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Thursday, March 22, 2007 

Iraq: four years on.

A mother and child walk past the body of an alleged failed suicide bomber.

It somehow doesn't seem possible that it's four years on from the beginning of the Iraq war. Or, indeed, that the war itself has probably claimed casualties every day since March the 20th 2003. Even those of us opposed to the invasion didn't even in our worst nightmares come close to predicting the hell that has engulfed the country since then. I thought that a quick war, followed by the US quickly putting into position some minor figure from the Ba'ath party as a puppet president, or one of its favoured exiles, while elections were planned was the most likely outcome, with some groups possibly continuing to fight the Americans until they left. Instead, a quick victory was followed by unfathomable incompetence at every turn, mass corruption, gross human rights abuses by both the coalition, jihadists and the new Iraqi government, and the slow but steady eruption of an internal conflict that looks very much like a civil war, even if some Iraqis reject that description.

To sort of answer Tim's question about what you were doing on that day, I, being a puffed-up idiotic 18-year-old who was big on daft political gestures, bunked off from sixth-form and err, did nothing. I don't remember whether I used the internet that day - I might well have done, although I also went through a period during 2003 of trying to keep off it, but I do recall watching the more brave members of my age group perform sit-in protests in the road across from the Houses of Parliament, occasionally being lifted away by the police, who were struggling to deal with something that the clearly hadn't bargained on happening. I wish I'd had the guts to do something like that.

Where are we then, four years into this war without apparent end? Our leaders themselves remain in office, despite all the justifications for the war being destroyed one by one. True, some of the most egregious of the warmongers have either resigned, moved on or been sacked, but Blair still occupies 10 Downing Street and George Bush was re-elected, only for his ratings to plummet and for the Democrats to at last win back both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Here, despite endless debate, we still have to put up with the utterly shameless activities of some in the Labour party, like Ann Clywd, who on Monday appeared on Newsnight to again triumph how wonderful everything in Iraq was, or at least in Kurdistan, which had been semi-autonomous for years before the invasion and had already had its own army and security force which wasn't disbanded in the aftermath by the idiots put in charge of the Transitional Authority. Even then, there are regularly attacks in the main cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, which Ms Clywd, having given up her previous status as a sometime member of the awkward squad to support Blair's war would rather you didn't know about.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Labour continues to dismiss any links between the Iraq war and the growing terrorist threat not just Britain, but to the entire world. 7/7 did not occur in a vacuum, whether those who took part were genuinely radicalised by the war or not. Those soldiers who went out to fight the war have returned to find themselves scorned and forgotten by the government that did so much to make sure that their completely unnecessary addition to the US "coalition" took place. The army itself sees the reality on the ground in Iraq, that the presence of British troops in Basra is only making the situation worse rather than helping improve the security situation and that it's time to get out, but the government would rather ignore this astute analysis and instead draw down the number of troops slowly in deference to their ultimate masters in Washington.

For the Iraqis themselves, after suffering almost incomparably since Saddam launched the war against Iran in 1980, (with Western backing) many did indeed welcome the overthrow of the hated dictator, but their gratitude for their "liberation" was soured by the years of sanctions that had resulted in the deaths of at least 500,000 children (PDF), infamously referred to by Madeline Albright as being "worth it", and by the humiliation of not personally being responsible for their leader's downfall. The first signs that some of the Iraqi people were becoming restive were suppressed by the Americans with lethal force; 17 protesters in Fallujah were shot dead on April the 28th of 2003, with two more killed in another protest two days later. This can now be seen four years on as the catalyst for the beginning of the insurgency, which resulted in the tribes north of Baghdad aligning themselves with the emerging jihadist groups.

The death toll, from the occupation, the indiscriminate tactics of the insurgents and the sectarian conflict sparked by the destruction of the Al-Askari
mosque in February of 2006 is impossible to know for certain. At the very, very least, 100,000 have died since March 2003. The Lancet study of last year estimated that the most likely figure was 655,000, although the margin of error was between 350,000 and 900,000, and as that study is now six months old, the total would now again be even higher. The everyday horror of life, especially in Baghdad and Anbar province, although despite claims to the contrary there are attacks throughout the country almost daily, is also close to being impossible to imagine. For the last year or so dozens of bodies, many showing signs of torture, others with heads either missing or separated from their bodies, have been dumped on the streets in the dead of night. Photographs routinely show men, women and children walking past dead bodies as if they weren't there, or rather wishing they weren't there. A blogger on McClatchy's Baghdad Bureau site describes in excruciating detail how a friend's brother was kidnapped, with them eventually having to search the morgues for his body after he wasn't released despite a ransom being paid. The burying of unidentified bodies is contracted out, with the contractor taking photographs of every body before burial in case the family does eventually come looking. In this case, he had a photograph of the friend's brother, his body bruised and with a hole drilled in his forehead, but when they went to where he was meant to have been buried, his grave was nowhere to be found.

With all this in mind, the results of the BBC polling of 2,000 Iraqis (PDF) were nowhere near as pessimistic as you might imagine. While 2 million have been displaced inside Iraq itself, and a similar amount have fled to surrounding countries, 42% at least believe that their children will have a better life, with 37% thinking the opposite, and 58% still believe the country should remain unified, with 43% supporting democracy. While 35% believe that the coalition forces should leave immediately, 69% think the presence of the US forces is making the security situation worse. Support for attacks on coalition forces is almost split right down the middle: 51% deeming them acceptable with 49% against.

There are also some developments that are worth being cautiously optimistic about. There does finally appear to be a schism opening between the jihadists and the Sunni tribes in Anbar; Sheikh Abdul Sattar has turned against the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq, and according to this Channel 4 News report, has succeeded where the Americans have failed in arresting and flushing out some of the mujahadeen. The surge, after six weeks, has succeeded in bringing down sectarian violence and the number of deaths, although this may simply be a repeat of what happened in Fallujah, with the insurgents and others getting out only to return later once the troops have left. The ISI, which incidentally on its press release blog never claims responsibility for attacks on civilians which its affiliated groups are almost certainly behind, has become more desperate in its tactics in response to this, using chlorine alongside the more conventional explosives in its truck/car suicide bombings. Another report, unconfirmed, was that two children were used in a car bombing at the weekend as decoys.

For if Iraq is going to emerge from this disaster inflicted by the West, the solution is within its own borders. There is little more that we or anyone else can do. It would be naive to think that our immediate withdrawal would result in the violence ending, but it would also be daft to imagine that the sectarian violence would spiral out of control, or that the insurgents would quickly overthrow the government. If anything, the current al-Maliki coalition is weak because it has to justify itself more to Washington than it does to the Iraqi people. As Simon Jenkins argued yesterday, Iraq has had to put up with over a decade of interference from outside. It has to be hoped that in another four years Iraq will be standing on its own, foreign troops long gone, a still unified country gaining in confidence. If this is to happen, we have to get out, and if not right now, very soon.


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