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.
Iraqis have good reason to be pessimists. Throughout many people’s lifetimes, a new crisis has arrived as soon as the previous one came to an end. The eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war ended to general joy in 1988 after 250,000 Iraqis had been killed. But two years later Saddam invaded Kuwait. After he was defeated there in 1991, he crushed Shia and Kurdish uprisings, as UN sanctions that amounted to a 13-year blockade ruined the Iraqi economy. The US-led invasion of 2003 got rid of Saddam, but started a new round of wars. These ebbed in 2008 only to reignite in 2011 and reach a peak of horrific violence with the IS victories of 2014. IS has now been defeated, but Iraqis aren’t sure whether, yet again, this is only a temporary respite. Their caution is understandable, but this time there really is a strong chance that the cycle of wars, both international and civil, is coming to an end. That’s because winners and losers are now emerging in Iraq, and in the region around it. Inside Iraq the Shia, who make up 60 per cent of the population, have defeated rival communities, and in both Iraq and Syria the Sunni coalition of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and their local allies has failed in its aims and broken up. The Shia axis – a generalisation, but a useful one – has come out on top. Last month, as Iraqi government forces were taking Rawa in western Iraq, the Syrian army captured Abu Kamal, the last IS-held town in eastern Syria. Bashar al-Assad is here to stay. The significance of the fact that Iranian leaders now control a ‘corridor’ through friendly territory all the way from the Afghan border to the Mediterranean, passing through Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is often exaggerated (if the corridor was so important, how were they able to win wars without it?), but the verdict on the question of who will hold power – the question that was posed in Iraq in 2003, and in Syria in 2011 – is now in.
An unintended outcome of the US and Britain overthrowing Saddam in 2003 was the creation of the first Shia government in the Arab world since Saladin defeated the Fatimids in 1171. But the Sunni, a fifth of the population, never fully accepted it, nor did the Kurds, another fifth, though early on a Shia-Kurdish power-sharing bloc was held together by opposition to Saddam and his regime. Until the second half of this year, Iraq had a peculiar political geography, as, in effect, three states in one country: a Shia-dominated government in the centre and south, with quasi-states in the north and west, each with a larger army than most member states of the UN. The Kurdish quasi-state had been gradually expanding its authority ever since Saddam lost his hold on Iraqi Kurdistan in the wake of the Gulf War in 1991. The IS caliphate was a much later creation, established after the capture of Mosul in 2014, and at its height accounted for about a quarter of Iraq, including all Sunni-majority areas, as well as a similarly sized zone in Syria. In the last five months this situation has been transformed: Iraqi government forces backed by US airpower decisively defeated IS by capturing Mosul on 10 July and, in a separate offensive, peacefully reoccupied Kirkuk on 16 October. They went on to seize, again without resistance, a swathe of territories long disputed between Arabs and Kurds stretching from the Syrian to the Iranian border. The cost was high: the siege lasted for nine months rather than the two months US advisers had expected and, by one estimate, at least 21,000 people were killed. The success of the central government against the Kurds was, by contrast, entirely unexpected, but has proved almost equally decisive.
It only happened because of a gross miscalculation by the Kurdish president, Masoud Barzani, previously a risk-averse politician. The referendum on Kurdish independence that he held on 25 September – flying in the face of advice from the US, Turkey, Iran and the rest of the world, apart from Israel – provoked Baghdad and left the Kurds isolated. They had convinced themselves that Baghdad, Turkey, Iran and the US were bluffing. It was an irretrievable blunder: Barzani and his lieutenants had failed to notice that the balance of power in the country was already changing and, for the first time in a quarter of a century, the government had a large victorious army in northern Iraq. When it rolled into Kirkuk in the space of a few hours with scarcely a shot being fired, Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) blamed Iranian-inspired treachery by the other main Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). They portrayed the head of foreign operations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, General Qasim Soleimani, as a sort of Iranian Professor Moriarty, subtly manipulating the Iraqi government, as well as the Hashd al-Shaabi – the Shia paramilitary – and the PUK leadership. But the truth was simpler: the central government had a military option and the Kurds did not. The PUK and KDP Peshmerga recognised this and, contrary to conspiracy theories about PUK treachery, both sets of fighters retreated simultaneously at equal speed and without fighting. I asked Aso Mamand, the PUK leader in Kirkuk, whether the Kurds could have held the city if they had been more united and determined. ‘Of course not,’ he said. ‘The Iraqi forces had tanks and planes and we had no chance. Maybe we would have lasted a day if we had fought, but the only result would have been bloodshed.’ The Kurdish quasi-state, which has been an important player in Iraqi and regional politics, is suddenly so shrunken geographically and politically that its future leverage will be very limited. Divided, discredited, bankrupt and without strong allies, the Kurdish leaders must now try to negotiate a new deal with Baghdad that retains at least something of the semi-independent status they previously enjoyed.
Not so long ago, when asked about the future, Baghdadis would commonly reply that ‘Iraq is finished.’ American politicians argued that the country should either be broken up or continue as the loosest of federations. This notion that Iraq is a failed state is now being replaced by growing self-confidence on the part of the Shia majority: the Iraqi state has been reborn, they insist, and belongs to them. There is an outpouring of nationalist celebration in the Iraqi media, even if it is not necessarily an accurate guide to what Iraqis actually think. It was significant that many of the millions of Shia pilgrims taking part in the Arbaeen walk were carrying the Iraqi national red, white and black tricolour as well as their traditional green, black, red and white religious flags. Shia religious identity is becoming more closely connected with Iraqi national identity. Once, nationalism was the province of the Sunni, who would denigrate the Shia as ‘Safavids’, a derogatory term referring to the dynasty that ruled Iran between the 16th and 18th centuries, not true Iraqis.
The fact that the Sunni and Kurdish defeats have been so complete gives the Shia little reason to share power with them. ‘The problem with Iraqis is that they have all been victims of oppression at one time or other,’ said a senior official in Baghdad, a veteran of the struggle again Saddam. ‘So, when they do get power, they feel they have the right to treat everybody else as badly as they were once treated themselves.’ But it is a rule of Iraqi politics that no community is strong enough to monopolise power for very long. Saddam slaughtered the Kurds and drove them from their lands, but they survived and he was executed. Some Iraqi leaders are aware of the danger: the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, told me he was doing everything he could to avoid permanently alienating the Kurds: ‘I gave orders to our security forces that there should be no bloodshed. We did not want to fight the Peshmerga.’ On the other hand, Abadi is demanding that the Kurdish leaders give up control of their borders, oil exports and international flights; the Peshmerga will largely come under the command of the central government, and state employees in Kurdistan will be paid directly from Baghdad. Given the triumphalist atmosphere, Abadi, who faces a parliamentary election in May, could do nothing else, and probably doesn’t want to.
Yet dismissing the Kurds’ national demands, which they fought for and then voted for by a huge majority, is beginning to create a counter-reaction. The tendency in Iraqi politics is for defeated parties to accept defeat only for as long as they have to, waiting for an opportunity to bounce back when they can find a foreign sponsor willing to provide money, weapons and support. Saddam imagined that he had permanently defeated the Kurdish insurgency in 1975, when the shah – covertly supported by the US – abandoned his Kurdish allies in return for the territorial concessions granted in the Algiers Agreement. But five years later, the Kurdish nationalists were back in business after Saddam invaded Iran and the Iranians gave full support to a new Kurdish rebellion. Once again, the Kurds were suppressed and massacred, only to return with US support in 1991 after Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait. Iraq’s four largest neighbours – Syria, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia – all see the country as both a threat and an opportunity. Either way, they dare not ignore it. Barzani’s referendum was dangerous for both Turkey and Iran, with their own restive Kurdish minorities, so they immediately turned against him. In an earlier example of this process, the US and Britain could perhaps have got away with invading Iraq in 2003 – most Iraqis believed that Saddam was a disastrous leader – if they had got out immediately. But Iraq’s neighbours felt threatened by the occupation, which planted a large Western army in control of an Iraqi client state on their borders. Syria and Iran were bound to resist it by supporting both Sunni and Shia forces fighting to undermine the American and British presence.
Western governments and media tend to treat the wars in Iraq and Syria as if they were driven by different dynamics, similar though they have been in many respects. This skewed analysis stems partly from the fact that the West opposed Syria’s government and supported Iraq’s. In Iraq the rebels were condemned; in Syria, until a late stage in the war, the armed opposition was treated sympathetically. But both insurgencies became dominated by IS or al-Qaida-type organisations. The Syrian and Russian bombardment of civilians in East Aleppo was widely covered in the West, while the destruction of parts of Mosul by Iraqi artillery and US aircraft was played down. A distorted picture of the war became conventional wisdom: in reality, the strategy in both countries was similar and was adopted for similar reasons: the Syrian and Iraqi government forces and the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds were all deploying limited numbers of combat troops, and they were able to advance only with the support of the massive firepower provided by American and Russian airstrikes. This way of making war has been successful, and IS has been defeated, but it has involved a high level of destruction and heavy civilian loss of life.
The wars in Syria and Iraq were linked from the beginning. Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister between 2006 and 2014, was frequently criticised for overseeing the repression that drove the Sunni in Iraq into supporting IS, but he sees the renewed Sunni uprising as having been driven by the Syrian war. ‘It began in Syria,’ he says, ‘when Saudi Arabia and some other countries’ – he means Turkey and Qatar – ‘in co-ordination with the Americans and others decided to remove the Syrian regime by armed force.’ The war in Syria fuelled sectarianism everywhere, particularly in Iraq, where local Sunni leaders were convinced that Assad’s regime in Damascus would soon fall. Regime change in Baghdad would then follow. ‘I spoke to Obama, Petraeus, Biden and Clinton,’ Maliki says, ‘but they all thought Bashar would only last two or three months.’ He says he tried to negotiate with Sunni leaders in western Iraq, but they believed that their moment had come. ‘Negotiations failed,’ he says. ‘Their slogans were: “We are coming to Baghdad! You are not Muslims! You are not Arabs! You are Persians! Leave Baghdad!”’ Maliki has an interest in playing down his own responsibility for the rise of IS and the fall of Mosul, but it is true that from 2011 onwards Iraqi leaders were saying that if the civil war in Syria continued it would destabilise Iraq.
The rebellion has now been defeated in both countries as IS is squeezed out of its last strongholds. The Sunni in Iraq and Syria may not have been responsible for the rise of IS, but they will suffer the consequences of its defeat. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey gave essential support to the anti-government forces in Syria without caring much if they were al-Qaida clones. All three have now retreated from the war, with Turkey focusing on blocking the Syrian Kurds from getting their own state and Saudi Arabia correctly but hypocritically – since the Saudis did the same – accusing Qatar of funding terrorism in Syria and elsewhere. Suddenly the wars in Iraq and Syria are coming to an end. Iraq is on good terms with all its neighbours. The cycles of conflict that have torn Iraq apart for so long may soon be over.
Abadi believes that the greatest threat facing Iraq is the confrontation between Iran and the US, though he thinks it could remain rhetorical. If a clash does happen, Iraq would be its most likely political or military battlefield. ‘The Iranians are very smart,’ Abadi says. ‘They do not send their armies abroad. Once you do that you are lost. They do it by proxy to make fronts outside their own borders.’ Trump blames Iran for all the Middle East’s problems, as does Saudi Arabia, but neither state is doing anything effective to repel the supposed threat. Saudi leaders have long urged the US to go to war with Iran and ‘cut off the head of the snake’, but they have never intended to fight a war themselves. The same rhetoric holds sway in Israel, where Netanyahu keeps insisting that Israel can barely restrain itself from military action in response to grave provocations by Iran. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, specialises in anti-Iranian tirades, but his actions, supposedly aimed at reducing Iranian influence in the region, have a habit of achieving the opposite of what was intended. No sooner had bin Salman gained real power after his father became king in 2015 than he backed an opposition offensive in Syria that provoked Russian military intervention, breaking the stalemate and ensuring Assad’s victory. He began an air war in Yemen that was meant to get rid of the Houthi rebels, but has devastated the country without defeating them, pushing them still further into the Iranian camp. The Saudi quarrel with Qatar broke the solidarity of the Gulf monarchies, which had until then been united in their policy of funding Syrian, Libyan and Iraqi opposition movements. The bizarre detention in October of the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, was meant to weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon, but has strengthened it.
Even if war has come to an end, Iraqis have been changed by it. In the Soviet Union it used to be said that anybody over a certain age couldn’t avoid having had an interesting life: they had experienced revolutions, invasions, civil wars, purges and famines. Much the same is true of Iraqis over the age of forty, who since 1979 have lived through three foreign wars and at least half a dozen civil wars. Many, including the best educated, have fled abroad, joining an Iraqi diaspora that has spread all over the world. There are signs of regression, such as the introduction in parliament of a bill that would legalise the marriage of girls over the age of eight. Qasim Sabti, the owner of the Hewar, the last private art gallery in Baghdad, told me that material reconstruction may come, but it won’t be enough. ‘It will take a century for us to recover,’ he says, ‘however many shopping malls they build.’