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
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
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
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
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
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
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.