Patrick Cockburn: The 'surge' has failed to improve the bloody stalemate

The truest indicator of the level of violence is the number of people fleeing
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The Independent Online

At first sight the Petraeus report looks as if it is going to be one of the spurious milestones in the war in Iraq which is heavily publicised at the time, but does not affect the political and military stalemate there.

Unfortunately, the propaganda effort by the White House may have a more malign impact than most propaganda exercises. It claims that victory is possible where failure has already occurred. It manipulates figures and facts to produce a picture of Iraq that is not only distorted but false.

The "surge" – the dispatch of 30,000 US reinforcements, was announced by President Bush on 10 January as a bid to regain control of Baghdad and reduce the level of violence. But the achievements are more apparent than real. The Interior Ministry in Baghdad says that 1,011 people died violently in Iraq in August, but an official at the ministry revealed to the US news agency McClatchy that the true figure is 2,890.

The truest indicator of the level of violence is the number of people fleeing their homes. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees the number of refugees has risen from 50,000 to 60,000 a month, and none are returning.

Iraqi society is breaking down. It is no longer possible to get medical treatment for many ailments because 75 per cent of doctors and pharmacists have left. Most have joined the 2.2 million Iraqis who have fled abroad.

The food rationing system on which five million Iraqis rely to stay alive is also breaking down, with two million people no longer being fed because food cannot be distributed in dangerous areas. Rice and beans are of poor quality and flour, tea and baby milk formula are short. Unemployment is at 68 per cent, so without the ration, more and more Iraqis are living on the edge of starvation.

No wonder then that what Iraqis believe is happening to them and their country is wholly contrary to the myths pumped out by the White House. The opinion poll commissioned by ABC news, the BBC and Japanese Television NHK and published yesterday shows that 70 per cent of people say their security has got worse during the surge. A solid 57 per cent believe attacks on coalition forces are acceptable. Some 93 per cent of Sunni approve and 50 per cent of Shia also back them.

Interestingly, 46 per cent of Iraqis believe full-scale civil war would be less likely if the US withdrew before civil order is restored. Some 35 per cent say it would be more likely to occur.

Other telling statistics show the differences between the Shia and Sunni communities. Some 30 per cent of Shias say the security situation in their neighbourhood has become better in the past six months and 21 per cent say it is worse. But 56 per cent of Sunnis say their security is worse and only 7 per cent say it is better. These figures confirm the belief that the Sunni are being pushed out or into small enclaves.

Since 2003 the US has never admitted the political and military consequences of the lack of support for the occupation outside Kurdistan. The latest poll shows that 79 per cent of Sunni and 59 per cent of Shia have no confidence at all in the US and UK forces.

This lack of support undermines the elaborate tactics which General Petraeus is supposedly carrying out in Baghdad and elsewhere. The US and Britain have been training Iraqi forces for four years now without producing units willing to fight alongside them. The difficulty is of legitimacy and loyalty.

At the start of yesterday's Congressional hearings congressmen asked how Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was unable to produce a power-sharing government. The answer is that he was elected because the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of Shia parties, won most seats in the 2005 general election and formed a government in alliance with the Kurdish nationalist coalition. Some 54 per cent of of Shia Arabs now support the government and 98 per cent of Sunni Arabs disapprove of it.

The Shia know they are 60 per cent of the population and are suspicious that the US is trying to rob them of the power they were denied for centuries by the Sunnis, who are only 20 per cent of Iraqis. They are deeply worried that the US is in effect creating a Sunni militia under US control by turning the Anbar Sunni tribes against al-Qa'ida

The Shia leaders also notice that President Bush visited Anbar and not Baghdad this month (though he may have been seeking to to avoid the bombs which rain down on the Green Zone these days to greet visiting foreign dignitaries).

Essentially there is a political and military stalemate which the surge has not changed. The departure of Mr Maliki under pressure from the US would produce no more benefits than the sacking of his predecessor Ibrahim al-Jaafari. So-called moderates like Iyad al-Allawi have limited local support, though he has been heavily backed by the Sunni Arab states.

All the players in this tragedy who were present at the beginning of the surge are still there. Thanks to the US there are more militias. General Petraeus might make a case for saying the US position is not much worse, but it is no better.