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As U.S. Rushes Weapons to Iraq, New Assault on Fallujah Threatens Explosion of Sectarian Conflict

StoryJanuary 09, 2014
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Iraqi forces have surrounded Fallujah in preparation for a potential assault to retake the city from Sunni militants who have also seized parts of Ramadi. Thousands of Fallujah residents have fled to avoid being trapped in the crossfire. This comes as the United States is ramping up its delivery of Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones as part of a “holistic” strategy to oust the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. We speak to two guests: Feurat Alani, a French-Iraqi journalist who was based in Baghdad from 2003 to 2008 and has made several documentaries, including “Roadtrip Iraq” and “Fallujah: A Lost Generation?”; and Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran who served in Iraq and later wrote a book critical of U.S. policy there, titled “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” Van Buren faced dismissal after criticizing U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the increasingly violent situation in Iraq. At least 13 people have been killed and another 30 wounded in a suicide attack on a police station in Baghdad. The bombing comes as the Iraqi government is preparing for an offensive to retake the city of Fallujah from Sunni militants. Fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant seized parts of Fallujah as well as Ramadi last week. The Iraqi Red Crescent says over 13,000 families have fled Fallujah to escape the violence in the past few days. The United Nations is warning that Anbar province faces a critical humanitarian situation, with 250 people killed already this month. This is Fallujah resident Khaled Mohssen.

KHALED MOHSSEN: [translated] We are families fleeing from Fallujah, which is undergoing military operations due to the presence of militants that are unwelcome in the city. There was random shelling against houses in the city, so we were scared for our families and left the city.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, the United States is ramping up its delivery of military equipment to help Iraq battle militants who have overrun parts of Anbar province, including the city of Fallujah. This is White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: We’re accelerating our foreign military sales, deliveries, and are looking to provide an additional shipment of Hellfire missiles as early as this spring. These missiles are one small element of that holistic—excuse me—strategy, but they been proven effective at denying ISIL the safe haven zones that it has sought to establish in western Iraq.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

Well, for more, we’re joined now via Democracy Now! video stream by Feurat Alani. He’s a French-Iraqi journalist who was based in Baghdad during the war from 2003 to 2008. He has returned twice a year since then and made several documentaries, including Roadtrip Iraq and Fallujah: A Lost Generation? He recently wrote a piece for Le Monde calling Syria’s conflict—called “Syria’s Conflict Spreads to Iraq: Violence and Power Struggles.”

AMY GOODMAN: And in Washington, we’re joined by Peter Van Buren, 24-year veteran of the U.S. State Department, who served in Iraq, later wrote a book critical of U.S. policy called We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. And he was later forced out of the State Department.

We want to welcome you both to Democracy Now! Feurat Alani, I want to start with you. You begin one of your latest pieces, “Violence and Power Struggles,” by writing, “How do you stop a suicide bomber?” And that’s exactly what happened in Baghdad today, yet another suicide bombing. Can you talk about the situation there, and particularly in Fallujah?

FEURAT ALANI: Yes. Thank you for inviting me. You know, I just talked today to many friends in Fallujah, and the situation today was not like yesterday. It’s moving. The market in the center of Fallujah has reopened. And, you know, people in Fallujah are used to be ostracized, like since 2004, so it’s usual for them to live under the violence. So they’re trying to live. And some—a lot of families fled to other part of Iraq, in Baghdad and other provinces. But the situation is very tense, and people of Fallujah doesn’t know what is going on and what’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe Fallujah for us right now? And exactly what is the dynamic that’s happening when news reports around the world say al-Qaeda-linked forces have taken over?

FEURAT ALANI: Yes, I would like to be precise and clear about it. When you talk to Fallujah people, they reject the idea that al-Qaeda is taking control of Fallujah. They almost saying that it’s false. People who are controlling Fallujah are member of tribes and normal inhabitants. We have to remind that one year ago demonstrations started in the Dignity Square, showing anger against the policy of the government, of the Iraqi government. And so, when the prime minister, Maliki, started to arrest Sunni politicians, anger increased in Fallujah. And what we are facing today is not a battlefield between al-Qaeda and the army. It’s a battle—it’s a political battlefield. It’s anger expressed many years ago by Fallujahn people who are tired and angry, and they just want to be recognized as Iraqis.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Peter Van Buren, you’re a State Department veteran. I’d like to bring you into the discussion and talk about—you know, President Obama has repeatedly said, since United States troops pulled out, that he ended the war in Iraq; however, we know that what has exactly happened is that it’s just gone off the front pages of our newspapers, but the war has continued. What happened after U.S. troops left to create the situation that exists now?

PETER VAN BUREN: What happened was very similar to what the gentleman before me was talking about. It’s back to the future. The core issues that led to instability in Iraq, that started in 2003, were never resolved by the United States over nine years of occupation—primarily, the need to create a unity government. The United States stood aside as the Kurds de facto created a new nation. The United States stood aside as the Sunni-Shia rift—and of course we’re using those terms very broadly—developed. Almost within days of the U.S. troop withdrawal, Prime Minister Maliki sought to have his Sunni vice president arrested. The vice president fled and is believed to be in Turkey. Maliki has continued his persecutions and prosecutions against the Sunnis, and now has resorted to open warfare in Fallujah in attempt to tame them, to marginalize them and to maintain his Shia control of power.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the U.S. sending military aid to the Iraqi government?

PETER VAN BUREN: During nine years of war and occupation, the U.S. expended a tremendous number of Hellfire missiles and other weaponry. None of that was effective against either side—Sunni, Shia, or perhaps third-party foreign fighters. This is not a war that can be won like a game of chess. There’s not lines on the ground where one force is on one side trying to capture territory on the other side. This remains a war to settle political, ethnic, social and other types of differences. It’s an insurgency. And any attempts to blast your way out of this problem will end, for the Maliki government, exactly as they ended for the American government: ineffectual and nothing more than a stage for the next round of violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Feurat Alani, what has to happen, do you believe? And what about that same issue of U.S. re-arming the Iraqi regime?

FEURAT ALANI: I think this is a very bad news. You know, I made a documentary about Fallujah three years ago about the consequences on the health in the city of Fallujah by the use of U.S. weapons like white phosphorus, depleted uranium and Hellfire missile. We call it—this technology is called thermobaric weapon. It’s very bad. And now, today—even today in Fallujah, the hospitals faces birth defects, deformed babies and cancer rising in the city. And even scientists say that it’s worse than Hiroshima, because of the U.S. weapons that were used in the battle of Fallujah in 2004. So, as—I totally agree with what was said by the gentleman before me. This is not a solution. This is—this has to be solved by a political view, and we have—I mean, the Iraqi government has to stop the marginalization of Sunnis in Anbar.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Feurat Alani, what are—there have been news reports that Iran and the United States are now, inconceivably, talking about finding ways to ally with the Maliki government to prevent the continued rise of the opposition forces in the Sunni areas of Iraq. What’s your response to that?

FEURAT ALANI: Well, the tribes are divided in Iraq. A part of them are collaborating with the Iraqi army. And one famous leader of those tribe is Ahmed Abu Risha. He’s one of the—he’s the brother of one tribe leader who created the Sahwat the Awakening militia, made up of members of Sunni tribes who allied themselves with the U.S. to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. And this was a strategy to expel the people of al-Qaeda. But today, as I said before, many people of Fallujah said they’ve never seen any member of al-Qaeda in Fallujah. So, I think this is part of the government’s policy to divide the Sunnis in number. And this is a main problem today, because we face member of tribes who are struggling against the Iraqi army and other tribes who are struggling against al-Qaeda. So it makes the situation very confused, and it’s very difficult now to know what will happen in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, and we are going to continue our conversation with Feurat Alani in a post-show that we will post online to talk about the documentary he did specifically in Fallujah and the effects of what the U.S. did there have on what is happening there today. Feurat Alani is a French-Iraqi journalist who is based in Baghdad. We’re speaking to him in Dubai. He was based there from 2003 to 2008, has returned twice a year since then and made several documentaries. And thank you so much to our guest in Washington, D.C., Peter Van Buren, 24-year veteran of the U.S. State Department, who served in Iraq and wrote the book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

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