Patrick Cockburn: The New War in Iraq

We are asking the bravest reportorial hand on the ground in Iraq, Patrick Cockburn of The Independent from London, to make a coherent picture of the news of the war — starting with the flight of under-equipped and under-committed Iraqi Army units from their assigned war on Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army… and, among other things, the assassination of Muqtada’s brother-in-law in Najaf and, of course, General David Petraeus’s plea in Congress for an extension of the American “surge.” Cockburn’s strongest theme is that the Bush team in Baghdad is in fact fomenting a civil war within the Shia majority — a war that the government troops don’t want to fight and cannot possibly win against Muqtada Al-Sadr’s militias in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Patrick Cockburn (40 minutes, 18 mb mp3)


Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn:The US forces in Iraq are beginning a new war against a new enemy in Iraq. For five years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the US was confronting (fighting) the Sunni Arab community — about 20 percent of Iraqis, or 5 to 6 million people. Now in the last few months it’s confronting a large part of the Shia community — those that are loyal to Muqtada Al-Sadr, his Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army, which really represent the Shia poor. But, you know, one Iraqi official who’s not sympathetic to Muqtada was saying to me the other day that the Shia are a majority of Iraqis and Muqtada’s followers are a majority of the Shia. So this is probably 30 to 40 percent of the whole population. This is a massive new confrontation that the US is undertaking in Iraq.

CL: And why is the US undertaking it?

Patrick Cockburn: I think it’s a misjudgment. It think that rather as in 2003 they thought it would be easy to confront the Sunni — I remember going to endless press conferences in Baghdad where we used to have Jerry Bremer, the US viceroy, and various American generals all saying we were fighting the remnant of the old regime of Saddam Hussein. It was obviously untrue but they may well have believed it. This time around there seems to be the idea that if we eliminate Muqtada things will come right. But this won’t happen, because Muqtada’s supporters are too well integrated into Iraqi society. There are too many of them. They’re too committed. They’re not going to give up. This isn’t just a political party. It’s a religious movement.

Patrick Cockburn, Author of Muqtada

(Scribners, 2008), in conversation with Open Source, April 2008

Patrick Cockburn: The most convincing evidence that the surge isn’t working, in terms of restoring security to Baghdad and central Iraq, is that we have 3.2-million Iraqi refugees — that’s about one in nine Iraqis — who’ve fled to Jordan or Syria or within Iraq. Living in appalling conditions, money running out, poor health. I’ve been to refugee camps where there’s no fresh water, where cholera is beginning. And they don’t go home! These are the best judges of what the real security situation is in Iraq — not Senator McCain, not me. But these people who if they felt they could go back to their homes in some security, if they and their children could be safe, they’d do it tomorrow. But they’re not because they know it’s not true; they know it’s as dangerous as it ever was. And that’s really what everybody should remember when they’re asked: how is the surge doing, or for an optimistic moment they think things are getting better in Iraq.

Patrick Cockburn, Iraq correspondent of the London Independent, in conversation with Open Source, April 2008

Related Content

  • hurley

    Fine, timely show. Why not a follow-up with PC’s brother Alexander, who has a new book out:

  • Potter

    I remain a faithful listener and commenter here with good reason. Thank you for this. First this confirms in my my that we should leave Iraq come what may. Second, though it’s true that we are no longer paying attention fully ( maybe we get the gist of it and can’t do anything but wait and place our votes in the coming election), just scratch the surface and this war is still a major issue because it is about who we are.

    Coincidentally, a companion piece to this interview, which I recommend if you have not listened is Bill Moyers’ amazing one with Leila Fadel of McClatchy. Moyers gives us the opportunity on his web site to watch or listen:

    Long live people who do good work….. Thank you Chris.

  • Potter

    Correction ( and it would not hurt to say it again) :

    First this confirms in my mind that we should leave Iraq, come what may.

  • danteoleu


    We now know what Israeli turn-over of Gaza and

    American democratization of Baghdad mean: pour

    concrete on them all and when it dries shoot from the

    air whatever still moves.

    Gareth Porter– my personal nemesis supporting Hanoi

    back in the Vietnam War days– has proven to be one of

    the most astute analysts of the Iraq situation in Wash

    DC (perhaps I should reconsider Vietnam too). In a

    recent analysis he reads Maliki’s attack on Basra as a

    last minute attempt to preempt an American assault on

    the city, pre-planned since last June as part of the

    surge. Porter is spot-on, as oil companies execs will


    To ease the high cost of gasoline suffered by

    Americans before he leave office Bush wants to at

    least secure the Basra fields, where 80% of Iraq’s

    known oil reserves are located, and the port of exit,

    Basra City. He believes that cheap oil will make the

    Iraq War worth it to Americans and all his

    incompetence and indecisiveness would be forgiven. It

    should be remembered that the first priority of the

    Iraq invasion of 2003 was not to allow Saddam to, in

    defeat, set fire to the oil wells as he had done in

    Kuwait. So, while in 2003 every building and person in

    Baghdad was pillaged, plundered and molested by roving

    gangs, American soldiers stood by watching– a crime

    by international law, for safety and order are the

    responsibility of the occupying power– the oil fields

    were safe and sound.

    With oil now at twice the price back when Bush sought

    to make Iraq America’s own oil gusher, Bush would like

    to leave office with “mission [partially]

    accomplished” at least: Basra safe for imperial

    plunder by Western oil companies so that Iraq’s oil

    can drown OPEC’s quotas.

    PM Maliki is still resisting the oil privatization

    law– allowing Western investment in and domination of

    the oil fields– that the US tried to shove down his

    throat. Maliki knows well that if the US seizes Basra,

    who masters the fields becomes moot. To date, with the

    British having abandoned the imperial program early,

    the oil has been flowing through the hands of

    everything from religious militias to criminal gangs

    on to the global black market. For five years now, so

    fearful of the explosive insecurity, American oil

    giants have shied away from commitment to seizing

    Iraq’s oil. In that sense, one can say that the

    insurgency has– so far– been successful.

    But suddenly, after Hunt made a totally illegal deal

    with the Kurds, bypassing the Iraqi government, for

    the smaller fields in the North of Iraq, Maliki,

    having denounced and rejected the deal, noted that

    American oil companies were lining up to sign on for

    the Basra fields in the South. So, to head off Bush’s

    plans for Basra oil, Maliki moved to seize Basra first

    and forced the US to provide logistic and air support

    by placing before Petraeus a fait accompli. To deny

    support would violate Iraq’s sovereignty and Malki

    could demand that the US leave immediately. Already he

    faced down the US last year claiming that if the US

    stops supporting him he can find other friends

    elsewhere. First the British complied and then

    Petraeus had no choice.

    But there is a further absurdity in all this. PM

    Maiki– who came to power thanks to Sadr’s political

    support– has now focused his forces on Sadr’s Mahdi

    Militia, insisting that they disarm and disband and

    that Sadr himself abandon all political aspirations.

    To mount his offensive, Maliki aligned with Hakim’s

    Iran run and created Badr forces for the Basra

    offensive. The Iran created ISCI that Hakim heads

    wants to make a separate autonomous federal unit of

    Iraq’s nine Southern provinces, where 80% of the

    proven oil reserves lie. So, using the Iran-proxy for

    troops, the Brits and US for air support and

    logistics, Maliki hoped to destroy the Shi’ite Sadr

    Tendency Movement before the US does.

    Unlike Hakim, Sadr is an Iraqi nationalist who does

    not allow the similar Shia confessional bond with Iran

    to eclipse the fact that Iraqis are Arabs, not

    Persians. He sought a Shia-Sunni Iraqi alliance to

    expel the US with ceremonial thank yous for removing

    Saddam and bands playing all the way to the door: it’s

    time to go home, Yankee!

    Maliki is also an Iraqi nationalist who does not want

    Iranian domination. But he realizes that, just as Bush

    is on his way out of the White House, the US is on its

    way out of Iraq. He must, therefore, come up with a

    counter-force to the Sunni neighboring states that

    have been feeding the insurgency all along (Saudis

    provided suicide volunteers and technology while

    Kuwait provided the money and Gulf states serve as

    bankers with transferred Saddam’s billions for the

    insurgency). Maliki’s solution was a temporary

    alliance with ISCI (whose Badr forces were killing

    Iraqis for Iran during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War). By

    working with this creature of Tehran– whom Bush

    Administration schemers saw as the best ally in order

    to stop Iranian involvement in the war– Maliki felt

    confident that Iran would support his regime while he

    brings the Sunnis in line after the Americans leave.

    Prior to the invasion, Hakim was in on all the CIA

    guided and funded exiles’ councils in London of the

    Iraqi National Council, led by Ahmed Chalabi, another

    proven Iranian spy. Back then it didn’t matter because

    Bush was planning a one-two regime change two-step:

    Iraq–>Iran. But with no regime change possible in

    Iran to date, Bush had to grumble and watch helpless

    while all Shia factions maneuvered for Iranian


    All this is clever by half. As Americans, given our

    original oily motives, let us ask ourselves what does

    it cost in blood, time and money to kill one insurgent

    and how many must we kill in order to secure the oil

    fields for ourselves?

    Making the multiplication, the price seems almost as

    great as the technological revolution that would make

    the US independent of Mideast oil. Yet, we rather copy

    the storm trooper tactics which the Israelis in turn

    copied from the English, Germans, Soviets and South

    Africans in order to suppress any objection to our

    imperial designs on Iraqi oil; we are thus losing

    irreplaceable *VOLUNTEER* soldiers (none of the neocon

    chicken-hawks are stepping up to replace them!) and

    creating orphans and widows just because we can’t

    admit that we were defeated by our own military’s

    criminal incompetence. How much top-down

    low-brain-powered arrogance will it take before

    America realizes that it has been morally, globally

    and economically exsanguinated?

    The Arab survivors of our war crimes, as the Israelis

    learned the hard way, will for generation afterward

    never forget and never forgive. In that sense (and

    also given that we invited use of airliners as suicide

    guided missiles by leaving ALL pilot’s cabin doors

    wide open) we are at fault for 9/11 by providing

    generations of victims of our violent oil grabs reason

    to hate us and want to kill us as they kill themselves

    in revenge for generations to come. On might say that

    Reverend Wright– who served his country as a Marine,

    unlike Bill Clinton who evaded the Draft and

    demonstrated against America in Moscow Square– might

    have a point: avarice and hubris make us our own worst


    Daniel E. Teodoru

  • danteoleu


    It seems frightening that we are wasting billions of

    dollars and thousands of lives– Iraqi and American–

    pretending that we are fighting the Mahdi Army or

    alQaeda when in fact we are using soldiers to fight

    criminal gangs turning on each other, not militias.

    These forces disrupt the very Iraq we occupy and fail

    to protect while causing a lot of “collateral damage.”

    Worse still, we are failing to develop an Iraqi police

    force adequate to bring law and order in a nation that

    had it until we weakened it since 1991 and destroyed

    totally in 2003, promoting US then Iraqi gangster

    economics by failing to promote law and order. Our

    army does the only thing it knows how to do: make

    soldiers. By promoting an army that is 50% greater

    than Saddam’s army at his strongest point, the US is

    using the Iraqi Army against Iraqis. So what Crocker

    and Petraeus didn’t tell us is that we are, in effect,

    creating another banana republic where the military

    fights the people.

    Daniel E. Teodoru