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General David Petraeus, whose 15 months in command of US troops in Iraq has seen a dramatic fall in violence in the country, stepped aside yesterday to be replaced by General Ray Odierno, previously his second in command.
General Petraeus was notably modest about his achievement at a leaving ceremony at Camp Victory, saying that, when he took command in February 2007, he had described the situation as “hard but not hopeless” while now it was “hard but hopeful.” General Odierno said, “we must realize that these gains are fragile and reversible, and our work here is far from done.”
General Petraeus now takes over the US Central Command where he will be in overall command of US forces in the Middle East as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
During the period in which General Petraeus was in command in Iraq, the Sunni Arab insurgency, responsible for inflicting losses of 4,150 dead and 30,000 wounded on the US army, largely ended its uprising against the US occupation.
General Petraeus is being credited in the US for transforming the war through the ‘surge’, the reinforcement of the US army with 30,000 extra troops who pursued a more aggressive policy against insurgents. The civil war between Shia and Sunni which wracked Baghdad and central Iraq in 2005-7 is no longer leading to mass slaughter.
The extra five combat brigades sent to Iraq for the ‘surge’ have now been withdrawn, but it is a measure of the limits of American military success that only another 8,000 US soldiers will be withdrawn from Iraq by the time President Bush ends his presidency next February. This will leave 138,000 US troops in Iraq, which is a higher figure than the number in Iraq before the surge.
The US embassy in Baghdad and the Iraqi government are eager to present a picture of Iraq as a country returning to normal life. But the supply of electricity in many parts of the capital is only two hours a day. The 4.7 million Iraqis, one in six of the population, who fled their homes to take refuge elsewhere in Iraq or in Syria and Jordan, are not going back. Iraq remains an extraordinary dangerous country. On Monday a woman suicide bomber blew herself up at a coming home party for an Iraqi police sergeant named Adnan Shukri al Timimi in a town called Balad Ruz in Diyala province north east of Baghdad, killing 22 people and wounding 33. Al Qa’ida was almost certainly responsible for the attack, showing that even if they are a diminished force, they can still strike in most of central Iraq.
As American commander in Iraq General Petraeus’ main asset was his astute sense of Iraqi politics rather than any new military strategy. As commander of the 101st Airborne Division based in Mosul in northern Iraq in 2003-4 he was able for a time to prevent the rebellion against the US occupation developing by making sure that Sunni officers did not become victims of de-Baathification. His success did not long survive his departure but he was far more sensitive to what Iraqis were thinking than other American commanders.
Above all General Petraeus was very lucky in the moment that he took command. By the beginning of 2007 the civil war between Sunni and Shia was already beginning to wind down because it had been won by the Shia who controlled three quarters of Baghdad. Al Qa’ida in Iraq had overplayed its hand in the Sunni community in late 2006 by establishing the Islamic State of Iraq and had tried to take total control.
The Sunni tribes and the nationalist and Baathist insurgents were being squeezed between the Shia militias, al-Qa’ida and the Americans. It was they who were responsible for most American losses while Al Qa’ida had given priority to waging sectarian war against the Shia. There was an implosion of the insurgency which General Petraeus was able to take advantage of.
The undeclared political strategy behind the surge was more effective than any new military tactics. This was to co-opt the Sunni insurgents and take advantage of the fact that Iran is the foreign power most influential in Iraq after the US. The Iranians do not like the US presence in Iraq but they do support the Iraqi government which is dominated by their Shia co-religionists. “The present Iraqi government is about as good as it is going to get for the Iranians,” said a senior Iraqi Minister. It was the Iranians, and not the US army, who persuaded Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shia cleric, to withdraw his militiamen from the streets earlier this year.
General Petraeus’s oft declared uncertainty about the future stability of Iraq is genuine. It is the Iraqi Shia and their Iranian backers, not the Americans, who are the true victors in the Iraqi war.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the Ihe author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.