Robert Fisk

The Next Kurdish War Looms on the Horizon

Colonel Thomas Veale has had the unenviable task of announcing the first official Western attempt to partition Syria on ethnic-sectarian lines. Whether or not he realises the implications of his extraordinary statement a few days ago, Colonel Veale – a Kansas University and US Military Academy graduate who rejoices in the title of “Public Affairs Director at Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve” – was quite open about the creation of another new and largely Kurdish force which will, in theory, control tens of thousands of square kilometres of Syria. Arab members of the same 30,000-strong “Border Security Force” will man checkpoints further south along the Euphrates river valley.

Keep reading...Show less

How the Saudi Plot to Topple the Lebanese Government Backfired

The Saudis may be holding the Lebanese Prime Minister hostage but their apparent plan to topple the Beirut government has gloriously backfired. Far from breaking up the cabinet and throwing Hezbollah’s ministers to the wolves, the Lebanese nation has suddenly woken up to what it’s like to be united – against the Saudis. The Lebanese government has announced that it does not accept the resignation statement which Saad Hariri was obliged to make in Riyadh, and overnight hashtags have appeared on several Beirut streets saying “kul na Saad” – “We are all Saad”. Even the Sunni Muslims of Lebanon are furious at their Sunni counterparts in Saudi Arabia.

Keep reading...Show less

Lifting the Driving Ban: Saudi Arabia's Glitzy Stunt

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a media-savvy man, and he has just pressed the button he knew would make headlines: Saudi women will be able to drive for the first time in the history of the kingdom. And the act begat the headlines and the headlines begat a tweet from the President of the United States who himself begat a $110bn arms contract with the Saudis three months ago. And so it came to pass. For 24 hours, the world was told about the lifting of the driving ban rather than the chopping-off of heads, the arrest of human rights activists and the horrific war in Yemen.

Keep reading...Show less

The Syrian War Is Ending and Assad Is the Victor

A message came through from Syria on my mobile phone last week. “General Khadour kept his promise,” it read. I knew what it meant.

Keep reading...Show less

The Devious Aim of Trump's Trip to Saudi Arabia

Donald Trump sets off on Friday to create the fantasy of an Arab Nato. There will be dictators aplenty to greet him in Riyadh, corrupt autocrats and thugs and torturers and head choppers. There will be at least one zombie president – the comatose, undead Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria who neither speaks nor, apparently, hears any more – and, of course, one totally insane president, Donald Trump. The aim, however, is simple: to prepare the Sunni Muslims of the Middle East for war against the Shia Muslims. With help from Israel, of course.

Keep reading...Show less

Trump's Mad Dash to the Middle East Is a Preview of the Chaos He Is Unleashing There

Not since Ibn Batuta, travelled the Middle East in the 14th century has anyone set out with higher ambitions that Donald Trump. Batuta, a Moroccan Muslim traveller and scholar, had a few things in common with Trump. He reached what is now Saudi Arabia. He went to Jerusalem. He even had a keen eye for nubile ladies – there were a few wives, not to mention a Greek slave girl to be groped. But there the parallels end. For Ibn Batuta was sane.

Keep reading...Show less

Mother of All Hypocrisies: Trump Cares for Some Syrian Babies, Not Others

Do they feel no sense of shame? What callousness. What disgrace. How outrageous that our compassion should dry up the moment we realised that this latest massacre of the innocents wasn’t quite worth the same amount of tears and fury that the early massacre had produced. It fact it wasn’t worth a single tear. For the 126 Syrians – almost all of them civilians – who have just been killed outside Aleppo, were Shia Muslims being evacuated from two government-held (ie Bashar-held) villages in the north of Syria. And their killer was obviously from al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) or one of the Sunni “rebel” groups we in the West have armed – or quite possibly from Isis itself – and thus didn’t qualify for our sorrow.

Keep reading...Show less

Even in Canada, a Dark - and Trump-Like - Politics Is Rising

Funny how another nation’s sectarian hatred comes seeping over the national frontier of its neighbours. Mexico is now fighting off the US President’s wall mania. Justin Trudeau’s Canada looks squeaky clean compared to America. You can forgive the Prime Minister’s vanity – Trudeau is now posing Tom Cruise style, eyes narrowed in love towards his wife in her cringe-making Women’s Day photo-op with her husband. Not long ago, the same couple blessed the cover of Vanity Fair. But he’s the guy who walks talk on immigration, welcomes Syrian refugees with affection, tells them they’re “home” and generally makes Trump look like a scumbag.

Keep reading...Show less

Why Arab Autocrats Haven't Confronted Trump

You’d think, given the harsh anti-Muslim Trump administration in Washington, that the Arab kings and dictators would be lining up to condemn the ruthless sectarian laws being drawn up by an American president who approves of torture. All that claptrap about “bad dudes” and “Islamic terror”. Pretty sinister stuff. Not a bit of it. The potentates have been overwhelming the White House switchboard with calls, both Egypt’s Sissi and the Gulf Arabs. The Emirates actually expressed approval of Trump’s policies. The Jordanian monarch, who of course got to Washington first, is being followed in quick succession to the Trump throne room by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Keep reading...Show less

Erdogan Had It Coming: But the Turkish Coup Failed

Recep Tayyip Erdogan had it coming. The Turkish army was never going to remain compliant while the man who would recreate the Ottoman Empire turned his neighbours into enemies and his country into a mockery of itself. But it would be a grave mistake to assume two things: that the putting down of a military coup is a momentary matter after which the Turkish army will remain obedient to its sultan; and to regard at least 161 deaths and more than 2,839 detained in isolation from the collapse of the nation-states of the Middle East.

Keep reading...Show less

The West’s Flawed Desire to “Liberate” the Middle East

As General de Gaulle set out for the Middle East in April of 1941, he famously wrote that “towards the complicated Orient, I flew with simple ideas”.  They all did. Napoleon was going to “liberate” Cairo, and Bush and Blair were going to “liberate” Iraq; and Obama, briefly, was going to “liberate” Syria.

Keep reading...Show less

Who Is Bombing Whom in the Middle East?

Let me try to get this right. The Saudis are bombing Yemen because they fear the Shia Houthis are working for the Iranians. The Saudis are also bombing Isis in Iraq and the Isis in Syria. So are the United Arab Emirates. The Syrian government is bombing its enemies in Syria and the Iraqi government is also bombing its enemies in Iraq. America, France, Britain, Denmark, Holland, Australia and – believe it or not – Canada are bombing Isis in Syria and Isis in Iraq, partly on behalf of the Iraqi government (for which read Shia militias) but absolutely not on behalf of the Syrian government.

The Jordanians and Saudis and Bahrainis are also bombing Isis in Syria and Iraq because they don’t like them, but the Jordanians are bombing Isis even more than the Saudis after their pilot-prisoner was burned to death in a cage. The Egyptians are bombing parts of Libya because a group of Christian Egyptians had their heads chopped off by what might – notionally – be the same so-called Islamic State, as Isis refers to itself. The Iranians have acknowledged bombing Isis in Iraq – of which the Americans (but not the Iraqi government) take a rather dim view. And of course the Israelis have several times bombed Syrian government forces in Syria but not Isis (an interesting choice, we’d all agree). Chocks away!

It amazes me that all these warriors of the air don’t regularly crash into each other as they go on bombing and bombing. And since Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines is the only international carrier still flying over Syria – but not, thank heavens, over Isis’s Syrian capital of Raqqa – I’m even more amazed that my flights from Beirut to the Gulf have gone untouched by the blitz boys of so many Arab and Western states as they career around the skies of Mesopotamia and the Levant.

The sectarian and theological nature of this war seems perfectly clear to all who live in the Middle East – albeit not to our American chums. The Sunni Saudis are bombing the Shia Yemenis and the Shia Iranians are bombing the Sunni Iraqis. The Sunni Egyptians are bombing Sunni Libyans, it’s true, and the Jordanian Sunnis are bombing Iraqi Sunnis. But the Shia-supported Syrian government forces are bombing their Sunni Syrian enemies and the Lebanese Hezbollah – Shia to a man – are fighting the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Sunni enemies, along with Iranian Revolutionary Guards and an ever-larger number of Afghan Shia men in Syrian uniforms.

And if you want to taste the sectarianism of all this, just take a look at Saudi Arabia’s latest request to send more Pakistani troops to protect the kingdom (and possibly help to invade Yemen), which came from the new Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman who at only 34 is not much older than his fighter pilots. But the Saudis added an outrageous second request: that the Pakistanis send only Sunni Muslim soldiers. Pakistani Shia Muslim officers and men (30 per cent of the Pakistani armed forces) would not be welcome.

It’s best left to that fine Pakistani newspaper The Nation – and the writer Khalid Muhammad – to respond to this sectarian demand. “The army and the population of Pakistan are united for the first time in many years to eliminate the scourge of terrorism,” Muhammad writes. But “the Saudis are now trying to not only divide the population, but divide our army as well. When a soldier puts on a uniform, he fights for the country that he calls home, not the religious beliefs that they carry individually… Do they (the Saudis) believe that a professional military like Pakistan… can’t fight for a unified justified cause? If that is the case then why ask Pakistan to send its armed forces?”

It’s worth remembering that Pakistani soldiers were killed by the Iraqi army in the battle for the Saudi town of Khafji in 1991. Were they all Sunnis, I wonder?

And then, of course, there are the really big winners in all this blood, the weapons manufacturers. Raytheon and Lockheed Martin supplied £1.3bn of missiles to the Saudis only last year. But three years ago, Der Spiegel claimed the European Union was Saudi Arabia’s most important arms supplier and last week France announced the sale of 24 Rafale fighter jets to Qatar at a cost of around £5.7bn. Egypt has just bought another 24 Rafales.

It’s worth remembering at this point that the Congressional Research Services in the US estimate that most of Isis’s budget comes from “private donors” in – you guessed it – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait.

But blow me down if the Yanks are back to boasting. More than a decade after “Mission Accomplished”, General Paul Funk (in charge of reforming the Iraqi army) has told us that “the enemy is on its knees”. Another general close to Barack Obama says that half of the senior commanders in Isis have been liquidated. Nonsense. But it’s worth knowing just how General Pierre de Villiers, chief of the French defence staff, summed up his recent visits to Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraq, he reported back to Paris, is in a state of “total decay”. The French word he used was “decomposition”. I suspect that applies to most of the Middle East.

Keep reading...Show less

How Seeing the Internet as Reality Fuels Murderous ISIL Success and Recruitment

Ever since the Pentagon started talking about Isis as apocalyptic, I’ve suspected that websites and blogs and YouTube are taking over from reality. I’m even wondering whether “Isis” – or Islamic State or Isil, here we go again – isn’t more real on the internet than it is on the ground. Not, of course, for the Kurds of Kobani or the Yazidis or the beheaded victims of this weird caliphate. But isn’t it time we woke up to the fact that internet addiction in politics and war is even more dangerous than hard drugs?

Keep reading...Show less

Why Bombing ISIS Is Futile

Is there a “Plan B” in Barack Obama’s brain? Or in David Cameron’s, for that matter? I mean, we’re vaguely told that air strikes against the ferocious “Islamic State” may go on for “a long time”. But how long is “long”? Are we just going to go on killing Arabs and bombing and bombing and bombing until, well, until we go on bombing? What happens if our Kurdish and non-existent “moderate” Syrian fighters – described by Vice-President Joe Biden last week as largely “shopkeepers” – don’t overthrow the monstrous “Islamic State”? Then I suppose we are going to bomb and bomb and bomb again. As a Lebanese colleague of mine asked in an article last week, what is Obama going to do next? Has he thought of that?

Keep reading...Show less

Iraq Crisis: Created by Bush & Blair and Bankrolled by Saudi Arabia

So after the grotesquerie of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 suicide killers of 9/11, meet Saudi Arabia’s latest monstrous contribution to world history: the Islamist Sunni caliphate of Iraq and the Levant, conquerors of Mosul and Tikrit – and Raqqa in Syria – and possibly Baghdad, and the ultimate humiliators of Bush and Obama.

Keep reading...Show less

Does Obama Know He’s Fighting on al-Qa’ida’s Side in Syria?

Quite an alliance! Was it not the Three Musketeers who shouted “All for one and one for all” each time they sought combat? This really should be the new battle cry if – or when – the statesmen of the Western world go to war against Bashar al-Assad.

Keep reading...Show less

How Much Longer Can Autocrat Mubarak Cling on to Power?

The old lady in the red scarf was standing inches from the front of am American-made M1 Abrams tank of the Egyptian Third Army, right on the edge of Tahrir Square. Its soldiers were paratroops, some in red berets, others in helmets, gun barrels pointed across the square, heavy machine guns mounted on the turrets. "If they fire on the Egyptian people, Mubarak is finished," she said. "And if they don't fire on the Egyptian people, Mubarak is finished." Of such wisdom are Egyptians now possessed.

Keep reading...Show less

Oceans of Blood and Profits for the Masters of War

Since there are now three conflicts in the greater Middle East; Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel/"Palestine" and maybe another Lebanese war in the offing, it might be a good idea to take a look at the cost of war.

Keep reading...Show less

The American Desire to Be Loved as Well as Feared Has Long Misled the CIA

In the vast American embassy in the hills outside the Jordanian capital Amman a senior US Special Forces officer runs an equally special office. He buys information from Jordanian army and intelligence officers -- for cash, of course -- but he also helps to train Afghan and Iraqi policemen and soldiers. The information he seeks is not just about al-Qa'ida but about Jordanians themselves, about the army's loyalty to King Abdullah II as well as about the anti-American insurgents who live in Jordan, primarily Iraqi but also Iraqi al-Qa'ida contacts with Afghanistan.

Keep reading...Show less

The British Withdrawal Is Only Our Latest Shameful Exit Following an Unjust Invasion Of Iraq

One hundred and seventy-nine dead soldiers. For what? 179,000 dead Iraqis? Or is the real figure closer to a million? We don't know. And we don't care. We never cared about the Iraqis. That's why we don't know the figure. That's why we left Basra yesterday.

I remember going to the famous Basra air base to ask how a poor Iraqi boy, a hotel receptionist called Bahr Moussa, had died. He was kicked to death in British military custody. His father was an Iraqi policeman. I talked to him in the company of a young Muslim woman. The British public relations man at the airport was laughing. "I don't believe this," my Muslim companion said. "He doesn't care." She did. So did I. I had reported from Northern Ireland. I had heard this laughter before. Which is why yesterday's departure should have been called the Day of Bahr Moussa. Yesterday, his country was set free from his murderer. At last.

History is a hard taskmaster. In my library, I have an original copy of General Angus Maude's statement to the people of Baghdad -- $2,000, it cost me, at a telephone auction a few days before we invaded Iraq in 2003, but it is worth every cent. "Our military operations have as their object," Maude announced, "the defeat of the enemy … our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators." And so it goes on. Maude, I should add, expired shortly afterwards because he declined to boil his milk in Baghdad and died of cholera.

There followed a familiar story. The British occupation force was opposed by an Iraqi resistance -- "terrorists," of course -- and the British destroyed a town called Fallujah and demanded the surrender of a Shiite cleric and British intelligence in Baghdad claimed that "terrorists" were crossing the border from Syria, and Lloyd George -- the Blair-Brown of his age -- then stood up in the House of Commons and said that there would be "anarchy" in Iraq if British troops left. Oh dear.

Even repeating these words is deeply embarrassing. Here, for example, is a letter written by Nijris ibn Qu'ud to a British intelligence agent in 1920: "You cannot treat us like sheep … it is we Iraqi who are the brains of the Arab nation… You are given a short time to clear out of Mesopotamia. If you don't go you will be driven out."

So let us turn at last to T E Lawrence. Yes, Lawrence of Arabia. In The Sunday Times on 22 August 1920, he wrote of Iraq that the people of England "had been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information … Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows." Even more presciently, Lawrence had written that the Iraqis had not risked their lives in battle to become British subjects. "Whether they are fit for independence or not remains to be tried. Merit is no justification for freedom."

Alas not. Iraq, begging around Europe now that its oil wealth has run out, is a pitiful figure. But it is a little bit freer than it was. We have destroyed its master and our friend (a certain Saddam) and now, with our own dead clanking around our heels, we are getting out yet again. Till next time …

Keeping Journalists Out of Gaza is Futile and Counterproductive

What is Israel afraid of? Using the old "enclosed military area" excuse to prevent coverage of its occupation of Palestinian land has been going on for years. But the last time Israel played this game -- in Jenin in 2000 -- it was a disaster. Prevented from seeing the truth with their own eyes, reporters quoted Palestinians who claimed there had been a massacre by Israeli soldiers -- and Israel spent years denying it. In fact, there was a massacre, but not on the scale that it was originally reported.

Keep reading...Show less

Iraq in Pictures

Three bodies lie beside a Baghdad street on a blindingly hot day. The one on the right is dressed in a white shirt and bright green trousers, his hands tied behind his back. Two others on the left lie shoeless, both dressed in check shirts, dumped -- how easily we use that word of Baghdad's corpses -- on a yard of dirt and bags of garbage. They, too, of course, are now garbage. The wall behind them, a grim barrier of dun-colored brick, seals off this horror from two two-storey villas and a clutch of palm trees, the normal life of Baghdad just a wall away from the other "normal" life of Baghdad's sectarian killings. No one knows whose bodies they are and the picture -- taken from a car window -- was snapped in fear by an unknown Iraqi.

It is a cell-phone picture, for now only the cell phones of the Iraqi people can record their tragedy. Another shows a young man's body, taken from beside a car wing mirror, hands tied behind his back with his own shirt. Bombs explode across the Baghdad skyline, columns of smoke move into the air like sinister ghosts. Palm trees block off streets of fearful Iraqis. A car bomb blazes, the faint image of a U.S. Humvee outlined against the trees. There are broken bridges, wounded friends, blood-soaked cloth.

But there are also families; even a Muslim family celebrating Christmas, all dressed in Santa Claus hats, and a graduation party where the girls wear Bedouin black dresses with gold-fringed scarves and the boys wear Arab headdress and white abayas -- something quite foreign to the middle classes of what was once one of the most literate and educated cities of the Middle East.

But it is the cell phone that has captured this terrible, fearful, brave face of Baghdad. Western photographers can no longer roam the streets of the Iraqi capital -- and few other cities in Iraq -- and in south-west Afghanistan, the same phenomenon has occurred.

We Westerners need the locals to photograph their tragedy and their ragged, often fuzzy, poorly framed pictures contain their own finely calibrated and terrible beauty. The fear of the cell-phone snapper is contained in almost every frame. Most of the Iraqis are refugees-to-be, for the Dutch photographer Geert van Kesteren, who collected 388 pages of photographs for his book Baghdad Calling, wanted to catalogue the tragedy of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who are the largely ignored victims of our demented 2003 invasion and occupation.

Van Kesteren, an unassuming but imaginative journalist whom I met recently in Holland, noticed that refugees used their cell phones as family albums and decided, in the words of Brigitte Lardinois, formerly director of Magnum Photos in London, "to let the pictures of ordinary, non-professional photographers tell the story this time". Iraqi refugees in Jordan asked friends to send more pictures from Baghdad.

Some were rejected because of their suspect provenance -- alas, we therefore do not see the picture of an American soldier, apparently firing a rifle from atop a donkey, but which might have been digitally edited -- but others cannot be anything but the truth. The smiling families, hiding in their homes as the killers roam the darkness outside, the young men relaxing in the safety of Kurdistan, swimming in the lakes, revelling in the nightlife, the plump nephew of one of the anonymous cell-phone photographers sitting on a bright red sports car, have to be real.

It must have been hard for Van Kesteren, a news photographer in his own right, to have submerged his own work for this brilliant amateur collection. A few of Van Kesteren's own professional pictures appear in Baghdad Calling but they are taken in the safety of Syria, Jordan or Turkey and -- save for a group photograph of courageous Iraqis captured after illegally crossing the Turkish border but still determined to escape from their country again -- they lack the power and immediacy of the Iraqi snapshots.

The refugee statistics are so appalling that they have become almost mundane. Four million of Iraq's 23 million people have fled their homes -- until recently, at the rate of 60,000 a month -- allegedly more than 1.2 million to Syria (a figure now challenged by at least one prominent NGO), 500,000 to Jordan, 200,000 to the Gulf, 70,000 to Egypt, 57,000 to Iran, up to 40,000 to Lebanon, 10,000 to Turkey. Sweden has accepted 9,000, Germany fewer -- where an outrageous political debate has suggested that Christian refugees should have preference over Muslim Iraqis. With its usual magnanimity -- especially for a country that set off this hell-disaster by its illegal invasion -- George Bush's America has, of course, accepted slightly more than 500.

This collection of pictures is therefore an indictment of us, as well as of the courage of Iraqis. The madness is summed up in an email message sent to Van Kesteren by a Baghdad Iraqi. "This summer," he wrote, "a workman wanted to quench his thirst by putting ice in his tea. A car pulled up, the driver stepped out and began to beat and kick the man, cursing him as an unbeliever. 'What do you think you're doing? Did the Prophet Mohamed put ice in his water?'

The man being attacked was furious and asked his assailant: 'Do you think the Prophet Mohamed drove a car?'"

Five Years of Suicide Bombings in Iraq

Khaled looked at me with a broad smile. He was almost laughing. At one point, when I told him that he should abandon all thoughts of being a suicide bomber -- that he could influence more people in this world by becoming a journalist -- he put his head back and shot me a grin, world-weary for a man in his teens. "You have your mission," he said. "And I have mine." His sisters looked at him in awe. He was their hero, their amanuensis and their teacher, their representative and their soon-to-be-martyred brother. Yes, he was handsome, young -- just 18 -- he was dressed in a black Giorgio Armani T-shirt, a small, carefully trimmed Spanish conquistador's beard, gelled hair. And he was ready to immolate himself.

A sinister surprise. I had traveled to Khaled's home to speak to his mother. I had already written about his brother Hassan and wanted to introduce a Canadian journalist colleague, Nelofer Pazira, to the family. When Khaled walked on to the porch of the house, Nelofer and I both realized -- at the same moment -- that he was next, the next to die, the next "martyr". It was his smile. I've come across these young men before, but never one who so obviously declared his calling.

His family sat around us on the porch of their home above the Lebanese city of Sidon, the sitting room adorned with colored photographs of Hassan, already gone to the paradise -- so they assured me -- for which Khaled clearly thought he was destined. Hassan had driven his explosives-laden car into an American military convoy at Tal Afar in north-western Iraq, his body (or what was left of it) buried "in situ" -- or so his mother was informed.

It's easy to find the families of the newly dead in Lebanon. Their names are read from the minarets of Sidon's mosques (most are Palestinian) and in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, the Sunni "Tawhid" movement boasts "hundreds" of suiciders among its supporters. Every night, the population of Lebanon watches the brutal war in Iraq on television. "It's difficult to reach 'Palestine' these days," Khaled's uncle informed me. "Iraq is easier."

Too true. No one doubts that the road to Baghdad -- or Tal Afar or Fallujah or Mosul -- lies through Syria, and that the movement of suicide bombers from the Mediterranean coasts to the deserts of Iraq is a planned if not particularly sophisticated affair. What is astonishing -- what is not mentioned by the Americans or the Iraqi "government" or the British authorities or indeed by many journalists -- is the sheer scale of the suicide campaign, the vast numbers of young men (only occasionally women), who willfully destroy themselves amid the American convoys, outside the Iraqi police stations, in markets and around mosques and in shopping streets and on lonely roads beside remote checkpoints across the huge cities and vast deserts of Iraq. Never have the true figures for this astonishing and unprecedented campaign of self-liquidation been calculated.

But a month-long investigation by The Independent, culling four Arabic-language newspapers, official Iraqi statistics, two Beirut news agencies and Western reports, shows that an incredible 1,121 Muslim suicide bombers have blown themselves up in Iraq. This is a very conservative figure and -- given the propensity of the authorities (and of journalists) to report only those suicide bombings that kill dozens of people -- the true estimate may be double this number. On several days, six -- even nine -- suicide bombers have exploded themselves in Iraq in a display of almost Wal-Mart availability. If life in Iraq is cheap, death is cheaper.

This is perhaps the most frightening and ghoulish legacy of George Bush's invasion of Iraq five years ago. Suicide bombers in Iraq have killed at least 13,000 men, women and children -- our most conservative estimate gives a total figure of 13,132 -- and wounded a minimum of 16,112 people. If we include the dead and wounded in the mass stampede at the Baghdad Tigris river bridge in the summer of 2005 -- caused by fear of suicide bombers -- the figures rise to 14,132 and 16,612 respectively. Again, it must be emphasized that these statistics are minimums. For 529 of the suicide bombings in Iraq, no figures for wounded are available. Where wounded have been listed in news reports as "several", we have made no addition to the figures. And the number of critically injured who later died remains unknown. Set against a possible death toll of half a million Iraqis since the March 2003 invasion, the suicide bombers' victims may appear insignificant; but the killers' ability to terrorize civilians, militiamen and Western troops and mercenaries is incalculable.

Never before has the Arab world witnessed a phenomenon of suicide-death on this scale. During Israel's occupation of Lebanon after 1982, one Hizbollah suicide-bombing a month was considered remarkable. During the Palestinian intifadas of the 1980s and 1990s, four per month was regarded as unprecedented. But suicide bombers in Iraq have been attacking at the average rate of two every three days since the 2003 Anglo-American invasion.

And, although neither the Iraqi government nor their American mentors will admit this, scarcely 10 out of more than a thousand suicide killers have been identified. We know from their families that Palestinians, Saudis, Syrians and Algerians have been among the bombers. In a few cases, we have names. But in most attacks, the authorities in Iraq -- if they can still be called "authorities" after five years of catastrophe -- have no idea to whom the bloodied limbs and headless torsos of the bombers belong.

Even more profoundly disturbing is that the "cult" of the suicide bomber has seeped across national frontiers. Within a year of the Iraqi invasion, Afghan Taliban bombers were blowing themselves up alongside Western troops or bases in Helmand province and in the capital Kabul. The practice leached into Pakistan, striking down thousands of troops and civilians, killing even the principal opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto. The London Tube and bus bombings -- despite the denials of Tony Blair -- were obviously deeply influenced by events in Iraq.

Academics and politicians have long debated the motives of the bombers, the psychological make-up of the men and women who cold-bloodedly decide to undertake the role of suicide executioners; for they are executioners, killers who see their victims -- be they soldiers or civilians -- before they flick the switch that destroys them. The Israelis long ago decided that there was no "perfect" profile for a suicide bomber, and my own experience in Lebanon bears this out. The suicider might have spent years fighting the Israelis in the south of the country. Often, they would have been imprisoned or tortured by Israel or its proxy Lebanese militia. Sometimes, brothers or other family members would have been killed. On other occasions, the example of their own relatives would have drawn them into the vortex of suicide-by-example.

Khaled is -- or was, for I no longer know if he is alive, since I met him a few weeks ago -- influenced by his brother Hassan, whose journey to Iraq was organized by an unknown group, presumably Palestinian, and whose weapons training beside the Tigris river was videotaped by his comrades. Hassan's mother has shown me this tape -- which ends with Hassan cheerfully waving goodbye from the driver's window of a battered car, presumably the vehicle he was about to ram into the American convoy at Tal Afar.

None of this addresses the issue of religious belief. While there is evidence aplenty that the Japanese suicide pilots of the Second World War were sometimes coerced and intimidated into their final flights against U.S. warships in the Pacific, many also believed that they were dying for their emperor. For them, the fall of cherry blossom and the divine wind -- the "kamikaze" -- blessed their souls as they aimed their bombers at American aircraft carriers. But even an industrialized dictatorship like Japan -- facing the imminent collapse of its entire society at the hands of a superpower -- could only mobilize 4,615 "kamikazes". The Iraq suicide bombers may already have reached half that number.

But the Japanese authorities encouraged their pilots to think of themselves as a collective suicide unit whose insignia of imminent death -- white Rising Sun headbands and white scarves -- prefigured the yellow headbands imprinted with Koranic script that Hizbollah guerrillas wore when they set out to attack Israeli soldiers in the occupied zone of southern Lebanon. In Iraq, however, those who direct the growing army of suiciders do not lack inventiveness. Their bombers have arrived at the scene of their self-destruction dressed as car mechanics, soldiers, police officers, middle-aged housewives, children's sweet-sellers, worshipers and -- on one occasion -- a "harmless" shepherd. They have carried their bombs in Oldsmobiles, fuel trucks, garbage trucks, flat-bed trucks, on donkeys and bicycles, motor-bikes and mopeds and carts, minibuses, date-vendors' vans, mobile recruitment centers and lorries packed with chlorine. Incredibly, there appears to be no individual central "brain" behind the bombings -- although "groupuscules" of bombers obviously exist. Inspiration, imitation and the globalized influence of the internet appear sufficient to empower the bombers of Iraq.

On an individual level, it is possible to see the friction and psychological trauma of families. Khaled's mother, for instance, constantly expressed her pride in her dead son Hassan and, in front of me, she looked with almost equal love at his still-living brother. But when my companion urged Khaled to remain alive for his mother's sake -- reminding him that the Prophet himself spoke of the primary obligation of a Muslim man to protect his mother -- the woman was close to tears. She was torn apart by her love as a mother and her religious-political duty as the woman who had brought another would-be martyr into the world. When my friend again urged Khaled to remain alive, to stay in Sidon and marry -- eerily, the muezzin's call to prayer had begun during our conversation -- he shook his head.

Not even a disparaging remark about those who would send him on his death mission -- that they were prepared to live in this world while sending others like Khaled to their fate -- could discourage him. "I am not going to become a 'shahed' [martyr] for people," he replied. "I am doing it for God."

It was the same old argument. We could produce a hundred good ways -- peaceful ways -- for him to resolve the injustices of this world; but the moment Khaled invoked the name of God, our suggestions became irrelevant. Rationality -- humanism, if you like -- simply withered away. If a Western president could invoke a war of "good against evil", his antagonists could do the same.

But is there a rational pattern to the suicide bombings in Iraq? The first incidents of their kind took place as American troops were actually advancing towards Baghdad. Near the Shia town of Nasiriyah, an off-duty Iraqi policeman, Sergeant Ali Jaffar Moussa Hamadi al-Nomani, drove a car bomb into an American Marine roadblock. Married, with five children, he had been a soldier in Iraq's 1980-88 war with Iran and had volunteered to fight the Americans after Saddam's occupation of Kuwait. Shortly afterwards, two Shia Muslim women did the same.

In its dying days, even Saddam Hussein's own government was shocked. "The U.S. administration is going to turn the whole world into people prepared to die for their nations," Saddam's vice-president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, warned. "All they can do now is turn themselves into bombs. If the B-52 bombs can now kill 500 or more in our war, then I'm sure that some operations by our freedom fighters will be able to kill 5,000." Ramadan even referred to "the martyr's moment of sublimity" -- an al-Qa'ida-like phrase that ill befitted a secular Baathist -- and it was clear that the vice-president was almost as surprised as the Americans. But only two days after the U.S. occupation of Baghdad, a woman killed herself while trying to explode a grenade among a group of American troops outside the capital.

Throughout the five years of war, suicide bombers have focused on Iraq's own American-trained security forces rather than U.S. troops. At least 365 attacks have been staged against Iraqi police or paramilitary forces. Their targets included at least 147 police stations (1,577 deaths), 43 army and police recruitment centers (939 deaths), 91 checkpoints (with a minimum of 564 fatalities), 92 security patrols (465 deaths) and numerous other police targets (escorts, convoys accompanying government ministers, etc). One of the recruitment centers -- in the center of Baghdad -- was assaulted by suicide bombers on eight separate occasions.

By contrast, suicide bombers have attacked only 24 U.S. bases at a cost of 100 American dead and 15 Iraqis, and 43 American patrols and checkpoints, during which 116 U.S. personnel were killed along with at least 56 civilians, 15 of whom appear to have been shot by American soldiers in response to the attacks, and another 26 of whom were children standing next to a U.S. patrol. Most of the Americans were killed west or north of Baghdad. Suicide attacks on the police concentrated on Baghdad and Mosul and the Sunni towns to the immediate north and south of Baghdad.

The trajectory of the suicide bombers shows a clear preference for military targets throughout the insurgency, with attacks on Americans gradually decreasing from 2006 and individual attacks on Iraqi police patrols and police recruits increasing over the past two years, especially in the 100 miles north of Baghdad. Just as the Islamist murderers of Algeria -- and their military opponents -- favored the fasting month of Ramadan for their bloodiest assaults in the 1990s, so the suicide bombers of Iraq mobilize on the eve of religious festivals. There was a pronounced drop in suicide assaults during the period of sectarian liquidations after 2005, either because the bombers feared interception by the throat-cutters of tribal gangs working their way across Baghdad, or because -- a grim possibility -- they were themselves being used in the sectarian murder campaign.

The most politically powerful attacks occurred inside military bases -- including the Green Zone in Baghdad (two in one day in October 2004) -- and against the U.N. headquarters (in which the U.N. envoy Sergio de Mello was killed) and the International Red Cross offices in Baghdad in 2003. By December 2003, British officials were warning that there were more "spectacular" suicide bombings to come, and the first suicide assault on a mosque took place in January of the following year when a bomber on a bicycle blew himself up in a Shia mosque in Baquba, killing four worshipers and wounding another 39.

Scarcely a year later, another suicider attacked a second Shia mosque, killing 14 worshippers and wounding 40. In February 2004, a man blew himself up on a bus outside the Shia mosque at Khadamiyah in Baghdad, killing 17 more Shia Muslims. Only a few days earlier, a man wearing an explosives belt killed four at yet another Shia mosque in the Doura district of Baghdad. The suicide campaign against Shia places of worship continued with an attack on a Mosul mosque in March 2005, killing at least 50, two more attacks in April that killed 26, and another in May in Baghdad.

While Shia mosques were being targeted in a deliberate campaign of provocation by al-Qa'ida-type suiciders, markets and hospitals frequented by Shia Muslims were also attacked. Almost all the 600 Iraqis killed by suicide bombs in May 2005 were Shias. After the partial demolition of the Shia mosque at Samarra on 22 February 2006, the "war of the mosques" began in earnest for the suicide bombers of Iraq. A Sunni mosque was blown up, with nine dead and "dozens" of wounded, and two Shia mosques were the target of suicide bombers in the same week. In early July 2006, seven suicide killers blew themselves up in Sunni and Shia mosques, leaving a total of 51 civilians dead. During the same period, a suicide bomber launched the first attack of its kind on Shia pilgrims arriving from Iran.

Bombers were to attack the funerals of those Shia they had killed, and even wedding parties. Schools, university campuses and shopping precincts were also now included on the target lists, most of the victims yet again being Shia. Over the past year, however, an increasing number of tribal leaders loyal to the Americans -- including Sattar Abu Risha, who publicly met President Bush on 13 September 2007, and former insurgents who have now joined the American-paid anti-al-Qa'ida militias -- have been blown apart by Sunni bombers.

Only about 10 of the suicide bombers have been identified. One of them, who attacked an Iraqi police unit in June 2005, turned out to be a former police commando called Abu Mohamed al-Dulaimi, but the Americans and the Iraqi authorities appear to have little intelligence on the provenance of these killers. On at least 27 occasions, Iraqi officials have claimed to know the identity of the killers -- saying that they had recovered passports and identity papers that proved their "foreign" origin -- but they have never produced these documents for public inspection. There is even doubt that the two suicide bombers who blew themselves up in a bird market earlier this year were in fact mentally retarded young women, as the government was to allege.

Indeed, nothing could better illustrate the lack of knowledge of the authorities than the two contradictory statements made by the Americans and their Iraqi protégés in March of last year. Just as David Satterfield, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's adviser on Iraq, was claiming that "90 per cent" of suicide bombers were crossing the border from Syria, Iraq's Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was announcing that "most" of the suiciders came from Saudi Arabia -- which shares a long, common border with Iraq. Saudis would hardly waste their time traveling to Damascus to cross a border that their own country shared with Iraq. Many in Baghdad, including some government ministers, believe that the nationality of the bombers is much closer to home -- that they are, in fact, Iraqis.

It will be many years before we have a clearer idea of the number of bombers who have killed themselves in the Iraq war -- and of their origin. Long before The Independent's total figure reached 500, al-Qa'ida's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was boasting of "800 martyrs" among his supporters. And since al-Zarqawi's death brought not the slightest reduction in bombings, we must assume that there are many other "manipulators" in charge of Iraq's suicide squads.

Nor can we assume the motives for every mass murder. Who now remembers that the greatest individual number of victims of any suicide bombing died in two remote villages of the Kahtaniya region of Iraq, all Yazidis -- 516 of them slaughtered, another 525 wounded. A Yazidi girl, it seems, had fallen in love with a Sunni man and had been punished by her own people for this "honor crime": she had been stoned to death. The killers presumably came from the Sunni community.

One of George Bush's most insidious legacies in Iraq thus remains its most mysterious; the marriage of nationalism and spiritual ferocity, the birth of an unprecedentedly huge army of Muslims inspired by the idea of death.

Bloody Reality and the Delusions of Bush

Twixt silken sheets - in a bedroom whose walls are also covered in silk - and in the very palace of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, President George Bush awakes this morning to confront a Middle East which bears no relation to the policies of his administration nor the warning which he has been relaying constantly to the kings and emirs and oligarchs of the Gulf: that Iran rather than Israel is their enemy.

The President sat chummily beside the all-too-friendly monarch yesterday, enthroned in what looked suspiciously like the kind of casual blue cardigan he might wear on his own Texan ranch; he had even received a jangling gold "Order of Merit" -- it looked a bit like the Lord Chancellor's chain, though it was not disclosed which particular merit earned Mr Bush this kingly reward. Could it be the hypocritical merit of supplying yet more billions worth of weapons to the Kingdom, to be used against the Saudi regime's imaginary enemies.

It was illusory, of course, like all the words that the Arabs have heard from the Americans these past seven days, ever since the fading President began his tourist jaunt around the Middle East.

You wouldn't think it though, watching this preposterous man, prancing around arm-in-arm with the King, in what was presumably meant to be a dance, wielding a massive glinting curved Saudi sword, a latter-day Saladin, who would have appalled the Kurdish leader who once destroyed the Crusaders in what is now referred to by Mr Bush as "the disputed West Bank."

Is this how lame-duck American presidents are supposed to behave? Certainly, the denizens of the Middle East, watching this outrageous performance will all be asking this question. Ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution, a Muslim Cold War has been raging within the Middle East - but is this how Mr Bush thinks one should fight for the soul of Islam?

Already by dusk last night, the US President's world was exploding in Beirut when a massive car bomb blew up next to a 4x4 vehicle carrying American embassy employees, killing four Lebanese and apparently badly wounding a US embassy driver. And while Mr Bush was relaxing in the Saudi royal ranch at Al Janadriyah, Israeli forces killed 19 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, most of them members of Hamas, one of them the son of Mahmoud Zahar, a leader of the movement. He later claimed that Israel would not have staged the attack -- on the day an Israeli was also killed by a Palestinian rocket -- if it had not been encouraged to do so by George Bush.

The difference between reality and the dream-world of the US government could hardly have been more savagely illustrated. After promising the Palestinians a "sovereign and contiguous state" before the end of the year, and pledging "security" to Israel - though not, Arabs noted, security for "Palestine" -- Mr Bush had arrived in the Gulf to terrify the kings and oligarchs of the oil-soaked kingdoms of the danger of Iranian aggression. As usual, he came armed with the usual American offers of vast weapons sales to protect these largely undemocratic and police state regimes from potentially the most powerful nation in the " axis of evil."

It was a potent -- even weird -- example of the US President's perambulation of the Arab Middle East, a return to the "policy by fear" which Washington has regularly visited upon Gulf leaders. He agreed to furnish the Saudis with at least £41m of arms, a figure set to rise to more than £10bn in weaponry to the Gulf potentates under a deal announced last year - all of which is supposed to shield them from the supposed territorial ambitions of Iran's crackpot President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As usual, Washington promised the Israelis that their "qualitative edge" in advanced weapons would be maintained, just in case the Saudis -- who have never gone to war with anyone except Saddam Hussein after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait -- decided to launch a suicidal attack on America's only real ally in the Middle East.

This, of course, was not how the whole shooting match was presented to the Arabs. Mr Bush could be seen ostentatiously kissing the cheeks of King Abdullah and holding hands with the autocratic monarch whose Wahhabi Muslim state had only recently showed its "mercy" to a Saudi woman who was charged with adultery after being raped seven times in the desert outside Riyadh. The Saudis, needless to say, are well aware that Mr Bush's reign is ending amid chaos in Pakistan, a disastrous guerrilla war against Western forces in Afghanistan, fierce fighting in Gaza, near civil war in Lebanon and the hell-disaster of Iraq.

The bomb in Beirut, just before five in the evening, must still have come as a rude shock to the luxuriating President who has such close ties with the Saudi regime -- despite the fact that the majority of hijackers in the crimes against humanity of 11 September 2001 came from the kingdom -- that he allowed its junior princes to fly home from the United States immediately after the attacks. Two trips to Mr Bush's Texas ranch by King Abdullah was apparently enough to earn the US President a night in the Saudi king's palace-farm, surrounded by groomed lawns and grassy hills.

Heard across many miles of the Lebanese capital, the bomb devastated buildings in a narrow street in the east of the city through which the vehicle was passing, just as the US ambassador -- on a different route into the city -- was traveling to a central Beirut hotel reception before leaving for Washington. A State Department spokesman, however, insisted that no US citizens had been hurt. The American SUV had taken an obscure laneway close to the Karantina bridge to travel north of Beirut along the bank of the city's only river when it was struck, leading local Lebanese military officials to ask themselves if the bomber had inside knowledge of the route they were taking.

There was talk that this was a "dummy" convoy staged to distract potential bombers from the journey which Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman was taking to a reception at a downtown hotel. A carpet manufacturer's factory was smashed by the blast which tore down roofs and smashed windows more than half a mile from the scene.

For Arab leaders, Mr Bush's message to the Gulf leaders was wearily familiar. In the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was supporting Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran, Washington spent its time warning Gulf leaders of the danger of Iranian aggression. Once Saddam invaded Kuwait, America's emphasis changed: It was now Iraq which posed the greatest danger to their kingdoms. But once the emirate was liberated, the oil-wealthy monarchs were told that - yet again - it was Iran that was their enemy.

Arabs are no more taken in by this topsy-turvy "good-versus-evil" narrative than they are by Washington's promises to help create a Palestinian state by the end of the year, scarcely a day before Israel publicly admitted to plans for yet more houses for settlers on Arab land amid Jewish colonies illegally built on Palestinian territory.

Yet to understand the nature of this extraordinary relationship with the Gulf monarchs, it is necessary to recall that ever since the President's father promised a weapons-free "oasis of peace" in the Gulf, Washington -- along with Britain, France and Russia - has been pouring arms into the region.

Over the past decade, the Gulf Arabs have squandered billions of their oil dollars on American weapons. The statistics tell their own story. In 1998 and 1999 alone, Gulf Arab military spending came to £40bn. Between 1997 and 2005, the sheikhs of the United Arab Emirates - Mr Bush's hosts before he continued to Riyadh -- signed arms contracts worth £9bn with Western nations. Between 1991 and 1993 - when Iraq was the "enemy" -- the US Military Training Mission was administering more than £14bn in Saudi arms procurements and £12bn in new US weapons acquisitions. By this time, the Saudis already possessed 72 American F-15 fighter-bombers and 114 British Tornadoes.

How little has changed in the past 17 years. On 17 May 1991, for example, George Bush Snr said there were now "real reasons to be optimistic" about a peace in the Middle East. "We are going to continue to work in the [peace] process," he said then. "We are not going to abandon it."

James Baker, who was the American Secretary of State, warned on 23 May 1991 that the continued building of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land " hindered" a future Middle East peace, just as the present Secretary of State said last week. At the time, the Israelis were reassured by Dick Cheney that the US would safeguard their "security."

The West may have a short memory. The Arabs, who happen to live in the piece of real estate which we call the Middle East and who are not stupid, have not. They understand all too well what George W Bush now stands for. After advocating "democracy" in the region -- a policy which gained electoral victories for Shia in Iraq, for Hamas in Gaza and a substantial gain in political power for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt -- it seems to have dawned on Washington that something might be slightly wrong with Bush's priorities. Instead of advocating a "New Middle East," Mr Bush, lying amid his silken sheets in the Saudi king's palace, is now pursuing a return to the "Old Middle East," a place of secret policemen, torture chambers -- to which prisoners can be usefully "renditioned" -- and dictatorial "moderate" presidents and monarchs. And which of the Gulf despots is going to object to that?

Israeli PM Olmert Undone by the Militia He Promised to Destroy

So it has come to this. All those bodies, all those photographs of dead children -- more than 1,400 cadavers (we are not including the 230 or so Hizbollah fighters and the Israeli soldiers who died) -- are to be commemorated with the possible resignation of an Israeli prime minister who knew, and who cared, many Israelis suspect, little about war. Yes, Hizbollah provoked last summer's folly by capturing two Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese-Israel border, but Israel's response -- so totally out of proportion to the sin -- produced another debacle for the Israeli army and, presumably now, for its prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

Looking back at this terrifying, futile war, with its grotesque ambitions to "destroy" the Iranian-supported Hizbollah militia, it is incredible Olmert did not realize within days that his grandiose demands would founder. Insisting the two captured Israeli soldiers should be released and the militarily powerless Lebanese government should be held responsible for their capture was never going to produce political or military results favorable to Israel. One would have to add that Tzipi Livni's demand for the prime minister's resignation sits oddly with her support for this preposterous war.

A close reading of the interim report of Judge Eliahou Winograd's report on the summer war -- to which Olmert himself only granted the title the "Second Lebanon War" a month after it had happened -- shows clearly that it was the Israeli army which ran the military, strategic and political campaign. Again and again in Winograd's report it is clear that Olmert and his defense minister failed to challenge "in a competent way" (in the commission's devastating phrase) the plans of the Israeli army.

Day after day, for 34 days after 12 July, the Israeli air force systematically destroyed the major infrastructure of Lebanon, repeatedly claiming it was trying to avoid civilian casualties, while the world's press watched its aircraft blasting men, women and children to pieces in Lebanon. Israelis, too, were savagely killed in this war by Hizbollah's Iranian-provided missiles. But it only proved the Israeli army, famous in legend and song but not in reality, could not protect its own people. Hizbollah fighters were told by their own leadership that if they would just withstand the air attacks, they could bite the Israeli land forces when they invaded.

And bite they did. In the final 24 hours of the war, 30 Israeli soldiers were killed by Hizbollah fighters and their land offensive, so loudly trumpeted by Olmert, came to an end. During the conflict, a Hizbollah missile almost sank an Israeli corvette -- it burnt for 24 hours and was towed back to Haifa before it was able to sink -- and struck Israel's top secret military air traffic control center at Miron. The soldiers captured on the border were never returned -- pictures of them, still alive, are flaunted across the border at Israeli troops to this day -- and Hizbollah, far from being destroyed, remains as powerful as ever;

And so one of Washington's last "pro-American" cabinets in the Middle East is now threatened by the very militia which Olmert claimed he could destroy.

@2022 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by