War without end

"We are engaged in a major strategic battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, because international terrorism has decided to make both countries a battleground" <i>Tony Blair, Friday 16 September</i>
Click to follow


By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad

Baghdad is a city living on its nerves. Everywhere army and police checkpoints are desperately trying to detect suicide bombers before they reach their targets. The patience of 15 million Iraqi Shia Muslims, after the slaughter of some 250 of their community in the past week, is wearing thin.

Thirty of that total died yesterday in a bomb that exploded outside a market in a poor Shia area at sunset, but around half the deaths occurred in a single suicide bombing on Wednesday. Then, a man lured labourers desperate for work towards his van by offering them jobs, and then detonated explosives that killed 114 and injured 156 of them. But on the same day there were more than a dozen other suicide bombings, shaking the Iraqi capital from dawn until late afternoon.

This has been the pattern in recent months: a period of calm is followed by a day of rage like last week's, in which a seemingly inexhaustible supply of suicide bombers is let loose on Baghdad, terrifying its inhabitants. But where do they come from? And who is controlling them?

An internet posting quickly claimed responsibility on behalf of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, the group led by the shadowy Jordanian extremist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It said the bombings were revenge for "the Sunni people of Tal Afar", where US and Iraqi forces had launched an assault on insurgents, and declared the bombings the start of a civil war against Shias.

Like Zarqawi, those who carry out the bombings appear to come almost exclusively from outside Iraq. They are mostly religious zealots from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Sunni fanatics, they see the Iraqi Shia as heretics, who are as worthy of death as a US marine.

After one recent attack, when a bomber detonated his car outside a mosque in Tuz Khormato, police stopped another bomber as he headed towards a second mosque. The man, in his early twenties and wearing a jacket packed with explosives, said he came from Saudi Arabia.

But if the bombers are foreigners, then the organisation that sends them to their deaths is certainly not. The bombers need intelligence, minders, safe houses, vehicles, explosives and detonators, and these can only be provided by Iraqis. Nor do they strike only close to the Sunni heartlands. In the past year they have launched devastating attacks as far south as Basra and as far north as Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

US military spokesmen used to peddle the line that insurgency was largely the work of "former regime loyalists" and "foreign fighters". This has been only gradually discredited. Saddam Hussein's old security forces play a role in organising resistance, but many of the fighters are of a younger generation, inspired by a powerful blend of religion and nationalism.

Among the Sunnis the Salafi groups, bigoted and fanatical, know that suicide bomb attacks have immense political impact. Tolerance of them by fellow Sunnis is encouraged by the experience of military occupation in cities like Fallujah and Tal Afar. A man from Fallujah explained last week why there was increasing support for the guerrilla fighters in his neighbourhood. "A bomb blew up near an Iraqi army truck. They immediately arrested all the young [Sunni] men in a nearby mosque, who had nothing to do with it. When some returned a few days later the skin on their chests was scorched by cigarette burns, and there were burn marks where they had been tortured with electricity."

The impact of the suicide bombers is all the greater because Iraq is unstable for so many reasons. "I don't blame the government for not getting a grip on a powerful insurgency," said an experienced diplomat in Baghdad. "But I do blame them for the fact that the electricity supply is worse than ever."

After two and a half years of failing to see their lives improve, Iraqis are cynical about the motives of their political leaders. For instance, the government is trying to deal with a petrol shortage by allowing cars with number plates beginning with even numbers to drive on one day, and uneven numbers on the next. But ordinary Iraqis are convinced this is just a manoeuvre to distract them from the dreadful political state of the country.

While the horrible results of suicide bombing alert the outside world to the disastrous state of Iraq, ordinary Iraqis are more likely to taste violence at the hands of criminals than insurgents. Among Iraqi families I know, I cannot think of a single one that has not had a relative or close friend kidnapped in the past year. Some are returned for large ransoms; many are tortured and killed. Middle-class neighbourhoods are becoming ghost towns as families flee to Jordan, Syria or Egypt, because they are terrified of kidnappers. The universities went back last week, and already six or seven students are known to have been kidnapped - the real figure is probably far higher.

Hostility between Shia and Sunni in Iraq does not have the same mechanics as that between Protestant and Roman Catholic in Northern Ireland, or Christian and Muslim in Lebanon. Hatred is less visceral. There are more mixed communities, and there has been frequent inter-marriage.

But the spates of suicide bombings are corroding these bonds, and in some districts of the capital, ethnic cleansing has already started. Al-Daura, a resistance stronghold in southern Baghdad, was 70 per cent Sunni Arabs and 30 per cent Shia, but Shia are renting out or leaving their houses. In parts of west Baghdad, Shia have been threatened with death if they do not leave.

The Shia religious hierarchy remains the most effective obstacle to civil war. Last week the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the hugely influential religious leader, called on Shias not to retaliate against Sunnis, even if half the Shia in the country were killed.

The very fact that Ayatollah Sistani had to make such an appeal shows how fearful he and his entourage are that the Shia community, the target of escalating sectarian attacks for two years, will start to retaliate in kind. Already death squads, often operating through the paramilitary police commandos, have detained, tortured and killed former Baathists and army officers.

The Shia and Kurds are becoming stronger because they dominate the newly recruited Iraqi army, police force and paramilitary units. They are not going to lose a civil war if it comes. But neither are they in a position to force their will on the five-million-strong Sunni community, which is increasingly alienated. The Kurdish-Shia alliance will continue - it makes up 80 per cent of the Iraqi population - but while the government gets stronger, so will the Sunni insurgency.


More than 600 US troops and 28 British soldiers have died in Iraq so far this year. The civilian toll is bitterly disputed, but the following incidents alone add up to hundreds of deaths.

26 January: 31 US marines die in helicopter crash, five others in combat - the most in a day since the invasion

18-19 February: 71 Shias die on eve of religious festival

28 February: 125 killed, 170 injured by suicide attack on men seeking to join Iraqi National Guard

18 April: Suicide bombing kills Marla Ruzicka, US activist who tried to count civilian casualties in Iraq

4 May: 60 would-be police recruits killed, 150 injured by suicide bomber in Erbil

15-18 July: Surge of suicide bombings kill more than 120 people, including three British soldiers

1 September: Nearly 1,000 Shia pilgrims killed in Baghdad crowd stampede caused by rumours of suicide bombers

Yesterday: Car bomb kills at least 30, bringing week's toll in Baghdad to over 235


By Severin Carrell in Kabul

Afghanistan's capital has a sprawling new fortress in its centre - its own, smaller version of Baghdad's impenetrable "Green Zone".

The outposts of Nato, the US military and the UN are ringed by roadblocks, armoured checkpoints and muscular Western mercenaries, ex-Gurkha security guards and local police. Along a mile-long stretch known as the Great Massoud Road, elegant villas are protected by 30ft concrete blast walls, webs of barbed wire and steel sheets painted in drab military green.

It is the clearest sign of the parallel wars still being waged in Afghanistan - against an ever-changing army of Taliban Islamists and foreign fighters allied to al-Qa'ida, against rebellious petty warlords resisting the new government's attempts to take control of their tribal fiefdoms (though the main warlords get government posts), and against the booming opium trade. Every now and then this struggle comes to the capital: yesterday a district police chief and two officers were killed seven miles outside the city, and the government said several bombings had been thwarted.

But Kabul is not Baghdad - yet. The real conflict is elsewhere, in the dusty villages and mountains of southern and eastern Afghanistan. Although the capital is far from safe, outside the high-security zone the streets heave with life. Children walk to school, weaving through traffic jams. Travel agencies, restaurants, hotels and car dealerships are springing up, and a gleaming new shopping mall has just opened.

It is easy to imagine, looking at the giant campaign billboards and posters festooned around Kabul, that today's parliamentary and provincial elections mark an important step towards normality, nearly four years after the Taliban regime and its al-Qa'ida allies were driven out. In half of Afghanistan - the north and west - that is true. Around 90,000 former gunmen have voluntarily turned in their arms to join the army and police or to return to civilian life, where some are running for election.

You have to go to Kandahar, the Taliban's former strong-hold, to see the secret war still being waged in the south and east. At Kandahar airbase, unmanned spy drones pass overhead, sending back "real time" video and still pictures to American commanders and intelligence officials. Unprecedented firepower has been poured into the region ahead of the elections - more than 21,000 US and coalition troops - and Colonel Jim Yonts, a US forces spokesman, says: "We're actively hunting these people down, taking the fight to them, and we're finding them in their sanctuaries, the camps where they're training."

Two weeks ago US and Afghan troops confronted a Taliban force of nearly 60 fighters in Kandahar province. The insurgents retreated to a hillside cave complex, where they were hit by a barrage of five rockets fired from RAF Harriers. The coalition forces seized 44 fighters, along with substantial stores of ammunition, mines and rocket- propelled grenades, leaving another 14 dead in the caves.

Not all such operations are so successful. The military estimated that 40 rebels had been killed in a series of clashes during a sweep against tribal militias last month in Konar province, near the border with Pakistan. But one marine said: "The villages were filled with women and children, who were left to tend the animals and farms. All the males of fighting age had fled."

Since January, it is claimed, US and Afghan forces have killed or captured between 700 and 800 insurgents. But the enemy is fluid, with insurgents, radical Islamist fighters and rebellious local tribal groups exchanging gunmen and form- ing short-term alliances. They are joined by fresh Taliban units over the mountains from Pakistan and - it is believed - battle-hardened al-Qa'ida fighters from Iraq, to join Saudi, Iraqi, Pakistani and north African al-Qa'ida members still surviving in the south-east. It can be difficult to tell them apart, admitted Colonel Don McGraw, the US military's director of operations for Afghanistan.

"These guys don't wear a badge so you can distinguish him when you kill him." Ironically, the Taliban influx from Pakistan has recently been swelled by President Musharraf's offensive against Islamist training camps in his country's mountainous tribal areas.

Among arrivals from Pakistan may be Osama bin Laden himself, according to some Afghan officials. The Taliban's former ruler, the one-eyed Mullah Omar, also remains at large. The region is host, too, to Hizb-e Islami, the fiercest and most feared of the former mujahedin groups, run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

"Fighters are coming in with better skills, and we are seeing a transfer of skills from Iraq," one Western intelligence analyst said. "The insurgency is much worse this year." Even US soldiers agree. " These foreign guys are pretty well-armed," said one paratrooper. " They have expensive weapons you can't get in this country."

But Col McGraw is adamant the Afghan army and coalition forces have the upper hand. "The Taliban we're running into more and more are inexperienced fighters, where they receive less training and they're needing to push them out into operations more quickly than they did in the past. It's also hyperbole to say there's a significant number of foreign fighters out there."

Many of the insurgents, he said, were either local men hired for " several hundred dollars to go fight" or local tribal leaders " pissed off" that central government in Kabul was for the first time challenging their dominance.

"If you were to ask President Karzai if the Taliban could kill his government, he would say absolutely not. He's not worried about the Taliban roaring out of Kandahar in pick-up trucks like they were able to the last time." The real challenge was "making sure you get good governance and justice in place, that the government is self-sustaining economically and improves the infrastructure, literacy rates and the human capital of the country".

The election could help to strengthen the government, which still struggles to impose its will outside Kabul. And even within the capital there are many dangers. Last Tuesday British troops and diplomats went on high alert after intelligence sources warned of an imminent suicide bomb attack on a military convoy. Afghan police arrested a man with high explosives and landmines 30 miles outside the city.

In recent months, attacks have been running at roughly one a week. There is clear evidence that Afghanistan's insurgents are being bolstered by militants using Iraqi tactics, whose aim is to turn Kabul into another Baghdad. If they were to succeed, the gains so painfully made in Afghanistan would be under severe threat.


More than 1,000 people have died so far this year in Afghanistan, including 49 US troops, the highest tally since the Taliban and its al-Qa'ida allies were ousted from Kabul in 2001.

8 March: Stephen MacQueen, British adviser to Afghan government, assassinated while driving through Kabul

7 May: Suicide bombing in internet café kills UN engineer and two Afghans

9 May: Two US marines and 23 militants killed in battle in east of country

1 June: Suicide bombing at funeral kills 20, including Kabul's police chief

19-22 June: Nearly 100 suspected Taliban fighters killed in clashes with US and Afghan forces.

28 June: Chinook helicopter shot down, killing 16 US special forces. Only one of six men they were sent to rescue survives.

31 August: David Addison, Briton working for an American security company, and five Afghans abducted in western province and murdered.