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Sunday Herald - 04 December 2005 

IRAQ: THE REALITY ... NOT THE RHETORIC


Iraqi police act as death squads
Sharia law returns
Oppression grips society
By Diplomatic Editor Trevor Royle
 
SOMEONE should have told the insurgents in Fallujah that the war is over and that they should all go home. Just 24 hours after President George W Bush declared that his Iraqi strategy was “nothing less than complete victory”, 10 US Marines were blown to pieces in an explosion which was so deadly that an immediate news blackout was ordered.
 
One reason for the delay was the shock caused by the incident: the Marines of regimental combat team 8, 2nd US Marine Division, were killed in a massive explosion caused by an “improvised explosive device” made from artillery shells. But the most compelling reason for the postponement was that the marines died less than a day after their commander-in-chief had made a major speech to launch his long-awaited National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.
 
When the President revealed his new initiative in front of an enthusiastic audience at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis – the document runs to 35 pages – he got right to the heart of the matter by claiming that victory was on the horizon and that “our mission in Iraq is to win the war. Our troops will return home when that mission is complete”.
 
It sounded good and the officer cadets cheered for all they were worth – as sailors they would not be called on to do any foot-slogging in Iraq – but nothing was said about what this victory will look like or how easily it will be achieved.
 
The main problem is that nobody knows how long it will take to defeat the insurgents or if the fledgling Iraqi security forces can handle the case. On paper, it looks quite promising. At the last count, the Pentagon claimed that almost half of the total of 212,000 listed Iraqi forces are “combat ready”. What this means is that 87,000 have already completed their training and are in the field alongside US forces in the counter-insurgency war.
 
In that role they are classed as being “trained and equipped” but there is a world of difference between getting a man to wear a uniform and bear arms and preparing him to take part in serious counter-insurgency operations.
 
“The best of their number are the guys who were already soldiers who served in Saddam Hussein’s forces,” a US commander, recently returned from Iraq, told the Sunday Herald. “They know the score and some of them are pretty hard cases, but they are still a minority. Most of the recruits only get their first serious training when they’re involved in a fire-fight.”
 
The predicament is marginally worse in the police forces, which have borne the brunt of the casualties in almost three years of violence.
 
Less than one third of the 110,000 police personnel are reckoned to be loyal and trustworthy and they come at the bottom of the pecking order as far as equipment is concerned. Most are armed with obsolete and unreliable Soviet sidearms, there are few armoured vehicles and communications are primitive.
 
In operations, there are still frequent confusions about who has primacy and this leads to a tendency for the Iraqis to back off and leave the action to US forces. For that reason, most US commanders on the ground in Iraq are pretty sanguine when they ponder an early withdrawal of their forces.
 
It plays well in downtown America where votes could be won or lost in next year’s Congressional elections, but on the streets of Iraq, talk of pulling out has an unreal quality. In British-controlled Basra, once a relatively quiet sector, intelligence reports now claim that the situation is worse than it was under Saddam.
 
Following a clash between British soldiers and Iraqi policemen in August, Basra’s chief of police admitted that 80% of his officers were not under control and refused to obey orders.
 
Most are members of the Badr Organisation, the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and were trained in southern Iraq by the Iranian Republican Guard.
 
So fragile has the security position become in Basra that the British Army admits that it has curtailed many of its “hearts and minds” operations. Greater use is being made of helicopters – deadly roadside bombs have accounted for eight recent deaths – but the greatest threat comes from within.
 
According to a briefing paper produced by the authoritative Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) the Shia militia have infiltrated to such an extent as to make security almost impossible: “Evidence also suggests that these militia groups are carrying out abuses under the guise of their police authority, acting as death squads, abducting and murdering opposition leaders and former Ba’athists.
 
“The result is that the primary loyalty of many of the forces Britain is training lies with the militia which has close ties to Iran, and which is increasingly posing a threat to British forces.”
 
At the same time, women are forced to cover up when they go out on the streets, shops selling alcohol have been forced to close, hair salons have been burned down and in some parts of Basra, law and order is in the hands of Sharia courts, backed up by Iranian-trained Shia militants within the police.
 
As the RUSI document makes clear, this is not a recipe for peace and raises the question: will the withdrawal of coalition forces lead to an increase of the general sum of human happiness in Basra?
 
The findings are not encouraging. The document states: “Instead of instilling liberal democratic values in Iraq, one form of oppression is being replaced with another, and the prospect of Islamic rule in southern Iraq is becoming a distinct possibility.”
 
Miles away in the safety of his country’s naval academy, Bush was untroubled by the reality behind his rhetoric. Instead, he held out the lure of a gradual troop withdrawal, a move which would be popular, not least among the Democrats who will make it an issue in next year’s mid-term elections. No promises were made and as far as possible he tried to leave no hostages to fortune.
 
Barring any unspecified catastrophe, in the year ahead, the US will start reducing its forces from what has become the biggest foreign policy headache ever to have been visited on Washington. “No war has ever been won on a timetable and neither will this one. But lack of a timetable does not mean our posture in Iraq will remain static over time,” reads the confident executive summary. “We expect, but cannot guarantee, that our force posture will change over the next year, as the political process advances and Iraqi security forces grow and gain experience.”
 
And where the US goes, Britain will surely follow.
 
The word from Whitehall is that British forces will remain in Basra for as long as it takes, but any draw-down in the US presence would automatically lead to a reduction in the British presence. On Friday, during a surprise visit to The Highlanders Battle Group in Basra, Defence Secretary John Reid hinted that a decision will be made shortly and that it will be based solely on the local threat levels and the ability of Iraqis to run their own security forces.
 
For senior commanders, any draw-down will provide welcome news: there is growing concern about the level of overstretch, particularly in the infantry regiments which provide the backbone for the British battle groups in southern Iraq.
 
So, when Bush announced his new policy last week, at long last there seemed to be some movement on the vexed issue of a possible timetable to bring the boys and girls back home. It won’t be before Christmas – the elections on December 15 will put paid to that – but there is now an odds-on chance that the US withdrawal will begin by next summer.
 
Even Condoleezza Rice, normally so cautious and steady on her feet, got in on the act when she told a press conference: “I don’t think that American forces need to be in Iraq in the numbers that they are now for very much longer.” Barring any catastrophe such as an outbreak of much-feared civil war, it is clear that the main “objective” of Bush’s national strategy is to rearrange the “force posture” in Iraq so that as many as 60,000 of the 160,000-strong US garrison leave Iraq by the end of 2006.
 
It is a bold policy but, like everything else in Bush’s new document, the final decisions are contingent on what happens in Iraq over the coming year. In the short-term greater efforts will have to be made to defeat the insurgency and to reduce the number of attacks on coalition forces and Iraqi civilians. Then, in the medium-term, Iraqi security forces must show that they are capable of taking the lead in operations against terrorists and insurgents.
 
The third aim, which is definitely long-term, insists on the creation of “an Iraq that is peaceful, united, stable, democratic, and secure, where Iraqis have the institutions and resources they need to govern themselves justly and provide security for their country”.
 
In practice, the draw-down will be fraught with military and political difficulties. Not so long ago, the distinguished Vietnam war veteran, Senator John McCain, claimed that instead of withdrawing troops, the US should be “ramping up”. He would like to see the addition of another infantry division of 10,000 troops and a halt to all talk of withdrawal.
 
Even that might not be enough. Although senior commanders argue that more boots on the ground mean more targets for the insurgents to attack, there is a growing awareness among the US forces in Iraq that they are failing to hold ground won from the opposition, simply because they do not have enough troops. This is particularly true of the recent operations in western Iraq near the Syrian border where targeted villages are quickly reclaimed by the insurgents when US ground forces move out of the area.
 
Even the logistical problems of removing the US forces presents a nightmare to military planners. Getting the National Guard soldiers home will be relatively painless as most are lightly armed. It will be popular too, as the year-long deployment of these part-time soldiers has caused tensions in the relationship between the civilian and the military community in the US.
 
However, the redeployment of major elements of the regular army and the Marine Corps will be more time- consuming and potentially hazardous. The effectiveness of a military withdrawal, from that point of view, is not clear-cut and there is a growing feeling that it will just lead to further problems.
 
“It just seems to be an unattainable goal,” says John Mueller of Ohio State University who investigates public opinion in wartime. “If he [Bush] does start to reduce troop levels, he won’t be able to say this is complete victory. It would just be preposterous. It’s a good applause line.”