Twelve years have passed since the terrible decision to invade Iraq in 2003. When I add up all my visits to Baghdad during that time I find I have spent two full years of my life here. That’s a long time to observe so much bloodshed and misery. But now, for the first time, I am starting to wonder whether things are changing.
The other night I wandered around the main shopping street in Karada, the Kensington of Baghdad. The lights blazed out from every shop along the way and half the pavement space was taken up with goods for sale: shoes, handbags, sweets, jackets, scarves. A river of people wandered in both directions along the street, past the cafés and restaurants where diners leaned back in their plastic chairs and gave themselves over to the pleasures of eating, drinking tea and talking. The laughter drowned out the blaring horns from the slow-moving, nose-to-tail cars, and children played and danced and tried to drag their parents over to look at the toys on show. There was a certain amount of beer-drinking going on. It was a Thursday night, and everyone was determined to have a good time. They had something to celebrate, you see: this was the first weekend since the nightly curfew had been abolished.
Iraq’s new prime minister, the short and bouncy Haider al-Abadi, is a British-trained engineer who, as an exile from Saddam Hussein, used to run a highly successful business in London building lifts and designing transportation systems. It was his decision to lift the curfew in order to show people in the most practical way that things were getting better. His predecessor and rival Nouri al-Maliki, more gloomy and bitter than ever after being pushed out of office last summer, argued strongly against it. Still, it seems to be working. The people of Baghdad are being given a glimpse of what life might be, if only Iraq could free itself from terrorism.
Inevitably, Islamic State staged a couple of suicide bombings to remind everyone how short and cruel life can be here. There might have been a third suicide attack to mark the end of the curfew, but the bomber who was to have carried it out was captured just as he was getting ready for his mission. A few days later my team and I were allowed into a top-security interrogation centre near Baghdad Airport to meet the suicide bomber who had failed.
A sign on the wall showed that this was known as Camp Cropper during the American days. At that time it was known, inevitably, by an acronym: it was an HVD, or “high-value detention site”. There were three of these sites worldwide: Guantanamo; Abu Ghraib, in another part of Baghdad, where the American soldier Lynndie England took her pornographic selfies with pyramids of naked, traumatised prisoners, and where the guards laughed as they set their dogs on them; and Camp Cropper. This is where Saddam Hussein was held before his execution. God knows what else used to happen here.
It has been expanded since those days; well over a thousand prisoners are now held at Cropper, mostly from al-Qaeda and Islamic State. A smiling senior officer with more trophies and statuettes on his shelves than Manchester United, plus a framed certificate from MI6 behind his desk, explained that the new guards don’t torture or ill-treat prisoners. Then we were taken to a conference room and set up our camera. There was a shuffling sound in the corridor and a slight figure in bright yellow overalls, blindfolded and handcuffed, was ushered in. His guard was all in black, and wore a black balaclava. The sight of them was a shock: it was a reversal of all those disgusting IS videos of people in brightly coloured overalls being led to their death by men in black. The difference here was, the prisoner in front of us had been groomed by Islamic State to murder ordinary people in a Shia mosque.
The guard took off the prisoner’s blindfold. He blinked in the sudden light and looked uncomprehendingly at the camera and at me, sitting a few feet away from him. It certainly didn’t look as though he had been ill-treated; he was so passive, I don’t imagine it would have been necessary. And he was painfully young: 17, though he looked even less than that. My two colleagues and I, each of us a father of a son, felt a sharp stab of pity for him.
His name was Zakariya al-Rawi, and his story was sad and squalid. He had run away from home after rowing with his parents and gone to a nearby town that was occupied by Islamic State. An IS loudspeaker van drove up and down the streets constantly, calling on people to volunteer to serve Islam. That filled Zakariya with a new sense of purpose. He joined up, together with friends.
The recruiters gave him some basic military training but it is clear what they wanted: suicide fodder. They must have detected his weakness of character, his uncertainties, his innocence, and they started to work on him, telling him that Shia Muslims were heretics who had to be extirpated, the enemies of Sunni Muslims like Zakariya and his friends. He believed them.
“They promised me I’d go straight to heaven, without being judged.”
You didn’t ask them why, if being a suicide bomber was so wonderful, they didn’t want to do it themselves?
Were you scared?
How old were the others who decided to volunteer?
“Most of them were like me, or younger.”
“Fourteen, 15, 16.”
I asked him what his father and mother would have thought about what he had become. Tears came to his eyes: he suddenly stopped being a terrorist. Now, he was just a kid who had upset his parents and didn’t know how to get home.
His IS minders took him to Baghdad, put him up at a safe house, and taught him how to use an explosive vest. He had to keep his thumb on the trigger of the bomb. Directly he raised it, the bomb would go off. And at that instant, they said, without needing to go through the process of having his life and actions judged, he would find himself in paradise. It might not have been particularly good theology, but it worked.
They gave him a pistol, in case the guards at the Shia mosque tried to stop him. He was to shoot them, then run over to where the crowd of worshippers was thickest and detonate the bomb.
You were fully prepared to kill women and children, as well as men? I asked.
His voice was scarcely audible now and the tears were running unchecked down his face. His eyes were fixed on his manacled hands and he spoke in whispers.
Why are you crying?
“Because I’m so sorry for all this.”
You’re ashamed of what you were going to do?
Before he could leave for his mission, the safe house was raided and he was captured. He wasn’t beaten or threatened; there was no need. The interrogators treated him kindly and showed him that Shia Muslims were much the same as the Sunnis he had grown up with. He’ll get a short prison sentence; after that, he’ll be free to make something of his dysfunctional life. If he can.
Would-be bomber Zakariya al-Rawi. Photo courtesy John Simpson
Over these 12 years, things in Iraq have gone from bad to horrific to bad again. There’s never been anything approaching peace; and then, last year, Islamic State erupted into Iraq and captured its third most important city, Mosul. After that there was huge panic in Baghdad. IS volunteers came hurtling down the motorway southwards in the direction of the capital.
When I arrived a few days later, there were neat security notices on the walls of the office the BBC shares with the New York Times, calmly listing the places where we should take refuge if IS captured Baghdad. The notices are still there, but only because no one has bothered to take them down. Baghdad now seems much safer and IS is being pushed back on most fronts – especially in Diyala province, due north of the capital. IS came close here – not as close as it still is around Fallujah, to the west, but worrying all the same.
Last month, however, a brisk campaign drove IS out of Diyala altogether. Iraqi planes hammered IS positions in towns such as Muqdadiya and Mansourieh, and ground forces moved north out of Baghdad and simply rolled them up. The IS fighters hightailed it for the western Anbar province, huge and sparsely populated, where they have some support among the largely Sunni population.
But even though they have gone, they are still striking at the army and people in Diyala through the booby-trap bombs they left behind. We visited Mansourieh two weeks after IS had fled, but that day a roadside bomb went off, killing one person in a passing car and injuring the other occupants. When we got to the site of the explosion we spotted what seemed to be another bomb in a plastic container close by, with wires snaking away from it towards the road.
Is the Iraqi army capable of defeating IS? On this showing, certainly. The disaster in Mosul last June was largely the result of a grave failure of judgement by the then prime minister, al-Maliki. As a Shia with a disturbingly sectarian approach, he sacked as many Sunni officers as he could and replaced them with less well-trained Shia equivalents; perhaps he was worried about a coup. His successor, Haider al-Abadi, is also a Shia, but directly he took over as prime minister in September he started bringing Sunni officers back into the army.
He is also tackling the problem of the Shia militias, which are sometimes accused of murdering Sunni civilians. He has had some success in setting up integrated units that mix Sunnis, Kurds and Shias indiscriminately. “Our only loyalty is to Iraq,” said one politician sententiously as 50 mildly shambolic figures marched across a parade ground for the benefit of our camera. It’s a start, though some Shia leaders are now threatening to pull their men out of the new units. In Iraq, small-time politics often cancels out the national interest.
In the next few weeks or months (he is too cautious to say when), Abadi will launch a military campaign to recapture Mosul. IS will fight hard to keep it. Mosul is Islamic State’s capital in Iraq, the place where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the city’s self-styled caliph, announced the establishment of his caliphate. Chased out of Mosul, IS in Iraq will be just a scattered gang of bandits.
The chances must be reasonably good that it will happen. IS’s strength lies in its total commitment and extreme savagery; it has no fallback position, no possibility of modifying its approach or compromising. In that sense, it is Hitlerian: Weltmacht oder Niedergang. If it can no longer paralyse its enemies with fear, the qualities that made it strong will start to weaken it. The fighting in Mosul may well be fierce, but with the help of western forces and the determination of the government in Baghdad, there should be only one outcome.
After 12 years in which the worst of any range of possibilities usually came about, it does feel as though Iraq could at long last be starting to turn the corner. That is certainly what people here in Baghdad, probably the most pessimistic city on earth, are now allowing themselves to hope. If it turns out to be true, they will deserve it more than just about any other group of people on earth.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor and writes regularly for the NS