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Patrick Cockburn, author of The Rise of the Islamic State, has just returned from northern Iraq, where he says that even if the government has retaken Tikrit, it is a small victory that signals a long war ahead

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced on Tuesday that Iraqi forces have taken back Tikrit from the IS. Now, they have done so with the backing of the Iranian military on the ground and U.S. support in the air. Now joining us to talk about the strange bedfellows in the region is Patrick Cockburn. Mr. Cockburn is the author of The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. He’s also a correspondent for The Independent of London. Thank you again for joining me, Patrick. PATRICK COCKBURN, JOURNALIST, THE INDEPENDENT: Thank you. PERIES: Patrick, why is Tikrit so important at this time? COCKBURN: Well, it appears Tikrit may have fallen to Iraqi government forces. At least, that’s what they’re claiming, and this is after a month’s siege. Tikrit is famous as the hometown of Saddam Hussein. It’s not actually that big a city–it’s about 200,000–about 87 miles north of Baghdad. And it was being attacked by the Shia militias that are under the influence of Iran. The U.S. was initially not providing air strikes. There are 3,000 or 4,000 Iraqi government forces there. The U.S. has started air strikes there, and it seems to have fallen. But what comes across from this siege is a number of things. One, it’s sort of a victory–not a great victory for the government’s side, and they haven’t won many victories against the Islamic State, which, remember, controls an area of a size bigger than Great Britain in western northern Iraq and eastern Syria, but it’s sort of a bit of a victory if it turns out to be true they finally captured it. ISIS didn’t have that number of fighters, the Islamic State didn’t have that number of fighters there. They were holed up in an old palace of Saddam Hussein’s. But they’re very effective with IEDs, improvised explosive devices, booby traps, snipers, so they hadn’t quite lost until recently. A few months ago they were talking about pressing on to Mosul, the northern capital of Iraq that fell to Islamic State last year. That doesn’t look very feasible at the moment. So what I think we’re looking at in Iraq is a very long war. I mean, I’ve been just in northern Iraq talking to people who have just left the Islamic State, and yeah, conditions are kind of tough, but the Islamic State is very much in control and completely merciless to anybody who opposes it. PERIES: And what does this tell us about what’s happening in the region? We just in our earlier segment talked about U.S.’s contradictory position in the region, and here the U.S. is in support of Iranian advancement and support in the region. COCKBURN: Well, yeah. I mean, it’s a tremendous mess. And it’s a very explosive mess, because despite all the threats against the Islamic State, it’s really not that much weaker even if it loses Tikrit. And the Saudis are getting much more and more militant. They’re aiding the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria–they admit that now. They have launched this air war and may launch a ground war in Yemen. So they’re much more proactive than they were, under the new king there. Now, I don’t think they’re going to win a complete victory anywhere, but it does mean that the whole region is getting hotter and hotter by the day, and I don’t think the U.S. or any of its allies can think what to do about it. PERIES: Also last week there were some advancements in Kirkuk, where Kirkuk, also a very ethnically complex city, was taken over as well. COCKBURN: Well, the Kurds control Kirkuk, which is in the center of the northern oil fields there. It’s very important. There are lots of Kurds, Arabs, [Turkmens], you name it who live in that area. It’s very diverse. But there’s been some heavy fighting earlier in the year. I don’t think the Kurds will lose it. I don’t think the Islamic State can probably take it at this moment. But this is sort of a stalemate, but it’s kind of a stalemate at quite a bloody level of violence. And in Syria the Islamic State isn’t under much pressure, so hope of getting rid of it, of overthrowing it, I think, are pretty limited at the moment. PERIES: And tell us why Kirkuk is also a significant and important city at this time. COCKBURN: Well, Kirkuk is a–the oil fields are around Kirkuk. It’s a place which is known for having oil for thousands of years. The Kurds want that oil, they control that area, but a lot of it’s disputed territories, what used to be called the trigger line there, which–Arab and Kurd were mixed together. They both claimed a lot of territory. The Kurds have got it at the moment. This is much resented. So all that area has become a front line, even though it’s lots of strong points, and the Islamic State making attacks, U.S. air strikes to beat them back. So the whole area is getting more and more violent. It’s becoming–Islamic State strikes me as being like a sort of Islamic Khmer Rouge, an incredibly violent organization. And it’s not going away. PERIES: And in Kirkuk [snip] most media is calling the epicenter of the conflict in the Middle East. Why is that so? COCKBURN: Well, I think that could be an exaggeration. The Kurds and the Shia aren’t fighting there. They both have troops there. The Kurds control it. I was in it quite recently. I spoke to, interviewed the governor, Najmaldin Karim, at great length. So this is a prize that all sides want. But no side is really in a position to win a decisive victory. The Islamic State is conscripting young men everywhere, calling people up. Very difficult to avoid conscription. So there is about 6 million people in the Islamic State. I think they must have well over 100,000 fighters now. Some people there say 200,000. So it’s getting stronger and stronger, in terms of numbers. And although the U.S. has launched over 2,500 air strikes, there’s no sign of these really eliminating Islamic State. PERIES: All right, Patrick, thank you so much for joining us today. COCKBURN: Thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Patrick Cockburn is a correspondent for the Independent London. He is the author of The Age of Jihad.