Looking for Someone to Kill

Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad

Suicide bombs blow up with the regularity of an artillery barrage in Baghdad. I no longer always go up onto the roof of the al-Hamra Hotel, where I am living, to see the black smoke rising and to try to work out where the bomb went off. On a single day recently 12 suicide bombs exploded in the city, killing at least 30 people.

The streets are unusually empty. Many Iraqis have decided that the best way to survive is to stay at home or, if they have the money, to leave the country. A sick friend spent hours ringing up surgeries only to be told in each case that the doctor had gone to Jordan, Syria or Iran. Those who stay in Baghdad often don’t go to work until 10 a.m. because suicide bombers, though prepared to work all hours, seem to favour the morning rush hour.

It is only when a bomb explodes in a place where I might have been or when the atrocity is particularly grotesque that I pay much attention. One day three bombers – one in a vehicle, two on foot – attacked the entrance to the Green Zone normally used by journalists attending press conferences. A surviving policeman said that one bomb was concealed in a coffin strapped to the roof of a van. The driver had got through a checkpoint by saying he was delivering a body to the police forensic laboratory.

Few of the bombers are Iraqi (so they say), though the number may be increasing. But the organisation, the vehicles, the explosives, the detonators, the safe houses and the intelligence must all be home-grown. Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister, told me that the Iraqi army recently found a workshop capable of turning out seventy cars rigged to explode every day. He was expecting an attack on his ministry, a tall white building in the centre of Baghdad, and had just moved into a new house after a vehicle packed with nearly a tonne of explosives had been found near his home. He showed me with some pride a photograph of heavy artillery shells and a torpedo looted from a naval arsenal, spread out on the ground after they had been defused and removed from the bomber’s car.

According to Iraqi government intelligence, bombers are given a primary target, but if they can’t reach it they drive around Baghdad looking for someone else to kill. They are always told never to come back. Some buildings have been hit again and again, the army recruitment centre at the old al-Muthana airport no fewer than seven times. Every time I drive past there I see hundreds of young men, dressed in white robes and flip-flops, probably from southern Iraq, waiting to be interviewed. The guards try to herd them away, shouting: ‘You’ll make yourselves targets.’ But they are desperate for jobs and frightened of losing their place in the queue. A few weeks ago a young man started making a speech to the would-be recruits, complaining that they were being forced to wait while successful applicants were paying bribes. Nodding their heads in agreement, the volunteers gathered around the speaker. When a large enough crowd had assembled he pressed a switch and blew himself up, along with 25 of those listening to him.

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