In a last-ditch attempt to rescue some wafer of credibility from the west's most catastrophic war of modern times, the story is taking hold in Britain and the US that after six years of horror Iraq is finally coming good. So quickly has this spin become accepted truth that politicians and pundits now regularly insist that if only General Petraeus is allowed to work his surge magic on Afghanistan, all could be well in that benighted land as well. One recent report in the Sunday Telegraph even claimed that the 4,000 British troops still in Basra are regarded as "heroes and liberators" by Iraqis now that their £8bn mission has at last been "accomplished".
As the seventh year of the US-led occupation of Iraq begins tomorrow, facts on the ground tell a very different tale. Last week more than 60 people were killed in two suicide attacks on Iraqi police and army targets in Baghdad, while on Monday a 12-year-old girl was shot dead by American troops in a checkpoint incident in Nineveh province. It's true that violence is well down on its gory peak of a couple of years ago and the power supply is edging up - to the level the US promised to achieve five years ago, at about 50% of demand. But a US soldier is killed on average every other day, Iraqi police and soldiers are dying at a much higher rate, and reported Iraqi civilian deaths are running at over 300 a month.
But so entrenched has the new narrative of success and wind-down to withdrawal become that such events are barely reported in the occupying states. The western media mostly long ago wearied of Iraq and its western-inflicted travails. Meanwhile, the US and its dependent Iraqi administration still hold tens of thousands of prisoners without trial; corruption and torture are rampant; the position of women has sharply deteriorated under US and British tutelage; and more than 4 million Iraqi refugees are still unable to return home - or vote in the less-than-free elections.
No wonder, according to the latest opinion polls, most Iraqis don't share the Sunday Telegraph's rose-tinted view of the role of British troops; they also show that Iraqis continue to oppose the original invasion and want all foreign troops to leave. But under President Obama's plan, US withdrawal is far from assured: up to 50,000 troops will stay on after August next year (not counting contractors and mercenaries), and there is no guarantee of a full pull-out even by the end of 2011. And while resistance attacks are down - partly because of the creation of the US-sponsored Awakening Council Sunni militia, partly due to the reduction in US street patrols, and partly as a result of the demobilisation of the Shia Mahdi army - many expect that decline to be transitory.
A few days ago in the Middle East I met the leader or "emir" of one of the largest mainstream Iraqi resistance groups, the Sunni-based Islamic army. In his first interview with a western journalist, Sheikh Abu Yahya argued that the US had "suffered a historic defeat in Iraq, not only militarily, but also politically and morally". There was no question, he said, of the resistance following the path of collaboration taken by the highly unstable Awakening Councils, most of whose members only joined because of poverty and unemployment: "We will continue fighting until the last American soldier leaves Iraq, however long that takes."
But he accepted that the full-scale sectarian war unleashed in 2006-7, which he blamed on the US and Iran, had undermined the resistance and "reduced the scale" of America's defeat. "The mutual sectarian cleansing only happened after Negroponte arrived," Abu Yahya said, referring to the US ambassador to Iraq from 2004-5 who attracted notoriety as envoy to Honduras during the dirty war against the Sandinistas in the 1980s. "We think that when the US failed to beat the Sunni resistance, it decided to let the Shia wage war on us to neutralise the threat."
Describing how US troops would come to a resistance stronghold, search for arms, encircle the area with tanks and then allow government-armed Shia militias to infiltrate and kill, Abu Yahya remarked: "When the jihad started, we only fought the Americans - but when the militia came, we had to fight on two fronts." The creation of the Awakening Councils had caused even greater problems "because they came from within and were able to pass on details about the resistance".
The truth is that the US played the sectarian card from the first days of the occupation, creating an administration and constitution based on a Lebanese-style confessional and ethnic carve-up of government jobs - which, in the context of Iraq's complex and already damaged social fabric, laid the ground for a national maelstrom. That was fed by the vicious anti-Shia sectarianism of al-Qaida, brought to Iraq courtesy of the US invasion. The virus of Sunni-Shia confrontation then spread throughout the region, feeding the Arab "cold war" that now splits Lebanese, Palestinians and states across the Middle East.
This was a classic colonial divide and rule strategy that bought the US occupation time and brought Iraqis misery. Now there are signs that the sectarian and inter-ethnic fever in Iraq is subsiding. In January's limited regional elections, several of the most sectarian and federalist parties - such as Abd al-Aziz Hakim's US- and Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Council - were cut down to size, while secular and nationalist forces made significant advances.
But like other resistance groups, Abu Yahya's Islamic army will not take part in a political process it regards as "illegitimate and corrupt" unless there is reform of the sectarian structures as part of a negotiated US withdrawal. So far the US shows little interest in rewarding the people who fought it to a standstill over the past six years - but any pullout without such a deal is a recipe for renewed conflict.
There is no question that the US has suffered a strategic defeat in Iraq. Far from turning the country into a forward base for the transformation of the region on western lines, it became a global demonstration of the limits of American military power. But the failure of the resistance to bridge the sectarian divide and become a truly national movement is, as Abu Yahya acknowledges, an achilles heel that could yet allow the US to salvage long-term gains from the wreckage. If Iraq is to regain its sovereignty and control of its resources, and the US is to leave the country altogether, that weakness will have to be overcome.
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