NYT's Baghdad Bureau Chief: U.S. in Iraq ‘Very Important Inhibitor Against Violence'

As Congress debates an expeditious and possibly capricious withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, with sickeningly predictable cheerleading for such an eventuality from the media, the Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times claimed Tuesday that this would lead to "all-out civil war" with "levels of violence [that] would eclipse by quite a long way the bloodshed we`ve seen to date."

Appearing on PBS' "Charlie Rose," John F. Burns also said "the United States armed forces are a very important inhibitor against violence."

Rather contrary from the views expressed by the left and their media minions that the American presence in Iraq is what is responsible for the violence, wouldn't you agree?

With that in mind, here are some extraordinary highlights of this interview with a full transcript to follow (video available here, interview begins at minute 3:50). Please prepare yourself for an alternate reality:

  • I think it`s pretty clear that the majority Shiites are increasingly confident that if the U.S. troops go, they will have the upper hand. The 60 percent majority they have, the control of the armed forces that they have. The oil resources in the south would give them quickly an upper hand in what would be in effect an all-out civil war.
  • But the one thing I think that virtually all of us who - who work here or have worked here for any length of time agree is that the levels of violence would eclipse by quite a long way the bloodshed we`ve seen to date.
  • Well, I think, quite simply that the United States armed forces here -- and I find this to be very widely agreed amongst Iraqis that I know, of all ethnic and sectarian backgrounds -- the United States armed forces are a very important inhibitor against violence. I know it`s argued by some people that they provoke the violence. I simply don`t believe that to be in the main true. I think it`s a much larger truth that where American forces are present, they are inhibiting sectarian violence, and they are going after the people, particularly al-Qaeda and the Shiite death squads, who are provoking that violence. Remove them or at least remove them quickly, and it seems to me -- controversial as this may seem to be saying in the present circumstances, while I know there`s this agonizing debate going on in the United States about this -- that you have to weigh the price. And the price would very likely be very, very high levels of violence, at least in the short run and perhaps, perhaps - perhaps for quite a considerable period of time.
  • You know, I don`t want to wade into the debate that`s going on in Washington because I understand that - that a very important element of that debate is weighing as everybody on both sides I think understands, the price of staying against the price of going. And there`s no doubt that the price of staying is very, very high in American blood, to begin with, and American treasure too. But it seems to me incontrovertible that the most likely outcome of an American withdrawal any time soon would be cataclysmic violence. And I find that to be widely agreed amongst Iraqis, including Iraqis who strongly opposed the invasion. And especially amongst Sunnis, a minority who ruled here, whose power was usurped by the invasion and who now find themselves facing Shiite militias and 350,000 man and woman Shiite-led Iraqi security force, that`s to say army and police, which is overwhelmingly Shiite and would be likely, first of all, to disintegrate in the face of a civil war, but with its principal units falling on the Shiite, not the Sunni side of that war.
  • General Lynch feels, as do the other commanders of the surge, that they have made substantial progress. And that they`re likely to make more if they`re given time. They know they don`t have beyond March of next year because March 31st, 08 is the deadline the Pentagon has set as a matter of troop limits to how long they can support the surge. But they believe that if they`re given that amount of time, they can make a real difference in the levels of violence. They`ll have more time to train up Iraqi forces to come in behind them and hold those areas.
  • A senior American official told me just the other night that he had been to see Tariq Al Hashimi, who - the Sunni vice president, a former Saddam army officer who never joined the Baath Party and left Iraq in the early `90s. In other words, a Sunni who - who has genuine credentials as a moderate. Tariq Al Hashimi asked this senior American official, "is your Congress really serious about withdrawing troops?" And the American official said to him, "you`d better believe that it may be. This is a serious debate and it`s very finely balanced, and it could - it could fall in favor of withdrawing those troops and withdrawing them on a fairly rigorous, tight schedule." Tariq Al Hashimi responded to that by saying "then we will all be slaughtered," then we will all be slaughtered.

Extraordinary stuff, wouldn't you agree? Doubtful we'll be hearing anything like this from Katie, Charlie, or Brian any time soon, correct?

Bravo, John. Bravo.

What follows is a full transcript of this interview.

CHARLIE ROSE, HOST: We begin tonight with Iraq and the question that is on everyone`s mind. What would happen if U.S. troops were to withdraw from the country in the near future?

Joining me now from Baghdad is John Burns, bureau chief there for "The New York Times." Welcome.

JOHN BURNS NEW YORK TIMES BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF: Good evening, Charlie. Thank you, it`s a pleasure.

CHARLIE ROSE: I read - I read the front page of "The Washington Post" and a piece written by Karen DeYoung and Tom Ricks. First paragraph, "If U.S. combat forces withdraw from Iraq in the near future, three developments would be likely to unfold. Majority Shiites would drive Sunnis out of ethically mixed areas, west to Anbar province. Two, southern Iraq would erupt in civil war between Shiite groups. And three, the Kurdish north would solidify its borders and invite a U.S. troop presence there. In short, Iraq would effectively become three separate nations."

Do you agree with all that?

JOHN BURNS: Charlie, I guess we would love to have that crystal ball, and so would the people in Congress who are trying to decide this matter. Some parts of that I do agree with. I think it`s pretty clear that the majority Shiites are increasingly confident that if the U.S. troops go, they will have the upper hand. The 60 percent majority they have, the control of the armed forces that they have. The oil resources in the south would give them quickly an upper hand in what would be in effect an all-out civil war.

I think there`s quite a lot of reasons to worry about whether or not they`re right about that, not to worry about it, to question it. The Sunnis are not going to roll over. The Sunnis are good fighters. They ruled this country for most of the last 1,200 years or this -- at least this terrain. They have the backing of the hinterland of the - of the Sunni Arab world, and I think the outcome would be very much in doubt.

But the one thing I think that virtually all of us who - who work here or have worked here for any length of time agree is that the levels of violence would eclipse by quite a long way the bloodshed we`ve seen to date.

CHARLIE ROSE: Can you give me more understanding of what you mean by that?

JOHN BURNS: Well, I think, quite simply that the United States armed forces here -- and I find this to be very widely agreed amongst Iraqis that I know, of all ethnic and sectarian backgrounds -- the United States armed forces are a very important inhibitor against violence. I know it`s argued by some people that they provoke the violence. I simply don`t believe that to be in the main true. I think it`s a much larger truth that where American forces are present, they are inhibiting sectarian violence, and they are going after the people, particularly al-Qaeda and the Shiite death squads, who are provoking that violence. Remove them or at least remove them quickly, and it seems to me -- controversial as this may seem to be saying in the present circumstances, while I know there`s this agonizing debate going on in the United States about this -- that you have to weigh the price. And the price would very likely be very, very high levels of violence, at least in the short run and perhaps, perhaps - perhaps for quite a considerable period of time.

CHARLIE ROSE: This is what you said to me in January 2007. "Friends of mine who are Iraqis, Sunni, Shiite, Kurd -- all foresee a civil war on the scale with bloodshed that will absolutely dwarf what we`re seeing now. It`s really difficult to imagine that that would happen, considering we`re talking about the fallout between the Sunnis and Shiite worlds, without Iran becoming involved from the east, without the Saudis who have already said in that situation they would move in to help protect the Sunnis majority in Iraq."

Has anything changed in the six months since you said that? Five months?

JOHN BURNS: I don`t believe it has, no. I honestly don`t believe it has. You know, I don`t want to wade into the debate that`s going on in Washington because I understand that - that a very important element of that debate is weighing as everybody on both sides I think understands, the price of staying against the price of going. And there`s no doubt that the price of staying is very, very high in American blood, to begin with, and American treasure too.

But it seems to me incontrovertible that the most likely outcome of an American withdrawal any time soon would be cataclysmic violence. And I find that to be widely agreed amongst Iraqis, including Iraqis who strongly opposed the invasion. And especially amongst Sunnis, a minority who ruled here, whose power was usurped by the invasion and who now find themselves facing Shiite militias and 350,000 man and woman Shiite-led Iraqi security force, that`s to say army and police, which is overwhelmingly Shiite and would be likely, first of all, to disintegrate in the face of a civil war, but with its principal units falling on the Shiite, not the Sunni side of that war.

So in the short run, I think the people who would have the -- the most to move -- to lose, would - would in all likelihood to be the Sunni minority, who would be driven west into the redoubt of Anbar province, which is approximately a third of Iraqi on the western side, bordering Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. But that wouldn`t be the end of it by any means. Those Sunnis have the support. It`s been - it`s been explicitly stated -- Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states, which have large amounts of money to invest -- in fact, they`re already putting money in here in very large sums in support of the insurgency.

And of course, on the other side of this you have Iran, which is deeply invested already with the Shiite militias.

As to which of these two options -- the staying or going -- is the wiser one for America, it`s really not for me to judge. I`m a reporter. All I can say is that there clearly would be a price on either side of this, and weighing which is the heavier is -- must be a truly agonizing, agonizing responsibility.

CHARLIE ROSE: Well, then report to me what General Petraeus and General Rick Lynch believe today.

JOHN BURNS: Well, I can talk with more confidence about General Lynch, who is the 3rd Infantry Division commander and responsible south of Baghdad now for the offensive operations under the surge that are designed to secure Baghdad, or as they put in the military jargon, to impede the accelerants of violence who are present down there in an area roughly the state - the size of the state of West Virginia, south of Baghdad, stretching about 80 miles to the south between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

General Lynch feels, as do the other commanders of the surge, that they have made substantial progress. And that they`re likely to make more if they`re given time. They know they don`t have beyond March of next year because March 31st, 08 is the deadline the Pentagon has set as a matter of troop limits to how long they can support the surge. But they believe that if they`re given that amount of time, they can make a real difference in the levels of violence. They`ll have more time to train up Iraqi forces to come in behind them and hold those areas.

As for General Petraeus, the commander here, he has been very cautious recently -- very cautioned, I would say, in the remarks that he makes to people like me. He knows he has to go up on the Hill on September the 15th, with possibly the most onerous duty that any American general has had in a generation or two, given the responsibility the President Bush has put on his shoulders.

CHARLIE ROSE: What is going to be the impact, do you believe, on al Qaeda, and what is their situation today? What do they represent in terms of violence and what would be their opportunity if America withdrew?

JOHN BURNS: Well, the generals here who a year or so ago were saying quite bluntly that the biggest security threat were the Shiite death squads, particularly the one that`s associated with the Mahdi army of Muqtada al-Sadr, are saying now as they had said for a long period before 2006 that the principal threat is al Qaeda, and indeed the principal target of the surge in Baghdad and in the area surrounding Baghdad are those al Qaeda linked groups.

I think we have to be careful in our terminology here, to say al Qaeda-linked groups and not to suggest, as has been done quite often recently in Washington, that al Qaeda is a kind of behemoth.

CHARLIE ROSE: Jack Reed, the senator from Rhode Island, who had just arrived back from Iraq -- he points to political progress and says there`s almost none and has little confidence in the Maliki government. I noticed today that Muqtada al-Sadr says that the political block loyal to him has decided to resume participation in the parliament. Make sense of this.

JOHN BURNS: Not, I think, an act of great -- I don`t try and make sense of Muqtada al-Sadr, except, if you will, in this fashion. He`s an extremely machiavellian politician, who has had now for three years or more a foot inside and outside the Baghdad political elite. On the one hand, he`s a militia leader, whose Mahdi army has caused absolute mayhem. As you know, they went to war with U.S. forces twice. They run death squads. If there is control or not, a much debated fact. They have been heavily funded to the tune of somewhere close to a million to $3 million a month from Iran.

So on the one hand, he`s fighting the insurgency. He`s fighting against the government in Baghdad and the coalition forces. On the other hand, he has members of parliament, 30 of them, who are crucial part of the political block that supports Prime Minister Maliki.

I don`t think you need to attach very much importance to whether he has his block in the parliament or not. Muqtada al-Sadr will continue to seek, in my judgment, one principal goal, and that is the advancement of the fortunes of Muqtada al-Sadr, who indeed is probably the single most powerful political leader in Iraq right now, and has reason to believe that if the chips fell his way, he could end up as much as anybody could the predominant political force in this country.

CHARLIE ROSE: Are they making progress in terms of a political solution?

JOHN BURNS: No, they`re not. They`re really not. You know, we`ve seen Ambassador Crocker, the American ambassador and General Petraeus redefine ahead of their September the 15th report to the president and the Congress, what would in effect amount to positive political progress. They`ve in effect set aside the 18 benchmarks set by Congress, things like a new oil law, provincial elections to establish truly representative governments in key contested provinces, something to control the militias. Constitutional reforms, all of this.

And they said that that may not be the best indicator of whether political progress is being made. That there is -- there are other things, more general things that should be looked at.

They refer specifically to some signs, some limited signs, I have to say, of greater cohesion amongst the top leaders in Baghdad on general issues. I`m talking about Talabani, the Kurd, who is president, Maliki, the prime minister who is a Shiite and the two vice presidents, one of them a Shiite, Adil Abd al-Mahdi and Tariq Al Hashimi, a Sunni. And signaling, about a month ago, when there was a second attack on that Shiite shrine in Samarra that was - that was bombed last year, they did meet, these four men, very quickly and they did take action to steady the mood of the country, to get additional troop reinforcements up there to Samarra. And there are some signs -- not many, I have to say, some signs -- that they are beginning to wake up to the consequences for themselves and for Iraq of not coming together, and American troops in consequence leaving because the United States runs out of patience.

And I`ll give you just one taste of that. A senior American official told me just the other night that he had been to see Tariq Al Hashimi, who - the Sunni vice president, a former Saddam army officer who never joined the Baath Party and left Iraq in the early `90s. In other words, a Sunni who - who has genuine credentials as a moderate.

Tariq Al Hashimi asked this senior American official, "is your Congress really serious about withdrawing troops?" And the American official said to him, "you`d better believe that it may be. This is a serious debate and it`s very finely balanced, and it could - it could fall in favor of withdrawing those troops and withdrawing them on a fairly rigorous, tight schedule." Tariq Al Hashimi responded to that by saying "then we will all be slaughtered," then we will all be slaughtered.

The American official who told me this, told the story in evidence of a sobering up, a beginning of a realization amongst the Iraqi leaders of just how serious is the predicament in which they find themselves. Too late? Possibly.

CHARLIE ROSE: It`s hard to - to go beyond that, John. Thank you so much, as always, for joining us.

How long are you going to be there?

JOHN BURNS: I`m on short time now, Charlie. I`m actually overdue at my new job in London as the bureau chief from "The New York Times" in London. I`ll be there sometime early next month, and I have to say, it`s - it`s a heavy burden for me to be leaving, because this story, after five years, indeed even if it were much less than that, it (inaudible) itself into your heart. And there`s - there`s a long way to go before the story is done.

So as a journalist, it`s very hard to - to give it up, and individually, considering all the connections and the friends that I`ve made here, extremely hard to bid good-bye to a country whose tragedy is unfortunately so far from over.

CHARLIE ROSE: I hope we can talk many times before you leave. John, thank you.

JOHN BURNS: Thank you, Charlie.

CHARLIE ROSE: John Burns from Baghdad.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.