“I am obsessed with the next five years in Iraq, not the last five years in Iraq.” - UK Foreign Secretary,
David Miliband, December 2007
Since the 2003 invasion, over a million Iraqis have been killed, over three million have been forced to flee their homes, and sectarian violence has led to the balkanisation of Baghdad, now broken up into enclaves sealed off by concrete walls.
According to an October 2006 Lancet-published survey (using a methodology described as “close to best practice” by the MoD's chief scientific adviser) “coalition” forces have killed at least 186,000 Iraqis - a fact rarely, if ever, referred to in the media.
A later survey (see PN 2490) found that 116,000 Iraqis had been killed by aerial bombing, and last year saw a five-fold increase (from 2006) in the number of bombs dropped on Iraq by US-led forces, as well as a huge increase in the number of bombs dropped by British war planes, flying from Qatar.
Nonetheless, despite this carnage, the indirect effects of the last five years of occupation have been far, far worse.
Provoking civil war
Indeed, according to the Independent's Patrick Cockburn - one of the shrewdest and most knowledgeable UK reporters on Iraq - the US and Britain have “largely provoked the civil war” that has claimed scores, if not hundreds, of thousands of Iraqi lives since 2005/2006.
Most Iraqis agree. According to focus groups conducted for the US military last November, Iraqis from all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and that the departure of occupying forces is key to national reconciliation.
One of the ways in which the US has helped (inadvertently or otherwise) to promote civil strife, has been through the arming of paramilitary groups.
Over the past six months, much has been made of the so- called “Anbar awakening”, under which the US has been arming and financing Sunni militias - including former members of al-Qaeda - to help it fight al-Qaeda.
In reality, this is just the latest zig-zag in US policy, which four years ago was backing Shi'ite militias, such as the notorious Wolf Brigade (later found running a torture chamber in Baghdad), to help it combat the then-predominantly Sunni insurgency.
Today, many of the United States' new Sunni allies openly say that they see the elimination of al-Qaeda as a preliminary to an attack on the Shia militias (see PN 2492/93).
Nonetheless, for the time being, the level of killing has dipped and, in a revealing turn of phrase, the commander of US forces in Iraq has spoken of Iraq being “close to a sustainable level of violence.”
Given current realities - millions displaced, and hundreds of civilians killed each month - this might sound bizarre.
However, as US author and peace activist Rahul Mahajan has noted: “the goal of the United States is not unity and stability in Iraq; it is retention of the most US influence with the least trouble.”
Consequently, rhetoric aside, the US actually has much to gain from continued hostilities - as long as they don't spiral out of control.
No end in sight
Indeed, a 2005 article for Foreign Affairs - outlining a counterinsurgency strategy later adopted, in modified form, by the Bush administration - argued that the threats posed by Shi'ite domination, the insurgency, intra-Shi'ite civil war, and Iran, could provide “substantial portion[s]” of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites with “an incentive to have Iraq retain some US forces [long-term]... something critical to achieving the United States' broader security objectives.”
As Cockburn notes: “The hidden history of the past four years is that the US wants to defeat the Sunni insurgents but does not want the Shia-Kurdish government to win a total victory... [and] by preventing a clear winner emerging in the struggle for Iraq, [it] ensur[es] that this bloodiest of wars goes on, with no end in sight.”
The British role
Though there are still over 4,000 British troops in Iraq - mostly based in the one remaining UK base in south-east Iraq, Basra air base - Britain decisively lost southern Iraq to Shi'ite Islamist groups more than three years ago.
In February 2007, a report for the US establishment think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy concluded that: “[i]nstead of a stable, united, law-abiding region with representative government and police primacy, the deep south [of Iraq] is unstable, factionalised, lawless, ruled as a kleptocracy and subject to militia primacy” - and it is unclear that much has changed since then.
What is clear is Iraqi opinion regarding the British presence. In a December 2007 poll, 63% of Basra residents wanted British troops “to leave the Middle East altogether and return to Britain.”
Last October, Gordon Brown announced plans to reduce UK forces in Iraq to 2,500, from spring 2008.
Yet, during a July 2007 visit to Basra air base, members of the Commons defence committee were told that such a reduction “would mean that the remaining UK Force would be able to do little more than sustain and protect itself.”
Senior Whitehall officials have said that there will be no wholesale withdrawal of British troops from Iraq this year.
The symbolic value for the US of a British presence in Iraq is, it seems, simply too great.