Mary Dejevsky: A sorry picture of death and instability

Can the Iraq war really become any more lethal? I fear it can

The Independent

Published: 31 May 2006

How much more lethal can the Iraq war become? An estimated 1,000 Iraqi deaths every month, a US death toll of more than 2,000, and nine British soldiers killed in the past month. Monday's roadside bomb in Baghdad, which killed two journalists, critically injured another, and also took the lives of two US soldiers and an interpreter, showed that being "embedded" with troops now offers scant protection.

Hopes that an elected parliament and transferred sovereignty would cause the violence to decline have so far proved vain. Five months after what were hailed as landmark elections, Iraq's government is still incomplete. And even if it had a full line-up of ministers, it is hard to see it restoring law and order now that so many conflicting interests have run amok.

Can the Iraq war really become more lethal? I fear it can. The television team targeted on Monday were no exception. Anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time has become a target. And this includes Iraqis who belong to the "wrong" ethnic or religious group for the area in which they have lived all their life. "Ethnic cleansing" is rife, as practised in the disintegrating Yugoslavia.

This may not amount to the feared Iraq civil war; indeed, the movement of populations now gathering pace might even pre-empt all-out military conflict. But the fragmented result would not look very like the Iraq George Bush envisaged when he embarked on this project. It might not, strictly speaking, look very like Iraq at all.

The reality that is now coalescing is an Iraq divided awkwardly in three and pushing to separate further. Without any improvement in security, it can only be a matter of time before the Kurdish north opts for full independence. The contest for population, oil and territory at the new border with Iraq would be bitterly fought, but the consequence, de facto or de jure, would be a new state whose existence would potentially destabilise the whole region, from Turkey through Syria and Iran.

The Turkish military would fight politically, perhaps with force of arms, against pressure from its own Kurds for a "greater Kurdistan". Military action would destroy Turkey's EU aspirations overnight. Greater assertiveness on the part of Kurds in Syria could undermine Bashir Assad's fragile authority, precipitating unrest that could spill back over the border into Iraq.

In Iraq itself, the increasing subjugation of the Sunni population might satisfy the desire of the Shia majority to avenge their own treatment under Saddam Hussein. As is already apparent from the growing turmoil around Basra, however, Iraq's Shia are themselves divided. And the more eventual power the Shia scent, the sharper will be the contest to lead them. He who eventually attains leadership of the Shia will be in a position to claim leadership of what remains of Iraq.

This sorry picture, however, is not complete. Shia dominance of Iraq will automatically extend the regional influence of Iran. The US and British charge periodically that Tehran is already fishing in Iraq's troubled waters. But it hardly needs to. All it has to do is wait until a weak, Shia-dominated Iraq slips into its sphere of influence. The map says it all. Proof that Washington understands this were the recent White House instructions to the US envoy in Baghdad to talk directly to Tehran, even though the two countries still have no diplomatic relations.

Iran's regional dominance will only be enhanced by the renewed unrest in Afghanistan. Even before this week, US hopes were fading of a post-Taliban Afghanistan that would be stable, almost democratic and kept out of trouble by Washington's client, Hamid Karzai. The violence that broke out in Kabul this week after a fatal crash involving a US military vehicle showed - like the aftermath of the recent British helicopter crash in Basra - how close to the surface anti-Western sentiment now runs. And all because the US and Britain allowed themselves to be diverted from a realistic exercise in nation-building by their ill-conceived adventure in Iraq.

We have known from the start of the Iraq war what the best-case scenario was supposed to be. George Bush and Tony Blair told us many times of the beacon that would spread the glorious light of democracy and freedom around the region. So bright would it be that even such dark recesses as Saudi Arabia would be illuminated.

But was there ever, I wonder, a worse-case scenario that they glanced at before burying it with other unwelcome "classified" material? And if there was, how different was it from the regional mayhem we are seeing today? If Iran had set out to establish itself as the "superpower" in the region, it could hardly have done the job more economically, or to more conclusive effect.