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THE MASSACRE of 260 people near Najaf in southern Iraq on January 29 was first portrayed as a highly successful U.S.-Iraqi joint military action. But growing numbers of reporters in Iraq have uncovered evidence contradicting the official story–that the attack was on a breakaway Shiite sect allegedly bent on attacking mainstream Shias during a religious pilgrimage.
Instead, it appears that the majority of those killed were members of the al-Hawatim tribe based in the area, who happened to be in the way of a police crackdown on the religious sect. Most of the dead were victims of U.S. air strikes called in by Iraqi government forces.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the Iraq correspondent for Britain’s Independent newspaper, a contributor to CounterPunch and author of The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq, which is a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award as the best nonfiction book of 2006. He was the first Western journalists to investigate and challenge the official story over the killings in Najaf.
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THE U.S. media account of the massacre in Iraq increasingly diverges from the account given by you and some others on the ground in Iraq. What happened?
THE GOVERNOR of Najaf, who’s a leader of SCIRI–the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq–originally said that the battle was with members of a religious sect about to attack Shias.
But he recently gave an interview to the news agency of his own party–a pretty obscure outfit–saying that the authorities had moved against this religious “cult” to enforce a court order of two weeks earlier. This is completely different from everything he said previously.
My suspicion is that they had planned a quite minor police action against this group outside Najaf, who they didn’t like for religious reasons.
They chose an incredibly bad moment, before the Shia ritual of Ashura, when the roads are filled with pilgrims walking on foot. There were various other people in the area–notably the al-Hawatim tribe, who had 200 people caught up in the fighting, and a lot of them were killed.
What I also find pretty disgusting about all this is that nobody seems to ask–even supposing the official story were true–why it was necessary to kill 260 people from the air.
Secondly, the people who were doing the killing–the U.S. Air Force–don’t seem to know who they were dropping bombs on. They haven’t said anything, so it’s unclear.
Yes, there was a religious group there. But nobody from this religious group planned to do anything. What the authorities in Najaf were saying originally was that this group was planning a great raid on Najaf and was going to kill all the religious leaders and so forth. But now they seem to have retreated from that, and they admit that it was they themselves who took the initiative.
DOES THE U.S. bombing in Najaf reflect a greater readiness for aggressive action?
I THINK they’re all too ready. You could see it earlier in the week in the attack on Haifa Street, which runs through central Baghdad. They were using missiles and bombs to blow up apartment buildings–to go after the snipers there, no matter who else was in the building.
The fact that they were using large bombs and missiles in the middle of a city as heavily populated as Baghdad seems to me to show a gross disregard for human life.
THE LEFT-wing Iraq expert Michael Schwartz has pointed out that pressure from the U.S. on the Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has allowed more freedom of action for suicide bombers targeting Shiites. Do you agree?
THAT IS sort of true, but it’s pretty difficult to stop suicide bombers anywhere, by the nature of suicide bombers. If people expect to kill themselves, how do you stop them?
It probably is easier for them to reach markets and so forth. But in Baghdad, because it’s such a close-packed city, and because so much of the trade is in markets, it’s quite easy for a suicide bomber to go to a market to blow them up.
WHAT IMPACT is the surge of U.S. troops having on Iraqi politics?
LESS THAN you might think. Partly for a very simple reason–everybody in Baghdad is consumed by trying to stay alive. Three or four thousand people die every month. That’s an awful lot of people.
The Republicans are saying, “The enemy will be heartened when they see the latest resolution from the Democrats.” But among the insurgents in Iraq, I doubt if one in 5,000 have even heard of the Senate resolution. So that’s kind of absurd.
The U.S. has a very weird policy–the Shia and Iran are the enemy, suddenly. But the government of Iraq is Shia–it’s led by the Shia and the Kurds. Bush seems to be trying to create a common front of Sunni states–Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan–against the Shia and Iran.
The line Bush is taking is actually rather similar to what the people who support al-Qaeda say, which is to blame whatever happens on the Shia side on Iran–to say the Shia are pawns of the Iranians, if not actual Iranians. It’s almost something that could appear on the al-Qaeda Web site, because that’s their argument.
It’s one of the most poisonous conceptions in the Middle East–one which says the Shia in Lebanon and Iraq are just Iranian pawns. It’s going to increase sectarianism in the region, and the smaller Shia minorities are going to be further repressed and victims of terrorist attacks, as they already have been in Pakistan and other places.
NO ONE in the mainstream media comments about how the U.S. wants to take out Sadr, who is more anti-Iranian, while leaning on Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI, which has longstanding ties to Iran. What’s really happening?
ONE, IT is true that in the Sunni states of the Middle East, it will be difficult to find anyone who is Muslim or Arab who supports the U.S. occupation of Iraq. But you can find quite a lot of people who are anti-Shia and anti-Iranian. So the policy has some advantages there.
Secondly, it’s been pretty much the tradition of this administration to demonize its enemies and claim that everything going wrong is the result of, first of all, Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction, and then Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and now the Iranians.
The Iranian thesis just doesn’t hold up. You hear [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates talking about Iran supplying roadside bombs and technology to the resistance in Iraq. But 99.9 percent of U.S. casualties caused by roadside bombs come from Sunni insurgent groups, who are very unlikely to be getting technical training from the Iranians–and probably don’t need it, because they come out of the Iraqi Army and intelligence services.
There probably is money and supplies coming across from Iran, but are they going to insurgent groups?
The Mahdi Army of Moktada al-Sadr supplies six ministers to the Iraqi government, and 32 members of parliament out of 275. He and his group are not insurgents. It’s absurd to call them that–they are a significant part of the Iraqi administration. The U.S. really wants them to be insurgents, but that’s not true at the moment.
WHAT WOULD the impact be in Iraq if the U.S. were to carry out a military attack on Iran?
I THINK things would just get rougher. I’m not sure things would change dramatically. It would make the Iraqi Shia even more angry, but I don’t see what it would gain the U.S.
The idea that the problems the U.S. has with the Iraqi Shia are caused by Iran is just 100 percent untrue. The Iraqi Shia are 60 percent of the country’s population, and they are very distinct from the Iranian Shia. There are different parties with different interests.
Moktada al-Sadr is known to be very suspicious of the Iranians, and vice versa. This was true of Moktada’s father as well–his offices were closed by the Iranians. So it’s rather bizarre that Hakim of SCIRI goes to see Bush, and they’re not criticized. This is a group that was formed in Iran and has traditionally been closest to Iran. It’s kind of absurd.
But it’s easy in the Middle East to blame Iran, because you can get support for that, and not just at the top, but at the street level, where there are people who hate Shiites. That’s always been true. The bizarre thing is that there are people who supported terrorist attacks against Shiites that Bush is suddenly lining up with.
DOES THE U.S. have a chance to knock Sadr out of Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s governing coalition?
THEY ALREADY tried to set up a government separate from him, which was to be a government of supposed moderates. It would have been SCIRI and the Iraqi Islamist Party–a Sunni party that doesn’t have much grassroots support–and the Kurds, and people like Iyad Allawi, the secular Shia allied to the U.S.
But these are really weak factions, and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said no–he didn’t want the Shia alliance broken up. Since the Shia political parties are very dependent on him, the U.S. plans fell apart.
The U.S. would do much better just including Moktada in. He is already in, and they could just accept that, and try to get him to clean up his act and be reasonable. Instead, they’re trying to eliminate him.
Saddam spent a lot of time trying to eliminate this guy–killed his father, killed two of his brothers, killed his father-in-law in 1980. That’s a pretty heroic record of resistance to Saddam. I think its crackers for the U.S. to try to get rid of him.
IS THERE any possibility that the U.S. military can hang on?
THEY CAN hang on militarily, but things won’t get better. Over the last three years, the casualty rates are astonishingly similar each year, with 800 or 900 dead, and 5,000 or 6,000 wounded. Things could get a lot worse if they start attacking Shia as well as Sunni.
Why has Bush adopted this plan, which is against the Baker-Hamilton study group as well as common sense, too? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps it is easier in the U.S. to blame everything on the Iranians.