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This article, by Ernesto Londoño and Karen DeYoung, was published in the Washington Post, July 17, 2009.
BAGHDAD, July 17 -- The Iraqi government has moved to sharply restrict the movement and activities of U.S. forces in a new reading of a six-month-old U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that has startled American commanders and raised concerns about the safety of their troops.
In a curt missive issued by the Baghdad Operations Command on July 2 -- the day after Iraqis celebrated the withdrawal of U.S. troops to bases outside city centers -- Iraq's top commanders told their U.S. counterparts to "stop all joint patrols" in Baghdad. It said U.S. resupply convoys could travel only at night and ordered the Americans to "notify us immediately of any violations of the agreement."
The strict application of the agreement coincides with what U.S. military officials in Washington say has been an escalation of attacks against their forces by Iranian-backed Shiite extremist groups, to which they have been unable to fully respond.
If extremists realize "some of the limitations that we have, that's a vulnerability they could use against us," a senior U.S. military intelligence official said. "The fact is that some of these are very politically sensitive targets" thought to be close to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The new guidelines are a reflection of rising tensions between the two governments. Iraqi leaders increasingly see the agreement as an opportunity to show their citizens that they are now unequivocally in charge and that their dependence on the U.S. military is minimal and waning.
The June 30 deadline for moving U.S. troops out of Iraqi towns and cities was the first of three milestones under the agreement. The U.S. military is to decrease its troop levels from 130,000 to 50,000 by August of next year.
U.S. commanders have described the pullout from cities as a transition from combat to stability operations. But they have kept several combat battalions assigned to urban areas and hoped those troops would remain deeply engaged in training Iraqi security forces, meeting with paid informants, attending local council meetings and supervising U.S.-funded civic and reconstruction projects.
The Americans have been taken aback by the new restrictions on their activities. The Iraqi order runs "contrary to the spirit and practice of our last several months of operations," Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, commander of the Baghdad division, wrote in an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post.
"Maybe something was 'lost in translation,' " Bolger wrote. "We are not going to hide our support role in the city. I'm sorry the Iraqi politicians lied/dissembled/spun, but we are not invisible nor should we be." He said U.S. troops intend to engage in combat operations in urban areas to avert or respond to threats, with or without help from the Iraqis.
"This is a broad right and it demands that we patrol, raid and secure routes as necessary to keep our forces safe," he wrote. "We'll do that, preferably partnered."
U.S. commanders have not publicly described in detail how they interpret the agreement's vaguely worded provision that gives them the right to self-defense. The issue has bedeviled them because commanders are concerned that responding quickly and forcefully to threats could embarrass the Iraqi government and prompt allegations of agreement violations.
A spate of high-casualty suicide bombings in Shiite neighborhoods, attributed to al-Qaeda in Iraq and related Sunni insurgent groups, has overshadowed the increase of attacks by Iran-backed Shiite extremists, U.S. official say.
Officials agreed to discuss relations with the Iraqi government and military, and Iranian support for the extremists, only on the condition of anonymity because those issues involve security, diplomacy and intelligence.
The three primary groups -- Asaib al-Haq, Khataib Hezbollah and the Promised Day Brigades -- emerged from the "special groups" of the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) militia of radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which terrorized Baghdad and southern Iraq beginning in 2006. All receive training, funding and direction from Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force.
"One of the things we still have to find out, as we pull out from the cities, is how much effectiveness we're going to have against some of these particular target sets," the military intelligence official said. "That's one of the very sensitive parts of this whole story."
As U.S. forces tried to pursue the alleged leaders of the groups and planned missions against them, their efforts were hindered by the complicated warrant process and other Iraqi delays, officials said.
Last month, U.S. commanders acquiesced to an Iraqi government request to release one of their most high-profile detainees, Laith Khazali. He was arrested in March 2007 with his brother, Qais, who is thought to be the senior operational leader of Asaib al-Haq. The United States thinks they were responsible for the deaths of five American soldiers in Karbala that year.
Maliki has occasionally criticized interference by Shiite Iran's Islamic government in Iraqi affairs. But he has also maintained close ties to Iran and has played down U.S. insistence that Iran is deeply involved, through the Quds Force, in training and controlling the Iraqi Shiite extremists.
U.S. intelligence has seen "no discernible increase in Tehran's support to Shia extremists in recent months," and the attack level is still low compared with previous years, U.S. counterterrorism official said. But senior military commanders maintained that Iran still supports the Shiite militias, and that their attacks now focus almost exclusively on U.S. forces.
After a brief lull, the attacks have continued this month, including a rocket strike on a U.S. base in Basra on Thursday night that killed three soldiers.
The acrimony that has marked the transition period has sowed resentment, according to several U.S. soldiers, who said the confidence expressed by Iraqi leaders does not match their competence.
"Our [Iraqi] partners burn our fuel, drive roads cleared by our Engineers, live in bases built with our money, operate vehicles fixed with our parts, eat food paid for by our contracts, watch our [surveillance] video feeds, serve citizens with our [funds], and benefit from our air cover," Bolger noted in the e-mail.
A spokesman for Bolger would not say whether the U.S. military considers the Iraqi order on July 2 valid. Since it was issued, it has been amended to make a few exemptions. But the guidelines remain far more restrictive than the Americans had hoped, U.S. military officials said.
Brig. Gen. Heidi Brown, the commander overseeing the logistical aspects of the withdrawal, said Iraqi and U.S. commanders have had fruitful discussions in recent days about the issue.
"It's been an interesting time, and I think we've sorted out any misunderstandings that were there initially," she said in an interview Friday.
One U.S. military official here said both Iraqi and American leaders on the ground remain confused about the guidelines. The official said he worries that the lack of clarity could trigger stalemates and confrontations between Iraqis and Americans.
"We still lack a common understanding and way forward at all levels regarding those types of situations," he said, referring to self-defense protocols and the type of missions that Americans cannot conduct unilaterally.
In recent days, he said, senior U.S. commanders have lowered their expectations.
"I think our commanders are starting to back off the notion that we will continue to execute combined operations whether the Iraqi army welcomes us with open arms or not," the U.S. commander said. "However, we are still very interested in and concerned about our ability to quickly and effectively act in response to terrorist threats" against U.S. forces.
This article, by Sam Dagher, was origunally published in The NewYork Times, January 18, 2009
A member of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's political party who was a candidate in the provincial elections was killed by gunmen on Friday as he drove away from a campaign event in a province south of Baghdad.
The shooting came as Iraq's Islamist parties, including the movement of the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, stepped up campaigning for the Jan. 31 elections during Friday Prayer.
The candidate, Haitham Kadhim al-Husaini, a cleric who belonged to Mr. Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party, was attacked after the campaign appearance in the Jabala district, 25 miles south of Baghdad in Babil Province.
Four other party officials who were traveling with Mr. Husaini were wounded in the attack, said a provincial police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.
Mr. Husaini was district commissioner in Jabala and was a prominent candidate for a seat on the council in Babil, which is predominantly Shiite, as part of Mr. Maliki's election coalition.
Two years ago, Mr. Husaini's wife and four children were killed when gunmen attacked the family's home in Jabala, a mixed Sunni-Shiite area that had been the scene of some of the worst episodes of sectarian violence in the province before government-backed tribal militias were created to combat insurgents.
On Thursday, Mr. Maliki said that there might be a surge in violence and what he described as ''acts of sabotage'' before the elections.
On Dec. 31, a Sunni Arab contender for the provincial council in the northern city of Mosul was gunned down on the street.
Mr. Maliki's Dawa party and another Shiite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, have been competing intensely for control of provincial governments in the predominantly Shiite center and south of Iraq.
Although the two parties are coalition partners in government and in the Parliament, they have been drifting apart, and the campaigning in the provincial races has become acrimonious. Some of Mr. Maliki's supporters have accused the Islamic Supreme Council of having plotted to oust him as well as having campaigned inappropriately during a recent Shiite religious holiday.
Sheik Jalaluddin al-Saghir, a member of Parliament and a leader of the Islamic Supreme Council party, called these accusations painful and insulting during a sermon at a Baghdad mosque on Friday.
Mr. Sadr's movement, seeking to capitalize on this rift among the major Shiite parties, urged followers on Friday to vote for two lists that it said were made up of independent candidates. The Sadr movement is not formally endorsing candidates.
''Everyone must vote in the elections to prevent a sinister plot to divide Iraq,'' said Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, Mr. Sadr's spokesman, during a sermon at a mosque in Kufa near the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Afterward, candidates handed out pamphlets.
After prayers on the street in front of Mr. Sadr's main office in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, a group of young men swarmed around Ali Mohammed Muslim, who was running for a provincial council seat. He is a senior member of both the political and military wings of Mr. Sadr's movement in Sadr City.
Mr. Muslim said that if elected, he would work to fight corruption. He said that much of the money set aside by the Iraqi government and the United States for the reconstruction of Sadr City had been either delayed or entangled in corruption.
''This period has benefited us, because it showed that all their promises were empty,'' he said.
This article, by Qassim Abdul-Zahara, was distributed by the Associated Press, August 7, 2008
BAGHDAD - Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr will call on his fighters to maintain a cease-fire against American troops but may lift the order if a planned Iraq-U.S. security agreement lacks a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces, a spokesman said Thursday.
The statement by Sheik Salah al-Obeidi comes as al-Sadr plans to reveal details of a formula to reorganize his Mahdi Army militia by separating it into an unarmed cultural organization and elite fighting cells.
The announcement is expected during weekly Islamic prayer services on Friday.
Several cease-fires by al-Sadr have been key to a sharp decline in violence over the past year, but American officials still consider his militiamen a threat and have backed the Iraqi military in operations to try to oust them from their power bases in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.
Al-Sadr's move appears to be an extension of plans he announced in June aimed at asserting more control over the militia by dividing it into a group of experienced members who would be exclusively authorized to fight and others who would focus on social, religious and community work.
But the cleric also apparently has decided to link the reorganization to ongoing U.S.-Iraqi negotiations over a long-term agreement that would extend the American presence in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year. The White House's original goal was to have it completed by the end of July.
"This move is meant to offer an incentive for the foreign forces to withdraw," al-Obeidi said. "The special cells of fighters will not strike against foreign forces until the situation becomes clear vis-a-vis the Iraq-U.S. agreement on the presence of American forces here."
The new cultural group will be called Momahidoun, or "those who pave the way" in Arabic, in reference to the Mahdi, or so-called Hidden Imam, who disappeared as a child in the ninth century. Shiites believe he will return one day to bring justice to Earth.
It will replace the Mahdi Army, but elite cells of fighters will be created that could resume targeting U.S.-led foreign forces under strict guidelines, such as not harming Iraqis or infrastructure, said al-Obeidi, the al-Sadr spokesman.
The U.S. military cautiously welcomed the reorganization plan, saying it appeared to be an effort to help the Iraqi people. Residents in some Baghdad neighborhoods, however, said American troops were removing neighborhood fliers from al-Sadr's offices saying "a new organization will be established soon."
The proof is always in the actions and not just the words," military spokesman Col. Jerry O'Hara said in an e-mailed statement.
Sporadic attacks have continued despite the cease-fires by al-Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran, raising questions about how much control he maintains over his militiamen. American commanders have consistently said they aren't targeting al-Sadr's followers but rather Iranian-backed breakaway factions.
Two U.S. soldiers were killed Monday by an armor-piercing roadside bomb known as an explosively formed penetrator, which the military believes is supplied by Iran to Shiite militia fighters. Iran denies it is supporting violence in Iraq.
On Thursday, a roadside bomb killed eight Bedouins, including three women and two children, on a remote desert highway west of Nasiriyah frequently used by U.S. and Iraqi troops, a police official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.
Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, is in a Shiite area that has been the site of fierce infighting between rival Shiite factions but has been relatively peaceful since a cease-fire declaration by al-Sadr.
Gunmen also killed a senior member of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, Mahmoud Younis Fathi, and a colleague as they were driving to work in the northern city of Mosul, according to the group.
Elsewhere in Mosul, three Iraqi policemen were killed when a booby-trapped wooden cart exploded after they arrived to collect a body that had been left on the street beside it, police said.
This was originally posted to AP News, May 3, 2008
BAGHDAD - The U.S. military fired guided missiles into the heart of Baghdad's teeming Sadr City slum on Saturday, leveling a building 55 yards away from a hospital and wounding nearly two dozen people.
P Television News footage showed several ambulances destroyed and on fire, thick black smoke rising from them as firefighters worked to put out the flames.
The strike, made from a ground launcher, took out a militant "command-control center," the U.S. military said. The center was located in the heart of the eight-square-mile neighborhood that is home to about 2.5 million people. Iraqi officials said at least 23 people were wounded, though none of them were patients in the hospital.
The U.S. military blamed the militants for using Iraqi civilians as human shields.
"This is a circumstance where these criminal groups are operating directly out of civilian neighborhoods," military spokeswoman Spc. Megan Burmeister told The Associated Press in an e-mail.
She said it presents a "complex and very difficult" challenge for U.S. forces to strike the militants when they are "putting themselves next to municipal buildings."
Dr. Ali Bustan al-Fartusee, director general of Baghdad's health directorate, told the AP that 23 civilians were wounded in the strike.
He said no patients in the hospital were hurt, but that some of the wounded included civilians outside on their way to visit patients in the hospital. He also said 17 ambulances were damaged or destroyed.
AP Television News footage showed about 100 people milling about in the rubble of the destroyed building. A deep crater was seen just yards from the hospital, which is surrounded by 15-foot-tall concrete blast walls. It appeared that one section of the blast wall was leveled.
Windows were blown out of cars in the hospital's parking lot, but there did not appear to be any damage to the hospital itself.
Shiite extremists are known to have operated in a building next to the hospital, local reporters said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have waged street battles with Shiite militias since late March in Sadr City, the power base of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.
The fighting is part of a 5-week-old crackdown by the Iraqi government and U.S. forces on Shiite militia factions. The clashes have brought deep rifts among Iraq's Shiite majority and have pulled U.S. troops into difficult urban combat.
Militia members have been blamed for firing hundreds of rockets or mortars from Sadr City into the Green Zone, the U.S.-protected area housing the American embassy and much of the Iraqi government. In the past month, more than a dozen people — including two American civilians and soldiers — have been killed inside the zone during the attacks.
In response to the shelling, American and Iraqi troops in recent weeks have moved into Sadr City, hoping to push the militants far enough from the Green Zone so their rockets and mortars would be out of range.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, shows no indication of easing the pressure on militia groups, including the powerful Mahdi Army led by al-Sadr. Al-Maliki has been seeking to increase leverage on Iran, which is accused of training and arming some Shiite militia groups. Iran denies the claims.
A five-member Iraqi delegation returned from Tehran Saturday from a meeting aimed at halting suspected Iranian aid to militiamen.
Ranking deputy Khalid al-Atiyah said the Iranian government had expressed its readiness to assist the Iraqi government" against the extremists and "in its security measures." He did not elaborate.
During clashes over the past two days in Sadr City, at least 100 people have been killed, Iraqi health officials said.
Also Saturday, the Turkish military claimed air strikes it carried out earlier this week in northern Iraq killed more than 150 Kurdish rebels. The military said it successfully hit all its targets in a three-hour air operation on Mount Qandil early Friday.
The leadership of the Kurdish rebel group is believed to be hiding in the Qandil region — about 60 miles from the Turkish border.
In northern Iraq, Ahmed Danaf, the head of external relations for Kurdish group, claimed in a phone call that the raid killed six members of the Free Life Party, the anti-Iran Kurdish group PEJA
The U.S. military also said Saturday that a U.S. soldier died of wounds suffered in a roadside bomb that struck the soldier's vehicle during a combat patrol in eastern Baghdad the day before.
Georgian Defense Ministry spokesman Giga Tatishvili said two servicemen from the ex-Soviet republic were killed and one wounded south of Baghdad on Friday when a parked car bomb exploded. The deaths were the first combat fatalities the nation's military has suffered in Iraq, where it has had a presence since August 2003.
Transcript of Terry Gross's conversation with Patrick Cockburn about the surge in Iraq. Originally broadcast on NPR's Fresh Air, February 21, 2008
p>This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
One of the reasons violence has decreased in Iraq is that six months ago a cease-fire was declared by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He heads the Mahdi army, a militia of mostly poor Shiites who resisted the American occupation. Today al-Sadr issued a statement saying whether he would extend the cease-fire, but the statement won't be officially read until tomorrow. My guest Patrick Cockburn is the author of a book that will be published in April called "Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival and the Struggle for Iraq."
Cockburn is the Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London. He's covered the war since the start and has been visiting Iraq since 1977. He won the 2005 Martha Gellhorn Prize for war reporting. His book "Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq" was recently published in paperback.
Patrick Cockburn, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you describe what you know of what Muqtada al-Sadr has done, the statement that he's issued? Patrick Cockburn: He's produced a statement which has been put in different envelopes, and these envelopes have been sent to the imams who are going to conduct Friday prayers in Shia areas of Iraq tomorrow. They've been told not to open the envelopes, but they are believed to contain the answer to the question which by now most Iraqis need to know, which is: Will Muqtada extend his cease-fire or not? Terry Gross: Is the drama of Muqtada al-Sadr sending his answer about the truce to imams and it's supposed to be officially read tomorrow--is that a way of him kind of flexing his muscles and reasserting how much power he has, how important his decision is? Patrick Cockburn: Sure, but he doesn't really have to do that. I mean, there's no doubt that he's sort of the leader of the Sadrist movement, but to show that he completely controls it. I mean, previously these imams in the mosques at Friday prayers sort of said what they wanted to say. They weren't totally controlled. These days they're meant only to say what they're directed by Muqtada. Terry Gross: Is issuing a decision and handing out the written decision to imams to be read on another day, is that a fairly standard way of doing things? Patrick Cockburn: Not quite. I mean, the decisions, yes, they have been announced, but to do it as formally as this, no, I haven't come across that before on such a major issue. Terry Gross: What are some of the possibilities about why he might not extend the cease-fire? Patrick Cockburn: He and the people around him are not happy with the way they've been treated. He declared the cease-fire because the Mahdi army had got the reputation of being really an enormous death squad. It was losing support among all sorts of Iraqis, including the Shia, so he had some benefits from it. But since then they feel that US forces have been targeting them. Secondly, they're rivals in the Shia community. The Badr brigade have been attacking them. And there's been particularly--there's been a lot of fighting around the city of Diwaniyah in the south. So I think if they're going to continue, they'll want understandings about how the cease-fire's going to work in future. Terry Gross: So what do you think we can expect if he ends the cease-fire? Patrick Cockburn: Suddenly we'll see Mahdi army militia men back on the streets. We'll see checkpoints being set up. We'll see a show of strength, and I think it'll be a big show of strength because they--I mean, their numbers are put at 70,000, but actually I think the number is far greater. They can put hundreds of thousands of people on the street. So I think they'll want to show, `look, we're really important. Don't take us for granted. We can really paralyze Iraq if we want. So if you want our cease-fire to resume, you can't use it as an excuse to attack us.' Terry Gross: Now, you were nearly killed by the Mahdi army militia in 2004. What happened to you? Patrick Cockburn: It was a very sort of nasty incident, but one very typical and one that affects Iraqis on a daily basis. This was in April 2004. I was going to Kufa, which is a city just outside Najaf, and I was stopped by a Mahdi army checkpoint. Now, I was wearing a sort of disguise. I was wearing a keffiyeh, an Arab headdress. Actually not against the Mahdi army but against some Sunni militia. There are a lot of dangerous towns just to the north of there. And we stopped, and they were in a very agitated mood because there was fighting nearby with American forces.
They dragged me out of the car. They started shouting, `American spy! American spy!' And some of them were trying to drag me and the two Iraqis with me away, and there seemed a moment that they were going to shoot us. Then finally one of them, to my enormous relief said, `Well, let's check with our sheik,' that's really the local leader in the mosque. So they sort of seized control of our car, all the gunmen got into the car, took their cars, and we went to the local mosque. And after that things began to get better. But tens of thousands of Iraqis have died in exactly similar circumstances. They'd be at the wrong checkpoint at the wrong time and they've ended up in the local morgue. Terry Gross: Now, your driver in that incident, am I pronouncing his name correctly, Bassim? Patrick Cockburn: That's right. Terry Gross: He was Sunni, and you say he wasn't able to go home because the Mahdi army, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, had taken over his neighborhood so it was now a Shiite neighborhood and so Sunnis like him were no longer welcome there. So how did that change his life? Patrick Cockburn: Well, it transformed his life and it really ruined his life. Here was a man who didn't have much money. His only possession was really his house, which was in the jihad area of Baghdad, which was mixed but mainly Shia. The Mahdi army took it over. First of all, he fled to Syria. Then he came back and his neighbors, his Shia neighbors, immediately said, `Get out or if the Mahdi army comes back they'll kill you.' So he went and lived in a Sunni neighborhood, and his house was taken over by Shia families. And even now, although things are...(unintelligible)...improved, he thinks there's no chance of getting it back. Terry Gross: And that story is typical of lots of people in Iraq now, right, who can't go back to their home because it's been taken over by the other ethnic group? Patrick Cockburn: Exactly. I mean, you have some people going back within areas which, let's say, are entirely Sunni. If you're Sunni and you're coming back from Syria, you'll return to an area which is entirely Sunni, maybe you're OK. But in areas that were formerly mixed, if you've lost your house it's very unlikely you'll get it back. It's even dangerous to ask for it back because then the people who have the house may consider you a threat and may want to do something to you. I know of several cases where there have been revenge killings; both are people who've taken over houses and people who have asked for their houses back. Terry Gross: Do you agree with the people who say that part of the reasons why things are quieter in Iraq is because basically there's been a form of ethnic cleansing? Mixed neighborhoods are no longer mixed. They've been taken over by one ethnic group or another so conflict within that neighborhood has been reduced? Patrick Cockburn: Yes. There's no doubt in my mind that this is true. The number of mixed areas in central Baghdad and east Baghdad went right down in 2006. Mostly it was Sunni being driven out--sometimes Shia, but mostly Sunni being driven out. So at the time, non-Iraqis kept saying--I mean, Britain and America kept saying there was no civil war. But there very obviously was a civil war in Baghdad and central Iraq, and it was a civil war that the Shia won. They were in the majority in Baghdad before, but now I think they control about 75 percent of the city. Terry Gross: I just want to get back for a second to Bassim, who was your driver and couldn't return home because he was Sunni and the Shia had taken over his neighborhood. He tried to get out of Iraq and put every dollar he had into trying to get out and to get a passport, and it failed. But it was such an elaborate scheme. If you would describe the scheme a little bit and tell us if that's typical of the contortions people go through to try to get out of Iraq now. Patrick Cockburn: Yes, his scheme was born of desperation. I mean, I'd known him for some time. Here was a man who didn't speak any language but Arabic. He'd only been a couple of times out of Iraq to Syria and Jordan, and he had this scheme to go to Sweden and get a job there. He was desperate. So he sold his car. He sold his wife's gold jewelry. He borrowed some money, raised about twelve and a half thousand dollars. He knew an Iraqi in Sweden who said that for about, I think it was $6,900, he'd fix him up with a Lithuanian passport and he'd get him to Sweden.
So poor Bassim set off on this strange odyssey, which actually didn't head straight for Sweden. The first place he went to was Malaysia because you could, with an Iraqi passport you could get into Malaysia without a visa. You get a visa at the airport. Then he was told to go to Phnom Penh, and he ended up in Ho Chi Min City, pretending to be a Lithuanian on his way to Sweden. But of course quite a number of Iraqis have been trying different routes to get out of Iraq, to get out of the Middle East, and at the airport they fairly rapidly worked out that this guy who was very unlikely to be Lithuanian so wouldn't let him on the plane. So he had to perform the whole journey in reverse, by this time running out of money so he wasn't eating too well, and finally got back to Baghdad at the beginning of February. Terry Gross: So where is he living now? Patrick Cockburn: He's living in a friend's house, but, I mean, he's living with his wife and three children in one small room, and he's not only spent all his money but he has borrowed money, so he's completely broke. It's also, for somebody like that--I mean, for much of the Iraqi population, there's the problem of not having a job and no prospect for a job. He's a Sunni in a city that's mostly Shia so he can't even work as a taxi driver outside his own small area. It would just be too dangerous. Terry Gross: How does his story, and stories of people like him, figure into how you evaluate the effectiveness of the surge? Patrick Cockburn: Well, I think that when people look at the surge, they analyze it through how many--what American military casualties are, first. And they are clearly down. And then they analyze them through Iraqi civilian casualties, which are also down, but perhaps not by as much as the government says. But in fact, you have to look at how Iraqis live in general, and the conditions are miserable. Forty-three percent of people, according to charities, live in abject poverty. There's no prospect of a job. Life is just still immensely dangerous.
You know, people say to me continually, aren't things better in Baghdad? And in one they, they're right. They are better. They're better than the bloodbath that we had in 2006. But it's still the most dangerous city in the world. It's still a place where people are terrified to send their children to school because they might be kidnapped, where bodies still turn up every morning. So I think the idea that things are better is really very misleading. Terry Gross: If you're just joining us, my guest is Patrick Cockburn. He covers Iraq for The Independent in London. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Announcements) Terry Gross: If you're just joining us, my guest is Patrick Cockburn and he's a journalist who is the Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London. He's covered the war in Iraq since the very beginning but he started visiting Iraq and writing about it in 1978. He's the author of the book "Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq," which recently came out in paperback. His next book, "Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival and the Struggle for Iraq" will be published in April.
We were talking a little bit about Muqtada al-Sadr and the Shiite militia that he leads. Let's talk a little bit about the Sunni militias, specifically the Awakening Councils, and why don't you describe what the Awakening Council is? Patrick Cockburn: The Awakening Council, also known as al-Salwa, was set up among the Sunni tribes, first in Anbar province--this enormous province, mostly desert, in western Iraq--against al-Qaeda and in alliance with the US military. It's now spread to other provinces around Baghdad and districts in Baghdad, and it's reckoned to have around 80,000 men under arms. Terry Gross: And a lot of these men had been Sunni insurgents? Patrick Cockburn: Absolutely, yes. At one time the US military was labeling them "the concerned local citizens," which somehow gives the impression that they're sort of vigilantes, outraged householders who've gone and got their guns. But in fact the leaders--certainly the leaders that I've met--are all former Sunni guerillas, who, up to six months or a year ago, were attacking US soldiers and the Iraqi government forces. So what we really have now is a very large Sunni militia, which is fairly hostile to the Iraqi government. Terry Gross: Now, you recently visited Fallujah, and you had covered the battle of Fallujah in 2004, in which the United States military fought for control of the city and took control away from the Sunni militias. So you visited Fallujah again three years after the battle, and so what you found is that--if I understand correctly--that the people who we fought against, the Sunni militias, are now controlling the city as members of the Awakening Council, which the United States is backing and paying? Patrick Cockburn: Yes. It's a pretty extraordinary situation. They also make up the local police force. I mean, I came from Baghdad and, through contacts, went to see the head of the al-Salwa in the general Fallujah area who's called Abu Marouf--I mean, he has several other names, but that was the name he was using. And he controls about 13,000 fighters and was very heavily guarded, and we had to go down sort of rotted tracks and eventually found him in a very heavily defended half-ruined villa. He was fairly angry. He said that he was looking for jobs in the Iraqi security forces. He said he wasn't going to let himself be used by the US against al-Qaeda and then discarded. He showed contempt for the Iraqi government, said half the army was run by Shia militias that answered to Iran. So he was a fairly angry man.
And then it turned out that the chief of police in Fallujah is his brother, a Colonel Faisal, and both of them, when I asked, I said, `What did you do previously, before you became head of al-Salwa or before you became chief of police?' They said, `Well, we were fighting the Americans.' This was as recently as a year ago. Terry Gross: Have the members of these Awakening Councils that you've spoken to developed warm feelings toward the Americans? Patrick Cockburn: Not really, no. These were the leaders of guerilla units that were attacking the Americans for the last three or four years, and I think they've changed for tactical reasons, but I don't think that they have much more love for the Americans now than they did a couple of years ago. They simply felt they had too many enemies, and if they could make an alliance with the Americans against al-Qaeda, then they would go for it. But I don't think it's something that will be stable in future. In fact, they were threatening to end it when I was there. They were threatening to end it within the next three months. Terry Gross: To end? Patrick Cockburn: They were threatening to end their arrangement with the Americans and their actions against al-Qaeda within the next three months. Terry Gross: And how long ago was that? Patrick Cockburn: This was about three weeks ago. Terry Gross: So that means that there's two arrangements in danger of unraveling. Muqtada al-Sadr is threatening to end his cease-fire; that would be a Shiite cease-fire. And then some of the members of the Awakening Council are threatening to end their alliance with the Americans. Patrick Cockburn: Yes. I think that, you know, what we have is basically a very unstable situation. At the moment, there are less people being killed because both these groups don't really want to go back to war at the moment. But there's continual friction. At any moment, I have the feeling that something could go wrong. You could suddenly have a battle erupt. You have enormous numbers of armed men in very small areas. You have people who used to fight each other who are now on cease-fire, but they don't love the people that they were trying to kill a month ago, or a year ago. So I got a general sense of almost complete instability. Terry Gross: So the leader who you spoke to who said he's considering pulling out of this agreement with the United States in three months, how many men does he control? He doesn't lead the whole group of Awakening Councils. Patrick Cockburn: No, he controls about 13,000 men. Terry Gross: Mm-hmm. Patrick Cockburn: I mean, you can't check this precisely, but probably this figure is largely correct. Al-Salwa is not an organization which has a single leader; it differs from area to area. So I don't think that you'll have a mutiny by all these fighters who have come over to the American side for the moment. Terry Gross: But does it mean that each of the leaders, each of the many leaders can make their own demands for power and recognition before signing up again? Patrick Cockburn: Yes. What they were asking for is--on the one hand, they want something quite simple; they want jobs and money for themselves and their men. But it's not just a question of paying them off because many of these people used to be security officers for Saddam. They used to be officers in the old Iraqi army. For instance, the police chief of Fallujah is probably the most powerful Iraqi in the city. On his desk he has a picture of himself as an officer in Saddam's special forces in uniform with other men in uniform. I said, `What did you do before you were chief of police?' and he laughed and said, `I was fighting the Americans.' He said, `What would you do if your country was occupied?' Now, for the moment these people consider it in their interests to have an alliance with the US military, and that might go on for some time. But it's very unstable because they haven't really changed their views, so far as I can see. Terry Gross: Patrick Cockburn will be back in the second half of the show. He's the Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London. His book about Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who heads the Mahdi army, will be published in April. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Announcements) Terry Gross: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Patrick Cockburn, the Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London. He's covered the war in Iraq since it started. His book "The Occupation" was published in paperback last fall. His book about Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi army, will be published in April. Cockburn covered the battle of Fallujah in 2004, when the American military won control of the city from Sunni insurgents. Cockburn recently returned to Fallujah.
Why did you return to Fallujah, where, among other things, you spoke to some of the leaders of the the Awakening Council? Patrick Cockburn: I'd been in Fallujah quite a lot in 2003, 2004. Then we had these battles for Fallujah in November 2004. It was stormed by the US Marines, enormous damage. I hadn't been back--in fact, I don't think any reporters had been back unembedded since then, so I wanted to go there without the US Army to see what was really happening in the city, which has been sealed off. And I was able to do so because I knew various people in the Iraqi police. And although people say things are better in Fallujah, frankly, it has an awful long way to go. I was walking around with the chief of police by the bridge over the Euphrates, the bridge where the four men from Blackwater were killed in April 2004. Terry Gross: This is the bridge in which their bloody remains were hung. Patrick Cockburn: Yeah, the burnt bodies were hung up. You remember this became notorious when it happened in 2004. Anyway, I was walking around with the chief of police, and then a small crowd assembled and started shouting, `We've got no electricity, we've got no water!' And I mean, the chief of police said, `Well, look, you know, there isn't an awful lot I can do about it.' Then I was in the local hospital on the other side of the Euphrates and I said to the doctors--now, I was with the doctors alone. There was nobody putting pressure on them--I said, you know, `What do you lack?' And they said, `Well, how about fuel for our generators, fuel for the vehicles, oxygen, medical equipment, drugs.' They really didn't have anything. So the situation in general is pretty bad, although I suppose one could say that it's better than two or three years ago. Terry Gross: Now, you said you were able to get into Fallujah, although the only journalists who were able to get in in the past few years were journalists embedded with the US military. You got in because you knew the chief of police. So what does that mean? Did he send you an escort to get in? Did he open a secret door for you to get in? Like, how did he help you get in? Patrick Cockburn: I'm going to say he sent an escort. I was in a police vehicle and he sent some of his senior officers, majors, to talk to the checkpoint, to talk to--there were some American soldiers there, talk to them. And they called their commanders, and finally we got in. There was no chance of getting in without the assistance of the police. Terry Gross: Because of the checkpoints? Patrick Cockburn: Because of the checkpoints, and very serious checkpoints. People often have to leave their cars there. You see enormous queues of people. There are checkpoints everywhere in Iraq. I mean, I encountered 27 checkpoints between the center of Baghdad and getting to Fallujah. But a lot of these you just get through with a wave of the hand, but the ones just on the outskirts of the city are very serious. You have to have exactly the right ID. There has to be ID for your car. It's extremely difficult to get through. Terry Gross: Fallujah sustained a lot of casualties and also a lot of physical damage. How do the streets and the buildings look now? Have any of them been repaired? Patrick Cockburn: I think there have been quite a number of repairs, but you know what really strikes one--and it's quite a long time since the battle now--is how many, you know, buildings haven't been repaired. You know, you look along the street and then you see a whole building that has been turned into--looks like sort of an enormous concrete sandwich. The concrete floors have collapsed one on top of each other because it was hit by a bomb or a shell. And you see this quite frequently. You still see some other buildings that are still standing, but they're pockmarked all over with heavy machine gun bullets.
The chief of police I was with said to me, `Oh, it's fine. You can walk in safety down the street anytime you want,' but I noticed when we were going around town we were in a very heavily armed convoy that, the first vehicle had a man on top shouting at cars to get out of the way, pointing his heavy machine gun at them. So this is... Terry Gross: Yeah, how safe can it be? Patrick Cockburn: Yeah, one wonders how safe it can be. It's very dangerous in Iraq. When Iraqis say, `Things are better than they were,' one really has to ask, `Well, what were they like before?' Now, of course, Fallujah is better than when it was under heavy shell fire or when it was being bombed, but that's the comparison you have to make. People mustn't think that because it's better in Fallujah or better in Baghdad that it's good, or that any kind of normal life can be lived there. Terry Gross: Are people living in Fallujah? Wasn't the city pretty well evacuated during the battle for Fallujah in 2004? Patrick Cockburn: There are people living there. I mean, I was asking a lot of people this question, `how many are back?' and not getting a very precise answer. The population of Fallujah I think used to be around 650,000. Maybe there are around 400,000 living in the city now. But there are still an awful lot of refugees who've fled Iraq or are still living in western Baghdad. Terry Gross: So finally you were able to get out of Fallujah. Was it as hard getting out as it was getting in? Patrick Cockburn: No, it was really the same process in reverse. In Iraq, you know, it's a country overrun with checkpoints, and most of them you get through, but always I'm nervous coming to a checkpoint because you just don't know who's there. You don't know if they're going to stop you. You don't even know if it's a real checkpoint. It may be a fake checkpoint. This was a favorite trick of the death squads, was simply to set up their own checkpoints--or criminals--set up their own checkpoints and select their victims that way. So you never quite know. But on this occasion we were lucky. I think partly it was because for once in Iraq there was a heavy rainstorm, and the armed men manning the checkpoints were not very keen to stand in the rain looking at our documents for too long. Terry Gross: Well, while we're on the subject, what is your repertoire of responses when there is somebody who seems either suspicious who's manning the checkpoint or who is paranoid about you? Patrick Cockburn: Well, I don't think there's any sort of single response. I mean, I carry lots of different passes and papers to show that--I give the impression that I've some sort of official status and hope that they'll be impressed by these. I mean, sometimes it's evident that you're showing a pass to somebody with a submachine gun who's holding it upside down. He can't read it. So one wants to give the impression that one has some sort of official status. Although, of course, I'm not alone in the car. I mean, I'm with other men who have guns. We have another car behind us with more men who've got guns. I mean--so... Terry Gross: That's how you always travel? Patrick Cockburn: Not in the very center of Baghdad. Sometimes I go without that. On this occasion it was just essential. I mean, you just need... Terry Gross: Mm-hmm. Patrick Cockburn: ...armed men with you and people with the right passes to get through. In central Baghdad I'll sometimes--I always take two cars, one car behind to see if I'm being followed. But in central Baghdad, it's not too bad. Again, it's worrying because there are terrible traffic jams, and I'm always worried about being caught in a traffic jam, and then the little boys who sell cigarettes and paper hankies may look in the car and see there's a foreigner there and start telling people about it. That could be dangerous. But going outside Baghdad to places like Fallujah, you have to have armed guards with you. Terry Gross: If you're just joining us, my guest is Patrick Cockburn. He's a journalist who's been covering Iraq since the start of the war, but actually has been writing about Iraq since long before that. He first went there in the late '70s. He's the Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London. His book "Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq" was recently published in paperback. His forthcoming book, "Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival and the Struggle for Iraq" will be published in April.
We'll take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Announcements) Terry Gross: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Patrick Cockburn and he's the Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London. He's the author of the book "Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq," which was recently published in paperback. His next book, which is about Muqtada al-Sadr, who has led the Shia insurgency in Iraq, will be published in April.
Britain pulled out of Basra in December. Basra is a city in southern Iraq, and England pulled out after five years of trying to control Basra. Why did England leave? Patrick Cockburn: Because it was getting nowhere. It was suffering casualties and it wasn't doing any good. I remember when the British went into Basra first, talking to British officers who were saying, `Well, we have the experience of northern Ireland behind us and we were successful in Malaya against the insurgency there in the '50s,' but in those two examples they had local allies. The problem for the British, the essential problem, was that they had no friends. They had no allies in Basra. And as the years went past, it was clear that British control was minimal, that the city was essentially run by the Shia militias. Basra is an almost wholly Shia city. And the British just had one big post in the center of Basra, and the convoys supplying this with food and ammunition kept on being ambushed. But the actual British position in Basra didn't really do anything, so when they finally pulled out of the city it was really a recognition of reality that the battle had already been lost. Terry Gross: You've been to Basra. Did you see signs of how popular or unpopular the Brits were there? Patrick Cockburn: Well, I think they were pretty unpopular. I mean, you could see that anytime. Several times British vehicles were set alight by petrol bombs or blown up, and immediately there would be cheering crowds around the vehicles, I mean, just spontaneously shouting for joy because these vehicles had been blow up. So that's kind of a sign of unpopularity. Terry Gross: So what does Britain have to show for the years that it controlled Basra? Patrick Cockburn: Unfortunately, I think, very little. The control was always less than the British army claimed, certainly the British government claimed. The city has ended up by being controlled by Shia militias who were--some of whom were formally fighting the British. So I think that there's very little achievement. (Unintelligible)...I mean, the time that the British were going to stay while Iraqi government security forces were built up, but this never really happened because the security forces were controlled by the militias.
I mean, I remember at one time British journalists were being taken 'round by British government PR people to meet local police chiefs who were said to be on the British side, and one of the police chiefs was saying, `Well, I'll only meet you outside my police station. My officers must not know that I'm meeting anybody from Britain.' So if you have that situation, where even police commanders are frightened by their association with Britain being known to their own men, then obviously you aren't doing very well. Terry Gross: Do you think that how the Brits pulled out of Basra and the fact that they did pull out of Basra has any lessons for the Americans? Patrick Cockburn: It's a different situation in Basra from Baghdad because Baghdad is all Shia, and the Shia wanted to run Basra and didn't want the British there. In Baghdad, it's mostly Shia, but it's also Sunni. And the Sunni these days look to the Americans for protection against the Shia, the government looks to the Americans for protection against the Sunni. So the US has at least temporary allies and friends in Baghdad in the way that the British never really had in Basra. Terry Gross: I don't know if you're comfortable giving your analysis of this, but what advice would you have for the Americans in terms of when and how to get out of Iraq? Patrick Cockburn: There should be a serious, negotiated withdrawal. I mean, many people in Iraq, both Iraqis and foreigners, say, well, if the Americans pull out, there'd be a civil war. Well, actually, we've sort of had a civil war already. The American presence perhaps prevents a total bloodbath at the moment, but it also makes it almost impossible for the different Iraqi communities to reach an agreement between each other because every community is trying to get the Americans on their side, and I think that if there's going to be a restoration of peace that the American departure has to be part of it. The very presence of a substantial American army in Iraq has been destabilizing from the very moment that American troops invaded Iraq in March 2003. Terry Gross: So if we have a negotiated peace, who does the United States negotiate with? Is Muqtada al-Sadr, who leads Shiite militias, is he at the table? Are the leaders of the Sunni militias, who are now part of the, you know, Awakening Councils that the United States is backing, are they at the table? Are the Kurds at the table? Like, who's there? Patrick Cockburn: They all have to be there because they all have power. Power is fragmented in Iraq. I mean, Muqtada has to be there because he's very important. He's probably the most popular Shia leader. Millions of--it's mostly poor Iraqi Shia look to him as their leader. The al-Salwa, the Sunni councils, again, they have to be satisfied. They must be at the table. And the Kurds have their own control in northern Iraq. They're not occupied by anybody. They essentially have their own very large, private army. So they have to be satisfied. Really, everybody who's a player has to be included. And this includes the neighbors, as well. It includes the Iranians, the Syrians, the Turks. Everybody has to get a share of the cake, because if anybody's excluded--and this is one of the lessons of the last five years--then they're in a very good position to kick over the table, to make sure that fighting starts again. Terry Gross: So your advice would be before figuring out who many troops you're going to pull out in how many months, figure out a negotiated political settlement that includes all of the parties in Iraq plus the neighboring countries? Patrick Cockburn: Yes, there have to be--I mean, it doesn't have to be one big table, but all these have to be consulted. Negotiations are bound to go on, and they all have to be, to some degree, satisfied. Terry Gross: And you're saying, don't pull out the military until there is such an agreement? Patrick Cockburn: Well, I think they should pull out the military, but I think it should be part of that agreement. You know, at the moment, because the surge is deemed to be successful, there's a sudden explosion of optimism, I think, in the US, which is probably exaggerated. Iraq is still deeply unstable. Things could get very bad again. Terry Gross: Yet Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he's going to slow down the withdrawal of troops. Patrick Cockburn: Yes. In a way that indicates that things are not going that well. I mean, on the one hand we have all this sort of optimistic news from Iraq, but somehow the military withdrawal has to be slowed down because things might fall apart again. I think that really underlines the fragility of the present situation. Terry Gross: If you're just joining us, my guest is Patrick Cockburn. He covers Iraq for The Independent in London. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Announcements) Terry Gross: If you're just joining us, my guest is Patrick Cockburn. He's the Iraq correspondent for the Independent in London. He's the author of the book "Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq," which recently came out in paperback. His forthcoming book, "Muqtada," is about Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been the leader of the largest Shia militia, and that's scheduled for publication in April.
Now, I read in your articles that poppy is now being grown for opium production in Iraq. That's something new in Iraq, isn't it? Patrick Cockburn: Oh, yes. We had drug smuggling before, but opium and heroin used to come from Afghanistan through Iran, and then through Iraq, so growing opium poppies is new. It started around Diwaniyah in the south, and now there are reports of it in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. Drugs gangs seem to think that they can make money by growing opium there and presumably turning it in heroin. Farmers are ruined, are looking for a crop that will make them money. The two have come together so we have the beginning of an opium problem in the country. Terry Gross: So what does this mean for the future? What might it mean for the future? Patrick Cockburn: It's still pretty early stages. They're still experimenting with it. So we'll still have to see, will it take off, will Iraq become another Afghanistan in terms of producing opium and producing heroin. I mean, in both countries, the government is weak, there are plenty of criminal gangs. There are plenty of criminal gangs with very large funds. In both cases, you have millions of ruined farmers who can't make ends meet, so you have the same conditions. But one of the things that might stop it is simply that heroin production in Afghanistan is still going up, so maybe they won't be able to compete. But certainly all the conditions are there for Iraq to become a major drugs producer. Terry Gross: And the criminals who are in on this, would this be al-Qaeda, or is it just kind of like the black market criminals? Patrick Cockburn: Iraq is, you know--most of the militias, Sunni and Shia, have partly criminalized, will take part in criminal enterprises. You have militia groups that are purely criminals, and they've made a lot of money over the last five years. So they have the sort of resources to pay farmers in advance to plant poppies, to make sure they have the plants, to provide the transport. As I said, this only seems to beginning at the moment.... Terry Gross: Right. Patrick Cockburn: ...and it's not exports on anything like the scale that we see in Afghanistan, but it's potentially there. Terry Gross: We recently had on a guest who was an Iraqi women's right activist, and she painted a very grim picture of what's happened to women in Iraq, that women have to wear a full head covering, that they often have to wear the head covering that's recommended by the militia that controls the territory the woman lives in, kind of like gang colors in the United States, that women are being kidnapped, women are being killed for not acting right or dressing right. Can you share some of your observations about what's happened with women's rights in the recent past in Iraq? Patrick Cockburn: Well, you know, it's been a disaster. When I first went to Iraq at the end of the '70s, it was a largely secular country. Women at the center of cities would wear pretty well Western clothes or whatever clothes they wanted. It's always true that people wore veils in the countryside and in the poorer areas. These days women don't dare, really, in a place like Sadr City--really from day two after Saddam had fallen, women started wearing long cloaks and veils. And they think--rightly--that it's dangerous not to. Women have been killed in Basra because gangs think that they're not properly dressed or have taken against them for some other reason. So the overall position of women has got much worse.
It's also--I mean, in some cases, I've talked to sort of young students wearing veils who were saying to me, `Well, yes, if somebody sees us heavily veiled, they may think we come from a conservative family and have strong tribe and therefore they wouldn't dare kidnap us. If they see us wearing Western clothes, then they think we probably don't have any strong tribal backing and we're more vulnerable to being kidnapped.' Terry Gross: I'm thinking about that story you told at the beginning of the interview where you and your driver were stopped by members of the Mahdi militia, Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, and you were nearly killed by them. Fortunately, they called a commander, and the commander thought better of that idea. But you came close to being killed. Do you ever in a situation like that start bargaining and thinking--not bargaining with them, just kind of bargaining with yourself and thinking, `well, if I get out of this one alive, maybe I'll call it quits here and go back home to England and not come back'? Patrick Cockburn: I occasionally think like that, but usually when something really dangerous happens, it usually happens by surprise and there isn't much time to think about the future. I mean, you're just trying to think, is there any way I can get out of this situation. Of course, one's also terrified, which makes it difficult to make long-term plans. I suppose there have been moments when you think, I should stop doing this, that at some point I'm going to get unlucky.
And also, you know, so many of my friends in Iraq, so many Iraqis I know have had relatives killed, brother, sisters, children killed. So many people I know have been kidnapped. That begins to grind one down, just this constant presence of death and fear, which you don't really get anywhere else. You know, other countries people send their children to school and they come back. That's it. But in Iraq, it's a major operation. How do they get their children to school? If they can't find them immediately afterwards, have they been kidnapped? Has anything happened to them? I mean, Iraqis live a life which is surrounded by terror. Terry Gross: Well, Patrick Cockburn, I regret we're out of time. Thank you so much for talking with us. Be well and thank you again. Patrick Cockburn: Thank you very much. Terry Gross: Patrick Cockburn is the Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London. His book about Muqtada al-Sadr will be published in April. His book "Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq" was published in paperback last fall.
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
It is impossible to keep up with all the Bush regime's lies. There are simply too many. Among the recent crop, one of the biggest is that the "surge" is working.
Launched last year, the "surge" was the extra 20,000 - 30,000 US troops sent to Iraq. These few extra troops, Americans were told, would finally supply the necessary forces to pacify Iraq.
This claim never made any sense. The extra troops didn't raise the total number of US soldiers to more than one-third the number every expert has said is necessary in order to successfully occupy Iraq.
The real purpose of the "surge" was to hide another deception. The Bush regime is paying Sunni insurgents $800,000 a day not to attack US forces. That's right, 80,000 members of an "Awakening group," the "Sons of Iraq," a newly formed "US-allied security force" consisting of Sunni insurgents, are being paid $10 a day each not to attack US troops. Allegedly, the Sons of Iraq are now at work fighting al Qaeda.
This is a much cheaper way to fight a war. We can only wonder why Bush didn't figure it out sooner.
The "surge" was also timed to take account of the near completion of neighborhood cleansing. Most of the violence in Iraq during the past five years has resulted from Sunnis and Shi'ites driving each other out of mixed neighborhoods. Had the two groups been capable of uniting against the US troops, the US would have been driven out of Iraq long ago. Instead, the Iraqis slaughtered each other and fought the Americans in their spare time.
In other words, the "surge" has had nothing to do with any decline in violence.
With the Sunni insurgents now on Uncle Sam's payroll, with neighborhoods segregated, and with al Sadr's militia standing down, it is unclear who is still responsible for ongoing violence other than US troops themselves. Somebody must still be fighting, however, because the US is still conducting air strikes and is still unable to tell friend from foe.
On February 16, the Los Angeles Times reported that a US air strike managed to kill 9 Iraqi civilians and 3 Sons of Iraq.
The Sunnis are abandoning their posts in protest, demanding an end to "errant" US air strikes.
Obviously, the Sunnis see an opportunity to increase their daily pay for not attacking Americans. Soon they will have consultants advising them how much they can demand in bribes before it pays the Americans to begin fighting the war under the old terms. If Sunnis are smart, they will split the gains. Currently, the Sunnis are getting shafted. They are only collecting $800,000 of the $275,000,000 million it costs the US to fight the war for one day.
That's only about three-tenths of one percent, too much of a one-sided deal for the Americans.
If the Sunnis negotiate their cut to between one-quarter and one-half of the daily cost to the US of the war, the Sunnis won't need to share in the oil revenues, thus helping the three factions to get back together as a country. Even 20 per cent of the daily cost of the war would be a good deal for the Sunnis. A long-term contract in this range would be expensive for Uncle Sam, but a great deal cheaper than John McCain's commitment to a 100-year Iraqi war.
If Bush's war turns out to be as big a boon for the Sunnis as it has for Tony Blair, we might have a modern-day version of "The Mouse That Roared"--a movie about an impoverished country that attacked the US in order to be defeated and receive foreign aid--only this time the money comes as a payoff for not fighting the occupiers.
As the world now knows, Blair's "dodgy dossier" about the threat allegedly posed by Iraq was a contrivance that allowed Blair to put British troops at the service of Bush's aggression in the Middle East. Now that Blair is out of his prime minister job, he has been rewarded with millions of dollars in sinecures from financial firms such as JP Morgan and millions more in speaking engagements. As part of the payoff, the Bush Republicans have even put Mrs. Blair on the lucrative lecture circuit.
Ask yourself, do you really think Blair knows enough high finance to be of any value as an advisor to JP Morgan, or enough about climate change to advise Zurich Financial on the subject? Do you really believe that after hearing all the vacuous speeches Blair has delivered in those many years in office anyone now wants to pay him huge fees to hear him give a speech? Even when it was free, people were sick of it.
Blair is simply collecting his payoff for selling out his country and sending British troops to die for American hegemony.
The Sunnis seem inclined to do the same thing if Bush will pay them enough.
Is the next phase of the Iraq war going to be a US-Sunni alliiance against the Shi'ites?
This report was published by Agence France Presse, February 20 2008
NAJAF, Iraq (AFP) — The six-month ceasefire order given by Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to his Mahdi Army militia may not be renewed, his aides warned on Wednesday three days before the "freeze" expires.
"All possibilities are open concerning the prolongation or not of the halt of activities of the Mahdi Army. The matter is in the hands of Moqtada al-Sadr," spokesman Salah al-Obeidi told AFP.
"The deadline is next Saturday," Obeidi said from Sadr's office in the central shrine city of Najaf, adding that an announcement could be made during the weekly Friday prayers.
If Sadr "does not make a pronouncement and no statement is issued, that would signify the end of the period of cessation of activities of the Mahdi Army," Obeidi said.
Hazim al-Aajari, a cleric and confidant of Sadr, told AFP it was certain that an announcement would be made during Friday prayers.
But, he added, "I cannot say whether Moqtada al-Sadr will renew the truce or not."
Sadr ordered a six-month freeze in his militia's activities on August 29 after allegations that his fighters were involved in bloody clashes in the shrine city of Karbala, near Najaf.
Under the Muslim calendar, the ceasefire expires on Saturday.
Powerful members of the Sadr movement, including its MPs, have urged him not to renew the truce on the grounds that Mahdi Army fighters and other Sadrists are being targeted by Iraq's security forces.
Militiamen in Sadr City, the cleric's bastion in east Baghdad, complain that they are being singled out for raids and detentions by the US military.
The suspension of the militia's activities is cited by US commanders as one of the factors behind a 62 percent reduction in violent attacks across Iraq since June.
US military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith had nothing but praise for Sadr on Wednesday.
"Moqtada al-Sadr's efforts in the ceasefire have been productive," he told a news conference in Baghdad. "Overall we are witnessing a decrease in violence" since the ceasefire.
Sadr and his supporters "recognise the responsible role they play in the Shiite community", Smith said. They have "been very positive in reducing violence, and we expect to continue to see that trend."
But he blamed "Iranian-backed special groups" -- dissident Mahdi Army fighters -- for the upsurge in rocket attacks in Baghdad in recent days.
"These are signature Iranian types of weapons," Smith said, adding that the reason for the uptick was not clear.
"We are uncertain what has been the motivation," he added.
On Monday a barrage of 16 Katyusha rockets fired at Baghdad's international airport and the adjoining Camp Victory military base killed five Iraqis and wounded two US soldiers.
Another barrage of rockets slammed into two US outposts in eastern Baghdad on Tuesday, wounding four soldiers.
The truck from which the rockets were launched exploded as bomb disposal experts approached it, killing 15 members of Iraq's security forces, Iraqi officials said.
Smith said that US and Iraqi forces arrested six men, "all of them testing positive for explosive residue," after the Monday rocket attacks on Camp Victory.
A report just published by the International Crisis Group - entitled "Iraq's civil war, the Sadrists and the Surge" - assesses the role that the Mahdi Army's ceasefire has played in reducing violence in Iraq in recent months, and makes recommendations to all parties involved about next steps. reproduced below is the Executive Summary. Click here to read the complete report.
The dramatic decline in bloodshed in Iraq – at least until last week’s terrible market bombings in Baghdad – is largely due to Muqtada al-Sadr’s August 2007 unilateral ceasefire. Made under heavy U.S. and Iraqi pressure and as a result of growing discontent from his own Shiite base, Muqtada’s decision to curb his unruly movement was a positive step. But the situation remains highly fragile and potentially reversible. If the U.S. and others seek to press their advantage and deal the Sadrists a mortal blow, these gains are likely to be squandered, with Iraq experiencing yet another explosion of violence. The need is instead to work at converting Muqtada’s unilateral measure into a more comprehensive multilateral ceasefire that can create conditions for the movement to evolve into a fully legitimate political actor.
The Sadrists appeared on a steady rise in 2006 and early 2007. They controlled new territory, particularly in and around Baghdad, attracted new recruits, accumulated vast resources and infiltrated the police. But as the civil war engulfed much of the country, Iraqis witnessed the Sadrists’ most brutal and thuggish side. Their increasingly violent and undisciplined militia, the Mahdi Army, engaged in abhorrent sectarian killings and resorted to plunder and theft. Militants claiming to be Mahdi Army members executed untold numbers of Sunnis, allegedly in response to al-Qaeda’s ruthless attacks, but more often than not merely because they were Sunnis.
The Sadrists were victims of their own success. Their movement’s vastly increased wealth, membership and range of action led to greater corruption, weaker internal cohesion and a popular backlash. Divisions within the movement deepened; splinter groups – often little more than criminal offshoots – proliferated. As a result, anti-Sadrist sentiment grew, including among Muqtada’s Shiite constituency. The U.S. surge, which saw the injection of thousands of additional troops, particularly in Baghdad, worsened the Sadrists’ situation, checking and, in some instances, reversing the Mahdi Army’s territorial expansion. Finally, in August 2007, major clashes erupted in the holy city of Karbala between members of Muqtada’s movement and the rival Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which further eroded the Sadrists’ standing. In reaction, Muqtada announced a six-month freeze on all Mahdi Army activities. It applies to all groups affiliated (loosely or otherwise) with the Mahdi Army, and Muqtada reportedly dispatched his most loyal fighters to tame holdouts. Most importantly, his order removed the veil of legitimacy and lifted the impunity that many groups – criminal gangs operating in the Mahdi Army’s name and Sadrist units gone astray – had enjoyed.
The ceasefire largely has held and, together with bolstered U.S. and Iraqi military presence in Baghdad, helps account for a dramatic drop in violence. But the respite, although welcome, is both slightly misleading and exceedingly frail. Muqtada’s decision likely reflected a pragmatic calculation: that a halt in hostilities would help restore his credibility and allow him to reorganise his forces and wait out the U.S. presence. Their retreat notwithstanding, the Sadrists remain deeply entrenched and extremely powerful in a number of regions. Fleeing military pressure in Baghdad, Mahdi Army fighters redeployed to the south, thereby setting up the potential for an escalation of the class-based confrontation with the U.S.-backed ISCI.
Among Sadrist rank and file, impatience with the ceasefire is high and growing. They equate it with a loss of power and resources, believe the U.S. and ISCI are conspiring to weaken the movement and eagerly await Muqtada’s permission to resume the fight. The Sadrist leadership has resisted the pressure, but this may not last. Critics accuse Muqtada of passivity or worse, and he soon may conclude that the costs of his current strategy outweigh its benefits. In early February 2008, senior Sadrist officials called upon their leader not to prolong the ceasefire, due to expire later in the month.
The U.S. response – to continue attacking and arresting Sadrist militants, including some who are not militia members; arm a Shiite tribal counterforce in the south to roll back Sadrist territorial gains; and throw its lot in with Muqtada’s nemesis, ISCI – is understandable but shortsighted. The Sadrist movement, its present difficulties aside, remains a deeply entrenched, popular mass movement of young, poor and disenfranchised Shiites. It still controls key areas of the capital, as well as several southern cities; even now, its principal strongholds are virtually unassailable. Despite intensified U.S. military operations and stepped up Iraqi involvement, it is fanciful to expect the Mahdi Army’s defeat. Instead, heightened pressure is likely to trigger both fierce Sadrist resistance in Baghdad and an escalating intra-Shiite civil war in the south.
Muqtada’s motivations aside, his decision opens the possibility of a more genuine and lasting transformation of the Sadrist movement. In the months following his announcement, he sought to rid it of its most unruly members, rebuild a more disciplined and focused militia and restore his own respectability, while promoting core demands – notably, protecting the nation’s sovereignty by opposing the occupation – through legitimate parliamentary means. The challenge is to seize the current opportunity, seek to transform Muqtada’s tactical adjustment into a longer-term strategic shift and encourage the Sadrists’ evolution toward a strictly non-violent political actor.
To Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sadrist Leadership:
1. Ensure greater discipline and accountability among Sadrist ranks by:
(a) prolonging and strictly enforcing the ceasefire; and
(b) articulating a clear and comprehensive political program.
To the U.S. and the Iraqi Government:
2. Narrowly circumscribe operations against the Mahdi Army and Sadrist movement by:
(a) focusing on legitimate military targets, including armed groups involved in attacks against civilians or U.S. or Iraqi forces, weapon stockpiles and hideouts, or arms smuggling networks;
(b) taking action against Sadrist-manned patrols or checkpoints; and
(c) tolerating Sadrist activities that are strictly non-military, including those involving education, media, health services and religious affairs.
3. Freeze recruitment into the Shiite sahwa (awakening), the U.S.-backed tribe- and citizen-based militia set up to fight the Mahdi Army, and instead concentrate on building a professional, non-partisan security force, integrating vetted Mahdi Army fighters.
To Najaf-based Clerics:
4. Allow Sadrists to visit religious sites in the holy cities as long as they are unarmed and show appropriate restraint.
There has been a big drop in violence in Baghdad since the U.S. troop surge was launched almost exactly a year ago. But the relative calm that has descended on the Iraqi capital has come at a price. The sectarian divisions there have now been enshrined in concrete and enforced by security groups that mistrust each other.
The place where two Baghdad neighborhoods meet exemplifies what has happened to so much of the Iraqi capital. Huge blast walls line either side of the road running between the Sunni area of Adhamiya and the Shiite area of Qahirah.
The Sunni side is controlled by tribal neighborhood watches. The Shiite area is protected by the Shiite-dominated police. Baghdad has become a maze of divisions and areas of control where religious and ethnic tensions have been subsumed but not eradicated.
Policeman Nabeel Kareem Shamkhi holds a radio. There's been an IED attack, a voice crackles. Shamkhi turns the sound down.
Things are better in his neighborhood of Qahirah, though attacks continue.
"People are tired of fighting, of sorrow," Shamkhi says. "They now started to report anyone who fires a single bullet. We have given people our number and they call us and give us tips. People are fed up."
Qahirah was long controlled by the Mehdi Army — the militia loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In tit-for-tat violence during the height of the sectarian battles, bodies would turn up dumped on the streets.
That has changed and there's now a robust police presence. Still, Shamkhi's area of control is limited and is seemingly still restricted by sect.
'No Authority to Go Beyond'
"Al Adhamiya sector is different from ours," Shamkhi explains. "I am in charge of this sector, in charge of this street. I have no authority to go beyond that."
Inside Adhamiya, the awakening groups — U.S.-backed Sunni tribal security forces — hold sway. And Shamkhi doesn't trust them.
"We have no idea about their background," he says. "How can I trust you if I know nothing about your background or who you worked for before?"
It's a concern that residents of Qahirah share.
Majid Ahmed Mohammed sells fat, woolly brown and white sheep at a busy intersection for about $95. A Shiite, he was born and raised in Adhamiya until he was chased out. He tried to go back, but he says he was forced out again by the Sunni paramilitaries.
"The men of the awakening kill people," he says. "I will never get back there till there is a better security situation and the government takes over."
Across the road at the entrance to Adhamiya, cars are stopped by Iraqi army officers. Once through that checkpoint, security is mostly in the control of members of the local Sunni watch groups.
An Awakening Ignored
Ammar Ibrahim Habeeb is among the 700 awakening group members who are in this sector.
He complains that the awakening movement is being ignored by the Shiite-dominated government.
"We didn't receive any support from the government," Habeeb says. "We are getting bigger and many volunteers want to join the awakening, but our numbers have been limited."
The Shiite political class has been ambivalent about these awakening groups. Despite calls to incorporate them into the security forces, they haven't been.
Habeeb says their loyalty, at the moment at least, is not to the government but to the Americans who back them.
"We need the Americans because we don't have enough support," he says. "Our situation is not good. We don't have uniforms and we don't have ammunition."
For the local population though, things are undeniably better in Adhamiya now. Shops are being reopened one at a time.
'The Walls Are Here to Stay'
Still, at a nearby hair salon, Sundus Tariq Yaqoub expresses what many people fear: She doesn't believe that Sunni and Shia will ever be able to live together like they did before. The walls and the divisions they represent are here to stay, she says.
"Everyone had some relative killed and they want to take revenge," she says. "People on both sides want to take revenge still."
A mosque right on the border between Qahirah and Adhamiya calls the faithful to prayer. A month ago, joint prayers were held here bringing together people from both communities.
Still, everyone admits, the peace is fragile right now.
And hidden behind the blast walls and barbed wire, people say, the unresolved issues of the past brutal five years linger.
In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
In 1971, a courageous group of veterans exposed the criminal nature of the Vietnam War in an event called Winter Soldier. Once again, we will create a space for veterans to make their voices heard.
Once again, we are fighting for the soul of our country. We will demonstrate our patriotism by speaking out with honor and integrity instead of blindly following failed policy. Winter Soldier is a difficult but essential service to our country.
Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan will feature testimony from U.S. veterans who served in those occupations, giving an accurate account of what is really happening day in and day out, on the ground.
The four-day event will bring together veterans from across the country to testify about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan - and present video and photographic evidence. In addition, there will be panels of scholars, veterans, journalists, and other specialists to give context to the testimony. These panels will cover everything from the history of the GI resistance movement to the fight for veterans' health benefits and support.
When: Thursday March 13 to Sunday March 16
For those interested in watching or organizing around the proceedings at Winter Soldier, there will be a number of ways to watch and listen to the event.
Live television broadcast via satellite tv, accessible through Dish Network as well as public access stations that choose to carry our broadcast - Friday and Saturday only
Live video stream on the web - Thursday through Sunday
Live radio broadcast via KPFA in Berkley California and other Pacifica member stations--Friday through Sunday