Patrick Cockburn: Military progress claimed by White House is an illusion

The Independent

Published: 01 December 2005

The Iraqi armed forces on the ground in Baghdad look very different from the encouraging picture of them painted by President George Bush. Its men are often packed into pathetically vulnerable convoys of ageing white pick-up trucks.

The much-feared paramilitary police commandos drive at breakneck speed through the streets firing into the air as civilian cars scatter in terror.

"I've been watching a lot of movies about the Wild West because it was so like Iraq today," said a diplomat in Baghdad yesterday. "There are armed men everywhere but frequently you don't know who they are or whose side they are on."

Mr Bush said there were 120 army and police battalions ready to fight on their own against "the terrorists". A further 80 will fight alongside US troops. He stated the American achievement in terms of training, but the real problem for the US in Iraq is about motivation. On several occasions the US military has claimed it had built a powerful force only to see it dissolve or change sides in battle. During an insurgent uprising in Mosul, in northern Iraq, in November 2004 some 3,000 US-trained police went home, abandoning 30 police stations and $40m (£23m) worth of equipment.

This is why the American goal of suppressing the uprising in Iraq has proved so elusive. If the US was fighting a limited number of foreign "terrorists" it would have made progress in two and a half years. But it is confronting the five million-strong Sunni Arab community which can carry on the fight for as long as it wants.

There is a further problem that Mr Bush did not address. Hostility between the three main Iraqi communities - the Shia and Sunni Arabs and the Kurds - is growing by the day.

Sectarian divisions cut through the armed forces making it difficult to deploy them. The Iraqi Defence Ministry reportedly believes that out of 115 battalions it looked at this summer 60 were wholly Shia, 45 were Sunni, nine were Kurdish and just one was mixed. The danger is that if a Shia battalion is employed in a Sunni area it will provoke a furious reaction. In the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, Shia units are more hated than the Americans, said a resident.

From late last year checkpoints manned by police commandos, under the interior ministry, became a frequent sight in Baghdad. But under the government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the ministry of the interior, formerly dominated by Sunni, was taken over by the Badr Brigade, the militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shia political party. Again and again Sunni men arrested by the 12,000-strong commando brigades would be found tortured and shot dead. Little attempt was made to conceal what was happening.

Mr Bush said yesterday that Iraqi armed forces were being created to take over from US troops who will then be able to withdraw from Iraq. But the loyalty of these units is often less to the Iraqi government than their own community or militia. The Sunni community has also learnt that its armed resistance is very effective in achieving its aims. The military progress claimed by Mr Bush is largely illusory.