Robert Fisk on the Iraq Elections

Robert Fisk is a long-time correspondent on the Middle East, and is now back in Iraq. This is a single short snippet, just one brief monologue, part of a longer interview.

ROBERT FISK: …The issue is, what is going to be the American involvement in providing Iraq with its next interim government? Again, I repeat this election was for a national assembly to write a constitution, which will have to be approved by a referendum, which in December there would then have to be another election for a “real” government.

The issue here you see is this: In the aftermath of these elections (and we don’t know the results and won’t know them for days to come) it is quite possible that the administration here (which, of course, is effectively in the hands of the United States and here Ambassador Negroponte will be involved) will try to form a government coalition. This would include certain leading Shiite politicians who won seats in yesterday’s election. It would include some Sunnis who were running, in some cases, on Shia tickets. This was a list system, proportional representation election, and of course, it would undoubtedly include some Kurds.

Now, it would look very nice and democratic and free if a coalition government could include Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds. And that I’m sure is what the Americans would like to see. But then the largest Shiite alliance, which scored seats in the election, could turn out to be the official opposition and Shiites would then say, “Well, it is very nice to have this lovely coalition of all our ethnic groups. But we won the election! We are 60% of the people and now we’re in a coalition where we don’t have the majority of power and our largest party is confined to being the opposition in parliament!”

And that, at the moment, is the biggest danger, that we’re going to see such administrative refining of the results that we will produce and westernize infinitely fair coalition government comprising Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds, but which will not represent the overall election results, which must show a Shiite majority.

I mean there are actually members of the largest alliance of Shiite groups saying now that they are certain they’ve got more than 50% of the vote which was cast yesterday. Now if that’s the case, the Shiites will say “Well hold on a second, we’re the majority, we got the most votes, we got the greatest number of seats and you are making us part of a coalition and the biggest party of the opposition in parliament,” and that, of course, would then be betrayal just as it would be if they suddenly find that the American and British and other foreign forces here are not going to leave…

Full Interview at

Eye News #10 – You May Feel a Slight Pressure

I went to the retinal specialist today, after far too long an absence. It turns out that I hadn’t gone since October 2003, and really, I should go every 4-6 months. I scored 20/20 on my Evil Eye (the Y2K eye), and only scored 20/40 on my Excellent Eye (formerly known as the Blind Eye). But Yee Ha, 20/40 is all you need to drive, and even then only in one eye, if you have a doctor’s note, so I’m more than good to go: clear the road!

The doctor looked into my Evil Eye, reviewed the many operations from Y2K, and said, “I can’t believe that you’re getting 20/20 out of that eye!’ I really have been getting the sense lately that I’m just cheating eye death at this point, and that some day, long, long before I want it to happen, I’m going to lose a globe (functionally, at least; cosmetically, I’ll still be golden, and a hell of an attractive fellow).

The assistant hadn’t been able to measure the inter-ocular pressure (a measure of risk of glaucoma) because the doctor had been using the equipment on another patient, so after the doctor looked at my eyes, the assistant came back in and took some pressure readings, and they weren’t great: 26 and 30. 20 is considered exactly borderline: below is good; above is bad.

The doctor came back in, re-measured, and got 18 (ok) and 24 (bad!), and he also said that the retina in the Evil Eye looked a bit thickened, a bad sign, so he ordered photographs of the eye, along with an angiogram: they injected strong yellow dye into my blood (apparently I can expect to pee fluorescent yellow for several days) and snapped many bright, painful photos.

Painful! It’s interesting: my Excellent Eye has always been (well, since its repair from detachment in 1976, anyway) remarkably light-sensitive, while the Evil Y2K Eye is just the reverse: the photographer was shining strong lights into my eye, and muttering, “Damn, that’s dark.” Then he would bump up the light, and try again, but my eye would just close down on him — I don’t think that I was properly dilated, or it may have been the nick in my iris from Operation #1 causes the iris to stay a bit more closed than normal; I’ve always felt that the light in that eye was just a little dark — and perhaps that’s why I see better than expected out of that eye, since a smaller f-Stop has an inherently better focus.

While the doctor and photographer were looking at my eyes on the computer screen, the doctor remarked, “He gets 20/20 out of that eye. [Can you imagine?]”

The photographer looked at the picture and said, “Whoa. [No way!]”

The doctor said that the optic nerve in the Evil Eye doesn’t show any sign of glaucoma damage, and the blood vessels looked fine in the angiogram, so he’s just going to have me come back in 6 weeks to re-test the pressure. I suppose that if it’s bad a second time, that he’ll put me on glaucoma medication, or consider surgery, oog.

Nothing for now, though.

Ducking The Press

On today’s “Meet the Press”, John Negroponte, Ambassador to Iraq, was given an opportunity by host Tim Russert to say that the United States would honor a request from the newly-elected Vichy government of Iraq to get the hell out of Dodge, and he totally ducked it. 

There are lots of explanations for this that are possible, but what he absolutely didn’t say that we would honor it, if asked.

TIM RUSSERT:  These are the stories that have been read across the United States and around the world about the security situation regarding voting and campaigning in Iraq:  “Guerrillas have stepped up their attacks and driven most candidates deep indoors.  …A result, in large swaths of the country, is a campaign in the shadows, where candidates are often too terrified to say their names.  Instead of holding rallies, they meet voters in secret, if they meet them at all.  Instead of canvassing for votes, they fend off death threats.”

…The CIA and other intelligence agencies have done an analysis for our government leaders.  This is how The Miami Herald reported its contents.  “New U.S. intelligence assessments on Iraq paint a grim picture of the road ahead and conclude that there is little likelihood that President Bush’s goals can be attained in the near future.  Instead of stabilizing the country, national elections Jan. 30 are likely to be followed by more violence and could provoke a civil war between majority Shiite Muslims and minority Sunni Muslims, the CIA and other intelligence agencies predict.”

…Do you expect a newly elected Iraqi government would set a specific timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops?

AMBASSADOR NEGROPONTE:  I don’t know whether it would do that.  The presence of United States forces and the multinational force is mandated by a Security Council resolution, which says that our forces will be here during–for the duration of the political process.  But the nature and extent of our military presence is always something that we’re open to discussing with Iraqi governmental authorities.

TIM RUSSERT:  But if they set a specific timetable, would we honor it?

AMBASSADOR NEGROPONTE:  Well, we are here at the invitation of the Iraqis, and we are here in complete respect for their sovereignty.  But you are asking a hypothetical question, and I wouldn’t want anything I say to be construed as predicting whether or not that might actually happen.

Full transcript on MSNBC.

Collective Punishment and Hearts and Minds

Unembedded journalist Dahr Jamail writes from Iraq of the hamfisted tactics being used by the U.S. Military there, as their frustration mounts over the ever-swelling insurgency: in the al-Dora region of Baghdad, Americans have bulldozed date palm farms, refused to remove unexploded ordinance in fields until the locals deliver an insurgent in payment, have punatively cut electicity vitally needed for irrigation during planting season, and have even destroyed two water pumps and thrown them in the river. A man tells of being taken to a prison camp for 10 months, and living under a sign entitled: “The Zoo.”

A 50-year-old blind farmer laments,

“They destroyed so many of our fences, and now we have wolves attacking our animals. We are living on the food ration now, that is all. We only need to stop this hurting.”

While others listening are nodding, he continues on, “Every night I hear them come and shoot. During the beginning, when they searched our houses they didn’t steal. Now they steal from us. They didn’t hurt us at the beginning, but now they are hurting us so much!”

Collective Punishment at Dahr Jamail’s Iraq Dispatches

It is clear, from this and other reports, that the American force has descended into pure xenophobia. Jonathan Schell, author of the classic book on Vietnam, The Real War, wrote a great article for The Nation a month ago, which the editors allowed Tom Engelhardt to publish on his blog, along with a short introduction. Schell cites the attack on Falluja, which left the city a smoldering, unlivable shell, as an example of a policy designed, not to win the “Hearts and Minds” of the populace, but simply to win their minds, essentially telling the Iraqis, “Cooperate with us, and do not cooperate with the insurgents, or we’ll raze your cities to the ground.”

Schell, The Battle for Minds (Forget the Hearts) at

Possible Deep Regret

U.S.-led forces raided a house in Aaytha (south of Mosul), then hit it with a 500-pound bomb, killing 14, then realized that it was the wrong house after all, and finally capped off the whole sorry affair with a remarkably-inept apology, yesterday:

“Multi-National Force-Iraq deeply regrets the loss of possibly innocent lives.”

Tom Englehardt comments: “Think of that. A 500-pound bomb hits what they themselves then believed not to be ‘the intended target’ and what they regretted was the loss of ‘possibly innocent’ lives. Was it simply assumed by now that so many Iraqis support the insurgency in areas like Mosul that even in the ‘wrong’ house the odds of ‘innocence’ were slim?”

Full Story at CNN.

The Salvador Option

Newsweek reports that the U.S. government is actively considering setting up kidnapping and death squads in Iraq, such as were used in El Salvador during the Reagan era. The article quotes one senior military officer as saying, “What everyone agrees is that we can’t just go on as we are. We have to find a way to take the offensive against the insurgents. Right now, we are playing defense. And we are losing.”

Faced with the problem of broad support within the Sunni areas, “[o]ne military source involved in the Pentagon debate…suggests that new offensive operations are needed that would create a fear of aiding the insurgency. ‘The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists,’ he said. ‘From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation.'”

Full Newsweek Story at MSNBC.

Those Wacky Realists

At a New America Foundation luncheon today, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser for former President George H.W. Bush, predicted a civil war in Iraq following the January 30th elections, widely expected to be dominated by Iraq’s long-oppressed Shiite majority.

He shared the podium with Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, who said that it would take at least 500,000 troops, $500 billion and resumption of the military draft to ensure adequate security in Iraq, and that failing that, the operation should be terminated.

Scowcroft joked that both men were considered “realists” during their lifelong careers, but noted that “it’s become a pejorative term” in the current Bush administration.

Full Story at The Washington Post.

Doom, Defeat and Despair in Iraq

This week, a horrific article in The Economist (which, I must say, has been doing a fantastic job of reporting from Iraq). It paints an incredibly bleak picture: I don’t see how anyone could think that the situation there is in any way winnable.

Since discovering that roadside bombs, known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), can be triggered by mobile telephones, marines say they shoot at any Iraqi they see handling a phone near a bomb-blast. Bystanders to an insurgent ambush are also liable to be killed. Sometimes, the marines say they hide near the body of a dead insurgent and kill whoever comes to collect it. According to the marine lieutenant: “It gets to a point where you can’t wait to see guys with guns, so you start shooting everybody…It gets to a point where you don’t mind the bad stuff you do.”

When fired upon, they retaliate by blitzing whichever buildings they think the fire is coming from: charred shells now line Ramadi’s main streets. “Sometimes it works in the insurgents’ favour,” admits Rick Sims, a chief warrant officer. “Because by the time we’ve shot up the neighbourhood, then the guys have torn up a few houses, they’re four blocks away, and we just end up pissing off the locals.”

In Fallujah, 40 miles (64km) east of Ramadi, the marines who survived the fierce assault on the town in November have a sardonic acronym for the skills it taught them: FISH, or Fighting In Someone’s House. FISH involves throwing a hand grenade into each room before checking it for unfriendlies.

Whether or not the insurgency is fuelled by American clumsiness, it has deepened and spread almost every month since the occupation began. In mid-2003, Donald Rumsfeld, America’s defence secretary, felt able to dismiss the insurgents as “a few dead-enders”. Shortly after, official estimates put their number at 5,000 men, including many foreign Islamic extremists. That figure has been revised to 20,000, including perhaps 2,000 foreigners, not counting the thousands of hostile fighters American and British troops have killed; these are the crudest of estimates.

With insurgents reported to be dispensing criminal justice and levying taxes, some American officers say they run a “parallel administration”. Last month in Mosul, insurgents are reported to have beheaded three professional kidnappers and to have manned road checkpoints dressed in stolen police uniforms. In Tal Afar, farther west, insurgents imposed a 25% cut in the price of meat.

[Though Ramadi] has more than 4,000 police, they refuse to work alongside American forces. According to the marines, the police’s sole act of co-operation is to collect wounded insurgents from their base. For most of the past four months, Anbar has had no provincial administration, since the governor resigned after his children were kidnapped.

Consider western Ninewa, a vast desert area dotted with fiercely xenophobic towns and ending in over 200 miles of unfenced border with Syria. America has 800 soldiers there. Yet they are barely able to subjugate the town of Tal Afar, outside which they are based…The local police chief and his bodyguards are the only police still working; he changes his disguise several times a day.

[…or the nearby town of Baij:] The town’s English-speaking former mayor, Abdullah Fahad, was frank about the town’s allegiances. “There are terrorists here, not from Syria, not from Mosul, but from Baij. Some are Baathists and some are Islamists and before they hated each other but now they work together, and they tell people that if they don’t work with them they will kill them.”

Mr Fahad, who claimed to have survived several assassination attempts and whose son had been kidnapped, refused to help the Americans on the grounds that he would be murdered if he did. When the American commander offered to protect him, he replied: “Thank you, but you are not always here. This is the first time I have ever seen you.” Whereupon the American troops labelled Mr Fahad a “bad guy”, and debated whether to detain him.

“When deadly force bumps into hearts and minds” at The Economist