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Losing hope in Iraq: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

About the authors
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is an Iraqi photojournalist. Born in Baghdad in 1975, he trained as an architect but was conscripted into Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army, which he deserted. For six years he was forced to live in hiding, changing his residence every few months to avoid detection and arrest. Soon after the US-led coalition forces took control of Baghdad in April 2003, he began writing for the Guardian and the Washington Post. In 2005 he won the Amnesty International Media award for his reporting, and in June 2006, he received the Martha Gellhorn prize for journalism. He currently lives in Lebanon.

Introduced by Jon Bright

On a first impression, you might never know where he had been. Tallish, bearded, wearing a plain scarf and jacket despite the hot weather, he seemed quiet, though never shy. A man of few words, perhaps, only nodding curtly when asked for coffee. How would you like it? "Black". Of course.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad was in England to collect the Martha Gellhorn prize for journalism, awarded in memory of the prolific war reporter, and to promote his new book, Unembedded. We invited him to our office, and he came simply because he had some time to spare, to offer his unique insight on the current situation in Iraq.

Having reported from all sides of the insurgency, and from behind American lines as well, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is as well placed as any to assess the state of his home country. And his assessment is grim. "We've reached this moment in history in Iraq where we can't point at solutions," he says, leaning over his coffee. "Maybe there is no solution. Maybe it has to burn itself out."

Though he now works out of Lebanon, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad had never left Iraq until the outbreak of the 2003 war. A deserter from Saddam's army, he hid in Baghdad from the secret police for six years, changing houses every few months to avoid detection. With the toppling of the Ba'athist regime, he started his career as a photo-journalist, and his reporting, which the Gellhorn panel called "vivid, human, independent and brave", has featured regularly in the Guardian and the Washington Post, also earning him a Amnesty International Media Award in 2005. His stories, sharply written and always brutally honest, have reflected the country's gradual slide towards chaos.

But how did it get so bad? Slowly unwinding his scarf, he let forth a coldly furious assessment of the American administration in Iraq. Referring to Paul Bremer, the head of the US-appointed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which was supposed to have overseen Iraq's post-Saddam transition to democratic rule, the "Bremer disaster", as he calls it, he saw it as utterly misconceived. "You can't patronise people. You can't, in the 21st century, tell a whole bunch of people how to behave, especially if you don't have a plan, and you don't know how to do it. This Bremer viceroy should be put in front of a tribunal or something – he was one of the main reasons why we have reached this stage." Not a man of few words at all it turns out – if you get him on the right subject.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad also sees the UN bombing of 19 August 2003 as a turning point, "as an act of war, it was one of the most brilliant they managed to commit. They hit all of the UN departments in one way or another. It kind of moved Iraq to the situation of an occupation by an army." He witnessed how the attack drove out international organisations and NGOs, leaving the Americans to it

It was also a bitter moment for openDemocracy as our columnists Arthur Helton and Gil Loescher were interviewing the UN special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello when the terrorist struck - killing De Mello, Helton and twenty others and wounding many more. Ironically they had just come from seeing Bremer who told them that the security situation was improving all the time.

But can either the American "occupation army" or the Iraqi government it supports ever establish control? "Right now, the Americans only control the twenty metres around each humvee. Very soon we're going to come to the situation where the Americans will look at the Shi'a militia as their protectors: the Shi'a are so strong now."

So would it be better for this occupation army to leave? "As long as you have Americans in Iraq and this scene in Baghdad [of an occupation army], it will create feuds, and it will push people to fire an RPG at this thing. But whether they leave or stay, it's still going to be scary."

This from a man used to doing scary things. In addition to having reported from many insurgent cells, he was one of the last reporters to leave Fallujah before it was flattened by operation Phantom Fury in November 2004. His report from the funeral of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is typical of the kind of unrivalled access he is capable of getting, and the perilous places he goes to. The scar on his cheek was a souvenir from his closest shave – a 2004 American helicopter attack in Baghdad which he only narrowly survived.

More dangerous than any helicopter however is his status as an "unembedded" journalist. "Being (in Iraq) as an independent journalist you manage to piss off every person in Iraq, so how do you protect yourself? You protect yourself by aligning yourself to someone else, and then comes the concept of an "embed". You either embed yourself with the Sunni insurgency, or the Iraqi army, or the Americans, or the Shi'a militias. But, walk on the streets tomorrow and do this story about Iraq? No way. It is almost exactly (the same) as under Saddam. Under Saddam I couldn't be an independent journalist carrying my cameras and walking the streets. Now I can't do it, the same.

"Najaf in 2004, I think, was the last time you could do independent journalism in Iraq. We [the journalists] stayed in a hotel on the American side, and every morning we used to run to the Shi'a side. It was dangerous, and you got shot at, but, you know, if you run, you can do it. And the Shi'a let you in, because they needed the media. But that was the last time. Now, even if you gave me one million dollars, and asked me to go to Baghdad, and start this independent TV network, the first thing I would do would be to hire a militia to protect it."

As he finished his bleak projection of Iraq's future, he drained the last of his coffee. When did you lose hope? "Everyone hated Saddam in the beginning – everyone was happy to see the back of him. But as we sat and talked, we realised how things were moving in the wrong direction, how the Americans were patrolling the streets like thugs, and how you started to feel occupied. Suddenly we started to realise – 'Oh my god, they just wasted an amazing opportunity'. Whatever those reasons are, the Americans did have this opportunity and they wasted it."

"But when did I lose my hope? I don't know". His natural reticence comes out again. "I'm trying to avoid telling my story – it's a lot more complicated".

* * *

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad talks to Anthony Barnett, Maryam Maruf and Jon Bright.

The insurgency

openDemocracy: What is the insurgency in Iraq?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: This is one of the most complicated questions in Iraq. The insurgency is unlike any other in the middle east where you can pinpoint and say okay, look at Afghanistan, we're talking about the Taliban and the Islamic and jihadi insurgency; look at Palestine, we're talking about the nationalist insurgency. In Iraq it has evolved in so many different directions. I don't have this answer.

Anyone now who is trying to make a list of insurgent motivations would be shooting himself in the foot. It's so complex and fragmented. According to the people I've talked to, the insurgents I've met, and from my own experience of being in Iraq for the last four years, we're talking about people who are just so pissed off, and who have seen their country occupied – and I'm not just talking about the Americans. There are people here from Yemen and Syria, and those connected to all kinds of jihadi networks – from "Ali the patriot" all the way to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. All these people, and countless more, are fighting.

If we want to be more specific, you can see the origins of the insurgency immediately after the war. It happened predominantly amongst the Sunnis – because they were the army, the police, and because they lost and because they didn't really suffer under Saddam. There are different reasons. It's not just the Sunnis however; the insurgency exists in the Shi'a community as well. You'll find different groups in different villages, each fighting the Americans, and each with their own Muhammad.

On 19 August 2003 a truck bomb demolished the UN building in Baghdad, killing twenty-two people and injuring over 150. openDemocracy columnists Arthur Helton and Gil Loescher were in the building at the time, on the second floor, in a meeting with the special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and other UN staff and representatives. Gil was the only person in the room to survive the attack.

openDemocracy's tribute to Arthur Helton:

Guy S. Goodwin-Gill, "Arthur Helton: agent for the dispossessed" (August, 2003)

openDemocracy's tribute to Sergio Vieira de Mello:

James Galbraith, "We send our best guy to Iraq and he comes home in a box" (August, 2003)

Gil Loescher's personal account:

" I was not going to die in the rubble" (December, 2003)

Johanna Mendelson Forman, "From the ashes: a multilateral mission?" (August, 2003)

The insurgency developed quickly, like within days of the occupation. People started planting rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) in the Sunni and other districts of Baghdad. But then in August 2003 jihadi planning and strategy came to Iraq – the UN building was bombed and the ambassador killed. With the UN bombing, they managed to transform the insurgents and find a strategy and a name instead of just fighting the Americans. They started hitting the structures of the new Iraqi state.

The UN bombing was a turning point. As a strategic act of war, it was one of the most brilliant they managed to commit. The UN suffered hugely, and it forced many of the other NGOs, and there were a lot of different ones, to leave. It essentially moved Iraq to the situation of an occupation by an army. Then another major turning point came just days later – the bomb at the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf. Over a hundred people were killed, this time it was the Shi'a that was targeted. So from that moment to the present day, we're talking about jihadi, nationalists, former parties, normal Iraqis, Shi'a groups, Shi'a groups sponsored by Iran, Shi'a groups fighting other Shi'a groups and hitting the Americans. We can talk for hours and hours.

Early on the main theme of the insurgency was a "counter-occupation" – to kill the Americans, make them leave and bring the situation back to how it was before, i.e. a strong Sunni general to take control of Iraq, because historically Iraq was only unified when there was a strong man. Now, after three years of occupation and UN interference, the Shi'a militias, and now the Sunnis – i.e. the insurgents themselves – realize that after the Americans leave, they will be fucked big-time.

openDemocracy: So there will be a civil war that the Sunnis will lose?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: They would lose. The Shi'a militias are very strong. They will sweep aside every single neighbourhood in its way. Fallujah in 2004 had become this kind of Stalingrad of resistance, but even there, even in Fallujah, people talked and reached the conclusion that they didn't want the Americans to leave. Really, they want the Americans to stay as a kind of insurance policy against the Shi'a and the Kurds.

It is so complicated to understand the mentality of an Iraqi in the first place, and then to understand the mentality of an insurgent. There are lots of people who have only one aim, and that is to drag the Americans out and whatever happens after that will happen.

openDemocracy: Do you think Iraq can remain unified?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Of course Iraq can stay unified. There's a huge crisis at the moment, but the problem is not Shi'a militia killing Sunnis or Sunni insurgents bombing Shi'a mosques, but rather, it's the hatred inside the communities. The two communities are looking at each other with so much distrust and anger – the barriers are already there. It took maybe a hundred years for Iraq to come from that kind of sectarianism into a situation where it's fine if you're Sunni, Shi'a, or protestant or Catholic – it's just cultural differences. Now we've regressed to that mentality of 100 or 150 years ago where it's not fine.

I don't know what will undo this situation. I believe that sectarian fighting and civil war has its own mechanism and momentum, and it's already going in that direction. People always compare Iraq to Lebanon but I think it's more similar to former Yugoslavia. It's a bit like a Croatia-Serbia-Bosnia situation that you're talking about in Iraq because it's easy to imagine the three states. This is why people couldn't divide Lebanon, because it was so impossible to divide. But it's very easy to divide Iraq into Kurds, Shi'a, Sunni. The real fighting, the "Sarajevo of Iraq", will be around Kirkuk, Baquba, this belt around Baghdad.

There are six million people in Baghdad, and the ethnic composition is not straightforward. Now we're talking about the east part of the city being predominantly Shi'a, and the west mostly Sunni. It didn't just get like this over night, it had its roots and it's been happening in the last three or four years. If you came to me in 2002 with a map of Baghdad and asked me to pinpoint the Shi'a-Sunni neighbourhoods, apart from Sadr (formerly Saddam) city and Adhamiya (where the holiest Sunni shrine in Iraq is), you couldn't really distinguish which was which. Now I can draw clear lines, even streets, though not houses, which totally define Sunni from Shi'a neighbourhoods. This is what is happening in Baghdad at the moment, the neighbourhoods are pretty much barricaded.

"Everyone in the Middle East can fire an AK47, what else do you need?"

openDemocracy: But this wasn't an aim of the insurgency? Are there insurgents who want this division?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: It's more complicated. By focusing only on the insurgency, we are kind of negating the role of other factors in Iraq. There's something very important, which is the Shi'a mentality and the Shi'a history. You have to understand that the Shi'a have been the dominant majority for hundreds of years and in all that time they've never managed to rule Iraq. Suddenly they come to power, and suddenly they have their militias roaming the street; they have control over the towns and the cities; and they have the taste of blood in their mouths – the same taste of blood that the Sunnis had when they were in control.

Once they have control and power, it's almost impossible to tell them "no come on, leave everything. Let's talk about this nicely and give the Sunnis power. Let's share everything and be happy". Part of this sectarian situation is of course the Sunni insurgency, but it's also important to understand how the Shi'a themselves pushed the Sunnis into that corner, and how the Shi'a did not reach out their hands with grace and say come my beloved, let's be brothers for the rest of our lives. No, they've been oppressed and it's totally understandable. Hundreds of thousands of Shi'a were killed and murdered. It's kind of like the Auschwitz mentality of "we survived the Holocaust, and no way are we going back to how it was like before".

What's happening now with militia men is that they go into Sunni houses and grab fifteen or twenty men and execute them in the street. Those guys are being killed for what they represent, because their cousins or fathers were either Shi'a oppressors under Saddam or now with the insurgency. It's a community fighting for itself on the two sides.

openDemocracy: Both sides have a strange relationship to the Americans because the Shi'a are there partly because of the Americans, and the Sunni, you're saying, partly don't see the Americans as their last protectors.

"It's like a big poker game. Everyone's sitting around the table, and the Iranians have the biggest number of cards in their hands, far more than the Americans, and they have played very smart."

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Not anymore, in fact almost the opposite. The Shi'a no longer regard the Americans as their protectors. Very soon we're going to come to the point where the Americans will look at the Shi'a militia as their protectors. At this moment, the Shi'a militias are so powerful that if they say they want a semi-autonomous region of the south, it's already theirs. The next step is internal Shi'a fighting. They are so strong and they don't have a single leadership. We're talking about tens of thousands of militia men roaming the streets.

openDemocracy: Are they trained?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Everyone in the middle east can fire an AK47, what else do you need? In May after a British helicopter was shot down in Basra, Michael Jackson – who's the head of the British Army in Iraq – said, "If the Iraqi government does not go and disarm the Shi'a militias, we'll have to do it ourselves". This is just total bollocks. If the Shi'a militia decides they want to disarm the British army, they can do it within forty-eight hours. The reason they don't is because they are escalating their task and want to maintain the pressure. They're harmless at the moment. 8, 000 British soldiers in the south of Iraq have no impact at all. They can just about rescue two of their SAS soldiers from a prison but that's almost the extent. Seriously, I'm not being anti-British or anything, this is a fact. These poor British soldiers, they have tanks, helicopters and planes but they are surrounded by tens of thousands of angry, armed men and Iran is just across there.

Outside players in Iraq: America and the regional powers

openDemocracy: If you look at it from the more privileged perspective of London, it seems that the Americans have been defeated. Not yet in every case tactically, but they have experienced an enormous moral, political and strategic defeat leading to all sorts of questions about the misleading lies, weapons of mass destruction, and documents and dossiers. It was certainly not the belief of either the White House or Downing Street, that this would be the situation three years later. So in the process, the American media, the American constitutional court, the whole American political process and its position in terms of its world alliances, its huge expenditures, the rise of China – it's a strategic catastrophe. But when I said this to a friend of mine from Turkey, he said "but look what the Americans have shown they can do". Look at the power that they can project, so be careful about suggesting otherwise.

openDemocracy has tracked the prelude, course and aftermath of the Iraq war – always seeking to voice vital ideas and perspectives from around the world. In the past four years we have published around 200 articles on Iraq, here, a brief guide to our coverage:

Debates and columns:

Iraq: understanding the handover

Iraq: testimonies of conflict

Iraq - the war & after

Iraq: war or not?

Iraqi Voices

The UN and the Iraq war

Global security, Paul Rogers

Iraq: the human cost, Arthur Helton and Gil Loescher

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: They did show their might and power. Oh my god, I was in a taxi in Baghdad a week before the war, and the taxi driver was saying to me "Look, my son, look at the streets, governments, buildings, palm trees, and people shopping. There is no way an army tank can come and occupy the streets, occupy another country and destroy all these things, it's impossible."

It wasn't. Four weeks later, they managed to march all the way through Baghdad, destroy the government and occupy Iraq. It was amazing. So they did manage to project this might and power and send waves of fear through the middle east. Within six months of the war, everyone in the middle east started talking about democracy. But look at what is happening now three years later. Those same people who were so eager to embrace democracy are looking the other way. Yes we can talk about the strategic defeat of the Americans according to their first aims and goals, but you know, I am still a bit cynical and I believe that history can always change itself.

It's not very difficult for the Americans to create new goals and targets, and they can reshift this whole situation. Within the next five years they can point to Iraq and say, "Look that was not a huge mess". Or "We managed to create three countries out of Iraq". But at this moment, yes, we're talking about an American defeat and we're talking about a huge quagmire.

The most important thing is that the Americans don't control Iraq anymore. They control the twenty metres around each humvee. But do they control the trajectory of Iraqi politics? I don't think so. A friend of mine, a very connected, well-known Sunni politician, was telling me that the only way Nuri Maliki can enforce his government is by creating a "fifth militia" in Iraq. This is what is gradually happening to the army. The army is becoming the central government's militia, which is typical of these kinds of weak states.

openDemocracy: Militia meaning that it acts in an arbitrary way?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: It acts not in an institutional way. It's controlled by the prime minister, the minister of defence so it's a force that follows Maliki. But once he goes, the whole unit goes.

openDemocracy: What are the other four militias?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: The term "fifth militia" is a bit of a metaphor, and if truth be told, we're actually talking about hundreds of militias. Each police captain has managed to transform his own unit into a private militia. There is no way to impose the authority of the interior minister on a local police station anywhere in Iraq – apart from money. It is so decentralized, there is no central government, no authority, no fear, you name it. It's total chaos. To go back to your point about America being defeated in Iraq, maybe not totally yet but it's a huge loss. I don't know how Bush can sustain himself in power.

openDemocracy: What can the Americans now do?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Nothing.

openDemocracy: If you read someone like George Packer, who writes for the New Yorker, he argues that the Americans must remain there. I [Anthony Barnett] know George; he's a very good, honest reporter. He's been out there and he passionately feels for Iraq, but he thinks that if the Americans leave it would be reckless and make it worse. In other words, his assumption is that the Americans are capable of delivering a solution.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: There is a kind of disease that American journalists suffer from. It may not be the same article, but George Packer wrote another piece where he referred to "the lessons of" Tal Afar (a mid-sized town near the Syrian border), and he was saying how American soldiers there are actually very good in delivering what they had to do, but it was Donald Rumsfeld who did not follow up on the strategy. So if only that could be fixed, the situation could be okay, etcetera.

And then there was a CNN report not long ago talking about how you can get fake police uniforms in the market and how easy it is for criminals to pose as the Iraqi police. It was going on about how if only the Americans would invent uniforms that were hard to copy then that would stop the death squads from running around the streets!

The fact is there is no one thing we can do. If the Americans stay now, it is a disaster. If they leave tomorrow, it is a disaster. But the Americans need to stop behaving like an occupation. Their whole mentality and process is wrong. We're talking about an ideological thing here. They may even need to change the entire administration. If you look at the American public, they are being openly lied to by Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and George Bush. The Americans are being deceived on a daily basis. They are given a rosy picture of Iraq when the reality is that it is in total chaos and at the brink of civil war!

I watched a really amazing film the other day, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and later I listened to an interview with the director Ken Loach. He was talking about how critics had accused him of making the film as a metaphor for Iraq, but actually the film had been in the works for around ten years. He made a really interesting observation which was that throughout history all occupation armies behave the same. It's perfect, as long as you have an American army that is behaving as an occupation army, you cannot stop the cycle of violence.

Occupation in Iraq: the early years

9 April 2003:
Saddam's statue topples with his regime; American forces move into central Baghdad

1 May 2003:
George Bush declares victory in Iraq and the end of major combat

6 May 2003:
Paul Bremer is appointed by George Bush as the top civil administrator in Iraq; his job is to oversee the transition to democracy

June 2003:
Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shi'a cleric, establishes the "Mahdi army", a Shi'a militia group

13 July 2003:
The Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), composed of 25 Iraqi nationals picked by coalition forces, meets for the first time. Paul Bremer is still the ultimate authority in Iraq

19 August 2003:
A bomb hidden in a truck demolishes the UN building in Baghdad, killing twenty-two people including the special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and openDemocracy columnist Arthur Helton. Around 150 people were injured, amongst them Arthur Helton's colleague and co-columnist, Gil Loescher

29 August 2003:
A car bomb in Najaf at the shrine of Imam Ali – one of the holiest shrines in Shi'a Islam – kills the influential cleric Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim and more than a hundred others. It is the first major incident of sectarian violence between the Sunni and Shi'a community

13 December 2003:
Saddam Hussein is captured by coalition forces

2 March 2004:
Almost 200, mostly Shi'a, people are killed in a series of planned explosions in Karbala and Baghdad during the Ashura festival; American officials blame the attack on the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was linked to al-Qaida

4 April 2004:
Shi'a uprisings, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, erupt in several cities, culminating in a siege at the city of Najaf, a Shi'a stronghold

April 2004:
US-led forces begin the first assault on Falluja, initially in response to killing and mutilation of four US contractors. After meeting strong resistance from the insurgents and a month long battle, US-led forces withdraw from the city

29 April 2004:
The Abu Ghraib scandal – a series of photographs emerge showing American abuse of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad

28 May 2004:
Iyad Allawi is appointed Iraqi interim prime minister

28 June 2004:
Transfer of sovereignty – Paul Bremer hands over power to the interim Iraqi government

27 August 2004:
After periods of heavy fighting, Najaf militants leave the Imam Ali mosque and surrender the shrine, in a deal brokered by leading Shi’a cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani. US forces pull back

7 – 15 November 2004:
Falluja is retaken by US-led forces in the “battle for Falluja”

22 November 2004:
Authorities announce that the first multi-party elections in Iraq since in 1953 will be held on 30 January 2005

So, yes of course you can keep the Americans in Iraq for the next eight years, there are good arguments for this. But at the same time, as long as you have Americans in Iraq and Baghdad the way it is, it will create feuds, and it will push people to fire an RPG at this thing. So, do they leave tomorrow? Do they stay? Whatever the choice is, it's scary.

Why don't we rethink this whole situation in Iraq? Why don't the Americans fall on their knees and admit that they made huge mistakes, and then try to find a way out of these mistakes. Talk to the Sunnis, talk to the insurgents, talk to everyone. Don't tell me that those people who have blood on their hands can't talk to me! Who are we kidding? Everyone, including the Americans, has blood on their hands.

There's also another issue, and this happens every single time I take a taxi anywhere in the middle east. Once the taxi driver finds out that I'm Iraqi, I am pushed into two corners. Either I have to defend Saddam Hussein because the taxi driver is pro-American and he is telling me that the occupation is so perfect. Or I have to defend the occupation because the taxi driver is so pan-Arabist and saying that everything before was great. Both of them are wrong. Saddam was a thuggish dictator who brutalised and destroyed his people. The Americans are – well, they are an occupation, and behaving as one. We have to create something, a third option. Iraqis deserve something else.

openDemocracy: One way of doing this – and I've argued this before – is for the Americans to convene a regional conference, which would include Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria – and every regional player – to discuss how the Americans can cease to occupy Iraq without there being a civil war.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: This is part if the problem. There is a regional conference, with Iraq and its neighbours, every three to six months. It's perfect. All the foreign ministers talk to each other and don't do anything. Look at the Lebanese civil war, how many conferences did they have, how many tables did they use? How many days did they spend in Geneva? They didn't achieve anything.

The Americans need to do two things. First, bring every player within Iraq around a table. There was something like this a few months ago in Cairo, you had Sunni and Shi'a sitting on the same table – it was amazing.

Secondly, admit that they made a mistake. Admit to the Sunnis that you made a mistake and let the Sunnis admit that they made a mistake. Have the Shi'a disarm their militia. We all know that unless you build very strong security services the Americans cannot leave, but the whole process of building security services was such a shambles and a totally screwed operation to begin with. So, they have to do it again.

openDemocracy: But surely the point is, from your description earlier, that the American occupation must end as soon as possible?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Yes.

openDemocracy: If the Americans say "we're leaving", surely this leaves a high risk to the occupation? They can keep the bases, there has to be some acknowledgement that Iran and other countries will have an influence otherwise they can feed a civil war.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: But that's my whole argument: don't you think they have an influence at the moment? When I was in Fallujah in November 2003 I saw a lot of miswak – pieces of wood that the Salafi use instead of toothbrushes. It was coming in totally rubbed, cleaned and fresh, and then I found out it had been produced in Saudi Arabia in October 2003 – so these things were coming in to Iraq in just a month. Iranians are everywhere in the south. Israelis are in Kurdistan. Who is not in Iraq?

openDemocracy: But doesn't that prove that the people who need to be around the table are Iranians, Israelis, and Palestinians, and Syrians – everyone has to be around the table. This is something which the Americans, diplomatically and politically, are incapable of doing.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Yes, but before they do this they should do the same thing with the Iraqis. They have been trying to do this. They've been talking to clerics, senior insurgents, low-level insurgents. Zalmay Khalilzad (the American ambassador in Iraq) is talking to these people, and he understands. He knows he has to convert these low-level negotiations into policy.

I think we've reached this moment in history in Iraq where we can't just point at "solutions". Maybe there is no solution, and maybe it has to burn itself out?

Last time I was in Baghdad I was talking to this sixteen year-old kid, who had a big pistol at his side, and his job, with his three mates, was to kill Shi'a on the streets. What conference on planet earth is going to bring those people back into normality? This kid is a sixteen year-old death squaddie. He is going to kill people until the moment he gets killed, or ends up in prison or something bad happens to him.

It's seriously messed up. Another thing that happened during my last visit – I was driving through a Sunni neighbourhood, an upper middle class area, nice streets, which are now all barricaded and militia men tend to hide everywhere – they are Sunnis waiting for death squaddies from the Shi'a interior forces to come. I wanted to take pictures. All the streets were blocked, but I couldn't find any militia men to photograph. Suddenly, as I'm turning from one street to another, I see a whole bunch of gunmen. I stop the car, jump out, and try to take pictures. I realise then that these gunmen are six, seven, eight year-old kids, carrying plastic guns, exactly as if they were manning a real checkpoint, just because they've seen their brothers and fathers doing the same thing. It's broad daylight and they're playing with the barricade. They're playing the game their fathers do for real at night, in a very professional, aggressive, ugly way. Those kids were just waving the guns, and suddenly round the other corner comes a police car, i.e., most probably Shi'a death squaddies, and those kids, armed with their toy guns, wave at the police car aggressively. But, by chance it went down a side street.

openDemocracy: If it is a disaster, what would burning itself out mean?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Again I go back to Lebanon. The civil war lasted for fifteen years, from 1975 to 1990, but the fighting could have stopped much earlier than that, in the early-mid 1980s. But they kept on going. There were militia men on the streets, weapons everywhere. It was such an absurd fight – people were fighting for no logical reason. So it's not about the people who sit around the tables but the people on the ground fighting. The militias have control now in Iraq – just look at Muqtada al-Sadr's men – and they will never give it up unless you fight them.

openDemocracy: Would Muqtada al-Sadr be willing to say, "Fine, the Kurds can be independent and the Sunnis can be independent"? Or does he have himself an Iraqi project?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: He claims he has one, but then again, for all its power, the Muqtada al-Sadr militia is already on the verge of collapsing and splintering into twenty different militias. So, what he says on al-Jazeera is very nice and pretty but has no real impact on the guys on the ground.

openDemocracy: What role do you think Iran is playing, and how do the Shi'a feel about Iran?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Well, we don't see land rovers driving through the south with Iranian flags, so we haven't reached the 1984 Bekaa valley situation in Lebanon. It's like a big poker game. Everyone's sitting around the table, and the Iranians have the biggest number of cards in their hands, far more than the Americans, and they have played very smart. They control, they equip, directly and indirectly most of the Shi'a militias. Muqtada al-Sadr was in the beginning an anti-Iranian Shi'a militia, and within a year he was totally on board. They are now in Iraq saying that the Americans hate Iran, and the Mahdi army will fight. This is a huge victory for the Iranians.

How do the Iraqi Shi'a look at the Iranians? In 2003 and before there was a distinctive Iraqi character and identity, quite separate from the Iranians, but now with all this sectarian fighting, the Iranians are much closer. As a Shi'a, the Iranians won't fight me, they will protect me – so they are closer to me than the Sunnis.

“The fact is there is no one thing we can do. If the Americans stay now, it is a disaster. If they leave tomorrow, it is a disaster. But the Americans need to stop behaving like an occupation. Their whole mentality and process is wrong”

Independent journalism

openDemocracy: What is the media like in Iraq? Are Iraqis all watching the same television programmes – is there an Iraqi state television?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: There is an Iraqi television, but bear in mind that we're still talking about the middle east, and a country that has always been ruled by dictatorships. So from the beginning, the Iraqi Free Media network – established by the Americans and now controlled by the Shi'a – applied the same rhetoric that was used under Saddam, demonising everything. It's like Israeli TV: everyone is a terrorist…

At the same time, the Sunnis have their own TV stations and media networks, and they brand all the police in the streets as death squaddies. This is one of the forms of democracy we have in Iraq at the moment. The media is so democratic as long as it's affiliated with a group, militia, or a sect. There is no independent journalism. If you gave me one million dollars to start an independent TV network in Baghdad the first thing I would do is recruit a militia to protect the network.

The last time I was in Iraq I was scared of being kidnapped by the Sunni insurgents, but I was even more scared of the interior ministry police units and of the Shi'a militias. As an independent journalist you manage to piss off every person in Iraq, so how do you protect yourself? You protect yourself by aligning yourself to someone else, and from that comes the concept of an "embed". You can embed yourself with the Sunni insurgency, the Iraqi army, the Americans, or the Shi'a militias. But, walk on the streets tomorrow and do this story about Iraq? No way. I mean, of course you have to do that at a totally low, discreet level, without cameras, just chatting to people and finding out stuff. But to be an investigative journalist in Baghdad with your TV crew and reporters, you will be killed. This is my problem, and this is the problem facing all Iraqi and foreign journalists, and anyone who is trying to create independent journalism in Iraq.

I always use the case of Fakher Haidar. He was one of the most brilliant Iraqi journalists ever. He knew Basra, and he was like a local Baswari, a son of the city. He had connections to the militias, and political parties. He was one of the best guys in Basra, and he was killed – by Shi'a militia men. It was because he was doing a story for the New York Times investigating how the security forces are dominated by insurgents.

This is like how it was under Saddam. Then I couldn't be an independent journalist carrying my cameras and walking the streets, and now I still can't do it. It's so dangerous to have your camera out.

I think Najaf in August 2004 was the last time you could do independent journalism in Iraq. The Shi'a were surrounded in the Shrine, and all the journalists were staying behind the American lines, in two hotels. Every morning we crossed the two main "sniper alleys" wearing flak jackets and carrying cameras, the Americans on one side and the Shi'a militias on the other. We were shot at, but, you know, if you run, you can do it. The Shi'a inside the shrine, they will see you are coming from the American side, but they allow you in because they need the press. It was very sketchy, and incredibly dangerous, but it was doable. Now if you want to do anything with the Shi'a militias, you have to spend a lot of time talking your way in, almost embedding with them.

openDemocracy: How do you feel about the way Iraq is being covered by outside media?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Someone mentioned to me the other day that they don't learn anything about Iraq from watching the BBC. It's a bit harsh, but sometimes it's true. On the BBC you see a reporter sitting on a rooftop and he's asked all these difficult questions by the anchor in London, and he doesn't have answers because all that he did was read the wire five minutes before coming on the TV, which is totally understandable! Also the BBC tries to maintain a so-called objectivity but they just end up losing authority. For instance they keep referring to what the Sunnis "believe" is a police force dominated by Shi'a death squads – but they know that it's true, we know it, and we talk about it.

"As an independent journalist you manage to piss of every person in Iraq, so how do you protect yourself?"

Still, what the BBC and British media are doing is by far much better than the Americans. If you watch the local cable TV stations in New York you think Iraq is fine. Car bombs, little bit of violence, but on the whole things are going good.

openDemocracy: But it's no public secret that the American death toll is mounting at the same time. The promise delivered was almost no dead and a policing operation, but now almost more American soldiers will have died than those who died on 9/11

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Okay, the political impact was a legitimate concern a year ago, but it's not any more because the number of soldiers dying, in proportion, is falling down. The main concern for the American public is when they realise the hugely negative impact on US interests in the middle east. Israel was always enemy number one, and America a close second, and that was mostly because of their support for the Israelis. But now the Americans are on equal par with Israel – they are another occupying force.

Maybe it's not so important for them, but can they ever recover their image among Muslims in the middle east? That, I think, is the main impact of the war.

openDemocracy: And how did you feel about it yourself?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Everyone hated Saddam and everyone was happy to see the back of him. But then when Iraqis had a chance to reflect and talk, we realised how badly things were moving the wrong way, and how the Americans were patrolling the streets like thugs, and how you started to feel occupied. Suddenly we started to realise – "Oh my god, they just wasted an amazing opportunity". Whatever those reasons are, the Americans did have this opportunity and they wasted it.

It's as Ken Loach said, all occupation armies behave the same.

openDemocracy: Perhaps the great mistake was, when the Americans came in so easily, instead of thinking, "Fine we can now leave it to them", quite quickly, they took this to say "They are nothing, we can write whatever picture we want on them". Is that fair?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: I think so yes. In Tikrit, after the war ended, people were happy to see the back of Saddam. At the time I was travelling around Iraq and I saw how much hope people had. This hope lasted for about a year, almost two. Saddam was the ultimate, evil nightmare, you just can't imagine, so when you remove that man, whatever you bring after that is much better than this. But now, things are just bad, really, really bad. So Iraqis have lost this hope.

One of the biggest mistakes the Americans made was to appoint this viceroy, Paul Bremer. He behaved in one way or another almost like Saddam, like this ultimate dictator. You can't patronise people. You can't, in the 21st century, tell a whole bunch of people how to behave, especially if you don't have a plan, and you don't know how to do it. I think this guy should be put in front of a tribunal or something. He was one of the main factors why this situation got so bad and reached this stage. He is the perfect expression of this Whitehouse mentality.

openDemocracy: And your own journey?

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: I'm trying not to answer that one, not for any single reason – I think its separate, and it's by far more complicated.


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