Patrick Cockburn: Do Rice and Straw realise that Iraq has broken up?

There is something absurd about calling for a 'strong leader' to unite Iraqis

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"The Americans and British only seem to take on board changes on the ground in Iraq six months after they have happened," a senior Iraqi official lamented to me at the weekend. Within hours Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw were in Baghdad on a surprise visit which instantly confirmed the extent to which they are out of touch with Iraqi reality.

The US and Britain are calling for a national unity government. It may be that they will even succeed in displacing Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Prime Minister, by a candidate more to their liking. But a new Iraqi administration, whoever the leader, will be neither national, united nor even much of a government.

Iraq has effectively broken up. Its administration has little influence beyond the Green Zone. In the greater Baghdad area, with a population of over six million, civil war has already begun. The US military say 1,313 people were killed in sectarian murders in March. This is just the dead bodies, often bearing marks of torture, which have been discovered. The real figure for Shia and Sunni Arabs killed by each other is probably running at over 100 every day. This may exceed the daily death rate in the first months of either the English or American civil wars.

There is something absurd about Condoleezza Rice calling for a "strong leader" capable of uniting Iraqis. There is no longer an Iraqi state to be led. The primary allegiance of the army and police is to the Shia, Sunni or Kurdish communities and not to their own government. Most of Iraq is dominated by a single ethnic or religious group, but in Baghdad Sunni and Shia are mixed together. The battle between them for control of the capital has already started.

There are signs of this struggle everywhere. The price of an AK-47 assault rifle has jumped from $112 to $290 in the last month. "You have to have a state with a monopoly of power," said Ms Rice, demanding "a reining in of militias". But the movement is all the other way. The militias are growing in power because Shia and Sunni both want armed men they can trust from their own communities to defend their district.

Baghdad, more and more, resembles Beirut at the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. One Kurdish government official told me that a Shia member of his staff had been worried because he was frightened that his family was in danger from Sunni attack. Recently he turned up at the office in the Green Zone looking much more relaxed, saying that "everything is OK and my family is safe because the Mehdi Army [militia] has taken over my district".

It is unlikely that sectarian cleansing by Sunni or Shia can be reversed at this stage. Sometimes the minority moves out peacefully, knowing that it dare not stand and fight. An Iraqi army captain from Diyala province, north-east of Baghdad, told me: "Where you get the worst violence is where the Shia and Sunni are present in about the same numbers so they can fight for control."

It is possible that the visit by Ms Rice and Mr Straw will help to get rid of Ibrahim al-Jaafari as Prime Minister but his departure will have limited impact on the crisis facing Iraqis. He failed as a leader of Iraq, but then so did his two predecessors, Iyad Allawi and Paul Bremer, the US envoy. His successor will also find himself a prisoner of the Green Zone presiding over a disintegrating and increasingly irrelevant state machine.

It is misleading of Mr Straw to claim that the US and Britain regard the choice of Iraqi Prime Minister as "a matter of sovereign decisions by the sovereign parliament" of Iraq. Ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein the US has sought to dilute the power of the Shia despite the fact that they are 60 per cent of the Iraqi population and the Sunni and Kurds each 20 per cent. The Shia leaders suspect that the US and Britain backed by the Sunni Arab states of the Middle East want to rob them of their election victory on 15 December last year by forcing them into an unrepresentative coalition.

The current government is a Shia-Kurdish alliance. The US wants the Sunni parties and Iyad Allawi, the ex-prime minister and long a favourite of the American and British intelligence services, to join it. Washington is suspicious of Mr Jaafari because he is supported by Muqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist cleric, and Iran. It also wants to see if it can break up the coalition of Shia religious parties. It is not likely to succeed in the long term and attempts to weaken the Shia will, on the contrary, force them to rely on their own powerful militias and drive them into the arms of Iran.

Patrick Cockburn's The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq will be published in October

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