Then and Now ; Requiem for Baghdad, by Patrick Cockburn

By Cockburn, Patrick | The Independent (London, England), August 8, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Then and Now ; Requiem for Baghdad, by Patrick Cockburn


Cockburn, Patrick, The Independent (London, England)


Baghdad was never the prettiest of places. But in the 1970s it sure had life. People flocked to its cafs and markets. The wide boulevards teemed with traffic. Books and paintings proclaimed the wealth of Iraq's cultural heritage. Patrick Cockburn, who witnessed it all, remembers the city that seduced him - and wonders if the great metropolis on the banks of the Tigris can ever rise again

These days, when I drive around Baghdad, I sit in the back seat of the car with gauze curtains drawn down so nobody on the street can see me. I have a second car following 100 yards behind to make sure we are not trailed. We try to avoid police and army checkpoints in case they are death squads. My driver, a Sunni Muslim, is rightly frightened of the overwhelmingly Shia police and police commandos. He has fake identity papers so that it is no longer clear to which religious community he belongs.

This may not be enough. Coming from the airport, we avoid most checkpoints by taking a serpentine route through the city. At one moment we roar along a highway and then, still at speed, we abruptly divert down an alleyway, weaving between heaps of rotting garbage. I have always known roughly where Sunni and Shia live in Baghdad, but I am now acquiring detailed knowledge of its sectarian geography. A small mistake could have lethal results. The cemeteries are full of Iraqis who were caught in the wrong district.

This vast city of seven million people, almost the size of London, is breaking up into a dozen cities, each one of which is becoming a heavily armed Shia or Sunni stronghold. Every morning brings its terrible harvest of bodies. Many lie in the street for hours, bloating in the 120F heat, while others are found floating in the Tigris river.

In June, 1,595 bodies, often tortured with an electric drill or by fire, were delivered to the Baghdad morgue. In July, the violence was far worse.

In all of Iraq, in June, 3,149 civilians are known to have been killed, more in one month than the total death toll in Northern Ireland in 30 years of violence.

Into this maelstrom, President George Bush is ordering 4,000 extra American troops in a bid to control the civil war in Baghdad (absurdly, Bush and Tony Blair reject the phrase "civil war" despite the all-too-visible sectarian carnage). Many embattled Sunni districts will welcome the Americans, but the majority in Baghdad are Shia and they already see the US as playing sectarian politics in order to shore up imperial control.

"The Americans are not honest brokers," one former minister told me. "They switch their support between the Shia, Sunni and Kurds in order to serve their own interests." Already, US forces are attacking offices and arresting officials of the main Shia militia the Mehdi Army, followers of the radical nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The US may be joining, not ending, the civil war.

I first came to Baghdad, one of the great cities of the world, in 1978, a year before Saddam Hussein assumed supreme power. It was never a pretty city, but I found it deeply attractive. I'd sit near Abu Nawas Street on the east bank of the Tigris, 400 yards wide at this point, eating mazgouf (river fish) cooked over wood fires and drinking arak, a liquor made from dates.

I visited the second-hand book shops in al-Muttanabi Street, where there used to be a market with dusty old volumes in English and Arabic laid out for sale on the ground every Friday. At the al- Baghdadi auction house in the al-Adhamiyah district, I bought richly- patterned carpets and Shia religious art - primitive but striking portrayals of battle, suffering and betrayal.

Not any more. The mazgouf restaurants along Abu Nawas, where I used to sit at night drinking arak, are almost all closed. If they re-open, it would be dangerous for them to serve alcohol. In my hotel, inhabited these days solely by foreign journalists, the local police turned up a few weeks ago and, claiming to speak on behalf of the Tourism Ministry, now Islamic-run, demanded that alcohol no longer be served.

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