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Bush's Optimism Impossible to Square with Reality in Iraq

The Decider in Denial

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Arbil, Iraq

Scrambling to shore up crumbling support for the war in Iraq, President George Bush released a report yesterday claiming sufficient political and military progress to justify the presence of 170,000 US troops in the country.

President Bush said he still believed victory in Iraq was possible.

"Those who believe that the battle in Iraq is lost will likely point to the unsatisfactory performance on some of the political benchmarks," he said.

"Those who believe the battle in Iraq can and must be won see the satisfactory performance on several of the security benchmarks as a cause of optimism." He added it was too early to say if his new strategy in Iraq was working.

But in Iraq as in the US there is a sense that Washington is playing its last cards. "I assume the US is going to start pulling out because 70 per cent of Americans and Congress want the troops to come home," Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Iraqi politician, said. "The Americans are defeated. They haven’t achieved any of their aims."

The report itself admits to a sense in Iraq that the US, one way or another, is on the way out more than four years after its invasion in 2003.

It says that political reconciliation in Iraq is being hampered by "increasing concern among Iraqi political leaders that the United States may not have a long-term commitment to Iraq".

The White House yesterday sought to suggest possible change for the better in Iraq by saying that there had been satisfactory progress on eight of the 18 goals set by Congress. Unsatisfactory progress is reported on six, unsatisfactory but with some progress on two and "too early to assess" on a further two.

The picture it hopes to give–and this has been uncritically reported by the US media–is of a mixture of progress and frustration in Iraq.

The wholly misleading suggestion is that the war could go either way. In reality the six failures are on issues critical to the survival of Iraq while the eight successes are on largely trivial matters.

Thus unsatisfactory progress is reported on "the Iraqi security forces even handedly enforcing the law" and on the number of Iraqi units willing to fight independently of the Americans. This means that there is no Iraqi national army but one consisting of Kurds, Shia and Sunni who will never act against their own communities. Despite three years of training, the Iraqi security forces cannot defend the government.

Set against these vitally important failures are almost ludicrously trivial or meaningless successes. For instance, "the rights of minority political parties are being defended" but these groups have no political influence. The alliance of Shia religious and Kurdish nationalist parties that make up the government is not keen to share power with anybody. This is scarcely surprising since they triumphantly won the election in 2005.

There have been some real improvements over the past six months. Sectarian killings in Iraq have declined to 650 in June compared with 2,100 in January. So-called "high-profile" bombings, including suicide bomb attacks on Shia markets, fell to 90 in June compared with 180 in March. But it is doubtful if these are entirely or even mainly due to the US surge.

The fall in sectarian killings, mostly of Sunni by Shia, may be largely the result of the Mehdi Army militia of Muqtada al-Sadr being told by their leader to curb their murder campaign. It is also true that last year, after the attack on the Shia shrine in Samarra on 22 February 2006, there was a battle for Baghdad which the Shia won and the Sunni lost.

Baghdad is more and more Shia-dominated and the Sunni are pinned into the south-west of the city and a few other enclaves. As Sunni and Shia are killed or driven out of mixed areas, there are less of them to kill. Some 4.2 million people in Iraq are now refugees, of whom about half have fled the country.

The real and appalling situation on the ground in Iraq has been all too evident this week. Thirty bodies, the harvest of the death squads, were found in the streets of Baghdad on Wednesday. The figure for Tuesday was 26 and, in addition, 20 rockets and mortar bombs were fired into the Green Zone killing three people. This was significant because they were fired by the Mehdi Army, who had been upset by criticism made on them by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki. By way of gentle reproof they shelled his offices in the Green Zone.

US and British claims of success in Iraq over the past four years have a grim record of being entirely sculpted to political needs at home. British ministers trumpeted the success of Operation Sinbad in Basra last year and early this one saying it would put the worst of the militia out of business. This year Basra is wholly ruled by these very same militias.

Overall the "surge" has already failed. It was never necessary to wait for yesterday’s report or a further assessment in September. The reason for the failure is the same as that for American failures since 2003. They have very few allies in Iraq outside Kurdistan. The occupation is unpopular and always has been.

Economic and social conditions are becoming more and more desperate. There is in theory 5.6 hours of electricity in Baghdad every 24 hours but many districts get none at all. It is baking hot in the Mesopotamian plain, where temperatures even at night are above 40C. People used to sleep on the roof but this has become dangerous because of mortar bombardments.

Oil pipelines are sabotaged by insurgents and punctured by thieves. "In just one stretch of pipeline between Baghdad and Baiji, we found 1,488 holes," the Oil Minister, Hussein Shahristani, told the Iraqi parliament, speaking of a importantpipe that brings oil product to the capital from Baiji refinery. He added: "It doesn’t function as a pipeline… it’s more like a sieve."

Gasoline is brought to Baghdad by truck but these are not allowed on bridges because they might be packed with explosives. In a further sign of how life is lived in Baghdad, clerics have issued a fatwa against eating river fish–previously a favourite food–because the fish gorge on dead bodies floating in the Tigris river.

Astonishingly, the report suggests that one of the successes in Iraq has been the spending of $10bn "for reconstruction projects, including delivery of essential services, on an equitable basis".

The danger of the false optimism in the report is that it prevents other policies being devised. In January, President Bush decided to in effect ignore the most important recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report, which were to talk to Iran and Syria and to disengage US troops. Instead Mr Bush sent reinforcements to Iraq, denounced Iran and Syria and added to the number of his enemies by threatening to clamp down on the Shia militias.

But talking to Iran has always been essential to any solution in Iraq.

"The Iranians can afford to compromise in Iraq but they cannot afford to lose," said one Iraqi observer. The more threatened they feel by the US over nuclear power or the possibility of air attack, the greater incentive they have to ensure that the US does not succeed in gaining control of Iraq. For most of the past four years they have not had to do much because the US has helpfully ensured its own failure by pursuing disastrous policies.

Paradoxically, Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab states, actually supports the Iraqi government in Baghdad. It is run largely by their Shia co-religionists and political leaderswho were supported by Iran for years against Saddam Hussein. The problem here is that Washington has never been willing to accept that the great campaign it launched to overthrow Saddam Hussein has increased Iranian influence and put Shia clergy in black turbans in power in Baghdad as they have long held power in Tehran.

The "benchmarks" in President Bush’s report are trivial and prove nothing. They appear to be an attempt to pretend that the war is still winnable in Iraq up to the Presidential election in the US next year.

These vain hopes of victory rule out compromises that the US still might make and are a pretence which many Americans and Iraqis will die unnecessarily trying to sustain.

Benchmarks for progress

Unsatisfactory

* De-Baathification

* Equitable distribution of oil among Sunnis, Shias, Kurds and other Iraqis

* Providing Iraqi commanders with full authority

* Even-handed law enforcement

* Number of Iraqiunits capable of operating independently

* Ensuring that political authorities do not make false accusations against the Security Forces

Unsatisfactory, but some progress

* Reducing sectarian violence and eliminating militia control of local security

* Independent High Electoral Commission, provincial councils, and a date for provincial elections

Satisfactory

* Constitutional Review

* Legislation on semi-autonomous regions

* Political, media and economic committees to support Baghdad Security Plan

* ThreeIraqi brigades to support Baghdad plan

* Ensuring the security plan will not provide a haven for outlaws

* Joint security stations across Baghdad

* Minority parties’ rights in the legislature

* Allocating and spending $10bn for reconstruction

Too early to assess

* Enacting and implementing amnesty

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.