Has Iraq finally turned the corner? George Bush certainly wants us to think so. And at first sight, his arguments look convincing. Large sections of the country – including the capital city Baghdad and the restive Anbar province in the west – are being handed over to the Iraqi army.
The Shia insurgency led by Moqtada al-Sadr has been contained and demobilised, while Sunni resistance fighters have been rebranded as “awakening councils” and now cooperate with US occupation forces.
The US can point to a tenfold decline in attacks on its troops from a peak of 2,000 a month in summer 2006. There has also been a marked fall in the numbers of civilian casualties from its peak of 3,500 a month in early 2007.
The US is now confidently predicting that it will finally be able to start drawing down its troops. The “surge”, Bush’s gamble to stabilise the occupation, is being paraded as a success.
But in fact Iraq is poised to enter a new era of instability – and the US is finding itself trapped by a series of dirty deals that are coming back to haunt it.
Foremost among these is the deal the US hoped it could forge with the Shia‑dominated Iraqi government.
This deal, known as the “status of forces agreement”, would have granted the US the right to stage military operations inside Iraq without Iraqi government approval, and the right to launch wars on other countries from permanent bases on Iraqi soil.
But progress towards the agreement has been grindingly slow. Talks on Iraq’s oil resources, electoral reform and amnesties for members of Saddam Hussein’s regime have all stalled.
Meanwhile the Kurds are blocking constitutional reforms that will claw back the autonomy granted to them in the earlier phase of the occupation.
Trapped by allies
The main problem for the US is that it has found itself trapped in an alliance with an Iraqi government that wants to shake free from its control. Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has also declared that he is not bound by US promises to Sunnis and Kurds.
Maliki’s legitimacy rests on the authority of Shia religious institutions represented by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and on cooperation with the Iranian government to reign in Sadr’s Shia resistance forces.
In return both Sistani and Iran want Maliki to block key US demands in the status agreement, force the US to set a firm date for the withdrawal of combat troops, and prevent the US from using Iraq as a base for an attack on Iran.
For now it looks as if Maliki’s gamble is paying off. In April this year the Iraqi government launched an offensive on Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra and the Sadr City neighbourhood of Baghdad.
After several days of fierce fighting, the Iraqi army fell apart, swapped sides or went home. But on the verge of a major military victory – and much to the dismay of his supporters – Sadr called a halt to the uprising under instructions from the Iranians.
Today Sadr is a virtual prisoner in Iran. He travelled there ostensibly on a pilgrimage to the religious city of Qom in order to study for key religious exams. It is now widely accepted that he is being kept under house arrest by the Iranian authorities. Under pressure from Iran, Sadr has ordered his armed supporters to disband.
Sadr has occupied a contradictory position inside Iraq. When his movement was part of a nationwide insurrection, his popularity and power grew across all sections of society.
But he lost control over many of his supporters when Shia areas came under fierce sectarian attacks from elements of the Sunni insurgency.
Some joined the sectarian conflict, driving Sunnis out of mixed neighbourhoods. Others defected to Maliki’s coalition, while a third section attempted to hold together the unity forged during the national uprising that exploded in April 2004.
Sadr was eventually able to demobilise the sectarian gangs within his organisation – but the damage had already been done. He was declared an enemy and an agent of Iran by the majority of Sunni resistance organisations. Isolated from the wider insurgency, Sadr’s fighters found themselves standing alone against the full might of US firepower.
As a prisoner of Iran, Sadr’s hands are tied. But his supporters are not defeated. His last instructions ordered the Mahdi Army to change its name, and for his supporters to bury their weapons and avoid military confrontations for now.
Maliki and the US are relying on the goodwill of Iran to hold back the Shia resistance. But this could all unravel if the US presses ahead with its threat of war against Iran.
A second problem for the US rests with a deal it forged with Sunni resistance organisations.
In the summer of 2007 a large section of the Iraqi resistance inside Sunni areas called off its military campaign. It agreed to cooperate with the occupation to drive out fighters loyal to Al Qaida – who, despite their opposition to US imperialism, launched attacks on Shia Muslims that they considered to be “apostates”.
The Al Qaida elements were always a minority inside the resistance in Iraq, but their campaign of suicide bombings directed against US forces made them a potent enemy.
But the areas liberated from US control by the Sunni resistance found themselves transformed into bases from which Al Qaida launched a murderous campaign against Shias. The results were disastrous – thousands of innocent people were killed in mass sectarian slaughters.
Areas that had been models of Shia-Sunni unity saw each turning against the other. Haifa Street in central Baghdad was transformed from a front line between the resistance and occupation into one pitting Shia forces against Sunni ones.
The tactics and aims of Al Qaida alienated vast numbers of Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, many of whom had close ties with Shias. Soon sections of the Sunni resistance began to turn on them.
The US, faced with a withering guerrilla campaign, resolved to make peace with Sunni insurgents. Secret talks were held in Jordan where the US pledged to halt its attacks on Sunni areas in return for resistance helping to expel fighters allied to Al Qaida.
As news of the talks leaked out Al Qaida declared an all-out war on other Sunni resistance organisations. At the peak of the insurgency they demanded that all Sunni organisations accept their leadership. Key resistance leaders were assassinated, among them the head of the influential 1920 Revolution Brigades.
Meanwhile the US recognised the formation of the “awakening councils” and turned the former insurgents into their new allies. Over 100,000 of these former resistance fighters were paid $300 a month to attack Al Qaida rather than US troops.
Within a few months Al Qaida forces found themselves isolated and in full flight. Thus the US was able to buy peace in key Sunni regions.
But problems for the US are stacking up rapidly. The former Sunni fighters were given promises that they would be incorporated into Iraqi security forces. Maliki has now declared those promises worthless.
And last week the US announced that it would halt the $300 payments from 1 October. Meanwhile the Iraqi government has declared the “awakening councils” to be an illegal militia and ordered their arrest.
Sunni leaders have been dismayed by these developments. They boycotted the recent ceremony marking the US’s official withdrawal from Anbar – and they are refusing to cooperate with the Iraqi government. The US is taking a dangerous gamble by cutting its new allies loose in this manner.
Finally, Iraq faces the prospect of open‑ended ethnic confrontations between Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds in the north of the country. At stake is Kirkuk, an ethnically mixed city that is one of the biggest material prizes in Iraq – beneath it lies a huge oil reserve.
Kurdish parties swept to power in northern Iraq on the back of the US invasion, backed by their Peshmerga guerrilla army, originally built to fight Saddam’s regime. These parties hoped their alliance with the US would allow them to fulfil a long-cherished desire for independence.
The regional Kurdish authorities have signed separate oil deals, imposed distinct laws, and operate their own judiciary, police and army.
But the Kurdish region is hopelessly surrounded by hostile forces. To the north lies Turkey, a key US ally that fears Kurdish independence could trigger secessionist moves by its large Kurdish minority.
To its east lies Iran, which fears the Kurdish region will become a staging post for the US to foster a rebellion among its own Kurdish minority. And to the south lies the Iraqi government, which wants to re-establish control over the oil-rich regions of the north.
Now the Kurds are finding out that the US considers them expendable. As part of the concessions made by the US to both Shia and Sunni groups, the tentative moves towards Kurdish autonomy will be reversed.
The looming struggle over Kirkuk could trigger a protracted ethnic struggle in a region that has until now escaped the full horrors of the Iraq war. Dozens of Kurdish demonstrators were killed last month when they stormed the offices of a Turkmen party.
This protest followed a suicide bomb attack on Kurds. And the Iraqi government is refusing to organise a referendum on the status of Kirkuk that had been promised by the US.
So behind the veneer of success lie deep and dangerous problems for the US occupation of Iraq. It has created precarious alliances with Shia, Sunni and Kurdish forces, playing them off against each other to foment sectarian divisions and head off a unified national resistance movement
But now it finds itself hostage to events that it had lost control over long ago. Iraq remains a quagmire for the US – and its occupation remains in a permanent state of crisis.