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And They Call It Peace: Inside Iraq, Four Years On

Patrick Cockburn

In a personal diary to mark the fourth anniversary of the war, our award-winning correspondent Patrick Cockburn journeys through a country riven with violence and chaos

Sunday 18 March. Khanaqin

The difficulty of reporting Iraq is that it is impossibly dangerous to know what is happening in most of the country outside central Baghdad. Bush and Blair hint that large parts of Iraq are at peace; untrue, but difficult to disprove without getting killed in the attempt. My best bet was to go to Sulaymaniyah, an attractive city ringed by snow-covered mountains in eastern Kurdistan. I would then drive south, sticking to a road running through Kurdish towns and villages to Khanaqin, a relatively safe Kurdish enclave in north-east Diyala province, one of the more violent places in Iraq.

We start for the south through heavy rain, and turn sharp east at Kalar, a grubby Kurdish town, to Jalawlah, a mixed Kurdish and Arab town where there has been fighting. Ominously, there are few trucks coming towards us. I was on this road last year and it was crowded with them.

We go to the heavily guarded office of the deputy head of the PUK, Mamosta Saleh, who says the situation in Diyala is getting worse. The insurgents have control of Baquba, the provincial capital. He says: "They are also attacking a Kurdish tribe called the Zargosh in the Hamrin mountains." Security is so bad that government rations had not been delivered for seven months.

I do the rounds of the town and hear on all sides that "security is good in the centre". Everybody says this in Iraq, even in villages that do not seem to have a centre. I know that six weeks earlier a bomb killed 12 and wounded 40 people in the centre of Khanaqin.

Baquba is only 30 miles from Baghdad. It is as if the government in London had lost control of Reading. I say I want to meet some refugees from Baquba or Baghdad. A grim-looking policeman is given the job of guiding us. We drive a long way out of town behind his red car. Then he stops and talks to some men. The conversation seems too long if he is only asking the way. We are nervous of kidnappers so we race back into town.

The mayor, Mohammed Amin Hassan Hussein, explains why there are no trucks on the road: the government in Baghdad has shut the nearby border with Iran, a serious blow to Khanaqin, which depends on cross-border trade.

Monday 19 March. Sulaymaniyah

I drive up into the mountains behind Sulaymaniyah. The snow is melting and the grass is green. After the Kurdish uprising was crushed in March 1991, the Baghdad government brought us here to show they had recaptured it. In these same hills, a mechanical grab was unearthing the bodies of Iraqi government security men from muddy mass graves. Reviled as torturers and killers, they expected no mercy from the Kurds and had fought to the last man.

Tuesday 20 March. Kirkuk

I drive to Kirkuk. The cliché was to describe it as "the powder keg" of Iraq, where Kurds and Arabs competing for control, along with the Turkoman, who had the trump card of Turkish support. The explosion is yet to happen, but every city and town in Iraq can now claim to be a powder keg, so people have forgotten how dangerous Kirkuk can be. I was here when the city fell to the Kurds in 2003. The PUK forces captured Kirkuk with no resistance. The Arabs and Turkoman were deeply unhappy.


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They still are. The day before I arrived, there were seven bomb attacks, killing 12 people and injuring 39. It is not as bad as Baghdad - few places are - but dead bodies, often tortured, turn up every few days.

I was conscious we were driving a car with number plates identifying it as coming from Arbil, the Kurdish capital. Many people have been killed in Iraq because their number plates identify them as an enemy.

Wednesday 21 March. Sulaymaniyah

It is Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year, and almost every shop in the city is shut. Kurdish woman are all wearing bright shimmering traditional dresses. The Kurds are keen on picnics, and from early in the morning they are streaming out of Sulaymaniyah with baskets of food into the hills and mountains.

Thursday 22 March. Halabja

I have always liked the road to Halabja, the city doused with poison gas by Saddam Hussein in 1988. Some 5,000 people died. It is in the middle of a fertile plain overlooked by the Howraman mountains, white with snow at this time of year. At the entrance to Halabja is one of the world's strangest monuments. From a distance it looks like a mosque, and it was designed as a memorial to those who died in the gas attack. Its shape is like a circus tent made out of concrete that blossoms into a top-knot encircling a globe.

Today, the monument is burnt out. Survivors of the gas attack destroyed it last year, complaining that the Kurdish government was always lamenting the dead but doing nothing to help the living. The government claims they were egged on by Islamic fundamentalists.

Friday 23 March

The Iranians pick up 15 British servicemen searching ships in the Shatt al-Arab. The cold war between Iran and the US, with Britain trotting along behind, is getting colder.

Saturday 24 March. Arbil

I drive three hours through the hills to the Kurdish capital, Arbil. The 15 British servicemen have been taken to Tehran. It was foolish to have them searching vessels in disputed waters as friction with Iran increased.

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