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    Middle East
     Jun 2, 2006
Iraq: Alas in wonderland
By Ashraf Fahim

There is a hallucinatory, Alice in Wonderland quality to recent suggestions that the formation of an elected Iraqi government will allow US and British troops to withdraw from Iraq in large numbers.

No sooner did Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki say that Iraqi troops would take over most of Iraq from the departing "coalition" by year's end, confirming the whisperings of British and US officials, than the United States announced that 3,500 reserves were headed in the other direction, from their bases in Kuwait to Ramadi.

All that is missing from this picture is White House Press Secretary Tony Snow dressed up as the March Hare explaining to

the press corps why adding troops is the same as withdrawing them.

Only a few days earlier, US President George W Bush had spoken with preternatural confidence of Iraq's latest "turning point" during a press conference held jointly with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. To anyone who owns a television, on which Iraq is nightly a vision of the Inferno in living color, such optimism would seem misplaced.

"With emergence of this government, something fundamental changed in Iraq last weekend," said Bush. "When you attack an Iraqi now, you're - you know, you're at war with an Iraqi government that's constitutionally elected. And that's a different attitude from the way it's been in the past."

True, Bush was careful not to endorse Maliki's timeline - "as the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down", he enjoys saying - but he did seem to scent an end to Iraq's dark night in the May breeze.

With hindsight, previous "turning points" have proved to be anything but. A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) took a critical look: "The December 15, 2005, election did no more to stabilize the situation and limit the insurgency than the transfer of power from the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] to the Iraqi interim government in June 2004, or any of the other elections that followed."

Through all these milestones, the carnage goes on - from the dark work of death squads and internecine slaughter that has spiraled out of control since the February bombing of the Samarra mosque (sacred to Shi'ites), to the fury of insurgent attacks, to rampant crime and kidnappings, to ever-present US military strikes.

War in Iraq is a juggernaut, impervious to the political dictates emanating from the air-conditioned tranquillity of the Green Zone. Since Maliki named his cabinet, nothing has changed - 54 were killed in violence on Tuesday, an unremarkable toll.

And yet rumors of a drawdown abound. Pentagon officials regularly brief the press that a third of US forces could leave by the end of June. A senior US military official said Najaf and Karbala would be relinquished during the summer and Baghdad by New Year's. And British officials have told the media that British troops would start by ceding the southern city of Muthanna in July, cut the entire presence in half by year's end, and depart by 2010.

Maliki has brimmed with confidence at the prospects of an Iraqi takeover. "Our forces will be able to take over the security file in all Iraqi provinces in a year and a half," he said after meeting with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Sensing something fishy, Blair corrected him last Friday: "When ... Prime Minister Maliki talked about an objective timetable, what he meant was a timetable governed by conditions on the ground."

All spin and no stability
Blair, Bush and Maliki surely have good reason for the creative ambiguity they are engaging in. The US is gearing up for a congressional election in which Iraq is the Republicans' albatross, and a phantom withdrawal is better than none at all. Meanwhile, Blair's sunken fortunes within the Labour Party are not helped by the Iraq horror show, and he must spin furiously to keep afloat.

And Maliki's bravado is essential to burnishing the nationalist credentials on which his government's survival depends.

But spin does not change the reality that the "coalition" is stuck with a relentless war and a divisive political process. The predominantly Sunni insurgency rages unabated, Iraq's armed forces remain recast sectarian militias, and the still-dominant Shi'ite parties that Bush and Blair are banking on to bring stability are tied to the Shi'ite militias whose death squads run rampant.

Reining in the militias is the key to stability. Even US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has claimed that "more Iraqis are dying from militia violence than from the terrorists". But Maliki will have great difficulty enforcing the constitutional ban on militias, even if he wants to.

Even if the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution for Iraq's (SCIRI's) Badr Organization laid down its arms, for instance, the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr (who is somewhat independent of the political process) might not follow suit. In addition, the Kurdish peshmerga, ever fearful of the central government, is unlikely to disarm. And if one militia refuses, all will likely refuse. Were the militias to be integrated into the armed forces, it would likely further the justifiable suspicions of the Sunni Arabs that the armed forces are manned by those loyal to sect rather than to nation.

By most accounts the Iraqi armed forces are in any event incapable of ruling Iraq independently. Though their numbers are increasing, according to the Pentagon, many are still dependent on the US for logistics, transport and communications support.

For all the talk of national unity, Iraq's permanent government remains dominated by the Shi'ite parties that won the elections based on their denominational identity. The marginalized Sunnis are better represented now, but the ethnic harmony that briefly erupted is fast wilting.

Prominent Sunni politician Salih al-Mutlaq's party, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, recently walked out of a parliamentary session intended to approve the cabinet. Even the Shi'ite al-Fadilah Party, active in increasingly unstable Basra, withdrew from negotiations over cabinet posts, saying sectarianism was trumping merit.

Bush has nevertheless sensed the winds of change. He brags that Iraq's new Sunni parliamentary Speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a onetime opponent of the US occupation, now takes his calls. "He wouldn't have taken my phone call a year ago," Bush said. "He's now taken it twice."

Yet according to one report, the Kurdish and Shi'ite blocs recently met in closed session to curtail Mashhadani's powers. An expert on Iraq, Juan Cole, wrote: "The Sunni Arabs only have a vice president, a vice premier, four cabinet seats, and the Speaker of the House among high government posts. They are outraged that one of the few nodes of power they have left should now be removed." The Speaker may not be taking Bush's calls for long.

The new government will most likely continue to be perceived in Iraq as a collection of sectarian fiefdoms masquerading as ministries. With reconstruction having ground to a halt and basic services a disaster - oil and electricity production are below prewar levels - the government's crisis of legitimacy and the concomitant disorder will go on.

Men with guns
The vacuum left by chaos and political polarization is filled by the men with guns, be they Interior Ministry commandos kidnapping, torturing and executing Sunnis, Sunni insurgents blowing up innumerable Shi'ites, or US troops killing without prejudice.

The raw statistics on the violence say it all. According to Baghdad's morgue director, death squads linked to militias have killed 7,000 Iraqis. In the meantime, the insurgency is as effective as ever. The Brookings Institution puts car bombings constant at about 70 in May. According to iCasualties.org, 76 coalition soldiers were killed in May, about average for the war. Meanwhile, 146 Iraqi soldiers and police were killed and at least eight times as many civilians.

The rote official response to this catalogue of doom is that most of Iraq is relatively peaceful. Taking up this logic, the CSIS report tried valiantly, but failed, to find a silver lining: "Some 83% of the attacks from August 29, 2005, through January 20, 2006, occurred in only four of Iraq's 18 provinces, although these provinces do include Baghdad and Mosul and have some 43% of the population."

Of course given that parts of Anbar province are not under US control (by Khalilzad's own admission), and that Ramadi, its capital and the insurgents' stronghold, is in essence a free-fire zone, the relative state of the rest of Iraq is not so bad. Basra is under coalition control, for example, and is the only scene of a violent power struggle among Shi'ite parties. The Badr Organization, the Fadilha Party - which is aligned to the governor - and Muqtada's Mehdi Army now fight over a city stalked by criminal gangs, with Fadilha raising the stakes recently by threatening to end oil exports. Maliki is so concerned that he flew out to try and arbitrate, but ended up declaring a state of emergency.

Sunni Arabs in Ramadi daily experience chaos that belies official optimism - they are caught in a pincer between the Shi'ite/Kurdish armed forces, the insurgents who demand absolute fealty, and US military might. The city has been devastated by these crosswinds.

Nearly a dozen Sunni Arab tribal leaders who were cooperating with the US have been assassinated by insurgents and, as the media have reported, "The insurgent attacks since then have all but frozen the cooperation between Sunni tribal leaders and US forces."

It is difficult not to argue that in such places as Ramadi, if not in all of Iraq, it is the US presence at the locus of the violence. Some have argued that one way to cut this Gordian knot would be simply to withdraw US troops short of "victory" as defined by the coalition, at the very least eliminating the deadly war between the US and the insurgents.

The Bush administration has apparently flirted with this idea, but decided not to change horses in midstream. Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper reported in early May that 10 insurgent groups had been meeting with Khalilzad and proposed a memo offering to dismantle their groups immediately after a US withdrawal. They broke off talks on April 29, however, absent a US response.

Blair may believe, as he said last Friday, "There is no excuse now for anyone to engage in violence in Iraq." But the insurgents, fearful of a permanent foreign military presence, disagree.

Divided and weighed down by war, Iraq is coming apart at the seams, with its people racing toward the emerging fault lines. To all the other tribulations Iraqis are enduring must be added the specter of ethnic cleansing.

"The state of Iraq now resembles Bosnia at the height of the fighting in the 1990s," wrote Patrick Cockburn in The Independent. "Sectarian warfare has broken out in every Iraqi city where there is a mixed population ... Sunnis have been fleeing Basra after a series of killings. Christians are being eliminated in Mosul in the north. Shi'ites are being killed or driven out of cities and towns north of Baghdad."

And yet from the other side of the looking glass, things are going more or less to plan, and Iraq is soon to become a wondrous, happy place. Any day now Sunni, Kurd and Shi'ite will lay down their arms and sit down together at the Mad Democracy Tea Party, and the coalition freedom-bringers will sail off into the sunset after a job well done.

Ashraf Fahim is a freelance writer on Middle Eastern affairs based in New York and London. His writing can be found at www.storminateacup.org.uk.

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Iraq's cabinet falls short (May 23, '06)

Basra, Britain's Mesopotamian mess revisited (May 20, '06)


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