At first sight the Petraeus report looks as if it is going to be one of those spurious milestones in the war in Iraq, (like the Iraq Study Group’s report last December), heavily publicized at the time, but not affecting the political and military stalemate in the country.
Unfortunately, the propaganda effort by the White House now underway may have a more malign impact than most propaganda exercises. It claims that victory is possible where failure has already occurred. It manipulates figures and facts to produce a picture of Iraq that is not merely distorted but substantively false.
The ‘surge’, the dispatch of 30,000 American reinforcements, was announced by President Bush on January 10 as a bid to regain control of Baghdad and reduce the level of violence. But the achievements are more apparent than real. The Interior Ministry in Baghdad says that 1,011 people died violently in Iraq in August, but an official at the ministry revealed to the US news agency McClatchy that the true figure for the month is 2,890 killed.
The truest indicator of the level of violence in Iraq is the number of people fleeing their homes because they are terrified that they will be murdered. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees the number of refugees has risen from 50,000 to 60,000 a month and none are returning.
Iraqi society is breaking down. It is no longer possible to get medical treatment for many ailments because 75 per cent of doctors, pharmacists have left their jobs in the hospitals, clinics and universities. The majority of these have fled abroad to join the 2.2 million Iraqis outside the country.
The food rationing system on which five million Iraqis rely to stay alive is also breaking down with two million people no longer being fed because food cannot be distributed in dangerous areas. Rice and beans are of poor quality and flour, tea and baby formula are short. Unemployment is 68 per cent of the workforce, so without a state ration and no jobs, more and more Iraqis are living on the edge of starvation.
No wonder then that what Iraqis believe is happening to them and their country is wholly contrary to the myths pumped out by the White House and the Pentagon. The opinion poll commissioned by ABC news, the BBC and Japanese Television NHK and published yesterday shows that 70 per cent of Iraqis say that their security has got worse during the last six months when the US increased the number of its US troops in Baghdad and surrounding provinces. A solid 57 per cent believe that attacks on coalition forces are acceptable. Some 93 per cent of Sunni approve such attacks and 50 per cent of Shia also back them.
Interestingly, 46 per cent of Iraqis believe that full-scale civil war would be less likely if the US withdrew before civil order is restored. Some 35 per cent say it would be more likely to occur.
There are some other telling statistics showing the differences between the Shia and Sunni communities. Some 30 per cent of Shia Arabs say the security situation in their neighborhood has become better in the last six months and 21 per cent say it is getting worse. But more than half the Sunni — 56 per cent — say their security is worse and only 7 per cent say it is better. These figures confirm the belief that the Sunni are being pushed out of Baghdad or into small enclaves within the city.
Ever since the summer of 2003 the US has never admitted the political and military consequences of the lack of support for the occupation outside Kurdistan. The latest poll shows that 79 per cent of Sunni and 59 per cent of Shia have no confidence at all in the US and UK forces.
This basic lack of support for the occupation undermines the elaborate tactics which Gen David Petraeus is supposedly carrying out in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. The US and Britain have been training Iraqi forces for four years now without producing Iraqi units willing to fight alongside them. The difficulty is not equipment or training but legitimacy and loyalty.
At the start of yesterday’s Congressional hearings congressmen asked how it was that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was unable to produce a power sharing government. The answer is that he was not elected to do so. He was elected because the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of Shia parties, won the greatest number of seats in the December, 2005 general election and formed a government in alliance with Kurdish nationalist coalition. Some 54 per cent of Shia Arabs now support the government and 98 per cent of Sunni Arabs disapprove of it.
The Shia know they are 60 per cent of the population and are suspicious that the US is endlessly trying to find ways of robbing them of the power they were denied for centuries under the domination of Sunni Arabs who are only 20 per cent of Iraqis. They are deeply worried that the US is in effect creating a Sunni militia under US control by turning the Anbar Sunni tribes against al Qaida in Iraq.
The Shia leaders also notice that President Bush visited Anbar and not Baghdad earlier this month (though he may also have been seeking to to avoid the mortar bombs which rain down on the Green Zone these days to greet visiting foreign dignitaries).
Essentially there is a political and military stalemate in Iraq which the US ‘surge’ has not changed. The departure of Mr Maliki under pressure from the US would produce no more benefits than the sacking of his predecessor Ibrahim al-Jaafari last year. So-called moderate politicians like Iyad al-Allawi have limited local support though he has been heavily backed by the Sunni Arab states.
All the players in the Iraq tragedy who were present at the beginning of the surge in January are still there. Thanks to the US there are more militias than there used to be. General Petraeus might make a case for saying that the US position in Iraq is not much worse, but it is certainly no better.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.