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British Correspondent Patrick Cockburn on Iraq’s Growing Sectarian Divide and the Myth of “Success” in the US “Surge”

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As a new civil war threatens to explode in Iraq between US-backed Iraqi government forces and Shia militiamen, we go to London to speak with Patrick Cockburn, Iraq correspondent for the London Independent. Covering the invasion and occupation from the ground in Iraq for the past five years, Cockburn has been described as “the best Western journalist at work in Iraq today.” He is author of the new book Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival and the Struggle for Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: “A new civil war is threatening to explode in Iraq as American-backed Iraqi government forces fight Shia militiamen for control of Basra and parts of Baghdad. Heavy fighting engulfed Iraq’s two largest cities and spread to other towns yesterday [as] the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, gave fighters of the Mehdi Army, led by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, 72 hours to surrender their weapons.”

Those are the opening lines to a report in today’s edition of the Independent of London written by Patrick Cockburn, the paper’s Iraq correspondent.

The article goes on to state, “The gun battles between soldiers and militiamen, who are all Shia Muslims, show that Iraq’s majority Shia community […] is splitting apart for the first time. Sadr’s followers believe the government is trying to eliminate them before elections in southern Iraq later this year, which they are expected to win.”

Patrick Cockburn has been covering Iraq since 1977. Seymour Hersh has described Cockburn as “quite simply, the best Western journalist at work in Iraq today.” His book The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq was short-listed for a National Book Critics Circle Award last year. His new book comes out next week. It is titled Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival and the Struggle for Iraq. Patrick Cockburn joins us in London.

Welcome to Democracy Now!


JUAN GONZALEZ: The fighting that has erupted in the last few days, could you tell us your sense of what is at stake here?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, the Iraqi government has decided and has surprised everybody by deciding to send its troops into Basra. Ostensibly, they’re saying it’s to clean up criminal elements in Basra; in reality, it seems an attack on the Mahdi Army, and it’s in alliance with militias that are friendly to the Iraqi government. The Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s demand that the fighters of the Mahdi Army give up their weapons in seventy-two hours, I think it’s extremely unlikely that this will happen. Saddam couldn’t disarm Iraq. It’s not likely that Maliki will succeed in doing so.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now the — obviously, for more than a year now, we’ve heard of the ceasefire that Muqtada al-Sadr had declared. Why did he initially declare the ceasefire, and to what degree is your sense that this is the beginning of the end of that, if you think it is?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, the ceasefire is very important, and everybody, including US commanders, admit this was one of the reasons why there’s been something of a fall in violence in Iraq, though not — maybe it’s been exaggerated. I think he declared the ceasefire for two reasons: one, he wanted to clean up the Mahdi Army, which was seen as Sunni, as really a large death squad — it was an umbrella organization for criminals — so he wanted to regain control of it; secondly, he didn’t want to fight a military, direct military confrontation with US forces. He thought he’d lose in those circumstances. So that’s why he declared the ceasefire last August and renewed it in February.

He wanted also to get back political popularity. I mean, this is the most popular figure among the Shia masses, but he was beginning to lose it because of the — the Mahdi Army was running rackets and seen as becoming increasingly oppressive.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you’ve reported that his call for civil disobedience across Iraq in protest of the government’s latest moves, but in one of your articles you say a civil disobedience in Iraq is quite different than here in the United States we might be accustomed to.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Sure, yeah. I mean, the thing in Iraq is that pretty — about everybody has a gun. So you have civil disobedience being protest marches, but if anybody — but all the people who take part, although some they have guns, or if they don’t have them with them they have immediate access to firearms — so it’s much, much closer to real fighting than civil disobedience would be in America or in Britain.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, what’s the level of British and US troop involvement in this latest offensive? And why should they be involved at all, if supposedly the south increasingly has come under direct Iraqi government and Iraqi military control?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, it’s a very good question and, I think, goes to the heart of the matter. I mean, the answer is that not much happens in the Iraqi army that isn’t directed by the United States. I mean, the Ministry of Defense is at least partially under American control in Baghdad, intelligence also. So I think when the US says, oh, we have nothing to do with it, I think that this really isn’t true. First of all, militarily, there are helicopters, there are aircraft there. We’ve had reports this morning of an air strike in a city called Hilla, which is mostly Shia, southwest of Baghdad, in which sixty people have been killed and wounded, which is part of the present turmoil. There are helicopters and aircraft overhead in Basra. So there is involvement. And it certainly wouldn’t have — this present offensive wouldn’t have taken place unless the US military commanders had okayed it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And to what degree is the possibility now — obviously, for the first few years the discussion was: Was there a civil war in Iraq between Sunni and Shia? But now the issue can quite clearly become: Is there a civil war among the Shia themselves? To what degree do you think the United States is hoping to be able to stamp out Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army through this offensive?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, you know, they’ve always been very — the US has always been very hostile to Muqtada, and this came from the very beginning of 2003. And then, when Jerry Bremer was US viceroy in Iraq, there was an extraordinary degree of sort of venom and demonization of Muqtada, describing him as Hitler and so forth, and curiously, also an underestimation of him, because while at one time — moment they’d say that he was like Hitler, at another moment Bremer was just trying to arrest him and thinking there would be no reaction. So, there’s always been extreme hostility on the part of the US, mainly, I think, because Muqtada is the most important leader on the Shia side who’s consistently called for an end to the US occupation, for a US withdrawal, and also maybe because he’s a cleric, he wears a black turban. So in many minds of many American politicians, maybe he looks alarmingly like a younger version of Ayatollah Khomeini. But I think the main thing they have against him is that he wants the US to withdraw.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, the southern part of Iraq obviously has the bulk of the production of oil. I think about 1.5 million barrels a day are coming out of the area around Basra. To what extent is this latest battle having an impact on the production of oil, or to what degree is it a battle over who’s going to control that oil?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, it’s already having a massive impact on the export of oil, because one of the main pipelines was blown up overnight. So, you know, this is — if there’s a battle in Basra, then the Mahdi Army can in fact stop most of Iraq’s oil production by simply blowing the pipeline and preventing anybody repairing it. They’re also in a very strategic position, because the main US supply lines between Kuwait and Baghdad go just to the west of Basra , so they could start attacking the convoys there. So they’re in a very strong position.

I mean, there’s a slightly different question, which I think you’re hinting at there, which is how much is it a fight over oil? Well, in Basra, yes, I mean, the money comes from various ways of diverting oil, of getting your hands on oil at cheap prices. You know, it’s a pretty corrupt place. A friend of mine the other day, a business — Iraqi businessman, had a container come in at Umm Qasr port, which is just south of Basra. I remember he was telling me that transport — he’s sending up to Kurdistan in the north, a city called Erbil. Transport to Erbil cost him $500, and he spent $3,000 in bribes. And that’s kind of par for the course.

Of course, also you have oil diverted into tankers, and these are major sources of revenues for all the militias. But it’s not just the Mahdi Army. It’s in Baghdad, you have exactly the same. You know, where the regular army controls a gas station, they’re always diverting supplies. Somehow it runs out of gas in a couple of hours, but everybody waiting in the long queues knows that the oil has been diverted into the black market.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Patrick Cockburn, the other aspect of Basra and the south obviously was that the British had supposedly successfully managed to pull out of the main population areas, but now we’re having — there’s one, at least one, retired US general, Jack Keane, has urged the British to reconsider their withdrawal from Basra. What does this suggest for the long-term Bush administration strategy of handing over to the Iraqi army the pacifying and the control of the country?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, I mean, I think that there’s — I mean, first of all, the British aren’t going to do that, because they had a very rough time in Basra. And in some ways, the British position is worse in Basra than the Americans in — American army in Baghdad. I mean, a British military intelligence officer was saying to me, you know, the problem in Basra is we had no friends. Basically, nobody likes us there. Now, in Baghdad, the occupation is not popular, but I think it’s fair to say at the moment, after all the slaughter we had — 3,000 people killed every month in 2006 — that Sunni and Shia in Baghdad hate and fear each other more than they hate and fear the USA Army — I mean, not that they particularly like them. But if you’re, let’s say, a Sunni in Baghdad and somebody kicks your door in at 3:00 in the morning, you’d probably prefer it to be an American soldier, in which case you might survive, rather than the Iraqi police commanders who are all Shia, in which case you’re likely to have a very unpleasant death. So — but going back to Basra, the British don’t want to move in. They had a rough time, and they also think the militias will unite against them if they try to do so.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you’ve been to Iraq numerous times. Here in the United States, we’re hearing more and more, obviously, especially in the presidential campaign — John McCain, repeatedly, the Republican candidate, repeatedly saying how the surge is working, the casualties are down, the United States is, quote, “winning” in Iraq. Your sense, from all of your visits and your reporting there, as to this analysis or this view of the surge or the escalation of the war?

PATRICK COCKBURN: You know, I have a sinking feeling in my stomach when I hear things like that. And I was in Baghdad when McCain was there. You know, people say to me, “Are things getting better in Iraq?” And, you know, in one sense, you could say they are, because a year ago we were having, as I said earlier, 3,000 civilians slaughtered, tortured to death every month. This month, we’re probably going to have 1,500, 1,600 civilians killed. So, you know, in a sense, things have got better. We’ve gone from 3,000 to 1,600. But, you know, we’ve gone from 100 percent bloodbath to 50 percent bloodbath, but it’s still a bloodbath, so I think it’s really ludicrous for Vice President Cheney or Senator McCain to say, you know, we’re on the verge of victory, things are good.

And then there are, you know, those television — there was famous television of McCain in Shorja market in Baghdad last year saying American people aren’t being told the truth about Iraq. Now, very noticeably, he didn’t go back to Shorja market when he visited a couple of weeks ago, and one of the reasons might be that his security advisers would say, “Don’t go,” because the market is controlled by the Mahdi Army. So, really, this is very deceptive. There’s something of an improvement in security in Baghdad. A lot of this has to do with the fact there are no mixed areas left there, so Sunni and Shia don’t really mix. We have a truce with the Madhi Army. But, you know, it’s still a city which is the most dangerous in the world, and that’s really what should get through to people outside Iraq.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you — we have about a minute left — but the Pentagon and the White House have repeatedly claimed that Sadr and his followers are being supported by Iran and backed by Iran. Your sense of Iran’s role in the battle now between the Shia-dominated government and the Muqtada forces?

PATRICK COCKBURN: It’s always been exaggerated, as regards Muqtada, because the Sadrists and his family have always traditionally been anti-Iranian. Probably when the US started opposing them strongly, they thought, well, the enemy of our enemy is our friend, so they’ve been going to the Iranians, they get a certain amount of support from there. But, you know, I think that as soon as the US decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein, who was the great enemy of Iran, there was going to be an increase in Iranian influence in Iraq, and the Shia, who are 60 percent of the population, were going to take over from the Sunni. These things were going to happen and probably — and will still happen. So I think that imagining that one can stop them simply prolongs the violence there. And this idea that Muqtada and the Iraqi Shia are somehow all clones of Iran, I think is some of the most poisonous sentiments in the Middle East, because it sort of ratifies sectarian hatred. The Iraqi Shia have their own interests; sometimes they’re backed by Iran, which is not too surprising, but they’re not clones or pawns of Iran. But if they’re treated as such, then they have to rely on Iranian support.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we’ll have to leave it there. Patrick Cockburn, we’ll have to leave it there, but thank you very much for being with us. Patrick Cockburn, Iraq correspondent for the London Independent, latest book, Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival. He’s covered the invasion and occupation from the government for the past five years.

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