Iraq three years on: Don't look away

And don't believe all that our leaders tell us about democracy. Three years after the toppling of Saddam, Iraq is a bloody mess. Yesterday 70 people were killed in an attack on a Baghdad mosque. Patrick Cockburn reports on three years of broken promises in a blighted land
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The Independent Online

A cruel and bloody civil war has started in Iraq, a country which Bush and Blair promised to free from fear and establish democracy. I have been visiting Iraq since 1978, but for the first time, I am becoming convinced that the country will not survive.

Three suicide bombers disguised themselves as women yesterday and, with explosives hidden by long black cloaks, killed 79 people and wounded more than 160 when they blew themselves up in a Shia mosque in the capital.

One bomber came through the women's security checkpoint at the Buratha mosque in northern Baghdad and detonated explosives just as worshippers were leaving at the end of Friday prayers. Two other bombers took advantage of the confusion to blow themselves up a few seconds later, killing the people who were trying to escape.

The savage attack, the worst for months, came almost exactly on the third anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by American and British armies on 9 April 2003. The war was portrayed at the time as freeing Iraqis from fear but Iraqi officials have told The Independent that at least 100 people are being killed in Baghdad every day.

The slaughter of Shia Muslims in the Buratha mosque will probably lead to revenge attacks against Sunni Arabs whose community harbours the Salafi and jihadi fanatics who see the Shia as heretics, as worthy of death as Iraqi Christians or American or British soldiers. Ever since the bombing of the Al Askari shrine in Samara on 22 February, the Shia militias have retaliated whenever Shias are killed.

The bombing of the mosque, a religious complex linked to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, pushes Iraq well down the road to outright civil war between Sunni and Shia Arabs.

Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer, the preacher in the Buratha mosque, declared: "The Shia are the target and it's a sectarian act. There is nothing to justify this act but black sectarian hatred."

Men screamed in anger and fear as they rolled the bodies of the dead on to wooden carts so they could be loaded into ambulances and pick-up trucks. "This is a cowardly act. Every time I see these bloody scenes it tears apart my heart," said Jawwad Kathim, a fireman.

It was the worst sectarian bombing for four months. The day before a car bomb exploded near the Shia shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, killing 13 people. "My house is opposite the mosque and when we heard the firstblast I ran to make sure my father, who was praying there, was safe," Naba Mohsin said. "When I entered the mosque a second huge blast occurred and I saw a big blast with flames. I want to know if my father is alive."

I have been covering the war in Iraq ever since it began three years ago and I have never seen the situation so grim. I was in the northern city of Mosul last week protected by 3,000 Kurdish soldiers, but even so it was considered too dangerous to send out heavily armed patrols in day time. It is safer at night because of a curfew.

In March alone the US military said 1,313 people were killed in sectarian attacks. Many bodies, buried or thrown in rivers, are never found. The real figure is probably twice as high. All over the country people are on the move as Sunnis and Shias flee each other's areas.

I was in Lebanon at the start of the civil war in 1975. Baghdad today resembles Beirut then. People are being murdered solely because of their religious identity. A friend called to say he had a problem because his two half brothers had been born in Fallujah, the Sunni stronghold, and this was on their identity cards. If they were picked up by Shia militiamen, a glance at their place of birth alone could get them killed.

The same friend had taken his mother and two sisters to the passport office in Baghdad so they could leave the country. While they were there a bomb went off killing 25 policemen outside and breaking his sister's leg. Now the family cannot leave the country because his sister is in hospital and his mother is too frightened to return to get a new passport.

George Bush and Tony Blair have for the past three years continually understated the gravity of what is taking place. It has been frustrating as a journalist to hear them claim that much of Iraq is peaceful when we could not prove them wrong without being killed or kidnapped. The capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the handover of sovereignty in 2004, the elections and new constitution in 2005 have all been oversold to the outside world as signs of progress.

The formation of a national unity government is now being presented as an antidote to violence. "Terrorists love a vacuum," said the Defence Secretary, John Reid, citing his experience in Northern Ireland. But one Iraqi official remarked caustically that the three main communities - Sunni, Shia and Kurds - do not "hate each other because they do not have a government, but rather they do not have a government because they already hate each other".

The coalition of religious parties, the United Iraqi Alliance, won almost half of the seats in the 275-member parliament in the election on 15 December. They fear the US and Britain are trying to break up the Shia coalition and deny them the fruits of their victory. This is why they have resisted demands from Washington and London for Ibrahim al-Jaafari to stand down as Prime Minister. Even if a national unity government is formed it will control little outside the Green Zone. The army and police take their orders from leaders of their own communities.

Three years ago, when the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled, Iraqis were promised their lives would get better. Instead, Iraq has become the most dangerous place in the world.

Then and now

* FATALITIES

Combat US 2,344, (17,381 wounded)

Britain 103

Other nations 104

* IRAQI DEATHS

Military 4,895 - 6,370

Civilian 33,821 - 37,943

* OIL PRODUCTION

Million barrels per day Pre war (est) 2.5

Million barrels per day Feb 2006 1.7

* OIL EXPORTS

Million barrels per day pre war (est) 1.7-2.5

Million barrels per day Feb 2006 1.17

* OIL REVENUE FROM EXPORTS ($bn)

Sept 2005 $2.74bn

Jan 2006 $1.84bn

* ELECTRICITY

MW nationwide pre war (est) 3,958

MW nationwide Feb 2006 3,700

Hours electricity per day pre war (est) 16-24

Hours electricity per day Feb 2006 10

* DAILY INSURGENT ATTACKS

Jun 2003 8

January 2006 75

* UNEMPLOYMENT

June 2004 30 per cent - 40 per cent

Jan 2006 25 per cent - 40 per cent

* AVERAGE TIME QUEUING FOR FUEL (hrs)

July 2003 0.1

May 2005 1.0

* IRAQIS THINKING IRAQ IS HEADED IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

April 2005 67 per cent

Dec 2005 49 per cent

* IRAQIS WHO RARELY HAVE SAFE, CLEAN WATER 71 per cent

SOURCE: BROOKINGS INSTITUTE AND IRAQ BODY COUNT

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