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Edwin Black "Banking on Baghdad"

Aired October 22, 2004 - 11:59   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Unfolding this hour, lots of news here in Washington, around the nation and around the world.
... Coming up, I'll speak live with the author of a new book chronicling the history of Iraq and what it means for Iraq today. How Iraqis and the rest of the world have always been banking on Baghdad. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: With elections scheduled for January, the world is keeping a wary eye on Iraq to see if democracy can take root there after dictatorship and war. But to better understand where Iraq is going, we all need to better understand where it has been. There's a new book entitled "Banking on Baghdad" that traces the complicated and fascinating history of Iraq, this oil-rich nation. Its author, the journalist Edwin Black joining us now live from Detroit. Edwin, thanks very much for joining us. In a nutshell, what is the gist? Why is it so important to go back, not only hundreds but thousands of years to understand where Iraqis are today?

EDWIN BLACK, AUTHOR, "BANKING ON BAGHDAD": Well, we need to understand that Iraqis only have two attractions for the west, geography and geology. In the 17th and 18th century, it was a halfway point, a steppingstone between Great Britain and India. In the 20th century, its sole attraction to the west was geology, its oil. And in 1914, the British and the western powers, primarily the British, invaded what was then Mesopotamia and they did it strictly to gain control of the oil that would one day be pumped out of the ground.

And in 1918, they actually went to the steps of Baghdad and said these words. They said, our armies come to you not as conquerors, but as liberators, come not as conquerors, but as liberators. And the Arabs have heard this from us for nine decades as we have sent our best armies, our best diplomats and our best corporate surrogates to obtain the oil to feed the addiction that the industrialized world has managed to obtain in Iraq.

BLITZER: So clearly the 25 million or so Iraqis are skeptical of any foreign intervention in their country even in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein. But if you look at what's happening in Iraq, the Shia in the south, the Sunnis sort of in the central part of Iraq, the Kurds in the north, other groups around, is this country capable of remaining a unified national entity called Iraq? Or do you see problems down the road splitting it up?

BLACK: Well, of course this country Mesopotamia, which was fundamentally three Ottoman provinces, basically Mosul in the north and Baghdad in the center and Basra in the south, was put together artificially by the British to create a modern country called Iraq. There never was a country there and this was done on July 24, 1920. And they fundamentally did it so there would be some governmental structure in place so someone could sign on the dotted line to authorize the oil that the British intended to take out.

They wanted to instill Democracy to create a stable environment for this oil to flow. The Arabs have understood this and all the things that we have seen on television in the past few weeks, have been experienced by the British and at other times the Americans throughout the 20th century, decade after decade --

BLITZER: So, can Iraq stay together as a unity given the history, given the various ethnic and religious groups? BLACK: Actually, I don't think it can. I think that even if there are elections, even if there is some semblance of a unified nation going forward, the historic forces, the forces which are 7,000 years old, will come to the fore and break that country apart, because that country, if it really wanted democracy, if it really wanted unity, it does not need a permission slip from the United States.

BLITZER: Do you think there will be democratic elections or close to democratic elections at the end of January?

BLACK: Well, there could be democratic elections or something that passes for democratic elections. But will the people of Iraq validate them as representative? They have had elections there before. They've had governments there before. They've had an attempt at democracy before and all of these have failed.

We have to ask, what is going to be done in January that hasn't been done for 7,000 years and the people of Iraq do not want our values and our ideas of democracy imposed upon them. They are not a pluralistic people. They have their own ideas and when they finally form their national identities, it's going to be more along tribal basis and religion than on anything that we can cobble to together.

BLITZER: I don't know if you saw the "Washington Post" this morning, a front page story by Robin Wright referring to a poll recently conducted, a U.S.-sponsored poll in Iraq suggesting if there were elections, religious fundamentalists, Muslim leaders probably would be elected at the expense of secularists like Ayad Allawi. What do you make of that?

BLACK: Well, I believe that the nation is based upon religion and based upon tradition. And I would not believe any poll that comes out of Iraq, because the people in Iraq have learned over the decades and over the centuries how to answer questions from outsiders. And I would believe that the forces of violence, the forces of insurrection are going to overcome any effort to impose democracy or national rule. Remember, there has never been a democratic government in control in Mesopotamia or Iraq over the centuries, even though they have worn those labels. It's all been strong men. It's all been puppets who have been designated as Democratic leaders and the people have never accepted them. In fact, all the revolutions in Iraq have occurred because the people have been invited into the streets to overthrow the power source.

BLITZER: Edwin Black is the author of "Banking on Baghdad," a history, a good history of Iraq, very fascinating information in there. Edwin, thanks for spending a few moments with us.

BLACK: Thank you very much Wolf.



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