Iraq’s “freedom” is still steeped in blood

Caroline Hawley was the BBC’s Baghdad correspondent as Saddam’s regime began to crumble. She recalls the horror of postwar Iraq — and says although the slaughter hasn’t stopped, the west is no longer watching.

Spring 2003. American and British troops were fighting their way in to Iraq. I was the BBC’s Baghdad corres­pondent, watching with frustration from neighbouring Jordan. I’d been expelled from Baghdad a few weeks earlier and couldn’t wait to get back.

Fast-forward to 9 April. As the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square was torn down we prepared to set off, spending the night in the dusty no-man’s-land between Jordan and Iraq. A short while earlier, I had chosen a bright green, satin-covered sofa in the VIP section of the Iraqi border crossing to sleep on, but then gunfire forced us to retreat and I had to bed down on top of an armoured vehicle. There wasn’t much chance of a good night’s sleep in any case.

By the time we arrived in Baghdad a few hours later, most of the shooting of the war was over – for the time being at least. It was exhilarating to be able to speak openly to Iraqis for the first time. Many of them felt quietly humiliated by the sudden presence of US soldiers in their midst. But, for others, the overriding sentiment was one of joy at seeing the back of Saddam Hussein. The full horror of the past three decades came spilling out. A Shia cleric showed me deep, crater-like marks on his back, burn scars from where he had been lowered into a vat of acid in jail. I saw the torture implements said to have been wielded by Saddam Hussein’s sadistic son Uday, including a large metal flower, inserted into the victim’s anus as a bud and then twisted open – releasing its sharp-ended petals – into an excruciating bloom. I watched as a young man called Nofal had surgery to give him prosthetic ears to replace the ones that had been cut off when he deserted the army. Usually a deserter lost only one ear, but the doctor administering the punishment had taken off the wrong ear, so both had had to go. Nofal was hoping his new ears would help him find a wife.

It was heartbreaking to watch women clawing through the earth at mass graves, desperately trying to find any remnant of their sons. Any bone or scrap of clothing was enough – they just wanted some part of their child to bury. A decade on, it is equally distressing to think how many horrors and burials, kidnappings and bombings lay ahead.

The portents of trouble were there from the start and it wasn’t only due to decisions such as the disbanding of the Iraqi army. In Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town, an American soldier asked me to explain to a crowd of angry Iraqis why the US military had blocked a major road, stopping all traffic. With no translator, he couldn’t get even a simple message across to them. Another soldier once barked at me: “Get off my road!” “Your road,” I thought. “Really?” It wasn’t an attitude that the Iraqis enjoyed.

It was Iraq’s borders – through which foreign jihadis would cross and cause havoc – that needed watching. A senior Australian coalition official once said to me: “We can’t organise ourselves, let alone a country.” It took weeks before a single salary was paid to government employees, including doctors and nurses who were using their savings to pay for taxi rides to work.

As the National Museum in Baghdad was looted and other state institutions were stripped bare, Iraqis asked why only the oil ministry was being protected. Whatever you think about the reasons that led Britain and the US to war, I still wonder how things might have turned out if only the coalition forces had been better prepared, and had been able to show the Iraqis they cared about them.

I remember the woman who said to me: “Iraq will be like Dubai, now. Maybe even better.” I’d love to find out what she thinks now. Late last year, I went back to Baghdad for the first time since 2005. Flying in was a revelation. Gone was the corkscrew landing to avoid missiles, though my stomach still lurched, returning to a place I had avoided for seven years because I didn’t want to watch anyone else die. I never again want to see a father run screaming down a hospital corridor holding a limbless, bloodied child. It is still happening – you just don’t hear about it much any more. Iraq Body Count lists the deaths of more than 4,500 civilians in 2012. Many more have seen their hopes dashed.

In a cramped home in the suburbs of Baghdad, we met a man called Saad who had just escaped from the mayhem in Syria and was camping with relatives. A Sunni married to a Shia, he fled Iraq at the height of Iraq’s sectarian war after receiving death threats. Now, he’d had to flee for his life a second time and was back in Baghdad, guilt-stricken about being unable to protect his nine-year-old daughter from the levels of violence she had witnessed. He was jobless, and hopeless. “I feel like I’m nothing,” he told me, tears rolling down his cheeks.

Saad’s shame reminded me of the humiliation felt by another man I once interviewed who had been jailed at Abu Ghraib. He was one of the Iraqis pictured in the infamous photograph of the naked pyramid of hooded men. He looked at his feet as he quietly recounted how they had been forced to mas­turbate each other for the soldiers’ entertainment. I visited Abu Ghraib the following year; the Americans were keen to show us how much had changed. Family visits were now allowed and young American soldiers were taking souvenir snaps of prisoners with their wives and children. The name of one of the tented camps for the detainees was Camp Redemption. Who was it, I wondered, who needed to be redeemed?

Iraq remains a troubled place. During my recent visit, I saw little of its restored oil wealth being spent on badly needed social services. The nation, collectively traumatised, has only three child psychiatrists. The ubi­quitous checkpoints and blast walls fail to stop too many bombers. Iraqis complain of rampant corruption. Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government is seen as increasingly autocratic and its relations with the country’s Sunnis continue to sour. That Iraqis now seem to be fighting on both sides of Syria’s war – even if in small numbers – doesn’t bode well. I hope, for the Iraqis’ sake, for happier times ahead.

Caroline Hawley was the BBC’s Baghdad correspondent from 2003 to 2005

A picture of Saddam Hussein is set on fire by US Marines on 7 April, 2003 in Qal'at Sukkar, Iraq. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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Guns and bullets and nothing more: The Syrian Kurds fighting Isis

They are the US-led coalition's main ally in the fight against Isis, but as Turkey keeps bombing them, the sense of betrayal is growing.

A sense of a betrayal pervaded the funeral, giving an angry edge to the mourners’ grief. The Kurds were used to the Turks killing their people. It was almost expected. What was different in their attitude to the killing of the 14 men and women buried that hot afternoon in the cemetery at Derik, among 20 fighters killed by Turkish air strikes just three days earlier, was that it had occurred under the watchful auspices of the Syrian Kurds’ big ally: America.

So when a US armoured patrol arrived at the edge of the cemetery in northern Syria, the American troops had been met with sullen stares and silence. I watched Aldar Khalil, one of the most influential advisers with the local Syrian Kurdish administration, approach the US army officer while a cordon of armed YPG fighters surrounded the patrol to keep civilians away.

“I told the American officer how angry people felt,” he told me afterwards, “and advised them that as soon as they had achieved what they wanted to at the funeral they should go. Emotions are high. People expected more.”

The air strikes had been far more significant than anything previously visited by the Turks on the YPG, the Syrian Kurd fighting group that has become the Americans’ primary ally in the forthcoming battle to capture the city of Raqqa from Isis. Operations to shape the battlefield around the militants’ capital are ongoing, and some sections of the front YPG units, the mainstay of the anti-Isis alliance, are now less than four kilometres from the outskirts of Raqqa.

However, the entire operation was thrown into jeopardy early on the morning of 25 April, just days before US officials confirmed that President Donald Trump had authorised the direct supply of weapons to the YPG. Turkish jets repeatedly bombed the YPG’s main command centre on Qarachok Mountain, just above the small town of Derik, destroying ammunition stocks, a communications centre and accommodation blocks. The dead included Mohammed Khalil, a top commander involved in planning the Raqqa operation.

The attack immediately drove a wedge between US troops and the Syrian Kurds, who felt they had been knowingly betrayed by the United States, which had acted as the YPG’s ally in the fight for Raqqa with the one hand while allowing its fellow Nato and coalition member Turkey to stab the YPG in the back with the other.

“There were a couple of days after the Qarachok strikes when several of our leading commanders, and many of our people, put on the pressure to withdraw our forces from the Raqqa front altogether and send them to protect our borders with Turkey,” Khalil, the Syrian Kurd adviser, told me. “They wanted to stop the Raqqa operation. We had to explain very carefully that this was [the Turkish president] Erdogan’s goal, and to persuade them to continue.”

Senior YPG commanders suffered deep personal losses in the Turkish air strikes. Among the mourners at Derik was ­Rojda Felat, a joint commander of the overall Raqqa operation. Standing beside the grave of Jiyan Ahmed, one of her closest friends, she clasped a portrait of the dead woman in her hands.

“She survived fighting Da’esh [Isis] in Kobane, in Tal Hamis and Manbij,” Felat said. “She survived all that, only to be killed by a Turkish jet.”

Later, illustrating the fragile contradictions of the coalition’s alliances, Felat explained that she had gone to sleep in the early hours of 25 April, after finishing a series of late-night planning meetings with British and US officers at the forward headquarters she shares with them on the north side of Lake Assad, Syria’s largest lake, when word of the air strikes came through.

“It was very clear to me that the Americans I was with had not known about the air strikes,” said Felat, 35, a legendary figure among Syria’s Kurds whose role models include Napoleon and the socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. “They could see how upset and angry I was to learn in an instant that so many friends had been killed, and the Americans dealt with that compassionately. I was extremely distressed, to say the least,” she added, looking away.

Within a few hours of the strikes, Felat was on a US helicopter alongside US officers flown to Qarachok to assess the damage in a very public display of US-YPG solidarity.

The Americans were quick to try to mitigate the damage to their Kurdish allies. A further 250 US troops were sent into Syria to run observation patrols along the Syria-Turkey border in an attempt to de-escalate the tension, bringing the number of US troops there to more than 1,200. In addition, US weapons consignments to the Syrian Kurds increased “manifold” in a matter of days, Felat said.

Yet these measures are unlikely to stop the fallout from a strategy – that of arming the Syrian Kurds – which risks broadening Turkey’s overall conflict with the YPG, unless certain crucial political objectives are attained parallel to the push on Raqqa.

Turkey, at present regarded as a mercurial and mendacious “frenemy” by Western coalition commanders, perceives the YPG as a terrorist organisation that is an extension of its arch-enemy the PKK, a left-wing group demanding greater auton­omy within Turkey. Hence Ankara’s deep concern that the YPG’s growing power in Syria will strengthen the PKK inside Turkey. The Turks would rather their own proxies in Syria – an unattractive hotchpotch of Syrian Islamist groups mistrusted by the West – reaped the rewards for the capture of Raqqa than the YPG.

Although US commanders find the YPG more reliable and militarily effective than the Turkish-backed Islamist groups, the Syrian Kurds are a non-state actor, a definition that ensures B-grade status in the cut and thrust of foreign policy. Nevertheless, recalling the painful lesson of 2003 – that military success is impotent unless it serves a political vision – the US should be devoting energy to imposing conditions on the supply of arms to the YPG as a way of containing Turkish aggression against their ally.

Salient conditions could include the YPG disassociating from the PKK; a cessation in repressing rival political parties in YPG areas; the withdrawal of YPG fighters from northern Iraq, where they are involved in a needless stand-off with Iraqi Kurds; and an agreement by the YPG to withdraw from Raqqa, an Arab city, once it is captured.

As a quid pro quo, and in return for the YPG blood spilled in Raqqa, the Syrian Kurds should have their desire for autonomy supported; have the crippling trade embargo placed on them by the government of Iraqi Kurdistan lifted; and, by means of buffer zones, have their territories protected from further attacks by Turkey and its Islamist proxies.

So far, none of these measures is in play, and comments by US officials have only strengthened a growing suspicion among Syria’s Kurds that they will be discarded by the US the moment the YPG have fulfilled their use and captured Raqqa.

“We have not promised the YPG anything,” Jonathan Cohen, a senior US state department official, told the Middle East Institute in Washington on 17 May – a day after President Erdogan’s visit to the US. “They are in this fight because they want to be in this fight. Our relationship is temporary, transactional and tactical.”

Cohen further said: “We have the YPG because they were the only force on the ground ready to act in the short term. That is where it stops.”

The sense of betrayal felt by the mourners at Derik was perfectly understandable. But Syria’s Kurds should not be so surprised the next time it happens. America, it seems, has promised them nothing more than guns and bullets. 

Anthony Loyd is a war correspondent for the Times

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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