GEORGE NEGUS: Zaki, welcome to Australia.
You were one of the first, if not the first journalist to really talk to the insurgents in Iraq. How did you do that without placing yourself in incredible danger?
ZAKI CHEHAB, AUTHOR/JOURNALIST: In fact I was in danger. Just the idea of being with insurgents in the middle of the Sunni triangle in Iraq definitely is in danger.
When you walk along beside militiamen who have guns in an area controlled completely by large numbers of American soldiers definitely you’re in danger and if you move during the night at a time after the curfew, which starts usually in that part of Iraq after 9:00, also you should be ready, mentally, to be fired at, so it was really completely a very risky job for me.
The temptation is that it was the first footage in the world of the insurgents in Iraq. The first statement was through me, George.
GEORGE NEGUS: Right. Zaki, as we speak the insurgency is not abating – it is going on, it is probably worse than it ever was. If you had to describe the breakdown of insurgents – because they’re not monolithic – how would you describe them?
ZAKI CHEHAB: Believe me, there are large numbers. I remember at the early stage after the fall of the regime I heard the American Secretary of State talking about a few hundred.
Six months later he said there are about a few thousand and hopefully in a year’s time we will finish them. Yesterday I – today, sorry, I read in the ‘Australian’ that the commander of American forces, who happen to be in this country, he estimated the number of insurgents at about 20,000.
It is impossible to give a right figure for one single reason – many who are discreetly doing it without even than knowledge of their parents or their family members so it is quite difficult to guess how much.
In terms of answering your question, there are different backgrounds – there are nationalists, there are Islamists, there are some foreign fighters, they are ex-Ba’athist, there are someone really who, at some stage, they were enjoying the power and authority and found themselves these days with no authority, with no power and with even no role to play. That’s really what puts them in command is their willingness to see foreign forces leaving the country.
GEORGE NEGUS: So that is the one thing they have in common – American withdrawal – but is that likely to happen and, as I understand from reading your book, you seem to be suggesting it will be a disaster if the Americans stay and a disaster if they leave. Where does that leave us?
ZAKI CHEHAB: That is really the biggest question, George, because I asked many Sunnis. Just recently I was in Baghdad for the last election and I asked some of them, “Do you really want to see American forces leaving Iraq tomorrow?” They really thought about what I asked, about sudden withdrawal. They said, “No. We want a very good relationship with the West.”
They were Sunnis. They were from Mosul, they were from Ramadi they said, “All we need is a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces and Western forces from Iraq.”
GEORGE NEGUS: If I could interrupt you there – what you think that timetable should be? Because the Americans keep changing their mind about when they are leaving. Our PM, for instance, says that we are going to stay there, our coalition troops, until “the job is done”.
How long do you think that staged, gradual withdrawal should take? What is the timetable?
ZAKI CHEHAB: To be precise, President Bush and others, Tony Blair and others have been saying that, “We are going to withdraw from Iraq the minute we feel that Iraqis are capable “of looking after their security.”
But the question is how long is it going to take Iraqis to have their own security, their own proper army? And only yesterday or the day before an investigation started about death squads in the Interior Ministry.
Sunnis in Iraq claimed that these death squads, who are supposed to be regular police, are responsible for killing large numbers of prominent Sunnis in Iraq, so there is a question about the quality of the forces, the quality of the police and how far the army, as well, is prepared.
GEORGE NEGUS: Some of the fears being expressed in the West, Zaki, include the fact that if the Americans were to withdraw and coalition forces there would be genuine civil war – Kurds, Shi’ites, Sunnis – in Iraq. Is that the worst-case scenario as you see it?
ZAKI CHEHAB: That might be possible. I myself rule out this because if a civil war would take place in Iraq some time it should have happened, like, a year-and-half or two years ago but I believe, knowing Iraq very well, their political and religious leadership, that there are enough wise Sunnis and Shias to avoid such a war.
The point is how far the US is willing to give al-Qa’ida and Zarqawi and their band terrorists this victory on a plate because any immediate withdrawal of American forces and Western forces from Iraq is a victory for al-Qa’ida, a victory for terrorism and then al-Qa’ida and their affiliates would claimed that we managed to force Western and American-led coalition in Iraq to withdraw, so I suspect that the American forces are going to withdraw in the near future.
GEORGE NEGUS: What you mean by near future?
ZAKI CHEHAB: Even yesterday there was a statement here in Australia by the commander of American forces saying definitely they are staying the course for 2006 and I’m sure it means more than a few years to have enough and capable Iraqi police and army to look after their own borders and to ensure the security of their country.
GEORGE NEGUS: Meanwhile the insurgency will go on, the killing will go on, and maybe if the Americans left the Shi’ites and the Sunnis would be killing each other rather than Americans.
ZAKI CHEHAB: One thing of importance we have noticed recently – in the last two weeks – serious meetings start taking place between American commanders on the ground and tribal leaders, who either represent insurgents or large importance of insurgent groups and a long these meetings there were members of the Iraqi government even including the Prime Minister and the Interior and Defence Minister of Iraq.
This is really a very important sign because this is the first time a high-profile meeting has taken place in Iraq. If you look back at the election, the last election in Iraq was very interesting. This is the first time Sunnis go to vote in large numbers and this came as a result of the feeling that they felt recently that they have got really a role to play that there is a chance for them to contribute in the political process.
What is important to see in the coming few weeks is what kind of government Iraq is going to have, that really is the main question now.
GEORGE NEGUS: Zaki, thanks for your time. Let’s end on that better than pessimistic note. Thanks very much for your time. I hope you don’t find Australia too boring after what you have been through.
ZAKI CHEHAB: Thanks.