The war in Iraq passed a significant but little remarked anniversary this summer. The conflict that President Bush announced was effectively over on May 1, 2003 has now gone on longer than the First World War. Like that great conflict almost a century ago the Iraqi war has been marked by repeated claims that progress is being made and a final breakthrough is in the offing.
In 1917 the French commander General Robert Nivelle proudly announced “we have the formula for victory” before launching the French armies on a catastrophic offensive in which they were massacred. Units ordered to the front brayed like donkeys to show they saw themselves as being like animals led to the slaughter. Soon the soldiers broke into open mutiny.
On January 10 this year President Bush announced that he too now believed he had the formula for victory. In an address to the American nation he announced a new strategy for Iraq that became known as “the surge”. He said he was sending a further 20,000 US troops to Iraq.
With the same misguided enthusiasm as Gen Nivelle once expressed in his plan President Bush explained why “our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed” and why the new American formula would succeed: In the past US and Iraqi troops had cleared areas but when they moved on guerrillas returned. He said that in future American and allied troops would stay put.
As if the US was not facing enough enemies in Iraq Mr Bush pointed to Iran and Syria as the hidden hand sustaining the insurgency. “These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq,” he said. “Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops.” He added in his State of the Union address on January 23 that Shia extremists are “just as hostile to America [as al Qaida], and are also determined to dominate the Middle East.” The implication was that US troops were going to move into areas like Sadr city, home to two million Shia Iraqis, in pursuit of the powerful Shia militia, the Mehdi Army of the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Six months after the surge was launched on 14 February it has failed as dismally as so many First World War offensives. The US Defense Department says that this June the average number of attacks on US and Iraqi forces, civilian forces and infrastructure peaked at 177.8 per day, higher than in any month since the end of May 2003. The US has failed to gain control of Baghdad. The harvest of bodies picked up every morning first fell and then rose again. This may be because the Mehdi Army militia, who provided most of the Shia death squads, was stood down by Sadr.
Nobody in Baghdad has much doubt that they could be back in business any time they want. Whatever Mr Bush might say the US military commanders in Iraq clearly did not want to take on the Mehdi Army and the Shia community when they were barely holding their own against the Sunni.
The surge is now joining a host of discredited formulae for success and fake turning points that the US has promoted in Iraq over the last 52 months. In December 2003 there was the capture of Saddam Hussein. Six months later in June 2004 there was the return of Iraqi sovereignty to Iraq. “Let freedom reign,” said Mr Bush in a highly-publicised response though the present Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki claims he cannot move a company of soldiers without American permission.
In 2005 there were two elections that were both won handsomely by Shia and Kurdish parties. “Despite endess threats from the killers in Their midst,” exulted Mr Bush, “nearly 12 million Iraqi citizens came out to Vote in a show of hope and solidarity that we should never forget.” In fact he himself forgot this almost immediately. A year later the US forced out the first democratically elected Shia prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari with the US ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, saying Mr Bush “doesn’t want, doesn’t support, and doesn’t accept that Jaafari should form the next government.”
Fresh US initiatives in Iraq seemed to succeed each other about every six months. Just as it was becoming evident in the US that the surge was not going anywhere very fast there came good news from Anbar province in west Iraq. The Sunni tribes were rising against al Qaida in Iraq which had overplayed its hand by setting up an umbrella organisation for insurgents called the Islamic State of Iraq.
In Sunni areas it was killing garbage collectors on the grounds they worked for the government, shooting women in the face because they were not wearing a veil and trying to draft one young man from each family into its forces. Sunni tribal militiamen backed by the US fought al Qaida in insurgent strongholds like Ramadi and attacks on US troops there fell away dramatically.
The US administration could portray this as a fresh turning point. It Had always pretended that the insurrection in Iraq was conducted largely by al Qaida. In reality, Anthony H. Cordesman, an Iraqi specialist at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, points out that al Qaida’s attacks make up only 15 per cent of the total in Iraq though they launch 80-90 per cent of the suicide bombings.
As with many a development in Iraq portrayed as a sign of progress by the White House, the recruitment of Sunni tribal militias by the US is not quite what it seems. In practice it is a tactic fraught with dangers. In areas where they operate police are finding more and more bodies according to the Interior Ministry. Victims often appear to have been killed solely because they were Shia. The gunmen from the tribes are under American command and this weakens the authority of the the Iraqi government, army and police, institutions that the US is supposedly seeking to foster.
A grim scene showing Sunni tribal militiamen in action was recorded on a cell phone and later appeared on Iraqi web sites. It shows a small man in a brown robe being bundled out of a vehicle by a group of angry men with sub-machine guns who cuff and slap him as he cowers beneath their blows, trying to shield his face with his hands. One of his captors, who seems to be in command, asks him fiercely if he has killed somebody called ‘Khalid’. After a few moments he is dragged off by two gunmen to a patch of waste ground 30 yards away and is executed with a burst of machine gunfire to the chest.
It is a measure of the desperation of the White House to show that the surge is having some success that it is now looking for succor to these Sunni fighters. Often they are former members of anti-American resistance groups such as the 1920 Revolution Brigade and the Army of Islam whom Mr Bush has spent four years denouncing as murderous enemies of the Iraqi people.
To many Iraqi Shia and Kurds, 80 per cent of Iraqis, the US appears to be building up its own Sunni militia. So far from preventing civil war, a main justification for continued occupation, it is arming sectarian killers engaged in a sectarian murder campaign that is tearing Iraq apart.
The White House says it is too early to know if the surge is succeeding and it will wait for a security report due in September from Gen David Petraeus, the top US military commander in Iraq, and the US ambassador Ryan Crocker.
But the new strategy was never going to turn the tide in Iraq. Its main advantage for Mr Bush is that it puts off the moment when failure has to be admitted, a potentially disastrous confession for Republicans standing for election next year. If an American withdrawal can be postponed until after the poll then the neo-cons can blame the Democrats for a stab in the back, pulling out the troops at the very moment when victory was almost in their grasp.
I was in Baghdad in January when Mr Bush made his State of the Union speech outlining his plans for the surge. Iraqis were pessimistic from the beginning about its chances of success. A friend called Ismail gloomily remarked: “An extra 16,000 [sic] US troops are not going to be enough.” A Sunni, he had recently fled his house in the west of the capital because he was frightened of being arrested and tortured by the paramilitary police commandos whom he, like most Sunni, regarded as uniformed Shia death squads.
Baghdad was paralysed by fear.Drivers were terrified of being stopped at impromptu checkpoints where they might be dragged out of their car and killed for belonging to the wrong religion. Conversation was dominated by accounts of hare-breath escapes. Most people had at least one fake ID card so they could claim, depending on circumstance, to be either Sunni or Shia. This might not be enough. Some Shia checkpoints had a list of theological questions drawn up by a religious scholar which they would use to interrogate people whom they suspected of lying about being Shia.
It was extraordinary how little control the US forces and the Iraqi Army exercised over the very centre of the capital. There was black smoke rising from Haifa Street, a two mile long Sunni corridor just north of the Green Zone, which US forces had repeatedly invaded but failed to secure. A helicopter belonging to the security company Blackwater was shot down or crash-landed in the al-Fadhil district in the centre of Baghdad and the survivors were executed by insurgents before US forces could get to them. Sectarian warfare between Shia and Sunni began in August 2003 when al Qaida suicide bombers started targeting Shia civilians. It escalated over the next two years, but it was the bomb that destroyed the Shia shrine at Samarra on February 22, 2006 that unleashed a Shia pogrom in Baghdad in which 1,300 Sunni were killed in a few days. A struggle for the capital was waged between the two sects for the rest of the year and by January 2007 the Shia had largely won it. My surviving Sunni friends were terrified that the Mehdi Army, often used as a catch all phrase to describe Shia militiamen of all descriptions, would launch a final ‘battle of Baghdad’ towipe out the remaining Sunni enclaves.
A weakness of the US position in Iraq is that it has always exaggerated its own strength and underestimated that of its opponents. Outside Kurdistan it has no dependable allies. Among Iraqi Arabs, both Shia and Sunni, the occupation is unpopular. A US military study recently examined the weapons used by guerrillas to kill American soldiers. It reached the unsettling conclusion that the most effective were high quality American weapons supplied to the Iraqi army by the US which were then passed on or sold to the insurgents.
US commanders are often cheery believers in their own propaganda even as the ground is giving way beneath their feet. In Baquba, a provincial capital north-east of Baghdad, US and Iraqi army commanders praised their own achievements at a press conference held over a video link. Chiding media critics for their pessimism the generals claimed: “The situation in Baquba is reassuring and is under control but there are some rumors circulated by bad people.” Within hours Sunni insurgents, possibly irked by these self-congratulatory words, stormed Baquba, kidnapped the mayor and blew up his office.
The surge got underway in February and from the beginning Iraqi sceptics seemed to be in the right. Its most positive impact was that Muqtada al-Sadr decided not to risk an all out military confrontation between his Mehdi Army and the US army. He sent many of his senior lieutenants out of Baghdad, stood down his men and disappeared either to Iran, as the US claimed, or the holy cities of Kufa and Najaf, according to his followers.
The Sunni bore the brunt of the surge in Baghdad. Districts like al- Adhamiyah in east Baghdad were sealed off. But this probably achieved less than was intended because Adhamiyah is a commercial district in which half the people who work there live elsewhere. Joint security stations were set up in every neighborhood manned by US and Iraqi forces but these posts seem ineffectual and tie down many troops.
There was intense pressure on the US military and civilian leadership in Baghdad to show that the surge was visibly succeeding. US embassy staff complained that when pro-war Republican Senator John McCain came to Baghdad and ludicrously claimed that security was fast improving they were forced to doff their helmets and body armor when standing with him lest the protective equipment might be interpreted as a mute contradiction of the Senator’s assertions.
When Vice President Dick Cheney visited the Green Zone the sirens giving early warning of incoming rockets or mortar rounds were deliberately kept silent during an attack to prevent them booming out of every television screen in America.
By the end of May I found it a little easier to drive through Central Baghdad. But the danger was still extreme. I sat in the back of the car with my jacket hanging on a hook just inside the window so it was difficult for other drivers to see me. Our car was pulled over by an army checkpoint. A soldier leaned in the window and asked who I was. We were lucky. He looked a little surprised when told I was a foreign journalist and said softly: “Keep well hidden.”
Back in my hotel I phoned an Iraqi friend in the Green Zone who was close to the government. “Be very careful,” he warned sharply. “Be very careful and above all do not trust the army and police.” There was an example of what he meant a few days later when a convoy of 19 vehicles carrying 40 uniformed policemen arrived in the forecourt of the Finance Ministry. They entered the building and calmly abducted five British Security men who have not been seen since. The kidnappers may be linked to a specialized unit of the Mehdi Army.
The surge has changed very little in Baghdad. It was always a cvollection of tactics rather than a strategy. All the main players – Sunni insurgents, Shia militiamen, Iraqi government, Kurds, Iran and Syria – are still in game.
One real bench-mark of progress or lack of it is the number of Iraqis who have fled for their lives and this figure is still going up. Over one million Iraqis have become Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) since the Samarra bombing according to the Red Crescent. A further 2.2 million people have fled the country. This exodus is bigger than anything ever seen in the Middle East, exceeding in size even the flight or expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. A true sign of progress in Iraq will be when the number of refugees, inside and outside the country, starts to go down. The surge was never going to bring Iraq nearer to peace. It always made sense in terms of American but not Iraqi politics. It has become a cliche for US politicians to say there is a Washington clock and a Baghdad clock and they do not operate at the same speed. This has the patronising implication that Iraqis are slothful in moving to fix problems within their country while the Americans are all get-up-and-go. But the reality is that it is not the clocks but the agendas that are different. The Americans and the Iraqis want contrary things.
The US dilemma in Iraq goes back to the Gulf War. It wanted to be rid of Saddam Hussein in 1991 but not at the price of the Shia replacing him, something they were bound to do in fair elections because they are 60 per cent of the population. Worse, the Shia coming to power would have close relations with Iran, America’s arch-enemy in the Middle East. This was the main reason why the US did not press on to Baghdad after defeating Saddam Hussein’s armies in Kuwait in 1991. It then allowed him to savagely crush the Shia and Kurdish rebellions that briefly captured 14 out of 18 Iraqi provinces.
Ever since 2003 the US has wrestled with this same problem. Unwittingly the most conservative of American administrations had committed a revolutionary act in the Middle East by overthrowing the minority Sunni Baathist regime. The Bush family has always been close to the Saudi monarchy but George W Bush dismantled a cornerstone of the Sunni Arab security order. This is why the US and Britain opted for a thorough going occupation of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. They put off elections as long as they could. When elections were held in 2005 and voters overwhelmingly chose a Shia-Kurdish government Washington tried to keep it under tight control.
“The US and Britain have a policy of trying to fill the vacuum left by the Baath disappearing but it is unsuccessful,” says Ahmed Chalabi, out of office but still one of the most astute political minds in Iraq. “Now the Americans and British want to disengage but if they do so the worst fears of their Arab allies will come to pass: Shia control and strong Iranian influence in Iraq.”
The hidden history of the last four years is that the US wants to defeat the Sunni insurgents but does not want the Shia-Kurdish government to win a total victory. It props up the Iraqi state with one hand and keeps it weak with the other. The Iraqi intelligence service is not funded through the Iraqi budget but by the CIA.
Iraqi independence is far more circumscribed than the outside world realizes. The US is trying to limit the extent of the Shia-Kurdish victory, but by preventing a clear winner emerging in the struggle for Iraq Washington is ensuring that this vicious war goes on with no end in sight.
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.