Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re tuned to The World. We kind of had to rub our eyes today when we heard that the British parliament approved a prime minister’s request to join a US-led coalition that’s carrying out attacks in Iraq. Back in 2003, it was Tony Blair joining George W. Bush in the invasion of Iraq. Today, it’s David Cameron joining Barack Obama’s air assault against ISIS. And how about this for a real sense of deja vu in Iraq: Moqtada al-Sadr is back. You may remember how the Shiite cleric and his militias fought against the American occupation a few years back. Now those same militias are organizing to fight ISIS and they say they don’t need American help with that. Our BBC colleague, Lyse Doucet, who’s in Baghdad, says there’s more to the story.
Lyse Doucet: Not just Moqtada al-Sadr, who is one of the prominent Shiite clerics - I’ve met another prominent cleric as well, Sheikh Alloush, who heads the Abbas Brigade, which fights not just in Iraq but also in Syria, both of these clerics have launched recruitment drives. In Sheikh Alloush’s case, it’s interesting, we went to visit his headquarters, he’s recruiting Sunni as well as Shias, which is a good development in a country where the sectarian split is one of the most dangerous fault lines. But they are adamant that they can fight the threat opposed by so-called Islamic State fighters, although they call them Daash, which is a much more pejorative word in Arabic, that they don’t need the West. In fact, when I saw Sheikh Alloush just yesterday evening, he used very harsh words to say that the United States had another agenda here. It proved that, in his words, when they came with the face of a savior, it was hiding the ugly face of an invader.
Werman: Do the Shia fighters have the numbers? What do smart military analysts say?
Doucet: I think it’s very hard to know the numbers because people are being recruited all the time. Certainly as we go around Baghdad, we’ve been seeing them, the black shirts and khaki trousers of his new “peace brigade,” as he calls it, were everywhere. They were on the streets, they were talking to the soldiers and to the police who were on the street, although they operate quite independently, and they were very clear with us - “We don’t the West to come back, we don’t need America and we don’t need Britain.”
Werman: These Shia fighters, they oppose the US and coalition air strikes. Why do they oppose them?
Doucet: I think they feel that when these countries come back to Iraq, they come with their own agenda, they say they have their own interest. But I have to say, it’s not just these more radical Shiite groups who are saying that. I’ve spoken to members of parliament as well, I’ve spoken to senior government officials who talk about the double standard of the West. One of the deputy governors of Baghdad said to me “Why did America wait so long to come? It was only when they saw the minorities, the Yazidis and the Kurds facing such dire straits - why didn’t they come when Baghdad, when we were being attacked on a daily basis, when Shiites were also suffering? Why did it take them so long?” So again, there’s this suspicion and this is a region with a lot of history, as you know Marco, and every time people fight a new war, they’re still fighting all the old wars and people live in the present, as if they’re still in the past, they never forget their history and they feel it gives them an understanding of what to expect in the future.
Werman: What indication is there, if anything, that ISIS members and fighters are in or near Baghdad?
Doucet: A lot of indication. There were reports a few days ago of what’s being described as a massacre, which could have left 300, possibly 400 soldiers dead. A video emerged from fighters who escaped, absolutely petrified, talked about being without food and water for days. Just yesterday, I heard a story of a man who got a call from someone using his son’s phone, he was told that his son had been decapitated and yet the next day his son turned up alive and said “they came out, they put us all in a row, they executed everybody but some of us survived by lying, pretending we were dead under all of the bodies.” He said he was only one of three people who escaped. I went to two funerals yesterday of two soldiers, two fighters rather, with militias, who died. Senior military people in Baghdad still say there is a threat to Baghdad. So yes, there is a threat posed by Islamic State fighters in the north and they also are in positions not far from Baghdad as well. So even 6 weeks of air strikes haven’t taken that away. People are still dying, people are still afraid.
Werman: My BBC colleague Lyse Doucet there in Baghdad.