Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Iraq: The final countdown.

Patrick Cockburn is one of the few journalists still in Iraq and he's one of the very few who has persistently spoken the truth through all of the bluster of the past six years. Now he addresses what Iraq the US will leave behind when they begin, next week, to move their troops out of Iraq's cities.

American forces leave behind a country which is a barely floating wreck. Its society, economy and very landscape have been torn apart by 30 years of war, sanctions and occupation. I first came to Iraq in 1977 when its future looked rosy, but it turned out I was visiting the country at the high tide of its fortunes, a tide that has been ebbing ever since. Iraqis have been engulfed by successive disasters: the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war starting in 1980; the defeat in Kuwait in 1991; the bloodily suppressed Shia and Kurdish uprisings the same year; UN sanctions amounting to a 13-year-long siege which ruined the economy and shattered society; the US invasion of 2003; the Sunni Arab war against the US occupation in 2003-7 and the Sunni-Shia civil war over the same period.

How many other countries in the world have endured such traumas? Is it any surprise that Iraqis are so heavily marked by them? The Iraqi government announces proudly that in May 2009 only 225 Iraqis died from war-related violence, a lower figure than we have seen in any month for at least four years. Of course this is far better than the 3,000 tortured bodies which used to turn up every month at the height of sectarian war in 2006-7. Baghdad is certainly a safer place these days than Mogadishu, though not perhaps as secure as Kabul, where violence, at least for the moment, is surprisingly limited. But the attitudes of Iraqis are not determined solely or even primarily by monthly casualty figures or even the current security situation. Their individual psychology and collective political landscape is shaped rather by the memory of the mass killings of the recent past and fear that they might happen again. Iraq is a country so drenched in blood as to make it next to impossible to reach genuine political accommodation between Shia and Sunni, Arab and Kurd, Baathist and non-Baathist, supporters and opponents of the US occupation. "How do you expect people who are too frightened of each other to live in the same street to reach political agreements?" asks one Iraqi friend in exasperation.

The Bush/Blair invasion was supposed to set off a wave of democracy across the whole of the Middle East. Are there any still spouting that insane theory?

The invasion of Iraq has been a disaster, for us and for them.

Cockburn talks about how, despite the undeniable improvements in the lives of the people of Baghdad, he finds it impossible to erase the memories of what has taken place here.
I sometimes think I should not come back to Baghdad because I am burdened by too many grizzly stories like these. I wonder if another correspondent might be better able to write chirpy tales about how life here is getting better, as indeed, in a certain sense, it is. He or she, coming to Iraq afresh, would have no memories of friends killed and tortured and would respond sympathetically to feel-good stories pumped out by the Iraqi and US governments about how life here is improving. But then I recall that most Iraqis are influenced by the same experiences as myself. Almost every Iraqi I know has lost one or more members of their family. The bodies of many of the dead have never been found. It is all very well for American officials and diplomats, with their British equivalents trotting dutifully behind, to hector Iraqi leaders about reaching political agreements with their rivals. In a political universe bathed in so much violence this is difficult to do and, if done, it is almost impossible for leaders to deliver their own communities. Political paralysis at the top in Iraq, so often berated abroad, is only a reflection of the paralysing suspicions and hatreds within Iraqi society.
We have torn that society apart; and now, piously, we demand that the people of Iraq put it all behind them and make up.

That will not happen quickly; indeed, it will take decades for such memories to heal, if they can be healed at all.

We have, literally, torn that country in two. So, as we prepare to finally leave, it should be with a great sense of shame that we exit from a place where we did much more harm than good.

Click title for Cockburn's article.

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