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“Be careful,” warned a senior Iraqi government official living in the Green Zone in Baghdad,” be very careful and above all do not trust the police or the army.” He added that insecurity in the Iraqi capital is now as bad as it was before the US security plan came into operation in the city in February.
The so-called ‘surge’, the dispatch of 20,000 extra American troops to Iraq with the prime mission of getting control of Baghdad, is visibly failing.
There are army and police checkpoints everywhere but Iraqis are terrified approaching them because they do not know if the men in uniform they see are in reality death squad members. Omar, the 15-year-old brother-in-law of a friend, was driving with two other boys through al-Mansur in west Baghdad a fortnight ago. Their car was stopped at a police checkpoint. Most of the police in Baghdad are Shia. They took him away saying they suspected that his ID card was a fake. The real reason was probably that the name Omar is used only by Sunni. Three days later the boy was found dead.
I was driving through central Baghdad yesterday. Our car was pulled to one side at an army checkpoint. I was sitting in the back seat and had hung my jacket from a hook above the window so nobody could easily see I was a foreigner. A soldier leaned in the window and asked who I was.
We were lucky. He merely looked surprised when told I was a foreign journalist and said softly: “Keep well hidden.” The problem about the US security plan is that it does not provide security. It had some impact to begin with and the number of dead bodies found in the street went down. This was mainly because the largest Shia militia, the Mehdi Army, was stood down by its leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. But the Sunni insurgent groups escalated the number of sectarian suicide bombings against Shia markets. The US was unable to stop this.
Now the sectarian body count is on the rise again. Some 30 bodies, each shot in the head, were found on Wednesday alone. The main new American tactic is proving counter-productive. This is the sealing off entire neighbourhoods either by concrete walls or barriers of rubbish so there is only a single entrance and exit. Speaking of Sunni districts like al-Adhamiyah a government official said: “We are creating mini- Islamic republics.”
This is born out by anecdotal evidence. The uncle of a friend called Mohammed it is in the nature of Baghdad that nobody wants their full name published died of natural causes. The family, all Sunni, wanted to bury him but they were unable to reach the nearest cemetery in Abu Ghraib. Instead they went to one in Adhamiyah. As they entered the cemetery armed civilians, whom they took to be al Qaida from their way of speaking, asked directly: “Are any of you Shia?” Only when reassured that they were all Sunni were they allowed to bury their relative.
The failure of the ‘surge’ comes because it is not accompanied by any political reconciliation. On the contrary the government is wholly factionalised. For instance the two vice presidents, the Sunni Tariq al- Hashimi, and the Shia Adel Abdel Mehdi, may make conciliatory statements in public but one Iraqi observer notes that “Tariq only employs Sunni and Adel only Shia.”
The Sunni feel they are fighting for their lives. Their last redoubts in east Baghdad aside from Adhamiyah are being over-run by the Mehdi Army. The Sunni insurgent groups, notably al Qaeda, are on the offensive in west Baghdad where they are strongest. When the Americans succeed in driving away the militia of, say, the Shia in any district their place is taken, not by government forces, but by the Sunni militia. People in Baghdad are terrified of being killed by a car bomb or bundled into the boot of a car and murdered. Less dramatic, but equally significant in forcing people to flee Iraq for Jordan or Syria, is the sheer difficulty of maintaining a normal life. Much of the trade in the city used to take place in open air markets. But because of repeated bombs attacks only one is now open. This is in Karada but many people no longer go there because it has come under repeated attack.
So many areas are now sealed off in Baghdad that there are continuous traffic jams. This presents a problem for drivers. If they try to avoid the jam by driving off the main road they may enter an area where militiamen rule who may kill them. One friend who got back from Syria found that, because of an attack on a government patrol, his neighbourhood was closed off to traffic. “I had to walk for 40 minutes with my heavy suitcase,” he lamented.
Even in dangerous neighbourhoods like Beitawin off Saadoun Street in central Baghdad, notorious for its criminal gangs even in Saddam Hussein’s time, people were queuing for petrol for hours yesterday evening because they have no choice if they want to fill their tanks.
A bizarre flavour has been given to Saadoun Street because the government has encouraged artists to paint the giant concrete blast barriers with uplifting if unlikely scenes of mountain torrents, meadows in spring and lake side scenes. Many of the pictures, all in garish greens, blues and yellows, look more like Switzerland than Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr, for his part, is encouraging artists to paint the blast barriers with scenes illustrating the anguish inflicted on the Iraqi people by the US occupation.
The only ‘gated community’ that functions successfully in Baghdad is the Green Zone itself, the four square miles on the right bank of the Tigris that is home to the Iraqi government and the US embassy. It is sealed off from the rest of Iraq by multiple security barriers and fortifications in depth.
Entering the zone recently I was questioned and searched, at different stages, by Kurds, Georgians, Peruvians and Nepalese. No country in the world has such rigorous frontier procedures as what one American called “this little chunk of Texas.” Living cut off in the zone it is impossible for the ruling elite of Iraq to understand the terrible suffering and terror beyond its gates.
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.