Iraq: Violence is Down –
but not Because of America's 'Surge'
If fewer US troops and Iraqis are being killed, it is only because the Shia
community and Iran now dominate
By Patrick Cockburn
14/09/08 "The Independent"
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. General 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
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". The Republican contenders have made these 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 beforehand. Another barometer of the true state of security in Iraq
is the inability 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 windows," said Hussein al-Dujaili. "I
went outside the house and saw two dead bodies at the gate which had been
thrown there by the explosion. Some people were in panic and others were
Playing down such killings, the Iraqi government and the US
have launched a largely successful propaganda campaign to convince the world
that "things are better" in Iraq
and that 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 roads every morning, the victims of Sunni-Shia sectarian slaughter. The
main reason this ended was that the battle for Baghdad
in 2006-07 was won by the Shia, who now control three-quarters of the capital.
These demographic changes appear permanent; 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, the
government was trumpeting its success only a few months ago. It said it had
succeeded in driving al-Qa'ida from the city, while the US
said the number of attacks had fallen from 130 a week to 30 a week in July. But
today they are back up to between 60 and 70 a week. 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, largely
American, media. The war in Iraq
has now been going on for five years, longer than the First World War, and the
world is bored with it. US television networks maintain expensive bureaux in Baghdad,
but little of what they produce gets on the air. When it does, viewers turn
off. US newspaper bureaux are being cut in size. The result of all this is that
the American voter hears less of violence in Iraq
and can 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 that 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 US
army as by the Shia government and the Shia militias.
Sunni insurgent leaders who were nationalists or Baathists realised that they
had too many enemies. Not only was al-Qa'ida 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 General Petraeus,
the government is so determined not to give the 99,000 al-Sahwa members
significant jobs in the security forces when it takes control of – and
supposedly begins to pay – these Sunni militiamen from 1 October. The Shia
government may be prepared to accommodate the Sunni, but not at the cost of
diluting Shia dominance.
If McCain wins the presidential election in November, 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 recognises America's
political defeat in Iraq.
Whatever the reason for President George Bush's decision 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 the country; yet that is exactly
what has happened.
The surge only achieved the degree of success it did because Iran,
which played a central role in getting Nouri al-Maliki appointed Prime Minister
in 2006, decided to back his government fully. It negotiated a ceasefire
between the Iraqi government and the powerful movement of Muqtada al-Sadr in Basra,
persuading the cleric to call his militiamen off the streets there, in March
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 dependant on Iranian actions.
General 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 he
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 said 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 McCain supposes the US
has won a military victory, and as president acts as if this were true, then he
is laying the groundwork for a new war.