August 12, 2020
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Iraq Debate

Christopher Hitchens Vs Tariq Ali

The two slugged it out on - Occupation of Iraq: Postponed Liberation or Recolonisation? One wants the Americans to pull out now, the other says not until it helps to oversee the transition. 'You're making me lose patience,' said one. 'Don't be stupi

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Christopher Hitchens Vs Tariq Ali
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Christopher Hitchens Vs Tariq Ali
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December 4
Democracy Now!:   It has been 8 months since the U.S. began its invasion of Iraq. In this time, U.S. forces have failed to produce any weapons of mass destruction in the country, the stated reason for going to war against Baghdad.

According to the Pentagon's own figures, some 440 U.S. troops have died in Iraq. Thousands have been wounded. There are no solid estimates of the number of Iraqis who have been killed since the start of the invasion. November was the bloodiest month for U.S. forces in Iraq 79 soldiers died, 39 of them were killed in the downing of 4 military helicopters. Saddam Hussein remains at-large and the occupation forces face regular attacks throughout the country.

Today, we take a look at the U.S. occupation of Iraq with two renowned authors: Tariq Ali, author of Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq and Christopher Hitchens, jounalist and author of A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. 


Amy Goodman:  Why don't we begin with Tariq Ali in the studio, Tariq can you assess right now the occupation of Iraq?

Tariq Ali: I think most journalists, even those sort of supporting the war must be aware that in terms of what the United States hoped to achieved, it's a total mess. It's been a disaster, this occupation. It is not popular in Iraq, including with large numbers of people who were deeply hostile to the former regime. The resistance grows daily. The last count the C.I.A. gave us was that the guerrilla army resisting the occupation consists of 50,000 people. The figures that the Iraqi opposition gives are a bit higher. They say 80,000 to 90,000 people. But even the figure of 50,000 is large. And there are about 44 different resistance organizations. 

I think what we're seeing in Iraq is classic first stage guerrilla warfare to resist and -- an occupation. We have seen this before in different parts of the world, and the personnel are different, but the pattern is basically the same. The question now is when will the United States get out of Iraq? What face-saving devices will it need? The United Nations, in my opinion won't work because of its history in Iraq. The Europeans are not prepared, the Germans and French, to go along and, you know save the United States at the present time. 

So, what is President Bush going to do before the next election? This is a pretty important subject for them domestically now because it's going wrong. What is reported sometimes in the U.S. press, not very regularly, though the Associated Press reports on this are very strong of very severe demoralization inside the ranks of the U.S. army, who are discovering that the war is not at all about liberation, that the Iraqis do not regard it as such, apart from a tiny handful and that they're extremely unpopular. 

What many soldiers talk about in interviews when they come on furlough is what they can't bear is the anger, the bitterness, the hatred on the face of many ordinary Iraqis, not the people who are hurling stones or firing bullets at them. This is something which is creating health breakdowns now in the United States army. 

So, what we are seeing, curiously enough in Iraq, is a very telescoped situation. The resistance has been very quick, the demoralization has been -- is there, and Bush himself is very -- even in countries which historically have been very close to the United States, I don't talk now about the Arab world, I talk about Europe and the Far East.

Amy Goodman:  Christopher Hitchens, when you came back from Iraq, you wrote in Vanity Fair: "I was quite startled by how well it was going", referring to the occupation.

Christopher Hitchens: Yes. Let me try to list some of the things that have improved out of occupation. This is not an appeal to your green listeners, Amy, I promise you. I start with it, because it's in the front of my mind at the moment. The reflooding of the environment in the south, the largest wetlands in the Middle East which were first drained and then dried out and burned under Saddam Hussein. You could see the smoke from the space shuttle. It was a very touching thing to see, and as for the faces of the inhabitants when Americans turned up, which I witnessed, one couldn't really ask for more in point of a welcome. Signs of which I also saw very noticeably in the South, in the holy cities of -- of the Shia. 

Of course, in Kurdistan in the North, I don't know why the left fail to mention the Kurds, people went through the fourth of July as the national holiday, more or less. In the areas ... then I should add in Baghdad -- I'm a journalist, and it pleases me to see the reopening of the free press, the publication of the first newspaper on the streets is by the Iraqi Communist party. But there are about 20 newspapers now. Their publishing have resumed and everyone that can get has gotten a satellite dish. They're back in touch with the modern world. Things like that which I don't think are negligible. 

The opening of the mass grave, the beginning of the investigation into that and the breaking open of the secret prisons and yes, the finding of, for example, the elements of a nuclear centrifuge, in the garden of Medi Obedi. And the discovery on disks of Saddam's most recent attempt, very recent, to buy weaponry missiles off the shelf from North Norea. That's something which I told you was going to happen in my book Long Short War. Of course, there was a weapons of mass destruction program. It's just been interrupted and now terminated. 

I somewhat wish Tariq would not act as if he didn't know better when he describes those who don't like this as a resistance. There are members of the former regular force. They're not really guerrillas. These were people who were part of the security and police organs of the Ba'ath party augmented by some of the Bin Laden underworld. If these people are allowed to win or make any further progress, then all of the things that were predicted wrongly by the anti-war movement, such as mass exodus of refugee, humanitarian crisis, total social breakdown, ethnic and sectional civil war, and infanticide, all of those things will occur in Iraq, if this so-called resistance is not militarily defeated. Which I think --  by the way, I'm not a military strategist, and I do know and I don't dispute, there are enormous reverses being experienced on this point -- but I actually think that the American expedition is negligible in the defeats.

Amy Goodman:  Tariq Ali.

Tariq Ali: Let's go through all of this. First, the -- it's an open fact -- I mean, you know, it's reported in the U.S. press that there have been big mobilizations in Basrah, Naijara, Sue Mara. One of the holiest of holy Shia cities and the people killed by the United States were basically civilians. Just two days ago, including Iranian pilgrims on their way to the site of the hidden ama'am. And it's just foolish of Christopher to pretend otherwise.

Every single report coming out by and large except from those who are apologists of the Bush administration, indicate great, growing armies and -- growing support for the resistance. Look this resistance is not simply remnants of the old regime and for that matter there are many remnants of the old regime collaborating with the United States as is the Iraqi communist party. Which made its first big mistake when it decided to collaborate with Saddam Hussein and its now made its second mistake which is depriving people of a secular voice hostile to the occupation in the cities which is opening the road to a confessional groups in that part of the world. 

No one disputes that Saddam was a brutal dictator. That's never been in doubt. I mean, who ever disputed that? The point is, and the point that we have made is that Saddam was at his worst -- and the mass graves that are being found are graves which go back to the Iran-Iraq war -- when he was a close ally of the west and Rumsfeld was visiting on behalf of Reagan and the United States and Britain were arming him. 

That was also the time when the attacks on the Kurds were at their most vicious. It's not that one doesn't write about the Kurds. One does. They change sides quite regularly. Christopher knows it well. They have taken money from Iran, they have taken money from Israel. They have taken money from Saddam. They have taken money from the United States. That doesn't mean that they were rightful allies. They act as they see it, like the United States does, in their own interests. If they see that the United States is shifting or bringing the Turkish army in, the Kurds, too, will be in rebellion. 

The resistance is far, far bigger, with the exception of the Kurds who are not yet an open rebellion, than he's prepared to acknowledge. As for the notion that Al Qaeda is operating, there's been no evidence of that. Even the Pentagon propaganda is quite careful. Recently a U.S. general in Baghdad was shown on the European television screens saying that he had found no evidence whatsoever of any Al Qaeda and the people fighting them were largely Iraqis. What else can one call them if not a resistance? 

When a country is occupied in the Arab world and elsewhere - normally people don't like being occupied - it's just a fact of life. They may loathe Saddam Hussein, but they don't like being occupied. And if this occupation carries on as Bush said on his visit to the Philippines, that the model for Iraq was the Philippines, which is a crazy thing to say, because that occupation lasted 47 years. The United States abandoned the Philippines in 1946. It still has amongst or had until recently amongst the largest U.S. military bases there. So, I think that this is going to end badly for everyone. 

I agreed that the United States can't be militarily defeated, not simply by the Iraqis but by any other country in the world. Military defeat is impossible. Even in Vietnam, let's face it, they could have -- if they had wanted to -- won militarily by using nuclear weapons, but they didn't do it because of the political price they would have to pay. It's not a military defeat that is in question, it's what the long term effects of this war will produce in the region itself. 

And in the United States, already it's the resistance which is actually permitting democratic politicians to open their mouths. They have lost their tongues for a long, long time to come. One shouldn't forget we now have two concurrent occupations in the Arab East. One is the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestine which has now been added to by the United States' occupation of Iraq. This is ... it's not going to end well for anyone, unfortunately, that is the situation.

Juan Gonzalez: Christopher Hitchens, I'd like to ask you -- the Bush administration is in a quandary that's continuing to grow that on the one hand it says that it came to Iraq to liberate the Iraqi people and pave the way for democracy, but on the other hand it doesn't want to deal with the possibility of a quick, democratic vote that would lead to the Shiite and Islamic run government in Iraq. What did that contradiction of the occupation claiming it wants democracy, but not being able to deal with it immediately?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, I'll phrase that as I may as part of a reply to Tariq who said that it was only as a result of the resistance that Iraqi civilians or democratic politicians opened their mouths. That's really not true. I know some of these people, and they have been saying loudly and publicly ever since the coalition forces landed that they wanted the swiftest possible transition to an Iraq -- Iraqi, excuse me -- civilian government. 

And Mr. Bremer may have changed his mind because of the military situation, and I have a fear, not dissimilar from Tariq's, actually, that the Bush administration may be changing its mind for similar reasons. This was determined by the famous exit strategy consideration. 

The obstacles, of course, are that ... well, for one thing, I don't see how you can have a vote until you have something like a census. There hasn't been a decent census in Iraq for a good deal of time. It would be possible, according to Patrick Cockburn, a very good reporter in the area known by Tariq and myself to do a quick census based on the ration card system of the Ba'ath party, which in a rough way gave people ... gave an idea of how many people, how many members in each family and so forth and how stuff was to be doled out to them by the state. I think that would be a rather meager way of doing it. It might be necessary rather than give any impression of postponing the democratic elections. 

But now I'll just have to reply to a couple of things that were said before. I would be the last one to deny, and indeed I was one of the first ones to affirm, that many of Saddam's worst atrocities took place in a time when he was an unofficial ally of the west. One of the reasons that I support this policy is that it is at least partly a cancellation of that, and makes up for it, to some extent. It isn't true to say that all of the mass graves go back to the Iran-Iraq war. The one I visited in the south near Babylon was filled in the days immediately after the last Gulf war, as a matter of fact. 

At the time of the rebellion, which I had the impression was to be supported by the coalition, and many of us who are for regime change feel that the original sin, if you would like, was not to support that rebellion and not have done away with Saddam Hussein in 1991, in which case we would be 14 years in nation-building instead of just beginning. A lot of good people who are now dead would still be alive and one must add, there would be a lot of bad people who are alive would now be dead. 

Look at the atrocity that the Americans committed in Sumara. Look at the outrage over it. They're bringing into the town the new money that's been printed. The new Iraqi Dinar that doesn't have the face of a psychopathic megalomaniac on it, and one day will be perhaps a convertible currency. These circumstances - if you are going to move that currency, you have to do that under very heavy guard - would be true in any city. As it gets into the middle of town, it's attacked. The clear hope of those who do this is that the cross-fire will result in civilian casualties which will be resented.

Iraqi society is paranoid for any number of good and bad reasons. It's quite easy to spread rumors and distortions. That's how it arises, but really you have to understand what the forces, if you want to call them the resistance, are doing. They shot down a senior and respected Ayatollah outside his place of worship. They shot down in the street one of the female members of the governing council. They murdered the U.N. envoy in his office, who had been responsible for the democratic transition in East Timor ... the eventual and long postponed transition in East Timor, as Amy knows. They killed the staff of the Jordanian embassy. The list goes on and on like that. I think it's pretty obvious what they are from what they do.

Amy Goodman:  Tariq Ali.

Tariq Ali: Well, we can go on, you know, until the cows come home on this one. I mean, obviously, when a resistance decides to fight or resist an occupation, it uses all of these tactics. Exactly the same things, and the same methods were used by the Algerians in the Algerian war against the French.

Christopher Hitchens: Oh!

Tariq Ali: Oh, yes, Christopher, you forget.

Christopher Hitchens: Murdered female members of the provisional democratic government?

Tariq Ali: I'm afraid -- provisional democratic government. A pack of collaborators and quislings put there by the occupation. They have absolutely no legitimacy whatsoever.

Christopher Hitchens: We'll get into that.

Tariq Ali: You may try and alter that.

Christopher Hitchens: I have told you -- no, we will hold you to that. 

Tariq Ali : Yeah. You certainly may hold me to that. I mean what about the Vietnamese? How many people of the South Vietnamese regime did they knock off and how many cafes did they blow up in Saigon without a whimper of protest from you, because you supported that. In 1991, some of your writings against that particular war were amongst your most cogent and they still apply. 

Just because you have changed doesn't mean that the Iraqi resistance should develop tactics in line with what the Bush administration desires. These tactics have been pretty successful, and look, the fact that they blew up the U.N. building in a country where two senior U.N. officials resigned in anger and disgust at what the U.N. itself was doing for 12 years when it administered the sanctions on behalf of the United States and Britain, and even associated press reporters walking along the streets of Baghdad and Basra, and getting voice boxed said we don't care about the U.N. because of what they did to us. These are not people who are supporters of Saddam Hussein.

Christopher Hitchens: Can I interrupt on that.

[Break]

Juan Gonzalez: Christopher, I'd like to ask you what about the issue that Tariq raises about the dramatic turn-around in your positions and viewpoints since the 1991 Gulf war in terms of how the U.S. is dealing with Iraq?

Christopher Hitchens:  Well, I changed my mind on this at the end of that war, as a matter of fact. He’s right. I wrote and spoke of a deal about it in criticism of Bush senior's policy and the origins of the war, which I thought was shady. A lot of that I wouldn't take back, by the way, but I visited the region during the war and was in northern Iraq driving around with the Kurdish guerrillas who had begun to be able to form something like their own autonomy under the canopy of American and British protection, the so-called "Operation Provide Comfort."

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