This is really what set off the resistance movement -- American brutality. At first, all Iraqis, Sunni and Shia, were willing to accept the Americans. They were hopeful. ... Nobody liked Saddam, and people were willing to give the Americans a chance. But it was just a brutal, Draconian occupation that pushed more and more Iraqis, Sunni or Shia, into accepting violence as the only way to deal with the Americans. And there was such American arrogance -- just dismissing people from their jobs, telling the Iraqis that the Koran would not be a source of law, legislating not only what the country would look like politically, but also culturally trying to change Iraq. These sorts of things just infuriated Iraqis, and it was only a question of time.
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Nir Rosen, author of In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq, has gone way beyond "embedding." As an independent American journalist who spoke Iraqi-accented Arabic and had Middle Eastern looks, as well as "a young freelancer's recklessness," he went to Iraq in April 2003, just a few days after Baghdad fell. Entering mosques and tribal meeting halls, coffee houses and Iraqi homes, he managed, unlike any other, to document the deadly serious behind-the-scenes maneuvering he observed in the post-Saddam power vacuum. Both daring and smart, Nir Rosen provides historical context and understanding of the competing factions in Iraq -- both here, and in his amazing In the Belly of the Green Bird.
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BuzzFlash: What does "In the Belly of the Green Bird" mean?
Nir Rosen: In Fallujah and other parts of Iraq where the resistance was very strong, you would often hear this quote in mosques, or see it in resistance propaganda -- that the martyrs were in paradise, dwelling in the bellies of green birds. It’s a hadith quote attributed to the prophet Mohammed. You hear many things like this. For some reason, it’s a good thing to be in paradise in the belly of a green bird. You’d often hear that martyrs died smelling good. You hear that they died with smiles on their faces -- things like that. This is just another one of those happy things that happens to you once you become martyred fighting the Americans.
BuzzFlash: What does your subtitle imply?
Nir Rosen: It refers to two kinds of martyrs, actually. Two Shia clerics had been killed by Saddam. They were very active anti-Baathists, and very, very popular with Iraqi Shiites. They were called the first and second martyrs -- Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr and Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. Their followers, chief among them Moqtada al-Sadr, the son of the second martyr, ended up basically seizing control over most of Iraq on April 9, 2003. And they haven’t relinquished control. So, in a way, I’m saying that the followers of these two martyrs have triumphed in Iraq. We basically handed Iraq over to these kinds of Shias.
Of course, it also refers to the cult of martyrdom -- the idea that those who die fighting the infidel are martyrs -- and the glorification of these martyrs. When I first arrived in April 2003, there were banners all over the walls proclaiming the martyrdom of so-and-so in the war against the Americans. These were both Shias and Sunnis. When somebody dies in Iraq, there are banners on the walls announcing a death. You constantly get reminded of these martyrs, and everywhere you go in Shia Iraq, you see the officers of the martyrs, meaning Moqtada al-Sadr's father.
BuzzFlash: There is a political story, which you so marvelously detail in The Belly of the Green Bird, but there’s also a personal drama. We have to ask you: Where did you find the courage to take the risks you did? In fact, when you were in Fallujah, two German journalists were attacked, and then detained, and you were allowed in by the people who were detaining them as someone they trusted. What motivated you to take those risks?
Nir Rosen: You don’t really think of the risks, because if you do, then you won’t do it. There’s certainly an element of denial in it. But in Iraq, there is also a gradual learning curve. When I arrived in Iraq, that’s when I became a journalist. Until then, I was only an aspiring journalist. And Iraq was pretty safe those first few months, so you could have learned slowly how to deal with things. You began to feel Iraq, and feel when something was too dangerous, and just know how to sense if a place was safe to go to.
Part of the allure is the idea that you can be the first one, or the only one, to discover something important. It may be irrational or irresponsible, but you feel you can do anything. And look, here I am, an American in Fallujah. There’s nobody else. This place is being controlled by insane gangs that are killing each other and anybody else they can find. And yet I can move about freely. There is a certain irrational exuberance when you feel that. But you also learn to cultivate friends, and a network of friends whom you trust, and you end up having to trust them with your life. Without those, really nothing can be done in Iraq.
I don’t think I took that many crazy risks. But certainly, it’s gotten way too dangerous now, and my Iraqi friends -- they just won’t take me to the same places we used to go to.
BuzzFlash: So the situation has deteriorated, even from the point when you were in Fallujah in the midst of the uprising?
Nir Rosen: Yes. I also think the Iraqis were pretty friendly to the press on our side, even the insurgency. You haven’t seen that many journalists killed deliberately by Iraqis.
BuzzFlash: But they were kidnapped. Jill Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor was kidnapped.
Nir Rosen: That was mostly for money, and that was also very recently. The first couple of years, I think the Iraqis realized the importance of the media, or certainly the insurgency did. They also suspected us of being spies, and we were often held for that reason until they decided that we weren’t spies and we were just journalists. But what you did start seeing is that the Iraqi population became more and more hostile towards journalists because they viewed us as just another part of this foreign presence. So there is a point early in the spring of 2004 when your concern was the Iraqi mobs. When you showed up at a scene of an explosion or some incident, especially if you had a camera, you could be targeted by the Iraqi population just for being a journalist. They wanted to vent their fury on somebody, and it was often journalists. The insurgency itself was often quite friendly to journalists, and they realized that they could use them for their own benefit, just like the American military.
BuzzFlash: You, however, seemed particularly well-accepted. Was this due to your contacts? Due to the fact that you spoke Arabic relatively fluently? How did you get to that point where they accepted you and trusted you, and that you were going to tell a balanced story, which you do in this book.
Nir Rosen: It was mostly having the right friends, actually. I came with the right friends. I had the right friends from each neighborhood. Even today, if I have to go to a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad, I will go with a Sunni interlocutor from that neighborhood. Likewise, if I’m dealing with Moqtada al-Sadr's movement, I’ll go with somebody who is actually with his militia. You need an interlocutor. It doesn’t really matter what your ideas are in Iraq -- it just matters who your friends are. You need somebody from the right tribe, from the right neighborhood, from the right sect. More and more, that's what determines whether you can survive.
BuzzFlash: We read your article in Truthdig, "The Many Faces of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi," which we thought was wonderful and quite thorough in terms of his history and his role in the Iraq insurgency. Now, from the White House, we get the official version of the Iraq war including this monolithic insurgency, and al-Zarqawi blown up into mythic proportions, representing al Qaeda, although he had nothing to do with 9/11. Then there’s a very different picture in reading your book and the work of just a handful of other journalists. His ascension to prominence in Iraq came as a result of our invasion. And in The Belly of the Green Bird, you demonstrate with extensive detail that the so-called insurgency, which is the mainstream media term for the armed opposition to the United States, is very, very diverse.
Nir Rosen: Al-Zarqawi was merely a leader of a small gang within that diverse array of groups, and I would say not very important. Certainly al-Zarqawi and the foreign fighters are responsible for some of the most prominent attacks, some suicide attacks, and the U.N. bombing. But numerically, they are insignificant. The insurgency or the resistance would have existed without them. The bulk of the armed opposition to the occupation was fought by Iraqi Sunnis. Also, we can’t forget the Shia resistance. Shias were quite a large part of it in the spring and summer of 2004. It’s just a bit more restricted because Shias, at the moment, are in charge of Iraq. They’re the victors, so their interests aren’t being that obstructed yet by the foreign presence. As soon as they find the Americans obstructing their interests, you’ll see Shias rising up again, and expect that to happen pretty soon.
Sunnis, on the other hand, were alienated by the Americans right from the beginning -- mass dismissals, the army, the Baathists, the arrests. They basically lost Iraq. American operations targeted not just individual Sunni insurgents, but entire male populations of Sunni towns were picked up, hundreds of men at a time. It was hoped somebody would know something, or somebody would be the bad guy they were looking for.
There probably wasn’t al-Qaeda at first. Al-Zarqawi did declare that he had joined al-Qaeda in October of 2004, but it was only for the brand name -- the prestige associated with the al-Qaeda brand name of global jihad. Al-Zarqawi was in control of his own network of fighters, and he had his own network of finance. It was only a public declaration -- propaganda. Of course, it benefited the Americans immensely, because they could now say that al-Qaeda is in Iraq. But bin Laden was not associated in any way with the insurgency in Iraq. Iraqis don’t care about bin Laden. The foreign fighters in Iraq aren’t there because of bin Laden.
I think the most important thing to emphasize with relationship to al-Qaeda is that the insurgency is just passé. It’s wrong to think of Iraq and think of an insurgency. When you think of Iraq, you have to think of civil war. Sunni militias that used to fight the Americans are now fighting a civil war. Sunni militias now protect the Sunni neighborhoods from Shia incursions, while targeting Shias, and targeting the security forces of Iraq because they are Shia security forces. Shia death squads target Sunnists.
BuzzFlash: Isn’t it true the American forces destroyed a Shiite mosque, which caused a lot of revenge bloodshed, and then they finally reached a ceasefire with the Shiites?
Nir Rosen: Yes, that’s true. The resistance is dominated by Sunnis at the moment. But it’s there because the Americans are there. That’s why the insurgency got started.
In fact, it got started in Fallujah only a couple of weeks after the occupation. I think Fallujah is a real case study of how the Americans screwed up in Iraq. Fallujah was initially taken over by Fallujans -- prominent businessmen, tribal leaders and clerics -- they had got together and administered the city, provided social services, banks, things like that. It was a peaceful place until about April 28, 2003, a couple of weeks after the war ended. The Americans went in there, and there was a demonstration, and the Americans shot, I think, seventeen demonstrators, and the following day, a few more.
This is really what set off the resistance movement -- American brutality. At first, all Iraqis, Sunni and Shia, were willing to accept the Americans. They were hopeful. Sunnis were just as depressed about Saddam as Shias were, although they were living in a pretty hopeless situation. Nobody liked Saddam, and people were willing to give the Americans a chance. But it was just a brutal, Draconian occupation that pushed more and more Iraqis, Sunni or Shia, into accepting violence as the only way to deal with the Americans. And there was such American arrogance -- just dismissing people from their jobs, telling the Iraqis that the Koran would not be a source of law, legislating not only what the country would look like politically, but also culturally trying to change Iraq. These sorts of things just infuriated Iraqis, and it was only a question of time.
BuzzFlash: In your chapter on Fallujah, you talk about the infamous incident where employees of one of the subcontracted "security" forces, Blackwater, were killed, and their bodies hung from a bridge. This became a symbol of the brutality and macabre nature of the "insurgency." But you have in the book an interesting quotation. Whether it’s true or not, I guess we don’t know. But one of the people who shot the Blackwater security forces said, I did that to avenge the death of my brothers at the hands of the Americans. If this is true, it’s symbolic of the fact that we’re not containing terrorism, we’re creating new resistance. Members of the resistance are shooting more Americans because we’ve shot relatives of theirs.
Nir Rosen: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think there were terrorists in Iraq before April 2003, but there certainly are now. The way the Americans went about their occupation created new enemies every day. They would surround a village, breaking through houses. Destroy the contents of the houses. Drag out the men. And 90% of the time, these people were innocent. The Americans have arrested over 50,000 Iraqis, and only 2% were ever charged with any crime.
They convinced the Iraqi people that they were their enemy, especially among the Sunnis. I went on a raid with some Americans, the one time I was embedded, where they broke into the house of this guy who was actually working for them, but they didn’t realize it at the time. They beat him up, terrified his family. The entire neighborhood saw this. Then they dragged him away and kept him for several days -- perhaps several weeks for all I know. So the entire neighborhood has seen a man they know to be innocent of any assaults against the Americans -- in fact, working with them -- humiliated like this. His poor children have seen this. I was almost convinced the Americans are the bad guys, and the only way to deal with them is through force.
BuzzFlash: Returning to a theme we asked about earlier -- we have an official perspective conveyed by the White House, which varies from time to tim. There have been many reasons given for invading Iraq, starting with WMDs. There was the overthrow of the regime. There was bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq. What is your reaction to that? What freedom and democracy are we bringing, other than a sort of puppet government? Can this government ever really govern outside of the green zone? Basically there’s a civil war underway. On a daily basis, we read that Shiite death squads are killing Sunnis. Sunnis are killing Shiites.
Nir Rosen: Let me begin with the Kurds. In my book, I don’t discuss them very much. I just don’t view Kurdistan as Iraq. Kurdistan is an entirely separate story, and they don’t identify themselves as Iraqi. You don’t see Iraqi flags there. People don’t know Arabic. They are bent on creating their own country. So Kurdistan, in this respect, is a success story, or could be. It’s very stable and relatively flourishing economically and politically. It’s still authoritarian, but certainly within the region, it’s not too bad compared to most countries.
Leaving Kurdistan aside, there is no government in Iraq. There is a government in name. There is this theater that goes on in the green zone for the consumption of the outside world.
But in terms of where power actually lies in Iraq, power is in the hands of militia leaders. And these militia leaders are not inside the green zone. They’re in Najaf in the South. They’re in Anbar province. They’re in certain mosques. They’re in the North in Kurdish areas. There’s anarchy and chaos, so you can do whatever you want, if you have the weapons to back it up. You could publish a newspaper, but if you offend the wrong person, you’ll be bombed or killed. So it’s a freedom to do whatever you want, kill whoever you want, and eventually be killed yourself.
In terms of democracy, there were elections, it’s true. The formal institution of democracy existed. But democracy is culture more than institution. And in terms of culture, there’s no democracy. There’s no respect for human rights, for individual rights, for women’s rights. There is no government to do that for you. The government provides no services. It doesn’t raise revenue. It doesn’t help the citizens. In fact, the government is one of the death squads that’s killing the citizens. In Iraq, government is just militias who despise each other and are fighting each other. I would say there’s no freedom in Iraq, there’s no democracy in Iraq, there’s no government in Iraq. There’s chaos and anarchy. It’s sort of a Mad Max kind of universe, almost like Somalia. And I think it’s headed in that direction.
BuzzFlash: If we go outside of the green zone, are there any people who support the American occupation?
Nir Rosen: The Kurds definitely do, but they don’t see American troops in Kurdistan. The Kurds have it very well under their control. The Kurds would like to have American bases there. As for the rest of Iraq, the Arabs of Iraq -- very, very little support, and it’s dwindling. At some points in the beginning, you had Shias who wanted the Americans to stay for a few years. But as Shias have taken control of Iraq, they see no reason more and more for the Americans to be there.
So you might start seeing a strange reversal of things. Sunnis are going to start wanting the Americans to stay because they’ll view the Americans in the same way -- as the only thing protecting them from being completely kicked out of Iraq. So I would say that most Iraqis want the Americans out. And many Iraqis are employed in some way by the Americans, meaning Iraqi business earned profits from the occupation. So they want the Americans to stay. But the Americans aren’t really doing anything positive right now. They’re just one more militia among the many militias there. One day they attack Shias, and Sunnis are celebrating. When the Americans attack Sunnis, Shias celebrate.
What struck me in 2005, and in my last trip several weeks ago, was that, in Baghdad, you used to see the American occupation. You used to feel it. When you were stuck in traffic, there was an American tank next to you. There were American patrols walking the streets. There were American vehicles constantly on the streets. But now, you just don’t see that anymore. You might see the occasional American helicopter.
Now what you see is this weird Iraqi occupation of Baghdad. The militias and security forces wear masks. They zoom through traffic. They point their machine guns at everybody. They’re shouting at the microphones. It’s much scarier -- this new domination of Iraq by weird, unnamed mass security forces. Americans just don’t really matter, I think.
BuzzFlash: Just as someone who’s gotten to know the region, what is the role Iran plays in all this, if anything? Some observers have said that one of Bush’s greatest follies in invading Iraq was that he ended up making Iran the supreme regional power. With Iraq destabilized and in chaos, Iran is even more of a prominent power. Bush is claiming that Iran is a great threat to the U.S. But in many ways, hasn't he made them a bigger threat?
Nir Rosen: I think that Iran was always the target. The road to Iran was just through Iraq. I think the Iranians could have been a natural ally of the U.S. But that’s not going to happen now.
I do think that the role of Iran in Iraq has been greatly exaggerated. Just like in Iraq, you had your Jewish conspiracy theories that the Jews are everywhere, and responsible for everything, you have these Iranian conspiracy theories -- that the Iranians are responsible for the insurgency, that the Iranians are sending them weapons. I just have never seen any evidence of a negative Iranian role in Iraq.
BuzzFlash: The Iranians would be happy to have a Shiite neighbor?
Nir Rosen: A friendly Shiite neighbor, rather than a hostile, Sunni-dominated Iraq. But the Iraqis are fiercely nationalistic. Iraq’s Shias were the ones who composed the army that fought the Iranians. Iraq’s Shias are Iraqi first. They’re Iraqi nationalists, and they’re quite hostile to Iran, I found in my own experiences, being half-Iranian actually.
I have not seen any negative role that Iran has played. I think Iran can play a very positive role in the region and in Iraq specifically. There is no Iranian control of any militias in Iraq. There are Arab Iraqis who are nationalistic and who would resent any Iranian control. But certainly Iran benefits from having Shia neighbors -- many of them were exiled in Iran and lived there for many years. I think Iran can be a friend of the U.S., and that the U.S. should engage Iran. I don’t see Iran playing a negative role in Iraq at the moment.
BuzzFlash: Thank you very much for your time and your courageous reporting.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview by Mark Karlin.
In the Belly of the Green Bird: the Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq, by Nir Rosen, a BuzzFlash premium.
In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq (Hardcover) by Nir Rosen, a BuzzFlash Review.