Skip to main content

Journalist Patrick Cockburn on Iraq's Tenuous Calm

The cease-fire that's kept Shiite militias in check for months is in danger of unraveling. And some U.S.-backed Sunni militias are growing restless. Patrick Cockburn, author and Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London, offers observations on war in Iraq.



DATE February 21, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Journalist Patrick Cockburn on the Shiite cease-fire's
possible end and the state of affairs in Iraq currently

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One of the reasons violence has decreased in Iraq is that six months ago a
cease-fire was declared by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He heads the
Mahdi army, a militia of mostly poor Shiites who resisted the American
occupation. Today al-Sadr issued a statement saying whether he would extend
the cease-fire, but the statement won't be officially read until tomorrow. My
guest Patrick Cockburn is the author of a book that will be published in April
called "Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival and the Struggle for

Cockburn is the Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London. He's
covered the war since the start and has been visiting Iraq since 1977. He won
the 2005 Martha Gellhorn Prize for war reporting. His book "Occupation: War
and Resistance in Iraq" was recently published in paperback.

Patrick Cockburn, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you describe what you know of
what Muqtada al-Sadr has done, the statement that he's issued?

Mr. PATRICK COCKBURN: He's produced a statement which has been put in
different envelopes, and these envelopes have been sent to the imams who are
going to conduct Friday prayers in Shia areas of Iraq tomorrow. They've been
told not to open the envelopes, but they are believed to contain the answer to
the question which by now most Iraqis need to know, which is: Will Muqtada
extend his cease-fire or not?

GROSS: Is the drama of Muqtada al-Sadr sending his answer about the truce to
imams and it's supposed to be officially read tomorrow--is that a way of him
kind of flexing his muscles and reasserting how much power he has, how
important his decision is?

Mr. COCKBURN: Sure, but he doesn't really have to do that. I mean, there's
no doubt that he's sort of the leader of the Sadrist movement, but to show
that he completely controls it. I mean, previously these imams in the mosques
at Friday prayers sort of said what they wanted to say. They weren't totally
controlled. These days they're meant only to say what they're directed by

GROSS: Is issuing a decision and handing out the written decision to imams to
be read on another day, is that a fairly standard way of doing things?

Mr. COCKBURN: Not quite. I mean, the decisions, yes, they have been
announced, but to do it as formally as this, no, I haven't come across that
before on such a major issue.

GROSS: What are some of the possibilities about why he might not extend the

Mr. COCKBURN: He and the people around him are not happy with the way
they've been treated. He declared the cease-fire because the Mahdi army had
got the reputation of being really an enormous death squad. It was losing
support among all sorts of Iraqis, including the Shia, so he had some benefits
from it. But since then they feel that US forces have been targeting them.
Secondly, they're rivals in the Shia community. The Badr brigade have been
attacking them. And there's been particularly--there's been a lot of fighting
around the city of Diwaniyah in the south. So I think if they're going to
continue, they'll want understandings about how the cease-fire's going to work
in future.

GROSS: So what do you think we can expect if he ends the cease-fire?

Mr. COCKBURN: Suddenly we'll see Mahdi army militia men back on the streets.
We'll see checkpoints being set up. We'll see a show of strength, and I think
it'll be a big show of strength because they--I mean, their numbers are put at
70,000, but actually I think the number is far greater. They can put hundreds
of thousands of people on the street. So I think they'll want to show, `look,
we're really important. Don't take us for granted. We can really paralyze
Iraq if we want. So if you want our cease-fire to resume, you can't use it as
an excuse to attack us.'

GROSS: Now, you were nearly killed by the Mahdi army militia in 2004. What
happened to you?

Mr. COCKBURN: It was a very sort of nasty incident, but one very typical and
one that affects Iraqis on a daily basis. This was in April 2004. I was
going to Kufa, which is a city just outside Najaf, and I was stopped by a
Mahdi army checkpoint. Now, I was wearing a sort of disguise. I was wearing
a keffiyeh, an Arab headdress. Actually not against the Mahdi army but
against some Sunni militia. There are a lot of dangerous towns just to the
north of there. And we stopped, and they were in a very agitated mood because
there was fighting nearby with American forces.

They dragged me out of the car. They started shouting, `American spy!
American spy!' And some of them were trying to drag me and the two Iraqis with
me away, and there seemed a moment that they were going to shoot us. Then
finally one of them, to my enormous relief said, `Well, let's check with our
sheik,' that's really the local leader in the mosque. So they sort of seized
control of our car, all the gunmen got into the car, took their cars, and we
went to the local mosque. And after that things began to get better. But
tens of thousands of Iraqis have died in exactly similar circumstances.
They'd be at the wrong checkpoint at the wrong time and they've ended up in
the local morgue.

GROSS: Now, your driver in that incident, am I pronouncing his name
correctly, Bassim?

Mr. COCKBURN: That's right.

GROSS: He was Sunni, and you say he wasn't able to go home because the Mahdi
army, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, had taken over his neighborhood so it was now a
Shiite neighborhood and so Sunnis like him were no longer welcome there. So
how did that change his life?

Mr. COCKBURN: Well, it transformed his life and it really ruined his life.
Here was a man who didn't have much money. His only possession was really his
house, which was in the jihad area of Baghdad, which was mixed but mainly
Shia. The Mahdi army took it over. First of all, he fled to Syria. Then he
came back and his neighbors, his Shia neighbors, immediately said, `Get out or
if the Mahdi army comes back they'll kill you.' So he went and lived in a
Sunni neighborhood, and his house was taken over by Shia families. And even
now, although things are...(unintelligible)...improved, he thinks there's no
chance of getting it back.

GROSS: And that story is typical of lots of people in Iraq now, right, who
can't go back to their home because it's been taken over by the other ethnic

Mr. COCKBURN: Exactly. I mean, you have some people going back within areas
which, let's say, are entirely Sunni. If you're Sunni and you're coming back
from Syria, you'll return to an area which is entirely Sunni, maybe you're OK.
But in areas that were formerly mixed, if you've lost your house it's very
unlikely you'll get it back. It's even dangerous to ask for it back because
then the people who have the house may consider you a threat and may want to
do something to you. I know of several cases where there have been revenge
killings; both are people who've taken over houses and people who have asked
for their houses back.

GROSS: Do you agree with the people who say that part of the reasons why
things are quieter in Iraq is because basically there's been a form of ethnic
cleansing? Mixed neighborhoods are no longer mixed. They've been taken over
by one ethnic group or another so conflict within that neighborhood has been

Mr. COCKBURN: Yes. There's no doubt in my mind that this is true. The
number of mixed areas in central Baghdad and east Baghdad went right down in
2006. Mostly it was Sunni being driven out--sometimes Shia, but mostly Sunni
being driven out. So at the time, non-Iraqis kept saying--I mean, Britain and
America kept saying there was no civil war. But there very obviously was a
civil war in Baghdad and central Iraq, and it was a civil war that the Shia
won. They were in the majority in Baghdad before, but now I think they
control about 75 percent of the city.

GROSS: I just want to get back for a second to Bassim, who was your driver
and couldn't return home because he was Sunni and the Shia had taken over his
neighborhood. He tried to get out of Iraq and put every dollar he had into
trying to get out and to get a passport, and it failed. But it was such an
elaborate scheme. If you would describe the scheme a little bit and tell us
if that's typical of the contortions people go through to try to get out of
Iraq now.

Mr. COCKBURN: Yes, his scheme was born of desperation. I mean, I'd known
him for some time. Here was a man who didn't speak any language but Arabic.
He'd only been a couple of times out of Iraq to Syria and Jordan, and he had
this scheme to go to Sweden and get a job there. He was desperate. So he
sold his car. He sold his wife's gold jewelry. He borrowed some money,
raised about twelve and a half thousand dollars. He knew an Iraqi in Sweden
who said that for about, I think it was $6,900, he'd fix him up with a
Lithuanian passport and he'd get him to Sweden.

So poor Bassim set off on this strange odyssey, which actually didn't head
straight for Sweden. The first place he went to was Malaysia because you
could, with an Iraqi passport you could get into Malaysia without a visa. You
get a visa at the airport. Then he was told to go to Phnom Penh, and he ended
up in Ho Chi Min City, pretending to be a Lithuanian on his way to Sweden.
But of course quite a number of Iraqis have been trying different routes to
get out of Iraq, to get out of the Middle East, and at the airport they fairly
rapidly worked out that this guy who was very unlikely to be Lithuanian so
wouldn't let him on the plane. So he had to perform the whole journey in
reverse, by this time running out of money so he wasn't eating too well, and
finally got back to Baghdad at the beginning of February.

GROSS: So where is he living now?

Mr. COCKBURN: He's living in a friend's house, but, I mean, he's living with
his wife and three children in one small room, and he's not only spent all his
money but he has borrowed money, so he's completely broke. It's also, for
somebody like that--I mean, for much of the Iraqi population, there's the
problem of not having a job and no prospect for a job. He's a Sunni in a city
that's mostly Shia so he can't even work as a taxi driver outside his own
small area. It would just be too dangerous.

GROSS: How does his story, and stories of people like him, figure into how
you evaluate the effectiveness of the surge?

Mr. COCKBURN: Well, I think that when people look at the surge, they analyze
it through how many--what American military casualties are, first. And they
are clearly down. And then they analyze them through Iraqi civilian
casualties, which are also down, but perhaps not by as much as the government
says. But in fact, you have to look at how Iraqis live in general, and the
conditions are miserable. Forty-three percent of people, according to
charities, live in abject poverty. There's no prospect of a job. Life is
just still immensely dangerous.

You know, people say to me continually, aren't things better in Baghdad? And
in one they, they're right. They are better. They're better than the
bloodbath that we had in 2006. But it's still the most dangerous city in the
world. It's still a place where people are terrified to send their children
to school because they might be kidnapped, where bodies still turn up every
morning. So I think the idea that things are better is really very

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Patrick Cockburn. He covers
Iraq for The Independent in London. We'll talk more after a break. This is


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Patrick Cockburn and he's a
journalist who is the Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London. He's
covered the war in Iraq since the very beginning but he started visiting Iraq
and writing about it in 1978. He's the author of the book "Occupation: War
and Resistance in Iraq," which recently came out in paperback. His next book,
"Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival and the Struggle for Iraq" will
be published in April.

We were talking a little bit about Muqtada al-Sadr and the Shiite militia that
he leads. Let's talk a little bit about the Sunni militias, specifically the
Awakening Councils, and why don't you describe what the Awakening Council is?

Mr. COCKBURN: The Awakening Council, also known as al-Salwa, was set up
among the Sunni tribes, first in Anbar province--this enormous province,
mostly desert, in western Iraq--against al-Qaeda and in alliance with the US
military. It's now spread to other provinces around Baghdad and districts in
Baghdad, and it's reckoned to have around 80,000 men under arms.

GROSS: And a lot of these men had been Sunni insurgents?

Mr. COCKBURN: Absolutely, yes. At one time the US military was labeling
them "the concerned local citizens," which somehow gives the impression that
they're sort of vigilantes, outraged householders who've gone and got their
guns. But in fact the leaders--certainly the leaders that I've met--are all
former Sunni guerillas, who, up to six months or a year ago, were attacking US
soldiers and the Iraqi government forces. So what we really have now is a
very large Sunni militia, which is fairly hostile to the Iraqi government.

GROSS: Now, you recently visited Fallujah, and you had covered the battle of
Fallujah in 2004, in which the United States military fought for control of
the city and took control away from the Sunni militias. So you visited
Fallujah again three years after the battle, and so what you found is that--if
I understand correctly--that the people who we fought against, the Sunni
militias, are now controlling the city as members of the Awakening Council,
which the United States is backing and paying?

Mr. COCKBURN: Yes. It's a pretty extraordinary situation. They also make
up the local police force. I mean, I came from Baghdad and, through contacts,
went to see the head of the al-Salwa in the general Fallujah area who's called
Abu Marouf--I mean, he has several other names, but that was the name he was
using. And he controls about 13,000 fighters and was very heavily guarded,
and we had to go down sort of rotted tracks and eventually found him in a very
heavily defended half-ruined villa. He was fairly angry. He said that he was
looking for jobs in the Iraqi security forces. He said he wasn't going to let
himself be used by the US against al-Qaeda and then discarded. He showed
contempt for the Iraqi government, said half the army was run by Shia militias
that answered to Iran. So he was a fairly angry man.

And then it turned out that the chief of police in Fallujah is his brother, a
Colonel Faisal, and both of them, when I asked, I said, `What did you do
previously, before you became head of al-Salwa or before you became chief of
police?' They said, `Well, we were fighting the Americans.' This was as
recently as a year ago.

GROSS: Have the members of these Awakening Councils that you've spoken to
developed warm feelings toward the Americans?

Mr. COCKBURN: Not really, no. These were the leaders of guerilla units that
were attacking the Americans for the last three or four years, and I think
they've changed for tactical reasons, but I don't think that they have much
more love for the Americans now than they did a couple of years ago. They
simply felt they had too many enemies, and if they could make an alliance with
the Americans against al-Qaeda, then they would go for it. But I don't think
it's something that will be stable in future. In fact, they were threatening
to end it when I was there. They were threatening to end it within the next
three months.

GROSS: To end?

Mr. COCKBURN: They were threatening to end their arrangement with the
Americans and their actions against al-Qaeda within the next three months.

GROSS: And how long ago was that?

Mr. COCKBURN: This was about three weeks ago.

GROSS: So that means that there's two arrangements in danger of unraveling.
Muqtada al-Sadr is threatening to end his cease-fire; that would be a Shiite
cease-fire. And then some of the members of the Awakening Council are
threatening to end their alliance with the Americans.

Mr. COCKBURN: Yes. I think that, you know, what we have is basically a very
unstable situation. At the moment, there are less people being killed because
both these groups don't really want to go back to war at the moment. But
there's continual friction. At any moment, I have the feeling that something
could go wrong. You could suddenly have a battle erupt. You have enormous
numbers of armed men in very small areas. You have people who used to fight
each other who are now on cease-fire, but they don't love the people that they
were trying to kill a month ago, or a year ago. So I got a general sense of
almost complete instability.

GROSS: So the leader who you spoke to who said he's considering pulling out
of this agreement with the United States in three months, how many men does he
control? He doesn't lead the whole group of Awakening Councils.

Mr. COCKBURN: No, he controls about 13,000 men.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. COCKBURN: I mean, you can't check this precisely, but probably this
figure is largely correct. Al-Salwa is not an organization which has a single
leader; it differs from area to area. So I don't think that you'll have a
mutiny by all these fighters who have come over to the American side for the

GROSS: But does it mean that each of the leaders, each of the many leaders
can make their own demands for power and recognition before signing up again?

Mr. COCKBURN: Yes. What they were asking for is--on the one hand, they want
something quite simple; they want jobs and money for themselves and their men.
But it's not just a question of paying them off because many of these people
used to be security officers for Saddam. They used to be officers in the old
Iraqi army. For instance, the police chief of Fallujah is probably the most
powerful Iraqi in the city. On his desk he has a picture of himself as an
officer in Saddam's special forces in uniform with other men in uniform. I
said, `What did you do before you were chief of police?' and he laughed and
said, `I was fighting the Americans.' He said, `What would you do if your
country was occupied?' Now, for the moment these people consider it in their
interests to have an alliance with the US military, and that might go on for
some time. But it's very unstable because they haven't really changed their
views, so far as I can see.

GROSS: Patrick Cockburn will be back in the second half of the show. He's
the Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London. His book about Muqtada
al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who heads the Mahdi army, will be published in
April. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Patrick Cockburn, the
Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London. He's covered the war in
Iraq since it started. His book "The Occupation" was published in paperback
last fall. His book about Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the
Mahdi army, will be published in April. Cockburn covered the battle of
Fallujah in 2004, when the American military won control of the city from
Sunni insurgents. Cockburn recently returned to Fallujah.

Why did you return to Fallujah, where, among other things, you spoke to some
of the leaders of the the Awakening Council?

Mr. COCKBURN: I'd been in Fallujah quite a lot in 2003, 2004. Then we had
these battles for Fallujah in November 2004. It was stormed by the US
Marines, enormous damage. I hadn't been back--in fact, I don't think any
reporters had been back unembedded since then, so I wanted to go there without
the US Army to see what was really happening in the city, which has been
sealed off. And I was able to do so because I knew various people in the
Iraqi police. And although people say things are better in Fallujah, frankly,
it has an awful long way to go. I was walking around with the chief of police
by the bridge over the Euphrates, the bridge where the four men from
Blackwater were killed in April 2004.

GROSS: This is the bridge in which their bloody remains were hung.

Mr. COCKBURN: Yeah, the burnt bodies were hung up. You remember this became
notorious when it happened in 2004. Anyway, I was walking around with the
chief of police, and then a small crowd assembled and started shouting, `We've
got no electricity, we've got no water!' And I mean, the chief of police said,
`Well, look, you know, there isn't an awful lot I can do about it.' Then I was
in the local hospital on the other side of the Euphrates and I said to the
doctors--now, I was with the doctors alone. There was nobody putting pressure
on them--I said, you know, `What do you lack?' And they said, `Well, how about
fuel for our generators, fuel for the vehicles, oxygen, medical equipment,
drugs.' They really didn't have anything. So the situation in general is
pretty bad, although I suppose one could say that it's better than two or
three years ago.

GROSS: Now, you said you were able to get into Fallujah, although the only
journalists who were able to get in in the past few years were journalists
embedded with the US military. You got in because you knew the chief of
police. So what does that mean? Did he send you an escort to get in? Did he
open a secret door for you to get in? Like, how did he help you get in?

Mr. COCKBURN: I'm going to say he sent an escort. I was in a police vehicle
and he sent some of his senior officers, majors, to talk to the checkpoint, to
talk to--there were some American soldiers there, talk to them. And they
called their commanders, and finally we got in. There was no chance of
getting in without the assistance of the police.

GROSS: Because of the checkpoints?

Mr. COCKBURN: Because of the checkpoints, and very serious checkpoints.
People often have to leave their cars there. You see enormous queues of
people. There are checkpoints everywhere in Iraq. I mean, I encountered 27
checkpoints between the center of Baghdad and getting to Fallujah. But a lot
of these you just get through with a wave of the hand, but the ones just on
the outskirts of the city are very serious. You have to have exactly the
right ID. There has to be ID for your car. It's extremely difficult to get

GROSS: Fallujah sustained a lot of casualties and also a lot of physical
damage. How do the streets and the buildings look now? Have any of them been

Mr. COCKBURN: I think there have been quite a number of repairs, but you
know what really strikes one--and it's quite a long time since the battle
now--is how many, you know, buildings haven't been repaired. You know, you
look along the street and then you see a whole building that has been turned
into--looks like sort of an enormous concrete sandwich. The concrete floors
have collapsed one on top of each other because it was hit by a bomb or a
shell. And you see this quite frequently. You still see some other buildings
that are still standing, but they're pockmarked all over with heavy machine
gun bullets.

The chief of police I was with said to me, `Oh, it's fine. You can walk in
safety down the street anytime you want,' but I noticed when we were going
around town we were in a very heavily armed convoy that, the first vehicle had
a man on top shouting at cars to get out of the way, pointing his heavy
machine gun at them. So this is...

GROSS: Yeah, how safe can it be?

Mr. COCKBURN: Yeah, one wonders how safe it can be. It's very dangerous in
Iraq. When Iraqis say, `Things are better than they were,' one really has to
ask, `Well, what were they like before?' Now, of course, Fallujah is better
than when it was under heavy shell fire or when it was being bombed, but
that's the comparison you have to make. People mustn't think that because
it's better in Fallujah or better in Baghdad that it's good, or that any kind
of normal life can be lived there.

GROSS: Are people living in Fallujah? Wasn't the city pretty well evacuated
during the battle for Fallujah in 2004?

Mr. COCKBURN: There are people living there. I mean, I was asking a lot of
people this question, `how many are back?' and not getting a very precise
answer. The population of Fallujah I think used to be around 650,000. Maybe
there are around 400,000 living in the city now. But there are still an awful
lot of refugees who've fled Iraq or are still living in western Baghdad.

GROSS: So finally you were able to get out of Fallujah. Was it as hard
getting out as it was getting in?

Mr. COCKBURN: No, it was really the same process in reverse. In Iraq, you
know, it's a country overrun with checkpoints, and most of them you get
through, but always I'm nervous coming to a checkpoint because you just don't
know who's there. You don't know if they're going to stop you. You don't
even know if it's a real checkpoint. It may be a fake checkpoint. This was a
favorite trick of the death squads, was simply to set up their own
checkpoints--or criminals--set up their own checkpoints and select their
victims that way. So you never quite know. But on this occasion we were
lucky. I think partly it was because for once in Iraq there was a heavy
rainstorm, and the armed men manning the checkpoints were not very keen to
stand in the rain looking at our documents for too long.

GROSS: Well, while we're on the subject, what is your repertoire of responses
when there is somebody who seems either suspicious who's manning the
checkpoint or who is paranoid about you?

Mr. COCKBURN: Well, I don't think there's any sort of single response. I
mean, I carry lots of different passes and papers to show that--I give the
impression that I've some sort of official status and hope that they'll be
impressed by these. I mean, sometimes it's evident that you're showing a pass
to somebody with a submachine gun who's holding it upside down. He can't read
it. So one wants to give the impression that one has some sort of official
status. Although, of course, I'm not alone in the car. I mean, I'm with
other men who have guns. We have another car behind us with more men who've
got guns. I mean--so...

GROSS: That's how you always travel?

Mr. COCKBURN: Not in the very center of Baghdad. Sometimes I go without
that. On this occasion it was just essential. I mean, you just need...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. COCKBURN: ...armed men with you and people with the right passes to get
through. In central Baghdad I'll sometimes--I always take two cars, one car
behind to see if I'm being followed. But in central Baghdad, it's not too
bad. Again, it's worrying because there are terrible traffic jams, and I'm
always worried about being caught in a traffic jam, and then the little boys
who sell cigarettes and paper hankies may look in the car and see there's a
foreigner there and start telling people about it. That could be dangerous.
But going outside Baghdad to places like Fallujah, you have to have armed
guards with you.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Patrick Cockburn. He's a
journalist who's been covering Iraq since the start of the war, but actually
has been writing about Iraq since long before that. He first went there in
the late '70s. He's the Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London.
His book "Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq" was recently published in
paperback. His forthcoming book, "Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival
and the Struggle for Iraq" will be published in April.

We'll take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Patrick Cockburn and
he's the Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London. He's the author of
the book "Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq," which was recently
published in paperback. His next book, which is about Muqtada al-Sadr, who
has led the Shia insurgency in Iraq, will be published in April.

Britain pulled out of Basra in December. Basra is a city in southern Iraq,
and England pulled out after five years of trying to control Basra. Why did
England leave?

Mr. COCKBURN: Because it was getting nowhere. It was suffering casualties
and it wasn't doing any good. I remember when the British went into Basra
first, talking to British officers who were saying, `Well, we have the
experience of northern Ireland behind us and we were successful in Malaya
against the insurgency there in the '50s,' but in those two examples they had
local allies. The problem for the British, the essential problem, was that
they had no friends. They had no allies in Basra. And as the years went
past, it was clear that British control was minimal, that the city was
essentially run by the Shia militias. Basra is an almost wholly Shia city.
And the British just had one big post in the center of Basra, and the convoys
supplying this with food and ammunition kept on being ambushed. But the
actual British position in Basra didn't really do anything, so when they
finally pulled out of the city it was really a recognition of reality that the
battle had already been lost.

GROSS: You've been to Basra. Did you see signs of how popular or unpopular
the Brits were there?

Mr. COCKBURN: Well, I think they were pretty unpopular. I mean, you could
see that anytime. Several times British vehicles were set alight by petrol
bombs or blown up, and immediately there would be cheering crowds around the
vehicles, I mean, just spontaneously shouting for joy because these vehicles
had been blow up. So that's kind of a sign of unpopularity.

GROSS: So what does Britain have to show for the years that it controlled

Mr. COCKBURN: Unfortunately, I think, very little. The control was always
less than the British army claimed, certainly the British government claimed.
The city has ended up by being controlled by Shia militias who were--some of
whom were formally fighting the British. So I think that there's very little
achievement. (Unintelligible)...I mean, the time that the British were going
to stay while Iraqi government security forces were built up, but this never
really happened because the security forces were controlled by the militias.

I mean, I remember at one time British journalists were being taken 'round by
British government PR people to meet local police chiefs who were said to be
on the British side, and one of the police chiefs was saying, `Well, I'll only
meet you outside my police station. My officers must not know that I'm
meeting anybody from Britain.' So if you have that situation, where even
police commanders are frightened by their association with Britain being known
to their own men, then obviously you aren't doing very well.

GROSS: Do you think that how the Brits pulled out of Basra and the fact that
they did pull out of Basra has any lessons for the Americans?

Mr. COCKBURN: It's a different situation in Basra from Baghdad because
Baghdad is all Shia, and the Shia wanted to run Basra and didn't want the
British there. In Baghdad, it's mostly Shia, but it's also Sunni. And the
Sunni these days look to the Americans for protection against the Shia, the
government looks to the Americans for protection against the Sunni. So the US
has at least temporary allies and friends in Baghdad in the way that the
British never really had in Basra.

GROSS: I don't know if you're comfortable giving your analysis of this, but
what advice would you have for the Americans in terms of when and how to get
out of Iraq?

Mr. COCKBURN: There should be a serious, negotiated withdrawal. I mean,
many people in Iraq, both Iraqis and foreigners, say, well, if the Americans
pull out, there'd be a civil war. Well, actually, we've sort of had a civil
war already. The American presence perhaps prevents a total bloodbath at the
moment, but it also makes it almost impossible for the different Iraqi
communities to reach an agreement between each other because every community
is trying to get the Americans on their side, and I think that if there's
going to be a restoration of peace that the American departure has to be part
of it. The very presence of a substantial American army in Iraq has been
destabilizing from the very moment that American troops invaded Iraq in March

GROSS: So if we have a negotiated peace, who does the United States negotiate
with? Is Muqtada al-Sadr, who leads Shiite militias, is he at the table? Are
the leaders of the Sunni militias, who are now part of the, you know,
Awakening Councils that the United States is backing, are they at the table?
Are the Kurds at the table? Like, who's there?

Mr. COCKBURN: They all have to be there because they all have power. Power
is fragmented in Iraq. I mean, Muqtada has to be there because he's very
important. He's probably the most popular Shia leader. Millions of--it's
mostly poor Iraqi Shia look to him as their leader. The al-Salwa, the Sunni
councils, again, they have to be satisfied. They must be at the table. And
the Kurds have their own control in northern Iraq. They're not occupied by
anybody. They essentially have their own very large, private army. So they
have to be satisfied. Really, everybody who's a player has to be included.
And this includes the neighbors, as well. It includes the Iranians, the
Syrians, the Turks. Everybody has to get a share of the cake, because if
anybody's excluded--and this is one of the lessons of the last five
years--then they're in a very good position to kick over the table, to make
sure that fighting starts again.

GROSS: So your advice would be before figuring out who many troops you're
going to pull out in how many months, figure out a negotiated political
settlement that includes all of the parties in Iraq plus the neighboring

Mr. COCKBURN: Yes, there have to be--I mean, it doesn't have to be one big
table, but all these have to be consulted. Negotiations are bound to go on,
and they all have to be, to some degree, satisfied.

GROSS: And you're saying, don't pull out the military until there is such an

Mr. COCKBURN: Well, I think they should pull out the military, but I think
it should be part of that agreement. You know, at the moment, because the
surge is deemed to be successful, there's a sudden explosion of optimism, I
think, in the US, which is probably exaggerated. Iraq is still deeply
unstable. Things could get very bad again.

GROSS: Yet Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he's going to slow down the
withdrawal of troops.

Mr. COCKBURN: Yes. In a way that indicates that things are not going that
well. I mean, on the one hand we have all this sort of optimistic news from
Iraq, but somehow the military withdrawal has to be slowed down because things
might fall apart again. I think that really underlines the fragility of the
present situation.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Patrick Cockburn. He covers
Iraq for The Independent in London. We'll talk more after a break. This is


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Patrick Cockburn. He's the
Iraq correspondent for the Independent in London. He's the author of the book
"Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq," which recently came out in
paperback. His forthcoming book, "Muqtada," is about Muqtada al-Sadr, who has
been the leader of the largest Shia militia, and that's scheduled for
publication in April.

Now, I read in your articles that poppy is now being grown for opium
production in Iraq. That's something new in Iraq, isn't it?

Mr. COCKBURN: Oh, yes. We had drug smuggling before, but opium and heroin
used to come from Afghanistan through Iran, and then through Iraq, so growing
opium poppies is new. It started around Diwaniyah in the south, and now there
are reports of it in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. Drugs gangs seem
to think that they can make money by growing opium there and presumably
turning it in heroin. Farmers are ruined, are looking for a crop that will
make them money. The two have come together so we have the beginning of an
opium problem in the country.

GROSS: So what does this mean for the future? What might it mean for the

Mr. COCKBURN: It's still pretty early stages. They're still experimenting
with it. So we'll still have to see, will it take off, will Iraq become
another Afghanistan in terms of producing opium and producing heroin. I mean,
in both countries, the government is weak, there are plenty of criminal gangs.
There are plenty of criminal gangs with very large funds. In both cases, you
have millions of ruined farmers who can't make ends meet, so you have the same
conditions. But one of the things that might stop it is simply that heroin
production in Afghanistan is still going up, so maybe they won't be able to
compete. But certainly all the conditions are there for Iraq to become a
major drugs producer.

GROSS: And the criminals who are in on this, would this be al-Qaeda, or is it
just kind of like the black market criminals?

Mr. COCKBURN: Iraq is, you know--most of the militias, Sunni and Shia, have
partly criminalized, will take part in criminal enterprises. You have militia
groups that are purely criminals, and they've made a lot of money over the
last five years. So they have the sort of resources to pay farmers in advance
to plant poppies, to make sure they have the plants, to provide the transport.
As I said, this only seems to beginning at the moment....

GROSS: Right.

Mr. COCKBURN: ...and it's not exports on anything like the scale that we see
in Afghanistan, but it's potentially there.

GROSS: We recently had on a guest who was an Iraqi women's right activist,
and she painted a very grim picture of what's happened to women in Iraq, that
women have to wear a full head covering, that they often have to wear the head
covering that's recommended by the militia that controls the territory the
woman lives in, kind of like gang colors in the United States, that women are
being kidnapped, women are being killed for not acting right or dressing
right. Can you share some of your observations about what's happened with
women's rights in the recent past in Iraq?

Mr. COCKBURN: Well, you know, it's been a disaster. When I first went to
Iraq at the end of the '70s, it was a largely secular country. Women at the
center of cities would wear pretty well Western clothes or whatever clothes
they wanted. It's always true that people wore veils in the countryside and
in the poorer areas. These days women don't dare, really, in a place like
Sadr City--really from day two after Saddam had fallen, women started wearing
long cloaks and veils. And they think--rightly--that it's dangerous not to.
Women have been killed in Basra because gangs think that they're not properly
dressed or have taken against them for some other reason. So the overall
position of women has got much worse.

It's also--I mean, in some cases, I've talked to sort of young students
wearing veils who were saying to me, `Well, yes, if somebody sees us heavily
veiled, they may think we come from a conservative family and have strong
tribe and therefore they wouldn't dare kidnap us. If they see us wearing
Western clothes, then they think we probably don't have any strong tribal
backing and we're more vulnerable to being kidnapped.'

GROSS: I'm thinking about that story you told at the beginning of the
interview where you and your driver were stopped by members of the Mahdi
militia, Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, and you were nearly killed by them.
Fortunately, they called a commander, and the commander thought better of that
idea. But you came close to being killed. Do you ever in a situation like
that start bargaining and thinking--not bargaining with them, just kind of
bargaining with yourself and thinking, `well, if I get out of this one alive,
maybe I'll call it quits here and go back home to England and not come back'?

Mr. COCKBURN: I occasionally think like that, but usually when something
really dangerous happens, it usually happens by surprise and there isn't much
time to think about the future. I mean, you're just trying to think, is there
any way I can get out of this situation. Of course, one's also terrified,
which makes it difficult to make long-term plans. I suppose there have been
moments when you think, I should stop doing this, that at some point I'm going
to get unlucky.

And also, you know, so many of my friends in Iraq, so many Iraqis I know have
had relatives killed, brother, sisters, children killed. So many people I
know have been kidnapped. That begins to grind one down, just this constant
presence of death and fear, which you don't really get anywhere else. You
know, other countries people send their children to school and they come back.
That's it. But in Iraq, it's a major operation. How do they get their
children to school? If they can't find them immediately afterwards, have they
been kidnapped? Has anything happened to them? I mean, Iraqis live a life
which is surrounded by terror.

GROSS: Well, Patrick Cockburn, I regret we're out of time. Thank you so much
for talking with us. Be well and thank you again.

Mr. COCKBURN: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Patrick Cockburn is the Iraq correspondent for The Independent in
London. His book about Muqtada al-Sadr will be published in April. His book
"Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq" was published in paperback last

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


James McBride's Advice For New Writers: 'A Simple Story Is The Best Story'

McBride's most recent novel, Deacon King Kong, is set in a Brooklyn housing project in 1969. "Time and place is really crucial to good storytelling," he says. Originally broadcast Feb. 29, 2020.


'Crusade For Harmony' Surveys The Life Work Of Saxophonist Julius Hemphill

Hemphill was a founding member and principal composer for the World Saxophone Quartet. The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony features seven discs of newly released music from his archives.


'Raya And The Last Dragon' Is Not Entirely New, But It's Refreshing Nonetheless

Justin Chang says "the big selling point of 'Raya and the Last Dragon,' is that it's the first Disney animated film to feature Southeast Asian characters, but like so many movies that break ground in terms of representation, it tells a story that's actually woven from reassuringly familiar parts."

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.


Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue