The much-vaunted handover, when it came, was a secret hole-in-the-corner affair. There were no celebrations as the US proconsul Paul Bremer signed over technical authority to his green zone government of Iraqi quislings two days early to beat the expected resistance onslaught. And, humiliatingly, there could be no triumphal Bush or Blair visit, though the pair were only a plane hop away in neighbouring Turkey. Even a Karl Rove or Alastair Campbell would have struggled to convince most Iraqis that the appointment of a patsy administration, headed by a man who spent years in the pay of the British and US intelligence services, amounted to a genuine transfer of power from the occupying powers.
Before leaving the wreckage of his imperial mission, Bremer had issued a string of edicts to tie the hands of Iraqi governments for years to come, including legal immunity for foreign soldiers and contractors. Perhaps the 2% of Iraqis who, according to the Bush administration’s own polling, regard the US and Britain as liberators, are impressed. For most of the rest, a handover to a government protected by 140,000 US troops with a good deal less functional independence than the state of Alabama is a transparent sham.
You wouldn’t know that, though, from much of this week’s British and American media coverage. The post-Hutton BBC bent over backwards to give credence to the handover. “The Americans are no longer in power,” one world service announcer declared, while the cowed Today programme insisted that Iraq was now “in charge of its own destiny”. Such happy days are unfortunately still some way off.
The new ruler of Iraq is in real life the incoming US ambassador, John Negroponte, who oversaw the US contra terror campaign against Nicaragua in the 1980s and will now exercise ultimate power from his 3,000-strong fortified embassy inside Saddam Hussein’s former palace compounds. In all meaningful senses, the occupation will continue. The solemn pledges by Bush and Blair that they would withdraw their troops if asked to by a government of their own placemen are risible. US special forces are all that stand between the prime minister Iyad Allawi and assassination as a collaborator. A request to the US to withdraw would be a suicide note for the entire puppet administration.
Yesterday saw another handover that never was, when Saddam Hussein was transferred to Iraqi jurisdiction – while remaining in US custody. No doubt the occupation forces and their Iraqi frontmen hope that a show trial of the former dictator will provide a theatrical distraction for Iraqis from the misery around them. By recalling the crimes of the Saddam regime, perhaps they imagine they can retrieve some retrospective justification for last year’s unprovoked invasion. It is surely too late for that. In the wake of the revelations of the torture and abuse of prisoners by US and British soldiers, the last vestiges of moral authority have been stripped from the occupying forces, while domestic support for a war built on fabrication and deception is at an all-time low.
Faced with the record of over 1,200 civilians killed in Iraq in the last three months, more than 1,000 Iraqi policemen in the past year and nearly 1,000 occupying troops over the same period, Colin Powell pleaded last week that the US had “underestimated” the scale of the insurgency. The Bush solution is to put a new face on the occupation, while maintaining a strategic grip on the country from more than a dozen bases – hence the handover to a puppet administration, brought forward by a year by the intensity of the armed resistance. The idea is Iraqisation: get someone else to do the dirty work and the dying while Americans pull the strings. It has long been the way of imperial powers and was Britain’s approach when it last ruled Iraq in the 1920s. Allawi and his fellow ministers are ready to play their part, threatening to impose martial law and behead those who fight them. But whether it will be any more successful than, say, Vietnamisation in the 1970s seems unlikely.
What is not in doubt is that the resistance has decisively changed the balance of power in Iraq and beyond. The anti-occupation guerrillas are routinely damned as terrorists, Ba’athist remnants, Islamist fanatics or mindless insurgents without a political programme. In a recantation of his support for the war this week, the liberal writer Michael Ignatieff called them “hateful”. But it has become ever clearer that they are in fact a classic resistance movement with widespread support waging an increasingly successful guerrilla war against the occupying armies. Their tactics are overwhelmingly in line with those of resistance campaigns throughout modern history, targeting both the occupiers themselves and the local police and military working for them. Where that has not been the case – for example, in atrocities against civilians, such as the Karbala bombing in March – the attacks have been associated with the al-Qaida-linked group around the Jordanian Zarqawi, whose real role is the subject of much speculation among Iraqis.
The popularity of the mainstream resistance can be gauged by recent polling on the Shia rebel leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who was said to have minimal support before his Mahdi army took up arms in April and now has the backing of 67% of Iraqis. In the past year, the Iraqi resistance has succeeded in preventing the imposition of a Pax Americana on Iraq and forced the occupation troops out of Falluja, Najaf and other Iraqi cities. By tying down the most powerful military force in the world, it has revealed the limits of American power and drastically reduced the threat of a US invasion of another state. The resistance war can of course be cruel, but the innocent deaths it has been responsible for pale next to the toll inflicted by the occupiers. Its political strength lies precisely in the fact that it has no programme except the expulsion of the occupying forces. Jack Straw said this week that the resistance was “opposed to a free Iraq” – but its campaign is in fact Iraq’s real war of liberation.
That campaign is still a long way, however, from forcing the US and its allies to abandon their strategic commitment to control Iraq, close their bases and withdraw. The foreign secretary went on to compare the presence of foreign forces in Iraq with those still in Germany 60 years after the defeat of Hitler – which gives some indication of the Anglo-American perspective. Polls show most Iraqis want foreign troops out and would support parties calling for withdrawal in the elections planned for January. That perhaps explains why, even though parties can be banned from standing, Allawi this week suggested they might have to be postponed. The choice now in Iraq for the occupying states is whether to move quickly towards a negotiated withdrawal and free elections – or be drawn ever deeper into a bloody pacification war against the majority of the Iraqi people.