George Bush has taken to saying that, in retrospect, the present violence in Iraq “will look like just a comma”. I doubt if the families of the 30 US soldiers who were killed in Baghdad last week will ever see it that way.
Their deaths were part of a much larger surge in American casualties in Iraq. Last month 776 American soldiers were wounded in Iraq - the highest figure since the US assault on Fallujah in November 2004.
Improvements in medical care and armour mean that far more soldiers survive their wounds than did in past wars. The ratio of wounded to killed of US forces in Iraq is eight to one, compared to three to one in Vietnam. So the figures for wounded are a good index for the intensity of fighting. Nearly 300 US soldiers were wounded in the first week of October.
This reflects the failure of previous US strategy in Iraq. The theory, as articulated by Bush in November last year, was “as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down”. In other words, as the army and police of Washington’s client regime in Iraq completed their training, they would take over frontline combat duties from the Americans. The US forces would progressively be withdrawn to their bases, and their overall numbers in Iraq cut.
In line with this strategy, Iraqi troops took the brunt of the upsurge in sectarian violence after the Askariya mosque in Samarra was bombed in February. By then US patrols in Baghdad had fallen to an average of 92 a day, compared to 360 the previous June. Iraqi soldiers and police were responsible for 70 percent of the city, including the most violent neighbourhoods.
But the sectarian killing has continued to escalate, with death squads apparently linked to Shia and Sunni militias brutally massacring people supporting the rival interpretation of Islam.
The Iraqi army and police are riddled with supporters of the parties of the governing coalition who are widely suspected of participating in the killings. The Washington Post quoted “a Marine officer who has fought in Anbar province and an army captain who has just returned from Baghdad… both saying they fear all the US military is doing is training and arming Iraqis to fight a looming civil war”.
As a result, the Bush administration has been forced to retreat from its “stand up, stand down” strategy. In July US forces in Baghdad were doubled, to 14,200. Confronted with a pessimistic Marine report on the key western province of Anbar, Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, the second ranking US commander in Iraq, explained to the New York Times that his priorities were elsewhere - “our main effort right now is Baghdad”.
The new US plan for Baghdad involves concentrating on and regaining control of key neighbourhoods, one by one. The resulting heavy fighting has pushed up US casualty figures.
But it is hard to see how 14,200 US soldiers and their unreliable Iraqi auxiliaries can pacify a city of seven million awash with weapons. “The Baghdad security plan can only be a temporary fix,” a Pentagon official told the Washington Post.
The scale of US failure in Iraq is becoming ever clearer to the Washington establishment. Bush had hoped to kick the issue into the long grass by waiting for the report of the elite Iraq Study Group chaired by arch-Republican fixer Jim Baker, which is due after the mid-term Congressional elections next month.
But on Friday last week, John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a leading Republican, said the situation in Iraq was “drifting sideways” and called for a change in policy.
Whether these pressures will have any effect remains to be seen. The revelation in Bob Woodward’s new book State of Denial that Bush and vice president Dick Cheney have regular meetings with Henry Kissinger is hardly reassuring.
Apparently the old war criminal has been telling them “the only exit strategy is victory”. As in Vietnam, the US is only likely to let go after a lot more killing.