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For a safe way out

Print edition : May 18, 2007 T+T-
Iraqi policemen and U.S. soldiers secure the site where a minibus exploded inside a tunnel at Baghdad's al-Nusur Square on April 30. Five people were killed and 12 wounded in the blast.-WISAM SAMI/AFP

Iraqi policemen and U.S. soldiers secure the site where a minibus exploded inside a tunnel at Baghdad's al-Nusur Square on April 30. Five people were killed and 12 wounded in the blast.-WISAM SAMI/AFP

Pressure from the Senate and escalating violence make the Bush administration look for a face-saving formula to get out of Iraq.

TWO months after President George W. Bush ordered a "military surge" in Iraq, things seem to have only got worse for ordinary Iraqis. The United States' military toll has also surged noticeably as the resistance seems to have redoubled its efforts to hasten the end of the American occupation. The radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has called on the Americans to quit. He has withdrawn support for the government after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to agree on a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.

On April 9, Sadr organised a massive anti-American protest in the holy city of Najaf, which was attended by over a million people. Prominent Sunni clerics were also present. In a recent speech, Sadr ordered fighters of his Mahdi army to intensify their campaign against the occupation forces. He also issued calls to the Iraqi security forces to join hands in the struggle against the U.S. forces. Recent opinion polls have shown that more than two-thirds of the people want immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. A Pentagon poll showed that between 2003 and 2006, Sunni Arabs who thought attacking U.S. troops was legitimate grew from 14 per cent to over 70 per cent.

April was particularly bad for American troops and Iraqi civilians. One of the deadliest attacks so far on U.S. troops took place on April 23, when a suicide car bomb struck an American patrol base in Diyala province, killing nine American soldiers and seriously wounding 20. Car bombs and suicide attacks have claimed hundreds of civilian lives in the past two months. Baghdad, the capital and the holy city of Karbala bore the brunt of these attacks. Within a span of a few days, there were two massive suicide bombings in Karbala and more than 150 people were killed.

The Bush administration continues to blame Iran and Syria for much of the escalating violence but most neutral observers have concluded that the resistance is an indigenous one and will end only after the last American soldier leaves Iraqi soil. Former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet says that he had warned the Bush administration about the dangers of militarily occupying Iraq. In his book At the Centre of the Storm, released in the last week of April, Tenet writes that Bush was determined to carry out a regime change in Iraq through military means even before the events of September 11, 2001. These revelations are going to make things more difficult for Bush to continue with the present Iraq policy.

Now despite the continuing show of bravado from the White House, the U.S. seems to be seeking a face-saving way out of Iraq. The Bush administration will now be talking to the Iranian leadership on Iraq. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be meeting Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki in the first week of May at a meeting of Foreign Ministers from the region in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm-el-Sheikh. It must be noted that until recently the Bush administration has refused to open diplomatic channels with Iran.

The U.S. Senate has already set March 2008 as the deadline for the withdrawal of all troops and it wants the process to start from October this year.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) in a report released in the third week of April said that sectarian violence continues to claim the lives of a large number of Iraqis despite the new security plan put in place by the Bush administration on February 14 this year. The report revealed that the American-backed Iraqi government refused to give out the casualty figures for the past two months. The U.N. mission said that the refusal was because of the fear that the statistics would reflect a "very grim picture" of the worsening humanitarian crisis. "In February and March, sectarian violence claimed the lives of a large number of civilians, including women and children, in both Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods," the report said. The U.S. administration, which claims that the number of deaths has gone down after more American troops were sent in, has not included civilians killed by car bombs and suicide attacks in its casualty count. The U.N. report also expressed concern at the treatment of thousands of suspects who have been rounded up by American and Iraqi forces in the past couple of months.

An American Congressional Research Services (CRS) Report released in March 2007 paints a grim picture of the ground situation in Iraq. The report, "Iraqi Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: A Deepening Humanitarian Crisis", states that an estimated four million Iraqis, or 13 per cent of the country's population, have become refugees. According to the report, more than a million people were displaced in the 1990s as a result of the first Gulf War and the draconian sanctions that the U.S. imposed on Iraq for more than a decade after that. The majority became displaced after the American-led invasion of Iraq. The refugee flow increased substantially after the February 2006 bombing of the Al Askariya mosque of Shias in Samara; sectarian clashes have significantly escalated since then. According to the CRS Report, 70 per cent of those fleeing are from Baghdad. The report says that the humanitarian crisis in Iraq has now become the most serious one in the region, noting that the refugee crisis is the largest since 1948, when Israel was created. Syria has taken in one million Iraqi refugees while Jordan is reluctantly playing host to another 800,000.

The decision of the U.S. military to build a wall to segregate Shias and Sunnis in the Baghdad suburb of Azamiyah has drawn a great deal of criticism. Prominent Shia and Sunni leaders were the first to protest against the American move. The American military sought to justify the decision on the grounds that the proposed concrete wall, 4.8 kilometres long and 3.6 metres tall, would prevent mortar attacks on Azamiyah.

The U.S. plans to build similar walls in many other parts of Baghdad, which it says will protect people from sectarian death squads.

Moqtada al-Sadr described the wall as "sectarian, racist and unjust" and called upon all Iraqis to reject it. In fact, loud protests have forced the Iraqi Prime Minister to distance himself from the American project, and in late April he demanded that the Americans stop constructing the wall. The issue has brought Sunni and Shia politicians on the same platform after a long time. Naturally the Shias fear that if a wall is allowed in Sunni neighbourhoods today, their turn will come tomorrow. The "wall" has become a symbol of the despised American occupation.

There is serious trouble brewing for American occupation in the hitherto peaceful Kurdish enclave in the north of the country. The Kurdish allies of the U.S. seem bent upon carving out a separate state for themselves. Washington seems to be tacitly backing their efforts.

The Kurds, after all, have stood by the U.S. since the late 1980s. With the rest of Iraq against the American occupation, Washington is no doubt tempted to back the creation of an independent Kurdistan. Such a state would be a pro-American outpost like Israel in a region simmering with anti-Western sentiment. Unlike Israel, an independent Kurdistan will be an important oil exporter and will not be dependent on American largesse for its economic survival.

But the fear of such a development has made many of Iraq's neighbours wary; Turkey, Syria and Iran have sizable Kurdish minorities. Kurdish nationalists have long been dreaming of a united Kurdistan comprising all the areas populated by Kurds.

Turkey, where Kurds constitute 30 to 40 per cent of the population, feels particularly vulnerable. There have been renewed attacks by the guerillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) from northern Iraq. Senior officials in Ankara have warned them that they will be forced to take military action against the Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq if the U.S. Army does not rein them in. The U.S. has sent a special emissary, retired Air Force General Joseph Ralston, to northern Iraq to convince Iraqi Kurds to crack the whip against the PKK.

The Turkish government, also a strong ally of Washington, has demanded that the Iraqi government stop the referendum in Kirkuk (Iraq's largest oil producing city within the Kurdish province), scheduled in December this year. This vote will decide whether Kirkuk will be part of the Kurdish part of Iraq. Since the American invasion started, the Kurds have indulged in ethnic cleansing, driving out large numbers of Arab and Turkish residents. Many of the Arabs had settled there during the Bath party rule. The Turks feel that the Kurds will win the referendum easily given the changed circumstances. Control of Kirkuk and the surrounding oilfields will make the future of an independent Kurdistan viable.

This is a prospect viewed with alarm in Ankara. Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani warned Turkey in mid-April against meddling in Kirkuk. He said that if Turkey did intervene militarily, then he and his people would "take action for the 30 million Kurds in Turkey". The Chief of Turkish General Staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, stated that "from an exclusively military point of view", he favoured an invasion of northern Iraq to clean out PKK military havens.