The cautious words of the Baker-Hamilton report stand in sharp contrast to the savagery and terror that dominate everyday life in Baghdad. Many of the terrible disasters it fears may occur in future are in fact already happening. It states that there is a risk of “a slide towards chaos”, but with almost 4,000 Iraqis being killed every month, the chaos is already here.
“Ethnic cleansing could escalate,” the report warns but, in reality, it does not have to for Iraq to fragment into three hostile homelands for Sunni, Shia and Kurds. Baghdad and central Iraq has already broken up into heavily armed and hostile Sunni and Shia townships.
Some 170 individuals spoke to the Iraqi Study Group, including Tony Blair, President George Bush, Iraqi leaders and numerous ambassadors and senior officials. But the conclusions of the report at times give the alarming impression that Republicans and Democrats on the panel never really understood Iraqi politics.
The report says: “The United States should work closely with Iraq’s leaders to support the achievement of specific objectives – or milestones – on national reconciliation, security and governance.” The problem here is that Iraq has already fallen apart as a political entity. Supposedly national institutions such as the police, army and government ministries have been divided up between Shia, Sunni and Kurds.
These three communities are not going to come together again and can only be reconciled by specific agreements defining each other’s power.
Iraq remains so divided that any supposed progress towards national security will remain an illusion. The US and Britain are training and equipping the army and police. But the real problem for the Iraqi security forces is that its units will not act against their own communities.
The report looks towards Iraqi control of its army by next April, control of the provinces by September and Iraqi security self-reliance by next December. That sounds reasonable but does not answer the question of which Iraqis will be in control.
The report says it is doubtful “whether they will carry out missions on behalf of national goals instead of a sectarian agenda”. That sounds innocent but gently torpedoes Tony Blair’s oft-repeated mantra that the US and British mission is to build up the Iraqi security forces.
Myths systematically promulgated by US civil and military spokesmen at a thousand press briefings in Baghdad and Washington are quietly dumped by Mr Baker and his group. Again and again, the spokesmen emphasized the role of foreign fighters in the war in Iraq but the report cites US military officials as saying that al-Qa’ida in Iraq is responsible for only a small portion of the violence. It says there are only 1,300 foreign fighters in the country. It notes that the Mehdi Army of the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr numbers at least 60,000 men.
There is a further blind spot in the report. The US is in part responsible for the weakness of the Iraqi government. It never wanted an Iraqi administration dominated by the Shia parties with possible sympathies with the regime in Tehran. Such an outcome was a political nightmare for Washington. The US helped create a political system in which each community can paralyse united action. It has also tried to split the Shia alliance which won the most votes in the two elections in 2005.
In terms of domestic Iraqi politics, the most positive aspect of the report is that it exposes the hollowness of claims by the White House and Downing Street that victory in Iraq is still feasible and it is all a matter of staying the course.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of The Occupation (Verso).