By PATRICK COCKBURN
“A mortar round exploded on the roof of my next-door neighbour’s house, frightening my whole family,” said Marwan, a friend in Baghdad. “We worry about staying alive, not about the outcome of elections in the US or whether Saddam Hussein lives or dies.”
Iraqis see that, realistically, the options available to the US are limited because it is so firmly stuck in a morass. It is not just that Donald Rumsfeld did not succeed in fulfilling his early boasts about defeating the insurgents.
The more astute and carefully thought-out strategy of the outgoing US envoy in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, has also failed. He has tried for over a year to conciliate the five million Sunni Arabs whose uprising defeated US ambitions and led to this week’s defeat of the Republicans at the polls. He brought Sunni politicians into government, started talks with rebels and tried to reverse de-Baathification.
It did not work and attacks on US troops have risen. Islamists and nationalists are not likely to compromise with US occupiers. At the same time, the Shia majority has become more alienated from the US. Only Kurds support occupation wholeheartedly.
Another reason, one that goes to the root of the US quandary, underlies why Washington has shifted to the Sunni. America did not overthrow Saddam in 1991 because it did not want his regime to be succeeded by Shia parties sympathetic to Iran.
But, 15 years later, this is the dire situation facing the US. As a result, American policy is, in practice, to have an Iraqi government strong towards the insurgents but weak in all other respects.
Just before the midterms, the US Army was gearing up to confront the Mehdi Army of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The siege of Sadr City, home to 2.5 million Shias in Baghdad, was abandoned on the insistence of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But some Iraqi politicians believe that, with the vote out of the way, the US will be eager for a fight.
A likely change in US policy over the next two years is to be more conciliatory towards Iran and Syria. At the start of the war President Bush said more or less openly that, after regime change in Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus would get the same treatment. They had every incentive to make sure that the US would fail in Iraq. But it has never been clear how much the Iranian and Syrian governments did aid the guerrillas. Given Washington’s ability to shoot itself in both feet, Iraq’s neighbors may not have had to do much so far. But they, along with Turkey, could do things in future as US power in Iraq wanes.
Mr Bush will continue to decide US policy in Iraq and this will limit the amount of change Iraqis are going to see. The administration spent three years digging itself into a deep hole–and may spend the same amount of time digging itself out.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq’, published by Verso.