On Monday, 29 Iraqis were killed and 27 wounded in bomb attacks on restaurants south of Baghdad — Shia-dominated areas. The Sunnis may have got lucky and killed a few of the Shia-dominated police and army. That is one day. Undoubtedly, there will be more this week — and the week after that. It is hard to find those reports. Buried deep in the internet. A few wire service updates. The daily butcher’s bill providing not much detail, just the figures, probably collected from a few phone calls by the Iraqi staffers still working in Baghdad. They wouldn’t go out there; it is too bloody dangerous. And besides, 50 bucks US a day (which is still the going rate for a local) isn’t worth your life.

Not many papers now give it a run. Unlike Brussels or Paris, Iraqi lives mean nothing in the current Western news cycle. Those old Saddam-era officials who planned the bombings will be sitting cross-legged on their carpets drinking tea and planning the next round, carried out by the misguided, disenfranchised and coerced who have joined their cause. A cause we created by unseating the Sunni middle class from power way back in 2003 and then literally standing on their heads with combat boots, cuffing them, bagging them, holding them indefinitely without charge (and worse) in the misguided raids the US employed to try and deal with the insurgency. Instead we created the Universities of Insurgency in Abu Ghraib, Camp Bucca, Camp Victory at Baghdad airport and so many other long-dismantled and abandoned sites in Iraq.


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In early 2004, the capital Baghdad still had traces of euphoria in the air from Saddam’s defeat the previous year. Shops were open, people thronged the streets. American soldiers and foreign workers ate and drank openly in restaurants. Money was flowing from international organisations. Everybody was on the make. Streets were clogged with the second-hand cars trucked in from Europe that everybody seemed to be buying now the restrictions on vehicle ownership had been lifted. There were no taxes or tariffs. No more sanctions. It seemed democracy and free enterprise were taking hold. But you didn’t have to go far to see that something was wrong.

Outside the walled and fortified Green Zone, the former government and public service district of Baghdad, there were daily demonstrations — sometimes violent. They were mostly former regime soldiers, public servants, government workers. Watched over by nervous young US troops manning watchtowers with .50 calibre machine guns they chanted and held aloft banners. They had all been sacked. No pensions, no payouts. The former Sunni elite that had run the country were now unemployed. In the hubris of the swift victory over Saddam’s regime the new American leadership of Iraq under John Paul Bremer had sacked everybody connected with the Ba’ath Party. The problem was that in Saddam’s Iraq to attain any position of authority or influence you had to join the Ba’ath party. Overnight, the entire ruling class had been made redundant.

The Sunnis, who made up 40% of the population, had basically been favoured by the British colonisers when they ruled Iraq. They ran the country, they dominated the army and the ruling Ba’ath party. Now the Americans had invaded and the Shia were being favoured. The Sunnis believed the Shia to not be capable of running the country and now disenfranchised and disempowered, the former elite began to organise. They knew where the weapons were; they used to run the army; they knew how to cripple the power supply, the oil industry, the transport networks; they had built them and run them. In early 2004, it began in earnest. Another war. The insurgency against the American occupation.

It developed rapidly. Bombings, kidnappings and co-ordinated assaults on any foreigners. Any organisation, no matter how well intentioned, was targeted. The aim was to drive a wedge between the foreign community and the Iraqis, rendering the foreigners powerless to assist the restoration of normal life for Iraqis. It worked. The power was cut off. The water supply, sewerage, garbage collection — all inoperable. And the same lament from ordinary Iraqis: “It was better under Saddam, at least we had power.” But after the US occupation they got cholera from bad sanitation. Meanwhile, through 2005 and 2006 the sectarian cleansing of neighbourhoods began. Sunnis were pushed out of suburbs where they had always lived. They fought back with bombs and guns and the power drills used to kill and torture Shia who attacked them. Baghdad descended into a vicious cycle of sectarian violence. The morgues were overflowing with the daily haul of corpses abandoned by the roadsides of Baghdad. Violence did die down for awhile, as those who were slated to be killed by either side were killed, and those who chose to flee had fled.

The Americans — because, let’s face it, despite the “coalition of the willing” involving 37 countries, it was the Americans who did all the fighting — responded with cordon-and-search operations. I went on a few in 2004. The premise was simple: block all the roads to a certain area with armoured vehicles; block the backstreets with troops and go in, house to house, in the middle of the night, and arrest all the fighting-age males. Any slightest pretext was enough for the US troops to get out the bag for the head and those plastic cuffs that hurt like hell when tightened, and send the “detainee” to Abu Ghraib outside of Baghdad or Umm Qasr, known as Camp Bucca, near Basra, down south. Massive prisons that at their height held more than 20,000 people each. Think about it, a revolving population for years. There were also prisons on almost every US base throughout Iraq. No charges, no trials, no sentences. They just became “the bad guys” and were held indefinitely and, just as randomly, released.

In 2007, as I transited back to Iraq with the US military through Kuwait, I remember this conversation. It was in a stinking-hot shipping container set aside for smokers in a camp that continually housed more than 5000 US soldiers going in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. I was smoking and chatting to a big black sergeant. He was telling me how the surge of troops into Iraq had just raised violence. As we chatted, a tall, skinny, very sunburned soldier from the first cavalry started butting in; he had that agitated, rapid-fire speech of the severely stressed. The sergeant waved me down as if to say “let him talk”, for to not do so would invite violence:

“I tell you I did not sign up for this shit. I enlisted in artillery and now they got us working as MPs [military police] at camp Bucca. I’ve had shit thrown at me, I’ve been pissed on. The other day I had to shoot someone in the face with a shotgun. No, that is not what I signed up for.”

At that time, one of the inmates at Bucca was one Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The future leader of Islamic State had been a relatively unknown scholar of Islam — basically a university lecturer. He had been picked up in one of the US raids. He was Sunni, devout and fitted the profile. He was nobody when he went into the US prison system, but when he came out he started his personal journey that would lead him to become the leader of the most feared and reviled terrorist network in the world today. Bucca was where Al-Baghdadi learned to hate.

Meanwhile, in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, the US Special Forces (aided by the British and a few Australians) just killed people. In targeted assassinations they hit the Sunni leadership hard. Helicopters in at night. Kill or capture, priority given to “high value targets”. Those they could negotiate with and pay to change sides, they did. The others who they labelled “AQI” or al-Qaeda in Iraq they tried to kill. General Stanley McChrystal was instrumental in running this program. At first lionised by the media as the lean, mean, fighting warrior monk, who ate one meal a day and jogged miles before breakfast, his career was cut short by an unflattering profile in Rolling Stone magazine where he was quoted drunk in an Irish bar in Paris mocking President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden. Obama sacked him. The leadership of AQI went to ground. The Americans withdrew from Iraq.

The payments to the moderate Sunni leaders stopped and the Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki made life hard for them. They went back to war. In Syria, literally just down the road across an unmanned border. But the old guys don’t do the fighting themselves. They never really did. It is the young, the foreigners, the mentally impaired, the compromised through blackmail and threats to their families. They are the ones who voluntarily or involuntarily get in their Toyotas and drive to the checkpoints and explode.

There is a point where no matter how many blast walls you build, how many drone strikes you authorise or how many “advisers” you send in, the simple fact remains: you have a large proportion of the Iraqi population committed to killing those who govern them. Until that is sorted, the war will not end.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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