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     Volume 5 Issue 126 | December 29, 2006 |

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Food for Thought

A Vertical Learning Curve…

Farah Ghuznavi

It's official. Effectively dispelling any lingering doubts, the long-awaited Iraq Study Group's recommendations make it absolutely clear that the US administration's Iraq policy just hasn't worked! Many earlier supporters of the war have already been distancing themselves from the fiasco, looking for someone to blame for the scale of the disaster - "The current situation is dire… many mistakes were made…by the US administration" (Jack Straw, ex-Foreign Secretary, UK).

The Bush administration also faces criticism from former neocon allies, such as Ken Adelman - "The national security team...turned out to be among the most incompetent in the post-war era. Not only did each of them have enormous flaws, but together they were deadly"! Prior to his resignation, even Donald Rumsfeld had urged a re-think of US policy, stating that "Clearly what US forces are doing...is not working well enough or fast enough... it is time for a major adjustment". Hindsight is indeed 20/20 - even for warmongers, it seems!

The new Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, has admitted that the US is not winning the war in Iraq, warning of a possible "regional conflagration". But if the key purpose of the Iraq Study Group report was to provide the Bush administration with a politically neutral means of getting themselves off the hook on Iraq, this looks impossible, given how utterly the recommendations of the group repudiate the administration's existing policies. To make matters worse, every possible exit strategy has been examined by the group and found wanting, leading to the inescapable conclusion there ARE "no new ideas on Iraq"...

So we are left with old ideas, some of which have been rejected utterly by the Bush administration in the past: that there should be a planned withdrawal of US combat troops, that some US soldiers would stay on to train the Iraqi security forces, that there should be direct engagement with important regional players such as Iran and Syria - and perhaps the oldest idea of all, that there needs to be an urgent push for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement!

It is the last two points that bring home the bitter irony of how much has been lost in terms of time, goodwill, money, and above all human (mainly Iraqi) life, simply to find ourselves returning to these very same conclusions once again... And despite President Bush's resistance to these recommendations, the fact remains that they were drawn up by a 10 member bipartisan panel, who reached their conclusions with "remarkable speed and unanimity" (UK Independent).

Veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn worryingly points out that many of the disasters envisaged in the Iraq Study Group report are already taking place. While the report warns that ethnic cleansing could escalate, many maintain that Baghdad and central Iraq has already broken up into mutually hostile, heavily-armed Shia and Sunni factions. The fact that supposedly national institutions such as the police, army and government ministries have also been divided along sectarian lines between Shia, Sunni and Kurds, serves to reinforce existing divisions between these groups. Civil war is effectively raging across central Iraq, where sectarian conflict has displaced people from both communities. According to UNHCR, an estimated 1.6 million Iraqis are internally displaced, and a further 1.8 million refugees have fled abroad.

The security forces (the strengthening of which has been a priority of the Coalition forces for some time) have utterly failed to get to grips with either the insurgency or the growing sectarian conflict. An ominous sign of the pervasive rot within the security apparatus became evident when police commandos from the Shia-controlled Interior Ministry kidnapped 150 people from the Sunni-run Higher Education ministry in the heart of Baghdad last November. But as the Iraqi Foreign Minister had already stated much earlier, "They say that the killings and kidnappings are being carried out by men in police uniforms and with police vehicles… but everyone in Baghdad knows that the killers and kidnappers are real policemen" (UK Independent).

A similar situation now prevails in Basra, where local people have long claimed that the police and army are riddled with insurgents, responsible for the vast majority of murders in the city. The veracity of this statement has been strengthened by the recent revelation that a British soldier, Sgt John Jones, was one of several murdered by the Iraqi police!

According to his mother, Carol Jones, "I have spoken to other mothers... who (have been) told by the (British) army that the police are the killers. It is frightening.

They can't be vetting them properly" (UK Independent). In this context, the statement of the Study Group report doubting whether the security forces "will carry out missions on behalf of national goals instead of a sectarian agenda" simply constitutes the final nail in the coffin, in terms of recognising that the occupying powers have singularly failed to build up Iraqi national forces' capacity to deal with the enormous challenges that the country faces. If British soldiers are not safe from them, how can anybody else be?

The report also goes some way towards dispelling the myths systematically developed by Coalition spokespersons in their regular press "briefings", including the deliberate emphasis on the role of foreign fighters in the war in Iraq. It cites US military officials as saying that Al Qaeda in Iraq is responsible for only a small portion of the violence, and that there are only an estimated 1300 foreign fighters in the country (current estimates place the insurgency at around 30,000).

This lends credence to the idea that the presence of occupying troops is contributing to the worsening security situation, not ameliorating it, as has already been pointed out by the commander of the British Army, Sir Richard Dannatt. His view appears to be supported by a series of recent opinion polls showing that 92% of the Sunni and 62% of the Shia (compared to only 41% at the start of the year) now approve of attacks on US-led forces!

Finally, the US administration's steadfast refusal to engage with key regional players such as Syria and Iraq has been given short shrift by this report, with the Iraq Study Group suggesting that the nuclear confrontation with Iran should be dealt with at the UN, and a new diplomatic offensive be launched immediately to make up for lost time. At the press conference, one of the key authors stressed that it was not a sign of weakness to negotiate with adversaries - "We talked to the Soviets for 40 years, when they were trying to blow us up," James Baker stated.

The question now is whether the report comes as too little, too late. For one thing, why should Teheran, so long vilified as part of the "axis of evil", now lend a helping hand to its long-term enemy? More importantly, there remains the question as to whether this most obstinate of US presidents will even take seriously report recommendations that run so directly counter to the policies he has been following. While Mr Baker urged the President not to treat the report "like a fruit salad" (presumably by picking out the palatable bits!), it remains to be seen whether the fruitcakes and nut-jobs lurking in the neocon fold will be persuaded to see sense...

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