Robert Fisk: Osama at 50
- Robert Fisk on Osama bin Laden at 50, Iraqi Death Squads and Why the
Middle East is More Dangerous Now Than in Past 30 Years
Monday, March 5th, 2007
Robert Fisk is a veteran war correspondent and one of the world's most
experienced journalists covering the Middle East. He has reported from
across the Arab world for the past thirty years. His latest book is
"The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East." He
joins us in our Firehouse studio. [includes rush transcript]
In Iraq, at least 26 people died today when a suicide bomber struck a
busy commercial district in Baghdad. Over 50 people were injured. In
other reported violence, gunmen killed five people when they opened
fire on Shia pilgrims in two separate incidents around the capital.
Elsewhere in Bagdad, police said that since Saturday, they had found
20 bodies of men who were believed to be victims of Shiite death squads
The latest news comes as more than one thousand US and Iraqi troops
have moved into the Shiite stronghold of Sadr city to conduct
house-to-house searches and street patrols. It marked the largest
operation into the area in more than three years.
Meanwhile in southern Iraq, British-led troops have uncovered an Iraqi
government facility in Basra where Shiite forces were torturing
prisoners and producing bomb-making equipment. The torture was going
on inside the local headquarters of the Iraqi interior ministry"s
domestic intelligence agency.
The news comes amid the backdrop of a planned security conference on
the tenth of March in Iraq. The United States says it will attend the
talks that include both Syria and Iran.
Robert Fisk is a veteran war correspondent and one of the world"s most
experienced journalists covering the Middle East. He has reported from
across the Arab world for the past thirty years. He was in Iraq in the
1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, in the early 1990s during the Persian
Gulf War and most recently during the U.S. invasion and occupation. He
has also reported on the civil wars in Algeria and Lebanon, the
Iranian revolution, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and Israel"s
occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
Robert Fisk joins me in our firehouse studio.
Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London
Independent. He is the author of several books, his latest is "The
Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East."
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk is a veteran war correspondent, one of
the world's most experienced journalists in the Middle East. He has
reported from across the Arab world for the past thirty years. He was
in Iraq in the '80s during the Iran-Iraq War, in the early '90s during
the Persian Gulf War, and most recently during the US invasion and
occupation. He has also reported on civil wars in Algeria and Lebanon,
the Iranian revolution, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and
Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Robert Fisk joins me
here in our firehouse studio for the hour. Welcome to Democracy Now!
ROBERT FISK: You're making me feel old, Amy. All these talks of all
the civil wars I've covered, I'm beginning to think it's time I packed
it all in.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, congratulations also on your 2006 Lannan Lifetime
Achievement Prize for Cultural Freedom.
ROBERT FISK: Thanks very much, indeed. Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: You said last night at a large event at Town Hall in New
York, where you were honored and you spoke, that you consider the
award important as a flak jacket. Explain.
ROBERT FISK: Well, if you report the Middle East and you do it fairly
and honorably and you criticize everyone, and that includes Israel,
you're going to get the sticks and stones, sometimes literally. You
get a lot of flak. And when a journalist gets an honor like the Lannan
Award or a journalistic award in Britain, OK, it's flattering, it's
nice. All journalists like that. But particularly in the Middle East,
it's a way of showing that there are other people in the West who say,
"You're doing the right job. Keep it up."
And it's also a lesson to those critics, particularly the particularly
venomous ones, and you and I could think of them straightaway, who try
to destroy your career by lying about you, by accusing you of being
anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, you name it. It's a way of saying, "Well,
hold on a second. Look at this list of awards. Do you think these
people are all the same? Do you not realize that this was for some
reason?" So, it is a flak jacket. It's a protection for journalists
when we get awards for reporting in the Middle East, particularly in
the Middle East.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, your last piece is about bin Laden hitting
ROBERT FISK: Yes. Well, I must say I did sort of mention in the same
piece that I think bin Laden is pretty irrelevant now. You know, his
creation is al-Qaeda, and it exists. It's in being. The monster is
born. Chasing bin Laden now, if indeed we are chasing bin Laden now,
is a bit like chasing nuclear scientists and arresting them all after
the invention of the atom bomb. The atom bomb exists. You can't
deconstruct it. So arresting the nuclear scientists won't do any good.
And in a sense, you see, the same applies with bin Laden. His
"achievement" -- I put that in quotation marks -- in his eyes, is the
creation of al-Qaeda. Never before have we had a violent institution
of this kind. And the only way to overcome it is to produce some
justice, which, of course, we don't want to do. We want more and more
violence against al-Qaeda, which, of course, helps al-Qaeda. But the
fact of the matter is that I think bin Laden has achieved, in his
mind, what he wants. And now, if he dies of kidney failure, which I
don't think he's going to do -- I don't believe these stories -- or
whether he falls off a cliff or gets bombed or arrested, I think it's
irrelevant, totally irrelevant.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your interviews with Osama bin Laden. How many
did you do?
ROBERT FISK: I did three.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the first one.
ROBERT FISK: Well, the first one was in Sudan. A Saudi friend of his,
who had fought with him against the Soviets in Afghanistan, who, mind
you -- he was now a journalist -- he met me at an Islamic conference
in Khartoum, and one Sunday morning, he said, "Robert, I want you to
come and meet someone." And for him, it was a bit of a joke. He knew
bin Laden was out in the desert, where bin Laden's construction teams
-- he was, of course, in the construction business, as most his family
were -- had been building a new road from a little village to the main
highway between Port Sudan and Khartoum to link up so that the
villagers could take part in the national economy.
AMY GOODMAN: Bin Laden's father was a great Yemeni construction
magnate in Saudi Arabia?
ROBERT FISK: A billionaire so, yes. And, indeed, most of bin Laden's
-- or some of bin Laden's money came from the construction business.
He built the roads upon which the Afghan guerrillas took tanks to
fight the Russians. I mean, I actually went in an air raid shelter
twenty-five feet high, built into the living rock of a mountain in
Afghanistan, built by bin Laden during the Russian war, next to a camp
built by the CIA, of course.
But, no, I went out with this guy. We went across the desert past
pyramids you've never seen before. I mean, they're not even in
guidebooks. And we ended up in this desert village, and there was this
man in this long white robe with all these kids dancing in front of
him and people slaughtering chickens and goats and sheep. And my
journalist friend, who knew bin Laden well, went up and spoke to him
in his ear. And I saw bin Laden's eyes flick towards me with palpable
concern. He had never met a Western journalist before. And I was
invited to meet him. I shook hands with him, and he thought I was
going to ask him about terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror,
because he was already being implicated. There were comments by State
Department officials that bin Laden was plotting world terror.
AMY GOODMAN: This is 1993.
ROBERT FISK: Yes. Pretty accurate, actually, if you think about it.
But, anyway, that's what was happening. So anyway, I wasn't really
interested in this. You know, my colleagues had written all this
terror, terror, terror stuff. I wanted to know what created bin Laden
during the war with the Russians, what happened to him, because, you
know, the Saudis wanted to send a Saudi prince to lead an Arab legion
against the Soviet infidels. Unfortunately, the Saudi princes were
keener on living in Monte Carlo than going to Afghanistan, and bin
Laden was the man who led the Arab legion.
So I said to him, "What was it like fighting the Russians? Tell me
about fighting the Russians." And he talked for some time about the
large number of his supporters -- there wasn't al-Qaeda in existence
then -- a large number of Arab fighters who died. There's a mass grave
near Jalalabad -- he told me exactly where it was -- with hundreds of
his own fighters buried in it. And then he recalled an attack on a
Russian firebase, a Russian artillery position in Nangarhar province
-- capital is Jalalabad. And he said, "As we were advancing, a mortar
shell fell at my feet." And he waited for it to explode and kill him.
And he said, "I felt sakina, a calmness" -- it's a religious idea that
you are not worried about death, you are outside this world, you are
linked in with God and the idea of another world, another life. And
the mortar shell didn't explode. There must be many people who wish
that it had, but it didn't.
And, obviously, it was quite clear talking to him that this was a very
important moment in his life. He had conquered fear and the fear of
death. And once you do that, you start discovering perhaps that you
love death, but it's not the same. You remember the famous phrase we
always hear from suicide bombers, "You love life, we love death,"
which is the most frightening thing you can hear. And I think at that
moment, that during that attack on the Russians -- I mean, it was a
Soviet base, a Soviet army base -- I think that must have changed him
in some way. But, you know, as I saw him each time, he changed, too. I
mean, he was growing older.
AMY GOODMAN: You're older than him?
ROBERT FISK: Yeah, I'm about ten years older than him. Yes, that's
right. I don't think -- I mean, he always -- we never discussed age,
but, I mean, he must have guessed I was slightly older than him. He
was always very courteous towards me. And when he stopped to eat, I
would sit on the ground with the al-Qaeda fighters and eat yoghurt and
drink tea with him. He broke off occasionally to pray, as well, which
I, of course, didn't do with him.
But certainly, the next time I met him in Afghanistan, he was a much
more angry man. He was filled with fury at the corruption of the Saudi
royal family. He went into great detail on how many millions of
dollars they stole on this occasion, how many princes have taken these
dollars, and so on. And it looked at that stage as if what he really
wanted to do was to overthrow the Saudi royal family and become caliph
of Arabia. He didn't say that, but I suspect. I mean, Arabia is what
he's interested in. At the end of the day, it's Arabia, not because of
oil, but because of the holy places of Mecca and Medina and his own
religious Salafi beliefs.
But he was already beginning to talk about people having dreams. You
know, in the Wahhabi sect, people believe in what I call "dreamology."
They think that when they have a dream, it's a message coming from
somewhere outside the world. Obviously, you know, you can interpret
the Prophet Muhammad's receiving the message of God as being in a kind
of trance or a dream. Remember, the first message he received, he
talked about how he was wrapped in, and it was felt tight -- that an
angel wrapped him and squeezed him tight. And I think that bin Laden
believes in dreams. I think a lot of al-Qaeda people do. They have
ideas that come to them. We don't. We believe that this is an inactive
but still living brain taking over, just things come through like
stars pass through the heavens, but I think they interpret them or
want to interpret them, which is a very -- something we basically gave
up in the Middle Ages in Europe.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, but when we come back, tell us what he
told you on that mountaintop in Afghanistan. We're talking to Robert
Fisk, the veteran war correspondent. His latest book, The Great War
for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, has just come out
in paperback. His earlier book, Pity the Nation: The Abduction of
Lebanon, is coming out in French, and he is traveling to Paris today
for the launch of the book there. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Robert Fisk, chief Middle East
correspondent for The Independent of London, voted best foreign
correspondent for years by British reporters and editors. His latest
book is called The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the
Middle East. Robert, you're talking about mountaintop in Afghanistan
with Osama bin Laden.
ROBERT FISK: Well, the last time I saw him, which was '97 -- he did
want to see me after 9/11, but I couldn't reach him. An American air
raid was on the road in front of me on my way to see him. But the last
time I saw him, he had moved from his hatred of the Saudis, which was
still there, into a quite clear fury at the United States. He was
starting to talk about them as being crusaders.
And, in fact, the last words he said to me, as we sat in a very
freezing mountaintop -- I spent the night with his al-Qaeda people in
a tent sleeping. I woke up with ice in my hair. And the last words he
said to me, and I have my notebooks, which, of course, I will research
for this book, and his words were, "Mr. Robert, from this mountain
upon which we are sitting, we destroyed the Soviet army and helped to
destroy the Soviet Union," which was an element of truth, though
obviously a usual bin Laden exaggeration. And then he said, "and I
pray to God that He permits us to turn America into a shadow of
itself." Those were his words. And in my notebook, which I actually
took these words down in, I put two lines on each side of the quote.
At the time, I wrote, "Rhetoric?" It wasn't, of course.
And I remember that, you know, on 9/11, I said before, I think, to
you, that I was crossing the Atlantic that day. The plane turned
around, and I got back to Europe and saw, you know, the biblical
crashing of the Twin Towers. I remember thinking, well, New York is
now a shadow of itself, all that dust and fog going across the city. I
was pretty convinced, from the start, that bin Laden was involved. I
still am, of course.
AMY GOODMAN: You have chosen a section of your book --
ROBERT FISK: Highly subversive, highly subversive section.
AMY GOODMAN: -- The Great War for Civilisation, to read, deleting any
curses or anything like that, if you could read a piece.
ROBERT FISK: I've chosen a piece that has no bad language, which is
permitted on British television, but not on American television. Yes,
it fits in rather well with the news today and what you've just been
talking about. It's about the issue of our rationale of how we behave
[reading] "The Americans and British benefited from these accounts of
terror under Saddam. Would you rather he was still here in Iraq
torturing and gassing his own people? they would ask. Don't you think
we did a good thing by getting rid of him? All this, of course,
because the original reasons for the invasion -- Saddam's possession
of weapons of mass destruction, his links with the outrages of
September 11th, Mr. Blair's 45-minute warning -- turned out to be
lies. But it was a dark comparison that Bush and Blair were making. If
Saddam's immorality and wickedness had to be the yardstick against
which all of our own iniquities were judged, what did that say about
us? If Saddam's regime was to be the moral compass to define our
actions, how bad -- how iniquitous -- did that allow us to be? Saddam
tortured and executed women in Abu Ghraib. We only sexually abused
prisoners and killed a few of them and murdered some suspects in
Bagram in Afghanistan and subjected them to inhuman treatment in
Guantanamo. Saddam was much worse. And thus it became inevitable that
the symbol of Saddam's shame -- the prison at Abu Ghraib --
subsequently became the symbol of our shame, too.
"What was interesting was the vastly different reaction in East and
West to our abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. We `civilised' Westerners
were shocked at the dog-biting and humiliations and torture `our' men
and women administered to the inmates. Iraqis were outraged, but not
shocked. Their friends and relatives -- some of whom have been locked
up by the Americans -- had long ago told them of the revolting
behaviour of the American guards. They weren't surprised by those
iconic photographs. They already knew.
"By early 2004, an army of thousands of mercenaries had appeared on
the streets of Iraq's major cities, many of them former British and
American soldiers hired by the occupying Anglo-American authorities
and by dozens of companies who feared for the lives of their employees
in Baghdad The heavily armed Britons working for well over 300
security firms in Iraq now outnumbered Britain's 8,000-strong army in
the south of the country. Although major US and British security
companies were operating in Iraq, dozens of small firms also set up
shop with little vetting of their employees and few rules of
engagement. Many of the Britons were former SAS soldiers -- hundreds
of former American Special Forces men were also in the country --
while armed South Africans were also working for the occupation
"The presence in Iraq of so many thousands of Western mercenaries --
or `security contractors,' as the American press coyly referred to
them -- said as much about America's fear of taking military
casualties as it did about the multi-million-pound security industry
now milking the coffers of the US and British governments. Security
firms were escorting convoys on the highways of Iraq. Armed
plain-clothes men from an American company were guarding US troops at
night inside the former presidential palace where Paul Bremer had his
headquarters. In other words, security companies were now guarding the
occupation troops. When a US helicopter crashed near Fallujah in 2003,
it was an American security company that took control of the area and
began rescue operations. Needless to say, casualties among the
mercenaries were not included in the regular body count put out by the
The latest figure that I have as a journalist now is that we now have
in Iraq 120,000 Westerner mercenaries. That's almost equal to the
total number of American troops.
AMY GOODMAN: And in your experience in Iraq, --
ROBERT FISK: Ouch.
AMY GOODMAN: -- having been there, how much did you run into these
ROBERT FISK: Oh, they would turn up and stay in the same hotel I was
in. They turned up during checkpoints on roads, sometimes wearing
hoods or masks. Why? Why hoods? Why masks? What were they doing? I
would come across them driving vehicles through the streets of
Baghdad, guns pointing out the window. "Get out of the way! Get out of
the way! Get out of the way!" Tch-tch-tch-tch-tch, in the air. Very
similar to the same gangs that Saddam used to use for security
purposes to get people out of the way in vehicles. In fact, the way in
which the occupation authorities have sealed off vast areas of Baghdad
with walls is classic. It wasn't as bad under Saddam. There weren't so
many walls, but it's very similar to the same practice that Saddam's
regime used. In fact, in many ways, what we do has become a kind of
pale mirror of the regime we got rid of. You know, hanging people and
their heads come off when you hang them, this is incredible.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressman John Murtha, the former Marine who basically
channeled the Pentagon and came out early on -- he was first for the
war, came out against and called for withdrawal -- said yesterday that
Abu Ghraib -- that the US military should destroy Abu Ghraib, should
pull the troops out of Saddam's palaces and should close Guantanamo.
ROBERT FISK: Look, we've been through Abu Ghraib so often. First of
all, it was liberated, and we all went in and saw the hangman's noose
and where Saddam's people were executed. Then they announced they
would have to use it briefly as a prison. I said -- immediately I went
to prison. I said, "They'll use it as a prison again," because they
always do, and they did. And then, one Iraqi historian said it should
be turned into a museum of Saddam's horror. This is Kanan Makiya, of
course. And then, after the abuses were made photographically evident
at Abu Ghraib, it was announced by the then-Iraqi government that it
was going to be bulldozed to the ground. And then it was announced
that, after all, it was still needed as a prison, so it would stay as
a prison for more abuses, perhaps. And now, again, we have this
suggestion it should be razed to the ground. Later on, it will be
stated that it will be still needed as a prison. Then we'll hear yet
again that it has to be razed to the ground. You don't realize, unless
you go to Iraq, that this is a circular track. All the stories we
report, we reported last year, and we're going to report them again
next year, believe me.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Dick Cheney. The so-called
coalition of the willing in Iraq continues to shrink. Two members
recently announced they're withdrawing troops. Denmark says its
battalion will pull out of Iraq by August and increase its troop
presence in Afghanistan. This followed British Prime Minister Tony
Blair's announcement of a pending withdrawal of 1,600 British troops
from Iraq. After Blair made the announcement, Vice President Dick
Cheney issued what some called a tacit criticism of Britain's withdrawal.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: I want you to know that the American
people will not support a policy of retreat. We want to complete the
mission. We want to get it done right. And then we want to return home
AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Dick Cheney.
ROBERT FISK: Well, you've got to remember that at one point it looked
as if the Brits might pull out of the original invasion, and Rumsfeld
made a statement rather similar to Cheney's, saying, well, we can do
it without them. You know, I mean, I'm still wondering what on earth
Britain is doing in Iraq and how we ever got into it. You know, one of
the extraordinary things at the moment about both Iraq and Afghanistan
is that our leaderships, British just as much as Americans', have lied
continually. They've lied about weapons of mass destruction, links
between Saddam and al-Qaeda, 45-minute warnings, as I said.
But this is the first war I've ever covered in which the leadership in
the West bases its policies on its own lies. I mean, it's one thing to
lie to the people, and then you have your own policy of how to pursue
a war, but to pursue the war on the basis of the lies you're telling
the people, this is an entirely new concept in war and strategy in
foreign policy. I've never seen it before.
You know, you have Blair standing up now in the British parliament --
well, less and less, thank goodness; I mean, soon he's going, because
of Iraq, of course, and because of his relationship with Bush-- and he
keeps saying the same thing over and over again: "I absolutely and
completely believe I was right." And that's not good enough. You know,
we can all believe we're right. We can jump off the Empire State
Building believing we can fly, but we won't fly, will we? And Blair
actually thinks that his conviction, his own self-regard, is
sufficient to make up for the factual mistakes that he makes. It's OK,
because he really believed it. That's not the way you go to war.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think Tony Blair is pulling these troops out,
although at the same time increasing troops in Afghanistan, and what
do you think of that?
ROBERT FISK: I'll tell you why I think he's doing it. I think that the
British military is having serious morale problems. I think that the
British military commanders are getting to a point where they're going
to say, "We can't do this anymore. We're going to resign." When the
Chief of Staff, Dannatt, made his statement at the Ministry of Defense
about four months ago, in which he said, "Look, the longer we stay
there, the more we're exacerbating the situation," it was a great
shock for Blair. This was not a retired officer like Mike Jackson, who
I think very cowardly did not say those things when he was in office.
This was a serving -- this was the guy at the top of the British army,
giving a clear warning: watch out.
And, you know, in Afghanistan, the British are in a very serious
position. They've got units of only twelve or fifteen men in little
villages, and they're being attacked in company strength by the
Taliban, very serious. I mean, I met a British soldier in London. I
was giving a talk at the Dorchester about a week and a half ago. I was
in London. A British officer was talking to me. He said, "You don't
realize how we are being overwhelmed in Afghanistan."
There was a very interesting comment from the British Ministry of
Defense about a month ago -- or five or six weeks ago. They said
British troops are now in the most violent combat they've experienced
since the Korean War. And British defense correspondents sort of put
this up as a great sign: our chaps are fighting just like in Korea.
And I thought, hang on a minute, that's not the point. What happened
in Korea? The Gloucestershire Regiment were overwhelmed by millions of
Chinese troops crossing the Yalu River. We couldn't stand up to the
vast numbers of soldiers that were coming in from the north in Korea.
They were just overrunning us, totally. And what was happening, I
realized immediately, in Afghanistan is that soldiers were being so
totally outnumbered, they were having to retreat out of villages. In
one case, I understand, twelve British troops in a school in a village
were facing 300 Taliban and had to call in US air strikes to destroy
the rest of the village to save themselves.
You know, one story, which has not really come out in the American
press -- I know it's a fact, because I've investigated it fully in
Iraq -- is that in the first battle of Fallujah -- remember, when
there was a ceasefire and then the Iraqis came back, then they had the
second battle and they took the city and managed to destroy much of it
-- in the first battle of Fallujah, there were twelve US Marines
guarding the mayor's office at Ramadi, the neighboring city to the
west, and they were attacked by hundreds of Iraqi insurgents, and that
twelve-man US Marine unit was liquidated. They were totally
eliminated. They were killed, all of them. They were wiped out. And
that is not a story that's gotten the front page, as far as I know, of
the New York Times, but that's what happened. So the dangers you see
that we're now facing, very much -- I don't mean to make too facile a
comparison -- very much the same dangers that the crusaders faced with
overwhelming force from the Muslim armies of the 12th century, is that
the local populations are now so full of fury and anger against us
that they are attacking us in their hundreds, overwhelming force.
AMY GOODMAN: This latest news in Basra, British-led troops have
uncovered an Iraqi government facility where Shia forces were
torturing prisoners and producing bomb-making equipment?
ROBERT FISK: Look, everything's getting better in Basra. That's why
we're leaving, right? I mean, here we go again. You know, my colleague
Patrick Cockburn wrote a very good piece in Iraq not long ago. He said
the problem with British statements, or particularly Blair, who's
saying everything is getting better, is that to prove them wrong, you
have to go to places where you will have your throat cut. So you can't
prove him wrong, so it's OK, he'll get away with it.
Look, there's no doubt that the Iraqi interior ministry is totally --
I mean, it's impregnated with the insurgency, Shiite insurgency, Sunni
and other parts. You know, from the very beginning, we used to have
these reports: men in police uniform have kidnapped Margaret Hassan,
men in army uniform besieged a police station, you know? And I used to
say, hang on, there's not a Wal-Mart factory in Fallujah with
made-to-measure police uniforms. Bring in 300 more men, we've got the
-- no, these are policemen. These are Iraqi soldiers. The Iraqi
security forces have been totally infiltrated by the insurgents of
both sides. That includes interior ministry, prisons, police stations.
This idea, oh, we're going to build up the Iraqi forces until they can
take over -- you know, I love that line from Blair: from now onwards
Iraqis in Basra will write their own history. Yeah, they sure will,
when we go. It's incredible the way they get away with it, these people.
AMY GOODMAN: And the latest news out of Afghanistan, thousands of
angry demonstrators taking to the streets after US forces were
involved in a panicked shooting, which left sixteen civilians dead and
twenty-three injured -- at least that's how it was described -- panic
shooting in The Independent.
ROBERT FISK: No photos, please. That's what you were talking about
also. We will delete you if you take pictures. Look, this is happening
over and over again in Baghdad. A car blows up, a suicide bomber
attacks, so everyone in the area is shot at. You know, at the very
beginning of the invasion, when the Americans reached Baghdad, there
was a frightening circumstance of Highway 11, I think it was. I went
there afterwards, and a US tank column was moving down the road. They
were ambushed, and the tank commander believed that every car on the
road was a potential suicide car, and he ordered his men to fire at
every civilian car. So when I got to the scene, there were smoking
cars. There were women, their clothes blasted off them, naked in the
backs of vehicles, children lying with rugs over them, dead beside the
road. It was a massacre. Now, there was an ambush by the Iraqis. The
Americans were attacked there, but their response was to kill
everything in sight. And I actually talked to the US tank commander --
he's quoted in my book by name -- who said, "Look, I have to defend my
men. I have a duty to defend my men. I'm sorry if innocent people get
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Robert Fisk, chief Middle East
correspondent for The Independent of London. His latest book is The
Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. We'll be
back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk is our guest, chief Middle East correspondent
for The Independent of London. Robert, you head to Paris today for the
French edition of Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon, then
Cairo and Egypt for the Arabic edition coming out of The Great War for
ROBERT FISK: Yes. It goes onto the crack of doom. We also have, by the
way, a Bosnian edition next year coming out in Sarajevo. There's
sixteen foreign language editions now.
AMY GOODMAN: But then, you pack up everything and you start your
Middle East reporting again.
ROBERT FISK: Well, I'm still doing Middle East reporting. I mean, I
was in Lebanon for the violence in the streets, of course, in January.
Yeah, from about July onwards, I will be full-time back Afghanistan
and Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, etc.
AMY GOODMAN: You mention Lebanon. Let's talk about the situation there
today. This is where you have been based for the last thirty years.
ROBERT FISK: Thirty-one, almost, now, yeah. Yes, I mean, I was, you
know, like I suppose most Lebanese, I felt, up until July the 12th,
the beginning of the war between Hezbollah and the Israelis last
summer, that maybe Lebanon had a chance. You know, it was being
rebuilt. There wasn't enough money trickling down from the top to the
bottom; it was still a lopsided society with the Shiites being the
poor and the oppressed as usual. But I thought until we came across --
you know, even when the Shiites pulled out of the government, which
was a very serious matter because it meant that once again we were
emphasizing the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics, that there
might be some form of compromise.
But once we had that strike, which turned so violent -- you know, I
turned up on Corniche Mazraa in the western part of Beirut, and there
must have been 7,000 people, Muslims, Shiites and Sunnis, chucking
rocks and stones at each other. There were seven Lebanese soldiers
trying to get between them. I went with them taking pictures. I mean,
the stones were bouncing off the soldiers. People were chucking rocks
from the top of sixteen-story buildings. It was very dangerous. I
thought, civil war was going to restart that day.
And one of the dangerous things at that point was that the young
people who were involved were too young to remember the civil war,
which of course actually ended in 1990. They might have a faint
memory. They would have heard their parents talking about it. And they
didn't realize how quickly it would escalate, how quickly you could
deteriorate. Even Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah -- well, the Hezbollah is a
very disciplined organization, of course -- was shocked at the speed
with which his strike, his civil disobedience strike, descended into
total street violence. Then, of course, two days later, guns came on
Very dangerous situation, because it keeps going back into a sort of
semi-denial of the political crisis. We think, OK, well, Lebanon is
out of the news, it's OK again. But the reality is that Lebanon is in
great danger of splintering apart again. And I went out, a short time,
a short while ago, before I came to America, for dinner in a Sunni
area of Beirut. It's a mixed area, but mostly Sunni, and I remember
saying, well, how are you getting on with your Shiite neighbors these
days? And the woman at the table said, well, actually, most of them
have gone on holiday. They've left their keys with their neighbors.
They have gone to stay with relatives elsewhere.
Now, that's how it begins. That's how it happened in Baghdad, people
moving out of Sunni areas, people moving out of Shiite areas, if
they're a different religion. One of the frightening things that
happened during those January days of violence, including the area
where there was shooting used, is that the scenes of street combat
were on the same green line of the civil war. In other words, the old
fracture between east and west, Beirut and parts of West Beirut,
reopened at the exact -- Hazmieh -- exactly the same point. I spent
parts of the civil war at Hazmieh watching the fighting, and there, on
the same piece of road, it broke apart again. It's like, you know, you
keep stitching it up, and it comes undone.
AMY GOODMAN: What about Seymour Hersh's report, where he says that the
Bush administration and Saudi Arabia are pumping money for covert
operations in many areas of the Middle East, including Lebanon, Syria
and Iran, in an effort to strengthen Saudi-supported Sunni Islam
groups and weaken Iranian-backed Shiites. Some of the covert money has
been given to jihadist groups in Lebanon with ties to al-Qaeda.
ROBERT FISK: Look, Seymour Hersh said that we were going to invade
Iraq, and I thought we wouldn't, and he was right and I was wrong. So
when Seymour Hersh says we're going to bombard Iran, I remain silent.
When Seymour Hersh tells me -- he was in Beirut, of course; he met
Nasrallah there -- that we're pumping money into Sunni extremist
groups, I think, well, hang on a second, he got it right and I got it
wrong on Iraq.
Look, the truth of the matter is that these various organizations --
and there are some al-Qaeda-type groups, groupuscules, tiny ones in
Lebanon, and I've met them -- they don't need money from outside.
They've got money. Everyone in Lebanon who's got weapons has money.
It's like the same nonsense: we talk about how the Iranians are
teaching the Iraqi Shiite insurgents to make bombs. Iraqi insurgents
know how to make bombs. They don't need the Iranians to come and teach
them. I don't think a lot of money is reaching these people. What I do
think is that these various extreme groups are quite possibly being
mobilized or encouraged by elements within the -- what we now call the
American-supported Lebanese government -- what a kiss of death that is
for the Siniora government -- encouraged to remain where they are and
to be available in certain circumstances.
You know, a large number of the killings that have taken place in
Beirut are not necessarily carried out by the Syrians. Hariri, I
think, was a Syrian-engineered plot, yes. But, for example, Pierre
Gemayel's murder, a lot of Lebanese say, well, maybe it was another
Christian group behind that. One of the things you find in Lebanon is
that there are various groups, some of them Palestinian -- we call
them extremists or terrorists, whatever you like -- who are available
to help anyone. They can make temporary alliances. They don't need to
be given $5 million on the quiet by someone with American money.
The real danger now, you see, is that with an ideological government
like you have and like we, I suppose, think we have, we constantly
want to assist people who will join us in our campaign. You can go
back to Afghanistan. We wanted the warlords on our side against bin
Laden. Now we're saddled with the warlords, which is why we can't
stamp out the opium trade or the drugs trade. In Iraq, we started --
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that, for people who may not understand the
significance of drugs in Afghanistan.
ROBERT FISK: We basically used the Northern Alliance, Mujahideen, the
non-Taliban, anti-Taliban alliance of guerrillas, who had fought a
terrible, terrifying civil war of rape and murder in Kabul earlier, to
combat on the ground the Talibans, so that we didn't lose so many
soldiers. The principle of war at the moment is that they die and we
live, not the other way around or not both. And because then, in order
to continue the control of Afghanistan, which we're now losing in the
south, we wanted to continue that control without casualties, we
continued to employ with millions and millions of dollars the same
warlords who had been running the poppy trade, as well as fighting
Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.
You know, we forget that the UN in the beginning of 2001 said that the
drugs exports of Afghanistan had fallen by 94% because the Taliban had
banned drugs. The Tony Blair version is that Taliban were in the drugs
trade and it was flourishing, and now it's flourishing again. Once
again, the narrative of history is simply wrong. That's not what
But in all these various -- Iraq, again, who is funding the interior
ministry militiamen who are murdering people? The interior ministry is
funded by us. We use local gunmen and murderers to do our job for us
and save our soldiers' lives, not very successfully, but that's what
we do. And, of course, we'll do the same if necessary in Lebanon with
all these unsavory groups, all of whom have got blood on their hands.
I mean, there's one Lebanese politician -- he's a friend of mine, I
know him very well -- who ran a militia during the civil war, which
brutally tortured its opponents, committed war crimes, and he met
Condoleezza Rice a few days ago. I mean, you know, we will make
friends with those who want to help us and whom we think are worthy of
our support on the short term. And if -- I mean, who did bin Laden
used to work for when he was fighting the Russians? Us, you know? I
mean, we use these unsavory -- who was Saddam working for for most of
his rule? Us. Who gave him the gas? The components came from the
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Lebanon and to Palestine and
Israel and to go to the issue of --
ROBERT FISK: Palestine doesn't exist, unless you put quotation marks
around it, Amy. There is no state of Palestine. And I don't think
there is going to be.
AMY GOODMAN: Why not?
ROBERT FISK: Unless the Palestinians can have a cohesive state without
Jewish settlements dotted through it and have East Jerusalem as a
capital, I cannot see there ever being a Palestinian state, in
reality. I mean, you can print stamps or bank notes, and have Ramallah
as your temporary capital. But unless we see UN Security Council
Resolution 242 abided by by all sides --
AMY GOODMAN: Which says?
ROBERT FISK: Retreat of Israeli forces from territories occupied in
the '67 War, in return for security of all states in the area,
including, of course, Israel, and the absolute fact that you cannot
legally acquire land through war. It is illegal to acquire land
through war, which means the settlements or colonies for Jews and Jews
only on Arab land are internationally illegal. Bush has already said
there are facts on the grounds that won't be changed. He's thus said
that these illegal settlements can remain. He's effectively torn up
242 a couple of years ago. Well, I suppose we can still, you know,
have another 242 Resolution. It will be 17- or 18-something-or-other.
But 242 remains. It was supposed to be the basis of the Oslo
Agreement, which failed. It failed because we didn't abide by 242.
Unless Israel goes back to its international frontiers, or at least
the '67 frontiers, I don't think there's going to be peace between
Palestinians and Israelis, and I don't think there's going to be a
Palestine. And most Palestinians realize this. It's only we, who sit
in our beautiful homes in New York or London or wherever in the West
-- or mine's in Beirut, but that's a different matter -- who can talk
about, oh, a one-state solution, a two-state solution, putting the
peace process -- was the cliché -- back on track. Now, it's a road
map. You can't put a road back on track, so I'm sure we'll invent a
new cliché for that. But this is woeful. It's more self-delusion by
us. It's like Bush saying that the Israelis won the war against the
Hezbollah. I'm not sure the Hezbollah did, but the Israelis certainly
didn't. Here again, we're living on our own lies.
AMY GOODMAN: CBS reported just in the last few weeks, the UN estimates
Israel dropped as many as four million bomblets in southern Lebanon
during last year's war with Hezbollah, with as many as 40% failing to
explode on impact.
ROBERT FISK: Which is why thirty-four Lebanese have been killed, let
alone wounded, since the war ended, by those bomblets. Most of them of
course are civilians, or all are civilians, except for one soldier who
was trying to defuse one. And many of those civilians, of course, are
children, because they think they are toys. They pick them up. I've
actually walked across a field and seen them lying there. Yes, and
those bomblets were dropped after the ceasefire hour was stated, when
the Israelis knew the war was going to end, and they soaked the ground
with those bombs, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: In The Great War for Civilisation, you talk about the
weapons manufacturers. What about the cluster bomb manufacturers?
ROBERT FISK: Well, you know, last night when I was speaking at Town
Hall in New York, and I don't like to cheerlead these things, because
I'm a journalist, but I ask in my book and I ask people in Lebanon, as
a newspaper reporter, why don't the victims of these weapons, not just
cluster bombs, but the Lockheed Martin, Boeing, AGM-114C air-to-ground
missile -- it hits an ambulance, it kills people, it did in 1996 --
why don't the victims or survivors sue the arms companies? I actually
took -- and I recall the story here -- I actually took parts of, in
fact, literally the whole US missile in bits that hit an ambulance,
was fired on an ambulance by an Israeli helicopter, Apache,
American-made, in '96, killed three children, two women. And with the
UN, I got all the bits of the missile, including bits from the
corpses. And we found the computer plate, and it was made in Duluth,
Georgia. We found the date on it.
I went to Duluth. I managed to get the missile parts out of Beirut to
Paris with the help of airport security. In Paris, we got Amnesty
International to send it to Washington as a DHL package. I didn't want
to turn up at JFK, you know, reporter found with explosive traces.
Imagine Tom Friedman's comment on that. And I got these parts of the
missile down to Duluth in Georgia to confront the Boeing executives
there, including the developer of the missile. They thought I was
coming to write a piece about this wonderful missile that could be
fired five miles away and go through a baseball loop, you know. And
there was a sort of explosion in the boardroom as I laid out the
pieces of the missile along with the photographs of the dead and
wounded civilians hit by their missile, which was made there, the
building next door to where we were talking.
AMY GOODMAN: And where did it kill people, that you had the example of?
ROBERT FISK: Southern Lebanon. Southern Lebanon. It was on a road -- I
was in front of the vehicle when it was hit. I was driving on the same
road. That's why I knew exactly -- I saw the helicopter.
And the amazing thing was that when I got back to Beirut having run
this story on the front page of the paper -- it's called "Return to
Sender" -- they didn't want the pieces of the missile; actually, they
kept them, but they didn't put them in the Boeing museum -- I was rung
up by a NATO arms expert in Paris. He was a Frenchman. And he said,
"That missile was not sold to Israel, it was sold to the US Marine
Corps." And I said, how -- "come to Paris." We met at the Lutetia
Hotel -- great secrecy -- and he pulled out all the secret lists with
NATO codes showing -- if you read the computer codes on the missile
side, which I can do, you can tell who it was sold to. And he showed
me the "O1," US forces, and then "M" for Marines.
So I went back to Washington immediately, called up the Commandant of
the Marine Corps, got taken by guys to a Marine base outside
Washington, where men in civilian clothes, officers, sat around and
went through it, said, "Well, look, we can tell you the story. These
missiles were a batch of 360 sent with US Marines to Saudi Arabia in
1990, and we used half of them against the Iraqi army in the
liberation of Kuwait in '91. Those half that remained, we were
instructed to drop off at the Haifa munitions pier in Israel as part
of a quid pro quo weapons for the Israelis in return for their
non-participation in the 1990 war against Iraq." So this missile
started off, was sold to the Marines, taken to Saudi Arabia for use
against the Iraqis, dumped on the Israelis and fired into an ambulance
in southern Lebanon, and then taken by me back to its base in --
Now, when I did that, I said, "Hang on, why don't these people sue
Boeing? Is there no responsibility on behalf of the arms makers?" They
say, "Oh, we've given it to the Marines. We're selling it to Israel."
Don't they have a responsibility to follow through? We, in our jobs,
have responsibilities. You know, if you misreport something, at some
point you're going to go on the screen and say, "I got it wrong." And
so am I, if I make mistakes. But these guys are completely -- they're
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, we have thirty seconds. What would happen if
the US attacked Iran?
ROBERT FISK: Hell disaster again. You try to get out of one war by
starting another. I think the Iranians would find some way of hitting
back, and it would not be the same kind of war, you see. We're not
talking about a land war. We're talking about bombarding it. And the
Iranians, both as a people, as well as all the mullahs, they would
want to hit back again. It would be a war. It wouldn't stop there. You
can't say, "OK, we're going to stop bombarding. It will carry on."
That's a problem.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, I want to thank you very much for being with
us. Robert Fisk is the author of The Great War for Civilisation: The
Conquest of the Middle East, his earlier book, Pity the Nation: The
Abduction of Lebanon, longtime Middle East correspondent for The
Independent of London. Thanks for joining us.
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