Iraq: The reality

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein was supposed to bring them freedom democracy and peace. But murder, kidnap and lawlessness have become the facts of life for the people of Iraq. In an exclusive extract from his new book, Patrick Cockburn describes the terrifying disintegration of a nation
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A sense of utter lawlessness permeated everyday life in Baghdad as the war approached its fourth year in spring 2006. In his Memoirs of an Egotist Stendhal describes how, when he visited a city, he tried to identify the 10 prettiest girls, the 10 richest men and the 10 people who could have him executed; he would have had his work cut out in Baghdad. Veils increasingly concealed girls' faces, the rich had fled the country - and almost anybody could have you killed. To give a picture of Baghdad, surely the most dangerous city in the world at this time, it is worth explaining just why a modern-day Stendhal would be in trouble if he tried to identify any of the three categories he mentions.

Iraqi women used to enjoy more freedom than almost anywhere else in the Muslim world, apart from Turkey. Iraq was a secular state after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958. Women had equal rights in theory and this was also largely true in practice. These were eroded in the final years of Saddam Hussein as Iraqi society became increasingly Islamic. But under the constitution negotiated with the participation of the American and British ambassadors and ratified by the referendum on 15 October 2005, women legally became second-class citizens in much of Iraq. About three quarters of the girls leaving their schools at lunchtime in central Baghdad now wore headscarves. The reason was generally self-protection. Those girls who were truly religious concealed all their hair, and these were in a minority. The others left a quiff of hair showing, which usually meant that they wore headscarves solely because they were frightened of religious zealots.

There was also a belief that kidnappers, the terror of every Iraqi parent, would be less likely to abduct a girl wearing a headscarf because they would suppose she came from a traditional family. This is not because of religious scruples on the part of kidnappers but because they thought old-fashioned families were likely to belong to a strong tribe. Such a tribe will seek vengeance if one of its members is abducted - a much more frightening prospect for kidnappers than any action by the police.

The life of women had already become more restricted because of the violence in Baghdad. Waiting outside the College of Sciences in Baghdad one day was a 20-year-old biology student called Mariam Ahmed Yassin, who belonged to a well-off family. She was expecting a private car, driven by somebody she trusted, to take her home. Her fear was kidnapping. She said: "I promised my mother to go nowhere after college except home and never to sit in a restaurant." Her father, a businessman, had already moved to Germany. She volunteered: "I admire Saddam very much and I consider him a great leader because he could control security."

Mariam's father was part of the great exodus of business and professional people from Iraq. A friend suffering from a painful toothache spent hours one day ringing up dentists only to be told again and again that they had left the country. If Stendhal was looking for the 10 richest Iraqis he would have had to begin his search in Jordan, Syria or Egypt. The richer districts of the capital had become ghost towns inhabited by trigger-happy security guards. In some parts of Baghdad property prices had dropped by half. Well-off people wanted to keep it a secret if they sold a house because kidnappers and robbers would know they had money. "Some 5,000 people were kidnapped between the fall of Saddam Hussein and May 2005," said the former human rights minister Bakhtiar Amin.

The real figure was in fact far higher since most people did not report kidnappings. This was partly because they knew there was not much the police could do about it, partly because they feared retaliation by the criminals and had a shrewd suspicion that the police and kidnap gangs were in league. One businessman I met said that somehow the police had learnt that his brother-in-law had been kidnapped. They rang him up to ask if he wanted their help. He said he would handle the matter himself. "Half an hour later my telephone rang," he said. "It was one of the kidnappers. He asked for a large sum of money and added, 'you were quite right to refuse the police offer of help'."

Iraq was all too clearly oversupplied with executioners, the last category on Stendhal's list. Even during a quiet day as many 40 bodies may turn up at Baghdad's morgue, dead at the hands of US soldiers, insurgents, Iraqi army and police, bandits, kidnappers, robbers or neighbours who settled a dispute with a gun. It was some indication of the level of killings that when 50 bodies, all of people who had been murdered, washed up on the banks of the Tigris south of Baghdad in the spring of 2005, nobody quite knew who they were or why they had been killed. Local doctors, inured to the high death toll, said they were surprised by the fuss and pointed out that as the Tigris warmed under the summer sun the bodies of those killed during the winter were rising to the surface.

High rank was no defence against violence. The Iraqi police general in charge of the serious crimes squad was shot through the head by an American soldier who mistook him for a suicide bomber. President Jalal Talabani's head of protocol was not with him when he visited Washington to see President Bush. Instead he was in a Baghdad hospital with a broken arm and leg after a US Humvee rammed his vehicle.

So many people were being killed in Iraq every day for so many reasons that the outside world had come to ignore the slaughter and Iraqis themselves were almost used to it. The death of a thousand people in a stampede during a Shia religious festival in September 2005 was only a one-day wonder abroad. It is worth looking at just three acts of violence in a small part of Baghdad to show how casual killings and kidnappings impacted on the people of the city. They took place within a few days of each other in September 2005 in or close to al-Kudat, a previously prosperous district in the south-west of the city where many doctors and lawyers once lived. It was by no means the most dangerous part of Baghdad, and the days when the following events occurred were quieter than those that followed.

The first killing was at the hands of the Americans. Early one morning a surgeon called Basil Abbas Hassan decided to leave his house in al-Kudat for his hospital in the centre of Baghdad at 7.15am in order to beat the morning rush hour. Dr Hassan, a specialist in head surgery, was the kind of man who should have been one of the building blocks of the new Iraq. He drove his car out of a side street on to the airport road without noticing that an American convoy was approaching from behind him. A US soldier thought the car might be driven by a suicide bomber and shot Dr Hassan dead. Not many of his friends attended his funeral because so many had already left Iraq.

Mobile phone theft is common all over the world, but in Baghdad people will kill for a handset. This is not because they are more expensive than elsewhere in the world - in fact they are cheaper because nobody pays any tariffs on them - but because murder is so easy. No criminal expects to be caught. A few days after Dr Hassan was killed by the Americans, a 16-year-old, Muhammad Ahmed, was making a call on his mobile as he walked down the street. A car drew up beside him and a man pointed a pistol. He said: "Give me your phone." Muhammad refused or hesitated to hand it over for a few seconds too long and the gunman killed him with a bullet in the neck.

The third story has a happier ending, though at one moment it seemed likely to end in tragedy. It happened in another street in al-Kudat. The mother of a friend called Ismail told him that there was a strange car parked outside the house. She wanted him to find out to whom it belonged. It did not seem likely that anybody would leave a car bomb in a residential street because US or Iraqi patrols never used it. But anything out of the ordinary in Baghdad may be dangerous and is routinely checked out.

Ismail spoke to two neighbours who denied any knowledge of the mysterious car. A third neighbour admitted that he knew about it and went on to give the dramatic reason why it was there. He said there was a meeting of his extended family taking place in his house because a few hours earlier his 14-year-old grandson Akhil Hussein had been kidnapped as he returned from school. The kidnappers called, demanding $60,000 for his release and threatening to kill him. The panic-stricken family had gathered their relatives to try to raise some money. They were asked to park their cars far away from the house in case the kidnappers were watching and got an exaggerated idea of the family's wealth. This explained what a strange car was doing outside Ismail's house.

The problem was that the kidnappers had taken the wrong boy. His family was the only poor one in the street. They had moved into a large house to look after a well-off relative who was dying of cancer. They could not afford anything like $60,000. When the kidnappers called again, the grandfather said: "We are a poor family. Come and look at our house. When our generator caught fire a month ago it burnt part of the house and we did not have the money to rebuild it." The kidnappers said they did not believe this, but a few hours later called again to say they had looked at the house and realised their mistake. A voice on the phone said: "We are sorry. We kidnapped the wrong boy. We meant to kidnap the son of a rich man living next to you. Even so, you must pay us the cost of our mistake which is one million dinars [$800]."

The grandfather of Akhil - the father was in a state of shock - immediately went to his rich neighbour, a Kurd. He told him: "Be careful: they want to kidnap your son." The neighbour bundled his family into several cars and fled. For once, the kidnappers kept their word and the grandson was released unharmed. He knew nothing because he had been tied up and his eyes taped from the moment he was seized. Akhil was lucky. Many kidnap victims are found tortured and dead even when the money is paid.

Stendhal would have been unwise to pursue his investigation into killers and kidnappers too energetically. I suffered from the same difficulty. I was interested in finding out how the criminal gangs operated but they were far too dangerous to approach directly and almost no cases ever came to court. One day in London, however, I was contacted by the family of a doctor who had survived his kidnapping unharmed because the men who had just seized him accidentally ran into a police checkpoint and he had escaped during the gun battle. Several of his captors were arrested and had made full confessions.

Dr Thamir Muhammad Ali Hasafa al-Kaisey, 60, a senior consultant, had been kidnapped by 11 armed men in three cars as he drove home from his clinic in Baghdad at 6.30pm on 23 December 2004. "I was 50 metres from my house when men with guns in a Jeep Cherokee stopped me and beat me with their fists," Dr Hasafa later told the police. "They put me in their car and tied me up with my own jacket." The kidnappers may have been overconfident because they normally operated with impunity in Baghdad. Whatever the reason, they ran into a police checkpoint and during the shoot-out which followed Dr Hasafa, even though his leg had been broken in the beating, was able to crawl out of the back of the car and shout: "I am a doctor and I was kidnapped."

The case was a rare success for the police, though public cynicism about them was confirmed by the discovery that one of the captured kidnappers was himself a police lieutenant. His name was Muhammad Najim Abdullah al-Dhouri and his fellow kidnapper was Adnan Ashur Ali al-Jabouri, both members of powerful tribes from which Saddam Hussein drew many of his security men and army officers. But the motive of the gang was purely political. Adnan Ashur told the investigating judge that the leaders of the gang were Eyhab, nicknamed Abu Fahad, who ran a mobile-phone shop, and his brother Hisham. Eyhab, he said, was a criminal sentenced to 40 years in jail by the old regime. He had apparently been freed during a general amnesty by Saddam Hussein at the end of 2002.

Muhammad Najim, who was based in Sadr City in east Baghdad, lived in special police housing. He said: "I was involved with Hisham prior to the fall of Saddam. Later he approached me about kidnapping prominent men. My task was to provide security for the gang." All the gang members were armed with pistols. They had safe houses in which to keep kidnap victims. Both suspects said they had taken part in numerous other kidnappings in the previous few months, with their victims paying up to $60,000 each. Ironically, the informant who told them that Dr Hasafa was worth kidnapping was a guard hired by householders to protect the street where he lived.

The Iraqi police were jubilant that they finally had detailed information on how a kidnap gang operated. The two captured men were willing to provide the names and addresses of other gang members and the success was lauded by Iraqi television and the press. To the consternation of the police, however, a convoy of US military police suddenly arrived at al-Khansa police station, where Muhammad Majim and Adnan Ashur were being held.

The Iraqi police officer at the station recorded: "They have requested custody of the two assailants." The men were handed over to an American police lieutenant for transfer to the US-run Camp Cuervo and later released. An American military spokesman said months afterwards that there was no record of the two prisoners in the army database. An Iraqi government official told me that they were almost certainly freed after they agreed to inform on the insurgents. "The Americans are allowing the breakdown of Iraqi society because they are only interested in fighting the insurgency," added a senior Iraqi police officer.

Dr Hasafa, meanwhile, received two visits from the families of the former prisoners. The first was from the father of Muhammad Najim, who offered money if the kidnap charges were withdrawn. He said he had been an officer in the Republican Guard and added menacingly: "You know what we are capable of doing." During the second meeting Dr Hasafa learnt that his kidnappers had been freed. He refused to withdraw charges, despite death threats to his family, but in January 2005 he fled to Jordan and then to Egypt. At every stage of the case he had been betrayed by those - the street guard, the Iraqi police lieutenant in Sadr City and the US military police - who were meant to protect him.

By the end of 2005 it was difficult to find many optimists in Baghdad. The three polls had driven people further apart. "If the constitution passes then the Sunnis will not accept it and if it fails the Kurds and Shia will be very angry," said Nabil , whom I talked to as he queued at a petrol station near my hotel. There was no sign of reconciliation between the old regime and the new. Hatred was deeper than ever. I went to a meeting of nearly a thousand former Iraqi army officers and tribal leaders in a large, heavily guarded hall on the banks of the Tigris. It was called by General Wafiq al-Sammarai, a head of Iraqi military intelligence under Saddam Hussein who fled Baghdad in 1994 to join the opposition. He was now military adviser to President Talabani.

As reconciliation meetings go it was not a great success. General al-Sammarai called for support for the government and the elimination of foreign terrorists. No sooner had he finished than General Salam Hussein Ali, sitting in the audience, rose to his feet; there was "no security, no electricity, no clean water and no government", he thundered. He wanted the old Iraqi army back in its old uniforms.

Other officers, making it clear they sympathised with the resistance, denounced the way Iraq was being run. "They were fools to break up our great army and form an army of thieves and criminals," one said. "They are traitors," muttered another. Claims that Iraq had become a democracy were brushed aside: "The government inside the Green Zone had no idea of the condition of country and ignored the grievances of the people."

General al-Sammarai looked aghast as things seemed to be getting out of hand. At one moment he said, "this is chaos", though he later apologised and said it was democracy. A tribal poet who had unwisely tried to chant a poem in praise of the general was howled down. Most of the officers were probably Sunni but several were Shia. Both were deeply hostile to the occupation.

General al-Sammarai promised there would be no attacks on the Sunni cities of central Iraq but the audience looked dubious. One officer demanded he stop using the word "general" and use the Arabic word lewa'a instead. Everybody was keen to say that Sunnis, Shias and Kurds were all Iraqis. But Sunnis, who claimed to be non-sectarian, then went on to say they considered the Shias who controlled the Interior Ministry to be Iranians. Sheikh Ahmed al-Sammari, the imam of the Sunni mosque of the Umm al-Qura, the headquarters of the influential Muslim Scholars Association, called for Sunni and Shia solidarity. But he saw no contradiction in adding that Sunnis were being persecuted by Shias all over Iraq. He had just identified the dead body of his own bodyguard. He had also spoken to a Sunni from Fallujah who was arrested and tortured. The imam claimed that the police had said: "For every Shia killed in Fallujah or Ramadi, a Sunni will be killed in Baghdad."

This is an edited extract from The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq by Patrick Cockburn, published by Verso, priced £14.99. To buy a copy for £13.55 with free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or go to