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Patrick Cockburn, Chaos and Caliphate

OR Books, 2016; 428pp; £19

ImageIn this collection of original news reporting and analysis, journalist Patrick Cockburn describes in detail the long build-up to the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq. Arranged as a series of diary entries, these reports give a clear picture of how the lasting effects of UN sanctions in the ’90s, invasion and regime change in 2003 and the resulting devastating civil war all contributed to the formation of ISIS. The book also covers the recent conflicts in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and the Yemen, with informative introductions to each section.

There are intriguing and cheerful accounts of the life of a reporter in a war-torn country, as we read how Cockburn arranges transport, journeys to the front line along back roads, and finds safe accommodation in the midst of deteriorating security.

His sources range from high-ranking officials to unemployed day labourers and add astounding depth to his reporting. Information he collects on the ground is regularly shown to contradict the mainstream media. In addition, several poignant themes run through the book, such as the constant threat of suicide bombers, the rapidly-changing fortunes of hairdressers and barbers, the condition of sewage plants and lack of drinking water, and the fluctuating price of cooking gas.

Chaos and Caliphate also offers rich evidence for the arguments that armed conflict only results in escalating violence, and that leaving a country swimming in arms and money does nothing to improve living conditions for its ordinary citizens.

The wider lesson to be learned from this book though, I believe, concerns the dangers of divisions along ethnic, religious, and even political lines – signs of which can be seen happening now in Europe and the US. It was the failure of the Iraqi government, supported by the US and Britain, and badly divided along ethnic and religious lines, that sustained the encroaching violence.

These essays show how, now more than ever, we need to build and maintain relationships across artificial divides exacerbated and exploited by weak and greedy leaders.


Topics: Iraq