Journalists Discuss Iraqi Perspective

Al-Jazeera correspondent Abdel Hamid and Hassan Mneimneh, a columnist for Al-Hiyat (hi-YATT), a leading Arab newspaper, offer their insights on how Iraqis are responding to Gen. Petraeus' latest assessment of U.S. involvement in Iraq.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going to return now to the subject of Iraq. A little earlier we discussed how the war is being assessed in the halls of Congress. Now we want to get the perspective of other close observers. Joining us are two journalists from outlets that mainly serve Arab readers and listeners. Hoda Abdel Hamid is the Iraq correspondent for Al Jazeera English. She's on the line from Baghdad. And Hassan Mneimneh is director of the Iraq Memory Foundation and a columnist for the Arab newspaper Al-Hayat. He's here with me in the studio. Welcome to you both. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. HASSAN MNEIMNEH (Columnist, Al-Hayat): Thank you.

Ms. HODA ABDEL HAMID (Reporter, Al Jazeera): Thank you.

MARTIN: Hoda, can I start with you? How is Al Jazeera covering the hearings? Or are they covering the hearings?

Ms. HAMID: We are covering the hearing. We have been live yesterday during most of it. We are giving it a lot of attention. As you said, we give more of a regional perspective, obviously, on what he is saying, both, I mean Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus are saying than maybe a more Western perspective of it, but we are, I think, covering it as extensively as any other channel at the moment.

MARTIN: And what do you think is the - what is the headline for your viewers?

Ms. HAMID: Well, I think the headline for our viewer is that the troops will stay longer, which is not a - there will be a freeze on troop withdrawal, which is not a different headline from anyone else. I do think that we then treat it differently in the sense that we question whether actually the surge is really working and whether this reduction of violence is a real reduction of violence or just some sort of cosmetics, which is happening on the surface.

MARTIN: And one got the sense, in watching the coverage here, that there was a lot of frustration on the part of members of Congress, including some Republicans and I wonder, was that also part of the story for - in your coverage?

Ms. HAMID: Well, I think what was more part of the story is what General Petraeus was putting forward and what were the differences between this time and last time he had a hearing. We did also put it in the context about how it will be used for the presidential elections and by each candidate and how he would use this hearing to further his own Iraq agenda.

MARTIN: Hassan, briefly, if you'd tell us about Al-Hayat for those who aren't familiar with it. You were telling me it's like the International Herald Tribune, and it's available online.

Mr. MNEIMNEH: It aims to be, actually, it is a newspaper of record in the Arab world and it aims to be the second newspaper in every Arab speaking - Arabic speaking country. But as a matter of fact, it is the editorial work for Al-Hayit is both in London and in Beirut, but it's printed across the Arab world, in Cairo, in Bahrain, in Casablanca, and in other places. The focus, really, of the coverage, at least my analysis of it, has been on trying to probe into the - not only the American intentions with regard to Iraq, but also the way the Arab culture and Arab media interprets those intentions. I would say up until the surge had happened, the debate in the Arab press and in the Arab culture about American intentions were whether the U.S. presence in Iraq is merely malevolent or malignant - not this, I mean, whether it is malice or it is just incompetence.

I think what the surge has introduced, and especially the coverage of the surge that has described the internal divisions, in terms of the American political class, but also American society, in regard to the war. What it has introduced is another element. Is the U.S. really trying to make it work? I think this - now, we have at least, if not definitely not the dominant point of view, it is a point of view that says that the U.S. is indeed trying to make it work. And this is reflected, to some extent, as a result of the actual figures, both in terms of reduction of violence, but also, frankly, in terms of the break down of fear. Up until the surge, the notion of al-Qaeda being unavoidable in Iraq, in the sense that the al-Qaeda is proceeding towards establishing what, at that point, was a fictional state, the Islamic state of Iraq, but that that Islamic state, is moving on. Since the surge and since the reversal, at least, of that dynamic and the creation of a new one, a new dynamic within the Sunni community, in which Sunnis are fighting al-Qaeda, and not just the central government.

You have had new elements introduced to the discourse. And I'll say, the same applies now, with regard to Jaish al Mahdi with regard to Shiite militias. The idea that, again, it is not a central government that consists of Sunnis that is fighting Jaish al Mahdi. It is a central government that is largely dominated by Shiites, that's fighting Jaish al Mahdi.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News, and we are speaking about the Iraq hearings with two international observers, two journalists, who mainly serve an Arab language audience. Hoda, the allies were on the three remaining presidential candidates, all of whom have had a chance to question General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, yesterday. Do you have a sense of whether your viewers are interested in the views of these candidates, as they relate to Iraq?

Ms. HAMID: No, I think the - our viewers here would be more interested in knowing, really, how General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker actually sell the surge, to the American people. How they - we've been hearing about this freeze of troops withdrawal since a few weeks now, and I think one of the focuses, were how are they going to put it down. Are they going to explain that there is more violence, meaning, violence is up again? Are they going to explain that there's some serious concerns about the future of the wakening council? And for how long they would actually continue being the good guys? At the moment, a lot of them are threatening to quit their jobs. A lot of them are threatening to resume fighting the Americans, at the moment, because they are growing more and more frustrated with the Shiite-led government. So, I think that's the kind of analysis we try to see and how, really, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, sell that to Congress.

MARTIN: What - and also, another sub-text, if I can call it that, of the hearings here, is the number of casualties that Americans have sustained, just since the weekend. I believe there been 13 deaths of American service members since Sunday. As a corollary to that, is - you were talking about the surge, and whether it is indeed been really effective. Are the casualties of the civilians there, also part of the story in an on-going basis with Al-Jazeera?

Ms. HAMID: Yes they are, I mean, we always try to - especially when anniversaries like this come on, I would say, we would always try to underline more the human cost of this war, particularly, for Iraqis, either by covering, really this - how many deaths. I think the big question is, how many Iraqis have died since the invasion? The numbers vary and vary with quite the big - on a large scale. And it seems to be some sort of political reasoning behind it, for not wanting to reveal those numbers...

MARTIN: How - what number do you use?

Ms. HAMID: Well, we usually, sort of say, that the numbers vary between the lowest and the highest around. It is very, really difficult to...

MARTIN: To have independent verification.

Ms. HAMID: I think this is also one of the tragedies of this war, is that no one wants to really reveal how many Iraqis have died so far. And these numbers exist with both the Iraqi government and the American government.

MARTIN: I see. Hassen, you have a weekly column, which will appear on Sunday, and I believe you wrote about the hearings, do you mind giving us a preview? What did you talk about?

Mr. MNEIMNEH: Actually, the focus of my analysis was about the political uses of the question. That the Iraq question is ultimately a voter in the next elections and it might be the voter that will determine the elections. And it's not simply a matter of presentation, it is also a matter of accomplishment. In the sense that, up until and few months ago, the surge, did indeed provide results on the ground. At least, I'm not simply talking now from analytical point of view, even from an Iraqi civilian point of view. It became, the quality of life improved. That does not mean that it became at the level that it is really acceptable, it was still below zero, but it improved considerably, from the simply disastrous state that it was in.

So, my point was, and still is, actually, to what extent do the successes of the surge, or the accomplishment of the surge, will maintain themselves in such a way that the surge will became an asset for the Republican candidate, meaning for McCain. Or to what extent it would be, if eroded and if at the current trend, which is a resumption of violence, albeit of a different nature. If it ends up being - if it ends up corroding the successes or the benefits of surge, it would be clearly a benefit, clearly to the advantage of the Democratic candidate, whether Obama or Clinton.

MARTIN: I see. Hoda, finally, can I ask you, what are you working on today?

Ms. HAMID: Well, today I'm actually working on - well, today is the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, and we sort of marked this as Al-Jazeera in a quiet, more important way, than the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the war. So we had a whole day of basically coverage of that. And that's it.

MARTIN: Interesting. OK. And Hassan, what's next for you? What's your next story?

Mr. MNEIMNEH: Well, clearly, the interest of the Arab public in the American elections is a paramount, at this point, in particular, what's happening on the Democratic front. It is - there's a little bit of bewilderment about the continuation of the Clinton candidacy, given that the numbers seem to favor Obama. So, it's trying to unravel, trying to explain...

MARTIN: Explain.

Mr. MNEIMNEH: The intricacies of the situation that I'm...

MARTIN: Well, when you figure it out, you let us know. OK. Hassan Mneimneh is director of the Iraq Memory Foundation. He's a columnist for Al-Hayat. It is an Arab newspaper. He was kind enough to join me here, in our Washington studio. We were also joined Hoda Abdel-Hamid. She is the Iraq correspondent for Al Jazeera English and she joined us from Al Jazeera studios in Doha, actually no, I think you're in Baghdad? Hoda, correct?

Ms. HAMID: No, I am in Doha.

MARTIN: Doha. Forgive me, well, thank you for clarifying that. She's in Doha, in Qatar. Hoda, thank you also for joining us.

Ms. HAMID: You're welcome.

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