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.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace