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Shadow of Iraq

Print edition : Oct 20, 2006 T+T-
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH at a campaign fundraiser in Tampa, Florida, on September 21.-KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH at a campaign fundraiser in Tampa, Florida, on September 21.-KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

The coming elections to the U.S. Congress will determine whether the Bush administration's Iraq policy has found favour with the people.

THE head of the United States Central Command, General John Abizaid, said so. The head of the United Nations concurred.

Abizaid, in early August, looked gloomy before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee when he said, "I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war." In mid-September, Kofi Annan shared a table with Iraq's President Jalal Talabani at the U.N., and both looked harried as the U.N. chief reported, "Iraq and its leaders are now at an important crossroads. If they can address the needs and common interests of all Iraqis, the promise of peace and prosperity is still within reach. But if current patterns of alienation and violence persist much longer, there is a grave danger that the Iraqi state will break down, possibly in the midst of a full-scale civil war."

These assessments of the U.S. occupation of Iraq come as the 2006 U.S. electoral season rolls in. Members of Congress who are up for re-election hasten to define the imbroglio in Iraq either as an essential front in the `war on terror' or else as the central malady of an incompetent administration. The August Democratic Party primary in Connecticut resulted in the defeat of incumbent Senator Joe Lieberman, whose pro-Iraq war and pro-George Bush affect turned off a plurality of voters. He is in the fray as an independent for the November general elections, but as Bush's star fades, so does his. Even loyal Lieberman could not defend his Iraq policy without hesitancy. "I believe it would be every bit as much a mistake to stay there indefinitely, both for the Iraqis and for us," he said on September 26, "and I have consistently opposed an open-ended commitment of American troops."

An Associated Press poll in September showed that if the Republicans can portray the global conflict (including Iraq) as part of the war against terrorism, then they will prevail in November. If, however, the Democrats are able to show that Iraq had nothing to do with the war on terrorism, and indeed that it has inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment, then they will wrest control of the U.S. Congress. The election rests on this issue and on the battle to control it.

In late September, The New York Times broke a story that put a grin on the face of every Democrat. The story, by Mark Mazzetti, had a stark headline: "Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terrorism Threat". The 16 separate spy agencies in the U.S. periodically write a combined classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) for the government. Two months prior to the start of the Iraq war in 2003, the NIE warned that an invasion of Iraq would "increase support for political Islam worldwide and could increase support for some terrorist objectives" (in The New York Times' summary). Three years later, their judgment is vindicated.

The current NIE, declassified by President Bush after a fire-storm, is unequivocal. "We assess," write the spy masters, "that the Iraq jehad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jehadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere. The Iraq conflict has become the `cause celebre' for jehadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jehadist movement." In other words, the Iraq war has inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment rather than quelled it.

Standing beside a pliant Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Bush grew increasingly impatient with questions from the press about the NIE. He first, jokingly, asked Karzai if he wanted to answer a question about the NIE, and after Karzai's "Go ahead, please," Bush went forth. Anyone who reads the NIE and thinks that it implies that the Iraq war is an error is "naive", he said. "I think it's a mistake for people to believe that going on the offence against people that want to do harm to the American people makes us less safe."

In 2003, Bush had said that he wanted to "take the war to the enemy" and that Iraq would be the front line in the war on terror. In July 2003, when the resistance to the occupation began, Bush announced: "There are some who feel that conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring them on. We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation."

According to veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn (in his wonderful new book The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq), until late 2003 most of the resistance in Iraq was home-grown. It was only later that foreign fighters came in, and later still that a little-known thug, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, began to fashion himself as their leader. The occupation produced the conditions for the growth of these jehad outfits, who in turn moved to sectarian violence as a means to destabilise the country. The enormous cost of Bush's callousness in July 2003 was paid by the Iraqi people and, in the long term, by the erosion of their national identity. In January 2004, Cockburn visited the town of Abu Ghraib, where he saw wall signs that read, "Sunni + Shia = Jihad Against Occupation." No longer would such signs be painted.

The same Associated Press poll shows that, finally, a lesser number of U.S. residents believe in the Al Qaeda-Saddam Hussein link now; six months ago the number was much higher. The President and his team sold the Iraq war on the strength not only of "weapons of mass destruction", but that linkage. It is now clear to the majority of Americans that there never was a relationship between Al Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein, indeed that the latter loathed the former. Three years into the occupation, Al Qaeda or its friendly offshoots operate across central and southern Iraq. In June 2006, the U.S. killed Al Qaeda's main vendor (al-Zarqawi), but that has not uprooted its entire Iraqi franchise.

On September 26, British troops in Basra killed Omar al-Faruq, a Jemaah Islamiah (of Indonesia) leader who had escaped from the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan last year. Since 2005, according to Cockburn's book, the attacks by Salafi and jehadi groups (most of whom are Sunni) against Shia "soft targets" and politicians have risen. These assaults started just about when Shia politicians took leadership of the government, and when Osama bin Laden anointed (in December 2004) al-Zarqawi as Al Qaeda's emir in Iraq. "The `terrorists' with whom George W. Bush is meant to be at war have a base in Iraq that they yearned for but never secured in Afghanistan," writes Cockburn.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf 's new book, In the Line of Fire: A Memoir, released at the same time as the NIE, sharply points out that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has made the world "more dangerous". On The Daily Show, a comedy-news programme, the host Jon Stewart asked Musharraf if he had failed to mention the Iraq war in his book because "it has gone so well". Musharraf laughed and answered: "It has led certainly to more extremism and terrorism around the world."

Across the Atlantic, an embattled Tony Blair addressed the Labour Party conference for a final time. Even he had to admit, "It's hard sometimes to be America's strongest ally." This commonplace assumption has sent jitters through a White House that is normally careful to control the message, and through the Republican Party that might lose the elections in a few months.

The real worries are elsewhere. They are with the Iraqi people. The Iraqi state has retreated along with the U.S. occupiers into the Green Zone. Together, they have resurrected Saddam Hussein's dream of building a trench around Baghdad, a city of seven million.

Abizaid is right to worry about Baghdad in particular. Five of its eight principal neighbourhoods are entirely "mixed" between the various nationalities and religious traditions of the country. If Sadr City is largely Shia and Adhamiya is mainly Sunni, what of Dora, al-Mansour and Hurrya? If the animus continues, will the state now participate in the "ethnic cleansing" of these neighbourhoods, a partition strategy that is a recipe for more bloodshed and generations worth of animosity? Of this situation, Cockburn writes in pain: "Baghdad as I knew it is dying. No doubt there will be a city of that name on the banks of the Tigris in the future. But its special magic, the fact that gave the city its peculiar allure, was its complex ethnic and religious mix of Shia, Sunni and Kurds. It is this diversity of cultures that is disappearing."

Earlier this year, a leader of the Iraqi Freedom Congress, Samir Adil, came on a tour of the U.S. His message to the people was simple: the occupation not only created the civil war, but continues to give fuel to the armed militants, the Islamists and the networks of terror. He did not need the NIE to come to his conclusion. The occupation, despite the White House's attempt to resurrect its image, is not interested in the growth of a secular and democratic Iraqi movement. It wants a puppet but the mannequins can only survive on civil strife. What Bush wanted is what he has got. This is not the dream-palace of the Iraqis. It is their nightmare.