"It sounds like a face-saving way of announcing a withdrawal," commented an Iraqi political leader yesterday on hearing that the US military commander in Iraq and the chief American envoy in Baghdad had said that Iraqi police and army should be able to take charge of security in a year or 18 months.
Yet the only real strength of the Iraqi government is the US army. In theory, it has 264,000 soldiers and police under its command. In practice they obey the orders of their communal leaders in so far as they obey anybody.
There is still a hopeless lack of realism in statements from senior American officials. It is as if the taste of defeat is too bitter. "This Mehdi Army militia group has to be brought under control," said the US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad at a press conference in Baghdad yesterday. But in the past few months most of the Shia districts in Baghdad - and Shia are the majority in the capital - have come under the control of the Mehdi Army, the militia of the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. It is all so different from that moment of exuberant imperial hubris in May 2003 when President George Bush announced mission accomplished in Iraq.
Where did the US go wrong? Saddam Hussein's government collapsed almost without a fight. Iraqis would not fight for him. Iraqis may not have welcomed American tanks with sweets and rose petals but they were very glad to see the back of their own disaster-prone leader.
The greatest American mistake was to turn what could have been presented as liberation into an occupation. The US effectively dissolved the Iraqi state. It has since been said by US generals - many of whom now claim to have been opponents of the invasion all along - that given a larger US army and a more competent occupation regime, all might still have been well. This is doubtful. The five million Sunni Arabs were always going to fight the occupation. The only Iraqi community to support it were the five million Kurds. The Shia wanted to use it to gain the power their 60 per cent of the Iraqi population warranted but they never liked it.
One theme has been constant throughout the past three-and-a-half years - the Iraqi government has always been weak. For this, the US and Britain were largely responsible. They wanted an Iraqi government which was strong towards the insurgents but otherwise compliant to what the White House and Downing Street wanted. All Iraqi governments, unelected and elected, have been tainted and de-legitimised by being dependent on the US. This is as true of the government of the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki today as it was when sovereignty was supposedly handed back to Iraq under the prime minister Iyad Allawi in June 2004. Real authority had remained in the hands of the US. The result was a government whose ministers could not move outside the Green Zone. They showed great enthusiasm for press conferences abroad where they breathed defiance at the insurgents and agreed with everything said by Mr Bush or Tony Blair.
The government can do nothing because it only came into existence after ministries were divided up between the political parties after prolonged negotiations. Each ministry is a bastion of that party, a source of jobs and money. The government can implement no policy because of these deep divisions. The government cannot turn on the militias because they are too strong.
It is also true that almost all parties that make up the government have their own militias: the Kurds have the Peshmerga; the Shia have the Mehdi Army and the Badr Organisation; the Sunni have the insurgents. In areas of Iraq where civil war is already raging or where it is impending, people look to these militias to defend their homes and not to the police or regular army.
The US has lost more than 500 of its soldiers, dead and wounded, this month. Every month this year the combined figure - more telling than that for dead alone - has been creeping up, as the area of US control is diminishing. The handover of security to Iraqi government forces - the long-trumpeted aim of American and British policy - is, in practice, a handover to the local militias.
The problem for the US and British is that many Iraqi leaders outside the government think the British and Americans are on the run. Wait, they say, and they will become even weaker. The US is talking to senior Baath party military officials in Saudi Arabia and Jordan who control the insurgency if anybody does. But it is unlikely that they would call a ceasefire except on terms wholly unacceptable to other Iraqis.
Can the US extract itself from Iraq? Probably it could but only with great loss of face which the present administration could not endure after its boasts of victory three-and-a-half years ago.
The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq by Patrick Cockburn is published this monthReuse content