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January 01, 2007
Chipping Away at the Sectarian Story: An Interview with Quais Abdul Raazzaq

Part One

Posted by Bill

The primary intent of my trip is to assess parts of the situation in Anbar, one of the two pivotal political and warfighting theatres of the conflict in Iraq. Of course the other theatre, subject to intense media attention, is Baghdad, the internationally recognized political center of gravity and violent microcosm of the country's larger ethnic divisions. Don't mistake outsized media focus for narrative clarity, however: trying to decipher just what's going on in Baghdad - much less the entirety of Iraq - is a bewilderingly complex task, as ably communicated by Christopher Hitchens in Slate:

Up and down the switchback one goes. At a party in the Green Zone featuring various politicians and intellectuals, I was told of the heartening success of the negotiations on oil revenues, with all parties agreeing in principle to share this national resource among the regions and provinces. On more or less the same day, a move in parliament to create a cross-party bloc of national unity was undone by Shiite hard-liners. In the morning, I was shown a proposal for the opening of an American University of Sulaymaniyah, offering degree courses in a wide range of subjects to students regardless of ethnic or religious origin. By the evening, I was being told of an exodus of qualified Iraqis to Jordan that now almost exceeds the number of educated people fleeing the country under Saddam Hussein.
It isn't so much a matter of deciding who or what to believe, because both may be simultaneously correct.

I suggest reading the whole thing, which I offer as a companion to my disclaimer: it's absurd to think that two days and several conversations in Baghdad grant special expertise on such a complex topic. That said, several aspects of Iraq's difficulties are coming into consistent focus.

Yesterday I met with an Iraqi journalist with the intent of acquiring his help in scouring the Green Zone for a cross-section of Iraqi opinion on the execution of Saddam Hussein. Instead we wound up talking for a few hours about Iraq's past, present and future, the roots of the conflict between Shia and Sunni, American motives and shortcomings, and his prescriptions for a better Iraq. The conversation - already difficult through the barrier of my non-existent Arabic and his serviceable if halting English - was at times frustratingly contradictory and surprising; but perhaps the biggest surprise of all was how many of the conventional narratives suspected by amateur analysts in America wound up validated by this man's first-hand opinion.

Quais Abdul Raazzaq is a 41 year-old correspondent for Reporters without Borders (among other outlets) who is well known to Western reporters in Baghdad, one of whom described him as a frank, honest man. All called him likable. I suspect that this status among foreign correspondents lends him significant influence to build the media's narrative about Iraq, as both an information source and a reporter in his own right. He is a Sunni, though he bristles at the popular characterization of this fact, which rigidly demarcates him from his Iraqi "Shia brothers" in the public's perception of a bloody sectarian conflict. Prior to the war, Raazzaq was a cameraman for Iraq Satellite TV, an arm of the government's information ministry, but he stresses that he was "not a member of the Baath."

And while he has significant criticisms of Saddam Hussein's regime, if forced to simply categorize his perspective, I'd label him an educated Sunni who believes Iraq was better off under the former dictator, and one who greatly fears the Iranian and Shiite militia influence in Iraq's politics and current violence. Despite the domestic horrors and wars of aggression stemming from Hussein's rule, Raazzaq's wistful reminiscence for a pre-war Iraq is not exactly irrational, given his frame of reference.

Please note: when Raazzaq refers to "parties" or "members" in the interview, he is often (but not always) referencing Iranian-backed Shiite militant influences in the current Iraqi government.

INDC: Tell me, what is the overall Iraqi reaction to the execution?

Raazzaq: "Before he was executed, we heard some people talk about there being fighting or demonstrations on the streets, but I don't believe it because ... for our history it's nothing. Saddam is gone. We should see our future and forget about Saddam."

INDC: A colleague had mentioned that you are a Sunni ...

Raazzaq: "I am Sunni. (But) I am Iraqi."

INDC: ... and perhaps a nationalist. So can you tell me: is there a different reaction among the Sunni and the Shia? The story is sometimes portrayed as the Shia celebrating, while some of the Sunni are upset about the execution.

Raazzaq: "Listen my friend, we don't like to talk about the revenge (between) Sunni or Shia, that because I am Sunni I am sad about the execution. In Saddam's rule, even we didn't pay attention (to the difference), (because) we are Islamic. Because I am Islam, I think Islam was a big, big, big mercy for all the world, not only the (Muslim), but the Christian, the Jewish, because there is a rule: I can't see another human - especially Arabic or Islamic - and see him dying and say 'I am happy because he is died.' Or 'should be revenge.' Our God - He can say (that man) is good or is bad. It is up to our God. But I don't want to be ... sad (about the execution) because I am Sunni."

"Saddam was stupid in his rule. We suffered about 35 years in his society and he always make hard relationship with our neighborhood. So it does not mean that because I am Sunni I am sad about him. Saddam, he was our leader and we are very sorry about his execution because we are now happy (during) four days of our Eid (the holiday celebration at the end of the Haj), that lets all of the Iraqis be happy, especially after we have suffered after 2003. And really we need to sometimes feel we are happy and visit with our families and forget about the war. And (for the execution) to kill the special (feeling during) the first day (of Eid) is sad."

INDC: But surely you admit that some are pretty happy about his death ...

Raazzaq: "I tell you, Saddam was stupid about his rule, but this does not mean all the Shia suffered during his rule; Saddam punished everyone who stood up against his society. I am not a member of his Baath Party, but this does not mean I should hate him or love him."

"I swear, you can talk with many people, he didn't kill any Shia people (for being Shia), all the people in Mosul and South Iraq when he visited any town, the people make a demonstration and say 'welcome Saddam' and (are) very happy and sometimes dancing. That mean Saddam not hate all Shia people. Saddam hate anyone who stand up against his society."

"Some parties in Iraq have a bad history here in Iraq. That's why we feel today, now we have more than 50 parties since 2003, and what's happened to us? You see sectarian violence, people killed, ministry killed, the gunman kill, the criminal kill, but where is the law within our country? Saddam give us one thing: he protected all the Iraqis with good security. And during Saddam's rule you could go anywhere. He who live in Basra, he can work in Mosul. He who live in Mosul could work in Baghdad. (Now) you cannot go to Mosul. (Not) because that is 'a place (only) for Sunni,' (but) because there is big trouble."

INDC: But when you say that Saddam only killed those who opposed him - much of it goes a lot farther than that; he killed quite a lot of innocents who weren't politically active ...

Raazzaq: "In Saddam rule there were many parties he stand against ... and killed and put them in prison, like Islamic Party and ... other parties, those also from Sunni, (in addition to) Shia, Christian, and others."

We danced a rhetorical circle around this issue several times, but only after listening to the interview on tape did I grasp our disconnect: while Raazzaq was glossing over some of Saddam's crimes for nostalgia or the sake of expedience, he was also trying to express that Saddam did not persecute and was not in turn hated primarily because of the division between the sects of Islam. Saddam exercised Stalinesque violence against all perceived as a threat, regardless of religious identification. Cutting the other way, it is a mistake to perceive Sunnis as automatically sympathetic towards the dictator, because all ethnic groups suffered to some extent under his rule.

INDC: So do you think that the security was worth (the level of) violence under Saddam, or do you think things may turn out better now, even though security and violence are terrible ...

Raazzaq: "Listen my friend, we don't have choice, we just (have to) see what happens with our eyes. We didn't see anything good for us until this moment. Our leadership today they say 'give us the time, in just one hour or two hours we (will rebuild), with a revolution of construction, we will bring back the electricity.' (But) what's happened now? It's nothing. The example is you can't see the traffic lights on the street, so people have to control (it) themselves."

INDC: So the basic infrastructure of civil society is not working ...

Raazzaq: "Naturally, of course; because our leaders ... from our parties (are) still protected by the big wall of concrete. Protected by US troops in the Green Zone. (A leader) couldn't go around the town or he couldn't go to meet the people and ask them 'why do you still suffer? What is the problem with the electricity?'"

"They bring us (the) electricity minister and he announced in his press conference 'we are trying to repair, we are bring(ing) from Iran seventy-hundred watts of electricity, Syria gives us, Turkey gives us,' but it is still nothing. Saddam, in his rule after 1991... after 6 months he returned the electricity, he returned good construction building for all our ministries, (but) now what's happening?"

Raazzaq went on to describe the problem behind executive inaction: the political patronage of Iraq's new direct democracy had squeezed qualified workers - especially former Baathists and Sunnis - out of ministry jobs. In a country with tragically high unemployment and a politically ascendant underclass, such jobs constitute an irresistible reward system that distorts an effective workforce. Multiple sources, from civilian and military press that I've spoken to who are familiar with the Iraqi ministries, to the Hitchens' piece linked earlier in this post, verify Raazzaq's opinion that Iraq's bureaucratic inertia greatly stems from political patronage standing up unqualified candidates. Compounding the problem is turnover; as one set of bureaucrats fails and is let go en masse, another set of unqualified familial and political patrons takes over, resetting the learning curve required to actually accomplish the functions of the ministry in question. As he put it:

Raazzaq: "All ministries now are split up (and run by political parties) who put only their member and let the others go. It is not good. And when their (party) members are gone, they bring in another (party) and it is nothing."

"Ask the people: even under Saddam rule we have 5 or 6 hours (of) electricity. Now, ask the people: they just have one maybe two hours."

He went on to document many of the same complaints common to news reports and many of the voluminous pre-US election books that catalogued American mistakes after the invasion: the disbanding of the Army, the extent of the Baath purge, inflation in the price of fuel, lack of electricity, the failure to quickly inject reconstruction money and jobs into the economy and, first and foremost, the failure to quickly assert authority and establish security. It's impossible to know if some or all of these observations are part of a feedback loop between a prominent Iraqi source and the popular narrative; It's also impossible to say whether different actions by the Coalition would have brought us to a remarkably better Iraq in 2007, given the country's internal division and meddling neighbors; but Raazzaq made his case with conviction, and he's not exactly lonely in his views.

This ends part one of the interview. In the second installment, we'll talk more about popularly perceived Shia and Sunni divisions (or lack thereof), as well as his perception of the motivation behind the sectarian violence gripping Iraq. After that, I press Raazzaq to look beyond exclusively negative argumentation and offer his vision of a solution to Iraq's problems.

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Posted by Bill at January 1, 2007 12:30 AM | TrackBack (3)

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I suspect that this status among foreign correspondents lends him significant influence to build the media's narrative about Iraq, as both an information source and a reporter in his own right.

I think your suspicion is telling about the journalistic process of covering this war.

Posted by: Nancy at January 1, 2007 09:13 AM

And probably spot on.

Posted by: Nancy at January 1, 2007 09:14 AM

I wonder if he is maybe too Baghdad-centric. He talks about the electricity not being available even though the electricity minister says it is. Could it be because there are areas that now have electricity who never did before so that although the total of the grid actually is higher it is dispersed differently so that some who maybe had a surplus of it before might not have so much now?

Posted by: dick at January 1, 2007 10:26 AM

"...under Saddam rule we have 5 or 6 hours (of) electricity. Now... just have one maybe two hours."

And why is that? For anyone interested in this issue I highly recommend reading this brief US Army October 2006 article. The article makes the following points:

1. Insurgency: "Nine of the transmission lines bringing power into Baghdad have been... Blown up.” If those lines were up and operating Baghdad would have in excess of 12 hours of power per day. “The minister and his people have tried on numerous occasions to repair these lines. They keep getting attacked, killed, kidnapped and threatened.”

2. Saddam's Power: Under Saddam Hussein, the lights in Baghdad were on all day and night..." Baghdad pulled its power away from the rest of, outside of Baghdad, they have gone from zero in some cases, up to twelve or fourteen hours of power a day...“Unfortunately...Baghdad has paid the price for that.”

3. Total peak power- pre vs. post war: The peak generation capacity of Iraq’s nationwide network is now 4,500 megawatts -- still short of the goal of 6,000 megawatts, but higher than the pre-war levels of 4,200.

4. USA contribution: 520 electricity-related projects and completed 220 of them so far...expects to complete its remaining 300 construction projects in the next year or two..."$4 billion that we have spent on electricity here in Iraq in the three years has done nothing more than what I would call kick-starting the system...You don’t rebuild an electric system as bad as this one was, in a short period of time.”

5. The Future: 2007 putting Baghdad on its own power footing, with more generation and more facilities in the so-called “Baghdad Ring,” so that there’s no chain to break. “We don’t want the over-reliance on the grid that Baghdad has now,”...."...[B]ringing twenty-four hours of power to all 18 provinces will take “anywhere from $20-30 billion over the next seven years,” and with the U.S. no longer budgeting for new construction, that money will have to come from the Iraqis.

For those interested you can track historically total demand and output of Iraqi power here.

Posted by: Reg Jones at January 1, 2007 01:45 PM

Good stuff, Bill.

Posted by: Hubris at January 1, 2007 03:00 PM

Dick you are correct. My friends in the company I work for (not Halliburton) who worked on the power industry in Iraq ending in 2006 told me that the majority of the power was directed to Baghdad before the invasion. We did some damage to the infrastructure during the 1st and 2nd Iraq Wars, but under Saddam Iraqis had limited spare parts as simple as intake fan filters for the power houses. I guess palaces and foreign payoffs had priority for the oil for food moneys. Where there were spares, managers had not shared them out of fear of having a problem in your own sector or plant and then having sent out the parts needed to other facilities, you and your coworkers were at risk. This was more than CYA; it was for survival.

Power line towers were destroyed by the insurgency, but in the south people took them down for scrap; no jobs and the usual greed. To complicate matters, the CPA tried to use continental US procedures for procuring material and labor. Think about having to have project insurance in a war zone and going out for bid in Iraq! Early on, the military had their funds and when really desperate, my friends went to them for money to purchase parts.

The Iraqi grid is much larger now from what I have been told (I haven’t looked up the numbers recently) and the power is more evenly distributed across the country. At least one new high voltage line comes in from Jordan. However, Baghdad has power shortages, which the reporters see, but they didn’t see it during Saddam’s time, so things are much worse, no. And once the sewage plants and water purification plants were rebuilt (from lack of maintenance) or new ones constructed, power was needed. Some have large portable generators to make sure there is power for their operation. Also the Iraqis didn’t stand still on power usage with their purchases of high power users such as refrigerators and AC units.

The house to house distribution system is “broke”. In many areas power is jumpered by individuals to homes from power lines; a bit dangerous and not too efficient for distributing limited power resources. You can sometimes see and confirm that for yourself from the videos of US patrols.

Now visualize this story from NYC and think about power line crews operating in Iraq, remembering that Saddam released his entire prisoner population at the end of the war reported as approximately 100,000. Some, to be sure, were minor political prisoners. In 1999 I was told that electrical and cable crews are routinely robbed in NYC. While they are on their lifts, criminals walk under them, point their weapons up and demand the men’s wallets. I doubt if the insurgents or criminals in Iraq would just demand the wallets.

In my mind most Americans, including reporters, have no good basis of comparison to visualize what the situation is in Iraq; during or now after Saddam. Veteran, respected NYT reporter John Burns essentially stated that in a recent report ( To complicate matters, changing attitudes in Iraq might be a little difficult if you think you have no security or they, as in we, will abandon them. We just don’t have an understanding of the fear they have for themselves and for their family since we are accustomed to the rules of law and constitutional protections. If Americans think really hard we could imagine that Anwar Province and Baghdad are just one big Washington D.C. or Detroit intercity area with the ongoing raging drug war and related criminality there. If you lived there, just think about how brave, you and the other truly good citizens in those poor sections of these cities would be to rush out to help and cooperate with the police. A family that fought those types of criminals in Baltimore had their house burned down with them in it. The police had asked them to relocate but couldn’t provide around-the-clock home or personal protection. Community leaders complained about their deaths, but no reports were printed that I saw that indicated anyone from that community guarded the family’s home or their lives. And remember that DC is our capital and we can’t quell the violence there even with strict gun laws.

Freedom isn’t free.

Posted by: amr at January 1, 2007 03:13 PM

Both a reporter and an information source in his own right? Sounds like a journalist's dream! Why go to the bother of interviewing anyone else when one of your own right there in the hotel is also an information source in his own right. As for Raazzaq, why, he need only interview himself. Doesn't get any better than that.

Posted by: Retired at January 1, 2007 03:39 PM

And a pretty common dream, judging from the Jamil Hussein imbroglio.

Posted by: TallDave at January 1, 2007 04:22 PM

I am so happy! I love all the world! Life is beautiful!

Posted by: Bob at April 5, 2007 12:31 AM



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