Nowhere to Hide

Patrick Cockburn

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 people are then interrogated, tortured and killed. The checkpoints are difficult to avoid: they spring up without advance warning. Between thirty and fifty bodies, often mutilated, are picked up by the police every day.

Sunni and Shia use different methods. The Sunni are behind the car bombings and suicide bombings of Shia areas, targeting markets and religious processions to cause maximum casualties. On 3 February a man drove a truck into the vegetable market in the Shia district of Sadriya: he told local militiamen he was delivering cooking oil, cans of food and sacks of flour. Once in the market he detonated a ton of explosives hidden in the back of the lorry, killing 135 people and injuring 305 more. It was the deadliest single bomb since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. According to the UN, 3000 people are murdered, mostly for sectarian reasons, in Iraq every month.

The Shia retaliate by opening more checkpoints and killing any Sunni they can identify. So many people now carry false identity papers to conceal their sectarian background that some of the guards manning the posts carry a list of theological questions which a Sunni would not be able to answer. The Shia, who effectively control the police commandos and many Baghdad police units, are in a better position than the Sunni to set up checkpoints. An official police checkpoint is often no more than a death squad in uniform. A friend of mine from the entirely Sunni al-Khadra district in west Baghdad told me: ‘The police commandos on the main highway running past al-Khadra are all Shia from the south. If they find anybody with a Sunni name like “Othman” they will kill him. They arrested one of my cousins and accused him of being an insurgent. When he denied it they said, “Well, you are a Sunni so you support them,” and tortured him anyway with beatings and electricity.’

The Shia are on the offensive. They are the majority in Baghdad and control more territory than the Sunni. Adhamiyah, now the only solidly Sunni neighbourhood on the east side of the Tigris, is under regular mortar attack by Shia militiamen. As areas with mixed populations have disappeared each side has felt able to use heavy mortars against the other, safe in the knowledge that they will not hit members of their own community. Those who fire the mortars don’t seem to care what they hit so long as it is in a district belonging to the opposing side. On 28 January, in the Sunni district of Adil in west Baghdad, two mortar bombs exploded in the courtyard of a girls’ secondary school, killing five children and wounding 21. A 15-year-old who was hit in the legs described watching her friend Maha bleed to death. ‘The shrapnel hit her in the eyes,’ Ban Ismet said, ‘and there was blood all over her face.’ Atrocities like this provoke little reaction in Baghdad these days. A Sunni friend of mine remarked, without much interest or surprise: ‘They were probably aiming for the mosque next to the school.’ Adil is under attack by the Shia militiamen of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army; they now hold Hurriyah, which used to be a mixed district.

The Jadriyah district of east Baghdad, which lies in a loop of the Tigris, is almost entirely Shia but is considered one of the safer areas – not that this is saying a great deal. I stay here when I am in the city, at the al-Hamra Hotel. I walked around looking at the hotel’s defences: heavy blast walls and armed sentries at every entrance. But just outside the walls, buildings that were severely damaged by two suicide bombs in November 2005 have not been repaired; piles of smashed concrete still lie on the ground. Six of the people who lived here, most of whom worked in the hotel, were killed. One had a job in the bakery on the ground floor of my block of the hotel; another was the son of a receptionist I talked to every day. I looked across a wide stretch of broken ground towards a bunker, built by Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war, that is now part of the Interior Ministry. One of the people with me said sharply: ‘The guards in the bunker are getting nervous because you are staring at them.’ We scuttled back into the hotel.

Everybody in Baghdad is frightened. There are few friends of mine left in the city. One day I got a phone call from Hussein, a businessman I had known since the US invasion, who had remained an optimist longer than most. He now spoke in a frightened voice, and from London. I hadn’t heard from him for a while, he said, because he had been kidnapped last summer. He came from a well-known Shia family and was lucky to be alive. His kidnappers whipped him, and then ‘came back to apologise because a cleric at their mosque told them it was wrong to whip anybody over 40 years of age’; he was released after handing over all his money. He was told to leave the country, which he did, but he has no residence permit and can’t stay in Britain or Jordan indefinitely. He doesn’t know what to do.

Bombs, kidnappings and sectarian killings: these are what people talk about in Baghdad. There is not much Iraqis can do about these threats, except run away. I am always talking to people about how to get to Jordan or Syria, and about the chances of getting asylum in the UK or elsewhere in Europe. Out of a population of 27 million, four million Iraqis – more than the population of Ireland – have fled their homes. This is the biggest exodus of refugees in the Middle East since Palestinians were forced from their homes in 1948. Many left after finding a bullet in an envelope slipped under the door or a death threat scrawled on the front of their house. There are relatively safe areas inside Iraq to which the Shia can flee; the Sunni are in danger wherever they go unless they leave the country altogether.

I used to go out to eat in al-Mansur, one of the main shopping areas, where several of the embassies are situated; but Sunni insurgents have taken over and I no longer dare visit. The restaurants I used to go to have mostly closed down; even if they were still open any foreigner who stayed long enough to have a meal would be a target for kidnappers. Two years ago I could sit drinking tea with the owners of an antique shop who knew everything about Baghdad’s history; last year the police picked them up.

One by one the places I knew best in Baghdad are being destroyed. I used to visit the Friday bird market in the city centre. Iraqis like birds. The Ghazil market was a dishevelled but friendly place in front of an ancient mosque, with homemade cages containing canaries, songbirds, parrots, doves, pigeons and falcons. At 11 a.m. on 26 January a man arrived at the market carrying a cardboard box pierced with air-holes. He put the box down and told the birdsellers he was going to get a drink of water. A few moments later, the explosives inside the box detonated, killing 15 people and wounding 55 more. A few birds that survived the blast continued to chirrup in their cages. Bedraggled black Shia prayer flags hung from nearby shops. I’ve always thought of Ghazil as a mixed area, but whoever planned the attack must have believed it was a Shia neighbourhood and that few Sunni would be killed.

If Iraqis believed that President Bush’s famous ‘surge’ – the dispatch of a further 21,500 American troops to Iraq, announced in January – was going to put an end to these massacres they might have welcomed the new Baghdad security plan. But they have seen many such plans come and go. Three and a half years after the US captured Baghdad, it is extraordinary how little of the city it actually controls. At the end of January, US and Iraqi soldiers tried to fight their way into Haifa Street, less than a mile from the Green Zone, a district with a population of 170,000 that has long been a bastion of Sunni insurgents. In a file I found a New York Times piece about the incursions into Haifa Street, entitled ‘There are signs that the tide may be turning on Iraq’s street of fear’; it seemed to be well informed – until I noticed that it was dated 21 March 2005. It was an optimistic account of one of the US army’s previous failed offensives in Haifa Street.

In his State of the Union speech Bush talked of eliminating militias, both Sunni and Shia, not just from Haifa Street but from all of Baghdad, a city of six million people. The US army and its Iraqi government allies, he said, would enter hostile areas, cleanse them of insurgents and militias and remain there to prevent their return. If this happens, it will be without much Iraqi popular support. A poll at the end of last year showed that 61 per cent of Iraqis, almost all Sunni and a majority of Shia, are in favour of armed attacks on US-led forces.

Just how dangerous Baghdad is for Americans was underlined last month when a helicopter belonging to the US security company Blackwater was shot down as it flew over the Sunni area of al-Fadhil close to the central market. The US army immediately sent in a rescue team, but by the time it arrived four of the five members of the helicopter’s crew had been executed by shots to the head (the fifth died in the crash); within hours their identity cards were being shown on insurgent websites. The lack of US control is even more apparent in the provinces. Recently US and Iraqi commanders gave a self-congratulatory press conference on the situation in Baquba, the capital of the fruit-growing province of Diyala. ‘The situation in Baquba,’ they claimed, ‘is reassuring and under control’; nasty rumours, they said, were being ‘circulated by bad people’. A few hours later insurgents stormed Baquba’s mayoral office, kidnapped the mayor and blew up the building. The local council’s response was to sack 1500 members of the Diyala police force on grounds that they had failed to resist the insurgency. The council now complains that insurgents are in effective control of Baquba and that Nouri al-Maliki’s government, which is preoccupied with the Baghdad security plan, has sent them no help.

It is hard to see why Bush’s surge into areas of Iraq that the US army has failed to pacify should succeed this time. Sunni insurgents and Shia militias will simply move elsewhere, or fight back using guerrilla tactics. If the US puts pressure on the Mehdi Army in Baghdad then the long and vulnerable US supply lines to Kuwait – the convoys run through the Shia provinces of southern Iraq – will come under attack, threatening the effective functioning of US forces in the capital.

How would the Iraqis respond to American troops entering their neighbourhoods in search of insurgents? In Sunni districts people say it depends on what the American soldiers do. If they merely searched houses that would be acceptable. But if they arrested young men and handed them over to the police or police commandos, who are mainly Shia, the Sunni would fight. The great weakness of the US military in Baghdad is that it has no reliable local allies; the surge – which is not a new strategy but a collection of tactics – will do nothing to lessen the isolation of US forces in Iraq. To try to make up for this lack of support the US is shipping in Kurdish units; but many of these soldiers speak no Arabic and many desert before even leaving Kurdistan.

The US reinforcement should make some difference in central Baghdad, but only because the present situation is so bad. Late last month, checkpoints manned by black-clad Mehdi Army militiamen appeared on the road to the July 14 Bridge, which crosses the Tigris half a mile away from my hotel and marks the entrance to the Green Zone. This was a new danger: if we were stopped, my drivers, both of whom are Sunni, stood a good chance of being abducted or killed. More US and Iraqi government troops should make a temporary dent in this total control by the militias. But Bush’s more ambitious plans are a pipe dream. ‘With Iraqis in the lead,’ he told Congress on 23 January, ‘our forces will secure the city by chasing down the terrorists, insurgents, and the roaming death squads.’ Securing the city is a near impossibility: Sunni insurgents and Shia militiamen are too well entrenched and, moreover, generally have more legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis than government forces.

The enormity of the decisions about future US policy that Bush announced in January has still not sunk in outside the US – and perhaps not even there. The implications are considerable. Bush’s plan is a total rejection of the sensible proposals of the Baker-Hamilton report, which recommended talks with Iran and Syria. He means instead to escalate and widen the war. ‘Shia extremists backed by Iran’, Bush said, were now an enemy as significant as al-Qaida. His demonisation of Iran – the hidden hand controlling the Shia militias – was an expression of the same paranoid fervour that four years ago drove his denunciations of Saddam for building weapons of mass destruction to threaten the Middle East. The level of mendacity about the relationship between Iran and the Iraqi Shia is even greater. The Shia of Iraq – who make up 60 per cent of the population – needed nobody’s prompting to take power through victory in the elections of 2005. Perhaps the most dangerous misconception in the Middle East is to see the Shia of Iraq or Lebanon as the pawns of Iran.

Confrontation with Iran makes little sense in terms of Iraqi politics. The most important elements in the Iraqi government are pro-Iranian, notably the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which used to be based in Iran. When I went to see one of its leaders in Najaf his guards spoke to me in Farsi. The Badr Organisation, SCIRI’s well-organised militia, was set up by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and fought on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq war. It is inconceivable that SCIRI would switch its allegiance from Iran to the US. It’s worth noting that the Iraqi nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mehdi Army, prominent on the list of those denounced by Washington as creatures of Iran, have traditionally been anti-Iranian.

Bush’s new vision of Iran as the puppetmaster behind the Shia militias in Iraq is curiously close to that of the Baath Party, which also justifies its attacks on the Shia by claiming that the Shia are Iran’s instruments. The US overthrow of the Baathist regime was bound to benefit both Iran and al-Qaida. ‘We cannot reverse this outcome by more use of military force in Iraq,’ Lt General William Odom, the former head of the National Security Agency, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. ‘To try to do so would require siding with Sunni leaders and the Baathist insurgents against pro-Iranian Shia groups. The Baathist insurgents constitute the forces most strongly opposed to Iraqi co-operation with Iran.’ Because the Sunni insurgents – both the nationalists and those sponsored by al-Qaida – are fighting primarily in order to end the US occupation they cannot ally themselves with Washington as Saddam did during the Iran-Iraq war. The result is that inside Iraq Bush is alienating the Shia without necessarily gaining the support of the Sunni.

Bush’s confrontation with Iran makes some sense in the context of the politics of the wider Middle East. In Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan he is appealing to sectarian bigotry against the Shia in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere: a powerful sentiment among leaders and people alike. The Shia takeover of the Iraqi government in alliance with the Kurds is being portrayed as the sharp edge of Iranian imperialism. Sunni rulers realise that the success of Hizbullah, which had widespread popular support when it fought Israel to a standstill in Lebanon last year, shows up the impotence, incompetence and corruption of their own regimes. To avoid such damaging comparisons they are happy to join the US in stoking the anti-Shia and anti-Iranian flames.

The real reason for Bush’s anti-Iranian policy may be its effects on American domestic politics. Ever since the overthrow of Saddam was first planned the White House has shown itself more interested in holding power in Washington than in Baghdad. Bush went to war in Iraq in 2003 because, after overthrowing the Taliban so easily in Afghanistan, he thought he could win an easy victory there too, to his great political advantage at home. He was partly right: the Iraqis did not fight for Saddam. But they also soon made it clear that they did not intend to live under permanent US occupation. Spurious turning points were exaggerated or invented in an attempt to prove that progress was being made: Saddam was captured in December 2003; power was supposedly handed over to an Iraqi government in 2004; elections were held in 2005; Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, was killed by US bombs in 2006. None of these supposed successes made any real difference on the battlefield, but all were claimed as evidence that the US had put an end to the bloody stalemate. The moment American voters realised the extent of the failure in Iraq was postponed long enough for Bush to win the presidential election in 2004 and hold onto both Houses of Congress until 2006.

US confrontation with Iran will prolong the war in Iraq. ‘The Iranians can afford to compromise in Iraq, but they cannot afford to be defeated there,’ Ghassan Attiyah, an Iraqi political scientist, told me. If the US stages air-raids, assassinations or small-scale strikes against Iran then the difficulties it finds itself in in Iraq will only increase. Despite Washington’s claims, there is little evidence that Iran gives significant support to either Sunni insurgents or Shia militias. But if pressed it could do so. After spending four years failing to defeat the five million Iraqi Sunni the US could find itself fighting the 17 million Iraqi Shia as well.