As the Wars End
Patrick Cockburn on Iraq and beyond
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 easy-to-attack civilian targets. This time, that hasn’t really happened. The great Shia pilgrimage of Arbaeen – when six or seven million people from all over Iraq walk to the holy city of Kerbala over a twenty-day period – has just ended: it usually provides an opportunity for suicide bombers to mingle with the crowds and kill large numbers. But this year there were only two such attacks, and in both cases the bombers were shot dead, with no pilgrims killed. People in Baghdad worry that IS may be preparing some spectacular atrocity, like the bomb in a refrigerator truck that blew up in the Karada district of the capital on 3 July 2016, killing 324 people. But the IS-held towns and villages around Baghdad, where suicide bombers used to be trained and where vehicles were packed with explosives, have now all been captured by government forces. IS probably no longer has the capacity to launch multiple attacks in markets, mosques or crowded streets.
The mood in Baghdad is less edgy than it was. But forty years of war and emergency have made Iraqis dubious about a swift return to peaceful life. There are still checkpoints everywhere; buildings likely to be targeted are protected by walls of concrete blocks. Senior officials and diplomats continue to live inside the heavily defended Green or International Zone, a forbidden city which can only be entered with a difficult-to-obtain permit. Security restrictions have cut down the number of usable roads in the city centre, which leads to some of the world’s worst traffic jams, which are exacerbated by an uncontrolled increase in the number of yellow-painted taxis – a way for jobless Iraqis to make a bit of money. A few new buildings are under construction, but most of Baghdad – the biggest city in the Arab world after Cairo, with a population of eight million – looks much as it did when I first visited in 1977. The last spurt of construction was during Saddam’s early years, when he borrowed money from the Gulf states to prove to Iraqis that he could modernise their country with new hotels and government offices while at the same time fighting the disastrous war with Iran that he started in 1980.
Baghdadis are less afraid of suicide bombers and sectarian death squads than they were, but this makes them all the more aware that they live in a shabby, run-down city choking on traffic and uncollected garbage. Past Iraqi governments used the war as an excuse for this, but the truth is that ever since 2003 funds allocated for development have been systematically siphoned off by the political elite. ‘Corruption is swallowing us up,’ Shirouk al-Abayachi, an MP who speaks up about the failures of public services, told me. ‘It is no worse now than it was four or five years ago,’ she said, but the difference then was that the oil price hadn’t yet fallen, and ‘we still had a huge budget to pay for things.’ People are now more resentful of the corruption because the reduction in political violence means they no longer ‘have to give all their attention to trying to keep their families and children safe’.
But political violence isn’t the only kind. Little attention is paid in the foreign media to the effect on Iraqis of non-political crime, or the government’s failure to provide adequate protection through the police and the courts. Nobody trusts the dysfunctional legal system. Iraqis will tell you that their country has four lawgivers: the government, the Shia religious hierarchy, the Shia paramilitary forces, and the tribes (after a traffic accident, it’s often said, it doesn’t matter whether you were right or wrong, but what tribe you belong to). The uncertainties of everyday life make people feel vulnerable, and rumours of new threats abound. At the moment people are talking about a supposed rise in the number of children being kidnapped for ransom – though the interior minister, Qasim al-Araji, told me he knows of only three such kidnappings recently; two of the hostages were released. The fears are driven by memories of the not so distant time when kidnapping was a major criminal industry in Baghdad. Nobody wants to take a chance with the safety of their children: I used to stay in a hotel near the entrance to Baghdad University in the Jadriyah district but this time I had to go elsewhere, since twice a day the road is impassable for hours at a time as parents drop off and pick up their student offspring, frightened that they will be abducted if they walk the streets alone. The Iraqi state is becoming stronger, and its authority less fragmented, but Iraqis’ mentality has been shaped by four decades of chronic instability and it will take time for people to accept that they really are safer than they used to be.
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