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
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
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: Service Manager

£37000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A position has become available...

Recruitment Genius: Administrator

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has a track record...

Recruitment Genius: Solar Field Sales Executive

£40000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Relations Officer

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable