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Nir Rosen on Iraq's descent into civil war
"This is a U.S. crime"

December 8, 2006 | Pages 6 and 7

NIR ROSEN is a journalist who spent the last year in Iraq. He was born in New York City and has worked as an independent writer, photographer and filmmaker in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere. A fellow at the New America Foundation, his new book about Iraq is called In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq.

He spoke to Socialist Worker's ERIC RUDER about the crisis that the U.S. has caused in Iraq.

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GEORGE BUSH is still talking about the U.S. staying in Iraq until the "job is done." Is Bush's vision of victory still achievable?

THE GEORGE Bush vision was never achievable. This is a faith-based war. Neither he nor his advisors ever knew what Iraq was about. They just looked to impose their ideology.

What's he going to do? He has to stay in Iraq, because otherwise, he'll be known as the president who lost Iraq. If he stays there, at least he's the president who stuck it out and fought, and then handed the problem over to the next guy. In terms of his legacy, he's screwed no matter what, but I'd rather be the guy who went down fighting, rather than the guy ran away--were I him, which I can't imagine being.

What else to read

Nir Rosen's most recent account of his time in Iraq is titled "Anatomy of a Civil War: Iraq's Descent into Chaos," published in the Boston Review. His book is In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq.

Patrick Cockburn's articles from Iraq have been indispensable in charting the country's descent into civil war. His most recent, "Iraq Nears the 'Saigon Moment,'" can be read on the CounterPunch Web site. His most recent book is The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq.

For a compilation of news, analysis and opinions about Iraq from independent voices, see the Electronic Iraq Web site.

 

The war itself and the toppling of Saddam Hussein were obviously very easy to win. But Iraq was lost in reality on the day that the U.S. won--because of a whole series of things that happened.

Perhaps it was never possible for any other outcome to occur, but clearly, they made so many catastrophic and criminal mistakes. By not bringing in enough troops, they allowed the looting to happen, so suddenly Iraq was left with no infrastructure or state.

They never replaced the state, so they allowed the vacuum to be filled by all kinds of gangs, and a pervasive sense of lawlessness took over Iraq, from which the country never recovered. Then they fired the entire bureaucracy. They disbanded the army. All this did was create more and more enemies.

Every single step they took in Iraq was criminal--not to mention the fact of the occupation itself, which was a brutal and traumatic experience for most Iraqis, involving Abu Ghraibs every single day, with thousands of horrifying stories of killings, beatings and humiliation of innocent people.

Iraq is completely lost. But not only is Iraq destroyed, the entire region is destroyed. It's going to take decades to recover from this, and the extent of the catastrophe is not going to be clear for years, but I think the violence will ultimately spread throughout the Arab world.

THERE HAS been a debate taking place within the media and the U.S. military and political establishment about the character of the conflict in Iraq, and whether it should be called a "civil war." What's your view?

THERE ARE organized forces vying for power. Certainly on the Shia side, you have a few large Shia militias that are doing just that. And there is a coalition of different Sunni militias that are trying to overthrow the government, and are also fighting Shia militias.

You clearly have a civil war--most of the country is at war with itself.

The media is very proud of itself because they suddenly started using the term "civil war," but the civil war has been very apparent to anyone on the ground since at least the June 2004 handover. The civil war didn't start with the Samarra shrine bombing in February 2006. It's now two years in the making.

Of course, the Bush administration has to deny that it's a civil war, because otherwise, they've lost Iraq. But you have most of the country at war with itself--and not only for sectarian reasons, like in Baghdad. There are also tribal wars and ethnic wars--Kurds against Arabs, Kurds against Turkmen, Christians being persecuted.

Everyone in Iraq is a target for one reason or another--for being Sunni, Shia, Christian, Kurd, for being secular, for being a doctor, for being an artist, for being rich, for being in the former government, for being in the present government. So if it's not a civil war, it's something much worse than a civil war.

ACCORDING TO the U.S. military itself, the vast majority of armed attacks in Iraq were directed at U.S. forces or the Iraqi police and army--though sectarian violence was causing more casualties. Do you think this is still the case today, and how would you characterize the resistance to U.S. forces?

THE RESISTANCE still exists and is quite strong, as we see from the fact that the Americans are suffering their worst casualties ever these last couple months. But I think that is a side story and has been for at least a year now, whereas the civil war is the main story.

In the Sunni stronghold of Anbar province, there's no constituency for a civil war, because it's homogeneous. Unless there are tribes fighting each other or different Sunni Muslims fighting each other, it's going to be attacks on the Americans.

You also have Shia attacking the Americans, and there's always been a Shia resistance, so we shouldn't think of the resistance as a purely Sunni thing.

But you can't view attacks on the police, for example, as outside the civil war, because the police, dominated as they are by Shia militias, are parties to the civil war. They are the one who are actually killing Sunni civilians. So attacks on police aren't necessarily attacks on the police because they are collaborating with the Americans, but because the police are the bad guys in Iraq for many people.

The government is a party in the civil war, and there are different parts of the government that are fighting each other, as we saw a few weeks ago when the Ministry of Interior forces raided the Ministry of Education. That sort of thing is happening a lot--ministries at war with each other.

The one change we've seen is that whereas Shias were maybe once the primary victims in sectarian attacks, since they took over the government in 2005, Shias are now the primary culprits. Now, Sunnis are really an endangered species in Iraq--at least in Baghdad and many of the mixed areas.

DO YOU think that the U.S. has played a significant role in playing up the divisions and stoking the violence that led Iraq to this point?

YES. THERE wouldn't be a civil war in Iraq if it weren't for the American presence. Right from the beginning, they divided the Iraqis. Sunnis were the bad guys for them, and the Shia and Kurds were the good guys.

The way that the U.S. established the interim governing council was on a quota system, which was new to Iraqis--with a certain number of Sunnis, a certain number of Shias. Even the Iraqi Communist Party member was chosen because he was a Shia, not because he was secular.

The U.S. targeted the Sunni population en masse as the enemy. U.S. officials viewed the Ba'ath Party as a Sunni party, which is really far from the truth. There were probably more Shias than Sunnis in the Ba'ath Party. Shia Ba'athists were allowed to be rehabilitated by Shia militias, and Sunnis were left out.

So the U.S. created a competition between those who were pro-occupation and anti-occupation, those who benefited from the occupation and those who suffered from it, and Sunnis were always on the outside.

Even how the Americans viewed Iraq was different from how Iraqis viewed Iraq. There was never an idea of a Sunni triangle, or a Shia south, or geographic regions that were identified ethnically.

This is an American imposition on Iraq that Iraqis were unfamiliar with. But it has become self-fulfilling, especially now that it's being made a reality by violence.

CURRENTLY, MANY Democrats and Republicans blame Iraqis for the violence in Iraq. They say the Bush administration "coddled" Iraq, and that nothing will improve so long as Iraqis reject democracy and want to kill each other. What's your take on this?

THIS HAS been infuriating me recently. We never "coddled" the Iraqis. We've been punishing them from the beginning.

From day one of the occupation, Iraqis were demanding elections. They were demanding democracy. We said no--you're not going to get elections, you're not ready for them. We imposed a dictator on them--Paul Bremer.

Our fear was maybe that Shia and Kurds would take over, or that former Ba'athists would win. Basically, the Americans were afraid that the same people who ended up winning the elections two years later, after all the violence and bloodshed, would be the ones who won in the first place.

The people who supported the war and now realize it's a huge screw-up, instead of blaming themselves or the Americans who are the criminals in all this, have taken to blaming the Iraqis for not wanting democracy or not choosing democracy.

They say, "We can't do it for them, they have to do it for themselves." But we did do this to them.

Iraq was a stable country before the U.S. showed up. There was no history of civil war. There was no history of any sectarian violence like this. There were obviously tensions, and there probably had to be some sort of realignment of power after the war, but nothing like this. This is our crime.

The U.S. engineered--maybe by accident--the civil war in Iraq, and the U.S. empowered the sectarian and religious groups that didn't have power in the past. We are the ones who destroyed Iraq.

Democrats like the idea of threatening the Iraqis--saying that we're going to leave unless they get their act together. But they've been begging us to leave for a couple of years now. Most Iraqis have been demanding a timetable.

So it's not like we are doing them a favor, or that we're threatening them with our departure. They want the occupation to end, they've been demanding and begging that it end, and they've been fighting it.

TO WHAT extent has there been collaboration among Iraqi resistance forces across sectarian divisions? And is it possible at this point to rebuild any such collaboration?

I THINK we've reached a tipping point at which this is now a futile hope. Iraq can never go back--in part because millions of people have been displaced. You have more than 2 million refugees outside of Iraq who are never going to go back. You have hundreds of thousands of Iraqis internally displaced. The entire demographics of Iraq have been changed.

And people who were nonsectarian in the past or were secular have been forced to embrace their sectarian identity just to survive. The fear is just so total. The language has changed. For the first time, people want to know if the person they are dealing with is Sunni or Shia. People are being killed just for having a Sunni or Shia ID card.

IN A recent cover story, Newsweek called Moktada al-Sadr "the most dangerous man in Iraq." Why?

I THINK the American soldier is the most dangerous man in Iraq. But Americans need a bad guy--we need an ugly face that we can blame all our problems on.

Saddam is gone. It's convenient now to invent this Hezbollah-Sadr collaboration so we can have him as the new bad guy. There are many reasons to dislike him, ideologically speaking. But he is one of the most powerful individuals in Iraq.

He doesn't have direct control over his militia. He's more of a symbolic figure.

He was always the nationalist Shia leader. The alternative was Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is more of a religious leader and is Iranian-born, so he's not as identified as an Iraqi leader. Sistani has key influence within the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, but they were in exile in Iran for so many years that they're not perceived as having been in Iraq and having suffered with other Shia of Iraq.

Moktada always used a nationalist discourse, and he speaks in a colloquial Iraqi accent, so he appeals to the poor masses of Shia.

And indeed, for the first couple years, he was the most popular Shia leader among the Sunni resistance because he wasn't explicitly sectarian. He attacked the Americans, he supported the resistance, he used the Arabic word for resistance.

They actually fought together--he sent support to help the Sunnis fight the Americans in the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004, and the Sunni fighters sent people to help his people fighting in Shia areas. There was a moment when you thought there would be Sunni-Shia unity, at least in defiance of the American occupation.

But that wasn't to happen, in part because Sunnis, by harboring people who were engaged in sectarian attacks, managed to alienate the Shias. And Moktada was never a non-sectarian leader--he was a Shia leader. So he couldn't really appeal directly to Sunnis, and I think Sunnis were never really prepared to accept the fact that Shias are the majority in Iraq.

One of the things that really sparked the break was the fact that even though Moktada supported the Sunnis in the first battle of Fallujah, the Shias didn't do anything during the second battle of Fallujah, when it was wiped off the map in November 2004.

In part, this was because Shias had just had enough--they were being slaughtered every day by people who in part were being harbored in Fallujah or other Sunni areas. The Shias stood back, and then Sunni refugees from Fallujah poured into western Baghdad and began to displace Shias.

As the cycle of sectarian cleansing began, Moktada demanded that Sunni leaders denounce Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had declared war on Shias, but all the Sunnis were too scared to do so. So at some point, Moktada decided enough is enough--the Sunnis are our enemies.

SOME PEOPLE who are antiwar hesitate to call for an immediate U.S. withdrawal because they think this will worsen the conflict. What do you think?

THOSE WHO say this have a point. When the Americans pull out, there will be an increase in the violence, and partly because the Americans are a sponge for some of the violence.

You have Americans dying every day, the argument goes, and if the Iraqis weren't killing the Americans, then maybe they'd killing more Iraqis. But then again, the Americans are also killing Iraqis every day, so it probably balances out.

So my first argument about why I'm for immediate withdrawal is that if the Americans weren't in Iraq, they wouldn't have killed five Iraqi children in Ramadi a few days ago. They wouldn't be killing Iraqis every single day--terrorizing them, occupying them, oppressing them.

At least do no harm, don't hurt people--and an occupation is not a benign thing, it's a horribly humiliating and painful, in a physical sense. And if Americans weren't there, American soldiers wouldn't be getting killed and wounded for absolutely nothing.

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