So it's tenuous in the south, as well, because it is a tactical alliance. But it's nonetheless one that largely seems to be working. The militias of the Shia political groups that were outlawed and in exile before have not stood down so much as they have been reconstituted as a kind of all-pervading security apparatus.
This is the Badr Brigade?
Yes, and [they're] in loose alliance with the occupation authorities, specifically with the British, who control Basra and most of the south.
But Grand Ayatollah Sistani is seen as somebody who's making Bremer's job more difficult, who's obstructionist. What's his strategy?
Sistani knows that unless there is a formula, an electoral formula, whereby the Shia majority get the response they feel historically is their due, there could be serious problems in this country. The schisms that are already there amongst the Shia will deepen significantly. You also could see the political leadership of the Shia ending their alliance with the Americans and the British to build a new Iraq. And you could see the beginning of an insurgency amongst the Shia.
Sistani is a man, of course, who doesn't give interviews. So this is my own sense of him from having talked with people who are in alliance with him and who regularly meet with him, and also one of his two representatives in Iraq outside of his office in Najaf. I spoke with a senior cleric who speaks for Sistani in Basra, who's quite rare to see as well. ...
I did not see much of a distance between Sistani's position and Sayyid Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's -- who is now the titular head of the Governing Council here, for December, and head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq [SCIRI], the largest Shiite political group, and also the commander of the Badr Brigade, his military wing. ... They believe it is their moment to assume power in Iraq. ...
What I see from the Shia is a gradual display of their actual power in the country. I think the fatwas and pronouncements by Sistani have served a dual purpose, both to extract specific concessions for the Shia community from the Americans and the coalition, and also to further cement the idea that they are a force to be reckoned with, and that they will not go away. And the Americans have already now been seen to be buckling to those demands ...[and] recognizing this great spiritual authority. ...
What about divisions within the Shia community? How serious are they? [Moqtada al-]Sadr gets a lot of press. ...
Sadr is the son of a very revered ayatollah here, who was killed several years ago -- a man of the same generation as Hakim, the next generation down from Grand Ayatollah Sistani. And his was one of the last and most scandalous in a series of murders, or strange inexplicable deaths in car accidents and so forth, of prominent Shia clerics over the years under Saddam's regime. So his son, who's very young and regarded by most of the Shia I've talked to as semi-literate, without the kind of spiritual merit as his father -- he's not an imam, first of all -- has emerged as a kind of Young Turk of the disgruntled, marginal, very poor Shia community. People variously say he has between 30 and 40 percent of the hearts of the Shia, primarily in Sadr City, the slum in the northeast of Baghdad, and also in Kufa and around Najaf. ...
The other clerics, Hakim and Sistani included, tend not to chastise him in public because he does have a following, he does have a constituency which could be troubling, could become very militant, and which could make their own lives and positions tenuous. They want, above all, to avoid any kind of civil war or bloodletting between the Shia -- which, of course, is the kind of thing that their enemies amongst the Sunnis would love to see happen, because it would dismember this ascendancy by the Shia as a unified block in tandem with the coalition, which may well give them a predominant share of the power that's going to come after Bremer steps down. ...
Sadr is seen by the Americans as a troublemaker. And except for these encounters they had a month or so ago, where it came to blows, and there were some deaths on both sides ... they've adopted a policy of trying not to rile him generally. ...
So everybody's tiptoeing around Sadr?
Everybody's tiptoeing around him. It seems as though the Americans bloodied his nose a little bit. And until now it seemed to have worked. But now he seems to be coming back. ...
What do you come away from the south thinking about the future for Iraq as a whole, and [the south's] part in it?
The south doesn't tell the entire story, but it was a story that I wanted to know better. I wanted to journey amongst the Shia and see it through their eyes, in their homeland, so to speak. And I wanted to see what was emerging under the surface. In Basra and the surrounding area, what I was able to come away with was a sense that there's a great effervescence taking place amongst the Shia. There are many political groups proliferating, in some cases in a very sophisticated fashion.
The military wing of Hakim's [SCIRI], the Badr Brigade, are assuming positions in every aspect of society down there. They're the home guard, the policemen. They're now being trained by the British to assume roles as border police, as customs police. They have a television station. They are on the municipal council, the local governing council in the south. It's almost a two-track policy. They still function almost as a clandestine organization, but they are putting themselves in position to become a legitimate political organization.
And if things were to turn against the Shia politically, or they were to decide to end their tactical alliance [with the coalition], Badr will be everywhere. They'll be in control -- they're in control of the roads, they are chasing oil smugglers down on the Faw Peninsula. According to a lot of people, they're carrying out revenge killings of Baathists. I asked about that and got kind of a wink and a smile. But they won't ever own up to it. And it seems unquestionable to me that both the British in the south and the Americans here have in fact adopted a no-see policy about the revenge killings of Baathists. And Badr would appear to be doing a lot of it in their areas.
So they're trying to hold on to a private army because they may need it. And the Americans and the British, the coalition, are trying to co-opt them into into the whole?
Yeah, the [British and Americans] recognize them to be a very efficient, organized group, politically, in alliance with them. And they can rely upon them to control that community, to end problems, and also to forestall possible attacks against their own troops, which Badr told me they were doing, sometimes without the knowledge of British troops there [in the south]. They actually provide an outer invisible layer of security, precisely to avoid the kind of attacks that have been happening on American troops in Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle. It's discernibly different. There are very rarely attacks down there. ... The Americans simply do not have the same kind of buffer auxiliary local force protecting them, providing them with eyes and ears into the community as the Shia are providing for the coalition in the south.
So the recent proposal by Hakim and Talabani and Chalabi to allow their armed groups to be placed under a unified command and exercise this kind of role country-wide, and ultimately to take away the brunt of the fighting from the Americans and the British, has now been adopted in recent days. They've agreed to it.
But that's a formula for both ethnic and sectarian warfare in the future. I mean, it's a far cry from the idea of a democracy where you have a unified, homogenous police force.
By invading Iraq, the allies let the cat out of the bag anyway. You know, within a couple of days of the fall of the city, the Kurdish peshmerga were in Baghdad. The Badr Brigade were operating openly here. All of the people who'd been repressed and were outlawed or exiled, purged, slaughtered for all of those years, are now here. They had been operating surreptitiously and clandestinely anyway, while the Americans have been doing the brunt of the fighting. Their political leaders are those the Americans have allowed to take seats on the Governing Council. Their militias have not gone away, they've merely hidden their guns or they've stayed in their home areas, or they're operating in a more discrete fashion.
But it's an obvious fact that there are, as the American military might say, local indigenous assets who, if freed up, could do a lot of the fighting. And, yes, it would be bloody. But you already have a bloody situation. So one could argue that maybe it's better that Iraqis are killing Iraqis than that Americans are killing Iraqis. And that may be the conclusion that the coalition is coming to.
But it runs counter to the idea that [the coalition is] trying to stand up an army, and stand up a national police force, that exists without loyalties to any particular group in Iraq, but to the whole of Iraq. I mean, what you're describing is something far more complex, and perhaps practical in the short term, but I wonder about it in the long term.
Sure. ... The coalition has been trumpeting this idea of a new, apolitical police and army. But they're clearly not recruiting enough to take over the security of the country in time for the elections and the intended [transition]. So, if they can pull in the militias, place them under a commander other than the one they're used to, and each political leader agrees to do that, it may be a recipe for disaster, or it just might work.
And I think that shows the degree of desperation of the situation, that the coalition, which has been stalling on this possibility for a long time, has finally agreed to it. Albeit with terms that restrict the militias further, and that down the road these militias could eventually perhaps be incorporated into the other security structures that the Americans are training now.
I'm not privy to the details of the decisions that have gone into this, or why they're doing it, or how they plan to make it work, but I can see a certain logic to it. I don't see why, from an American perspective, it makes sense to continue to have American boys of 18 and 19 getting blown up every day, when Chalabi's men, together with Talabani's men, together with Hakim's men, if they say they're willing to take it on, take it on.
As long as Talabani's men and Hakim's men and Chalabi's men work together.
They have been. That's one of the experiences that has come out of the Governing Council.
Well, they kind of have to while the Americans are here.
But there has been -- I mean, Chalabi was talking with Hakim well before the war. The Badr, Hakim's people, and Talabani's have forged an alliance that goes back several years. One has to keep in mind that these are the two communities [Shia and Kurds] that have the most to gain from a kind of new, possibly federal, Iraq, in which those communities are given some kind of semi-autonomous status which can vouchsafe their future. ...
A lot could go wrong, but I can't see why the Kurds, the Shia, or the Sunni -- the political leadership -- would want to risk blowing it all and ending up in a warlord situation. They all know what happened in Afghanistan, they all know what happened in Beirut. Hakim knows what happened under Khomeini -- he had 22, 23 years in Iran to realize that that kind of radical Islamist regime simply won't work. The day is past for it. And I don't think that's what he wants for Iraq, either.
But there are serious divisions amongst the Kurds. There are serious divisions, as you know, amongst the Shia.
But the American and allied presence here, in theory, could just possibly provide the kind of carrot-and-stick glue to make this amorphous, fractious mess eventually come together. I think it's the only chance they have at this point. ...
You traveled south of Basra ...
Yeah, on the Faw Peninsula, which was one of the slaughter grounds during the Iran-Iraq war. I mean, this is one of the features of Basra, quite apart from anything else -- it was pounded constantly during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. And again, it had the brunt of the fighting in the Gulf War, the area around there. ...
And traveling both south from Basra and north toward the marshes, there are vast warscapes, battlegrounds, where nothing is living. ... A land completely reshaped by man for offensive and defensive killing. It's a great killing ground. And it's the strangest thing to see because 15 years after the war, it's still there. There's nothing but these strange outcroppings gradually being eroded by the elements. But they were once trenches and furrows and parapets and tank traps. And here and there ... you see these kind of motley settlements of shacks and shanties along the roads, of people who mostly have been displaced by the various persecutions or carnages that have taken place around there.
So that's, to me, what Basra's like. I thought to myself it would be a bit like traveling, I suppose, around Verdun and the World War I battlegrounds four or five years later, before they became farmlands again.
But here nothing grows. ...
How big is the Badr Brigade?
Before the war -- because of course they were supervised and armed and coordinated by the Iranian secret services and army -- that was a kind of secret figure. But the general consensus was that it was 10,000 to 15,000 men. In a recent chat I had with Sayyid Abdul Aziz al-Hakim -- who's the ultimate master -- he said he felt that he could now count on 100,000 men.
It's a very strange alliance the Americans are making with the Badr Brigade, which has been affiliated with the Iranians. It's an odd alliance.
Oh, yes. It is an odd alliance. And the Hakims -- both the late ayatollah [Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim] and his brother [Abdul Aziz al-Hakim] -- keep their own counsel. They were given sanctuary in Iran, they are Shia, though they are Arab and not Persian ... there is that difference. ... But nonetheless there's this sense of fraternity, and this kind of back and forth of the wars which have displaced them, which goes some way toward explaining that alliance and that affinity there in Iran.
They're also aware, although they would never say so in public, that they were useful to the Iranians. And they had 23 years in Iran to witness the changes there, the corruption of the clerical regime. And they keep their own counsel on that. But I have come away from all my meetings with them with the sense that they know that they could never have that same kind of revolution here in Iraq, if one day they had wanted it. And most of them did, and have admitted that to me -- that there was a time when they wished to have a Khomeini-style state here. ...
Well, to go back to Sistani -- he wants an Islamic state.
They won't go so far as to say that specifically. They're aware of how that sounds, I think, to the West. They would like a state -- a form of government -- which respects and vouchsafes Islam as the predominant religion of Iraq. ... They want the nature of Iraq to be identified constitutionally and legally as Islamic.
They want Sharia law?
The specifics will come later. This is something that's all negotiable.
But those are sticking points. Potentially.
They're potentially future sticking points.
And Sadr wants a more aggressively rooted Islamic state, with full Sharia law?
I gather. I don't think Hakim will insist upon that. I have the feeling that the larger and the more powerful Shia political establishment will go for a more moderated version. Because -- and I believe this to be true -- they, above all, want the kind of spiritual freedom that comes with being Shia.
Sistani -- it's important to note that he is no Khomeini. He is not a man who believes that the clergy should be the political establishment of the country. He believes that being a Shia, and that Islam, is a way of life and a culture. And I think what he seeks is something discernibly different than what the West came to see in the Iran of Khomeini.
Did you talk to them about the role of women in the future Islamic state as they see it?
At the moment, their minds and their attention are very much focused on the present. And, again, I think this is one of the points that would be negotiated a little bit over time. To a Western perception, their ideal for a woman's role in society would be a much more limited one than ours. But I do think that they probably will allow a role for women in the political and social life of the country.
Having said that, there's a cultural phenomenon. I was at a reception over which Sayyid Abdul Aziz al-Hakim was presiding recently, in which he was bestowing honors on three or four young Shia who'd gone through a course in loyalty and steadfastness, or something like that. Two of them were men, and they kissed his hand. They genuflected, as they do -- he's a direct descendent of the Prophet -- and so on. The woman prostrated herself. And all the men, including Hakim, tusked her and said, you know, "Get up." They were embarrassed. But at the same time, it was something that she felt she needed to do.
There is this resurgence of Shiism at the moment, after this great repression, which includes both the unthinking ... ecstatic, perhaps primitive Shiism, which many Shia are embarrassed about -- and the Sadr type of Shiism, which is political, much as we might have seen in the early days of Khomeini -- and then this other Shiism, which is merely a chance to breathe, to be proud to be what they are, and have their place in society and not be second-class citizens.
Can you talk a little bit about the fact that the Shia have a kind of leadership and representation at the top, whereas the Sunni do not, and what that means for the Sunnis?
Well, they have their people on the Governing Council. What has happened, though, is that Saddam had more than 30 years to manipulate and dominate life in this country. And he favored his own constituency. He favored his people ... who were the Sunnis. And these people have been disenfranchised.
He also created a huge bureaucracy ... you know, most people in this country that had a salary worked for the government. Most of the factories were state-owned, the ministries were huge bureaucracies. The security apparatus was all pervasive. So there were millions of people and their families who depended upon that state. That state has ended, it's collapsed.
Who leads the Sunni community? There is no equivalent of a Sistani or a Hakim.
No, there isn't because they're largely tribal.
Which adds to the sense of them being at sea, and at risk?
That's right. It is a real problem because, of course, Saddam was the only Sunni who could be ascendant as long as he was in power. And, therefore, there simply hasn't been the kind of time for a politically mature or savvy Sunni Iraqi with the same pulling power ... and ability to negotiate with the tribes, as Saddam had.
Did you get a sense in talking to Shia that they are sensitive to the fears of the Sunnis?
In varying degrees, yes. But nonetheless, insistent ... [in] ascribing the resistance, or the insurgency, to be no more than 2 percent of the Sunnis, and saying, "We can get along with the Sunnis. It's not more than 2 or 3 percent that are fighting. And, after all, we are the majority."
I made the argument a number of times, I said, "Fair enough, you're the majority, and if there were free and fair elections you would, arguably, win. And, therefore, take your place as the next government." They say, "Yes, that's right." And I said, "Well, what about the feelings of the Sunni minority who feel that they've been displaced? Don't you risk a state of civil war if you don't go easy?" And they're saying, "Why should we hold back because of this tiny percentage who are willing to kill people? They're doing it now, and they're gonna do it at any time."
Rather than take what I would have thought might be a kind of diplomatic ... or conciliatory approach, they seem to be feeling themselves at a moment which is their historic watershed, and the moment to assume their rightful place as the leaders in the country. ...
You traveled in the marshlands?
I did. I should call them "the former marshlands," because Saddam drained them -- literally to drain the fish from the sea. It was where, after the intifada, the uprising following the Gulf War in '91, the rebels fled to and continued fighting for some time. And when he finally drained the marshlands and turned them into this kind of saltpan of the desert, they by and large had to flee to Iran.
Some of them fled north and took incentives from Saddam to move up to Kirkuk and other places.
Some did. The actual fighters, by and large, fell back to Iran. ... They were the Badr Brigade, and those that hadn't, then joined it. Did a few cross-border things. And then there was also this floating population of people who were clandestine within Iraq, maintaining networks, providing intelligence at great risk to themselves. It was the civilians, of course, that in some cases were forcibly resettled or took Saddam's blandishments to move elsewhere, the idea being to break them up.
So what do you see there today?
I had been to the marshes, a year ago, to speak with a sheikh, who at the time, of course, was living under Saddam and in formal alliance with him, as anyone had to be. And I had a very sort of "Alice in Wonderland" encounter with him a year ago in this wasteland, in which the sheikh said that he was happy there was no more water. He didn't miss the sort of idealized romantic life, with boats and birds singing and bulrushes. He says, "That's all primitive life. Now we can be modern people, our people can be bricklayers and taxi drivers. One day we may even live in glass houses like you. Didn't the Westerners also emerge out of the wilderness and become modern people?"
And it was this sort of thing. And he praised Saddam, and there was Saddam's portrait above the doorway in his traditional ... sort of arched meetinghouse made out of reeds.
This is a year ago ... just before the war. So a few days ago, I returned to see him. I wanted to see if he had changed his tune, and if life had changed there. I heard that since the war they had begun reflooding part of the marshes. That clearly hadn't happened around here.
The sheikh seemed a bit more glum, and more hard of hearing. And perhaps a little embarrassed about me coming back. The Saddam portraits were gone from his doorway. And we avoided the subject of Saddam for a long time. But I finally brought it up. And he now said that Saddam was a criminal, garbage, and the black face of the Arab nation, but that he couldn't say so before. And that he had always secretly been with the Badr Brigade. Now, a Badr man took me to this encounter, and he says it was true.
This man was once a general in Saddam's army, but nonetheless his tribe is Shia. And as far as I can tell, I come away with the conclusion that in a way he's a paradigm of Iraqis today who were in positions where they couldn't avoid taking a position, where they couldn't avoid taking a stand. A tribal sheikh under Saddam had to either flee, or do business with him. This man did business with him. But nonetheless, evidently, maintained his clandestine support for the armed wing of the Supreme Council, and somehow managed to emerge from this with his integrity intact.
To a Western perception, he would be a man who had sold and bought back his soul just one too many times, I think. But in the Iraqi context of the need to survive under brutal circumstances, and where the idea of a state or the centralized power is one thing, and the age-old links to the land and a clan and a tribe or a faith, or all of those things, are another, this sort of tight rope of allegiance is somehow comprehensible. But it takes quite a while to get your mind around. ...
And I think to the same extent that we're talking about Shia, you could transpose that to the Sunni tribes, even these guys who are doing business with the coalition, but paying the insurgency to kill them at the same time.
They're all playing both sides, or they have no choice but to ...
No choice but to. That's what they've always done, it's how you survive. You can't put all your eggs in one basket. I don't think you can find a Sunni businessman here today who could tell you with any certainty what was gonna happen, other than that one day it was gonna all be Iraqi again. They know that. Because this is an ancient land, and they've seen conquerors come and go. And anyone with any kind of faculties will know that whether it's two years or 20 years, there will be a day when the Americans aren't gonna be here any more.
Right, but is there nationalism? Is there an Iraqi nationalist sense?
Yeah, there is. Amongst a kind of Iraqi -- the metropolitan Iraqi, the Iraqis of the Saddam years.
Well, let me put it another way. Is there enough nationalism here to hold this place together?
The jury's out on that. If things are worked adequately, yes. If more mistakes are made, no.
I would say that the future of Iraq is still on a knife edge. You can't dismiss the idea that there will be a civil war in this country and a fracturing of this country. I personally don't think that will happen, or become irrevocable, but the possibility exists. And no question, the invasion and occupation, and mishandling of the occupation ever since, has made it more possible.
What about the anti-Americanism that grows out of this experience?
It's become widespread and very disturbingly common. This was not an anti-American country before.
And is there any reversing of that process possible?
Yes. Yes. There'll be a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of Iraqis for quite a long time -- and, I think, most worryingly, in the minds of quite a few young Iraqis, who, of course, are gonna be coming of age and participating in the political life of this country -- and I think it's not been a felicitous encounter. Unfortunately, they have not seen the best face of the West, or the best kind of American. They don't know who we really are yet. What they've seen is a grab bag of American, good and bad, in uniforms with guns.
And a lot of blood has been shed here. And it's been both Iraqis' and Americans' blood. And that was not how the war planners imagined it happening. Nor was it how the Iraqis I knew before the war envisioned it to be. But very quickly people have become viscerally anti-American because they're humiliated. They're living in their own country and being ordered around by foreigners with guns. There has never been a moment where they felt truly liberated. There's been no national emancipation. There's not been such a powerful military defeat that the society itself has capitulated or recognized that it itself has a lot to answer for under the decades of terror and Saddam. Not a single Iraqi to this moment has expressed remorse, said he's sorry, for anything that's happened in the past.
In a country where there's hundreds of thousands of people in mass graves, that shows you something is wrong not just with the American presence here, but with the Iraqi psyche as well.
But how do you see the perception of Americans changing for the better?
You know, we began this conversation with you asking me if I had seen any visible signs of reconstruction, the erection of some visibly, palpably benign improvement by our country here, something that every Iraqi could point to and say, "We would never have had that without the United States. Thank you." People who were suffering under Saddam do admit privately, I know them -- a fellow I know was saying yesterday, "I would give my eyes for Bush." And I said, "Both of them?" He said, "Yes." Why? Because, he says, "If they hadn't come, after Saddam it was gonna be his grandson, and we would never have gotten out from under that man."
There is a kind of Iraqi that really appreciates it and respects it. He happens to be Shia, not Sunni. And I'm not trying to replicate a sectarian notion of Iraqis, either. There are people who think many ways on both sides. But by and large, you have an embittered population now, in terms of the experience of the war and the post-war occupation, and the illusions they had about what might come afterwards.
But given the scale of the problems facing Iraq, and the need for reconstruction, is there enough will on the part of the Americans to put some palpable, tangible improvements in place? It's going to cost a lot of money, and it's going to take a lot of commitment over a long time. I mean, Paul Bremer, if he were here, would say, "I have thousands of projects running from north to south throughout this country."
I know. And he insists that we are doing all these things. ... And when I met him in the summer and said -- this is before the spate of bombings began, which made the Americans retrench even further -- "When are we gonna stop seeing American soldiers and start seeing Americans like you and myself, people in civilian clothes, that Iraqis can finally see, these are Americans, people we can mingle with and sit down with and talk with and dialogue with and work together on projects with"? And he got very testy and said that there were plenty of those people out there.
And of course I hadn't seen any all summer long. But he insisted that there were. Now, I haven't seen them since. Nor did I see them before. And I find that, unfortunately, there's a bit of an ideological drive to say one has succeeded here when the evidence points to the contrary. On the one hand, you have the Iraqis who are willing to believe just about any conspiracy theory about the West, and give a negative spin to almost anything the Americans do, which is distressing to say the least. And on the other hand, you have the Americans with this kind of triumphalist language, and assertion of facts which are in some cases just downright specious.
Bremer, I forget at what point -- a few months ago -- announced that the electricity in Baghdad was now better than it was before the war. Well, he wasn't here before the war. The electricity was by and large fine. It isn't since the war, and it isn't since he made that statement. It was not a true statement. And just because he said so isn't gonna make the Iraqi people believers. ... It's for consumption back home. But they watch it here. So his message is vitiated by the fact that he is not always sincere.