Wednesday, May 9, 2007

A war guaranteed to damage a superpower

By Patrick Cockburn
Asia Times

"......Some problems facing the US and Britain in Iraq have not changed since Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. Getting rid of the Iraqi leader was far easier than finding a successor regime that would not be more dangerous to US interests. It is a dilemma still unresolved more than four years into the occupation......The nightmare for Washington was to find that it had conquered Iraq only to install black-turbaned clerics in power in Baghdad, as they already were in Tehran......

For their part, the Shi'ites have become increasingly suspicious that the US and Britain do not intend to relinquish real control over security to the elected Iraqi government. There were many examples of this. For instance, in the Middle East the most important force underpinning every government is the intelligence service. In theory, the Iraqi government should get its information from the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS) that was established in 2004 by the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority. But a peculiarity of the INIS is that its budget is not provided by the Iraqi Finance Ministry but by the CIA.

Over the next three years, the CIA paid US$3 billion to fund its activities. During this time it was run by General Mohammed Shahwani, who had been the central figure in a CIA-run coup in 1996 against Saddam that had failed disastrously.

For long periods he was even banned from attending Iraqi cabinet meetings. A former Iraqi cabinet minister, who was a member of the country's National Security Council, complained to me that "we only get information that the CIA wants us to hear". Iraqis did not fail to spot the extent to which the power of their elected government was being trimmed. The poll cited above showed that by this spring only 34% of Iraqis thought their country was being run by their own government; 59% believed the US was in control. The Iraqi government had been robbed of legitimacy in the eyes of its own people.

Many Iraqis similarly see sectarianism as the work of the Americans. This is not entirely fair. Sectarian differences in Iraq were deeper under Saddam and his predecessors than many Iraqis now admit. But in one important respect, foreign occupation did encourage and deepen sectarianism. Previously a Sunni might feel differently from a Shi'ite but still feel they were both Iraqis. Iraqi nationalism did exist, though Sunni and Shi'ite defined it differently. But the Sunnis fought the US occupation, unlike the Shi'ites, who were prepared to cooperate with it. After 2003, the Sunnis saw any Shi'ite who took a job as a policeman as not only a member of a different community, but as a traitor to his country. Sectarian and national antipathies combined to produce a lethal brew.

The war in Iraq that started in 2003 has now lasted longer than World War I. Militarily, the conflicts could not be more different. The scale of the fighting in Iraq is far below anything seen in 1914-18, but the political significance of the Iraq war has been enormous. The United States blithely invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam to show its great political and military strength. Instead it demonstrated its weakness.

The vastly expensive US war machine failed to defeat a limited number of Sunni Arab guerrillas. International leaders such as Blair who confidently allied themselves to Washington at the start of the war, convinced that they were betting on a winner, are either discredited or out of power.

At times, Bush seemed intent on finding out how much damage could be done to the US by the conflict in Iraq. He did so by believing a high proportion of his own propaganda about the resistance to the occupation being limited in scale and inspired from outside the country.

By this year, the Bush administration was even claiming that the fervently anti-Iranian Sunni insurgents were being equipped by Iran. It was a repeat performance of US assertions four years earlier that Saddam was backing al-Qaeda. In this fantasy world, constructed to impress American voters, in which failures were sold as successes, it was impossible to devise sensible policies.

The US occupation has destabilized Iraq and the Middle East. Stability will not return until the occupation has ended. The Iraqi government, penned into the Green Zone, has become tainted in the eyes of Iraqis by reliance on a foreign power.

Even when it tries to be independent, it seldom escapes the culture of dependency in which its members live. Much of what has gone wrong has more to do with the US than Iraq. The weaknesses of its government and army have been exposed. Iraq has joined the list of small wars - as France found in Algeria in the 1950s and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s - that inflict extraordinary damage on their occupiers. "

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