Baghdad is under siege
By Patrick Cockburn in Arbil, Northern Iraq
Independent" -- -- Sunni insurgents have cut the
roads linking the city to the rest of Iraq. The country is being
partitioned as militiamen fight bloody battles for control of
towns and villages north and south of the capital.
As American and British political leaders argue over
responsibility for the crisis in Iraq, the country has taken
another lurch towards disintegration.
Well-armed Sunni tribes now largely surround Baghdad and are
fighting Shia militias to complete the encirclement.
The Sunni insurgents seem to be following a plan to control all
the approaches to Baghdad. They have long held the highway
leading west to the Jordanian border and east into Diyala
province. Now they seem to be systematically taking over routes
leading north and south.
Dusty truck-stop and market towns such as Mahmoudiyah, Balad and
Baquba all lie on important roads out of Baghdad. In each case
Sunni fighters are driving out the Shia and tightening their
grip on the capital. Shias may be in a strong position within
Baghdad but they risk their lives when they take to the roads.
Some 30 Shias were dragged off a bus yesterday after being
stopped at a fake checkpoint south of Balad.
In some isolated neighbourhoods in Baghdad, food shortages are
becoming severe. Shops are open for only a few hours a day.
"People have been living off water melon and bread for the past
few weeks," said one Iraqi from the capital. The city itself has
broken up into a dozen or more hostile districts, the majority
of which are controlled by the main Shia militia, the Mehdi
The scale of killing is already as bad as Bosnia at the height
of the Balkans conflict. An apocalyptic scenario could well
emerge - with slaughter on a massive scale. As America prepares
its exit strategy, the fear in Iraq is of a genocidal conflict
between the Sunni minority and the Shias in which an entire
society implodes. Individual atrocities often obscure the bigger
* upwards of 1,000 Iraqis are dying violently every week;
* Shia fighters have taken over much of Baghdad; the Sunni
encircle the capital;
* the Iraqi Red Crescent says 1.5 million people have fled their
homes within the country;
* the Shia and Sunni militias control Iraq, not the enfeebled
army or police.
No target is too innocent. Yesterday a bomb tore through a party
of wedding guests in Ur, on the outskirts of Sadr City, killing
15 people, including four children. Iraqi wedding parties are
very identifiable, with coloured streamers attached to the cars
and cheering relatives hanging out the windows.
Amid all this, Dick Cheney, the US Vice-President, has sought to
turn the fiasco of Iraq into a vote-winner with his claim that
the Iraqi insurgents have upped their attacks on US forces in a
bid to influence the mid-term elections. There is little
evidence to support this. In fact, the number of American dead
has risen steadily this year from 353 in January to 847 in
September and will be close to one thousand in October.
And there is growing confusion over the role of the US military.
In Sadr City, the sprawling slum in the east of the capital that
is home to 2.5 million people, American soldiers have been
setting up barriers of cement blocks and sandbags after a US
soldier was abducted, supposedly by the Mehdi Army. The US also
closed several of the bridges across the Tigris river making it
almost impossible to move between east and west Baghdad. Nouri
al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, added to the sense of chaos
yesterday when he ordered the US army to end its Sadr City
Mr Maliki has recently criticised the US for the failure of its
security policy in Iraq and resisted American pressure to
eliminate the militias. Although President Bush and Tony Blair
publicly handed back sovereignty to Iraq in June 2004, Mr Maliki
said: "I am now Prime Minister and overall commander of the
armed forces yet I cannot move a single company without
Coalition [US and British] approval."
In reality the militias are growing stronger by the day because
the Shia and Sunni communities feel threatened and do not trust
the army and police to defend them. US forces have been moving
against the Mehdi Army, which follows the nationalist cleric
Muqtada al-Sadr, but he is an essential prop to Mr Maliki's
government. Almost all the main players in Iraqi politics
maintain their own militias. The impotence of US forces to
prevent civil war is underlined by the fact that the intense
fighting between Sunni and Shia around Balad, north of Baghdad,
has raged for a month, although the town is beside one of Iraq's
largest American bases. The US forces have done little and when
they do act they are seen by the Shia as pursuing a feud against
the Mehdi Army.
One eyewitness in Balad said two US gunships had attacked Shia
positions on Sunday killing 11 people and seriously wounding six
more, several of whom lost legs and arms. He added that later
two Iraqi regular army platoons turned up in Balad with little
military equipment. When they were asked by locals why their
arms were so poor "the reply was that they were under strict
orders by the US commander from the [nearby] Taji camp not to
intervene and they were stripped of their rocket-propelled
Another ominous development is that Iraqi tribes that often used
to have both Sunni and Shia members are now splitting along
In Baghdad it has become lethally dangerous for a Sunni to
wander into a Shia neighbourhood and vice versa. In one
middle-class district called al-Khudat, in west Baghdad, once
favoured by lawyers and judges, the remaining Shia families
recently found a cross in red paint on their doors. Sometimes
there is also a note saying "leave without furniture and without
renting your house". Few disobey.
The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq by Patrick Cockburn
is published this month by Verso
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited
Click on "comments" below to read or post comments