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Sahar Issa: Iraq wants Saudi recognition but cooperates with Iranian flights to Syria

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

At the end of March, on March 29, the Arab League will meet in Iraq. This is nine years after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Some people are calling it a kind of coming-out party for the Iraqi government taking its full place on the Arab and global stage as an independent government, no longer directly occupied, at least, and at a very complicated time in the Middle East, with a conflict in Syria and the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran—very, very difficult times. And, of course, in Iraq the conditions are still very onerous.

Now joining us to talk about all of this is Sahar Issa. She’s a McClatchy Baghdad bureau correspondent. In 2007, along with five other women from McClatchy and Knight Ridder chain, she was honored with the Women of Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation. Thanks for joining us, Sahar.


JAY: Now I’ll just mention you’re looking away from the camera, and the reason for that is ’cause it’s still a very dangerous place to be a journalist, in Iraq, and we’re making it more difficult for anyone to recognize her this way. You’ll note that in an earlier interview we did with Sahar, which we’ll post below this one, we were even more extreme in hiding her identity.

At any rate, thanks, Sahar. So talk a bit about the context. The Arab League meetings are coming. What’s the importance of that to Iraq?

ISSA: Well, in Iraq, of course, the situation is very controversial in context of the Arab world, because this development stems from an occupation in Iraq, an occupation spearheaded by the United States, which is something of an obstacle to acceptance in the Arab world, so far as Iraqi government has striven to become acknowledged, to be seen as a legitimate government, and the efforts sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed. However, once the Arab League holds its summit meeting in Baghdad, no doubt this is a full acknowledgment that Baghdad has a government that is legitimate and it is hosting the Arab League. So it is a big success for the Iraqi government, hailed by everyone who is participating in the political process. At the same time, it is a low point for those who still strive to show up the Iraqi government as an illegitimate government that stems from an occupation.

JAY: Well, before we talk about that piece of it, let’s talk just a little bit about the bigger sort of geopolitics of this. It’s a very complicated time in the Arab League and the Arab world, where you have Saudi Arabia pushing and Qatar pushing for not just arming but even talk of military intervention in Syria, trying to overthrow the Assad regime; the Iraqi government (which is majority Shia) and the Allawite in Syria who support Assad. And we’re told this is more and more a sectarian conflict. But you have a situation where Iraq is supporting the Assad regime. On the other hand, we’re reading stories that relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia are getting better, and Iraq has very good relations with Iran, which is in confrontation with Saudi Arabia. I mean, very complicated. What do you make of this?

ISSA: To tell you the truth, no one really believes that relations with the Saudi have been touched. However, in order to have this summit and for it to be considered a successful summit—without the presence of Saudi it cannot be. So I think Iraq is being—how do you say?—the language it’s using is somewhat more diplomatic. But when you come down to it, no concessions have been made. A politician I spoke to not two days ago admitted that the Iraqi government has been put under great pressure from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in order for it to acknowledge the Syrian National Council as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and they did not buckle. They said this is a matter of national security, and we will hold on to our own opinions. However, maybe concessions have been made in other ways.

But it is a very difficult point for the Iraqi government at this time, because, yes, Saudi has been a difficult neighbor. It has not been positive in reconnecting relations with Iraq. But lately, yes, there has been some progress. Some who are extremist on the Shiite side say that Maliki has sold the cause. On the other hand, some people on the Sunni side say, don’t you believe it, this is just something temporary, he is doing this in order for the summit to succeed, and after that he will revert to his old ways.

JAY: How sharp or how important are the differences between Saudi and Iraq, and particularly as it’s reflected in Syria? I know diplomatically Iraq is not joining in on Arab League sanctions and Arab League calls for arming the opposition and such. But is Iraq doing anything actively to support the Assad government?

ISSA: To tell you the truth, we heard from American officials in the State Department, I think Mrs. Victoria Nuland, that allegations are there that the Iraqi government, even if it is not actually sending fighters and weapons to Syria, is facilitating weapons, and maybe even fighters, from Iran across Iraqi airspace into Syria. So is this a participation? Yes, I believe if it is true and the allegations are correct, it is a participation. What would Iran not do in support of Bashar al-Assad? Bashar is a very important figure for Iran in its regional policies. There is an axis. It is well known: Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, in the south of Lebanon. And now Iraq has joined this team. So is it active in doing that?

It is also active in another way. The Iraqi government has said that it would be more strict in border control between Iraq and Syria. In this matter also there are allegations that three soldiers from Syria fled to Iraq because they didn’t want to be part of the killing and bloodshed, and that Iraqi security forces handed them over to the Syrian authorities. Also it is being said that the strict border security is now not in order to stop weapons going into Syria in support of the Assad regime, but it is not to go in, and so that it may not reach what is called the Freedom Army of Syria, the uprising.

JAY: And what are the relations between the Iraqi government that the U.S. now, when the U.S. has clearly sided with the, quote-unquote, Sunni powers, you know, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and want—certainly indirectly supporting the overthrow or destabilization of Assad, where Iraq is more in the Iranian camp. So what’s Iraqi-U.S. relations look like?

ISSA: On this particular affair (not in all, in everything) I think perhaps there is some stress. It is known that the American State Department has requested that Iraq take a stronger position on Iran transporting these cargo ships. They are saying it’s humanitarian aid, and sometimes they are saying it is flowers and agricultural stuff. But in actual fact, we heard—one of the permanent Iraqi politicians told McClatchy some while back that flights had risen from two per week to 34 per week. And this is—after this time, what is it? Is it tourism, that people from Iran are going to Syria at this time? It is difficult to say.

But I don’t think there will be a fallout between the U.S. and the Iraqi government. There is a bond there that is difficult to cut because of Syria or Iran or anyone else. There is a bond because America had a hand in what happened in Iraq, and I doubt that they will fall out. However, we can say, maybe, stressed to a certain extent.

JAY: Right. Then how serious is this tension between Iraq and Saudi Arabia and Qatar? I mean, right now it’s in the form of a kind of proxy war going on in Syria, and of course there’s many hands in this in Syria. But some of the things we’re reading is that this is becoming more of a Shia-Sunni battle. I mean, how real is that? And how real is it that it becomes not just proxy but, you know, actual some kind of a real fight between countries? I mean, is that something—we’re reading this, but how real is that?

ISSA: I will tell you something. We in Iraq know about proxy wars. We had a very strong proxy war of ourselves here. It was literally Iran and Saudi fighting, using Iraqis as supporters of each. Yes, this can happen. It is happening in Syria, as I said before.

Saudi is somewhat a little paranoid about the Shia expansion and are terribly afraid of the support that Iran is giving to Shiite all over the world, and terribly afraid of the success that it is having. Of course, the most obvious success is the success in Iraq. To have Iran also succeed in Syria so that there will be a Shiite Iraq, a Shiite Syria, and a very strong Shiite stronghold in Lebanon, all of them on its borders, for it is very, very difficult to conceive. So it will go, I think, to very far limits in order to prevent something like this happening. How far it is willing to go—it is willing to go very far. It is willing to spend a lot of money in order to make it very difficult for Iran to have a foothold in Syria, believe me.

JAY: With the Arab League meetings coming now and—everyone’s trying to make it appear as everyone’s friendly and peaceful. But are these tensions likely to erupt at the meetings? You would think at these meetings they’re going to try to pass some other resolutions about Syria.

ISSA: Yes, of course. The Syrian affair is—it is not just Syria upon the agenda of the meeting. There is also the extremist movements in all of the Arab countries. And, of course, in Syria it is a different—it is looked at to be different by some, that it is an uprising, but the Syrian regime itself, and, surprisingly an American official—how do you say?—confirmed this, that there are al-Qaeda fighters fighting against the Syrian regime. This is something, I think, that will be—how do you say?—something to hold on to for those who want to support Bashar al-Assad, for Iran, for Iraq, that an American official admitted to McClatchy, actually, that there are al-Qaeda fighters amongst those opposed to the regime. They are troublemakers. They are bringing about all these bombings. They are doing this, they are doing that. This is part of the whole of the thing that is going to be discussed in the summit that’s meeting. And whether tensions—of course tensions will break out. Of course tensions will break out.

JAY: And one of the countries, you could say, benefiting from this, one way or the other, is Israel. There seems to be very little talk about Israel, about Gaza, about the Palestinians, the whole Palestinian push at the UN for recognition. I mean, that’s completely off the radar. Is there going to be any focus or attention on Palestine at these Arab League meetings? Or is it all about Syria and other things?

ISSA: According to the agenda—of course, the agenda hasn’t been fully confirmed, but according to the agenda of the summit, there is not a title called “Palestine” now, at this time. There is, however, the affairs generally in the region touching on, of course, what is happening in Palestine, as well as everywhere else, although the situation there is unlike the situation in other countries.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Sahar.

ISSA: You are most welcome.

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


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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.