Rebel without a pause

Being blacklisted by the US for supporting insurgents has made one former Iraqi MP even more determined to eject the US military.

Meshaan al Jabourey, a former Iraqi MP and vocal supporter of insurgents, in his office at Al Rai television station, in Yaufur, near Damascus, 23 October 2008. Mr al Jabourey fled from Iraq in February 2006 after being accused of corruption and stripped of his parliamentary immunity. 
Photo by Phil Sands.
 *** Local Caption ***  Meshaan al Jabourey 4.jpg
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Damascus // Meshaan al Jabourey was talking as he always does, almost too fast to keep up with, racing through sentences, words and theories spilling out, his face theatrically animated with the effort. A finger jabbed the air when he got on to the subject of being blacklisted by the United States government for supporting insurgents in Iraq. "I confirm to you and say frankly, we are a mouthpiece for Iraqi resistance groups and their leaders," he said. "There is no more softness left."

The 51-year-old Iraqi was a member of parliament in post-US invasion Baghdad until 2006 when he was expelled on charges of embezzling government money and supporting militants. He denies the former but - pointedly - not the latter. Stripped of parliamentary immunity from prosecution, Mr al Jabourey fled to the safety of Syria where he has since lived in exile. For a year, his Egypt-based television station, Al Zawraa, continued to broadcast pro-insurgency material, including clips of US soldiers being blown up.

It was Al Zawraa that was largely responsible for the legend of "Juba the Baghdad Sniper", a mythical figure who claims to have shot more than one hundred US troops. Some of the killings were recorded with a video camera and Al Zawraa would show them on repeat loops with a soundtrack of Islamic music - a sort of insurgent MTV. Then in early 2007, the former MP suffered another setback when, under pressure from the US and Iraqi governments, the Egyptian authorities took Al Zawraa off the air. According to US intelligence services, the station was broadcasting coded messages to the Islamic Army of Iraq as well as showing recruitment videos.

By January this year, the US treasury department had imposed sanctions on Mr al Jabourey, freezing any assets he held in the US, on the grounds he "provides financial, material and technical support for acts of violence that threaten the peace and stability of Iraq". The US government also said that, despite making public comments that were critical of al Qa'eda, the Mosul-born Iraqi had worked with a jihadist umbrella organisation - the Mujahadin Shura Council - and was therefore in league with Osama bin Laden.

Rather than lying low, by early 2008 Mr al Jabourey was heavily involved in another television station, the Syria-based Al Rai, not to be confused with the Kuwaiti station of the same name. By his account, the project was to be entirely different from Al Zawraa and, in an effort to avoid a direct confrontation with the US authorities, Mr al Jabourey took a consulting role. The station was officially run by his Syrian-born wife, Rawa al Usta and, for a time, followed a more moderate line than Al Zawraa. Then in September, the US issued a sanctions order against both Al Rai and Mrs al Usta, again on the grounds the station was supporting terrorism in Iraq.

"To begin with, my wife was shocked and worried by the sanctions," Mr al Jabourey said in an interview with The National at Al Rai's headquarters, an upmarket villa and studio complex in Yaufur, near Damascus. Until then, he insisted that Mrs al Usta had acted as controller of the station and had vetoed all his efforts to show insurgent material. After the sanctions were imposed that changed, he said.

"Slowly she became angry and that was it," he said, sitting behind a large desk piled with mounds of paperwork. "Her wise speech and calmness ended: 'The Syrian-diplomacy is over and now it's my decision. We are showing the resistance clips and it is in response to the US sanctions.' " One of the station's programmes is called Let's Talk Frankly, which gives airtime to militants involved in fighting US troops in Iraq.

"Every day we have a guest here from the Iraqi resistance," he said. "We have people calling in from across the world and we allow them to call for jihad if they want. This is my vision. "There has been a coup d'etat in Al Rai TV and the loudest voices are now with the resistance. I resist the Americans with all means now I am the decision maker here." According to Mr al Jabourey, his wife is the first Arab woman to be specifically targeted by US sanctions, something he is clearly proud of. "She wasn't happy with it at the start," he said, "but now she too is happy."

The effect of the US treasury's orders has apparently been negligible because neither Mr al Jabourey nor his wife holds assets in America. "If they can find that I have anything there, let them keep it," he said. Mr al Jabourey is one of the most renowned family names in Iraq. The tribe claims about two million members, mainly in the areas around Salahadin province and Ninewa. Many Jaboureys were trusted members of Saddam Hussein's Republic Guard until tribal members attempted to assassinate the former president, the event that triggered Mr al Jabourey's first period of exile from his homeland.

While living outside Iraq, he actually called for Saddam's overthrow, as part of the opposition that eventually helped to persuade the Americans to go to war. "I pushed for the toppling of the regime," he said. "I feel sorrow at that now." Rather than simply casting aside the Baath Party and ushering in a smooth transition of power to a new leader as he had hoped, Mr al Jabourey said the invasion opened the door for an Iranian domination of Iraq and a sectarian war that he blamed on Tehran, Israel and Kurdish separatists, all of whom he insisted had a vested interest in seeing Iraq weak and divided.

"These groups had some success and created a sectarian war," he said. "But now their influence is lessening. I think all Iraqis realise the divisions were something pushed by our enemies. "Today we have a strengthening nationalist discourse and the chance to divide Iraq has vanished. I met with fighters who were involved in the sectarian war - they were cutting the heads off Iraqis for sectarian reasons - and they are ashamed of that now, they are ashamed they did that."

Despite the recently concluded Status of Forces Agreement between the US and Iraqi governments pledging to pull American combat troops out of the country by 2011, and the ambition of Barack Obama, the president-elect, to withdraw even faster than that, Mr al Jabourey said resistance must continue. "I dream of seeing no American soldiers in my country," he said. "I'm angry with anyone who advocates a slow withdrawal. They are traitors but are afraid to admit it. Yesterday is better than today for the Americans to leave."

Included on Mr al Jabourey's list of traitors are members of the Sahwa Councils, the Sunni-dominated tribes that once sided with the insurgents but who then signed on to the US payroll and turned against al Qa'eda-style extremists. "It is not a matter that all Sahwa are bad," he said. "Some are agents of the occupation, some fight against al Qa'eda. To me the Americans and al Qa'eda are the same - both are foreign occupation forces."

At its peak, the Sahwa movement had about 90,000 members although the Iraqi government is slowly cutting back on that number since taking over responsibility for the project in October. Many in the Sahwa fear the authorities will stop paying them and that the insurgency will reignite as disenchanted fighters pick up their weapons again. Mr al Jabourey said he hoped and expected that to happen."We will be happy if [Iraqi prime minister Nouri] al Maliki doesn't pay them salaries," he said.

"We always said to the Sahwa that their sell by date was passed, that they were just being used by the Americans. The history of all occupations is filled with such traitors who are prepared to deal with the occupiers, like the Algerians, and the French, in Vietnam. "If the Sahwa say sorry and go back to the resistance groups we can forget history." His remarks have not made him popular among tribal leaders in Iraq who are part of the Sahwa movement and who are currently co-operating with the Americans. Sheikh Malik al Gariri, a Sahwa tribal leader in south central Iraq, the area once notorious as the "triangle of death", dismissed Mr al Jabourey's claims.

"The traitors are the ones who leave the country and don't stay here to help," Sheikh Malik told The National. "I stay. I feel the suffering and try to help my people and my neighbours, by all means, we are patriots. If someone considers himself a patriot, let him come back and resist if he wants to resist but those who leave are traitors." Sheikh Malik heads a tribal force of 3,000 fighters. Once hostile to the US military presence, he has entered into an uneasy alliance with US forces. He keeps a poster on his wall in Arabic extolling the virtues of those who shed the blood of occupiers.

Despite his hard-line rhetoric against the US in Iraq, and his insistence that those co-operating with America have betrayed their country, Mr al Jabourey praised David Petraeus, the former US commander in Iraq credited with cutting back violence and suffocating much of the sectarian conflict. He also said he was not automatically against dealing with the current Iraqi government and Mr al Maliki, a man he described as "obsessed with position and power".

"Maliki is desperate to retain his post as prime minister whatever the cost," he said. "If he does that by strengthening Iraq as a country, we are happy with that. When he is tough against the Kurds and the Americans, it is my duty to support him. When he tries to behave like a national leader, I must support him." With the US military preparing at least a partial withdrawal, and with the worst of the sectarian bloodshed in Baghdad apparently over, Mr al Jabourey signalled that a new war may be about to break out, one between Iraq's Arabs and Kurds.

The Kurdish northern region already has significant autonomy from Baghdad and Arab Iraqis fear the Kurds are trying to seize Kirkuk and parts of Ninewa province, en route to declaring themselves an independent. "The Kurdish want to revive the sectarian fire because they cannot stand against the Arabs if we are unified," Mr al Jabourey said. He went on to directly accuse Kurdish groups of setting off "sectarian bombs" to provoke renewed conflict.

"I have spoken to the Arab groups that used to be setting off sectarian bombs and making the Sunnis fight the Shiites," he said. "They have stopped doing this because they realised they were doing us harm. Today the only ones setting those bombs are the Kurdish and al Qa'eda. Kurdish groups are supporting al Qa'eda in Mosul and Kirkuk and Baghdad." The allegation cannot be verified and it is one rejected categorically by the Kurdish who blame Iraq's Arabs for the sectarian violence. But if Mr al Jabourey does, as he claims, represent the viewpoint of powerful former insurgents, it suggests more fighting lies ahead for Iraq.

"Let me just say that the Kurds have bitten of more than they can chew," he warned.