"While the enemy is still dangerous and more work remains, the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago. When we met last year, many said that containing the violence was impossible. A year later, high profile terrorist attacks are down, civilian deaths are down, sectarian killings are down… When we met last year, al-Qaida had sanctuaries in many areas of Iraq, and their leaders had just offered American forces safe passage out of the country. Today, it is al-Qaida that is searching for safe passage."
This was President George Bush’s presentation of the war in Iraq in his final State of the Union address to Congress on 28 January. It is tempting to dismiss his conclusions: a recent study confirmed that between 11 September 2001 and the beginning of the war in 2003, Bush and six close collaborators lied on 935 occasions about Iraq‘s threat to the US (1). But this time his claims, taken up by the media and even by some Democrats, seem to have basis in fact.
According to a US report, the number of Iraqi civilians who died violently fell from a high of 3,000 during November 2006 to 700 during December 2007. Deaths among coalition troops, an average of 100 a month at the end of 2006, peaked at 130 in May 2007 before falling to 20 by the end of the year. Serious attacks (booby-trapped vehicles, suicide bombings) fell from 130 in June 2007 to 40 in December. Those killed in sectarian violence (mostly between Sunni and Shia) fell from 2,200 in December 2006 to about 200 in November 2007. These improvements prompted the US administration to announce a phased withdrawal of 5,000 troops a month: this process has begun. US forces are expected to fall from a peak of 170,000 to 130,000 by this summer (2).
At the end of 2006 the US position in Iraq was seriously compromised and the Democrat victory in the congressional elections in November reflected strong public support for a rapid withdrawal. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG), led by former secretary of state James Baker and the former chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Lee Hamilton, fiercely criticised government policy and proposed the phased withdrawal of US forces, direct talks with Syria and Iran, and an attempt to address the Palestinian issue.
But Bush preferred to go with a report, "Choosing Victory: a Plan for Success in Iraq", produced by the rightwing American Enterprise Institute. Its authors, the influential neo-conservative historian Frederick Kagan and retired general Jack Keane, recommended sending more troops and concentrating them around Baghdad to re-establish order.
The right decision?
So was this, as Bush claimed in his State of the Union address, the right decision? The arrival of 30,000 troops led to an undeniable improvement in security in the capital. Walls between Sunni and Shia areas eased sectarian tensions, and the proliferation of control points (there are now 100,000 concrete blocks scattered on roads in and around Baghdad) reduced attacks. But although France won the battle for Algiers in 1957 by mobilising its forces, it lost the war.
Two other factors helped reduce violence in Iraq. The first was the unilateral ceasefire announced by Moqtada al-Sadr last August (3). The Mahdi Army is Iraq‘s most powerful militia and represents the poorest Shia. It is nationalistic, distrustful of Iranian leaders and hostile to the occupation. Although the ceasefire was recently extended for a further six months, the irreconcilable goals of al-Sadr and the US make it unstable.
The second, even more significant, factor in the decline of violence was an improvement in relations with the Sunni community, particularly during the spring of 2007. As well as buying tribal loyalty, the US recruited more than 60,000 former resistance fighters into a new force, Sahwa (awakening) (4).
Motives for joining vary. The most important is the rejection of al-Qaida’s extremism, its determination to impose a hardline Islamic state and its global ambitions. The tactical alliance with the US also reflects the desire to find a counterweight to the "Shia peril". And money is a major incentive for tribal leaders. As the journalist Patrick Cockburn noted, the results of the turnabout are plain: "The city of Fallujah, many of its buildings still in ruins since the US Marines stormed it in November 2004, is peaceful compared with six months ago. Al-Qaida fighters, who once dominated it, have either gone or are keeping a low profile" (5).
But the new alliance is fragile. Sahwa members remain deeply hostile to US goals and to the long-term presence of its troops. And their resentment of the Shia-dominated central government has been demonstrated by the increasing number of confrontations in Baghdad and other Sunni areas with the mainly Shia Iraqi police and army (6).
No central authority exists, able to take advantage of the US successes. The pact between the US and the Sunni militias has aggravated the fragmentation of power. In many areas, including the capital, religious cleansing has contributed, along with the weakening of al-Qaida, the rallying of Sunni armed groups and the separation of different areas by walls, to a reduction in sectarian violence. But this separation has not brought greater regional or local stability.
More losers than winners
None of the three major communities, Shia, Sunni or Kurdish, are homogeneous wholes. Kurdistan maintains its autonomy, but there is a deep split between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both of which are challenged by rising Islamist Kurdish groups. In the south of Iraq, there is fierce rivalry between the Mahdi Army and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. At local level militias maintain a semblance of order at the expense of the population. The central government has seen its authority reduced to the green zone in Baghdad, a huge fortress protected by US Marines.
In an attempt to reintegrate the Sunni, the US has leaned on the government and since the beginning of 2008 the Iraqi parliament has passed three laws. The first concerned de-Ba’athification (imposed by Bush’s special envoy Paul Bremer immediately after the invasion in 2003, and which the US now regards as counterproductive). The second introduced a partial amnesty for tens of thousands of (mostly Sunni) prisoners. The third set out local government powers following elections next October, a process that could allow the Sunni (who boycotted the elections of January 2005) a greater role in mixed areas.
But the intense rivalry between political factions and the weakness of the rule of law will make implementation difficult. The Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi refused to sign the de-Ba’athification bill since, despite its proclaimed objectives, it permitted the exclusion of even more former Ba’ath members from power.
Whoever’s winning in Iraq, it’s not the Iraqis. The human cost of the war is incalculable, and it is significant that although we have exact figures for US casualties (3,967 dead up to 20 February 2008), no serious attempt has been made to count the number of Iraqis killed. We are reduced to estimates that agree only on the huge size of the catastrophe.
The British company Opinion Research Business interviewed 2,414 Iraqi adults, 20% of whom had experienced at least one death in their immediate family. Its report concluded that between 19 March 2003 and the summer of 2007 the war was directly or indirectly responsible for a million deaths. In October 2007 the medical journal The Lancet published a study by Johns Hopkins University, which put the death toll at 650,000. On 9 January 2008 the World Health Organisation concluded that 151,000 Iraqis died violently between the beginning of the war and June 2006.
Everyday life has also suffered. Oil production remains below pre-war levels, there are daily electricity cuts, 70% have no direct access to drinking water, hospitals lack equipment and many doctors have emigrated. There are almost four million refugees and displaced persons, the greatest regional disaster since the Afghan war of the 1980s.
The pressure lessens
So, does anybody care? As Michael Massing reported in The New York Review of Books, the US press group McClatchy set up an office in Baghdad and started a blog, Inside Iraq, dedicated to the lives of the ordinary Iraqis in whom the US press has no real interest (7). As troop casualties have fallen, US media coverage of the war has diminished, reinforcing the idea that the war is being won; if it’s not on television, it can’t be happening.
Leila Fadel, McClatchy’s bureau chief in Baghdad, said: "Americans believe their soldiers are working for the greater good. The Iraqis don’t see that. They see people who are here for their own self-interest – who drive the wrong way on roads, who stop traffic whenever they want to, who they have to be careful not to get too close to so that they won’t be shot." A contributor to Inside Iraq described how US soldiers beat a schoolboy who threw a stone at them. Why had he thrown it? "These are foreign soldiers," he said. "This is an occupation." Fadel says it is a common feeling among Iraqis: "Everybody I speak to thinks this. They don’t have power in their own country."
The late Jean-François Revel, of the French right, was outraged that the Iraqis did not turn out to greet their liberators with flowers. A few months after the invasion he wrote: "As in all Arab countries, the Iraqis demonstrate a generalised xenophobia, directed against all westerners… We are dealing with people who are incapable of governing themselves but who won’t let anyone else do it" (8).
US leaders were unable to understand the reaction of Iraqis: their rejection, despite their hatred of Saddam Hussein, of colonialism, rooted in a painful history and the memory of the long British occupation. The White House didn’t listen to Iraqis in 2003. Is it ready to listen now? Recent successes, however limited, have reduced domestic pressure on the Bush administration to withdraw troops, and have mollified international hostility. But this respite has not persuaded the outgoing president to change strategy; quite the contrary.
The UN mandate, finally granted to coalition (9) forces in 2004, a year after the invasion, expires next December. The White House does not seek to renew it, preferring to replace it with a bilateral agreement (negotiations with the Iraqi government are expected to end before the summer). There is confusion about the nature of this agreement and the Senate has insisted on its right to ratify it; but the administration claims that since it does not explicitly cover US participation in the defence of Iraq or the construction of permanent bases, such ratification is unnecessary.
When Bush signed the defence budget, a record $515bn for the fiscal year 2008, he added a clarification indicating that he would not be bound by the bill’s prohibition against spending money on permanent military bases in Iraq (10). And since the Iraqi parliament is resisting effective privatisation of the oil industry, the US is putting pressure on the government in Baghdad to ignore opposition from MPs and press ahead without a vote (11), although the nationalisation of the Iraq Petroleum Company in 1972 was, and remains, an enormous source of pride to Iraqis, whatever their ethnic or religious loyalty.
Bush’s main success will be to have transformed the domestic debate. What looked in 2006 like an unavoidable fiasco has been transformed, in the eyes of some, into victory. Bush hopes to force his successor down the same cul-de-sac. But the success of Barack Obama, who supports withdrawal from Iraq, shows that, even on the domestic stage, Bush’s success is not guaranteed. ________________________________________________________
(1) Charles Lewis and Mark Reading-Smith, "False Pretense", The Centre for Public Integrity, http://www.publicintegrity.org/WarCard/. See also Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan", Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, September 2006.
(2) Anthony H Cordesman, "The Evolving Security Situation in Iraq", Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, 21 January 2008. The figures for Iraqi civilian deaths are controversial.
(3) See "Iraq’s Civil War, the Sadrists and the Surge", Middle East Report 72, International Crisis Group, Brussels, 7 February 2008; http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/ind…
(4) The US called the organisation Concerned Local Citizens but recently changed its name to Sons of Iraq.
(5) Patrick Cockburn, "Return to Fallujah", Counterpunch, 28 January 2008; http://www.counterpunch.org/patrick…
(6) See "Awakenings Agonistes", Abu Aardvark, a blog by Mark Lynch, http://abuaardvark.typepad.com/abua…
(7) "As Iraqis see it", The New York Review of Books, 17 January 2008.
(8) Le Figaro, Paris, 8 September 2003.
(9) The number of troops provided by US allies has fallen from almost 50,000 in 2003 to 10,000 now.
(10) See Ray McGovern, "The Iniquities and Inequalities of War", Counterpunch, 1 February 2008; http://www.counterpunch.org/mcgover…
(11) Roula Khalaf and Dino Mahtan, "Iraq pushes ahead with oil plans", Financial Times, London, 5 February 2008.
Translated by Donald Hounam