FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

An American Nightmare

by PATRICK COCKBURN

 

Even by Iraqi standards Youssufiyah is a violent place. At first sight the well-watered farmland and groves of date palms look attractively green but then you notice the bullet-riddled hulks of cars. Iraqi soldiers and police appear more than usually frightened. The streets of the ramshackle and grimy town conveys a sense of menace.

I used to disguise myself with a red-and-white Arab headdress to pass safely though the lethally dangerous area south of Baghdad where three American soldiers are being held captive. I would sit in the back of my car hoping that the small boys selling cigarettes beside the road didn’t recognise me as a foreigner.

Thousands of American and Iraqi troops were desperately searching these towns and the land round about yesterday in the hope of finding a bunker or secret room where three abducted soldiers are being held. It may already be too late. The Islamic State of Iraq, the group which claimed yesterday to have captured them and to which al-Qa’ida belongs, may already have spirited them out of the area.

Here, at 4.44 am on, a US patrol in two vehicles was surprised and overrun by insurgents. The burned bodies of four soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter were found on the road. Three others had disappeared. It was obviously a mistake for a small and isolated detachment to be in an insurgent-controlled area. Such is the fear of roadside bombs that a relieving force took an hour to reach them.

The capture of Americans – like the hostages in Lebanon in the Eighties or in the Tehran embassy in 1979 – has traditionally had a greater impact on the US public than the death of soldiers. It is the nightmare of American commanders, going all the way to the Commander-in-Chief, President Bush, for US servicemen to be in enemy hands. The loss of these three prisoners could prove to be even more significant this time, as the public is already firmly against the war. A drawn-out hostage crisis, that ends in tragedy, could be the final blow to President’s Bush’s faltering support amongst Republicans.

For the soldiers searching for the three men, the US faces the additional danger of losing even more because of booby traps and roadside bombs.

Even with drones and helicopters, it is difficult country to search. Broken by irrigation canals and small channels that draw their water from the Euphrates, it is heavily inhabited. It is only 15 miles from the insurgent bastion in south Baghdad and a little further from the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah. Paradoxically, this dangerous place, where even heavily armed US troopers cannot survive, is a birthplace of civilisation. Outside Youssufiyah are the ruins of the ancient city of Sippar marked by the remains of a ziggurat. Twenty years ago Iraqi archaeologists excavated a temple here and found a library of Sumerian clay tablets neatly laid-out on 56 shelves and classified by topic.

Ever quick to score a propaganda point, al-Qa’ida said the attack on the soldiers’ convoy was to seek retribution for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in the same area a year ago. “You should remember what you have done to our sister Abeer,” said a statement by the Islamic State of Iraq group referring to five American soldiers who were charged in the rape and killing of Abeer Qassim al-Janabi and the deaths of her parents and her younger sister last year.

The crime in the city of Mahmoudiya was one of the most shocking atrocities committed by US troops in the war. Three soldiers have pleaded guilty in the case.

The war came early to this part of Iraq. Saddam Hussein had planted Sunni Arab settlers here to control the road leading to the shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf. There was sectarian cleansing here early in 2004 and there have been bitter Sunni-Shia feuds, particularly in Mahmoudiyah to the east of Youssufiyah, where one side of the main street was Sunni and the other Shia.

The destruction of the small American patrol is another sign of how little the so-called “surge”, the 30,000 extra US troops sent to Baghdad, is having on security in Iraq. On Sunday alone 126 people were killed in Iraq. Sectarian killings are down in the capital but 20 or more bodies, tortured and mutilated, are still being found every day.

It is a measure of the lack of success of American and Iraqi government anti-guerrilla operations that the insurgent grip has never been permanently broken.

The red-and-white keffiyeh that I used to wear in this area turned out to be an extremely bad idea. One day, sighing with relief at having driven through what was deemed the most dangerous 15-mile stretch on this road, I took the road to the Shia city of Kufa on the Euphrates. We were stopped by a checkpoint of the Mehdi Army, the militia of the Shia nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. One of them snatched off my Keffiyeh and shouted: “American Spy! American Spy!”

For some time the militiamen seemed to be planning to shoot us until they agreed to take us to their leaders in a green domed mosque nearby. A man close to the insurgents later told me: “We always look at people wearing keffiyehs more closely in case they are trying to hide their identity.”

The Islamic State of Iraq warned last night that the US searches might endanger the captives’ lives. In the past captured soldiers have apparently been killed because it was feared that they might be rescued.

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.

 

 

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

February 19, 2018
Rob Urie
Mueller, Russia and Oil Politics
Richard Moser
Muller the Politician
Robert Hunziker
There Is No Time Left
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Decides to Hold Presidential Elections, the Opposition Chooses to Boycott Democracy
Daniel Warner
Parkland Florida: Revisiting Michael Fields
Sheldon Richman
‘Peace Through Strength’ is a Racket
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Taking on the Pentagon
Patrick Cockburn
People Care More About the OSFAM Scandal Than the Cholera Epidemic
Ted Rall
On Gun Violence and Control, a Political Gordian Knot
Binoy Kampmark
Making Mugs of Voters: Mueller’s Russia Indictments
Dave Lindorff
Mass Killers Abetted by Nutjobs
Myles Hoenig
A Response to David Axelrod
Colin Todhunter
The Royal Society and the GMO-Agrochemical Sector
Cesar Chelala
A Student’s Message to Politicians about the Florida Massacre
Weekend Edition
February 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
American Carnage
Paul Street
Michael Wolff, Class Rule, and the Madness of King Don
Andrew Levine
Had Hillary Won: What Now?
David Rosen
Donald Trump’s Pathetic Sex Life
Susan Roberts
Are Modern Cities Sustainable?
Joyce Nelson
Canada vs. Venezuela: Have the Koch Brothers Captured Canada’s Left?
Geoff Dutton
America Loves Islamic Terrorists (Abroad): ISIS as Proxy US Mercenaries
Mike Whitney
The Obnoxious Pence Shows Why Korea Must End US Occupation
Joseph Natoli
In the Post-Truth Classroom
John Eskow
One More Slaughter, One More Piece of Evidence: Racism is a Terminal Mental Disease
John W. Whitehead
War Spending Will Bankrupt America
Robert Fantina
Guns, Violence and the United States
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Latest Insulting Proposal: Converting SNAP into a Canned Goods Distribution Program
Robert Hunziker
Global Warming Zaps Oxygen
John Laforge
$1.74 Trillion for H-bomb Profiteers and “Fake” Cleanups
CJ Hopkins
The War on Dissent: the Specter of Divisiveness
Peter A. Coclanis
Chipotle Bell
Anders Sandström – Joona-Hermanni Mäkinen
Ways Forward for the Left
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Winning Hearts and Minds
Tommy Raskin
Syrian Quicksand
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Still Tries to Push Dangerous Drug Class
Jill Richardson
The Attorney General Thinks Aspirin Helps Severe Pain – He’s Wrong
Mike Miller
Herb March: a Legend Deserved
Ann Garrison
If the Democrats Were Decent
Renee Parsons
The Times, They are a-Changing
Howard Gregory
The Democrats Must Campaign to End Trickle-Down Economics
Sean Keller
Agriculture and Autonomy in the Middle East
Ron Jacobs
Re-Visiting Gonzo
Eileen Appelbaum
Rapid Job Growth, More Education Fail to Translate into Higher Wages for Health Care Workers
Ralph Nader
Shernoff, Bidart, and Echeverria—Wide-Ranging Lawyers for the People
Chris Zinda
The Meaning of Virginia Park
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail