Patrick Cockburn has been hailed by Sidney Blumenthal
in Salon as "one of the most accurate and intrepid journalists in Iraq."
And that's hardly praise enough, given what the man has done. The Middle Eastern
correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent, he's been on
the spot from the moment when, in February 2003, he secretly crossed the Tigris
River into Iraq just before the Bush administration launched its invasion.
Here, for instance, is a typical
striking passage of his, written in May 2003, just weeks after Baghdad fell.
If you read it then, you hardly needed the massive retrospective volumes like
Thomas Rick's Fiasco that took years to come out:
"[T]he civilian leadership of the Pentagon… are uniquely reckless,
arrogant and ill informed about Iraq. At the end of last year [Deputy Secretary
of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz was happily saying that he thought the Iraqi reaction
to the capture of Baghdad would be much like the entry of the U.S. Army into
Paris in 1944. He also apparently believed that Ahmed Chalabi…, then as now
one of the most unpopular men in Iraq, would be the Iraqi Charles de Gaulle.
"These past mistakes matter because the situation in Iraq could easily
become much worse. Iraqis realize that Saddam may have gone but that the United
States does not have real control of the country. Last week, just as a[n]
emissary [from head of the U.S. occupation Paul Bremer] was telling academics
at Mustansiriyah, the ancient university in the heart of Baghdad, who should
be purged from their staff, several gunmen, never identified, drove up and
calmly shot dead the deputy dean."
How much worse it's become can be measured by the two suicide bombs that went
off at the
same university a month apart early in 2007, killing not a single deputy
dean but more than 100 (mostly female) students.
Or it can be measured by this telling little tidbit
written in October 2003: "The most amazing achievement of six months of American
occupation has been that it has even provoked nostalgia in parts of Iraq for
Saddam. In Baiji, protesters were holding up his picture and chanting: 'With
our blood and with our spirit we will die for you Saddam.' Who would have believed
this when his statue was toppled just six months ago?"
Or by this description, written in
the same month, which offers a vivid sense of why an insurgency really took
off in that country:
"US soldiers driving bulldozers, with jazz blaring from loudspeakers,
have uprooted ancient groves of date palms as well as orange and lemon trees
in central Iraq as part of a new policy of collective punishment of farmers
who do not give information about guerrillas attacking US troops… Asked how
much his lost orchard was worth, Nusayef Jassim said in a distraught voice:
'It is as if someone cut off my hands and you asked me how much my hands were
Or by this singular
detail from June 2004 that caught the essence of the lawlessness the U.S.
occupation let loose: "Kidnap is now so common [that] new words have been added
to Iraqi thieves' slang. A kidnap victim is called al-tali or the sheep."
Or this summary
of the situation in May 2004, one year after Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech:
"Saddam should not have been a hard act to follow. After 30 years of disastrous
wars, Iraqis wanted a quiet life. All the Americans really needed to do was
to get the relatively efficient Iraqi administration up and running again. Instead,
they let the government dissolve, and have never successfully resurrected it.
It has been one of the most extraordinary failures in history."
Last September, typically, Cockburn traveled
on his own to dangerous Diyala Province just as the fighting there was heating
to a boil. He summed up the situation parenthetically, as well as symbolically,
when he commented that Diyala was not a place "to make a mistake in map reading."
Cockburn should gather in awards for guts, nerve, understanding, and just
plain great war reporting. Before heading back to Iraq yet again, he put his
years of reporting and observation together in an already classic book, The
Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq, which no political library should
be without. The following essay that he just wrote in Baghdad will be the introduction
to the paperback edition of that book, when released this fall – and special
thanks go to his publisher, Verso, for letting this site post it. Tom
A Small War Guaranteed to Damage a Superpower
What the Bush Administration Has Wrought in Iraq
by Patrick Cockburn
At 3 am on January 11, 2007 a fleet of American
helicopters made a sudden swoop on the long-established Iranian liaison office
in the city of Arbil in northern Iraq. Their mission was to capture two senior
Iranian security officials, Mohammed Jafari, the deputy head of the Iranian
National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the head of intelligence
of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. What made the American raid so extraordinary
is that both men were in Iraq at the official invitation of the Iraqi President
Jalal Talabani, who held talks with them at his lakeside headquarters at Dokan
in eastern Kurdistan. The Iranians had then asked to see Massoud Barzani, the
president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, in the Kurdish capital Arbil.
There was nothing covert about the meeting which was featured on Kurdish television.
In the event the U.S. attack failed. It was only able to net five junior Iranian
officials at the liaison office that had existed in Arbil for years, issuing
travel documents, and which was being upgraded to a consular office by the Iraqi
Foreign Ministry in Baghdad. The Kurdish leaders were understandably furious
asking why, without a word to them, their close allies, the Americans, had tried
to abduct two important foreign officials who were in Iraq at the request of
the Iraqi president. Kurdish troops had almost opened fire on the American troops.
At the very least, the raid showed a contempt for Iraqi sovereignty which the
U.S. was supposedly defending. It was three months before officials in Washington
admitted that they had tried and failed to capture Jafari and General Frouzanda.
The U.S. State Department and Iraqi government argued for the release of the
five officials as relative minnows, but Vice President Cheney's office insisted
fiercely that they should be held.
If Iran had undertaken a similar venture by, for example, trying to kidnap
the deputy head of the CIA when he was on an official visit to Pakistan or
Afghanistan, then Washington might have considered the attempt a reason for
going to war. In the event, the US assault on Arbil attracted bemused attention
inside and outside Iraq for only a few days before it was buried by news of
the torrent of violence in the rest of Iraq. The U.S. understandably did not
reveal the seniority of its real targets – or that they had escaped.
The Arbil raid is significant because it was the first visible sign of a
string of highly significant American policy decisions announced by President
George W. Bush in an address to the nation broadcast in the U.S. a few hours
earlier on January 10. There have been so many spurious turning points in
the war – such as the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the handover of
sovereignty to an Iraqi government in 2004, or the elections of 2005 – that
truly critical moments are obscured or underrated.
The true importance of Bush's words took time to sink in. In the months
prior to his speech, the U.S. seemed to be feeling its way towards an end
to the war. The Republicans had lost control of both houses of Congress in
the November 2006 elections, an unexpectedly heavy defeat blamed on the Iraq
war. Soon afterwards, the bipartisan Iraqi Study Group of senior Republicans
and Democrats, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, spelled out the extent
of American failure thus far, arguing for a reduced U.S. military commitment
and suggesting negotiations with Iran and Syria.
President Bush did the exact opposite of what the Baker-Hamilton report
had proposed. He identified Iran and Syria as America's prime enemies in Iraq,
stating: "These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use
their territory to move in and out of Iraq." Instead of reducing the American
commitment, Bush pledged to send 20,000 extra troops to Iraq to try to secure
Baghdad. In other words, the U.S. was going to respond to its lack of success
in the conflict by escalating both the war in Iraq and America's confrontation
with Iran in the Middle East as a whole. The invasion of 2003 had destabilized
the whole region; now Bush was about to deepen that instability.
The raid on Arbil showed that the new policies were not just rhetoric. Iraqis
were quicker than the rest of the world to pick up on what was happening. "People
are saying that Bush's speech means that the occupation is going to go on a
long time," the Iraqi political scientist Ghassan Attiyah told me soon after
the president had stopped speaking. Although the new U.S. security plan for
Baghdad, which began on February 14th, was sold as a temporary "surge" in troop
numbers, it was evident that the reinforcements were there to stay.
In April, the Pentagon announced that it was increasing Army tours in Iraq
from 12 to 15 months. Without anybody paying much attention, American officials
stopped talking about training Iraqi army troops as a main priority. This
was an important shift in emphasis. Training and equipping Iraqi troops to
replace American soldiers – so they could be withdrawn from Iraq – had been
the cornerstone of U.S. military planning since 2005. Now, the policy was
being quietly downgraded, though not abandoned altogether.
Could the new strategy succeed? It seemed very unlikely. The U.S. had failed
to pacify Iraq between 2003 and 2007. Now, with much of the American public
openly disillusioned with the war, Bush was to try for victory once again.
Common sense suggested that he needed to reduce the number of America's enemies
inside and outside Iraq, but his new strategy was only going to increase them.
The U.S. Army was to go on fighting the five-million-strong Sunni community,
as it had been doing since the capture of Baghdad. The Sunni demand for a
timetable for U.S. withdrawal was not being met. At the same time, the U.S.
was going to deal more aggressively with the 17 million Shias in Iraq. It
would contest the control over much of Baghdad and southern Iraq of the Mehdi
Army, the powerful militia led by the nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr,
who is regarded with cult-like devotion by many Shia Iraqis. Not content with
this, Washington was also more openly going to confront Iran, the most powerful
of Iraq's neighbors.
As with so many U.S. policies under Bush, the new strategy made sense in
terms of American domestic politics, but in Iraq seemed a recipe for disaster.
Iran was easy to demonize in the U.S., just as Saddam Hussein had been blamed
four years earlier for everything wrong in Iraq and the Middle East. The New
York Times, which had once uncritically repeated White House claims that
Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, now ran articles on its front
page saying that Iran was exporting sophisticated roadside bombs to Iraq that
were killing American soldiers. There was no reference to the embarrassing
discoveries of workshops making just such bombs in Baghdad and Basra. Above
all, the Bush administration was determined to put off the day – at least
until after the Presidential election in 2008 – when it had to admit that
the U.S. had failed in Iraq.
A Security Plan Lacking Security
I was in Baghdad soon after Bush had spoken. I had never known it to be
so bad. My driver had to take a serpentine route from the airport, driving
along the main highway, then suddenly doing a U-turn to dart down an alleyway.
He was trying to avoid checkpoints that might be manned by Police Commandos
in their mottled uniforms who often acted as Shia death squads. The journey
to the al-Hamra Hotel in Jadriyah, a district built in a loop of the Tigris
river, took three times as long as normal. In the following days, I could
see Mehdi Army checkpoints, civilians with guns and a car slewed across the
road, operating almost within sight of the heavily guarded July 14 Bridge
that leads to the Green Zone.
The extent of the military failure over the previous three-and-a-half years
was extraordinary. The foreign media never quite made clear how little territory
the U.S. and the Iraqi army fully controlled – even in the heart of Baghdad.
It was astonishing, in early 2007, to look out from the north-facing windows
in the Hamra and see columns of black smoke billowing up from Haifa Street
on the other side of the Tigris river. This is a two mile long militant Sunni
corridor less than a mile from the northern end of the Green Zone. Since the
early days of the fighting, the U.S. Army, supported by Iraqi army troops,
had been unsuccessfully trying to drive out the insurgents who ruled it.
Sometimes, U.S. commanders persuaded themselves (and embedded journalists)
that they were making progress. On this occasion, I looked up and read a long,
optimistic article about Haifa Street in an American paper, claiming there
were signs that "the tide was turning on Iraq's street of fear." It was no
longer an arrow pointing at the heart of the Green Zone; rebel leaders had
been arrested or killed; large weapons caches had been discovered; insurgent
attacks were less intense and less frequent; Iraqi troops were at last being
effectively deployed. Having finished reading the piece, I was reflecting
on whether or not the U.S. military and its local allies were at last achieving
something on Haifa Street when I glanced at the piece and realized, with a
groan, that it was dated March 2005, almost two years earlier.
American commanders often genuinely believed that they were in command of
towns and cities which Iraqis, including the local police, told me were dominated
by Sunni insurgents or Shia militia. On one occasion in early 2007, senior
U.S. and Iraqi officers were giving a video press conference from Diyala,
a much fought over province northeast of Baghdad, confidently claiming that
they were winning the fight against the Sunni rebels. Even as they were speaking
an insurgent squad attacked and captured the mayor's office in Baquba, the
capital of Diyala. It only withdrew after blowing up the building and kidnapping
the mayor. The government announced that it was dismissing 1,500 policemen
in Diyala because of their repeated failure to resist the insurgents. When
I checked with a police commander a few months later he said threw up his
hands in disgust and said that not a single policeman had been fired.
The addition, promised by Bush, of five extra brigades to the U.S. forces
in Baghdad made, at least at first, some difference to security in the capital.
The number of bodies of people tortured, shot in the head, and dumped in the
street, went down from the horrific levels of late 2006. These death-squad
killings were mostly of Sunni and were the work of the Mehdi Army or of army
and police units collaborating with them.
A few days before the security plan began, Muqtada al-Sadr stood down his
militiamen, telling them to dump their arms and move out of Baghdad. He was
intent on avoiding direct military confrontation with the U.S. reinforcements.
But while the Shia were killing fewer Sunni, the Sunni insurgents were still
slaughtering Shia civilians with massive suicide bombs, often vehicle-borne,
targeting crowded market places. These did not stop and improved security
measures made little difference. On February 3, a truck delivering vegetables
blew up in the Shia-Kurdish Sadriya quarter in central Baghdad killing 135
people and wounding 305. Ten weeks later, long after the Security Plan had
been launched, another vehicle bomb blew up in the same market, killing 127
people and wounding 148. Not surprisingly, local people jeered and threw stones
at American and Iraqi soldiers who turned up after the explosion. The main
failing of the security plan for ordinary Iraqis, many of whom had initially
welcomed it, was simply that it did not deliver security for them or their
Who Rules Iraq?
There was a central lesson of four years of war which Bush and Tony Blair
never seemed to take on board, though it was obvious to anybody living in
Iraq: the occupation was unpopular and becoming more so by the day. Anti-American
guerrillas and militiamen always had enough water to swim in. The only community
in Iraq that fully supported the U.S. presence was the Kurds – and Kurdistan
was not occupied.
It is this lack of political support that has so far doomed all U.S. political
and military actions in Iraq. It makes the country very different from Afghanistan
where foreign troops are far more welcome. Opinion polls consistently show
this trend. A comprehensive Iraqi survey has been conducted by ABC News, USAToday,
the BBC, and ARD annually over the last three years. Its findings illuminate
the most important trends in Iraqi politics. They show that, by March 2007,
no less than 78% of Iraqis opposed the presence of U.S. forces, compared to
65% in November 2005 and 51% in February 2004. In the latter year, only 17%
of the population thought that violence against U.S. forces was acceptable,
while by 2007 the figure had risen to 51%. This pool of people sympathetic
to Sunni insurgents and Shia militias was so large as to make it difficult
to control and impossible to eliminate them.
Again and again, assassinations and bombs showed that the Iraqi army and
police were thoroughly infiltrated by militants from all sides. Nowhere was
safe. Some incidents are well known. In April 2007, a suicide bomber blew
himself up in the café of the Iraqi parliament in its heavily defended building
in the Green Zone. The bomber had somehow circumvented seven or eight layers
of security. Earlier, on March 23, the deputy prime minister, Salam al-Zubaie,
was badly injured by a bomber who got close to him with the connivance of
There were lesser unknown incidents indicative of the divided loyalties
of the security forces. On March 6, militants from the Islamic State of Iraq
movement – of which al Qaida in Iraq is part – stormed Badoush prison northwest
of Mosul. In the biggest jailbreak since 2003, they freed 68 prisoners of
whom 57 were foreign. Of the 1,200 guards at the prison, 400-500 were on duty
at the time, but did nothing to stop the Islamic militants breaking in or
the prisoners breaking out. Some American soldiers see that the problem is
not about a few infiltrators. "Any Iraqi officer who hasn't been assassinated
or targeted for assassination is giving information or support to the insurgents,"
one US marine was quoted as saying. "Any Iraqi officer who isn't in bed with
the insurgents is already dead."
Some problems facing the U.S. and Britain in Iraq have not changed since
Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Getting rid of the Iraqi leader was
far easier than finding a successor regime that would not be more dangerous
to American interests. It is a dilemma still unresolved more than four years
into the occupation.
A prime reason why the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein during his war with
Iran in 1980-88 is that it did not want a Shia clerical regime, possibly sympathetic
to America's enemies in Tehran, to come to power in Iraq. It was the same
motive that stopped President Bush senior pushing on to Baghdad and overthrowing
Saddam after defeating the Iraqi army in Kuwait in 1991. After 2003, Washington
was in the same quandary: If elections were held, the Shia, comprising 60%
of the population that had been long excluded from power, were bound to win.
The nightmare for Washington was to find that it had conquered Iraq only
to install black-turbaned clerics in power in Baghdad, as they already were
in Tehran. At first, the U.S. tried to postpone elections, claiming that a
census had to be held. It was only on the insistence of the Shia Grand Ayatollah
Ali al-Sistani that two elections were held in 2005, in which the Shia religious
parties triumphed. Washington has never been comfortable with these Shia-Kurdish
governments. It demanded that they try to reconcile with the Sunni – though
exactly how Shia and Kurdish leaders are supposed to do this, given that the
main Sunni demand is a timetable for an American withdrawal, has never been
For their part, the Shia, have become increasingly suspicious that the U.S.
and Britain do not intend to relinquish real control over security to the
elected Iraqi government. There were many examples of this. For instance,
in the Middle East the most important force underpinning every government
is the intelligence service. In theory (as I explain in my book, The
Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq), the Iraqi government should get
its information from the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS) that was
established in 2004 by the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority. But a peculiarity
of the INIS is that its budget is not provided by the Iraqi Finance Ministry
but by the CIA.
Over the next three years, they paid $3 billion to fund its activities.
During this time it was run by General Mohammed Shahwani, who had been the
central figure in a CIA-run coup in 1996 against Saddam Hussein that had failed
disastrously. For long periods he was even banned from attending Iraqi cabinet
meetings. A former Iraqi cabinet minister, who was a member of the country's
National Security Council, complained to me that "we only get information
that the CIA wants us to hear." Iraqis did not fail to spot the extent to
which the power of their elected government was being trimmed. The poll cited
above showed that by Spring 2007 only 34% of Iraqis thought their country
was being run by their own government; 59% believed the U.S. was in control.
The Iraqi government had been robbed of legitimacy in the eyes of its own
In the course of 2006 and 2007, Baghdad disintegrated into a dozen hostile
cities at war with each other. There were fewer and fewer mixed Sunni and
Shia neighborhoods. Terror engulfed the city like a poisonous cloud. There
was a lot to be frightened of: Sunni insurgent groups; the Shia militias,
Mehdi Army, and the Badr Organization; police and police commandos; the Iraqi
army and the Americans. One day I received an e-mail message from an old friend.
He wrote: "Yesterday the cousin of my stepbrother (as you know, my father
married twice) was killed by Badr troops three days after he was arrested.
His body was found in the trash in al-Shula district. He was one of three
other people who were killed after heavy torture. They did nothing, but they
are Sunni people among the huge numbers of Shia people in the General Factory
for Cotton in al-Khadamiyah where they were working. His family couldn't recognize
his face [and only knew it was him] because of the wart on his arm."
Most of my Iraqi friends had fled Iraq for Jordan or Syria or, when they
could get a visa, Western Europe. Soon, I could not enter the coffee shop
of The Four Seasons, the hotel where I usually stayed in the Jordanian capital
of Amman, without seeing several Iraqis I knew sitting at other tables. These
were the better-off. The poor often had to chose between staying in jobs where
they were at risk, becoming permanently unemployed, or taking flight. I was
in contact with a Sunni family called al-Mashadani who lived in the west Baghdad
district of Hurriya. It was under attack by Shia militiamen. Khalid, the father,
worked as mechanic in the railway station. He was forced to leave his job
when the repair yard was taken over by Shia militiamen. He stayed away and
asked a Shia fellow worker to pick up his salary. This worked until the Shia
militias found out what was happening and threatened to kill any Shia who
passed on the salary of a Sunni.
Khalid was forced to leave for Syria where he found work. He left behind
his wife, Nadia, and four children, the eldest of whom was eight years old.
Living with them in the house was Nadia's sister, Sarah, whose husband had
been an ordinary guard at the Oil Ministry building. He was killed by the
resistance who considered that his job made him a collaborator with the government.
On December 25, 2006, this whole family group was told by the Shia militia
to get out of their house immediately without taking any possessions or be
killed. They fled into the night and sat beside the road until a charitable
minibus driver picked them up. Eventually, they found refuge in a school.
Nadia recalled that "we stayed 29 days in a dark and damp room and we couldn't
go out of it when the students were studying." Her husband in Syria offered
to return, but she told him to stay because the family could not afford for
him to lose his job.
Nadia blames the Americans for the sectarian civil war that had engulfed
her family. She says: "We were living together, Sunni and Shia, and there
was no sign of sectarian differences between us in Iraq until the Americans
came and encouraged sectarianism and let in foreign terrorists." Many Iraqis
similarly see sectarianism as the work of the Americans. This is not entirely
fair. Sectarian differences in Iraq were deeper under Saddam Hussein and his
predecessors than many Iraqis now admit. But in one important respect, foreign
occupation did encourage and deepen sectarianism. Previously a Sunni might
feel differently from a Shia but still feel they were both Iraqis. Iraqi nationalism
did exist, though Sunni and Shia defined it differently. But the Sunnis fought
the U.S. occupation, unlike the Shia who were prepared to cooperate with it.
After 2003, the Sunni saw the Shia who took a job as a policeman as not only
a member of a different community, but as a traitor to his country. Sectarian
and national antipathies combined to produce a lethal brew.
The war in Iraq that started in 2003 has now lasted longer than the First
World War. Militarily, the conflicts could not be more different. The scale
of the fighting in Iraq is far below anything seen in 1914-18, but the political
significance of the Iraq war has been enormous. America blithely invaded Iraq
to overthrow Saddam Hussein to show its great political and military strength.
Instead it demonstrated its weakness. The vastly expensive U.S. war machine
failed to defeat a limited number of Sunni Arab guerrillas. International
leaders such as Tony Blair who confidently allied themselves to Washington
at the start of the war, convinced that they were betting on a winner, are
either discredited or out of power.
At times, President Bush seemed intent on finding out how much damage could
be done to the U.S. by the conflict in Iraq. He did so by believing a high
proportion of his own propaganda about the resistance to the occupation being
limited in scale and inspired from outside the country. By 2007, the administration
was even claiming that the fervently anti-Iranian Sunni insurgents were being
equipped by Iran. It was a repeat performance of U.S, assertions four years
earlier that Saddam Hussein was backing al-Qaeda. In this fantasy world, constructed
to impress American voters, in which failures were sold as successes, it was
impossible to devise sensible policies.
The U.S. occupation has destabilized Iraq and the Middle East. Stability
will not return until the occupation has ended. The Iraqi government, penned
into the Green Zone, has become tainted in the eyes of Iraqis by reliance
on a foreign power. Even when it tries to be independent, it seldom escapes
the culture of dependency in which its members live. Much of what has gone
wrong has more to do with the U.S. than Iraq. The weaknesses of its government
and army have been exposed. Iraq has joined the list of small wars – as France
found in Algeria in the 1950s and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s
– that inflict extraordinary damage on their occupiers.
Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent,
Patrick Cockburn was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting.
His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The
Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the
National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction. This essay will be the
new introduction to the paperback edition of that book, due this fall.
Copyright 2007 Patrick Cockburn