Close
Close

Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the author of, among other books, The Broken Boy, a history of the Cork polio epidemic of 1956.

Diary: The 1956 Polio Epidemic

Patrick Cockburn, 7 May 2020

Icaught polio​ in an epidemic in 1956, when I was six years old. My family lived in a dilapidated country house, Brook Lodge, near the town of Youghal at the mouth of the Blackwater River in County Cork. It was an isolated location: isolated enough for my parents, Claud and Patricia Cockburn, to imagine that we would be safe from the virus that had started circulating in Cork city three...

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn, 23 January 2020

For Trump, one advantage of Soleimani’s assassination is that the Iranians will be more cautious about launching limited attacks on the US and its allies, though this isn’t to say that they will cease altogether. Iran cannot permanently de-escalate as long as sanctions continue. The intensity and length of the crisis means that accid­ents are likely to happen, as demonstrat­ed by what appears to have been the un­intentional shooting down of a Ukrain­ian passenger plane. At the same time, Trump and his administration are peculiarly ill-equipped to judge the likely outcome of any escalation of the conflict, or predict how the Iranians are likely to respond. This makes blundering into war a more than usually likely outcome. Iran has drawn the greater profit from the crisis so far, since Soleimani’s death goes some way to re-­energising the nationalist and religious credentials of the regime.

After al-Baghdadi

Patrick Cockburn, 19 November 2019

An organisation as ruthless as IS isn’t going to seek popular approval before it acts but it can’t rely wholly on intimidation to gather recruits for a new campaign: it needs to retain some sympathy among the Sunni community at large. More important, it has always thrived on chaos: with its rivals at one another’s throats, it could exploit the vacuum of political and military power. For much of this year, chaos seemed to be on the way out, as normal life gradually returned to former battle zones in both Syria and Iraq – unpropitious conditions for IS. But in October the situation changed.

In Dover

Patrick Cockburn, 7 November 2019

Dover​ is popular with reporters on the prowl for Brexit stories. Border Force patrol ships – decked out with high-tech radar sensors and painted navy grey – hug the White Cliffs in pursuit of dinghies carrying immigrants from France: a defiant image of Britain repelling an external threat. From the top of one of the hills overlooking the town you look down on the Eastern Docks,...

Exorcising Iraq

Patrick Cockburn, 11 October 2018

Apart​ from witches, who come here to bury spells, few people visit the British North Gate cemetery in Baghdad. The witches believe that words written on paper and placed in the ground between the graves of non-Muslims, particularly old graves, have enhanced magical powers. North Gate, in the Waziriyah district, is a large quadrilateral of burned grass fringed by palm trees. There are 511...

The War in Five Sieges

Patrick Cockburn, 19 July 2018

The road​ to Raqqa, once the de facto Syrian capital of Islamic State, looks surprisingly pastoral. As we approached the city across the plain north of the Euphrates we had to stop the car several times: the road was barred by flocks of sheep. It seemed an encouraging sign of returning normality. But local people explained that shepherds were bringing their flocks to graze here for less...

Four More Years in Syria

Patrick Cockburn, 5 April 2018

The country is now divided into three zones: Assad controls territory where about 12 million Syrians live; the Kurdish-held region has a population of a little more than two million; and the smallest zone, lying north and west of Aleppo, is a Sunni Arab bloc, also with a population of about two million, under the direct or indirect rule of Turkey. Other groups – notably IS, which once ruled a third of Syria – have been all but eliminated. But the frontiers between these zones are still fluid and all sides believe they have something to fight for.

Is the War over?

Patrick Cockburn, 14 December 2017

Iraq​ has just had one of its least violent periods since the US invasion in 2003. Islamic State has been defeated: it lost its last town, Rawa, close to the Syrian border, on 17 November, and surviving IS fighters have retreated to hideouts in the western desert. In the past, IS would respond to military setbacks by putting on a show of strength and stepping up its bombing of...

Underground in Raqqa

Patrick Cockburn, 18 October 2017

Tactical agility won’t be enough to save the caliphate, which is now being overwhelmed on multiple fronts. Islamic State’s great strength came from the way it combined religious cult and war machine; its weakness was that it saw the whole world as its enemy, which meant that it would always be outnumbered and outgunned. Without allies and dealing only in violence, it led an unlikely alliance of states normally hostile to one another to find common cause against it, and engage in a degree of reluctant co-operation. As IS comes close to losing its power, old rivalries and divisions are beginning to re-emerge – but in a political landscape significantly reshaped by the war with IS.

Endtimes in Mosul

Patrick Cockburn, 16 August 2017

Nobody knows for sure how many civilians were killed in the city as a whole. For long periods, shells, rockets and bombs rained down on houses in which as many as a hundred people might be sheltering. ‘Kurdish intelligence believes that over forty thousand civilians have been killed as a result of massive firepower used against them,’ Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s former foreign minister, told me. People have disputed that figure, but bear in mind the sheer length of the siege – 267 days.

Misreporting in Syria and Iraq

Patrick Cockburn, 2 February 2017

It remains a gross exaggeration to compare the events in East Aleppo – as journalists and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic did in December – with the mass slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994 or more than 7000 in Srebrenica in 1995. All wars always produce phony atrocity stories – along with real atrocities. But in the Syrian case fabricated news and one-sided reporting have taken over the news agenda to a degree probably not seen since the First World War.

Diary: In Syria

Patrick Cockburn, 19 October 2016

Across Syria​ towns and districts are under siege. In the north, the Syrian army and its Shia allies from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, assisted by Russian air power, have surrounded the opposition enclave of East Aleppo, where a quarter of a million civilians are under attack. If East Aleppo falls, one of the last big urban centres held by the opposition will have been eliminated. In Damascus,...

Somalia Syndrome

Patrick Cockburn, 1 June 2016

In​ 1996 I visited Penjwin, an impoverished village in Iraqi Kurdistan close to the Iranian border, where people were trying to make a little money through what must be one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. They would walk through the extensive minefields around the village – laid during the Iran-Iraq War – in search of a particularly lethal Italian-made...

End Times for the Caliphate?

Patrick Cockburn, 3 March 2016

The war in Syria and Iraq has produced two new de facto states in the last five years and enabled a third quasi-state greatly to expand its territory and power. The two new states, though unrecognised internationally, are stronger militarily and politically than most members of the UN. One is the Islamic State, which established its caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq in the summer of 2014 after capturing Mosul and defeating the Iraqi army. The second is Rojava, as the Syrian Kurds call the area they gained control of when the Syrian army largely withdrew in 2012.

Russia in Syria

Patrick Cockburn, 5 November 2015

The military balance of power in Syria and Iraq is changing. The Russian air strikes that have been taking place since the end of September are strengthening and raising the morale of the Syrian army, which earlier in the year looked fought out and was on the retreat. With the support of Russian airpower, the army is now on the offensive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, and is seeking to regain lost territory in Idlib province. Syrian commanders on the ground are reportedly relaying the co-ordinates of between 400 and 800 targets to the Russian air force every day.

Why join Islamic State?

Patrick Cockburn, 1 July 2015

On 16 June, Kurdish militiamen, with the support of US airstrikes, captured the town of Tal Abyad in northern Syria, a major crossing point on the Syrian-Turkish border. Its fall is damaging to Islamic State: it cuts the road linking the caliphate’s unofficial Syrian capital at Raqqa, sixty miles to the south, to Turkey and the outside world. Down this road have come thousands of foreign volunteers, many of whom became suicide bombers. Now the movement is all the other way: some 23,000 Arab and Turkmen refugees have fled into Turkey to escape the advancing Kurds.

Report from Northern Iraq

Patrick Cockburn, 18 December 2014

The​ Islamic State is becoming even more repressive and violent as it comes under increased military pressure from its many enemies. It shows no mercy to those who resist its rule – such as the Albu Nimr tribe in western Iraq, 581 members of which Isis recently executed. This isn’t random slaughter: Isis has a well-organised security service that strikes pre-emptively at...

The Battle for Kobani

Patrick Cockburn, 6 November 2014

Over the summer Isis – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – defeated the Iraqi army, the Syrian army, the Syrian rebels and the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga; it established a state stretching from Baghdad to Aleppo and from Syria’s northern border to the deserts of Iraq in the south. Ethnic and religious groups of which the world had barely heard – including the Yazidis of Sinjar and the Chaldean Christians of Mosul – became victims of Isis cruelty and sectarian bigotry. In September, Isis turned its attention to the two and a half million Syrian Kurds who had gained de facto autonomy in three cantons just south of the Turkish border.

Isis consolidates

Patrick Cockburn, 20 August 2014

As the attention of the world focused on Ukraine and Gaza, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) captured a third of Syria in addition to the quarter of Iraq it had seized in June. The frontiers of the new Caliphate declared by Isis on 29 June are expanding by the day and now cover an area larger than Great Britain and inhabited by at least six million people.

Battle for Baghdad

Patrick Cockburn, 16 July 2014

In early June, Abbas Saddam, a private soldier from a Shia district in Baghdad serving in the 11th Division of the Iraqi army, was transferred from Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in western Iraq, to Mosul in the north. The fighting started not long after he got there. But on the morning of 10 June the commanding officer told his men to stop shooting, hand over their rifles to the insurgents, take off their uniforms and get out of the city. Before they could obey, their barracks were invaded by a crowd of civilians.

Hazards of Revolution

Patrick Cockburn, 9 January 2014

Soon after the Libyan capital fell to the rebels in August 2011 I got to know a 32-year-old man called Ahmed Abdullah al-Ghadamsi. We met when he tried to evict me from my hotel room, which he said was needed for members of the National Transitional Council, in effect the provisional government of Libya. I wasn’t happy about being moved because the hotel, the Radisson Blu on Tripoli’s seafront, was full of journalists and there was nowhere else to stay. But Ahmed promised to find me another room, and he was as good as his word.

Diary: Four Wars

Patrick Cockburn, 10 October 2013

The four wars fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the past 12 years have all involved overt or covert foreign intervention in deeply divided countries. In each case the involvement of the West exacerbated existing differences and pushed hostile parties towards civil war. In each country, all or part of the opposition have been hard-core jihadi fighters. Whatever the real issues at stake, the interventions have been presented as primarily humanitarian, in support of popular forces against dictators and police states.

The Syrian War Spills Over

Patrick Cockburn, 6 June 2013

For the first two years of the Syrian civil war foreign leaders regularly predicted that Bashar al-Assad’s government would fall any day. In November 2011, King Abdullah of Jordan said that the chances of Assad’s surviving were so slim he ought to step down. In December last year, Anders Rasmussen, the Nato secretary general, said: ‘I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse.’ Even the Russian Foreign Ministry has at times made similar claims. Some of these statements were designed to demoralise Assad’s supporters by making his overthrow seem inevitable.

A Prehistory of Extraordinary Rendition

Patrick Cockburn, 13 September 2012

My grandfather, Henry Cockburn, resigned prematurely from the Foreign Office at the age of 49, shortly before the First World War. He was the senior British diplomat in Seoul and resigned, my father told me, because he objected to British support for Japan’s occupation of Korea. It was a reckless and somewhat mysterious decision: he was about to achieve ambassadorial rank, had no...

Lebanon

Patrick Cockburn, 5 August 2010

Why has Lebanon been the graveyard of so many invaders? In the 1960s Israelis used to say that one of their military bands would be enough to conquer the country; sometimes, before Israel and Egypt agreed a peace in 1979, they added: ‘I don’t know which will be the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but I do know the name of the second.’ Lebanon, half the...

A report from Kabul

Patrick Cockburn, 11 June 2009

Compared to Baghdad, Kabul is quiet. Checkpoints are everywhere, manned by Afghan police in tattered grey uniforms, but the police look relaxed and their searches of people and cars are often perfunctory. Only at the southern exit from the city, around a well fortified police post, do people appear anxious as they prepare to take the road to Kandahar. Many check their pockets nervously,...

America Concedes

Patrick Cockburn, 18 December 2008

On 27 November the Iraqi parliament voted by a large majority in favour of a security agreement with the US under which its 150,000 troops will withdraw from Iraqi cities, towns and villages by 30 June next year and from all of Iraq by 31 December 2011. The Iraqi government will take over military responsibility for the Green Zone in Baghdad, the heart of American power in Iraq, in a few weeks’ time. Private security companies will lose legal immunity. US military operations will only be carried out with Iraqi consent. No US military bases will remain after the last American troops leave in 2011 and in the interim the US military is banned from carrying out attacks on other countries from within Iraq.

Power Struggles in Iraq

Patrick Cockburn, 14 August 2008

Barack Obama was lucky in the timing of his visit to Iraq. He arrived just after the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had rejected a new Status of Forces Agreement which would have preserved indefinitely the US right to conduct military operations inside the country. The Iraqi government was vague about when it wanted the final withdrawal of US troops, but its spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh...

A New Deal for Iraq

Patrick Cockburn, 19 June 2008

The American occupation of Iraq is going much the same way as British rule after the First World War, when an easy military victory led to over-confidence and a conviction that what Iraqis did was of no importance. A rebellion in 1920 provoked the occupiers into establishing an Iraqi national government with limited powers. Under the Anglo-Iraqi treaty of 1930, Iraq achieved nominal...

Diary: Muqtada al-Sadr

Patrick Cockburn, 24 April 2008

A new struggle is beginning in Iraq. The most important battles likely to be waged this year will be within the Shia community. They pit the US-backed Iraqi government against the supporters of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who represents the impoverished Shia masses. ‘The Shia are the majority in Iraq and the Sadrists are a majority of this majority,’ a former Shia minister...

Sunni v. Shia v. the US v. al-Qaida

Patrick Cockburn, 6 March 2008

In Baghdad the Iraqi government is eager to give the impression that peace is returning. ‘Not a single sectarian murder or displacement was reported in over a month,’ claimed Brigadier Qasim Ata, the spokesman for the city’s security plan. In the US, the surge – the dispatch of 30,000 more American troops in the first half of 2007 – is portrayed as having turned...

With the Kurds

Patrick Cockburn, 15 November 2007

There are 100,000 Turkish troops just across the northern Iraqi border preparing to launch an invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan in the hope of eliminating the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The US has labelled the PKK ‘terrorists’ and the Iraqi government – despite the arguments of its Kurdish members – has told the guerrillas to disarm or leave its...

A report from Iraq

Patrick Cockburn, 22 February 2007

Baghdad is now effectively a dozen different cities; they are all at war. On walls there are slogans in black paint saying ‘Death to Spies’. A Shia caught in a Sunni district will be killed and vice versa. Each side has its checkpoints: armed men in civilian clothes demand identity cards from drivers, and wave to one side those they suspect of being of the opposite religion; these...

Another spurious turning point in Iraq

Patrick Cockburn, 6 July 2006

The history of the American and British intervention in Iraq has been littered with spurious turning points over the last three years. The latest is the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the best publicised of the insurgent leaders, by US laser-guided bombs on 7 June in a house in Diyala province, north-east of Baghdad. The career of Zarqawi in Iraq was very strange. He was an obscure figure...

On the Iranian Border

Patrick Cockburn, 8 June 2006

On 20 May, in a stuffy hall inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, behind the seven lines of sandbagged checkpoints, razor wire and sniffer dogs that protect it from the streets beyond, a new Iraqi cabinet was voted into office. Five months after they elected their parliament, Iraqis finally had a new government. This government included a minister for tourism but, despite the war raging across...

Diary: The End of Iraq

Patrick Cockburn, 6 April 2006

Iraq is splitting into three different parts. Everywhere there are fault lines opening up between Sunni, Shia and Kurd. In the days immediately following the attack on the Shia shrine in Samarra on 22 February, some 1300 bodies, mostly Sunni, were found in and around Baghdad. The Shia-controlled Interior Ministry, whose police commandos operate as death squads, asked the Health Ministry to release lower figures. A friend of mine, a normally pacific man living in a middle-class Sunni district in west Baghdad, rang me. ‘I am not leaving my home,’ he said. ‘The police commandos arrested 15 people from here last night including the local baker. I am sitting here in my house with a Kalashnikov and 60 bullets and if they come for me I am going to open fire.’

Diary: Civil War in Baghdad

Patrick Cockburn, 20 October 2005

The referendum on the constitution is dividing Iraqis. Sunni Arabs fear it will destroy the country by breaking it up into cantons. The Shias and Kurds hope it will give birth to a new Iraq in which they will hold power. The US has put intense pressure on negotiators to reach an agreement because it is desperate to prove to ever more sceptical American voters that Iraq is fast progressing...

In Baghdad

Patrick Cockburn, 4 August 2005

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...

Diary: a report from a divided Iraq

Patrick Cockburn, 19 May 2005

“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.”

Diary: The Iraqi elections

Patrick Cockburn, 17 February 2005

On the day of the election, 30 January, the streets of Baghdad were clear of traffic. Families, mainly Shias, drifted down the main road in the Jadriyah district to the polling stations near the al-Hamra Hotel, where I live. The thump-thump of mortars in the distance did not affect the festive mood. The odd bicycle rattled past. For the first time in more than a year there was no danger of...

Iraq’s disintegration

Patrick Cockburn, 7 October 2004

Signs of disintegration are everywhere in Iraq. Oily columns of black smoke billow up from the airport road where US patrols are regularly hit by suicide bombers or roadside bombs between Baghdad and Camp Victory, the gigantic US headquarters on the edge of the airport. In a vain attempt to deny cover to resistance fighters, American soldiers have chopped down the palm trees and bushes beside...

Diary: Iraq after the handover

Patrick Cockburn, 22 July 2004

It is tempting to see the so-called handover of power from the US to the Iraqi interim government on 28 June as a fake. The few who attended the ceremony at which sovereignty was legally transferred had had to pass through four American checkpoints. Iyad Allawi, the new prime minister, worked for years for MI6 and the CIA and is kept in power by 138,000 US troops. The ministers in the new...

Diary: The uprisings in Iraq

Patrick Cockburn, 20 May 2004

The publication of pictures showing what may happen to Iraqi prisoners at the hands of their captors allowed the outside world to see what Iraqis had known for some time: the occupation is very brutal. In Baghdad, stories had been circulating for months about systematic torture in the prisons. In the US the impact of the photographs was all the greater thanks to the administration’s...

Diary: a report from Baghdad

Patrick Cockburn, 18 March 2004

Six months ago, as the number of guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings increased, an Iraqi friend in business in Baghdad used to comfort himself by saying: ‘The Americans cannot afford to fail in Iraq.’ But as the country gets closer to civil war his confidence has ebbed away. Nearly two hundred Shiites were killed by suicide bombers in and around the holy shrines in Karbala and...

Diary: in Iraq

Patrick Cockburn, 6 November 2003

The centre of the book trade in Baghdad is al-Mutanabi Street, which runs between the Tigris and Rashid Street, now shabby and decayed but once the city’s commercial heart. The bookshops are small, and open all the time; on Friday there’s a market, when vendors lay out their books in Arabic and English on mats on the dusty and broken surface of the road. Most are second-hand. In...

Diary: a report from Baghdad

Patrick Cockburn, 24 July 2003

There used to be a mosaic of President George Bush on the floor at the entrance to the al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad. It was placed there soon after the first Gulf War in 1991 and was a good likeness, though the artist gave Bush unnaturally jagged teeth and a slightly sinister grimace. The idea was that nobody would be able to get into the hotel, where most foreign visitors to Iraq stayed in the...

From The Blog
26 September 2014

It was difficult at times to recall that the military intervention in Iraq being debated in the House of Commons involves sending six Tornadoes to bomb suspected Isis positions. It is very much a symbolic action from the British point of view. MPs seemed to be trying to grapple with the complexity of what is happening but not quite succeeding. Cameron and others made great play with the idea that military action is in support of a new, inclusive Iraqi government, when in fact it is as Shia-dominated as the old. Its most effective military strike force are Iranian-managed Shia militias but they, along with the Iraqi army, terrify the Sunni.

From The Blog
25 August 2014

The killing of James Foley by Isis caused an upsurge of international revulsion and condemnation with harsh words from the US defence secretary and others. But the Obama administration is trying hard not to be sucked into a war that could be more serious than the US invasion and occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2011. What Isis showed by Foley's very public murder is that it will always raise the stakes in any confrontation with the US and anybody else. It trumped America's reassuring portrayal of the recapture of Mosul Dam by the Kurds aided by US air strikes as a sign that Isis could be defeated.

What will happen to Syria?

Hugh Roberts, 15 July 2015

American intelligence saw Islamic State coming and was not only relaxed about the prospect but, it appears, positively interested in it.

Read More

Muqtada al-Sadr

Charles Tripp, 17 July 2008

This is a strange time in Iraq. Local actors and regional powers are watching each other and the Americans, waiting to see what the US election will bring. For their part, the Americans are...

Read More

The Cockburns of Cork

Neal Ascherson, 1 September 2005

In the early summer of 1956, an epidemic of poliomyelitis broke out in the city of Cork. It was not unexpected. The Irish medical authorities had noted the two-year gap between previous...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences