Iraq: the world’s forgotten war

Baghdad is a city afraid of itself. Yet despite 30 deaths a day, bombs and sectarian strife, the world no longer listens

It’s not the way he hits the car horn. It’s not even the frequency at which the high-pitched noise keeps coming. It’s something else. It’s the way he grits his teeth, pushes himself right back into his seat and presses hard with the flat palm of his hand. You can sense the anger and nervousness, that this man wants to be anywhere else in the world right now.

I watch him from the window of my car as we inch through Baghdad’s traffic. In other cars other drivers pound away at the centre of the steering wheel, creating a grim symphony of car horns.

My driver keeps looking around as well. It’s rush hour in Baghdad and no one wants to be stuck. Not because of the rush hour commute, but because of the very real threat of car bombs. 

October was the bloodiest month since 2008. A total of 979 civilians were killed – more than 30 a day.  

Baghdad is a city that is afraid of itself. I have spent the last few days here embroiled in meetings and press conferences to try to understand how this has happened. How Iraq has become the world’s forgotten war. 

‘Civil war is coming’

Ali is an old Baghdad hand. He moved from the south to the city after the US invasion in 2003 to help protect his family.

“Once the Americans left then the old enmities re-emerged. Shia, Sunni, political, mafia.  Then the revolution in Syria turned bloody. Sunni fighters leave to go fight in the Jihad there and they bring their violence here because our government is close to Iran, who support al-Assad. But there are so many groups, Shia and Sunni all have blood on their hands”

Ali and I have known each other for a few months through mutual friends. It seems every time we speak he gets a little more afraid, a little more nervous. 

“I can see a civil war coming. Just wait until fighters go into the Sunni areas and begin to kill there. The Sunni are in a minority. The blood will spill and the civil war will begin and no one cares. No one cares for us”.  

Ali doesn’t let his family travel around Baghdad. He stays in his neighbourhood. “We have everything we need, shops, cafes, why risk our lives on the roads?” 

The next day I have a news conference with Baghdad Operations Command.  Their building is the shadow of the crossed swords landmark built by Saddam Hussein, which remains to this day. It is a reminder of a past that while very brutal, was in many ways much more peaceful for civilians.

The BOC are in charge of securing Baghdad. At the conference they are keen to show us that they are winning. We watch confessions of alleged Al Qaeda operatives. 

What they have to say is interesting, although I wonder how the confessions are obtained. One talks of how dangerous it is to drive around with heavy explosives such as C4 and TNT because of the road blocks. So instead they build “low intensity” car bombs using household ingredients to avoid detection. Low intensity they may be. Deadly they remain. 

The open war

After the press conference we are given an off-record briefing by one of the most senior commanders in the country. I ask him what his biggest challenge is. His answer is blunt. 

“Al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups. They make the people of Iraq the target. Everything is a target: The people, mosques, shops, schools. Yet we have taken steps to beef up our efforts on intelligence gathering to at least be able to take out pre-emptive strikes on terror groups before they can act”. 

I ask him about the very recent trip to the US by Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, and whether it was a success in getting the equipment needed for the security services needed to do their job.

“The prime minister is also our commander in chief and as such has a good insight into what we need, and what we need are sophisticated technological devices to track down an invisible enemy. As you can see this is an open war and the only way to beat him is to be one step ahead of the enemy.” 

An open war. It’s the first time I have heard such blunt language directly from a senior official in the government or in the military. But this “open war” makes very little headlines across the world any more. Imagine if 30 people a day were dying anywhere else. Imagine if car bombs ripped through a capital city every couple of days? 

This “open war” is as deadly as any. I think back to Ali’s words. “A civil war is coming and no one cares about us”. 

Iraq braces itself for future that no one can predict but most think will be even more bloody than it is right now.