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As he leaves Iraq this week the outgoing US commander General David Petraeus is sounding far less optimistic than the Republican presidential candidate John McCain about the American situation in Iraq. Gen Petraeus says that it remains “fragile”, recent security gains are “not irreversible” and “this is not the sort of struggle where you take a hill, plant the flag and go home to a victory parade…it’s not a war with a simple slogan.”
Compare this with Sarah Palin’s belief that “victory in Iraq is wholly in sight” and her criticism of Barack Obama for not using the word ‘victory.’ (though Obama did inexplicably concede in an interview with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly) that “the surge has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.” The Republican contenders have made their claims of success for the surge — the American reinforcements sent last year — although they are demonstrably contradicted by the fact that the US has to keep more troops, some 138,000, in Iraq today than before the surge. Another barometer of the true state of security in Iraq is the failure of the 4.7 million refugees, one in six of the population, who fled for their lives inside and outside Iraq, to return to their homes.
Ongoing violence is down but Iraq is still the most dangerous country in the world. On Friday a car bomb exploded in the Shia market town of Dujail north of Baghdad killing 32 people and wounding 43 others. “The smoke filled my house and the shrapnel broke some of the house’s windows,” said Hussein al-Dujaili. “I went outside the house and saw two dead bodies at the gate after they had been thrown there by the explosion. Some people were in panic and others were crying.”
Playing down such killings, the Iraqi government and the US have launched a largely successful propaganda campaign to convince the rest of the world that “things are better” in Iraq and life is returning to normal. One Iraqi journalist recorded his fury at watching newspapers around the world pick up a story that the world’s largest Ferris wheel was to be built in Baghdad, a city where there is usually only two hours of electricity a day.
Life in Baghdad certainly is better than it was 18 months ago when some 60 to 100 bodies were being found beside the road every morning, the victims of Sunni-Shia sectarian slaughter. The main reason this ended was that the battle for Baghdad in 2006-7 was won by the Shia who now control three quarters of the capital. These demographic changes appear permanent and Sunni who try to get their houses back face assassination.
In Mosul, Iraq’s northern capital and third largest city with a population of 1.8 million people, the government was trumpeting its success only a few months ago. It said it had succeeded in driving al-Qa’ida from the city and killing those that remained. The US said the number of attacks had fallen from 130 to 30 a week in July. But today they are back up to 60-70 a week and two weeks ago insurgents came close to killing Major-General Riyadh Jalal Tawfiq in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, with a roadside bomb.
The perception in the US that the tide has turned in Iraq is in part because of a change in the attitude of the foreign and largely American media. The war in Iraq has now been going on for five years, longer than the First World War. The world is bored with it. US network television maintains expensive bureaus in Baghdad but little of what they produce gets on the air. When it does viewers turn off. US newspaper bureaus are being cut in size. The result of all this is that the American voter hears less of violence in Iraq and might suppose that America’s military adventure there is finally coming good.
An important reason for this optimism is the fall in the number of American soldiers killed. The 30,000 US soldiers wounded in Iraq are seldom mentioned. This has happened because the war which was being waged against the American occupation by the Sunni community, the 20 per cent of Iraqis who were in control under Saddam Hussein, has largely ended. It did so because the Sunni were being defeated not so much by the American army as by the Shia government and the Shia militias.
Shia insurgent leaders who were nationalists or Baathists realised that they had too many enemies. Al Qa’ida was trying to take over from traditional tribal leaders. It was also killing Sunni who took minor jobs with the government. The Awakening or al-Sahwa movement of Sunni fighters was first formed in Anbar province at the end of 2006. But it was allied to the US not the Iraqi government. This is why, despite pressure from Gen Petraeus, the government is so determined not to give the 99,000 al-Sahwa members significant jobs in the police or security forces when it takes control of – and supposedly begins to pay — these Sunni militiamen from October 1. The Shia government may be prepared to accommodate the Sunni but not to dilute the Shia dominance in the post-Saddam Iraqi state.
If John McCain wins the presidential election in November then his lack of understanding of what is happening in Iraq could ignite a fresh conflict. In so far as the surge has achieved military success it is because it implicitly recognizes America’s political defeat in Iraq. Whatever the reason that President Bush decided to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003 it was not to place the Shia Islamic parties in power and increase the influence of Iran in Iraq. Yet that is exactly what has happened.
The surge only achieved the degree of success it did because Iran decided to back fully the government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. It had played a central role in getting him appointed in 2006. It negotiated a ceasefire between the Iraqi government and the powerful movement of Muqtada al-Sadr in Basra at the end of March. It got him to call his militiamen off the streets there and again two months later in the Sadrist stronghold of Sadr City. It is very noticeable that in recent weeks the US has largely ceased its criticism of Iran. This is partly because of American preoccupation with Russia since the fighting began in Georgia in August. But it is also an implicit recognition that US security in Iraq is highly dependent on Iranian actions.
Gen Petraeus has had a measure of success in Iraq less because of his military skills than because he was one of the few American leaders to have some understanding of Iraqi politics. In January 2004 when Gen Petraeus was commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul I asked him what was the most important piece of advice he could give to his successor. He replied that it was ‘not to align too closely with one ethnic group, political party, tribe, religious group or social element.’ But today the US has no alternative but to support Mr Maliki and his Shia government and to wink at the role of Iran in Iraq. If Senator McCain supposes the US has won a military victory, and as president acts as if this was true, then he is laying the groundwork for a new war.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the Ihe author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.