Abduction, murder, mayhem in the week the peace was lost

As the spread and severity of violence increases, Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad finds the Iraqi government's position more hopeless than ever
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The Independent Online

Iraq this weekend is a country out of control. Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi Prime Minister, meets Tony Blair today amid a crisis over a British engineer kidnapped with two American colleagues, a spate of suicide bombings and armed clashes from one end of the country to the other.

Iraq this weekend is a country out of control. Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi Prime Minister, meets Tony Blair today amid a crisis over a British engineer kidnapped with two American colleagues, a spate of suicide bombings and armed clashes from one end of the country to the other.

Mr Allawi himself has full authority only within the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad. A few hundred yards away, the Haifa Street district, a stronghold of the resistance, can be penetrated only by US tanks and infantry backed by helicopters.

When the US and Britain as the occupying powers in Iraq transferred sovereignty to an interim government led by Mr Allawi on 28 June, many Iraqis expressed hopes that security would improve. Instead it has got worse. Last week suicide bombs ripped through the centre of Baghdad. The number of attacks on US troops is increasing. Casualties from American air strikes pour into the hospital in Fallujah, its floor awash with blood.

The severity of the violence has increased, with some 300 people killed in the past week, but so has the geographical area in which it is occurring. Last week there was fighting from Tal Afar, a city in the north bordering Turkey, to Basra in the far south, on the border with Kuwait.

The extent to which the situation is deteriorating may not be obvious to the Iraqi government itself, or to its American allies. Mr Allawi lives under the protection of US security men. He and his ministers are under constant threat of assassination, while their officials frequently have to take cover from mortar bombs lobbed into the Green Zone (now officially called the international zone). The US embassy, equally isolated, is spending $200m (£110m ) fortifying and refurbishing Saddam Hussein's old Republican Palace to house some of its 900 staff members.

The US public is just as ignorant of the surging violence in Iraq because, ironically, it is now too dangerous for American television crews and print journalists to cover it. In the battle for Najaf in August, US correspondents with the dateline "Najaf" on their copy, or reports to camera, were often "embedded" with US forces several miles away from the fighting. The result? Network news in the US gives the quite false impression that Iraq is a crisis under control.

Security for foreigners - including the foreign media - has got even worse since Najaf. Kidnappers are better organised and more brazen, as the expert seizure of the British hostage, Kenneth Bigley, and his two US colleagues demonstrates. They were snatched from their villa in the affluent al-Mansur district of Baghdad, while two Italian women aid workers, who are still missing, were kidnapped by a large gang in their office in the centre of Baghdad in the middle of the day. Even Iraqi journalists with local contacts travel with trepidation down the main road south from Baghdad through the resistance bastion of Mahmoudiyah, or west through Fallujah and Ramadi.

Mr Allawi, an avuncular-looking man resident in London for 30 years, always had a difficult task. He has almost no political base in Iraq and is therefore reliant on the 138,000-strong US military. His first concern should have been to make friends and try to expand the constituencies supporting him, but his dilemma is that the one of the few things that unites Iraqis outside Kurdistan is dislike of the US military occupation - polls in June showed it had the support of 2 per cent of the Arab population. Mr Allawi needs to distance himself from the Americans, but he cannot, because he depends on them.

To his credit, he did try at first to chart a more independent course. In early July he mooted an amnesty for insurgents who had not launched suicide bombs against Iraqis, but had killed American troops. US officials were aghast, since this was a tacit admission that attacks on American soldiers are popular.

Mr Allawi also tried at first to conciliate the Shia militant Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers, but by August he was locked into a battle in Najaf with Mr Sadr's Mehdi Army. The Prime Minister wanted to show that he was not going to be pushed around, but some 400 Iraqis were killed and 2,500 wounded, according to the Health Ministry in Baghdad. Worse, the fighting was almost all done by the US army and air force, and although the Mehdi Army finally withdrew, the battle failed to eliminate Mr Sadr or his militiamen as a powerful force in Iraqi politics.

Mr Allawi has made conciliatory statements in recent weeks, but as he speaks the US launches air strikes against "terrorist" targets in Fallujah, Ramadi and Sadr City. Against American claims that these are carried out with pinpoint accuracy, Iraqis see television footage of children, swathed in bandages, being carried into hospitals by weeping parents. In Haifa Street last week, US helicopters fired twice into a crowd, killing 13 people, while claiming that they had come under anti-aircraft fire. But footage of the moments before the rockets struck, killing the al-Arabiyah satellite television correspondent, proved that there was no gunfire.

The police and the Iraqi army are being rapidly built up - its would-be recruits are frequently slaughtered as they queue for jobs - but these are not combat troops. Mr Allawi needs some kind of accommodation with Iraqi militants, but he cannot do so, because Washington wants to persuade US voters before the presidential election in November that it has the crisis in Iraq under control. This rules out compromising or negotiating with what the White House claims are a tiny minority of militants - the battered remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime or foreign fighters linked to al-Qa'ida.

Given such oversimplification, the US and the interim government cannot avoid alienating a country fragmented by ethnic, religious, social and political divisions. The most important communities are the Shia Arabs (60 per cent of the population), the Sunni Arabs (18 per cent) and the Kurds (18 per cent). But Iraqis also live in a world of strong family, clan, tribal and regional loyalties, providing a multitude of friction points.

This month, for instance, US and Iraqi government forces have besieged Tal Afar, a city west of Mosul with a population of 250,000. In two weeks some 50 people have been killed. The US claims it is battling foreign fighters from nearby Syria, former Baath party members and Sunni Arab guerrillas. But Tal Afar is inhabited 90 per cent by Turkmens, an Iraqi minority who are also Shias. They are in conflict with Kurds who inhabit this part of Mosul province, and the Turkmens say the Kurds, close allies of the Americans in the war last year, have manipulated the US army into an assault on their ethnic rivals.

A map cannot show the exact distribution of power in present-day Iraq because insurgents, the US military, the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army may all be present at the same time. One Iraqi friend who had a minor traffic accident in central Baghdad last week was horrified to discover that the vehicle he had run into was filled with fighters clutching machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Iraqis are desperate for security, but the country is getting more dangerous by the day, and Mr Allawi is blamed. American officials, however, are more interested in putting an optimistic gloss on what is happening in the run-up to the presidential election. "We never thought it would be easy," said US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage last week. "We do expect an increase in violence as we approach the January elections."

Mr Armitage could hardly have missed the point more comprehensively. Not only would Mr Allawi lose any kind of vote today, elections acceptable to most Iraqis cannot be held in a country so divided and racked by violence. The struggle for power in Iraq is only beginning - and it will be fought with guns, not at the ballot box.