Iraq’s danger signals

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
13 December 2007

The mood-music for several weeks in November-December 2007 has been of the cautious improvement of military and political prospects in the various leading fronts of George W Bush's "war on terror". The United States military surge in Iraq was clearly having some success; a febrile political situation in Pakistan was nonetheless contained, with violence in areas such as Swat being addressed; the winter was expected to see an easing of the conflict in Afghanistan; the Annapolis summit could be presented as a signal of progress in middle-east negotiations; and Iran's recalcitrance over its nuclear programmes meant that there seemed a real possibility of maintaining pressure on Tehran (via an economic squeeze, international support for a third round of United Nations sanctions, and the ultimate threat of military force).

In combination, the domestic political impact of these events and trends in the US - especially when given a positive gloss by the establishment media - could be regarded as positive for the Republicans in the 2008 presidential campaign (albeit without agreement yet on the party's likely candidate).

A sea of worries 

The most striking breach in this evolving story-line was the release on 3 December 2007 of the national-intelligence estimate (NIE), a collation of the most up-to-date assessments on current security situations and threats from the US's sixteen intelligence agencies. The latest NIE report - Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities - concluded "with high confidence" that Iran had abandoned its plans to build a nuclear weapon in 2003 as a result of international pressure, and was unlikely to have enough enriched uranium to resume its plans until 2010-15. Its publication was a severe blow to leading US neo-conservatives who had invested so much effort in depicting Iran as an immediate danger.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

The unexpected revision of judgment about Iran's nuclear ambitions produced a heated response from hawkish commentators (see Khody Akhavi, "The neo-cons strike back", Asia Times, 11 December 2007). There is little doubt, however, that the assessment makes it far more difficult for the more intransigent elements in Washington to persuasively advocate a military assault on Iran in the near future - and perhaps before the end of Bush's presidential term at the end of 2008. Moreover, the report effectively undercuts the case for increased sanctions on Iran, with Russia and China able to exert influence in the UN Security Council influence to counter any fresh US move in this direction.

Elsewhere too, the true picture qualifies the discourse of cautious optimism. The bombings in Algiers on 12 December which killed around sixty-seven people (including eleven United Nations staff) at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees offices and other locations show that al-Qaida and its affiliates are still capable of major coordinated operations against perceived western (as well as other) targets. The manoeuvres of Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan have bought him and his US backers some breathing-space, though the political and security prospects there remain uncertain as the 8 January 2008 election approaches. Afghanistan, however, is re-emerging as a major worry for both the US and Britain, as large parts of the south and east of the country remain or have moved out of the control either of the Hamid Karzai administration or of International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) units.

The unusually severe message to his Nato allies from Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, is significant here: during his visit to Afghanistan on 3-4 December, Gates said that many Nato countries seemed frankly unwilling to increase their commitments to match current needs (such as a serious shortage of helicopters). The extensive "spin" over recent operations against the Taliban (such as the five-day assault on the town of Musa Qala, in Helmand province) or over the British prime minister's visit to Afghanistan on 12 December cannot conceal the fact that the real situation is one of great concern to the leading coalition powers.

Iraq's counter-surge

It is in Iraq, however, that provides the greatest test on any current assessment of the "war on terror". There has been over several months an undoubted improvement in the security situation in large parts of central and northern Iraq. This is reflected in a decline in American military casualties, which are running at a rate of around half of those in most of the 2005-07 period; and Iraqi civilian deaths are also substantially down. There has also been a limited return of refugees (due to "push" factors as the welcome in neighbouring countries where Iraqis have sought refuge has become strained, as well as the "pull" factor of greater security), and large parts of Baghdad are relatively calm. The increased US military presence as a result of the surge strategy has contributed to this, as has the erection of numerous walls and other barriers reinforcing the division of Baghdad into separate communities (see "Baghdad Safer, But It's a Life Behind Walls", Christian Science Monitor, 10 December 2007).

The notion of a positive overall dynamic has, however, been challenged by a sharp escalation in the levels of violence in Iraq in the first two weeks of December 2007. Whether coincidental or not, the series of attacks intensified around the time of Robert Gates's arrival in Baghdad on 5 December. An attack on 4 December in Mosul was followed by four bombings the next day that killed twenty-five people, including sixteen in one Shi'a neighbourhood of Baghdad.

On 7 December, a woman suicide-bomber killed sixteen people and wounded at least twenty in Muqdadiya, ninety kilometres northeast of Baghdad, while ten more died other bombing incidents. On 8 December, six police officers were killed in the northern town of Baiji; two days later, multiple bomb attacks in Baghdad killed nine people and set fire to an oil refinery; and on 12 December, a triple car-bombing killed at least forty people and wounded 125 in Amara, southern Iraq.

A number of dedicated assaults in this same period reveal the political calculation of the insurgent forces. On 9 December, the police chief of Babil district, Major-General Qais al-Mamouri - a close ally of the US forces, whose representatives had publicly praised him only hours before - was assassinated. On 11 December, a bomb targeted the office of the former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, in a secure part of Baghdad close to the green zone; Allawi himself survived but two guards were killed.

The US attempts to undermine insurgents in recent months (especially those linked to al-Qaida) have included the arming of some Sunni militias, especially to the north and west of Baghdad. This has certainly helped counter the al-Qaida campaign, but the substantial flow of weapons and munitions into Sunni communities carries its own risks; many in these communities remain bitterly opposed to the US presence and fearful of the power of the Shi'a majority in any future Iraqi state. For them, the US military supplies may serve one useful purpose now, but a quite different purpose later.

In a parallel development, the withdrawal of British forces from Basra has been accompanied by an intensification of the fight for control of the city by Shi'a factions. Britain's government - including Gordon Brown himself, during his visit to Basra on 9 December - presents the retreat as a successful handover to the Iraqi government. The reality on the ground is very different (see Sami Moubayed, "British pullout stokes Iraq's southern fire", Asia Times, 12 December 2007). Britain retains 2,500 personnel at Basra airport, in a role termed "overwatch" that is largely concerned with protecting their own base. The government will be under heavy pressure from Washington to keep this small number of troops in Iraq, even if almost entirely for symbolic reasons. Now that Poland and Australia plan to pull out of Iraq, the coalition forces are now barely even a rump.

The logic of control

A more general issue is that alongside the slow easing of the security situation across much of Iraq, there is abundant evidence of an increase in lawlessness, racketeering and corruption. Transparency International now lists Iraq as the third most corrupt country (after Burma and Somalia) out of 180 countries surveyed. The combination of a surge in violence and an insistence on rigid religious observance has had a particularly damaging impact on the lives of women (see Mark Lattimer, "Freedom Lost", Guardian, 13 December 2007).

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, July 2007). This is a collection of papers and essays written over the last twenty years, with two new essays on the current global predicament

There is little evidence that this is a matter of real concern in Washington, where the main focus is on consolidating US influence in the country. At least 50,000 US troops are planned to stay in the country indefinitely (something that that the largely defunct Nouri al-Maliki administration has accepted), and there will in addition be at least 50,000 private-security personnel and contractors.

The US's military effort is accompanied by the continuation of efforts by transnational oil companies to enter the Iraqi oil markets. The intended Iraqi national oil law remains stalled after a year of internal negotiations, but it now appears that the al-Maliki government will bypass the legislative problems by awarding contracts for the development of existing oilfields. The companies involved including the so-called "super-giants"; Shell, BP, Chevron and Total are currently in the frame for substantial contracts, as are two US majors, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips.

The relevant oilfields (between seven and nine of which are at stake) each have reserves of at least 5 billion barrels - together containing nearly half of Iraq's total reserves (see Ben Lando, "Big Oil to Sign Iraq Deals Soon", UPI, 6 December 2007). The context is important: Iraq has the third largest oil reserves of any country after Iran and Saudi Arabia, and many of the largest oil companies find that the reserves currently under their control are diminishing rapidly.

Behind the headlines, then, the Bush administration is seeking to strengthen its influence in Iraq in the face of a weak and corrupt government that is ready to complete numerous contracts with oil companies. At the heart of United States strategy in Iraq remains the aim of securing ultimate control of what to it is Iraq's most precious resource.

This assessment reinforces the argument made repeatedly in these columns since the launch of war in Iraq in 2003: that the United States will be in Iraq for decades. From Washington's perspective, this is how it should be. From al-Qaida's perspective too, the prospect is as welcome as can be. The devastating Algiers bombs - perpetrated by a group which chose to serve under the al-Qaida banner - is another reminder of the value of Iraq as a combat-training zone for the al-Qaida movement. That movement still sees a few months' difficulty in Iraq as but a brief moment in a decades-long ambition.

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