No one could miss the symbolism of the suicide bomb that went off inside the Iraqi parliament building in Baghdad on Friday of last week. There is nowhere, even in the heart of the Green Zone, that is safe from the resistance.
The New York Times published an assessment of the US military “surge” in Iraq that appeared at the beginning of the same week. It concluded “there is little sign that the Baghdad push has accomplished its main purpose: to create an island of stability in which Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs and Kurds can try to figure out how to run the country”, allowing the US to reduce its military presence in Iraq.
Spreading US troops around Baghdad in small units cooperating with the forces of the Iraqi client regime has cut down the number of killings by sectarian Shia and Sunni death squads. But the chief US military spokesman admits, “We’ve not seen the same overall significant amount of decline in overall casualties.”
According to the New York Times, “In the northern and western provinces where they hold sway, and even in parts of Baghdad, Sunni Arab factions have sharpened their tactics, using more suicide car and vest bombs and carrying out successive chlorine gas attacks.”
Because of their deployment in neighbourhoods, US troops have found themselves in many more close-range firefights with the resistance. As a result, they are taking more casualties. There were 53 US military personnel killed in combat in the first seven weeks after the Baghdad push started on 14 February, up from 29 in the previous seven weeks.
One US private in western Baghdad says, “The insurgents, they see what we’re doing and we see what they’re doing... It’s like a game of cat and mouse. It’s just a really, really smart mouse.”
In the key battle zone of Anbar province in western Iraq, the US has benefited from divisions within the resistance. Al Qaida in Mesopotamia is fighting several other Sunni guerrilla groups that oppose its sectarian violence against Shias and its indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
The architects of the “surge” have also till recently been lucky that the radical Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr told the fighters of his Mahdi Army not to resist. This has allowed US forces to penetrate Sadr City, the stronghold of the Shia poor in Baghdad.
But it looks as if this situation is turning sour for the occupiers. Last week up to a million Iraqis responded to Sadr’s call and marched through the city of Najaf to demand an end to the occupation.
A fortnight ago, US forces provoked fierce fighting with the Mahdi Army in the southern city of Diwaniya. Sadr responded by calling on soldiers in the Iraqi security forces to stop fighting the Mahdi Army and unite against the occupiers.
One of the aims of the “surge” has been to crush Sadr and his followers, a thorn in the side of the US and its allies in the Shia establishment. But confrontation with the Sadrists could destabilise the whole of southern Iraq, where Shia predominate.
Meanwhile the political pressure on George Bush at home shows no signs of relenting. So far the Democrats in Congress have stood behind their bill tying continued funding of the war to setting a date for US withdrawal from Iraq next year.
Bush has denounced them for stabbing US troops in the back. But this stance was undermined when the administration announced last week that it is extending military tours of duty in Iraq from 12 to 15 months, the longest since the Second World War.
This move reflects the intense pressure the war is putting on the US military. The Pentagon is finding it increasingly hard to find the resources to rest, train, and re-equip troops between spells in Iraq.
The political backwash from Iraq will also hit New Labour in Britain. If southern Iraq does blow up then the British forces in Basra will find themselves on the front line.
It may prove difficult for the Ministry of Defence to honour Tony Blair’s pledge to cut down British troop numbers in Iraq. This would be yet another broken promise to pass on as his “legacy” to the hapless Gordon Brown.