The Unreported Iraq

Arbil, Iraq.

The gap between Iraq of the Green Zone and Iraq as it really is grows ever wider. On 20 May, five months after the election of parliament, Iraqis were told they had a new government boasting a minister for tourism but, despite the war raging across the country, no ministers of interior or defence. Shia and Sunni leaders were still disputing control of these crucial jobs. The much-publicised hand over of sovereignty to an Iraqi administration two years ago was forgotten as Zilmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador, proclaimed the virtues of the new administration which is so much his creation. The Shia, 60 per cent of the Iraqi population, won two elections last year but the US has fought to deny them complete control of the Iraqi state. ‘So far,’ one high ranking US official was quoted as saying, ‘the Shia have not demonstrated that they can govern, and they have to demonstrate that now.’

The Iraqi government was voted into office by members of parliament meeting in a stuffy hall in the heavily fortified Green Zone. Anybody entering the zone has to pass through at least seven lines of sand bagged checkpoints, razor wire and sniffer dogs. At 6.30 am, a few hours

before parliament met a bomb exploded in Sadr City, the impoverished Shia bastion in east Baghdad. It killed 19 and wounded 58 people, most of them day labourers who had gathered near a food stand as they waited to be hired. This atrocity was probably in retaliation for attacks by black- clad Shia gunmen, probably from the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, on two Sunni districts in west Baghdad the previous day. Loudspeakers on the minarets of Sunni mosques in the rest of the city announced that the

al-Jihad and al-Furat neighbourhoods were being assaulted and called on people to go and help them.

The sectarian civil war in Baghdad is sparsely reported but from the mixed provinces around the capital there is almost no news. It is too dangerous for Iraqi as well as foreign journalists to go there.

There are sporadic police reports of the violence but they are impossible to check out. On the same day that parliament met, for instance, the bodies of 15 people, all tortured before they were killed, were delivered to the morgue in Musayyib south of Baghdad; nobody knows who killed them or why. Two months ago I met an Iraqi army captain from Diyala, a province north east of Baghdad famous for its fruit, which has a mixed Sunni, Shia and Kurdish population. He said Sunni and Shia were killing each other all over Diyala. “Whoever is in a minority runs,” he said. ‘If forces are more equal they fight it out.’

I knew Diyala and its capital Baquba a little. It is well-watered compared to much of Iraq and has lush orhcards. In the 1990s I used to visit villages along the Diyala river where they would give me fruit to eat.

Many farmers specialised in growing pomegranates. At that time their main concern was the breakdown of the health services because of U N sanctions. In the hope that I was a foreign doctor people would disappear into their houses to bring out dusty old x-rays of their children, taken before the collapse of the local x-ray service. After the invasion of 2003 I drove to Baquba, a nondescript city of 350,000 people, but it was an early centre of armed resistance to the occupation and soon became too dangerous to visit. I thought, however, that I could find out what was happening there by taking advantage of the province’s peculiar sectarian geography. In eastern Diyala there is a pocket of Kurdish populated territory at the centre of which is the town of Khanaqin. I could reach there safely by travelling south out of Kurdistan down a long finger of Kurdish controlled land running along the Iranian border. It would be too risky to go beyond Khanaqin but once there, if what the army captain had told me was true, there were bound to be Kurdish and Shia refugees who had fled there from Baquba and further west.

This turned out to be true. I drove south from Sulaimaniyah through Iraq’s only tunnel past the lake at Derbendikan along the Sirdar river, its valley a vivid green between the hills. A Kurdish official had told me the road was ‘absolutely safe’ so long as I turned east over a bridge across the Sirdar below a ramshackle town called Kalar and circled round to enter Khanaqin. Under Saddam Hussein the town’s Kurdish inhabitants had been mostly forced to leave and nearby villages were destroyed.

They had returned but now there is a new wave of refugees who are desperately seeking refuge here as Sunni Arab death squads and assassins drive out Kurds and Shia Arabs from the rest of Diyala.

Salar Hussein Rostam is a police lieutenant in charge of registering and investigating families fleeing from the rest of Iraq. ‘I’ve received 200 families recently, mostly in the last week,’ he said, gesturing to a great bundle of files beside him. ‘They all got warnings telling them to go within 24 hours or be killed.’ Most were poor. One family had been rich but had just lost all its money: ‘One of their relatives was kidnapped and only released after they paid $160,000.’ Two medical workers had been sacked from their jobs in Baghdad because they belonged to the wrong ethnic group. But the reason most of the refugees fled was simple: they believed they would die if they did not abandon their homes.

Kadm Darwish Ali, a Kurd who had been in the investigation branch of the federal police in Baquba, said that at first he had ignored warnings to leave the city where he had lived since 1984. But after the explosion of violence which followed the blowing up of the Shia al-Askari shrine in Samarra on 22 February this year the threats had got worse. It was not just the lone assassin he feared. On 21 March insurgents over-ran one police station in Diyala after the officers inside ran out of ammunition and killed nearly two dozen of them. ‘Everything got worse after Samarra,’ said Lt Ali. ‘I had been threatened with death before but now I felt every time I appeared in the street I was likely to die.’ A month ago he sent his family to Khanaqin and later followed them himself. ‘It will,’ he concluded, ‘get worse and worse.’

In a three room hovel off a track with sewage running down the middle of it live Sadeq Shawaz Hawaz and his brother Ahmed and nine other relatives who also fled Baquba. Sadeq and Ahmed had been fruit traders in the city’s market, but several weeks ago, when they were at work, a car with four men in it came to their house. This was in a Sunni district while the brothers were Shia and Kurdish. ‘A tall man came to the door,’ said Leila Mohammed, Ahmed’s wife, who spoke to him. He asked for the men of the family and was told they were not there. ‘He muttered ‘we will get them’ and left. A week later the same men were back ordering them to leave by evening prayers. Without any money or anywhere else to live the family still clung on. But a week later there was a third visit during which the tall man offered Leila’s five year old daughter Zarah chocolates if she would tell him the names of the men of the family. At this point their nerve broke and they fled leaving most of their belongings behind.

‘They threatened the Kurds and Shia and told them to get out,’ recalled Ahmed, ‘Later I went back to try to get our furniture but there was too much shooting and I was trapped in our house. I came away with nothing,’

The same pattern is being repeated across central Iraq. It is a civil war waged by assassins and death squads. Iraq is breaking up into its constituent communities. The Sunni minority in Basra are in flight; Shia Arabs and Kurds are being forced out of the parts of majority Sunni provinces where they are not strong enough to defend themselves; Kurds in Mosul, divided by the Tigris river, are moving from the Sunni Arab west bank to the east bank where Kurds are the majority. But it is Baghdad, with a population of six million, that is the heart of the conflict.

The Sunni Arabs are fighting for their districts and the Shia for theirs like Beirut at the beginning of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. In Baghdad some 30 or 40 bodies are turning up every day. But even the dead are not spared sectarian discrimination. Sunni families are becoming less willing to look for them in the city morgue since it is now guarded by Shia militiamen appointed by the Ministry of Health which is itself controlled by the party of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia nationalist cleric.

Will the new government of Nouri al-Maliki change any of this? Iraqis are desperate for peace. Baghdad is paralysed by terror. In Basra one person is being murdered every hour according to an adviser to the Defence Ministry. ‘If the new government establishes security in Baghdad they will be heroes,’ Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, told me ‘and if they fail they will be one more government of the Green Zone.’ The moment when the Iraqi state could be reconstituted may already have passed. Probably the only place in Iraq that this is not evident is inside the Green Zone where Tony Blair arrived the day after Maliki announced his cabinet. Blair’s statements at a press conference were useful only as a check list of what is not happening in Iraq.

He praised the formation of ‘a government of national unity that crosses all boundaries and divides.’ But that is precisely what it does not do. If it did it would not have taken five months to put togethor. Interior and Defence ministers would have been chosen immediately. Blair said that the strength of the new government was that it had been democratically ‘elected by the votes of millions of Iraqi people.’

This was of course also true of the previous government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari whom the US and Britain spent months trying, ultimately with success, to displace. The American and British dilemma since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is that democracy in Iraq primarily benefits the Shia, the religious parties and Iran. None of these are much liked by the White House or Downing Street but, for all their manoeuvres, there is not much they can do about it.

As American and British power decline in Iraq the country’s neighbours make plans to increase their intervention. Iran and Syria always wanted to keep the US busy in Iraq so it would not be able to move to overthrow their governments as it had threatened to do. Three years after the fall of Baghdad they think they have succeeded. ‘The mood in Tehran is that the US is very weak in Iraq and cannot do anything against Iran,’ said one Iraqi commentator. The Sunni Arab states in the Gulf along with Egypt and Jordan are fearful of triumph of the Shia majority in Iraq acting in alliance with Iran. Turkey, Iran and Syria worry that their own Kurdish minorities will be radicalised by the development of a prosperous Kurdish state, independent in all but name but under the umbrella of a feeble Iraqi state. In the Sunni community of Iraq the salafi, extreme militants as hostile to Jordanian and Saudi monarchies as they are to the US, have for the first time gained a base that they were never able to establish in Afghanistan.

Iraq is at the crossroads of the Middle East, sharing common frontiers with Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. All, for one reason or another, are fearful of what is now going to come out of Baghdad.

Intervention by neighbours of Iraq is generally invisible, often taking the shape of money flowing to favoured parties and militias. But high up in the snow-streaked Kandil mountains on the Iraq-Iran border in north-east Kurdistan it is easier for Iran to send cruder signals to Baghdad and Washington without provoking a military response. Here, on the night of 31 April to 1 May Iranian artillery fired 2,000 shells into Iraq signalling to the US and its Kurdish allies that Tehran is not intimidated by any threats against it.

The Kandil mountains form a natural fortress with towering peaks, deep gorges and no paved roads or bridges. Nevertheless I found it surprisingly easy to enter. In the mayor’s office in Sangasser village on the plain just below the mountains I met Mohammed Aziz whose family had a small farm in the mountains and whose mother had been slightly injured in the shelling. He wanted to take her a sack of flower so he was keen to drive

us to the valley where she lived. The only way to get there was by taking a four-wheel drive along earth tracks and beds of rivers. It looked like their would be a further problem. It is so difficult for a regular army to attack the Kandil that Kurdish guerrillas have traditionally retreated there. For several years it has been controlled by the Turkish Kurd PKK movement whose fighters retreated from Turkey in the late 1990s. It turned out, however, that they were eager to talk to the press about the bombadrment.

Even 2,000 shells had not done much damage to the hamlets of flat roofed houses and animal pens clinging to the sides of steep valleys.

Farmers showed us where explosions had dug shallow craters and shrapnel had sliced branches off the trees. ‘I was awoken by the sound of the shelling in the middle of the night and I saw there was fire everywhere,’ said Meri Hamza Farqa, the elderly mother of Mohammed Aziz who lived in Shinawa village. ‘The children and I ran out of the house and scattered in different directions. A shell blew up near me and I was hit by mud and stones. Later I saw blood coming from my arm.’

Physically isolated from the outside world the villagers live by rearing sheep and cattle that graze on steep hills covered in grass and dotted with small oak trees. But the villagers have satellite TV dishes and were up with the news. They suspected that the Iranian attack on their hidden valleys was one result of the growing confrontation between the US and Iran. The Iranians might also have timed the shelling to coincide with a visit of Us Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Ankara, thereby showing Iranian solidarity with the Turkish government in its long war with the PKK. Not that the barrage had done much damage to the guerrillas safe in their mountain bases. But the farmers thought it wise to run away. ‘As soon as the bombardment was over we decided to leave,’ said Meri Hamzaa. ‘When we got back a few days later, all my hens and two of my goats had died of hunger.’

The guerrillas are elusive. ‘When you see one, there are another 15 or 20 hidden nearby,’ Azad Wisu Hassan, the mayor of Sangaser had told us. But in the middle of a grassy plain surrounded by mountains the PKK have built an extraordinary monument. It is a large and beautiful military cemetery with a soaring white pillar in the middle. There is a fountain, red and white rose bushes covered in flowers, decorative trees and the marble tombs of dead guerrillas, mostly young men in their twenties. ‘Seventy-five of us started out from Turkey but 49 were killed on the way,’ said one fighter accompanying us. Most of the walls of the cemetery are white but others are painted in the red and yellow colours of the PKK; at one side there is a gateway with a sign over it reading: ‘the garden of flowers for martyrs.’

Heavy artillery fire from one country into another is not common and would attract attention in most parts of the world. But it is a measure of the violence in Iraq that the attack on the Kandil and other parts of the frontier passed almost unnoticed inside and outside the country.

More and more of the killing here is unreported because it is too dangerous for the local police or journalists, foreign or Iraqi, to go to the scene of a murder to find out what happened. For instance Saddam Hussein is on trial in the Green Zone for killing up to 148 Shia from Dujail north of Baghdad after an attempt to assassinate him in the village in 1982. The former Iraqi leader’s appearances in court are highly publicised and shown on TV.

But unknown to anybody, until revealed by a brave Iraqi journalist, is the fact that the people of Dujail are being massacred once again. Sunni insurgents, sympathetic to Saddam, are murdering them at checkpoints on the main road to Baghdad. Twenty people from Dujail have been killed in recent weeks and another 20 are missing.

The last justification for the US and British occupation is that it is stopping a civil war. All too evidently this is what it is not doing. Iraq was always going to be in turmoil after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The Shia and Kurds were bound to overturn Sunni predominance. But a foreign occupying army was the worse force in the world to oversee this traumatic political and social change. Iraqis were suddenly being asked not only if they were Shia, Sunni or Kurd but if they supported or opposed the invader. The answer from each community was different. The Kurds supported the occupation. The Shia community was ambivalent and intended to use it to take power themselves. They wanted the US and British military presence to end but at a moment convenient to themselves.

The Sunni opposed the occupation root and branch and launched a ruthless and effective guerrilla war against it that has so far killed or wounded 20,000 American troops. These radically different responses to foreign occupation by the three big Iraqi communities deepened the divisions between them. Each community began to view the other two as murderous traitors. Conflict was always likely after Saddam Hussein as a deeply divided Iraq tried to recover from his disastrous rule.

But it was the added ingredient of a prolonged US and British occupation that ensured this conflict would be so extraordinarily violent.




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).