Thu, 04 Dec 2003

Phase three -- civil war: Where will Iraqis take control of their country?

Simon Tisdall, Guardian News Service, London

What really happened in Samarra? According to U.S. military spokesmen, a series of ambushes on coalition convoys by the Saddam Fedayeen militia was repulsed with unprecedented, devastating enemy losses.

The official, estimated casualty toll in Sunday's fighting in the town, north-west of Baghdad, was 54 "enemy combatants" dead, 22 wounded and one captured, against five American wounded. This is indeed unusual. In most combat situations, the number of wounded normally exceeds the number killed. In such a furious firefight, American casualties might have been expected to be proportionately higher. But one U.S. newspaper at least was in no doubt. Samarra was a famous "victory".

Unofficial accounts tell a different story, suggesting that many of the dead were civilians, not insurgents. One shopkeeper said that once under attack, American soldiers began shooting wildly and in all directions. After seeing two civilians shot down, he said he was so incensed that "if I had a gun, I would have attacked the Americans myself". Another eyewitness, a Samarra policeman, gave a similar account. As of Monday, only eight bodies of the official total of 54 had been accounted for and most were reportedly civilians.

So what was Samarra? Was it a great feat of American arms? Was it a massacre of the innocent? Or was it just another familiar yet confused and bloody incident about which the real truth will probably never be known?

Similar questions -- about who's winning, is it right, is it true, and will it work -- can be applied, more broadly, to the entire U.S. and allied effort. In Iraq, the big picture is notoriously hard to see, continually clouded by contradictory claims. But as the situation evolves rapidly and unpredictably, a clear, accurate view is more than ever necessary.

Like U.S. military spokesmen, the U.S. and British governments remain adamant that the overall project is on course. UK Foreign secretary Jack Straw, returning from a visit to Baghdad, gave the British parliament a typically upbeat view last week. "Despite the terrorist attacks, Iraq is making good progress," he said. "An elected Iraqi transitional government should be in place by July 2004. By the end of 2005, Iraq should have a new constitution ... and national elections." The coalition was establishing a "free, prosperous, democratic and stable Iraq".

This view is sharply disputed. In contrast stands the perception, widely held on the European left, informed largely by media reporting and deeply entrenched in the Arab and Muslim spheres, that having miscalculated in Iraq on so many counts, the coalition is stumbling badly again now -- and is unable or unwilling to admit it.

On this analysis, the security situation is barely under control, with no prospect of significant international reinforcement of coalition troops. Through ineptitude and fear, the fight for "hearts and minds" is being lost, in Samarra as elsewhere. Last month's surprise decision to fast-forward the political transition, far from reflecting Washington's concern for Iraqi self-determination or any great confidence that it will work, is actually a panicky political act driven by George Bush's re-election calculations. Collapse of the Iraq policy is only a matter of time, it is argued, and then the Iraqis will finally regain their rightful sovereignty.

In actual fact, the U.S. and Britain more freely admit their mistakes these days -- and the intractable problems they still face. This is not just a matter of Jay Garner, the superseded U.S. administrator in Iraq, or of Britain's suave envoy, Jeremy Greenstock, mixing cocktails of charm and candor. There is genuine recognition in Washington and London that Iraq remains explosively difficult.

When the U.S. and Britain insist they will not "cut and run", they mean it. It is clear that reduced numbers of troops may stay in Iraq even after a fully fledged government takes power. But precisely because it is so very difficult, it is also clear that within an ever contracting timetable they are looking for a way out, or at least a signpost for the exit. They want a halt to the body-bags. They want to stop the daily, damaging, distracting, costly aggro. They want the political pain to end.

It is at this point, curiously, that the objectives of the coalition and of those opposed to the intervention may be seen to converge. The message to Iraqis from the outside world is now increasingly that a third phase in the conflict -- following the war itself and the postwar period -- is about to start: The post- occupation era. This new stage is one in which Iraqis, by next July as Straw predicts, if not sooner, should -- and will -- effectively resume principal direction of their own affairs.

The question therefore is no longer one of invasion and war, or even of occupation and withdrawal. It is a question, fundamentally, of which Iraqis will take control of their country as the coalition's grip eases, how they will do so, and with what degree of legitimacy. This next phase offers a choice: Self-rule -- or self-destruction.

This is the developing context in which increasing attacks on diplomats, aid workers and contractors involved in long-term, non- Iraqi controlled reconstruction must be seen. This may be why the overall level of attrition against U.S. forces is falling while attacks by Iraqis on Iraqis are rising. Some are targeted as "collaborators"; but that is just another way of saying "rivals for future power". The internal, potentially internecine, physical battle for the "new Iraq" is getting underway, under the very noses of the liberators.

A parallel, political battle for control is also gathering momentum, as Iraqis contemplate life after the Coalition Provisional Authority. Members of the U.S.-appointed governing council are maneuvering for position in a future, interim or directly elected government, reneging on their agreement last month to give up power. The Shia leadership, representing a majority of the population, is beginning to flex its political muscle, particularly in respect of establishing the "Islamic character" of any new constitution and leadership. It is clear, as always, that the Kurdish north will not accept future political arrangements that in any way diminish its considerable autonomy.

And then, at the heart of the matter, figuratively and geographically, stand the Saddam Fedayeen of Samarra and the Sunni Triangle, the infamous, elusive "Ba'athist remnants", and all those many Iraqi nationalists and resistance fighters who never accepted the U.S. intervention and still reject it and all its works. These groups see no reason why they should forego the decisive power to which many have been accustomed. From their viewpoint, it is their attrition and their blood sacrifice that has been decisive in pushing the Americans into surrendering the political reins.

Despite all the events of the past 12 months, this next phase of the Iraq conflict could yet prove to be its most dangerous. The big picture, to the extent that it can be made out, suggests Iraq's future is still very much in the balance. An orderly transition and the assertion of legitimate, democratic governance is by no means assured. Continuing, escalating civil strife, scattering the seeds of a possible civil war, could yet turn out to be the Bush-Blair legacy in Iraq.