Category Archives: Iraq

Why did IS attack Paris?

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A woman pays tribute to victims at the Belle Equipe restaurant in Rue Charonne, 11th arrondissement Paris Photo: Tony Cross

The Islamic State (IS) armed group has claimed responsibility for yesterday’s bloody attacks in Beirut and Paris. Since I live in the Paris area, I’ll comment on the question many people are asking – why these attacks on the French capital?

  • The targets appear to have been chosen by people who knew Paris well. Two teams from “crusader” countries- France and Germany – were playing at the Stade de France, the statement said, and President François Hollande was present. The attackers did not manage to mix with the crowd, however, limiting deaths to the attackers and one bystander. “Hundreds of idolaters gathered in a festival of perversity” were at the Bataclan, according to the statement, and dozens paid the price.  The other targets were in areas full of bars and restaurants, where crowds were guaranteed and where the likely victims were guilty of the sin of enjoying life in ways not approved by fundamentalists of any stripe. The statement says there was an attack in the 18th arrondissement, which there wasn’t, so a member of the commando could still be at large. IS says that all its victims were “crusaders”, although it obviously can’t know their identities, whether they were customers of bars and restaurants, staff or passersby. Not does it know how many of the victims were Muslims, which some of them almost certainly were.
  • IS seems to be stepping up attacks abroad as it comes under pressure in Syria and Iraq, with the loss of Sinjar and air strikes on its positions. Shia were targeted in Beirut, presumably because of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, and one reason for targeting France was probably its recent decision to join air strikes on IS in Syria (one shouldn’t forget that the French army has been fighting jihadists in Mali and the Sahel for some time now and has intervened in Muslim-Christian violence in the Central African Republic). French leaders’ statements about “acts of war” might imply that the country’s military involvement will become more intense, possibly with ground troops being sent in. That might not displease IS, which wants a confrontation with “Rome” at Dabiq, to fulfil an “end-times” prophecy.
  • France’s interpretation of secularism, as represented by Charlie Hebdo and the the public reation to this year’s massacre there, as well as by measures by successive government, particularly the banning of Islamic headscarves in schools, angers fundamentalists but also alienates many Muslims, who are not tempted by violence or even Salafi-style rigour.
  • France has the largest Muslim population in Europe – although we’re not allowed to know its exact size due to France’s interpretation of secularism. A tiny minority is tempted by violent fundamentalism, partly for religious reasons, partly because of the social exclusion they have experienced in France.  The government estimates that more than 500 are fighting in IS’s ranks and has boast s of almost certainly killing some of them in air strikes. Others can’t get there, partly because of a clampdown on people wishing to go by the French authorities, leaving them available to murder at home. Only eight suicide-attackers were needed to commit Friday night’s carnage. More attacks are entirely possible.
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A TV repoter outside the Bataclan, where there was the heaviest death toll on Friday night Photo: Tony Cross

Update 17.45 Paris time

I’ve just visited the scenes of three of the attacks.

Despite the declaration of a state of emergency, police and military presence seems fairly restrained. There were far more TV crews that security forces members outside the Bataclan, although the scene was heavily cordoned off.

There and in the rue de Charonne, people are arriving with flowers to lay at the scene or lighting candles. Since the government has banned all public gatherings, there will be no Charlie Hebdo-style demonstration, for the moment at least, and the mood doesn’t seem to be at quite such a pitch – more shock, less indignation.

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“Death to the illiterate barbarians” this handwritten poster declared Photo: Tony Cross

A couple of shops in rue de Charonne have hung up French flags – one also has a piece of paper bearing the #PrayforParis hashtag, a no doubt well-intentioned but curious choice given that a fair proportion of the victims and their families undoubtedly don’t believe in God while the attackers invoked his name to perpetrate their murders.

So a certain amount of nationalism. The crowd at the Stade de France apparently sang the Marseillaise – but what do we sing about when we sing the Marseillaise?

Someone has stuck a rose into bullet holes in the front of Sushi Maki restaurant, next to La Belle Equipe. And, since hate engenders hate, a piece of paper bears the legend “Death to the illiterate barbarians”.

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Iraq 2003: Families search for Saddam’s victims

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This piece was left out of my previous post on Iraq 2003. A strange and heartbreaking feature of the fall of Saddam Hussein was the hundreds of relatives of his victims who were searching for their loved ones, chasing any rumour that gave hope that they light be alive.

The former military barracks near Radwanir is now a field of rubble with just two buildings in a far corner of the compound left standing. There’s nothing left of the gardens which were apparently laid out so that Saddam Hussein and his family could relax under the required security conditions.

But there are people here. A small group of men and women stand in the midst of the devastation, some of them trying to dig into the concrete-strewn ground.

One of them, a sturdily-built middle-aged man with a care-worn face, explains that they are trying to find relatives and friends who disappeared under Saddam’s rule. Like most Iraqis, they believe that the régime built hidden prisons and they’re convinced that their loved ones are down there, waiting to be saved or waiting to die.

“No food, no water … how will they live?’ cries one, plaitively.

Another man insists that four months ago he brought food for his brother with the help of a friendly official and that he saw prisoners here.

A black-clad woman says that her two sons were taken away in 1982 and that she hasn’t seen them since. A weeping man says that Ba’ath party members took his two sons for questioning, promising that they would soon return. That was over 20 years ago.

Why were they taken?

“For religious reasons.”

Are you Shia ?

“Yes, Shia.”

We drive over to another crowd, gathered by one of the buildings that’s still standing. A notebook found on the floor lists the names of soldiers who were posted here. Men take us down a dark corridor with small cells off it. They’re just a few metres square, with no windows. There’s a round window at the end of the corridor behind a door, which hides a toilet and two more cells. A man taps some stone on the floor and an echo rings through the empty space beneath. But there are no voices.

“Please help us. Will you help us?” says one plaintively as we leave.

A few days later a crowd of several hundred fills an underpass in the city centre. Excited men swear that they have heard voicers, as did the searchers at Radwanir, and, also like them, they claim that some of the voices had Kuwaiti accents. Kuwait has sent a delegation to enquire about its citizens who went missing after the 1990 Iraqi invasion.

I fail to hear voices at the places where they’re supposed to have been head, although that could just be because of the surrounding animation

For all the evident emotion, few people seem to be actually digging or seeking help but after a while an ambulance and then a police car arrive.

At one point the crowd gets extremely excited and people claim that a prisoner has been found. An Indonesian TV crew say that they filmed a man crawling out of one of the tunnels. Later it becomes clear that he had just gone down to look for the alleged prisoners and that, once again, no-one has been freed.

The name of the underpass is Liberation Tunnel.

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Turkey presidential election 2014 – Erdogan’s victory showed signs of troubles to come

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Given the exciting outcome of Turkey’s parliamentary election, I’m taking my accounts of assignments out of sequence and publishing this from last year’s presidential election. Erdogan won with a satisfactory majority but Selahattin Demirtas’s HDP – the left-wing, pro-Kurdish party that has upset the parliamentary apple-cart in 2015 – was already doing well. And there were signs of trouble ahead for the AKP, as  RFI’s perspicacious French service correspondent Jérôme Bastion pointed out to me.

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One of Istanbul’s pasajes Photo: Tony Cross

I had forgotten how East-meets-West Istanbul is – the pasajes, the domed mosques, the shots bars, the mackerel sandwiches, the beautiful women, some wearing cover, others wearing very little, parading along Istiklal, the travel posters, reproduced Persian miniatures, bibelots and ageing furniture in my determinedly quaint hotel.

And sophisticated, basking in its history but modern in its own way. Istanbul is unlike anywhere else in the world that I know and totally different to the rest of Turkey.

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The former headquarters of a French ottoman-era company Photo: Tony Cross

In the August heat families stroll along the sides of the Bosphorus, the banks not much higher than the sea, as oil tankers head for the Black Sea. Men fish off the bridges joining historic and modern Istanbul. A boy scarcely in his teens plays a hand drum incredibly fast in a passage cutting through a modern office building.

And banners, posters and bunting urge Turks to vote for Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the presidential election, first round on Sunday.

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Leeches on sale near the bird market Photo: Tony Cross

Erdogan, prime minister for the past 11 years, leader of the Islamic, conservative, pro-business Justice and Development Party (AKP) started his rise to the top as mayor of Istanbul and hopes to be elected and reelected as president, staying in power until 2024, the year after the centenary of the modern Turkish republic.

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The Erdogan campaign office in Kasmipasa Photo: Tony Cross

He can’t bear the thought of taking a political back seat, which the presidency should be, being largely ceremonial according to the constitution, so he also hopes to make the position more powerful and remotely control the AKP, despite the constitution’s requirement that he resign from his party if he wins the election.

All of which gives rise to suspicions of megalomania, suspicions that are confirmed by his fondness for megaprojects, including the stadium recently built in Kasmipasa, the district in which he was born.

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The Recep Tayyip Erdogan stadium, Istanbul

The Recep Tayyip Erdogan Stadium. sits on the side of the hill heading down to the Golden Horn from Pera, the touristy, Istanbuli bourgeois heart of the modern city, on streets that become more like the rest of Turkey as you approach the sea.

On narrow streets men sit drinking tea or Turkish coffee, playing board games and chatting, following the occasional woman who passes by with their eyes, regardless of how well covere she is.

The men all say they support the native son.

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Men sip tea as women walk by in Kasmipasa Photo: Tony Cross

“I will vote for Erdogan because we are from the same place and he’s made good jobs and he has brought Turkey growth,” explains Tolga, a new technology worker.

He points to the infrastructure projects – roads, metros, tramways and airports that have been realised under AKP rule.

Erdogan’s opponents accuse him of an Islamist agenda of undermining Turkey’s secular constitution, of authoritarianism and of corruption.

But Turkey has experienced over five per cent growth every year since 2002, so jobs have been created for working-class people, social services have improved and the middle class has seen its living standards rise.

At the AKP’s local campaign office, housewife Rukiye, her hair tightly wrapped in a dark scarf, speaks up for her candidate.

“He is with the poor people and he keeps his word,” she declares.

The party doesn’t have to do much campaigning around here, she says, “Five-year-olds show love for Recep Tayyep Erdogan.”

The AKP organised a massive rally for Erdogan in Istanbul at the weekend and claims, perhaps a little boldly, that over a million people attended it.

Rukiye dismisses alleged proof of corruption on leaked tapes that appear to show Erdogan, his family and allies trying to cover up dodgy dealings.

“It’s all lies,” she exclaims with some vigour. “They say it is a montage – they cut them and edited them. All I can say is it’s all rubbish.”

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An Erdogan supporter in the Kasmipasa campaign HQ Photo: Tony Cross

Most Turks are patriotic to the point of paranoia and Erdogan’s backers claim that, as prime minister, he has put the country on the world’s diplomatic map, declaring support for the Palestinians – although continuing to trade with Israel – backing revolt against Bashar al-Assad in Syria and proposing a model of democratic Islamism for the Muslim world.

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“For our country a powerful leader means a powerful country,” Erdogan-voter Hakan Photo: Tony Cross

 

“He is leading Turkey very well and in the last 12 years the international view of Turkey has changed and we’re so grateful to our prime minister,” says Hakan, an self-employed man sipping tea by the Golden Horn. “For our country a powerful leader means a powerful country.”

Turkey is a politically polarised country and Erdogan supporters are as fervent as his opponents.

If the opinion polls are to be believed, they’re likely to win him the presidential election.

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Mustapha Kuleili Photo: Tony Cross

 

“It’s a weird situation to be in Taksim right now,” says Mustafa Kuleli, as he looks at the square from the terrace of Starbucks. “You walk into the park or you walk into Taksim Square and you remember. That was a turning point for journalists, and also all citizens, everybody agrees that was a historical moment to be here, to feel that solidarity facing the police, water-cannon, teargas … everything.”

Kuleli is the general secretary of one of Turkey’s journalists’ trade union, elected after he took part in last year’s Gezi Park protests.

They started as a campaign to stop the construction of a mosque and a shopping mall, disguised as an Ottoman-era barracks, on one of central Istanbul’s few green spaces and blossomed into massive anti-Erdogan protests and clashes with the police.

Those heady days are over now and politics is being played out in the electoral arena with Istanbul festooned with banners for the three candidates – Erdogan, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and Selahattin Demirtas, but mostly for Erdogan.

Despite the millions who opposed him on the streets last year, opinion polls show the outgoing prime minister has widespread support and could even win the election on the first round.

So were the protests a waste of time?

“Personally I didn’t tie Gezi Park and daily politics,” says Kuleli. “I think it’s more than that. I think it’s like May ‘68 movement in France. After ’68 a right-wing party gained more votes. But that movement affected 40 years everywhere … all over Europe.”

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Ender Imrek Photo: Tony Cross

Sitting in a neat office up several flights of stairs, Ender Imrek, a socialist activist who is being prosecuted for his leading role in the protests, explains how the force of the law descended on him an his fellow miscreants.

“The police entered our homes by force,” he recalls. “We were kept at the police station for four days and they mistreated us. They took our hard disks and our notes and our writings.”

He and four codefendants are accused of masterminding the protests across the whole country.

“I said that I would be very proud to have organised them but millions were on the street and it would be discourteous to them to say something like that,” is Imrek’s reply. “The court wanted to jail us but there was a huge public protest so they didn’t do that. But on 21 November our case will go to trial.”

His Labour Party is supporting Selhettin Demirtas of the left-wing Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) for president – in a “democratic bloc” against what they see as Erdogan’s growing authoritarian tendencies.

“Erdogan wants to declare his dictatorship in this election and he wants everything to continue as it was in the past,” he says. “We don’t want that, we want democracy and we don’t want things to go as they have in the past.”

Erdogan’s supporters don’t seem too worried about his tough reaction to the protests.

Cernil is a driver working in Austria who is back in Turkey during the election.

Sitting with his wife on Gezi Park, only partially paved over thanks to the protests, he says it was right to break up the protests. 

“Yes, it was a little harsh but who cares?” he asks. “They had gone on for too long so they needed to be punished and, if you look at Europe, if there are any protests the police will intervene.”

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Istanbul residents in Gezi Park on a sunny morning Photo: Tony Cross

There is a mixed crowd on Gezi Park on a sunny weekday morning.

A Kurdish labourer brandishing a beer can says he saw police stop campaigners put up posters for Demirtas, who is a Yazidi Kurd himself, and another Kurd also declares his support for the left-winger, explaining that he has encountered discrimination during his 30 years living in Istanbul.

There’s also concern about sectarian divisions in Turkey – both between Kurds and Turks and between majority Sunni Muslims and the Alevi minority, many of whom joined anti-Erdogan rallies.

Whose fault that is changes according to your political and religious affiliation.

“I was not on the side of Erdogan, I used to vote for left-wing parties,” says Ismir, a Sunni textile worker. “But it turned into something sectarian. Alevis started to make a lot of noise and they started to insult us, the Sunnis. That’s why I didn’t like the protests.”

But Feda, just back from studying in the Netherlands, supports the secularist Ihsenoglu and blames Erdogan.

“Rather than supporting the population in Turkey, he is trying to divide them in terms of their religion, their nationality,” she says.

If elected president, Erdogan will “get all the power and do whatever he wants according to his beliefs”, she thinks.

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The caravanserail in Diyarbkakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir is a very different city.

The temperature is higher – “38° today, we start to complain when it gets into the 40s,” says my fixer Hasan, passed on to me by the amiably roguish-looking Samet, who was in turn recommended by local journalist Yimlaz Akinci – but the heat is a dry heat, so you’re not drenched in sweat all the time as you are in Istanbul.

The historic town walls are in ark stone and extremely solid, evidence of centuries of conflict, and the street-life is unmitigatedly Middle Eastern, unless you count a superabundance of mobile phone shops as agencies of Western influence.

A tea seller in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Tea sellers, some in traditional baggy trousers and colourful waistcoats, patrol the pavement, as do fruit sellers, bread sellers and shoeshine men, there’s a caravanserail and a bazaar, complete with courtyard for meeting, chatting and sipping çai.

Diyarbakir is the biggest town in the majority-Kurdish south-east and a bastion of Demritas’s HDP, which was the Peace an Democracy Party (BDP) when I was last here in 2007.

The BDP was a lot keener to cooperate with journalists back then, it seems – or maybe we prepared our visit better – and a first visit to their headquarters in a modern building in a residential district out of the centre of town leas only to a vague promise to fin us someone to interview tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I struggle unsuccessfully to use the wifi in my hotel, we visit the Human Rights Association, where Demirtas started his career and discuss the Kurdish question with a local lawyer.

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A jeweller in the Diyarbakir bazaar Photo: Tony Cross

Slightly perturbed by our unannounced arrival, Abdusselam Incebren, the assistant secretary of the Diyarbakir Human Rights Association, reproaches us gently but agrees to talk about the organisation’s work.

Formed in the 1980s, following the establishment of a human rights association in Ankara, the organisation has had its work cut out ever since, especially during the state’s attempts to destroy the Kurdish Worker’ Party (PKK) guerrilla movement, which led to the abuses and atrocities associated with such dirty wars.

“The worst time was in the early 1990s,” he recalls. “Why? Because many people were killed, many people were tortured, many people they left home and just didn’t come back. So we are still investigating what happened to these people.”

That was under a secularist government, committed to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s vision of a monolithic Turkish nation, a project that the Kurds have always disrupted.

“If you compare today to the past you cannot say that we have those problems,” Incebren points out.

That’s because of one of the many ironies of Turkish politics – the right-wing, Islamic AKP has proved more open to making concessions to Kurdish national sentiment than the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the social-democratic party that is the largest group in the secularist camp.

Not that there isn’t still a heavy and sometimes heavy-handed police and military presence in the south-east.

“It’s not like it was in ‘95-‘96 or up to 2000, people are not lost, tortured,” Incebren goes on. “But one thing we do see is on the streets and in meetings the police abuse their power and that’s a kind of torture.

“With the peace process, if you compare AKP with before there is an improvement in human rights. But if they don’t kill, they don’t torture, they’re still putting people in jail today. The techniques have changed.”

Incebren and his fellow rights workers have fond memories of Demirtas.

“People will never forget him. He was really very good. In the Human Rights Assocation he showed how to be human, how to develop the organisation. We want to take that further. He did a great job, really.”

Edip Yigit Photo: Tony Cross

Edip Yigit is defending several Kurdish activists arrested in 2009 and the ensuing years.

They are being released now because of parliament has finally got around to passing a law banning detention without charge for more than five years.

Although they were members of the PKK’s political wing, he says they posed no threat to security.

Öcalan has declared a truce and, as disciplined cadres, they toe the party line.

“These people had clean records,” he says, sipping çai in a café in the caravanserail. “In court they could find no crime to charge with them.”

The cases are a late example of the dirty war against the PKK even as the PKK government is negotiating with Öcalan.

“Today there is a peace process between the Turkish state and Kurds and, so, to me, this was a big mistake,” comments Yigit.

He blames the arrests on “parallel structures” in the Turkish state, a phrase often used to describe followers of Erdogan’s former ally Fehtullah Gülen, whom he is now purging after a breach that led, among other things, to the corruption scandal.

Kurds welcome the peace process but remain suspicious of the Turkish state’s intentions, notably because of the heavy military presence throughout the country, especially in the south-east, leading them to suspect that the army remains ready to start a new anti-PKK offensive.

The AKP’s openness to negotiations is usually attributed to several factors – pressure on human rights from the European Union, which the government was trying to join, a less firm commitment to Kemalist nationalism and Öcalan’s capture putting the government in a strong bargaining position.

But the narrative in the south-east, which Yigit appears to agree with, is that Öcalan took the initiative.

Kurds who intend to vote for Demirtas sum up their aspirations in a call for “democracy”, by which they tend to mean equal treatment by the state and an end to discrimination.

They are deeply suspicious of Ankara-based parties.

“In the past even the Kurdish language was forbidden, because of one word you could be put in jail for 20 years.” recalls Kasri, a labourer hanging around in Dyarbakir’s bazaar. “Not only this, they killed people, they tortured people for many years, so how can I believe these parties are democratic?”

He’s happy about the peace process but wants it to bring change.

“For about one year nobody is dying. It means a lot that people can sleep, people can be happy, people can work. But one thing, we want democracy – for everyone, not only for Kurds or Turks, for everyone who lives in Turkey.”

The situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, now practically independent as local peshmerga and Syrian Kurd fighters fight the Islamic State (ex-Isis) armed fundamentalists and the Iraqi state loses ground to the south, might be expected to strengthen Turkey’s Kurds.

But that would be to discount the Kurds’ long history of internecine squabbles.

The regional government President Massoud Barzani, who is reported to have been acting as a facilitator in contacts between the PKK and the Turkish government, has proved an inconstant ally to the PKK and seems to regard Öcalan as a rival rather than a comrade.

Economic considerations may also undermine his status as an honest broker. Iraqi Kurdistan is now more than solvent thanks to exports of oil to Israel that must pass through Turkey.

Little wonder then that Barzani has promised Erdogan to “play a pacifying role in eastern Turkey and […] help the Turkish Kurds to take their place within the Turkish nation” and that Turkey has granted legal recognition to a new Turkish branch of Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP-T).

“Today the Turkish state understands that it cannot challenge the Iraqi state and so they had to accept these people any more,” comments Yigit. “On the other hand, it was very good for Turkey to have trade with these people and get a warm relationship with them. Why? Because of petrol.”

Even with Barzani’s Kurdish Regional Government security forces reportedly trying to prevent fighters opposed to the peace process passing into Turkish territory, there have been sporadic clashes between the Turkish military and armed groups of unclear affiliation, undermining confidence in the peace process in the eyes of some Kurds and even elements in the Turkish general staff.

Erdogan has not hesitated to use divisive rhetoric during the election campaign, pointing out that Demirtas is from the Yazidi minority as well as lashing out at Alevis, Armenians and Jews, indicating that change of tack on the Kurdish question is possible if he is elected president.

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Inside HDP headquaters in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

A Kurdish channel is broadcasting live interviews with Syrian Kurd fighters battling the Islamic State (ex-Isis) in northern Iraq as we wait to speak to an HDP official at the party’s Diyarbakir headquarters.

They think the peshmerga are a bunch of sissies, according to Hasan, who admires the fight they have put up against the Sunni fundamentalists, who are currently driving Yazidi and other minorities out of the area they control.

It is the election campaign that is on the mind of Meral Damis Bestas, a brisk, trouser-suited woman who, strangely, introduces herself as the wife of HDP president Mesut Danis Bestas.

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Meral Damis Bestas Photo: Tony Cross

It’s going well and not just in the south-east, she claims.

“Mr Demritas has already extended his support in Turkey,” she says, “In all of Turkey, wherever he goes, people are giving a lot of sympathy to him because he says new things. He is not saying what people said before. He is guaranteeing no discrimination between people.”

In the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests, Demirtas has garnered the support of the hard-left parties who mobilized against Erdogan, boosting his chances of winning votes outside the BDP/HDP’s traditional Kurdish base.

But, despite that and the HDP’s long-standing left-wing credentials, his campaign seems to have focused on fighting discrimination  – not just  against Kurds but against Alevis, Armenians, women and even, unprecedentedly for Turkey I believe, gays – rather than wider issues of social and economic justice.

“The HDP is left-wing but that does not mean that it rejects other ideas,” is Bestas’s answer when I raise this question. “It’s open to everyone, from any ideology, it doesn’t matter. The main thing is that there are a lot of laws in Turkey that hamper human rights. Beside this there is poverty, in some parts of Turkey people are living in poverty and others they are rich. This is not social justice. Other parties come from a nationalist perspective but Demritas is a man of the people.”

The party does not hide its sympathy for the PKK – posters calling for Öcalan’s release decorate their HQ’s the walls – rather presenting itself as an essential go-between in the pace process.

“I can tell you that we are the guarantors of this peace process,” says Bestas. “Because if there was no Mr Öcalan or HDP fighting for this peace process it wouldn’t work on its own.”

Erdogan is dragging out the process, she claims.

“He wants to make it longer all the time but we are struggling against him.”

She accuses the outgoing prime minister of abusing his position to help his election campaign, a charge that is echoed by OSCE observers.

“It is not an equal race. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a lot of advantages,” Bestas says. “There is no fairness in this country. We can only work with our people because we can’t spend millions on our campaign. For Mr Tayyip Erdogan every state organisation, every mayor is working for him. Fifteen or 16 TV channels are supporting him and they are reporting his every word, every speech. So how can we be equal?”

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Javed, a fervent Demirtas supporter Photo: Tony Cross

Seated in his carpet shop in the Diyarbakir bazaar, Javed, is a fervent Demirtas supporter because he believes he stands for real democracy.

“Turkish people, Kurdish people, every people working together, working in one country. Before many people in Diyarbakir … Turkish people, Kurdish people, Arabic people also, working together. Democracy like this.”

But one thing Javed will never do is vote for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who are supporting Ihsanoglu. 

“Second round I’m giving to Erdogan.”

“Why?”

“I am not giving to CHP other parties with Ihsanoglu.”

Although some street traders and a civil servant tell us they will vote Erdogan in the first round, Demirtas’s campaign has plenty of support in Diyarbakir and he  hopes to pass the 10% bar, a performance that, if repeated in a general election, would mean the HDP could have an official group in parliament.

But that won’t put him in the second round, if there is one, and many Kurdish voters are likely to vote Erdogan, if faced with a choice between him and Ihsanoglu.

“This is not our policy,” the HDP’s Bestas, told me. “The AKP is not supporting our principles, so we are completely separate. We will not call on people to vote Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the second round.”

But that doesn’t deter many Kurds – Cengiz Aculca, whom I met in Istanbul, for example.

Aculca, a Kurdish building worker who has lived in Istanbul for 30 years, is going to vote for Selhettin Demirtas but, if there is a second round and Demirtas is eliminated, he will transfer his vote to Erdogan.

The CHP and its enemy-turned-ally, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), are beyond the pale, so far as he is concerned.

“They dealt us a great blow during the ‘80s and the ‘90s, especially in the south-eastern part of Turkey,” he says. “Lots of things happened there, so I don’t support them.”

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“With my last drop of blood I will support Mr Demirtas,” Bayram, who says he was forced to leave Bersim because of his politics

On the city’s main street we run into Bayram.

“I will speak Kurdish,” he announces determinedly and launches into a paean for Demirtas

“With my last drop of blood I will support Mr Demirtas,” he declares. “And Kurds who do not vote for him, they are dishonest because, whether he wins or not, Demirtas is against discrimination, against any people living in Turkey – Armenians, Jewish, Christians and any ethnic group.”

Bayram’s views do not come as a huge surprise since Bayram, a balding but impressively moustached middle-aged man, sports a T-shirt decorated with several portraits – among them those of Öcalan and Che Geuvara – an arm band with the PKK’s symbol and what look like effigies of bullets and an Abdullah Ölan watch.

It appears he was just as open about his political affiliations when he lived in Mersin, a Turkish-majority town on the Mediterranean, where they did not go down to well in certain quarters.

First, he says, he was visited by CHP members who told him in no uncertain terms to get out of town.

Then he was visited by a group of toughs, who knocked him about about and smashed the Öcalan watches he had been selling on the streets, and delivered the same message.

Finally, a message to the same effect came from the mayor and he fled to Diyarbakir.

Lunch in the caravanserail in Diyarbakir

Hasan and I take lunch in the caravanserail at a stand bearing the name Kamer.

It is run by the women’s rights group that I visited last time in Diyarbakir and provides an income to women who cook at home and come here to sell it. Very good food it is, too.

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Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and friends, commemorated on Taksim Square Photo: Tony Cross

The management of the Marmara Hotel were “very good” during the Gezi Park protests, Binnaz Toprak assures me as we make our way to the first floor lobby for our interview, I having vetoed the Kitchenette café, where we met, on the grounds of noise.

The hotel opened its groud floor to protesters who had been teargassed or manhandled by the police, she recalls, as the guests, presumably watched the show from their luxury suites.

It’s calm now, apart from the occasional raised voice of an excited client, and the guests loiter in the lobby – many of them Gulf Arab women in niqab or their husbands, some whom are wearing hairnets following hair transplant operations that are apparently not available at home.

Looking out onto Taksim Square and Gezi Park, Toprak, a former academic and CHP MP, is disarmingly frank about the chances of the candidate her party is backing in Turkey’s presidential election, Ekmeleddine Ihsanoglu.

“Unfortunately all polls show that he doesn’t have too much of a chance,” she admits.

It shouldn’t be that way, according to Toprak.

“Normally his chances should be high because the other major candidate, the Prime Minister Erdogan has been using hate speech against people with different identities, he has been screaming on the [TV] screen for the last I don’t know how many years, he scolds people, there is this tension in the country, whereas Ihsanoglu is this quiet man, who is a gentleman, who won’t even answer him.”

But being a gentleman doesn’t seem to be paying off.

The latest poll shows Ihsanoglu at 34%, with Erdogan 57% and left-wing Kurd Selhattin Demirtas 9.0%.

Toprak says Erdogan is primarily responsible for the intense political polarisation in the country today, although she admits that her own camp has contributed to the bitter tone of polemics that turn to vitriol on social media.

“We have been divided into two or even three groups of people – the Kurds, the secularists and the Islamists – and the more he polarises, the more he consolidates his own supporters,” she complains, adding the she fears that “it could come to a civil war between these groups”.

She is not alone in her fear of the future. There’s widespread fear of the secret services snooping on conversations, several cases of phone-tapping have been exposed their, journalists fear for their jobs after Erdogan has picked out colleagues for public criticism – indeed, some have already been fired, allegedly due to government pressure. Several people have mentioned to me or to colleagues that they are thinking of leaving the country of Erdogan wins.

The secular camp has supported military coups to prevent Islamist-led governments in the past but Toprak hopes those days are over, praising Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) for forcing the military out of politics.

The CHP, often described as a social-democratic party, has formed an alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) behind Isanoglu in this election, a pro-secular bloc that has come together over recent years despite the fact that the MHP is a hard-right party, whose members used to fight in the streets with left-wingers a few decades ago.

It’s just an electoral alliance, Toprak insists, saying that for her the CHP is still a left-wing party.

In 2007, when I accompanied CHP members campaigning for support in Istanbul, I was shocked by the Kemalist dogmatism of its members.

That seems to have changed, if Toprak is anything to go by, although it is difficult imagining this amiable woman ever having been anything other than polite and reasonable.

The secularists may have been too doctrinaire in their defence of Atatürk’s legacy, she admits, looking back on their insistence on banning women wearing head cover in education and public service and regarding religious conservatives as vulgar provincials.

“Maybe it was too radical, the understanding of the party in the past but I think that the party has come to an understanding where it’s willing to accept people who want to live and Islamic way of life, let them live that way of life. Nobody should interfere with the others’ choices.”

That doesn’t mean dropping the fight for women’s rights, however, particularly in the light of AKP leaders’ statements on the matter that lead feminists to fear the worst.

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç aroused equal amounts of concern and derision recently when he said that women should not laugh in public, prompting a flood of selfies of immodestly happy females.

Erdogan has expressed shock at the state of dress at Istambuli women, said that women should have three or five children and threatened to criminalise caesarean sections and abortion.

Other party thinkers have said that pregnant women should no go out in public and that it is natural for men to have a number of wives.

“The women’s issue is an important issue,” comments Toprak. “Because I think it’s at the gist of the Islamist project anywhere in the world.

“What’s going to be different if the Islamist come to power? They adjust themselves to new technologies, modernity, buildings, roads, new phones and the modern economy. What would radically change is gender relations and the position of women.”

But don’t the polls show that the majority of the country agree with this conservative religious agenda?

“Yes, they do.”

So what will the CHP do about it?

Again that disarming frankness.

“I have no idea. Despite all that has happened his [Erdogan’s] supporters still support him.”

Polling day in Istanbul

Voting is brisk at polling stations in Sisli, a middle-class area that is a stronghold of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), shortly after polls open at 8.00am.

Most voters ready to speak to the media have cast their ballot for Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the independent supported by the CHP, citing his honesty and his academic qualifications as reasons for backing him.

But not many are enthusiastic.

Ihsanoglu was secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation until he decided to stand and some secularists find him a strange choice for their party to support.

“His past is more Islamic thoughts and I am not the right for that thinking,” comments Canzu, a finance worker, adding that she doubts he would stand up for the secular values of  Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

In Eyüp, a more socially mixed and politically divided area, Ihsanoglou voter Sacettin, a jeweller, found Ihsanoglu’s campaign lacklustre but blames the CHP and MHP.

“I think that the parties that support him should have been campaigning and it seemed as if he was alone,” he comments.

But he has turned out to vote anyway, afraid that Erdogan’s election would mean “fascism and dictatorship”.

Protective of their right to a secret ballot or discouraged by the men hovering and listening to people talking to the media, many voters decline to comment.

But a number are far from shy of saying that they had voted for Erdogan.

“It’s obvious, we have a leader and we vote for him,” says public employee Erdal. “We love him and so I voted for him.”

“He is a world leader, he cares for Muslims,” declares Mustafa a recent graduate, who seems on very friendly terms with the hoverers.

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Okmeydani Photo: Tony Cross

The run-down Okmeydani neighbourhood is home to members of Turkey’s minorities – Kurds, members of the Alevi sect, recent immigrants from central Asia and Africa.

Here the police are more aggressive, chasing me and my companions, Ugur and Ilyas, off the premises of one school where voting is taking place.

Ihsanoglu has supporters among the Alevi, who feel that Erdogan has stirred up Sunni Muslims against them, while many Kurds back left-winger Selhettin Demirtas.

Some of the Alevi accuse Derirtas of being prejudiced against them, an accusation that Ugur says comes from the Ihsanoglu camp.

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HDP campaigners in Okmeydani, Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

His party, the HDP, has a stall manned by volunteers, mostly young although housewife Maryam must be twice the age of her coworkers.

“I am here for peacs the interview is taking place, demanding the identity papers of all the activists and telling them they must pack up their stall.

“The police said they were Kurdish too,” HDP member Aytan says afterwards. “They were talking the Kurdish language with us. They sell their honour in working for the state. We have advice for such people, ‘Police sell simit (cakes) and live honourably.’ ”

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Ekmeleddin Mehmet Ihsanoglu arrives at his Istanbul HQ after polls have closed Photo: Ugur Demir

On the outside chance that we might snatch an interview with the only candidate who speaks good English, we wait for the result outside the Ihsanoglu headquarters, where a gaggle of cameras point at a podium from which the candidate is expected to address the media.

It’s a long wait, during which I meet Koray Caliskan, a professor I enjoyed interviewing in 2007 and who I am surprised to learn is now moving in CHP circles, given how critical of the dogmatism of the Kemalists on questions such as the headscarf back then.

His clothes seem to have taken a step up the career ladder, too, but he’s still very friendly.

When Ihsanoglu finally arrives there’s a scrum in which I almost lose my mike but his only message, affably delivered, is that it’s too soon to comment.

Despite biscuits and sandwiches provided for the press, we eventually give up.

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Victor – a pro-Eedogan banner in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

 Erdogan has won. With 52% of the votes, compared to Isahnoglu’s 38.3% and Demirtas’s 9.7%.

After learning of his victory he went to pray in the Eyüp Sultan mosque, built after the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans, and the place where the Ottoman sultans were crowned.

He then flew to Ankara to meet his ecstatic fans,

“I will not be the president of only those who voted for me, I will be the president of 77 million,” he told them from the balcony of AKP headquarters.

But his idea of uniting the country seems to involve the opposition falling in line behind his agenda.

He called on them to “review their policies” to make them compatible with his “new Turkey” ideal.

“Those who accuse us of one-man rule … should please question themselves sincerely,” he said, an appeal that is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Erdogan can have two terms as president, meaning that he could remain at the head of the country until 2024, allowing him to preside over the centenary of the foundation of the Turkish republic in 1913.

He hopes to strengthen the presidency and is likely to succeed in that task, having purged much of the state apparatus of opponents afer falling out with US-based cleric Fehtullah Gülen, whose supporters appear to have been behind the leaks of evidence of corruption in his family and entourage.

And soon, as president, he will appoint new members of the constitutional council, further consolidating his power.

That election is likely to be brought forward, meaning another no-holds-barred election campign.

The largest opposition parties, the CHP and the MHP have suffered a severe blow in failing to force Erdogan to go to a second round.

Their morale was low ahead of the election result but may have received a small boost from the fact that opinion poll predictions of an Erdogan win of 58% or more proved excessive.

Demirtas’s vote was higher than the HDP has ever won under any of its previous names.

Meanwhile, Turkey must find a new prime minister and the AKP a new leader, since the constitution stipulates that the president must not be a member of a political party.

Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davurtoglu is tipped as the most likely new premier, although Transport Minister Binali Yildriim’s hat is also in the ring.

Outgoing president Abdullah Gül can now return to party politics but there is speculation that economist Numan Kirtulmus, not currently an MP, may be brought in to head the party.

The AKP being a coalition of religious conservatives, business interests and political right-wingers and not immune to personal rivalries, divisions may appear in its ranks.

Its Islamist predecessors have always relied on a strong leader, which is also much of Erdogan’s appeal, and broken up when the leader exits the scene.

So, despite a conclusive presidential election result, a return to the turbulent normal for Turkish politics is on the cards.

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Sunset over Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

Victory is no sooner announced than crisis comes knocking for the AKP.

Erdogan, who must resign from the party to become president, makes no secret of his wish to keep a deciding influence on it and, apparently impressed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrangement with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, wants replacement who will be very much under his shadow.

Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davurtoglu seems to fit the bill, although Transport Minister Binali Yildirim’s name has also come up.

Erdogan also wants to keep tight control of the party.

But, as Erdogan’s supporters were recovering from the victory party, Gül, who cofounded the AKP with Erdogan, announced that he would be rejoining the party when he quits the president’s job and there is little doubt that he would seek the party leadership.

Later in the day the party’s executive then announced that the special conference to choose a new party chief will be held the 27 August, the day before Erdogan is sworn in, meaning that Gül will still be barred from party membership, unless he resigns early and that may well be his next move.

Not everyone in the AKP is happy with Erdogan’s plans to run the party by remote control and Gül may be able to muster significant support for a leadership bid, which could even become a stepping stone to the premiership if he returns to parliament after the next election.

The former comrades-in-arms are believed to have had their differences over recent years.

When the government tried to ban the use of Facebook and Twitter during anti-Erdogan protests last year, he declared that he would continue to tweet.

The brewing crisis is not a good sign for a party that will soon have to fight a general election.

Nor does it bode well for Erdogan’s plan to strengthen the president’s powers.

To do that he must change the constitution, which would require votes in parliament than the AKP can currently muster even if it remains united.

He may hope that an early general election will bring more MPs, although his own election win was less convincing than some polls had predicted, a result that weakened his standing in the party.

If there’s also a revolt in the AKP that could mean electoral victory leads to political crisis, undermining Erdogan’s enormous ambition and even giving new heart to his depressed and demoralised opponents.

Read my reports of the 2014 election on RFI’s English-language website

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Looting, firefights, occupation … Eyewitness in Baghdad 2003 after Saddam

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Saddam  loyalists fought US troops at the foot of our hotel one night, local people pleaded for food, water and medicines Shia pilgrims turned out in their thousands in the holy city of Kerbala, this was the Iraq I saw in 2003. I wrote this account on my return to Europe, in Venice, where many residents had hung flags calling for “Pace” from their windows. 

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US soldiers on the road between Baghdad and Basra; Photo: Tony Cross

Baghdad, 11 April 2003

The motorway into Baghdad is littered with the of tanks, trucks, buses and artillery, some still in flames. Piles of spent cartridges lie on the tarmac, glistening in the sun like puddles.

Thirty kilometres outside the city, American soldiers told us that they had just arrived to set up a checkpoint and that there was fighting here during the night. A GI with a down homey accent told our convoy of several hundred journalists from around the world not to « haul ass » down this bit of road in case we were taken for the enemy or we ran over some of their men lying on the ground.

Indeed, the fighting seems to be continuing, even though Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath party leadership have gone missing. We pull into the city to the sound of shots being fired almost continuously and our way to the city centre is blocked by American tanks.

Some of the shooting is said to be shopkeepers protecting their businesses from looters. Outside a smoking shopping-mall people make off with poor-quality consumer-goods. Ministries and other buildings associated with the state have already been hit. That includes hospitals, universities and schools.

But there is also military resistance to the US’s capture of Baghdad and it continues sporadically for some time, especially at night. Usually, it’s just the exchange of machine-gun fire. These clashes are often between the remnants of the Fedayeen of Saddam and other Iraqis. But sometimes someone attacks the Americans with rockets or mortars and they respond with artillery or send helicopters to bomb buildings which are left to smoke for several days, the fire brigade being one of the public services which is currently not operational.

I arrived in Kabul in similar circumstances in 2001. There was less fighting, less destruction and less chaos. The American military presence was much more discreet, with commanders from the Northern Alliance taking over the minstries within a couple of days.

Baghdad’s Palestine and Sheraton hotels are completely surrounded by US marines, who control the city to the east of the Tigris. The army controls the west side. Barbed wire closes off the hotels from the square where Saddam’s legs remain attached to a plinth, but at a right angle, like gun-barrels aiming at nothing, after being separated from the rest of his statue in front of the world’s TV cameras. On the riverside the marines have parked about a dozen tanks and other armoured vehicles.

The Sheraton is a den of thieves. You must wait all day to see if you can get a room and then pay a $100 bribe to move in. Electricity costs another $50, cleaning a few dollars more. The lifts hardly ever work. For a few days one of the women workers brings in rice and beans and makes evening meals. But she stops after a furious row with the manager in the lobby. It appears that the boss demanded a cut.

In the lobby human-shields mix with soldiers and journalists, sometimes stopping for an argument with representatives of either group. Mysterious Iraqis occupy some of the rooms and never come out. They’re widely believed to be former officials of the old régime.

Many journalists enter into the spirit of the occasion and check out without paying, passing the room-key on to friends or selling it to more casual acquaintances.

After a couple of nights on the sixteenth floor without electricity, I purchase the key to a room in the Palestine, where the lifts work and moral standards are higher.

A couple of days after that, armed Iraqis march into the room of our technician, Manu Pochez, while he’s working. He gives them money and they go away but we decide to evacuate the encampment and find a small hotel in a calm side-street, guarded by two youths with Kalashnikovs, of course.

There are demonstrations every day in the square in front of the hotel. People paste up figures of religious and political leaders or raise banners demanding help finding political prisoners or asking for information about Kuwaiti PoWs.

And there are daily protests against the Americans. They are never more than a few hundred-strong but they get angrier as time goes by and the population remains without many basic needs. The demonstrators’ principal demand is a government made up of Iraqis and chosen by Iraqis.

“In the government I want Iraqi, not American, not British,” one of them yells over the sound of his comrades’ chanting.

Does he think it’s good that Saddam has gone ?

“No. I need Saddam because I want to kill Saddam!”

Although anti-American sentiment here is far more vocal than in Kabul, it doesn’t seem to shake the faith of most of the marines.

Twenty-three-year-old Marine lance-corporal Fernando Ortiz, from Sacramento, California, says that he “strongly agrees” with George Bush.

“I think it’s a good thing that we came in here to liberate Iraq, » he adds. « I talked to a few Iraqis yesterday and some of them said that they didn’t really like us being here. But we liberated them, so I hope they appreciate it.”

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One of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, featuring a bust of the leader as Saladdin

Some do. Many, although not all, of the poorest Iraqis praise Bush for toppling Saddam. But those with a little bit of something, manual workers and professionals who can no longer do their jobs in the present anarchy, usually say that the Americans should go as soon as possible.

The chaos, the looting, the lack of water and electricity in most of the city mean that tempers get short. When a lorry-load of mineral water arrives for the Palestine and the Sheraton, there’s nearly a riot. The anti-American demonstrators almost pull the Iraqis on the back of the lorry onto the street. They throw sticks at them and call them traitors for giving the water to foreigners while their compatriots go thirsty.

There’s a widespread belief that the Americans encouraged the looting so as to justify a prolonged presence here. When the museum and library are sacked some claim that this is a Zionist-American plot to wipe out their history.

Iraqis seem more politically sophisticated than Afghans, whose politics tends to follow ethnic or tribal patterns, and who have never experienced a stable, centralised state.

Long experience has taught Iraqis never to believe anyone. They are enthusiastic proponents of the conspiracy theories that are so popular throughout the Middle East. It would be unfair to call this paranoia, given how much persecution they’ve suffered.

No-one believes that the US is here for liberty or any of the other fine sentiments that find their way into George Bush’s scripts. At an oil ministry maintenance depot, where about 200 technicians are milling around bemoaning the fact that their tools and other equipment have been stolen, both managers and workers assure us that Washington is here toget its hand on Iraq’s main natural resource. No-one has failed to notice that the Americans managed to protect the Oil Ministry from looting while letting everything else be ransacked.

The ministry was also spared the bombing. Its Saddamo-Stalinist-style building stands intact in a field of rubble, US tanks at its gates.

The American presence is much more visible than in Kabul. Here there was no Northern Alliance to front the seizure of the capital. The Alliance inspired distrust and even fear among many Afghans, but at least most of its leaders had been present in the country and fighting the Taliban.

A Kurdish-dominated offensive from northern Iraq seems to have been judged inadvisable or impractical, so the invasion came through the south from Kuwait and was entirely foreign.

Boys of 18-25-years-old, carrying their own weight in advanced military equipment stand in the shadows of tanks bristling with barrels and ammunition on every major street corner. Their attitudes to the local population vary from helpful to fearful. But none of them seem to speak Arabic and many make up for this disadvantage by raising their voices and getting annoyed. The liberators look very much like an army of occupation.

One Iraqi who is keen to praise president Bush is Ahmad Chalabi. He’s been away from the country since 1956, during which time his career has involved fleeing Jordan in the boot of a car in the wake of a banking scandal, being adopted by the American hard-right as the man most likely to overthrow Saddam and being the subject of disagreement between different agencies of the American state over his aptitude for the task.

His supporters have set up shop in the Iraqi Hunting Club, which was famously controlled by Saddam’s notorious son, Uday. It’s guarded by men in uniform who say that they belong to the “Free Iraqi Forces”.

Chalabi holds a press conference at the Hunting Club shortly after arriving in Baghdad. He avoids answering a question about who pays the FIF. But he is full of praise for the Americans – and for them alone.

“I do not think that the United Nations is either capable or has the credibility in Iraq to play a major role,” he says. “The moral imperative is on the side of the United States and the Iraqi people now will accept a leadership role for the United States in this process.”

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A telephone exchange destroyed by US bombs Photo: Tony Cross

Not all of them though. As Chalabi is speaking, a car displaying his picture is sprayed with bullets outside the club.

“Since you’ve occupied our country, why can’t you give us medicine and treat our injuries?”  an out-of-work civil servant wants to know. He’s among a crowd outside Baghdad  Town Hall, whose gates are locked and guarded by marines. He has a personal interest in his rhetorical question. His arm is paralysed. He claims that there are two American bullets in it and that he can’t find anyone to take them out. He swears that he was unarmed when the soldiers fired on him.

Small crowds form outside all public buildings in Baghdad. They’re reservoirs of extreme suffering in he generalised misery of the city. Outside the Town Hall, people demand water and electricity for their neighbourhoods, as they do on every street in the city. Others ask foreigners if they can use their satellite-phones so that they can tell relatives abroad that they’re still alive.

Outside the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a father seeks help to send his son abroad for a heart operation, another man brandishes an X-ray of a broken hip and says he can’t afford to have the necessary operation, a veteran of the war with Iran says that he needs an operation on his leg and that he has no money for medicine he needs.

“If I can’t take this medicine I could die. What can I do?”

I suggest that he go to a nearby hospital.

“What you say is of no use,” he tells me.

Nidal is a middle-aged woman who’s proud of the fact that she’s studying for her PhD. Her house was robbed and then burnt to the ground by looters. Now she’s sleeping in the street.

“Only this!” she cries in English, indicating the only possessions she has left – the T-shirt and trousers that she’s wearing.

“Under Saddam Hussein there was injustice,” a man in the crowd says. “But at least there was work, there were salaries, we could go home at night and sleep safely with our families. Now from six o’clock in the evening till the morning, no-one can leave their houses.”

America hasn’t delivered its promises the crowd agrees. They want a government of Iraqis, they say, but, when asked who would lead it, they have no candidates.

The Americans have destroyed the old state but seem not to have considered in advance what to put in its place.

They launch an appeal to professionals to present themselves at the Palestine hotel and a crowd of teachers, engineers and doctors forms. But where will they work and with what equipment ?

One day the soldiers make a dawn raid on several floors of the Palestine, obliging half-awake journalists to splay themselves on the floor while the GIs search for arms caches and potential terrrorists.

Later, a crowd of men in olive uniforms pushes its way through the lobby. They’re senior police officers here to discuss reconstituting the force. They slip down a side-passage towards a hidden lift but there are too many of them to fit into it. After several minutes, I leave them still arguing about who will get out and take the second ride to the conference room. It’s difficult to imagine that senior police officers were unaware of the abuses of Saddam’s régime but the occupying force seems to be ready to work with them.

If the Americans really did hope that chaos would justify a prolonged presence, they may have seriously miscalculated. A combination of popular initiative and religious authority is filling the void left by the destruction of the state.

Local people have improvised roadblocks from the detritus of war to slow down potential attackers. Armed militias man scruffy checkpoints and protect buildings that are important to local people.

At the entrance of the poverty-stricken Saddam City a nervous youth thrusts his Kalashnikov at our taxi-driver. We’ve hired a guide who comes from the area and he gets us through.

There are more boys with guns outside Al Qardisiya hospital. We’re introduced to Saeed Jalil Al-Hasseini, a religious student who has returned to his old home from the Shia moslem holy city of Najaf after the religious council there declared a fatwa against looting and sanctioned the establishment of militias.

He and other religious notables have taken over the management of the hospital. Al-Hasseini explains that there has been a lot of fighting between the militia and the remnants of the Fedayeen of Saddam, some of it inside the hospital itself. He says that they have captured several fedayeen and that they are “of different nationalities, mostly from Arab nations”.

Everyone blames the nightly gunfights on “Arab volunteers”, who came to fight for the old régime and now can’t get out of the country, just as the Afghans blamed “Arabs” for the fighting that continued after the fall of the Taliban. Many Iraqis just talk about “the Syrians”, since most of the foreigners have apparently come through that country.

A group of Malaysian journalists try to enter Saddam City in a Syrian car, in convoy with some Malaysian doctors. Militiamen fire on the car, killing the Syrian driver and wounding a doctor, a journalist and a guide.

The attackers apologise and take them to see a prisoner whom they ask them to film. He reads a declaration saying that he was number 16 in the fedayeen hierarchy and that he was paid handsomely to kill Shia and Americans. Then the captors produce a knife. The two cameramen refuse to carry on, fearing that they were about to record a summary execution.

Along the road from the hospital is a mosque. It’s a Sunna mosque, even though most of the area’s people are Shia. Kassem al-Moussawi, an affable teacher, is standing beside a table strewn with papers. There’s a bizarre collection of objects in the mosque’s courtyard – office chairs, desks, an industrial weighing machine … The Najaf fatwa instructed Shia to bring looted goods to the mosques so that they can be restored to public institutions.

Moussawi is supervising this process, starting with the hospitals. Some of the doctors are amazed at the quality of the equipment that they receive. Looted from clinics reserved for the old régime’s élite, it’s “returned” to medical facilities whose patients are poor.

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Thousands of Shia turn out for Friday prayers in the renamed Al-Sadr city Photo: Tony Cross

By the second Friday after the fall of Baghdad, Saddam City has changed its name. It’s unofficial, but nothing’s official at the moment, so who’s to stop the Shia inhabitants renaming it Al-Sadr City after a cleric and political leader who was killed by the former ruler?

Young men brandish guns and pictures of Al Sadr as they make their way down the litter-strewn streets to Friday prayers. We’re stopped by militiamen, but they’re noticeably more relaxed than at the beginning of the week and make an effort to be polite to visiting journalists.

A vast crowd has filled the wide main street in front of the area’s main mosque. Tens of thousands of Shia have come from Saddam City and surrounding areas and are sitting on the dusty ground waiting for prayers to begin.

When they respond to the imam, a wave of sound rolls over the mosque and the surrounding slums.

This is partly a celebration of the fact that the Shia can publicly practise all aspects of their faith after the limits that Saddam placed on it. The Shia have been kept out of positions of power throughout most of Iraq’s history, even though they’re the majority of the country’s population. Most of the poor are Shia.

All of which might have inspired them to vengeance and religious sectarianism. But, in Baghdad at least, they seem to reject the idea of confessional revenge. Slogans on mosque walls and banners call for unity of Sunna and Shia, and sometimes Christians. Leading clerics say that they don’t want a Shia monopoly of power.

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Ashura pilgrims in a Kerbala mosque Photo: Tony Cross

No doubt the Shia political movements that operated from exile in Iran have a positive view of the 1970s Iranian revolution but most people I speak to look blank when I ask what they think of it. In politics, at least, they seem to think of themselves as Iraqis first and it is their country, after all, which is home to the most important Shia holy cities.

The annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Kerbala turns into another celebration of new freedoms and old resentments.

Millions of Shi-a, men and women, make their way to the city on foot, beating their chests in rhythm, a few hitting their heads until the blood runs, in penance for the failure to prevent the martyrdom of the prophet Mohamed’s grandson, Hussein, in a struggle for the leadership of Islam.

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Women pilgrims in Kerbala Photo: Tony Cross

As the faithful march towards Kerbala, a long American military convoy heads the other way. There are no soldiers in the city, no police and virtually no guns. It’s a shock after Baghdad. But there seems to be perfect peace. Most pilgrims sleep in the street. They’re fed in communal kitchens set up by Kerbala’s residents.

Islamic discipline is strictly observed, meaning little crime but also a drastic dress-code for women, all of whom are entirely covered in black apart from their faces. A stray lock of hair brings sharp reproof, even for foreign non-believers.

Inside the gold-decorated mosques which house the shrines to Hossein and his uncle Abbas, people mourn relatives lost to Saddam’s repression. Others denounce Washington’s reported plan to stay here for several years.

And they explain why there are no buildings in the space between the two shrines. The narrow streets that used to be here were flattened in 1991. That was George Bush senior called on Iraqis to revolt and left the Shia to be massacred when they followed his advice. The military reportedly used chemical weapons on parts of the city.

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Pilgrims arrive in Kerbala Photo: Tony Cross

Back in Al-Sadr/Saddam City about a week after our first visit, Al Qardisiya hospital seems relatively calm.

Relatively. Dr Ali Handhal Aboud says that he’s going to take a rest because he’s carried out 153 operations on gunshot wounds over the last three days.

Aboud is the only surgeon to have stayed at his post throughout the bombing and subsequent chaos. Staff attendance was down to about 5%, due to lack of transport and fear of violence. Today, he says, about 90% of the staff are back at their posts.

Health-workers, like other public employees, now wonder who will run the services they work for. Dr Salafa, the only woman to come to work for several days, expresses the fervent hope that the ex-head of Baghdad’s health services will remain missing. For the old Ba’ath Party management, she says, obstruction was routine, even going beyond motives of personal enrichment.

At the oil maintenance depot, too, workers ask who will run their working lives from now on. Will competent professionals who fell foul of the Ba’ath become the new management ? Will they be able to choose their bosses, as one manager suggests?

It’s an echo of the wider question on everybody’s mind: Will Iraqis be able to choose their government and, if so, when?

There are a lot of unanswered questions in Iraq today.


26 May 2003 Update

Depressingly little seems to have changed since I left Iraq.

Saddam Hussein has still not been found. Indeed, being on Washington’s most-wanted list seem to be a guarantee of longevity, since the US also seems unable to track down Mullah Omar and Ossama bin Laden.

Nor have we been presented with any of the alleged weapons of mass destruction which provided the pretext for the invasion. The Americans haven’t even had the decency to fulfil prophesies that they would plant evidence of the régime’s capacity to wipe out its neighbours or attack the United States, although I suppose there’s still time for that.

Much of the population is reported to be still without drinkable water and electricity, including many parts of Baghdad, and crime and violence is still apparently widespread.

It’s true that Iraqis are contradicting themselves when they demand that the American-British force guarantee them decent living conditions, while at the same time telling them to get out of the country as soon as possible.

But I wonder if that’s as profound a contradiction as the claim to have made a country safe for democracy and then tell its people that they can’t choose to have an Islamic state or any other form of government unacceptable to the liberators.

This principle has already been applied in Basra, where the British bragged to the world’s news-media that they had set up a city counci and then promptly abolished it. The provincial council in Kirkuk, in the north, has also run into trouble.

The sacking of Jay Garner and his replacement by Paul Bremer seems to confirm the suspicion that the Bush adminstration had prepared no strategy for post-Saddam Iraq.

This is a trifle embarassing for those of us who suspected a master-plan to impose certain pliant politicians, partition the country and isolate its oil resources and then, perhaps, move on to invade neighbouring countries.

Everything seems to be decided empirically, which at least has the merit of being consistent with the philosophical and political traditions of the English-speaking world. But it must worry the people of Iraq, whose fate is being decided by an unpredictable president and an unpredictable government in a far-off land where they have few friends.

The US has, however, made sure that it has control of the oil and that its hegemony is clearly established in the Middle East, so the main aims of liberation have been accomplished. For now, at least.

This article was first published in Global Research

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War, what is it good for?

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A handicapped man working at a polling station during Afghanistan’s 2009 election. Photo: Tony Cross

In principle, I’m not a pacifist. Faced with the brutality of those in power, of state terror, of armed occupation, one has the right, even the duty, to resist.

But, when you see the results of armed conflict, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it.

Of course, the vast majority of wars are not just. They are fought for the sake of privileged minorities and justified by lies. They are declared – although nobody seems to formally declare war any more, they just go ahead and do it – by old men who have lived full, if not honourable, lives and fought by young people, who, in general, think they are immortal, although I imagine a few hours on the battlefield strips them of that illusion.

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Wrecked ordnance overlooks the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan 2005. Photo: Tony Cross

When we arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 (see earlier post) we were greeted by women in burkas begging – their husbands had been killed in the wars, they had been banned from working under the Taliban.  Liberation for them meant the right to go out on the street and ask for money to support their kids.

And then there were the hundreds, thousands, of people – men, women, children – missing limbs; some were former combatants, many the victims of bombardments or landmines. Some had been lucky enough to have been fitted with artificial replacements by the Red Cross. Many more had not, were unable to work, some in permanent pain.

On a training course for working in war zones, I and several other journalists were taken to a French army centre for training in demining.

A young, working-class bloke showed us the best way to get out of a minefield if you find you’ve stumbled into one. And he showed us the various types of mine and cluster bombs, including small explosive devices that are dropped from airplanes and left lying on the ground. They look like toys and children often pick them up. Of course, they’re killed or maimed for life.

“I’m a soldier and I have to accept discipline,” he told us. “But, if anyone ever tells me to lay one of these saloperies, I’ll refuse, whatever the consequences.”

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Jordanians dig the grave of a young man killed when a US jet fired on the bus in which he was travelling out of Iraq, 2003. Photo: Tony Cross

Arriving in Baghdad in 2003 (article to be posted), we saw bullet casings lying on the roads, crowds looting shopping malls, US soldiers guarding the oil ministry but not much else. A man outside the Red Cross headquarters told me he urgently needed medicine to stay alive and was disgusted with my useless and evasive reply.

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Israel’s separation wall between Jerusalem and Ramallah; Photo: Tony Cross

In the Palestinian Territories I saw an Israeli tank point its gun turret at an old man and a toddler, barking orders through a loudspeaker system (kids later stoned the tank), a roadblock where every Palestinian man was lined up in a field as if the Israeli soldiers on the road above them were about to open fire, men and women queueing at checkpoints as Israeli soldiers questioned their right to move around their own land, the separation wall – a scar across the landscape.

Shortly before we arrived in Afghanistan, our colleague at Johanne Sutton had been killed entering the country from the north.

In 2013 Ghislaine Dupont, whom I had known since I had started work at RFI, and Claude Verlon, with whom I had worked in Pakistan, were killed in northern Mali.

Shortly before that Claude had sat near me in the canteen. “When are we going to work together in Pakistan again, Tony?” he asked. I said I was going there soon to cover another election.

A week later he and Ghislaine were dead from a bullet to the back of the head.

As I and my colleagues stumbled through an Afghan valley, believing that we were going to be shot, I thought of the people who loved me and asked myself how I could have been so irresponsible towards them. I’ve since heard other people who have been in similar situations describing the same reaction, so I suppose that it’s a kind of psychological defence mechanism.

Anyway, afterwards you’re unbelievably happy to be alive and determined to get what you can out of life. And death doesn’t seem so abstract any more – yours or other people’s. It’s the end. Not so easy, when you don’t just know that intellectually but feel it in your being, to risk your own life … or think of taking someone else’s.

So, should you be thinking of starting a war, please think of all the individual lives that it will end. The people who die will not enjoy the benefits you say will come from the conflict – not just the soldiers who are, after all, combatants, not just the journalists who’ve chosen to go where the story is, but also the local civilians who are caught in the crossfire, who step on a landmine or are hit in a drone strike.

And this is a challenge for all of us who would like to see the world radically changed.

The rich and powerful are ready to do anything to hold onto power and they infect their opponents with their own brutality. Anyone wishing to change systems, overturn states, topple ruling classes has to be ruthless, ready maybe to sacrifice a generation or two for a better world. Those who die along the way will never know that better world. And the liberators risk becoming corrupted by the struggle – by the absolute power that flows from the barrel of a gun, by learning to live with the injustices they or their comrades are bound to commit sooner or later, by the fear of traitors and spies that can become the fear of all critics.

I realise none of this is any more original than the headline I’ve chosen for this posting. And maybe I’ve known it all along. But, now I’ve seen the effects of war, I feel it, too.

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