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In Baghdad, a roadside bomb has killed 200 civilians – no wonder most Iraqis don't care about Chilcot

Scarred by bombs and the rise of jihadists, Iraq has not had a day of real peace since the 2003 invasion.

Here in Iraq, the week has not been dominated by the Chilcot report. Most Iraqis don’t know and don’t care that, 13 years after the invasion, Britain has finally got around to publishing an official account of what happened. Instead, they have been preoccupied with the agonies of daily life in a country that has not had a day of real peace since 2003. Late on Saturday 2 July, an Islamic State (IS) jihadist detonated a huge truck bomb and killed more than 200 civilians. The attack was extreme even by the grotesque standards that Iraqis have been forced to endure.

When the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, visited the site in Karrada – usually one of the most bustling parts of Baghdad – a furious crowd stoned his car. IS is so malevolent, especially for Shias (who were the targets of the bomb), that its malice is never in doubt. Yet the government is supposed to look after the people and keep them safe, and its failure to do so makes it the focus of discontent. Iraqis are fed up with the ineptitude and corruption of the political class. More big demonstrations against the government are likely.

A policeman in Karrada looked at the damage with horror a few hours after the bomb exploded. No trace was left of some of the victims. In terms of lives lost, it was one of the worst single attacks in the past ten years. A map of bomb attacks in Baghdad has been published, each one marked with a red dot. The whole city is covered with them. On some streets, red dots stand in lines, a queue of ghosts.


Aerial policing

As I flew in to Baghdad Airport a couple of weeks ago, I looked at the rapidly approaching terrain below and a few words came into my head. Poor Iraq. Poor Iraqis. This was the place where civilisation emerged. It has water, from mountains in the north that are topped by snow in the winter, as well as from the Tigris and the Euphrates, two of the world’s great rivers. Iraq has enough oil and gas to make it as rich as Norway. Imperialism, Iraq’s blood-drenched politics and foreign invasion got in the way.

In the 1920s, the RAF dealt with tribal revolts in what was then still referred to as Mesopotamia by developing a doctrine of strategic bombing, known euphemistically as “aerial policing”. The Hashemite king Faisal II, much of his family and their servants were slaughtered during the coup that brought in the republic in 1958. The bodies of the king and the crown prince were strung up on lamp-posts. The Ba’athists who seized power in the 1960s were ruthless and the worst of all was Saddam Hussein, who seized absolute power in 1979.


Nostalgia for Saddam

Saddam spilled blood on an industrial scale. As many as half a million Iraqis and a million Iranians were killed in the war that he started in the 1980s. He launched a genocidal campaign against Kurds; estimates put Kurdish deaths at well over 100,000. Many more Iraqis were killed in the war that followed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the crushing of the Shia and Kurdish revolts that followed it, and by the international sanctions he brought down on the heads of the people.

So the Saddam nostalgia that is so easy to find here now is surprising, even shocking. I met Kadhim al-Jabbouri, the man who set about the giant Saddam statue in Firdous Square with a sledgehammer on the day that the Americans arrived in April 2003. The US troops helped him finish demolishing it. Now, he would like to rebuild the statue. Iraq has been so fragmented by the past 13 years of sectarian conflict, Iranian intervention, Western invasion and occupation and jihadist violence that it has, he said, “one thousand Saddams”. It is so bad that he would rather go back to the days of the original Saddam, whose regime imprisoned him and killed 14 members of his family.


New barbarism

Not all Iraqis feel that way. A young intelligence officer called Lieutenant Hassan, from an elite unit of the army, stood with me in a barbaric prison that was discovered after IS jihadists were driven out of Fallujah. Some of the cages were the size of dog kennels. IS kills hundreds, he said, and Saddam killed thousands.


Republic of fear

Despite that, many Iraqis feel the way that Kadhim al-Jabbouri does. The reasons are the chaos, the lack of order and the random killings. Iraqis knew where they were with Saddam. Oppose him and you faced jail, torture, even death. But for many who stayed out of politics, Baghdad was a clean, modern city – disappointingly modern, I thought, on my first visit in 1990. I was hoping for more Arabian Nights and fewer traffic interchanges. In the evenings, restaurants on the Tigris sold mazgouf: fish from the river, split open, staked upright and barbecued next to wood fires. You would tuck in with freshly baked Iraqi flatbread.

Saddam’s Iraq was, as a memorable book about the regime’s cruelty put it, a republic of fear. But it also had excellent health care and an education system that sent bright young people abroad to study, to Britain especially. Kadhim al-Jabbouri told me that George Bush and Tony Blair sent Iraq back to the Middle Ages.


Hot and cold wars

The invasion of 2003 set Iraq on the road to catastrophe. It was brutal here before, but there were no jihadists, and despite the massacres of Shias in the 1990s after they challenged the regime, the sects coexisted. After the invasion, jihadist killings dispersed Iraq’s Christian community abroad after almost two millennia. The fall of Saddam changed the balance of power in Iran’s favour and did much to cause the current cold and hot wars between the Iranians and the Saudis. And here in Baghdad, the summer sun grills the land and the future holds much more fear than promise.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.