At the North Gate

Patrick Cockburn

Apart from witches, who come here to bury spells, few people visit the British North Gate cemetery in Baghdad. The witches believe that words written on paper and placed in the ground between the graves of non-Muslims, particularly old graves, have enhanced magical powers. North Gate, in the Waziriyah district, is a large quadrilateral of burned grass fringed by palm trees. There are 511 graves with tombstones, almost all of them dating from the calamitous British campaign in 1914-18, when 40,620 soldiers from the British and Indian armies died fighting the Ottoman Turks. British military cemeteries, looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, are dotted around Iraq. Looking for somebody to let me into North Gate this summer, I asked a group of women standing outside their house by the cemetery if they shared the superstition, common in Iraq, that it was unlucky to live near such a place. They said they didn’t mind the cemetery but didn’t like ‘the witches who climb over the fence in the middle of the night so they can carry on their works among the dead’. One of them said that whenever she saw witches she would phone the cemetery’s caretaker, Sayid Jassim, and he would come and drive them away.

Sorcery is well established in Iraq and belief in its power has grown since the US-led invasion of 2003: living in conditions of extreme insecurity, many Iraqis believe they can do with all the miraculous assistance they can get. The police estimate that there are around three thousand sorcerers in Baghdad, male and female, their activities often advertised on television and Facebook. Many of them are alleged to belong to the ancient Sabean sect whose worshippers give primacy as a prophet to John the Baptist. Depending on the nature of what they are asked to do, I’m told, witches and sorcerers charge at least $400 for a spell or a curse, though the better-known ones can command up to $6000. Spells relate to marriage, love, divorce, good health, job opportunities and promotion. Costlier spells may be sold to politicians seeking re-election, or to those who ask a sorcerer to exercise magical influence over a government official to force him to sign or refrain from signing a document – not an uncommon need, given that Iraqis spend large amounts of time wrestling with a corrupt and impenetrable bureaucracy. Many of the most famous sorcerers are employed by clients from other Arab countries; payment is in advance and by bank transfer. For the extra potency they give to spells, non-Muslim cemeteries are preferred, but the vast Shia cemetery Wadi us-Salaam (‘Valley of Peace’) in the holy city of Najaf is sometimes used.

Iraq has been engulfed by wars and crises since 1979, when Saddam Hussein established absolute rule, starting the Iran-Iraq War a year later. The years of chronic instability since then, during which Iraqis have felt at the mercy of events beyond their control, have boosted the belief that good and evil spirits can be influenced to affect human affairs. Many today blame increased credulity about magic on plunging standards of education and, since 2003, on the shortage of good doctors, many of whom fled the country after the invasion because they were a particular target of kidnappers, with the result that sick people have increasingly resorted to witches and faith healers for cures.

Sometimes a whole district is infested by evil spirits and ghosts. Sunni Arabs living in the Abu Ghraib district of west Baghdad, close to the notorious prison, complained that the physical, psychological and sexual abuse carried out there during the US occupation meant that, long after the Americans had gone, the tormented ghosts of prisoners still roamed the streets and cried out in the night. They said that their children couldn’t sleep and became mentally disturbed because of the spirits. According to an account by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, farmland fell out of use, school enrolment dropped and 70 per cent of the 450 houses near the prison were abandoned. By 2010, they were for sale at a quarter of their previous price. Waled Hamid, a newcomer who did buy a house, later sued the seller, claiming the property was haunted, and that he should have been warned of this in advance. ‘I didn’t know anything about the history of this area,’ Hamid was quoted as saying. ‘Now we are frightened in the house. At night, everything gets creepy and the dogs and cats act strange.’ He lost the case because the provincial court decided that the law did not recognise superstitions. According to a local sheikh, some of those stuck with unsaleable property in Abu Ghraib have paid sorcerers tens of thousands of dollars to perform an exorcism.

I started visiting British cemeteries in Iraq in the run-up to the Gulf War in 1991 as a distraction from current events. These visits put the latest all-absorbing crisis – Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait in 1991, or the US/UK invasion of 2003, or the victories of Islamic State in 2014 – in the broader context of Iraqi and world history. It’s easy to explain in general terms why Iraq has been such a dangerous place over the last hundred years: it is an oil state, whose fate is important to the great powers, and which is surrounded by regional players – Iran, Turkey, the Arab world – which fuel and manipulate existing divisions between Sunni, Shia and Kurd. But quite how lethal the country has been, particularly for interventionist foreign powers, becomes far more vivid when one stands a few feet away from the neatly incised gravestone in North Gate of Driver T.R. Morris of the Royal Horse Artillery, who died on 13 October 1917, or that of Captain S.O. Robinson, who died on 5 November 1917. In the centre of the cemetery is a monument to General Sir Stanley Maude, who captured Baghdad in 1917 and died of cholera six months later. The long rows of graves carry the message that however bad the current crisis in Iraq it is only the latest in a long series. Victories here are always temporary.

The changing appearance of the cemetery is a crude barometer of the state of security in Baghdad. When things are bad the grass is long and rubbish is strewn around. The mainly Sunni district of Waziriyah has sometimes been hard to get to, as in 2007, when a suicide bomber blew up a truck and destroyed the central spans of the bridge across the Tigris. In 2009, the blast from a nearby car bomb knocked down or smashed many of the headstones. Over the last two years, as the Iraqi government has tightened its grip on Baghdad, the grounds have once again begun to look spruce and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has replaced most of the lost and damaged stones.

But for me the chief fascination of these cemeteries – whether in Baghdad, Kut, Amara or Basra – is the sheer immensity of the disaster they commemorate, and the extent to which it has been forgotten. Unlike the defeat at Gallipoli and the slaughter on the Somme, the Mesopotamian campaign has faded from British memory, despite the national obsession with the First World War. According to the War Graves Commission 85,000 British and Indian soldiers were killed, wounded or captured, but this is probably an underestimate: the commission notes that the cemetery in Amara on the lower Tigris ‘commemorates some five thousand servicemen of the Indian Army, of whom only nine are identified as no comprehensive records of the burials were kept by the military authorities’. I visited Amara in 2003, when beyond a ruined archway the cemetery was being used as a dumping ground for broken-down buses.

The Mesopotamia campaign was grotesquely mismanaged, even by the low standards of the First World War, and those responsible had no wish to recall it. After the publication of a damning official report in 1917, Lord Curzon, a member of the war cabinet, suggested that ‘a more shocking exposure of official blundering and incompetence has not in my opinion been made, at any rate since the Crimean War.’ The intervention began on a small scale in 1914, initially intended to protect the oilfields in south-west Iran from attack by the Ottoman Turks. By 1918, the campaign had ballooned into the biggest British military action outside Europe. In 1915, an overambitious advance, which underestimated the Turks’ fighting strength, aimed at capturing Baghdad to counterbalance the failure at Gallipoli earlier that year. Heavy casualties in a battle at Salman Pak led to a precipitate retreat to Kut, a ramshackle Shia city on a bend in the Tigris a hundred miles south-east of Baghdad. Commanded by Sir Charles Townshend, an insanely egocentric general, 13,000 British and Indian soldiers were besieged there for 147 days between December 1915 and 29 April 1916. Townshend appears deliberately to have allowed his troops to be surrounded: he wanted to make his reputation through a heroic and successful defence of Kut even though he knew his forces were far from their supply base in Basra while the Turks were close to theirs in Baghdad. In order to accelerate the arrival of the British-led forces coming to relieve him he sent misleading information about how long he could hold out, forcing them to attack prematurely and suffer 23,000 casualties while failing to dislodge the well-entrenched Turks. Injured soldiers, their wounds gangrenous and filled with maggots, were crammed into slow-moving river boats and lay in their own excreta for the two weeks it took to reach Basra.

Inside Kut, Townshend became increasingly unbalanced, refusing to visit the hospital where many of his men were lying. He spent much of his time in his house, emerging only occasionally to walk his dog, Spot. He banned his soldiers from sending messages to their families via wireless but dispatched frequent messages of his own asking for promotion. He made no attempt to break out of Kut and, after the surrender, showed little interest in what happened to his men. He and most of his officers were placed by the Turks in comfortable imprisonment, but the other ranks were dispatched on a 700-mile forced march to Turkey during which many died from starvation, beatings, execution, or typhus and cholera. Survivors of the death marches were set to work digging a railway tunnel in the Taurus mountains alongside a few Armenian survivors of the genocide. By the end of the war 70 per cent of the British and 50 per cent of the Indian troops captured at Kut were dead. Released from captivity, Townshend presented himself as a hero of the siege who deserved a senior job. When his promotion was denied, he resigned from the army and became a Conservative MP. Kipling, in his poem ‘Mesopotamia’, which the Daily Telegraph refused to publish (it appeared in the Morning Post instead), furiously denounced the generals who had left the soldiers ‘to die in their own dung’ and predicted that, once the furore had died down, those responsible for the disaster would find a way of keeping their positions: ‘When the storm is ended shall we find/How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power/By the favour and contrivance of their kind.’ Kipling’s poem was useful reading as the US and British invasion ran into ever deeper trouble a century later, the line about ‘the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew’ seeming particularly appropriate.

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When I went to Kut in 1996 I couldn’t at first find the small British military cemetery boxed in by buildings in the centre of the city because Iraqis, who have endured so many wars, were confused about which one I was talking about. When I did find it, it had turned into a swamp: little green frogs hopped about on the tops of the gravestones that stuck out above the slimy water. A broken cross rose from the centre of a reed bed. I went back to Kut in 2013, by which time the cemetery could only be reached through a locked metal door. Inside, the swamp had been drained and most of the gravestones had gone, but the broken cross was still there. Hundreds of inhabitants of Kut were killed and wounded during the 1915-16 siege and many others were hanged by the Turks, accused of being British collaborators, but there was no local memory of this. Several people believed the graves belonged to British soldiers killed during the Iraqi uprising against the British occupation in 1920 – a rebellion that was given prominence under Saddam as an early and heroic expression of the Iraqi nationalism that culminated in the Baath Party’s seizure of power in the 1960s.

I found the Amara cemetery, where the carcases of old buses were abandoned, when I went to the city after six British Royal Military Police were shot dead by a crowd in a nearby town on 24 June 2003. In miniature, it was the sort of unnecessary disaster, brought on by official sloth and arrogance, that Kipling had written about. Two separate parties of British soldiers, each ignorant of the other’s presence, were carrying out missions in the highly dangerous town of Majar al-Kabir, a centre for anti-Saddam insurgents and smugglers 18 miles south of Amara. Paratroopers conducted a series of aggressive patrols that enraged local people and provoked a firefight in which several of them were killed. A few hundred yards away, six lightly armed RMPs were advising the local police when they were targeted by people angry at the paratroopers’ actions. All the contradictions of the invasion were on display in a town that had fought against Saddam and had no intention of being occupied by the British or anybody else. The RMPs died because the British treated Iraqis simultaneously as friends and enemies.

I drove to the police station, where the walls were riddled with bullet holes and the ground covered with broken glass and bloodstains. At this stage, neither I nor the Iraqi police understood that there had been two separate detachments of British troops in the town. Everything else was fairly clear: the people said they were furious because soldiers had entered women’s quarters and carried out searches for arms using sniffer dogs. ‘A British soldier held the underwear of a woman and stretched it,’ a local militiaman told me. ‘How could we accept this as Muslims and Shia?’ They had a new truce agreement with the British Army, which they showed me, written out in English and Arabic. The British agreed not to enter Majar al-Kabir except in an emergency and to carry out no searches for a month. In return, the town leaders promised not to use the town’s impressive arsenal of weapons, which included heavy machine guns, mortars, anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Much of this would have been loot seized from Saddam’s army, which had disintegrated a few months earlier, though Iraqi tribes were often spectacularly well equipped: in the early 1990s Saddam had tried to buy back heavy weapons and one tribe near Amara sold him three tanks.

Parallels are easy to find between the mistakes made by Britain in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 and those made between 1914 and the Iraqi rebellion in 1920. Many of the worst failings of the earlier campaign were identified a hundred years later by the Chilcot Report, published in July 2016, on the most recent British intervention. The report’s impact was reduced by the inordinate length of time it took to produce, but also by the fact that it appeared a few weeks after the referendum on Britain leaving the EU, which was dominating the news agenda. That was a pity, because the British decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq was the most far-reaching action affecting its position in the world in the years leading up to the Brexit vote. The most glaring similarity between the EU departure and the Iraq intervention is an exaggerated idea of British power: intended as a display of British strength in alliance with the US, the invasion turned into a demonstration of weakness in the six years the British Army was present. Jeremy Greenstock, the British envoy posted to Iraq, told the inquiry that ‘the preparations for the post-conflict stage were abject: wrong analysis, wrong people.’ Chilcot was categorical about the extent of the defeat of British forces in the Basra area: ‘It was humiliating that the UK reached a position in which an agreement with a militia group (the Mehdi Army) which had been actively targeting UK forces was considered the best option available.’ Criticism by Chilcot of British wishful thinking in Iraq is strikingly applicable to the policy options considered in the months before Brexit: ‘The UK spent time and energy on rewriting strategies, which tended to describe a desired end state without setting out how it would be achieved.’ Departure from the EU means greater reliance on the US, but British engagement in Iraq as a US ally produced almost no British influence over US policy. And there is another point of comparison with the present EU negotiations. In Iraq, the British government devoted its main effort to putting into reverse the consequences of the original decision to invade: Chilcot concluded that ‘between 2003 and 2009, the UK’s most consistent strategic objective in relation to Iraq was to reduce the level of its deployed forces.’ This came from a recognition – a recognition that may again have to be made post-Brexit – that Britain was engaged in a risky venture that was beyond its strength.