The rescue of Norman Kember and his fellow hostages in Baghdad is a tiny glimmer of light in an Iraqi picture that remains uniformly grim. John Reid’s gung-ho remarks on his recent visit to Iraq simply provided further evidence of the defence secretary’s very troubled relationship to reality.
He’s not the only one, of course. George Bush greeted the third anniversary of the outbreak of the war by desperately pointing to what he presented as a US success in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar. “The example of Tal Afar,” he told an audience in Cleveland, Ohio, last week, “gives me confidence in our strategy.”
Coincidentally the Washington Post has reported in depth on the city as part of a series of very interesting reports on the war in Iraq. Tal Afar, 40 miles east of Mosul, has been a major base of operations for the resistance.
Last summer the US Third Armoured Cavalry Regiment was assigned responsibility for the city. By the time it left in February, attacks had fallen, according to US military intelligence, from six to one a day.
The Third Armoured Cavalry used a combination of building a wall around the city, flooding it with patrols, methodical intelligence work, developing links with the local population, and working closely with Iraqi forces.
But when the Post checked up on Tal Afar after Bush’s speech it found that US control had weakened again. Guerrillas were slipping back into the city, sectarian killings and kidnappings were on the increase, and US troops were concentrating on protecting themselves.
This is a typical picture of the Iraqi war. The occupation forces can stem the tide in a problem area by concentrating elite troops there, but, once they relax the effort because of demands elsewhere, their successes are quickly washed away.
The Post’s original report on Tal Afar pointed out, “The biggest problem US troops face in Iraq is Baghdad, a city about 30 times the size of Tal Afar. With the current number of American troops in Iraq, it would be impossible to copy the approach used here, with outposts every few blocks.
“‘Baghdad is a much tougher nut to crack than this,’ said Major Jack McLaughlin… Standing in the castle overlooking the city, he said, ‘It’s a matter of scale – you’d need a huge number of troops to replicate what we’ve done here’.”
This was, of course, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s original folly – the idea that Iraq could be conquered and held by a small hi?tech force.
Another in-depth Post piece reports, “The biggest difference in Baghdad from two or three years ago is the nearly total absence of US troops on its streets. In a major gamble, the city largely has been turned over to Iraqi police and army troops. If those Iraqi forces falter, leaving a vacuum, US pressure elsewhere could push the insurgency into the capital.”
There are other dangers with this policy of “Iraqisation”, which is, according to the defence analyst Stephen Biddle, “the main component of the current US military strategy”. Writing in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, he argues that this “throws gasoline on the fire. Iraq’s Sunnis perceive the ‘national’ army and police as a Shia-Kurdish militia on steroids…
“And the more threatened the Sunnis feel, the more likely they are to fight back even harder. The bigger, stronger, better trained, and better armed the Iraqi forces become, the worse the communal tensions that underlie the whole conflict will get.”
In fact, of course, what “underlies the whole conflict” is the US conquest of Iraq. It is the occupation forces who reacted to the developing resistance to the occupation by stoking up “communal tensions” among Sunni and Shia Arabs and Kurds.
There is massive evidence, accepted even by the US army, that the Iraqi interior ministry is running sectarian death squads. The authors of Iraq’s suffering are the occupiers and their creatures.