Tasmanian Times

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche


Why the killing in Iraq will never end …

*Pic: Image from HERE

In Iraq, the hatred for the ruling class is too deeply entrenched, writes John Martinkus.

On Monday, 29 Iraqis were killed and 27 wounded in bomb attacks on restaurants south of Baghdad — Shia-dominated areas. The Sunnis may have got lucky and killed a few of the Shia-dominated police and army.

That is one day. Undoubtedly, there will be more this week — and the week after that. It is hard to find those reports. Buried deep in the internet. A few wire service updates. The daily butcher’s bill providing not much detail, just the figures, probably collected from a few phone calls by the Iraqi staffers still working in Baghdad. They wouldn’t go out there; it is too bloody dangerous. And besides, 50 bucks US a day (which is still the going rate for a local) isn’t worth your life.

Not many papers now give it a run. Unlike Brussels or Paris, Iraqi lives mean nothing in the current Western news cycle. Those old Saddam-era officials who planned the bombings will be sitting cross-legged on their carpets drinking tea and planning the next round, carried out by the misguided, disenfranchised and coerced who have joined their cause.

A cause we created by unseating the Sunni middle class from power way back in 2003 and then literally standing on their heads with combat boots, cuffing them, bagging them, holding them indefinitely without charge (and worse) in the misguided raids the US employed to try and deal with the insurgency. Instead we created the Universities of Insurgency in Abu Ghraib, Camp Bucca, Camp Victory at Baghdad airport and so many other long-dismantled and abandoned sites in Iraq.


In early 2004, the capital Baghdad still had traces of euphoria in the air from Saddam’s defeat the previous year. Shops were open, people thronged the streets. American soldiers and foreign workers ate and drank openly in restaurants. Money was flowing from international organisations. Everybody was on the make. Streets were clogged with the second-hand cars trucked in from Europe that everybody seemed to be buying now the restrictions on vehicle ownership had been lifted. There were no taxes or tariffs. No more sanctions. It seemed democracy and free enterprise were taking hold.

But you didn’t have to go far to see that something was wrong.

Outside the walled and fortified Green Zone, the former government and public service district of Baghdad, there were daily demonstrations — sometimes violent. They were mostly former regime soldiers, public servants, government workers. Watched over by nervous young US troops manning watchtowers with .50 calibre machine guns they chanted and held aloft banners.

They had all been sacked. No pensions, no payouts.

The former Sunni elite that had run the country were now unemployed. In the hubris of the swift victory over Saddam’s regime the new American leadership of Iraq under John Paul Bremer had sacked everybody connected with the Ba’ath Party. The problem was that in Saddam’s Iraq to attain any position of authority or influence you had to join the Ba’ath party. Overnight, the entire ruling class had been made redundant.

The Sunnis, who made up 40% of the population, had basically been favoured by the British colonisers when they ruled Iraq.

They ran the country, they dominated the army and the ruling Ba’ath party. Now the Americans had invaded and the Shia were being favoured. The Sunnis believed the Shia to not be capable of running the country and now disenfranchised and disempowered, the former elite began to organise.

They knew where the weapons were; they used to run the army; they knew how to cripple the power supply, the oil industry, the transport networks; they had built them and run them. In early 2004, it began in earnest. Another war. The insurgency against the American occupation.

It developed rapidly. Bombings, kidnappings and co-ordinated assaults on any foreigners. Any organisation, no matter how well intentioned, was targeted. The aim was to drive a wedge between the foreign community and the Iraqis, rendering the foreigners powerless to assist the restoration of normal life for Iraqis.

It worked.

The power was cut off. The water supply, sewerage, garbage collection — all inoperable. And the same lament from ordinary Iraqis: “It was better under Saddam, at least we had power.” But after the US occupation they got cholera from bad sanitation. Meanwhile, through 2005 and 2006 the sectarian cleansing of neighbourhoods began. Sunnis were pushed out of suburbs where they had always lived.

They fought back with bombs and guns and the power drills used to kill and torture Shia who attacked them. Baghdad descended into a vicious cycle of sectarian violence. The morgues were overflowing with the daily haul of corpses abandoned by the roadsides of Baghdad. Violence did die down for awhile, as those who were slated to be killed by either side were killed, and those who chose to flee had fled.

The Americans — because, let’s face it, despite the “coalition of the willing” involving 37 countries, it was the Americans who did all the fighting — responded with cordon-and-search operations.

I went on a few in 2004. The premise was simple: block all the roads to a certain area with armoured vehicles; block the backstreets with troops and go in, house to house, in the middle of the night, and arrest all the fighting-age males. Any slightest pretext was enough for the US troops to get out the bag for the head and those plastic cuffs that hurt like hell when tightened, and send the “detainee” to Abu Ghraib outside of Baghdad or Umm Qasr, known as Camp Bucca, near Basra, down south. Massive prisons that at their height held more than 20,000 people each. Think about it, a revolving population for years. There were also prisons on almost every US base throughout Iraq. No charges, no trials, no sentences. They just became “the bad guys” and were held indefinitely and, just as randomly, released.

In 2007, as I transited back to Iraq with the US military through Kuwait, I remember this conversation. It was in a stinking-hot shipping container set aside for smokers in a camp that continually housed more than 5000 US soldiers going in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. I was smoking and chatting to a big black sergeant. He was telling me how the surge of troops into Iraq had just raised violence. As we chatted, a tall, skinny, very sunburned soldier from the first cavalry started butting in; he had that agitated, rapid-fire speech of the severely stressed. The sergeant waved me down as if to say “let him talk”, for to not do so would invite violence:

“I tell you I did not sign up for this shit. I enlisted in artillery and now they got us working as MPs [military police] at camp Bucca. I’ve had shit thrown at me, I’ve been pissed on. The other day I had to shoot someone in the face with a shotgun. No, that is not what I signed up for.”

At that time, one of the inmates at Bucca was one Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The future leader of Islamic State had been a relatively unknown scholar of Islam — basically a university lecturer. He had been picked up in one of the US raids. He was Sunni, devout and fitted the profile. He was nobody when he went into the US prison system, but when he came out he started his personal journey that would lead him to become the leader of the most feared and reviled terrorist network in the world today. Bucca was where Al-Baghdadi learned to hate.

Meanwhile, in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, the US Special Forces (aided by the British and a few Australians) just killed people. In targeted assassinations they hit the Sunni leadership hard. Helicopters in at night. Kill or capture, priority given to “high value targets”. Those they could negotiate with and pay to change sides, they did. The others who they labelled “AQI” or al-Qaeda in Iraq they tried to kill.

General Stanley McChrystal was instrumental in running this program. At first lionised by the media as the lean, mean, fighting warrior monk, who ate one meal a day and jogged miles before breakfast, his career was cut short by an unflattering profile in Rolling Stone magazine where he was quoted drunk in an Irish bar in Paris mocking President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden. Obama sacked him. The leadership of AQI went to ground. The Americans withdrew from Iraq.

The payments to the moderate Sunni leaders stopped and the Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki made life hard for them. They went back to war. In Syria, literally just down the road across an unmanned border. But the old guys don’t do the fighting themselves. They never really did. It is the young, the foreigners, the mentally impaired, the compromised through blackmail and threats to their families. They are the ones who voluntarily or involuntarily get in their Toyotas and drive to the checkpoints and explode.

There is a point where no matter how many blast walls you build, how many drone strikes you authorise or how many “advisers” you send in, the simple fact remains: you have a large proportion of the Iraqi population committed to killing those who govern them. Until that is sorted, the war will not end.

First published on Crikey HERE

• Karl Stevens in Comments: Leonard Colquhoun. John Martinkus is right. Being blamed for the disaster that Iraq has become was optional for Australia, and yet we waded in like the yobbo, neocolonialist bogans we are. And guess what? It bankrupted us, and no amount of idiotic media cover-up can hide that ugly truth.



  1. Leonard Colquhoun

    April 8, 2016 at 5:37 pm

    Another historical factor is four centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule, and this is far more important than any interference by It’s-all-our-fault Westerners^.

    Ottoman local government was not the business of the Sultan or his Grand Vizier in Constantinople. That was administered by the local religious bigwigs, mullahs, imams, muftis, bishops, archbishops and patriarchs. Like most Muslims have for 1400 years, the Ottomans grouped people not by nation, race or ethnicity, but by creed and sect. Interwoven with this identity were complex tribal, clan and extended familial networks.

    During much of the post-Ottoman 20th century, many leading Arab thinkers, leaders and politicians tried to see themselves as we saw ourselves, as members of nations which transcended creedal, tribal, familial and regional identities. As well, many sought to have their people replace their religious / sectarian beliefs by marxism, as initially did the Ba’ath Socialist Parties in Syria and Iraq.

    For a variety of reason, good, bad and indifferent, it hasn’t worked out that way in the Arab world. (It did in Turkey – which is not in the ‘Arab world’ anyway – although the current idiot seems hell-bent on destroying the secular republic.) Maybe only in Egypt is there some sense of national identity, and the majority of Egyptians seem to have rejected the Muslim Brotherhood’s proposed Great Leap Backwards; perhaps also in Tunisia.

    (^ Truly weird how a photo-negative sort of cultural imperialism infects our clever and credentialed in academia the commentariat and the media – people in post-colonial countries are not ‘allowed’ to have the credit for their own stuff-ups, failures and barbarities – no way, these are all our fault!!!)

  2. John Martinkus

    April 8, 2016 at 10:44 pm

    Leonard, What are you on about? What I saw was Americans kicking heads in Iraq. The Iraqis don’t remember what happened four centuries ago, they remember what happened to their old man down the street a few years ago. The Americans, and by implication and association Australia were the ones doing it. Kicking heads, locking up their parents, brothers, uncles. Stop … trying to throw the responsibility back to the Ottomans. To me you are part of the problem. Not the solution. I can’t even imagine why you bothered to post a comment other than to make yourself feel a bit better for supporting an unjust and unnecessary war. … Your logic is flawed and I bet you supported Howard, Blair and Bush.

    A Trillion dollars later, close to a million dead and a global jihadist network as a result. Good work … I bet you never had to pick the brains of car bomb victims out of the crevices of your boot soles with a pen like I did. You have no idea. … because it bears no relation to the reality of the war or the region you are commenting on and our responsibility for creating this nightmare …

  3. Karl Stevens

    April 9, 2016 at 1:28 am

    Leonard Colquhoun. John Martinkus is right. Being blamed for the disaster that Iraq has become was optional for Australia, and yet we waded in like the yobbo, neocolonialist bogans we are.

    And guess what? It bankrupted us, and no amount of idiotic media cover-up can hide that ugly truth.

  4. Shane Humpherys

    April 9, 2016 at 1:41 pm

    The problem with this narrative is it relies on a timeline that sees 2003 as year zero for Iraq’s violence and atrocities. This is convenient for the narrative that claims all issues in this region stemmed from the highly flawed folly that was gulf war mkII.

    However it is simply not true that all these atrocities did not exist in Iraq prior to 2003. Perhaps John might like to document the internal conflict in Iraq, the Iraq/Iran war and the attrocities at Abu Graib prior to this date which are far more alarming than anything the Americans are responsible for. I recommend the book on the life of Ali al Jenabi, The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny.

    Personal accounts I have had from ADF personnel about what was found in Iraq after gulf war mkI, a conflict started when Saddam Hussein decided to annexe Kuwait unnannounced seem to be of no interest to the ‘2003’ narrative.

    Similarly, such narratives continually choose to overlook the fact that the anti-west militant islam that grew out of post war Afghanistan, was a war with Communist Russia!

    If the premise here is that the gulf war mkII was a monumental **** up that has made things exceedingly more complicated and has achieved nothing then I agree whole heartedly. However, if the premise is that the west via its actions in 2003 is SOLELY responsible for the human rights atrocities and ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq and the surrounding region then it is a selective history. History does not begin and end with one’s personal intersection with it.

  5. Leonard Colquhoun

    April 9, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    Further to my opening Comment, the historical ethno-sectarian factors there mentioned continued in full force in post-WWII / Ba’athist Iraq and Syria. Here are the statistics as presented in the mid-1990s DK World Desk Reference:

    Iraq – Shia 62%, Sunni 33%; minority Sunnis in power;

    Syria – Sunni 74%, ‘other’ (mainly Shia) Muslim 16%; minority Shias in power.

    In post-Saddam Iraq, with the overthrow of the Sunni minority regime, and further empowered by a temporary local power vacuum, many Shia took their revenge (remember Saddam’s atrocities against the southern Shia ‘marsh Arabs’?), which (of course) engendered a Sunni backlash which Baghdad has still not come to terms with – and, as the main article suggests, perhaps never will. A Mid-east Northern Ireland with an extra prior 600 years to fester.

    In the post-2011 Syrian ‘Arab Spring’ (and what a Western delusion that was!), Assad had the advantage of NOT having followed his fellow-Ba’athist’s example: he kept out of foreign military engagements, withdrawing from Lebanon and keeping the Golan ceasefire; his administration was far more effective; and his rebels almost immediately split between the moderate (if delusional) reformers in the ‘Free Syrian Army’ and the sectarian fanatics such as ISIS. Plus, he had one ‘great and powerful friend’ – Russia, and another aspiring one, Shia Iran. Even better from his viewpoint, a US resident who drew lines in sand and watched ‘coolly’ while they were blown away.

    Whether the West intervenes big time as Bush did, or is just ‘cool’ like Obama, perhaps this is the main lesson: never ever (well, ‘almost’ never ever) interfere in others’ civil / sectarian wars, because the main message back is “MYOB, this is our show, and has been for x hundred years” – remember 1960s-70s Vietnam and 1980s Afghanistan?

  6. John Martinkus

    April 9, 2016 at 8:51 pm

    Here you go Shane,
    This was edited out of the original Crikey copy for reasons of length. I think I addressed all your concerns here;

    The Iraqi soldier I know is a veteran. Not of one war, but many. Starting with the war with Iran. Usually conscripted into Saddam’s army to fight a conventional war that rivalled the brutality of World War 1. Trenches, poison gas, frontal assaults across open ground with massive casualties on both sides. Tanks, artillery and piles of bodies in the desert. The state subsidised free education, health care and secular lifestyle of the pre Iran war era funded by state owned oil was over. What had once been an example to the west of how an Arab country could develop and manage it’s own affairs now began to descend into despotism. In the war against Iran they were the wests allies, fed intelligence by the US still smarting at it’s humiliation at the hands of the Ayatollah’s in Iran when they overthrew the western sponsored Shah and kept the Americans hostage in the occupied US Embassy. The heyday of the hotels and restaurants that lined the Tigris that had once hosted international acts and drinking till the early hours were over. Replaced by mass conscription, a bloody war with Iran and finally a stalemate enforced by the now well entrenched Baath Party under Saddam.

    Then came Kuwait. Saddam sent the army in. At first it was easy. Very little resistance. They looted and enjoyed the short lived fruits of their victory over the oil rich kingdom that they were told and considered was rightfully a part of Iraq, stolen from them by a trick of British diplomats as the region was carved up as the Ottoman Empire was dismantled by the victors of World War 1. A half a million allied troops, mostly American, moved in and kicked them out, slaughtering them on the exposed roads through the desert back to Iraq. The smashed columns and decomposing corpses all that remained when the few western correspondents got in and managed to document a small part of it.

    When Saddam’s troops arrived back in Iraq a new war awaited them. The Shia, encouraged by US President George H W Bush had risen up, particularly in the south. The Sunni elite of Saddam’s army had to deal with them. They killed thousands to put down the uprisings whilst the US led coalition held back and let them do their work. Saddam, safe in power, but internationally isolated and reviled, carried on. Sanctions by the west, the occasional bombings and the no fly zones, didn’t really dent his hold on power and only made him more ruthless in the treatment of his own people, particularly the Shia in the south and the Kurds in the north. Gas attacks against the Kurds, draining swamps in the south to dislocate those opposed to him, there seemed nothing that Saddam would not do to maintain his grip on power in the 90’s.

    Then the long years of sanctions and international isolation. Children died through lack of medicine. International travel was banned for all those except Saddam’s elite. The occasional western bombing raid or missile strike reminded those in power of the pressure they were under. Despite the declaration of austerity and a new found Islamic faith by the previously Secular leadership of Saddam’s Baath party the excesses of the Sunni ruling elite continued. Saddam’s own sons roamed the streets of the capital Baghdad selecting girls and women from the sidewalk for their own pleasure. Nobody stopped them. They were untouchable. I remember being pointed out a street corner in the upscale Baghdad suburb of Mansour where Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay used to pick up women in their heavily armed and escorted motorcade. There was nothing any one could do but look the other way. The alternative to pretending this was not happening came in arrest and brutal torture by the organs of the state. Some Kurdish soldiers in a hotel run by the CIA in Baghdad in 2004 made me watch a video of what this meant. There was a man being eaten alive by German Shepherd dogs held on tight leashes filmed by security cameras from the inside of the notorious regime prison at Abu Ghraib. The handlers of the dogs were Saddam’s men. The Kurdish soldiers who made me watch it were then working for the CIA as bodyguards. They made me watch it to show me how bad things had been.

  7. Shane Humpherys

    April 10, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    Thankyou John – it does!

    Which begs the question why the editors at Crikey felt it necessary to de-contextualise your piece so that questions are raised which would have otherwise been unnecessary.

    Thankyou for all your amazing work over the years – you are an inspiration to independent journalists everywhere.

    May it continue.

    Go well.


  8. Simon Warriner

    April 10, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    John, thanks for taking the time and making the effort. Perhaps the essay of April 5th by Alan Hart sheds some light on the sometime bizarre actions of the US government, and on Australia’s inexplicable rush to compromise itself by aiding and abetting the stupidity.


    In the Middle East, and everywhere else, things are clearly not as they are being made to seem.

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