Thursday, 23 February 2006

Event: Zaki Chehab on Iraq

Tonight I returned home from work and left again within half an hour to be on time to hear an Arab journalist talk about Iraq. Zaki Chehab spoke for about 45 minutes at a lecture hall at Sydney University, starting at 6:30 p.m. I was on time to park the car just down the street and to walk in the entrance to buy a copy of the Green Left Weekly newspaper — usually a bit left-wing for my tastes, but I like to support all strands of the media, and this type of occasion is usually the only opportunity I get.

The fee for Chehab of about $1500 — I was told — is being covered by gold-coin (i.e. $1 or $2) donations at the door and by the Search Foundation. The venue and security was covered by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. Although a gold coin was the only requirement of entrance I saw many people donate notes, including a slim, elegant, young woman who gave $10. Towards the end of question time they passed around several big, pink buckets for those who hadn’t had a chance to donate at the entrance — many arrived after the 6:30 start.

I would say that about 100 people attended. Half the time was a talk by Chehab, with the remainder of the time given to questions from the floor. Stuart Rees, from the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, took on the role of master of ceremonies.

Chehab has been a political editor for about 25 years and is affiliated with the London-based Al Hayat Arabic newspaper. He also contributes to The Guardian and CNN. He looks somewhat like Harrison Ford, only slightly darker-hued.

He has a strong accent but his delivery is accomplished in fluent English.

The strongest point he made was about the likelihood of civil war in Iraq should the coalition forces leave now. In his opinion civil war is unlikely. This is due, he stressed, to the large number of intermarriages between Sunni and Shia populations — about 30% of marriages are of this nature. He also pointed to the large number of “wise” leaders in each of the camps.

Ninety-nine percent of the insurgency is related to al-Qa'ida in Iraq, he opined, although “the insurgency started in the shape of something tribal” immediately after the old regime was put down. I wished that I had taken along a recording device, as he said many interesting things that I’ve now forgotten.

Apparently John Abizaid visited Australia recently, when he said that they estimated there to be about 20,000 insurgents operating in the country, and the U.S. didn’t expect to defeat them in 2006. Two weeks ago there occurred the first attempt by the U.S. forces to have a dialog with the insurgents; the talks included top Iraqi government people as well as U.S. military people.

Chehab was not optimistic about the potential for security. Iraqi policemen often go masked, he said, afraid of reprisals. How can you expect the people to feel secure when the security forces themselves are afraid. The Iraqis are not “capable of looking after their own security”, he said. Although he estimated that about 85% of Iraqis want the coalition forces to leave the country immediately, he said they are also afraid of what would happen once that event occurred. This, despite his comments on the unlikelihood of civil war.

He also had comments to make about the level of media coverage of the situation. At least 16 Arab journalists were killed in 2005, he asserted, although one never hears of these deaths. We only hear about what happens to Westerners. The Iraqi Sunday Times correspondent received a bullet in the mail. He took notice of the threat and stopped contributing to that newspaper.

Chehab also talked about the elections. Iraqis, he said, had really enjoyed the experience of voting. Even though they often didn’t care about who they would vote for, the act of going to the polling booth and inserting the ballot into the box was interesting for them. He saw crowds of people at the voting stations, like the crowds to be seen at football matches.

The questions he answered were often long-winded. Some were quite wide of the topic. Bob Gould, of course, was there, denigrating the Americans.

I also met a co-worker there — Jock. We chatted for half an hour before the talk started. He took a picture with his digital camera. The man on the right is Chehab with Stuart Rees on the left.

Chehab also signed copies of his book at the exit, at a table manned by staff from Gleebooks. The book is titled Iraq Ablaze – Inside the Insurgency (2005).

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