Patrick Cockburn

The three months it took to cobble together a government in Iraq after January’s election shows the depth of the divisions between the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities. In the north of the country the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds are close to civil war. Their savage skirmishes, around the oil city of Kirkuk and in the streets of Mosul, are generally unreported in Baghdad. The war of 2003 made the Kurds the north’s dominant power. They are no longer penned in their mountains, or in their decrepit cities crowded with refugees from the 3800 villages destroyed by Saddam Hussein. But their advance south is contested by the Sunni Arabs, everywhere on the retreat but able to stage daily suicide bomb attacks, ambushes and assassinations. On 4 May a man with explosives attached to his body blew himself up in a queue of young men trying to join the police in Arbil, killing 60 of them and wounding 150. Ghassan Attiyah, a political commentator in Baghdad, told me that ‘the Kurds were able to destabilise Iraq for half a century under Saddam Hussein and his predecessors. The Sunni Arabs are certainly strong enough to do the same thing if they want to.’

Whichever town or city I visited in northern Iraq, government officials, almost all of them Kurds, made the same two points: however bad things looked now, they were worse three months ago and the situation was more dangerous further south. In Kirkuk, which is divided between Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Turkomans, I drove to the heavily defended local headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The first official I saw said the city was calm. As we were speaking he toyed with a pistol on his desk. A machine-gun was propped against the wall for easy access. When we headed off down the corridor to another office in the same building he automatically tucked the pistol into his belt.

The Kurds have the upper hand militarily in Kirkuk and are not going to give it up. They are intent on reversing decades of Arabisation by forcing out the settlers from central and southern Iraq brought in by Saddam. A few days after my visit I met a shaken-looking journalist from Hawlati, an independent Kurdish magazine, who had been instructed by his editor to leave the city. The local police had told him he would be killed if he didn’t get out or hire bodyguards. The editor, Asos Hardi, has spoken out against de-Arabisation: the Kurds, he says, mustn’t do to the Arabs what Saddam did to the Kurds. Few Kurds agree with him, and it’s easy to see why. In the swathes of open grassland around Kirkuk, a few stones or the outline of a wall are the only signs of where a village used to be before Saddam’s Anfal campaign of collective punishment in 1987-88, when 779 Kurdish villages were bulldozed or blown up, along with their schools, clinics and mosques. ‘They even cemented up the wells and killed the animals so nobody could come back,’ Nouri Talabani, a professor of law who chronicled the destruction, told me.

The Kurds want their land back. But they also want the Northern Oil Company, part of the Iraqi National Oil Company, which runs the oilfields west of Kirkuk. Talabani complains that until recently ‘there were only 33 Kurds out of 10,000 people working for the oil company.’ The Sunni insurgents are determined to keep striking at Iraqi oil exports. Some of the bloodiest fighting is along the oil pipeline which passes through a string of Arab villages in Kirkuk province. If the Kurds are to win autonomy from Baghdad, or anything close to independence, then they need a measure of control over the oilfields. The resistance knows this. The day after an official in Kirkuk blandly assured me that violence was on the wane, a unit of security police attached to the oilfields was sent to defuse a bomb beside a road. It was booby-trapped, and connected to three other explosive devices. Twelve people were killed in the blast.

The sectarian geography of this no man’s land between Arabs and Kurds is intricate. Kurdish control peters out in the west and south of the province. Around the town of Hawaijah, a notorious Baathist stronghold to the west, the farmers working in the fields are Arabs. When the US tried to sack Baath Party members here after the invasion, the local hospital almost closed down: all its doctors were members. The headmaster of a secondary school was fired for being a Baathist. His pupils offered to burn down the school in retaliation but he persuaded them not to. The new headmaster, sent from Kirkuk, was too frightened to take up his post. The situation is even more unstable in Mosul, a city of 1.75 million people on the Tigris. Some 70 per cent of its population are Arabs, mostly living on the west bank of the river; the rest are Kurds, who live mostly on the east bank. It’s a traditional centre of Arab nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Saadi Pira, until recently the leader in Mosul of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, claims that ‘Mosul was always the true centre of the resistance to the Americans, much more than Fallujah.’ The Kurds in Mosul don’t even bother to pretend that it is anything other than extremely dangerous.

To help me get into Mosul in reasonable safety, the Kurdish government in Arbil sent me into the Kurdish heartland to get protection from a battalion of the Iraqi National Guard. The commander, having at first complained that he couldn’t spare any men, ordered four heavily armed peshmerga to travel with us in a pick-up truck. We drove to an army post on the outskirts of Mosul. Lieutenant Colonel Jassim refused to allow us into the city in a three-vehicle convoy with uniformed soldiers. Too conspicuous, he said: we’d be a target for suicide bombers. A nondescript civilian car was procured; two soldiers would accompany us, with Arab robes over their uniforms. The driver tried to stick to the Kurdish neighbourhoods, driving at high speed up and down alleyways. At one point, driving even faster past a row of large villas, he said: ‘This area was allocated to senior army officers under Saddam and now they are all terrorists. There have been many attacks here.’ As we got close to the old Baath Party headquarters, now taken over by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, a cloud of smoke and dust spurted into the air from an explosion a few hundred yards away. On the way back we saw the mangled wreckage of a car bomb.

Khasro Goran, the deputy governor of Mosul and the leader of the KDP, claimed that security in the city was much improved, though not perfect. The largest government security force in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, are the 14,000-strong, mainly Arab, blue-uniformed police. ‘They are not much good at finding terrorists,’ Goran said, ‘because they are terrorists themselves.’ He suspected them of being implicated in the assassination of the previous governor and had warned his own bodyguards against telling the police about his movements: they might try to assassinate him.

The police showed their real sympathies during an uprising on 11 November last year when the resistance entered Mosul in force. It happened a few days after the start of the US Marines’ assault on Fallujah – an assault that one US general claimed would ‘break the back of the insurgency’ – and so was little noticed by the outside world. The Western media were either confined to their hotels in Baghdad for fear of being kidnapped or embedded with US army units. While triumphant American reporters and generals trumpeted victory from Fallujah, a city with a population of 350,000, the insurgents were able quietly to capture Mosul, which has a population five times as large. The police abandoned their barracks – some thirty of them are still empty six months later – and their commander fled. The resistance captured $40 million worth of arms and equipment. Weeks later the bodies of executed Iraqi soldiers were still turning up all over the city. Police loyalty has not improved since. Recently, a Kurdish unit of the Iraqi army was ambushed west of the city, close to the Syrian border. The soldiers pursued their attackers, but only as far as the nearest police station, where they had found refuge. The Kurds say that both groups – insurgents and police – belong to the powerful Sunni Arab Shammar tribe.

US influence is on the retreat in Nineveh province, as it is in the rest of Iraq. There are few troops on the ground: no more than six thousand American soldiers remain in an area with a population of nearly three million. For a year after the invasion, 21,000 men from the heavily equipped 101st Airborne Division had been stationed in Mosul. The division’s commander, General David Petraeus, probably the most intelligent senior American officer in Iraq, reached a tentative understanding with the local Sunni Arab establishment. Thousands of former army officers took a public oath renouncing the Baath Party. The Kurds were furious that the Americans were truckling to Saddam’s former lieutenants. Since then, the American military has changed tack, favouring the Kurds and hostile to the Sunni Arabs. But they have no choice: the Kurds are America’s most important ally. In Mosul the CIA depends on Kurdish intelligence. ‘When the CIA tried to operate by themselves in the city last year they learned nothing,’ a local observer said. ‘These days the Kurds provide the agents and the Americans provide the money and together they are very effective.’ But perhaps they aren’t effective enough. The Sunni Arabs of the north remain wholly alienated and will continue to give shelter to the resistance. Animosity between Kurds and Arabs in Mosul is deep. A Kurdish leader in Arbil said: ‘Mosul is a time bomb waiting to explode.’ Khasro Goran was more optimistic, but in passing he mentioned that at the time of the election somebody had tried to assassinate him, killing one of his bodyguards and wounding two others.

The strength of the armed resistance is misunderstood outside Iraq. It has always been fragmented. Unlike the National Liberation Front in Vietnam or the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, it is not well organised. It grew so fast after the fall of Saddam and proved so effective because the American occupiers managed to make themselves extraordinarily unpopular within days of entering Baghdad. The insurgents have many weaknesses. They have no political wing. The fanatical Sunni fundamentalists, commonly called the Salafi or the Wahhabi, see Iraqi Shias and Christians as infidels just as worthy of death as any US soldier. When American forces damaged two mosques in Mosul in the fighting last November, the resistance blew up two Iraqi Christian churches. Such sectarianism makes it impossible for the resistance to become a truly nationalist movement, but there are four or five million Sunni Arabs – a strong enough base for an insurgency.

The war will go on in Iraq because no community has got what it wants and none has given up hope of getting it. The Shias, 60 per cent of the population, want power. They turned out to vote in January despite suicide bombers. They now believe that the US, the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs are plotting to marginalise them. Political authority in Iraq has always been exercised through the security agencies. That is why, during the three months of negotiations to form a government, the Shias, under the new prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, insisted on getting the Interior Ministry. The US is resisting a full Shia takeover and wants to stop them getting the Defence Ministry as well. Donald Rumsfeld flew in to Baghdad in April to make it plain that Jaafari’s proposed purge of ‘suspected infiltrators’ would not be tolerated.

The Sunni Arabs are divided and unclear in their aims. They want the US occupation to end. But, having boycotted the election, they are not sure how they will relate to the new government. Despite the Sunni boycott, the government was elected by popular vote and has a legitimacy its predecessors lacked. The Kurds, almost to their own surprise, are the community which made the biggest gains after Saddam’s fall: they hold Kirkuk; they are allied to the US; Jalal Talabani, one of their leaders, is president of Iraq; they enjoy a degree of autonomy close to independence. But they fear that this may be as good as it gets. The government in Baghdad will get stronger in time, and as it does so it may try to restore its authority over Kurdistan.

Politically and militarily strong for now, the Kurds are geographically isolated. It took me two days to travel from Kirkuk to Baghdad: the two-hour road journey is too dangerous, and I had to go by way of Turkey. The only airport in Iraqi Kurdistan, at Arbil, was closed: the central government claims it isn’t properly equipped. Traffic between Iraq and Turkey passes over two bridges a few hundred yards apart on a fast-flowing river at Ibrahim Khalil. This might be the longest traffic jam in the world. Columns of trucks and petrol tankers waiting to cross the border stretch back 70 kilometres into Turkey. Sometimes drivers wait two and a half weeks to get across. Turkey, worried by the impact of events in Iraq on its own Kurdish population, tightens or relaxes the regulations for crossing the bridges to show the Iraqi Kurds that it controls their main link with the outside world.

When we left northern Iraq we spent three and a half hours at the border while Turkish gendarmerie searched each car. Afterwards, plainclothes intelligence officers came along and searched everybody all over again. Among those waiting patiently on the bridge to leave the country was Dr Azad Khanaqa, a confident-looking Iraqi Kurd now living in Saudi Arabia. Formerly a microbiologist at Hannover University, he is an expert on the growing of truffles. He told me he hoped to use his knowledge to revive the area where he grew up, east of Kirkuk. ‘They destroyed everything,’ Khanaqa told me, ‘my father’s house in particular, with bulldozers and explosives.’ He intends to plant olive, oak, cedar, hazelnut and walnut trees in the ruins. Among their roots the spores of the black truffle will be implanted, and in four or five years will grow into a sort of underground mushroom, selling for 1400 euros a kilo. I liked Khanaqa’s plan: to introduce the truffle into a countryside better known for its minefields.

Even the cultivation of the truffle would require the return of some sort of order to northern Iraq, and this is a long way off. Travelling in Iraq has now become so dangerous for journalists that much of the violence is unreported. For Washington and London the absence of journalists is convenient. The capture of Fallujah by the US Marines last November could be sold as a turning-point in the war only because few realised that Mosul had fallen to the insurgents at the same time. The election itself was presented by Bush and Blair as a triumph for democracy, although the three months it has taken to form a government shows that Iraq is more divided than ever. The safest areas in the country, despite the bomb in Arbil, are the three inner Kurdish provinces: Iraq’s 15 other provinces are a bloody no man’s land. In the summer heat of the last few weeks, the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates have become warmer. Bodies that were dumped in the river in the winter months are now rising to the surface. Hundreds of them are being buried in temporary graves but nobody knows who they are or why they were killed.

6 May