Q&A: Robert Fisk Reports from Occupied Territory

On June 11, 2003, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman interviewed Robert Fisk, reporter with the Independent newspaper of London. He recently left Iraq where he was chronicling the rising resistance to the U.S. occupation. Ten American soldiers have been killed in ambushes across Iraq in the past 15 days including one yesterday in Baghdad who was attacked with rocket propelled grenades. Fallujah has been a hotbed of Iraqi resistance since April when U.S. troops fired into large crowds of civilians twice killing at least 18 people.

This is a rush transcript.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, can you talk more about what you found there?

ROBERT FISK: I don't think I've ever seen a clearer example of an army that thought it was an army of liberation and has become an army of occupation. It's important perhaps to say -- I did mention it in [a recent] article that a number of those soldiers who were attached to the 3rd infantry division who were military policeman, American ordinary cops like one from Rhode Island, for example--they had a pretty shrewd idea of what was going on. You got different kinds of behavior from the Americans. You got this very nice guy, Phil Cummings, who was a Rhode Island cop, very sensitive towards people, didn't worry if people shouted at him. He remained smiling. He just said that if people throw rocks at me or stones at me, I give them candies. There was another soldier who went up to a middle aged man sitting on a seat and he said, 'If you get out of that seat, I'll break your neck,' and there was quite a lot of language like that as well. There were good guys as well as bad guys among the Americans as there always are in armies, but the people who I talked to, the sergeants and captains and so on--most of them acknowledge that something had gone wrong, that this was not going to be good.

One guy said to me, every time we go down to the river here--he was talking about the river area in Fallujah--it's a tributary of the Tigris--it's like Somalia down there. You always get shot at and you always get stoned, I mean, have stones thrown at them. Some of the soldiers spoke very frankly about the situation in Baghdad. One man told me--I heard twice before in Baghdad itself, once from a British Commonwealth diplomat and once from a fairly senior officer in what we now have to call the coalition, C.P.A., the Coalition-- for the moment forces or whatever it's called--Authority, the authority that's hanging on there until they can create some kind of Iraqi government--they all say that Baghdad airport now comes under nightly sniper fire from the perimeter of the runways from Iraqis. Two of them told me that every time a military aircraft comes in at night, it's fired at. In fact some of the American pilots are now going back to the old Vietnamese tactic of cork screwing down tightly on to the runways from above rather than making the normal level flight approach across open countryside because they're shot at so much. It's a coalition provisional authority I'm thinking of, the C.P.A., previously an even more long fangled name. There is a very serious problem of security.

The Americans still officially call them the remnants of Saddam or terrorists.

But in fact, it is obviously an increase in the organized resistance and not just people who were in Saddam's forces, who were in the Ba'ath Party or the Saddam Fedayeen.

There was also increasing anger among the Shiite community, those who were of course most opposed to Saddam, and I think what we're actually seeing, you can get clues in Iraq, is a cross fertilization. Shiites who are disillusioned, who don't believe they have been liberated, who spent so long in Iran, they don't like the Americans anyway. Sunni Muslims who feel like they're threatened by the Shiites, former Sadaam acolytes who've lost their jobs and found that their money has stopped. Kurds who are disaffected and are beginning to have contacts, and that of course is the beginning of a real resistance movement and that's the great danger for the Americans now.

GOODMAN: We're talking to Robert Fisk, whoís just come out of Iraq. There's a front page piece in The New York Times today, "GI's In Iraqi City Are Stalked By Faceless Enemies At Night,' and Michael Gordon writes about how organized the resistance is, how it seems to come alive at night and that what's clear, he says , is some attacks are premeditated, involve cooperation among small groups of fighters including a system of signaling the presence of American forces: talking about the use of red, white and blue flares when forces come and then the attacks begin.

FISK: Yes, I've heard this. I also know that in Fallujah, for example, there's a system of honking the horns of cars: when the vehicles approach, the American convoy approaches, there's one honk on the horn. When the last vehicle goes by the same spot, there's two honks on the horn, and the purpose is to work out the time element between the first hooter and the second because by that, they know how big is the convoy and whether it's small enough to be attacked. That comes from a sergeant in the military police in Fallujah taking part in this actual operation which I described to you just now, which you read out from my report.

One of the problems with the Americans I think is that the top people in the Pentagon always knew that this wasn't going to be 'human rights abuses ended,' flowers and music for the soldiers, and everyone lives happily every after and loves America. You may remember when Rumsfeld first came to Baghdad, something your president didn't dare to do in the end, he wanted to fly over in an airplane.

He made a speech which I thought was very interesting, rather sinister in the big hanger at Baghdad airport. He said we still have to fight the remnants of Saddam and the terrorists in Iraq, and I thought, hang on a minute, who are these people? And it took me a few minutes to realize I think what he was doing, he was laying the future narrative of the opposition to the Americans. I.E when the Americans get attacked, it could be first of all laid down to remnants of Saddam, as in remnants of the Taliban who seem to be moving around in Afghanistan now in battalion strength, but never mind. It could be blamed on Al Qaeda, so America was back fighting its old enemies again. This was familiar territory.

If you were to suggest that it was a resistance movement, harakat muqawama, resistance party in Arabic, that would suggest the people didn't believe they had been liberated, and of course, all good-natured peace loving people have to believe they were liberated by the Americans, not occupied by them. What you're finding for example is a whole series of blunders by Paul Bremer, the American head of the so-called coalition forces, at least coalition authority in Baghdad.

First of all, he dissolved the Iraqi Army. Well, I can't imagine an Army that better deserves to be dissolved. But that means that more than quarter of a million armed men overnight are deprived of their welfare and money. Now if you have quarter of a million armed Iraqis who suddenly don't get paid any more, and they all know each other, what are they going to do? They are going to form some kind of force which is secret, which is covered; then they will be called terrorists, but I guess they know that, and then of course they will be saying to people, why don't you come and join us.

It was very interesting that in Fallujah, the young men came out to see me from a shop just after the American searches there had ended and said some people came from the resistance a few nights ago and asked me to join. I said, what did you say, and he said, I wouldn't do that. But now, he said, I might think differently. I met a Shiite Muslim family in Baghdad who moved into the former home of a Saddam intelligence officer. This family had been visited three nights previously by armed men who said, you better move out of this house. It doesn't belong to you unless you want to join us. The guy in Fallujah said that the men, the armed men who came to invite him to join the resistance had weapons, showed their mukhabarat intelligence identity card and said, we're still being paid and we are proud to hold our I.D. cards for the Ba'ath Party. So, now you have to realize that Fallujah and other towns like it are very unlike Tikrit, are very much pro-Saddam. Fallujah is the site of a great munitions factory, it gave people massive employment. They all loved Saddam in the way Arabs are encouraged to love dictators or go prison to otherwise. But nonetheless, there is an embryo of a serious resistance movement now.

On top of this, you can see the measure of what I think is basically desperation. I've been writing about this in The Independent this morning in London, well, last night for this morning's paper, and Paul Bremer now asked the legal side of the coalition provisional authority to set up the machinery of Iraqi press censorship. In other words, Iraqi newspapers are going to be censored. Controlled I think is the official word they use, but that means censorship.

That is the kind of language that Saddam used. Iraqis are used to a censored press; after all, they lived with it for more than 20 years under Saddam Hussein.

Now when you question the Americans about it, first of all they deny it. Then the British half accept it; then other people involved in the coalition say well it's probably true, yes, it is true.

But the problem is the wild stories appearing in the Iraqi press. Now, of course there's no tradition of western style journalism in Iraq. There are those that say it's a good idea, no tradition for example of letting the other side have a say, checking the story out, going back on the ground and asking the other side for their version of events. It doesn't exist. It's a little bit, but not much. What you get after saying that Americans are going with Iraqi prostitutes, American troops are chasing Iraqi women, that Muslim women are being invited to marry Christian foreigners, that this is worse than it was under Saddam. I'm actually quoting from one particular newspaper called The Witness, which is a Shiite Muslim paper, basically that had its first issue the other day. Other newspapers carry reports of American beatings; and the opening of mass graves. They're not totally one sided against the Americans.

But you can see how the occupation forces, let's call them by their real name, are troubled by this kind of publication because it seems to them to provoke or incite animosity towards the liberators of Iraq, which it is not meant to do. But of course the problem is that the Imams in the mosques are saying the same thing about the Americans. Now, the last quote I read from American official said that it may be necessary to control what the Imams were saying in the mosques; well, this is preposterous. I sat on Rashid Street in Baghdad a few days ago and listened to the loud speaker carrying the sermon of the imam from within the mosque.

I think he was saying the Americans must leave immediately, now. Well, under the new rule presumably he's inciting the people to violence. What are we going to do? Arrest all the Imams in the mosques, arrest all the journalists who won't obey, close down the newspapers? I mean what Iraqi journalists need are courses in journalism from reporters who work in real democracies.

You can come along and say, look, by all means criticize the Americans and put the boot in if you want to, but make sure you get it right. And if you also do that you have to look at your own society and what is wrong in it and how Saddam ever came about. He didn't just come about because America supported Saddam which my goodness they did. But Bremer is not interested in this. What Bremer wants to do is control, control the press, control the Imams, and it doesn't work. A lot of the incidents taking place now, the violent incidents are not being divulged. A colleague of mine went the other day.

GOODMAN: Robert, you were just talking about a lot of the attacks we're hearing about--what seems like a good number, a lot of the attacks--on U.S. forces are not being reported.

FISK: I have a colleague, for example, who went down to Fallujah before the incident I was describing to you earlier, after two gunmen, one American had been killed in the fire fight, he reported, I spoke to both sides. On his way back he was traveling past the town of Abu Garab a rather sinister place where the huge prison is where Saddam executed so many prisoners, including an Observer journalist back in the late 1980's.

As we were, as the colleague was passing by the town, he saw a young man come up and throw a hand grenade at American troops in the Humvee.

The grenade missed them and exploded in the canal and wounded six Iraqi children, a very clear account of what happened. I rang the coalition forces, the telephone didn't answer as it very often doesn't do. And no report ever emerged except in my paper that this incident had occurred.

Now, over and over again we keep seeing things, seeing small incidents occur, soldiers threatening people outside petrol lines because people are trying to jump the line and steal. And it just doesn't make it back into the coalition record of what's actually happening in Iraq. The danger here is not so much that we're not being told about it because we can see and find out for ourselves. The danger is that the United States leadership in Baghdad, and of course, especially back in the White House and Pentagon is also not being told about it. Or if it is, information is only going to certain people who can deal with that information.

It's very easy to say, well Iraq's been a great success we've got rid of a dictatorship, the weapons of mass destruction which didn't exist have now been destroyed or whatever interpretation you want to put on that. Human rights abuses have ended, certainly the Saddam kind. But if you try and if this information goes up the ladder every bit of it to people like Bremer, I'm not sure it all is--I think it should be--then you can see how the coalition doesn't represent the reality.

One of the big problems at the moment is the Americans and, to some extent the British, particularly the Americans in Baghdad. They're all ensconced in this chic gleaming marble palace, largest, most expensive palace. There they sit with their laptops trying to work out with Washington how they're going to bring about this new democracy in Iraq. They rely upon for the most part former Iraqi exiles who never endured Saddam Hussein, who are hovering around making sure that they get the biggest part of the pie if possible. When they leave the palace, when they go into the streets of Baghdad, the dangerous streets of Baghdad, they leave in these armored black Mercedes with gunmen in the front and back, soldiers, plain clothes guys with weapons and sunglasses.

One Iraqi said to me the other day, who did you think was the last person we saw driving through town like [this]? I said, Saddam Hussein? They all burst out laughing, of course, they said, exactly the same.

We are used to this just like they're used to press censorship. I think it's difficult--you need to be in Baghdad to understand the degree to which there's been this slippage of ambition and slippage in the ideological war. I was in small hotel called the Al Hama the other day--it has a swimming pool, 24-hour generators. Just going down to have a meal in the evening, I came across two westerners, one with a pump action shotgun, the other with a submachine gun passing me in the hallway.

I said, 'Who are you?'

He said, 'Well, who are you?'

'I'm a guest in the hotel. You have guns. Who are you?'

He said, 'We work for D.O.D'.

'Department of Defense, right?' (But he was obviously English--he had a British accent.) 'Hang on a second you're not American.'

'No, we're a British company that is hired to look after D.O.D. employees in Baghdad. That's why we're armed.'

I said, 'Who gives you permission to have weapons?'

He said, 'The coalition forces, we're here protecting them.'

Now, how often have Iraqis seen armed plain clothes men moving in and out of hotels, they have for more than 20 years, now seeing them again. Well these guys are not going to string them up by their fingernails and electrocute them in torture cells. But again, the image, the picture is the same. The armored escort, limousines in the street, soldiers kicking down the doors searching for, 'terrorists.' The press censorship plans. Plain clothes armed men going into a hotel asking who you are immediately by asking them who they are, same system as before. It has this kind of ghastly ghostly veneer of the old regime about it The Americans are not Saddam, they're not murdering people - they're not lining up people at mass graves, of course they're not. But if you see through the eyes of the Iraqis, it doesn't look quite that simple.

GOODMAN: We are talking to Robert Fisk, just came out of Iraq but you've also written about the so-called road map to peace. I just wanted to get your response to what happened yesterday in Gaza, with the Israeli helicopter gun ships attempting to assassinate the political leader for Hamas, Abdel Azziz Rantizzi. And also Bush strongly criticizing the attempted assassination on the part of the Israel.

FISK: First of all he didn't strongly criticize them, he mildly, rather pathetically and rather cowardly criticized the Israelis. This was an attack which was meant to kill the political head of Hamas. And in the ghastly role which the Palestinians and Israelis play in their bloody and useless conflict, I can understand why the attack was made in that context.

But that attack did not kill Rantizzi, it killed a little child of five and a young woman. Now your president said that that was 'troubling'. That isn't troubling that's a shameful act, that's a despicable thing to do. But there was no strong condemnation from Mr. Bush, he just said it was troubling. If a Palestinian had attacked Israeli forces or Israeli political leader involved in encouraging violence, had killed a little Israeli girl, and a young innocent Israeli woman Mr. Bush would not have called it troubling. He would have said it was a shameful, terrorist act, which it would have been How can it work when the most powerful president of the most powerful state in the world, United States of America, can be so gutless and cowardly in condemning the killing of two innocent people.

It is not troubling. It is an outrage that those two innocent people died. Just as it would be if the Palestinians had done it. Just as it is when the Palestinians do do it. [For Bush] It is not an outrage. Not a tragedy. Not shameful. It is merely troubling. Like a flood is troubling or a heavy rainfall that kills people or a storm is troubling. In that context how can this new peace possibly work.

It's called a road map, who invented the phrase road map? I suppose the poor old State Department and all the journalists dutifully used the word road map.

They can't use peace process because that's associated with Oslo and that failed. You remember the cliche for the peace process, always had to be put back on track. I suppose peace process was a railway line or a railway train so it presumably always has to be put back on the main road or back on the highway that is the cliche.

What has Sharon done? he's closed down a few empty caravans on hilltops.

At large and continuing to expand Jewish settlements, the Jews and Jews only in occupied Arab land. What have the Palestinians done? Mahmoud Abbas says I'm going to finish terrorism, there's going to be no more violence by the Palestinians and, bang, there immediately is. We have the three main violent groups, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al-Aqsa immediately carrying out the suicide bombing.

And then praised by Rantizzi, I remember thinking, he's praising them, that's against the road map so Israelis have got a green light to knock him off and they tried and failed. I remember interviewing Rantizzi along similar lines about six months ago in Gaza, as I was talking to him I saw an Israeli helicopter emerge in the window and his body guard looked around very nervously and I thought, oh, no, please go away and so I finished the interview.

But I always thought he was a target, he always had two gunmen with him all the time. That's not the point. Rantizzi is a very tough Hamas man, a very ruthless man. He was one of the Palestinians who was illegally deported from Israeli prisons into Lebanon in 1992. I actually met him there in the southern Lebanon in the hills, when he was living rough, months after months in a tent.

This is a very rough character, very tough guy--grew up the hard way in guerrilla warfare as well as politics.

But when you're going to have a situation where you have an Israeli prime minister who doesn't want to end the settlements, who is indeed the creator of the settlements, and a Palestinian prime minister who can't stop the intifada and a U.S. president who is so gutless he can only call a killing of a woman and a child troubling, what chance is there for a road map or peace process or any other kind of agreement in the Middle East?

GOODMAN: We're talking to Robert Fisk, who is just come out of Iraq and who has reported extensively on the Middle East for more than 30 years.

I wanted to end, back in Iraq. CNN is reporting today that Ahmed Chalabi who has addressed the Council on Foreign Relations is saying that Saddam Hussein is moving in an arc around the Tigris River starting northeast of Baghdad. He said finding Saddam would just be a matter of knowing whom to talk to. He says based on information from credible sources, he believes the former Iraqi president wants revenge and has obtained two suicide bombing vests for attacks on U.S. forces. Chalabi says Saddam is paying bounty for every U.S. soldier killed. Your response?

FISK: I long ago gave up putting any credit in anything that Ahmed Chalabi says. The real issue is not where is Saddam Hussein, he could be sitting in Minsk or Belarus or he could be sitting in Tikrit or in the Iraqi countryside somewhere. Obviously there were plans to hide him in advance. You know this goes back to another issue of the degree of real effort to find him. Just look back, the Americans wanted to arrest Valadich and put him in the Hague. We were going to capture Osama bin laden, he's still on the loose. We were going to capture Mullah Omar, he's only got one eye, not difficult to identify. But he's still on the loose. We can't get vice president Ramadan in Iraq or Uday Hussein, the sons of Saddam. We can't get Saddam himself. Can't get Naji Sabri the foreign minister.

I was sitting in a restaurant in Baghdad a week and a half ago, at the next table next to me was Saddam's personal translator. I sort of did a double take, I said, hi, how are you? I knew the guy. I'd known him for years and years. I said, are you okay? Fine, fine no problem, he was having a beer with friends. And he walked out. This is the same restaurant that later on I saw Paul Bremer walk into with several special forces men to protect him and his guests for dinner. I have to ask myself sometimes what's going on. Ahmed Chalabi says that Saddam is moving in an arc, he maybe moving in a circle or square for all I know but it's clear he's still alive. That's the point.

GOODMAN: Well, Robert Fisk, thank you very much for being with us. Robert Fisk of the Independent of London just out of Iraq.

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