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America plans Iraqi escalation

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The combination of two events this week – the precipitous transfer of power in Baghdad, two days ahead of the planned 30 June date, and the Nato summit in Istanbul – presented the American and British governments with an opportunity to claim that events were moving in their direction. The transfer of Saddam Hussein to Iraqi legal authority enhanced the “good news” mood music.

But even this glimpse of progress for the leading coalition powers was shadowed by problems. At the Nato summit, the attitude of key member–states meant that the United States did not even try to persuade the alliance to assume command of the multilateral division in southern Iraq, still less to commit substantial numbers of troops to the country.

Moreover in relation to Afghanistan, where Nato already commands the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) based in Kabul, there was a deep reluctance to more than a marginal increase in commitments. This is despite repeated requests from the Hamid Karzai administration, from non–governmental organisations (NGOs) and from the United Nations itself.

In brief, what was widely reported as a Nato success was in reality very far from that.

An endless insurgency

As the summiteers gathered, violence in Iraq continued. A single period of twenty–four hours on 28–29 June is emblematic: three United States marines were killed by a roadside bomb; two Iraqis were killed in a separate attack on a US military convoy near Baquba; a US soldier, Keith Maupin, was reported murdered after being taken hostage; and a British soldier was killed in southern Iraq, while Britain’s foreign office named the security consultant killed the previous week.

There were further attacks against Iraqi targets, including a raid on a police station in Mahmudiya that killed a police officer and a civilian. A roadside bomb in Kirkuk was intended to assassinate Major Ahmed al–Hamawandi, the head of police in Azadi district. He escaped with injuries but one of his bodyguards was killed.

Washington continues to portray all this as little more than routine violence, while US sources emphasise the “end of occupation” and the beginning of a new era. The truth of these claims will soon become clear; early indications are mostly negative, whatever the short–term “spin”.

Indeed, it has become clear in recent weeks that Washington has consistently underestimated the insurgency in Iraq. Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, admitted as much to the Senate armed services committee when he acknowledged that the insurgents’ increased effectiveness and coordination reflected their “central nervous system”. Other administration officials confirmed their inadequate understanding of the insurgency; “they believe thousands of hidden fighters are more organized than previously thought…” (see Josh White, “Iraqi Insurgents are Surprisingly Cohesive, Armitage Says”, Washington Post, 26 June 2004).

The experience of American troops on the ground confirms this. In Baquba last week, more than 100 insurgents overran large parts of the town and maintained control for several hours. One journalist saw them as “well–equipped and highly coordinated”, demonstrating a “new level of strength and tactical skill that alarmed the soldiers facing them” (see Scott Wilson, “Adversary’s Tactics Leave Troops Surprised, Exhausted”, Washington Post, 25 June 2004).

Two other aspects of the insurgency are relevant. First, the current situation in Fallujah reveals that the Fallujah Protection Army (FPA), established with US agreement when the marines failed to establish control of the city, is now working closely with anti–coalition mujahideen insurgents.

An Iraqi journalist reported from the city: “…de facto control of this predominantly Sunni town is exercised by the mujahidin, dressed in their trademark yishmagh headscarfs and armed with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket–propelled grenade launchers. Not only do they stand guard on the street, either with the FPA or by themselves, they also enforce their own brand of religious Puritanism on the town’s inhabitants” (Naser Kadhem, Institute of War and Peace Reporting, June 2004).

Thus, a major population centre is now effectively under insurgent control, and it seems that insurgents themselves are progressively embracing more fundamentalist religious attitudes in a country with strong secular traditions.

The second notable aspect of the insurgency is the increase in hostage–taking. US officials believe that the earlier largely opportunistic kidnapping incidents started to coalesce into a pattern around two months ago: “we have the impression now that there’s a loose amalgamation where people can get picked up for any of a number of reasons and then enter an amorphous system that leads them to be handed off from one group to another and then they’re evaluated for their value” (see Robin Wright, “Abductions in Iraq Reflect New Strategy, U.S. Says”, Washington Post, 30 June 2004).

The kidnappings could be interpreted as a response to the insurgents’ tactical failures in other areas, but this is frankly unlikely. They are occurring in the context of an intensifying insurgency and are almost certainly designed (as are comparable attacks in Saudi Arabia) to provoke expatriates into leaving Iraq – further damaging the Iraqi economy just as the new interim government assumes nominal authority.

Iraq’s interim government

A new Iraqi government is now in office, but the legacy of Paul Bremer’s disbanded Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) remains potent. Bremer’s appointee as Iraq’s prime minister, Iyad Allawi, has authority over two key posts – national security adviser and head of national intelligence – whose incumbents will serve a five–year term of office, whatever government takes power after any national election. Allawi is already raising the possibility of martial law, curfews and possible election delays, even as his new government would clearly require US troops to enforce such measures.

Furthermore, Paul Bremer’s departure was preceded by a series of edicts placing his own nominees as inspectors–general in every Iraqi governmental ministry, again for five–year terms (see Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Walter Pincus, “U.S. Edicts Curb Power of Iraq’s Leadership”, Washington Post, 27 June 2004). Perhaps the most telling decision is the enactment of an election law establishing a seven–member commission which will have the power to disqualify political parties.

In short, a US–appointed prime minister with previous CIA links heads a cabinet that includes several members holding US citizenship, and oversees an administration permeated by a “shadow” inspectorate secured by the departing CPA chief.

Meanwhile, as Paul Bremer flew out, John Negroponte entered. The new US ambassador takes charge of what is intended to be the largest embassy in any country in the world. Almost 1,000 Americans supported by 700 Iraqis will staff the new Baghdad mission; over $480 million is allocated to construct and protect it and numerous other American diplomatic sites across Iraq.

These missions are being established in Mosul, Kirkuk, Hilla and Basra; there will be five further regional diplomatic teams, in addition to 200 advisers working with Iraqi ministries. All this is highly indicative of the continuing and intensive US involvement in the country. It suggests, to put it in rather less than diplomatic language, that Iraq’s “interim government” is the outward face of a client regime.

Planning for inflation

The course of the insurgency will help determine Iraq’s political future. Perhaps the most interesting indicator here is the United States’s decision this week to prepare for the conscription of members of the individual ready reserve (IRR). This news was reported in only a few media outlets but was covered in much greater detail in papers directly serving the US armed forces (see Stars and Stripes, European edition, 30 June 2004).

The thousands of reservists who have already been called up are all best described as “active” reservists. The army has, in addition, an IRR force of over 117,000 troops – “servicemembers who have left active duty or active reserve service but still have time left on their obligation to serve”. The terms of the declaration of national emergency issued after the 9/11 attacks allow President Bush to order the activation of these troops, without their consent, for up to two years of consecutive service.

On 29 June, one day after the handover in Baghdad, the Pentagon confirmed in an irony–free announcement that an initial cohort of 5,600 IRR members would be considered for “activation”. More significantly, it is now known that the Pentagon has been pre–screening the entire 117,000–strong force for further troops.

Of all the developments in the past hectic week, this apparently small indicator may turn out to be the most significant of all. Whatever Nato leaders said in Istanbul, whatever Paul Bremer may have said or John Negroponte may yet say, the Pentagon is now preparing to expand the forces available to George W. Bush. United States military planners, at least, are readying for an increase, not a decrease, in the problems the “war on terror” faces in Iraq – and quite possibly in Afghanistan too.


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