Counting Ballots and Bodies in Baghdad

in Baghdad

Soon after dawn yesterday Atheer Abdullah Mohammed and his brother Waleed, one a policeman and the other a customs official, got into their car in the village of Sukhuriya, west of Fallujah. The election for the Iraqi parliament had ended 12 hours earlier.

Atheer and Waleed thought that the curfew on vehicles driving on the road was over. An hour later their uncle, Abu Samer, in Baghdad, received a telephone call from a friend saying: “The Americans killed Atheer, and Waleed is in Fallujah main hospital with serious wounds.”

In fact the curfew did not end until this morning, though the government had made little effort to tell anybody about this.

Abu Samer tried to drive from Baghdad to Sukhuriya to find out what had happened to his nephews, but Iraqi National Guard soldiers at a checkpoint told him the curfew was still in force and turned him back.

These casual killings are the reality of life in and around Baghdad. The everyday incidents of war play as great a role in determining the political mood as the much-publicised elections. The death of men like Atheer, who also worked on the family farm, and Waleed, who inspected vehicles a a customs post on the Syrian border, usually go unreported.

The violence is not likely to end soon. Insurgent leaders from in and around Fallujah said yesterday that the de facto truce to enable Sunni Arabs to vote was now over. “As long as the occupation exists along with those agents who brought it, we will continue our armed struggle,” said Abu Muyasir, a former member of the Baath party who is a guerrilla leader in Fallujah.

Many insurgent groups, drawn overwhelmingly from the Sunni community, encouraged their people to vote on Thursday, but say they see this as opening another front in the war. “This does not mean stopping our holy war activities,” said another leader from Mohammed’s Army, drawn from Saddam Hussein’s former intelligence service. “We promise the coming days will be tough on the Americans and their supporters in the Iraqi army.”

The insurgency is broken up into a mosaic of different groups, many led by former army and security officers. The US military likes to emphasise the activities of fanatical fundamentalist so-called neo-Salafi cells responsible for suicide bombings, allegedly led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He was briefly questioned by Iraqi police in Fallujah last year but released because they did not know who he was, according to the deputy interior minister, Major General Hussein Kamal. He said: “Iraqi police who were in Fallujah then did not have sophisticated equipment to take pictures of him or take his fingerprints.”

Zarqawi was said to be using a forged passport with a Kurdish name, and to have put on weight to disguise himself and erased a tattoo.

The votes in this week’s election will take two weeks to count. The United Iraqi Alliance, the Shia coalition of religious parties, is likely still to be the largest party, followed by the Kurds, the Sunni parties and Iyad Allawi, the former prime minister, who is standing on a nationalist and secular platform.

Once the results are announced there will be prolonged negotiations to form the next government. This requires a two-thirds majority in the 275-member Council of Representatives. The Shia coalition may be forced to create a national unity government of all the other big parties.

The problem here is that a government made out of so many antagonistic groups is likely to be paralysed and unable to take a collective decision. All the main parties are connected to armed militias, some of which have infiltrated or taken over units of the regular police and army. The Sunni parties know that their political leverage will depend less on their position in parliament and more on the armed resistance rooted in their community.

The three administrations, one American and two Iraqi, which have ruled the country in the two and a half years since Saddam was overthrown have all been deemed ineffective and corrupt by Iraqis. Ministries become the fiefdom of one or other party or sect. “The health ministry was run by a cell of the Dawa party and the Interior Ministry belongs to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq,” said one observer.


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).