Journalist Patrick Cockburn Calls Iraq a “Bloody Mess” One Year After Handover of “Sovereignty”

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We speak with Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn of the Independent (UK) who finds that since the so-called handover of sovereignty in Iraq, 948 U.S. soldiers have died; thousands of Iraqis have been killed; 52 senior Iraqi government or religious figures have been assassinated; and the number of Iraqi military and police being killed each month has jumped by fifty percent. [includes rush transcript]

Patrick Cockburn’s article, “Iraq: A Bloody Mess” from the London Independent:

A year ago the supposed handover of power by the US occupation authority to an Iraqi interim government led by Iyad Allawi was billed as a turning point in the violent history of post-Saddam Iraq.

It has turned out to be no such thing. Most of Iraq is today a bloody no-man’s land beset by ruthless insurgents, savage bandit gangs, trigger-happy US patrols and marauding government forces.

On 28 June 2004 Mr Allawi was all smiles. “In a few days, Iraq will radiate with stability and security,” he promised at the handover ceremony. That mood of optimism did not last long.

On Sunday the American Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, told a US news programme that the ongoing insurgency could last “five, six, eight, ten, twelve years”.

Yesterday in London, after meeting Tony Blair, the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, tried to be more upbeat, commenting: “I think two years will be enough and more than enough to establish security”.

Tonight President George Bush will make his most important address since the invasion, speaking to troops at the US army base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He is expected to seek to assure increasingly sceptical Americans that he has a plan to prevail in Iraq, and that the US is not trapped in a conflict as unwinnable as the one in Vietnam, three decades ago.

The news now from Iraq is only depressing. All the roads leading out of the capital are cut. Iraqi security and US troops can only get through in heavily armed convoys. There is a wave of assassinations of senior Iraqi officers based on chillingly accurate intelligence. A deputy police chief of Baghdad was murdered on Sunday. A total of 52 senior Iraqi government or religious figures have been assassinated since the handover. In June 2004 insurgents killed 42 US soldiers; so far this month 75 have been killed.

The “handover of power” last June was always a misnomer. Much real power remained in the hands of the US. Its 140,000 troops kept the new government in business. Mr Allawi’s new cabinet members became notorious for the amount of time they spent out of the country. Safely abroad they often gave optimistic speeches predicting the imminent demise of the insurgency.

Despite this the number of Iraqi military and police being killed every month has risen from 160 at the handover to 219 today.

There were two further supposed turning points over the past year. The first was the capture by US Marines of the rebel stronghold of Fallujah last November after a bloody battle which left most of the city of 300,000 people in ruins. In January there was the general election in which the Shia and Kurds triumphed.

Both events were heavily covered by the international media. But such is the danger for television and newspaper correspondents in Iraq that their capacity to report is more and more limited. The fall of Fallujah did not break the back of the resistance. Their best fighters simply retreated to fight again elsewhere. Many took refuge in Baghdad. At the same time as the insurgents lost Fallujah they captured most of Mosul, a far larger city. Much of Sunni Iraq remained under their sway.

At the handover of power the number of foreign fighters in the insurgency was estimated in the “low hundreds”. That figure has been revised up to at least 1,000 and the overall figure for the number of insurgents is put at 16,000.

The election may have been won by the Shia and Kurds but it was boycotted by the five million Sunnis and they are the core of the rebellion. It took three months to put together a new government as Sunni, Shia, Kurds and Americans competed for their share of the cake. For all their declarations about Iraqi security, the US wanted to retain as much power in its own hands as it could. When the Shia took over the interior ministry its intelligence files were hastily transferred to the US headquarters in the Green Zone.

To most ordinary Iraqis in Baghdad it is evident that life over the past year has been getting worse. The insurgents seem to have an endless supply of suicide bombers whose attacks ensure a permanent sense of threat. In addition the necessities of life are becoming more difficult to obtain. At one moment last winter there were queues of cars outside petrol stations several miles long.

The sense of fear in Baghdad is difficult to convey. Petrol is such a necessity because people need to pick up their children from school because they are terrified of them being kidnapped. Parents mob the doors of schools and swiftly become hysterical if they cannot find their children. Doctors are fleeing the country because so many have been held for ransom, some tortured and killed because their families could not raise the money.

Homes in Baghdad are currently getting between six and eight hours’ electricity a day. Nothing has improved at the power stations since the hand-over of security a year ago. In a city where the temperature yesterday was 40C, people swelter without air conditioning because the omnipresent small generators do not produce enough current to keep them going. In recent weeks there has also been a chronic shortage of water.

Some Iraqis have benefited. Civil servants and teachers are better paid, though prices are higher. But Iraqis in general hoped that their standard of living would improve dramatically after the fall of Saddam Hussein and it has not.

Adding to the sense of fear in Baghdad is the growth of sectarianism, the widening gulf between Sunni and Shia. Shia mosques come under attack from bombers. Members of both communities are found murdered beside the road, in escalating rounds of tit-for-tat killings.

The talks between US officials and some resistance groups revealed in the past few days probably does not mean very much for the moment. The fanatical Islamic and militant former Baathists and nationalists who make up the cutting edge of insurgency are not in the mood to compromise. They are also very fragmented. But the talks may indicate a growing sense among US military and civilian officials that they cannot win this war.

  • Patrick Cockburn, journalist with the London Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting in recognition of his writing on Iraq over the past year.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night at Fort Bragg, President Bush repeatedly tried to connect the war in Iraq with the attacks on September 11. While there was no mention of the original rationale for the invasion, the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, President Bush mentioned September 11 five times in the address and used the word “terror” or “terrorism” 34 times. This is an edited montage of President Bush’s address last night.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The troops here and across the world are fighting a global war on terror. The war reached our shores on September the 11th, 2001. The terrorists who is attack us and the terrorists we face murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance, and despises all dissent.

After September the 11th, I made a commitment to the American people: This nation will not wait to be attacked again. We will defend our freedom. We will take the fight to the enemy. The terrorists can kill the innocent but they cannot stop the advance of freedom. The only way our enemies can succeed is if we forget the lessons of September the 11th.

We’re fighting against men with blind hatred and armed with lethal weapons who are capable of any atrocity. They wear no uniform. They respect no laws of warfare or morality. They take innocent lives to create chaos for the cameras. They are trying to shake our will in Iraq, just as they tried to shake our will on September the 11th, 2001. They will fail.

After September the 11th, 2001, I told the American people that the road ahead would be difficult and that we would prevail. Well, it has been difficult, and we are prevailing. Our enemies are brutal, but they are no match for the United States of America. And they are no match for the men and women of the United States military. May God bless you all.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush made at least five references to September 11 in his less than 30-minute speech last night at Fort Bragg, which was held on the year anniversary of the supposed handover of power by the U.S. Occupation Authority to an interim Iraq government last June in 2004.

We’re joined on the telephone now by Patrick Cockburn, who wrote a very interesting piece in the Independent newspaper in London about what has happened in this past year in Iraq. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Patrick Cockburn.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about just the facts that you lay out in your piece of what has transpired this year?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, the most striking feature of the last year is that things have got progressively worse. Most of Iraq is really a bloody no-man’s land now. The transfer of power last — a year ago to the interim Iraqi government, which was billed as a great turning point, turned out to be no such thing. It’s one of a series of turning points that have been presented, such as the capture of Saddam Hussein, the transfer of power, the capture of Fallujah, last year the elections. And Iraqis have seen their lives get worse and worse over that period. And there’s no reason that anything should get any better. Certainly that’s the way they look at it.

AMY GOODMAN: It was interesting to see last night, Iyad Allawi interviewed on CNN. He was in Beirut, I believe it was. And he was asked — Wolf Blitzer asked him, “Do you feel safer today in Iraq than you did a year ago?” He couldn’t say yes.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, there’s a very good reason for that, and there’s a very good reason he’s sitting in Beirut and not in Baghdad. I mean, it’s kind of almost — it’s a running joke in Iraq, in Baghdad, the number of Iraqi government leaders who are outside the country at any one time. At one moment last year, or this year, rather, a Baghdad newspaper calculated that the entire — every cabinet minister was outside the country. The president, Jalal Talabani, was saying a couple of months ago that most of Iraq was quiet, but you have to look at where he was saying this: He was saying it in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. So you just have to get off the plane in Baghdad or look anywhere around the city to realize that this is a place in chaos and this is the most dangerous place in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk in your piece about the number of people who have died: service members, also Iraqis, Iraqi officials. Can you go through those figures?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes. I mean, there’s the number if you take June last year, there were 42 American soldiers killed. So far this month, there have been 77. Last month, there were 80. There’s been an assassination campaign against senior Iraqi government and religious figures, and 52 have been assassinated since the so-called handover of power a year ago. Often, there seems to be chillingly accurate intelligence on the part of the killers, who know exactly where senior and important people are. And even if they have body guards, it’s usually not enough. The — so, you know, you have to — often when you hear or see Iraqi politicians on television or on the radio talking abroad, it’s difficult for, I think, people who don’t know Iraq to realize that none of these people could get out of Baghdad if they tried, unless they have an enormous armed body guard; otherwise they’d certainly be kidnapped and almost certainly killed.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Cockburn, you also talk about secret talks that are taking place between the U.S. and the resistance. What do you know?

PATRICK COCKBURN: There have been talks, but how — and it’s important that these talks have been admitted because, after all, as President Bush was saying last night, this portrayal of the resistance as somehow being the same people who carried out 9/11 is wholly different from the reality on the ground. That’s admitted pretty well by all these days, that there was nothing to indicate any link between Saddam Hussein and the people who planned 9/11. And despite the best efforts of investigators, nothing has emerged on this front. So, I think that the — certainly, I was rather amazed at the emphasis that the President put on this point.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Patrick Cockburn, who has been reporting from Iraq extensively, just won the 2005 Martha Gellhorn Prize for War Reporting. You also talk about turning points in this last year in Iraq, two critical points among them: the capture by U.S. Marines of the rebel stronghold of Fallujah.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes. I think that the — every so often, events like that occur that are billed as a turning point in the war. And, in a way, it’s gotten easier for the U.S. military, for Washington, to do this, because ironically as the situation deteriorates, it becomes more and more difficult for journalists, for the media, to report properly. You know, if I was to, let’s say, go south, take the road south from Baghdad, I would get about 20 miles before I was killed. Any Westerner would be killed on that road. The same is true of all the roads connecting Baghdad with the other provinces.

So when somebody like Iyad Allawi, who you mentioned earlier, the former prime minister, said, stood up in Washington last year just before the election and said only three out of four Iraqi provinces, three out of four of 18, were truly dangerous, everybody in Iraq knew this was untrue. But it’s very difficult to go and prove that by the very fact that if you’re going into most of these provinces, you simply won’t make it. So in a way, the atrocities committed by Zarqawi has made it much easier for the administration to pretend that no news is good news. In fact, no news out of Iraq means that something so horribly dangerous is going on that nobody can report it.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Cockburn, I’d like to thank you for being with us, speaking to us recently out of Iraq, just wrote a piece in the Independent about this year anniversary in which President Bush just spoke at Fort Bragg about the latest situation in Iraq.

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