Patrick Cockburn: America's strategy in Iraq no longer works

In his blindness to military reality Mr Bush sounds more and more like the derided 'Comical Ali'

03 November 2003

A plume of dust and smoke was rising yesterday morning from a field just outside Fallujah, west of Baghdad, where a giant American Chinook helicopter, crippled by a missile, had crashed and burned, killing at least 18 and wounding another 20 of the soldiers and crew on board. It was the worst single military disaster for the US in Iraq since the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein started in March. It means that the US forces in Iraq may in future have to rely less on helicopters and use the roads - which in this part of Iraq are almost equally hazardous.

The destruction of the helicopter should underline the speed with which the war in Iraq is intensifying: 16 US soldiers were killed in September, 33 in October and a further 16 in just the first two days of November. It is also spreading further north, to the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. But even as I was driving to Fallujah yesterday, just before the helicopter was brought down, I heard on the radio President Bush repeat his old mantra that "the Iraqi people understand that there are a handful of people who do not want to live in freedom."

It is an extraordinarily active handful. I heard from a shopkeeper in the centre of Fallujah that a Chinook helicopter had been shot down on the other side of the Euphrates river, which flows through the town. It was only three or four miles away, but on the way we drove past the remains of a US truck which had been blown up two hours earlier by a bomb or rocket-propelled grenade. On the other side of a bridge over the river was a minibus taxi punctured by shrapnel, its interior sodden with blood. Locals claimed it had been hit by a US missile, which killed one passenger and wounded nine others.

But the White House and the Pentagon seem unable to take on board how swiftly the US political and military position in Iraq is deteriorating. Even after half a dozen rockets hit the al-Rashid Hotel, narrowly missing Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Secretary of Defence and one of the architects of the war in Iraq, US generals in Baghdad were still contending to incredulous journalists that overall security in Iraq was improving.

In his blindness to military reality Mr Bush sounds more and more like the much-derided former Iraqi Information Minister, 'Comical Ali', still claiming glorious victories as the US army entered Baghdad. Every attack is interpreted as evidence that the "remnants" of Saddam's regime are becoming "desperate" at the great progress being made by the US in Iraq.

Two arguments are often produced to downplay the seriousness of the resistance. One is the "remnants" theory: A small group of Saddam loyalists have created all this turmoil. This is a bit surprising, since the lesson of the war was that Saddam Hussein had few supporters prepared to fight for him.

In fact the "remnants" of the old regime have become greater in number since the end of the war. The US occupation authority has been the main recruiting sergeant. It has behaved as if Saddam Hussein were a popular leader with a mass following. It has dissolved the Iraqi army, leaving 400,000 trained soldiers without a job, and sacked Baath party members. A friend, long in opposition to Saddam, told me: "Two of my brothers were murdered by Saddam, I fled abroad, but now they are going to fire four of my relatives because they were forced to join the Baath party to keep their jobs."

Another comforting method of downplaying the resistance is to say it is all taking place in the "Sunni triangle". The word "triangle" somehow implies that the area is finite and small. In fact the Sunni Arabs of Iraq live in an area almost the size of England. Ghassan Atiyah, a distinguished Iraqi historian and political activist, believes that "if the Sunni Arabs feel they are being made second-class citizens they will permanently destabilise Iraq, just as the Kurds used to do".

Mr Bush's solution to all this is to get Iraqis to fight the resistance. The US-run Coalition Provisional Authority, isolated in its fortified headquarters in Baghdad, says it plans to deploy a force of 222,000 police, military, civil defence and other security organisations by next September.

This sounds impressive. But only 35,000 of these will be troops of the new American-trained Iraqi army. There are many police on the streets of Baghdad, and they have successfully reduced crime. But in interviews they always make clear that they see their job as protecting ordinary Iraqis from criminals. They very reasonably have no desire to be pushed into a paramilitary role, for which they are neither trained nor equipped. They do not want to be portrayed as collaborators, particularly in areas where the resistance is strongest and the Americans would need them most. In Fallujah, perhaps the most militant town in Iraq, the police openly say they will not patrol or man checkpoints with US troops. As I was leaving the police station in the town last week, I heard an unseen policeman in a sentry box crooning a patriotic song filled with praise of Saddam Hussein.

The US could have avoided many of its present problems if it had given greater legitimacy to the occupation at an early stage. It can only recruit an effective Iraqi security force, capable of fighting guerrillas, if there is a legitimate Iraqi provisional government. Iraqis simply will not fight if they are asked to join a force which is viewed as an adjunct to an American army. They see no reason why they should be cannon fodder for a foreign regime.

The US could have legitimised the political reconstruction of Iraq in the eyes of Iraqis if it had placed the process under the auspices of the UN. Instead it repeatedly rebuffed the idea. Now, as the last UN foreign staff leave the country, it is probably too late

Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA, this week pledged to hand over more power to Iraqis. But there is no sign in Baghdad that this is more than window dressing. The US-appointed Governing Council is mostly made up of exiles and nonentities. Only its Kurdish members have a demonstrable constituency in Iraq. It has little authority. Ministers privately complain that US officials in Baghdad simply bypass them and take all the important decisions themselves.

Because the US has sought to monopolise power in Iraq, it has few real allies aside from the Kurds, the smallest of Iraq's three communities. The Sunni Arabs are mostly hostile, and the Shias increasingly so. The only way out for the US - though it is getting very late in the day - is to hold elections to create an Iraqi authority, effectively a provisional government, which Iraqis know they have chosen themselves. A general election would be difficult to organise at short notice. But even a body of delegates chosen by local leaders in each governorate would have some claim to speak for Iraq.

The US toyed with the idea of local elections in mid-summer. But it was frightened off by a fear that the new body would be dominated by Shia clerics or their supporters. The Shia, at least 55 per cent of the population, are eager to show their electoral strength.

The failure to create an elected and legitimate Iraqi provisional government, even if it is an interim administration, will make it impossible for the US to set up a security force that will not be seen as collaborators by most Iraqis. Fallujah, where hatred of the Americans is almost palpable, is not yet a typical Iraqi town, even in Sunni areas, but it may soon become so.