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Patrick Cockburn, a journalist for The Independent who just returned from Iraq, says that might be an exaggeration

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The Pentagon has released an assessment saying that the Islamic State has lost control over a quarter of the territory in Iraq that it once controlled a year ago. The announcement comes about two weeks after Iraq declared majority victory against the Islamic State in retaking the city of Tikrit. Now joining us today to discuss all of this is Patrick Cockburn. Patrick is the Middle East correspondent for the Independent, and author of the newly released book, The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. Thank you so much for joining us, Patrick. PATRICK COCKBURN, JOURNALIST, THE INDEPENDENT: Thank you. PERIES: So Patrick, what do you make of the release by the Pentagon of the territory that they have taken back from ISIS? COCKBURN: It’s a bit optimistic. First of all, it refers only to Iraq. I think it says elsewhere that the Islamic State is expanding in Syria, and they’ve just taken a part of Damascus. But even in Iraq, again, it’s a little misleading. The Islamic State has been driven out of various areas around Baghdad which are quite important, and Tikrit and elsewhere, it hasn’t really fought back. I mean, this is at least in part a guerrilla organization, in terms of military tactics. It’s not like a regular army that holds front lines. Therefore, exactly how much territory it holds is a bit irrelevant. Also, if you look at that map and you don’t know Iraq, it’s not quite clear that most people in Iraq live in cities and towns along the great big rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates. And in between, there’s desert and semi-desert which isn’t that heavily populated. So I think the purpose of this is to give a sense that present policy of bombing selectively is working in weakening and ultimately eliminating Islamic State, and I think that that’s just straight untrue, unfortunately. PERIES: And further, the Pentagon, or the U.S. military reported, at least according to some of the Arabic local press, that they had carried out fifteen air strikes in Iraq last week, compared to two in Syria. Does this have anything to do with the gains they’re making, or the gains they’re reporting that they’re making? COCKBURN: It does point to something pretty significant, which is in Iraq they’ve been bombing in support of the Iraqi Kurds in the north, of the Iraqi army in the west. They say they’re not bombing in support of the Shia militias, but in practice they’re bombing the same places that are under attack by Shia militias. Now, in Syria the situation is different because the biggest military power in Syria is the Syrian army, under the Syrian government, run by President Bashar al-Assad. And they rather deliberately have not been bombing Islamic State where it’s in confrontation with the Syrian army, because there’s this rather contradictory policy of opposing Islamic State, but also opposing Assad. So they’re only really bombing, or mainly they’re bombing in support of the Syrian Kurds, right up in the northeast of the country, in order to destroy some of the oil facilities that Islamic State has captured. PERIES: Patrick, on Sunday you authored an article in the Independent titled, In the Middle East, our Enemy’s Enemy Must be our Friend. Al-Qaeda-type movements are gaining ground, and there’s only one way to stop them. How do you see that stopping taking place? COCKBURN: Well, there’s this extraordinary policy of the U.S. and its European allies, its other allies in the region, which was summed up by this, what to my mind is a very silly slogan saying the enemy of our enemy is not our friend. Which means that the fact that let’s say the Syrian government in Damascus is opposed to Islamic State, or the Houthis down in Yemen are opposed to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, doesn’t make them our friend. But try to think of that in practical terms. When Islamic State is advancing west and is fighting the Syrian army, do we deliberately not bomb Islamic State because they’re fighting the Syrian army, which is much in the interest of Islamic State, which gives them a good chance of winning. Similarly down in Yemen, if we’re trying to put pressure on the Houthis, this movement that the Saudis have been attacking and describing as Iranian-run, I don’t think it is. That’s the way they’ve been presenting it. But that is one of the enemies of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. So again, if we don’t support them and regard them as just as bad as Al-Qaeda, then that is good for Al-Qaeda. It’s a pretty simple point, but I think it’s one that governments have been avoiding taking on board. PERIES: Some critics who are criticizing the air strikes by the United States and Saudi Arabia in the region in order to fight back the IS would argue there are other ways to achieve the same thing. Would you agree with that? COCKBURN: Well, then they’d have to spell out how you do it. I think Islamic State is pretty bad. In some ways it’s the equivalent of the Nazis in Europe. I don’t mean that the enemies of the Nazis in Europe were all good, but the Nazis were pretty bad. And Islamic State has conducted massacres of communities, like the Yazidis whom it regards as pagans. It’s massacred the villagers, it’s taken the women and raped them and sold them as slaves. It’s distributed them among its own fighters. It’s massacred, conducted massacres of 1700 Iraqi army young cadets of tribes who’ve opposed them. So exactly what do we do about this? The Islamic State has many enemies. But they spend so much time hating each other and confronting each other that they’ve let the Islamic State off the hook. PERIES: Well, some people argue that of course infusion of social and economic development, greater democratic development in the state and also rebuilding some of the most destroyed sections of the two countries would go a long way in terms of reestablishing a society that we would like to achieve in the region, and that would be–the resources spent and the military right now would be better used in those efforts. COCKBURN: I just don’t think that that’s realistic. These are long-term reforms, difficult to implement in countries like Iraq and Syria. But the threat is much more immediate. I mean, what do you do at the moment if Islamic State vehicles are coming down the road and they’re going to massacre villages if they take them over, particularly if they think they’re of a different Muslim sect, or they disapprove of them for other reasons. These long-term social economic reforms are really not very relevant to stopping them. PERIES: And the efforts at the United Nations are in your opinion also futile? COCKBURN: Well, I–you know, the United Nations have just come together to condemn the Houthis, who are these one faction in Yemeni politics who have taken over most of the country, and to support essentially the blockade of Yemen. Yemen imports most of its food. That’s kind of a vote to starve the Yemeni people as a whole. Saudi bombing isn’t going to evict these people from power. And when the Israelis were bombing Gaza last year there were many international protests, quite rightly, but there are very few protests over what’s happening in Yemen, though it may end up by killing a lot more people. PERIES: The Prime Minister of Iraq is here in Washington, D.C. trying to get more resources, both from the U.S. as well as the World Bank and the IMF in order to address the problem of the humanitarian crisis created by all of this conflict that’s going on. It’s cumulative now, and the UN declares this huge humanitarian crisis. What did you observe when you were there, and what can be done at this point in order to address the humanitarian crisis? COCKBURN: Well, it is gigantic. You know, millions of people have been forced to flee Islamic State, or they’ve been forced to flee the fighting elsewhere. When I was in Northern Iraq a few weeks ago, from a distance you see half-built modern buildings like you might see in the U.S. or European city. And then you get close to them and you see there are people living in these half-built malls and hotels and apartment buildings. These are the refugees, living in tents set up in this row of concrete. We’re getting towards summer now, it’s incredibly hot there. There’s a shortage of drinking water. There’s a shortage of everything. This combines with the price of oil being down. So the Iraqi government doesn’t have anything like the resources it had, or thought it had, a year ago. The money isn’t there. They hope to get some money from the U.S. and from the World Bank and the IMF. I think they might get a little, but I don’t think it’s going to be that great because these organizations really aren’t in a position to give large loans to the Iraqi government of the kind they need. So these refugees are all in a desperate situation. PERIES: And the financial conditions in Iraq are getting graver, as there’s such a disruption in terms of oil revenue that the country would otherwise have at this point. Is that part of the reason why the prime minister’s here asking for assistance? COCKBURN: Yeah, I mean, they’re very short of money. This has always been true since 2003. I remember a friend of mine who had been a minister in the Iraqi government saying he’d never seen other ministers panic except when the price of oil went down. Now the price of oil is right down. That’s the only sort of revenue there. The only other thing that Iraq exports is a few dates from the date palms, so they’re very broke. Secondly, this is one of the most corrupt governments on the planet, so all the money they’ve been spending over the years, hundreds of billions of dollars, trillions of dollars, on the army, on facility to produce water–everything else just aren’t there. So it’s a pretty weak structure to begin with. And it’s sort of kept going by this constant flood of oil money. Used to be about $100 billion a year, and everything was geared to that. And suddenly the taps haven’t been turned off, but they’re not producing anything like what they did before. PERIES: The last time we reported on the budget of the Iraqi government it was actually 50% below what they had anticipated in terms of having revenue, primarily because of the fall in the oil prices. Now this plea for assistance by the IMF and the World Bank, and the $200 million that President Obama had actually signaled that he would allocate for Iraq doesn’t come close to addressing the budgetary problems it’s facing. So what will it do? COCKBURN: Well, it will–people will go hungry, or people will be drinking bad water. People are already doing that inside Islamic State. The places like Mosul, the water is very dirty but people don’t have much alternative. So a consequence is the local hospitals are full of people with hepatitis and other illnesses, which comes from drinking polluted water. So things are simply going to get worse. It’s also just the size of the problem. You know, in Syria and Iraq just millions of refugees have moved in from Syria to Turkey into Lebanon, into Jordan. In Iraq they’ve sort of, there’ve been whole movements suddenly. Over a couple of months, half a million people were moved, then the next couple of months, the same figure. It could be very difficult even for a well-organized country to sustain these mass movements of people. And this is a country which is already very fragile, which has been shattered by war over the last 30 years. PERIES: And if as you say corruption is such a problem, what are the chances that the IMF or the World Bank will be giving any financial assistance to it on one hand, and then second, is this not a way of dragging Iraq into the international financial machine that then puts it in a situation that it is unable to pay back, these loans? COCKBURN: Yeah. I don’t know about that. I think that probably the Iraqi government isn’t really capable of producing definite projects that they need financed. They’re just sort of producing general demands for money. But even if they did get it, and I don’t think they’ll get enough, it wouldn’t be sufficient to deal with the scale of the problems that they’re facing. PERIES: So Patrick, thank you so much for joining us today on The Real News Network. We always appreciate your insights. COCKBURN: No, 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.