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From Turning Point to Vanishing Point...

Iraq: a Bloody Mess

by PATRICK COCKBURN

A year ago the supposed handover of power by the US occupation authority to an Iraqi interim government led by Iyad Allawi was billed as a turning point in the violent history of post-Saddam Iraq.

It has turned out to be no such thing. Most of Iraq is today a bloody no-man’s land beset by ruthless insurgents, savage bandit gangs, trigger-happy US patrols and marauding government forces.

On 28 June 2004 Mr Allawi was all smiles. "In a few days, Iraq will radiate with stability and security," he promised at the handover ceremony. That mood of optimism did not last long.

On Sunday the American Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, told a US news programme that the ongoing insurgency could last "five, six, eight, ten, twelve years".

Yesterday in London, after meeting Tony Blair, the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, tried to be more upbeat, commenting: "I think two years will be enough and more than enough to establish security".

Tonight President George Bush will make his most important address since the invasion, speaking to troops at the US army base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He is expected to seek to assure increasingly sceptical Americans that he has a plan to prevail in Iraq, and that the US is not trapped in a conflict as unwinnable as the one in Vietnam, three decades ago.

The news now from Iraq is only depressing. All the roads leading out of the capital are cut. Iraqi security and US troops can only get through in heavily armed convoys. There is a wave of assassinations of senior Iraqi officers based on chillingly accurate intelligence. A deputy police chief of Baghdad was murdered on Sunday. A total of 52 senior Iraqi government or religious figures have been assassinated since the handover. In June 2004 insurgents killed 42 US soldiers; so far this month 75 have been killed.

The "handover of power" last June was always a misnomer. Much real power remained in the hands of the US. Its 140,000 troops kept the new government in business. Mr Allawi’s new cabinet members became notorious for the amount of time they spent out of the country. Safely abroad they often gave optimistic speeches predicting the imminent demise of the insurgency.

Despite this the number of Iraqi military and police being killed every month has risen from 160 at the handover to 219 today.

There were two further supposed turning points over the past year. The first was the capture by US Marines of the rebel stronghold of Fallujah last November after a bloody battle which left most of the city of 300,000 people in ruins. In January there was the general election in which the Shia and Kurds triumphed.

Both events were heavily covered by the international media. But such is the danger for television and newspaper correspondents in Iraq that their capacity to report is more and more limited. The fall of Fallujah did not break the back of the resistance. Their best fighters simply retreated to fight again elsewhere. Many took refuge in Baghdad. At the same time as the insurgents lost Fallujah they captured most of Mosul, a far larger city. Much of Sunni Iraq remained under their sway.

At the handover of power the number of foreign fighters in the insurgency was estimated in the "low hundreds". That figure has been revised up to at least 1,000 and the overall figure for the number of insurgents is put at 16,000.

The election may have been won by the Shia and Kurds but it was boycotted by the five million Sunnis and they are the core of the rebellion. It took three months to put together a new government as Sunni, Shia, Kurds and Americans competed for their share of the cake. For all their declarations about Iraqi security, the US wanted to retain as much power in its own hands as it could. When the Shia took over the interior ministry its intelligence files were hastily transferred to the US headquarters in the Green Zone.

To most ordinary Iraqis in Baghdad it is evident that life over the past year has been getting worse. The insurgents seem to have an endless supply of suicide bombers whose attacks ensure a permanent sense of threat. In addition the necessities of life are becoming more difficult to obtain. At one moment last winter there were queues of cars outside petrol stations several miles long.

The sense of fear in Baghdad is difficult to convey. Petrol is such a necessity because people need to pick up their children from school because they are terrified of them being kidnapped. Parents mob the doors of schools and swiftly become hysterical if they cannot find their children. Doctors are fleeing the country because so many have been held for ransom, some tortured and killed because their families could not raise the money.

Homes in Baghdad are currently getting between six and eight hours’ electricity a day. Nothing has improved at the power stations since the hand-over of security a year ago. In a city where the temperature yesterday was 40C, people swelter without air conditioning because the omnipresent small generators do not produce enough current to keep them going. In recent weeks there has also been a chronic shortage of water.

Some Iraqis have benefited. Civil servants and teachers are better paid, though prices are higher. But Iraqis in general hoped that their standard of living would improve dramatically after the fall of Saddam Hussein and it has not.

Adding to the sense of fear in Baghdad is the growth of sectarianism, the widening gulf between Sunni and Shia. Shia mosques come under attack from bombers. Members of both communities are found murdered beside the road, in escalating rounds of tit-for-tat killings.

The talks between US officials and some resistance groups revealed in the past few days probably does not mean very much for the moment. The fanatical Islamic and militant former Baathists and nationalists who make up the cutting edge of insurgency are not in the mood to compromise. They are also very fragmented. But the talks may indicate a growing sense among US military and civilian officials that they cannot win this war.

PATRICK COCKBURN was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting in recognition of his writing on Iraq over the past year. His new memoir, The Broken Boy, has just been published in the UK.