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.

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