The political tide has turned decisively against the war in Iraq. Yet George Bush and Tony Blair show absolutely no sign of bowing to mass pressure. On the contrary, they are redeploying their arguments.
This became very clear when senior US commanders gave evidence to a top Congressional committee last week. The New York Times summed up the shift: “In the fall of 2005, the generals running the Iraq war told the Senate Armed Services Committee that a gradual withdrawal of American troops from Iraq was imperative.
“The American troop presence, Gen John P Abizaid and Gen George W Casey Jr said at the time, was stoking the insurgency, fostering dependency among the Iraqi security forces and proving counterproductive… This week, General Abizaid, chief of United States Central Command, told the same committee that American forces may be all that is preventing full-scale civil in Iraq, so a phased troop withdrawal would be a mistake.”
The reasons for the shift are political. A year ago the Bush administration was hoping to cut US troop numbers by pushing Iraqi policemen and soldiers into the frontline.
Now, confronted with the failure of this policy of “Iraqification” and demands by the new Democratic majority in Congress for a timetable for phased withdrawal from Iraq, Bush and his generals are desperately trying to justify continuing the occupation.
Their argument must, however, be taken seriously. The idea that, even if the original invasion was wrong, US and British troops are all that stand between Iraq and chaos has widespread appeal.
There are three main kinds of violence in Iraq today. The first is the guerrilla war between the occupation forces and resistance fighters that has been going on ever since the invasion. This violence continues to rage and indeed to escalate. According to the US Defence Intelligence Agency, attacks on occupation troops rose from 70 a day in January to 170 a day in September. If the occupation ended, so would this war.
Second, there are various kinds of criminal violence – robberies, kidnappings, murders. They are a consequence of the breakdown in elementary political order following the invasion. If a stable Iraqi state were restored, this too would end.
Finally, there is sectarian violence, which has escalated since the bombing of the Askariya mosque in Samarra in February. This has produced quite large population movements in the Baghdad region, as Sunni and Shia have fled mixed neighbourhoods.
CIA director general Michael Hayden said last week that Iraq is currently witnessing “mostly an inter-Arab struggle to determine how power and authority will be distributed”. But the US and Britain aren’t neutral umpires in this struggle.
Yes, Iraqi parties and their armed wings are vying for power, but the occupiers played a decisive role in unleashing this conflict. Faced with the eruption of the insurgency in 2003-4, the US adopted a policy of divide and rule, allying itself to the Shia political establishment.
US-trained death squads, often based in one apparatus or other of the client regime, are the initiators of sectarian violence. Thus last week it was interior ministry police, a major power base for one Shia party, who kidnapped hundreds of workers at the ministry of higher education, which was headed by a Sunni.
The occupiers also distort Iraqi politics. The slow formation of the al-Maliki government last spring was largely a result of an unsuccessful US campaign to exclude supporters of the most radical and anti-occupation Shia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr. And indigenous political forces compete for US patronage in their manoeuvres against each other.
There is no guarantee that the civil war gripping parts of Iraq would not escalate if the US and Britain withdrew their troops. But the removal of the occupiers would force the different forces in Iraqi society to come to terms with each other, free from the hope or fear that some could tilt the balance their way by appealing to Washington. Having inflicted chaos on Iraq, Bush and Blair have nothing to contribute to its future.