'The Yanks Have Really Screwed
Up in Iraq':
Scott Taylor is Canada's top war reporter and publisher of Esprit de Corps, a monthly magazine devoted to the Canadian military. Over the past decade, he has penned numerous inside reports from the Balkans and Iraq in the process often challenging the conventional wisdom and biases of mass media reports. Two of Scott's books Inat, and Diary of an Uncivil War present the untold stories of the wars in Kosovo and Macedonia, based on his eyewitness experiences.
Scott has just returned from yet another foray into Iraq. His decidedly unembedded views offer a fascinating glimpse into the realities of post-Saddam Iraq.
Chris Deliso: Scott, you're just out of Iraq. But before we talk about this latest trip, can you tell us what happened before, when you tried to go in March? As I understand, it didn't quite work out.
Scott Taylor: I went with a colleague (Australian photojournalist Sasha Uzunov), and we tried to get into Iraq through southern Turkey, at the border crossing of Silopi. This is all a Kurdish area, of course. And there were close to 700 journalists massed there at the time 300 of whom were foreign. But they weren't letting anyone in. The only guy who got across was a Spaniard who paid a $4,000 bribe.
So we got some bicycles from the locals
CD: Oh no. Not another bicycle story.
ST: Yes indeed. It was late afternoon when we started out, hoping to get around the guards and cross in on our own, unseen. But then after we had pedaled and pedaled it was getting near dark, and we came up to the border where a giant sign with the skull and crossbones told us we were on top of a minefield. So we got out of there, and were discovered on the way back by a very surprised Turkish soldier with a flashlight. Somehow we managed to convince him that we were tourists, and he let us go.
Iraq: a 'Boiling Kettle'
CD: Wow. But your last trip, a week ago how did that go?
ST: Yes, this time I went in through southern Turkey again but I had the official OK from the Turkish General Staff (TGS). Apparently I was one of the only journalists covering the ethnic Turkoman angle in northern Iraq, and so the Turkish military had seen my articles and decided they "liked" me. I had developed contacts with the Iraqi Turkoman Front months back, and these guys were to prove instrumental for me to piece together my story.
CD: So where did you manage to get in Iraq? And how is the situation now?
ST: I visited Kirkuk, Erbil, Tikrit and Baghdad. I can tell you that Iraq, though calm on the surface, is like a boiling kettle. The Yanks won't be able to keep the lid on it much longer. Look, Chalabi had 80 bodyguards, and 12 of them were killed on his second day in the country. Now he is under Marine protection.
No doubt about it, the Yanks have really screwed up in Iraq. There is a lot of chaos and looting, and the only concern their soldiers have is for their own self-defense. They don't generally try to intervene against looters, etc., but when they do it is in a very clumsy and culturally insensitive way. They usually only make the situation worse.
As the Troops Cower, Looters Run Rampant
CD: Any examples?
ST: Right now in Baghdad there are armed looters trying to steal from homeowners. The latter have guns to try and protect themselves and their property. When the Americans hear of such a gun battle, they send in tanks. When the looters see the Americans coming, they just melt away into the surrounding area. But since the Americans have a mandate to collect weapons, they end up taking the weapons they can see those belonging to the homeowners standing out in front of their houses. And so these people are then left unprotected. When the Americans leave guess what the looters take over.
I mean, it's really the Wild West out there. You had the Turkish ambassador, Osman Paksut, coming out with a pistol on his hip and six Palestinians with guns manning the roof. One told me that he had killed a lot of would-be looters. This was one of the only such places that wasn't looted.
The Hungarian Fiasco
CD: In January, you reported from Taszar Air Force Base in Kaposvar, Hungary. At the time, the US was opening a training camp for Iraqi opposition guys who were allegedly learning to be "civil administrators." However, it came out that the Turkmen, Kurds and Iraqis at the camp were receiving military training. Tell us, had any of the Turkoman fighters you met in Iraq been trained at Taszar?
ST: The Iraqi Turkoman Front sent 54 guys to Hungary, of which only 12 "graduated." They lost interest when it became obvious that the US was favoring the Kurds and empowering them above the other groups. In all, the program was meant to process 3,000 men; 1,500 US Special Forces were on hand to train them. Of the much fewer guys who actually went, most were too out of shape or for all practical purposes, useless. In the end, only 80 graduated.
You can understand, actually, with some US sergeant major blustering in their face why an Iraqi guy would say, "screw this, I'm going home." Anyway, they got to keep the $3,000 in cash that the Americans gave them.
So the program actually was a failure. And the Hungarians were worried that its presence might inspire retribution from Saddam loyalists. No one was too upset when it closed down early.
Saddam's Intelligence Service: Laying Low, But Still Deadly
CD: Are remnants of Saddam's military or intelligence regime still operating?
ST: The Iraqi intelligence agency known as the Mukhabarat just melted away when the bombs started falling. They are still there just not showing themselves openly. According to my sources inside, the American bombings only killed about 3 percent of these Iraqi agents.
I spoke with one agent who recounted the story of two female Mukhabarat who executed suicide bombings, during the battle for the airport that left several dead. "She did her job," he said. "We haven't done ours yet."
CD: Are the Mukhabarat still loyal to Saddam? Do they have any kind of strategy?
ST: They are disappointed, because they have lost contact with Saddam. And without his central leadership, they are disoriented. They often don't know each other's real names. They are a loose-knit group. Now they are sitting in cafés; the only thing they have left to plot is how to kill more Americans.
As for their strategy, they are planning for two civil wars. The first would be between Shiite fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists in the south; the second could conceivably turn into a nasty three-way fight in the north, between Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs.
Could Iraq Become a Second Bosnia?
CD: That does not sound auspicious for American peacekeeping.
ST: The worst thing is that the Bosnia scenario could be repeated. The major Kurdish groups have a history of infighting, the two Christian groups (Assyrians and Chaldeans) don't get along, and the Arabs are not even united. Right now there are 80 registered political parties in northern Iraq. There is a high likelihood that things could get very mixed up in terms of military alliances.
The Iraqi situation does resemble Bosnia in 1991. Everyone is preparing for civil war and mistrusting the other groups. The Turkmen groups have their guys in uniform in front of headquarters, which doesn't make the (Kurdish) peshmergas happy but then again, they were supposed to have been disarmed too. There's a lot of tension in the air.
The Iraqi Turkoman Front is, as can be expected, closely aligned with the Turkish General Staff. Right now, they perceive Bush as being very pro-Kurdish. They don't understand why they are not being consulted; if the US really is intent on keeping the integrity of Iraq's borders as they are now, the Turkmen need to play a role after all, they comprise up to two million people there.
CD: Northern Iraq is the "American sector." Are they up to the challenge?
ST: The fact that the colonial administration has been changed and so fast is not a good sign. The best spin Washington has been able to put on it is that Bremer's administration is more of a civilian government than Jay Garner's would have been. But nobody's buying that shit.
Look, you don't start a game with your second string. Changing administrations now is like changing quarterbacks when you're down 21-7 in the third.
US Troops Still Being Targeted
CD: How is the situation on the ground for the American troops? We've stopped hearing very much news about skirmishing or Iraqi attacks.
ST: There are still plenty of attacks. In fact, the US has officially stopped reporting casualties, according to a sergeant I talked to at one checkpoint. The truth is, they're losing at least one man a day to hostile fire in Baghdad. They don't want to report this because they fear it might encourage more attacks. One week ago, seven Americans were killed by Iraqis. The graffiti on the wall behind them read, "beware monkeys, I'll be back Saddam." In this symbolic statement, the word "monkeys" is a derogatory reference to the Iraqis themselves.
Saddam's Diner: Intelligence Breakthrough, or a Great Deception?
CD: Does the US have any intelligence on the ground, or any idea where Saddam may be lurking?
ST: On April 7, the US tried to attack Saddam by bombing a restaurant in an upscale neighborhood of Baghdad. According to them, the missile attack had "narrowly missed" hitting Hussein's party they had been there something like 15 minutes earlier, it was alleged. And this was supposed to be a sign that American intelligence, thought to be lacking, was getting closer to their man. Remember, getting Saddam was still politically important then to sustaining support for the war.
After I heard this, I thought, "well, maybe it's possible." So I had my taxi driver take me there. And you know what? The possibility of Saddam ever having been there is absolutely zero. This place was the only American style restaurant in Baghdad. It served burgers, fries, and "Kentuckiy" fried chicken. They had the whole works paper hats, deep-fat fryers, plastic trays. The only people who went there were American journalists.
The whole idea was absurd. I mean, can you imagine Saddam carrying a plastic tray?
CD: Heh heh. So how do you think they came with the idea to bomb this place?
ST: My opinion is that the military was looking to make a show, and so they asked the journalists, "do you know any restaurants around?" And this was the only place they knew, except for the Al Rasheed. They just wanted to bomb something to make it seem like they were on the ball. Actually they were just clueless.
CD: President Bush has pledged to bring American-style democracy to the Iraqi people. What're the chances of this happening?
ST: Iraq is a country that has never really experienced elections before, yet the US is forcing them on the people. At the same time, the only Iraqis who can afford to form political parties now are the gangsters. So who's going to run the country? It will be just like "liberated" Kosovo, only probably worse.
Is There Any Future for Iraq?
CD: Finally, give me some predictions. How are the US soldiers holding up, and what can we expect in the future?
ST: As an ex-soldier, I can say that their lack of knowledge of the local culture was shocking. These guys are young, scared, frustrated, and clearly weren't briefed to cope with the "post-war" challenges of dealing with the locals. The heat is getting to them, they don't go out, and there are anti-American slogans on all the walls. The Iraqis are proving to be a tough crowd.
Unless Bush works a miracle, there will be civil war. I put the odds right now at about 60 percent. There's a lot of mutual mistrust and all of these groups are eyeing one another and the US with suspicion. The Iraq mission is clearly turning out to be something much different than the Americans had anticipated.
Previous articles by Christopher Deliso on Antiwar.com
Christopher Deliso is a freelance writer and Balkan correspondent for Antiwar.com, UPI, and private European analysis firms. He has lived and traveled widely in the Balkans, southeastern Europe and Turkey, and holds a master's degree with distinction in Byzantine Studies from Oxford University. In the past year, he has reported from many countries, including Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Hungary, Greece, the Republic of Georgia and the Turkey-Iraq border. Mr. Deliso currently lives in Macedonia, and is involved with projects to generate international interest and tourism there.
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