The Struggle for Iraq is Just Beginning

It is tempting to see the so-called handover of power from the US to the Iraqi interim government on 28 June as a fake. The few attending the ceremony at which sovereignty was legally transferred had to pass through four American checkpoints. Iyad Allawi, the new prime minister, worked for years for MI6 and the CIA. He is kept in power by 138,000 US troops. The ministers in the new government live isolated from the rest of Baghdad in palatial villas inside a secure compound. Many of them have spent most of their lives outside Iraq.

The pre-trial hearings for Saddam Hussein and his henchmen had the same artificial flavour — not allayed by US censorship, which removed pictures of Saddam in chains from the footage, as well as the legal submissions of his 11 senior lieutenants. The censors tried to excise the moment when Saddam said ‘this is theatre — Bush is the real criminal,’ and failed only because they didn’t understand how the sound equipment worked. US officials made little effort to hide the fact that they were running the trial, and that the target audience wasn’t Iraqi. The only foreign reporters allowed in were American and the timing of the hearing coincided with US breakfast television shows.

What America does in Iraq is determined by November’s presidential election as never before. If George Bush can pretend for four months that he has Iraq under control then he may well be re-elected. If disasters from Iraq continue to dominate front pages then he will probably lose. In April 150 soldiers were killed: the White House now needs to show voters that casualties are on the way down.

The appointment of Allawi is itself a demonstration of how far the balance of power in Iraq has swung against the US over the last year. Twelve months ago Paul Bremer, the US viceroy, was blithely talking about continuing the occupation for two years. His first act on arriving in Iraq was to disband the Iraqi army and security forces. The state machinery was deliberately dissolved. Direct imperial rule seemed feasible to Washington. Young Republicans with the right connections to the White House or the Bush family were sent off to rule Iraq like the offspring of British gentry dispatched to loot India in the 18th century. A 24-year-old Republican who applied for a job at the White House was instead sent to Iraq to reopen the Baghdad stock exchange. It stayed shut. At first Bremer planned only an advisory role for even such a tame organisation as the Iraqi Governing Council — until last summer, when American losses began to mount.

Inside the heavily protected Green Zone, the US enclave in the heart of Baghdad, Bremer and the uniformed American military were cut off from what was happening on the ground. US generals claimed at briefings that the number of hostile incidents was falling. I began to wonder why, if there were only sixteen or so attacks on American soldiers a day, I seemed regularly to witness a quarter of these whenever I drove out of Baghdad. American soldiers in the field told me that they no longer reported guerrilla attacks unless there had been US casualties. It was a bureaucratic hassle to make out the reports and their commanders were keen to hear that resistance was petering out.

By November it was impossible to conceal the bad news any longer. I was in the dusty truck-stop city of Falluja, west of Baghdad, when we heard that a giant Chinook helicopter had been shot down. We drove across an old iron bridge over the Euphrates to look at the wreckage. On the way we saw a burned out vehicle that had been hit by a rocket; the American contractors inside had been killed. On the far side of the river, farmers were handing round twisted pieces of metal from the helicopter’s fuselage: 16 soldiers had died. Shortly after that incident, the White House began making its plans to dilute full imperial control by installing the interim government.

The American problem was simple — though there is no evidence that Bremer and the US military saw it that way. Iraqi politics revolve around the relations between the three main communities: Sunni Muslim Arabs, Shia Arabs and Kurds. The base for Saddam’s regime was the Sunni community from the towns and cities around Baghdad. By disbanding the army and persecuting members of the Baath party, Bremer alienated the Sunni, who make up 20 per cent of the population. The US occupation could have survived without them if they had been prepared to give power to the Shia (60 per cent of the population); they already had the Kurds (20 per cent) in their corner. But Bremer was ambivalent about elections. The US didn’t really want to share power with anybody, Sunni or Shia.

Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority weren’t able to see that their political strength was diminishing by the month. In April the US took two disastrous decisions which led to simultaneous confrontations with both Sunni and Shiite communities. Four American private security contractors had been killed, their bodies burned and hung up from the bridge at Falluja; US marines quickly besieged the city. Six hundred people were killed. With ludicrously bad timing, Bremer had also decided to pursue Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric whose father had been martyred by Saddam Hussein in 1999. Both ventures failed. The marines dared not storm Falluja for fear of a general Sunni uprising. Sadr had retreated to the holy cities of Kufa and Najaf but the US army could not send its tanks into Shiite shrines. In both Falluja and Najaf American soldiers were forced to withdraw.

Power was already seeping away from the US before it was nominally handed over to Allawi. A year after Bush famously declared major combat in Iraq over, insurgents have their own capital in Falluja, thirty miles from Baghdad. In April, I was caught in an ambush of US petrol tankers at Abu Ghraib. The US military, unprepared to recognise that they had lost control of the road, were still sending convoys down it. By early June the road to the airport, the main US base near Baghdad, was no longer safe. Four security men who had been staying two floors above me in the Hamra Hotel were killed as they drove to the airport by men armed with machine-guns and grenade launchers. In the past I had often travelled with Dan Williams of the Washington Post — but he was almost killed when his car was attacked on the road between Falluja and Abu Ghraib. Gunmen in another vehicle fired AK-47 rounds into his car at point-blank range. He was saved only because his car was armoured, had bullet-proof glass, and because his driver kept going when the two back tyres were shot out.

Suicide bombers, car bombs and rocket attacks have paralysed Baghdad; the US army are building increasingly elaborate fortifications to defend their bases. At the entrance to the 14 July Bridge over the Tigris, which leads into the Green Zone, the road is blocked by sandbags and razor wire. A notice hanging from the wire reads: ‘Do not enter or you will be shot.’ US soldiers in Baghdad are trigger happy and they like Iraqis to know it. All over the city, streets are closed, sometimes isolating whole districts, by the concrete defences of buildings housing American troops, foreigners, Iraqi police and Iraqi officials.

Twenty years ago I used to eat mazgouf, fish from the Tigris grilled over a wood fire, in the open-air restaurants that lined Abu Nawas Street. They were badly affected when Saddam, to emphasise his Islamic credentials, banned the public consumption of alcohol. After his overthrow, the restaurant owners hoped their customers might return. These days, Abu Nawas is largely a ghost town, deserted even in the middle of the day and used mainly by military vehicles. The street can be entered only from one end and culminates in a checkpoint defending the Palestine and Sheraton hotels. These are full of foreigners, who know that Abu Nawas is too dangerous for them to venture into.

I talked to Shahab al-Obeidi, the manager of the Shatt al-Arab restaurant on the bank of the Tigris. Dark grey fish swim in a circular pool decorated with blue tiles at the entrance to the restaurant (the river is polluted now and the fish come from fish farms). Shahab says business isn’t good: in the past three-quarters of his customers came in the evening. Now he shuts at 6 p.m. because the nights are unsafe. One night he broke his rule, staying open because he had a large table of customers who seemed to be enjoying themselves. ‘When I did present them with the bill,’ he said, ‘they laughed and took out their pistols and fired them into the ceiling and through the windows.’ He pointed to numerous bullet holes, still not repaired.

Foreigners in Baghdad and other cities all now live in the Green Zone or mini-Green Zones outside it. The concrete blocks, razor wire and guards spread in all directions. I no longer carry a camera in Baghdad because anybody taking photographs is suspected of carrying out reconnaissance for an attack. Paranoia runs high. A member of a newly arrived French camera crew caught in a traffic jam idly took a photograph of the enormous concrete blockade defending the street leading to the Baghdad Hotel, which Iraqis believe to be a centre for the CIA. Iraqi guards immediately arrested the crew and kept them in a prison cage for two nights.

The Baghdad Hotel is close to Saadoun street, a four-lane road that is one of the city’s main arteries. A few weeks ago the road was narrowed to two lanes in the section near the hotel. There is now another permanent traffic jam in the centre of Baghdad, and around thirty shops inside the hotel’s cordon sanitaire face closure.

Nadim al-Hussaini, sitting in a chair outside his empty shop, said: ‘My business has completely disappeared, first 30 to 40 per cent when they put up the concrete barrier, and 100 per cent when they closed the road.’ Next door, Zuhaar Tuma says his café is not so badly affected: he still has regulars who come to smoke hubble-bubble pipes and play dominoes. ‘I don’t want to get blown up any more than the Americans do,’ he says. ‘But the real solution is simply for the Americans staying at the hotel to leave.’

Neither the suicide bombers nor the US army care very much how many ordinary Iraqis get killed. The entrances to the Green Zone provide no protection for Iraqis queuing for jobs or to have their documents checked. They are frequently caught in bomb blasts; there are many casualties. On 17 May a suicide bomber assassinated Izzedin Salim, the head of the Iraqi Governing Council: his fleet of cars was waiting to enter the Green Zone. An Iraqi minister told me that Salim might have been safe if US soldiers at the gate had not delayed the convoy by declaring that some of the documents were not complete. There is an Iraqi conspiracy theory which sees foreign suicide bombers and the US acting in unison to prevent Iraq regaining its independence.

The suicide bombers have gone some ways towards discrediting the resistance: this ought to be an opportunity for Allawi’s interim government. Most Iraqis see the blue uniformed Iraqi police in their elderly white and blue patrol cars as a defence against crime rather than as allies of the occupation. The attacks on police stations are not popular. Even al-Sadr told his militiamen to co-operate with the police in Sadr City, ‘to deprive the terrorists and saboteurs of the chance to incite chaos and extreme lawlessness’. Some of the resistance groups in Falluja complain that they are losing popular support because the bombers were killing Iraqis and not Americans. Ministers in the new government speak of restoring order by ‘cutting off the hands’ and ‘slitting the throats’ of the insurgents. This is the sort of rhetoric once used by Saddam.

Iraqis are desperate for the return of some sort of security. Among the better off there is a pervasive fear of kidnapping. Over the last year this has become a local industry, now so common that new words have been added to Iraqi thieves’ slang: a kidnap victim is al-tali, or the sheep; the person who identifies the potential target is al-alaas.

I recently visited Qasim Sabty, a painter and sculptor who owns a gallery near the Turkish embassy. I wanted to ask him about an exhibition he had held of works depicting the torture of prisoners by guards at Abu Ghraib. But the first thing he spoke about was kidnapping. ‘So many of my relatives have been kidnapped,’ he said. ‘I fear I am going to be next.’ He mentioned another gallery owner who had just paid $100,000 for the return of her son.

Last year a rumour went round the city that Kuwaitis were seizing Iraqi girls and taking them back to Kuwait. This year the kidnapping is real. A businessman friend living in Jordan has just paid $60,000 to have his brother-in-law returned. Doctors are a favourite target. Operations are postponed in hospitals because specialist surgeons have fled the country.

At the dilapidated Shatt al-Arab restaurant, it turned out that the owner had disappeared to Syria after his son was kidnapped. I asked Lieutenant-Colonel Farouk Mahmoud, the deputy head of the forty-member police kidnap squad, how to avoid being kidnapped. ‘Go abroad!’ he said brightly, to laughter from his officers.

It’s not only the well-off who feel threatened. Gangs of thieves hop on and off buses in Rashid Street in the city centre and rob passengers at gun and knife-point. Ali Abdul Jabber, a driver at the al-Nasser bus station, has been robbed three times. ‘On the last occasion,’ he said, ‘the thieves jumped on board because the doors have to be open in this hot weather. Two of them stood guard at the back while two others walked down the bus looking in people’s handbags and stealing money and jewellery.’ Jabber didn’t dare glance back: he thought that if the thieves suspected he could identify them they would kill him. After the robbery nobody went to the police. ‘The passengers didn’t even discuss it among themselves because this sort of thing is so much part of daily life in Baghdad.’ Most of them thought that he was in league with the gang.

After the disasters of the past year the Americans know they cannot, even in the short term, occupy Iraq without the support of local allies. The problem for the US is that most Iraqis would like Allawi and the interim government to get rid of the suicide bombers and kidnappers — and of the US occupation as well. But the US shows no sign of abandoning its plans to keep Iraq as a client state. It would have a weak army, devoted entirely to counter-insurgency. It would have no tanks, aircraft, missiles or artillery. The Iraq of the future would resemble a Latin American state of the 1960s with an army and security forces controlled largely by Washington. This was the message brought by Paul Wolfowitz in June when he turned up in Baghdad — accompanied by Sir Kevin Tebbit, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence — just before the supposed handover of power. The US will allow Iraq to rearm, but only against its own people.

It was a tellingly low-profile visit. Wolfowitz and his entourage kept out of tall buildings visible from a distance. When he visited the city eight months ago he stayed in the al-Rashid hotel, a tall block dominating the skyline. Guerrillas interrupted his sleep by firing a volley of rockets from an improvised launcher into the upper stories of the hotel, killing an American colonel and sending Wolfowitz stumbling down an emergency staircase to safety. (Even then some of the American pundits accompanying him wrote that the occupation seemed to be on track and the forces of the resistance on the retreat.)

If he is to survive, Allawi needs to convince Iraqis that he is not an American stooge. He has to persuade the US to withdraw within a year, but at the same time he is for the moment wholly dependent on the American army. The difficulty he will have in facing both ways was illustrated by the declaration of his spokesman earlier this month that guerillas who had fought the Americans before the transfer of sovereignty would be eligible for amnesty since their actions were legitimate acts of resistance. A Kurdish member of the government, known for being close to the US, said he found this outrageous. At the same time, Allawi was offering an amnesty to al-Sadr, the Shiite leader, whom the US was trying until a few weeks ago to kill or capture.

The struggle for Iraq is only beginning. The Shia want elections and real power. The Sunni want the US out and will not accept being marginalised. The Kurds want a greater measure of autonomy, very close to independence, than the Iraqi Arabs will give. The Islamic resistance think the US is vulnerable in Iraq as the Soviet Union was in Afghanistan. The nationalist guerrillas will not stop killing American troops. Above all the US is still not convinced that it has lost its great gamble to keep control of Iraq, a country it made the test-case of its power as the world’s single imperial overlord.

Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).