Straight Talk from the French on Iraq
In opposition to Bush's press conference of today, French expert Pierre-Jean Luizard answers unscripted questions.
If you have site membership at Le Monde, you can find the transcript of yesterday's chat under perpectives in the top menu bar.
By the way, if you speak French I recommend that you buy Luizard's book (show at left) at Amazon France.
With the announced troop reductions, what is the scorecard for the US-British intervention in Iraq?
The third anniversary of the invasion is particularly significant because it coincides with the placement of the last brick in the country’s institutional edifice in the context of the US-sponsored process to reconstruct the Iraqi state. It is the hour of truth because from now on, there are no deadlines for elections or referendums on the horizon. We will find out very soon if the system fostered by the US since July 2003 is viable or not.
In my opinion, this system has already demonstrated that it constitutes an impasse obstructing all actors in Iraq today, whether American or Iraqi. The principal gain of the US intervention in Iraq, namely the fall of Saddam Hussein, has not yielded the benefits expected by Washington: officially, the democratization of the Middle East with Iraq as the model.
Three years after the war, it seems obvious that the occupation condemns all Iraqi actors, whether they are politicians or clerics, to act in the name of strictly sectarian interests instead of promoting a path towards a new contract of coexistence among Iraqis within the framework of a patriotic project meant to override sectarian differences. The sectarian spiral of violence for which there is no end in sight is probably directly linked to Iraq’s status as an occupied nation and not to deliberate US policies.
What do you think of calls to withdraw US troops in Iraq?
Would a pullout lead to civil war or to cooling off tensions? If you believe that the presence of foreign occupation troops is the fuel driving sectarian violence in Iraq, then you could say that the quickest possible pullout of US troops would be the least damaging solution for both the Iraqis and the Americans.
But you have to recognize that the damage has already been done because henceforward, the escalation in sectarian violence concerns Iraqi society itself. Today, the Iraqis fear one another and the blood spilt, particularly by the unleashing of anti-Shi’ite hatred, makes it more difficult with each passing day to return to a situation of coexistence among Iraq's communities.
Nevertheless, it seems likely that the new Iraqi Parliament will include among its first resolutions achieving two-thirds majority a demand for a calendar for the withdrawal of foreign troops. Political forces in favor of such a schedule represent a large majority within the Assembly. If the Americans were well-advised, which is far from certain, they would snatch the ball on the rebound and take advantage of the chance to pull out of the Iraqi quagmire as quickly as possible, while there is still time.
How much longer will the occupation last?
The trap into which the Americans and those Iraqis who took part in the political process have fallen prevents the establishment of a sufficiently stable government with recognized legitimacy enabling the coalition to hand over the keys to sovereignty and to militarily disengage from the country.
The Americans appear to be condemned to remain in a country where their presence divides Iraqi society ever more deeply with each passing day. It is a kind of vicious cycle: the Americans can neither leave nor, in the short or medium-term, find the requisite conditions for a pullout. With each day they remain as occupiers, Iraqi society is further propelled towards divisions that cannot be easily mended.
Does the Coalition remain solid or are the USA and Britain in it alone?
It cannot be dissimulated that the Coalition is strictly American; that is, the Americans never really relied militarily on other powers. The British are there for political support –and possibly for logistical backup. Most of the occupation has been conducted by US troops. And for quite some time now there has been defection from within the ranks of the Coalition by powers that were originally allied with the cause.
One could say that the number of countries participating today in the Coalition has diminished significantly, to the extent that the Americans are increasingly relying on private contractors to meet security needs. Today in Baghdad there are more mercenaries working for private security firms than there are troops from official Coalition members.
We hear a lot about Sunni-Shi’ite opposition. Haven’t we forgotten about the significant number of Kurds, who have a desire to take part in the future of Iraq?
Iraqi society structurally comprises three big communities. The Shi’a, who are mostly Arab, represent between 52 and 55% of the population. Sunni Arabs and Kurds, who are also Sunni, account for approximately 20% of the population, respectively. These communities cannot be considered minorities because each abuts, on the other side of Iraq's border, regions where they are in the majority. All of them have a political agenda for Iraq. This is not the case for the country’s minorities –Turkmen, Christians, Sabeans and others.
Within Iraq, Kurdistan is the only region whose Iraqi identity poses a problem. It should not be forgotten that the Kurds were forcibly joined to the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq in 1925 by the League of Nations. Since then, every Iraqi government has gone to war against them. However, because of regional considerations, the Kurds have no choice but to remain in Iraq. Kurdish leaders recognize that the independence of the autonomous region of Kurdistan is impossible. But despite this, they are engaged in a policy of lone crusader and fait accompli which makes the return of Kurdistan to the Iraqi heartland very problematic.
If you visit Iraqi Kurdistan, you will realize the extent to which young Kurds are ignorant of Iraq. They seldom speak Arabic and it is difficult to imagine an Iraqi future for a region already enjoying quasi-independence.
Are political parties uniting Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites in an overall agenda for Iraq possible in the short or long term?
Historically, the leadership of Iraqi patriotic movements has been assumed by the marja’iyya, that is, the Shi’ite clerical leadership. It was such leadership which, during the jihad of 1914-1916 and the revolution of 1920, led the movement against British occupation. At the time, Shi’ite clerics addressed themselves to both Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the name of a plan for the independence of an Islamic Iraqi state where all communities would be recognized.
In the history of modern Iraq, there have been two parties which were able to rally the different communities to their political agenda: the Communist Party and the Ba’ath Party. The Communist Party has practically disappeared from the political scene, giving way to a religious movement which has returned from a half-century in the desert. As to the Ba’ath Party, it was hijacked by the Tikriti clan, which then created an exclusively Sunni party. The occupation of Iraq has driven all Iraqi actors towards sectarian positions and today there is no political force which encompasses all communities.
What do you think of the frequent accusations by the United States of Iranian involvement Iraq?
The Americans are in trouble in Iraq and in accusing Iran they are trying to divert attention from the failure which every Iraqi as well as their neighbors can gauge. Saddam Hussein was an indispensable partner for the United States, for without Iranian benediction, the Americans could have never put together their unspoken alliance with the Shi’ites of Iraq.
The Americans could have never relied solely on the Kurds like they did on the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. It is thanks to Iranian policies on Iraq that the Americans, despite the current impasse, were able to end their third year of occupation without being challenged by a generalized insurrection among the Arab portion of the country.
US accusations of Iranian involvement Iraq may be viewed in the context of power struggle between Washington and Tehran concerning the nuclear issue. But there is visibly an attempt on the part of the US to blame Iran for the failure of a process which, on the contrary, Tehran has done everything to support until now.
What exactly is the role of Syria in the chaos reigning in Iraq?
The chaos that reigns today in Iraq is due to internal factors and is directly linked to the occupation of the county. To look elsewhere for the causes of the US failure in Iraq is obviously a recurring ploy on the part of Washington. But if the accusations against Iran seem unfounded –although the Iranians could exploit US difficulties in Iraq to divert pressure from their regime–, those against Syria are even more groundless because Damascus possesses very few vectors of influence in Iraq.
Today, the Syrian regime is under siege and will do nothing to lend credit to US accusations against it. If you visit Syria’s border with Iraq, you will witness the veritable paranoia that has seized the Syrian regime due to fears of some proof of Syrian implication in the troubles currently afflicting Iraq which Washington would like to wave in evidence. The border areas are under total lockdown by the army and police. Any stranger, especially if he is Arab, is arrested on the spot.
Have the Americans taken over the oilfields and been granted contracts giving them the right to develop the wells?
Contrary to what has often been said, oil was not the cause of the 2003 invasion. With Saddam Hussein defeated and placed under embargo, the Americans benefited in the 1990s from an ideal situation from an oil standpoint: without being on the front lines and spared from having to bear the political and military burdens of occupation, they were able to indirectly control the second largest oil reserves in the world by exploiting UN resolutions and its Oil for Food Program.
The situation since the fall of Saddam has not permitted the Iraqi oil industry to recover. Reigning insecurity makes the cost of oil production prohibitive and US oil companies for the most part are not interested in the Iraqi minefield, where the safety of workers cannot be guaranteed.
At the same time, oil is exacerbating inter-community divisions. In the context of escalating sectarianism, the Shi’ites and the Kurds are insisting that profits from the development of any new oilfields be reserved for their use, as is their right under the new Iraqi Constitution. Furthermore, oil deposits in the North are spread over regions of mixed ethnicities –Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Sunnis and Shi’ites– which makes the drawing of an ethnic border between Arab Iraq and autonomous Kurdistan impossible.
The obsessional preoccuptation over the oil city of Kirkuk, simultaneously contested by the Kurds, the Shi’ites, Sunni Arabs and Turkmen, symbolizes the impasse which a plan for the partition of Iraq along community, ethnic and confessional lines would create.
Can you explain why the Americans have not captured Zarqawi?
Today, the Americans do not control the terrain in Iraq. This has been a reality for the past two years. We’ve witnessed progressive usurpation of local power by militias linked to political parties or to the anti-American insurgency.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Sunni area of Iraq has been a sanctuary for foreign fighters linked to al-Qaeda, even if dissention and division have recently arisen over the scorched-earth strategy apparently pursued by al-Zarqawi.
It should be recalled that 650 suicide bombers have died in Iraq, most of them in attacks on the Shi’ites. The vast majority of these individuals were Iraqis. Zarqawi disposes of a base inside Iraq and this will remain the case as long as the occupation lasts.