Patrick Cockburn: The General was far too gentle

The question has to be, was this civil war always inevitable?
Click to follow

The only problem about Sir Richard Dannatt's comments on Iraq is that they did not go far enough. He rightly said that "our presence exacerbates the security problem". In other words, foreign military occupation provokes armed resistance in Iraq as it would in most countries. But it is seldom realised that the US and Britain have largely provoked the civil war now that is raging across central Iraq.

The fact that there is a civil war in Iraq should no longer be in doubt, with the UN saying that 3,000 Iraqi civilians are being killed every month and the dramatic claim last week by American and Iraqi health researchers that the true figure goes as high as 15,000 a month.

Baghdad has broken up into a dozen different hostile cities, in each of which Sunni and Shia are killing or expelling one another. The city is like Beirut at the height of the Lebanese civil war. The wrong identity card, car number plate, or even picture on a mobile phone, is enough to get a driver dragged out of his car and killed. Militias are taking over. Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods that lived peaceably together for decades now exchange mortar fire every night.

The last time that I drove from Baghdad airport to the centre of the city the journey took three times as long as usual because we took a peculiarly serpentine route. The reason was that my Sunni driver was trying to avoid any checkpoints manned by the largely Shia police commandos or police who might take him away, torture and kill him.

It is as bad in the provinces around Baghdad where many of the deaths go unrecorded. Last month I was in Diyala, a mixed Sunni-Shia province of 1.5 million people north of Baghdad, where a weary-looking federal police commander threw up his hands when I asked him if there was a civil war. "Of course there is," he said. "What else do you call it when 60 or 70 people are being killed in Diyala alone every week."

In fact, the true figure for this one province is probably higher. Many bodies are never found. I talked to one woman who fled the town she had lived all her life after her son, a taxi driver, had disappeared while delivering a washing machine. Many bodies are thrown into the Tigris or its tributaries and float down river until they are caught by the weirs south of Baghdad.

In Mosul province in northern Iraq, there is an impending civil war between Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Local officials said that 70,000 Kurds had fled so far this year and that they were expecting the province to break up. I could only get to the centre of Mosul city by driving at breakneck speed with two cars packed with armed Kurdish guards. They warned me against attracting the attention of the almost entirely Sunni Arab police.

But the question has to be, was this civil war always inevitable? There was always going to be friction and possibly violence between the three main communities in Iraq - Sunni, Shia and Kurd - after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The Sunni were going to lose much of their power and the Shia and Kurds were going to gain it.

But the occupation of Iraq by US and British armies over the past three years has deepened the divide between these communities. The Sunni Arab community fought back against the occupation in arms; the Kurds largely supported it; the Shia did not like it but used it to take power at the ballot box. Tony Blair's thesis - that the insurrection in Iraq is the work of some Islamic Comintern operating across the Middle East - was always nonsense.

The guerrillas in Iraq are strong because they are popular. A leaked Pentagon poll last month showed that 75 per cent of the five million-strong Sunni community support armed resistance.

The present slaughter in Iraq is taking place because the existing ethnic and sectarian hostilities have combined with animosities that have been created by the occupation. For instance, a Sunni ex-army officer supporting the resistance now sees a Shia serving in the Iraqi army or police force not just as the member of a different Islamic sect but as a traitor to his country who is actively collaborating with the hated invader.

The last excuse for the occupation was that at least it prevented civil war, but this it very visibly is not doing. On the contrary it de-legitimises the Iraqi government, army and police force, which are seen by Iraqis as pawns of the occupier. When I've asked people in Baghdad what they think of their government, they often reply: "What government? We never see it. It does nothing for us."

In the eyes of Iraqis, the occupation goes on despite the supposed handover of power to Iraq in June 2004. Baghdad is full of signs of this. For instance, the main government intelligence service, essential in fighting a guerrilla war, has no Iraqi budget because it is entirely funded by the CIA.

One former Defence Ministry official defended himself from the allegation that he helped steal the entire military procurement budget of $1.3bn by arguing that his ministry was run by American officers, without whose say-so he could not move a machine gun from one side of the Tigris to the other.

The White House and Downing Street have never recognised how the deep unpopularity of the occupation among Iraqis has generated resistance. This commonsensical but overwhelmingly important fact has now been pointed out by Sir Richard Dannatt, but there is little sign that Tony Blair has taken it on board, despite his claim to be in full agreement with the forthright British army commander.

The Government's picture of Iraq is not so much a tissue of lies as a tissue of fantasies. It is absurd to say that American and British forces will stay until Iraqi security forces are trained to take their place. What soldiers and police lack is not training but loyalty to the Iraqi government. Far from establishing an independent Iraq or preventing a civil war, the continued presence of American and British troops deeply destabilises the country, de-legitimises its government and deepens sectarian hatred.

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