Monday, March 5, 2007

Robert Fisk on Osama bin Laden at 50, Iraqi Death Squads and Why the Middle East is More Dangerous Now Than in Past 30 Years

Democracy Now!
With Amy Goodman

"Robert Fisk is a veteran war correspondent and one of the world"s most experienced journalists covering the Middle East. He has reported from across the Arab world for the past thirty years. He was in Iraq in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, in the early 1990s during the Persian Gulf War and most recently during the U.S. invasion and occupation. He has also reported on the civil wars in Algeria and Lebanon, the Iranian revolution, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and Israel"s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

Robert Fisk joins me in our firehouse studio......

AMY GOODMAN: You mention Lebanon. Let's talk about the situation there today. This is where you have been based for the last thirty years.

ROBERT FISK: Thirty-one, almost, now, yeah. Yes, I mean, I was, you know, like I suppose most Lebanese, I felt, up until July the 12th, the beginning of the war between Hezbollah and the Israelis last summer, that maybe Lebanon had a chance. You know, it was being rebuilt. There wasn't enough money trickling down from the top to the bottom; it was still a lopsided society with the Shiites being the poor and the oppressed as usual. But I thought until we came across -- you know, even when the Shiites pulled out of the government, which was a very serious matter because it meant that once again we were emphasizing the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics, that there might be some form of compromise.

But once we had that strike, which turned so violent -- you know, I turned up on Corniche Mazraa in the western part of Beirut, and there must have been 7,000 people, Muslims, Shiites and Sunnis, chucking rocks and stones at each other. There were seven Lebanese soldiers trying to get between them. I went with them taking pictures. I mean, the stones were bouncing off the soldiers. People were chucking rocks from the top of sixteen-story buildings. It was very dangerous. I thought, civil war was going to restart that day.

And one of the dangerous things at that point was that the young people who were involved were too young to remember the civil war, which of course actually ended in 1990. They might have a faint memory. They would have heard their parents talking about it. And they didn’t realize how quickly it would escalate, how quickly you could deteriorate. Even Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah -- well, the Hezbollah is a very disciplined organization, of course -- was shocked at the speed with which his strike, his civil disobedience strike, descended into total street violence. Then, of course, two days later, guns came on the streets.

Very dangerous situation, because it keeps going back into a sort of semi-denial of the political crisis. We think, OK, well, Lebanon is out of the news, it’s OK again. But the reality is that Lebanon is in great danger of splintering apart again. And I went out, a short time, a short while ago, before I came to America, for dinner in a Sunni area of Beirut. It's a mixed area, but mostly Sunni, and I remember saying, well, how are you getting on with your Shiite neighbors these days? And the woman at the table said, well, actually, most of them have gone on holiday. They've left their keys with their neighbors. They have gone to stay with relatives elsewhere.

Now, that's how it begins. That’s how it happened in Baghdad, people moving out of Sunni areas, people moving out of Shiite areas, if they’re a different religion. One of the frightening things that happened during those January days of violence, including the area where there was shooting used, is that the scenes of street combat were on the same green line of the civil war. In other words, the old fracture between east and west, Beirut and parts of West Beirut, reopened at the exact -- Hazmieh -- exactly the same point. I spent parts of the civil war at Hazmieh watching the fighting, and there, on the same piece of road, it broke apart again. It's like, you know, you keep stitching it up, and it comes undone.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Seymour Hersh's report, where he says that the Bush administration and Saudi Arabia are pumping money for covert operations in many areas of the Middle East, including Lebanon, Syria and Iran, in an effort to strengthen Saudi-supported Sunni Islam groups and weaken Iranian-backed Shiites. Some of the covert money has been given to jihadist groups in Lebanon with ties to al-Qaeda.

ROBERT FISK: Look, Seymour Hersh said that we were going to invade Iraq, and I thought we wouldn't, and he was right and I was wrong. So when Seymour Hersh says we're going to bombard Iran, I remain silent. When Seymour Hersh tells me -- he was in Beirut, of course; he met Nasrallah there -- that we’re pumping money into Sunni extremist groups, I think, well, hang on a second, he got it right and I got it wrong on Iraq.

Look, the truth of the matter is that these various organizations -- and there are some al-Qaeda-type groups, groupuscules, tiny ones in Lebanon, and I’ve met them -- they don't need money from outside. They've got money. Everyone in Lebanon who’s got weapons has money. It's like the same nonsense: we talk about how the Iranians are teaching the Iraqi Shiite insurgents to make bombs. Iraqi insurgents know how to make bombs. They don't need the Iranians to come and teach them. I don't think a lot of money is reaching these people. What I do think is that these various extreme groups are quite possibly being mobilized or encouraged by elements within the -- what we now call the American-supported Lebanese government -- what a kiss of death that is for the Siniora government -- encouraged to remain where they are and to be available in certain circumstances.

You know, a large number of the killings that have taken place in Beirut are not necessarily carried out by the Syrians. Hariri, I think, was a Syrian-engineered plot, yes. But, for example, Pierre Gemayel’s murder, a lot of Lebanese say, well, maybe it was another Christian group behind that. One of the things you find in Lebanon is that there are various groups, some of them Palestinian -- we call them extremists or terrorists, whatever you like -- who are available to help anyone. They can make temporary alliances. They don't need to be given $5 million on the quiet by someone with American money.

The real danger now, you see, is that with an ideological government like you have and like we, I suppose, think we have, we constantly want to assist people who will join us in our campaign. You can go back to Afghanistan. We wanted the warlords on our side against bin Laden. Now we're saddled with the warlords, which is why we can't stamp out the opium trade or the drugs trade. In Iraq, we started --

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