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Iraq Bombings

March 2, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on today’s bombings in Iraq we get two views. Juan Cole is a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan; he recently authored “Sacred Space and Holy War” about Shia Islam; and Christian Parente is a contributing writer to the Nation Magazine and author of the forthcoming book “The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq.” He was in Iraq this past December and January and spent time with insurgents.

Professor Cole, why today; what’s significant about today?

JUAN COLE: Today is the holiest day in the Shiite calendar. The best analogy for western viewers to understand the significance of today is probably Good Friday. This is the day and the Shiites respond that commemorate the martyrdom of the grandson of the prophet Mohammed and – Hussein. Shiites throughout the world mourn; they flagellate; they weep; they tell the story of martyrdom and so the emotional impact of this kind of event on such a day is enormous.

RAY SUAREZ: And the impact itself, time to cause mass death and injury, time to maximize death and injury? What do you read into that? What’s the motive behind it?

JUAN COLE: Well, clearly, there is a hope by the persons who carried out these attacks that they can destabilize Iraqi society. Probably they hope that the victims will begin pointing fingers – Sunni Iraqis might be blamed or internal factions within the Shiite community. It is an attempt to de-stabilize the process thereby a new government is being formed and a new Iraq is emerging.

RAY SUAREZ: But if you resent the presence of the United States and other powers on Iraqi soil, what would be the interest in slowing down that hand over?

JUAN COLE: From the point of view of radical Sunni Muslims or radical Iraqi nationalists the test at hand is to destabilize the entire process. If the Americans can succeed in creating a new Iraqi government or in cooperation with Iraqi politicians, overseeing a transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis and a new Iraq does emerge, then the Americans from this point of view have one, and so the attempt is to prevent any such smooth transition.

RAY SUAREZ: Christian Parente you’ve spent time with some of the resistance groups fighting against the American occupation. What do you see in today’s attacks given what you know?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, I see the signs of al-Qaida connected, Wahabiists – maybe foreign forces that are different ideologically and methodologically from the Iraqi resistance who have been primarily attacking the U.S. troops and Iraqi police and the new Iraqi army and who many of themselves are former military – Iraqi military, and who are fighting their war as Muslims and many of them are Baathists but also Muslims but they are not Wahabi fundamentalists.

And I think it’s an attempt to start – it seems like this was predicted in the Zarqawi letter – an attempt to start a civil war but what’s remarkable is how restrained the Shia have been. This is not the first time Shia have been attacked by suicide bombs. Ayatollah Hakim was killed in Najaf in August, just to mention one important example, and again and again the Shia rank and file and the Shia leaders have pursued a discourse of Iraqi nationalism – and said our Sunni brothers wouldn’t do it – that it’s probably foreigners, so I don’t think there’s going to be a civil war of community against community but at another level it’s important to point out that there is a civil war of a different sort going on in Iraq, and we have to ask “Is the U.S. something to stabilize the situation, or is it adding to the instability?

And I think fundamentally, yeah, the patient is the cause of the instability. We need to take a hard look at how and why this occupation is being conducted.

RAY SUAREZ: I’d like to go back to something you said earlier. You seemed to indicate that the attacks against American forces and people working with the American administration appear to you to be the work of Iraqis while it was outsiders who were attacking civilians and fellow Muslims. Does it always cut so neatly, and do these two groups of interests have contact with each other?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: It doesn’t always cut so neatly and they do have some contact, but not that much from what I can tell. First of all, the Iraqi resistance is highly fragmented. Ideologically and organizationally it’s networks of cells that mistrust each other– some of this because they’re under intense pressure from U.S. counterinsurgency, some of this because they’ve inherited a sort of snitch culture from the Saddam era. No one trusts anyone else.

There are Iraqi groups that are connected with Wahabiist-style political Islamists. You have Ansar Al-Islam and Ansar al-Sunnah, and they definitely have… those are Iraqi groups that have contact with the Wahabiists, but the Iraqi resistance that I spoke with disavowed these suicide bombings and disavowed the project of al-Qaida. They actually just blamed it on the CIA, as many Iraqis do. And while there is some overlap, there is not as much, as is often made out in the press– certainly not as much as was made out by the administration when they attempt to justify this war by saying al-Qaida is in bed with the Baathists and already they’re in Iraq. That was not true, just as the weapons of mass destruction argument was not true. But now it seems that Iraq is becoming a site of serious sort of al-Qaida-connected or inspired Wahabiist terrorism.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly, you used that term Wahabiist? What do you mean by that?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Sunni-based very, very strict Sunni fundamentalism.

RAY SUAREZ: Based where?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Primarily out of Saudi Arabia, but throughout the region. They are very and explicitly intolerant of Shia Islam, as well as a U.S. presence in the region.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Cole, do you agree with Christian Parenti’s analysis of who is carrying on the attacks and their identification and lack of identification with each other?

JUAN COLE: It’s very difficult to know who is carrying on any particular attack. The forensic evidence from last summer in the bombing at Najaf seemed to point to Baathist forces. It was all Baathist munitions that were used. I’m not aware that any reports have come out yet on the forensics here.

I think one has to remember that while it is true that the letter of Zarqawi did call for an attempt to provoke civil war in Iraq that provoking civil war in Iraq would benefit any group that wanted to destabilize the country, including the remnants of Baath, who, after all, have in the past killed large numbers of Shiites, and wouldn’t shrink from doing so; or other Sunni radicals among Iraqi Sunnis. I would just say that the Wahabi school of Islam shouldn’t be identified with terrorism.

There are extreme Wahabis and some of them did join al-Qaida, but mostly, in the last few decades, the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia have been relatively politically timid. They are very strict, and they have mistreated their own Shiites, but I don’t like to see the word “Wahabi” come to be identified with terrorism. It’s a misnomer.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, in the last few days the governing coalition has hammered out a draft of a new Iraqi constitution which both proclaims religious liberty and makes Islam the official religion of Iraq. Has today’s attack shown that maybe this country isn’t quite where that constitution aspires for them to be?

JUAN COLE: Well, on the contrary, I think that the reaction of Grand Ayatollah Sistani for calling for national unity and for calm shows that the spiritual leadership of the Shiite community is devoted to a unified Iraq, and that a constitution that recognizes Iraq’s religious pluralism could work there.

RAY SUAREZ: And earlier, Christian Parenti, you mentioned that the Shia have sustained several serious attacks in the year since the war began, roughly. Were you encouraged by Ayatollah Sistani’s call for lack of retaliation?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yes, very much so. I think that one point that came up, in terms of the forensics on the earlier bombing in August, I think there’s a lot of weaponry scattered around the country that any number of forces can use. I think that today we’ll see that the mortars that were dropped were probably from the Iraqi army originally. But there are weapons caches all over the place. So that doesn’t necessarily indicate who the authors of the action are.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this, for the near term, Christian Parenti, make the American job harder on the ground in Iraq?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: I would think so. I would think that we have to look at some of the deeper causes as to why there’s so much frustration. Why are Iraqis so angry and willing to point the blame at the U.S. after this sort of bombing? A lot of it has to do with the failure of meaningful reconstruction. There still is not adequate electricity. In many towns like Ramadi there wasn’t adequate water. Where is all the money that’s going to Halliburton and Bechtel to rebuild this country? Where is it ending up? I think that is one of the most important fundamental causes of instability, is the corruption around the contracting with these Bush-connected firms in Iraq. Unless that is dealt with, there is going to be much more instability for times to come in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Christian Parenti, Juan Cole, gentlemen, thank you both.