As surge nears its final years, many are struggling to understand what exactly it has achieved. According to exiting President George W. Bush and his successor the surge was a success. To better understand the situation on the ground, Paul Jay spoke to Leila Fadel, McClatchy Newspapers’ bureau chief in Baghdad. Fadel speaks on the history of violence in the region, from the Anbar province to Baghdad. She also speaks on the rising leaders and the Sons of Iraq program, the exiled former fighter Abu Abed, and the network known in the West as al- Qaeda. The drop in sectarian violence, according to Fadel, is the result of the ethnic cleansing of Sunni Muslims and the creation of segregation by US-built walls between Shia and Sunni neighborhoods, and the nature of the resistance to the forces.
The Iraqi view on the surge
Paul Jay, Washington, DC
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to our series of interviews with Leila Fadel, bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers in Baghdad. Thanks, Leila.
LEILA FADEL, MCCLATCHY BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF: Thank you.
JAY: So there’s been a lot of debate about just exactly what was the surge. Popular wisdom, from anywhere from John McCain to even Barack Obama, is that the surge was a great success, and then you can credit the surge with the lessening of violence and so on. What’s your take?
FADEL: Well, I don’t think you can take any one thing and say, “This is what happened, and this is why.” Everything came together at a certain point to create the drop of violence that happened. First of all, when the surge began, what happened in Anbar province, which at the time people were saying was lost—it was extremely violent, it was the bastion of Sunni insurgency, you know, it is Anbar province, mostly Sunni Muslims, tribal, very powerful men, you know, very proud men—at that time, when the surge happened, the Awakening, as they call it, was well underway. I mean, that had been declared in September ’06, and the process of Iraqis fighting back against an insurgency that had created a lifestyle that was unacceptable to them was already in effect.
JAY: So this is the attempt by forces that we hear are here usually called al-Qaeda forces or al-Qaeda-in-Iraq type forces trying to impose sharia law in this area.
FADEL: That’s right. In Anbar, I mean, it had basically—there’s something they called the Islamic State of Iraq. There had been a caliphate declared, saying that “This is part of our Islamic state.” Anbar was a part of that, and other parts of Iraq, parts of Diyala province, parts that were dominated by Sunni Arabs. So in Anbar province they had very fundamentalist ideologies being enforced on a population that didn’t live like that, you know, that didn’t agree with that. You know, they don’t go to the market and think that the cucumbers and tomatoes can’t be in the same area because it’s indecent. And these are the types that—you know, you don’t get your fingers cut off for smoking a cigarette. Those types of things don’t happen in Anbar province. Iraqis in Anbar province are not like that, and so people were rejecting that. And on top of that were other issues too. I mean, the tribal leaders weren’t okay with al-Qaeda in Iraq taking part of their cut of the smuggling business; they weren’t okay with al-Qaeda in Iraq killing tribal leaders and important figures in Anbar. And so they were going after what really was a foreign concept that they allied with because they didn’t think that the foreign presence was in their interest. They had lost their jobs, they had lost their prestige in the society. And so at that point, when the surge came in, that was well underway in Anbar. And when the general, General Petraeus, [inaudible] saw what was happening in Anbar, he copied it, and it went across the country.
JAY: So it began as an Iraqi phenomenon.
FADEL: Really, yeah, it did. It began as a tribal phenomenon in Anbar, and it happened way before there was any start of the surge. And then, when you start paying people $300 a month not to point guns at you, or, you know, maybe they were fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq, it helps. And so that program was copied across the country. Now a lot of those leaders and those first people to stand up in Baghdad and Diyala, many of those were run out of the country, arrested by the Shia government, and they’re trying to deal with that situation now, because the Americans had over 100,000 people on their payroll being paid to protect their neighborhoods, and the Iraqi government was very scared of this whole, you know, Sunni militia backed by the United States coming to fruition and may not be loyal to its government, and so they demanded that it now be transferred to Iraqi control. And in that transfer there’s a lot of fear among the Sunni men that they will lose their power, that they won’t really be respected.
JAY: Explain what you meant by leaders being run out of the country.
FADEL: Well, for example, when you look at Baghdad, the first place in Baghdad that really had this Awakening or the Sons of Iraq program, there was a man named Abu Abed who stood up, and he was known as—you know, he was basically a warlord. He stood up and he fought. And he has this story about how he went to the Qaeda leader, and the Qaeda leader said, “How could you talk to me that way?” and he points his gun at him and he shoots, but the gun jams twice, and Abu Abed is able to shoot him, and from there he leads this movement. And people say he was part of the Islamic Army. His deputy definitely was part of the Islamic Army, which is a Sunni insurgent group that was allied with al-Qaeda in Iraq. He fought in his neighborhood. I was there when he was doing that, and I was there with some of the American military who sung his praises, said that he saved, they saved so many of his men, because I think 11 to 14 soldiers that died that month from deep-buried IEDs [improvised explosive device] in that area. Now he’s in Jordan, run out of the country. There’s an arrest warrant for him in Iraq based on things he says are not true. You know, back under Saddam’s time, he was part of the special forces, but so many of these men that came into the American program, the Sons of Iraq, were part of undesirable jobs under Saddam Hussein, scary jobs. That was part of the idea of reconciliation, that was part of the program. So that’s part of the reason.
JAY: And the US, the Americans either have not tried or are not able to protect these people who were their people.
FADEL: Well, that’s debatable. I mean, the men that worked with Abu Abed when he first came out, they say that he should be protected and the Americans should help him. But the people who deal with him today, they’re more diplomatic about the whole thing. You know, they don’t want to get involved; they don’t want to anger the Iraqi government and “Let’s let them take over their program.” But of course, you know, I’d think the leader in Diyala, he went to jail. I think he may have been released now. There has to be a semblance of trust that isn’t there between the Iraqi government, which is Shia-led, and the Sunni Sons of Iraq, which are the people that were part of the insurgency that were killing Americans and Iraqis alike, you know, most of them were. So that definitely brought down the violence. But seeing how the program goes and whether or not it’s absorbed in a way that’s real and effective will be the telling thing.
JAY: Now, one of the things we’re told is that one of the critiques of the surge is that a lot of it in fact facilitated ethnic cleansing, particularly in Baghdad, and that one of the reasons violence is down in Baghdad is just that there’s been such an ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from Baghdad that the American surge troops helped facilitate. Is there truth to that?
FADEL: Well, I don’t think the American surge troops helped facilitate the cleansing; they just consolidated it: they built walls, which said, “This wall is around the Sunni neighborhood of x; this wall is around the Shia neighborhood of x.” Those walls are along sectarian lines, and those walls are along the front lines where sectarian cleansing was happening. So it solidified what had been happening, and the cleansing of many Sunnis from Baghdad and the cleansing of neighborhoods and the separation of people was physical, was no longer hypothetical—they put a wall between the people to stop it. And some of it did stop, but it stopped because it was done.
JAY: We’re told that if the US were to leave now, and even if it leaves in, like, 2011, that all hell’s going to break loose again between Shia and Sunni. That’s what we’re told. And is there truth to that? And in the next segment of our interview, let’s explore that. Please join us for the next in our series of interviews with Leila Fadel.
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