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A Week in Hell

Seven Days on Iraq’s Cruel Roads

by PATRICK COCKBURN


Saturday March 18: Sulaimaniyah

The difficulty in reporting Iraq is that it is impossibly dangerous to know what is happening in most of the country outside central Baghdad. Bush and Blair hint that large parts of Iraq are at peace; untrue of course but difficult to disprove without getting killed in the attempt. I decided at the last moment that my best bet was to go to Sulaimaniyah, an attractive city ringed by snow-covered mountains in eastern Kurdistan. I would then drive south sticking to a road running through Kurdish towns and villages to Khanaqin, a relatively safe Kurdish enclave in north east Diyala province, one of the more violent places in Iraq.

I met Sarko Mahmoud, a highly efficient press officer of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) that controls Khanaqin, in the lobby of the Ashti hotel in Sulaimaniyah. I said I did not need guards but I must have a guide who knew the roads well because any wrong turn could be fatal. Sunday March 19 Khanaqin We pick up the guide at 8 am. He looks businesslike and has a pistol concealed in his belt. We start for the south through heavy rain that has turned part of the road into muddy puddles. The weather begins to clear. We skirt the reservoir at Derband-i-khan, the water glimmering far below us in the rocky valleys, before entering a long unlit tunnel passing under a mountain. After this we follow a river, called the Diyala on my map but known to the Kurds as the Alwan. It flows along several channels broken up into many channels by islands covered in brush and small trees, the vivid green of their leaves contrasting with the brown semi-desert on either side of the valley.

We turn sharp east at Kalar, a grubby Kurdish town, over a long metal bridge. This avoids Jalawlah, the next town on the main road, which is mixed Kurdish and Arab and where there has been fighting. Ominously there are few trucks coming against us. I was on this road on the road last year when it was crowded with them. We go the heavily-guarded office of the deputy head of the PUK, Mamosta Saleh, who says gloomily that the situation in Diyala is getting worse. The insurgents have control of Baquba, the provincial capital. He says: "They are also attacking a Kurdish tribe called the Zargosh in the Hamrin mountains. They have killed three or four of them and 282 families (about 2,000 people) have fled here." He added that security was so bad in Diyala that government food rations ­ all that stands between many Iraqis and starvation — have not been delivered for seven months.

I do the rounds of the town and hear on all side that "Security is good in the center." Everybody says this in Iraq, even in villages that do not seem to have a center. I also know that six weeks earlier a time bomb killed 12 and wounded 40 people in the center of Khanaqin as people were celebrating Ashura, the day holy to Shia when Imam Hussein was martyred in the battle of Kerbala in 680AD (the Kurds in this part of Iraq are Shia). I see the police chief Colonel Azad Issa Abdul Rahman. He says: "In Baquba the situation is not very good. The terrorists control it. The government only has a few buildings." Baquba, with a population of 250,000, is only 30 miles from Baghdad. It is as if the government in London had lost control of Reading or Rochester.

I say I want to meet some refugees from Baquba or Baghdad. A grim- looking policeman is given the job of guiding us. He says "follow me" and we drive a long time way out of town behind his red car. Then he stops and talks to some men. The conversation seems too long if he is only asking the way. Possibly he is just lost but we are feeling a little nervous of kidnappers so we race back into town and go to the office of the mayor, Mohammed Amin Hassan Hussein. He explains why there are no trucks on the road: The government in Baghdad has shut the nearby border with Iran, a serious blow to Khanaqin, an impoverished town, that depends on cross-border trade. So far the closure has cost it 1,000 jobs and I can see trucks and trailers parked all over town.

There is a thin man in a grey suit talking in Arabic to the mayor when I come in. He says his name is Ghassan Mohammed Shati and he is a police captain and Arab tribal chief from Jalawlah, the town I had taken some trouble to avoid, coming here I ask what security is like there. "It is fine in the center," says Shati. "But in the outskirts terrorists killed my father, brother and aunt in March 2005."

 

Monday March 19, Sulaimaniyah

I am trying to work fast because Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year and main holiday and feast of the year is on Wednesday when work will stop. I have an interesting conversation with a friend long resident in Kurdistan in the coffee shop of the Sulaimani Palace Hotel where I am staying. He says Iranians much upset by US helicopters raiding their diplomatic headquarters in Arbil, the Kurdish capital, on January 11. In retaliation they are playing a much more active role in Kurdistan ­ the very thing the Americans had accused them of doing previously.

I drive up into the mountains behind Sulaimaniyah. The snow is melting and the grass on the hills is agreeably green and spring-like. I suddenly remembered I had been here before. After the Kurdish uprising was crushed in March 1991 the government in Baghdad brought us to Sulaimaniyah to show they had recaptured it. They took us to these same hills where a yellow-coloured mechanical grab was unearthing the bodies of Iraqi government security men, still wearing olive green uniforms, from muddy mass graves in the hills. Reviled as torturers and killers they had expected no mercy from the Kurds and had fought to the last man.

 

Tuesday March 20, Kirkuk

I drive to Kirkuk, a place like Khanaqin, where you don’t want to take the wrong road by mistake. The clich_ description of the place used to be to describe it as the powder keg of Iraq. The idea was is that the competing claims of Kurds and Arabs to control Kirkuk, along with those of the Turkoman who hold the trump card of Turkish support, would one day lead to an explosion. It hasn’t happened yet, though it might. Every city and town in Iraq is now able to proudly claim to be a powder keg in its own right, so people are forgetting what a dangerous place Kirkuk can be.

I was in Kirkuk the day the city fell to the Kurds on April 10, 2003. I had been driving 20 miles to the west when a car passed with the driver waving frantically from the window and shouting: "It is finished! It is finished!" He meant the Iraqi army had fled. The PUK forces capured Kirkuk with no resistance. The Arabs and Turkomans were deeply unhappy.

They are unhappy still. On Monday, the day before I arrived, there were seven bomb attacks, killing 12 people and injuring 39. It is not as bad as Baghdad ­ few places are ­ but dead bodies, often tortured, turn up every few days. We came from Sulaimaniyah until we met, as arranged, at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Kirkuk, the PUK representative and three or four heavily armed Kurdish soldiers. I was very conscious we were driving a car with number plates identifying it as coming from Arbil the Kurdish capital. A lot of people have been killed in Iraq over the last couple of years because their number plates seemed to identify them as an enemy.

We drove through the centre of Kirkuk, a dirty, impoverished city that has benefited disgracefully little from the oil that has been pumped out of the ground on which it stands since 1927. People sell cheap food and garments from carts in the main street. We went past the Republican Hospital where last year Kurdish security arrested Luai al-Tai, a young Arab doctor who was a secret insurgent. He appeared to be commendably tireless in tending wounded police, soldiers and officials. Then it was discovered that Dr Luai was so attentive to his duties because he was making sure they died of their injuries. By the time he was arrested he had killed 43 injured men over an eight-month period.

I visited the heavily fortified zone in which are all the government offices. It is like a mini-Green Zone modelled on Baghdad. We stick to Kurdish areas of the city. Rafaat Hamarash, the PUK boss in Kirkuk, says that the latest bombs were in Arab and Turkoman districts. He said: "Today there will be a rumor that the Kurds are behind these crimes." In theory there should a referendum at the end of the year to decide if Kirkuk will join the Kurdistan Regional Government. All the Kurds I spoke to expect the referendum to be postponed but not indefinitely.

 

Wednesday March 21 Sulaimaniyah

It is Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year, and almost every shop in the city is shut. Kurdish woman are all wearing bright shimmering traditional dresses. Many more men than usual are dressed in the national dress of baggy uniforms, cummerbund and headress. The Kurds are keen on picnics and from early in the morning they are streaming out of Sulaimaniyah into the hills and mountains with baskets crammed with food.


Thursday March 22 Halabja

I have always liked the road to Halabja, the city that was doused with poison gas by Saddam Hussein in March 1988. Some 5,000 people died. It is in the middle of a fertile plain overlooked by the Howraman mountains, its peaks white with snow at this time of year.

At the entrance to Halabja is one of the world’s strangest monuments. From the distance it looks like a mosque and it was designed as a memorial to those who died in the gas attack. Its shape is like a circus tent made out of concrete that blossoms out into a sort of top-knot encircling a small globe.

Today the monument is burned out. Demonstrators from Halabja, survivors of the gas attack it commemorated, destroyed it last year complaining that the Kurdish government was always lamenting the dead but doing nothing to help the living. The government claims that the demonstrators were egged on by Islamic fundamentalists.

I find the memorial sadder now than before it was burned. A herd of brown cows is wondering across the entrance. Soldiers say I can look at the remains of the memorial but must not photograph it. I looked at the walls of the building where the heat of the flames cracked the marble on which the names of the thousands of dead are inscribed. A single naked bulb hangs over a sort of altar. There is a panorama, dark and scorched by the fire, showing Kurds dying as they inhale the deadly gas. Outside the building there are two waterless and rather pretty fountains donated by Kurdish artists and made from fragments of marble and ceramics: dark red, brown, white and light blue. A bird, singing vigorously, has made its nest in the burned out globe at the top of the memorial.

 

Friday March 23 Sulaimaniyah

The Iranians pick up 15 British servicemen searching ships in the Shatt al Arab. The cold war between Iran and the US, with Britain trotting along behind, is getting colder. The confrontation with Iran is very much Bush’s doing and once again Blair has given him a blank check with no sign that he gets any influence over Washington’s policies in return.

Saturday March 24 Arbil

I drive three hours through the hills to the Kurdish capital Arbil, an uglier city than Sulaimaniyah. The 15 British servicemen have been taken to Tehran. It was foolish to have them searching vessels in disputed waters off the Shatt al-Arab as friction with Iran increased this year.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.