On the ground, conflicting signals of a nation's future

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The Independent Online

Seven hundred Iraqi and US troops swept through central Baghdad yesterday, arresting 65 suspected militants. But despite this show of force, American forces are on the retreat throughout Iraq.

Seven hundred Iraqi and US troops swept through central Baghdad yesterday, arresting 65 suspected militants. But despite this show of force, American forces are on the retreat throughout Iraq.

Slowly, the great American adventure in the country, which started with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, is coming to an end. But the battle to interpret its place in history is just beginning. As with the withdrawal from Vietnam in 1972, the US military, faced with a costly and unwinnable war, evidently want to depart after declaring victory and before local forces collapse.

In reality, large parts of Iraq are outside American or Iraqi government control. This includes the vital frontier zone with Syria, west of the northern capital of Mosul. Here, the insurgents have largely taken over since US troops departed some months ago.

"Ten days ago our forces tried to set up a new post on the border and were fired on, losing two men killed," a well-informed Iraqi official told The Independent. "When they pursued their attackers, the insurgents fled to a police station and we had to fight the police." He added that Mosul, with a population of 1.5 million, was "a time bomb which might explode at any moment".

The US military has not been defeated by the insurgents, but it has been unable to suppress them. In April 2003, US tanks captured Baghdad airport and roared triumphantly in to the capital. But two years later, US forces have still been unable to secure the airport road.

The US long denounced the insurgents as remnants of the old regime of Saddam or foreign fighters. Military commanders now try to quantify them as numbering 15,000 to 20,000. But, in fact, most of the Sunni Muslim regions of Iraq, with a population of four or five million, are in more or less open revolt.

The position of the US militarily in Iraq remains very unstable. It can contain but not defeat the Sunni insurgency. But if the Shias, 60 per cent of the population, also turned against the US, then the military occupation would end immediately.

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