Iraq: The State We're In
The American and British governments seem disconnected from the terrible reality of Iraq. Tony Blair says the time scale for withdrawal is "when the job is done." But stop any Iraqi in the streets of Baghdad and the great majority say the violence will get worse until the US and Britain start to pull out. They say the main catalyst for the Sunni Arab insurrection is the US occupation.
A deep crisis is turning into a potential catastrophe because President George Bush and Tony Blair pretend the situation in Iraq is improving. To prove to their own voters that progress is being made, they have imposed on Iraq a series of artificial milestones. These have been achieved but have done nothing to halt the ever deepening violence.
The latest milestone is the referendum on the new constitution - the rules of the game by which Iraq is to be governed - on which Iraqi will vote tomorrow. The document was rushed through with the US and British ambassadors sitting in on the negotiations. The International Crisis Group, a highly regarded think-tank, warns that because the country's 5 million Sunni Arabs see the constitution as legitimising the break up of the country, the referendum will ensure that "Iraq will slide towards full-scale civil war and dissolution".
An obstacle to the Iraqi, American and British governments resolving the crisis in Iraq is that at no stage over the last 30 months have they been willing to admit how bad things really are. This is hardly surprising. Neither Mr Bush nor Mr Blair want to reveal the depth of the quagmire into which they so confidently plunged in 2003. They also presumably believe that at any moment they may touch bottom. Iraqi governments, dependent on foreign support, parrot whatever they believe Washington or London wants to hear at the time. Iraq is full of mirages. In theory Iraqi army and security forces are being built up towards the 200,000 level but when Kurdish intelligence counted a unit entering Kirkuk they found most of the soldiers were not there. Its men stayed home or never existed while commanders pocketed the salaries of these "ghost battalions".
Much of the Iraqi government exists only on paper. It is more of a racket than an administration. Its officials turn up only on pay day. Elaborate bureaucratic procedures exist simply so a bribe has to be paid to avoid them. The US, with Britain in tow, was always going to be in trouble in Iraq. They did not see that Saddam Hussein was the product as well as the creator of fierce ethnic, religious and regional tensions. His demonic personality was not the only reason why Iraq's recent history is soaked in blood. This mistake would not have mattered so much if Washington had not sought to persuade the US public that all was going to plan in Iraq. A set of milestones were devised - the turning over of sovereignty to Iraq, the elections, the constitution - whose primary purpose was to give a spurious sense of progress to American voters. Not surprisingly they show increasing anger at being duped.
The most damaging consequence of this pretence at progress is that it has prevented the pursuit of more effective policies. The fact that so many Iraqis blame the US occupation for their ills does not mean they are right. But, having spent most of my time in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, I believe that the biggest mistake being made by the US and Britain is a very simple one: They do not realise the unpopularity of the occupation. No people wants to be ruled by another.