover in Baghdad was straight out of the Bush playbook.” His visit came as nearly forty people were killed in a series of bombings around Baghdad. The Guardian newspaper of London wrote, quote, “The wave of attacks [were] the largest number of bombs in one day in almost two years.”

For more, we are joined by independent journalist Nir Rosen, who is just back from Iraq. He has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. He is a fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security, as well as the New America Foundation. He joins us here in our firehouse studio in New York.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Nir.

NIR ROSEN: Thank you.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, tell us — you spent quite a bit of time over the last six years in Iraq — the changes that you have seen that you’ve been writing about recently.

NIR ROSEN: Well, certainly in terms of people’s personal safety in Baghdad, life is better. There are conspicuous displays of wealth that you wouldn’t have seen before, such as people driving expensive cars, those few who have money, because they’re not worried as much about kidnapping for ransom. You see girls going to university dressed in less conservative clothes, clearly a sign they’re not worried about extremist attacks. Liquor shops opened, again a sign that at least religious militias are less active. So people aren’t worried about the random chaotic violence as much as we used to see before, a couple of years ago, when you could be killed for any reason on the street, and every day there would be a hundred, 200 corpses on the street.

But Baghdad remains a heavily, heavily militarized city. Every block, there are police checkpoints, army checkpoints. The Iraqi army and the Iraqi security forces, for them, torture is routine and systematic. If you’re going to be arrested, you’re going to be tortured. Regardless of whether you’re guilty or innocent, if you pay money, you will be released. I have friends who are — I have a former Iraqi police captain that was a friend of mine who targeted Shia militias, and he was framed for a crime and arrested, and they demanded $20,000 for his release. He paid $7,000 and got out.

But I think despite the fact that certainly the random criminal violence and militia violence has subsided somewhat, although we do ignore how bad the violence is still, the clearest sign that life is not good yet, that security is not good yet, is the fact that the majority of the millions of displaced Iraqi refugees and internally displaced Iraqis have not yet returned to their homes and do not plan on returning to their homes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And there’s supposed to be a new report coming out on the displacement in Iraq. Could you talk about that?

NIR ROSEN: Well, today, Refugees International, the advocacy group in Washington, is going to release a report about the current status of displaced Iraqis both inside and outside Iraq. They’ve been researching the subject for the last few years, and I’ve been consulting on that subject for them.

I visited numerous neighborhoods in Baghdad and elsewhere, in Fallujah, Karbala, Hilla. And you have these vast wastelands, basically huge piles of sewage and garbage, where tens of thousands of Iraqis live in shacks and hovels, squatting in bomb shelters. They receive no help from the government, from the UN, from the US. They’re unknown. They worry that if they call attention to themselves, that they’ll be forced to leave. The government, of course, doesn’t want to help them, in a way, because they feel if they provide them assistance, they might get comfortable where they are, and the Iraqi government is trying to encourage, if not force, the displaced Iraqis to go back to their homes, so they can say the refugee file is closed, life in Baghdad is OK.

I saw in southern Baghdad, on basically a vast pile of mud and sewage, a man had built a home entirely out of air conditioners. He piled air conditioners three high and built walls and threw on a tarp over it, and that was his home. It’s almost impossible to breathe when you visit many of these people, because the stench of the sewage and garbage is so strong. They have little access to healthcare, to schools. Their life is really miserable and desperate. The most remarkable is that they have not become more politicized, and the militias have not yet taken advantage of these poor, desperate people who have been ignored by everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: Nir, it’s good to join you here from Raleigh, North Carolina. But I wanted to ask you about the metrics that are used to determine progress in Iraq, and also if you can talk about the state of the Iraqi police and military.

NIR ROSEN: Well, from — it depends whose point of view you’re going by. Certainly, from an American point of view, one of the key metrics was the deaths of American soldiers, and that has dramatically been reduced, in part because even during the civil war the Americans were no longer the primary enemy. Iraqis were fighting each other. Now, of course, even Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence is significantly reduced. The Mahdi Army had a freeze, a ceasefire, and since then they’ve been continuously suppressed, at least the more rogue elements, by both the Americans and the Iraqi government. Sunni militias were really crushed, Sunni populations mostly displaced. And those remaining Sunni militias, many of them decided to switch sides, get on the American payroll, to survive.

So, in terms of violence, it is down compared to 2005, 2006, but not compared to 2003, 2002. It’s important to remember that. We didn’t create a paradise in Iraq; we created a hell. And now, maybe it’s gone down from the seventh rung of hell to the second rung of hell. It’s still pretty bad for most Iraqis, in terms of water, electricity. There are still explosions. There are now — Prime Minister Maliki is creating kind of his own Republican Guard, an extralegal group of elite, thousands of soldiers. They act with impunity, above the law. And American soldiers, of course, continue doing operations, as well, and innocent people, innocent Iraqis, do get killed on these raids. And every death is too much.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Obama’s comment, as he flew in unexpectedly, at least for most people — didn’t realize he’d be making this surprise trip after Turkey — saying to the troops, “You’ve given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country.” Did President Bush’s surge work in Iraq?

NIR ROSEN: Well, it’s complicated. The short answer is no, in that little political progress was made. Violence is down. It’s contentious whether that reduction of violence is mostly due to a shift in the American posture, in the way they acted, protecting the security of the population more, focusing on neighborhoods. That was definitely a factor.

But I think the primary factor was internal Iraqi dynamics. The Iraqi security forces, dominated by Shia militias, acting as Shia militias became very strong, the Sunnis were defeated. The expulsion of Sunnis from Baghdad and its environs was nearly complete. So these Sunni militias basically had no sea in which to swim in, if you will, and they ended up kind of swimming for peace. I think that’s one of the most important factors, the defeat of the Sunnis, the creation of the Awakening groups, which, of course, the Americans took advantage of astutely. And there’s the Mahdi Army ceasefire, and Shia militias realized that they had extended themselves too far. They were going to get smacked down by the American military, as well. But they had achieved their goals. They had soundly defeated the Sunnis.

Iraq is now Shia state. You feel that in police stations, in ministries, where there are Shia religious posters. You see that even on the concrete walls that protect the Baghdad council. There’s a huge mural of Shia pilgrims going down to Karbala on the pilgrimage. It is not an aggressive sectarianism, but it’s a clear sign this is a confident Shia state, and Sunnis have now kind of been forced to accept their position as a minority, which it took this brutal violence to sort of force them to recognize.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Nir, I’d like to ask you — you’ve also spent time in Afghanistan, the other major conflict area for the United States in the region. Your sense of how US involvement is going there and what the — obviously, President Obama is expanding it — and what the prospects are for the US occupation there?

NIR ROSEN: It’s certainly a very long-term approach they’re taking — ten, fifteen years down the line. And the most successful — the best case scenario for them is Afghanistan will end up looking somewhat like Chad, after billions of dollars being spent, thousands of lives being lost, and very little progress to show, I think.

Certainly, there is a different approach. They’ve — in the Obama administration, and they’ve brought some of the wiser people in the military and civilian society to the administration to focus on this. I’m skeptical that it can succeed. I’m even skeptical that there’s a reason why the US should be in Afghanistan. I don’t think that al-Qaeda is a very significant threat. I think there are more important things to worry about. And certainly, I think a better way to protect the US from al-Qaeda is not by occupying Afghanistan and bombing Pakistan, which only creates more enemies, but perhaps continuing to focus on police activity, on preventative measures, on the borders in Europe, in the US. Every time you kill a Pakistani or an Afghan, you are creating new members of the Taliban.

There are differences, of course. The international presence in Afghanistan is far more popular than it ever was in Iraq. But Afghanistan is a much more difficult terrain. There are not enough troops. There are no roads, practically. It’s like operating in an environment of 100,000 years ago. And until now, they’re — unlike in Iraq, where the surge actually happened to coincide at a time when Iraqi dynamics had shifted, when the violence had almost burned itself out, in a way, and the US could almost piggyback on that and then claim success for the surge, things in Afghanistan are continuing to get worse and worse. The countryside is in the hands of the Taliban.

But Obama has certainly reduced his expectations, being very clear that this is — the main goal is mainly to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda, and in a way focusing more on Pakistan, realizing there isn’t really much you can do. Pakistan is the main problem, after all. You could turn Afghanistan into Sweden, theoretically, after a thousand years, but Pakistan remains the main danger from an American point of view. Of course, nuclear weapons. It’s the base for whatever al-Qaeda elements remain, a base for Taliban. It antagonizes India. And it seems like a really insoluble problem, especially when the Pakistani security forces themselves are implicated in these attacks. And we see the attacks shifting not only from the tribal areas, but even in Punjab. You had two attacks in Lahore. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be easy.

AMY GOODMAN: Nir Rosen, what do you think is driving President Obama to expand the war, when allies around the Western world, NATO, are pulling out, like Canada, for example? I mean, President Obama himself, some might argue he’s president because he opposed the war in Iraq, and that was the main difference between him and Clinton and, of course, McCain. Yet he’s expanding in Afghanistan.

NIR ROSEN: Well, Democrats certainly objected to the war in Iraq, in part, because it shifted attention away from the needs of Afghanistan, and perhaps you wouldn’t be in a situation in Afghanistan today had proper attention, in terms of aid and civilian development, been given to Afghanistan early on. And, of course, there are issues of American prestige: can an empire like the US withdraw from a country in seeming defeat?

But I think Obama’s administration is dominated by proponents of population-centered counterinsurgency, people who believe a surge in Iraq did succeed, people who believe that they can do this. These are very smart people, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps a little too smart, very confident in their ability to succeed in Afghanistan, from what I’ve seen, if they only pour enough troops, focus on protecting the population. I mean, the Taliban, of course, are not really popular in Afghanistan. It’s just that the government is really hated, as well.

I’ve even spoken to some proponents of Obama’s policies who view this as a morally necessary approach, which is rare to hear these days, the introduction of morality into this, in part. These are people who throw acid in the faces of schoolgirls on their way to school, things like that. I was told yesterday by somebody close to the administration on this, this is kind of like the perfect confluence of American national security interest, in preventing al-Qaeda from having a safe haven, and American moral obligations, preventing the sorts of people who throw acid in the faces of girls going to school from seizing power in a country.

There’s a real sense that we did this surge in Iraq, we succeeded, we understand what was wrong with the US military approach before, and we can succeed in Afghanistan. I remain skeptical, based on my own time there, that the military can do this. But it’s certainly very different from Iraq.

It’s important to say that Afghan civilians continue to die in large numbers at the hands of Americans, of course at the hands of the Taliban, as well. But I think that whenever the — it’s more important to address perhaps the root causes of all this. Al-Qaeda isn’t a group that just was born one day and people decided they want to kill Americans. I think the road to peace in Afghanistan, like the road to better relations with all Muslims, is through Palestine. And if something is done to create the impression that the US is maybe a more fair actor in Palestine, then one of the main grievances, one of the main reasons people have for attacking the US or for resenting the US, will be removed.

AMY GOODMAN: Nir Rosen, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Nir Rosen is a fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security, as well as the New America Foundation, just back from Iraq and, before that, Afghanistan. His book is called In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq.

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