Podcast: Dahr Jamail on ISIS, Maliki & How the US Has Fueled a Growing Regional War

Dahr Jamail

What is being reported in the news is that in the past day or two the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has advanced and taken control of more towns in western Iraq, including a strategic border crossing. But where did ISIS come from? What has made this militant group so strong? Why do some Sunnis seem so eager to take advantage of this moment and join the fight against the Iraqi prime minister? And how responsible is the United States for the escalating war in the region?

Dahr Jamail, a staff reporter for who has previously been to Iraq to report on violence in the country, returns to the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast to provide an analysis of the growing regional war. He talks to Rania Khalek and me about how Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s brutal policies have contributed to this moment, where ISIS is tapping into mainstream Sunni communities to win support for an offensive. He makes the connection between the fact that weapons have flowed into the hands of ISIS in Syria and Maliki has received billions of dollars worth of arms as well. The two sides are now fighting each other.

Following Jamail’s interview, we discuss what Hillary Clinton said about wanting to send child migrants back to countries in Central America, the crazed hunt for missing Israeli teens that has led to raids in the West Bank as well as mass arrests, a court decision where a federal judge found the courts cannot protect US citizens from being tortured by the US government, an appeals court decision overturning a terrorism suspect’s access to secret surveillance records and the dismissal of a major lawsuit against alleged domestic military spying, which almost no media organizations paid any attention last week.

The podcast is available on iTunes for download. For a direct link (and direct download), go here. And, below is a player for listening to the podcast without getting it from iTunes:

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Here is a full transcript of the interview with reporter Dahr Jamail:

RANIA KHALEK, independent journalist: Why don’t you give us a run down of what’s happening right now?

DAHR JAMAIL, Truthout: The last time I was in Iraq—it’s been about a year—I went to Fallujah intentionally because what was going on is, since late 2012, Sunnis in Anbar province and other parts of Iraq had been protesting every Friday right after Friday prayers because of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—who the US has backed since his installation many years ago and has sold him now over $25 billion of arms and training and counting—But Sunnis were protesting against him because he was sending the military into Sunni towns, Sunni enclaves and killing people, detaining people and then, once they were detained, torturing them. There was all kinds of rampant reports of detaining women, them being raped while they were in prison. So really bad stuff.

So Sunnis were protesting. They were nonviolent protests until the military at one point decided to start killing people at protests. When I was in Fallujah—it was in March 2013—I went to one of these protests, where every Friday they were shutting down the highway between Baghdad and Jordan right as it goes around the outskirts of Fallujah and there was seething anger at the protests.

People were so angry, and there were tribal leaders and religious leaders up on the stage that they had setup on the highway to try to calm people down and say, look, give us more time, we’re trying to deal with this diplomatically in Baghdad. And the younger folks just weren’t having anything of it. There were ISIS groups in the crowd. They were waving their black flags and after about five minutes of failed attempts to try and pacify the crowd by the leadership on stage. I was up there reporting and taking pictures, and we all had to evacuate the stage because so many shoes, rocks and water bottles were being thrown.

It was clear that there was this seething anger because there was no political representation. Maliki, he’d basically been behaving like a Shia Saddam, and nothing was changing. It was clear that there was a volcano that had a very precarious lid on it at the time so that when all this kicked off recently I wasn’t real surprised given what had been happening there going on almost two years now.

This has been portrayed in the mainstream media as ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which is a very radical extremist terrorist organization, that this is all them. But the reality is that it’s not because at least in Iraq it’s that group that has been now tapped into the disenfranchised youth of the mainstream Sunni community in these targeted areas as well as a lot of the Baathist leadership has remained in Iraq and a lot of ex-military guys, they’ve all teamed up. And that’s why this lightning offensive that they’ve lost has been so intensely effective. Not only have they taken vast swaths of the country, but they’ve held on to most of it.

Another important point I think we need to discuss is the fact that ISIS would not be nearly as powerful as it was if it wasn’t for the unbridled support they’ve been getting in Syria from Saudi, from the US, from Qatar and other countries like that. So really we have literally a Catch-22 situation playing out on the ground where on the one hand the US has provided unbridled support in the form of weapons and funding to ISIS in Syria and on the other hand they’re providing unbridled support to Maliki in Baghdad and now of course both sides are fighting each other.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA, Firedoglake: I think that’s something I wanted to have you go even a little bit further in addressing because last week when we did our episode we read some of the first person accounts that Mona Mahmood of The Guardian was getting from Iraq and having posted at The Guardian.

One of the things that really struck Rania and me was the fact that you had these accounts where people were very welcomed, it seemed, of this offensive, that they weren’t afraid, they weren’t fleeing their homes because of this offensive. They were welcoming this opportunity to I think beat back Maliki’s fanatic government.

JAMAIL: Well, that’s exactly right and that’s a perfect point to bring up because one of the most striking images I’ve seen so far of this situation was when ISIS and the other forces affiliated with them moved in and took over Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the Iraqi security forces and those loyal to Maliki in the town were literally fleeing for their lives. And there was some uncut Reuters video that you could watch online that literally showed these guys leaving in their cars and trucks and Humvees, and there were groups of young children under 10 years old throwing rocks at them. To me, that really is so poignant because it shows what’s going on sociologically within the city where clearly there was anti-government sentiment rampant around the city to the point not only among adults but of course automatically most of the kids are on board with it too.

And also it points to the future where you have now vast swaths—I would hazard to say the vast majority of al-Anbar province, which is one-third of the geographical area of the entire country—is really I think typified by that view, where even the young kids are like, look, we see what’s going on, we see what Maliki is doing.

And I reported on this when I was back in there about a year ago. I did an extensive report on Maliki and the heavy handed tactics that he’s been using and we have to remember that all this came out early on when he took power, that there were these secret prisons found and mobs of Sunni men that were in them it was being revealed and The Guardian reported on that as well, these guys were found and horrific torture going on.

So this has been going on from the beginning since this guy’s been in power and the Sunni leadership has been trying to address it politically in Baghdad, seeing what’s coming, trying to avoid this because they knew what would happen. This would boil down into a broader sectarian war across the country, and now, obviously, it’s going very very far outside the borders.

And now you have, of course, Qatar and Saudi directly involved in funding and arming these folks that are fighting in Iraq, and they have been for quite some time and now it’s a major international crisis because it’s gone outside the borders, now there effectively isn’t much of a border left between Iraq and Syria. And another point to make is remember long before the Bush invasion was launched in Iraq in 2003, analysts and experts were warning that this is a war that would eventually spill over the borders and become a regional war and that’s exactly what it is today.

KHALEK: I hate to bring it back to Democrat versus Republican because such horrific violence is taking place right now in this area of the world. I guess I just wanted to get your thoughts on the fact that obviously the destabilization of Iraq cannot be blamed on the Obama administration. It’s kind of  ludicrous considering the Obama administration isn’t the one that invaded Iraq. It was the Bush administration. However, in liberal circles and on the left there seems to be a complete denial of the fact that the Obama administration, like you mentioned, has been arming the Maliki government, which has been using those weapons to commit horrific crimes against Iraqis. So I guess I’m curious on your thoughts on the complicity of the Obama administration in what’s happening in Iraq right now. And also, what can be done? It sounds like such a horrible miserable situation that’s been allowed to escalate to this point, that’s been fueled by arming of these fundamentalists in Syria and now it’s in Iraq, it’s like, what can be done? People are talking about airstrikes, and I’m against airstrikes and I’m sure Kevin is too. But what actually can happen to make things better?

JAMAIL: Your point about being loathe or reticent to break this down into Republican/Democrat, whose policies have been better or worse is well made because if you look at Bush’s policy in Iraq, the invasion, how the occupation was carried out through both of his terms and then the transition over to Obama and then what Obama’s done when he withdrew the troops around the 10-year anniversary, etc—Basically there’s been a seamlessness in the policies between the Bush administration between the Bush administration and the Obama administration.

Because all Obama has done is carried forward the plans that were laid out through the Bush administration. That withdrawal date was set during the Bush administration and Obama simply carried forward with plans that were already made. So there really hasn’t been a change. There were already massive amounts of military hardware and training being sold to the government of Iraq. Obama continued that and in fact escalated it. As I mentioned before we’re up at $25 billion and counting and of course now they’re rushing even more funding into Maliki and talking about drone strikes and this kind of insanity.

And that leads into what can be done. I certainly am not qualified to talk about what a final solution might be but, for starters, stop pouring fuel on the fire, which you also mentioned, drones.

The US government is funding and arming and supporting both ISIS in Syria and the Maliki government in Baghdad. So one first move to be made that clearly would not hurt would be stop all funding and support of both sides, who are now at war with each other.

GOSZTOLA: I’d like to ask you about the US embassy in case you have anything to say about it because we’re sending troops that are going to be stationed around there and I gather that that’s probably a place where the US military has kept some troops for security but it seems like it could be a place for deploying from and you can tell me if I’m wrong but what does this symbolize for Iraqis. I guess what should we be considering as we read about this in the news.

JAMAIL: I actually don’t make a big deal of the fact that they’re sending in about 250 Special Forces into Iraq to safeguard personnel at the embassy. I mean this embassy is a fortress. It’s an extremely secure compound. There’s already several hundred if not thousands of private mercenaries, who’ve been there seamlessly again on through the last several years. As they took more and more troops out, they basically replaced them with mercenaries.

So there’s already a very large military presence there, and I don’t think that they’re sending troops in with any—There’s no way they’d go outside of that compound. They’re certainly going to be air lifting them down into that, they’re not going to be on the ground anywhere, absolutely not because that would absolutely be a situation where these people would be attacked immediately. So I don’t really see this as a re-occupation or another invasion or something like this.

These people are simply being sent in there to protect the staff at the embassy because they see what’s coming because this has spiraled completely out of control to the point where even Baghdad the capital city, where Maliki has the brunt of the military which is about a million guys, is under threat and they know that this is very real and the US sees that too so they’re simply going and taking precautions to protect the State Department personnel and other that are already in there and possibly even getting ready to airlift them.

KHALEK: Dahr, when we talk about ISIS I don’t think people really understand where it came from. I mean it originated in Iraq essentially or it’s an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, is that right?

JAMAIL: That’s right.

KHALEK: And so when we talk about ISIS, don’t we also need to talk about the fact that ISIS exist because, I mean Al Qaeda wasn’t in Iraq before the US invaded? So there’s also that aspect of it that I see missing in the mainstream.

JAMAIL: Right, and that’s why I think it’s intentionally not being reported in the mainstream because this is a group that only exists because of the occupation. I think it’s existed a little bit before 2010 but it’s been led since 2010 by a guy named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also you’ll see him referred to as Abu Dua. But he basically took the reins when al Qaeda fractured in Iraq and started to lose power and this more radical group started to secure funding from Saudia Arabia, from Qatar and possibly some other GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states and started basically making plans to start to continue launching attacks against the Iraqi military.

They’re more radical than al Qaeda because they’re extremists, who basically feel like all Shia just need to be wiped out, that they need to be eradicated by any means necessary. And there’s other reason why they’re more radical than al Qaeda, but that’s one of the primaries.

This is a group that, again, they laid the groundwork, and they started recruiting among the disenfranchised Sunni youth, among those resistance fighters who had been in there since the beginning, hardened resistance fighters that learned how to fight throughout the occupation, as well as remnants of the Iraqi military from Saddam Hussein’s time there. They started recruiting and that recruiting escalated over time as Maliki used harder and harder tactics against the Sunni and it really dramatically increased over the last couple years.

So that’s what was going on in Iraq while you see a similar escalation in Syria where ISIS is operating there. They’ve grown stronger there primarily through US support. You seen John Kerry come out in the last couple of weeks and say we’re only supporting the good rebels there, not the bad guys, not the ISIS guys. And that’s ridiculous because there’s hard proof on the ground and even within the various rebel groups they say, look, ISIS is so strong because of the Western support and because of Qatar and Saudi. And there are literally ISIS warlords now in control and operating and taxing from different parts of Syria and now different parts of northern Iraq.

So these groups now operating together is why they’ve become so strong, because of US support in Syria, because of support now from Qatar and Saudi both in Syria and Iraq and so they were able to coordinate in with these other groups that already existed on the ground in Iraq and that’s why it has been such a lightning fast assault.

It’s not like these guys are going in on there own, like launching an invasion of Iraq. They’re tapped into these communities that basically said, okay, today’s the day, let’s start taking down.

GOSZTOLA: One of the most popular reports coming out of Iraq has been that these people who we trained to be protecting and doing security in Iraq were wearing civilian clothes so they could turn around and run and no longer be protecting Iraq as the military forces they were supposed to be and so ISIS [is] marching and then they’re fleeing. Can you address this thing with the military forces and what they have been, we’ve trained them to do? I think you’ve reported in the past about them acting like a death squad. These are the same people, right?

JAMAIL: Well it’s different groups. There were US-backed and organized death squads during the occupation under Colonel James Steele who did the same thing under Reagan in Central America in the ‘80s. And these were basically Shia paramilitary that the US trained up and supported and sent out to start the sectarian war and foment it, and they obviously did a very good job of it. But if we talk about the broader military, obviously that’s where a lot of the training has gone. But the US has theoretically been funding and training of Iraqi military personnel as well, and I think it’s laughable in that you look at, well, how good is the training. Because when ISIS came in and they rose up and started taking over Mosul, these guys just dropped armed and ran and so many of them got captured and executed on the spot by ISIS.

But this lack of loyalty, and I think overt lack of training, has been endemic within Maliki’s military from the beginning because remember several years ago when they were going to war against Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army down in the south in places like Najaf and other parts of south Iraq and again so many people in the Iraqi military would just lay down arms or just take all their gear and walk over with the Sadrists and say we’re with you guys. And so that’s been common all throughout Maliki’s rein and now we’re seeing it in spades with what’s happening on the ground with regard to ISIS.

Again, if you look at the amount of corruption within the Iraqi government, it’s not exactly a news story to see, well you know so much for the training. It would not be going out on a limb to say, well, whatever part of that $25 billion that went to training, you can assured that it didn’t go where it was supposed to go.

KHALEK: On that note Dahr, is there anything else that you think is lacking when you see the way—other than the fact that there’s war criminals have come out of their caves to give their opinions on cable news—is there anything that you see being distorted or skewed that we haven’t already touched on?

JAMAIL: Well I think we’ve touched on the specifics of it but in general we need to just remember that what is happening in Iraq is the legacy that the US invasion and occupation have left there. This is squarely on the shoulders—everything that’s happening there either directly or indirectly is a result of US foreign policy there and so we need to remember that.

And I’m glad that you brought up war criminals because we need to include those, all of them from the Bush administration and Obama, they are the war criminals, they’re the ones that are responsible and that’s why you have that quip that Tony Blair made a few days ago saying, well what’s happening there is not our fault.

It’s like, don’t believe anything until it’s been officially denied and I think that that little quip of Blair’s spoke volumes. People just need to remember that this is the legacy there.

Look at where the US has had heavy military involvement since 2000. Look at Afghanistan, look at Syria and look at Iraq. I think you’ll see that they’re very much in common and god forbid that the next time the US decides to go into another country, they stay there long enough this is what it’s going to degenerate down into.

GOSZTOLA: And I suppose one last thought for our listeners—and maybe this is so obvious that I don’t need to say it—but I just think that it’s important that we not trust any of the words of these architects, that we not invite them on our media shows for their expertise and that we instead turn to the people in Iraq who have a stake in this. Wouldn’t that be the best thing to do?

JAMAIL: Absolutely. Any of the so called official sources on this, they have their talking points, they’re all on the same page about how to talk about it. And that’s why you see this blanket coverage that is completely ignoring talking about death squads under the US occupation or the sectarian based policy that existed there from the start. The Iraqi Governing Council set up on under the Coalition Provisional Authority was set up strictly along sectarian lines and that started happening in the first month, single digit month of the occupation. You’re not seeing any of this talked about. And so yeah, any talking heads, the Dick Cheneys, the Tony Blairs, any of these other guys who are war criminals in fact, ignore what they say. The only thing instructive about what they say is you can pretty much rest assured that the opposite is true.

KHALEK: That’s actually wonderful advice. Thank you so much for coming on and breaking this all down for us Dahr. We really appreciate it and all your excellent coverage. We’re lacking in journalists who have a comprehensive understanding and are willing to actually talk about things that happened before this month in Iraq.

JAMAIL: My pleasure. It’s always great to be with you guys. Thanks for having me.

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