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 TeasersPatrick Cockburn Blogview

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Self-absorption is the dominant theme of contemporary British and American politics. In Britain, the focus is exclusively on Brexit and other developments are marginalised or ignored. In the US, political battles revolve around Donald Trump who gets wall-to-wall coverage in the US media – ferociously hostile though much of it is towards him – which previous US presidents could only dream of.

Self-absorption by any country leads it to take a skewed and unrealistically optimistic view of its place in the world. The current populist nationalist wave is a worldwide phenomenon, but Britain is more damaged than the US by the excessive expectations it generates because it is already a far weaker power than the US and more likely to pay a high price for political miscalculations.

British commentators – the BBC is particularly prone to this – tend to adopt a patronising and derisive approach to Trump’s demagoguery about “making America great again”. But he can get away with the most bizarre antics because the US is a political, economic and military superpower regardless of Trump, even if it does not have the primacy it had after the Second World War or, once again, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Its status is not changed by Trump’s words and actions, though these are usually more carefully calculated and rooted in the real world than his critics give him credit for.

His crude realism is underestimated by a contemptuous media, dismissive of everything he does. They portray him as an ill-informed crackpot who makes up his policy on the spur of the moment, but this is often much saner than it looks: despite all his jingoism, he has yet to start a war; his belligerent threats towards countries like North Korea and Iran appear to be designed primarily as negotiating positions in pursuit of a deal; he respects power and will talk to those who possess it, like Vladimir Putin, enraging other parts of the US government which are trying to isolate Russia as a pariah state.

The pro-Brexit vote in the referendum in 2016 is said by Trump to have given vital extra momentum to the populist-nationalist surge that elected him president later that year. But the danger of looking at everything through an isolationist and nationalist lens is far greater in Britain than it is in the US simply because it leads to the British systematically overplaying their hand. The price of so doing is illustrated by every stumbling step Britain takes out of the EU, contradicting the Brexiteer mantra that Britain has political and economic potential which will make it better off outside the EU.

If the other EU states really were exploiting the UK and getting more out of the relationship than the British, then we could leave tomorrow. But, since the opposite is true, the UK is doomed to be always making concessions that are denounced by the Brexiteers as the outcome of an inexplicable weakness of will on the part of Theresa May and her government.

Boris Johnson is in many respects more dangerous to Britain than Trump is to the US because the former British foreign minister fuels the wishful thinking of many English people about their country, a vision more fantastical than anything peddled by Trump. They enjoy Johnson’s defiant blasts on the patriotic trumpet and ignore his ineffective record as foreign secretary. His numerous critics glibly blame his incompetence for this, but the real reason may be that if any former British foreign minister, be they Palmerston or Grey, were resurrected today and given back their old job they would find their influence curtailed because the prospect of Brexit has already made Britain a feebler power.

Johnson’s failings are obvious but have not prevented him becoming the favoured choice of nearly a third of Conservative Party members to replace Theresa May, whom 45 per cent of the membership want to resign immediately. Given Conservative MPs fear of a general election because Labour under Jeremy Corbyn might win, Johnson is not badly placed to be the next prime minister.

It is not just the sub-Churchillian bombast at work here. Johnson is the sort of Falstaffian figure – a likeable rogue, full of fun and bombast, speaking out when others are hypocritically silent – who always appeals to the English. Of course, Shakespeare’s Henry V was more determined and successful in keeping the fictional Falstaff away from the levers of power than Theresa May is in coping with the real live version.

Johnson has the advantage over Falstaff of combining joviality and popular appeal with Old Etonian self-confidence at a time when opinion polls show English self-confidence to be in short supply. People who fear that their national boat is about to capsize commonly like to hear siren voices saying that no such thing will happen and everything will be all right on the night.

Self-confidence can be self-fulfilling, but only if it does not depart too radically from what is achievable and skirts suspected pitfalls. Trump gets away with projecting relentless self-confidence about America’s future because, contrary to his own mendacious claims, Obama left the US in a strong position. Self-assurance detached from reality carries greater risks in Britain, as witness the performance of smoothly confident David Cameron who led the nation over the cliff edge in Libya, the Brexit referendum, and self-destructive austerity.

Of course, Eton did not invent the idea of Britain pretending to be stronger than it really is. The Foreign Office used to trot out the cliché that whatever policy it was advocating at the time would enable Britain “to punch above its weight”, though a moment’s reflection tells one that anybody who makes a habit of this is going to end up flat on the canvas.

During the parliamentary debates about British participation in bombing Isis in Syria, I was struck by how many MPs failed to take on board the British incapacity to do anything militarily effective. The necessary planes, missiles and intelligence on the ground did not exist. But this did not prevent Hillary Benn making a much-applauded speech supporting British intervention in Syria and comparing it with “the socialists, trade unionists and others who joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini.” Significantly, neither Benn nor the supportive MPs showed much interest in the negligible number of missions the RAF was subsequently able to carry out against Isis in Syria.

The economic effects of Brexit are probably survivable, but a greater danger is the degree of division that leaving the EU and the emergence of Falstaffian figures like Johnson, ambitious to rule, will inflict on the country.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Brexit, Britain 
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The British government purports to be re-establishing the UK as an independent nation state by leaving the EU, but British power and ability to decide its own policies are continuing to ebb in the real world. The latest evidence of this is the decision by the Home Secretary Sajid Javid to give precedence to the US in putting on trial two alleged Isis members from London, who belonged to the notorious “Beatles” group in Syria that specialised in torturing and beheading their captives.

The humiliating admission by a country that it is incapable of dealing effectively and legally with its worst criminals is normally made by states like Colombia and Mexico, which extradite drug lords to the US. Their governments are implicitly confessing that they are too feeble and corrupt to punish their most powerful lawbreakers.

The British authorities are encouraging the Syrian Kurds holding El Shafee Elsheik and Alexanda Kotey to extradite them to the US rather than Britain. The declared motive for this is that there is a better chance of a speedy trial and exemplary sentence before a US court than in a British one, though the record in the US since 9/11 makes this a dubious argument.

What does come across is that Britain is in a messy situation regarding Isis prisoners and the return of jihadis to UK, with which it is unable to cope. The decision is now being reviewed by a judge in the UK.

As with Mexico and Colombia, the overall impression left by Javid’s actions is one of weakness and incapacity.

First, he made the baffling and unexplained decision to drop the usual British condition that the UK would provide evidence and intelligence for a trial only if the death penalty was ruled out. Moreover, he not only abandoned the longheld British principle of opposing state executions but did so in secret, suggesting the government knew all too well the significance of its change of policy.

The simplest explanation for not seeking a “death penalty assurance” from the US is that Theresa May, Javid and Boris Johnson, foreign secretary when the decision was made, saw the “Beatles” as a political hot potato.

They would be squeezed between those who demand that Elsheik and Kotey be punished with extreme rigour, and those who believe that the worst way to respond to Isis is to be lured into some form of lynch law. It is possible that the Trump administration unofficially insisted that Britain step back from its open opposition to the death penalty.

An alternative solution would be to hand over the two accused men to the International Criminal Court in the Hague – the only real objection to this being that the US refuses to recognise the court and the British priority in the age of Brexit is, above all else, to keep onside with Washington.

Isis benefits from the imbroglio over these Beatles because its atrocities have always aimed at instilling fear, but at the same time provoking an over-reaction by those it targets. This strategy worked well for al-Qaeda after 9/11 when US judicial credibility was damaged beyond repair in the eyes of the world by rendition, waterboarding, imprisonment without trial at Guantanamo and ritualised mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

At every stage in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, successive British governments have made unforced errors. They never seem to grasp the nature of these civil wars and how difficult it is to give a fair trial to anybody caught up in them because anybody detained on the vaguest suspicion may be sent to prison, tortured into a confession and summarily executed.

I was in Taji, a Sunni Arab area north of Baghdad in June this year, a place which used to be an Isis stronghold. A farmer told me that several of his neighbours have not made the hour-long journey to Baghdad for 10 years because they are frightened of being detained at government checkpoints, imprisoned and forced into false confessions.

The same fears are pervasive in Syrian government areas. Several years ago, I was talking to Sunni Arab refugees living in a school in the partly ruined city of Homs, where fighting was particularly intense. I said that it must be dangerous for any man of military age to move on the roads.

This was greeted with bitter laughter from the older men who said they were in just as much danger as their younger relatives.

Often the only way to get out of prison is not proof of innocence, but a bribe to the right officials. This is expensive and does not always work because the bribe-takers do not necessarily deliver on their promises. Iraqis and Syrians commonly believe that those most likely to buy their way out of prison are Isis militants who can come up with large sums of money and are too dangerous to be short-changed by officials they have bribed.

After the capture of Mosul, the de facto Isis capital in Iraq, in 2017, local people told me they were aghast at seeing former Isis officials back on their streets after a short detention. They claimed that this was because of the wholesale bribery of Baghdad government security forces.

Iraqi soldiers in the front line were equally cynical and concluded that there was no point sending live prisoners back to Baghdad so they executed them on the spot.

The Beatles are more famous because they killed and mistreated Westerners, but otherwise they were no different from other cruel and murderous Isis gangs. It is claimed that one reason they could not be tried in Britain is that information from the intelligence agencies could not be used without compromising sources. This might be true but whenever secret intelligence from government agencies has been revealed by public inquiries over the past 15 years, it has turned out to be far shakier and less compelling than originally claimed.

Knowing who really was in Isis and what they did there is impossible in countries where torture is pervasive and false confessions the norm. The time to have dealt with British jihadis and the tens of thousands of other fanatical foreign fighters was several years ago when they were freely crossing the Turkish border into Syria.

But the British government and its allies showed little concern because the priority then was forcing regime change in Damascus, an aim shared by the jihadis.

Sajid Javid pretends that the principle of government opposition to the death penalty will only be set aside in this single exceptional case, though principles that can be discarded so easily at convenient moments automatically cease to be principles.

The controversy over the legal fate of the “Beatles” underlines once again the truth of Cicero’s saying that “the laws are silent in times of war”.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, Iraq, ISIS 
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What will be Britain’s standing in the world compared to other nation states after Brexit? Sane analysis has been overwhelmed by vituperative debate as we get closer to the day of the great rupture.

Boris Johnson claimed in his resignation speech that after a full-throttle Brexit, Britain will be in a good position to become “one of the great independent actors” on the world stage. He feared only a failure in the necessary will-power and self-confidence “to believe in this country and what it can do”.

But what can this country really do? How far will greater independence outside the EU be real rather than nominal? Will strength of will in pursuit of self-determination make much difference when we will always be holding a weaker hand of cards than our neighbours?

This imbalance of forces is highlighted every day in the Brexit negotiations, and there is no reason why this should change in our favour after we leave.

Supporters of Brexit discount such realpolitik, saying that they are inspired – and seek to emulate – a past in which Britain as a fully independent state won victories against the odds. Critics often deride this approach as self-indulgent nostalgia, but there are real lessons to be learned from past British experience.

The problem is that Brexiteers, when they take a serious view of British history that is not coloured by Shakespeare’s plays or Errol Flynn movies, have never shown much understanding of the roots of Britain’s successes.

The British only stood alone during the centuries when they had miscalculated the political wind direction, or had been left with absolutely no alternative. At the heart of British strategy was the drive to join or create alliances with other countries powerful enough to overcome any enemy.

It was this formula that put Britain on the winning side in the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War and the Second: the three great conflicts that shaped the contemporary world.

Against Napoleon, it was the combination of Britain with Russia, Prussia and the Habsburg Empire that produced the victory for which the British traditionally claimed exaggerated credit. In the 1914-18 war, the British priority was to bring about US intervention, and the same was true in 1939-45.

Britain only stood heroically alone during a relatively short period between the fall of France in 1940 and Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, followed later in the year by his declaration of war on the US after Pearl Harbour.

Churchill’s record as a military leader was dubious in both wars – remember Gallipoli and Norway. His greater and more valuable skill was to foster and maintain a grand alliance against Germany which was bound to win in the end. The centrality of these alliances tends to be masked by unwavering focus on Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the triumphs of the British codebreakers.

British pre-eminence was based on defence by the Royal Navy, which prevented invasion, and the patient construction of a war-winning coalition. The last time Britain fought a major conflict without such an alliance was the American war of independence, which concluded with disappointing results for our side.

Exaggerated presumptions of national superiority are scarcely a monopoly of the Brexiteers, or even of the British, but the referendum has made them peculiarly destructive. What is interpreted as unfair bullying by the EU, or unnecessary timidity on the part of Theresa May, is simply a reflection of our inferior – and their superior – strength.

Johnson suggested that Britain might do well to emulate Trump’s negotiating style of laying down the law and threatening to walk away. But he crucially missed the point that such bravado is the perquisite of the strong, and weak countries do not dare to bluff because that bluff is likely to be called.

It would be a caricature of the Brexiteers’ mentality to imagine that they believe that what worked well at Crecy, Blenheim and El Alamein has much to do with what goes on at present. But this mythology does create a national mood that makes it difficult for the English – the same is no longer true of Britain as a whole – to carry out any great political enterprise.

Brexit is only the latest in a series of British ventures this millennium in which political class has miscalculated what we could accomplish. The process was already evident when Britain was engaged in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and failed to achieve its ends in all three of them.

There is nothing secret about what happened. The Chilcot Report, for instance, lucidly explained in great detail how the British government did not know what it was getting into in Iraq and ended up, after all its efforts, signing a humiliating truce agreement with a local Shia militia in Basra.

Britain was repeatedly caught by surprise by events, tumbling out of Iraq into even bloodier skirmishing in Helmand province in Afghanistan. In Libya, it should have been perfectly obvious that if Gaddafi fell, there was nobody but predatory militias to replace him, and much the same was true in opposing Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

At some point, the British political, diplomatic and military establishment seems to have lost its touch or capacity to learn from experience.

The difficulty people have in picturing life after Brexit is that what are essentially political issues are framed in economic terms, so anxiety and hope are directed far too much towards the future economic consequences of Brexit. This diverts attention from the fact that the political disaster is already with us and visible for all to see.

Britain has been generally more united than its rivals and opponents over the last three centuries, but Brexit has provoked a degree of disunity not seen since the 17th century. It is absurd for the Brexiteers to keep saying that “the nation” decided to leave the EU in the referendum, and act as if this were so, because nothing is clearer than that the nation is split down the middle.

And the very definition of that nation – is it the United Kingdom or England? – is in doubt, since Scotland voted to remain, as did a majority in Northern Ireland. The Brexiteers scarcely seem to notice that they have reopened the Ulster Question, which bedevilled British politics from Gladstone’s efforts to pass a Home Rule Bill in the 1880s to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

In the eyes of the rest of the world, a country that once seemed to possess the secret of stability has become permanently self-absorbed in its own divisions. Johnson’s puerile bombast and jingoism has its uses because it neatly sums up what is not likely to happen: “A great Brexit” he claimed “will unite this party, unite this House and unite this nation.”

But nothing is less likely to happen. Brexit is exacerbating all other grievances and divisions. These will be worse after Brexit than before. Britain is already weaker than at any time since the end of the Stuart monarchy.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain 
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“The people want an end to the parties,” chanted protesters, adapting a famous slogan of the Arab Spring, as they stormed the governor’s office and the international airport in the Shia holy city of Najaf.

Part of the wave of demonstrations sweeping across central and southern Iraq, they demanded jobs, electricity, water and an end to the mass theft of Iraq’s oil wealth by the political parties.

Beginning on 8 July, the protests are the biggest and most prolonged in a country where anti-government action has usually taken the form of armed insurgency.

The demonstrations are taking place in the heartlands of the Shia majority, reflecting their outrage at living on top of some of the world’s largest oilfields, but seeing their families barely survive in squalor and poverty.

The protests began in Basra, Iraq’s third largest city which is at the centre of 70 per cent of its oil production. A hand-written placard held up by one demonstrator neatly expresses popular frustration. It read:

“2,500,000 barrels daily
Price of each barrel = $70
2,500,000 x $70 = zero !!
Sorry Pythagoras, we are in Basra”

The protests quickly spread to eight other provinces, including Najaf, Kerbala, Nasariya and Amara.

In several places, the offices of the Dawa Party, to which the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi belongs, were burned or attacked, along with those of parties whom people blame for looting oil revenues worth hundreds of billions of dollars in the 15 years since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

As the situation deteriorated, Mr Abadi flew to Basra on 13 July, promising to make $3bn available to improve services and provide more jobs. After he left, his hotel was invaded by protesters.

The credibility of almost all Iraqi politicians is at a low ebb, the acute feeling of disillusionment illustrated by the low 44.5 per cent turnout in the parliamentary election on 12 May that produced no outright winner.

The poll was unexpectedly topped by the Sairoun movement of the populist nationalist cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who has encouraged his followers to start protests against government corruption and lack of services since 2015.

The Sadrists, who emphasised their socially and economically progressive programme by allying themselves with the Iraqi Communist Party in the election, are playing a role in the current protests.

The demonstrations are also backed by the prestigious Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. At ground level, political activists and tribal leaders have set up a joint committee called “the Coordination Board for Peaceful Protests and Demonstrations in Basra”, its purpose being to produce a list of demands, unite the protest movement, and keep their actions non-violent.

“The ends don’t justify the means,” says the committee in a statement. “Let us, being oppressed, not lead to the oppression of others.”

A list of 17 demands is headed by one asking for a government timetable for supplying water and electricity, both of which are short at a time of year when the temperature sometime exceeds 50C, making it one of the hottest places on earth.

Local people claim that the last time that the port city of Basra, once called the Venice of the Gulf, had an adequate supply of drinking water was in 1982. Iran had been supplying some extra electricity, but has cut this back because of its own needs and failure of Iraq to pay on time.

The second demand of the protesters is for jobs with “priority to the competent sons of Basra”, the discharge of foreign labourers and employment for a quarter of people living in the oilfields.

Lack of jobs is a source of continuing complaint all over Iraq. Much of its oil income already goes on paying 4.5 million state employees, but between 400,000 and 420,000 young people enter the workforce every year with little prospects of employment.

Anger towards the entire political class is intense because it is seen as a kleptocratic group which syphoned off money in return for contracts that existed only on paper and produced no new power plants, bridges or roads.

Political parties are at the centre of this corruption because they choose ministries, according to their share of the vote in elections or their sectarian affiliation, which they then treat as cash cows and sources of patronage and contracts.

Plundering like this and handing out of jobs to unqualified people means that many government institutions have become incapable of performing any useful function.

Radical reform is difficult because the whole system is saturated by corruption and incompetence. Technocrats without party backing who are parachuted into ministries become isolated and ineffective.

One party leader told The Independent that he thought that the best that could be done “would be to insist that the parties appoint properly qualified people to top jobs.”

The defeat of Isis in 2017 with the recapture of Mosul means that Iraqis are no longer absorbed in keeping their families safe so they have they have more time to consider “corruption” – a word they use not just to mean bribery but the parasitic nature of the government system as a whole.

There is a general mood of cynicism and dissatisfaction with the way things are run.

“Bad government, bad roads, bad weather, bad people,” exclaimed one Iraqi friend driving on an ill-maintained road.

Corrupt motives are ascribed to everything that happens: a series of unexplained fires in Baghdad in June were being ascribed to government employees stealing from state depots and then concealing their crime by setting fire to the building and destroying it.

Given that the Iraqi security forces are primarily recruited from the areas in which the protests are taking place, the government will need to be careful about the degree of repression it can use safely.

Some eight protesters have been killed so far by the police, who are using rubber bullets, water cannon and rubber hoses to beat people.

The armed forces have been placed on high alert. Three regiments of the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, which led the attack on Mosul and is highly regarded and well disciplined, has been ordered south to cope with protests and away from places where there is still residual activity by Isis.

The protests are largely spontaneous, but the Sadrists, whose offices have not been attacked by crowds, want to put pressure on Mr Abadi, Dawa and other parties to form a coalition government with a reform programme.

Many protesters express anti-Tehran slogans, tearing up pictures of Iranian spiritual leaders such as Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. They blame Iran for supporting corrupt parties and governments in Iraq.

Protesters have so far escalated their actions slowly, gathering at the entrances to the major oil and gas facilities, but not disrupting the 3.6 million barrel a day production. If this happens, it would affect a significant portion of world crude output.

Iraq’s corrupt and dysfunctional governing system may be too set in its profitable ways to be reformed, but, if the ruling elite wants to survive, it must give ordinary Iraqi a larger share of the oil revenue cake.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq 
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English nationalism as expressed by Brexiteers is a strange beast. Donald Trump gives an interview in which he assumes the right to intervene in the conflict between Theresa May and Boris Johnson over Brexit. He speaks with the same confident authority as he would in his own country, sorting out differences in the Republican Party over who should be the next senator for Alabama or South Carolina. His attempted roll-back later does not alter the tone or substance of what he said.

The aim of Trump’s intervention in the short term is, as always, to top the news agenda and to show up everybody, be they allies or enemies, as weaker and more vulnerable than himself. More dangerously for Britain, in the long term, his domineering words set down a marker for the future relationship between the UK and the US outside the EU which could be close to that between the colony or the vassal of an imperial state.

The terminology is the Brexiteers’ own: Johnson claimed in his resignation letter that the Chequers version of Brexit a few days earlier was so watered down that it meant that “we are truly headed for the status of a colony”. He cited, as concrete evidence of this servitude, the anger he felt towards the EU for frustrating his efforts to protect cyclists from juggernauts, though media investigation revealed that it was the British government that blocked the life-saving measure.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the fundamentalist Brexit leader, reached back far into the Middle Ages for a bizarre analogy to illustrate his point that Britain would entirely fail to escape the EU yoke under the terms envisaged in the White Paper on Britain’s future relationship with the EU. He described the intention to keep Britain within the EU rule book for goods and agriculture as “the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Phillip II at Le Goulet in 1200”.

The use of such an arcane example is presumably intended to show that Rees-Mogg has deeply pondered the great triumphs and betrayals of English history. In doing so he unintentionally reveals one of his many blind spots by choosing an event long preceding the creation of a British nation state incorporating Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A problem about the whole Brexit debate, which has confused the issue since long before the referendum in 2016, is that discussion is focused on the economic connection between Britain and the EU when it should really be about the political relationship.

Trump says that the present Brexit plan rules out a US-UK free trade agreement, but even if it did not, there is a strong element of fantasy and wishful thinking in the Brexiteers’ vision of Britain’s economic future. Again it is worth looking at Johnson’s letter because it is almost touching in its naivety and wishful thinking about Britain’s future place in the world economy. We are to stifle “self-doubt”, and instead be more “nimble and dynamic and maximise the particular advantages of the UK, as an open outward looking economy”.

Apparently, the world is full of hermit kingdoms that have long been short of such vibrant economies and, once freed from the shackles of the EU, we will be able to meet their long unsatisfied needs.

It is easy to mock and the mockery is well-deserved, but it should be balanced with a much stronger part of the pro-Brexit case which is simply the pursuit of national self-determination regardless of the economic consequences. This demand for independence has usually preceded the formation of nation states, once imperial possessions, the world over. Most nationalist movements have claimed with varying degrees of truth or exaggeration that their economic, social and sectarian troubles stemmed from imperial misrule and independence would cure all. When this fails to happen few nationalist movements have had a realistic alternative plan.

Brexiteers similarly buttress their perfectly legitimate demand for self-determination with dubious assumptions about the degree to which EU regulations hobble the British economy. Most Brexiteers are on the right so they are neither familiar nor comfortable with anti-imperial arguments traditionally advanced by the left. They would not be happy to be reminded that much of what they say is the same as Sinn Fein – “Ourselves Alone” – says today in Ireland or Indian and Kenyan nationalists said before independence. A further cause of reticence is that focus on the economic benefits of Brexit masks the extent to which the result of the referendum – and the rise of populist nationalists in the US and much of Europe – are fuelled by opposition to immigration and racism.

But there is a price to pay for the Brexiteers’ skewed picture of Britain and its place in the world. If it leaves the EU, as seems inevitable, it will become a lesser power and no longer able to balance between America and Europe as, to a degree, it has hitherto been able to do. Dependence on the US will inevitably increase and we have just had a rude foretaste of what this means for Britain’s future in the Trump interview in The Sun. He knows that Britain has nowhere else to go and must bend the knee, something swiftly confirmed by the evasive British government response to his unprecedented intervention in the UK’s internal affairs.

The British government would clearly like the old post-Second World War order and Britain’s place in it to continue forever. The Cold War is being revived to serve as glue to hold Nato together and Russia is being boosted as an external threat as potent as the Soviet Union. Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki is portrayed as an ill-considered maverick action. Journalists, think tank “experts”, and retired diplomats vie with each other on CNN and the BBC in explaining how Trump is selling the pass to Putin and Kim Jong-un.

But it is not Trump, but the establishment on both sides of the Atlantic which are out of date. There was a twenty-year period between 1991 and 2011 when Russia could be ignored, though this was never wise because it always remained a nuclear super-power capable of blowing up the world. This changed in 2011 when Nato had the exceptionally bad idea of intervening militarily in Libya to overthrow Gaddafi with disastrous consequences for everybody. Russia restored its status as a great power through successful intervention in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad.

During this period Britain sought to reinforce its status as the leading ally of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, but failed politically and militarily in both wars. The extent and consequences of this failure have always been underestimated in UK where everything that went wrong could be conveniently blamed on Tony Blair.

What we are really seeing under the rubric of “Making America Great Again” is an American retreat from empire. Monstrous though Trump is in almost every way, he often shows a greater grip on the crude realities of power than his critics give him credit for. British politicians and civil servants are hoping that the Trump visit is a temporary bad dream but is in fact it an early sign of a post-Brexit reality in which Britain will play a lesser role in the world.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Donald Trump, EU 
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Iraqis disagree about many things but on one topic they are united: they believe they live in the most corrupt country in the world, barring a few where there is nothing much to steal. They see themselves as victims of a kleptomaniac state where hundreds of billions of dollars have disappeared into the pockets of the ruling elite over the past 15 years, while everybody else endures shortages of everything from jobs and houses to water and electricity.

The popular rage against the political class that came to power in 2003 explains why the movement led by the populist-nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which demands political and social reform and is allied to the Iraqi Communist Party, topped the poll in the parliamentary election in May. But the low turnout of 44.5 per cent underlined a conviction on the part of many that nothing much is going to change, whatever the makeup of the next government – something still being patched together in snail’s pace negotiations between the parties. “Even friends of mine who did vote are disillusioned and say they will not vote again,” one Baghdad resident told me.

It is impossible to exaggerate the frustration of Iraqis who know they live in a potentially rich country, the second largest oil producer in Opec, but see its wealth being stolen in front of their eyes year after year.

I was in Ramadi, the capital city of the province of Anbar, west of Baghdad, looking at the war damage when I met Muthafar Abdul Ghafur, 64, a retired engineer who had just finished rebuilding his house which had been destroyed in an airstrike. “I did it all myself and got no compensation from the government,” he said, adding bitterly that some whose houses were largely intact had received compensation because, unlike him, they bribed the right officials. “Write that Iraq has no government!” he shouted at me. “It has only thieves!”

Back in Baghdad, I visited the upper middle-class districts of Mansour and Yarmouk to talk to a real estate dealer, Safwat Abdul Razaq, who said he was doing good business. The price of property in this area had doubled in the past two years, but he was less optimistic about the future because of the weak government and, above all, because of the pervasive state corruption. “The government has no credibility,” he said. “Wherever you go, they ask you for a bribe.”

He added that a contractor invariably had to pay off officials to win a contract and one of the three businessmen sitting in the office said that this could easily be 50 per cent of the contract price. There was plenty of private money in Iraq but little of it was invested there because corruption made any business activity insecure: “that is why I buy property in Jordan but not in Iraq.”

These are well-off people, but I heard the same complaints in the Shia working-class stronghold of Sadr city, where heaps of rubbish lie uncollected in the streets. “The young people are a lost generation, who can’t afford to get married because they have no jobs and no prospects unless they know somebody in the government,” said a local paramilitary. Water and electricity were in short supply and expensive to buy privately.

Grotesque examples of official theft have been frequent since a new class of leaders, mostly Shia and Kurdish, took power in Iraq after the US invasion. When the Iraqi government was supposedly fighting for its life militarily in 2004-2005, the entire $1.3bn (£980m) military procurement budget disappeared. A few years later, police at checkpoints in Baghdad were trying to detect car bombs with a useless device that cost a few dollars to make and which the government had bought for tens of thousands.

How did successive Iraqi governments get away with such blatant thefts for so long? For years they diverted attention away from their looting of Iraq’s oil revenues by claiming that the struggle against al-Qaeda in Iraq and later Isis was the only thing that mattered. They appealed to the sectarian solidarity of the Shia and, in northern Iraq, to the ethnic solidarity of the Kurds.

But a year after Isis suffered a decisive defeat in the siege of Mosul, these excuses no longer work. Security is better than at any time since the fall of Saddam Hussein, so Iraqis are more conscious than ever before of the failings of a parasitic leadership and a semi-functional state machine.

A word of caution here: Iraqis like to think of their country as uniquely cursed by corruption with billions of dollars paid to shell companies for projects in which not a single brick is placed on top of another. But Iraq is not alone in this, since all the states whose wealth is drawn entirely from the exploitation of their natural resources – usually oil – operate similarly. In each case, members of a predatory ruling elite – from Angola to Saudi Arabia and Iraq – plug into state revenues and grab as much as they can get their claws on.

Obscenely excessive expenditure by the ruling circles in these countries is notorious, but they are not the sole beneficiaries. All these resource-rich states have vast patronage systems whereby a large chunk of the population gets jobs, or receives salaries, though no work may be necessary. Iraqis and Saudis may denounce corruption at the top but millions of them have a stake in the system, which gives it a certain stability. In Iraq, for instance, some 4.5 million Iraqis work for the state and these are the plum jobs that others would like to have. Though political leaders in Baghdad talk about reforming this system, it is politically dangerous to do so because the networks of corruption and patronage established themselves too long ago and involve too many powerful people and parties.

“Anti-corruption campaigns” – in Iraq as in Saudi Arabia – are often just one group of super-rich trying to displace another. The patronage system is the only way that many Iraqis and Saudis get a share of the oil revenues and they will resist being deprived of this in the supposed interest of creating a more functional system.

In Iraq the mechanics of corruption operate in a slightly different way than elsewhere because of the role of the political parties. Mudher Salih, a financial adviser to the prime minister Haider al-Abadi, told me that “unless the political system is changed it is impossible to fight corruption”. He said that the reason for this is that parties use the government ministries they control as cash cows and patronage machines through which they sustain their power. This way of doing things is probably too ingrained, and in the interests of too many people, to be radically changed.

Corruption cannot be eliminated in Iraq, but it can be made less destructive. When al-Abadi became prime minister in 2014 Isis was advancing on Baghdad and oil prices were well. Salih said that in response to the crisis the government “cut expenditure by 37 per cent by removing ‘fishy’ items – money being spent for nothing at all”. Corruption will stay, but in future Iraqis can at least hope to get something for their money.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq 
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“We are very much scared,” says Hamid Aftan al-Hammad, an Albu Nimr tribesman from the city of Hit in western Iraq. “At night we lie on the roofs of our houses with our weapons waiting to be attacked again.”

He fears the return of Isis, which massacred at least 864 members of his tribe when they controlled the area where they live – a city a hundred miles west of Baghdad in the middle of the vast Sunni Arab province of Anbar, which sprawls across western Iraq.

Mr Hammad points to a patch of open ground between the palm trees on the far bank of the Euphrates river, which divides Hit.

“It was there that they killed 45 of our people,” he says, going on to list those members of his immediate family who were murdered, including two teenage cousins executed in the main square of the city and two uncles who tried to escape into the desert but have disappeared and are assumed to have been captured and killed by Isis.

Compared even to the many other Isis atrocities, the hunting down of the Albu Nimr, a pro-government Sunni tribe, was relentless and genocidal.

Sala Segur Omar al-Nimr, a teacher who lived through the final months of his tribe’s resistance, described how they dug trenches and built sand barriers in a hopeless attempt to defend themselves, but it was not enough.

They faced thousands of better armed Isis fighters. When resistance finally collapsed in October 2014 those who could not flee fast enough “were slaughtered, many of them elderly, disabled or very young children. They even killed our farm animals.”

There is little violence today in Hit, a city with a population of 90,000 people. But the hatred and fear generated by the savage rule of Isis still divides its people.

Borhan Khalil, a local journalist, says that “there is still this division between pro- and anti-Isis families”.

Foreign fighters may have belonged to Isis, but the great majority were locals and longtime neighbours of those they killed.

Mr Khalil says that families whose houses were blown up by Isis – often because they had worked for the Iraqi government – have frequently taken over, with official approval, the houses of Isis supporters who have since fled.

This is a further cause of anger and division.

The change of ownership is announced by messages scrawled on the outside wall of a house. One such message by a gate in central Hit reads: “This is the house of the fleeing terrorists now occupied by Fuad and his brother.”

Inside the house, which looks spacious and well kept, Haitham al-Ad al-Nimr, a member of the government security services, and his brother Fuad have been living there since they took it over a year ago.

“Our own house was completely demolished by Isis,” says Mr Nimr, who denies that he knows the identity of the people he has replaced. He explains that “they had fled long before we got here”.

He is not worried by the prospect of the dispossessed trying to take their property back one day, or of Isis launching a successful counteroffensive in Anbar.

Others are not so sanguine: Hamid Aftan al-Hammad, whom we met when he was about to cross the Euphrates in a boat because the bridge had been destroyed, says Isis families whose sons had been fighters were coming back to the area and, even if the fighters were not with them, they “will still back their sons”.

The Iraqi government is trying to defuse the issue of what happens to families with a record of supporting Isis in the past, but without much success.

This is particularly true in Hit, where the Albu Nimr reckon they lost about 1,000 people, with the same number of disappeared, shot in the desert as they tried to escape, or had their bodies thrown down wells.

Mr Hammad is enraged that two of his brothers had been thrown out of a house they had taken over and were now living in tents because a family they alleged were Isis supporters had now reoccupied it.

He says they deserved better from a government they had fought for: “One of my brothers has a crippled arm and lost three fingers when he was shot by an Isis sniper.”

Why was Isis so determined to wipe out this particular tribe?

Isis certainly wanted to show that any resistance to them would provoke pitiless revenge. The Albu Nimr were an obvious target because their tribesmen had joined the army and police after the US-led invasion of 2003.

They did so at a time when the other Sunni tribes of Anbar were at the heart of resistance to the US occupation and the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.

As Isis made its spectacular advance in 2014, the Albu Nimr were isolated, outgunned and outnumbered.

Asked why Isis had been able to win so quickly, one of the Albu Nimr tribal leaders, Sheikh Na’eem al-Gu-ood, told The Independent in March 2015 that “the main reason is that 90 per cent of the tribes in Anbar collaborated with Isis or joined them except for ourselves”.

By that time he said that 864 Albu Nimr members had been killed.

Once Isis seized Mosul and the Iraqi army in northern Iraq disintegrated, the jihadis were able to capture plenty of heavy weapons.

The Albu Nimr say they begged the government and the Americans for arms and airstrikes but received nothing.

Well-off people in Hit were able to flee but those without money were forced to stay and endure Isis rule.

They say this was so cruel and murderous that Isis lost its popular support. Mr Khalil believes that everybody in Anbar – and not just the Albu Nimr – would today fight Isis because “Isis denounces everybody in government-held Iraq, which these days is almost the whole country, as infidels who deserve to be killed, so nobody wants them back”.

This is comforting, but Isis is a fanatical militarised cult that has never sought popularity and spreads its faith through force.

The terror it inspired in the past still lives on: a small surge in Isis killings and kidnappings in recent weeks reverberated throughout Iraq.

People in Hit say they have confidence in the Iraqi army as non-sectarian, but they know that Sunni Arabs are regarded with suspicion.

“As soon as I travel outside Anbar and show my Anbar ID at a checkpoint, I am held for hours,” says one source.

The Sunni of Iraq, a fifth of the population who had ruled the country for centuries, have shared in the Isis defeat and are politically marginalised.

Sunni cities like Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah are badly damaged, though there are signs of revival and reconstruction. The bridge across the Euphrates at Hit, destroyed by an airstrike by the US-led coalition, is being rebuilt and will reopen in a couple of months.

Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, suffered worse damage than Hit, and heaps of smashed concrete floors and walls stand where schools and villas used to be.

The price of property has halved in Anbar since the pre-Isis era, but in many places new houses and offices have been rebuilt, or yellow bulldozers and construction equipment can be seen clearing the rubble. The physical damage may be disappearing with surprising speed, but Isis rule has left a legacy of hatred that is still very present.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq 
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“I once rescued a friend from drowning when he was swept away by the force of the current as we were swimming in the Diyala river,” says Qasim Sabti, a painter and gallery owner in Baghdad.

“That was 50 years ago,” he recalls. “I went back there recently and the water in the Diyala is so shallow today that a man could walk across it with his dog.”

The rivers of Iraq, above all the Tigris and Euphrates, are drying up. The country is becoming more arid, and desertification is eating into the limited amount of agricultural land.

Dams built upriver in Turkey, Syria and Iran since the 1970s have reduced the flow of water that reaches Iraq by as much as half and the situation is about to get worse.

“On 1 July, Turkey will start filling the Ilisu dam on the Tigris and this will cause another decline in the inflows to our country of about 50 per cent,” Hassan Janabi, minister of water resources, told The Independent.

He says that Iraq used to get 30 billion cubic metres of water a year from the Euphrates, but now “we are happy if we get 16 billion cubic metres”.

As Iraq begins to recover from 40 years of wars and emergences, its existence is being threatened by the rapidly falling water levels in the two great rivers on which its people depend.

It was on their banks that the first cities were established cities 8,000 years ago and where the flood stories of Gilgamesh and the Bible were first told.

Such floods are now a thing of the past – the last was in 1988 – and each year the amount of water taken by Iraq’s neighbours has been rising.

This pattern started in the 1970s when Turkey and Syria built dams on the Euphrates for hydroelectric power and vast irrigation works. It is the latter which choke off the water supply to Iraq.

The same thing happened a little later to the Tigris, whose major tributaries are being dammed by Iran.

Iraqi protests have been ineffectual because Saddam Hussein and successor government in Baghdad were preoccupied by wars and crises that appeared more important at the time.

By now it is getting too late to reverse the disastrous impact on Iraq of this massive loss of water.

“This summer is going to be tough,” says Mr Janabi, a water resources engineer by training who was in charge of restoring the marshes in southern Iraq after 2003.

Some smaller rivers like the Karun and Kark that used to flow out of Iran into Iraq, have simply disappeared after the Iranians diverted them. He says: “We used to get five billion cubic metres annually from the Karkhah, and now we get zero.”

Iraq was once self-sufficient in food, but now imports 70 per cent of its needs. Locally grown watermelons and tomatoes are for sale beside the road or in the markets, but most of what Iraqis eat comes from Iran or Turkey or is purchased by the government on the world market.

This amount is set to increase this year because the filling of the Ilisu dam in Turkey is forcing the Iraqi government to restrict the growing of rice and wheat by farmers in order to conserve water used for irrigation.

This man-made drought is only the latest blow to hit Iraqi farmers.

​Imad Naja, a returned colonel in the Iraqi air force, inherited his small family farm near Awad al-Hussein village outside Taji, north of Baghdad, 15 years ago where he at first grew wheat and other crops as well as taking up bee-keeping and fish farming. He produced half a ton of honey a year and dug a fish pond close to his house.

“I feel sad that I put so much work into my farm and look at it now,” he says, explaining that three-quarters of his land is no longer cultivated because it cannot be irrigated. He grows alfalfa for sale as animal feed in the remainder but his beehives lie discarded in one corner of his garden and there are no fish in the pond.

He says: “I get some water from a well that we drilled ourselves, but it is salty.”

He makes more money from hiring out a football pitch he has built behind a high-wire fence than he does from agriculture.

Iraq has a complex network of irrigation channels built over the last century to carry water from the Tigris and Euphrates.

One such channel, named 43, runs close to Mr Naja’s house and, on the day we visited, was full of muddy water that comes from the Tigris. Mr Naja says this may look good, but he is only getting the water for two days each fortnight, which is not enough to cultivate all his land.

“I could manage if I got water for seven days out of 14 but not less,” he says.

As with everything else in Iraq, security or the lack of it plays a central role in the villages around Taji. This is a Sunni area which used to be a stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq and later of Isis. Mr Naja had been the local leader of al-Sahwah, the paramilitary Sunni movements allied to the US against al-Qaeda a dozen years ago. As Isis advanced south after capturing Mosul in 2014, Taji was heavily fought over, with checkpoints blocking the roads and making travel dangerous.

Mr Naja looks relaxed about his own security, but he has moved his wife and five sons and daughters to Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, not only for their safety but because he wants his children to go to good schools not available locally.

A problem is that Irbil used to be two hours’ drive from Taji, but clashes between Kurdish and government forces last year cut the main road and Mr Naja has to make a long diversion so the trip now takes six hours. Nevertheless, he is planning to restock his fish pond.

Can anything be done by Iraq to cope with Iraq’s chronic shortage of water? The government does not have enough political leverage in Turkey and Iran to get a greater share of the water which previously flowed into Iraq. Mr Janabi shows a report on how to successfully manage water in Iraq over the next 20 years. It is a hefty volume, but he said that it is merely the introduction to a complete study of the water crisis that weighs 35 kilos. This apparently explains how Iraq’s water problems could be alleviated, though at a cost of $184bn (£140bn) that the government does not have.

Iraqis are all too aware that the failing supply of water is changing the very appearance of their country. Mr Sabti has just opened an art exhibition in Baghdad in which 90 landscape paintings by Iraqi artists show pastoral views of rivers, lakes, marshes, palm groves, crops and vegetation. “We need to preserve the memory of these places before the Tigris and Euphrates dry up,” he explains. “Some of them will disappear next year because there will be no water.”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Drought, Iraq, Syria 
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Iraq has put to death 13 people convicted of terrorism offences hours after the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, ordered the execution of hundreds of prisoners on death row in retaliation for the killing by Isis of eight members of the security forces.

The hangings are aimed at quelling public anger over signs that Isis is re-emerging as a threat after the group showed eight captives, who were badly bruised and looked as if they had been severely beaten, on a video last weekend and said that they would be killed unless Sunni women prisoners were released by the government within three days.

The government says that autopsies on the bodies of dead men, six of whom belonged to the logistics department of the paramilitary Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Committees, showed that they were shot and killed before this deadline expired.

An Iraqi government official, speaking to The Independent just before the discovery of the bodies, said that Isis fighters targeting the main Baghdad-Kirkuk road were based in the rugged Hamrin mountains, a traditional Isis stronghold.

Isis suicide bombers based in the Syrian border area are continually trying to reach Baghdad but “so far they have failed”.

He added that Iraqi security forces now have good intelligence about Isis plans and personnel after luring back to Iraq five senior Isis leaders it had captured and interrogated. It appears Isis is keen to revert to guerrilla war similar to that which it waged successfully before its explosive expansion when it captured Mosul in 2014, but so far it has had only limited success.

Isis advances are mainly in Diyala, Salahudin and Kirkuk provinces north of Baghdad where Isis fighters can often recruit local guides from Sunni displaced from their villages who are looking to return.

Ahmed Abdul Jabbar al-Kraiym, head of the Salahudin provincial council, said at a press conference this week that dozens of people have been killed and kidnapped in Salahudin.

He warned of “a catastrophic situation in the province if the government does not deal with the increasing presence of Daesh (Isis) militants, as some families have started to leave their homes because of the extremist militants”.

Blaming the government and security forces for the deterioration of the security situation in his province, Mr Kraiym said that the security forces “are busy with smuggling fuel and taking bribes from the citizens at checkpoints, while neglecting the security file”.

The kidnapping on the main road north of Baghdad and the discovery of the eight mutilated bodies, which were booby-trapped with explosives, is reawakening fears that political leaders have been diverted from finishing off Isis by the jockeying for power by different parties before and after the general election in May.

To prove that it is reacting forcefully, the Iraqi authorities for the first time on Friday released pictures of the condemned men, dressed in yellow or black, blindfolded and facing a wall with their wrists handcuffed behind their backs, as well as a picture of the actual hanging.

Earlier Mr Abadi had called for “just retribution” against all prisoners sentenced to death for terrorism who had exhausted the appeals process. The government has not said how many prisoners might be executed, but the number on death row is reported to number 300, of whom 100 are foreign women convicted of belonging to Isis.

The number for those already executed is also unknown, according to Belkis Wille, the Baghdad-based senior Iraq and Qatar researcher for Human Rights Watch.

She said that a serious concern is that “the vast majority of cases rely solely on confessions and that torture is extensively practised to extract these confessions”.

She said that despite this, lawyers for the accused have told her that appeals against death sentences on the grounds that the accused were tortured into confessing are almost always rejected by the courts.

By one estimate, the Iraqi security forces have taken 20,000 prisoners in the past three years of its anti-Isis campaign.

Violence has ebbed swiftly over the past year after Isis was defeated when it lost Mosul and Raqqa, its de facto capitals in Iraq and Syria, which were both captured after long and destructive sieges in the second half of last year.

Isis today only controls a few pockets of territory, the largest of which is in Deir Ezzor province in eastern Syria, close to the Iraqi border.

Anxiety is growing that Isis is not completely finished and is taking advantage of political divisions in Iraq after the inconclusive election in May, fears expressed on Friday by the supreme Shia religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani through his representative in the holy city of Kerbala.

He said that “it is not correct to get distracted with election results and forming alliances or fighting over positions from doing what is necessary to destroy the terrorists and provide protection for citizens in all areas and provinces”.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS 
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Iraq was until recently the most dangerous country in the world. When sectarian killings were at their height 12 years ago, a hundred people were being slaughtered every day. Young men were particularly vulnerable and would sometimes have a small symbol, such as an olive tree, tattooed on their skin so that their bodies could be identified even if their faces were mutilated beyond recognition by their killers.

Gruesome memories are still fresh in the minds of Iraqis: as recently as 2014, columns of Isis fighters who had just captured Mosul were advancing speedily towards Baghdad, posting online revolting videos of their massacres to terrorise and demoralise anybody resisting them.

It is scarcely surprising that people in Baghdad are only slowly readjusting to the swift ebbing of violence since the recapture of Mosul and the defeat of Isis a year ago. Iraq is now suffering less violence than at any time since the US invasion of 2003. Better still, the country may be coming to the end of a 40-year period of foreign and civil wars.

Talking to people in Baghdad, I am struck by how the fear of violence is receding much more slowly than the reality. I have great respect for Iraqis’ well-honed survival instincts and know that permanent pessimism about the future has been a safe bet in Iraq ever since Saddam Hussein assumed total power and soon afterwards started the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. A friend in Baghdad once told me, “No Iraqi can be proved to be paranoid because in our country there is always something to be frightened of.”

Habits of wariness and suspicion are slow to disappear. I was in the countryside near Taji, formerly a Sunni insurgent stronghold north of Baghdad, this week. I met a farmer who said, “I know people from here who have not been to Baghdad for 10 years because they are frightened of being picked up at government checkpoints.” Driving back from Taji, somebody in the car asked me to “take off your seatbelt – no Iraqi ever wears one and it identifies you as a foreigner.”

I know that itch of constant anxiety about one’s safety: as security deteriorated after 2003, I would drive around Baghdad in one car, deliberately grubby and beat-up looking to avoid attracting attention, with a second car to see if we were being followed and to warn us by hand-radio. I would hang a couple of shirts from a hook by the window as people do when they are returning from the dry cleaner, but the real reason was to make it difficult to see me in the back seat of the car, without suggesting that we were trying to hide anything.

Such precautions go on longer than are strictly necessary, because nobody wants to find out the hard way that they have made premature and over-optimistic assumptions about the absence of danger. Yet confidence is slowly returning in Baghdad: there may be few cranes on the skyline but new restaurants, clothes shops and shopping malls are opening all the time.

Isis bombers are no longer getting through to Baghdad after losing their old Iraqi bases. “Suicide bombers have been trying for months to cross the Syrian border and make their way to Baghdad but they are being stopped there or in the desert before they get here,” said a government security official. Isis is weaker and more easily penetrated by informants and, even if a single bomber does succeed, there will not be a return to the multiple attacks of a few years ago.

Improved security means that people focus more on the innumerable other things that are wrong with Iraq. I first came to Baghdad in 1977, just before everything went sour. The physical appearance of the city has not changed much since then because there are few new big buildings. Resources were instead poured into wars or were stolen by those in charge of reconstruction. As a result, an infrastructure built for two million people in Baghdad is now used by four times as many and the city has some of the worst traffic jams in the world.

Oil revenues have risen because of increased production and higher world prices but this is not enough to do much about 40 years of neglect. Mudher Salih, financial adviser to the prime minister Haider al-Abadi, says, “Iraq has between 400,000 and 420,000 young people entering the labour force each year and there are few jobs for them.” Some 4.5 million people work for the government, which cannot afford to hire more, and 6.5 million for the private sector, which is often archaic and operates in the grey market.

Great numbers of unemployed or underemployed young men – fewer women are to be seen – mill about in the streets. In Sadr City, the great Shia working class enclave in Baghdad, locals say that even among those who can afford to get married the divorce rate is going up because jobless husbands cannot support their family. The best jobs are in the army and police where an officer earns three times as much as a teacher, but these have all been snapped up.

The impulse to flee Iraq and its troubles is overwhelming for many, though frustrated by lack of work visas. Buying a local phone in the Karrada district, I met Rami who was wearing a blue T-shirt with the slogan “I Choose Leave” printed on the front in large white letters. The T-shirt must have been intended for the the British referendum campaign of 2016 but, perhaps because of over-supply in the UK, had ended up being sold in Baghdad where its slogan has a different implication.

I asked Rami if he knew the meaning of the words on his T-shirt and, though he did not speak much English, he said that he did and they precisely expressed his ambition to leave Iraq. I mentioned that the declaration on the T-shirt had originally referred to Britain leaving the European Union which Rami found amusing, though he said he had never heard of the Brexit referendum.

I could see why Rami might be particularly eager to get out of Iraq: his shop is close to the site of one of the worst Isis atrocities in Baghdad when they exploded a bomb on 3 July 2016 that killed at least 323 people. Most of those who died were not killed by the explosion but were trapped by fires in nearby shopping centres that had no emergency exits. The district today looks dismal and half-empty with many shops shut. “People think this place is cursed,” remarked a friend as we drove past.

Such ghastly memories are impossible to discount and it is only a year since Isis went down to defeat. The Iraqi state is weak and the recent general election inconclusive. But, despite all these past horrors, life in Baghdad is returning to some form of normality in which staying alive is not the only preoccupation.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


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