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Leila Fadel, Baghdad Bureau Chief of McClatchy Newspapers, speaks to Paul Jay about the changes in Iraq over the past four years. “Things, security-wise, have calmed down,” says Fadel. In terms of whether the Iraqi people will be able to provide their own security when the United States leaves, Fadel says that, “there is a sense of a waiting game going on here… I think the fight for power is just beginning.” She says that there is, “the sense of the necessary evil, a lot of people want the US to leave but they’re not sure that Iraq can defend its borders because its security forces were broken apart and built from the bottom up and they’re not ready. They don’t have an army that’s necessarily loyal to the government, they’re loyal to political parties that have sectarian or ethnic leanings. So there’s nothing for them to really hold on to or be sure of in their country.” People will hold America accountable for their current suffering and what happens next.

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you from the McClatchy newspaper offices in Washington, DC. Six years after the invasion of Iraq, where is Iraq now? To help answer that question, we’re joined by Leila Fadel. She’s the head of the McClatchy Baghdad bureau. She’s been covering the Iraq War for four years. Thanks for joining us, Leila.


JAY: So talk about four years ago, when you first arrived, what you saw, what you expected. And where’d you think we’d be now?

FADEL: Well, when I first arrived, the situation here was much worse, of course. The Airport Road itself was an indicator of how bad Iraq was. You could see the carnage from that morning—no, well, not the carnage, but you could see the cars that had blown up on the street that morning as you drove down the route. It’s much safer now in some senses. It’s calmed down, but the violence is still really here and it happens. You know, just a week and a half ago, there was a bombing that killed some 30 people. And every day, two or three people die here in a bombing, two or three people in another place, somebody is assassinated. But things security-wise have calmed down.

JAY: There’s a general feeling amongst people, I think, that know Iraq that this massive surge of US troops has created a completely artificial situation, that all the Pandora’s box of contradictions amongst the Iraqi elite, amongst ethnic groups and otherwise, has kind of artificially got the lid on, and once US troops leave, the lid comes off, and then these contradictions really start to emerge, and that the Iraqi people are kind of caught between a rock and a hard place. So talk about that. And what are the different fracture points that are likely to explode over the next period, if you think in fact they will explode? I know some people argue that in fact maybe Iraqis will sort this out without such violence. But what’s your take?

FADEL: Well, I think, you know, time will tell, but there is a sense of a waiting game going on here. I mean, this is a capital that is a maze of walls. Every neighborhood feels like a prison surrounded by blast walls. You can’t see them from the streets, because people are being protected from them, and they’re being protected from somebody else. How long do those walls have to stay up? You know, there’s Iraqi Humvees all over the place, there are Americans still, quite frequently, in the streets, and a lot of the situations that could turn violent and would turn violent, people feel would turn violent if the American presence wasn’t on the street. You hear a lot of people talk about how when militia members or others see American tanks, they know that they can’t stand up to them, but that there is some type of waiting game going on, because they can take on a fledgling security force that doesn’t really have loyalty to a nation but to different parties and sects and ethnicities. The other issue is the Arab-Kurdish problem. You have a semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north, you have a prime minister who believes that he should be a more powerful leader and doesn’t really believe in this federalist state, and you have a very, very real flashpoint along disputed areas from the border of Syria—in Sinjar, all the way to Khanakin in Diyala, which is about 300 miles of land—and all of that could go up into violence between Kurds and Arabs as they try to grab land and power. I think the fight for power is just beginning, that power struggle. And what Iraq what will look like and who will decide that, that’s just beginning for Iraqis.

JAY: What is the state of the armed resistance against the occupation now? One sees statements, Web sites, emails talking about a kind of renewed effort to fight the occupation and not wait till 2011. What strength does that have? And who does it represent? The resistance movement has always talked about here is sort of a monolith. Sometimes they’re called terrorists; something they’re called something else. But it’s far more complicated than that, isn’t it?

FADEL: Of course it’s far more complicated than that. I mean, some people really do believe they have the right to resist a foreign army as long as those people are on their land, and they are proud of that, and they say, you know, “We’re attacking a foreign army. Those are the only people we attack.” And I’ve talked to people who still feel that way to this day. But there’s no question that that has weakened and it is much less than it was before. There has been whisperings of a resurgence of the insurgency fighting the American presence here, and that’s been talked about by Ministry of Defense officials, Ministry of Interior officials here in Baghdad. Some of that they put on the fact that so many people are being released from American detention centers before the withdrawal happens. Some of that, they say, is the regrouping of Shia militias. But we haven’t seen a trend of an—we’ve seen uptick in violence, but we haven’t seen a steady trend yet going back up.

JAY: The Iraqi people who are kind of caught between this situation of opposing being occupied by a foreign power and very concerned how their own various elites are going to fight each other over control of all this oil wealth. Is there any kind of political or even organizational representation of that opinion outside of these factions that are fighting for direct state power? I mean, I’m talking now, like, you know, either from trade unions or other kinds of organizations.

FADEL: Well, I think when you look at the provincial elections that just happened, there were so many parties that ran, and in some senses they were trying to get a feel for how the people would vote and who they would vote for, because so many people don’t feel they have any other option than the options that came in with what they say are people that came in on the backs of American tanks. There are a lot of Iraqis who say in order for there to be peace here, they need to take the exiles that came in to rule them, and the Americans, out of this country. But there is no real strong alternative movement that’s showing itself right now.

JAY: The one movement that seemed to be somewhat independent from at least some of the main players that had allied with the US was the Sadrist movement. What state is that in now?

FADEL: The Sadrist movement. You know, they didn’t do too badly during the provincial elections, and that was a surprise for a lot of people. They were second or third in most of the Shia provinces. Although they didn’t run as a list, necessarily, they endorsed lists. And I think there still is some popularity for that movement in the sense that they’ve always been the voice of the poor and disenchanted. But the head of that movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, is still not in the country, and there is this transition of the movement going through, you know, a civic union with a very specialized force that will fight Americans, which is what it’s been. But it’s not as strong as it once was; it’s not as popular as it once was.

JAY: Is there any sense that it’s also sort of biding its time? Or is it weaker because public opinion doesn’t accept it as much? Or are they also biding their time, waiting for an American withdrawal?

FADEL: When you say “biding their time,” what are you referring to?

JAY: Waiting for the US forces to leave.

FADEL: Well, the Sadrist movement has so many facets to it, first of all. There are so many facets to it in the sense that it’s a civic organization. It provides services. It has its militant branch. It also has political members. But it’s definitely an opposition force to this government. And I think everybody is just angling right now and everybody is biding their time. Maliki is biding his time because everything hinges on how many Americans are here and how many Americans are not here come 2011, and the people who were backed by them are going to be weaker, and the people who weren’t are going to be stronger.

JAY: The main discussion going on amongst the American leadership, both political and military, the language is “leaving responsibly.” But the question is: responsible to who? Leaving responsibly in terms of what situation is left for the Iraqi people? Or leaving responsibly in terms of US strategic interests in the region? And it’s not necessarily the same question. What do you make of that debate?

FADEL: Well, I think the word “responsible” has nothing to do with—. You know, if we’re going to make it about a strategic interest, that’s one thing. But if we—ultimately what was being preached about this war was the idea that we were going to create a democracy here, and we’re going to create a state that was better than it once was, and we’re going to create a country that’s better for its people. At this point, it still isn’t better for its people, if you talk to talk to most Iraqis. It isn’t safe. It isn’t wealthy. I mean, it’s wealthy with its natural resources, but the population itself is still suffering. They still don’t have clean water; they still don’t have electricity. They have factions that will, ultimately, probably, fight each other if nobody’s there to stop them, as the situation has been before that. And so, if we leave, we will be held accountable. America will be held accountable for whatever comes afterwards. There was a guy I interviewed in a Sunni cemetery once, and he talked about how angry he was about the American invasion and how angry he was that he felt that the US invasion and the US occupation brought that strife to this country, that before the war, really, people didn’t talk about Sunni and Shia, mostly because if they did, Saddam did not approve of that. His hostility towards the United States was greater because now he felt that they couldn’t leave without Iraqis once again killing each other because of this sort of beast that was unleashed from the invasion. And so I think that’s the sense, this necessary evil sense: so many people want the US to leave, but they’re not sure that Iraq can defend its borders, because its security forces were broken apart and rebuilt from bottom up and they’re not ready. They can’t necessarily—they don’t have an army that’s necessarily loyal to the government, but, rather, loyal to political parties that have sectarian or ethnic leanings. So there’s nothing for them to really hold onto and to be sure of in their country.

JAY: So is there any sense, any force amongst Iraqis that have some vision about what happens next that’s a different plan from what most of us are seeing? I mean, is there another vision of what should happen next?

FADEL: Alternative to what’s going to happen–

JAY: Yeah.

FADEL: I’ll turn it into what’s going to happen, because I don’t really think we know what’s [inaudible]

JAY: Other than Americans in theory withdraw. Like, for example, there’s been some conversations about the necessity of some kind of reparations, some kind of a regional solution, some role for the United Nations. Any of these other kinds of ideas resonate with people there?

FADEL: Not really. I mean, actually, to be honest, most people don’t really believe most of what the US military and US administrations say. Most Iraqis don’t, because for six years they’ve heard a lot of promises and a lot of things that didn’t come true. There are so many people who do want a complete withdrawal, whether it brings violence or not. At least it will bring an end to this stage of the war. But they don’t believe, necessarily, that it’s actually going to happen. And I think there’s a sense of disbelief too, among people and politicians in Iraq, that Iraq isn’t as important to the United States anymore. You know, no longer do we have a president in power that actually invaded Iraq. In some cases, this was Bush’s war. It is America’s war, but it wasn’t started by this administration. And so that responsibility that was felt by the last administration or that accountability they felt they would inherit may be gone. And so a lot of people don’t realize that they’re not the top priority any longer for the American administration, with the economic crisis and with the situation in Afghanistan.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Leila.

FADEL: You’re welcome. Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Leila Fadel is the chief of the Baghdad bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She has covered the war in Iraq for Knight Ridder and now McClatchy on and off since June 2005, as well as the 34-day war in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel in the summer of 2006. Prior to joining the McClatchy team she worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a crime and higher education reporter.

Fadel graduated from Northeastern University in Boston in 2004 and has lived in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. She speaks conversational Arabic. She was named print journalist of the year by the Houston Press Club for her work in 2005 and won a Katie Award from the Dallas Press Club in 2006 for her portfolio of work.

Her Iraq reporting won her Print Journalist of the Year honors from the Houston Press Club citing her work from "Bedford (Texas) to Baghdad."