Defence secretary Geoff Hoon started the new year by stating that he expected that British troops would still be in Iraq in 2005. He then proceeded to explain painstakingly that "instead of, in a sense, being legally an occupying power we will be there in support of a transitional government, assisting that government on the way, we hope, towards democracy." As if the endorsement of the Western occupation by a "transitional government" could make much difference for the Iraqi people who will remain at the receiving end of this occupation!
Four days later, on 4th January, Blair made his surprise visit to Basra and used the opportunity to reiterate his ridiculous claim about "rogue states", "terrorism" and "weapons of mass destruction" - thereby vindicating his involvement in Bush's crusade against the Iraqi people. Never mind the fact that there is not a shred of evidence to support this claim as far as Iraq is concerned, or that Paul Bremer, Bush's own man in Baghdad has brushed aside any such suggestion as "nonsense" and that David Kay, the top expert sent by the US to search for WMDs, has admitted he would have to return to Washington empty-handed!
But then, of course, for Blair and Hoon the issue is not to face the truth, let alone admit that they have been lying all along, but rather to regain the initiative in preparation for the publication of the Hutton enquiry report and the new wave of criticisms of their policy in Iraq which it is likely to generate. Hence their attempts at projecting British troops as the "good guys" in Iraq.
However these attempts fell rather flat when, on the very same day as Blair was doing his one-man show in Basra, the Independent on Sunday exposed the brutal and corrupt methods used by the British army in that same town. The Independent's journalist Robert Fisk reported how the British Military Police was using a former building of Saddam Hussein's secret police in Basra as an interrogation centre. He described how a group of young men had been arrested last September during a routine police raid and severely beaten (although tortured would be a better word). One of them, whose father had apparently complained about the fact that British soldiers had stolen money during the raid, was given particularly harsh treatment and died in British custody. According to Fisk's report it seems that the Army has done everything possible to cover up this murder as well as the soldiers' corrupt practices, including offering $8,000 to the family of the dead man in exchange for their silence.
This is not the first time that the brutality of the British army in Iraq has been exposed. But the fact that it took more than three months for this particular case to surface - primarily thanks to the determination of the victim's family to pursue the matter as far as they could - gives an idea of the number of similar anonymous cases which the army must be able to sweep under the carpet, using threats and/or compensation. So much for the "benevolent" image of the British occupation that this government is trying to flog!
But no matter how much Blair and his ministers try to lie in order to stave off the public's hostility to their military adventures, there is nothing they can do to conceal the fact that, contrary to Hoon's fairy tales about "democracy", their policy has only resulted in creating a bloody mess in Iraq.
Nor can they hide the real lessons of this war. Thanks to their enormous military and economic superiority, the imperialist powers may have been able to cause the implosion of Saddam's state machinery with relative ease - all the more easily as it had been crippled by two decades of war and economic sanctions. But filling the resulting political and state vacuum and, subsequently, breaking up the resistance of a population determined to see the backs of the occupation forces has proved to be a much more daunting task - one which may well involve a much higher political cost than the US and British governments are willing or able to pay.
No respite after Saddam's capture
Predictably, Bush and Blair have done their utmost to make political capital out of the capture of Saddam Hussein. However, they conveniently forgot to remind their respective public opinions that it was the Western powers which had brought to power and armed the regime of the ex-dictator; just as they forgot to mention the billions of pounds of profits made by Western arms merchants and oil companies thanks to Saddam Hussein before he was declared the West's public enemy number one.
But despite repeating again and again Paul Bremer's "we've got him" sequence on television screens and showing ad nauseam the images of Saddam's humiliation, this did not and could not pass as a very convincing "victory" for the invaders. In fact it may well have had a very different effect.
Indeed, this man, who was found holed up in the middle of a farm yard and obviously living in very precarious conditions, could not possibly have been the mastermind who, according to what the US high command had claimed for months, was co-ordinating a sophisticated terrorist network responsible for the long series of body bags returning to the US. And if Saddam Hussein was not the mastermind behind the wave of attacks against the occupation forces, this meant that the western powers were not confronted with the last remnants of resistance of the former dictatorship, but possibly with a fresh nationalist insurgency involving at least some of the forces which were supposed to welcome the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
What happened after Saddam's capture confirmed the existence of the insurgency that the US generals were still denying. In the first two weeks, 12 US soldiers were killed and 106 injured in various attacks staged in the northern half of the country, not to mention a number of Bulgarian, Thai and Iraqi casualties among auxiliary occupation forces. In addition, there was a sharp increase in the number and effectiveness of attacks against oil production and storage facilities, not just in the Baghdad area but also in the north and in the British occupation zone.
Yet since October, the Pentagon had been resorting to heavy-handed tactics in the towns around Baghdad, and even in certain areas of Baghdad. These involved bombing raids and shelling at night, followed by systematic house-to-house searches for hidden weapons and "terrorist suspects". By the beginning of December, the US high command, which had always been very discreet so far about the outcome of such operations, was publishing regular figures on the number of arrests - and they often reached several hundred over a week.
This heavy repression coupled with the capture of Saddam Hussein was credited for a 60% drop in the number of attacks against US forces in December compared with November, and the halving of US military casualties over the same period. However, in its 29 December issue, the US magazine Newsweek provided an explanation for this reduction which may well be closer to the truth. Around Baghdad, it said, "the army pulled back into an armoured shell. At bases like Camp Warhorse at Baqubah, an old military airstrip now surrounded by earthen berms and barbed wire, soldiers wear their body armour and helmets from dusk to dawn. American bases are growing ever more elaborate, with Pizza Huts and Burger Kings, and so large that one, called Anaconda, has nine bus routes to move the troops inside the wire. (..) When soldiers do venture out, they move at speeds of more than 60mph, usually right down the middle of the road, forcing away oncoming traffic. (..) The number of US patrols has dropped from 1,500 a day in November to about 500 a day in December. The army has taken to using local street sweepers to look for roadside bombs."
In other words, if this Newsweek report is anything to go by, the number of attacks and casualties experienced by US troops has not gone down as sharply as the number of patrols. This would mean that these attacks are increasing in relative terms, not decreasing, which is certainly not a sign that the resistance is "losing momentum" as Paul Bremer has claimed.
So far, not a drop of oil has flowed out of Iraq, not even from the allegedly "trouble-free" British occupation zone - proof that it is probably not as trouble-free as it is made out! In fact, it is significant that, regardless of the US generals' claims and despite the $18bn of US state money promised by Bush, military and "reconstruction" contractors are beginning to show some concern about the consequences of the Iraqi situation for their profits.
US papers published reports of a government conference held in Washington last December for companies wishing to bid for contracts in Iraq. The main theme covered in this conference seems to have been security. Halliburton, the oil service company reported over 130 "insurgent attacks" on its workforce. Titan Corporation, a company which provides the US military with translators, has had 13 employees killed since July. KBR, one of Halliburton's subsidiaries, revealed that two of its employees and 10 subcontractors had been killed or had gone "missing". Understandably, not everyone is prepared to work in such conditions. So, for instance, the 60 workers of a South Korean electrical company pulled out of Iraq after two of their colleagues were killed in an ambush.
And yet, things could get a lot worse, even if the insurgency remains at the present level. So said a report published in the Los Angeles Times, "until now most of the estimated 12,000 contract employees in Iraq have been concentrated in a few areas and mostly shielded by US troops, barbed wire and concrete barriers. In the months ahead, as their numbers multiply, private contractors will move into remote areas far from military protection." So, adds the LA Times, the US authorities are "urging newly arrived contractors to fortify themselves in expensive, heavily armed base camps. (..) Pentagon officials recommend that contractors be guarded around the clock, encircled with multiple lines of defence and shielded by 10-foot concrete blast barriers, sometimes called 'Bremer walls'." In addition, US authorities invite contractors to hire the round-the-clock services of armed bodyguards while working outside base camps. Altogether it is estimated that these sorts of security measures could add up to 25% to the cost of the average contract.
In any case if this shows anything, it is that whatever they may say, US authorities have got no confidence whatsoever in the possibility of a reduction in terrorist activities for the foreseeable future! In fact, the same worries seem reflected by the recent shelving by the US occupation authorities of a number of wide-ranging plans which had been made in the previous months.
So, for instance, Bremer's plan to privatise as many state-owned companies as possible has been totally dropped, partly due to the hostility of some of the US's current partners among the Iraqi parties, but mostly for fear of the social disruption which would result from the likely redundancies caused by the selling off of state companies. It seems that, in this respect, Bremer has been taught a lesson by the long string of angry street demonstrations after tens of thousands of soldiers were left without any income following the dissolution of Saddam's army.
Likewise, the so-called "monetisation" plan backed by the World Bank and Bush's Washington officials, has been shelved for the same reasons. This was a plan involving the replacement of the present free monthly distribution of rations of flour, cooking oil, beans and other staples inherited from Saddam's days on which over 80% of the population depends, with a cash payment of about $15. There was indeed every reason to fear that the network of private shopkeepers would be incapable of replacing the state supply system, leading to huge price increases which would have been a catastrophe for the population.
Towards a US "exit strategy"?
Since November, the US leaders seem to have taken a turn towards what commentators call incorrectly an "exit strategy" - incorrectly because it is intended to give public opinion the impression that US forces are to be withdrawn without this necessarily being the case.
For Bush, of course, the problem is primarily an electoral one, in the run-up to next November's presidential election. The relatively large support he had initially for the war in Iraq has worn increasingly thin as body bags started to come back. This seems to have revived the so-called "Vietnam syndrome" - the fear that the US might get stuck for years in a quagmire with a whole generation footing the bill of many dead and injured.
Hence the announcement, in November, that Washington was changing its time table. The original plan in which the US occupation authority would only hand over power to a "democratically elected government" was dropped. Instead, the selection of a "transitional government" by a non-elected "representative assembly" - following more or less the same pattern as in Afghanistan - was decided. By June this year, power will be handed over by Bremer to this transitional government which will have the responsibility of organising democratic elections within two years.
In the meantime, Western troops will remain in Iraq at the request of the transitional government, but a phased withdrawal will become possible from June, as soon as the transitional government takes charge. To ensure that this partial withdrawal is not hampered by a shortage of soldiers in Iraq, Bush has dropped his plans to form a national Iraqi army into which all party militias would be absorbed, which would take too long. Instead, Bremer has officialised the existence of five party militias which will cooperate from now on with the US forces and the Iraqi police in hunting down insurgents.
Such is the theory behind Bush's "exit strategy". It is vague enough to be open to all sorts of short-term and long-term variations. And all it takes to be presented as a "success" well ahead of the US presidential election is for Bush to be able to withdraw a few units from Iraq and to produce a "transitional government", even if this government is not very different from today's puppet Iraqi Consultative Committee. In other words, as far as the real situation in Iraq is concerned, the only change may well turn out to be no more than a matter of semantics, while Bush will always retain the possibility of increasing troop numbers again once his re-election is secured.
Whether US voters will "buy" this "exit strategy" as a commitment on Bush's part to withdraw from Iraq remains to be seen. Bush himself does not seem too sure about it. Otherwise why would he need to revive so vocally - just like Blair and for the same reasons - the "war against terrorism", his other big vote-winner, whether by trumpeting his alleged victory in "disarming" Gaddafi's "terrorist regime" or by exaggerating out of all proportion the terrorist threat in air travel?
As to the Iraqi people, they can judge from the similar policy used by Bush in Afghanistan what it really entails. Last month, two years after the government of Hamid Karzai had been brought to power by US troops in Kabul, a large-scale US operation, involving 2,000 soldiers and heavy bombers, was taking place on the north-eastern and southern borders with Pakistan. This operation was meant to stop the revival of Taliban forces in these regions and the rising threat of various warlords opposed to the Kabul regime. One of this operation's most "significant" achievements was the murder of 15 children while bombing alleged arms depots. In reality, however, this operation was probably mainly designed to stop anti-government forces from disrupting the so-called traditional assembly ("loya jirga") summoned in Kabul to adopt an Islamic constitution, which will give Karzai virtually all powers with the US' backing.
This way, Karzai's power in Kabul will remain protected from his rival warlords from the provinces; the reactionary Islamic forces on whose support the US have relied in Afghanistan have the Islamic state they wanted; and the US have a puppet power in place, even if they have to back it up by a permanent, albeit limited, military presence in the country. This is what Bush calls "democracy" for Afghanistan and the Iraqi people cannot expect anything better, even if the details are different, from governments whose only concern is to guarantee the protection of their respective companies' interests.
In any case, the "exit strategy" commits Bush to absolutely nothing - neither to a real withdrawal from Iraq nor to allowing the Iraqi people decide its own future. The appetite and greed of US companies remain to be fed and, for the time being, the resistance against the Western occupation of Iraq has not yet reached the point where it may become politically unsustainable for Bush.