When Bush was in Iraq two weeks ago, he posed for photographs with Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, the leader of the Anbar Awakening, an alliance of Sunni tribes who has vowed to back the U.S. and fight al-Qaeda. Last Monday, General Petraeus testified to Congress that "a year ago" Anbar Province "was assessed 'lost' politically....Today, it is a model of what happens when local leaders and citizens decide to oppose al-Qaeda and reject its Taliban-like ideology." Three days later, the assassination of Abu Risha in Ramadi dramatically undercut Bush and Petraeus' claims of peacekeeping.
But what else is the administration keeping from us about Anbar? Rick Rowley, a journalist and independent filmmaker of Big Noise Films, was one of the last people to videotape and interview the Sunni sheikh and his video report, Uncovering the Truth Behind the Anbar Success Story, presents a very different picture of the Anbar Awakening. Rowley, and co-producers David Enders and Hiba Dawood, are the only Western journalists to bring a camera into the refugee camp where the displaced Shiites recount being attacked, bombed, and driven out by the very tribes Petraeus and Bush hail as heroes. Rowley's report, which includes interviews with candid U.S. soldiers and footage of a military commander handing a Sunni leader a wad of cash, highlights the role of bribery and coercion in building alliances that serve short-term goals in Anbar province, but in the long-run deepen a multi-sided civil war. I talked to Rick Rowley about his report and what it indicates about Iraq's future.
What brought you to Iraq and what were you hoping to capture?
We knew that one of the major stories the Army was going to use to justify keeping troops there was the supposed success in Anbar. The first investigation we did was into the Anbar reconciliation program. We spent six weeks crisscrossing Iraq, embedding with different militias to try to get a picture of the state of Iraq during the surge.
You were the last Western journalists to videotape an interview with Abu Risha. What was he like?
He seemed stiff and scripted. He told us some incredible lies during the interview. Three times he said he was the leader of all the Arab tribes of Iraq -- both Shiia and Sunni. And like a bad poker player's tell, every time he told a lie, he sniffed loudly.
He was a figurehead for a movement, the face they put on this story. Operationally, militarily, he wasn't particularly important. In his interview with us he said there was 100 percent security in Ramadi, that he was head of all of the tribes in Iraq. That has proven, in a horrifying way, to not be true. His assassination has blown a hole in the American story about security in Anbar. it's going to have a chilling effect on other tribes in other parts of the country who were thinking it might be safe to work with the Americans.
Bush and Petraeus are hailing our alliance with Sunni tribes in Anbar. Can you tell us about these "freedom fighters" the U.S. is now allied with?
There have been a lot of reports about the fact that the people who the U.S. is working with, the supposed "freedom fighters," the "counter-insurgents" are former insurgents. They were Iraqi al-Qaeda before they started working with the Americans. That is troubling because if they were fighting the Americans once they'll fight Americans again. And more troubling for the future of Iraq is the fact that many of the tribes that the U.S. is working with are war criminals who are directly responsible for ethnic cleansing and who are using American support to prepare for sectarian civil war. The U.S. is funding Sunni militias. They already funded the Shia militias. They're now funding all sides of this sectarian war.
How did you discover that the Sunni militias with whom the U.S. is working are engaged in sectarian violence?
We embedded with the Americans for a week and we found that in the town Fallahat, where there used to a lot of Shia, there are now no Shia. So we tracked down the displaced Shia families and found them living on the outskirts of Baghdad in a refugee camp that no western media and certainly no camera crews have ever filmed. There are no services, no doctors, no hospitals, no schools, no running water, no work, no sanitation. People have to walk, in some cases, for miles to just get polluted tap water out of hoses. People who have tried to return home to pick up their rations have been killed on the highway. So no one can leave.
The refugees we talked to knew the names of the people who had kicked them out and bombed their houses. And they are exactly the same tribes the Americans are working with. So the people the Americans are working with are responsible for sectarian ethnic cleansing. Malaki's head of negotiations with Sunni groups told us the groups the Americans are working with include some of the country's worst war criminals, responsible for beheadings and mass executions.
Even if these militias are responsible for this violence, how do we know that the U.S. military knows this? Is it possible they don't?
We have proof that the Americans should know it. The American soldiers set their core operating base in a house they knew used to be inhabited by Shia. And all the Shia were gone. So it's just whether they decided to ask the obvious question or not.
How does what Petraeus and Bush are saying contrast with what you saw and filmed on the ground?
The story that Petraeus and Bush are saying is fantastic -- a Lawrence of Arabia figure named Abu Risha rose out of the desert and behind him the noble tribes of Anbar rose up and they kicked out al Qaeda. Well, it's safer for American soldiers there but it's not safer for the Shia citizens there. The U.S. is funding sectarian militias fighting in a civil war in order to momentarily decrease attacks on Americans.
And how, exactly, is the U.S. supporting the militias?
The soldiers on the ground aren't hiding anything. They were amazingly open and honest about the whole process with us. Through a combination of threats, and enticements, like money, releasing their kids from prison, the U.S. military has gotten groups to join a coalition. They're paid money for small construction projects and they're eventually incorporated into the Iraqi police force where they're armed and paid, given a gun, a badge and the power to arrest.
There have been reports that some Americans army units are directly giving them weapons. I didn't see anyone give an M16 to anyone. But I did see a U.S. captain hand wads of cash to militiamen who were guarding checkpoints. Petraeus says they're not supplying guns. That might be true. But saying the U.S. military is just applauding from the sidelines and not providing material support to these militias is a lie.
Why would the U.S. want to support these militias?
It's an easy way to produce immediate statistical successes on the ground, a decrease in attacks on American soldiers. And this is a long-term strategy. Petraeus came in with Negroponte with the so-called "Salvador Option" for Iraq, arming death squads to kill insurgents as the Reagan administration did in the 1980s in El Salvador. In 2004 he incorporated all of the Shia militias into the Iraqi security forces and basically created Shia death squads and secret torture prisons we've all heard stories of. Now they're funding Sunni militias and Sunni death squads.
To be fair and balanced?
Because the Shia don't control Anbar. And because they're worried about some of the elements of the Shia militias too. In the last couple of years there's been another bifurcation. It's not just Sunni vs. Shiite anymore. It's truly staggering that there are so many different civil wars being fought simultaneously. There's a Sunni on Sunni civil war, a Shia on Shia war, a Shia Sunni civil war, an inter-Kurdish struggle and a struggle between the Kurds and the Arabs.
Are we letting them kill each other so they don't kill American soldiers over there?
I don't know. Ascribing motive to people is always difficult. I think it's a systemic thing. When counterinsurgency fails, civil war is the next option. Another way of saying it is divide and conquer. In 2004 when Americans were defeated on the ground, when they had to fight a two-front war against a Shia insurgency in Najaf and a Sunni insurgency in Falluja, from that point on the Americans took a strategy of trying to divide the insurgents against each other. They incorporated the Shia militias and turned all their energy against the Sunni. Now they're incorporating another chunk of the Sunni militias.
Given that your films and journalism are critical of the war in Iraq, why did the U.S. Army let you embed?
Anbar is their big success story. They don't think that anyone who comes up there is going to go to the refugee camps and see the other side of it, or going to speak enough Arabic, which David Enders and Hiba Dawood do, to figure out what's going on. I think they were desperate to get people up there. It was all good news to them. And it was truly amazing. We were able to walk in the street and take our flack jackets off in a neighborhood, which just six months ago, had been one of the most dangerous places in the country, where tanks couldn't even go. And that image is the image they wanted to circulate. Of course that's only possible because the people who were shooting at them six months ago are now on the payroll.
How has the media been picking up your story?
It's on Al Jazeera English which 65 million households see. And internationally, reports have picked up on the story from there. But in the States, it's only been picked up by outlets like Democracy Now! and the Pacifica stations. There's a lot of noise now, everyone's talking. There are so many lies in Petraeus' report that it's hard to focus on just one.
When they do discuss Iraq, the U.S. media, politicians, Americans in general are more focused on what's going to have a direct impact on U.S. soldiers than on Iraqis. Do you think they see this as their issue, their problem? Something that is irrelevant, or eclipsed by the fact that fewer American soldiers are shot?
If Americans ever want their soldiers to leave then they have to deal with this civil war that we are stoking. Short-term gains for the American army are obvious; there will be fewer attacks on Americans in the short-run. But the Shia refugees are not able to return to their homes and as long as you have these misery belts with millions of people living in cinder block houses with no services, no water, you're going to have a continual engine that drives violence and you're just making the problem more intractable in the long run. This is a huge problem nationwide, there are four-six million refugees in Iraq who have been forced to flee their homes because of sectarian violence. It's making the problem infinitely more intractable. It's making it impossible to leave. We're arming both sides of the civil war. The longer we're there the worse the civil war will become. And the worse it will be when we leave. And the more cataclysmic the civil war will be once the U.S. leaves.
What do you see as the solution?
The U.S. has to leave immediately. Overwhelmingly, that's what Iraqis want, what Americans want. And if you look at the most reliable opinion poles, a recent ABC/ BBC pole shows a massive drop in support for American presence. Iraqis are saying the situation has worsened since the surge. And more want the Americans to leave immediately.
Here is more from Uncovering the Truth Behind the Anbar Success Story:
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