Leading article: A protracted and messy conflict, with its myriad dark corners

One of the saddest aspects of the Haditha affair has been the weariness with which the allegations have been greeted in Iraq

The Independent

Published: 03 June 2006

Iraq's new leaders have turned on their "liberators". Speaking in Baghdad yesterday, the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, lashed out at the conduct of foreign troops. He called on the Americans to account for what happened at Haditha. He described violence against civilians as commonplace and accused the foreign forces of behaving with no respect for citizens and killing "on a suspicion or a hunch". This is a long way from the gratitude George Bush and Tony Blair surely hoped for when they launched their ill-fated invasion three years ago.

Their high-flown ambition then was to free the world of a military threat and at the same time to free 26 million people from repression. They have achieved almost the opposite. Saddam Hussein may be on trial - periodically, and when it suits the authorities to remind Iraqis of past cruelties - but the rest of the liberation project has gone catastrophically wrong.

How wrong becomes shockingly clearer with each passing day. A week ago in Washington, even Mr Bush and Mr Blair - looking unusually chastened - admitted to mistakes. Mr Bush repented ruefully of his belligerent language, conceding that it had been counterproductive. Mr Blair spoke of the lack of a realistic "day-after" scenario and erroneous de-Baathification. Both admitted that they had underestimated the likelihood and the strength of the insurgency.

They could not, of course, disown the whole ill-conceived adventure. And they omitted to say that their underestimation of the insurgency was to a large extent their own doing. For the best part of two years they refused to acknowledge that the attacks on foreign troops were anything more than the isolated actions of terrorists and foreign fighters who had sneaked across unprotected borders. They presented their continuing military operations as part of the ongoing "war on terror", rather than what it really was: a failing effort to combat a popular resistance generated in large part by their own actions.

At each stage, Mr Bush and Mr Blair were aided in their self-delusion by their Iraqi placemen, who enjoyed the luxury of security inside the fortified "green zone" in Baghdad. Successive votes, on an assembly, on a constitution and finally on a parliament, kept up an appearance of democracy in the making - whatever savagery might be going on outside.

This week, there have been the first signs that Iraq may have a leader prepared to take on one of the root causes of the insurgency and start making demands in the name of his increasingly desperate and demoralised people. This entails, to put it at its most basic, taking on the Americans. What is more, this may be the ideal time to do so. The downcast expressions of Mr Bush and Mr Blair a week ago almost invited someone - anyone - to help to relieve them of their burden.

So far in his short tenure, Mr al-Maliki has shown a forthright courage that seemed to be lacking in his predecessors, along with a cannier sense of politics. On one level his outburst about the behaviour of foreign troops was prompted by reports trickling out about the alleged massacre of civilians by US marines at Haditha. The marines are reported to have shot more than 20 civilians in cold blood after their convoy was hit by a roadside bomb, then passed the deaths off as bomb casualties. If true, it is the worst case of civilian killing to have come to light.

On another level, however, Mr al-Maliki's challenge to the Americans may be a conscious, highly political attempt to place himself alongside ordinary Iraqis. One of the saddest aspects of the Haditha affair has been the weariness with which the allegations have been greeted in Iraq. Ever since the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, Iraqis have assumed the worst of the occupiers. And while Haditha was clearly an especially heinous incident, other allegations about shootings of civilians are also starting to emerge. Such atrocities may be shaming news in America, where Haditha is boosting anti-war sentiment and has prompted searching questions about ethics in the US military, but they are evidently not news to Iraqis.

In condemning the conduct of foreign troops, Mr al-Maliki did not restrict himself to Americans. And the thinking behind his statements may be similar to that of Mr Blair when he tries to distance himself from Mr Bush. These are, quite simply, mechanisms for domestic political survival.

Mr al-Maliki's flying visit to Basra this week can be seen in a similar light. He met local dignitaries, delivered a speech identifying security as his first and greatest priority, and declared a state of emergency to last one month. The British military authorities claimed they knew nothing of his visit in advance. This was quite transparently an effort by the new Prime Minister to show the promised "iron fist" in the south. It was an attempt to prevent regional Shia rivalries from escalating into armed conflict; an attempt, too, to demonstrate that the new government wields sufficient authority to prevent Iraq's fragmentation. It was also evidence of something close to despair.

In travelling to Basra, as in taking on the occupation, Mr al-Maliki is pursuing the highest of high-risk strategies. He is flying the Iraqi flag where foreign flags used to fly and trusting that Iraqis will rally to the national cause. The gamble is colossal, as is the courage required to take it. But it is a last resort, and if it does not work, Iraq's future looks bleak indeed.

The sliver of hope that Mr al-Maliki's assertiveness represents, however, cannot disguise the misery and degradation that this war has brought - not only to Iraqis, but to those who waged it. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, now Haditha. And perhaps more to come. The politicians hoped for a short, clean war that would forge a new Iraqi state. What they precipitated was a protracted and messy conflict, with a myriad dark corners. It was all so easy to start, and so very hard to stop.