“For Now, It Seems, Iraq Is No More”


August 9, 2014

FRONTLINE producer Martin Smith (Gangs of Iraq, Private Warriors, Beyond Baghdad, Truth War and Consequences) is in Baghdad, working on a film about Iraq’s current crisis with cameraman Scott Anger and second camera/soundwoman Sachi Cunningham. Read Smith’s earlier dispatches on his return to Baghdad and on Baghdad’s police checkpoints.

Helicopters were swarming over Baghdad Friday night, crisscrossing the city with their lights turned off. I can’t confirm it but reports are that there are now around 500 U.S. troops stationed at the Baghdad airport, including six military intelligence assessment teams with Apache helicopter crews attached.

In the north, U.S. airstrikes have begun, and in conversation after conversation with members of Baghdad’s political elite, there is every confidence that American ground troops will be landing soon. They assure me of this, despite the fact that President Obama was pretty clear he would not be introducing soldiers back into Iraq on his watch. One leading Shia politician told me: “He says that but he can’t defeat ISIS with airpower alone. He will change.”

On the other hand, in seeming contradiction, most of Baghdad’s elite are dismissive of ISIS’s strength. “ISIS can’t hold territory. They have made a mistake by declaring a caliphate.” “They will be easily defeated.” “We are not afraid.” Of course, it is easy to say. These elites live in large homes in heavily guarded compounds: some perched along the Tigris, others inside the old “Green Zone” or in the nicer Karrada or Mansour neighborhoods. Still others live on small date farms on Baghdad’s outskirts. When they have to they move about in convoys of armored Chevy Suburbans. Their routes are scouted ahead of time. They can afford what it costs to minimize risk. Their servants go to the markets, take their vehicles to gas stations, service their generators, man their entrances.

Violence is what happens to other people. Just yesterday, I was talking to one prominent parliamentarian sitting in his living room sipping Turkish coffee served with fine Belgian chocolates. An hour into our meeting, a bomb blast at a nearby checkpoint killed 14 and wounded 60, but only rattled the windows and doors of my host. “Don’t worry. We are safe.”

What is the reality? What is the threat? In the north, where I spent last week, ISIS was rapidly advancing against Kurdish forces to everyone’s surprise. On Saturday, just outside of Erbil, I had just finished an interview with former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, when his cell phone started vibrating on the table. He picked it up and read the first message. His face fell. “This is very serious. ISIS has just taken Zumar.”

Zumar, with two nearby oilfields, was the first Kurdish-controlled town to fall to ISIS. “ISIS is looking for gas to run their trucks. They are much better armed than our pesh.” While the peshmerga are generally considered superior to most all Iraqi security forces, ISIS had just opened a new front attacking the Kurds head on. Next they seized Mosul dam, then Sinjar to the west near the Syrian border. These events and the imminent slaughter of a minority Iraqi community, the Yazidis, led to the U.S. airstrikes.

Today, back in Baghdad, security is stepped up. More checkpoints, more traffic. More tension. And this morning especially, no one can move. There is a demonstration downtown in Firdos Square where Saddam’s statue once stood, a demonstration in support of [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki in advance of tomorrow’s session of Parliament, where representatives are locked in a struggle over electing a successor to Maliki or returning him to power. “If he is not returned, if Maliki does not get a third term as prime minister, there will be blood in the streets,” one parliamentarian tells me. Another adds, “if Maliki is not chased out, there will be an even more blood.”

This is a very sad place. I was first here in 2003. I watched as the Americans, sure of their goodness, forced many Sunnis into joblessness through their “de-Baathification program.” An insurgency followed. I returned several times over the years, only to see sectarian lines hardening. Last here in 2007, I could not imagine worse. Then after the surge and the Sunni Awakening, came a few years of relative peace. But after U.S. troops pulled out in 2011, things turned. Today, you are either a Shia, a Sunni, a Christian, a Kurd. You are not an Iraqi first. For now, it seems Iraq is no more. Until Iraqis can form a government that represents all people here, ISIS will very likely continue its march. They will not need to “clear and hold,” but simply to “shock and awe,” which they do well.

Can they seize Baghdad? Depending on how many bodyguards you have and how thick your walls are, they already have.

American officials like Cheney, Rumseld, Wolfowitz and Feith believed that Iraq was the key to peace in the Middle East. That if you could get this place up and running, its oil wealth would fuel a burgeoning democracy, and the rest of the Middle East would fall into line. Jihadis would become entrepreneurs. Saudi Arabia would stop exporting suicide bombers. Iran would behave. The flip side is what would happen if you can’t get this place up and running. We are still learning about that.

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