Friday, January 26, 2007

Inside Iraq

Al Jazeera English has a weekly program called Inside Iraq, with host Jasim Al-Azzawi moderating a discussion of the week's events and the future of Iraq. Today's guests included CENTCOM spokesperson Capt. Frank Pascual; Shaikh Yusuf al-Nasri, an aide to Moqtada al-Sadr (مقتدى الصدر); Dr. Mohammed al Douri (محمد الدوري), former Iraqi ambassador to the U.N.; and Brad Blakeman (بردّ بلكمن), former senior advisor to President Bush. The exchange might have erupted into a fistfight, were it not for the fact that the panelists were separated by thousands of kilometers.

First, Mr. Azzawi played an interview with Capt. Pascual, in which the Captain emphasized that the United States feels it is vital for the Iraqi government, with assistance from U.S. forces, to rein in the lawlessness of the Mahdi Army. The real debate, though, came in the panel discussion:

Jasim al-Azzawi: Shaikh Yusuf al-Nasri, let me start with you. The Central Command in the last three days issued a very clear warning to Jaish al-Mahdi: Disband, or else. Throw down your arms; otherwise, you will be hunted down. Will you put them down, or will you fight?

Shaikh Yusuf al-Nasri: In the beginning, let's talk about who's carrying the guns. Now, all the Iraqi people are suffering from, there is no security and safety in Iraq, and everybody [is] looking for the security and safety. We are waiting for a quite long time, we give a vote for this government, we elect this government in the democracy way, so why we are still waiting for this government [to be able to] keep the security and the safety for Iraqi people? So, firstly, there is no security for the Iraqi people. Secondly, people are defending themselves. The third thing, you are talking about the terrorist in Iraq. The terrorist in Iraq has been established when the Americans invade Iraq. So, the occupation brought the terrorist to Iraq, and, you know, the CIA report last year said it was 200,000 explosives from the previous Iraqi army, when the Iraqi regime (Saddam) was there. They collected it, and they lost it. Who lost this 200,000 tonnes of explosives, and where are they? Who brought the car bombs and suicide —

Azzawi: I'll take that, Shaikh Yusuf al-Nasri, as a very clear no. You are not going to disband. Brad Blakeman, such warning in the past has been issued. They have not been heeded. What makes this one different?

Brad Blakeman: Well, what makes this one different is, there are about 20,000+ U.S. troops coming into Iraq, specifically in the Baghdad area and the surrounds of Sadr City, and other areas that are unstable, and the Iraqi army is going to come in, and security forces, and be in the lead, and the Americans are going to back them up, and if the militias don't lay down their arms, they'll be destroyed.

Azzawi: In what way?

Blakeman: In what way? They'll be killed! Whether it's house to house, room to room, that's what's going to happen. But I have to tell you, we've somewhat created this problem, because, you know, we've made our bed with the devil, initially, in building up these militia and fighting alongside of us, when we should've disbanded them from the beginning. Maybe one of the mistakes was totally disbanding the army and relying on these militias to our detriment, now, because we built them up. But now, the militias have to make a decision. Are they going to lay down their arms and abide by the laws that were created by the Iraqi people when they were freed, under their constitution, or are they going to continue to fight. If they continue to fight, they will be destroyed.

Azzawi: Ambassador Douri, this is amazing to me to listen to an American and an Iraqi agree at one point, and that is that all these militias were created by the Americans.

Dr. Mohammed al Douri: Well, exactly. I think at the end of the day, they will find a way out, both, because they know each other, and they have had a kind of cooperation, a good cooperation between them, these four years. Certainly, there was a clash between them, but I think at the end of the day they will find a way out for this crisis between them. But the loser is the Iraqi people.

Azzawi: Shaikh Yusuf al-Nasri, you have been claiming for a long time, you are not a militia, you are an army of God, you are an ideological army, and your primary mission is to protect the neighborhood. That argument, unfortunately, does not carry with modern society.

Nasri: You know, we are talking like, sorry to say that, like an ignorant people. American policy is a business. They are not looking for democracy around the world, they are looking for the business. Where can [they] get more money, where can [they] get more financial — that's what they are doing with the new strategy for Bush, when he ask in the Congress. He want[s] the[m to] pay more money to the Dick Cheney company and Bush company and al Qaeda company and the generals in Iraq and around the world. They are not looking for [promoting] democracy around the world. They are against the democracy. They established the terrorists around the world. Who established al Qaeda and Taliban? They established [them]. We are against the militia; we don't want the militia in Iraq. We are supporting the Iraqi government. We have now, there is a big dialog now [with] the mayor of Sadr City, which is the biggest city in Iraq, and this is going nicely and smoothly now. And we want to —

Azzawi: Brad — Let me stop you for just a second —

Nasri: No, let me tell you something. Let me tell you something.

Blakeman: Completely crazy!

Nasri: Sorry?

Azzawi: Brad, go ahead.

Blakeman: I said you're completely crazy! What you just said is absolutely crazy! There's no other way to describe it.

Nasri: Who is the partnership of the brother of Osama bin Laden? Who is the partnership? Who has the company?

Blakeman: Our sons and daughters are dying —

Azzawi: Brad, let me just put it this way — Yusuf al-Nasri, hold on just a sec.

Nasri: Osama bin Laden company. You know Osama bin Laden's brother, he [has] a company — the partnership is George W. Bush. You are taking money from the American people and put[ting] it in your pocket.

Azzawi: Shaikh al-Nasri, hold on just a second. Brad Blakeman, the shaikh is making the point that you are here to steal our money, to steal our oil, to enslave our people, and more importantly to prevent the messiah, the Shi'ite messiah.

Blakeman: Ridiculous!

Nasri: Even from American people!

Blakeman: We have spent billions and billions of dollars of American taxpayer money to help the Iraqis be free. How do we benefit from that? Our sons and our daughters have died on your soil to help your country be free. How do they benefit from that?

Nasri: You are putting the bombs everywhere! Ask the Iraqi government and ask the chief of the police, Iraqi police, wherever American forces coming

Blakeman: You, sir, are completely and utterly crazy. You make no sense at all.

Nasri: They are too worried that the car bomb is coming with the American forces around each center, each city in Baghdad, and around all the cities around Iraq.

Azzawi: Gentlemen, let me stop you and let me ask Dr. Moh —

Nasri: There is no American forces, there is a security —

Azzawi: Shaikh al-Nasri, hold on just a second. Dr. al Douri, you have heard those two gentlemen; that is a heated argument. Is it possible to politically rehabilitate Jaish al-Mahdi and Moqtada al-Sadr's people and get them involved politically in the political process? Because that's what the Americans are looking for.

Douri: First of all, I agree with Shaikh Yusuf al-Nasri about the ultimate goals of Americans in Iraq. The American strategy in Iraq is very clear, it is very well known, so this is true. But I am asking Shaikh Yusuf al-Nasri why they are not going to a kind of reconciliation [among] the Iraqi people themselves to face this invasion, to face this occupation. Why this mass killings every day, more than 100, 200 bodies in the streets of Baghdad and other cities? So, we can face Americans, we can ask them to get out [of] Iraq.

[commercial break]

Azzawi: Welcome back. We are talking about Jaish al-Mahdi and Moqtada al-Sadr to three specialists: Shaikh Yusuf al-Nasri, [the] ambassador just a minute ago asked, national reconciliation is the only way. But we just saw a bubble right now, we just saw a factoid: the Pentagon says that Jaish al-Mahdi has replaced al Qaeda as the most lethal institution in Iraq.

Nasri: Firstly, we have to find out clearly who is behind the terrorists in Iraq. And then we going smoothly. No one, no one in Iraq, Shia or Sunni, Kurdish and Arab, want to be against nor the police or the government hand. We want the government [to be able to] be strong and bring security and safety for everybody. And al-Mahdi Army, as you said, and as everybody knows, is not an army, and this is the problem with translation between Arabic and English language. It is an ideological movement. Those people are farmers, workers, teachers, doctors, university teachers —

Azzawi: That is exactly what al Qaeda says, and the insurgents say, and all the other militias say: you know, we are not a militia, we are ideological armies.

Nasri: No, no, no. When the Iraqi regime fell, everybody saw: the al-Sadr movement, they are cleaning the roads, they are replacing the government where there is no government, and they are very happy to see the government —

Azzawi: I get the point. Brad Blakeman, they are social services.

Nasri: Look, look, wait. No, no, wait — we have to say to the people —

Blakeman: Here's the solution —

Nasri: People who killing the Sunnis and the Shia, that was the question.

Blakeman: Here's the solution: lay down your arms and care for your people. Educate your people. Build roads. Build schools. And you know what? A national society. That's what you need to do. Because if you don't do it, you're going to be destroyed. Do you want your men and women killed in the streets? If they take up arms against the national government —

Nasri: This is your message always: you want to be destroyed, you are the killers. You brought the terrorists around the world. You don't have a simple —

Blakeman: No, you're the killers. You kill your own people! You strike down men, women, and children. You're killers.

Nasri: You don't have a peaceful people, destroying men, women, and children. You kill lots of people around the world, and you killed lots of people in Iraq. You should listen: no one will carry the guns. If you leave Iraq and this government is democracy —

Blakeman: We're not leaving so long as the Iraqi government wants us there!

Nasri: We elected this government; we don't want to see you in Iraq! We are not fighting each other. You know who is fighting each other? Ask Negroponte!

Blakeman: We don't want to be there, but we don't have a mission to be there.

Nasri: Negroponte, he is well done playing games. He did that in Honduras and Latin America. He established a different organization fighting each other. This is, you know, the dirty forces.

Blakeman: Sir, let's not talk about everywhere else, let's talk about Iraq. Here's the bottom line: You will be destroyed.

Nasri: You kill the Shia in the name of Sunnis and you kill the Sunni in the name of the Shia. There is no killing —

Azzawi: Gentlemen, just a second, I need to stop both of you, if you allow me, Shaikh Yusuf al-Nasri. Ambassador al Douri, the very genesis of this sectarian [conflict] that we are seeing is when the U.S. imposed this sectarian quota on the Iraqi government. Isn't that what generated all this?

Douri: Of course. We cannot neglect that factor. The American, as occupying power, in the view of international law, is responsible for all of what has happened in Iraq. But I am asking also to the government of Iraq, what is this situation, what is going [on] now in Iraq? What is this climate of chaos [that] exists in Iraq? [Why] is the situation going out of control? We are on the brink of civil war. The responsibility of the government of Iraq, or so-called government, is clear here. So both are responsible: the American government as occupying power, and those who are serving the American power in Iraq, I mean the government of Iraq.

Azzawi: Brad Blakeman, the strategy of the militias, perhaps even of Jaish al-Mahdi, is create chaos, kill enough G.I.'s, kill enough Americans — eventually you will throw up your arms and just leave. You just told me, "we are not leaving," the U.S. is staying. Are you sure?

Blakeman: As long as this President is President, as long as our mission is clear, as long as the risk is worth the reward of a free and independent Iraq, as long as the Iraqi government can make good on their promises that they made to us, we will stay there, and we will be effective, and we will win. We're taking off the gloves now. You folks have to realize that: the militias are going to be destroyed. And it's a shame, because you are killing your own people, you are destroying your own world, your own sovereignty — that's just wrong. You're squandering an opportunity. For what?

Azzawi: Shaikh Yusuf al-Nasri, the Americans are coming after you.

Blakeman: [inaudible] only a small piece of your land.

Azzawi: Shaikh Yusuf al-Nasri, the Americans are coming after you.

Nasri: You ask me a question, if you give me a time.

Azzawi: Go ahead.

Nasri: Listen: firstly, no Iraqi people, no Sunni, no Shia, are agreed with this civil war. I told you before that the Iraqi government arrested lots of terrorist people [who] have a map to bombing Shia mosque and Sunni mosque and one time, and those people were American officers and Israelian [sic] officers, and we proved that, and he knows very well that.

Blakeman: That is absolutely outrageous! You —

Nasri: Please, let me continue.

Blakeman: The Sunnis and the Arabs destroyed those mosques, not the Americans, and not the Israelis. So, please, that is nonsense. You know that.

Nasri: Please, I was waiting for you to finish. Please, don't be a dictator. I know you don't learn from the democracy. You should learn from us! We are an older civilization: learn from us! I was waiting for you.

Azzawi: Go ahead, Shaikh Yusuf al-Nasri. Go ahead.

Nasri: The killing in Iraq is not between Sunni and Shia. They are stupid, some of the Shia and Sunnis, using by the dirty force established by Negroponte and his cabinet, and you know Negroponte wasn't a diplomatic. He wasn't working for the foreign department, he is working for the higher intelligence department. They are establishing different organizations in Iraq — and they have the big mechanism of propaganda. There is a civil war....

Azzawi: The documentation of the extra-judicial killings by the Mahdi Army has been documented not by the Americans alone, but by a group like the International Crisis Group, as well as the Iraqi government. Denial is not a proof that they are not happening.

Nasri: No, prove it! You said "Iraqi government" — where is that documentaries? 70% of people who are dying and killed are Shia — do you think Shia are killing themselves? Not the Sunni killing the Shia, not the Shia killing the Sunni — we have to be very aware about this propaganda. They are using propaganda and intelligence department, and they want to destroy the Iraq. We have to be clever enough to stop this dictatorship and terrorist. Look, wherever the American forces are there, there is a terrorist. There is no solution, there is no democracy, there is no rebuilding.

Azzawi: Brad, many analysts believe that Moqtada al-Sadr has lost control over Jaish al-Mahdi, that the core group of perhaps 7,000 he can control, but the larger group, almost 60,000, he lost control of them.

Blakeman: I don't believe he's lost control of them at all. I think he has control, and the fact that he's trying to allege he's lost control is a benefit to him, saying, "Look, whatever happens, don't look to me for responsibility." We don't believe that! Here's the bottom line: forget all the rhetoric over the last half hour. Bottom line is this: we have a duly elected representation in Iraq, we have a free and independent Iraq in the sense of their government. Their government is being prevented, unfortunately, from ruling because of these militias who seek to create instability. We have instability coming in over the borders of Iraq from Iran and Syria.
[Copyright ©2007, Al Jazeera English; reproduced here under the Fair Use provisions of copyright law for the purpose of fostering political discussion.]
The Bush Administration and its spokesmen are unaccustomed to hearing their talking points contradicted so brazenly, and to having the moderator take at least some of the counterpoints seriously. That said, Shaikh al-Nasri irreparably undermined his credibility with paranoid fantasies about "Israelian" agents provocateurs in Iraq. It's a shame, because the points he raised about the profitability of the Iraq War for allies of the Bush Administration, particularly including Halliburton, need to be addressed seriously and openly. It is also clear that the shaikh is right that the Bush Administration's commitment to democracy is secondary to its commitment to American commercial and military interests. It is also true that the United States is largely responsible for creating al Qaeda and the Taliban, since we armed and trained them to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980's. We must also not allow the Bush Administration to sweep under the rug the fact that the U.S. lost 200 kilotonnes of explosives from the stockpiles of the former Iraqi army — equivalent in destructive power to a couple of small nukes, but spread out over thousands of IED's and car bombs.

Also, the U.S. committed terrible blunders in the initial occupation of Iraq after the 2003 invasion, and we have never recovered from those blunders. In hindsight, it is abundantly clear that it was a mistake to completely disband the Iraqi army and police forces, and to fail to secure Baghdad. We then, as Mr. Blakeman says, "made our bed with the devil" by encouraging the militias and sectarian factions to develop and take most of the seats at the negotiating table. The Bush Administration has paid lip service to the idea of democracy in Iraq, but the substance has been thin and uneven. (Of course, what should we expect, given the Bush Administration's consistent hostility towards real democracy here in the United States?) Sadly, it is not "completely crazy" to suggest that the profits of Halliburton and other well-connected military contractors are a significant factor in U.S. policy in Iraq. Nor is it "completely crazy" to look at the entanglement of the Bush family's finances with Saudi Arabia, including the bin Laden family.

On the other hand, it is completely crazy to suggest that the U.S. is trying to prevent the coming of the Shi'ite messiah, just as it is completely crazy to suggest that the United States and Israel are blowing up mosques of each sect in Iraq in order to frame the other sect. Simply put, there's no profit in it. Stealing the oil is profitable; starting a civil war is not. But it is also completely crazy for Mr. Blakeman to ignore the thousands of Iraqi citizens who have been killed by U.S. forces, and the resentment those deaths leave in their wake.

Still, something Mr. Blakeman said rings true, although not in quite the way he intended. How do the American soldiers who are wounded or killed in Iraq benefit from their sacrifice? How do the American taxpayers — not Bush's pals, but the ordinary working folks — benefit from the hundreds of billions of dollars we have thrown into Iraq? How does the United States stand to benefit from continuing our military presence in Iraq? The American people don't see an answer to that question, not in Bush's speech announcing the "troop surge," nor in his State of the Union message.

Is it realistic to think that the U.S. military, with a modest increase in troop levels, can make a decisive difference in bringing down the sectarian militias to allow a secular government to emerge and take root? It hasn't worked very well so far, and the patience of the American people has worn out. As David Broder said in the Washington Post last week, "The question is not whether we have the stomach for the fight but the brains to figure out what to do in Iraq." Without any intelligent planning, throwing 21,500 more troops into Iraq will only lead to more bloodshed, not more stability — and "intelligent planning" isn't even on the Bush Administration's radar screens. The American people have spoken loud and clear that the risk of continued military operations in Iraq is not worth the potential rewards, especially given the dismal track record so far and the abyssmal lack of any sign that the people in charge have learned from their blunders. Vice President Cheney the other day hotly denied that the White House had made any blunders in Iraq, but that view is no less blinkered and no less "completely crazy" than the notion that the sectarian killings in Iraq are the result of an Israeli-American conspiracy.

Will the troop surge foster the national reconciliation that is required to bring Iraq back to stability and security? Or will it just feed the cycle of violence? We have to find a way to engage the civic-mindedness (even if it's far from pure altruism) of the Mahdi Army and other factions so that they can come together and reconcile for the benefit of all Iraqis. The Mahdi Army might be destroyed by the U.S. military, but as long as the U.S. is occupying Iraq, there will be Iraqis willing to fight, die, and kill to oppose our presence. This fantasy that the American occupiers are perfect peaceful angels who only reluctantly go to Iraq to fight and die for the benefit of the Iraqi people, just doesn't fly — not in America, and certainly not in Iraq.

George W. Bush is still President, for another 725 days, but our mission in Iraq is not clear — Saddam is gone, the threat of WMD's has been neutralized, and we've given Iraq the opportunity to build a better nation. It's up to the Iraqis to do it. The risk of our continued presence in Iraq is not only that more Americans will die or be maimed, or that we will spend hundreds of billions more of our great grandchildren's tax dollars that could be better spent on our own needs, but also that we will continue to inflame the situation in Iraq and make it even worse than it already is. The reward of a free and independent Iraq, first of all, doesn't hold much allure to the American public. Sure, it would be nice, but it's not anywhere near the top of the priority list. The American people have spoken, and their verdict is that the risk is too great and the reward both too small and too unlikely to justify anything but getting out of the mess we've made. As for winning, we can win individual battles, but we will never win the war by military action, because winning requires winning the "hearts and minds" of the Iraqi people — a goal that gets more remote with each passing day. It doesn't help that neither the Iraqis nor the American people believe that the U.S. will ever leave Iraq: the neocons who engineered this war are determined to establish permanent military bases.

The focus of American policy in Iraq must shift immediately from "victory" (however defined) to Damage Control. How do we withdraw American forces with the least possible further damage to the situation?

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