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New York Times London Bureau Chief John Burns on Barack Obama’s Retreat in Iraq

Monday, October 24, 2011
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HH: Joined now from London by the New York Times London Bureau Chief, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, John Burns. It’s always great to have you, Mr. Burns, welcome back.

JB: It’s a pleasure.

HH: I wanted, as soon as I heard the news that the President was pulling all of America’s troops out of Iraq, I thought of you. What was your reaction to that announcement?

JB: Well, a sense of great relief for America, I have to say, and for those remaining 45,000, 50,000 troops. And God bless them on their home journey. But it’s a sense of foreboding for Iraq, because I have very little confidence that the center can hold there without the tripwire that American troops represent. They were and remain, until December the 31st, the final guarantor of a constitutional process, flawed as it may be, in Iraq. When they’re gone, I think all bets are off.

HH: John Burns, how long did you spend in war-torn Iraq?

JB: If you count the time I was there with Saddam before the American invasion, over five years.

HH: Okay, in those five years, you must have met a lot of Iraqis, including, I would assume, Prime Minister Maliki. Does he have what it takes to lead a fractured polity without an American backing?

JB: Frankly, no. None of the Iraqi leaders who took over during the American period in Iraq after the first year when sovereignty was formally restored, were of a caliber to unite the country for one reason or another. And I would say Maliki? Decisively not. Maliki, you have to look at the background of these fellows. And Maliki, he comes from a Shiite political party, the Dawa party, which was decimated by Saddam. He used to say that he lost, as I recall a figure, 64 members of his own family in Saddam’s purges. And my sense was that Maliki was never able to overcome that perspective. Who could? He could never really forgive the Sunni community for what Saddam had done. And I think the problem is much more than just the particular man who sits in the prime minister’s office. The problem is there has been no reconciliation on any of the outstanding political issues. Iraq is a country that is deeply divided on sectarian, geographic, political, ideological grounds. And the United States has kind of held the center whilst pressing for years, whilst, as you know now, four and a half thousand American troops were dying, not to mention many Iraqi civilians, pressing for years for the Iraqi factions to come to some agreement on the fundamental issues that divide them. They never did. They still haven’t. And with American troops gone finally by December 31st, there’s going to be a grave danger that some of the factions are going to reach for their finger…on the trigger finger.

HH: I will come back to that after the break and ask you about Iran after the break. But in terms of the domestic political leadership, who are the other figures on whom now the responsibility will descend in Iraq, other than Maliki, that could possibly help him hold it together if they were so inclined?

JB: Well, it’s a very short list. Ayad Alawi, who is a man of mixed Sunni-Shiite parentage, a tough guy. At one point, he was on Saddam’s team thirty years ago. He was the first of the three Iraqi prime ministers in the American period there. Tough guy…I think he had kind of strongman instincts, and I think he was probably the best of the three, but for various reasons, which are too complicated to go into here, Ayad Alawi has never been able to put together a clear majority, parliamentary majority, and I don’t think he will be able to. And there’s some other very dark characters lurking in the wings, like Muqtada al-Sadr, from whom nothing but trouble can be expected.

HH: And in 30 seconds, is there a military man? Do you expect someone to try and do Saddam 2.0?

JB: Well, I think so. I actually do think so. We used to sit around in our bureau in Iraq at the end of the day, and try to figure out who that person might be. He was then, probably still is, a major or a half-colonel, somebody you’ve never heard of, who will, in my view, one of the more likely outcomes, it might be two years down the road, it might be five years down the road, will one day take control and knock heads together. And we’ll just have to pray that it’s not Saddam 2.0, that whoever it is, it’s somebody who’s a benign dictator, and not a brutalist, tyrannical murderer.

– – – –

HH: John Burns, a couple of preliminaries here. What’s happened to the Grand Ayatollah Sistani? Does he play an active role anymore?

JB: Do you know, Hugh, as you just said, I’m in London these days, and I’m puzzled by that. We don’t hear a lot of him. We never saw anything of him when I was in Iraq. He’s an elusive character. He’s very powerful. He’s a political arbiter. He tries to pretend that he’s above the fray, but at critical moments, during the five years I was there, he stepped in. He or somebody like him in the hierarchy, the Shia hierarchy in Iraq, will continue to play an important role, because faith is a very large factor in Iraqi politics, particularly among the Shiites. There is, of course, also extremes amongst the Sunnis. But Sistani or somebody like him is going to be a big player in all this.

HH: That’s why I used it as the set up to the Iranian question. As I recall from the long years of the debate over Iraq, the Grand Ayatollah was opposed to Iranian influence within Iraq. And this is clearly a triumph or a victory for the Iranians with the American withdrawal. And do you suppose he’s happy about this, the Grand Ayatollah?

JB: No, I would suspect that he isn’t. American military commanders, indeed, American ambassadors, were never able to see Sistani. But I do recall that there were occasions when they felt that he played a definitely positive role, and that he seemed to appreciate the importance that American troop presence represented in maintaining some semblance of order in Iraq. Of course, it was a very flawed semblance, as every American knows. 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died since 2003. As for Iran’s attitude, it was always difficult to figure out. I mean, here’s a country that had an eight year war with Iraq under Saddam Hussein. They lost a million men dead on the two sides of that war. All of a sudden, a situation develops where the Shiites take the reins, the political reins in Iraq for the first time in a thousand years. So Iran now has a Shiite-ruled, governed neighbor. Wouldn’t you think that they would want to play a stabilizing role? No, they didn’t play a stabilizing role, because they wanted to frustrate the Great Satan, the United States. So that was always a puzzle. They always seemed to be spiting their own face. What they’ll do now, who knows? But it always struck me when I talked with my Shiite friends in Iraq, including some who fought in the Iran-Iraq War for Saddam’s army, that most of them were Iraqis before they were Shiites. Most of them were very suspicious of the influence of the ayatollahs in Tehran who almost always overreached themselves. So it seems to me there are pretty early limits to how much, how far the Iranians are going to be able to go in meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq, even after the United States has left.

HH: My goodness, I hope you’re right. Now my good friend, John Agresto, spent a lot of time in Kurdistan, and a frequent guest on this program, Christopher Hitchens, has been back and forth to Kurdistan often. Do you think Kurdistan stays in a post-American presence Iraq? Or do they go their own way, John Burns?

JB: Well, of course, Kurdistan is, if you will, probably a great success story of the last eight years with the American presence in Iraq, because in effect, it secured the autonomy that they’ve always wanted. They…I don’t think that realistically, Kurdish leaders in Iraq see themselves as being any closer to the creation of the great Kurdistan, you know, the Kurdistan that unites Kurdish populations in Iran, Turkey and Iraq, than they were. But they’ve been able to pretty well govern themselves and go their own way. They have some very effective fighters. Indeed, the commander of the Iraqi army, a little known fact, the new Iraqi army, Zibari, Babakir, is a Kurd. So I think that the Kurds are in a fairly strong position. But how long it will be before some very, very sensitive issues like the status of the great oil cities in the north and the northeast, where you have large, Kurdish populations, are disputed with the Sunnis, how long that can hold without active hostilities, it’s hard to say. It’s just another of a long list of unresolved problems.

HH: Do you see a potential for the return of the hot war of 2006, a civil war at least as brutal as that period of time, John Burns?

JB: I do. I do see that potential. I just noticed this evening a piece on the New York Times website saying that one of the Iraqi groups, insurgent groups, al Qaeda-linked groups, is claiming that they killed 60 people in Baghdad in the last ten days. The tempo of atrocities is on the rise again. And I think a lot of guns have been holstered, waiting for Americans to go. Everybody knew that they were going to go. The fact that they’re not going to leave a residual presence behind now, of 3,000-5,000 troops that the Iraqis had been talking to Washington about keeping, a sort of tripwire presence, it was certainly a question of time. Even they would have to come out, you know, 12 months, 24 months, 36 months down the road. So a lot of groups of ill intent have been waiting for the Americans to go. And it seems to me that yes, there is a real, real risk of a resumption of widespread violence. And I think American have to brace themselves, and I’m a bit pessimistic about this, for the possibility that the American period in Iraq, which has accomplished some good things, it’s also been a source of, of course, a great deal of unhappiness, and certainly a great deal of resistance within the United States, not to mention Iraq. I think that Americans have to brace themselves for the possibilities that the accomplishments that the United States will be leaving behind, which is a natant constitutional system, may in time suffer the fate that, for example, the British did after their period in Iraq during and after the First World War. The sands of Iraq will simply blow over them, and the American presence in history will amount to, to have accomplished, sadly, rather little.

– – – –

HH: Mr. Burns, of course, for the benefit of those just tuning in, he’s a bureau chief of the New York Times there. Over the weekend, in a story that I don’t think many people saw or paid much attention to, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia died. In line to succeed him is Prince Nayef, who many people believe to be a hard line Wahhabist. And obviously, the rise of Shia Iraq and fanatical Iran opposed to a hard core Sunni Wahhabist in the Kingdom, sets up a period of incredible tension. Put Israel outside of that. Do you think that that’s going to follow this collision again?

JB: Well, you’re telling me more than I knew about the Saudi succession. But if it’s as you describe, then I think that’s now something else to be weighed in this rather gloomy prognostication. My sense is if we go back to Iraq for a second, the Sunnis of Iraq, a minority, 20%, have never reconciled themselves to Shiite rule in Iraq. They regard themselves as being the vanguard of the Sunni world, and the Muslim world in which Sunnis of course are overwhelmingly predominant. The Sunnis, one way or another, will seek to struggle to reestablish their old primacy. And if you have a more Wahhabist influence in Saudi Arabia, you’re going to see more support, not less, for militant Sunni groups in Iraq. This also does not portend well for the future security and happiness of Iraq.

HH: And last question, John Burns, from your time in Afghanistan, which was also considerable, do you believe the Taliban take any message from the American announcement by the President on Friday?

JB: Oh, sure they do. There’s been a tremendous transfer of ideas and experience on the insurgent side between Iraq and Afghanistan. The pattern of the war in Afghanistan, for example, the prevalent use of IED’s by the Taliban, has been borrowed, to some extent, from the success the insurgents had in Iraq. And of course, they’re looking at what they’re hearing from the White House, and what they’re hearing from London, Britain being the second-largest troop contributor in Afghanistan, about an end to our combat operations, Western combat operations, NATO combat operations, at the end of 2014. So the Taliban will be saying to themselves now is not the time for the big push. The time for the big push is January the 1st, 2015. So I think they’ll be watching very carefully. They know that the willpower, the staying power, the resources of the United States are utterly strained by what has happened, and they will bide their time.

HH: And that is the conclusion of my conversation today with John Burns about our east of Suez moment – the United States. John Burns, look forward to talking to you again soon.

End of interview.

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