REALITIES OF THE IRAQI RESISTANCE
NOW! - 3 September 2004 - PBS
BILL MOYERS: We turn now to someone who is right there in the reality of Iraq. He's the freelance journalist Phillip Robertson, who was himself held hostage by Iraqi insurgents for one day this past May. For five months now he's been an eyewitness to what's happening there, reporting for Salon.com and TIME Online which last month carried his hair-raising first person account of the battle for Najaf.
Phillip Robertson joins us now via satellite from Baghdad. Welcome to NOW.
PHILLIP ROBERTSON: Thank you very much.
BILL MOYERS: You know, the President last night in his acceptance speech said, quote, "Despite ongoing acts of violence, Iraq now has a strong prime minister, a national council and national elections are scheduled for January." That's an accurate statement is it not?
PHILLIP ROBERTSON: Well, that is an accurate statement up to a point. The question is what do those things mean. The problem with Iraq is that there is no legitimate political structure that people can participate in.
Imagine a country where all the interest groups have weapons. They don't sit down and discuss their problems. If we take a step back from the conflict, what we see is people shooting at each other more or less constantly.
They-- political problems are resolved through violence. Because the country is saturated with weapons. And ordinary people have weapons just to defend their house. It's very easy to form militias in this country. And many people have done so.
Most recently, I've witnessed the siege of Najaf. I spent three days in the shrine with an amazing photojournalist named Thorne Anderson. And in these three days I witnessed-- I witnessed the destruction of a city. And it was heartbreaking. And there's really-- it's very difficult to describe in words.
BILL MOYERS: Exactly what is the United States up against there militarily?
PHILLIP ROBERTSON: The United States is up against, in the case of the Shia insurgency, a very disciplined guerilla army. And they've often been portrayed in the press as a rag tag militia.
The militia is formed of Iraqi locals. But it's-- they actually have a great degree of organization. But they don't-- what they don't have is the sophisticated weapons that the Americans do. They're tremendously motivated. And they are not afraid of getting killed in battle. And I saw a great deal of that happening in Najaf and also Sadr City.
BILL MOYERS: This is guerilla warfare in an urban, almost block to block kind of situation?
PHILLIP ROBERTSON: They have in the past fought block to block. Many of these guys I spoke to said they were defending their houses and that they were fighting for Islam. These are very, very deep emotional connections for the resistance.
BILL MOYERS: Give me your personal impressions, Phillip, of what attitudes toward Americans are there.
PHILLIP ROBERTSON: Many American reporters that I know cannot admit their nationality. Most people usually say that they are from a neighboring country like Canada, possibly even Ireland. To admit American nationality is to essentially rule out any possibility of trust.
Most reporters now, if they hold U.S. citizenship don't carry their passports with them. To carry evidence of U.S. nationality is a possible death sentence. And I say that without exaggeration.
I'm not carrying my passport with me now. My press ID comes from Britain.
I think we're all very unsettled and nervous about it. And we also have to balance that with the desire to go out and continue working and talking to people. Because if we're not talking to Iraqi people, we're not really doing our jobs.
BILL MOYERS: President Bush says that the fighting in Iraq is helping to reduce terrorism in the world. How do you see it?
PHILLIP ROBERTSON: The war in Iraq is training people to fight. Men, young men, are learning to use Kalashnikovs, and RPGs against American forces.
They will continue to do that. They're not getting worse at it. They're getting better at it. They're causing a great deal of destruction.
People are coming across the borders. There are foreign fighters here. Not a tremendous amount. But there are people being trained in this war.
BILL MOYERS: The last time you talked to any insurgents, what do they tell you?
PHILLIP ROBERTSON: The insurgents say different things. There's a range of people that are participating in the resistance movement. I found that fascinating. The cell leaders, at least in the case of the Mahdi Army, the supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, those guys were college educated. They'd all been to university. I was surprised.
I'd read news reports that said that they were just poor people. They were bandits. Many of them were drug addicts. It's not the case. The cell leaders have college educations. And they have that in common with their US their US enemies.
But many of the guys spoke very personally about the need to defend their country, and their houses. There were things that we could understand if we-- we'd been invaded.
I don't support everything that they do. But I could certainly understand what they meant when they said they had to defend their houses, block by block.
BILL MOYERS: When you talk to the people caught in the middle, the innocents in this war, the women, the old men, whom do they blame for their travail?
PHILLIP ROBERTSON: It's such a fractured polity. It depends on who you ask. Many people in Najaf blamed the Mahdi Army. They did not have a great deal of support. And the fact that they chose that city to fight in reduced it to rubble.
So, they did not-- there were many angry civilians in Najaf who just felt that they'd lost their city. And their city had been martyred and held hostage by the insurgents. Not everybody feels that way, though. Some people blame the Americans.
The Americans do not have a great deal of political support, especially after Abu-Ghraib. That was a watershed moment. Those photographs can never be undone.
BILL MOYERS: How long do you plan to stay there?
PHILLIP ROBERTSON: Well, I think I may take a break for a little while. But I'll come back. I'll come back probably in a few weeks.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
PHILLIP ROBERTSON: I think it's important. I think this is such an important story, especially now with tremendous political pressure on the administration to resolve insurgencies in Iraq. That's, I think responsible for a great deal of the fighting.
There's political pressure on both sides to continue the war. And I think it's necessary for journalists, independent journalists to cover this as best they can. And I would like to stay, and be a witness.
BILL MOYERS: We thank you very much, Phillip Robertson, for joining us on, NOW. And take care yourself.
PHILLIP ROBERTSON: Thank you. It was a real pleasure.