Khanaquin, Diyala Province, Iraq.
The United States surge, the use of the American troop reinforcements to bring violence in Iraq under control, is bloodily failing across northern Iraq. That was proved again yesterday when a suicide bomber detonated a truck packed with explosives in Kirkuk killing at least 85 people and wounding a further 183.
The truck bomb blasted a 30ft-deep crater in a busy road full of small shops and booths near the ancient citadel of Kirkuk, setting fire to a bus in which the passengers burned to death and burying many others under the rubble. Dozens of cars were set ablaze and their blackened hulks littered the street. Some 25 of the wounded suffered critical injuries and may not live.
In Baghdad, at least 44 people were killed or found dead across the city, police said. They included the bullet-riddled bodies of 25 people, apparent victims of sectarian death squads.
The attack is the latest assault by Sunni insurgents on Kurds who claim Kirkuk as their future capital.
Adnan Sarhan, 30, lost both his eyes and had his back broken in the blast. He lay on the operating table as his anguished mother, Mahiya Qadir, sat nearby with her daughter-in-law. “Will I ever see my son alive again?” she asked.
Two more car bombs blew up later in Kirkuk but caused few casualties.
The dispatch of 28,000 extra troops to Iraq starting in January, and the more aggressive deployment of the US army in the country, is not working. At best it is moving violence from one area of Iraq to another. The US is allying itself to local tribes and militias against guerrillas but that is angering the government in Baghdad and deepening the violence.
In Diyala, a mixed Shia-Sunni-Kurdish province south of Kirkuk and north-east of Baghdad, the US launched an offensive against al-Qa’ida and Sunni insurgent forces three weeks ago. It claimed to have killed many guerrillas and forced others to flee.
Hamdi Hassan Zubaydi, the Sunni leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party in Diyala, painted a very different picture. He described how some of the Sunni tribesmen had joined US troops to storm al-Qa’ida-held villages and had killed 100 insurgents. But when the US withdrew, al-Qa’ida returned and drove the tribesmen out.
Mr Zubaydi, who was jailed by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, quivered with disgust as he explained the bloody complexities of sectarian war in Diyala.
The tough-looking former teacher in his fifties said 20 Sunni students on a bus had been abducted and he feared they would be killed. He said he knew who had carried out the kidnapping: “It was the emergency police forces led by Captain Abbas Waisi and Lt Zaman Abdul Hamid. I told the American special forces but they have done nothing.”
We met Mr Zubaydi in the office of the Mayor of Khanaqin, a Kurdish enclave in northern Diyala, where he had come to ask for help. We had reached there through Kurdish-controlled territory along the right bank of the Diyala river that runs parallel to the Iranian border. Kurdish control ends at a dishevelled town called Khalar where we crossed the river over a long, rickety metal bridge with old tyres marking places where metal slats had fallen into the waters below. We picked up armed guards and then circled round behind Khanaqin to enter from the east.
Mr Zubaydi had a shorter but more dangerous route to Khanaqin from a town called Muqdadiyah, a few miles to the west of Khaniaqin, which he accurately described as “the most dangerous place in Iraq”. His house had been attacked five times in the past month.
He was beset by the Sunni insurgents of al-Qa’ida on one side and the Shia militia of the Mehdi Army on the other. He gave an impressive list of the Iraqi security forces available in Muqdadiyah, in addition to a US battalion, including 1,200 police and 1,600 army.
The problem is that nobody is quite sure on which side the Iraqi security forces are planning to fight. Often they do nothing: “The house of the deputy police chief is just 10 metres from a police station but somebody blew it up,” Mr Zubaydi said scornfully. He ran through a list of police and army commanders in Diyala, all of whom were Shia and unlikely to help the Sunnis.
There are at least three different wars being fought in northern Iraq: Sunni against Americans; Shia against Sunni; Arabs against Kurds. Alliances can switch. The Kurds are the Americans’ only sincere ally in Iraq but many of them are also convinced that the Americans in Kirkuk city have a tacit understanding with the Arab insurgents not to attack each other.
The US does not want to be seen as siding with the Kurds in their struggle to join Kirkuk and its oil fields to their semi-independent enclave, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in a referendum due at the end of the year. The US is restraining the Kurds but this may be more difficult after yesterday’s bombings. “If we wanted to do so, we [Kurds] could secure as far as Khalis,” a town far to the south of Kirkuk in Diyala Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of Massoud Barzani president of the KRG, told me.
The US is caught in quagmire of its own making. Such successes as it does have are usually the result of tenuous alliances with previously hostile tribes, insurgent groups or militias. The British experience in Basra was that these marriages of convenience with local gangs weakened the central government and contributed to anarchy in Iraq. They did not work in the long term.
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.