Patrick Cockburn: Beware Iraqi leaders bearing good news

Maliki's visit to the US has more to do with the White House's domestic agenda than with Iraq's dire reality

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On a bend in the Tigris river in north Baghdad people try to prevent their children seeing the headless and tortured bodies which drift ashore every day. The number of civilians being killed in Iraq may top 1,000 a week in July after reaching 3,149 in June.

I have been visiting Baghdad in peace and in war since 1978 and I have never seen this city of six million people so paralysed by fear. The streets are empty in the middle of the day because Sunni and Shia Muslims are terrified of running into a checkpoint manned by members of the other community who may kill them after a glance at their identity cards.

Civil war is raging across central Iraq. Baghdad, a city whose population is almost the same as London, is splitting into hostile and heavily armed districts. Minorities, be they Sunni or Shia, are being killed or forced to flee. People dare not even take their furniture in case this might alert their neighbours to their departure and lead to their deaths. Sunni no longer let the mostly Shia police enter their districts. "If this isn't civil war," a senior Iraqi official said this weekend, "I don't know what is."

It is at this moment that the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, arrived in London yesterday to see Tony Blair and to deny that Iraq is sliding into civil war. He spoke confidently about disarming militias. He will go on to Washington today to see George Bush, and, if he follows the ignoble and cowardly tradition of Iraqi leaders visiting the US over the past three years, will most likely repeat what he said in London.

"When our so-called leaders go to Washington they always produce a rosy picture of what is happening in Iraq for the Americans, though they know it is a lie," sighed one veteran Iraqi politician.

Iraqi leaders are not what they seem. They live in the Green Zone, the heavily fortified enclave guarded by US troops, in the heart of Baghdad. Many never leave it except for extensive foreign travel. Eighteen months ago an Iraqi magazine claimed to have discovered that at one point the entire cabinet was out of the country at the same time.

The government remains reliant on the US. One former minister told me: "There is a culture of dependency. Part of the time the Americans treat us as a colony, part of the time as an independent country."

Mr al-Maliki only became Prime Minister because the US and Britain were determined to get rid of his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Mr al-Maliki is inexperienced, personally isolated without his own kitchen cabinet, guarded by American guards and heavily reliant on shadowy US advisers.

The quasi-colonial nature of the Iraqi government may not be obvious to outsiders who see that it has been democratically elected. But its independence has always been a mirage.

For instance, its own intelligence organisation should be essential to a government fighting for its life against a violent insurgency. At first sight, Iraq might appear to have one under Major-General Mohammed al-Shahwani, but it has no budget because it is funded directly by the CIA, to the tune of $200-300m (£110-160m) a year and, not surprisingly, it is to the CIA that it first reports. Not surprisingly, Iraqis will need a lot of convincing that Mr al-Maliki is not one more American pawn.

In theory he should be in charge of a substantial army force. The number of trained Iraqi soldiers and police has grown from 169,000 in June 2005 to 264,000 this June. But the extra 105,000 armed men have not only made no difference to security in Iraq but that security has markedly deteriorated over the past year. The reason is that the armed forces put their allegiance to their own communities - Kurd, Sunni or Shia - well before their loyalty to the state. Shia do not believe they will be defended from a pogrom by a Sunni units and the Sunni feel the same way about Shia units.

This is why the militias are growing in strength. Everybody wants an armed militia from their own community to defend their neighbourhoods. In any case the largest political parties making up the present Iraqi government - the Kurds and the two biggest Shia religious parties - all have their private armies which they are not going to see dissolved.

Not only is Mr al-Maliki's suggestion that the militiamen might be stood down untrue but the trend is entirely the other way. The army and police are themselves becoming sectarian and ethnic militias. This makes absurd George Bush's and Tony Blair's claim that at some stage the American-trained Iraqi security forces will be strong enough to stand alone.

Mr al-Maliki's visit to Washington has more to do with the White House's domestic political agenda than with the dire reality of Iraq. The American administration wants to have live Iraqis say in the lead-up to mid-term elections in November that progress is being made in Iraq. A frustration of being a journalist in Iraq is that the lethal anarchy there cannot be reported without getting oneself killed in the process.

Can anything be done to lead Iraqi out of this savage civil war even if it is now too late to stop it? Friction between Shia, Sunni and Kurd was always likely after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But what has divided the communities most is their differing attitude to foreign occupation. Ending this is essential if this war is to be brought to an end.

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