Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Patrick Cockburn: Iraq is a country no more. Like much else, that was not the plan

Patrick Cockburn: Iraq is a country no more. Like much else, that was not the plan

The death rate in Baghdad has fallen, but it is down to ethnic cleansing

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Sunday, 16 March 2008

'It reminds me of Iraq under Saddam," a militant opponent of Saddam Hussein said angrily to me last week as he watched red-capped Iraqi soldiers close down part of central Baghdad so the convoy of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, might briefly venture into the city.

Five years after the invasion of Iraq, the US and the Iraqi governments claim that the country is becoming a less dangerous place, but the measures taken to protect Mr Maliki told a different story. Gun-waving soldiers first cleared all traffic from the streets. Then four black armoured cars, each with three machine-gunners on the roof, raced out of the Green Zone through a heavily fortified exit, followed by sand-coloured American Humvees and more armoured cars. Finally, in the middle of the speeding convoy, we saw six identical bullet-proof vehicles with black windows, one of which must have been carrying Mr Maliki.

The precautions were not excessive, since Baghdad remains the most dangerous city in the world. The Iraqi Prime Minister was only going to the headquarters of the Dawa party, to which he belongs and which are just half a mile outside the Green Zone, but his hundreds of security guards acted as if they were entering enemy territory.

Five years of occupation have destroyed Iraq as a country. Baghdad is today a collection of hostile Sunni and Shia ghettoes divided by high concrete walls. Different districts even have different national flags. Sunni areas use the old Iraqi flag with the three stars of the Baath party, and the Shia wave a newer version, adopted by the Shia-Kurdish government. The Kurds have their own flag.

The Iraqi government tries to give the impression that normality is returning. Iraqi journalists are told not to mention the continuing violence. When a bomb exploded in Karada district near my hotel, killing 70 people, the police beat and drove away a television cameraman trying to take pictures of the devastation. Civilian casualties have fallen from 65 Iraqis killed daily from November 2006 to August 2007 to 26 daily in February. But the fall in the death rate is partly because ethnic cleansing has already done its grim work and in much of Baghdad there are no mixed areas left.

More than most wars, the war in Iraq remains little understood outside the country. Iraqis themselves often do not understand it because they have an intimate knowledge of their own community, be it Shia, Sunni or Kurdish, but little of other Iraqi communities. It should have been evident from the moment President George Bush decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein that it was going to be a very different war from the one fought by his father in 1991. That had been a conservative war waged to restore the status quo ante in Kuwait.

The war of 2003 was bound to have radical consequences. If Saddam Hussein was overthrown and elections held, then the domination of the 20 per cent Sunni minority would be replaced by the rule of the majority Shia community allied to the Kurds. In an election, Shia religious parties linked to Iran would win, as indeed they did in two elections in 2005. Many of America's troubles in Iraq have stemmed from Washington's attempt to stop Iran and anti-American Shia leaders such as Muqtada al-Sadr filling the power vacuum left by the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The US and its allies never really understood the war they won that started on 19 March 2003. Their armies had an easy passage to Baghdad because the Iraqi army did not fight. Even the so-called elite Special Republican Guard units, well-paid, well-equipped and tribally linked to Saddam, went home. Television coverage and much of the newspaper coverage of the war was highly deceptive because it gave the impression of widespread fighting when there was none. I entered Mosul and Kirkuk, two northern cities, on the day they were captured with hardly a shot fired. Burnt-out Iraqi tanks littered the roads around Baghdad, giving the impression of heavy fighting, but almost all had been abandoned by their crews before they were hit.

The war was too easy. Consciously or subconsciously, Americans came to believe it did not matter what Iraqis said or did. They were expected to behave like Germans or Japanese in 1945, though most of Iraqis did not think of themselves as having been defeated. There was later to be much bitter dispute about who was responsible for the critical error of dissolving the Iraqi army. But at the time the Americans were in a mood of exaggerated imperial arrogance and did not care what Iraqis, whether in the army or out of it, were doing. "They simply thought we were wogs," says Ahmad Chalabi, the opposition leader, brutally. "We didn't matter."

In those first months after the fall of Baghdad it was extraordinary, and at times amusing, to watch the American victors behave exactly like the British at the height of their power in 19th-century India. The ways of the Raj were reborn. A friend who had a brokerage in the Baghdad stock market told me how a 24-year-old American, whose family were donors to the Republican Party, had been put in charge of the market and had lectured the highly irritated brokers, most of whom spoke several languages and had PhDs, about the virtues of democracy.

There was a further misconception that grew up at this time. Most Iraqis were glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein. He had been a cruel and catastrophically incompetent leader, who ruined his country. All Kurds and most Shia wanted him gone. But it did not follow that Iraqis of any description wanted to be occupied by a foreign power.

Later President Bush and Tony Blair gave the impression that overthrowing the Baathist regime necessarily implied occupation, but it did not. "If we leave, there will be anarchy," friends in the occupation authority used to tell me in justification. They stayed, but anarchy came anyway.

In that first year of the occupation it was easy to tell which way the wind was blowing. Whenever there was an American soldier killed or wounded in Baghdad, I would drive there immediately. Always there were cheering crowds standing by the smoking remains of a Humvee or a dark bloodstain on the road. After one shooting of a soldier, a man told me: "I am a poor man but my family is going to celebrate what happened by cooking chicken." Yet this was the moment when President Bush and his Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, were saying that the insurgents were "remnants of the old regime" and "dead enders".

There was also misconception among Iraqis about the depth of the divisions within their own society. Sunni would accuse me of exaggerating their differences with the Shia, but when I mentioned prominent Shia leaders they would wave a hand dismissively and say: "But they are all Iranians or paid by the Iranians." Al-Qa'ida in Iraq regarded the Shia as heretics as worthy of death as the Americans. Enormous suicide bombs exploded in Shia marketplaces and religious processions, slaughtering hundreds, and the Shia began to hit back with tit-for-tat killings of Sunni by Shia militia death squads or the police.

After the Sunni guerrillas blew up the Shia shrine in Samarra on 22 February 2006, sectarian fighting turned into a full-blown civil war. Mr Bush and Mr Blair strenuously denied that this was so, but by any standard it was a civil war of extraordinary viciousness. Torture with electric drills and acid became the norm. The Shia Mehdi Army militia took over much of Baghdad and controlled three-quarters of it. Some 2.2 million people fled to Jordan and Syria, a high proportion of them Sunni.

The Sunni defeat in the battle for Baghdad in 2006 and early 2007 was the motive for many guerrillas, previously anti-American, suddenly allying themselves with American forces. They concluded they could not fight the US, al-Qa'ida, the Iraqi army and police and the Mehdi Army at the same time.

There is now an 80,000 strong Sunni militia, paid for and allied to the US but hostile to the Iraqi government. Five years after the American and British armies crossed into Iraq, the country has become a geographical expression.

'Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq' by Patrick Cockburn is published next month by Faber & Faber

France says Iraqi crisis one of worst in worldwide Politics 3/17/2008 3:55:00 PM

PARIS, March 17 (KUNA) -- Despite reports of some progress on security and political issues, the situation in Iraq remains "extremely fragile" and requires a global approach to handle a particularly deep humanitarian crisis there, French officials say.
Answering questions on an Amnesty International report on the humanitarian toll of the Iraqi crisis and the creation of over four million refugees from that country, French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani said that Iraqis and non-Iraqis, alike, must mobilize to find a solution to this problem.
"The crisis affecting Iraq is one of the most grave in the world," she said.
"In a situation which remains extremely fragile with regard to security, there is a humanitarian dimension of a particular gravity," she added.
"The priority is to mobilize all energies, those of Iraqis, but also those of countries of the region, the United States, the European Union and the International Community, to bring a solution here without delay," Andreani remarked.
In the third week of April, a major Ministerial conference is being organized in Kuwait to address the problem of Iraq, with participation by Iraqs neighbours, while many other countries will attend as observers.

Only Saddam Hussein can run Iraq, says aide

By Damien McElroy in Baghdad

Last Updated: 2:39am GMT 18/03/2008
A prominent figure in the Iraqi opposition movement that helped propel America and Britain to war in 2003 has said the country would be better off if Saddam Hussein was still in power.

Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein was executed in 2006

Lufti Saber, once a key lieutenant of the first post-Saddam Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has a ringside seat on the new Baghdad regime as an aide to the American-led military coalition.

But the political manoeuvring and administrative incompetence he has witnessed on a daily basis has led the former political prisoner to radically revise his views of the invasion of Iraq.

"None of these people trust each other," he said. "Everything comes down to that. The whole system is set up to ensure that nobody does anything that somebody else thinks is wrong.

"Saddam had a way of rising above that. As soon as he made a decision, it happened. People knew it had to be done. It didn't matter where they were in the country, they knew the floor at work had to be cleaned, just in case Saddam turned up. Now the country is engulfed in chaos and nobody does anything because they all refuse to take responsibility."

Iraq marks the fifth anniversary of the US-led invasion this week, plagued by problems seen only in failed states.

Many former supporters of the invasion share a bleak outlook on the country's future prospects, though polls show general population retains hopes for the future.

Mr Saber spent eight years on death row during Saddam's dictatorship before he was release in an eve of battle amnesty.

He had worked for Dr Allawi's Iraq National Accord, which in the mid-1990s was based in the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq.

Before his arrest, Mr Saber was instrumental in orchestrating a failed coup within the senior military ranks in 1996.

"I never thought I would say it given that he sentenced me to death," he said. "But I find myself wishing Saddam was still here. Only he had the knack of running this god-forsaken country."

Despite the failure of the putative putsch, Dr Allawi, a secular Shi'ite Muslim from a prominent Baghdad merchant family, emerged as a close ally of Western intelligence agencies, including MI6 and the CIA.

After the invasion, he stood as one of a handful of potential leaders of a new government.

But Washington installed an interim administration, the Coalition Provision Authority, which struggled to establish its authority.

By the time Dr Allawi accepted a leather-bound portfolio certifying his appointment as interim prime minister in July 2004, a multi-pronged insurgency had already taken root.

With Iraqi's splitting along confessional lines, there was no prospect of the kind of revitalised secular state he sought flourishing.

Fundamentalist Shi'ite political parties triumphed in the 2005 elections and have held sway ever since.

Baghdad, once a cluttered stew of religious and ethnic groups, emerged from the 2006 civil war as a predominately Shi'te city, pocketed with Sunni enclaves.

When Saddam was executed in 2006, Shi'te politicians danced around his body. Mr Saber suffered in the sweep of violence across the city.

"My home is in Ameriya district, which was mixed but is now exclusively Sunni," he said.

"I've had to move to a flat which is an area that is protected. My family are in Syria. It is unbelievable to me that I am so close to not being able to live in my country."

Credible surveys estimate that 4 million Iraqis have been displaced since 2003, half forced outside its borders.

The numbers of killed will never be known but have been estimated as high as 650,000, equivalent to 2.5 per cent of the population.

Iraqis rank the failure to provide electricity and basic services such as health care as a more grievous wrong than the absence of security.

Despite billions of dollars of foreign aid, most parts of Baghdad get less than 6 hours of electricity a day from the national grid, and often as little as two.

Mr Saber blames the predominance of former exiles in the post-Saddam government for the failure to create a functioning state.

At least a dozen senior figures, including both former prime ministers, a deputy prime minister and the national security advisor, keep homes and families in London.

Jalal Talabani, Iraq's president, remarked at a dinner with his top advisers for members of the British embassy that he was the only person present who did not have a UK passport.

After a split with Dr Allawi, Mr Saber left Iraqi politics. He now works for the American and British officers responsible for training the Iraqi army.

As such his job puts him in daily contact with both Iraqis and their American advisors.

Despite the presence of 140,000 American, and 4,000 British troops, in Iraq, he believes the loyalties of most government officials lie with the regimes in the Middle East most hostile to the emergence of a democratic state.

"We have the Americans and British here in great numbers and I can see Iraq has failed to take advantage," he said.

"When I ask why I conclude the officials just want to benefit themselves by resting on the support of Iran or Turkey. It's a tragedy."