Leading article: A disgraceful and cynical surge of self-interest

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The Independent Online

We should not be surprised that the Congressional testimony from General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, yesterday painted an encouraging picture of the situation in the country. General Petraeus was reporting on his own efforts to curb the insurgency in Iraq and evaluating a military approach that he had personally championed. He was never likely to conclude that the surge had failed. And nor was the White House likely to schedule a report of failure to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

But leaving aside for a moment the blatant conflict of interest at the heart of this exercise, what are we to make of the substance of his testimony? General Petraeus pointed to a decrease in violence in Anbar province since February when the surge began. It is true that levels of bloodshed are sharply down in the western province. But this has nothing to do with the surge. Sunni tribes in Anbar have turned against al-Qa'ida militants who have been operating there. These tribes can hardly be considered loyal to the Iraqi government.

It is also true, as General Petraeus reported, that the level of killing in Baghdad is down on a year ago. But this is mainly because the city's Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, stood down his Mehdi army when the surge began. There is no reason to believe that these militants will not reassemble as soon as conditions are more amenable. The walls erected across the Iraqi capital by the US military in recent months to separate hostile communities also look like a strategy that can only exacerbate sectarian divisions in the long term.

Moreover, in the short term, the surge has merely pushed violence into other areas of the country. There are still some 23 car bombings a month throughout Iraq. The US still refuses to count the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the conflict, but there is no indication that the overall death toll in the country has fallen significantly as a result of the surge.

General Petraeus included the obligatory mention of the build-up of the Iraqi army and police. But these institutions have been thoroughly infiltrated by sectarian militias, who owe their allegiance not to the Iraqi government but various tribal and religious leaders. General Petraeus also neglected to mention that a great many of the weapons in the hands of the insurgents were originally supplied to the Iraqi army by the US. The political reconciliation between Sunni and Shia political representatives that we were told the surge would achieve has not occurred, something that even General Petraeus did not attempt to argue yesterday.

But the General's efforts might still achieve at least one political goal, although that will be in Washington rather than Baghdad. George Bush and his close advisers want to keep a substantial number of US troops in Iraq until the end of the presidency in January 2009. This is so President Bush can blame the inevitable retreat on the cowardice or incompetence of his successor, giving him at least some basis for defending his presidency in the eyes of history.

The surge was never truly about stabilising Iraq. The US had already lost the ability to control events on the ground when the troops began to pour in earlier this year. Its primary purpose was to stave off demands from Democrats and some Republicans for a timetable for a US troop withdrawal. This is cynical and disgraceful. But what else can we expect from a military adventure that was formed in a spirit of hubris and carried out in an atmosphere of crashing incompetence and reckless arrogance? The US-led occupation of Iraq is unravelling in the same morally compromised manner in which it began.

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