Iraq: the Unwinnable War



The Duke of Wellington, warning hawkish politicians in Britain against ill-considered military intervention abroad, once said: “Great nations do not have small wars.” He meant that supposedly limited conflicts can inflict terrible damage on powerful states. Having seen what a small war in Spain had done to Napoleon, he knew what he was talking about.

The war in Iraq is now joining the Boer War in 1899 and the Suez crisis in 1956 as ill-considered ventures that have done Britain more harm than good. It has demonstrably strengthened al-Qa’ida by providing it with a large pool of activists and sympathisers across the Muslim world it did not possess before the invasion of 2003. The war, which started out as a demonstration of US strength as the world’s only superpower, has turned into a demonstration of weakness. Its 135,000-strong army does not control much of Iraq.

The suicide bombing campaign in Iraq is unique. Never before have so many fanatical young Muslims been willing to kill themselves, trying to destroy those whom they see as their enemies. On a single day in Baghdad this month 12 bombers blew themselves up.

There have been more than 500 suicide attacks in Iraq over the last year.

It is this campaign which has now spread to Britain and Egypt. The Iraq war has radicalised a significant part of the Muslim world. Most of the bombers in Iraq are non-Iraqi, but the network of sympathisers and supporters who provide safe houses, money, explosives, detonators, vehicles and intelligence is home-grown.

The shrill denials by Tony Blair and Jack Straw that hostility to the invasion of Iraq motivated the bombers are demonstrably untrue. The findings of an investigation, to be published soon, into 300 young Saudis, caught and interrogated by Saudi intelligence on their way to Iraq to fight or blow themselves up, shows that very few had any previous contact with al-Qa’ida or any other terrorist organisation previous to 2003. It was the invasion of Iraq which prompted their decision to die.

Some 36 Saudis who did blow themselves up in Iraq did so for similar reasons, according to the same study, commissioned by the Saudi government and carried out by a US-trained Saudi researcher, Nawaf Obaid, who was given permission to speak to Saudi intelligence officers. A separate Israeli study of 154 foreign fighters in Iraq, carried out by the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Israel, also concluded that almost all had been radicalised by Iraq alone.

Before Iraq, those who undertook suicide bombings were a small, hunted group; since the invasion they have become a potent force, their ideology and tactics adopted by militant Islamic groups around the world. Their numbers may still not be very large but they are numerous enough to create mayhem in Iraq and anywhere else they strike, be it in London or Sharm el Sheikh.

The bombers have paralysed Baghdad. I have spent half my time living in Iraq since the invasion. The country has never been so dangerous as today. Some targets have been hit again and again. The army recruiting centre at al-Muthana old municipal airport in the middle of Baghdad has been attacked no fewer than eight times, the last occasion on Wednesday when eight people were killed.

The detonations of the suicide bombs make my windows shake in their frames in my room in the al-Hamra hotel. Sometimes, thinking the glass is going to shatter, I take shelter behind a thick wall. The hotel is heavily guarded. At one time the man who looked for bombs under cars entering the compound with a mirror on the end of a stick carried a pistol in his right hand. He reckoned that if he did discover a suicide bomber he had a split second in which to shoot him in the head before the driver detonated his bomb.

The bombers, or rather the defences against them, have altered the appearance of Baghdad. US army and Iraqi government positions in Baghdad are surrounded by ramparts of enormous cement blocks which snake through the city. Manufactured in different sizes, each of which is named after a different American state such as Arkansas and Wisconsin, these concrete megaliths are strangling the city by closing off so many streets.

For all the newspaper and television coverage of Iraq, the foreign media still fail to convey the lethal and anarchic quality of day-to-day living. The last time I drove into west Baghdad from the airport in early July we were suddenly stopped by the sound of volleys of shots. This turned out to be the police commandos, a 12,000-strong paramilitary force which is meant to be the cutting edge of the government offensive against the insurgents. On this occasion they had loaded coffins wrapped in Iraqi flags, containing the bodies of two of their officers murdered that morning, on to the backs of their pick-ups and were weaving through the traffic, firing over our heads. Drivers slammed on their brakes since people detained by the commandos, often for no known reason, are often found later in rubbish dumps, having been tortured and executed.

The government, whose members seldom emerge from the Green Zone, make bizarre efforts to pretend that there are signs of a return to normality. Last week a pro-government newspaper had an article on the reconstruction of Baghdad. Above the article was a picture of a crane at a building site. But there are no cranes at work in Baghdad so the paper had been compelled to use a photograph of a crane which has been rusting for more than two years, abandoned at the site of a giant mosque that Saddam Hussein was constructing when he was overthrown.

The same quality of make-believe mars British and American policy in Iraq.

The current motto of both governments is to “stay the course in Iraq”. This may be useful propaganda at home but Iraqi government officials counter that London and Washington have no “course” in Iraq, only a policy of endless zig-zags.

For future historians Iraq will probably replace Vietnam as the stock example of the truth of Wellington’s dictum about small wars escalating into big ones. Ironically, the US and Britain pretended in 2003 that Saddam ruled a powerful state capable of menacing his neighbours. Secretly they believed this was untrue and expected an easy victory.

Now in 2005 they find to their horror that there are people in Iraq more truly dangerous than Saddam, and they are mired in an un-winnable conflict

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.


















Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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