Covering Iraq: an interview with Patrick Cockburn

The aptly named Frontline club in London is a favourite haunt of war-weary foreign correspondents. Its walls are festooned with all manner of memorabilia: from Baghdad and Kabul license plates, to Osama Bin Laden t-shirts and the front page of the 12 September 2001 edition of the New York Times. Omar Waraich went there to discuss the challenges of reporting from Iraq with veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn.

May 1, 2005
14 min read

In sharp contrast to many reporters covering Iraq, you have travelled the country extensively and over many years.

I covered the first Gulf War. I first went to Iraq in 1978, just before Saddam became President. He was already called the strongman of Iraq and was obviously “the guy in charge”. This was just before he shot a third of the Revolutionary Command Council – the ruling politburo of the Ba”ath party.

I went back intermittently during the Iran-Iraq war, and then from the start of the invasion of Kuwait I was there. In 1990, I was there pretty well continuously with few breaks, up to 1992. And then back again up to just before the start of the war in 2003.

I couldn’t go back to Baghdad after 1999 because my brother, Andrew, and I had written a book on Iraq, Out of the Ashes, which I knew they didn’t much like. So I was restricted to Iraqi Kurdistan. Actually I was quite right not to go back then. Some time after the war, somebody gave me an Arabic translation of the book which they found in the house of Sabbawi – who was one of the half-brothers of Saddam – which had obviously been translated by the Mukhabarat (Iraqi secret police), and was being sold in Al-Mutanabi Street along with other illegal photocopies.

How does that experience compare with your reporting from Iraq during this war and just before it?

Funnily enough, the first Gulf war was far easier to report. Perhaps more difficult for television, but certainly for me it is rather more difficult to report now.

There was one clear reason for this. Saddam had given instructions that foreign journalists were to be shown bomb damage. There was a long bombing campaign before the war started. And this sort of order remained in place even during the war, so in fact you could drive almost anywhere in Iraq by simply saying that you wanted to see bomb damage, which I did. But also, rather amazingly, when the battle was raging they would still let you go anywhere.

The second time around, reporting has gone through a number of stages. It was difficult to begin with before the war, but perfectly doable. Then for a year after the fall of Saddam it was very easy. In a sense, I could go almost anywhere in Iraq.

We would go to villages and towns where the Americans were operating, and the people were very eager to talk. The local sheikhs would say that, “The foreign press are the only protection we have, the only chance to get our story out about what is happening to us.” That went on until April 2004.

Did you receive a better reception, or were you at greater ease, because you were from the British press?

This was true until recently. But now it has got extraordinarily difficult, with difficulties of two sorts. One is just commercial kidnapping. 99.9% of all people kidnapped in Iraq are Iraqis. The only ones to get publicity are foreigners or foreign reporters. And this makes it very to difficult to move around easily, or to make an appointment.

Are these kidnappings purely a commercial exercise? Is there a political element to them? And if so, to what extent are these factors related?

There are political kidnappings too. It’s obvious that the Islamist end of the resistance does not make any distinction between foreign journalists or an American soldier, or a charity worker, or even an Iraqi Christian.

In Mosul recently, Americans damaged a couple of mosques. The next thing that happened was that somebody blew up two churches, one Armenian, one Chaldean. So obviously somebody there thinks that there is no distinction between an Iraqi Christian and an American soldier. Not all of them, but enough to make it difficult to move around.

What is your daily routine, if we can call it that? How far do you travel? Do you stay in Baghdad? Or do you go through periods of just being ensconced in your hotel room?

I live in the Al-Hamra hotel, where The Independent’s offices are located. Its two modern buildings surrounded by these walls of concrete blocks that look like enormous grey tombstones, and which you find all over Baghdad. Then there are guards all around the hotel – some paid for by the Western media there, particularly the American television corporations. Cars coming into the hotel are thoroughly searched for bombs. The guy doing the searches these days has a pole with a mirror at the end of it in one hand and a pistol in the other. The pistol is there, he tells me, so that in case there is a suicide bomber he can shoot him before the bomb is detonated.

Then there are more guards at the entrance to the hotel. Some of the floors in the first block of the hotel – where you have NBC and other media outfits – have a metal grill when you go up the lift, and you encounter more guards behind it who open the gate.

Well, having security measures like that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t report. But often, it leads to a sort of total siege mentality where people don’t go out at all. In the mornings, many of the other journalists ask around to see if anyone has been out. In contrast, I always go out.

I keep discreet and sit in the back of a car. I make sure that the car isn’t washed, so it looks just like another Iraqi car but with the windows a bit more see-through. And then I travel all over Baghdad. Some journalists have these four-wheel drives with open windows which make it obvious that there are foreigners inside.

I don’t go out of Baghdad because it has become too dangerous. We saw what happened to Giuliana Sgrena from il manifesto on the road to the airport. It is still incredibly dangerous.

This is the road that the BBC’s chief correspondent, John Simpson, has called “probably the most dangerous stretch of ground on earth”. But who creates the danger there: the occupation forces, brigands, the resistance?

They cover all the roads around Baghdad. It’s a mixture of insurgents, bandits, and Americans who will fire at anything they don’t like; anything that seems suspicious to them.

You see people being killed merely because they don’t understand American hand signals for directing traffic, which look like somebody giving signals to the deaf. But it’s not obvious to Iraqis, nor is it obvious to someone like me what the American soldiers are directing you to do. But you get it wrong and you get shot. In the case of the Italian journalist it got publicised, but horrendous shootings happen at checkpoints all the time.

So you have some frightened American GI from Ohio, aged 20, who probably doesn’t want to be in Iraq. He believes that in any car there might be a suicide bomber and nothing happens to him if he gets it wrong. If he guns down a family of five, nothing happens to him. So there is no downside, from his point of view, in pulling the trigger. This happens, as I have said, all the time. Even if there’s a single shot in the distance, the Americans often open up in all directions. It seems to be part of their military training.

That seems to show an extraordinary sense of insecurity and paranoia on the part of the occupying forces.

There is enormous paranoia on their part, combined with enormous firepower. If there’s any sort of attack, their orders are to open fire in all directions. If there’s a roadside bomb, treat it as an ambush. So, almost invariably, some Iraqi, sometimes inside a house or walking on the street, gets killed when there’s any attack on American troops.

Nearly fifty journalists have been killed in Iraq according to Reporters without Borders. We have the case of Tareq Ayyoub from Al-Jazeera being killed by a rocket fired from an American warplane, and the shootings of Al-Arabiya reporters at checkpoints. Jeremy Scahill recently wrote in The Nation that the US military was “repeatedly killing journalists in Iraq”. Is it a case of “shooting the messenger”? Are journalists being targeted?

Yes, journalists are being targeted, and targeted by different people. The Americans don’t like journalists to be around. It’s impossible to prove that they have opened fire on somebody because they are a reporter or carry a camera, but it’s very suspicious. For instance, Tareq Ayyoub was actually talking live on camera and nothing was happening when he was hit by a missile explosion.

Most of the journalists who died have been Iraqis working for the Western media. The commercial kidnappers also target journalists, particularly Italian and French journalists, because they rightly believe that they can get more money. What is also clear is that the Islamist end of the resistance sees journalists and American soldiers as being pretty well equivalent.

Then you have situations like Fallujah. There were no journalists there. In that sense it is getting like, actually rather worse than, Chechnya.

So, the initial celebrations of a free press in Iraq were premature?

Well, look at what sparked off Muqtada al-Sadr’s rebellion in the south of Iraq. Someone in the Coalition Provisional Authority informed me that Bremer was handed a translation of an unflattering article about him in Sadr’s newspaper, Al-Hawza. Bremer was infuriated by this and shouted, “Close this rag down!”

A lot has been written about the “Muqawa”, the resistance in Iraq. Many commentators would have us believe it is merely Zarqawi-ite “Islamo-fascists” that are using violence in Iraq. What credence, if any, is there to these claims? And does the resistance claim any popular support locally?

Before the capture of Saddam, the US and British generals in Baghdad all emphasised that the resistance was all remnants of Saddam’s regime. Then they had a bit of a problem when they actually captured Saddam. It actually validated what all of us believed, that there was never any real connection with Saddam. Zarqawi had been mentioned from the beginning, even by people like Colin Powell. Then from January 2004, you could hardly go to a Coalition Provisional Authrity briefing in Baghdad where Zarqawi wasn’t mentioned or blamed, whatever happened. It was almost a parody. Ask any question and you would get “Zarqawi”. Why is there a water shortage? It’s Zarqawi. Why does the toothpaste taste different? Zarqawi strikes again!

At last count, I think there are 38 different organisations that are claiming attacks on the Americans. It’s a very complicated jigsaw. It is important to realise that, in the beginning, the main motive is a very simple one. The Iraqis – like everyone else in the world – don’t like to have their lives controlled by foreigners and foreign troops. All this happens in the context of an understandable and predictable hatred of occupation felt by anybody who’s being occupied.

Often people start by saying, “But, the resistance are clearly violent and bigoted Salafi or Wahhabi groups, or they are remnants of the ancien regime.” Leaving aside how truthful this is, and there is an element of truth in it, the real important question to ask is: even supposing that this is all true, why is it that they are able to operate in Iraq? Why is there sufficient sympathy amongst large groups for these often pretty ruthless brutes? This is the most important question. The antipathy to the occupation is, aside from Kurdistan, universal.

The last poll I saw showed that 82% of the Sunni Arabs want the US Army to withdraw now or in the near future. That is somewhat predictable, but the figure for Shi’a Arabs was also 69%.

Even when I have travelled in the Shi’a areas, often after a bomb directed at say police recruits, people I speak to around the site say, “Why are they attacking Iraqis like this, why don’t they kill Americans instead?” The first part of the sentence often appears on American television. The second part is very seldom mentioned.

So they are fine with insurgents attacking Americans?

Yes, in fact that’s what they invariably say.

A couple of months ago, the Iraqi interim government released figures stating that there were some 200,000 members of the insurgency. This must make the Americans very anxious.

I don’t believe these figures, nor do I think anybody knows. It’s always difficult to estimate numbers of guerrilla fighters. People try to draw up neat lists of who are professional full-time fighters, as if these guys clock in and clock out everyday, are interested in their pension rights and contractual obligations. And secondly, there are part-timers too. There is a reality to this in terms of Iraqis having intense loyalties to their district, their towns, their cities, their extended families. Iraqi nationalism still holds great sway.

Over the course of the past two years, the British and Americans have heralded a number of occasions as key turning points in the war: the capture of Saddam Hussein, the hasty handover, and the attempt to subdue the insurgency with the pounding of Fallujah. Will the recent, much-vaunted elections mark a new stage in Iraq?

It marks a stage, but does it mark a decisive stage? First of all, I think it was CNN which had “Transfer of Power” across the top of the screen. Was power really transferred? There is no government at the moment in Iraq, and the question to ask is who really holds power? The answer is, obviously, the American army of 150,000. This government wouldn’t exist without that, so it’s not really a transfer of power. Leaving aside the Kurds, who are a special case, the members of this government would have to leave the country if they didn’t have Western bodyguards. Many people voted, the Shi’a population voted, for a transfer of power to Iraqis and to Iraqi Shi’a. But no real power has been transferred.

Doesn’t the American embrace of the Iraqi Shi’a seem disingenuous? If you are part of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), you are a pioneer of democracy. If you take a similar position in Iran you are part of the Axis of Evil. And if you are a part of Hezbollah in Lebanon, then…

Everyone gives too much credit to American policy as being highly sophisticated. First of all, what has happened has been pretty disastrous for the US. Iraq, if we stand back a bit, was meant to be a demonstration of power – of the military and political ability of the US to act alone and destroy its enemies. In fact, the opposite has happened. Two years on, the US army doesn’t even control the roads between Baghdad and its base at Baghdad airport.

Washington sometimes draws comfort from the fact that it is only fighting Iraqi Sunnis, which is largely true. That’s four or five million people. But what if the Shi’a turned against them as well? They couldn’t hold Iraq. The inability of the US to coerce only one Iraqi community shows their basic weakness. The number of actual combat troops that they can put on the streets is very limited; hence the desperation to enlist British troops to help with the attack on Fallujah while they had to pull their own troops from Mosul.

They do not have the military strength to control Iraq, or to turn whatever military strength they do have into political victory.

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