Monday, August 27, 2007

The surge: a special report

by Patrick Cockburn

It was supposed to mark a decisive new phase in America's military campaign, but six months after George Bush sent in 20,000 extra troops, Iraq is more chaotic and dangerous than ever. In a special despatch, Patrick Cockburn reports on the bloody failure of 'the surge'

The war in Iraq passed a significant but little remarked anniversary this summer. The conflict that President George Bush announced was in effect over on 1 May 2003 has now gone on longer than the First World War. Like that great conflict almost a century ago, the Iraqi war has been marked by repeated claims that progress is being made and that a final breakthrough is in the offing.

In 1917, the French commander General Robert Nivelle proudly announced that " we have the formula for victory" before launching the French armies on a catastrophic offensive in which they were massacred. Units ordered to the front brayed like donkeys to show they saw themselves as being like animals led to the slaughter. Soon, the soldiers broke into open mutiny.

On 10 January this year, President Bush announced that he too now believed he had the formula for victory. In an address to the American nation, he announced a new strategy for Iraq that became known as "the surge" . He said he was sending a further 20,000 US troops to Iraq. With the same misguided enthusiasm as General Nivelle had expressed in his plan, President Bush explained why "our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed" and why the new American formula would succeed: in the past, US and Iraqi troops had cleared areas, but when they moved on guerrillas returned. In future, said Bush, American and allied troops would stay put.

As if the US was not facing enough enemies in Iraq, Bush pointed to Iran and Syria as the hidden hand sustaining the insurgency. "These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq," he said. "Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops."

He added in his State of the Union address on 23 January that "Shia extremists are just as hostile to America [as al-Qa'ida], and are also determined to dominate the Middle East". The implication was that US troops were going to move into areas such as Sadr City, home to two million Shia Iraqis, in pursuit of the powerful Shia militia, the Mehdi Army of the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Six months after the surge was actually launched, in mid- February, it has failed as dismally as so many First World War offensives. The US Defense Department says that, this June, the average number of attacks on US and Iraqi forces, civilian forces and infrastructure peaked at 177.8 per day, higher than in any month since the end of May 2003. The US has failed to gain control of Baghdad. The harvest of bodies picked up every morning first fell and then rose again. This may be because the Mehdi Army militia, who provided most of the Shia death squads, was stood down by Sadr. Nobody in Baghdad has much doubt that they could be back in business any time they want. Whatever Bush might say, the US military commanders in Iraq clearly did not want to take on the Mehdi Army and the Shia community when they were barely holding their own against the Sunni.

The surge is now joining a host of discredited formulae for success and fake turning-points that the US (with the UK tripping along behind) has promoted in Iraq over the past 52 months. In December 2003, there was the capture of Saddam Hussein. Six months later, in June 2004, there was the return of sovereignty to Iraq. "Let freedom reign," said Bush in a highly publicised response. And yet the present Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, claims he cannot move a company of soldiers without American permission.

In 2005, there were two elections that were both won handsomely by Shia and Kurdish parties. "Despite endess threats from the killers in their midst," exulted Bush, "nearly 12 million Iraqi citizens came out to vote in a show of hope and solidarity that we should never forget."

In fact, he himself forgot this almost immediately. A year later, the US forced out the first democratically elected Shia prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, with the then US Ambassador in Baghdad, Zilmay Khalilzad, saying that Bush "doesn't want, doesn't support, and doesn't accept that Jaafari should form the next government".

Fresh US initiatives in Iraq seemed to succeed each other about every six months. Just as it was becoming evident in the US that the surge was not going anywhere very fast, there came good news from Anbar province in western Iraq. The Sunni tribes were rising against al-Qa'ida, which had overplayed its hand by setting up an umbrella organisation for insurgents called the Islamic State of Iraq. In Sunni areas, it was killing rubbish collectors on the grounds that they worked for the government, shooting women in the face because they were not wearing veils, and trying to draft one young man from each family into its forces. Sunni tribal militiamen backed by the US fought al-Qa'ida in insurgent strongholds such as Ramadi, and attacks on American troops there fell away dramatically.

The US administration could portray this as a fresh turning-point. It had always pretended that the insurrection in Iraq was conducted largely by al-Qa'ida. In reality, Anthony H Cordesman, an Iraqi specialist at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, points out that al-Qa'ida's attacks make up only 15 per cent of the total in Iraq, although they launch 80 to 90 per cent of the suicide bombings.

As with many a development in Iraq portrayed as a sign of progress by the White House, the recruitment of Sunni tribal militias by the US is not quite what it seems. In practice, it is a tactic fraught with dangers. In areas where they operate, police are finding more and more bodies, according to the Interior Ministry. Victims often appear to have been killed solely because they were Shia. The gunmen from the tribes are under American command, and this weakens the authority of the Iraqi government, army and police – institutions that the US is supposedly seeking to foster.

A grim scene showing Sunni tribal militiamen in action was recorded on a mobile phone and later appeared on Iraqi websites. It shows a small, terrified man in a brown robe being bundled out of a vehicle by a group of angry men with sub-machine guns who cuff and slap him as he cowers, trying to shield his face with his hands. One of his captors, who seems to be in command, asks him fiercely if he has killed somebody called "Khalid" . After a few moments he is dragged off by two gunmen to a patch of waste ground 30 yards away and executed with a burst of machine-gun fire to the chest.

It is a measure of the desperation of the White House to show that the surge is having some success that it is now looking to these Sunni fighters for succour. Often they are former members of anti-American resistance groups such as the 1920 Revolution Brigade and the Army of Islam – Bush has spent four years denouncing these groups as murderous enemies of the Iraqi people. To many Iraqi Shia and Kurds, who make up 80 per cent of all Iraqis, the US appears to be building up its own Sunni militia. So, far from preventing civil war (a main justification for continued occupation), the US is arming sectarian killers engaged in a murder campaign that is tearing Iraq apart.

The White House says it is too early to know if the surge is succeeding, and that it will wait for a security report due next month from General David Petraeus, the top US military commander in Iraq, and the US Ambassador to the country, Ryan Crocker. But the new strategy was never going to turn the tide in Iraq. Its main advantage for Bush is that it puts off the moment when failure has to be admitted, a potentially disastrous confession for Republicans standing for election next year. If an American withdrawal can be postponed until after the poll, then the neo-cons can blame the Democrats for a stab in the back, pulling out the troops at the very moment when victory was almost in their grasp.

I was in Baghdad in January, when Bush made his State of the Union speech outlining his plans for the surge. Iraqis were pessimistic from the beginning about its chances of success. A friend called Ismail remarked gloomily: "An extra 16,000 [sic] US troops are not going to be enough." A Sunni, he had recently fled his house in the west of the capital because he was frightened of being arrested and tortured by the paramilitary police commandos – like most Sunni, he regarded them as uniformed Shia death squads.

Baghdad was paralysed by fear. Drivers were terrified of being stopped at impromptu checkpoints where they might be dragged out of their cars and killed for belonging to the wrong religion. Conversation was dominated by accounts of narrow escapes. Most people had at least one fake ID card so they could claim, depending on circumstance, to be either Sunni or Shia. This might not be enough; some Shia checkpoints had a list of theological questions drawn up by a religious scholar that they would use to interrogate people.

It was extraordinary how little control the US forces and the Iraqi army exercised over the very centre of the capital. There was black smoke rising from Haifa Street, a two-mile-long Sunni corridor just north of the Green Zone, which US forces had repeatedly invaded but failed to secure. When a helicopter belonging to the security company Blackwater was shot down or crash-landed in the al-Fadhil district in the centre of Baghdad, the survivors were executed by insurgents before US forces could get to them.


Sectarian warfare between Shia and Sunni began in August 2003 when al-Qa'ida suicide bombers started targeting Shia civilians. It escalated over the next two years, but it was the bomb that destroyed the Shia shrine at Samarra on 22 February 2006 that unleashed a Shia pogrom in Baghdad in which 1,300 Sunni were killed in days.

A struggle for the capital was waged between the two sects for the rest of the year, and by January 2007 the Shia had largely won it. My surviving Sunni friends were terrified that the Mehdi Army, often used as a catch-all phrase to describe Shia militiamen of all descriptions, would launch a final "battle of Baghdad" to wipe out the remaining Sunni enclaves.

A weakness of the US position in Iraq is that it has always exaggerated its own strength and underestimated that of its opponents. Outside Kurdistan, it has no dependable allies. Among Iraqi Arabs, both Shia and Sunni, the occupation is unpopular. A US military study recently examined the weapons used by guerrillas to kill American soldiers, and reached the unsettling conclusion that the most effective were high-quality American weapons supplied to the Iraqi army by the US, which were passed on or sold to insurgents.

US commanders are often cheery believers in their own propaganda, even as the ground is giving way beneath their feet. In Baquba, a provincial capital north-east of Baghdad, US and Iraqi army commanders praised their own achievements at a press conference held over a video link. Chiding media critics for their pessimism, the generals claimed: "The situation in Baquba is reassuring and is under control but there are some rumours circulated by bad people." Within hours Sunni insurgents, possibly irked by these self-congratulatory words, stormed Baquba, kidnapped the mayor and blew up his office.

The surge got under way in February, and from the beginning the sceptics seemed to be in the right. Its most positive impact was that Muqtada al-Sadr decided not to risk an all-out military confrontation between his Mehdi Army and the US army. He sent many of his senior lieutenants out of Baghdad, stood down his men and disappeared, either to Iran, as the US claimed, or to the holy cities of Kufa and Najaf, according to his followers.

The Sunni bore the brunt of the surge in Baghdad. Districts like al-Adhamiyah in east Baghdad were sealed off. But this probably achieved less than was intended, because Adhamiyah is a commercial district in which half the people who work there live elsewhere. Joint security stations were set up in every neighbourhood manned by US and Iraqi forces, but these posts seem ineffectual and tie down troops.

There was intense pressure on the US military and the civilian leadership in Baghdad to show that the surge was visibly succeeding. US embassy staff complained that when the pro-war Republican Senator John McCain came to Baghdad and ludicrously claimed that security was fast improving, they were forced to doff their helmets and body armour when standing with him lest the protective equipment might be interpreted as a mute contradiction of the Senator's assertions. When Vice-President Dick Cheney visited the Green Zone, the sirens giving warning of incoming rockets or mortar rounds were kept silent during an attack, to prevent them booming out of every television screen in America.

By the end of May, I found it a little easier to drive through Baghdad, but the danger was still extreme. I sat in the back of the car with my jacket hanging inside the window so it was difficult for other drivers to see me. We were pulled over by an army checkpoint. A soldier leaned in and asked who I was. We were lucky. He looked surprised when told I was a foreign journalist, and said softly: "Keep well hidden."

Back in my hotel, I phoned an Iraqi friend in the Green Zone who was close to the government. "Be very careful," he warned. "Above all, do not trust the army and police." There was an example of what he meant a few days later when a convoy of 19 vehicles carrying 40 uniformed policemen arrived in the forecourt of the Finance Ministry. They entered the building and calmly abducted five British security men, who have not been seen since. The kidnappers may be linked to a unit of the Mehdi Army.

The surge has changed very little in Baghdad. It was always a collection of tactics rather than a strategy. All the main players – Sunni insurgents, Shia militiamen, Iraqi government, Kurds, Iran and Syria – are still in game.

One real benchmark of progress – or lack of it – is the number of Iraqis who have fled for their lives. This figure is still going up. Over one million Iraqis have become Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) since the Samarra bombing, according to the Red Crescent. A further 2.2 million people have fled the country. This exodus is bigger than anything ever seen in the Middle East, exceeding in size even the flight or expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. A true sign of progress in Iraq will be when the number of refugees, inside and outside the country, starts to go down.


The surge was never going to bring Iraq nearer to peace. It always made sense in terms of American, but not Iraqi, politics. It has become a cliché for US politicians to say that there is a "Washington clock' and a " Baghdad clock", which do not operate at the same speed. This has the patronising implication that Iraqis are slothful in moving to fix problems within their country, while the Americans are all get-up-and-go. But the reality is that it is not the clocks, but the agendas, that are different. The Americans and the Iraqis want contrary things.

The US dilemma in Iraq goes back to the Gulf War. It wanted to be rid of Saddam Hussein in 1991 but not at the price of the Shia replacing him; something the Shia were bound to do in fair elections, because they comprise 60 per cent of the population. Worse, the Shia coming to power would have close relations with Iran, America's arch-enemy in the Middle East.

This was the main reason the US did not press on to Baghdad after defeating Saddam's armies in Kuwait in 1991. It then allowed him savagely to crush the Shia and Kurdish rebellions that briefly captured 14 out of 18 Iraqi provinces.

Ever since 2003, the US has wrestled with this same problem. Unwittingly, the most conservative of American administrations had committed a revolutionary act in the Middle East by overthrowing the minority Sunni Baathist regime.

The Bush family has always been close to the Saudi monarchy, but George W Bush dismantled a cornerstone of the Sunni Arab security order. This is why the US and Britain opted for a thoroughgoing occupation of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. They put off elections as long as they could. When elections were held in 2005 and voters overwhelmingly chose a Shia-Kurdish government, Washington tried to keep it under tight control.

"The US and Britain have a policy of trying to fill the vacuum left by the Baath disappearing, but it is unsuccessful," says Ahmed Chalabi, out of office but still one of the most astute political minds in Iraq. " Now the Americans and British want to disengage, but if they do so the worst fears of their Arab allies will come to pass: Shia control and strong Iranian influence in Iraq."

The hidden history of the past four years is that the US wants to defeat the Sunni insurgents but does not want the Shia-Kurdish government to win a total victory. It props up the Iraqi state with one hand and keeps it weak with the other.

The Iraqi intelligence service is not funded through the Iraqi budget, but by the CIA. Iraqi independence is far more circumscribed than the outside world realises. The US is trying to limit the extent of the Shia-Kurdish victory, but by preventing a clear winner emerging in the struggle for Iraq, Washington is ensuring that this bloodiest of wars goes on, with no end in sight.

The real death toll

More lies have been told about casualties in Iraq and the general level of violence there than at almost any time since the First World War. In that conflict, a British minister remarked sourly that he suspected the military authorities of keeping three sets of casualty figures: "One to deceive the Cabinet, a second to deceive the people and a third to achieve themselves."

The American attitude to Iraqi civilian casualties is along much the same lines. The Baker-Hamilton report drawn up by senior non-partisan Democrats and Republicans last year examined one day in July 2006, when the US military had reported 93 attacks on US and Iraqi forces. Investigation by US intelligence agencies revealed that the real figure was about 1,100.

The Iraqi government has sought to conceal civilian casualty figures by banning journalists from the scenes of bombings, and banned hospitals and the Health Ministry from giving information. In July, AP reported, 2,024 Iraqis died violently, a 23 per cent rise on June, which was the last month for which the government gave a figure.

This is almost certainly an underestimate. In a single bombing in the district of Karada in Baghdad on 26 July, Iraqi television and Western media cited the police as saying that there were 25 dead and 100 wounded. A week later, a list of the names of 92 dead and 127 wounded, compiled by municipal workers, was pinned up on shuttered shopfronts in the area.

The US military began the war by saying that it was not keeping count of Iraqi civilians killed by its troops. It often describes bodies found after a US raid as belonging to insurgents when the local Iraqi police say they are civilians killed by the immense firepower deployed by the American forces. Almost the only time a real investigation of such killings is carried out is when the local staff of Western media outlets are among the dead.