Gilbert Achcar is the author of The Clash of Barbarisms: September 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder (Monthly Review Press, 2002) and Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror (Monthly Review Press, 2004). A native of Lebanon, he teaches international relations at the University of Paris, and is a frequent contributor to Le Monde diplomatique. On Nov. 3, he spoke in New York City at an event organized by the Campaign for Peace and Democracy entitled “The Case For Immediate Withdrawal: Wrestling with the Hard Questions.” The following day, he spoke with WW4 REPORT’s Bill Weinberg at his apartment in Lower Manhattan.
BW: In your comments last night, you started out by noting the irony that many critics of the war had anticipated precisely what is happening now, which is chaos and danger of civil war. And yet, the White House is using precisely this as a rationale for remaining in Iraq.
GA: Yes, this is really an irony of the history of this war. We — I mean, the opponents of the war — had warned that the invasion would produce a very dangerous situation in Iraq, a chaotic situation, and we kept stressing that, and we were faced by the supporters of the war explaining that it will be a cakewalk and that U.S. troops would be welcomed there with flowers and sweets. And what happened on the ground was very sadly what we predicted — I mean very sadly for the Iraqi people, because it’s absolutely tragic what the Iraqi people are suffering right now. And now that we ask for this occupation to stop, and to stop immediately, in light of the disaster has brought to that country, we are faced by the same people who were supporting the war, saying no, the troops must stay because otherwise, there will be chaos.
I don’t think we should counter such an argument with a complete reversal of positions, saying exactly what those supporters of the war used to say. We can not now for instance, explain that if the occupation ends, Iraq will suddenly turn into a kind of paradise. I think no one is in a position to make any prediction as to what might happen after the withdrawal of occupation troops from Iraq. But there is one fact which is absolutely certain, in my view indisputable: the situation has only been deteriorating in a very, very dangerous and tragic manner, ever since the occupation began.
In light of this fact, logic compels us to call for immediate withdrawal of occupation troops from Iraq — with the hope, in any case, that if the Iraqis are faced with this prospect, they might find in that a powerful incentive to come to terms, to agree on some means of renewed co-existence, and for the reconstruction of their state. And there are grounds to believe that this is one of the possibilities. If we consider the fact that the main constituency for what is called the insurgency in Iraq is the Arab Sunni areas of the country, and since we know quite well that Arab Sunnis in Iraq are a minority of the population and the Arab Shi’ites are three times their number, and the Kurds are more or less equivalent to the Arab Sunnis in number, but much more powerful in organized military force, I think that, except for a tiny minority of lunatics, the wide majority of the Arab Sunnis will understand that it will be in their interest to negotiate and reach a deal on some compromise. Otherwise, the option of civil war would be disastrous for the Arab Sunnis because they would be caught between the might and military force of the Kurds on the one hand and the overwhelming majority of Shi’ites on the other side, and that would be a very, very precarious and dangerous situation.
BW: And yet that does not seem to be having a restraining effect on them now.
GA: Precisely. It has no restraining effect on them now. The very presence of the occupation troops prevents this — any direct clash between the three major components of the Iraqi population. And on the other hand, the very presence of the occupation troops gives a real legitimacy to at least the anti-occupation actions waged by the various armed groups in Iraq. And of course the Arab Sunni population considers that this armed struggle is legitimate — though there is a distinction to be made here between actions against occupation troops and actions of a sectarian character. The mass killings of Shi’ites, the murder of civilians, are not at all welcomed even by the Arab Sunni population in its large majority. I mean, most people consider that to be criminal acts and even the Association of Muslim Scholars always draws a distinction between what they call “honorable resistance,” which is just striking at occupation troops, and what they themselves call “terrorism,” which is all these actions aimed at civilians or fellow Iraqis…
BW: The Association of Muslim Scholars — this is an Iraqi body?
GA: The Association of Muslim Scholars is the most influential group among the Arab Sunnis in Iraq. The fact that you didn’t have a powerful organized opposition to Saddam rooted among Arab Sunnis resulted in the fact that there is no major leadership for the Sunnis as you have for the Shi’ites and the Kurds. But nevertheless, you have a certain number of groups, and it is generally considered that the Association of Muslim Scholars is the most influential among these groups.
And even the Association of Muslim Scholars says that once a withdrawal deadline is fixed, all armed activities should stop. So, there is real grounds to believe that if occupation forces leave Iraq, the incentive for some formula of coexistence between the various components for the population of Iraq will be quite strong.
BW: And yet it seems that it’s largely the same groups which are carrying out the resistance activities against the U.S. troops and the attacks on civilians…
GA: Well, no, not all of them. No. The groups waging armed operations in Iraq are many and diverse. At the beginning of the occupation, it was estimated that a high proportion of the attacks on occupation troops were done by local groups of people. You know, Iraq is a country where the population is generally armed, you have tribal traditions and all that…
BW: And that was permitted under Saddam?
GA: Even under Saddam, yes. I mean, no one would dare use their weapon against the regime, because the regime was so brutal and such a superior organized force, that would have been suicide. But the regime didn’t try to disarm the populace of those light, personal weapons that people have had traditionally in this part of the world.
BW: Are we talking about hunting rifles here or machine guns?
GA: Even machine guns. You know, in the Middle East, it’s not uncommon to find Kalashnikovs in peoples’ homes. It’s linked to an ancestral tradition of bearing arms and it’s difficult for any government to try to suppress that completely. And with the disintegration of the regime when the invasion started, people got hold of all kinds of weapons. So that’s why it’s estimated that at the beginning, a lot of the actions are done by local people, even individuals sometimes, or small cells — groups of people revolted because of their direct experience of the occupation.
On the other hand, you already one organized network active, which was left by the previous regime. We know that this time Saddam Hussein’s regime, in light of their experience in ’91, understood that they wouldn’t be able to resist the military power of the United States, and therefore they prepared a network to carry on actions against the occupation troops after the invasion. They put aside a lot of weapons, explosives, money. So you had a combination of actions coming from an organized network, and local groups or more or less spontaneous actions. And, with time, you had the formation of several organized networks.
So now there are a certain number of groups which are considered to be the major organized networks of the armed struggle in Iraq. You still have the Ba’athists — but the Ba’athists never sign their armed actions under their label, so you never hear of a communique from the Ba’athists saying “our people did this, or attacked this.” There are no military communiques, just political communiques from the Ba’athists — and it’s believed they act behind facades, with Islamic names….
BW: Why? I’ve always suspected that the role of the Ba’athists is somewhat overestimated in the resistance.
GA: Why would they do so? Because they know that it wouldn’t be very popular to use their own identity as a label for armed actions against the occupation. That’s a general guess why they would do so. [Chuckles]
BW: Yet you’re convinced there is a large Ba’athist element to the resistance.
GA: I think this is indisputable. Absolutely indisputable. What is unclear is what percentage of that is people who are loyal to Saddam Hussein, and what proportion is made of more or less break-away factions, as is sometimes maintained… But the Ba’ath’s organized network is definitely playing an important role. And then you have also the al-Qaeda, or the Zarqawi group, which has been dubbed “al-Qaeda in Iraq” by bin Laden…
BW: They seem to have embraced the name themselves…
GA: Yes, but I don’t see why it would be astonishing that al-Qaeda recognizes Zarqawi as one of their own. After all, they share the same ideology, obviously. Even though Zarqawi is even more fanatical, if one could be, than even bin Laden, than classical Bin Ladenists are.
And then you have four or five other major groups, with Islamic names…
BW: What are those groups, and what information do we have about them?
GA: Well, in general, you have either three political components of the armed groups. You have Islamic fundamentalists, ranging from the extreme, like Zarqawi, to the relatively more moderate. You have the nationalist but non-Ba’athist element, with no allegiance to the Ba’ath party as such, and its ideology and leadership; and you have the Ba’athist. And that’s basically what you’ve got. Unfortunately, you have no progressive force whatsoever among those groups, and that’s a result of the historical defeat of all progressive and left-wing currents in the Middle East, which has led to a vacuum filled by the fundamentalist forc