Published on Wednesday, April 21, 2004 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Robert Fisk: Iraq Power Handover 'A Fraud'
Interview by reporter Tony Jones
TV Program Transcript
The assassination of Hamas leader Dr Abdel-Aziz Rantissi at the weekend has unleashed rage and fury on the streets of Gaza just days after President George W Bush backed Israel's sovereignty over West Bank settlements in return for a total pull-out of settlers from the Gaza Strip.
In Iraq, meanwhile, troops from Spain are preparing to go home just as America has announced the death of its 700th soldier in fighting there.
Well, joining me now is Robert Fisk.
He's a correspondent for the British newspaper the 'Independent' and is a 25-year veteran of reporting from the Middle East.
Robert Fisk, thanks for joining us.
ROBERT FISK, WRITER & JOURNALIST: Thank you.
TONY JONES: Let's start with Iraq if we can and the immense problems the United States now faces in handing the country back to Iraqis.
Just to start with that, anyway.
The June 30th deadline now looks like it's going to be postponed.
What will be the consequences if it is?
ROBERT FISK: Nothing.
The handover is basically a fraud.
The governing council, which is appointed by the Americans, and which is the Iraqi Government at the moment would merely be handing over to another group of American-picked Iraqis.
They're not democratically elected, the new institution, whatever it is.
We don't even know what it's going to be.
I notice that when President Bush gave his press conference three days ago, he said that Mr Brahimi was working on that, referring to Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian foreign minister who's special envoy to Iraq for the UN's Kofi Annan, but Mr Brahimi found that quite a surprise.
He's not trying to put together a future government - he's trying to arrange elections and that may not be until next year.
Even if there was a democratically elected government to hand over sovereignty to, which is there not, the sovereignty doesn't mean anything because under the laws that Paul Bremer, the US proconsul in Baghdad has already enacted for post June 30, all the Iraqi security forces will be commanded by United States officers, so that's not a handover of sovereignty.
TONY JONES: The Americans obviously were putting a lot of faith in Mr Brahimi performing some kind of miracle.
You think that's not going to happen.
Could, however, the United Nations be under much more pressure now to get seriously involved in perhaps taking over the administration of Iraq?
ROBERT FISK: Well, the poor old UN.
You know, when we wanted to rush into war, we batted the UN donkey around the ear and told them it wasn't standing up enough and now we're trying to drag the old UN donkey to save us in Iraq because after all we realize it's all gone wrong.
I don't think that the UN is going to go into Iraq on June 30.
I cannot see the end, or the depth, to which the current bloodshed is going.
I can't see a way out at the moment.
Ultimately, I think it will have to be - if it's not just going to be an abandoned Iraq with Iraqis trying to run it, I think it would be - it has to be Arab force, an Arab league force.
We're going to have to see Syrians in there, Emirates, the Saudis, Egyptians, but even that will start to fracture and fragment across the Arab world in the Middle East.
I simply can't see a way out, when you build a war on illusions and fantasies and you don't get international mandate to run it, then your occupation will fail.
The British occupation in Iraq took three years to fail between 1917 and 1920.
It took us, the British, three years to unite the Shiites and the Sunnis behind us.
It's quite an achievement - the Americans have managed to unite the Shiites and the Sunnis against them in just one year.
TONY JONES: I'll come specifically to that possibility in a moment.
First, let's look at the immediate crisis faced by the US administrator, Paul Bremer, in Najaf.
The Americans have already said they're going to kill or capture Moqtada al-Sadr.
What will happen if they go into Najaf with guns blazing?
ROBERT FISK: I don't think they will.
I think that there's a kind of discontinuation of serious political relations between Bremer and the US military.
Because what Bremer says and sometimes what Bush says doesn't bear any relation to what people like Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the deputy chief of US operations in Iraq, or General Sanchez for that matter actually say.
I don't think Bremer ordered anyone to arrest or kill, certainly arrest but not necessarily kill, Moqtada al-Sadr.
But the direct result of what the Americans have said is quite simple.
Shiites, who would never have dreamt of supporting Moqtada al-Sadr, are now prepared to fight the Americans if they come into Najaf.
Of course, the Americans have boxed themselves in.
First of all, they were going to go into Fallujah and capture the men, the terrorists - everyone's a terrorist if you fight the Americans - who had so brutally murdered those four American mercenaries three weeks ago but they're not Fallujah, they realize they've killed so many Iraqis, at least 600, many of them women and children, that they simply can't go on.
Now they're standing around Najaf with what?
You can't conquer a city of so many Shiites with 2,500 troops.
It's going to need a massive bombardment.
To do that to the major Shiite shrine in the world, one of the major Shiite shrines, it's unthinkable.
I think the Americans have reached a point where they can't do much more militarily and politically they finished quite a while ago.
It's a terrible, terrible situation but mostly, remember, for the Iraqis.
They're doing more dying than our soldiers are doing.
TONY JONES: What role then do you think the old Ayatollahs, particularly Sistani, are going to play as this situation starts to play itself out around Najaf?
ROBERT FISK: Well, Sistani, you see, still hopes that if there is a future administration the Shiites will basically run it.
They are the majority population.
They are 60 per cent of the population of Iraq.
He doesn't want to do anything which is going to allow the Sunnis to come back and run the country as they did under Kassim, Saddam, the Ba'ath Party and so on.
There's going to come a time and he's beginning to speak much more harshly - when he's not going to be able any longer to hold back an overall Shi'ite resistance against the United States.
He's not going to be able to do it.
If the Americans do try to enter the holy city of Najaf, they're in the suburbs at the moment but they're nowhere near the shrines, if they do try to enter, then I think Sistani will have to call for a war against them.
He'll be finished if he doesn't.
TONY JONES: This is before the war, you predicted on this program, you predicted a likely civil war in Iraq if the invasion went ahead.
The Americans are now saying that the thing they most fear as you started referring to at the beginning of this interview is a temporary alliance between the Shiites and the Sunnis and some of the American analysts are pointing to what happened in Lebanon when the Sunnis and Shia got together to push the Israelis out.
They're saying that's the analogy they most fear, not Vietnam but Lebanon?
ROBERT FISK: The Americans have got it wrong.
As so often happens in the Middle East, the Sunnis played no part in throwing the Israelis out of Lebanon.
That's what the Shiites did and the Sunnis did very little about the resistance.
It was basically a Shi'ite resistance on its own that threw the Israelis out of Lebanon.
I think, although unfortunately my prediction of serious resistance more than a year ago is proving tragically to be correct, I think I was probably wrong in saying there would be a civil war.
The only people who are talking about civil war at the moment in Iraq are the Americans and the British and the Western journalists who suck up their lines and push it back out as their own analysis.
I haven't actually met an Iraqi who wants a civil war or who's talked about a civil war.
There's never been a civil war in Iraq.
I rather suspect that this danger of civil war - and I'm guilty before the war quite rightly predicting there might be --is being pushed out by the Americans and the British in order to frighten the Iraqis into obedience.
"If you don't put your guns, down look what might happen, you'll have civil war."
I think the reason why they're wrong and why I was wrong is that they never appreciated that the Iraqi tribal system covers both communities - many Shiite tribes also are Sunnis, they're in the same tribes.
I went out the other day - and this is an interesting example, to go to the funeral of a doctor, of a Sunni, who had been murdered almost certainly by a Shiite gang of gunmen.
When I said, "What does this make you feel about your neighbors?", they said, "Nothing.
"They're our friends and our comrades and our neighbors"
"Because," he said "our tribes include the Shiites."
The brother of the doctor said, "Look, my wife is a Shiite.
"Want do you want me to do?
"Go and kill her?
"Because my brother was killed by a Shiite?
"No, we will not have a civil war."
So I think possibly there will not a civil war and I think it is becoming highly provocative of the occupying power to constantly talk about it in this way as if they almost want a civil war.
If we journalists started talking it about after the occupation we would have called irresponsible by the occupying power.
So why are they suddenly talking about civil war now?
TONY JONES: Going back to what you said at the beginning of the program and as a summary of what you just told us, are we likely to see a temporary alliance between the Shia and the Sunni to throw the Americans out?
ROBERT FISK: I think it's going that way.
We're not yet at a serious alliance.
After all the British are in Basra, a major Shiite city and compared to the Americans there is some violence but compared to the Americans they're getting off lightly.
This at the moment, remember, is primarily an anti-American resistance.
Although, we know the Italians have been attacked, the Spanish have been attacked and are leaving, the British have been a little bit attacked, it is primarily an anti-American resistance.
But if the Shiites do join in full it will become an anti-Westerner resistance just as the whole hostage-taking fiasco is turning into an anti-Western campaign.
But, again, I stress there have never been a civil war in Iraq and I think that the tribal system there which is everything, unfortunately, that stands against the possibility of democracy, the tribal system might save Iraq from that, if in the end we have to go and leave Iraq with our tail between our legs which of course Mr Bush has no intention of doing because he wants to win an election in November.
TONY JONES: Let's move to the other flash point.
We've just seen the assassination of yet another Hamas leader and only days before that Ariel Sharon was cutting a deal in Washington with the President to allow effectively the cessation of West Bank settlements.
Those two things, how do they fit together and what's the future hold do you think, at least the immediate future, in that part of the Middle East?
ROBERT FISK: Well, let's bring Iraq and the Palestine-Israeli conflict together.
They have one thing in common - they are about occupation.
President Bush in his letter to Sharon, PM Sharon of Israel, has effectively said, he has said in fact, that there is no obligation on Israel withdrawing to the '67 borders which they were behind prior to the '67 Middle East war which means that the whole of UN Security Council resolution 242, the fundamentals of peace has been overruled by the Bush Administration.
Now, it is apparently legitimate for the reality of the statements to be accepted so that land taken from Arabs illegally under international law for Jews and Jews only by the Israelis, that's now OK around Jerusalem.
Well, what we're dealing with here, and with Hamas which is an extremely brutal organization - let's not get romantic about it - both with the Palestinians and with the Iraqis two groups of people who say, "We will not be occupied by other people, we want to keep our land."
Whether you are talking about the Palestinians who say, "We'll accept the Palestine, 22 per cent of Palestine left as opposed to all of Palestine including what is now Israel, or whether you're talking about the extremists and whether you're talking about Iraqis who don't really want warfare in their streets but hate the occupying power, what we're dealing with in the Middle East is two occupying forces coming up against an unstoppable opposition.
The brutality that that can give way we saw in Fallujah with the murder of the four American mercenaries and their mutilation and we've seen it again with the massive causalities the marines have inflicted on the people if Fallujah.
But if you want to know how bad it can get, go back to the French war in Algeria from 1954 to 1962, it has followed identical patterns - the French put settlements in or the French said, "We will crush any opposition."
It started off low yield - bombs beside the road, a bomb in front of a train then it went on to kidnapping then it went onto bombs in discos, the same as pizza houses or the same as hotels in Baghdad, and then it escalated to mass killings in the cities of Algeria and, of course, it ended with a humiliating French retreat which changed French history forever.
TONY JONES: Robert Fisk on that rather grim note we will have to leave it.
We thank you once again for coming in to talking to us tonight.
© Copyright 2004 Australian Broadcasting Corporation