ELEANOR HALL: One of the Middle East’s most experienced observers is warning today that we should prepare for another major catastrophe in the region.
Robert Fisk says that in his three decades of reporting from the Middle East for British newspapers, he’s never seen it more dangerous, and that he’s certain another major crisis, possibly even another September 11, is coming.
The veteran war reporter also says he remains baffled by just who is trying to generate civil war in Iraq.
Robert Fisk is in Australia this week to promote his latest book, The Great War for Civilization, and he joined me in The World Today studio a short time ago.
Now, you’ve been a bit of an optimist about Iraq and civil war, but do you think what’s going on now is already civil war?
ROBERT FISK: Well, it’s perfect proof that somebody wants a civil war. Um, but the problem for me is that the narrative is that the Shi’ites are being attacked by the Sunnis and their mosques are being blown up and now the Shi’ites are attacking the Sunni mosques and the Shi’ites and the Sunnis are going to fight each other.
I think that’s far too simple a version of events. There’s never been a civil war in Iraq. Sunnis and Shi’ites, despite the fact that the Sunnis as a minority have always effectively ruled Iraq, have never had this sectarian instinct. It’s not a sectarian society, it’s a tribal society. People are intermarried.
You know, I was at the funeral of a Sunni and asked his brother, you know, he’d been murdered – probably by Shi’ites, I think – I asked his brother if there was going to be a civil war and he said look, I’m married to a Shi’ite. You want me to kill my wife? Why do you westerners always want civil war?
The first people to mention civil war were the occupation authorities. The Iraqis were not. Some…
ELEANOR HALL: But the Iraqis are now. I mean, Al-Jaafari’s talking about civil war.
ROBERT FISK: They’re not talking about civil war, they’re talking about being frightened of who’s doing the bombing. But, you see, we still don’t know who’s doing the bombings. How many names have we been given of the suicide bombers? Two out of, what, 320 suicide bombings now. Where do they come from, these people?
I mean, we keep hearing about kidnaps. In every case they were kidnapped by people, quote, “wearing police uniforms,” unquote. There’s a police station on the airport road, it was overrun and all the policemen executed by men wearing, quote, “army uniforms,” unquote.
Now, we used to have this phenomenon in Algeria, when I was covering the Islamist government war there, and it took a while before we realised that they were policemen and they were soldiers.
In other words, they were being paid by the authorities. These were not people… there’s not a huge wardrobe factory in Fallujah with, you know, 8,000 policemen’s uniforms, waiting for the next suicide bomber. It’s not like that. What we’ve got is death squads, and some of them are clearly working for government institutions within Baghdad.
ELEANOR HALL: So you’re saying there are death squads, there’s chaos, but it’s not civil war?
ROBERT FISK: Well, it’s certainly chaos, and it’s certainly death squads. But I don’t regard this as a civil war at the moment. As I said, somebody wants a civil war. I mean, if you really try hard and you kill enough people you may be able to produce this.
ELEANOR HALL: So somebody wants a civil war?
ROBERT FISK: Yes.
ELEANOR HALL: You must have some clues about who.
ROBERT FISK: I don’t have… I have suspicions, I don’t have clues. I spend a lot of time, when I’m in Baghdad, trying to find out who this is and what this is. Clearly, the Interior Ministry have been torturing people to death, and clearly the Interior Ministry have people who do operate death squads.
But you’ve got to remember something, that a very prominent figure in politics, and a close friend of the United States, was accused just before the first elections of executing, quote, “insurgents,” unquote, in a police station, a police station I know very well. This was reported in Australia at the time.
I suspect the story is true. I think he was a murderer, and he was working for the Americans, and he was a former CIA operative, as we know. I’m not saying the CIA are doing the death squads and this is an American plot – no, I’m not.
But I think that there are all kinds of tendencies and fractures within the current authorities, who all live in the green zone in the former Republican palace of Saddam, surrounded by American barbed wire and American protection.
ELEANOR HALL: What’s the rationale of this though? I mean, if these people are in government, why do they want a civil war?
ROBERT FISK: I think what they want to do is to produce a situation in which their side, or their party, will control Iraq.
You’ve got to realise the insurgents too, most of whom but not all are Sunni, we keep seeing the insurgents as people who want to get the Americans out. But that’s a very short-sighted view of it. That’s our view of it.
It’s quite clear the insurgents want to get the Americans out, but they want to get the Americans out so they can say afterwards, we liberated our country, we want a place in power. That is what this is about. This is about securing political power after the withdrawal of the United States.
ELEANOR HALL: What about the political negotiations that are going on at the moment though? I mean, is there no faith placed in those?
ROBERT FISK: Look, I’m sorry to sound so pessimistic, but all the political negotiations are going on within a few square acres, guarded by American tanks, from which nobody emerges. These people who are negotiating, they don’t go into the streets of Baghdad, they don’t see the people, they don’t see the bombs.
ELEANOR HALL: But the people voted for them.
ROBERT FISK: Yes, the Shi’ites voted for them mostly.
Look, people want to vote. People would like freedom. But they’d also freedom from us, and that we will not accept, because we want to go on controlling Iraq and making sure Iraq does what we want. We want to control the government of Iraq.
I mean, they have a democratic election, and what happens? Bush comes on the telephone and says come on, we want some unity, get moving.
ELEANOR HALL: You say the US will have to get out of Iraq, but it will need the help of Iran and Syria to do so…
ROBERT FISK: Of course, of course it will.
ELEANOR HALL: Now, how would that work?
ROBERT FISK: It’ll need the help of Iran to make sure that all Shi’ite resistance to the United States ends during the withdrawal, and it’ll need the help of the Syrians, who do have a lot of influence along the border with Iraq, to make sure that there is some kind of deal with the insurgents that the Americans can leave not under fire.
You see, I mean I’ve said this before, but the terrible equation, of course politically, from an American political point of view as well, in Iraq, is that the Americans must leave, and they will leave, and they can’t leave.
And that’s the equation that turns sand into blood. And that remains the case. It’s very easy to invade other people’s countries; it’s very difficult to get out of them. It should be the other way around, but unfortunately it’s not. That’s how it happens.
And the Brits found that, you know, all over the Middle East. And every time, every time, every time the authorities of the occupying power say the same things – we will not talk to terrorists. The Americans say it too. And they don’t read history books, because at the end of the day the Americans will have to talk to the insurgents in Iraq, and they will, they will.
ELEANOR HALL: Now, the victory for Hamas, in the Palestinian elections, how closely is the West’s reaction to this being watched in the Arab world?
ROBERT FISK: With its usual cynicism, yes. It’s the same old story – we demand democracy, we demand they have freedom to vote, and they vote for the wrong people, so we try to destroy the government that’s been freely elected. We love democracy, providing the Muslim nations elect the people we want.
I mean, we keep hearing the Israelis will not deal with Hamas. The Israelis created Hamas. When the PLO were in Beirut, and the Israelis wanted to counteract the PLO, they urged Hamas to set up more mosques and social institutions in Gaza.
Even after Oslo a senior Israeli officer, and this was reported on the front page of The Jerusalem Post, held official talks with Hamas officials in Jerusalem. Israel won’t deal with Hamas… this is just a facade of narrative, for us, the press.
There is a narrative being set down for us where there will not be negotiations, but there can be any time the Israelis want, and if they find it in their interest, they will.
ELEANOR HALL: And yet you’re in no doubt that Hamas, or certain members of Hamas, are terrorists?
ROBERT FISK: Look, I don’t use the word terrorist about anybody. This has become a semantically meaningless word. Look, there are people in the Hamas movement who support the murder of innocent people, yes, of course.
There are… I’m not trying to make equivalences here, but when you have an Israeli air force officer, as we did at one occasion in Gaza, who bombs a block of apartments, knowing that he will kill innocent children, as well as a man who is believed to be behind suicide bombings, what is that man? What goes on in his brain too?
ELEANOR HALL: Now, you make the point in your book about the targeted killing of Hamas leaders coming back …
ROBERT FISK: The murder. I don’t say targeted killing.
ELEANOR HALL: Okay.
ROBERT FISK: The murder.
ELEANOR HALL: The killing of leaders of Hamas will come back to haunt the leaders of the West. What do you mean…
ROBERT FISK: Well, we already did have – a year and a half ago I think – the murder of an Israeli Government minister in Jerusalem.
Um, you see, once you start going for leaderships, you’re opening a door that can come back at you. And the great danger is once you say, you know, we might kill Yasser Arafat, well he died of his own accord, but I mean that was constantly said, so then you open the door to someone saying well, let’s kill the Israeli leadership, or let’s kill the British leadership.
Once you say we’re going to kill Osama Bin Laden, what does that allow him to do? He doesn’t need permission of course. But what doors are you opening…
ELEANOR HALL: Aren’t these doors already open?
ROBERT FISK: Oh, they’ve been opened now, yes.
ELEANOR HALL: But weren’t they already open for people like…
ROBERT FISK: The moment we turned our back on international law and gave up on justice and wanted revenge, that was the end.
ELEANOR HALL: Now, you describe in your book, you were there for Rafiq Hariri’s killing in Lebanon…
ROBERT FISK: I was 400 metres away, yes.
ELEANOR HALL: After that you write you’re increasingly stunned by the growing tragedy of the Middle East. Now, I would’ve thought that’s a big statement from someone who’s been reporting from the Middle East for 30 years.
ROBERT FISK: Yes, but the Middle East has never been in such a terrible situation, it’s never been so dangerous. I’ve never found myself going on assignments of such danger as I do now. Iraq’s the worst assignment I’ve ever been on, ever.
I think that our hypocrisy towards the Middle East, and the ruthlessness of its own leaders, Arab leaders, has reached such a stage now that there’s some kind of… I mean, some kind of explosion is going to come.
Over… I did a CBC interview in Toronto, which I’ve got a copy of, three years before 2001, and I said an explosion is coming. And obviously…
ELEANOR HALL: But do you think an explosion is still coming?
ROBERT FISK: Oh yes. I don’t… it doesn’t have to be a real physical one like ‘bang’. It might be. But something is coming. I mean, I feel it very strongly.
When I go back, when I went back for the book, I realised I was feeling it because I live there, I live in a Muslim society, I live in the Middle East, and all the people around me are Muslims.
And, clearly, living there, breathing that environment, I knew something was going to happen. And I still think something’s going to happen. I don’t mean September 11, but something.
ELEANOR HALL: But like what?
ROBERT FISK: Well, I mean, the Americans being driven out of Iraq is one, isn’t it?
ELEANOR HALL: But if the Americans leave Iraq the suggestion is that that will create more stability there. Is that not likely to…
ROBERT FISK: Well, I hope it would, yes. Um, yeah but, you see, if the Americans leave Iraq it’s an enormous blow to US military and political and strategic prestige throughout the world, there’s no doubt about it.
ELEANOR HALL: So you’ve been warned. That’s the Middle East Correspondent for the British newspaper, The Independent, Robert Fisk, who’s been reporting on the Middle East for 30 years and is in Australia this week to promote his latest book, The Great War for Civilization. He was speaking to me earlier this morning.