Patrick Cockburn: Face the facts: we are not wanted in Iraq

The US and British armies have failed. Their presence is not acceptable to most Iraqis

Share
Related Topics

Iraq is full of sad memorials to Britain's disastrous invasion of the country in the First World War. In military cemeteries along the Tigris and Euphrates are buried some 31,000 British and Indian soldiers who died in battle or of disease in four years fighting.

I used to visit one cemetery in Kut where a British army of 9,000 surrendered to the Turks in 1916. The swamp water had submerged the graves, leaving only the tops of tombstones protruding out of the green slime.

The second and equally ill-judged British intervention in Iraq, this time as an ally of the US, which started in 2003, looks as if it is going to be slightly shorter than the first. By the end of 2006 the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, says that US and British troops will have handed over security to Iraqi forces in 16 out of 18 provinces.

In fact 8,000 British troops could be withdrawn even earlier since there is no reason for them to stay in Basra, which they do not control and where they are likely to take casualties. Inside the city the militia are already predominant. The motive for British soldiers staying is presumably so the US can have at least one ally with troops on the ground.

Why was Mr Maliki more assertive about the timetable for withdrawal than his predecessors? Certainly he needs to offer something concrete on a US withdrawal to Sunni members of his government. Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni Arab Vice-President, said that "there have been real signs by the US and British governments that a decision was taken to withdraw foreign forces". He said this was enough for the armed resistance to talk to the US about the withdrawal and the role to be played by the insurgents after it is complete.

A word of warning here: one of the many problems of bringing peace to Iraq is that the Sunni community, though it launched a ferocious guerrilla war against the occupation which killed or wounded 20,000 US soldiers, does not have a coherent leadership, unlike the Shia and the Kurds. There is little sign that elected political leaders like Mr Hashimi can do more than plead with the insurgents.

But his overall point is important. Opinion polls have consistently shown that an overwhelming majority of Iraq's five million Sunni Arabs support armed attacks on US forces. This figure may wobble a bit as some Sunni look for American protection against Shia death squads, but overall the Sunni remain against the occupation.

There are now signs that the Shia, totalling 60 per cent of Iraqis, also want to see the occupation ended sooner than seemed likely six months ago. The US has become a major obstacle to them using their election victories last year to get a permanent grip on power in Baghdad. The US sided with the Kurds and the Sunni in forcing out the former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, though it was not able to divide the Shia coalition permanently.

The US and British armies in Iraq have both failed, though they could argue that the root of the failure is political rather than military. Three years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, they control extraordinarily little territory. Watching American forces in Baghdad since 2003, it always seemed to me that they floated above the Iraqi population like a film of oil on water.

Shia animosity towards the American and British forces is now beginning to look like that of the Sunni at the beginning of the guerrilla war. In Basra, crowds spontaneously dance and cheer when a British helicopter is shot down, just as the Sunni used to celebrate the destruction of every US Humvee in Baghdad (even then Tony Blair and George Bush claimed that the insurgents were just a small group of foreign fighters and Saddam loyalists).

The problem about the withdrawal is that it may be coming too late. The White House and Downing Street never took on board the sheer unpopularity of the occupation and the extent to which it tainted the Iraqi government, soldiers and police in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis. The Iraqi army and police are 230,000 strong, and this figure is due to rise to 320,000 men by the end of next year. But in reality the allegiance of these forces is to the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities, and not to the central government. The problem has always been loyalty rather than training.

The US and British armies in Iraq are becoming less and less relevant to political developments good or ill. Their presence is not acceptable to most Iraqi Arabs. They clearly cannot stop a civil war that has already started in the centre of the country. The main reason for keeping them there is to avoid a scuttle which would look like America's last days in Vietnam.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Workers clean the area in front of the new Turkish Presidential Palace prior to an official reception for Republic day in Ankara  

Up Ankara, for a tour of great crapital cities

Dom Joly
Rebekah Brooks after her acquittal at the Old Bailey in June  

Rebekah Brooks to return? We all get those new-job jitters

John Mullin
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future