Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
In sharp contrast to many reporters covering Iraq, you have travelled the country extensively and over many years.
I covered the first Gulf War. I first went to Iraq in 1978, just before Saddam became President. He was already called the strongman of Iraq and was obviously “the guy in charge”. This was just before he shot a third of the Revolutionary Command Council – the ruling politburo of the Ba”ath party.
I went back intermittently during the Iran-Iraq war, and then from the start of the invasion of Kuwait I was there. In 1990, I was there pretty well continuously with few breaks, up to 1992. And then back again up to just before the start of the war in 2003.
I couldn’t go back to Baghdad after 1999 because my brother, Andrew, and I had written a book on Iraq, Out of the Ashes, which I knew they didn’t much like. So I was restricted to Iraqi Kurdistan. Actually I was quite right not to go back then. Some time after the war, somebody gave me an Arabic translation of the book which they found in the house of Sabbawi – who was one of the half-brothers of Saddam – which had obviously been translated by the Mukhabarat (Iraqi secret police), and was being sold in Al-Mutanabi Street along with other illegal photocopies.
How does that experience compare with your reporting from Iraq during this war and just before it?
Funnily enough, the first Gulf war was far easier to report. Perhaps more difficult for television, but certainly for me it is rather more difficult to report now.
There was one clear reason for this. Saddam had given instructions that foreign journalists were to be shown bomb damage. There was a long bombing campaign before the war started. And this sort of order remained in place even during the war, so in fact you could drive almost anywhere in Iraq by simply saying that you wanted to see bomb damage, which I did. But also, rather amazingly, when the battle was raging they would still let you go anywhere.
The second time around, reporting has gone through a number of stages. It was difficult to begin with before the war, but perfectly doable. Then for a year after the fall of Saddam it was very easy. In a sense, I could go almost anywhere in Iraq.
We would go to villages and towns where the Americans were operating, and the people were very eager to talk. The local sheikhs would say that, “The foreign press are the only protection we have, the only chance to get our story out about what is happening to us.” That went on until April 2004.
Did you receive a better reception, or were you at greater ease, because you were from the British press?
This was true until recently. But now it has got extraordinarily difficult, with difficulties of two sorts. One is just commercial kidnapping. 99.9% of all people kidnapped in Iraq are Iraqis. The only ones to get publicity are foreigners or foreign reporters. And this makes it very to difficult to move around easily, or to make an appointment.
Are these kidnappings purely a commercial exercise? Is there a political element to them? And if so, to what extent are these factors related?
There are political kidnappings too. It’s obvious that the Islamist end of the resistance does not make any distinction between foreign journalists or an American soldier, or a charity worker, or even an Iraqi Christian.
In Mosul recently, Americans damaged a couple of mosques. The next thing that happened was that somebody blew up two churches, one Armenian, one Chaldean. So obviously somebody there thinks that there is no distinction between an Iraqi Christian and an American soldier. Not all of them, but enough to make it difficult to move around.
What is your daily routine, if we can call it that? How far do you travel? Do you stay in Baghdad? Or do you go through periods of just being ensconced in your hotel room?
I live in the Al-Hamra hotel, where The Independent’s offices are located. Its two modern buildings surrounded by these walls of concrete blocks that look like enormous grey tombstones, and which you find all over Baghdad. Then there are guards all around the hotel – some paid for by the Western media there, particularly the American television corporations. Cars coming into the hotel are thoroughly searched for bombs. The guy doing the searches these days has a pole with a mirror at the end of it in one hand and a pistol in the other. The pistol is there, he tells me, so that in case there is a suicide bomber he can shoot him before the bomb is detonated.
Then there are more guards at the entrance to the hotel. Some of the floors in the first block of the hotel – where you have NBC and other media outfits – have a metal grill when you go up the lift, and you encounter more guards behind it who open the gate.
Well, having security measures like that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t report. But often, it leads to a sort of total siege mentality where people don’t go out at all. In the mornings, many of the other journalists ask around to see if anyone has been out. In contrast, I always go out.
I keep discreet and sit in the back of a car. I make sure that the car isn’t washed, so it looks just like another Iraqi car but with the windows a bit more see-through. And then I travel all over Baghdad. Some journalists have these four-wheel drives with open windows which make it obvious that there are foreigners inside.
I don’t go out of Baghdad because it has become too dangerous. We saw what happened to Giuliana Sgrena from il manifesto on the road to the airport. It is still incredibly dangerous.
This is the road that the BBC’s chief correspondent, John Simpson, has called “probably the most dangerous stretch of ground on earth”. But who creates the danger there: the occupation forces, brigands, the resistance?
They cover all the roads around Baghdad. It’s a mixture of insurgents, bandits, and Americans who will fire at anything they don’t like; anything that seems suspicious to them.
You see people being killed merely because they don’t understand American hand signals for directing traffic, which look like somebody giving signals to the deaf. But it’s not obvious to Iraqis, nor is it obvious to someone like me what the American soldiers are directing you to do. But you get it wrong and you get shot. In the case of the Italian journalist it got publicised, but horrendous shootings happen at checkpoints all the time.
So you have some frightened American GI from Ohio, aged 20, who probably doesn’t want to be in Iraq. He believes that in any car there might be a suicide bomber and nothing happens to him if he gets it wrong. If he guns down a family of five, nothing happens to him. So there is no downside, from his point of view, in pulling the trigger. This happens, as I have said, all the time. Even if there’s a single shot in the distance, the Americans often open up in all directions. It seems to be part of their military training.
That seems to show an extraordinary sense of insecurity and paranoia on the part of the occupying forces.
There is enormous paranoia on their part, combined with enormous firepower. If there’s any sort of attack, their orders are to open fire in all directions. If there’s a roadside bomb, treat it as an ambush. So, almost invariably, some Iraqi, sometimes inside a house or walking on the street, gets killed when there’s any attack on American troops.
Nearly fifty journalists have been killed in Iraq according to Reporters without Borders. We have the case of Tareq Ayyoub from Al-Jazeera being killed by a rocket fired from an American warplane, and the shootings of Al-Arabiya reporters at checkpoints. Jeremy Scahill recently wrote in The Nation that the US military was “repeatedly killing journalists in Iraq”. Is it a case of “shooting the messenger”? Are journalists being targeted?
Yes, journalists are being targeted, and targeted by different people. The Americans don’t like journalists to be around. It’s impossible to prove that they have opened fire on somebody because they are a reporter or carry a camera, but it’s very suspicious. For instance, Tareq Ayyoub was actually talking live on camera and nothing was happening when he was hit by a missile explosion.
Most of the journalists who died have been Iraqis working for the Western media. The commercial kidnappers also target journalists, particularly Italian and French journalists, because they rightly believe that they can get more money. What is also clear is that the Islamist end of the resistance sees journalists and American soldiers as being pretty well equivalent.
Then you have situations like Fallujah. There were no journalists there. In that sense it is getting like, actually rather worse than, Chechnya.
So, the initial celebrations of a free press in Iraq were premature?
Well, look at what sparked off Muqtada al-Sadr’s rebellion in the south of Iraq. Someone in the Coalition Provisional Authority informed me that Bremer was handed a translation of an unflattering article about him in Sadr’s newspaper, Al-Hawza. Bremer was infuriated by this and shouted, “Close this rag down!”
A lot has been written about the “Muqawa”, the resistance in Iraq. Many commentators would have us believe it is merely Zarqawi-ite “Islamo-fascists” that are using violence in Iraq. What credence, if any, is there to these claims? And does the resistance claim any popular support locally?
Before the capture of Saddam, the US and British generals in Baghdad all emphasised that the resistance was all remnants of Saddam’s regime. Then they had a bit of a problem when they actually captured Saddam. It actually validated what all of us believed, that there was never any real connection with Saddam. Zarqawi had been mentioned from the beginning, even by people like Colin Powell. Then from January 2004, you could hardly go to a Coalition Provisional Authrity briefing in Baghdad where Zarqawi wasn’t mentioned or blamed, whatever happened. It was almost a parody. Ask any question and you would get “Zarqawi”. Why is there a water shortage? It’s Zarqawi. Why does the toothpaste taste different? Zarqawi strikes again!
At last count, I think there are 38 different organisations that are claiming attacks on the Americans. It’s a very complicated jigsaw. It is important to realise that, in the beginning, the main motive is a very simple one. The Iraqis – like everyone else in the world – don’t like to have their lives controlled by foreigners and foreign troops. All this happens in the context of an understandable and predictable hatred of occupation felt by anybody who’s being occupied.
Often people start by saying, “But, the resistance are clearly violent and bigoted Salafi or Wahhabi groups, or they are remnants of the ancien regime.” Leaving aside how truthful this is, and there is an element of truth in it, the real important question to ask is: even supposing that this is all true, why is it that they are able to operate in Iraq? Why is there sufficient sympathy amongst large groups for these often pretty ruthless brutes? This is the most important question. The antipathy to the occupation is, aside from Kurdistan, universal.
The last poll I saw showed that 82% of the Sunni Arabs want the US Army to withdraw now or in the near future. That is somewhat predictable, but the figure for Shi’a Arabs was also 69%.
Even when I have travelled in the Shi’a areas, often after a bomb directed at say police recruits, people I speak to around the site say, “Why are they attacking Iraqis like this, why don’t they kill Americans instead?” The first part of the sentence often appears on American television. The second part is very seldom mentioned.
So they are fine with insurgents attacking Americans?
Yes, in fact that’s what they invariably say.
A couple of months ago, the Iraqi interim government released figures stating that there were some 200,000 members of the insurgency. This must make the Americans very anxious.
I don’t believe these figures, nor do I think anybody knows. It’s always difficult to estimate numbers of guerrilla fighters. People try to draw up neat lists of who are professional full-time fighters, as if these guys clock in and clock out everyday, are interested in their pension rights and contractual obligations. And secondly, there are part-timers too. There is a reality to this in terms of Iraqis having intense loyalties to their district, their towns, their cities, their extended families. Iraqi nationalism still holds great sway.
Over the course of the past two years, the British and Americans have heralded a number of occasions as key turning points in the war: the capture of Saddam Hussein, the hasty handover, and the attempt to subdue the insurgency with the pounding of Fallujah. Will the recent, much-vaunted elections mark a new stage in Iraq?
It marks a stage, but does it mark a decisive stage? First of all, I think it was CNN which had “Transfer of Power” across the top of the screen. Was power really transferred? There is no government at the moment in Iraq, and the question to ask is who really holds power? The answer is, obviously, the American army of 150,000. This government wouldn’t exist without that, so it’s not really a transfer of power. Leaving aside the Kurds, who are a special case, the members of this government would have to leave the country if they didn’t have Western bodyguards. Many people voted, the Shi’a population voted, for a transfer of power to Iraqis and to Iraqi Shi’a. But no real power has been transferred.
Doesn’t the American embrace of the Iraqi Shi’a seem disingenuous? If you are part of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), you are a pioneer of democracy. If you take a similar position in Iran you are part of the Axis of Evil. And if you are a part of Hezbollah in Lebanon, then…
Everyone gives too much credit to American policy as being highly sophisticated. First of all, what has happened has been pretty disastrous for the US. Iraq, if we stand back a bit, was meant to be a demonstration of power – of the military and political ability of the US to act alone and destroy its enemies. In fact, the opposite has happened. Two years on, the US army doesn’t even control the roads between Baghdad and its base at Baghdad airport.
Washington sometimes draws comfort from the fact that it is only fighting Iraqi Sunnis, which is largely true. That’s four or five million people. But what if the Shi’a turned against them as well? They couldn’t hold Iraq. The inability of the US to coerce only one Iraqi community shows their basic weakness. The number of actual combat troops that they can put on the streets is very limited; hence the desperation to enlist British troops to help with the attack on Fallujah while they had to pull their own troops from Mosul.
They do not have the military strength to control Iraq, or to turn whatever military strength they do have into political victory.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going