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I was in Kabul in 2010 when Julian Assange and WikiLeaks first released a vast archive of classified US government documents, revealing what Washington really knew about what was happening in the world. I was particularly interested in one of these disclosures, which came in the shape of a video that the Pentagon had refused to release despite a Freedom of Information Act request.

When WikiLeaks did release the video, it was obvious why the US generals had wanted to keep it secret. Three years earlier, I had been in Baghdad when a US helicopter machine-gunned and fired rockets at a group of civilians on the ground who its pilots claimed were armed insurgents, killing or wounding many of them.

Journalists in Iraq were disbelieving about the US military’s claims because the dead included two reporters from the Reuters news agency. Nor was it likely that insurgents would have been walking in the open with their weapons when a US Apache helicopter was overhead.

We could not prove anything until WikiLeaks made public the film from the Apache. Viewing it still has the power to shock: the pilots are cock-a-hoop as they hunt their prey, including people in a vehicle who stop to help the wounded, saying, “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards,” and, “Ha, ha, I hit them.” Anybody interested in why the US failed in Iraq should have a look.

The WikiLeaks revelations in 2010 and in 2016 are the present-day equivalent of the release by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers, unmasking the true history of the US engagement in the Vietnam War. They are, in fact, of even greater significance because they are more wide-ranging and provide an entry point into the world as the US government really sees it.

The disclosures were probably the greatest journalistic scoop in history, and newspapers such as The New York Times recognised this by the vast space they gave to the revelations. Corroboration of their importance has been grimly confirmed by the rage of the US security establishment and its overseas allies, and the furious determination with which they have pursued Assange, the co-founder of WikiLeaks.

Daniel Ellsberg is rightly treated as a hero who revealed the truth about Vietnam, but Assange, whose actions were very similar to Ellsberg’s, is held in Belmarsh high-security prison. He faces a hearing in London this week to decide whether he will be extradited from the UK to the US on spying charges. If extradited, he stands a good chance of being sentenced to 175 years in the US prison system under the Espionage Act of 1917.

Ever since Assange orchestrated the release of documents through WikiLeaks, he has been the target of repeated official attempts to discredit him or, at the very least, to muddy the waters in a case that should be all about freedom of speech.

The initial bid to demonise Assange came immediately after the first release of documents, claiming that it would cost the lives of people who were named. The US government still argues that lives were put at risk by WikiLeaks, although it has never produced evidence for this.

On the contrary, the US counter-intelligence official who was in charge of the Pentagon’s investigation into the impact of the WikiLeaks disclosures admitted in evidence in 2013 that there was not a single instance of an individual being killed by enemy forces as a result of what WikiLeaks had done.

Brigadier General Robert Carr, head of the Pentagon’s Information Review Task Force, told the sentencing hearing for Chelsea Manning that his initial claim that an individual named by WikiLeaks had been killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan was incorrect. “The name of the individual was not in the disclosures,” he admitted.

On the day the WikiLeaks revelations were made public, I had a pre-arranged meeting in Kabul with a US official who asked what the coding on the top of the leaked papers was. When I read this out, he was dismissive about the extent to which the deep secrets of the US state were being revealed.

I learned later the reason for his relaxed attitude. The database Manning had accessed was called SIPRNet (Secret Internet Protocol Router), which is a US military internet system. After 9/11, it was used to make sure that confidential information available to one part of the US government was available to others. The number of people with the right security clearance who could theoretically access SIPRNet was about 3 million, although the number with the correct password, while still substantial, would have been much fewer.

The US government is not so naive as to put real secrets on a system whose purpose was to be open to so many people, including a low-ranking sergeant such as Chelsea Manning. Sensitive materials from defence attaches and the like were sent through alternative, more secure channels. Had the US security services really been using a system as insecure as SIPRNet to send the names of those whose lives would be in danger if their identity were disclosed, they soon would have run short of recruits.

The false accusation that lives had been lost, or could have been lost, because of WikiLeaks damaged Assange. More damaging by far are the allegations that he has faced of the rape and sexual molestation of two women in Sweden in 2010. He denies the allegations, but they have condemned him to permanent status as a pariah in the eyes of many. The Swedish prosecutor discontinued the rape investigation last year because of time elapsed, but this makes no difference for those who feel that anything Assange has said or done is permanently tainted and that the WikiLeaks disclosures are only a tangential issue. Likewise, much of the media views Assange’s character and alleged behaviour as the only story worth covering. Although information about SIPRNet and General Carr’s evidence was published long ago, few journalists seem to be aware of this.

But it is not because of anything that may have happened in Sweden that Assange is threatened with extradition to the US to face prosecution under the Espionage Act. The charges all relate to the release of government secrets, the sort of thing that all journalists should aspire to do, and many have done in Britain and the US without being subject to official sanctions.

Compare the British government’s eagerness to detain Assange with its lack of interest in pursuing whoever leaked the secret cables of the British ambassador to the US, Kim Darroch, to the Mail on Sunday last year. His negative comments about Donald Trump provoked an angry reaction from the president that forced Darroch to resign.

Assange has made disclosures about the activities of the US government that are more significant than the revelations in the Pentagon Papers. That is why he has been pursued to this day, and his punishment is so much more severe than anything inflicted on Daniel Ellsberg.

 
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“People wanted to kick the government and Sinn Fein provided the shoe to do the kicking,” says Christy Parker, a journalist from the beautiful but de-industrialised town of Youghal in county Cork. He speaks of the “chasm” between the elite benefiting from Ireland’s impressive economic progress and the large part of the population that has been left behind.

Youghal never recovered from the loss of its carpet and textile factories that flourished when I grew up there in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, surveys show that many of its people still yearn for the return of the factories that once provided good jobs. One can see why: the main street is today lined with closed shops, though the cost of renting a flat is high and has doubled over the last eight or nine years.

The town is one of many places in Ireland untouched by the original Celtic Tiger or the economic recovery from the 2008 recession. “Every week people are hearing some new shocking story about the homeless trying to live off food banks somewhere in the country,” says Parker.

I have heard exactly the same phrases being used in the UK to explain why people voted for Brexit. In former coal mining and steel making towns in the Welsh Valleys, I was told that they felt betrayed by everybody in authority from the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff to Westminster and Brussels, “but it was the EU against which people decided to push back.” A man from Walsall said that people there did not care if the GDP of the UK went up or down after Brexit, because they did not consider it “to be their GDP”.

The general election on 8 February was Ireland’s “Brexit moment” when a wide variety of establishment chickens came home to roost, as many voters expressed deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. An exit poll showed that 63 per cent of voters believed that they had not benefited from recent economic improvements.

Politicians and commentators on all sides confirmed the exit poll evidence that the issues which mattered most to voters were health care, housing and homelessness. This is true but tends to obscure the fact that in Ireland, as in the UK and US, voters chose a vociferously nationalist party as the vehicle through which they expressed their rejection of the status quo. In Ireland, Sinn Fein stumbled on a winning political formula whose potency it at first underrated but raised its share of the vote from 9.5 to 24.5 per cent between disastrous local council elections last May and the triumphant general election nine months later. The change in the party’s political prospects may have been astonishing, but nobody believes them to be a flash in the pan protest vote. There is a general assumption that, if there is another general election, and Sinn Fein makes no calamitous mistakes, the party will field enough candidates, as it failed to do this time around, and will win a more complete victory.

The motives of the Irish voters may have been social and economic, but the fact that a quarter of them plumped for Sinn Fein will have a profound influence on Northern Ireland and Ireland’s relations with Britain. For the first time a single party, Sinn Fein, will be politically powerful on both sides of the border, a partner with the DUP in Belfast and potentially either a leading partner in the next Irish government in Dublin or the main opposition to it. This creates a degree of de facto Irish unity never experienced before and will be deeply resented by unionists who see the balance of power swinging against them.

Sinn Fein’s political dominance in the nationalist/Catholic community in the north, that had been showing signs of faltering, will be reinforced. But the unionist/Protestant community, which last year saw Boris Johnson renege on his promises of support, by agreeing to a customs barrier separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, is feeling the ground beginning to give way under its feet.

Brian Feeney, a columnist for the Irish News in Belfast, says history shows that northern nationalists “like republican politics, but they don’t like republican violence”. Destabilisation is most likely to come from the unionist side and a sign of this may be hoax bomb threats against nationalist targets in Belfast in recent days.

A further cause of instability is the British government itself: the highly regarded Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith was summarily dismissed in the cabinet reshuffle this week, despite winning plaudits from all sides for brokering the power-sharing deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP that reopened the assembly at Stormont. Smith’s was reportedly sacked due to pledging to investigate alleged crimes committed by British soldiers during the Troubles.

Getting rid of Smith may be an early sign that, under Johnson, English nationalist sensitivities will get priority over keeping Northern Ireland stable. The arrogance and ignorance of Brexiteers when it comes to Ireland has infuriated Irish opinion over the last few years with the Home Secretary Priti Patel famously suggesting that the Irish, who have vivid memories of the Great Famine, could be starved into making concessions.

Voters say that Brexit was not a significant influence on the way they cast their vote in the election, probably because they wrongly supposed that the problem was solved. But Ireland remains the EU’s front line state, which gives it influence in Brussels but ensures constant friction with the UK.

From Sinn Fein’s point of view, it has been a successful 40 years’ march since it first started winning elections during the hunger strikes of 1980/81 as Daniel Finn describes in his important book One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA. The initial slogan was that “Will anyone here object if, with a ballot box in this hand and an Armalite in this hand, we take power in Ireland?” These are not words that Sinn Fein’s many enemies are likely to allow it to forget, but during the election campaign just finished, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil claims that the shadow of the gunman still tainted Sinn Fein were mostly ignored. The accusation may resonate with older voters, but not with younger ones with no experience of “physical force” republicanism.

Constitutional action has worked too well for Sinn Fein to try anything else. It has also cut the ground from under dissident republicans seeking to return to violence. Northern nationalists know that demographic change is propelling them towards a voting majority. In the south, they are no longer hobbled politically by memories of The Troubles.

Sinn Fein may well congratulate itself that years of struggle have produced its present successes. But it has also been extremely lucky: after trying and failing to make Irish partition an international issue for almost a century, the Brexit vote in 2016 automatically did so by potentially turning the border into an international frontier between the UK and the EU. Sinn Fein chose the right issues on which to campaign in the general election, but it was also the almost accidental beneficiary of disillusionment with traditional parties, and that disillusionment has been leading to these parties’ shock defeat in elections across the world.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Ireland 
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If I was sitting in a restaurant and said in a loud voice that I had probably contracted coronavirus, many other customers might get up and leave. But I would be telling the literal truth: I have had a persistent sniffle for weeks and coronaviruses cause the common cold.

What I do not have is nCoV2019, the novel coronavirus from Wuhan that has so far killed over 600 people and infected 32,000 more. “Coronavirus” has swiftly joined AIDS, polio, syphilis, scarlet fever, bubonic plague and other devastating diseases, whose very names provoke, or used to provoke, a strong jolt of fear.

People are frightened because there is a good reason for their fear, though not as much as they think. The Wuhan variant of coronavirus has a death rate of about two per cent compared to 9.6 per cent for SARS and 34.4 per cent for MERS. But it is naïve to think that potential victims – all of us – will be reassured when we know that there is only a limited chance that we will die, because we were rather hoping not to die at all.

We do not normally think of ourselves as living in a great ocean of viruses and bacteria existing inside and outside our bodies, so the appearance of any virus that threatens our existence comes as a nasty shock. How many Americans know, for instance, that the US had a particularly severe flu epidemic in 2017/18 when 900,000 people were hospitalised and more than 80,000 died. Though between ten and 50 million Americans get the flu every year, this does not fuel public alarm about “a killer” illness sweeping through the country.

The present epidemic carries an extra charge of fear simply because the virus is new, initially unknown and the danger it poses, though limited so far, cannot be precisely calculated.

Governments and public health officials tend to be inept, for different reasons, in explaining the level of risk to people and quieting their understandable fears. They are caught in a vicious circle: if the authorities make gigantic efforts to control the epidemic, as in China, the very scale of their activities – 50 million people quarantined, hospitals built in a few days – are counterproductive because it convinces everybody that such great works must mean that they are facing terrible dangers.

Public health policy specialists speak of two different outbreaks: one of the coronavirus and the other of false and exaggerated news provoking an unnecessary panic. Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics, and two of her colleagues write in the British Medical Journal that “there is a mismatch between the actual threat posed to the population by this newly emerging pathogen, and the perceived threat globally and nationally.” They say that “sensationalised panic and fear concerning the nCoV2019 outbreak” is the outcome of exaggerations by the media and misleading speculation by self-declared experts.

They criticise the World Health Organisation and Public Health England for failing to get a better grip on the news agenda, displacing “false facts” with authoritative and less alarmist reports. “Fear induced activity has supplanted the best public health activity,” Clare Denham told me, explaining that the evidence so far is that the risk of dying from the illness is low, the worst effected being the elderly and those suffering from other health conditions. She says that there were parallels between the over-reaction to the coronavirus and to BSE or “mad cow disease” over 20 years ago.

Public health experts blame the current hysteria over coronavirus on the media, and particularly social media, spreading rumours and myths. But I think that the problem is much older than that. Panic is an inescapable part of epidemics that cannot be dealt with simply by making authoritative facts more easily available.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my own experiences in the Cork polio epidemic of 1956, long before there was social media or even television in Ireland. The country then was wholly dissimilar from China today, but human reactions to the outbreak were very much the same as was the mix of good and bad information about what was happening.

Many of the uncertainties that people feel today in reacting to an epidemic are the same as they were centuries ago: wondering whether to stay or to flee, openness to rumours, searching for scapegoats, blaming the authorities for hiding the truth, doing the wrong thing and doing it late. Action of some sort is demanded, though doctors say that it will do no good.

Daniel Defoe wrote a historical novel, A Journal of the Plague Year, that purports to be a contemporary account of the bubonic plague that killed between 75,000 to 100,000 Londoners in 1665 and 1666, though it was written 60 years later.

By the time Defoe was writing, newspapers were being blamed for spreading false facts, much as social media is now, and he claimed to be grateful that newspapers did not exist during the plague “to spread rumours and reports of things; and to improve them by the invention of men.”

But I doubt if the presence or absence of the print media made much difference. Wars and epidemics produce a voracious hunger for news that will include rumours, myths, lies as well as a great deal of truth. Potential victims want those in authority to show that they know what to do, even when there is nothing to be done. They do not want to hear that the epidemic may just have to burn itself out.

Often the best advice is the simplest. Defoe would probably have agreed with the advice of the British government for its citizens to leave China, as he says that “the best physic against the plague is to run away from it”, adding that inertia had kept thousands in London “whose carcasses went into the great pits by cartloads”.

Media coverage of all disasters lean towards saying that things are bad and likely to get worse. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is an old American newspaper saying, but holds true wherever there is a free press. Reporters will refer to the “deadly” or “killer” coronavirus, though 98 per cent of its victims do not die. The problem for governments is that they need to convey a sense of emergency and calm at the same time and this cannot be done.

 
• Category: History • Tags: American Media, China, Coronavirus, Disease 
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My favourite slogan about Brexit over the past three years is written in large white letters on a red gable wall in the Tigers Bay district of Belfast. It was painted before the referendum of 2016 and, below a union flag, reads: “Vote Leave EU. Rev 18:4.”

The biblical reference is to a verse in the Book of Revelations that reads: “And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.”

These seemed to me, when I first saw a picture of the mural, to be compelling reasons for leaving the EU and about as truthful as many other reasons advanced by those in favour of doing so. The verse cited is, in fact, more pertinent to the issue of resisting a large and oppressive international organisation than the muralist may have realised. Revelations is filled with mysterious references to monsters, such as the “beast from the land” and the “beast from the sea” who has “seven heads and 10 horns”. But experts consider these weird creatures to be coded hostile references to the Roman Empire and to Roman Emperors who were persecuting the early Christians, of whom the author of Revelations was one, in Asia Minor at the end of the first century AD.

The Belfast muralist has finally got their way as the UK escapes from the supposedly diabolical clutches of the EU. Leavers consider today to be one of liberation and Remainers lament a self-inflicted disaster that they see as being against the flow of history. But in both cases, this is a very west European view that gives a very partial and misleading view of recent history: if we include the eastern side of the European continent from the Atlantic to the Urals over the past 30 years, the trend towards the greater integration within the EU is more than counter-balanced by disintegration to the east.

The break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 1990s are seldom considered to have any lessons for the EU: the Soviet Union was believed by much of the rest of the world as an evil empire and Yugoslavia similarly as a sort of mini evil empire, the demise of both being both inevitable and a good thing.

But the forces favouring disintegration that broke up the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have ominous points in common with those now threatening the EU. Fairly or unfairly, people outside the decision-making hub in Moscow, Belgrade and Brussels felt that their wishes were being ignored and power monopolised by unrepresentative elites at the centre. Local politicians rode a nationalist wave, claiming that all sorts of good things would happen once self-determination had been achieved.

In some cases, these promises were kept; in others they were soon discarded and forgotten, at least by those who made them. In many senses, we have long been living in an era of disintegration without quite realising it, as multinational federations break up and international organisations, such as the UN and World Trade Organisation (WTO), fragment or become moribund. President Emmanuel Macron was lambasted for describing Nato as “braindead”, but it is scarcely alone. This trend is obscured because academics and politicians in western Europe have tended to be enthusiasts for the EU and for the integration of nation states, as if there was no chance of a shift in the opposite direction. Timothy Less, of the Centre of Geopolitics and Grand Strategy at Cambridge, formerly a diplomat at the Foreign Office specialising in eastern Europe, points out that there have always been plenty of expert institutions in Europe “focusing on integration, but very few study disintegration”. Along with others with experience of eastern Europe in recent decades, he is sceptical about the prospects for the EU surviving the permanent crisis stemming from the diverging national interests of its members.

The nation state is being re-energised because multinational entities like the EU failed to cope successfully issues like immigration, deindustrialisation and globalisation. But the process of disintegration happens within as well as between states, producing winners and losers in close proximity to each other. In the UK, the referendum and two general elections highlighted the political and economic split between metropolitan cities plugged into the global economy and the hinterland around core urban areas. The gilets jaunes in France draw on a similar pattern of support, as does Donald Trump in the US.

A central question for both the UK and the EU post-Brexit is whether or not this impulse towards disintegration will continue, or whether it will be counterbalanced by a contrary trend towards consolidation. The Brexit crisis fostered the growth of nationalism in England and Scotland, as well as of nationalist/Catholic and unionist/Protestant nationalism in Northern Ireland. The Scottish National Party leaders were jubilant at their success in the general election in December as were Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, encouraged by the Tories abandoning the DUP and proposed tariff barrier down the Irish Sea.

But the break-up of the UK may be further off than many believe at the height of the crisis because a strong Tory majority makes Scottish and Irish separatism less of a practical possibility. The SNP might have been better off avoiding a general election and keeping a weak minority Tory government in office, whose feebleness would have further disillusioned Scots with the union. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is very much a constitutional party these days, looking for Irish unity to be delivered by demographic change and a border poll.

As for the EU, it has looked strong when negotiating with weak UK governments, but in other tests of strength, such as defending the nuclear deal with Iran from demolition by Trump, it has been pathetically ineffectual. For all its commercial clout, it appears incapable of withstanding pressure from the US, Russia and China. The decay of multinational institutions and alliances may not lead to an apocalyptic crisis, as the author of Revelations foretold, but it will certainly produce a more dangerous world.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Donald Trump, EU 
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China is responding to the spread of the coronavirus in Wuhan much as countries have always reacted to life-threatening epidemics. At every level of society and government, fear of death – or, more accurately, fear of being held responsible for death – drives decision-making, which is consequently often ill-judged.

Officials do not want to cause a panic – but then again, nor do they want to be accused of inaction, or of hiding dire truths about the health crisis (many people have become convinced that more people have been infected, have even died, than the authorities are admitting).

I have been struck in the past few days by the similarity between reactions to two epidemics, though they took place 64 years apart in cities that could not be more different. One is currently taking place in Wuhan in central China, with its population of eleven million; the second struck Cork, an Irish city with a population of 114,000, in 1956.

I know a lot about the polio outbreak in Cork because, on 30 September of that year, I was taken to St Finbarr’s Hospital in the city, after being diagnosed with the disease. My parents were convinced I was dying, but I survived, though my legs were permanently weakened; I still walk with a pronounced limp.

I was aged six at the time and have a precise memory of the epidemic as it affected me personally, but I knew little about its course outside the hospitals where I was being treated. It was only 50 years later that I got to know the full history, when I went back to Cork to interview doctors, nurses and patients, as well as reading Irish health ministry documents and accounts in contemporary newspapers.

What I discovered was that as in Wuhan today, local people in Cork were convinced that they were being fed false information downplaying the severity of the polio outbreak. “There were rumours everywhere in the city,” said Pauline Kent, a physiotherapist who treated victims, “that dead bodies were being carried out the back door of St Finbarr’s at night.” The medical authorities were, in fact, truthfully announcing the number of new cases and fatalities each morning – but they were simultaneously undermining their own credibility by issuing upbeat statements, dutifully reported in the local newspapers, with headlines such as “Panic Reaction Without Justification” and “Outbreak Not Yet Dangerous Say Doctors”.

Unsurprisingly, such forced optimism was counterproductive, entirely failing to reassure a local population terrified that their children would die or be disabled for life (the other name for polio at the time was “infantile paralysis”). Despite the doctors’ insistence, the people of Cork did not understand that while polio is highly contagious, meaning that almost everybody became a carrier, only one or two per cent of carriers would suffer long term health consequences (about 50,000 people in and around Cork probably got the virus, though only 576 of those had passed through St Finbarr’s by the time the epidemic ended in 1957).

What comes across most strongly in letters from that period is that a frightened people want somebody to blame, and want visible action. People outside Cork asked why the city had not been sealed off, the railway line to Dublin closed. “Let Cork’s own people keep their Polio and not infect our clean city,” urged one enraged letter-writer in Dublin.

This need to blame somebody or something seems to be a feature of epidemics everywhere. During a polio outbreak in New York in 1916, a rumour spread that the virus had been brought by Italian immigrants from Naples; another bizarrely had it that the virus was spread by cats (as a result, 72,000 cats were hunted down and killed).

Similarly, people in Cork were convinced that the government and the local medical establishment were being wilfully blind to the threat posed by the disease. They demanded action – their drains cleaned and schools closed – even when doctors said it would do no good.

At first, the authorities tried to strike a correct balance between being open about the epidemic and not causing a panic. This did them little good because Cork’s population still believe that even worse news was being kept from them.

When my family and I returned to Cork from London in August 1956, we found the streets empty. When we expressed surprise at this, our taxi driver explained, as my father later recalled, that “people are afraid to come into Cork. Business is going to hell. If the epidemic goes on, in a few weeks half the shops in this street will be bankrupt.” Under pressure from advertisers, the local newspaper almost entirely stopped reporting on the epidemic the following month, shortly before I fell ill. The cynics had turned out to be right.

Such censorship was roundly criticised by one official, who wrote to the newspaper: “I for one would be very annoyed if I came to Cork with my family on a holiday and found polio raging and that the business people were prepared to allow me to come and to expose my family to the disease – for the sake of my money as a tourist.”

The Chinese government does appear to have been fairly open about the onset of the latest version of the coronavirus, compared to their secretiveness during the Sars epidemic eighteen years ago. But transparency may not do them much good, because frightened people, Irish or Chinese, naturally look to blame human agency, rather than an unpredictable virus that can only be seen with a powerful microscope. Sealing off the source of infection sounds like an attractive option to those outside the quarantine zone, even when effective quarantine is almost impossible.

For years after the epidemic had ended, fears ran high in Cork. Maureen O’Sullivan, a Red Cross nurse, told me that “at the sight of my ambulance in their street, people would think that the polio was back. They would run into their houses, get down on their knees to pray. They had lost all hope – they were that frightened.”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy, Science • Tags: China, Coronavirus, Disease 
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Today Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei gave his first Friday sermon in Tehran for eight years to an audience of thousands, as he tried to calm down the furious public reaction to the Revolutionary Guards mistakenly shooting down a Ukrainian plane carrying 176 passengers, then proceeding to lie about their responsibility for three days.

Khameinei spoke of the “cowardly” killing of General Qassem Soleimani by the US, of President Trump using the destruction of the plane to “push a poison dagger” into the backs of the Iranian people. Rhetorical flourishes like this are not going do him a lot of good with critics who see the shootdown as epitomising the incompetence, duplicity and division of his government.

But the nature of the crisis differs markedly from the way it is being portrayed abroad. For more has gone wrong than a series of blunders. Obscured amid the plaudits and denunciations directed at Soleimani and Khamenei is the fact that both men’s policies in the Middle East had become counterproductive.

Over the last four years, Iran has had great success in spreading its influence in countries with large Shia populations. But it has failed to consolidate the status quo it played such a large role in creating. “The Iranians are good at gathering cards, but not at playing them,” is an old saying in the region.

Despite Iranian successes in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the power structure in all three countries is rickety and prone to crises. Over the last four months, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran have been rocked by mass protest, while Syria is in the final throes of civil war.

Much depends on how the Iranian leadership responds in the next few months to the assassination of Soleimani, formerly their high-profile viceroy overseeing the Iranian zone of influence. They could continue to head towards a full scale US-Iran conflict or, just possibly, veer towards some sort of compromise deal.

Neither side wants a war, as demonstrated by America’s belated revelation that 11 of its soldiers were injured by the Iranian ballistic missile strike on two of its bases in Iraq on 8 January. At the time, Trump had reassured the world that there were no American casualties. and therefore no need for him to retaliate. Meanwhile, Iranian paramilitaries in Iraq have been instructed not to attack US facilities in order to de-escalate the crisis.

In the longer term, if Iran continues with the policies pursued by Soleimani and Khamenei, it will feel compelled to resume low-intensity warfare to provide a counterbalance to US sanctions. Before this happens, Iran will have to decide if it is going to use the elimination of Soleimani to devise a new strategies to replace those that have failed.

Nobody watches the changing political winds in Tehran as closely as Iraqis, who know that their country is where the US-Iran struggle is being fought out.

“Iran is in a very critical position,” says a prominent Iraqi Shia politician in Baghdad quoted in the online magazine Middle East Eye. “The policy that Khamenei previously pursued in managing the Iraq file and the region is no longer successful. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard had contributed to creating problems in Iraq that turned into a burden for Iran and became an obstacle in the way of its negotiations with the United States.”

Discussions now taking place in Iran are about whether the Revolutionary Guards should retain the Iraq file, or be handed over to some other body, such as intelligence or the foreign ministry. Soleimani’s former deputy and nominated successor as head of the Quds Force, Esmael Ghaani, has been handling Afghanistan, and is less familiar with the Middle East.

Quite aside from US pressure for disengagement, it is very much in Iran’s interests in Iraq to take a less hands-on role, and to look to the Iraqi government and Shia political parties to drive out the US. In Syria, where Iran had orchestrated support for President Bashar al-Assad after 2011, an Iranian pullback is feasible, because Assad has largely won the war to stay in power, and since 2015, the leading role in supporting him has been taken over by Russia.

Given these developments, it should be easier than it looks for Tehran and Washington to reach agreement on reducing Iran’s regional activism. The problem is that in Middle Eastern politics, everybody tends to overplay their hand at one time or another, usually when they come to overconfidently believe that they can put their opponent permanently out of business. The US has repeatedly fallen into this trap in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – and it is all too likely to do the same in its confrontation with Iran which, whatever the two sides’ intentions, will remain a dangerous stalemate, always at risk of tipping into outright war.

The US maximalist demands on Iran’s nuclear facilities, ballistic missiles and regional influence effectively mean that it wants regime change or capitulation. Both outcomes are possible; neither is likely. The Iranian leadership tends to come together when threatened, and is prepared to use any degree of force to stay in power. Western capitals have been looking expectantly for an end to the clerical regime in Tehran since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 – but to no avail.

President Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal in May 2018 without a coherent explanation of what was wrong with it, or what would be put in its place. Since then, both Iran and the US have carried out what could be deemed acts of war, culminating in the last few months in the Iranians attacking Saudi oil facilities, and the US assassinating Soleimani. On each occasion, both sides avoided full-scale retaliation, but this restraint rests on a knife-edge, and cannot last forever. The basis for a deal exists, but that does not mean one will materialise.

 
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I was in Iraq in April 1991 when government security forces crushed the Shia uprising against Saddam Hussein’s regime, killing tens of thousands and burying their bodies in pits. I had been expelled from Iraq to Jordan at the start of the rebellion in March and then, to my surprise, allowed to return, because Saddam wanted to prove to the world that he was back in control.

I was taken along with other journalists to see Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei, the vastly influential spiritual leader of the Shia in Iraq and elsewhere, who was being held in a nondescript house in Kufa in southern Iraq.

He lay on a couch looking all his 92 years, surrounded by Iraqi security men who were hoping that he would condemn the rebellion.

I asked him what he thought of it. For some minutes I thought he had not heard my question, but then, speaking in a low gasping voice, he said: “What happened in Najaf and other cities is not allowed and was against God.”

His words were deliberately ambiguous, but I had no doubt that he was speaking of the hideous vengeance being exacted by military units loyal to Saddam, the killing of Shia men, women and children regardless of whether or not they had taken part in the uprising.

The Shia had risen up against Saddam in the final days of his defeat in Kuwait by the US-led coalition. While they were not expecting full-scale foreign support, they did believe that the coalition would stop Saddam using his remaining tanks and helicopters against them. But the US conflated the Iraqi Shia with Iran, where the Shia are the overwhelming majority, and had decided that it was not in American interests to see the rebellion succeed.

Coalition forces stood aside as Saddam’s tanks, with helicopters overhead, smashed their way into Shia cities like Karbala, Najaf and Basra, and then began their mass executions.

Three decades later, the US and its allies are still making the same mistake, treating the millions of Shia in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Afghanistan as if they were Iranian agents.

Down the centuries, the Shia have been one of the most savagely persecuted religious minorities; they fear today that in the wake of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, they are once again being demonised, as Donald Trump denounces all who oppose the US in the Middle East as Iranian proxies.

Yousif al-Khoei, the grandson of the grand ayatollah and the head of the London-based Al-Khoei Foundation, told me that the confrontation between Iran and the US was already leading to “the rise of anti-Shia sentiment”. He receives many calls from non-political but very worried Shia who hear what they interpret as crude anti-Shia propaganda being spouted in Washington.

“The threat to demolish ‘cultural sites’ in Iran was shocking to hear from a US president,” said Khoei. “Ordinary Shia express fear that this may mean attacking our holy places and institutions where faith and culture are intertwined.” He told me how young Shia are angered by potential “gross violation of the Shia faith” by US threats to holy sites and shrines that have only recently been targeted by Isis. “We are still recovering from the losses Isis inflicted on the Shia,” he said.

One of the most significant developments in the Middle East since 1945 has been the rise of the previously marginalised and impoverished Shia communities in many – though not all – of the region’s countries, above all Lebanon and Iraq, the latter becoming the first Shia-ruled state in the Arab world since Saladin overthrew the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt in 1171.

Yet American and British politicians too often treat the rise of the Shia as if this was purely the outcome of unjustifiable Iranian interference. Western leaders find it convenient to adopt the anti-Shia propaganda line pumped out by Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, which persecutes its own Shia minority, and Bahrain, which has an even more oppressed Shia majority.

In both countries, Shia demanding civil rights are punished as terrorists and alleged proxies of Iran. Often, the Sunni authorities are convinced by their own propaganda: when the Bahraini government, backed by Saudi troops, crushed the Arab Spring protests on the island in 2011, Shia doctors in a nearby hospital were tortured to make them admit that they were receiving orders from Iran, though a high-level international investigation found no evidence of Iranian involvement in the protests.

After the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003, its military commanders were paranoid about alleged Iranian plots to foster resistance to the occupation. In fact, it needed no fostering, because neither Shia nor Sunni wanted Iraq to be occupied by a foreign military force.

Old propaganda claims have resurfaced over the last week about Iran assisting the predominantly Saudi 9/11 bombers or enabling an IED campaign against British troops in southern Iraq, as if Iraq at that time was not knee-deep in discarded munitions.

Such self-serving conspiracy theories, whether they are being peddled in Washington, London, Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, are counterproductive. They foster a sense of Shia solidarity that is to the benefit of Iran. We saw this over the last week, as anti-government protests in Iran in 2019 were replaced this year by crowds numbering millions jamming the streets of Iranian cities to mourn General Soleimani, that very same government’s top military commander.

At the heart of Shi’ism, more than in most religions, is martyrdom, and Soleimani is now being elevated in the eyes of Shia – and not just in Iran – to the status of a warrior martyr who died fighting for the faith.

The triumphant Iraqi army commanders I saw in the wrecked Shia cities of Iraq in 1991 all tried to persuade me that the Iranians had been the driving force behind the rebellion. Much the same nonsense is being uttered today about an Iranian hand being behind anything the west and its allies do not like in the Middle East.

When they claim to be targeting Iran, they are in practice targeting the Shia community as a whole – a mistake for which both they and the Shia are likely to pay a high price.

 
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The Iranian missile attack on two US bases in Iraq is symbolic retaliation for the US assassination of General Qassem Soleimani on 3 January.

Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei said there would be direct action against the US by the Iranian armed forces, and this has now happened. The message is that the Iranian leadership wants to de-escalate the crisis; the initial tweet from the US president Donald Trump after the attack indicates that he wants the same thing.

This does not mean that Iran will not respond later, using proxies to retain deniability and possibly against a US ally, as it did when making a devastating drone attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais on 14 September. But even this type of low level guerrilla warfare is not inevitable, since Iran has shown in the past that it wants to avoid a full-scale war with a militarily superior US.

The assassination of Soleimani clearly came as a shock to Tehran, and will have shaken confidence that Trump will not risk a war under any circumstances. After all, Soleimani paid with his life for miscalculating the degree of American anger over pin-prick Iranian attacks last year.

Iran is more likely to seek to exploit the assassination for political gain, notably by increasing its influence in Iraq and acting through third parties. It will look to the Iraqi government, parliament and political parties to demand that the 5,200 US troops leave the country. They have been there since 2014 for the purpose of helping the Iraqi armed forces fight Isis but, from the moment General Soleimani was killed, have been looking to their own defence.

Isis, seeking to revive itself after its destruction as a de facto state, is one clear beneficiary of the Soleimani assassination.

Even if US troops stay for the moment, they will have a status near to that of hostages since many are in indefensible compounds in the middle of Iraqi military bases. The willingness of Iraqi security to defend American personnel is dubious, as was demonstrated when Iraqi troops in the Green Zone in Baghdad stood aside last week to let pro-Iranian paramilitary marchers enter the US embassy.

Iran will already have made significant political gains from this crisis as long it does not now overplay its hand and seek to humiliate the US. Street protests in Iran sparked by a rise in fuel prices last November led to the security forces killing at least 304 protesters, according to Amnesty International. Who would have expected that the next big street event in Iranian cities would be millions of people gathering for the funeral of the second most important figure in the government that had been doing the killing?

These were mourners, moreover, calling for vengeance against the US; protesters had previously blamed their leadership for wasting resources on foreign adventures such as those carried out by Soleimani. It is impossible to judge how far Isis has been re-legitimised by the recent rising of tensions, but it is in a stronger position domestically to withstand the tough times resulting from US sanctions without the fear of a popular revolt.

In Iraq, there will be many who will be pleased to see the end of Soleimani, who ordered the violent repression of protests over jobs and government corruption since last October; since then, no fewer than 500 protesters have been killed and as many as 20,000 injured.

But Iraqi protesters, too, have had the ground cut from under their feet because US interference in Iraq has just outpaced Iranian interference. Protesters will be accused of attacking a government that is seeking to defend Iraqi sovereignty. No Iraqi leader will want to be portrayed as pro-American. The pro-Iranian paramilitaries can present themselves as staunch patriots and not as Iranian proxies.

Soleimani has done more for his country by his death than he ever achieved during two decades years as head of the Quds Force, the foreign operation arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. From the US point of view, his assassination is proving counter-productive, leaving the government in Iran and its regional allies stronger than before.

 
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The assassination of Qassem Soleimani has capsized Iraqi politics in the most dangerous of ways, making it possible that the country will be plunged once again into a state of permanent crisis and war from which it has escaped in the last two years.

President Trump is threatening sanctions against Iraq if it expels the 5,200 US military person in the country, while the Iraqi parliament has passed a non-binding resolution demanding the eviction of foreign troops after what it sees as a flagrant breach of Iraqi sovereignty.

Some commentators draw comfort from the fact that any official move by the Iraqi government to kick out US troops is far down the road and so, consequently, are any counter-measures by Mr Trump.

In reality, the crisis over the presence of US troops on the ground in Iraq is already with us and will get worse. The US troops returned to Iraq in 2014 to combat Isis after it captured Mosul and was advancing on Baghdad. The US forces provided logistic, intelligence and, crucially, helped orchestrate US air support for Iraqi soldiers and paramilitaries fighting Isis. These anti-Isis forces consist of the Iraqi army and the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces, the Shia paramilitary umbrella group, whose fighters are paid by the Iraqi government and headed by a senior Iraqi government official. Many of these paramilitary groups have Iranian links or are under Iranian control.

From the moment that a US drone killed General Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the powerful Kata’ib Hezbollah group, the priority for US troops in Iraq changed. It was no longer to pursue Isis and prevent its resurgence, but to defend its highly vulnerable bases from possible attack by Shia paramilitaries. This immediately relieved pressure on Isis which is trying to stage a come-back. The biggest cheer in Iraq after the US drone strike last Friday will have come from Isis commanders in their isolated bolt-holes in the desert and mountains of Iraq and Syria.

The US bases in Iraq are in fact more usually compounds within Iraqi military facilities. This means that from day one the US troops there are close to being hostages surrounded by potentially hostile Iraqis. Iraqi security units made no effort to protect the US embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad last week. Even if the compounds are not directly assaulted or subjected to rocket fire self-protection will be their priority.

Mr Trump, supported by Boris Johnson, has justified the killing General Soleimani by pretending that his sole role in Iraq was to organise attacks on US and British forces. But the real history of the relations between the US and Iran since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 has in fact been a strange mixture of rivalry and cooperation. This is not obvious because the cooperation was largely covert and the rivalry explicit. Iraqis, whose leaders balanced nervously between Washington and Tehran, used to say of them: “They wave their fist at each other over the table and shake hands under it.”

This contradictory approach stretches back thirty years: the US and Iran both vied to be the predominant foreign power in Iraq, but they also had dangerous enemies in common. The US had not finished off Saddam Hussein after his defeat in Kuwait in 1991, because they feared that his fall would open the door to Iranian influence. Washington changed its mind on this in due course and, by the end of the 1990s the CIA and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards both had bases in Salahudin in Iraqi Kurdistan that publicly ignored each other’s existence, but communicated privately through third parties.

Rivalry intensified after the US became the dominant power in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But in the long term both countries wanted a stable Shia government in power in Baghdad and realised that this could only happen if both the US and Iran agreed on Iraqi leaders acceptable to each other. Nouri al-Maliki was the choice of the US ambassador in Baghdad to be Iraqi prime minister in 2006 in the knowledge that Iran would approve – the British ambassador of the day objected and was shown the door.

This same system of joint decision making at distance produced al-Maliki’s successor, Haidar al-Abadi in 2014 and the current prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, in 2018. The same convenient US-Iran arrangement decided the appointment of other senior officials, such as president Barham Salih, who was long close to the Americans, but was the surprising choice of Iran.

The common interest of these two outside powers was particularly close when Isis was at the peak of its strength between 2014 and 2017. The links were weakened by the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, damaged further by his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, and finally destroyed by the assassination of General Soleimani.

A great danger in the present crisis is that Mr Trump and his advisers know even less about Iraq than did George W Bush and Tony Blair in 2003. For instance, a problem about attacking the pro-Iranian Shia paramilitary groups is that they are part of the Iraqi state. The Iraqi Interior Minister always belongs to the Badr Organisation, a pro-Iranian grouping. The military muscle of the Iraqi security forces, which the US is in Iraq to support, comes in part from such groups with whom the US has just gone to war.

It is not a war that the US is likely to win, but it will inevitably reduce Iraq to chaos. Thanks to such confusion, with its enemies at each other’s throats, Isis may again take root and flourish. In the Islamic world, the killing of General Soleimani will be seen as not only anti-Iran, but anti-Shia. Everywhere conflicts are being stirred to life of which Mr Trump knows nothing, but is about to find out.

 
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Iraqis have a well-honed instinct about approaching danger which stems from their grim experience during 40 years of crisis and war. Three months ago, I asked a friend in Baghdad how she and her friends viewed the future, adding Iraq seemed to me to be more peaceful than at any time since the US and British invaded in 2003.

She replied that the general mood among people she knew was gloomy because they believed that the next war between the US and Iran might be fought out in Iraq. She said: “Many of my friends are so nervous about a US-Iran war that they are using their severance pay on leaving government service to buy houses in Turkey.” She was thinking of doing the same thing.

My Iraqi friends turned out to have been all too right in their depressing prognosis: the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by a US drone at Baghdad airport is an act of escalation by President Donald Trump that ensures that Iraq faces a violent future. It may not lead to a full-scale military conflict, but Iraq will be the political and military arena where the US-Iranian rivalry will be fought out. The Iranians and their Iraqi allies may or may not carry out some immediate retaliatory act against the US, but their most important counter-stroke will be to pressure the Iraqi government, parliament and security forces into pushing the US entirely out of Iraq.

Ever since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iran has generally come out ahead of the US in any struggle for influence within Iraq. The main reason for this is has been that Shia community in Iraq, two-thirds of the population and politically dominant, has looked to its fellow Shia in Iran for support against its enemies. Ironically, Iranian influence and popularity had been seriously damaged because of General Soleimani overseeing the brutal efforts by pro-Iranian security forces and paramilitary groups to crush Iraqi street protests, killing at least 400 protesters and injuring another 15,000.

Mounting Iraqi popular rage against Iran for its interference in Iraq’s internal affairs is now likely to be counter-balanced by the even more blatant assault on Iraq’s national sovereignty by the US. It is difficult to think of a grosser act of interference by a foreign state than killing a foreign general who was openly and legally in Iraq. Also killed by the drone was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, the powerful pro-Iranian paramilitary group. The US may consider paramilitary commanders like him to be evil terrorists, but for many Shia Iraqis they are the people who fought against Saddam Hussein and defended them against Isis.

I was speaking to my pessimistic friend in Baghdad in late September in what turned out to be the last peaceable days before violence returned to Iraq. I interviewed a number of paramilitary commanders from the Hashd al-Shaabi, the popular mobilisation forces, who all claimed that the US and Israel were escalating attacks on them inside the country. I wondered how much of this was paranoia.

I spoke to Abu Alaa al-Walai, the leader of Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuhada, a splinter group of Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of whose camps had been destroyed by a drone attack in August. He said that 50 tonnes of weapons and ammunition had been blown up, blaming the Israelis and the Americans acting in concert. Asked if his men would attack US forces in Iraq in the event of a US-Iran war, he said: “Absolutely yes.” Later I visited the camp, called al-Saqr, on the outskirts of Baghdad where a massive explosion had gutted sheds and littered the burned-out compound with shattered pieces of equipment.

I saw other pro-Iranian paramilitary leaders at this time. The drone attacks had made them edgy, but I got the impression that they did not really expect a US-Iran war. Qais al-Khazali, the head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, told me that he did not think there would be a war “because Trump does not want one.” As evidence of this, he pointed to the failure of Trump to retaliate after the drone attack on Saudi oil facilities earlier in September that Washington had been blamed on Iran.

In fact, events developed very differently from what both I and the paramilitary commanders expected. A few days after I had spoken to them, there was a small demonstration in central Baghdad demanding jobs, public services and an end to corruption. The security forces and the pro-Iranian paramilitaries opened fire, killing and wounding many peaceful demonstrators. Though Qais al-Khazali later claimed that he and other Hashd leaders were trying to thwart a US-Israeli conspiracy, he had said nothing to me about it. It seemed likely that General Soleimani, wrongly suspected that the paltry demonstrations were a real threat and had ordered the pro-Iranian paramilitaries to open fire and put a plan for suppressing the demonstrations into operation.

All this could have been disastrous for Iranian influence in Iraq. Soleimani had made the classic mistake of a successful general in imaging that “a whiff of grapeshot” will swiftly repress any signs of popular discontent. Sometimes this works, often it does not – and Iraq turned out to belong to the second category.

General Soleimani died in the wake of his greatest failure and misjudgement. But the manner of his killing may convince many Shia Iraqis that the threat to Iraqi independence from the US is greater than that from Iran. The next few days will tell if the protest movement, that has endured the violence used against it with much bravery, will be deflated by the killings at Baghdad airport.

Wars are reputedly won by generals who make the least mistakes. General Soleimani made a bad mistake over the last three months by turning a modest protest into something close to a mass uprising. Trump may have made an even worse mistake by killing General Soleimani and making Iraq, a place where Iran has far more going for it than the US, the arena in which the rivalry between these two powers will be fought out. I can see now that my friend in Baghdad may well have been right three months ago in suggesting that retirement to Turkey might be the safest option.

 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.

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