Wednesday, October 25, 2006
By Patrick Cockburn
"It sounds like a face-saving way of announcing a withdrawal," commented an Iraqi political leader yesterday on hearing that the US military commander in Iraq and the chief American envoy in Baghdad had said that Iraqi police and army should be able to take charge of security in a year or 18 months.
Yet the only real strength of the Iraqi government is the US army. In theory, it has 264,000 soldiers and police under its command. In practice they obey the orders of their communal leaders in so far as they obey anybody.
There is still a hopeless lack of realism in statements from senior American officials. It is as if the taste of defeat is too bitter. It is all so different from that moment of exuberant imperial hubris in May 2003 when President George Bush announced mission accomplished in Iraq.
The greatest American mistake was to turn what could have been presented as liberation into an occupation. The US effectively dissolved the Iraqi state. The five million Sunni Arabs were always going to fight the occupation. The only Iraqi community to support it were the five million Kurds. The Shia wanted to use it to gain the power their 60 per cent of the Iraqi population warranted but they never liked it.
One theme has been constant throughout the past three-and-a-half years - the Iraqi government has always been weak. For this, the US and Britain were largely responsible. They wanted an Iraqi government which was strong towards the insurgents but otherwise compliant to what the White House and Downing Street wanted.
The problem for the US and British is that many Iraqi leaders outside the government think the British and Americans are on the run. Wait, they say, and they will become even weaker. The US is talking to senior Baath party military officials in Saudi Arabia and Jordan who control the insurgency if anybody does. But it is unlikely that they would call a ceasefire except on terms wholly unacceptable to other Iraqis.
Can the US extract itself from Iraq? Probably it could but only with great loss of face which the present administration could not endure after its boasts of victory three-and-a-half years ago."