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Vanity Fair's Christopher Hitchens on What It's Really Like in Iraq

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, July 24, 2003, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: A lot of recent reports on Iraq seem to consist of two stories — morale is bad and our troops are getting killed. But is this the real picture? What about the work being done to rebuild the infrastructure or the success rounding up the remaining Saddam loyalists, not to mention Uday and Qusay Hussein (search).

Joining us now is Christopher Hitchens (search), a writer for Vanity Fair who just got back from a trip to Mosul in northern Iraq. He is also the author of a new book called A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. And Christopher, that is today's big question — how are things really going in Iraq at this moment?

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, VANITY FAIR: Well, I had been there earlier this year in late March, in fact, on the southern border, briefly. And I remember then that the whole mind set of the press, you may remember it, was that it was a quagmire. It is a better story. Remember that week when Donald Rumsfeld (search) seemed to have lost the plot? Most of my colleagues thought, “Well, that reads better.” And I remember that mentality when I was there recently. I was in north and south and central Iraq. The press is still investing itself, it seems to me, in a sort of cynicism. It comes out better for them if they can predict hard times, bogging down, sniping, attrition.

And so if no one is willing to take the gamble, as they see it, of saying actually that it's going a lot better than it is, but it is. It's quite extraordinary to see the way that American soldiers are welcomed. To see the work that they're doing and not just rolling up these filthy networks of Baathists and Jihaddists, but building schools, opening soccer stadiums, helping people connect to the Internet, there is a really intelligent political program as well as a very tough military one.

GIBSON: You know, Christopher, we never hear about that.

HITCHENS: No.

GIBSON: Are they really rebuilding the schools, and rebuilding hospitals and rebuilding soccer ...

HITCHENS: I'm serious. I don't consider myself to be that credulous. I'm very sales resistant, in fact. In Mosul where I was, I left too early. I left on Monday early. If I waited 12 hours, I could have been there [when Uday and Qusay were killed]. But they weren't just very confident about the amount of information they were being given and the number of informers and tips that were coming to them. They had more, they told me, than they could sift about that. But one of the palaces, for example, that Saddam built, he'd stolen the land for from Mosul University.

Mosul is the site of a very famous old Iraqi university. The American forces were refurbishing the place. They were going to tear down some of the outer walls, give this palace to the university. They'd also connected the university to the Internet and to the Web. Helped people contact scholars on the outside world. That was all the job of these very good- humored, very thoughtful officers who were really helping to rebuild the place.

GIBSON: You know, Christopher ...

HITCHENS: I felt a sense of annoyance that I had to go there myself to find any of that out.

GIBSON: We wonder, if you turn a light switch, does the power go on? Does the fan go on? If you open a water faucet, does water come out? If you flush the toilet, does it go away?

HITCHENS: Good question, because until not long ago, that was more or less universally the case in Mosul. And, of course, further up in Iraq, in northern Iraq, Kurdistan (search) itself, most of the towns now look like southern California. It's incredible the difference it's made for them to have been 12 years free of Saddam Hussein. They are 12 years into national building. It gives you an idea of what it might be like. In Mosul, it was funny. They had got the lights more or less back on and they were reconnected to the grid to help out Baghdad, which is short of electricity. The Iraqi grid is very badly messed up, as you know. Then they had to lose a little bit of power to help Baghdad get power back. But that's the way Saddam used to punish people. He would turn off the lights on cities that didn't like him.

GIBSON: And what about this business that Americans are anguished about the fact that day in, day out there are attacks that take the lives of American soldiers.

HITCHENS: Yes.

GIBSON: And we seem to be dependent upon Iraqis cooperating… Do you have a sense that the Iraqis, generally speaking, are going to help root out these [remaining Saddam loyalists, or not?]

HITCHENS: Well, these [remaining Saddam loyalists] are the frightened gangsters who until recently were doing the torture chambers, and digging the mass graves and running the execution centers. These are people with nothing to lose, they are the absolute scum of the earth and they're paid from the stolen money from the central bank of Baghdad. You know, $8 million was dug up in the garden of one of the people who was brought in to identify the gruesome twosome, yesterday. Eight million bucks and a lot of jewelry and gold. They pay unemployed kids and imported holy warriors $1,000 in cash if they will just take a pot shot with a throwaway gun or roll a grenade from behind. It's much more like Mafia meets Jihad than any kind of a resistance.

The other side, though, is that lots of people are coming eagerly forward to say not just that they want to help them find these ruffians, but that they want to be a part of the effort to roll them up. There are people who really want to sign up to join the hunt for Saddam and his people. And I actually think that the U.S. Army is probably not doing enough to recruit them.

GIBSON: Christopher, we are just out of time. Thank you very much, Christopher Hitchens.

HITCHENS: Thanks for having me.

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