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Interview

The Un-Embedded Journalist

The celebrated journalist of British newspaper The Independent on Washington's 'Quagmire' in Iraq, Civilian Deaths and the Fallacy of Bush's 'War of Liberation'. March 25, 2003.

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The Un-Embedded Journalist
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Amy Goodman , Democracy Now! Host: Robert, please set the scene for us in Baghdad right now.

Robert Fisk, The Independent: Well, it’s been a relatively—relatively being the word—quiet night, there’s been quite a lot of explosions about an hour ago. There have obviously been an awful lot of missiles arriving on some target, but I would say it was about 4 or 5 miles away. You can hear the change in air pressure and you can hear this long, low rumble like drums or like someone banging on a drum deep beneath the ground, but quite a ways away. There have only been 2 or 3 explosions near the center of the city, which is where I am, in the last 12 hours. So, I suppose you could say that, comparatively, to anyone living in central Baghdad, it’s been a quiet night.

The strange thing is that the intensity of the attacks on Baghdad changes quite extraordinarily; you’ll get one evening when you can actually sleep through it all, and the next evening when you see the explosions red hot around you.

As if no one really planning the things, it’s like someone wakes up in the morning and says, "Let’s target this on the map today", and it’s something which sort of characterizes the whole adventure because if you actually look at what’s happening on the ground, you’ll see that the American and British armies started off in the border. They started off at Um Qasr and got stuck, carried on up the road through the desert, took another right turn and tried to get into Basra, got stuck, took another right at Nasiriyah, got stuck—it’s almost as if they keep on saying, "Well let’s try the next road on the right", and it has kind of a lack of planning to it. There will be those who say that, "No it’s been meticulously planned," but it doesn’t feel like it to be here.

Amy Goodman:  Can you talk about the POWs and television - the charge that they’re violating the Geneva Convention by showing them on television?

Robert Fisk: Well, you know, the Geneva Convention is meant to protect children, and hospitals are full of civilians, including many children who’ve been badly wounded.

It seems to me that this concentration on whether television should show prisoners or not is a kind of mischief: it’s not the point. The issue, of course, is that both sides are taking prisoners, and that both sides want the other side to know of the prisoners they’ve taken. I watched CNN showing a British soldier forcing a man to kneel on the ground and put his hands up and produce his identity card and I’ve seen other film on British television of prisoners near Um Qasr and Basra being forced to march past a British soldier with their hands in the air. Well, they (the American soldiers) weren’t interviewed, it’s true, although you heard at one point a man asking questions, clearly to put any prisoner on air answering questions is against the Geneva Convention. But for many, many years now, in the Middle East television has been showing both sides in various wars appearing on television and being asked what their names are and what their home countries are.

And the real issue is that these prisoners should not be maltreated, tortured, or hurt after capture. When you realize that 19 men have tried to commit suicide at Guantanamo, that we now know that 2 prisoners at the US base Bagram were beaten to death during interrogation. To accuse the Iraqis of breaking the Geneva Convention by putting American POWs on television in which you hear them being asked what state they’re from in the states, it seems a very hypocritical thing to do. But one would have to say, technically, putting a prisoner of war on television and asking them questions on television is against the Geneva Convention. It is quite specifically so. And thus, clearly Iraq broke that convention when it put those men on television - I watched them on Iraqi TV here. But, as I’ve said, it’s a pretty hypocritical thing when you realize, this equates to the way America treats prisoners from Afghanistan - Mr. Bush is not the person to be teaching anyone about the Geneva Convention.

Jeremy Scahill , Democracy Now! Correspondent: Robert Fisk, you wrote in one of your most recent articles, actually, the title of it was "Iraq Will Become a Quagmire for the Americans" and I think many people within the US administration were surprised to find the kinds of resistance they have in places like Nasiriyah. We have the two Apache helicopters that have apparently been shot down and many US casualties so far. Do you think the Americans were caught by surprise, particularly by the resistance in the south where everyone was saying that the people are against Saddam Hussein?


Robert Fisk : Well, they shouldn’t have been caught by surprise; there were plenty of us writing that this was going to be a disaster and a catastrophe and that they were going to take casualties. You know, one thing I think the Bush administration has shown as a characteristic, is that it dreams up moral ideas and then believes that they’re all true, and characterizes this policy by assuming that everyone else will then play their roles. In their attempt to dream up an excuse to invade Iraq, they’ve started out, remember, by saying first of all that there are weapons of mass destruction. 

We were then told that al Qaeda had links to Iraq, which, there certainly isn’t an al Qaeda link. Then we were told that there were links to September 11th, which was rubbish. And in the end, the best the Bush administration could do was to say, "Well, we’re going to liberate the people of Iraq". And because it provided this excuse, it obviously then had to believe that these people wanted to be liberated by the Americans. And, as the Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said a few hours ago, I was listening to him in person, the Americans expected to be greeted with roses and music - and they were greeted with bullets. 

 think you see what has happened is that - and as he pointed out - the American administration and the US press lectured everybody about how the country would break apart where Shiites hated Sunnis and Sunnis hated Turkmen and Turkmen hated Kurds, and so on. And yet, most of the soldiers fighting in southern Iraq are actually Shiite. They’re not Sunnis, they’re not Tikritis, they’re not from Saddam’s home city. 

Saddam did not get knocked off his perch straight away, and I think that, to a considerable degree, the American administration allowed that little cabal of advisors around Bush - I’m talking about Perle, Wolfowitz, and these other people - people who have never been to war, never served their country, never put on a uniform - nor, indeed, has Mr. Bush ever served his country - they persuaded themselves of this Hollywood scenario of GIs driving through the streets of Iraqi cities being showered with roses by a relieved populace who desperately want this offer of democracy that Mr. Bush has put on offer-as reality. And the truth of the matter is that Iraq has a very, very strong political tradition of strong anti-colonial struggle. 

It doesn’t matter whether that’s carried out under the guise of kings or under the guise of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath party, or under the guise of a total dictator. There are many people in this country who would love to get rid of Saddam Hussein, I’m sure, but they don’t want to live under American occupation. The nearest I can describe it - and again, things can change - maybe the pack of cards will all collapse tomorrow - but if I can describe it, it would be a bit like the situation in 1941- and I hate these World War II parallels because I think it’s disgusting to constantly dig up the second world war - Hitler is dead and he died in 1945 and we shouldn’t use it, but if you want the same parallel, you’ll look at Operation: Barbarosa, where the Germans invaded Russia in 1941 believing that the Russians would collapse because Stalin was so hated and Communism was so hated. 

And at the end of the day, the Russians preferred to fight the Germans to free their country from Germany, from Nazi rule, rather than to use the German invasion to turn against Stalin. And at the end of the day, a population many of whom had suffered greatly under Communism fought for their motherland under the leadership of Marshal Stalin against the German invader. A similar situation occurred in 1980 when Saddam himself invaded Iran. There had just been, 12 months earlier, a revolution in Iran and the Islamic Republic had come into being. 

It was believed here in Baghdad that if an invasion force crossed the border from Iraq - supported again in this case by the Americans - that the Islamic Republic would fall to pieces; that it would collapse under its own volition; that is couldn’t withstand a foreign invasion. I actually crossed the border with the Iraqi forces in 1980, I was reporting on both sides, and I remember reaching the first Iranian city called Horam Shar and we came under tremendous fire; mortar fire, sniper fire, and artillery fire, and I remember suddenly thinking as I hid in this villa with a number of Iraqi commandos, "My goodness, the Iranians are fighting for their country". And I think the same thing is happening now, and, obviously, we know that with the firepower they have the Americans can batter their way into these cities and they can take over Baghdad, but the moral ethos behind this war is that you Americans are supposed to be coming to liberate this place. 

And, if you’re going to have to smash your way into city after city using armor and helicopters and aircraft, then the whole underpinning and purpose of this war just disappears, and, the world - which has not been convinced thus far, who thinks this is a wrong war and an unjust war - are going to say, "Then what is this for? They don’t want to be liberated by us." And that’s when we’re going to come down to the old word: Oil. What’s quite significant is in the next few hours the Oil Minister in Iraq is supposed to be addressing the press, and that might turn out to be one of the more interesting press conferences that we’ve had, maybe even more interesting, perhaps, than the various briefings from military officials about the course of the war.

Amy Goodman:  We’re speaking to Robert Fisk in Baghdad, Iraq. Robert, we also have word that the Turks have also crossed over the border - thousands of Turkish soldiers - into northern Iraq.

Robert Fisk: I wouldn’t be surprised, I really don’t know. You’ve got to realize that, although electricity and communications continue n Baghdad, I only know what I hear on the radio and television, and, as in all wars, covering it is an immensely exhausting experience. I simply haven’t been able to keep up with what’s happening in the north. I rely on people like you, Amy, to tell me. I have a pretty good idea of what’s happening in the rest of Iraq, but not in the north.

Amy Goodman:  Well can you tell us what is happening and what it’s like to report there? How are you getting around and do you agree with the Iraqi General Hazim Al-Rawi that you quoted that Iraq will become a quagmire for the Americans?

Robert Fisk:  Well, it’s not just Rawi, we’ve had Vice President Ramadan, [and] the Minister of Defense just over 24 hours ago giving the most detailed briefings. One of the interesting things is whether or not you believe these various briefings are correct, the detail is quite extraordinary, and certainly we’re being given more information about what’s been going on at the front - accurate or not - than most of the Western correspondents have been getting in Qatar. 

I mean, you’ll see pictures of journalists saying, "Well, I’m with the US Marines near a town I can’t name, but we’re having some problems, here’s Nasiriyah and here’s a bridge". If you go to the Iraqi briefing, they’ll tell you it’s the third corp, 45th Battalion, they’re actually giving the names of the officers who are in charge of various units and what position they’re in, and where the battles are taking place. There is actually more detail being given out by the Iraqis than by the Americans or the British, which is quite remarkable, it’s the first time I’ve ever known this. 

Now, again, it may be plausible to think that all this information is accurate - when the Iraqis first said they had taken American prisoners, we said, "Oh, more propaganda" - then up comes the film of the prisoners. Then they said they’d shot down a helicopter, and the journalists here in the briefing sort of looked at each other and said, "There’s another story", and suddenly we’re seeing film of a shot down helicopter - then another film of a shot down helicopter. Then they said they had attacked and destroyed armored personnel carriers belonging to the US armed forces, and we all looked at each other and said, "Here we go again, more propaganda", and then we see film on CNN of burning APCs. 

So, there’s a good deal of credibility being given to the Iraqi version of events, although I’d have to say that their total version of how many aircraft have been shot down appears to be an exaggeration. So, we do have a moderately good idea, in that sense, of what’s actually happening. There are Iraqis moving around inside Iraq and arriving in Baghdad and giving us accounts of events that appear to be the same as accounts being given by various authorities. And no journalist can leave Baghdad to go to the south to check this out, but I do suspect that will happen in due course, I do think they will get journalists to move around inside Iraq providing they can produce a scenario that is favorable to Iraq. But frankly, any scene that a journalist sees that is opposition to the United States would be favorable to Iraq. But, it may well be that, with the Americans only about 50 miles away from where I am, if they’re going to try to enter Baghdad or if a siege of Baghdad begins, of course the Iraqis have boasted for a long time that this would be a kind of Stalingrad - here come the World War II references again - we won’t have to go very far to see the Americans fighting the Iraqis, we’ll see them with our own eyes.

The Americans won’t be arriving close to Baghdad; they already are close. When we’ll be moving around - you asked me about reporting - it’s not nearly as claustrophobic as you might imagine. I can walk out from my hotel in the evening, and, if I can find a restaurant open, I can get in a cab and go to dinner, no one stops me. When I’m traveling around during the day, if I want to go and carry out any interviews, if I want to do anything journalistic, I have a driver and I have what is called a minder; a person provided by the ministry to travel with me. 

This means that nobody I speak to is able to speak freely. I’ve gone up to people in the streets – shopkeepers - and talked to them, but it’s quite clear that there’s a representative of the authority with me, and I, in fact, don’t do any interviews like that any more, I think it’s ridiculous. Many of my colleagues continue to point microphones at these poor people and ask them questions which they cannot possibly respond to freely. So I simply do not do interview stories, I think it’s too intimidating to the person one is talking to, it is unprofessional and it is unethical to travel with anyone else on an interview of that kind. But, you know, as I say, I can get into a car without a minder and go to a grocery shop and pick up groceries, bottles of water, biscuits, vegetables - I don’t need to travel around with a minder in that case and nobody minds. In other words, it’s not as though you’re under a great oppressive watch. 

Television reports now, by and large, when reporters are making television interviews, or when they’re being interviewed by the head offices, now require a ministry minder to sit and listen. It doesn’t mean they are being censored, but it means that they bite their lip occasionally. I will not do any television interviews with minders present so I don’t appear on television here. The odd thing is that there is no control at all attempted over written journalism or radio journalism. While I’m talking to you now, I’m sure this phone is being listened to, but whether they have the ability to listen to every phone call in Baghdad, but I doubt very much. I can say anything I want, and I do. 

And when I write, I’m not worried at all about being critical of the regime here and I am. So, it’s really a television thing here that I think the authorities are more fixated with and the actual presence of the minder, who, in my case is a pleasant guy who does not have a political upbringing particularly. It’s more of a concern, which I suppose one could understand if you saw it through Iraqi eyes or the eyes of the regime, that the reporter is not doing some kind of dual purpose. Obviously, there is a tradition that journalists sometimes, unfortunately, turned out to work for governments as well as for newspapers or television, and I think the concern of the Iraqis is that some vital piece of information doesn’t get out to what is referred to by them as the enemy, and, secondly, that reporters are what they say they are. 

But, you know, this happened in Yugoslavia when I was covering the Serbian war. I was in there from the beginning of the war and most journalists were thrown out but I managed to hang on. And at the beginning, one couldn’t travel anywhere in Serbia or Yugoslavia at all without a government official. And, after days and weeks went by, and you turned out to be who you said you were, and you were not at all interested in working for anyone but your editor and your newspaper, a form of trust build up where they know that you disapprove of their regime, but they vaguely know you’re going to tell the truth, even if it’s critical towards Britain or America or whoever. And they leave you alone, by and large. 

I have been to Iraq many times and I know a lot of people here, both in authority and civilians.


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