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New York Times’ John Burns on Iraq and interference by Iran.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007
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HH: We begin whenever we can catch up with him with the New York Times’ John Burns, war correspondent, Pulitzer Prize winner, and often, whenever he’s been on this program, extraordinary insight into what’s going on in the Middle East. Mr. Burns, welcome back, always a pleasure.

JB: And for me, too.

HH: Before we plunge into the conditions in Iraq, and I want to talk about Blackwater in your article in the Sunday New York Times, Ahmadinejad, President Ahmadinejad of Iran arrived in New York on Sunday, has gone to Columbia. What is the understanding of Ahmadinejad inside of Iraq? Do they view him as an enemy, a rival, or someone that must be appeased?

JB: Well, it’s very difficult to tell, because as you know, there are strong relationships between important figures in the present government of Iraq and Iran. But I don’t think that they are very personal in the sense that those relationships were built up in exile by people like Nouri Kamel al-Maliki, the present prime minister of Iraq, who spent, along with other leaders, a number of years living in Tehran, but most of their ties led to other Iranian leaders. I’m guessing here, because they don’t speak about this, but I think that they would find him, as so much of the world does, a difficult and volatile character, but a necessary, if you will, partner, because in any foreseeable future in Iraq, of course, they have to seek some kind of an accommodation with Iran, and there’s this very strong relationship between the Shiites, the ruling Shiites in Iraq now, and of course the ruling Shiites in Iran. Beyond that, it gets very complex indeed as to exactly what that relationship presently is and where it’s going.

HH: And in his recent book, Confronting Iran, Professor Ansari, who’s a very great expert on Iran, and who live up in Scotland, reminded me that Khomeini spent many years inside of Iraq. And was he welcomed there as representative of that Shia theology? Is Sistani an advocate of Khomeinism and the sort of Mahdism that Ahmadinejad embraces?

JB: Well, the second question is I think fairly clear. The ruling hierarchy, the Shiite hierarchy in Iraq presently led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have made it very clear that they do not subscribe to the principle called Velayat e-faqih, which is the ruling principle in Iran. That’s just very simply put, they don’t think that the clerics should be directly and actively involved in politics. That said, Mr. Sistani is involved in politics without any doubt. He’s an extremely powerful figure. He’s simply less obtrusive about it. He remains in Najaf, the holy city in Iraq. He doesn’t talk, for example, never has to American officials directly. His hand is deeply involved in many, many things. But he doesn’t advocate clerics taking governmental positions in the manner that they have in Iran.

HH: John Burns, have you been able to interview the Grand Ayatollah?

JB: No, no. He won’t see Western journalists, either. He’s an extremely elusive figure, and he is, by the way, paradoxical or odd as it may sound, he’s actually an Iranian. So you have an Iranian who has lived for many, many years in Najaf in Iraq, who is in many ways the most powerful figure in Iraq, and that tells you quite a great deal about the amount of Iranian influence that there is in Iraq. There always would be in Iraq, if you had a Shiite-led government.

HH: Well, it seems to me that the issue of the future of Iraq comes down to whether or not Sunni and Shia are going to be able to reconcile without coercion. And that depends on theology. What’s your estimate of that, John Burns?

JB: Well, that’s very difficult to say. If the question is, do the most powerful Shiite clerics in Iraq foresee an accommodation with the Sunni minority? I think the answer is yes, but I think the devil’s in the detail here. It’s what sort of reconciliation do they envisage? They envisage a situation in which the Shiite majority would be in very clear control, and the Sunni minority, who of course ruled Iraq for centuries, would have to accept that. And it’s not at all clear to me at the present moment that any such accommodation is available, certainly not available on the side of the Sunni minority, if the Shiites continue to rule Iraq through, in effect, religious parties. There’s the problem. If it was a Shiite secular government, or a secular government led by a Shiite, say, Ayad Allawi, who was in fact the first prime minister of the post-Saddam Iraq, a former Baathist Shiite, secular, then the Sunnis would be much more likely to accept it. I think what they’re very unlikely to accept in the medium term or the long term is a Shiite religious-led government.

HH: Michael Totten just filed an amazing series of dispatches from Ramadi, and talking with the Sunni sheiks there, and they are very suspicious of the central government. Is it because, if I understand you right, the central government is overtly Shia religious parties, not the secularists of the Baathist background? And if the latter came to the fore, you could expect some kind of rapprochement?

JB: I think that that’s the most likely rapprochement if there is any rapprochement at all, short of a full civil war. But how you get there from here, that’s another question, because the Shiite religious parties dominated the two elections that were held. If there were a new election, they probably would do so again. Shiites have found, if you will, in their great majority in Iraq, a sanctuary after their decades of repression under Saddam Hussein. They found a sanctuary in their faith, and I don’t think that the hold of the Shiite religious parties in Iraq is likely to be relinquished anytime soon.

HH: A lot of people are speculating that a soft partition is settling in. Do you see that, John Burns?

JB: I’m a little suspicious of that, because I think that the contending parties in Iraq are identified by one thing that they do have in common, which is that they view this as a winner takes all game. And although it’s true, for example, that in Baghdad, one cause of the lessening of sectarian violence in Baghdad, one cause in my view, is the American surge, the additional American troops have been there. But another cause is that there has been so much effective partition within Baghdad itself as a result of ethnic cleansing over the last eighteen months. But that’s a battle that is far from over. Neither Shiites nor Sunnis are likely to accept that as a status quo in the long term, and you only have to think of the people who have been driven from their homes, and I know dozens of them, many of our own employees in Iraq of the New York Times, have had to leave their neighborhoods in fear of their lives because of the sectarian killing. The only property many of these people have, the only asset they have is their homes. They’re not going to give them up. This is a struggle which will not relent, and not relent for a very long time. So if we talk about an actual soft partition, I don’t see that as a lasting solution.

HH: John Burns, I don’t have you resume in front of me, but I seem to recall that you were the bureau chief in India for a while for the Times.

JB: I was indeed.

HH: And of course, India went through a partition, and it was Hindu-Muslim, not Shia-Sunni Muslim, and it was bloody and it was awful. But when you were there, had it passed, not obviously in the Kashmir, but in the day to day relations between Muslim and Hindus, did they carry the scars of that partition forty years later?

JB: They did, they did. And as late a time that I was there in the 1990’s, there was still major upheavals and riots and killings which could be traced back to that partition. I think in some ways, India has been more successful in overcoming the aftermath of partition than has Pakistan, so I don’t want to leave the impression that India’s a country that remains deeply traumatized by it, but the 120, 130 million Muslims in India still have a restive relationship with the ruling Hindu majority in India, and a great deal of that restiveness goes back to 1947-48.

HH: And do you expect that that same sort of restiveness will endure, even if some kind of rapprochement is worked out over the next four, five, six years in Iraq, between Shia and Sunni?

JB: Oh, I’m sure it will. Hugh, we’re dealing here with a problem that has its origins right at the very earliest stages of Islam, 1,400 years ago. And Iraq sits right on the fault line of that schism between what we now know as the Sunni and the Shia. What happened when the American invasion of Iraq occurred in 2003 was lifting the weight of terror which Saddam Hussein had managed to suppress that schism, if you will, has exposed it. And the notion that Sunni and Shia in Iraq can resolve differences which are so deeply rooted in history, as their more recent experience on the Shia side of repression, and on the Sunni side of seeing their ruling power usurped, the notion that that can be resolved in any brief period of time, I think, is entirely notional. I think it’s going to be a very long time before there is what you might describe as a lasting settlement.

– – – –

HH: John Burns, when we went to break, we were talking about the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq, and I’m hoping, given how many years you’ve spent there, you can sort of explain to me and to the audience how…you mentioned that Saddam’s weight of terror suppressed this divide. How palpable is that divide, even, say, among the employees of the New York Times? Does it rise up as say racial tension would have in the South in the 50’s and the 60’s? Or is it much deeper and much more concealed than that?

JB: No, you mentioned in the last segment the situation in India, and I think that you could say this in common about the two societies in sectarian friction and violence, which is that it’s a manmade thing. It’s a provoked thing. So let me tell you, for example, about the mood in the New York Times’ compound in Iraq. I think among media organizations, we are the largest employer. We have more Iraqi staff than anybody else. And one of the most pleasing things said to me as I left a few weeks ago by one of the Iraqi staff was that you’ve made it possible for us within these high walls, the high blast walls with which we’ve had to surround our compound in Iraq to protect ourselves, and our Iraqi employees, you’ve made it possible within these four walls for us to be Iraqis, not Sunni and Shia. There’s no sectarianism here. I have to say, I was extremely pleased to hear that. And it wasn’t we who created that. We made it possible for Iraqis, decent, hard-working, conscientious Iraqis, the sorts of people we employed, and who contribute so heavily to our daily report in the New York Times on Iraq, made it possible for them to be themselves. And their natural default position, and I’m speaking now of the great majority of Iraqis, is one of peaceable intent and goodwill across the Sunni-Shiite schism, if you will. This sectarian violence has been provoked in the first place by al Qaeda and the Baathist underground as it became, that is to say the remnants of Saddam’s regime, who for a very long time, in the fact of, I have to say, passive Shiite resistance, were killing Shiites in very large numbers in their Mosques, in their markets, on the streets, in their schools, with the sorts of bombings which Americans became so familiar with. It was really only in 2006 that Shiites began to strike back in a serious way with militia death squads of their own. But on both sides of this, it’s extremists who have prevailed. I don’t think that they represent, they don’t represent the default position on either side. That said, of course, the fundamental question of power, and the division of power, is a thing that divides Sunni and Shia. At the New York Times, it wasn’t an issue that we had to address, but it is an issue that Iraq has to addressed, and that’s going to be an extremely difficult one to resolve, absent active religious friction.

HH: Did the Times and similar organizations, do they hire with an eye on the religious background of their Iraqis, with an eye towards balancing? Is it that obvious when you’re dealing with a Sunni and a Shia? Or do you ask purposely in order to maintain a balance? How do you chart that very…

JB: Well, I have to say that in the early stages of our presence in Iraq, and I’m talking now in the period under Saddam, and the period after he was overthrown, and we began to build a bureau there, I didn’t personally know whether many of our employees were Shia or Sunni. It only became relevant for us to know that much later on, when after a couple of years of the war, when outside our compound, these schisms, this sectarianism, this killing, had become so severe that we then felt that we had to maintain a rough balance. And it’s not always easy to do. It wasn’t because we saw sectarianism arising within our ranks, but we felt that in order to be able to have access to both communities, and for our reporting to be, and to be seen to be even-handed, it was important that we should maintain that balance.

HH: Now as we’ve seen the Sunni sheiks of Anbar turn against AQI, and go after the extremists who blew up, Zarqawi’s people who blew up the Golden Mosque, who did these terrible killings, will the Shia radicals fade as AQI is driven back, and hopefully to the level that they can’t mount operations? Do you expect that the Shias that radicalized in response to the AQI will deradicalize?

JB: I think it’s inevitable that they will. Since the principal spur to the rise of extremist Shiite sectarian groups in Iraq was the bombing by al Qaeda, and al Qaeda-related groups, to the degree that al Qaeda is put on the back foot by the rise of this moderate Sunni, mostly tribal phenomenon in Iraq, I think you’ll see that opinion in the Shiite community will moderate, and indeed there’s a very important development just over the weekend, when the American military command announced that they were having considerable progress with both Shiite and Sunni tribal leaders in Diyala Province to the northeast of Baghdad, which has become one of the focal points of the war, and to which al Qaeda migrated in large numbers as the tribal alliance against them grew in Anbar. So you have now Shiite tribal leaders beginning to move towards the moderate center, and against the more extremist Shiite militia groups led by, notably, Muqtada al Sadr, the Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army has been so deeply involved in this sectarian killing. And of course, as you know, Muqtada al Sadr has himself declared a six month moratorium on violence. He’s done that sort of thing before. And the proof of that pudding will be in the eating. But there are some significant signs of a move towards moderation.

HH: Now…hard question to answer completely or even in a comprehensive partiality, but if you ask Iraqi Shias would they rather be working with Iraqi Sunnis or Iranian Shias for the future of their country…

JB: You know, this is a hunch based largely on, if you will, my own personal relationships with the Iraqi Shia. My sense is that in the medium to long term, it will be, if you will, the fact that they are Arabs, not the fact that they are religious Shiites, that will be decisive. It’s worth bearing in mind that the majority of Iraqi troops who fought Iran during the eight year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s, the majority of those Iraqi troops were Shiites. Of course, Iraqis did not have a great deal of choice as to whether they went to war or not against Saddam. But I know a number of them, that is to say a number of Iraqi Shiites, who spent many years in the infantry and in the tank corps fighting Iran in the most bitter and violent conditions along the Iran-Iraq border in those years in the 1980’s, who never wavered for one second in that war, who absolutely then and still now felt that Iraq was justified. So my sense is that the natural, again, default position of Iraqi Shia places great importance on their, if you will, the affinity that they share as Arabs with Sunni Arabs in Iraq, that is to say, as Iraqis, more than it does in their identification of themselves as Shia.

– – – –

HH: Mr. Burns, the Sunnis I know that you have as friends, has the rejection of sort of the Takfiris become complete, the Islamists who sort of breed life into the al Qaeda extremism? I saw over the weekend as well, there was a Saudi senior cleric, himself a Salafist, who denounced bin Laden for his many, many murders of innocents. Is that taking hold within even the most conservative Sunni precincts?

JB: You know, I would say that the quick answer to that is yes. I’ve never felt that there was a major political constituency in Iraq for the Takfiris, for the Salafists, for al Qaeda. What there was, was a major constituency among Sunnis for any formula that presented them with a possibility of regaining what they lost in April, 2003, which was political primacy. And it was on that basis, of course, that these extremist groups thrived, and it’s of course because of that that political reconciliation at the center is so important. But I thought it was inevitable, absolutely inevitable, and I felt this as early as 2003-2004, that the Sunnis would turn away from al Qaeda, because the Sunnis, as I knew them, were in the main a secular people. They do not wish to return to an 8th Century caliphate. They do not wish to be herded back as the people of Iran have been to a sort of Middle Ages version of their faith. Iraq, you have to remember, under Saddam Hussein, which the many, many things that were evil and wrong about it, women in Iraq, for example, probably were more liberated, at least professionally and socially, than they were in almost any other country in the Middle East. So Sunni women, for example, you would find very, very few people, very few of them, who would wish for the kind of caliphate that bin Laden and his friends have advocated for Iraq. So I think that this change was inevitable. And also inevitable was the recognition that American troops in Iraq who of course took the brunt of al Qaeda’s attacks for so long, that American troops in Iraq are in effect probably the best guarantor that the Sunni community has against, if you will, a kind of brute and overbearing Shiite authoritarianism in Iraq.

HH: Now I think it was Ambassador Crocker during the many days of fascinating testimony, who made comment, asked is there a Mandela in Iraq, that Saddam had killed them all. Are there, is there a new generation of political leadership, whether led by Maliki or others who are different in kind and charisma and talent that you sort of need to run a multiparty democracy?

JB: Well, let me put it to you this way. In the ranks of the Shiite religious parties, there are very many highly talented, highly skilled, and as I judge it, mainly secular people. I think for example, Sharistani, the present oil minister, a nuclear physicist by training, highly talented man, you could imagine Sharistani in other circumstances emerging as one the leader or one of the leaders of an entirely different kind of Shiite-led government in Iraq. In other words, there is tremendous talent there. The problem is that that talent is not mostly at the helm of the parties. The leadership of those religious parties passed during the years in exile, to people who have proved to be rather mediocre. But that’s not to say that there aren’t highly skilled, highly capable, highly educated people within those parties who could emerge in the future as the leaders of a much more responsible and indeed much more secular kind of government.

HH: We’ll get to most of this after the break, and then to Blackwater. With about 45 seconds, but do you sense that the Salafist surge is still rising? Or has it peaked in Europe and other places?

JB: Well, let’s hope that it has peaked.

HH: But I asked if you thought it had, not if (laughing)…

JB: Well, let me put it this way. At this late stage, at least if we look in terms of the politics of the United States in the war in Iraq, as American patience is exhausting, we are seeing encouraging signs of the extremists being driven onto the back foot in Iraq. And let’s hope that that continues to flower, because the potential in all of that is very encouraging indeed.

– – – –

HH: Mr. Burns, you wrote a very interesting piece about Blackwater USA, very fair, I thought, on Sunday, pointing out that no trip outside the Green Zone is remotely safe. These contractors, many of whom are highly skilled retired SEALs, Special Forces and Marine Recon people, are going at risk every time they go out on one of their protection missions. Are they being unfairly diminished in the eyes of the public, with sort of the tabloid journalism surrounding them?

JB: I think Blackwater, if one took an overview of this, a fair overview of this, is a victim in effect of the indemnity that was granted to them by Bremer when he was the chief American administrator in Iraq for fifteen months after the American invasion. I think most of us put in a position in a way we are not accountable, tend to exceed moderate restraint, and I think that’s what happened. So I think you can say on the one hand there’s a fundamental truth about Blackwater which is that they have managed to keep the American officials in Iraq, and their great majority, whether they’re involved in reconstruction or in the Embassy, all the way up to the Ambassador, they’ve kept them safe. There’ve been very few, relatively very few, assassinations of American officials, and Blackwater deserves enormous credit for that. On the other hand, taking force protection, as the military calls it, and they’re almost all former military people as you mentioned, Special Forces people, taking it as an absolute has led to, in many cases, to I think injudicious use of force to a kind of overbearing attitude, which places the protection of American life as an absolute, and of course, relatively speaking, diminishes the relative, the value of Iraqi civilian life. And we’ve seen a number of instances, not just this most recent one, in which Iraqi civilians have died from gunfire, and not just from Blackwater, but from other security contractors, mainly British and American, and I think that the time was long past due when the American and Iraqi authorities in Iraq should have come up with some kind of legal formula which placed this all under some kind of accountability and restraint.

HH: Now I assume that the New York Times, like every other media organization, has to also contract with private security firms, don’t they?

JB: Well, it would probably be unwise for me to speak in a show like this about exactly what we do, but let me put it to you this way. We do have to protect ourselves, and we do travel with people who have weapons, under the authority, in our case, most of those people are Iraqis. But they are under the authority of former Western military people. And we, too, are in something of a no man’s land. The laws are not at all clear, and we have had to fashion our own rules for all of this, and without going too much into it, our rule is to avoid at all costs, and we have managed to do so, so far, for four and a half years, at all cost, to resort to violence, and at all costs, even if forced upon us, to resort to deadly violence. That is to say we hope, we pray, that we continue to operate safely with people who will never have to actually fire their weapons. And if they did fire their weapons, would do so in such a way as to avoid fatalities or serious injury. And I have to say that in saying that, I’m kind of looking to the heavens…

HH: Yes.

JB: …because the situations can so easily get out of hand, and no doubt, if you or I had been present at the circumstances that occurred ten days ago in the streets of Baghdad when these people died under gunfire, some of it from, one supposes, from Blackwater, I’m sure the Blackwater people would say you had to be there to know how that happened. Things get very, very quickly out of control once bullets start flying.

HH: What is the sense in Baghdad? Now I know it’s still risky, very risky in many parts of the city, especially Sadr City, but is there at least in some significant parts of the city a lessening of that sense of risk?

JB: I think there is, and the American military have begun to produce some interesting statistics on the degree to which Baghdad is under control. It’s far too early to get too encouraged about this, what they’re basically saying is that something less than 10% of the city is really under control, that another significant proportion of the city is much more under control than it was, and that quite wide areas of the city are not under control. The problem with this is it’s extremely difficult to know which area is which, and sometimes, it varies from day to day. I think the general rule, a general rule which I’ve always operated anyway, is to regard every street, every traffic light, every corner, every nook as being a place of potential fatality. It’s still an extremely, extremely dangerous place to be.

HH: Now in two days, I’m going to be talking with your long time colleague, Tim Weiner, about his magnificent new book, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. One of the things that was so stunning about this book is how badly the Agency bungled the WMD, and really didn’t have a presence in Iraq. To the best of your ability to tell, is the CIA building an effective branch there? Or is it still plagued by the problems that Weiner charts in terms of rapid turnover, and an inability to place anyone there who’s comfortable being there.

JB: Well, I have to say that frankly, it’s a subject about which I and most journalists know very little. If they are building a much more effective presence in Iraq, it’s not something that we would know very much about. If we knew much about it, it wouldn’t be very effective. It has to be covert. I’m sure that…the short answer to it is that they are. And I think it has to be said to be fair, that to build a cover underground in Iraq under Saddam Hussein would have been extremely difficult, because his secret police were so pervasive, and because the costs, since you would have had to have been working through Iraqis, you had to recruit Iraqis to do this, the costs were so high. You would be asking people not just to put their own lives as risk in being recruited into the CIA, but to put the lives of their entire extended families at risk. Even if they were extracted in extreme risk, their families would likely then to go under the hammer from Saddam, and die in the most appalling possible way. So the CIA’s failure to build an effective human intelligence network in Iraq under Saddam Hussein I think has to be put into that context, and I think it can be sure…

– – – –

HH: You’re not in Iraq now, you’re in Florida. What’s the plan for John Burns? Are you going back to Iraq? Or are you heading to somewhere else?

JB: I have transited to be the London Bureau chief of the New York Times, but I’ll be going back to Iraq from time to time. I don’t think any of us who have worked in Iraq will asunder our ties there, and I certainly want to stay involved. I saw General Petraeus on his way through London last week, and my last words to him as he left to fly back to Baghdad was I’ll see you in Baghdad, and I hope that that will not be too long in coming.

HH: You know, you know the General quite well. You had to have watched the political firestorm around his testimony, and the effort to blacken his reputation in some quarters. Fair or unfair? What did you make of that circus?

JB: Well, it’s true, I do know the General very well. I’ve traveled with him a great deal. I have a great respect for him, and a great respect for the really difficult, indeed, one’s inclined to think impossible, situation in which he’s been placed, and I think that as you would expect of a four-star general of the United States Army, under that assault that he faced, I think he behaved with a great deal of dignity and restraint. You have to remember that you or I, Hugh, subjected to that, would be able to respond much more robustly…

HH: Yup.

JB: …in many ways than he could, and I know he felt a little bit belabored by that. But he was in good spirits when I saw him in London, and he said looking forward to getting back to Baghdad. And I rather thought that what he might have meant as much by…that he wanted to get back to fighting the war in Iraq, was that he was happy to be escaping the war in Washington.

HH: You know, he began his testimony by saying this is my testimony, I wrote it, nobody’s seen it except me. Do you believe him, John Burns?

JB: I do believe it. I do believe it, and I actually saw him on numerous occasions in the weeks that led up to that testimony, and I know that to be true. At least what I can say is that I know that he was deeply involved in thinking about and drafting, along with Ambassador Crocker, what they were going to say. And indeed, what they said on the Hill was what they had been saying to people like myself, mostly privately, off the record, for some months beforehand. So I think that that was a misnomer to think that he was up on the Hill as his master’s voice. He wasn’t. I mean, David Petraeus is a serious individual, as is Ryan Crocker. They are in the service of the United States of America, not in the service of the president of the United States. Anybody who knows either of them knows that to be their fundamental and overriding concern. So I think that that was true. That’s not to say that they don’t feel a loyalty to the commander in chief, and to the President. Of course they do. But I think in their own minds, they found a way to make sure that it’s those two commitments, those two loyalties, do not conflict.

HH: John Burns, always fascinating. Thank you for your time. We look forward to catching up with you again sometime soon.

End of interview.

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