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Don't mention the war

HOW do you know when things are going well for the US and its coalition allies in Iraq? When you see virtually nothing about it on your television screen or in the papers.

When President George W. Bush announced a surge of US forces in Iraq, he was almost universally condemned as compounding already bungled and failed policies. In the first several months of 2007, the news seemed bad and the media were full of it, declaring it a failure and a disaster.

But as things began to get better on the ground, events faded from our screens. Al-Qa'ida, which had controlled Sunni areas such as Anbar province, was virtually driven out. The same thing happened in and around Baghdad. Remaining al-Qa'ida forces retreated to the northern city of Mosul, where they are now under pressure from Iraqi and US forces.

This extraordinary achievement, the virtual destruction of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, occurred in less than a year. Critics say this was all because of a revolt of the Sunnis, particularly tribal leaders, repelled by al-Qa'ida's monstrous excesses against their people, and the threat al-Qa'ida posed to the traditional wielders of power in those regions.

It's true that revulsion among Sunnis in those provinces against al-Qa'ida was a crucial factor. That began to emerge tentatively in mid 2006. But it was the additional US troops subsequently provided by way of the surge that turned a flicker of tribal resistance into a wildfire that has engulfed al-Qa'ida.

Al-Qa'ida in Iraq still exists and is still capable of significant acts of barbarity, but it has suffered a catastrophic strategic setback, not just militarily but much more importantly in terms of its political and moral legitimacy among Iraqis.

Now let's look at Basra, the southern oil-rich city that had been entirely out of the central government's control, run by criminals and by various Shi'ite militias. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an attack on those forces with little notice to the Americans or the British. These attacks were not particularly well organised and at first stumbled, with some Iraqi forces surrendering to the militias. Guess what? Lots of media coverage and a broad consensus it was a fiasco that brought into question the success of the surge and the credibility of training Iraqi forces.

But it has largely disappeared from your pages again, hasn't it? That's because after some initial setbacks, and with artillery and air support from the Americans and the British, the Iraqi forces have turned the situation around entirely. They have defeated the Shi'ite militias in that city. This has been written up as an Iranian-sponsored peace deal. Yet Maliki has gained enormous prestige from his determined effort in reasserting central control over what was a rebel city.

But Maliki has not stopped there. Over the past few weeks, he has launched the Iraqi army, with some US military backup, against the Mahdi Army militias in Baghdad. Those militias had responded to their setbacks in Basra by launching concerted mortar attacks on the Green Zone where the Government and the US and other embassies reside. These militias were concentrated inside Sadr city, a region of Baghdad with well over a million people. This was Moqtada al-Sadr's power base. The Iraqi army has now entered Sadr city, in force and unchallenged, after a few weeks' fighting. The Iraqi Government has for the first time taken control of the whole of Baghdad.

What about on the political front? Well, vital laws, long demanded, have been passed setting out regional powers, amnesty for Sunnis, scheduling provincial elections, providing for de-Baathification and agreeing a budget. This is a political system that is dealing with monumental problems more effectively than the US Congress is dealing with long recognised deep-seated problems of health, social security, the environment, energy and many other matters. When US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi measures the Iraqi parliament's achievements against those of the US Congress on her watch, she should be deeply embarrassed rather than lecturing them on benchmarks.

A vital factor in all this has been the performance of the Iraqi army, the one Iraqi institution relatively free from sectarianism and which has carried out most of the frontline fighting in Basra and Baghdad. The Iraqi army is growing in confidence in its military planning, operational discipline, and overall capability.

But the key reasons for the change in Iraq is that the surge was just one part of a more fundamental change on the part of the US. The replacement of the arrogant defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld by Richard Gates, together with the arrival of generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, has been followed by a demonstration of sophisticated, subtle and creative use of new military operational doctrines, carefully integrated with political manoeuvring at local, regional and national level, between and within the various political and religious forces.

This has been combined with a focus on local economic and social development bringing much needed employment. Moreover, US diplomacy over Iraq, including with Iran, most of which has been conducted in private, has brought them some way down the track to a workable outcome that will not leave Iraq an Iranian sphere of influence.

Such unexpected adroitness and skill is a welcome relief after the bunglings of 2003 to 2006 dictated by Rumsfeld's wilful blindness to the exploding insurgency and the self-delusion of Vice-President Dick Cheney that the US would be greeted as liberators.

In the end, it is the Iraqis who will decide whether Iraq becomes a united federation with a genuinely democratic government that suits their values, which is economically successful, which stands independent from outside domination, and which lives in peace with its neighbours.

Of course this is not guaranteed. But from being a very long shot in early 2007, and although plenty can still go wrong, I would now put their chances of success at better than even.

For giving the Iraqis this opportunity, the US and its allies deserve the credit, but you can be sure they won't get it. You can be equally sure that if this does eventually come to pass, it will receive little acknowledgement in the media. For some remarkable reason, it seems we are now more comfortable with failure and find success hard to bear.

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