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Sahar Issa: Violence may break out against violation of election results in Iraq

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And joining us again is Sahar Issa. She works with the McClatchy bureau in Baghdad. She was also one of six women in 2007 that won the Women of Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So let’s talk a bit about what’s going on now politically in Iraq. Where do things stand in terms of forming an Iraqi government? Why don’t we start there?

ISSA: It is a very difficult situation, because there is a stalemate. The stalemate, however, is not constitutional. In the end of last year and the beginning of this year, Iraqis were feeling a little bit more lighthearted. They were saying, okay, we have been through this ordeal, but elections are coming up. Perhaps we can take a hand after all in forming our future. Election day was for all—perhaps my colleagues in the media who have been there reporting remember the explosions, stun bombs, and smoke bombs, and firing in the air, not as much to kill the people as much as to frighten them away. It was amazing to me to see that people actually ventured out of their homes in hundreds of thousands and millions. They did. And at the end of the day, there was the result of the election: secular bloc, headed by Ayad Allawi, former prime minister in Iraq. And this secular bloc won by a very small margin of two seats. However, it was an election, and he won. The powers that were incumbent did not accept this.

JAY: Prime Minister Maliki.

ISSA: Maliki. And they have been trying now for more than seven months to turn the tables to remain in power. First there was a call for recount. That took three months, and the result of the recount was exactly as the result before the recount. That in itself must have been embarrassing. And after that, there is formation of a large group, coming together of parties, not being able to form an alliance that is accepted constitutionally. Even if Mr. Maliki, incumbent prime minister, were able to form a large alliance to gain the majority that will make him able, empower him to form a government, it will not be constitutional, because there was an election and a bloc won, and according to our constitution, it says the largest parliamentary bloc.

JAY: The underlying issue here for many of the forces in struggle in Iraq for power is enormous oil wealth, billions of dollars of oil already flowing. There’s different sections of elites in different sections of the country representing, on the face of it, different ethnic groups and religious groups, but mostly it’s a struggle over oil wealth. Give us just a little bit of a picture how these—who these different forces are and how it’s playing out in the struggle to form a government.

ISSA: Oil wealth in Iraq is distributed along the border with Iran and to the south borders. So it is majorly in Kirkuk, which is the plain for struggle for the Kurdistan region, and it is also in Missan, which is to the south of that, and in Basra, which is the southernmost province in Iraq. The southern provinces are a majority of Shia, where very few Sunnis now live there. So there is no struggle that has to do with ethnic or sectarian background. However, the difference to that is in Kirkuk. Kirkuk originally, the city of Kirkuk, had a majority of Turkomen population, and outside the city, on the borders of it, a majority of Kurds. And the rest of the province, and especially the western half of the province, is Arab tribes. Saddam Hussein, in his time, because of the struggle with the Kurds, did not want to give them the upper hand in control in Kirkuk. Kurds were delicately and not so delicately pushed out of the province; and others, usually from the south of Iraq, they were given incentive to go there, that they would be given land, they would be given some capital to work with. Starting after 2003, the Kurds have been attempting to reverse this demographic change. Unfortunately for the people of Kirkuk, oil is not a blessing, it is a curse, because for others who are living outside the province it is simply a source of income.

JAY: Allawi won the election with a secular party by a couple of seats.

ISSA: Yes.

JAY: Maliki now, who doesn’t want to hand over power, has he been able to create an alliance with the Sadrists? And, like, what’s the shape of all of this? Because you have the Kurds in the struggle over Kirkuk. You have Sunnis, who Maliki seems to be wanting to push even further away from government in power. And we’ve heard in a recent report that many of the Sunnis that were involved in these Awakening councils that were supposed to be fighting the Al-Qaeda type elements have actually now gone back in joining the insurgency because they’re being so cut out of power by Maliki. And you have Allawi in the secular party over here. And so where does all this head? And most importantly, is the US playing an important role in deciding who’s going to be king or not?

ISSA: Maliki needs alliances to be able to say, I have a majority in the parliament. So far, he does not have that. It is amazing for me, personally, and for many observers, that the Sadrists overnight changed from considering him number one, perhaps, enemy of Sadrists to considering him an ally. They say, however, when we speak to them, that before the announcement, they say that Muqtada al-Sadr, their religious leader, that he is bearing up well under Iranian pressure. Overnight, it was announced that the Sadrists will back Maliki into the elections. And after the announcement, when we spoke to them again, they said, no, there were no pressures, and that no, there wasn’t a deal cut. We must understand that for Sadrists, such a large number of Sadrists, especially in connection with Jaish al-Mahdi, or Mahdi Army, were detained by Maliki’s government, detained, some of them tried, some of them convicted, and a lot of them still simply languishing in detention without knowing when they will be processed.

JAY: And Maliki led an attack on Sadr city that killed many of their people.

ISSA: Of course. Not just Sadr City. In Basra it was really big. And a lot of people thought that by doing this, Maliki was able to gain nationalist standing, so that he was not only hitting the other sect, but he was also hitting whoever is carrying arms in his own sect.

JAY: If you have a Sadr-Maliki deal of some kind, in some way brokered by Iran, where are the Americans in all this? ‘Cause the Americans still seem to be supporting Maliki. And I guess a question I have is, if they actually preferred Allawi in the secular party, could they have done anything about it? Or is the US just focused on getting out? Or are they really focused on getting out, and do they actually have more long-term plans here?

ISSA: Thank you for this question. Maliki—especially Maliki, but the other parties also, were using propaganda against Allawi that he is the one who the US is supporting. But because after the elections things delayed so much, and the withdrawal date of handing over of combat operations from US forces to Iraqi forces came up, and a great withdrawal of American forces would leave the country in the hands of the Iraqi security and a smaller force of 50,000 American soldiers, I think, I believe, that the American administration felt that maybe the devil you know, at this stage, is better than the devil you don’t know, a secular bloc coming to government at this time, where the majority of Shiites and the sectarian strife [sic]. And this situation can be an unknown value in the equation. Perhaps it has to do with considerations, as I told you. Because they are pulling out, they need to leave something a little bit more stable and not a question mark, on one side. But on another side, I would never have accredited that the US would, in a situation like this, where it is secular versus Islamist, to support the Islamists and give up on the secular. For me it is a strange situation.

JAY: And not just Islamists, but a government that seems to have as much connection to Iran as [inaudible] United States.

ISSA: Of course, of course.

JAY: So do Iraqis believe these 50,000 troops that are now called noncombat—but from what we understand, the actual reality on the ground hasn’t changed very much, has it?

ISSA: We don’t often see American convoys in our streets anymore. However, in the belt around Baghdad they are active, and in what is called the disputed areas—and this is the buffer belt between Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraq. They are deployed there, officially deployed there in joint forces. This is Iraqi, Kurdish, and American. Until the dispute is over, one way or the other, I think they are committed to be there.

JAY: So that’s the question. Do Iraqis believe the US is really getting out?

ISSA: I think Iraqis have begun to believe that the Americans are getting out militarily. However, their presence—I mean, US Embassy in Iraq has accommodations, I believe, for around 5,000 people. So their presence in the country need not be military. They say, we are training; they say, we are advising; they say, we are promoting. And so all these people are staying. I doubt very much if they will stay without ample protection from their military. How it’s going to unfold and work out I don’t really know. It is unsure. But Iraqis have not seen in modern history a country in which America got involved and actually left completely.

JAY: What is the dangers of another fairly full-scale civil war breaking out? Or do you think it will more or less stay at the kind of level of violence it’s at now?

ISSA: Iraqis have had their bellyful of violence. A lot of the people simply do not want—they don’t care what, they just don’t want the violence to return. This is something—I don’t know if it is good or bad, but for me I think it’s good that they are not so quick to pick up arms anymore. But as I said formerly, if a government that was formed outside the auspices of our constitution, it will give rise to legitimate resistance, and there are many, many inside Iraq and outside Iraq who would take advantage of this to rile up the situation and make it come out to, I don’t know, civil war—it won’t be civil war, but it will be violence. It will be political violence. The parties would be killing each other.

JAY: By the US policy and Iranian policy of supporting a government that many people see as unconstitutional, it could be contributing to, actually, the conditions of more violence.

ISSA: It could be indeed. It could be indeed.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. For those of you that didn’t see the first segment of this interview, and I urge you to go look at it, but just to explain, the reason we have been shooting Sahar this way, from the sides so you can’t see her face, is for security reasons, obviously. It’s still very dangerous to be a journalist in Baghdad. Thank you for joining us 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.