The State of Iraq: An Interview with Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Baghdad correspondent of the Independent and the author of The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq and Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.

How do you interpret the latest election results in Iraq?

Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister, has obviously done well and so has his Da’wa party.  Maliki did well because of his reputation as a nationalist over the last year.  He picked a fight with the Mehdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the main Shia militia.  He faced down the Americans over their Status of Forces Agreement, he forced them to give a timetable for withdrawal.  He got into a confrontation with the Kurds over Mosul and Khanaqin in the north, two areas that are in dispute.

I think the significance of these elections is being exaggerated.  First of all, they are provincial elections — the provinces are powerful, but they’re not parliamentary elections.  Also, it’s not quite as much of a secular success as it has been painted by some people.  Maliki did well in the Shia community, which is 60% of Iraqis.  He may have picked up some votes in Sunni areas in Baghdad, and there might be a few of them in Basra but that’s mostly a Shia city.  In other provinces, he didn’t get more than about 3% of the Sunni vote.  So the shifts are within communities, within the Shia or Sunni Arabs or the Kurds.  I don’t think there’s been as big a change as some people imagine.

Bear in mind also, there was a turn-out of 51%.  Most Iraqis are cynical about government of all descriptions, they see it as a racket more than as an administration.  If you talk to Iraqis in the street and ask what the government’s done for them, they say “nothing”.  They think of the government as something that you have to bribe to get the smallest job or service.  Security has got better but it’s not good, it’s only better compared to the sectarian civil war we had in 2005-07.  Baghdad’s still a very dangerous place.

Do you think that the current Iraqi government has enough of a political base that it can now survive without US backing?

Al-Maliki Courts Baathists

Yes, I think it can.  The wars of the last five years have had outcomes.  The Shia have taken over from the Sunni as the dominant sector of the population.  Bear in mind some other things about Iraq which I think people often get wrong. Iraqis are often very sectarian — you may have Sunni hating Shia and vice versa — but they’re also quite nationalistic.  The American presence was a tremendous destabiliser, most Iraqis opposed the occupation.  Iraqis wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein, they didn’t care who got rid of him, if it was the US or the man in the moon, but the great majority from the beginning — and the opinion polls show this — were against the occupation.  There’s 35,000 dead and wounded American soldiers to show that, as well as hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead.

One of Maliki’s successes was to show that he wasn’t an American pawn.  Four years ago, at the previous provincial elections, Iyad Allawi (who was then prime minister) wanted to stand as a secular nationalist, but he didn’t have much legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqi voters, because they saw him — quite rightly — as an American puppet.  He himself said afterwards that he couldn’t move a soldier or a machine gun without getting American permission.  One of the reasons that Maliki is stronger is that he was very tough in negotiating a timetable for the American withdrawal.

You described the Status of Forces Agreement that was signed towards the end of last year as a defeat — or at any rate a major setback — for US strategy in Iraq.  Could you elaborate on that?

The Americans occupied Iraq with the clear intention of, if not keeping a large army there forever, certainly having an Iraq which was substantially under American control.  The US always has had a problem turning its military strength in Iraq into political power.  Their only real local allies were the Kurds.  Five, six years later, they’re leaving Iraq, and they’re not going to dominate that part of the Middle East.  Their control of the Iraqi government is limited — they’ll have influence there, but not much more than that.  I think the idea that some Iraqis still hold — and is held outside the country by many people — that this Iraqi government is in the American pocket is quite wrong.  It ignores the main lesson of the last 6 years, which is that the Iraqis will fight occupation, and they’ve done that very well, just as they fought the British occupation.  The uprising of the Sunni from 2003 to 2007 was very much like the Shia uprising against the British in 1920-21.

If you look back to the beginning of the 20th century, and one of the first US colonial adventures in Cuba, after the plan to establish direct control over Cuba had failed, the US moved towards a model of indirect control through clauses in the Cuban constitution like the Platt Amendment.  Do you think that might be the strategy in Washington now, to work behind the scenes?

I’m sure they’d like to do that, most imperial powers would like to have indirect control.  Most imperial powers in the period after direct colonial rule would like to retain their influence by throwing their support behind some local stooge but I very much doubt if this will work in Iraq.  Iraqi politicians will try to balance between the US and Iran but I don’t think this will amount to indirect control as in Cuba.  Iraqis are very strongly immunized against foreign control, they’re deeply suspicious of it at every level, they think of it as an attempt to exploit them, to steal their oil.

After all, colonial rule through the US occupation brought nothing but disaster.  When Saddam was overthrown, Iraqis thought: we’ve got so much oil, why can’t we live like people in Kuwait or Abu Dhabi, why are people living in such terrible poverty?  Then the Americans came and things got worse, there was no electricity, the poverty became even more extreme, and there were no jobs.  That’s largely still true.

There are also cultural and religious factors.  Maliki stood in this election not exactly as the secular choice, but as someone from a party that did not have religious slogans on its website and advertising.  But he’s still very much a Shia Islamic prime minister, and that again makes it difficult for him to be seen to be under the American thumb.

Do you think the support that there’s been for clericalist parties in Iraq since 2003 simply reflects the fact that those parties are the best organised and the most dynamic, or is there deep-rooted support for the idea of a theocratic state, an Iranian-style political system, in Iraq?

The people who are most into the idea of creating a theocratic state, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, have just taken a thumping defeat in the election. They were the dominant party in southern Iraq, and suddenly they’re Mr Ten Per Cent because they didn’t get more than that in most places.  At the same time most Iraqis are religious.

There are other factors involved.  The Saddam era discredited in the eyes of a lot of Iraqis secularism and nationalism of the Ba’athist type.  This was a trend throughout the region but nowhere more so than in Iraq.  Saddam himself tried to take advantage of that, he built a hundred mosques in Baghdad and elsewhere in the 1990s, he put a religious slogan on the Iraqi flag, but it didn’t work out too well.  There was a reaction towards the clergy, and particular towards those clerics who’d been opposed to Saddam.  Most of the Shia hierarchy were critical of Saddam’s regime and many, like Moqtada’s father and father-in-law, had been murdered by Saddam, so they benefited from being seen as martyrs post 2003.

In the same way that Saddam discredited secularism and nationalism in 1991-2003, so clerical control in 2003-9 led to a backlash of anti-clericalism or at least scepticism about clerics.  The most powerful cleric of them all, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (Nuri al-Maliki doesn’t take important decisions without consulting him), kept out of the elections.  Moqtada al-Sadr, who remains very powerful, didn’t run his own party — he supported independents and they did quite well.  But that doesn’t mean that Iraq has stopped being a religious place.

Where do you think Moqtada al-Sadr stands now?  As you said, Nuri al-Maliki confronted his forces last year and won a qualified victory.  On the other hand, Moqtada is a relatively young man and has the potential to be an important figure in Iraqi politics for years to come.  Do you think he’s a diminished force?

Diminished militarily — clearly.  Diminished politically — that’s a rather different question.  He could have fought it out, but from the beginning of 2007 I think Moqtada was dubious about the way his own Mehdi Army had turned into an umbrella organisation which was wholly sectarian and the main instrument of the Shia death squads as well as being  involved with gangsterism.  He kept on denouncing this.  He always thought of his movement as being religious and political rather than military.  The people he tried to protect most of all from being arrested by the Americans or the government were his political lieutenants rather than the military ones.

I think what happened last year was that Moqtada told his men to put down their arms.  They were doing rather well against the central army in Basra and in Sadr City.  In both cases I think he could see that the Americans were going to support the central government and so were the Iranians, so even if his people fought it out they would lose.  And most Iraqis didn’t want them to fight.  So I think he’s regained a lot of credibility among the Iraqi poor from that move, and is still clearly a living force in Iraqi politics.  In many ways what he did last year was pretty astute.

One thing that is clear looking from the outside is that there has been a relative reduction in violence since the peak of 2006-07.  What do you think were the most significant factors behind that reduction?

I think there were two things which were most important.  One was that we had a really savage civil war between Shia and Sunnis — it was always ludicrous for Bush and Blair to deny that this was going on, and to try and force Iraqi politicians not to use the term — and it had a winner.  It was really fought in central Iraq and above all in Baghdad, and the Shia emerged as the winner.  They were a majority in Baghdad before, but they’re now a much larger majority, maybe three-quarters of the population.  So I think that was one reason.

For the Sunni community — 20% of the population — although they were doing quite well with their guerrilla war against the Americans, at the end of the day it was just going to leave them exposed to a government that was predominantly Shia.  That’s a prime reason why they ended it.  Then of course there was the introduction of Al-Qaeda, with Al-Qaeda trying to set up a religious state, particularly in Anbar province which is the biggest province that’s overwhelmingly Sunni.  There was a reaction from the tribes which the Americans took advantage of.

I think the part of the “surge” which was to do with the Americans allying themselves to the Sunni reaction against Al-Qaeda was pretty successful.  The idea that it was a whole new war-winning military tactic is pretty ludicrous.  It gives the impression that the Americans never moved off their bases before 2007, which isn’t true.  It wasn’t that they won great victories: it was that the guys they were fighting changed sides.  It’s becoming part of a new neo-con myth in the US to say that somehow, Iraq wasn’t such a disaster for the US as it really was.  This thesis is obviously having a big influence.  During the presidential campaign Obama started saying that the “surge” hadn’t really got anywhere, then I think his people thought the success of the surge had become a sort of US patriotic icon and you had to pretend it was true.

The violence has gone down for those reasons.  And again, Moqtada al-Sadr told the Mehdi Army not to fight.  His decision to avoid a direct confrontation with the US and the Iraqi government is another important reason why killings went down.  You can also see that the government has got stronger, there are more checkpoints on the road.  But Baghdad is still a very difficult city to live in: every area is surrounded by concrete walls, there are checkpoints every few hundred yards, and even so there are bombings and assassinations.

What is life like outside the Green Zone today in terms of access to basic services, security and so on?

If you ask an Iraqi they’ll say “it’s better”, and it is.  But it’s better compared to the bloodbath that we had before.  Refugees are beginning to come back — there are about 3 million refugees — but they’re not really coming back to their old areas.  If you were a Shia living in a Sunni majority area or vice versa, it’s unlikely you’ll get your house back, so the sectarian geographical divisions are not being reversed.  A great majority of the refugees are still abroad.

There are other things: last year, electricity was very bad and clean water was not available for a large part of the population in the cities and the countryside.  That’s very important, because you had a serious cholera outbreak as a result of this.  Outside the Kurdish mountains Iraq is flat, you need to pump everything, whether it’s water or sewage.  If you don’t have electricity you can’t do that and you immediately have a disaster.

In Baghdad, you can see things picking up: more shops are open, there are more people in the streets.  But the improvement is exaggerated on television reports.  I don’t know of any foreign television team in Baghdad which doesn’t go out accompanied by armed bodyguards.  But the bodyguards always stand with the cameraman, so the correspondent is waltzing down the street, saying how much better security is, without mentioning that he wouldn’t be doing that unless he had a couple of security men with guns standing twenty feet from him.  Baghdad is still one of the most dangerous cities in the world, if not the most.

Another aspect of the US strategy in Iraq alongside the military occupation was a very radical experiment in free-market capitalism, perhaps the most radical ever launched.  How has that experiment fared?

It’s been a catastrophe.  The Iraqi economy was in a disastrous state before, but you did have a rationing system, people had rationing cards, you would go to a special grocery shop that had been allocated to you in your district and you would get a certain amount of food and other things, either free or at very low prices.  That has partly continued but it’s fallen apart.  Otherwise it was a permit to loot.  There was less to loot in Iraq than in the old Soviet Union in the early 1990s, but everything that really could be stolen was stolen.  At the same time, in the oil industry, Iraqis have already been very suspicious of anybody trying to get sovereign rights over their oil.  I don’t think that will happen.

You argued towards the end of your book about Moqtada al-Sadr that it was unlikely that Iraq could survive as anything more than a loose federation.  Do you still think that’s the case?  Do you think that we’ve already seen the worst of political and communal violence, or is there still the potential for disintegration in the future?

I think it’s going to be a little more centralised than seemed likely a couple of years ago.  But it depends what part of the country you’re talking about.  I think the Kurds will remain with a degree of autonomy that’s close to independence in the north, and they’ll remain a central part of the government.  They’d fight if anybody tried to take that away from them.  I think that Shia federalism is ebbing away, the idea that the southern provinces around Basra would have their own enormous canton that would be like Kurdistan is fading.  I think the Sunni areas are going to remain under government control, but if a predominantly Shia government pushes their control too far then this could provoke another uprising.  You can see from the elections we’ve just had that Iraq is still very much divided into the three communities.

George Bush and Tony Blair both said in their own way that they would be judged by history for the adventure in Iraq.  How do you think history will judge it?

It’s been one of the great disasters, I think, for the US and Britain.  How great, we’re still to see.  One of the purposes of this war was to show that the US was a super-power that could act in the world regardless of what people thought.  It’s proved the exact reverse.  The people fighting the US occupation were the Sunni, who were 20% of the population, not particularly well-armed, and the great American war machine failed to crush them.  The uprising eventually ended because for different reasons they needed an alliance with the US.

What did Britain get out of it?  Well I suppose Britain’s primary policy is to stay close to the United States, so they did that, but in a most humiliating way, without really having any influence over the Americans.  Militarily they were even less successful in Basra than the Americans further north.

It was a self-inflicted disaster as well.  If they had overthrown Saddam and left and not introduced what was really a traditional colonial occupation, this wouldn’t have happened to them.  But otherwise it was very much in the tradition of other colonial occupations.  It was more brutal than most.  Many of the mistakes that the Americans made at the start — dissolving the army, imposing complete control — were the result of thinking it really didn’t matter what the Iraqis thought or did.  This was the lesson they’d drawn from neo-con ideology, and also from the speed at which Saddam fell.  But rapidly it became clear that the opposite was true.

So I think it will be remembered as a great disaster, in the way that the Boer war was a disaster for the British — not in the sense that it was a great military defeat, because the British were rather more militarily successful than the Americans in Iraq, but in the sense that it showed the empire had feet of clay, that it couldn’t defeat a few tens of thousands of Boer farmers.  Similarly in Ireland 20 years later, the War of Independence showed that the British empire couldn’t militarily or politically defeat a small enemy.  I think from the perspective of history it was a disaster for the US, one which is still reverberating throughout the region.

This interview was published by the Irish Left Review on 10 February 2009 under a Creative Commons license.