Iraq occupation: Three years on and still they're lying to us

As global protests mark the day the invasion began, Raymond Whitaker examines the latest example of the self-delusion and spin that have characterised the occupation

Hundreds of American and Iraqi troops are engaged this weekend in Operation Swarmer, described as "the largest air assault operation" since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But yesterday, as protesters marched in dozens of cities around the world to mark the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, it became clear that this "assault" was little more than a propaganda exercise.

Three days into the offensive against suspected insurgents, there had been no clashes and no casualties among American or Iraqi troops. Fifteen caches of weapons and explosives were said to have been found, but television footage showed little more than the kind of small arms most rural Iraqis keep to protect their homes. An American spokesman said 83 people had been detained, of whom 17 were later released.

"This was an operation to achieve military aims. This was not a PR exercise," Lt-Col Edward Loomis, spokesman for the 101st Airborne Division, said in Tikrit. But far from being a major counter-insurgency campaign of the kind which demolished Fallujah in November 2004 at the cost of thousands of lives, Operation Swarmer was a "sweep" exercise in a sparsely populated desert area. The only departure from routine was in the number of troops - particularly Iraqi troops - deployed. While it was true that more aircraft had been used than at any time since the war, they were all troop-carrying helicopters.

There were no air strikes, despite the impression created by describing Swarmer as an air assault operation.

Again the contrast with Fallujah, which saw dozens of heavy air strikes in 2004, was telling. In that assault, 17,000 American troops were deployed, compared with a few hundred last week. By the second day of Operation Swarmer, the total force - Americans and Iraqis - had already been scaled down to 900.

The main purpose of the much-publicised "assault", apart from capturing the news agenda as the third anniversary of the war approached, appeared to be to highlight the ability of newly-trained Iraqi troops to operate independently - an essential precondition for the withdrawal of British and American troops. John Reid, the Secretary of State for Defence, who is visiting Iraq, said yesterday: "This operation is Iraqi-led, something that on this size and scale would not have been possible 12 months ago."

Although he conceded that Iraqi troops were not capable of taking control yet in any of Iraq's 18 provinces, he insisted the army was growing in strength, saying there were now 240,000 troops, with 59 battalions capable of taking the lead in operations.

On Friday Lt-Gen Peter Chiarelli, the second-ranking US commander in Baghdad said Iraqi troops would control about three-quarters of the country as early as this summer, considerably more ambitious than the goal set by George Bush only a few days earlier. The President said his aim was to have Iraqis control more territory than coalition forces by the end of 2006.

These upbeat projections will be irrelevant, however, if another problem alluded to by Mr Reid - Iraq's failure to form a government, three months after the election - is not solved. "The most urgent need at the moment is the speedy formation of a government of national unity," he said before meeting Iraqi politicians. "As the weeks pass and the months pass ... a political vacuum allows people of malevolent intent, and people who would use violence and terrorism, opportunities to step into that vacuum."

The first meeting of the Iraqi parliament last week set in motion a timetable under the constitution for the appointment of the president, the prime minister and the cabinet. Deadlines have been consistently missed, however, and many politicians believe talks could drag on until the summer. So far the main Shia bloc has insisted that Ibrahim al-Jaafari should continue as Prime Minister, despite calls for him to step aside by President Jalal Talabani, among others. Mr Jaafari is bitterly opposed by Sunnis, Kurds and secular Shias, all of whom mistrust his links to the militias doing much to worsen and prolong sectarian violence.

Yesterday Mr Reid said civil war was neither imminent nor inevitable, but admitted violence between Sunnis and Shias was worsening. As he spoke, the bodies of six men, some handcuffed, some blindfolded, were found in a Shia district of Baghdad.

Mr Bush faces a difficult balancing act between downplaying difficulties in Iraq and raising expectations of a pullout of American forces. In his weekly radio address yesterday he urged Americans to resist the temptation to retreat from Iraq. Despite "horrific" images, he said, progress was being made on the political and military fronts.

"These past three years have tested our resolve. We've seen hard days and setbacks," Mr Bush said. But his administration was "fixing what has not worked". With the President reduced to appealing to Iraqi leaders to achieve a consensus, however, the limits on his ability to influence events were clear.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright and Bianca Miller in the final of The Apprentice
tvMark Wright and Bianca Miller fight for Lord Sugar's investment
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
News
i100
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick