Patrick Cockburn: How can you hold elections amid all this savagery?

The pattern of violence has changed. The US and interim government have diminishing control

The Independent

18 September 2004

'In Iraq, there's ongoing acts of violence but freedom is on the march," said President George Bush breezily earlier in the week.

No it isn't. The violence is getting worse by the day, and freedom is visibly on the retreat. The US and the interim Iraqi government do not have full control of almost any Iraqi city or town outside Kurdistan. The insurgency is spreading. Iraqis speak of their country fragmenting into competing centres of power like Lebanon in the 1970s.

From afar, it may seem that violence in Iraq is now endemic. Every day, there are similar television pictures of the bloody aftermath of US air strikes, suicide bombs, street fighting and ambushes on American forces.

But the pattern of violence has changed significantly, and for the worse, in the last six months. A year ago, fighting was mainly confined to Sunni Muslim districts in the provinces around Baghdad. Now attacks are being made on US forces across the country. August was the first month in which more US soldiers were killed and woundedby Shia fighters than by Sunni guerrillas.

The US and the interim government have diminishing control even in central Baghdad. This week, the US army was reduced to using rocket firing helicopters for crowd control in Haifa Street a few hundred yards from the Green Zone, the American and Iraqi government headquarters. Insurgents replied with their own atrocity in the same place when a car bomb ripped through a crowd of aspirant policemen queuing for jobs killing 47 of them.

The savagery of the latter attack, in which Iraqis alone were killed, might be supposed to lead to greater support for the government. But when I spoke to the maimed survivors in hospital afterwards, they either believed that they had been hit by a missile fired by an American aircraft or they asked why the insurgents were killing Iraqis when they should be killing Americans.

Last year, Iraqis were divided in their attitude to the occupation and to armed resistance. Today it is difficult to meet Iraqis who do not support the attacks on the Americans.

Ominously the guerrillas are getting more efficient. Last week, there was an expert attempt to assassinate the governor of Baghdad in which gunmen attacked his speeding convoy from in front and behind. His driver tried to escape by turning down a side street. The assassins had guessed he would do so and in the side street a large bomb was waiting to explode.

The government of Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister, is like a small man with a very big bodyguard, in this case the US army and airforce.

By using the American armed forces the government can blast its way into any town or city in Iraq. But US military power in Iraq does not turn readily into political strength. The government's Iraqi political base is small and it has not grown larger since the interim government took power on 28 June.

The US is trying to extend the interim government's authority by use of its air power. It is a counter-productive method. Military spokesmen announce precision air strikes against "terrorists" while Iraqis are watching satellite television pictures of wrecked ambulances and wounded children.

Why is the US so clap-handed in Iraq? The main reason is probably that the final decision-makers in the US are much more interested in who holds power in Washington than what happens in Baghdad. The outgoing Marine Corps general Lt James T. Conway has made clear that he was bitterly opposed to the decisions first to besiege Fallujah, radicalising its people, and then to hand it over to the insurgents. In both cases the impact on the US presidential election seems to have been the only concern of the White House.

In present circumstances it will be impossible to hold elections which have any meaning in Iraq. Iraqis will not recognise as fair an election in which the ballot box is strapped to the back of a US tank. If Sunni Muslim provinces do not take part but Shia districts do, then divisions between the two communities will only deepen. "I'm sure the result of the elections will be a photocopy of the interim government. They are Americans who speak Arabic," said a Fallujah shopkeeper.

The elections could only succeed if all Iraqis are convinced they are free and fair. This would only happen if there was a conference of all communities and powerful groups in Iraq, including the Sunni and Shiah insurgents, to agree on ground rules. But this would require the US and the interim government to admit that they are only two of many powers in Iraq and this they show no sign of doing.