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It will be a long war. The rumble of artillery broken by the clatter of helicopters passing overhead resounded across Baghdad late last week as US forces fought insurgents in the sprawling district of Dohra. Twenty five miles south of the capital five a bomb killed five American soldiers and a furtehr three are missing.
The three-month-old US plan to regain control of Baghdad is slow to show results despite the arrival of four more US brigades. Security in the heart of the city may be a little better but the US and the Iraqi government are nowhere near dealing a knockout blow to the Sunn insurgency or the Shia militias.
The Sunni guerrillas are trying to isolate Baghdad from the rest of the country as truck bombs exploded on three important bridges killing 26 people. A sedan blew up in a queue of cars on the old Diyala bridge just south of Baghdad collapsing a span and two minutes later a large fuel truck exploded on a newer bridge over the same river. North of Baghdad at Taji, long a centre for insurgents, a third vehicle bomb damaged and made impassable a bridge linking Baghdad with northern Iraq.
As the fierce fighting continued in Iraq far to the south in the Gulf Vice President Dick Cheney was bidding defiance to Iran as he stood in the vast hangar of the US aircraft carrier John C Stennis in the Gulf. “With two carrier strike groups in the Gulf we’re sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike,” he told the assembled sailors. “We’ll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region.”
The US administration is not backing away from its confrontation with Iran despite being nudged by the Iraqi government towards talks. Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, says that whether the Americans and the Iranians like it or not they are both players in Iraq. In an interview in Baghdad he laughed as he pointed that Iran and the US both genuinely support the present Iraqi government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Iranian stance contrasts with Arab states such as Saudi Arabia where the King refuses to meet Mr Maliki. “Ironically,” says Mr Zebari, “the Iranian statement on majority rule in Iraq [at the conference on Iraq at Sharm el-Sheikh ten days ago] agrees entirely with what we and the Americans say.”
The US may be more interested in cultivating Syria than Iran but it is Syria that has the greater desire to see the Maliki government overthrown. When it comes to Syria ?we are assuming goodwill but we are not so dumb that we do not know what is going on,? says Mr Zebari.
The Iranians may be a little confused by the mixed messages of belligerence and conciliation coming from different parts of the Washington. It is probably Mr Cheney’s message, delivered in front of five F-18 Super Hornet aircraft, that will make the most impression. “I want you to know that the American people will not support a policy of defeat. We want to complete the mission, we want to get it done right, and then we want to return home with honour.”
His words are a recipe for a long conflict. As soon as the US and Britain overthrew Saddam Hussein, the detested enemy of Iran, in 2003 Iranian influence in Iraq and power in the Gulf increased. When the Shia religious parties, sympathetic to the clerical regime in Tehran, won the parliamentary elections in Iraq in 2005 Iranian influence grew again. It has proved impossible for the US to reverse this trend which is of its own making.
Iran has long links with the Shia parties in Iraq , the powerful Shia religious hierarchy and the Kurdish leaders whom it supported during their wars with Saddam Hussein. These connections are not likely to be severed. Tehran also has more covert links to the Sunni insurgents. “The Iranians are supporting anybody who is against the Americans,” says veteran Kurdish politician and member of parliament Dr Mahmoud Othman.
In Iraq today nobody, even supposed allies, trusts each other very far. Dr Othman, speaking before a truck bomb killed 16 people when it blew up outside the Interior Ministry in the Kurdish capital Arbil last week, said that Kurdish security had discovered an Ansar al-Sunna cell in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, dedicated to planting bombs, whose members admitted to being trained in Iran.
The Americans also wonder how far their Kurdish and Shia allies have side deals with Iran. Dr Othman suspects that the failed US helicopter rail to capture senior Iranian security officers, Mohammed Jafari, the deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and Minjahar Frouzanda, the intelligence chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard during their official visit to Kurdistan on 11 January was motivated by suspicions of the Kurdish leaders.
“The attack showed the dissatisfaction of the Americans with [Iraqi President Jalal] Talabani and [Kurdish President Massoud] Barzani,” said Dr Othman. “The Americans think that Talabani and Barzani are hiding things from them. It was a message to both leaders.”
The present political and military position in Iraq is one of stalemate. The 28,000 US reinforcements, most of which have already arrived, are having an impact in Baghdad, but nowhere near enough for “the surge” to be regarded as a success. A sign of this is that the two million Iraqis who fled the country are not coming home. Baghdad is still divided into Shia and Sunni bastions.
Viewed from the comparative safety of the Green Zone (though this is now being regularly mortared) the achievements of the “surge” may seem greater. Some Iraqi officials and Western officials buoy themselves up with hopes that the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr are divided and the Sunni tribes in Anbar province are turning against al Qaida in Iraq.
But it was noticeable in February that when al-Sadr told his Mehdi Army militia to hold back from attacking the Americans and stockpile their arms he was obeyed. Underestimating the Sadrist movement has been a repeated American and British mistake in Iraq since 2003. Another frequent error has been to believe that the Shia alliance, so powerful because the Shia are 60 per cent of the population, is always on the verge of collapse. Even the Sunni opposition to al Qaida may lead the insurgents to concentrate on shooting Americans rather than blowing up Shia street traders.
Peace, when it finally comes to Iraq, will inevitably be the result of a package deal of which a timetable for a US withdrawal is likely to be a central part. Despite Mr Cheney’s claim that the US still seeks victory in Iraq-American failure–going by its original high ambitions–has long been inevitable. Iran and Syria are important players in Iraq that cannot be ignored. The popularly elected Shia-Kurdish government cannot be remade at Americans and British request because it does not go along with their wishes.
The Sunni insurgency is not going out of business or even showing signs of being seriously weakened. The economy is in ruins. President Bush’s strategy, announced in January, of confronting Iran and seeking to pacify Baghdad by sending US troop reinforcements is not working.
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.