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Baghdad has broken up into a dozen different cities at war with each other. Walls are covered with slogans in black paint saying “Death to Spies”. Any Shia caught in a Sunni district will be killed as a spy or because of his religion and vice versa. Each side has its checkpoints where armed men in civilian clothes casually ask drivers for their identity cards. They wave to one side those they suspect of being of the opposite religion who are then interrogated, tortured and killed. The checkpoints are difficult to avoid because they suddenly spring up without any advance warning. Some 30 to 50 bodies, often mutilated, are picked by the police every day.
The methods used by Sunni and Shia in these tit-for-tat killings are different. The Sunni are behind the car bombings and suicide bombers of Shia areas, targeting markets and religious processions to cause maximum casualties. On 3 February a man drove a truck into the vegetable market in the Shia district of Sadriya telling local militiamen that he was delivering cooking oil, cans of food and sacks of flour. Once in the market he detonated a ton of explosives hidden under these goods, killing 135 people and injuring 305 more. It was the deadliest single bomb since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. According to the UN some 3,000 people are murdered, mostly for sectarian reasons, in Iraq every month.
The Shia strike back by setting up more checkpoints and killing any Sunni they can identify. So many people now carry false identity papers to conceal their sectarian background that some of the men manning the posts carry a list of theological questions which a Sunni would not be able to answer. The Shia are in a better position to set up checkpoints than the Sunni because they effectively control the police commandos and many of the units of the Baghdad police. An official police checkpoint may simply be a death squad in uniform. One friend from the wholly Sunni al-Khadra district in West Baghdad told me: “The police commandos on the main highway running past al-Khadra are all Shia from the south and if they find anybody with a Sunni name like ‘Othman’ they will kill him. They arrested one of my cousins and accused him of being an insurgent. When he denied it they said ‘well, you are a Sunni so you support them’ and tortured him anyway with beatings and electricity.”
The Shia are on the offensive. They are the majority in Baghdad and control more territory than the Sunni. On the east side of the Tigris there is only one hard core Sunni neighbourhood left called Adhamiyah. It is now being regularly mortared by the Shia militamen. One of the consequences of mixed areas disappearing in the capital is that each side now feels safe to use heavy mortars against the other knowing that they will not hit members of their own community. Either the mortars are very inaccurate or those that fire them don’t care what they hit so long as it is in a district belonging to the other side. On 28 January two mortar bombs exploded in the courtyard of a girls’ school called Kholoud Secondary school in the Sunni district of Adil in westBaghdad killing five children and wounding 21. One 15 year old year old called Ban Ismet, hit in the legs, described how she had watched her friend Maha bleed to death. “The shrapnel hit her in the eyes,” she said, “and there was blood all over her face. She was dead.” Even atrocities like this create little reaction in Baghdad these days. A Sunni friend of mine called Ismail remarked without much interest or surprise: “They were probably aiming for the mosque next the school.” Adil is under attack by the Mehdi Army militiamen of the nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who now how hold Hurriyah, once a mixed district but now all Shia.
I stay in the al-Hamra Hotel in the Jadriyah district of east Baghdad which lies in a loop of theTigris. It is almost entirely Shia but is considered one of the safer areas of Baghdad; not that this is saying a great deal these days. I walked around looking at its defences. There are big blast walls and armed sentries at every point. But buildings just outside the walls smashed by two suicide bombs in November 2005 have not been repaired. Heaps of smashed concrete lie on the ground.The people who lived in the ruined houses mostly worked in the hotel and six of these were killed. One of them had a job in a bakery on the ground floor of my block of the hotel and another was the son a receptionist I talked to every day. I looked across a wide stretch of broken ground towards a bunker, built by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, and now one of the headquarters of the Interior Ministry. Somebody with me said sharply: “the guards in the bunker are getting nervous because you are staring at them.” We scuttled for safety back into the hotel.
Everybody in Baghdad is very frightened. There are few friends of mine left in the city. Just before I went back I got a phone call from Hussein, a businessman whom I had known since theUS invasion, who had been an optimist longer than most people in Baghdad. He spoke now in a frightened voice and from London. He said I had not heard from him for a time because he had been kidnapped last summer. He was lucky to be alive since he came from a well-known Shia family. His kidnappers had whipped him and “then they came back to apologise because a cleric at their mosque told them it was wrong to whip anybody over 40 years of age.” He was released after handing over all his money. They told him to leave the country which he did but he does not have the right to residence permit allowing him to live permanently in Britain or Jordan.
Conversations in Baghdad are often about bombs, kidnappings and sectarian killings. There is not much people can do about these threats to their survival except to run away. I am always talking to people about how to get to Jordan or Syria and the chances of claiming asylum in theUK or elsewhere in Europe. Four million Iraqis — more than the population of Ireland — out of a population of 27 million have fled their homes to find safety either in other parts of Iraq or out of the country. It is the biggest exodus of refugees in the Middle East since Palestinians were forced from their homes at the time of the creation of Israel in 1948. Many left on getting a bullet in an envelope slipped under the door or a death threat scrawled on their door. Shia have relatively safe areas to which to flee within the country but the Sunni are in danger everywhere unless they leave the country.
I used to go to eat in al-Mansur, site of many embassies, and one of the main shopping areas. I do not dare go there now. Sunni insurgents have taken over. The restaurants I used to eat in have mostly closed and even if they were open any foreigner who sat there for more than a few minutes would be a target for kidnappers. I liked to sit drinking tea with the owners of an antique shop who knew everything about the history of Baghdad. But a year or more ago the police picked them up and said that unless they came up with a large bribe fast they would be arrested for smuggling Iraqi archaeological treasures out of the country. My friends handed over $5,000 in cash and fled to Jordan the same night.
One by one the places I knew best in Baghdad are being destroyed. I used to like to visit the Ghazil bird market in the centre of the city which was open every Friday. Iraqis like birds. They were on sale in the Ghazil market, a disheveled but friendly place in front of an ancient mosque. There were home- made cages filled with canaries and small song birds as well as parrots, doves, pigeons, falcons and every other type of bird. At about 11 am on 26 January a man arrived in the market carrying a cardboard box that was pierced with air holes as if to allow the birds inside to breath. He put down the box and said he was going to get a drink of water. A few moments after he had gone the explosives inside the box detonated killing 15 people and wounding 55 more. A few birds who survived the blast were still chirruping in their cages. There were bedraggled black Shia prayer flags hanging from the building so somebody presumably believed that this was a Shia neighbourhood and few Sunni would be killed or wounded.
If Iraqis believed that President Bush’s famous troop ‘surge’, the dispatch of a further 21,500 American to Iraq announced in January, would stop these massacres then they might welcome the new Baghdad security plan. But they have seen such plans come and go before without result. It is extraordinary that three-and-a-half years after the US captured Baghdad it still controls so little of the city. At the end of January US and Iraqi army soldiers were trying to fight their way intoHaifa Street, a district with a population of 170,000 people that has long been a bastion of Sunni insurgents, though it is less than a mile from the Green Zone. I started reading a New York Times piece about Haifa Street entitled ‘There are Signs That the Tide may be Turning on Iraq’s Street of Fear’ I had found in a file. It seemed to be well-informed but then I noticed that the date of the article was 21 March 2005 and it was an optimistic account of one of the US army’s previous failed offensives in Haifa Street almost two years ago.
Bush spoke in his State of the Union speech of eliminating militias, Sunni and Shia, not just inHaifa Street but in all Baghdad, a city of six million people. The US army and its Iraqi government allies are apparently going to enter hostile areas, cleanse them of insurgents and militias and stay there to prevent their return. It will do this without much Iraqi popular support. A poll at the end of last year showed that 61 per cent of Iraqis, almost all Sunni and a majority of Shia, are in favour of armed attacks on US-led forces.
Just how dangerous Baghdad is for Americans was underlined last month when a helicopter belonging to the US security company Blackwater was shot down as it flew over the Sunni area of al-Fadhil close to the central market in Baghdad. The US army swiftly sent a rescue team but by the time they arrived the five crewmen had all been executed by shots in the head and within hours their identity cards were being shown on insurgent web sites. The lack of US control is even more blatant in the provinces. Recently US and Iraqi commanders were giving a self-congratulatory press conference on the situation in Baquba, the capital of the fruit growingprovince of Diyala. They claimed: “The situation in Baquba is reassuring and under control but there are some rumours circulated by bad people.” A few hours later insurgents took over the mayor’s office in Baquba, blew it up and kidnapped the mayor. A week afterwards some 1,500 local police in Diyala were sacked for failing to resist the insurgency. The local council for Diyala now complain that the insurgents are in effective control of Baquba and Nouri al-Maliki’s government has sent them no help because it is absorbed by the Baghdad security plan.
It is difficult to see why President Bush’s ‘surge’ into areas of Iraq the US army has failed to pacify before should now succeed. In most cases the Sunni insurgents and the Shia militias will pursue classic guerrilla tactics and move elsewhere. For instance if the US puts pressure on the Mehdi Army in Baghdad then it can always attack long and vulnerable US supply lines to Kuwait. The US in and around the capital entirely depends on the long convoys bringing food and fuel up the road through the Shia provinces of southern Iraq. In the first instance, however, the Mehdi Army will avoid a confrontation but keep effective control of their own areas.
How would the Iraqis respond to American troops entering their neighbourhoods looking for insurgents? In Sunni districts local people say it all depends what the American soldiers do. If they search houses this is acceptable. But if they arrest young men and hand them over to the police or police commandos then this would be a death sentence. The Sunni would fight. The great weakness of the US military in Baghdad is that it has no reliable local allies. The surge is not a new strategy but a collection of new tactics that are not going to change the isolation of the USforces in Iraq. Given this lack of support the US is bringing in Kurdish units but the soldiers frequently do not speak Arabic and many are already deserting before leaving Kurdistan.
The US reinforcement should make some difference in central Baghdad simply because the present situation is so bad. It is less than half a mile from my hotel to the July 14 Bridge over theTigris that allows one to enter the Green Zone. But late last month black clad Mehdi Army militiamen manning checkpoints suddenly appeared on the road to the bridge. If they stopped us they might abduct or kill my drivers who are both Sunni. More US and Iraqi government troops should make a temporary dent in this total control by the militias. But President Bush has much more ambitious expectations. “With Iraqis in the lead,” he told Congress on 23 January, “our forces will secure the city by chasing down the terrorists, insurgents, and the roaming death squads.” He is speaking here of gaining full control of Baghdad. This is not likely to happen because the Sunni insurgents and Shia militiamen are too well entrenched and generally have more legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis than government forces.
The enormity of the decisions about future US policy announced by Bush in January have still not sunk in outside the US and perhaps not even there. He totally rejected the proposals of the Baker-Hamilton report about talking to Iran and Syria. Instead he will escalate and widen the war. Bush said that “Shia extremists backed by Iran” were now an enemy as significant as al Qaeda. His words demonizing Iran as the hidden hand controlling the Shia militias were uttered with same paranoid fervour as his denunciations four years ago of Saddam Hussein for building weapons of mass destruction to threaten the Middle East. The level of mendacity about Iran and the Iraqi Shia is even greater. The Shia of Iraq are 60 per cent of the population and were always going to use the overthrow of Saddam Hussein to take power by winning elections as they did in 2005. “The worst single mistake you could make in the Middle East is to see the Shia of Iraq orLebanon as pawns of Iran,” an academic expert on Iraq told me last year. This is exactly what Bush is doing.
The justification for blaming Iran for American failures in Iraq may be concocted byWashington. But is a confrontation with Iran such a damaging political mistake from the USpoint of view? It makes little sense in terms of Iraqi politics. The most important elements in the Iraqi government are pro-Iranian, notably the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) which was for long based in Iran. The first time I went to see one of their leaders in Najaf his guards spoke to me in Farsi. The Badr Organisation, SCIRI’s well organised militia, was set up by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and fought on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq war. It is not likely that SCIRI could simply change sides from Iran to the US. Paradoxically it is the Mehdi Army and Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi nationalist cleric, now denounced as creatures of Iranby Washington, which were traditionally anti-Iranian.
Strangely Bush’s new vision of Iran and the Shia militias in Iraq is close to that of the Baath party. They too justify their murderous attacks on the Shia by claiming that the latter are simply instruments of Iran. The US overthrow of the Baathist regime was bound to benefit Iran and al Qaeda because it eliminated their arch enemy Saddam Hussein. “We cannot reverse this outcome by more use of military force in Iraq,” said Lt General William Odom, the former head of the National Security Agency, the largest US intelligence agency, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “To try to do so would require siding with Sunni leaders and the Ba’athist insurgents against pro-Iranian Shi’ite groups. The Ba’athist insurgents constitute the forces most strongly opposed to Iraqi cooperation with Iran.” Because the Sunni insurgents both nationalist and al Qaeda primarily fight to end the US occupation they cannot ally themselves with Washington as Saddam Hussein did during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980-88. This means that inside Iraq Bush is alienating the Shia without necessarily gaining the support of the Sunni.
In terms of Middle East politics Bush’s confrontation with Iran makes more sense. In Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan he is appealing to sectarian bigotry against the Shia in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. This is a powerful sentiment among leaders and people alike. The Shia take over of the Iraqi government in alliance with the Kurds can be portrayed as the cutting edge of Iranian imperialism. Sunni rulers, alarmed by the popular support for Hezbollah as it fought Israel to a standstill in Lebanon last year, knew that its success was being compared to the impotence, incompetence and corruption of their own regimes. To avoid such damaging comparisons they are happy to join the US in stoking the anti-Shiah and anti-Iranian fires.
The true reason for Bush’s anti-Iranian policy may be that it makes most sense in terms of American domestic polirics. Ever since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was first mooted the White House has shown itself more interested in holding power in Washington than in Baghdad. Bush went to war in Iraq in 2003 because, having overthrown the Taliban so easily inAfghanistan, he thought he would win an easy victory in Iraq, to his great political advantage at home. In this he was partly right since the Iraqis did not fight for Saddam Hussein. But they also rapidly showed that they did not intend to be permanently occupied by the US. Spurious turning points were exaggerated or invented to show progress in the war: Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003, power was supposedly handed over to an Iraqi government in 2004, elections were held in 2005, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, was killed by US bombs in 2006. None of these supposed successes made any real difference on the battlefield but all were used to demonstrate that American was not simply caught in a bloody stalemate. For the White House the real victories were won at home in the US and not in Iraq. The moment American voters realized the depth of the failure in Iraq was postponed long enough for Bush to win the Presidential election in 2004 and hold onto both Houses of Congress until 2006.
US confrontation or war with Iran will prolong the war in Iraq. “The Iranians can afford to compromise in Iraq, but they cannot afford to be defeated there,” Ghassan Attiyah, the Iraqi political scientist, told me. If the US stages air raids, assassinations or pin prick attacks againstIran then it is likely to increase rather than reduce its involvement in Iraq. In reality there is little evidence that it gives critical support to either Sunni insurgents or Shia militias though it could do so if it needed to. After spending four years failing to defeat the five million Iraqi Sunni theUS could find itself fighting the 17 million Iraqi Shia as well.
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.