TONY JONES: Well, Robert Fisk is one of the most experienced observers of the Middle East and in his latest book, ‘The Great War for Civilisation – the Conquest of the Middle East’, he draws on almost 30 years of reporting from his base in Lebanon to look at the forces which have shaped current events and conflicts Robert Fisk, thanks for being there.
ROBERT FISK, WRITER & JOURNALIST: You’re welcome.
TONY JONES: Now, unless you’ve changed your position in recent days, the one thing that you and President Bush agree on is there’s not going to be a civil war in Iraq.
ROBERT FISK: Yeah, I listened to Bush. It made me doubt myself when I heard him say that. I still go along and say what I said before – Iraq is not a sectarian society, but a tribal society. People are intermarried. Shiites and Sunnis marry each other. It’s not a question of having a huge block of people here called Shiites and a huge block of people called Sunnis any more than you can do the same with the United States, saying Blacks are here and Protestants are here and so on. But certainly, somebody at the moment is trying to provoke a civil war in Iraq. Someone wants a civil war. Some form of militias and death squads want a civil war. There never has been a civil war in Iraq. The real question I ask myself is: who are these people who are trying to provoke the civil war? Now the Americans will say it’s Al Qaeda, it’s the Sunni insurgents. It is the death squads. Many of the death squads work for the Ministry of Interior. Who runs the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad? Who pays the Ministry of the Interior? Who pays the militia men who make up the death squads? We do, the occupation authorities. I’d like to know what the Americans are doing to get at the people who are trying to provoke the civil war. It seems to me not very much. We don’t hear of any suicide bombers being stopped before they blow themselves up. We don’t hear of anybody stopping a mosque getting blown up. We’re not hearing of death squads all being arrested. Something is going very, very wrong in Baghdad. Something is going wrong with the Administration. Mr Bush says, “Oh, yes, sure, I talk to the Shiites and I talk to the Sunnis.” He’s talking to a small bunch of people living behind American machine guns inside the so-called Green Zone, the former Republican palace of Saddam Hussein, which is surrounded by massive concrete walls like a crusader castle. These people do not and cannot even leave this crusader castle. If they want to leave to the airport, they’re helicoptered to the airport. They can’t even travel on the airport road. What we’ve got at the moment is a little nexus of people all of whom live under American protection and talk on the telephone to George W Bush who says, “I’ve been talking to them and they have to choose between chaos and unity.” These people can’t even control the roads 50 metres from the Green Zone in which they work.
TONY JONES: OK.
ROBERT FISK: There’s total chaos now in Iraq.
TONY JONES: Let’s go back, if we can, to start answering that question about who wants civil war. Back one week to the bombing of the golden shrine in Samarra. Now, most people do think the only people with reasons for doing that would be the Al Qaeda in Iraq group led by al-Zarqawi. You don’t agree?
ROBERT FISK: Well, I don’t know if al-Zarqawi is alive. You know, al-Zarqawi did exist before the American Anglo-American invasion. He was up in the Kurdish area, which was not actually properly controlled by Saddam. But after that he seems to have disappeared. We know there’s an identity card that pops up. We know the Americans say we think we’ve recognised him on a videotape. Who recognises him on a videotape? How many Americans have ever met al-Zarqawi? Al-Zarqawi’s mother died more than 12 months ago and he didn’t even send commiserations or say “I’m sorry to hear that”. His wife of whom he was very possessive is so poor she has to go out and work in the family town of Zarqa. Hence the name Zarqawi. I don’t know if al-Zarqawi is alive or exists at the moment. I don’t know if he isn’t a sort of creature invented in order to fill in the narrative gaps, so to speak. What is going on in Iraq at the moment is extremely mysterious. I go to Iraq and I can’t crack this story at the moment. Some of my colleagues are still trying to, but can’t do it. It’s not as simple as it looks. I don’t believe we’ve got all these raving lunatics wandering around blowing up mosques. There’s much more to this than meets the eye. All of these death squads that move around are part of the security forces. In some cases they are Shiite security forces or clearly Sunni security forces. When the Iraqi army go into Sunni cities they are Shiite soldiers going in. We are not making this clear. Iraqi troops, we’ve got an extra battalion. The Iraqi army is building up. The Iraqi army is split apart. Somebody is operating these people. I don’t know who they are. It’s not as simple as we’re making it out to be. What is this thing when Bush says we have to choose between chaos and unity? Who wants to choose chaos? Is it really the case that all of these Iraqis that fought together for eight years against the Iranians, Shiites and Sunnies together in the long massive murderous Somme-like war between the Iranians and Iraqis – suddenly all want to kill each other? Why because that’s something wrong with Iraqis? I don’t think so. They are intelligent, educated people. Something is going seriously wrong in Baghdad.
TONY JONES: Can we look at one thing that might possibly be wrong, the Sunnis feel like they are being left out of the political equation. The Shias could end up running the majority of the government because they are indeed in the majority in a democracy.
ROBERT FISK: They do run the Government now. The Shiites do run the Government.
TONY JONES: Indeed. Couldn’t that precisely be one of the reasons for the violence?
ROBERT FISK: Because the Sunnis don’t have power anymore? But we’ve been saying this if the start. Don’t you remember that after 2003 the Anglo-American invasion, the resistance started against the Americans and we were told they were Saddam remnants, ‘dead-enders’, that was the phrase used. Not anymore, because there are 40,000 insurgents, but that was the phase used at the time. They were Sunnis. They didn’t like the fact they didn’t have power. Then we captured Saddam and Paul Bremer, the number two pro-Consule in Baghdad, says, “Oh, we’ve got him,” and everything was going to be OK. And then the insurgency got worse still. The reason was because people who wanted to join the insurgency feared that if they beat him out he might come back. Well, the moment Saddam was captured, they knew they could join the insurgency and Saddam wouldn’t come back. I mean, there is something wrong in the narrative sequence that we’ve been given. You know, the idea that the Sunni community is suddenly sacrificing themselves en mass, strapping explosive belts to themselves and blowing themselves up all over Iraq because they don’t have power anymore is a very odd reflection. I think what is going on among the Sunni community is much simpler. The Sunnis are not fighting the Americans because they don’t have power and they’re not fighting the Americans just to get them out – and they will get them out eventually. They are fighting the Americans so that they will say, “We have a right to power because we fought the occupying forces and you, the Shiites, did not,” which is why it’s very important to discover now that Moqtada al-Sadr, who has an ever-increasing power base among the Shiite community, is himself threatening to fight the British and Americans. Now, if the Shiites and Sunnies come together, as they did in the 1920s in the insurgency against the British, then we are finished in Iraq. And that will mean that Iraq actually will be united.
TONY JONES: But, Robert Fisk, what’s is happening now, by all accounts and, indeed, the accounts of these Washington Post reporters who’ve been into the morgue and report hundreds of bodies of Sunnies who evidently have been garroted or suffocated or shot, are all saying that Moqtada al-Sadr’s thugs have actually taken these people away and murdered them. That was in revenge for the Golden Shrine bombing.
ROBERT FISK: Yeah, look, in August, I went into the same mortuary and found out that 1,000 people had died in one month in July. And most of those people who had died were split 50/50 between the Sunnies and the Shiites, but most of them, including women who’d been blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs – I saw the corpses – were both Sunnies and Shiites. Now, I’m not complaining that the Washington Post got it wrong – I’m sure there are massacres going on by Shiites – but I think they are going on by militias on both sides. What I’d like to know is who is running the Interior Ministry? Who is paying the Interior Ministry? Who is paying the gunmen who work for the Interior Ministry? I go into the Interior Ministry in Baghdad and I see lots and lots of armed men wearing black leather. Who is paying these guys? Well, we are, of course. The money isn’t falling out of the sky. It’s coming from the occupation powers and Iraqi’s Government, which we effectively run because, as we know, they can’t even create a constitution without the American and British ambassadors being present. We need to look at this story in a different light. That narrative that we’re getting – that there are death squads and that the Iraqis are all going to kill each other, the idea that the whole society is going to commit mass suicide – is not possible, it’s not logical. There is something else going on in Iraq. Don’t ask me to…
TONY JONES: Alright. But…
ROBERT FISK: Yeah, go on.
TONY JONES: No, it does seem to be impossible to explain, but, of course, this is exactly what people were saying in Bosnia before that war started up – that people were too intermarried, that you couldn’t separate the community.
ROBERT FISK: Iraqi is not Bosnia. Iraqi is not Bosnia. Iraqi is not Bosnia. Iraqi is not Bosnia. We discovered here in Lebanon – and this city I’m talking to you from – that, during the civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990 and killed 150,000 people, that there were many outside powers involved in promoting death squads and militias here, and paying militias, not just Arab powers, but European powers were involved in stirring the pot in Lebanon. I think we’re being very naive. Just because I can’t give you the detail, like, of who ordered this death squad, doesn’t prevent us saying that something is wrong with the narrative we’re being given the press, from the West, from the Americans, from the Iraqi Government. There is something going wrong. Iraqis are not suicidal people. They don’t go around blowing up mosques every day. It’s not a natural thing for them to do. It’s never happened before. I can’t say to you, “Well, ok, here is the person who killed this person, or here’s the person who left this explosive truck.” All I am saying to you is that it is time we said, “Hang on a minute, this is not how it looks.”
TONY JONES: What if you put Iran into this equation, because, as we all know, Iran is under tremendous pressure from the West and particularly from the United States at the moment. It has links to these Shia militias and, possibly, links too, to these people you are talking about in the Interior Ministry.
ROBERT FISK: No, no, no, that’s wrong. The Iranians link is with the Iraqi Government. The main parties in the government of Iraq which have been elected, who are there now dealing with the Americans, these are the representatives of Iran. Moqtada al-Sadr is irrelevant to Iran. Iranians are already effectively controlling Iraq because the two major power blocks, the two major parties who were elected and who Bush has just been talking to, these are effectively the representatives of Tehran. That’s the point. Iran doesn’t need to get involved in violence in Iraq.
TONY JONES: Unless the pressure from the United States ratchets up on Iran to the point where there are military threats against these nuclear facilities. Could it not therefore create havoc in Iraq?
ROBERT FISK: Well, you could say the same about Syria, too, couldn’t you? And, of course the Americans are also accusing Syria of supporting the insurgents or letting them cross the border. But I think it it’s much more complicated than that. For example, my sources in this area, who are pretty good, tell me that the Americans have already talked to the Syrians and are trying to do a deal with them to try and get the Syrians to help them over the insurgency and the price of Syria’s help, I’m told, is that the Americans will ease off on the UN committee of inquiry into the murder of ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri, here in Beirut, only a few hundred metres from here, on the 14th February last year. You know, if the Americans are going to get out of Iraq – and they must get out, they will – they need the help of Iran and Syria. And I think you’ll find that certain elements within the State Department are already trying to work on that. Now, we hear the rhetoric coming from Bush. I mean, he’s got an absolute black-hole chaos in Iraq, he’s got Afghanistan – not an inspiration to the world, it’s been taken over effectively by narco warlords, many who work for Karzai, the man who’s just been making jokes about the Afghan welcome for Bush – and Bush wants another conflict with Iran? I don’t think the Americans are in any footing or any ability, military or otherwise, to have another war or to have another crisis in that region. They’re in the deepest hole politically, militarily and economically in Iraq. The fact that the White House and the Pentagon and the State Department seem to be in a state of denial doesn’t change that. We had Condoleezza Rice here – literally in that building behind me – a few days ago saying that there are great changes taking place in the Middle East – optimistically. Well, sure, there is a mosque war going on in Iraq with the Americans up to their feet in the sand, there’s an Iranian crisis, or so we’re told, the Saudis are frightened the Iraq war will spill over into Saudi Arabia, the Egyptians don’t know how to reconcile Syria and Lebanon, there are increasing sectarian tensions here in Lebanon. You would think that someone is building what used to be called Potemkin villages, you know, these extraordinary things that Catherine the Great’s court favourites use to build, facades of villages, so that everything looked nice in Russia even though things were barbarous behind the facades. I mean, this is a barbarous world we’re living in now in the Middle East. It’s never been so dangerous here, either for journalists or soldiers but most of all for Arabs. Hence the thousands of people in the mortuary.
TONY JONES: Robert Fisk, I am afraid we are out of time. We’ll have to leave it there and the rest of the discussion on Iran, I suspect, we’ll have to have when you’re in Australia in the near future. Good luck in Beirut.
ROBERT FISK: (Laughs) Good place to have it! You’re welcome.