The Guardian, August 9, 2007
Expectations of an early withdrawal from Iraq are premature. Only broader resistance is likely to break the American grip
Whatever else they might disagree about, Iraqis, Americans and Britons have something crucial in common: large majorities in all three countries oppose the occupation of Iraq by US and British troops and want them brought home. Recognition that the war has been a political and human catastrophe is now so settled that politicians are obliged to pay at least lip service to the pervasive mood for withdrawal. Gordon Brown's studiedly suggestive remarks on the White House lawn about plans to move British troops from "combat to overwatch" in Basra, where two more British soldiers have been killed this week, were clearly aimed at anti-war opinion in Britain.
Meanwhile, speculation about scenarios for withdrawal is rampant in Washington and Iraq itself. But that doesn't mean it's about to happen - and there's a danger that pressure in the US and Britain to end the occupation could be relaxed in anticipation of a full-scale pullout that is still not seriously on the cards. After all, Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 on a promise to end the Vietnam war and American troops were still there five years later.
What is clear is that the US has already suffered a strategic defeat in Iraq. A flagrant act of aggression intended to be a demonstration of untrammelled US imperial power to impose its will on the heart of the oil-producing Arab and Muslim world has instead demonstrated a fatal vulnerability to "asymmetric warfare". It's also true that, as a senior US intelligence officer told the Washington Post this week, "the British have basically been defeated in the south". Far from keeping rival militia from each other's throats, over 80% of violent attacks in the area are directed against British troops.
But, given the political embarrassment a British pullout would represent for the Bush administration in Washington, it's hard to imagine Brown's government ordering a comprehensive withdrawal any time soon. So British soldiers will have to expect to go on paying Tony Blair's blood price for the much-vaunted special relationship.
Despite the congressional bluster, a better guide to US intentions was given by the defence secretary, Robert Gates, a couple of months back, when he declared that the US was looking for a "long and enduring presence" in Iraq - reflected in plans to consolidate 14 "enduring bases" across the country. Given the huge US strategic interest in Iraq and the region - and its determination to halt the spread of Iranian influence - that seems unlikely to change in the event of a Democratic presidential victory in 2008. In other words, the price of staying in Iraq will have to rise still further if the US is going to be forced out and Iraq regain its independence.
Inside Iraq, that price can only be exacted by increased resistance. More than any other single factor, it has been the war of attrition waged by Iraq's armed resistance - or insurgency as it is usually described in the western media - that has successfully challenged the world's most powerful army and driven the demand for withdrawal to the top of the political agenda in Washington. Two years ago the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, insisted the insurgency was in its "last throes". But while the outside world has increasingly focused on al-Qaida-style atrocities against civilians and sectarian killings, the guerrilla war against the occupation forces has continued to escalate. There are now over 5,000 attacks a month, a more than 20-fold increase on four years ago, and the US and British death toll is rising. Opinion polls show there is majority support for armed resistance across Iraq; in Sunni areas it is overwhelming.
The mainstream resistance movement has often been dismissed in the US and Britain as politically incoherent, obscurantist or tarred with the brush of al-Qaida (which accounts for a minority of attacks, though perhaps a majority of suicide bombings). That has been made easier as it operated underground, communicating mainly through the internet or occasional statements to the Arabic media. Now that is changing. Last month, I interviewed leaders of three Sunni-based Islamist and nationalist-leaning resistance groups which are joining four others to launch a political front in advance of an expected American withdrawal. The recent cross-party Iraq Commission report cites four of the seven as among the "four or five main groups" the insurgency has now consolidated around. All have signed up to an anti-sectarian, anti-al-Qaida platform, oppose attacks on civilians, and call for negotiated withdrawal and free elections.
The greatest danger to both the resistance and the wider campaign to end the occupation remains the Sunni-Shia split, fostered since the invasion in classic divide-and-rule mode. Throughout the occupation, armed resistance has been concentrated in mainly Sunni Arab areas. Whenever it has spread to the Shia population - as it did in 2004, when Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army fought the Americans - the potentially decisive threat to US control from a genuinely nationwide resistance movement has become clear. Now armed resistance by the Mahdi army has re-emerged, against the British in Basra and the Americans in Baghdad, where the US lieutenant general Raymond Odierno has claimed that most attacks during July were by Shia fighters.
But while acutely aware of the need to make common cause with Shia groups and the danger of the breakup of the country, the new Sunni-based resistance front refuses to have anything to do with the Mahdi army because of its role in sectarian killings and on-off participation in the floundering US-sponsored government. Meanwhile, the US is seeking to draw some on the margins of the Sunni-based resistance into the orbit of its anti-Iranian, anti-Shia regional alliance.
The history of anti-colonial and anti-occupation resistance campaigns shows that success has almost always depended on broad-based national movements. But the embryonic resistance front has got to be a positive development if it holds together. Not only could the creation of an alliance with a common programme help open up cooperation with Shia anti-occupation forces now, but if there is going to be a stable post-occupation settlement in Iraq, that will have to include all those with genuine support on the ground. Sooner or later, the Americans are going to have to negotiate with these groups.