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.Reuse content