What the neighbours are up to

Patrick Cockburn in Iraq

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 the country, no minister of the interior or of defence: Shia and Sunni leaders were still arguing over who should control those jobs. The much vaunted handover of sovereignty in 2004 was forgotten, as Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador, proclaimed the virtues of a new administration that is largely his creation. Last year the Shia – who make up 60 per cent of the Iraqi population – won two elections, but the US has fought to deny them complete control of the Iraqi state. ‘So far,’ a high-ranking US official was quoted as saying, ‘the Shia have not demonstrated that they can govern, and they have to demonstrate that now.’

At 6.30 that morning, a few hours before the parliament met, a car bomb exploded in Sadr City, the impoverished Shia bastion in east Baghdad. Nineteen people were killed and 58 wounded, most of them day labourers waiting to be hired. The attack was probably a response to the previous day’s incursions into the Sunni districts of al-Jihad and al-Furat in west Baghdad by Shia gunmen, probably from the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. Loudspeakers on the minarets of Sunni mosques across the city had announced that parts of west Baghdad were under attack and called on Sunnis to take immediate action.

The sectarian civil war in Baghdad is occasionally, if sparsely, reported. But from the provinces around the capital there is almost no news. These places are too dangerous for foreign or indeed Iraqi journalists to visit. There are sporadic police reports of violence but they are impossible to investigate. On the day parliament met, the bodies of 15 people, all of whom had been tortured before they were killed, were delivered to the morgue in Musayyib, a town to the south of Baghdad; no one knows who killed them or why. Two months ago I met an Iraqi army captain from Diyala, a province north-east of Baghdad which has a mixed Sunni, Shia and Kurdish population. He said Sunni and Shia were killing each other throughout the area. ‘Whoever is in a minority runs,’ he said. ‘If forces are more equal they fight it out.’

Diyala is well-watered compared to much of Iraq and has lush orchards. In the 1990s I used to visit villages along the Diyala river, where many of the farmers specialised in growing pomegranates. Then, their main concern was the breakdown of health services as a result of UN sanctions. In the hope that I was a foreign doctor people would disappear into their houses to bring out dusty old X-rays of their children, taken before the local clinic was forced to close its X-ray services. In 2003, after the invasion, I returned to Baquba, the nondescript provincial capital, but before long the city became an early centre of armed resistance to the occupation and too dangerous to visit. When I flew into Arbil last month I hoped to find out what was happening there by taking advantage of the province’s peculiar sectarian geography. In eastern Diyala there is a pocket of Kurdish territory, at the centre of which is the town of Khanaqin. I could get there safely, I thought, by travelling south out of Kurdistan down the long strip of Kurdish-controlled land that runs along the Iranian border. It would be too risky to go beyond Khanaqin, but if what I was told was true, I was bound to find Kurdish and Shia refugees in Khanaqin who had fled there from Baquba and further west.

It turned out to be easy enough. I drove south from Sulaimaniyah through Iraq’s only tunnel, past the lake at Derbendikan and along the Sirdar river, its valley a vivid green between the hills. A Kurdish official had told me the road was ‘absolutely safe’, so long as I entered Khanaqin by crossing the river below a ramshackle town called Kalar and circling round. Under Saddam Hussein, most of Khanaqin’s Kurdish inhabitants had been forced to leave; nearby villages were destroyed. They had now returned, along with a new wave of refugees fleeing from the Sunni death squads which were driving out both Kurds and Shia from the rest of Diyala.

In Khanaqin I met Salar Hussein Rostam, a police lieutenant in charge of registering families fleeing from the rest of Iraq. ‘I’ve received two hundred families recently, most in the last week,’ he said, gesturing to a great bundle of files beside him. ‘They all got warnings telling them to go within 24 hours or be killed.’ Most were poor. One richer family had lost all its money: ‘One of their relatives was kidnapped and only released after they paid $160,000.’ Two medical workers he received had been sacked from their jobs in Baghdad because they belonged to the wrong ethnic group. But the reason most of the refugees were there was simple: they believed that if they stayed in their homes they would die.

Kadm Darwish Ali, a Kurdish police officer who had lived in Baquba for twenty years, said that he had initially ignored warnings to leave. But after the explosion of violence that followed the destruction of the Shia al-Askari shrine in Samarra in February the threats had escalated. It wasn’t just the lone assassin he feared. On 21 March insurgents stormed a police station in Diyala after the officers inside had run out of ammunition; nearly two dozen officers were killed. ‘Everything got worse after Samarra,’ Ali said. ‘I had been threatened with death before but now I felt every time I appeared in the street I was likely to die.’ He sent his family to Khanaqin a month ago and followed them soon afterwards. ‘It will get worse and worse,’ he said.

Sadeq Shawaz Hawaz and his brother Ahmed live with nine other relatives who also fled Baquba in a three-room hovel off a track with sewage running down the middle of it. Sadeq and Ahmed had been fruit traders in the city’s market, but several weeks ago, a car with four men in it arrived at their house while they were at work. This was a Sunni district; the brothers were both Shia by religion and ethnically Kurdish. ‘A tall man came to the door,’ Ahmed’s wife, Leila, said. He asked for the men of the family; she told him they weren’t there. ‘We will get them,’ he said, and left. A week later the same men were back, and ordered the family to leave before evening prayers. Not having any money, or anywhere else to live, the family clung on. But then there was a third visit: the tall man promised Leila’s five-year-old daughter Zarah chocolates if she would tell him the names of the men of the family. At this point their nerve broke and they fled, leaving most of their belongings behind. ‘Later I went back to try to get our furniture,’ Ahmed said, ‘but there was too much shooting and I was trapped in our house. I came away with nothing.’

The same pattern is being repeated across central Iraq. This is a civil war waged by assassins and death squads. Iraq is breaking up into its constituent communities: the Sunni minority in Basra are in flight; Shia and Kurds are being forced out of the parts of majority Sunni provinces where they are not strong enough to defend themselves; Kurds in Mosul, which is divided by the Tigris river, are moving from the Sunni west bank to the mostly Kurdish east bank. But it is Baghdad, with its population of six million, that is the heart of the conflict. Sunni and Shia are fighting for control of their own districts, as they did in Beirut when the civil war began in 1975. In Baghdad some thirty or forty bodies turn up every day. But even the dead aren’t spared sectarian discrimination. Sunni families are afraid to visit the city morgue, which is guarded by Shia militiamen appointed by the Ministry of Health, itself controlled by the party of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Will Nouri al-Maliki’s new government change any of this? Iraqis are desperate for peace. In Basra, according to an adviser to the Defence Ministry, one person is murdered every hour. ‘If the new government establishes security in Baghdad they will be heroes,’ Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, told me. ‘And if they fail they will be one more government of the Green Zone.’ It’s possible that it’s already too late for the Iraqi state to be reconstituted. Probably the only place in Iraq where this is not evident is inside the Green Zone, where Tony Blair appeared the day after Maliki announced his cabinet. Blair’s statements at a press conference were a useful checklist of what is not happening in Iraq. He praised the formation of ‘a government of national unity that crosses all boundaries and divides’. If it did that, it wouldn’t have taken five months to put together and the interior and defence ministers would have been chosen immediately. Blair said that the strength of the new government was that it had been democratically ‘elected by the votes of millions of Iraqi people’. This was also true of the previous government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, whom the US and Britain spent months trying to displace before finally succeeding. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein the American and British dilemma has been that democracy in Iraq primarily benefits the Shia, the religious parties and Iran. The White House and Downing Street aren’t very happy about this, but there isn’t much they can do about it, despite their manoeuvring.

As American and British power declines, Iraq’s neighbours are making plans to increase the level of their intervention. Iran and Syria always wanted to keep the US tied down in Iraq, in order to prevent it moving to overthrow their governments, as it has threatened to do. Three years after the fall of Baghdad they think they have succeeded. ‘The mood in Tehran is that the US is very weak in Iraq and cannot do anything against Iran,’ one Iraqi commentator said. The Sunni Gulf states, along with Egypt and Jordan, fear a Shia majority in Iraq acting in alliance with Iran. Turkey, Iran and Syria worry that their own Kurdish minorities will be radicalised by the development of a prosperous Kurdish state, independent in all but name under the umbrella of a feeble Iraqi state. Within the Iraqi Sunni community the Salafi – extreme militants as hostile to the Jordanian and Saudi monarchies as they are to the US – have for the first time gained the sort of base they were never able to establish in Afghanistan. Iraq shares frontiers with Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. All, for one reason or another, are afraid of what is happening in Baghdad.

Intervention by Iraq’s neighbours is generally invisible, often involving money flowing to favoured parties and militias. But high in the snow-streaked Kandil mountains on the Iraq-Iran border in north-east Kurdistan it is easier for Iran to send cruder signals to Baghdad and Washington without provoking a military response. Here, on the night of 31 April, Iranian artillery fired 2000 shells into Iraq: this was a message to the US and its Kurdish allies that Tehran will not be intimidated by the threats made against it.

The Kandil mountains – towering peaks and deep gorges, with no paved roads or bridges – are a natural fortress. In the mayor’s office in the village of Sangaser, on the plain below the mountains, I met Mohammed Aziz, whose family had a small farm in the Kandil. Aziz’s mother had been slightly injured in the shelling and he needed to take her a sack of flour, so he offered to drive us to the valley where she lived. This involved taking a four-wheel drive along earth tracks and riverbeds. It looked as though there would be a further problem. Since neither Baghdad nor the Kurdish regional government actually controls the Kandil, it has traditionally been a stronghold for Kurdish guerrillas, who are safe there from attack by regular armies. It is currently controlled by the Turkish PKK movement, which has a ferocious reputation, but whose members turned out to be eager to talk to me about the bombardment.

The 2000 shells hadn’t done much damage to the flat-roofed houses and animal pens that cling to the sides of the steep valleys. Farmers showed us where explosions had made shallow craters and shrapnel had sliced branches off the trees. ‘I was woken by the sound of the shelling in the middle of the night and I saw there was fire everywhere,’ said Meri Hamza Farqa, the mother of Mohammed Aziz. ‘The children and I ran out of the house and scattered in different directions. A shell blew up near me and I was hit by mud and stones. Later I saw blood coming from my arm.’ Physically isolated from the outside world, villagers in Shinawa live by rearing sheep and cattle that graze on hills covered in grass and dotted with small oak trees. But the villagers have satellite TV dishes and were following the news. They suspected that the Iranian attack on their hidden valleys was a result of the growing confrontation between the US and Iran. Or it might have been timed to coincide with Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Ankara, thereby showing Iranian solidarity with the Turkish government in its long war with the PKK. The barrage had done little damage to the guerrillas, who were safe in their mountain bases. But the farmers thought it wise to run away. ‘As soon as the bombardment was over we decided to leave,’ Meri Hamza said. ‘When we got back a few days later, all my hens and two of my goats had died of hunger.’

The guerrillas are elusive. ‘If you see one,’ the mayor of Sangaser had told us, ‘there are another fifteen or twenty hidden nearby.’ In the middle of a grassy plain surrounded by mountains the PKK have built an extraordinary monument: a large military cemetery with a soaring white pillar in the centre. Among the marble tombs of dead guerrillas – mostly men in their twenties – there is a fountain, red and white rose bushes covered in flowers, and decorative trees. ‘Seventy-five of us started out from Turkey but 49 were killed on the way,’ we were told by the fighter who was accompanying us. Most of the walls of the cemetery are white but others are painted in the red and yellow colours of the PKK; at one side there is a gateway with a sign over it that reads: The Garden of Flowers for Martyrs.

Heavy artillery fire from one country into another is not common and in most parts of the world would attract attention. But it is a measure of the violence in Iraq that the attack on the Kandil and other parts of the frontier passed almost unnoticed inside and outside the country. More and more of the killing here is unreported. Saddam Hussein is on trial in the Green Zone for killing up to 148 Shia from Dujail, a village north of Baghdad, after an assassination attempt on him in 1982. Saddam’s appearances in court are highly publicised and shown on TV. But until an Iraqi journalist uncovered the fact in the last few weeks, no one knew that the people of Dujail were being massacred once again. Sunni insurgents, sympathetic to Saddam, are murdering Shias at checkpoints on the main road to Baghdad. Twenty people from Dujail have been killed in recent weeks; another 20 are missing.

The latest justification for the US and British occupation is that it is preventing civil war. All too evidently this is what it is not doing. Iraq was always going to be in turmoil after Saddam’s fall. The Shia and Kurds were bound to overturn Sunni predominance. But a foreign occupying army was the worst force in the world to oversee this traumatic political and social change. Iraqis were suddenly being asked not only if they were Shia, Sunni or Kurd but if they supported or opposed the invader. The answer was different for each community. The Kurds supported the occupation. The Shia wanted the US and British military presence to end when the time was right for them to take over. The Sunni opposed the occupation absolutely and launched a ruthless and effective guerrilla war that has so far killed or wounded twenty thousand American troops. These radically different responses deepened the divisions between the three communities. Each began to view the other two as murderers and traitors. Conflict was always likely after Saddam. But it was the occupation that ensured its extraordinary violence.

23 May