Patrick Cockburn has been hailed by Sidney Blumenthal in Salon as "one of the most accurate and intrepid journalists in Iraq." And that’s hardly praise enough, given what the man has done. The Middle Eastern correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent, he’s been on the spot from the moment when, in February 2003, he secretly crossed the Tigris River into Iraq just before the Bush administration launched its invasion.
Here, for instance, is a typical striking passage of his, written in May 2003, just weeks after Baghdad fell. If you read it then, you hardly needed the massive retrospective volumes like Thomas Rick’s Fiasco that took years to come out:
"[T]he civilian leadership of the Pentagon… are uniquely reckless, arrogant and ill informed about Iraq. At the end of last year [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz was happily saying that he thought the Iraqi reaction to the capture of Baghdad would be much like the entry of the U.S. Army into Paris in 1944. He also apparently believed that Ahmed Chalabi…, then as now one of the most unpopular men in Iraq, would be the Iraqi Charles de Gaulle.
"These past mistakes matter because the situation in Iraq could easily become much worse. Iraqis realize that Saddam may have gone but that the United States does not have real control of the country. Last week, just as a[n] emissary [from head of the U.S. occupation Paul Bremer] was telling academics at Mustansiriyah, the ancient university in the heart of Baghdad, who should be purged from their staff, several gunmen, never identified, drove up and calmly shot dead the deputy dean."
How much worse it’s become can be measured by the two suicide bombs that went off at the same university a month apart early in 2007, killing not a single deputy dean but more than 100 (mostly female) students.
Or it can be measured by this telling little tidbit written in October 2003: "The most amazing achievement of six months of American occupation has been that it has even provoked nostalgia in parts of Iraq for Saddam. In Baiji, protesters were holding up his picture and chanting: ‘With our blood and with our spirit we will die for you Saddam.’ Who would have believed this when his statue was toppled just six months ago?"
Or by this description, written in the same month, which offers a vivid sense of why an insurgency really took off in that country:
"US soldiers driving bulldozers, with jazz blaring from loudspeakers, have uprooted ancient groves of date palms as well as orange and lemon trees in central Iraq as part of a new policy of collective punishment of farmers who do not give information about guerrillas attacking US troops… Asked how much his lost orchard was worth, Nusayef Jassim said in a distraught voice: ‘It is as if someone cut off my hands and you asked me how much my hands were worth.’"
Or by this singular detail from June 2004 that caught the essence of the lawlessness the U.S. occupation let loose: "Kidnap is now so common [that] new words have been added to Iraqi thieves’ slang. A kidnap victim is called al-tali or the sheep."
Or this summary of the situation in May 2004, one year after Bush’s "Mission Accomplished" speech: "Saddam should not have been a hard act to follow. After 30 years of disastrous wars, Iraqis wanted a quiet life. All the Americans really needed to do was to get the relatively efficient Iraqi administration up and running again. Instead, they let the government dissolve, and have never successfully resurrected it. It has been one of the most extraordinary failures in history."
Last September, typically, Cockburn travelled on his own to dangerous Diyala Province just as the fighting there was heating to a boil. He summed up the situation parenthetically, as well as symbolically, when he commented that Diyala was not a place "to make a mistake in map reading."
Cockburn should gather in awards for guts, nerve, understanding, and just plain great war reporting. Before heading back to Iraq yet again, he put his years of reporting and observation together in an already classic book, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq, which no political library should be without. In a recent overview of the American occupation of, and war in, Iraq, "A Small War Guaranteed to Damage a Superpower," he offered the following summary judgment:
"The U.S. occupation has destabilized Iraq and the Middle East. Stability will not return until the occupation has ended. The Iraqi government, penned into the Green Zone, has become tainted in the eyes of Iraqis by reliance on a foreign power. Even when it tries to be independent, it seldom escapes the culture of dependency in which its members live. Much of what has gone wrong has more to do with the U.S. than Iraq. The weaknesses of its government and army have been exposed. Iraq has joined the list of small wars — as France found in Algeria in the 1950s and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s — that inflict extraordinary damage on their occupiers."