Who’s Actually Winning in Iraq?

The American occupation of Iraq follows the same course as that of British  rule after the First World War. At first there was imperial over-confidence  following military victory and a conviction that what Iraqis did was of no  importance. Then there was the shock and surprise of an Iraqi rebellion  against the British in 1920 and the Americans after 2003. In both cases  the occupiers responded by establishing an Iraqi national government but  with limited powers. In 1930 under the Anglo-Iraqi treaty Iraq achieved  nominal independence and joined the League of Nations but Britain  retained two large bases and remained the predominant power in 1raq.  Iraqi governments were tainted and lacked legitimacy because of Iraqis’  perception that their rulers were foreign pawns until the overthrow of the  monarchy in 1958.

America is now behaving in much the same way. It is negotiating a  security agreement to replace the present UN mandate. It is to all intents  and purposes a treaty that will determine future relations between Iraq  and the US. It is not being called a treaty only because President Bush  does not want to submit it to Senate approval. But in effect it continues  the occupation under another name. The US will keep possession of over  50 bases though there will be a few Iraqi soldiers manning an outer  perimeter so the US can say they will be in Iraqi hands. American soldiers  and contractors will have legal immunity. The US will be free to carry out  operations against ‘terrorists’ without informing the Iraqi government so it  can arrest Iraqis or carry out military campaigns as and when it feels like it.  Some of the Iraqi negotiators have been horrified by the extent of the  American demands which would mean long term American control. But the  Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, whatever his private misgivings,  believes that at the end of the day he relies on American backing. His  coalition of Shia religious parties, Sunni representatives and the Kurds feel  the same way.

The Iraqi-American security agreement, which Bush wants signed by  July 31, is a better barometer of where real power lies in Iraq than military  developments on the ground. It comes just as the Iraqi government is trying  to regain control of the largest cities in the country. It has launched three  military offensives since the end of March against Shia militias and Sunni  insurgents, sending its army into Basra, Sadr City in Baghdad and Mosul.  Thousands of Iraqi soldiers have moved into Shia districts once dominated  by the Mehdi Army which follows the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.  In  the Sunni Arab city of Mosul the government claims it is crushing the last  remnant of al-Qa’ida in Iraq and has arrested over 1,000 suspects. The  aim of the prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is to show that the Iraqi state,  feeble and dependant on the US since the fall of Saddam Hussein, is back  in business. The operations in Basra and Mosul have bombastic names – ‘Charge of the Knights’ and ‘Roar of the Lion’ – in a bid to underline  Maliki’s intention to show that the Iraqi army is the strongest non- American military power in Iraq.

At first sight the government seems to be succeeding after initial  failures. The attack on the Mehdi Army in Basra on  March 25 at first made  no headway and Iraqi soldiers even ran out of food after a couple of days  fighting. They had to be heavily reinforced by American advisers calling in  US air strikes and British artillery fire. But, after a few weeks, government  soldiers were taking over in districts long held by the Mehdi Army. In Sadr  City—with a population of two million it is less of a district of  Baghdad  than a twin city—the Americans again bore the brunt of the fighting. Some  1,000 Iraqis, 60 per cent women and children according to the UN, were  killed in seven weeks. In both Basra and Sadr City the clashes ended  because Muqtada al-Sadr called his men off the streets under ceasefires  brokered by the Iranians. The Iraqi army moved in though without the  Americans. Maliki may not have won the decisive military victory he  claimed, but his government looked stronger at the end of the fighting  than at the beginning.

The crucial political and military question in Iraq is whether the Iraqi  government’s success will be long lasting or temporary. Will it lose control  once again if al-Sadr orders his militiamen back into the streets? Are al- Qa’ida and other Sunni insurgents simply lying low and waiting for  American troops to leave?  Again and again in the last five years, the US  and its Iraqi allies have genuinely believed that they were winning on the  ground only to see their supposed successes evaporate when their  opponents launched a counter-attack. But for the moment at least Maliki’s  grip on central government is stronger than ever. A year ago the  Americans and the Kurds wanted him replaced, as did the Islamic Supreme  Council of Iraq (ISCI), the biggest Shia party in his governing coalition. But  Washington soon began to stress privately that it wanted Iraq to appear  as politically stable as possible during an election year in the US, while the  Kurds and ISCI came to believe that they could get most of what they  wanted with Maliki in power. For the first time since the fall of Saddam  Hussein, many Iraqis think the present government might last.

This may be misleading. The government’s position looks stronger than  it is because its opponents are waiting for the Americans to leave or draw  down their forces. Al-Sadr does not want to fight now because he sensibly  wishes to avoid a direct military confrontation with the US army, which his  lightly armed militiamen are bound to lose. This has been his strategy ever  since his militiamen fought ferocious battles with the US Marines in Najaf in  2004. The Iranians are playing a more and more overt role in Iraq this year  and do not want to see an intra-Shia civil war between ISCI and the  Sadrists. The Iraqi Minister of Defense says that the Iraqi army will not be  strong enough to stand on its own against insurgents until 2012. A further  weakness of the government is that it faces crucial provincial elections in  October which its constituent parties may well lose. One US military  intelligence estimate is that in a fair poll the Sadrists would win 60 per  cent of the vote in overwhelmingly Shia southern Iraq. The surprise  government offensive at the end of March may have been launched in  order to make sure that the vote can be fixed in favor of the government  parties.  A more Machiavellian explanation is that ISCI expected the Iraqi  army to fail and wanted to lure the American army into a military  confrontation with the Sadrists.

The government parties supporting Maliki now make up what some  Iraqis called ‘the Council of Five’. There are the two Kurdish parties—the  Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdkistan—the  Dawa party to which Maliki himself belongs, ISCI and the Islamic Party of  the Sunni. Their aim seems to be to be eliminate their domestic Iraqi  opponents while they still have the backing of American firepower. It is a  brutal plan but it might come off. Maliki could become the Iraqi version of  Vladimir Putin in Russia. Like Putin, Maliki controls the state machine, a  large if unreliable army and benefits from the high price of oil so he has  control of over $40 billion in unspent reserves. Iraqis do not trust their  own government but, like Russians when Putin first came to power in  1999, they are desperately war weary. Many people will support anybody  who provides peace and security. But the analogy should not be carried  too far. Putin’s enemies were fictional or in distant Chechnya, while Maliki’s  opponents are real, dangerous and close by.

I was in Mosul, a city of 1.4 million people on the Tigris river in northern  Iraq, on the day the government forces started their ‘Roar of the Lion’  offensive at 4 am on May 10. As had happened in Basra and Sadr City a  few weeks earlier there were thousands of government troops and police  guarding every street and alleyway. The entire civilian population had  disappeared indoors or had fled the city. The operation, supposedly aimed  at depriving al Qa’ida of its last bastion in Iraq, had been promised by  Maliki some months earlier after a previous chief of police of Mosul was  assassinated by a suicide bomber with explosives hidden under his police  uniform. But its actual timing had caught people in Mosul by surprise so  they had no time to stock up on food. Nobody was venturing onto the  streets because of a curfew. In the first hours of the operation US troops  shot dead men, a woman and a child in a car which failed to stop at a  checkpoint on the outskirts of Mosul because, according to a US military  statement, the two men were armed and one man inside the car  made ‘threatening movements.’

I have been visiting Mosul ever since the Kurds and Americans captured  it in 2003. Each time I go there the Kurdish authorities, who effectively run  the city, allocate more armed guards to protect what ever official I am  travelling with. We began the journey from Arbil in a convoy of white pick  up trucks, each with a heavy machine gun in the back manned by alert- looking soldiers, some with black face masks, escorting Khasro Goran, the  deputy governor of Mosul, to his office in the old Baathist headquarters on  the left bank of the Tigris. The official border between Kurdistan and  Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, is the Zaab river, very low  this year because of poor rainfall. But the real frontier is further down the  road at a small village called Ghazik after which the road becomes  increasingly dangerous. At a bridge near Ghazik police were stopping  trucks and cars whose drivers had not heard of the curfew declared late  the previous day. A few miles further on in a Chaldean Christian village  called Bartilla we turned into a fort and exchanged our pick-ups for more  heavily armoured vehicles with small windows like spy holes with thick  bullet proof glass.

People in Nineveh province were taking the curfew very seriously. There  are kilns processing gypsum along the road through the plain east of of  Mosul city but none of them was working. Even the dreary tea houses  serving food to truck drivers were closed. The Kurdish minority in east  Mosul city live close to a small hill on top of which there is the mosque of  Nebi Yunis, where the Prophet Jonah is supposedly buried. Usually the  Kurdish districts of the city are filled with street traders but during the  present operation the metal grill of every shop was down. The operation  was being carried out by 15,000 troops, the three brigades of the 2nd and  3rd divisions that are normally stationed in Mosul and an extra brigade  from Baghdad. I could see the black vehicles of Interior Ministry special  commandos with a yellow tiger’s head insignia on their doors. American  drones and helicopters passed over head but I did not see any American  troops patrolling the city. There was the occasional burst of machine  gunfire in the distance but no street fighting.

On the face of it the government had control of Mosul. This was not  difficult to do because, unlike Baghdad and Basra, insurgents had never  taken over entire districts. But everything in Nineveh province is a little  different from what it looks. “The province is more like Lebanon,” said  Saadi Pire, the former leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the  city, “than anywhere else in Iraq.” It is divided between the Sunni Arabs,  the Kurds and Christians, but many of the Kurds belong to the Yazidi sect  which believes in a mixture of Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity. Their chief divinity is the peacock angel who rules the cosmos with six other  angels. Last year a Yazidi girl who converted to orthodox Islam to marry  her boyfriend was beaten to death by her relatives and in revenge Muslim  Kurds dragged 23 Yazidi workers off a bus near Mosul and shot them  dead. The government in Baghdad might claim that it was pursuing al  Qa’ida in Mosul, but real power struggles in northern Iraq revolve around  sectarian and ethnic differences. The Sunni majority in Mosul certainly see  the ‘Roar of the Lion’ operation as being directed against them. Any al- Qa’ida in Mosul had long left the city for the country or had temporarily  moved across the nearby Syrian border. Everybody I spoke to in Mosul  expected they would be back.

In Baghdad there is also a sense that we are seeing a lull rather than  end to violence. Places I used to know well still get destroyed. I used to  eat in a restaurant in the al-Mansur district of west Baghdad called the  Samad. It opened soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein, served good food  and somehow survived the next five years of violence. But at 5pm on 8  May some policemen parked their vehicle outside the restaurant and went  inside to eat. A few minutes later a large car bomb parked beside the  police car blew up and destroyed the Samad, killing seven people and  wounding a further 19. The explosion caused a massive traffic jam.  Ambulances and the fire brigade could not get through and the building  beside the Samad caught fire and burned to the ground. Though the Iraqi  government is claiming that al Qa’ida has been driven from Baghdad and  Anbar province to the east, this is not really true. In January I went to see  Colonel Ismail Zubaie, the police chief of Fallujah, who was a former  insurgent fighting al-Qa’ida who had cut his brother’s throat. He seemed  to be in full control of Fallujah. But in May fighters from al Qa’ida confronted  Colonel Ismail’s uncle, who was a teacher, and shot him dead. The next  day they sent a suicide bomber to blow up the tent where his relatives  were receiving mourners. The operation, clearly an elaborate attempt to  kill Colonel Ismail, shows that al Qa’ida remains well organized and with  agents everywhere in the Sunni community.

The Americans lost only 21 soldiers killed in Iraq in May which are the  lowest monthly casualties since February 2004. But these do not mean  that the chief Republican contender senator John McCain is correct in  believing that with enough resolution the American army is on the road to  victory.  Paradoxically, the Americans are now benefiting from their failure  to turn Iraq into a virtual American colony in 2003-4. Iran and Syria no  longer fear, as they once did, that as soon as the US had gained complete  control of Iraq it would try to overthrow their governments. There may be  those in the White House who still privately dream of doing just that, but  Iraq’s neighbors no longer feel they must destabilize Iraq in order to  avert the American threat to themselves. American casualties are also  down because the Sunni Arab and the Shia Arab communities in Iraq are  not only divided but fighting low level civil wars. Part of the old anti- American Sunni resistance has turned on al Qa’ida and allied itself to the  Americans. The Sunni were driven out of most of Baghdad by the Shia  militias in the sectarian civil war of 2006-7 and are increasingly  marginalized. Among the Shia, once known for their impressive unity after  the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, internecine battles between the Shia  parties in government and the Sadrists have become bloodier and more  frequent.

The main supporters of Nouri al-Maliki’s government are the US and  Iran. This has never been admitted by Washington but from the Iranian  point of view the present Shia-Kurdish government in Baghdad is as good  as it is going to get. It does not want to overthrow Maliki, but it does want  to reduce American influence on him. The fighting in Basra and Sadr City  between the Mehdi Army and the Iraqi government backed by the  American army between March and April was in each case brought to an  end by Iranian mediation. This has become very public. To arrange the  ceasefires in Basra and Baghdad President Jalal Talabani twice went to  see Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds brigade of the Iranian  Revolutionary Guard on the Iraq-Iran border, though President Bush has  denounced the Quds brigade as terrorists orchestrating attacks on US  forces in Iraq.  Iranian influence in Iraq is stronger than ever and the  Iranians are increasingly willing to flaunt it. When the Iranian president  Mahmoud Ahmedinejad visited Baghdad this years his visit was announced  in advance and he drove through the city by car. When President George  W Bush comes to Baghdad it is a kept a secret until the last moment, he  moves only by helicopter and he has never ventured outside the Green  Zone.

Suppose Barack Obama wins the US presidential election America could  withdraw its forces from Iraq over the next eighteen months without  provoking an explosion of violence but only if it first had an agreement  with Iran and Syria. An increase in Iranian influence in Iraq has been  inevitable since 2003. Once the US had decided to overthrow Saddam  Hussein the beneficiaries were always going to be the Shia religious  parties, because they represented the majority of Iraqis, and they would  be supported by Iran. Many of America’s problems in Iraq over the last five  years have happened because Washington believed it could prevent or  dilute the triumph of Iran and the Shia in Iraq.

Iranian strategy in Iraq is to keep the pot boiling but not over-boiling.  They do not want the present government displaced.  “The Iranians are  very good at creating crises in Iraq and then solving them,” one Kurdish  leader told me. Iran wants a weak Iraq, incapable of posing a threat to  Tehran, and allied to itself. It wants a Shia government in power in  Baghdad and the Americans out. “The three great powers of the Gulf  historically are Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia,” the same Kurdish leader told  me. “If Iran and Iraq act together then they will dominate the Gulf.”  It may not be as easy as that. The Iraqis like the Iranians no more than  they do the Americans. Muqtada al-Sadr, who is calling for an American  withdrawal, has always been an Iraqi nationalist as suspicious of Iran as  of the US. Paradoxically, the Shia governing parties in Baghdad, ISCI and  Dawa, have traditionally had closer links with Iran than the Sadrists. ISCI  was founded by the Iranians in Tehran in 1982 to be their puppet if they  succeeded in defeating Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. It is still  heavily influenced by them, but at the end of the day neither ISCI nor the  Sadrists want the Americans nor the Iranians to treat Iraq as a client  state.

Probably the most astute politician in Iraq is Muqtada al-Sadr, who has  chosen not to tell his militiamen to fight for the enclaves they controlled in  Basra and Baghdad. Instead in the last days of May he called tens of  thousands of his followers into the streets to protest against the a new  bilateral pact between the US and Iraq that is being secretly negotiated  and would govern the future political, military and economic relationship  between Washington and Baghdad. “Why do they want to break the  backbone of Iraq?” asked Sheikh Mohammed al-Gharrawi addressing  crowds in Sadr City. “The agreement wants to put an American in each  house. This agreement is poison mixed in poison, not poison in honey  because there is no honey at all.”

This opposition to the occupation can  only grow if Senator McCain wins the US presidential election and tries to  win an outright military victory in Iraq. The US can only stay in Iraq so long  as it is allied to a large part of the Sunni or Shia communities. The  occupation has always depended on ‘divide and rule’. If the US is ever  faced with a united opposition by both Shia and Sunni in Iraq then it will  have to leave.       Everybody in Iraq overplays their hand at one time or other. The US  position in Iraq has slightly improved over the last year but the  improvement is limited. But by trying to impose a security pact on Iraq that  would turn Iraq into a client state the Washington is fueling a fresh  insurgency. It is discrediting the Iraqi government and the ruling parties  who will be seen as foreign pawns. If McCain wins the presidential election  and tries to put the security agreement into operation then neither the  occupation nor the resistance to it will end.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.”







Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).