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Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter the militants' gruesome tactics

There is a scene in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass in which Alice meets the White Knight who is wearing full armour and riding a horse off which he keeps falling. Alice expresses curiosity about why he has placed spiked metal anklets on his horse’s legs just above the hoofs. “To guard against the bites of sharks,” he explains, and proudly shows her other ingenious devices attached to himself and his horse.

Alice notices that the knight has a mouse trap fastened to his saddle. “I was wondering what the mouse trap was for,” says Alice. “It isn’t very likely there would be any mice on the horse’s back.” “Not very likely, perhaps,” says the Knight, “but if they do come, I don’t choose to have them running all about.” It’s as well “to be provided for everything”, adds the Knight. As he explains his plans for countering these supposed dangers, he continues to tumble off his horse.

The White Knight’s approach to military procurement is very similar to that of the American and British military establishments. They drain their budgets to purchase vastly expensive equipment to meet threats that may never exist, much like the sharks and mice that menace Alice’s acquaintance. Thus the Pentagon spends $400bn (£257bn) on developing the F-35 fighter (Britain is buying planes at a cost of £100m each) to gain air superiority over Russia and China in the event of a war with either power. Meanwhile, equipment needed to fight real wars is neglected, even though no answer has been found to old-fashioned weapons such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that caused two-thirds of the US-led coalition’s casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A strange aspect of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that there has been so little criticism of the failure of expensively equipped Western armies to defeat lightly armed and self-trained insurgents. This is in sharp contrast to the aftermath of the US Army’s failure to win the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. The question is of more than historic interest because the US, UK and other allies are re-entering the wars in Iraq and Syria where they are seeking to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).

Perhaps the military are not being blamed for lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan because the failure there is seen as political, rather than military. There is some truth in this, but it is also true that army commanders have been agile in avoiding responsibility for what went wrong. A senior US diplomat asked me in exasperation in Baghdad five or six years ago: “Whatever happened to the healthy belief the American public had after Vietnam that our generals seldom tell the truth?”

Iraq this year has seen a more grotesque and wide-ranging failure than the inability to cope with IEDs. The Iraqi Army was created and trained by the US at great expense, but this summer it was defeated by a far smaller and less well-armed force of insurgents led by Isis. It was one of the most shameful routs in history, as Iraqi Army commanders abandoned their men, jumped into helicopters and fled. The new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, admits that 50,000 “ghost soldiers” in the Iraqi Army had never existed and their salaries fraudulently diverted into their officers’ pockets.

The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police Service, some 350,000 soldiers and 650,000 police, had been built by the US at a cost of $26bn since 2003, according to the recent report of the US Special Investigator General for Iraq Reconstruction. It is a fascinating document that demands answers to many questions, such as how did $9.4bn get spent on training, staffing and supplying the Iraqi police, though this force is notorious for its corruption and incompetence. Another $3.4bn went on supplying the Iraqi Army with tanks, aircraft, boats, armoured personnel carriers and other equipment, much of which was later captured by Isis. Curiously, Isis was immediately able to find crews for the tanks and artillerymen for the guns without any lengthy and expensive training programmes.

The 3,000 American soldiers President Obama has sent back into Iraq are to start training the remaining 26 brigades of the Iraqi Army all over again, without anybody asking what went wrong between 2003 and 2014. Why is it that Isis recruits can fight effectively after two weeks’ military training and two weeks’ religious instruction, but the Iraqi Army cannot? Maybe the very fact of being foreign-trained delegitimises them in their own eyes and that of their people.

Renewed foreign military intervention in Iraq and Syria is primarily in the form of air strikes of which there have been more than 1,000 since bombing started in Iraq on 8 August. What is striking about these figures is that there have been so few compared to the 48,224 air strikes during the 43 days of bombing against Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991. A reason for this is that Isis is a guerrilla force that can be dispersed, so only about 10 per cent of missions flown actually lead to air strikes against targets on the ground.

Only against the Isis forces besieging the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobani in northern Syria is the US Air Force able to inflict heavy casualties. It is not clear why Isis continues with a battle where it is most vulnerable to air power, but the probable reason is that it wants to prove it can win another divinely inspired victory, despite heavy air attacks.

In more than 10 years of war in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, it is the insurgents and not those in charge of Western military policy and procurement who have developed the most effective cocktail of military tactics and methods of attack suited to local circumstances. These include various types of IEDs supplemented by booby traps that make those few areas reconquered from Isis dangerous for soldiers and uninhabitable for civilians.

IS has turned suicide bombing by individuals or by vehicles packed with explosives into an integral part of their fighting repertoire, enabling them to make devastating use of untrained but fanatical foreign volunteers. Isis deploys well-trained snipers and mortar teams, but its most effective weapon is spreading terror by publicising its atrocities through the internet.

Gruesome though these tactics are, they are much more effective than anything developed by Western armies in these same conflicts. Worse, Western training encourages an appetite on the part of its allies for helicopters, tanks and artillery that only have limited success in Iraqi conditions, although bombing does have an impact in preventing Isis using a good road system for attacks by several hundred fighters in convoys of pick-up trucks and captured Humvees.

While Isis may be suffering more casualties, it is in a position to recruit tens of thousands fighters from the population of at least five or six million that it controls. Six months after the Islamic State was declared, it has not grown smaller. As with the White Knight, the US and its allies are not undertaking the measures necessary to fight their real enemy.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS 
The White House wanted to justify the 2003 invasion

The CIA tortured al-Qaeda suspects because it wanted evidence that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9/11 in order to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The agency was under intense pressure from the White House and senior figures in the Bush administration to extract confessions confirming co-operation between the Iraqi leader and al-Qaeda, although no significant evidence was ever found.

The CIA has defended its actions by claiming that it was “unknowable” if torture had produced results, although the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, maintains torture produced nothing of value.

A second line of defence put forward by defenders of the CIA is to say that the agency was swept up in the reaction to 9/11 in the US and needed to find out quickly if there were going to be further attacks.

Telling evidence about the motives of the CIA in instituting its torture programme comes in a report on detainee abuse issued by the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2009. It cited a former US Army psychiatrist, Major Charles Burney, who had been stationed at Guantanamo Bay, as saying interrogators were compelled to give priority to one line of questioning.

“A large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq,” he said. When interrogators failed to do this “there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results”.

This explanation is confirmed by an unnamed former senior US intelligence officer familiar with the interrogations, who told the McClatchy news agency that there were two reasons “why these interrogations were so persistent and why extreme methods were used”. One was fear there might be a second attack by al-Qaeda. He added that “for most of 2002 and into 2003, [Vice-President Dick] Cheney and [Defence Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld were also demanding proof of the links between al-Qaeda and Iraq.”

On being told repeatedly by the CIA that there was no reliable intelligence about such links, Mr Cheney and Mr Rumsfeld insisted harsher methods be used. The officer said: “There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people to push harder.”

The most severe torture sessions took place in the run-up to the war in 2003, suggesting that rather than preventing further action by al-Qaeda, the US administration was intent on justifying the invasion of Iraq. One prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, who was wrongly thought to be an al-Qaeda leader by his interrogators, was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times in March 2003. The first questions asked of the latter after he was captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, were all about Iraq and not about forthcoming al-Qaeda attacks, according to The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan.

Senior members of the Bush administration went on pressing for the use of brutal methods amounting to torture against Iraqi prisoners taken after the invasion, trying to make them corroborate an al-Qaeda connection. Summers and Swan cite the CIA’s Charles Duelfer, in charge of interrogating Iraqi officials, as saying that senior officials in Washington, although not in the CIA, had suggested waterboarding an Iraqi official to get the evidence they wanted. Two other US intelligence officers said the proposal came from Mr Cheney’s office.

The CIA was in a poor position to resist pressure from the administration because of its failure to predict or prevent 9/11. But for security agencies, it was a moment of opportunity to gain bigger budgets, more personnel and wider authority in order to punish the perpetrators and prevent a second attack.

Rewards went to any person or institution showing activity in pursuing these ends, regardless of its effectiveness. One use of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” programme was to make the CIA a more important player when it came to bureaucratic rivalries in Washington.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq War, Torture 
Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted

The justifications for its actions given by the CIA since the publication of the Senate report on torture are similar to those given by torturers down the ages. They claim that the information obtained by inflicting intolerable pain is of the greatest value and could not have been obtained by any other means. The information is certainly there in great quantities because the victims of torture invariably confess to stop the agony and say what their tormentors most want to hear.

John O Brennan, the director of the CIA, gave the game away when he said on Thursday that it was “unknowable” whether the brutal interrogation techniques employed by the CIA had produced useful intelligence. But the point about important information is that we know if it increases our knowledge in a significant way. By claiming that there is no way to know if torture – renamed Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs) – produces such knowledge, Brennan is admitting failure. This confirms the tweet by the Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein that “there is no evidence that terror attacks were stopped, terrorists captured or lives saved through use of EITs”.

Torture always produces tainted information because it comes from somebody trying to avoid unbearable suffering. The interrogator is happy that he or she has uncovered conspiracies and plots, and happier still when these are confirmed in elaborate detail by other torture victims. Having unmasked these demonic intentions, which would not have been revealed by other means, interrogators come to discard all information not provided under extreme duress.

This distorted way of thinking became prevalent in the CIA. The Senate report has a revealing passage saying that the statement of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (“KSM”) “during his first day in CIA custody included an accurate description of a Pakistani/British operative, which was dismissed as having been provided during the initial ‘throwaway stage’ of information collection when the CIA believed detainees provided false or worthless information”. KSM was later water-boarded (simulated drowning) 183 times, leading him to make frequent confessions that later turned out to be false. Another section of the report says that “KSM fabrications led the CIA to capture and detain suspected terrorists who were later found to be innocent”.

A telling aspect of the CIA’s use of torture is how similar its experience was to those who have used it in other times. In the 1930s, Soviet security was convinced that the Soviet Union was full of traitors and spies because of thousands of confessions made under torture that corroborated each other in every detail. With each admission of guilt, new plotters were implicated and made their forced confessions in turn. In an earlier era, the identification, torture and killing of thousands of men and women accused of being witches in Europe produced many of the same arguments and some of the same methods used by the CIA. Rereading Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, I was repeatedly struck by similarities between the words and actions of the inquisitors then and now.

Torture and the belief in witchcraft were intimately linked. Trevor-Roper says that “the rise and decline of the European witch-craze corresponds generally with the rise and decline of judicial torture in Europe”. The witch-craze grew by its own momentum, and confessions appeared to support each other because those in charge of the interrogations used “identical works of reference, identical instructions to judges, identical leading questions supported by torments too terrible to bear”. England largely escaped the collective hysteria about witches that gripped the rest of Europe because it alone did not allow torture in ordinary criminal cases (treason was an exception).

The inquisitors then did not equivocate, like the CIA today, about their methods. They tortured men and women by crushing their fingers and toes in a vice, burning them with hot iron, breaking their bodies on the rack or using the leg screw that smashed the shin bone into pieces. Those who doubt that the CIA was torturing people should note that a prime method used by the CIA to extract information was sleep-deprivation. They should then read Trevor-Roper’s comment that earlier inquisitors found that “nothing was so effective as the tormentum insomniae, the torture of artificial sleeplessness” and that those who had withstood other horrors would finally yield to it “and confess themselves to be witches”.

A defender of the CIA’s actions might argue that there is a crucial difference between the torture of witches 400 years ago and that of members of al-Qaeda today. The former did not exist while those who carried out 9/11 do. But this argument raises two important points: in practice, the CIA conducted its torture programme with a sloppiness that indicates it was more interested in impressing the White House than it was in discovering real plots. How else to explain why it allowed contractors without experience of the Middle East or anything else to conduct interrogations? Given the size of the rewards – two psychologists received $81m – the interrogators had every incentive to pretend their work was valuable. In 2004 the CIA even managed to torture two of its informants, according to the report. It says that “after both detainees had spent approximately 24 hours shackled in the standing sleep deprivation position, CIA Headquarters confirmed that the detainees were former CIA sources”. Before being detained, the two CIA spies had tried to contact the agency again and again to say what they were doing and to provide intelligence.

There is another way in which the focus of the CIA on the so-called “core” al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden over the past 13 years has been damaging. The organisation conducted one devastatingly effective operation on 9/11, but in the years that followed it never had the capabilities that the US government pretended. Most of the botched operations that have been highly publicised in the media, such as the “underpants” and “shoe” bombers, were amateur efforts by rather pathetic individuals. But it was in the CIA’s interest to say it was doing sterling work in the hill villages of Yemen and Waziristan, combating such menaces.

Despite the CIA’s use of torture and the rendition of many others to torture in other countries including Syria and Libya, al-Qaeda-type movements have succeeded in creating their own state in Iraq and Syria, and today control large parts of Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia. While the CIA was forcing confessions to fabricated conspiracies, the heirs to the perpetrators of 9/11 were winning victories in the real world.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Torture 
It was an open secret Pakistan’s ISI fostered the Taliban but the US never confronted Islamabad

The controversy over the use of torture by the CIA obscures two important aspects of “the war on terror” which the agency was supposedly waging. The first is that this war has demonstrably failed since Isis, terrorists by any definition of the term, today rules a large part of the Middle East in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

It has achieved this success despite the vast budgets of American and European security agencies after 9/11. Not only did they fail to stop this happening: they do not seem to have even noticed it was occurring until it was too late. They were much happier focusing on Osama bin Laden’s core al-Qaeda that was a group of limited size even before it lost its bases in Afghanistan in 2001.

The continuing threat from al-Qaeda was exaggerated and the organisation was presented post-2001 as a sort of mini-Pentagon with senior officials who could be regularly eliminated or captured providing Washington with politically useful successes. But over the last 13 years such operations attributed to al-Qaeda were mostly petty. The end result of the CIA operations has been the triumph of a group, espousing much the same ideology and aims as Bin Laden, establishing its own state that stretches from the Iranian border to the outskirts of Aleppo.

A second aspect of the war on terror is that from the beginning it avoided targeting two countries without whose complicity 9/11 could not have happened: Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It was obvious within days of 9/11 that citizens of Saudi Arabia were heavily implicated, with 15 out of the 19 hijackers Saudi nationals. Bin Laden himself came from the Saudi elite and the US inquiry into the attack found that financing from al-Qaeda had come primarily from private donors in the Saudi Kingdom. But President George W Bush and his administration were not only careful not to point the finger at Saudi Arabia but had 28 pages of the official report on its role censored despite the pleas of the victims of 9/11. President Obama promised as a candidate to allow these pages to be published but has never done so.

Al-Qaeda had used Afghanistan as its sanctuary and the US duly overthrew the Taliban in 2001, but it was an open secret that the Taliban had been sponsored and even created by ISI, Pakistan’s military intelligence agency. Once the furore over 9/11 had died away Pakistan was to do exactly the same again, so the Taliban was able to wage a long guerrilla war to regain power. But, for all the US claims that it was battling al-Qaeda, it never confronted Pakistan as the silent partner of the Taliban. When Bin Laden was traced to Abbottabad, close to Pakistan’s leading military academy, it was highly likely that his presence was known to the Pakistan security services.

Al-Qaeda was a useful target of choice for the CIA because it was the villain of 9/11 and a demonic force in the eyes of the American public. The destruction of the Twin Towers had exhausted its capabilities and it could be combated without great difficulty. When very similar al-Qaeda type groups grew and flourished in Iraq, Syria and Libya post-2011, they were not identified as part of the original core group.

Thus successes are announced against al-Qaeda in Yemen but no attention paid to the fact that jihadis pledging allegiance to Isis have taken over the town of Derna in Libya and are a growing force throughout the country. Guilty the CIA may have been of torturing suspects, but this was one episode in a far greater failure for which it has never been held to account.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: CIA, Pakistan 
The authoritarian kingdom where doctors are tortured is a strange place for this £15m investment

The British decision to spend £15m establishing a naval base at Mina Salman Port in Bahrain is being presented as a “symbolic” deal to increase stability in the region, guard against unnamed threats and strengthen Britain’s partnership with the states of the Gulf.

The agreement will identify Britain as an old colonial power strongly supporting the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain that mercilessly crushed demands for democracy and civil rights from the island’s Shia majority during the Arab Spring in 2011. Even by the standards of the time, repression was excessive. Shia mosques and holy places were bulldozed. Doctors at the main hospital in Bahrain that treated injured protesters were tortured by being forced to stand without sleep for days on end. Other prisoners were told that unless they sang the praises of the king their interrogators would urinate into their mouths.

At the heart of the crisis convulsing this part of the Middle East is a struggle between Sunni and Shia, and Britain has openly taken the side of the former. It may not necessarily be a good long-term investment. The total population of states bordering on the Gulf is about 145 million of whom at least 110 million are Shia. It is a mistake to think that the Shia in the rest of the Middle East do not notice or care what happens to their co-religionists in Bahrain. The Islamic State (Isis) fighters have become the shock troops of the Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria but their extremism and international isolation may lead to a defeat for the Sunni in both countries.

There is no question about Bahrain’s toxic human rights record. An independent inquiry in 2011 catalogued abuses and, despite promises of reform, torture and mistreatment continue. Last year even the United States State Department, normally cautious when it comes to highlighting the failings of the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, said that the abuses in Bahrain included “citizens’ inability to change their government peacefully; arrest and detention of protesters on vague charges, in some cases leading to their torture in detention; and lack of due process in trials of political and human rights.”

Only last week Bahraini human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting the king” by tearing up his photograph. She had just given birth to her second child, and is free on bail pending appeal. Her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, is already in jail serving a life term for his role in encouraging the Arab Spring protests.

Nabeel Rajab, one of Bahrain’s leading human rights activists, was arrested on 1 October because he “offended national institutions” by his comments on social media. Mr Rajab had criticised the government for using counterterrorism laws to prosecute human rights defenders, and had accused the Bahraini security forces of encouraging violent beliefs similar to those of IS.

He pointed out that a former Bahraini interior ministry officer, Mohamed Isa al-Binali, had joined Isis and was calling on other interior ministry employees to do likewise. Among Mr Rajab’s tweets was one saying: “Many Bahrain men who joined terrorism & Isis came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator.” The Bahraini security forces often draw their personnel from other Sunni states such as Pakistan and Jordan and they then become naturalised Bahraini citizens. The Bahraini Shia say there is a continuing campaign to deny them jobs in all sectors and to change the demographic balance on the island in favour of the Sunni.

There has always been a strong strain of hypocrisy in the claims of the US and Britain to support secular democracy and civil rights in countries such as Libya and Syria. They do so in alliance with Sunni theocratic absolute monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and UAE which understandably have no interest in spreading secular democracy anywhere. In 2011, UAE said it would refuse to join the coalition against the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi if there was any criticism of Bahraini repression.

The most powerful figure in Bahrain is widely regarded as being not King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa but the Prime Minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa who has held his office since 1970. Calls for his resignation were one of the main demands of demonstrators three years ago, but he has steadfastly refused to step down.

Bahrain was a British protectorate from the 19th century until independence in 1971, ruled by the al-Khalifa dynasty that has long looked to Britain to shield it from international reaction against domestic repression. From the mid-1960s the head of security on the island was Ian Henderson who had played a role in the suppressing the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. Successive periods of protest were harshly dealt with. Since 2011 Britain has played a role in muting the international reaction to the suppression of the protests by emphasising that a dialogue is under way and reforms are being introduced, though nobody else sees any sign of these going anywhere. It has played along with Bahraini government claims that Iran is orchestrating Shia dissent on the island though there is no evidence for this.

Sectarian hatreds between the Sunni and Shia communities within Bahrain have deepened in the last three years with the Shia more marginalised than ever. There had been divisions within the royal family about how to handle dissent, with the King and Crown Prince seeking compromise and the Prime Minister and the branch of the al-Khalifa known as “Khawalids” opposed to sharing any power with the majority. But these differences seem to have ended with a victory for the latter faction which can increasingly ignore Shia protests that are confined to villages and the outskirts of the capital, Manama.

It is not at all clear why Britain needs to establish its first permanent naval base in the Middle East since 1970 in Bahrain, other than the fact that it is possible to do so. British intervention in Iraq after 2003 saw the deployment of ground troops in Basra, but they were far too few to control the city or the surrounding countryside. There was a political failure to understand the degree of popular hostility and resistance this force would face. Much the same happened in Helmand Province in Afghanistan after 2006, when again the numbers of British soldiers were too few to assert control while they were enough to provoke local opposition. The base in Bahrain will be used to support RAF operations against the Islamic State in Iraq, but these are on such a small scale that they will not do much to affect the outcome of the war with Isis. Most British disasters in the Middle East over the past century have stemmed from wishing to be a major player in the region, while underestimating the resources necessary to do so.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Bahrain, Britain 
Tehran may have formed an unlikely alliance with its sworn enemy, but a policy of open confrontation and covert...

The United States says Iranian F-4 Phantoms have carried out bombing raids against Isis north-east of Baghdad, a claim that appears to be confirmed by film of the aircraft taken from the ground.

Iran, however, denies that any of its planes are carrying out combat missions in Iraq. The raids are said to have taken place in Diyala province on the border with Iran, where there has been heavy fighting for months between Isis fighters, Shia militias and Kurdish Peshmerga. Isis has recently been driven out of the towns of Jalawla and Saadiyah.

An Iraqi security expert, Hisham al-Hashimi, told a news agency that 10 days ago: “Iranian planes hit some targets in Diyala. Of course, the government denies it because they have no radars.” Film appears to show an F-4 in action, a type of aircraft only used by Iran and Turkey.

It is not clear why Iran should have used its air force for the first time in Iraq, though it has been giving heavy publicity to the role of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, in inspiring and organising Shia militias.

Having long remained in the shadows, Mr Soleimani began to allow himself to be photographed and filmed in company with militia commanders. The militias are the main fighting force of the Baghdad government whose 350,000-strong army disintegrated when attacked by Isis in northern and western Iraq over the last six months.

The US and Iran were quick to deny that they are co-ordinating military action against Isis, though they are pursuing parallel policies in seeking to defend the governments in Baghdad and Irbil. The Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told a news briefing on Tuesday that the United States was not co-ordinating its military activities with Iran, and added that it was up to the Iraqis to manage Iraqi air space.

“It’s the Iraqi air space and [Iraq’s] to deconflict. We are not co-ordinating with nor are we deconflicting with Iranian military,” Admiral Kirby said. However, it is likely that, if Iranian aircraft were in action, Iran would have told Baghdad what they were doing and the Iraqi military would have passed this on to the Americans.

John Kerry would not confirm that Iran had launched the strikes, saying it was “up to them or up to the Iraqis to do that, if indeed it took place”. He said that if Iran did decide to launch strikes against Isis then the “net effect is positive”.

US-Iranian policy in Iraq has been a mixture of open confrontation and covert co-operation since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, whom both governments opposed in 2003. Today, they both want to stop and, if possible, eliminate Isis and at the same time expand their own influence.

The recently displaced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki remained in power for eight years because he was able to win the support of Washington and Tehran despite the extreme incompetence and corruption of his government. The US and Iran both eased the process of forcing him to leave office though he remains a force. He recently made a trip to Iran, where was received at the highest level.

The Iranian denial that its planes had conducted air raids was categorical as it was its rebuttal of any suggestion that it is co-operating with the US in Iraq. “Iran has never been involved in any air strikes against Daesh [Isis] targets in Iraq. Any co-operation in such strikes with America is also out of the question for Iran,” a senior official said.

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, in Brussels for a meeting of the US-led coalition against Isis, said he was not aware of any Iranian air strikes. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said the US-led coalition had inflicted serious damage on Isis, carrying out around 1,000 air strikes so far in Iraq and Syria, but the fight against the militants could last years.

Both Washington and Tehran were horrified when the Iraqi government suffered a complete defeat at Mosul on 10 June when attacked by much smaller Isis forces.

The US had spent years training the Iraqi army only to see it dissolve without fighting. Mr Maliki was increasingly seen as being under Iran’s influence, but it was a severe blow to Iran to watch the Shia-dominated government in Iraq collapse as the Sunni Arabs revolted. This brought America back as an important player in Iraq whose aid was once more badly needed by Baghdad and Irbil.

The Baghdad government now rules a Shia rump state that does little without conferring with Iran. When Isis attacked the Iraqi Kurds on 1 August and defeated the Peshmerga, so threatening Irbil, the US stepped in with air strikes and Iran sent advisers and artillery, say Kurdish sources.

The knowledge that at the end of the day the US and Iran will step in to prevent an Isis victory has done much to restore Iraqi army and Kurdish morale that had been undermined by Isis’s terror tactics and surprise assaults.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iran, ISIS, Shias and Sunnis 
Their officers receive their salaries fraudulently according to the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi

The Iraqi army includes 50,000 “ghost soldiers” who do not exist, but their officers receive their salaries fraudulently according to the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. “The Prime Minister revealed the existence of 50,000 fictitious names,” said a statement after a thorough headcount during the latest salary payments.

The Iraqi army has long been notorious for being wholly corrupt with officers invariably paying for their jobs in order to make money either through drawing the salaries of non-existent soldiers or through various other scams. One Iraqi politician told The Independent a year ago that Iraqi officers “are not soldiers, they are investors”. In the years before the defeat of the army in Mosul in June by a much smaller force from Isis, Iraqi units never conducted training exercises. At the time of Isis’s Mosul offensive, government forces in Mosul were meant to total 60,000 soldiers and federal police but the real figure was probably closer to 20,000.

“Ghost” soldiers may never have existed and just be fictitious names added to the roster, or they may once have existed but been killed or deserted without this being officially noted. In either case, the officer in a unit would keep receiving the salary, though he would have to share it with his superiors. Another scam is for soldiers to kick back part of their salary to their officer in return for staying at home or holding another job but never going near a barracks. Mr Abadi’s figure of 50,000 is probably only a modest estimate of the numbers of Iraqi soldiers who play no military role.

Asked why the Iraqi army had disintegrated at Mosul, a retired four-star general said the explanation was “corruption, corruption, corruption”. He said that this had become institutionalised when the US was building a new Iraqi army after dissolving the old one in 2003. The Pentagon insisted that supplies of food and other necessities be outsourced to private companies. The general said that as a result the Iraqi government might be paying for a battalion with a nominal strength of 600 men, but which in fact had only 200 soldiers. Profits would be shared between officers and commercial companies supposedly supplying the army.

Another source of earnings for officers are checkpoints on the roads which act like customs barriers on national frontiers. All goods being transported have to pay a tariff and this will again go into the pockets of the officer corps. These will have paid highly for promotion, with the bribe for becoming a colonel $200,000 (£127,000) and a divisional commander $2m. This money would usually be borrowed and paid back out earnings.

When fighting began in Anbar province at the start of this year as Isis seized territory, Iraqi army units often found that the supply system was so corrupt and dysfunctional that they did not receive enough food or even ammunition. Soldiers going to the front complained that they received only four clips of ammunition for their Kalashnikovs.

It will be difficult to reform the army which nominally had 15 divisions before the fall of Mosul on 10 June. The former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki controlled military appointments out of his own office and gave senior jobs only to those who were personally loyal to him. Those who were not, or had failed to bribe the right people, were marginalised or retired as were most Sunni Arab officers who might have had military experience in Saddam Hussein’s army.

The top commanders of the Iraqi army abandoned their troops when the battle for Mosul was at its height, fleeing by helicopter to the Kurdish capital Irbil. Despite pledges to rebuild the army and the arrival of American trainers, Baghdad government forces lost most of Anbar province in October with bases being besieged and overrun by Isis without being relieved or supplied from the outside. Instead, Baghdad has been relying on three large Shia militias that are partly under the control of Iran.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq 
The Home Secretary's counter-terrorism Bill is unlikely to make the militants lose any sleep

There have been two interesting initiatives on “terrorism” over the month, both highly revealing in different ways about opposition to Islamic State (Isis). The first is a ludicrous document issued by the government of the United Arab Emirates that lists as “terrorist organisations” no less than 85 groups, coupling well-regarded Muslim charities with violent jihadis such as Isis. The second initiative is a carefully considered speech by Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May, explaining a new counter-terrorism and security law aimed at detecting and rendering harmless potential terrorists. What these two declarations have in common is that neither is likely to be much of an impediment to terrorism.

The list issued by the UAE cabinet on 15 November is so sloppy in composition and puerile in intent that it is easy to miss its significance. In addition to Isis, the groups characterised as “terrorist” include Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. But also listed are Islamic Relief, a respected British-based aid agency and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the biggest Muslim civil rights and lobbying group in the US. By denouncing a potpourri of different groups, the UAE can satisfy the US, Britain and other Western allies that it has outlawed Isis, while in practice diluting its denunciation of the one terrorist group that is a powerful state the size of Britain.

The true policy priorities of the UAE and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, are evident from the way Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups and Shia movements are singled out as terrorists. Of course, the real objection of absolutist rulers of the Gulf to the Muslim Brotherhood has nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with the movement standing for elections and winning them in countries such as Egypt (before the government was overthrown by a military coup backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE). Almost any Shia group can be termed “terrorist” according to the UAE, since it lists the powerful Houthi movement of Yemen that holds the capital Sanaa, as well as the Badr Organisation whose senior members are part of the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

All this is good news for Isis because it shows that the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf are still focussed on their confrontation with the Shia rather than with defeating Sunni jihadis in Iraq and Syria. They may have had their arms twisted by the Americans to force them to send a few planes to bomb Isis targets, but their basic sympathies have not changed. The West may be focussing, though in an ineffective way, on how to combat the Sunni jihadis, but the Sunni monarchs are more alarmed by what they see as the Shia becoming the predominant power in four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. As one observer in Baghdad put it: “The Sunni rulers may fear the Islamic State, but they still like the idea that it causes more trouble to the Shia than it does to them.”

The diversity of opponents identified in the UAE terrorist list has important consequences for policy. President Obama put together a coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Isis, but largely excluded those who are actually fighting it on the ground. The contradictions in the US approach are both patent and self-defeating. The US, Britain and France want to defeat IS but also displace President Bashar al-Assad. But if Assad goes and the Syrian army then disintegrates, as it likely would, the chief beneficiaries would be IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. In brief, the need to keep the Sunni states, including Turkey, on board in fighting Isis has meant adopting a strategy against the jihadis that is bound to fail.

Theresa May’s speech last Monday recognises the gravity of the jihadi threat and the way it has fundamentally changed in nature over the past six months. She said that “unlike other terrorist organisations, Isil [as Isis is also known] has the ambition to become a state in its own right with all the financial clout and the military and technological possibilities statehood brings.” In fact, the caliphate declared by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on 29 June is not a future ambition, but exists as a real state when it comes to the ability to defend its own territory. With its beliefs and actions publicised by the internet and social media, the new state is inspiring young Muslims to travel to Syria and Iraq to fight and has “given energy and a renewed sense of purpose to subversive Islamist organisations and radical organisations in Britain.”

This is all very true, but the measures in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill are marginal and arguably counter-productive when it comes to dealing with the threat posed by Isis. Schools, colleges, universities, the police, prisons, the probation service and local government are supposed to be drawn into preventing “radicalisation”, a term so loose as to be meaningless. The movement of jihadis in and out of Britain is to be more closely monitored and possibly prevented. Internet providers are to give more information about the identity of users and there are to be measures against insurance companies being involved in payment of ransoms.

None of these measures will make Isis or other jihadis lose much sleep. Increased surveillance and controls might have some effect on what Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, described as “misguided young men, rather pathetic figures” who reveal their intentions on the internet and social media. In reality, Isis is an obsessively secretive organisation that last week shut down the phone system in Mosul because it believed people were disclosing information about its movements.

These minor adjustments to security and surveillance avoid the main issue which is not technical but political. It is impossible to police British borders effectively without bringing ports and airports to a halt or allocating vastly more resources to the system. Demonising Muslim or other educational institutions for failing to prevent something as vague as “radicalisation” will simply fuel Islamophobia and a sense of persecution among Muslims.

The real objection to Theresa May’s counter-terrorism Bill is not so much its possible impact on civil liberties but that it gives the impression that something is being done about “terrorism” when it is not. The place to stop British jihadis is not Heathrow but the crossing points on the Syrian-Turkish border through which jihadis still pass into land held by Isis. Getting Turkey to close its 610-mile frontier with Syria will take intense political pressure on a powerful and uncooperative Turkish state, but it is only by these means that potential terrorists can be impeded.

Becoming dangerously “radicalised” in effect means adopting a violent sectarian anti-Shia ideology akin to Saudi Wahhabism. Stopping this happening means confronting Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE over their support and funding for Sunni fundamentalism. To do this requires a political decision from the Prime Minister not the Home Secretary. The failure to take such action against the real sources of terror in the wake of 9/11 is the reason why Isis exists today.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, ISIS, Shias and Sunnis 
After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything

Two years ago Jalal Yako, a Syriac Catholic priest, returned to his home town of Qaraqosh to persuade members of his community to stay in Iraq and not to emigrate because of the violence directed against them.

“I was in Italy for 18 years, and when I came back here my mission was to get Christians to stay here,” he says. “The Pope in Lebanon two years ago had established a mission to get Christians in the East to stay here.”

Father Yako laboured among the Syriac Catholics, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, who had seen the number of Christians in Iraq decline from over one million at the time of the American invasion in 2003 to about 250,000 today. He sought to convince people in Qaraqosh, an overwhelmingly Syriac Catholic town, that they had a future in Iraq and should not emigrate to the US, Australia or anywhere else that would accept them. His task was not easy, because Iraqi Christians have been frequent victims of murder, kidnapping and robbery.

But in the past six months Father Yako has changed his mind, and he now believes that, after 2,000 years of history, Christians must leave Iraq. Speaking at the entrance of a half-built mall in the Kurdish capital Irbil where 1,650 people from Qaraqosh have taken refuge, he said that “everything has changed since the coming of Daesh (the Arabic acronym for Islamic State). We should flee. There is nothing for us here.” When Islamic State (Isis) fighters captured Qaraqosh on 7 August, all the town’s 50,000 or so Syriac Catholics had to run for their lives and lost all their possessions.

Many now huddle in dark little prefabricated rooms provided by the UN High Commission for Refugees amid the raw concrete of the mall, crammed together without heat or electricity. They sound as if what happened to them is a nightmare from which they might awaken at any moment and speak about how, only three-and-a-half months ago, they owned houses, farms and shops, had well-paying jobs, and drove their own cars and tractors. They hope against hope to go back, but they have heard reports that everything in Qaraqosh has been destroyed or stolen by Isis.

Some have suffered worse losses. On the third floor of the shopping mall in Irbil down a dark corridor sits Aida Hanna Noeh, 43, and her blind husband Khader Azou Abada, who was too ill to be taken out of Qaraqosh by Aida, with their three children, in the final hours before it was captured by Isis fighters. The family stayed in their house for many days, and then Isis told them to assemble with others who had failed to escape to be taken by mini-buses to Irbil. As they entered the buses, the jihadis stripped them of any remaining money, jewellery or documents. Aida was holding her three-and-a-half month old baby daughter, Christina, when the little girl was seized by a burly IS fighter who took her away. When Aida ran after him he told the mother to get back on the bus or he would kill her. She has not seen her daughter since.

It is not the savage violence of Isis only that has led Father Yako to believe that Christians have no future in Iraq. He points also to the failure of both the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to defend them against the jihadis. Christians in Iraq have traditionally been heavily concentrated in Baghdad, Mosul and the Nineveh Plain surrounding Mosul. But on 10 June some 1,300 Isis fighters defeated at least 20,000 Iraqi army soldiers and federal police and captured Mosul. The army generals fled in a helicopter. In mid-July Christians in the city were given a choice by Isis of either converting to Islam, paying a special tax, leaving or being executed. Almost all Christians fled the city.

Kurdish peshmerga moved into Qaraqosh and other towns and villages in the Nineveh Plain. They swore to defend their inhabitants, many of whom stayed because they were reassured by these pledges. Father Yako recalls that “before Qaraqosh was taken by Daesh there were many slogans by the KRG saying they would fight as hard for Qaraqosh as they would for Irbil. But when the town was attacked, there was nobody to support us.” He says that Christian society in Iraq is still shocked by the way in which the Iraqi and Kurdish governments failed to defend them.

Johanna Towaya, formerly a large farmer and community leader in Qaraqosh, makes a similar point. He says that up to midnight on 6 August the peshmerga commanders were assuring the Syriac Catholic bishop in charge of the town that they would defend it, but hours later they fled. Previously, they had refused to let the Christians arm themselves on the grounds that it was unnecessary. Ibrahim Shaaba, another resident of the town, said that he saw the Isis force that entered Qaraqosh early in the morning of 7 August and it was modest in size, consisting of only 10 vehicles filled with fighters.

At first, IS behaved with some moderation towards the 150 Christian families who, for one reason or another, could not escape. But this restraint did not last; looting and destruction became pervasive. Mr Towaya says that the Isis authorities in Mosul started “giving documents to anybody getting married in Mosul to enable them to go to Qaraqosh to take furniture [from abandoned Christian homes].”

As so many had fled, there are few who can give an account of how IS behaved in their newly captured Christian town. But one woman, Fida Boutros Matti, got to know all too well what Isis was like when she and her husband had to pretend to convert to Islam in order to save their lives and those of their children, before finally escaping. Speaking to The Independent on Sunday in a house in Irbil, where they are now living, she explained how she and her husband Adel and their young daughter Nevin and two younger sons, Ninos and Iwan, twice tried to flee but were stopped by Isis fighters.

“They took our money, documents and mobile phones and sent us home,” she says. “After 13 days they knocked on our door and the men were separated from the women. Thirty women were taken with their children to one house and told they must convert to Islam, pay a tax or be killed. We told them that since they had taken all our money, we could not pay them.” Four days later, some fighters burst into the house saying they would kill the women and the children if they did not convert.

Soon afterwards, Mrs Matti was taken to Mosul in a car with three other women and a guard who, she recalls, threw a grenade into a house on the way to frighten them. In Mosul they were taken first to al-Kindi prison, formerly an army camp, but did not enter it and then their guard got a phone call to bring them to a house in the Habba district of the city.

In the house, she and the three other Christian women were put in one room, next to another in which there were 30 Yazidi girls between 10 and 18 who were being repeatedly raped by the guards. Mrs Matti says that “the Yazidi girls were so young that I worried about Nevin and told the guards that she was eight years old though she is really 10”.

They told her that her husband, Adel, had converted to Islam. She asked to speak to him on the phone, saying she would do whatever he did. They spoke, and agreed that they had no choice but to convert if they wanted to survive.

When they appeared before an Islamic court in Mosul to register their conversion, their three children were given new, Islamic names: Aisha, Abdel-Rahman and Mohammed. They went to live in a house in a Sunni Muslim district and from there – here the husband and wife are circumspect about what exactly happened – they secured a phone and contacted relatives in Irbil. They said that they needed to take one of their children for medical treatment in Irbil, and, once there, they had a pre-arranged meeting with a driver who took them by a roundabout route through Kirkuk to the protection of the KRG.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Arab Christianity, Iraq, ISIS 
Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks

A suicide bomber blew himself up in a vehicle packed with explosives at the entrance to the governor’s office in the Kurdish capital Erbil today, killing at least four people. The attack was claimed by Isis with the aim of spreading insecurity in Kurdish-ruled northern Iraq by showing that the Islamic militants can evade security measures.

The bomber first tried to enter the compound of the governorate near the centre of the city and detonated his explosives when he was stopped by guards. The building has blast walls which may have reduced the damage, but two policemen and two civilians were killed, and 22 people were injured.

Well-armed guards quickly appeared at other likely targets in the city such as government buildings and hotels, with cars being barred from entering and told not to stop for more than a few seconds to leave off passengers.

The governorate, a grim looking building from Saddam Hussein’s times, is close to the ancient citadel of Erbil which is built on a hill made up of the ruins of earlier cities dating back 8,000 years. After the blast, open air markets in the area selling everything from old clothes to furniture, went on functioning despite the risk of a second bomb attack. This may be because people are inured to violence or because Kurds in Erbil have less experience of car bombs than other parts of Iraq. In a single week this month vehicle-borne bombs killed 159 and injured 336 Iraqis, the majority of them in Baghdad.

Isis has a large supply of suicide bombers and it uses such attacks to maintain a sense of insecurity even when it is not making ground attacks. Fanatical, but militarily untrained, foreign jihadis from countries like Britain or France, who would otherwise be useless to Isis as combatants, can be used as bombers against civilian and military targets.

It is the first big bomb attack in Erbil for over a year and underlines that Isis continues to pose a threat to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) which has favourably contrasted its security record with that of Baghdad, where bombings occur daily. Since June, the KRG has had a 650-mile common frontier with Isis which is too long to defend properly.

The failure of the Kurdish peshmerga to defend its positions in August when attacked by Isis had already created doubts among Kurds about the military effectiveness of their armed forces. Previously, the peshmerga was regarded as determined and effective because of its record in fighting Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, but this time it fled without offering serious resistance. In doing so it abandoned the Kurdish Yazidi minority to murder, rape and enslavement by Isis while the Christian community, one of the most ancient in the world, fled their homes and escaped to Erbil and elsewhere in the KRG.

Kurdish leaders say that their armed forces were outgunned by Isis, which had captured American-made armoured vehicles, artillery and tanks from the Iraqi Army. But interviews by The Independent with Yazidis and Christians, who saw Isis units enter their villages and towns, say that they were small in number and using soft-skinned civilian vehicles and not captured American Humvees. The KRG is demanding sophisticated heavy equipment from the US and other allies such as Apache helicopters, tanks and artillery before it stages a counter-offensive.

US air strikes and Iranian backing on the ground saved Erbil in August and steadied Kurdish morale, but it is still brittle. The Kurdish capital is full of refugees who are renting at high prices or living in half-built buildings or tents. The city has many housing and commercial developments but little construction work is going on because of the proximity of Isis forces which are an hour’s drive way.

The KRG is also short of money because it did not receive its share of Iraqi oil revenues for the last eight months because of a dispute with Baghdad. Many of the hotels and restaurants once packed with foreign business delegations attracted by the Kurdish oil boom are now half empty. If thes bomb is followed by others, Erbil’s reputation for being the safest part of Iraq will soon disappear.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Kurds 
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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