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US Rushes Weapons to Iraq Amidst Bloody Sectarian Conflict Set Off by 2003 Invasion

A series of attacks in Iraq over Christmas left at least 42 people dead and dozens more wounded.

A series of attacks in Iraq over Christmas left at least 42 people dead and dozens more wounded. As Iraq faces its worst violence in years, the United States has rushed a new shipment of Hellfire missiles to help the Iraqi government fight militants. The CIA is also helping Iraqi forces target militant camps with aerial strikes. According to the United Nations, more than 8,000 Iraqis have been killed this year in the worst violence since 2008. We discuss the continued crisis in Iraq and how the Syrian conflict is affecting the entire region, with two guests: Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi-American blogger and political analyst, and William Dunlop, a Baghdad-based correspondent for Agence France-Presse.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As Iraq faces the worst violence in years, the U.S. is reportedly sending arms to the country. The New York Times reports the United States has rushed a new shipment of Hellfire missiles to help the Iraqi government fight militants. The CIA is also helping Iraqi forces target militant camps with aerial strikes. U.S. and Iraqi government officials said that about 75 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles had been sent last week. An additional shipment of unmanned ScanEagle surveillance drones is also expected next year.

Meanwhile, a series of attacks in Iraq over Christmas left at least 42 people dead and dozens more wounded. The Christmas Day bombings mostly targeted Christian areas. This is Essam Istefan, an Iraqi Christian.

ESSAM ISTEFAN: [translated] I wish on Christmas Day happiness for Christians in Iraq and around the world, and I wish that the Iraqi people can overcome these difficult times. And I hope for the return of happiness and peace in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the United Nations, more than 8,000 Iraqis have been killed this year in the worst violence since 2008. To talk more about the situation in Iraq, we’re joined by two guests: in Washington, D.C., Raed Jarrar, Iraqi-American blogger, political analyst, and in Baghdad, William Dunlop is a correspondent for Agence France-Presse. AFP has been keeping a regular tally of deaths across Iraq this year.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go directly to William Dunlop in Baghdad. Talk about the level of the violence, the numbers of people who are dead. And is it possible we’re talking about the numbers dead equal to the height of the Iraq War under President Bush?

WILLIAM DUNLOP: Over the course of this year, there’s been a sharp increase in violence compared to the previous several years, in which there was a fairly steady decline in the number of people killed. This has especially been the case since April, after a security forces raid on an anti-government protest site in the north, in which dozens of people were killed in clashes. Death tolls spiked after that raid and have remained at a highly elevated level for the remainder of the year.

The tolls we’re seeing this year are currently around the levels of seen in 2008, so not quite the worst years of the Iraq War, which were 2006, 2007, the height of the sectarian killings that took place here, but approaching that level and, ultimately, a level of violence that has not been seen since near the height of America’s military presence in Iraq. So now Iraqi security forces are effectively left to face this heightened violence alone.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, William Dunlop, what’s been the impact on the ability of the government to function or to provide basic services to its people? There are elections coming up in April. What’s going to be the impact on that?

WILLIAM DUNLOP: In terms of basic services, they remain severely lacking, both in terms of clean water and electricity, throughout the country. It’s not necessarily—violence is not the only issue that’s impacting that; corruption and delays in building up the power grid are also affecting those services.

As far as generally functioning, most of the government is headquartered in the Green Zone, which is a highly secure area in central Baghdad, so its most high-ranking officials are effectively shielded from the impact of violence by working in this area. Nonetheless, there has been severe political deadlock plaguing the country, you could say, since—for several years now. Major legislation has languished in Parliament. Not much has been done on a governmental level.

There are parliamentary elections coming up on April 30th. Depending on the results, that could result in some changes in the Cabinet and potentially as—in prime minister, as well. However, after the preceding elections in 2010, it took almost nine months for a government to be formed, and if that happens again, that’s only going to add to the instability.

AMY GOODMAN: Christian communities in Iraq celebrated Christmas Eve mass in Baghdad Tuesday. The service was also attended by Iraq’s leader of the Islamic Supreme Council, Ammar al-Hakim.

AMMAR AL-HAKIM: [translated] They are targeting us as they are targeting you, too, because in this country there are those who believe in killing all those that will disagree with them. They think that the people should think in the same way and with one logic. You can see there are Shiite and Sunni Muslims who disagree with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, and they are killed. You’re a target for them, and therefore we are partners in our shared goals and in the challenge. And we will remain partners in confronting extremism, violence and terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of who was coming together? And also, what is the cause of the violence, William Dunlop?

WILLIAM DUNLOP: Generally, it’s—there are two main factors that have contributed to the rise in violence this year. One is primarily internal, which is widespread discontent among Iraq’s minority Sunni Arab community, who complain of being marginalized economically and politically by the Shiite-led government, and additionally of being unjustly targeted with heavy-handed security measures such as mass arrests and closing off of neighborhoods. That is creating a lot of anger among that community, sparked protests that have continued for almost a year. And ultimately, that level of anger has made it easier for militant groups to operate in certain Sunni areas. Additionally, it has eased recruitment for these groups and provided an additional motivation for them to carry out attacks.

There’s also an external factor, which is the civil war in Syria, which has seen various hardline jihadist-type groups establish bases in rebel-held areas. Senior Iraqi security officials are also saying that that conflict has resulted in guns and fighters moving back and forth across the border areas in western Iraq and also the re-establishment of some al-Qaeda bases that had been abandoned in previous years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We’re also joined by Raed Jarrar in—from Washington, D.C., Iraqi-American blogger and analyst. Could you tell us what your sense is of this astonishing rise in the violence in Iraq?

RAED JARRAR: I don’t think many Iraqis are surprised because the levels of violence are up again, because the reasons for violence existed all along and have not been addressed adequately by the current Iraqi authorities. So, people expect—in Iraq, they expect to see some periods of less violence and periods of more violence. But as your other guest indicated, violence is only one indicator of the failure of the Iraqi government. There are many other indicators that Iraqis live on a daily basis, including the complete collapse of the infrastructure, the unprecedented levels of political and financial corruptions in the country. Iraq is still among the top five most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International. So, the reasons of the violence that were installed in Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003, by creating a sectarian government, have not been addressed. And I think as long as Iraq continues to have this sectarian dysfunctional government, the country will continue to go through these cycles of violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, asked the United States to provide more military aid, including weapons, to help combat Iraq’s worst violence in five years. He was speaking at the United States Institute for Peace.

PRIME MINISTER NOURI AL-MALIKI: [translated] We do not tell the world to stand by us and support us. Rather, we have a right to ask of the world because we are part of them, and because if what happens in Iraq is not dealt with, it will expand. And what happens in Syria, if not dealt with, will also expand. And what happens in any country where the virus of terrorism lives, this virus will spread.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. and Iraqi government officials said about 75 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles have been sent to Iraq, also an additional shipment of unmanned ScanEagle surveillance drones also expected. Raed Jarrar, what about the significance of this and the U.S. relationship with the Iraqi government?

RAED JARRAR: This is one of the most puzzling geopolitical realities. The U.S. has been funding and training and supporting the same government that has been funded and trained by Iran. So, unlike other parts of the Middle East where Iran and the United States have somewhat of a proxy war—like in Lebanon, for example, where the U.S. funds and supports opponents of those parties funded by Iran—in Iraq, both governments, the American—the United States and the Iranian governments, have been supporting the same leaders in Iraq.

And I think that the most recent shipment of weapons reaffirms this strategic alliance between the U.S. and Iran inside Iraq, betting on the same horses. I think this, in addition to the most recent agreements between the U.S. and the Syrian government and the U.S. and the Iranian government, or at least the negotiations, are sending very alarming messages to the region that the U.S. will continue to take sides within domestic conflicts. And in Iraq, it seems that the U.S. will continue to support the Iraqi government that has been accused for years of being behind torture and assassinations and the killing its own people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Raed, what do you make of the issue of the neighboring civil war in Syria and its impact on the escalating violence in Iraq?

RAED JARRAR: I mean, it’s—the situation in Syria is so close to Iraq that I don’t think the word “neighboring,” you know, explains it anymore. It’s all in the same conflict now. This is turning into one huge regional conflict. And as your other guest indicated, the events in Syria are affecting the bordering areas in Iraq. Because of many of the new political realities in the region, unfortunately, many Iraqis and Syrians and others in the Arab world are identifying more with their sectarian background than their national background. So you find many Iraqi Sunnis who will identify more now with a Syrian Sunni than with an Iraqi Shia. And in reality, this is the new map that is being drawn in the region.

So what’s going on in Syria has direct implications on the situation in Iraq. Iraq is heavily involved in the Syrian conflict. The Iraqi government, through the Iranian government, has been supporting the Syrian government against the uprising. The, of course, Iraqi—the majority of Iraqi Sunnis are not happy about the Iraqi government’s support to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. And this is creating more conflict inside the country. So this is turning into one large sectarian regional conflict that spreads all the way from Iran to Lebanon. Even this morning’s explosion in Beirut falls within these new fault lines.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, Democracy Now! spoke to Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent of Britain. He talked about Saudi Arabia’s role in the various conflicts in the Middle East.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Saudi Arabia has, through a distribution of arms contracts, through its money, sort of made itself part of the international establishment, in which normally foreign leaders visiting Saudi Arabia are—don’t bring up these delicate topics and put very little pressure on the Saudis to do anything about it. But, you know, it is one of the—it enables the Saudis to really go on supporting jihadi organizations at the state or private level, in the same way that they were doing in Afghanistan, post-Afghanistan, when they supported the Taliban, before 9/11, after 9/11, during Iraq, after Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about that, Will Dunlop in Baghdad, the role of Saudi Arabia? And I’d also like to get Raed Jarrar’s comment.

WILLIAM DUNLOP: Neighboring countries definitely have an impact on what’s going on in Iraq. It’s sometimes hard to pinpoint who is directly providing financing to any specific groups, however.

AMY GOODMAN: Raed, the role of Saudi Arabia?

RAED JARRAR: I mean, it’s more complicated than the conventional wisdom in the U.S., I think, especially after the coup in Egypt, where Saudi Arabia funded a coup d’état against what seems to be a Sunni religious regime in Egypt. I mean, conventional wisdom would have concluded that Saudi Arabia would support the Muslim Brotherhood rather than conspire to bring them down. So, the Saudi role in the region is prominent. It is a major player. But they have so many other geopolitical calculations, including keeping them as the main leader of Sunnis as an authority, the main authority of Sunnis. So sometimes it ends up being more of a competition between them and other Sunni Arab groups in the region. The Saudi role in Iraq hasn’t been as prominent as the Iranian or American roles in Iraq, not even close to that. So they haven’t been really supporting the Iraqi major Sunni groups or funding them the same way that Iran has been funding their allies or the U.S. funding its allies. So it’s a little bit more exaggerated in Iraq, but of course it is one of the main regional players.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Raed, what do you see as the prospects for some kind of relative peace—we’re not talking about absolute peace here, but some kind of relative peace—in Iraq right now? What would have to happen to sharply diminish the escalating violence that’s occurring now?

RAED JARRAR: I mean, that’s the $1 million question. I think, a few years ago, many people, including myself, advocated for a swift end of the U.S. military intervention and occupation. And many people cautioned that the longer the U.S. military intervention continues in Iraq, the more tragic the consequences would be. Unfortunately, by the time that the U.S. left in 2011, after more than 20 years of military intervention—this is a military intervention that started in January of 1991 and did not end until December 2011—the country has been destroyed completely. And the effects of the U.S. military intervention can be still felt until today.

So I think we need a very dramatic change of the foundation of the governance in Iraq to stop violence there—actually, the governance in the entire region. We’re dealing with a wave of sectarian politics that might redraw a new map of the region, a map that is not based on the current nation-state lines that were drawn in 1916 and 1920, but a map that is based on sectarian and religious affiliations. So these are way larger. These are, you know, huge forces that take decades to change—people’s national identities, people’s political belonging, you know, massive movements of transfer, of migrations of people. So, unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to end violence. And it seems that the upcoming years will be even more violent than what we’ve seen.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about this top story that’s happening in Lebanon, Raed. You just alluded to it before. The victims—top target in Lebanon, Mohamad Chatah, seems to have been killed, along with a number others, Lebanon’s former foreign minister. Chatah was an aide to former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and a vocal critic of Bashar al-Assad. And Saad al-Hariri was the son of Rafiq al-Hariri, who was assassinated, the former prime minister of Lebanon. Talk about the significance of this.

RAED JARRAR: It’s a very symbolic attack. The assassination happened a few yards away from the assassination of Saad al-Hariri’s father a few years ago, the same location of Beirut. The assassination of the former minister, Chatah, who was assassinated this morning, is more symbolic, because he is the least protected member of that team. He doesn’t have the same type of security, because he’s a former member of the government. It was easier for whomever assassinated him to kill him there. I think it is seen overall as another escalation, and many people are reading it as a political message, following the attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut. So, these car bombs are turning into political messagings. You know, one bomb attacks an embassy. A couple of weeks after that, one bomb kills a former minister. So, it’s really ugly. Many people are comparing what’s going on now to the Lebanese civil war, where political messages are starting to be sent through car bombs rather than TV channels.

AMY GOODMAN: Raed Jarrar, I want to thank you for being with us, Iraqi-American blogger and analyst, and Will Dunlop, for joining us from Baghdad, AFP correspondent there. We’ll link to your reports. Please be safe.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, the bonuses that are going to bankers in the United States. Stay with us.

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