Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq
An Interview with Tariq Ali
by Amy Goodman and Democracy Now!
October 18, 2003
First Published in Democracy Now!
[Transcript of Democracy Now radio program, October 10, 2003]
AMY GOODMAN: We are joined by Tariq Ali, a writer and film-maker. He’s written over a dozen books on world-history and politics as well as five novels and scripts for both stage and screen. He is an editor of New Left Review, lives in London, his latest book is Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq. You’ve just listened to this discussion of the gold-rush in Iraq. Right now, your thoughts?
TARIQ ALI: Well, this is exactly what we knew would happen. They didn’t make any big secret of it. This is, after all, colonization in the age of neo-liberal economics and war and neo-liberal economics go hand-in-hand. (transcriber’s note: he may mean “neo-conservative,” rather than “neo-liberal.”) It’s very interesting, the countries they take now are countries which have essentially had a great deal of state-provision for the poor, whatever their other defects, and whenever they go in, the first thing they do is privatization. The interesting thing, as the professor for Washington pointed out, is that this is a privatization which has been carried out by US-companies. It doesn’t even benefit the locals, even the local merchants, and it’s crazy because the one social layer the occupation might have won over in Iraq are the layer of merchants, who tend to collaborate with occupying regimes. They did so with the British in the twentieth century and they would probably do so with the United States but the big entry of American money and American companies to do virtually everything, because they don’t trust the Iraqis, on any level, it means they’ll be even more isolated but it is a classic process of colonization which is taking place. They’ve taken the country, they’ve occupied it militarily and now their companies are pouring in and, because we live in a world where the state is constantly under attack, these private companies are being expected to do every single thing. What they, of course, underestimated very seriously before they went in and are still doing so is the degree of resistance in that country and the notion that these companies will be able to exist very long –- for every reconstructor that goes, they will need ten people to guard him or her. That’s their problem and so it’s not going to even work out economically, in my opinion. It’s a disaster, which is why we see Wesley Clark and the Democrats, who were silent, by and large, prior to the war, because they were totally petrified by 9-11, are now coming out into the open and not just them: people elsewhere in the world too because the Iraqi resistance, which is a classical stage, the first stage of any resistance against an occupying power, is much more successful than any of us had thought.
JUAN GONZALEZ:: Well, what about the character of that resistance? We’ve heard from the American generals there and from the Bush-Administration, this is largely remnants of the Ba’athist-Party of Saddam Hussein or, maybe, now, some infiltration of Al Qaeda-figures but, anyway, it’s basically, any way you look at it, it’s basically the remnants of evil elements within Iraqi society. It’s not really a patriotic movement of any kind. What’s your assessment or --
TARIQ ALI: Well, that’s totally false. All the more objective journalists from the mainstream-press who are there report every single day -– certainly in the European press, including the British press -- that the bulk of the people are hostile to this occupation. They don’t like it, they don’t like being occupied. Even in the old days, about 25, 30 years ago, even in this country, if you explained on radio or television that, if a country is occupied, by and large, people in that country don’t like it. It’s not a big mystery. They don’t like being occupied and Iraq, especially, has a long history of resistance, so, of course there are elements of the Ba’ath Party involved in the resistance, and why shouldn’t there be? I mean, Saddam was sort of a pretty horrid person but large chunks of this party have a perfectly legitimate base in that country. It includes nationalist-groups. There are forty-four different groups involved in the resistance now and the Iraqi Communist Party’s decision to collaborate with the United States is coming under very heavy fire from its own rank and file and from many of its many leading poets and intellectuals, saying, “Get out of here.” The big thing will happen is when the Shi’ite groups in the south of Iraq decide enough is enough and join the resistance and, when they do, it really will be the beginning of the end. There’s no way they can carry on.
AMY GOODMAN: And do you think they will?
TARIQ ALI: I think they will. All the indications are that they are getting very fed up. I mean, for God’s sake, in all the Shi’ite cities in the South, Najaf in particular, there are Polish troops there. What the hell are these Poles doing in Najaf? I mean, people are just bewildered by this and getting angry and they are very angry also in the southern – the south of Iraq with the British presence. These are British troops who are coming back to occupy bases which they occupied in the 20s, 30s and 40s, so people are seeing a re-run of history, this time dominated by the United States.
JUAN GONZALEZ:: One of the things that most impressed me, both with your first book, Clash of Fundamentalisms and what I read of this book is that the -– you really delve into the history of the Left and modernist-movements, within the Arab World, something which, whether -– in the West, here -- whether it’s from the Left or the Right, people totally don’t pay attention to, and, so you paint a picture of Iraq or many of these other Arab and Muslim countries, where there has been a continual battle between the Left and progressive forces and the fundamentalists and that imperialism, both British and US, have always propped up the fundamentalists to keep down the nationalists and the progressives and the Left. How is this playing out now in Iraq?
TARIQ ALI: Well, you see how it’s playing out in Iraq in Bush and Babylon, I provide chapter and verse.
JUAN GONZALEZ:: Mm-hm.
TARIQ ALI: That, throughout the years when -- they were first with Saddam, they used Saddam to crush the Communists. King Hussein of Jordan -- you know, not a friend of mine -- said that the CIA provided Saddam with a list of Communists who should be wiped out, so a big, big force, a secular force in the country, was wiped out. Then they unleashed Saddam against the Iranians, to fight the Iran-Iraq War. Then, when Saddam got too big for his boots and said, “Why not take Kuwait,” he misread signals but the signals were mixed from the United States and then they decided, under heavy Israeli pressure, to try and deal with him. Once they decided to deal with him, they were sending in pots and pots of money to the Shi’ite organizations. Lots of them were being funded by the West –- not all of them but some of the large organizations –- and these organizations have thus become very strong and so we now see a situation which the American Empire confronts in Iraq, which is, that, if it permitted a free election and a constituent-assembly was elected, the overwhelming bulk of the assembly would say, “One, get out of our country, two, Iraqi control of Iraqi oil, and three,” if there was a Shi’ite majority, would say, “We want a joint-security pact and some sort of federation or close links with Iran,” so what do you do? You can’t permit an election, so what we’re seeing now is the worst of every possible world. That’s why so many Iraqis being questioned now, including Shi’ites, are telling western journalists, “We were much better off under Saddam. This is Hell.”
AMY GOODMAN: What about the Ba’ath Party saying they were the best force to battle Islamic fundamentalism?
TARIQ ALI: Well, they were. They did it crudely and they did it viciously but there’s no doubt that they did do it, both in Syria and in Iraq, the Ba’ath Parties were totally secular. They had absolutely no restrictions. I mean, they had Christians and non-Muslims in their ranks and they were -- there was no discrimination like that. On this question, they were good, though, in my opinion, the way they decided to crush --the Syrian Ba’ath -- the way they decided to crush the Islamic groups in Hamah was very brutal. I mean, they killed about 100,000 people.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the targets that we’ve seen right now – the United Nations, the Jordanian Embassy, the Najaf holy site, the killing of the Sheikh, the Iraq Foreign Minister?
TARIQ ALI: The targeting of the United Nations, which created shock-and-horror waves in the West, did not create the same – did not have the same results in the Arab World, because everyone knows the role the United Nations has played in sustaining the sanctions for twelve years, which cost the lives of half a million kids, according to UNESCO-figures, and sanctioned the weekly bombing raids by the United States and Britain of that country for twelve years prior to the occupation, so, even if you talk to ordinary Iraqis, they hold the UN responsible for policing the sanctions. They don’t like it and so there’s – I mean, there’s a very interesting report by James Carabo in the Associated Press, from Iraq after the UN was bombed. He said ordinary Iraqis are totally indifferent. They say, “We don’t care about these people. We know what they did to us.” The bombing of the foreign ministry is, again, a sign to show that the collaboration will not work and, in fact, by and large, the targeting has been clever, but killing of the Shi’ite leader in Najaf is a mystery. It’s denied by everyone. The Ba’athists deny it. Other Shi’ite groups deny it. The Iranian regime –- the Iranian president -- came as close as he could without naming names to say that he held the United States responsible, in order to create dissension within the Shi’ite community. Whether this is true, I don’t know. If the United States did it –
AMY GOODMAN: He was a supporter of the US.
TARIQ ALI: Yeah. That’s why it’s crazy to imagine that they did it. I mean, you know, crazy things have happened before. I tend not to believe that they did it but this is certainly widely believed because after his death, of course, large numbers of people came out into the streets and attached the occupation.
JUAN GONZALEZ:: What about what we’ve been hearing about in recent days, the possibility that there will be Turkish troops coming in to assist the occupation? It almost seems like this is one blunder after another by the United States. How is this viewed in Iraq?
TARIQ ALI: Well, even the collaborators in Iraq are opposed to this particular one because they’ve seen what the Turks do to the Kurdish people there. I mean, the Turkish regime, the Turkish military, to be precise, has killed more Kurdish people than were ever killed in Iraq. It denied the Kurds the use of their own language in their schools, which is something Saddam Hussein never did. The Kurdish language was always permitted in Iraq, so if you –- the Americans want the Turks to police the regions where the resistance is strongest, so they take the hits and reduce casualties of US-soldiers. The Turks want to police the Kurdish areas, because they say there are lots of Turkish Kurds hanging out there and they want to get them, so a big debate is going on between the two. Whatever –- wherever the Turkish Army goes, it’s yet another classic mistake because they simply have no idea what the history of that region is. The ignorance is just incredible.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Tariq, Ali. He is author of –- I should say, his latest book is Bush in Babylon: the Re-colonization of Iraq. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ:: In terms of the – I’d like to for moment – You’re a Pakistani, and, probably, of all the countries in that region of the world, Pakistan you know best and you’ve written often about it. What is happening right now within Pakistan vis-à-vis the continuing battle – the occupation within Afghanistan -- what is the impact on Pakistani society of this strange collaboration and alliance between the Pakistani government and the United States?
TARIQ ALI: Well, we don’t hear much of Afghanistan in the news these days because, you know, people have short memories, except on shows like this, where you carry on discussing the state of the world, regardless, but Afghanistan is a total mess. The writ of the West doesn’t extend beyond Kabul, the Northern Alliance are in total control and all that’s happened is that the monopoly of heroine has gone from the Taliban to the Northern Alliance, which means it comes, via the Russian Mafia to Kosovo and from there to the rest of the world, so that monop- -- They exercise a total control -- the Northern Alliance -- a monopoly on heroine. The effect this is having in Pakistan is quite serious. The fact that the Pakistani military decided to collaborate with the United States is given the biggest boost to Islamism in that country. You have two big Islamist-parties running two big provinces and they’re very open about it. They’re very clear. They say, “We want this election, not because we defended the Koran or the Word of God. We don’t need to do that. We won this election because we were the only political parties in the countries who were hostile to our country’s foreign policies and the United States Empire and none of the secular groups did it, which is true, so all the mistakes which were made in the past are being made again in Pakistan.
AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, Vennell Corporation, one of the many companies that are now coming in the make their killing in Iraq and their connection to the Saudi regime. The US actually did not speak a tremendous amount about the terror-attack in Saudi Arabia and the fact that the Vennell Corporation and employees of Vennell were killed in that. What role has Vennell played?
TARIQ ALI: Well, Vennell has played a role of training private armies, sometimes semi-official armies, sometimes official armies, in the Gulf-States, to try and create a security-force to defend these regimes, which, after all, are not democratic, so they need to be defended. This was a role which, in the 70s and 80s, Francis Fukuyama, then a minor functionary in the State Department, assigned to the Pakistan-Army -- said you -– India is your traditional enemy. Don’t collaborate with them but come to the Gulf States and, for a long time, there were Pakistani soldiers and officers in virtually every Gulf-state, including Saudi Arabia and they used to love to go there because salaries were much higher than they were in Pakistan, so they were, you know, fighting each other, “Yeah, I want to go to Saudi,” because they were paid much more, but then these were withdrawn. I don’t know why. Probably because there was trouble in Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc. The Saudis got nervous and then they started relying on the United States and the United States advised them to take on these private companies like Vennell. Everyone knows it. It’s not a secret. I mean, I think more people know the name of this corporation in the Arab World than they do in the United States because they play a pernicious role of sustaining these undemocratic regimes.
AMY GOODMAN: And its connection to the Carlyle Group? The Carlyle Group, who, one of its great ambassadors is George Bush. As many people are suffering after 9-11, you have a few of these companies that are making an absolute fortune, among them, the Carlyle Group, which, as many know, is funded by the bin Ladens to the tune of millions, and its main ambassador, people like George Bush, senior, and James Baker.
TARIQ ALI: I know, and this is why these people now are now extremely embarrassed but I think these people also –- I mean, if you remember, immediately after 9-11, for the first time ever, in my memory, there was a lot of criticism of the Saudi Royal Family in the American press -- something we never used to hear before. Si Hirsch had big pieces in the New Yorker, there were pieces in the New York Times, The Washington Post, etc. Suddenly, they stopped. Why did they stop? Because, I think, the powers that be realized, “Look, there’s no one else that we’ve got in that country. It’s the only family that we’ve got,” and you deal with it. You know, it’s a bad family. It has awful people in there, but you deal with it and I think the big pressure for this on this administration did come from Bush senior and Baker.
JUAN GONZALEZ:: I’d like to get, in the time we have left, a broader issue, a broader question, is the whole issue of fundamentalism and democracy -- I think you dealt with in Clash of Fundamentalisms very well, which is that there are large fundamentalist-movements in many of these countries and the United States is in the position of say- --on the one hand saying, “We want democracy,” but on the other hand, recognizing, as happened in Algeria, as happened in Iran, that democracy can lead to fundamentalist-majorities’ taking power and the question of why fundamentalism has grown so much is directly related to the crushing of progressive and modernist-movements in these countries by imperialism. What’s the future, in terms of this?
TARIQ ALI: Well, we’re paying the price now for what was done during the Cold-War period, largely pushed through by the United States and its allies, in this region, of destroying all secular alternatives and leaving the door open for these groups. Many of these groups worked with them at the time. The second part of your question is very interesting. If democracy means Islamist-groups’ coming to power, should we stop democracy? The West says, “Yes.” I argue, “No,” even though I don’t like these groups. I contest what they have to say. I challenge their view of Islam and its history but, nonetheless, I think the best judge of this are people in these countries. If they vote for them, it’s because there’s nothing else and the main reason they vote for them is these are the only groups that resist the American Empire. Their own venal regimes are in the pocket of the United States, secular groups have been virtually immobilized through NGOs, so these Islamist-groups are the only opposition and I think we have to watch Iran very closely. What has happened in Iran is, for 30 years, the clerics have ruled the country but we now have a situation in where 75% of the population is under 35 years of age and this is a population which has only lived under the clerics and they will settle accounts with the clerics in their own way and that is the best way for regime-change: organically, by the people of the country. If the United States will -- to listen to the Israeli ambassador here and try and take Teheran, the mess would be profound and it would strengthen the worst elements in that society.
AMY GOODMAN: And the moving in on Syria? Like the sanctions that are being approved by the US Congress?
TARIQ ALI: It’s so crazy, given that they’ve got a mess in Iraq, there’s a big resistance in Iraq. Allowing and encouraging, probably, the Israelis to go and bomb Syria to put pressure on that regime and now put in sanctions, it shows that they have learnt nothing and, if they decided to invade Syria, the Syrian Army is much tougher than the Iraqi Army. It was wrecked by years of sanctions. They will fight. The resistance would be much, much stronger in Syria, from the first day and the Arab region could go up. This time, it could go up because a second Arab country being attacked would be unacceptable to the region. The fact that they’re even considering it shows they’ve learnt absolutely nothing.
AMY GOODMAN: A final question: The former number-two official in the Information-Ministry of Iraq was just hired by Fox News. He used to oversee spying on foreign journalists. His name was Uday Attakhi.
TARIQ ALI: Well, I mean, I would have thought Fox News was well supplied by people like that already. What do they need another one for? (laughs)
AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, I want to thank you very much for being with us. We’ll being hearing more from you. Tariq Ali’s book is Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq, and you’ll be in New York at the Synod House at Saint John the Divine on Tuesday night from 7 to 9. I will be interviewing you in public before an audience and we’ll have a very interesting discussion and people can join in that discussion. That’s Tuesday night, for those of you who live in the New York area, 7 to 9 at Synod Hall Saint John the Divine up at 110th Street. Thanks for being with us.
TARIQ ALI: Thank you
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