This article has been submitted to us by Zaki Chehab, who was a member of our delegation in Iraq for the referendum. Many thanks to Zaki for the article and we hope that posting it here will encourage comments on the current climate in Iraq and the way forward.
The US knows it will have to talk to the Iraqi resistance
Even Lebanon was not as terrifying as the random menace of occupied Iraq. But the violence could be brought under control.
Friday November 25, 2005 The Guardian
The rate of suicide bombings in Iraq continues its relentless rise: some days there are more than five attacks. Jihadist leaders are taking full advantage of the anger and despair of the many Iraqis who have lost family members at the hands of the occupation. The recruiters convince them that taking revenge is the way to please God and to defeat the infidels. Breaking the insurgency has became a mission impossible for the US throughout Iraq - but most of all in Anbar province (known in the west as the Sunni triangle), which accounts for about a third of the country.
Life in the Iraqi capital is worse than anyone could have imagined when the US and Britain invaded in 2003, and has become unbearable when it comes to security. I was brought up in a refugee camp in Lebanon and lived in the country during the civil war. Since then, I have travelled through war zones from Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan to Kosovo and Bosnia, but nowhere matches the random menace of Iraq today. In conflict zones, journalists are prepared for the risk of being shot at or kidnapped if you do not approach the right groups or militias. In most such situations, some armed groups will take responsibility for your wellbeing and protect you from others who do not approve of you being in a particular area. But in Iraq today no one can guarantee your safety. Killings and kidnappings - including recently even of the interior minister's brother - are routine.
Lawlessness is rife. It is rare to come across an Iraqi policeman patrolling the streets of Baghdad who is not covering his face for fear that one of his neighbours may recognise him and inform insurgents of his affiliation. Resistance attacks against police and army personnel are constantly increasing.
A vivid indication of the security situation came last Tuesday during a ceremony to hand over one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Tikrit to the Iraqi government, attended by the the US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the commander of US forces in Iraq, George Casey. While the ceremony was in full flow, a nearby mortar bomb forced the bodyguards of both men to hustle their charges inside the palace for safety.
When I visited a polling station in Kirkuk last month in the run-up to the constitutional referendum, our Kurdish hosts told us that the neighbourhood was considered very secure compared with the city's many hotspots. But as we left, we drove through a market that moments later was the target of a suicide bombing. Many civilians were killed and injured in the attack, which was not reported in the media. Large numbers of attacks are believed to go unreported.
Kurds want this oil-rich city to be their capital, while Iraqi Arabs and Turkmens feel it should be an Iraqi city like any other. Killings and attacks on US and Iraqi government forces take place in Kirkuk every day. Many parts of the city are deserted and locals stay inside unless it is absolutely necessary to leave. At the checkpoints of the US and Iraqi forces in the city, the soldiers are as nervous as those being searched.
In recent weeks, there has been a series of offensives by American-led forces in areas close to the Syrian border, followed by claims that these areas have been cleansed of insurgents and foreign fighters. But instead of calming the situation, these attacks have boosted the resistance, which feeds on the anger and frustration of civilians. The Americans say they are attacking safe houses for insurgents and foreign fighters, while the locals report that women and children are often killed or wounded. There is no doubt that the number of "foreign fighters" battling the Americans in Iraq is fewer than many western military experts claim. Iraqi insurgents show every sign of being well trained and capable of inflicting heavy losses when they want to. They insist they are far more experienced than fighters joining them from neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Palestine, Jordan or even Sudan and Yemen.
The scale of the attacks means that neither the US nor Iraqi authorities are able to make progress with rebuilding the country's infrastructure. Iraq is famous for its huge oil reserves, but its people have to queue to get petrol and have become dependent on oil-related products from abroad because of the attacks on refineries and pipelines.
Many Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq are convinced that Washington's message to the Shia and Kurdish leaderships, after Condoleezza Rice's first visit to Iraq in May, to allow Sunnis to participate in the political process, was an important US admission that mistakes had been made and needed to be corrected. But they also believe that the political process in Iraq has yet to put them on anything like the same footing as the Shia and Kurds. As a result, large numbers feel the attacks are the only way to ensure their interests are taken on board.
An end to violence in Iraq will not happen while the occupation continues. But against all expectations, it is not impossible for the situation to be brought under greater control if Sunnis are given a role similar to that of the Shia and Kurds. When they feel that their areas are beginning to benefit from reconstruction and their men are allowed to go back to their jobs in state institutions and the army, from which they were expelled as a result of de-Ba'athification, there is little doubt that the situation could improve. A large number of Ba'ath party members who are not regarded as guilty of wrongdoing found themselves with little alternative to joining the resistance - and that is where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi finds the best environment to flourish. Many of the attacks against Iraqi and American forces are led by Ba'athists who have the power to penetrate the system; they are leaving their options open in the hope that one day they will be allowed to return to the political scene.
There is a growing American realisation that it will have to deal with the resistance: General Rick Lynch, spokesperson of the US-led multinational force in Iraq, this week emphasised it was vital to differentiate between insurgent elements. Iraq will be unable to function normally until the insurgency is brought under control and, as history has shown, a conventional military power can never defeat a guerrilla force without the support of the indigenous people.