Patrick Cockburn: The Americans don't see how unwelcome they are, or that Iraq is now beyond repair

The main purpose of Bush invading Iraq was to retain power at home

Share

During the Opium Wars between Britain and China in the 19th century, eunuchs at the court of the Chinese emperor had the problem of informing him of the repeated and humiliating defeat of his armies. They dealt with their delicate task by simply telling the emperor that his forces had already won or were about to win victories on all fronts.

For three and a half years White House officials have dealt with bad news from Iraq in similar fashion. Journalists were repeatedly accused by the US administration of not reporting political and military progress on the ground. Information about the failure of the US venture was ignored or suppressed.

Manipulation of facts was often very crude. As an example of the systematic distortion, the Iraq Study Group revealed last week that on one day last July US officials reported 93 attacks or significant acts of violence. In reality, it added, "a careful review of the reports ... brought to light 1,100 acts of violence".

The 10-fold reduction in the number of acts of violence officially noted was achieved by not reporting the murder of an Iraqi, or roadside bomb, rocket or mortar attacks aimed at US troops that failed to inflict casualties. I remember visiting a unit of US combat engineers camped outside Fallujah in January 2004 who told me that they had stopped reporting insurgent attacks on themselves unless they suffered losses as commanders wanted to hear only that the number of attacks was going down. As I was drove away, a sergeant begged us not to attribute what he had said: "If you do I am in real trouble."

Few Chinese emperors can have been as impervious to bad news from the front as President George W Bush. His officials were as assiduous as those eunuchs in Beijing 170 years ago in shielding him from bad news. But even when officials familiar with the real situation in Iraq did break through the bureaucratic cordon sanitaire around the Oval Office they got short shrift from Mr Bush. In December 2004 the CIA station chief in Baghdad said that the insurgency was expanding and was "largely unchallenged" in Sunni provinces. Mr Bush's response was: "What is he, some kind of a defeatist?" A week later the station chief was reassigned.

A few days afterwards, Colonel Derek Harvey, the Defence Intelligence Agency's senior intelligence officer in Iraq, made much the same point to Mr Bush. He said of the insurgency: "It's robust, it's well led, it's diverse." According to the US political commentator Sidney Blumenthal, the President at this point turned to his aides and asked: "Is this guy a Democrat?"

The query is perhaps key to Mr Bush's priorities. The overriding political purpose of the US administration in invading Iraq was to retain power at home. It would do so by portraying Mr Bush as "the security president", manipulating and exaggerating the terrorist threat at home and purporting to combat it abroad. It would win cheap military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. It would hold "khaki" elections in which Democrats could be portrayed as unpatriotic poltroons.

The strategy worked - until November's mid-term elections. Mr Bush was victorious by presenting a false picture of Iraq. It is this that has been exposed as a fraud by the Iraq Study Group.

Long-maintained myths tumble. For instance, the standard stump speech by Mr Bush or Tony Blair since the start of the insurgency has been to emphasise the leading role of al-Qa'ida in Iraq and international terrorism. But the group's report declares "al-Qa'ida is responsible for a small portion of violence", adding that it is now largely Iraqi-run. Foreign fighters, their presence so often trumpeted by the White House and Downing Street, are estimated to number only 1,300 men in Iraq. As for building up the Iraqi army, the training of which is meant to be the centrepiece of US and British policy, the report says that half the 10 planned divisions are made up of soldiers who will serve only in areas dominated by their own community. And as for the army as a whole, it is uncertain "they will carry out missions on behalf of national goals instead of a sectarian agenda".

Given this realism it is sad that its authors, chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, share one great misconception with Mr Bush and Mr Blair. This is about the acceptability of any foreign troops in Iraq. Supposedly US combat troops will be withdrawn and redeployed as a stiffening or reinforcement to Iraqi military units. They will form quick-reaction forces able to intervene in moments of crisis.

"This simply won't work," one former Iraqi Interior Ministry official told me. "Iraqis who work with Americans are regarded as tainted by their families. Often our soldiers have to deny their contact with Americans to their own wives. Sometimes they balance their American connections by making contact with the insurgents at the same time."

Mr Bush and Mr Blair have always refused to take on board the simple unpopularity of the occupation among Iraqis, though US and British military commanders have explained that it is the main fuel for the insurgency. The Baker-Hamilton report notes dryly that opinion polls show that 61 per cent of Iraqis favour armed attacks on US forces. Given the Kurds overwhelmingly support the US presence, this means three-quarters of all Arabs want military action against US soldiers.

The other great flaw in the report is to imply that Iraqis can be brought back together again. The reality is that the country has already broken apart. In Baghdad, Sunnis no longer dare to visit the main mortuary to look for murdered relatives because it is under Shia control and they might be killed themselves. The future of Iraq may well be a confederation rather than a federation, with Shia, Sunni and Kurd each enjoying autonomy close to independence.

There are certain points on which the White House and the authors of the report are dangerously at one. This is that the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki can be bullied into trying to crush the militias (this usually means just one anti-American militia, the Mehdi Army), or will bolt from the Shia alliance. In the eyes of many Iraqis this would simply confirm its status as a US pawn. As for talking with Iran and Syria or acting on the Israel-Palestinian crisis it is surely impossible for Mr Bush to retreat so openly from his policies of the past three years, however disastrous their outcome.

'The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq' by Patrick Cockburn is published by Verso

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Senior Infrastructure Consultant

£50000 - £65000 Per Annum potentially flexible for the right candidate: Clearw...

Public Sector Audit - Bristol

£38000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have experience of ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Wages are on the rise (so long as you skew the figures)

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

It’s two decades since ‘education, education, education’, but still Britain’s primary school admissions are a farce

Jane Merrick
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal