Back from Iraq: 10 Questions with Martin Smith
August 13, 2014, 12:40 pm ET
It’s been an intense few weeks for Martin Smith.
The veteran FRONTLINE journalist (Gangs of Iraq, Private Warriors, Beyond Baghdad, Truth, War and Consequences) has spent the past two weeks in Baghdad, Erbil and Khazir, working on a documentary about Iraq’s current crisis along with cameraman Scott Anger and second camera/soundwoman Sachi Cunningham.
“Back in 2004, we produced Beyond Baghdad, crossing the country from north to south and looking at the volatile sectarian fault lines between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities,” says Smith. “Fears that those fault lines would erupt plagued the country then, and in 2006, a sectarian war broke out. Disaster was only narrowly averted by turning Sunni insurgents into allies of the Shia government. But that arrangement failed to hold. Over the last 18 months, a Sunni rebellion has evolved into an armed insurgency led by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). I wanted to return. For me, Iraq was unfinished business.”
Last week, Smith was in Iraq as Kurdish-controlled towns started falling to ISIS, now known as Islamic State – and as the U.S. began airstrikes targeting the militant jihadist group.
On Facebook and Twitter, we asked you what you wanted to know about Smith’s time on the ground.
Now safely out of Iraq, he answers your questions below:
Metta Spencer Duffy What is the quality of life like for civilians? Is there any sense of normalcy for anyone?
Graham Harrison What is the general mood of families in Baghdad? Are people carrying on like normal or are they making preparations for the worst?
Smith: Yes, but it’s a Baghdad “normal.” For many years there, “normal” has included car bombs, kidnappings, murders, and torture. Now, since ISIS has grabbed territory and threatened Baghdad, at least to the degree that they’ve run car bomb campaigns inside the city, a lot of people told me, ‘Well, you know, we’re used to car bombs. What can you do? You can’t do much about a car bomb.’
They’re resigned to it — because car bombs are fairly random. Sometimes there’s none, and sometimes there’s five or six in a day. The first day I was there, there were two in the neighborhood where we were staying. But as I wrote, violence is something that happens to other people. Life returns to “normal” very quickly. We went to places where people gathered at night to have ice cream in the heat, and it was as crowded as it ever has been.
Scott Calleja What’s your take on the current situation involving Maliki. We keep getting conflicting reports about a coup. And how close is ISIS to the city actually?
Smith: Nouri al-Maliki has vowed to fight. A number of people I’ve talked to say he’ll be willing to spill blood in the street to resist an attempt to deny him a third term as prime minister. I find it so incredible that he would be fighting, even now, with everybody but his Shia loyalists showing him the door. But he is a tough customer. I talked to one of his confidantes, a week or so ago, in an on-camera interview, and he was practically shouting, ‘If Maliki doesn’t get a third term, I will take to the streets, I will take my gun to the streets, and believe me, there will be lots of blood.’
Lisa M-GoBlue Viviano What are the feelings of the Iraqi people of the intervention of the US once again in their country?
Smith: When ISIS began taking over Kurdish towns, and then the humanitarian crisis on Mount Sinjar happened and Americans started to bomb, I think a lot of Iraqis were happy to see some kind of American involvement to stanch the violence and the advance of ISIS.
But the reaction, overall, is mixed. I think many members of the Sunni population feel that they were betrayed by the US—that they were persuaded to join the political process, and then shut out by the Maliki government, and even targeted for arrests and torture. They started peaceful protests that Maliki met with force. So then, many of them, if they didn’t join an insurgent group, at least felt sympathetic. So those people are not necessarily welcoming of the US.
The Shia feel like they need a lifesaver in a storm, and feel like maybe this will help stop the advance of ISIS. And certainly the Kurds, now that they are under attack, feel that they need better weaponry—they’re happy to have some new arms that the U.S. is reportedly supplying. So, it’s mixed.
Hardie B. Matthews Can Iraq's air force make a difference?
Smith: When it comes to ground defense, it depends on where they’re fighting and who they’re fighting to protect. Just imagine the American Civil War… I mean, you’re not going to get Northerners defending Southerners.
I think you saw in Mosul — a traditionally Sunni town — that the army, which is predominantly Shia, totally collapsed. There was apparently no significant battle for Mosul. And it was them just dropping their guns and abandoning their Humvees and running — that army was depleted before ISIS took it in June. ISIS had been controlling neighborhoods at night for some months, and reportedly raising money by running extortion rackets, so they had a lot of tentacles inside Mosul. When you get into concentrations of the Shia heartlands south of Baghdad, the Iraqi army is likely to fight more vociferously, and to be assisted by significant militias.
As far as the Iraqi air force? They’ve been begging the American air force for planes, and those have not been coming quickly. They’ve got some old Russian planes, I understand — I don’t know how many, but you certainly don’t see them over the skies of Baghdad. There are some helicopters and planes moving north and fighting, but I think the Iraqi air force as it stands is not a big player.
Ben Ainsworth Can ISIS be removed from the majority Sunni-Arab municipalities it controls? I would like to know, for example, how the Sunnis of Mosul would respond to a Shiite or Kurdish military removing ISIS. If they aren’t welcome, can the people of Mosul defeat ISIS themselves? Will Baghdad wait for them to do so?
Smith: They wouldn’t respond very well to a return to what they had, because they had a Shia-dominated army that they weren’t very happy about. So, it would have to be a different kind of central government force — one that was not just going door-to-door arresting people because they were suspected Sunni activists.
Can ISIS be rooted out of majority-Sunni places? I suppose it can be—but first, you have to restore the average Sunni’s faith in a central government. That is really going to be hard at this point, because the country is so polarized. Getting ordinary Sunnis to feel like they can turn against ISIS is going to be a tough trick to pull off.
But on the other hand, long-term, I don’t think ISIS is sustainable. I don’t think you can gain massive popular support by going door-to-door and telling people, “You either become a jihadi and fight with us or we’ll kill you.” Eventually, people get tired of that.
Nil Yungster To what extent have former Sons of Iraq joined ISIS? To what extent (if at all) has the $400 million the US provided to the Sons of Iraq been a contributing factor in ISIS’s success?
Smith: Well, this goes back to the adage that people use here, “You can’t take a crocodile as a pet.” You can spend 400 million dollars and get Sons of Iraq, who were vehemently opposed to the sectarian policies of the central government, on board with you. But when the goal is no longer mutual, and you’re no longer on the same side, you’re in trouble.
Some of the former Sons of Iraq have certainly joined ranks with ISIS, but it’s tough to say how much or how many. And it’s important to note that the Sunni opposition is fragmented and includes more groups than just ISIS — former Baathists and loyalists to Saddam Hussein, military generals and politicians, and also a large percentage made up of tribal forces.
Eliot W. Collins Does anyone miss Saddam Hussein? How do Iraqis feel about their neighbor, Iran?
Smith: They don’t miss him personally — there were plenty of atrocities on his watch —
As far as what Iraqis think of Iran — well, it depends on who they are. Iraq sits between Iran — which is Shia — and the rest of the Arab world, which is predominantly Sunni. The Iraqis are caught between the two. So, to many Sunni Iraqis, Iran is seen as the enemy. But from a Shia point of view, where they feel insecure, they want Iran’s protection.
Smith: I can answer that easily: no. You hear of people resisting in Mosul, but I was not in Mosul — I have not seen that firsthand. The only demonstration we saw when we were in Baghdad was a demonstration that was pro-Maliki. By most accounts, there used to be a lot more Sunnis in Baghdad. But now the perception is that Sunni residents have been leaving under Maliki. Residents I spoke to estimate that the city is now around 15-20 percent Sunni.
Karen Oneal Is the US news about Iraq and ISIS being reported truthfully?
Smith: From what I can tell, it doesn’t contradict what I’m seeing on the ground. I do think there are a lot of experienced and good reporters who are working in and around Kurdistan and central Baghdad. But the nature of the conflict is a difficult one to report on – ISIS is not exactly inviting of journalists, so how do we know what’s really going on inside Mosul?
Dave Crozier What is his personal opinion on the future of Iraq as a whole. What does he predict for the next few months?
Smith: I think there’s trouble ahead in the next few months. But beyond that, what’s really lacking in Iraq is leadership of a visionary, unifying kind — somebody who can heal wounds and do what’s necessary to pull a country back together. The trouble in the Middle East is all these external, combustible forces — Iran on one side, Syria on another, then Saudi Arabia in the South.
Plus, the people in Iraq are now conditioned by years of sectarian warfare. My sense is that there’s a certain hatred that pervades ordinary conversations. It’s what I wrote in one of my dispatches – right now, people don’t think of themselves as Iraqis. They think of themselves as Shias or Sunnis or Kurds or Christians. And ISIS will very likely continue its march until Iraqis can form a government where they all feel represented.
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