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Sahar Issa: Iraqis scoff at notion that only 100,000 civilians died in war

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. The WikiLeaks leak, over 390,000 documents. The outstanding pieces of information people have been focusing on has been the number of civilians deaths now admitted to, over 100,000, far more than at least had been unofficially acknowledged by the American military. Now joining us to discuss the reaction inside Iraq to the WikiLeaks leak is Sahar Issa. She’s a McClatchy bureau correspondent in Baghdad. She happens to be in Washington for a few days now. And you’ll see that we’re shooting her in a way that you cannot see her face, and that’s for security reasons. Perhaps to understand a little more why we’re doing this, let me read you a couple of sentences from a speech she gave in Washington in 2007, when she accepted an award, along with five other members of the Baghdad bureau for McClatchy newspapers. The award was from the International Women’s Media Foundation, given to women of courage in journalism. And here’s a little bit of what Sahar had to say then. “To be a journalist in violence-ridden Iraq today, ladies and gentlemen, is not a matter lightly undertaken. Every path is strewn with danger, every checkpoint, every question a direct threat. Every interview we conduct may be our last. So much is happening in Iraq, so much that is questionable, so much that we as journalists try to fathom and portray to the people who care to know.” Now joining us to talk about her experiences in Iraq, and particularly about WikiLeaks, is Sahar Issa. Thanks very much for joining us.


JAY: So let’s just first, before we talk about WikiLeaks—. You gave that speech in 2007. Is the situation any less dangerous for journalists now?

ISSA: It is less dangerous. However, the targets now are more defined (before, it used to be more random), so that journalists are targeted. We don’t know where from, exactly, whether it is by people who don’t want Iraqis to work with the foreign agencies, whether it is by hardcore Islamists who simply don’t want the news about the violence and what’s—the chaos that is taking place in Iraq to be out. And at the same time, we have suspected very much that some of the violence also came from the political side, because so much that was questionable, nobody wanted a witness there for the things that were happening, and that’s what we were, witnesses.

JAY: By “the political side” you mean the Iraqi government.

ISSA: The Iraqi government, yes, of course.

JAY: Or US Forces.

ISSA: The US Forces, Iraqi government. Now, because generally speaking the violence has gone down, we can see that the targeting is more defined. So now in Iraq who is being targeted? It is journalists, it is security forces, and it is government officials. So we know.

JAY: And the targeting of journalists, you still think, could be coming from all the various sides?

ISSA: All the various sides, unfortunately. Many journalists believe that now. It is the official side that has the upper hand in this, and the Committee to Protect Journalists still puts Iraq as number one dangerous for journalists.

JAY: So let’s talk a little bit about WikiLeaks. There are various pieces of the documents that jumped out, but the one a lot of people have been talking about is the numbers of civilian deaths, over 100,000. How have Iraqis reacted to all of this?

ISSA: Iraqis know this. Iraqis know that they have lost hundreds of thousands.

JAY: So people think the number is low.

ISSA: People think the number is—no, people know that. McClatchy has done a piece on this. A long time ago we walked the streets of Baghdad, just Baghdad, and we spoke randomly to people on the streets all over the neighborhoods, asking, have you lost someone in this war? And invariably the answer was, yes, either an aunt or an uncle, a brother, a husband, a wife, a son.

JAY: Off camera, before we started the interview, I asked you about this, and you had been in Washington when WikiLeaks broke, and you got on the phone, and you talked to people in Iraq.

ISSA: Yes.

JAY: But your first reaction is, when you asked them what they thought, you said they laughed.

ISSA: They laughed.

JAY: Why?

ISSA: They laughed.

JAY: Why?

ISSA: Because they said, isn’t it strange that it is only now that the people outside of Iraq are saying there are more than 30,000 or 40,000 (that was the official number)? Of course they are more. Of course. And there are much more, even, now.

JAY: Do you think the number that’s been given by some sources as maybe as much as a million civilian deaths, do people think that’s a possible number?

ISSA: It is a possible number. It is a possible number for a simple fact is that so many are simply missing. And how many of those who have been missing for five or six years have actually been killed?

JAY: There are other things that came out in the documents. One of them was that the Iraqi forces have been responsible for torture, kidnappings, and such, and part of it seems to be the critique of US Forces is they look the other way. How do people react to that? ‘Cause we’ve heard some reaction from Iraqi official circles that say, hold on here, nothing happened that the US Forces didn’t have some control over.

ISSA: Let me tell you something. Iraq has a culture that we inherited from the previous era in our history, and that is total disregard for human rights and freedom of action and speech. I spoke to the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, and this was after a scandal broke out two years ago. And I asked him, today in Iraq, you say this is a new Iraq and we are putting behind us the culture of Saddam. What are the steps that have been taken by the security authorities, whether Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense, or intelligence agencies, in order to, how do you say, plant and cultivate a culture of human rights within the security forces? What have you been doing to teach our security people that there are limits they should not exceed when they are treating Iraqi citizens? And he looks me in the eye and he says, Sahar, are you concerned about the rights of these insects, and you are not concerned about the rights of the people they harm? Totally missing my point. This is one thing. And totally disregarding the fact that a lot of the detainees are just that, they are suspects. They go in because an IED exploded somewhere or a car bomb exploded somewhere, and the authorities will come and round up up to 50 of the young men of the neighborhood between ages 17 and 35. They will take them in for interrogation. Interrogation consists of beating them until they confess. Now, this is the culture that we have.

JAY: Now, the point that some of the interviews I saw with some Iraqis were making is that none of this went on without not just the US looking the other way, that the US had so much control over the situation. Is that a legitimate—?

ISSA: There is a link or liaison for some Americans sides, whether they are in the military or whether they are judicial, to instruct, teach, train Iraqi authorities on the wonderful results that can be gained from forensics, because then they do not need a confession, which is the basic way of incriminating a person before.

JAY: We know from Abu Ghraib [inaudible] was the techniques used there [inaudible] that became [inaudible] for the Iraqi forces.

ISSA: Of course. Of course. Of course. Of course. So everyone who has come into contact with this knows that there have been some efforts to change this way of using torture, intimidation, these ways to take confessions from detainees. There have been—what do you call them?—workshops and—for judges and for police forces. But is the practice still there? The practice is still there. I know that for a fact. I know families in Abu Ghraib [inaudible] in the belt, the suburb belt around Baghdad. And whenever anything happens there—and it’s still happening—like IEDs going off or confrontations with the security forces, they come up into neighborhood (this is the security forces), they round up tens, and they take them to the detention center, and the only way they can get some result from interrogating them is by intimidating them and beating them. I have seen with my own eyes a young man who has been detained three times. I don’t know, no one really knows who is in contact with insurgents. He didn’t have any information to give. He has become now almost handicapped, not able to work, not able to provide for his family.

JAY: One of the other things that came out of the WikiLeaks was supposed to be field reports of some kind that show Iran’s participation in the Iraqi fight, and much more involved in terms of Iran showing how to use IEDs, and training people how to kidnap American soldiers, and so on. Now, up until this point, when the United States has been asked to present more actual concrete evidence of Iran’s role, not much was ever put forward. I think that there was something about one computer was found. This contains much more of this. What is Iraqi opinion about Iran’s role in this issue? And what do we know in terms of the facts of this?

ISSA: Yes. Yes. Western media, generally speaking, like, today need ink on paper to prove things; otherwise it is allegations. But for people who are living the situation, they know that Iran has what we call a long arm into this affair inside Iraq. Badr Brigades was actually trained inside Iran, and they later became the National Police. We hope that police forces are neutral, but in this situation what do you think? Another thing is that a lot of the smuggling of explosives have been recorded, and they are coming from Iran. A lot of the explosives that are being used, like the mortar shells and things like that, they have actually “Made in Iran” written on them. I mean, I don’t know how people would find this as evidence or not, but the involvement of Iran, as far as Iraqis are concerned, is not something doubtful; it is something they know as a fact.

JAY: And how do they judge it in terms of Iranian involvement and US involvement? Sometimes the way the story is told here is somehow it’s justified to have US involvement, but Iran’s not.

ISSA: It is not justified, the US involvement is not justified, because, after all, and this is for most Iraqis, US is an invader, no matter what the conclusions may be, whether good or bad. But have incidents taken place in the full sight of American forces when they didn’t intervene? It is very possible. Have they themselves been involved? We as Iraqis hear of incidents like this, and we hear a lot.

JAY: Incidents like what?

ISSA: Where American forces are directly involved either in witnessing or in actually being part of harm coming to civilians. Are they all reported? Are they all documented? I don’t know. Does anyone always have a camera standing there to shoot these photos? How can it possibly be documented? Iraq is a big place, and these forces are everywhere, so it is difficult to document them. As far as we hear from people, there are still allegations that involvement is there. People have been harmed in the presence of American forces. I will not say, however, that the actual persons who were present were enjoying it. Maybe they didn’t care. Maybe they couldn’t do anything because there is a certain limit, perhaps an agreement, as to how far American presence can influence the actions of Iraqi security forces in their work.

JAY: In the next segment of the interview, let’s talk about the current politics in Iraq, and the stalemate in forming a government, and what’s next. Please join us for the next segment of our interview on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Sahar Issa is a McClatchy Baghdad Bureau Correspondent. She does the Round-up of Daily Violence in Iraq. In 2007, along with five other women from the McClatchy and Knight Ridder newspaper chain, she was honored with the Women of Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation.