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The American occupation of Iraq is going much the same way as British rule after the First World War, when an easy military victory led to over-confidence and a conviction that what Iraqis did was of no importance. A rebellion in 1920 provoked the occupiers into establishing an Iraqi national government with limited powers. Under the Anglo-Iraqi treaty of 1930, Iraq achieved nominal independence and joined the League of Nations but Britain retained two large bases and remained the predominant power. Until the monarchy was overthrown in 1958, Iraqis perceived their leaders as foreign pawns and failed to accord their governments any legitimacy.

America, we now know, is negotiating a security agreement to replace the present UN mandate. The agreement – effectively a treaty, but it won’t go by that name because Bush doesn’t want to submit it to Senate approval – continues the occupation under a different guise. The US will keep possession of more than fifty bases; in each case a few Iraqi soldiers will man an outer perimeter so that the US can say the bases will be in Iraqi hands. American soldiers and contractors will have legal immunity. The US will be free to carry out operations against ‘terrorists’ without informing the Iraqi government; it will be able to carry out military campaigns as and when it feels like it. Some of the Iraqi negotiators have been horrified by the extent of the American demands. But whatever his private misgivings, Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, believes that he can’t finally do without American backing. His coalition of Shia religious parties, Sunni representatives and Kurds feel the same way.

The Iraqi-American security agreement, which Bush wants signed by 31 July, is a better barometer of where real power lies in Iraq than military developments on the ground. It comes just as the Iraqi government is trying to regain control of the country’s largest cities. Since the end of March the government has launched three offensives, sending its army into Basra, Mosul and Sadr City in Baghdad. Thousands of government soldiers now patrol Shia districts once dominated by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army. In the Sunni Arab city of Mosul, where more than a thousand people have been arrested, the government claims it is on the verge of crushing the last remnant of al-Qaida in Iraq. Maliki is trying to prove that the Iraqi state is back in business. The operations in Basra and Mosul were given bombastic names – Charge of the Knights and Roar of the Lion – in an attempt to underline Maliki’s intention to make the Iraqi army the strongest non-American military power in Iraq.

At first sight the government seems to be succeeding, despite early failures. The attack on the Mehdi Army in Basra on 25 March initially made no headway and Iraqi soldiers ran out of food after a couple of days. They also had to be heavily reinforced by US air strikes and British artillery fire, called in by American advisers. But a few weeks later, government soldiers were taking over districts held by the Mehdi Army. In Sadr City the Americans again bore the brunt of the fighting. In both Basra and Sadr City the clashes ended when Muqtada al-Sadr called his men off the streets under ceasefires brokered by the Iranians. At this point the Iraqi army moved in without US help. Maliki may not have won the decisive military victory he claimed, but at the end of the fighting his government looked stronger than ever.

The key question is whether the government’s success will be lasting. Again and again over the last five years the US and its Iraqi allies have genuinely believed that they were winning on the ground only to see their supposed successes evaporate when their opponents launched a counterattack. A year ago the Americans and the Kurds wanted to get rid of Maliki, as did the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the biggest Shia party in his governing coalition. But then Washington changed its mind, saying in private that it wanted Iraq to appear as politically stable as possible during an election year in the US. The Kurds and the ISCI, meanwhile, came to believe that they could get much of what they wanted with Maliki in power. For the first time since Saddam’s fall, many Iraqis think the present government might last.

This may be misleading. Al-Sadr doesn’t want to fight now because he sensibly wants to avoid a direct military confrontation with the US army, which his lightly armed militiamen are bound to lose. This has been his strategy since 2004, when his militiamen fought ferocious battles with the US marines in Najaf. The Iranians, who are now playing an increasingly overt role in Iraq, don’t want an intra-Shia civil war between the ISCI and the Sadrists. The Iraqi minister of defence says that the Iraqi army will not be strong enough to hold its own against insurgents until 2012. The government faces crucial provincial elections in November, which the parties in the ruling coalition may well lose. According to a US military intelligence estimate, in a fair poll the Sadrists would win 60 per cent of the vote in southern Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Shia. The surprise government offensives may have been launched in order to ensure that the vote can be more easily fixed. A more Machiavellian explanation is that the ISCI expected the Iraqi army to fail and hoped to lure the American army into a confrontation with the Sadrists.

The parties supporting Maliki now make up what some Iraqis call the Council of Five: the two Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; the Dawa Party, to which Maliki belongs; the ISCI; and the Islamic Party of the Sunni. The coalition’s aim – a brutal one – seems to be to eliminate their domestic opponents while they have the backing of American firepower. Maliki could become an Iraqi Putin. Like Putin, he controls the state machine and a large though unreliable army; like Putin, he benefits from the high price of oil (he has control of more than $40 billion in unspent reserves). Iraqis do not trust their government but, like the Russians when Putin first came to power in 1999, they are desperately tired of war. Many people will support anybody who provides peace and security. But Putin’s enemies were fictional or in distant Chechnya: Maliki’s are real, dangerous and close by.

On 10 May, the day the government forces started their Roar of the Lion offensive, I was in Mosul. As in Basra and Sadr City a few weeks earlier, thousands of government troops and police guarded every street and alleyway. The civilian population had disappeared indoors or fled the city. The operation, supposedly aimed at depriving al-Qaida of its last bastion in Iraq, had been promised by Maliki some months earlier, after the city’s chief of police had been assassinated by a suicide bomber with explosives hidden under his police uniform. But its timing had caught Mosul by surprise, and people hadn’t had a chance to stock up on food before a curfew was imposed. In the first hours of the operation US troops shot dead two men, a woman and a child in a car that failed to stop at a checkpoint on the city’s outskirts because, according to a US military statement, the men were armed and one had made ‘threatening movements’ from inside the car.

I have been visiting Mosul since the Kurds and Americans captured it in 2003. Each time I go the Kurdish authorities, who effectively run the city, allocate a larger number of armed guards to protect whichever official I am travelling with. We began the journey from Arbil in a convoy of white pick-up trucks, escorting Khasro Goran, the deputy governor of Mosul, to his office in the old Baathist headquarters on the left bank of the Tigris. Each truck had a heavy machinegun in the back manned by alert-looking soldiers, some with black face-masks. The official border between Kurdistan and Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, is the Zaab river, very low this year. But the real frontier is further down the road at a small village called Ghazik; after this point the road becomes increasingly dangerous. At a bridge near the village, police were stopping trucks and cars. A few miles further on, at a fort in a Chaldean Christian village called Bartilla, we exchanged the pick-ups for military vehicles, fitted with armour-plating and bullet-proof windows like spyholes.

In Nineveh province the curfew was being taken seriously. There are gypsum-processing kilns along the road that crosses the plain east of Mosul city, but none of them was working. Even the dreary tea-houses serving food to truck drivers were closed. The Kurdish minority in the east live near a small hill on top of which stands the mosque of Nebi Yunis, where the prophet Jonah is supposedly buried; the area is usually full of street traders but now every shop had its metal grille down. I saw the black vehicles of Interior Ministry special commandos patrolling the roads, the yellow tiger’s head insignia emblazoned on the vehicles’ doors. The operation was being carried out by 15,000 troops, made up of the three brigades of the 2nd and 3rd Divisions normally stationed in Mosul and a fourth brigade from Baghdad. American drones and helicopters passed overhead but there was no fighting, no sign of US troops on the streets. Machinegun fire could occasionally be heard in the distance.

The government appeared to be in control, but then insurgents had never taken over entire districts in Mosul as they had in Baghdad or Basra. In Nineveh province, however, things aren’t quite as they seem. ‘The province is more like Lebanon than anywhere else in Iraq,’ said Saadi Pire, the former leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the city. It is divided between Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Christians, but many of the Kurds belong to the Yazidi sect, which follows a mixture of Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity. Their chief divinity is the Peacock Angel, who rules the cosmos with six other angels. Last year a Yazidi girl who converted to orthodox Islam to marry her boyfriend was beaten to death by her relatives; in revenge, Muslim Kurds dragged 23 Yazidi workers off a bus near Mosul and shot them dead. The government in Baghdad might claim that it was pursuing al-Qaida in Mosul, but the real power struggles in northern Iraq have to do with sectarian and ethnic differences. The Sunni majority in the city see the Roar of the Lion operation as directed against them. Any al-Qaida has long left for the country or temporarily moved across the nearby Syrian border. Everybody I spoke to in Mosul expected they would be back.

In Baghdad, too, there is a sense that this is merely a lull in the violence. I used to eat in the Samad, a restaurant in the al-Mansur district of west Baghdad. It opened soon after Saddam fell, served good food and somehow survived the next five years of violence. But at 5 p.m. on 8 May a group of policemen parked outside and went in to eat. A few minutes later a bomb in a car parked beside the police vehicle exploded and destroyed the restaurant, killing seven people and wounding 19. The explosion caused a massive traffic jam. Ambulances and fire engines couldn’t get through and the building next door caught fire and burned to the ground.

Although the Iraqi government claims that al-Qaida has been driven from Baghdad and Anbar province to the east, this is not really true. In January I went to see Colonel Ismail Zubaie, the police chief of Fallujah, a former insurgent now fighting al-Qaida – a member of al-Qaida had cut his brother’s throat. Ismail seemed to be in full control of Fallujah, but in May fighters from al-Qaida confronted his uncle, a teacher, and shot him. The next day they sent a suicide bomber to blow up the tent where his relatives were receiving mourners. Al-Qaida, it’s clear, has agents everywhere in the Sunni community.

The Americans lost only 21 soldiers in May, the lowest monthly figure since February 2004. But this doesn’t mean that John McCain is right to believe that given enough resolve the American army is on the road to victory. The reason for the drop in American casualties is that the Sunni Arab and Shia Arab communities in Iraq are fighting low-level civil wars. Part of the old anti-American Sunni resistance has turned on al-Qaida and allied itself with the Americans. Among the Shia internecine battles between the parties in government and the Sadrists have become bloodier and more frequent. Iran and Syria used to fear that the US would try to overthrow their governments as soon as it gained complete control of Iraq. They no longer believe this might happen. There may be some in the White House who still dream of going after Syria and Iran, but where Iraq’s neighbours are concerned the need to destabilise Iraq in order to avert the American threat to themselves has passed.

The main supporters of Maliki’s government are the US and Iran. From the Iranian point of view the present Shia-Kurdish government in Baghdad is as good as it’s going to get, although Iran does want to reduce American influence on Maliki. The fighting in March and April in Basra and Sadr City between the Mehdi Army and the Iraqi government was in each case brought to an end by Iranian mediation. This is open knowledge. To arrange the ceasefires in Basra and Baghdad, President Jalal Talabani twice went to the Iraq-Iran border to see Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, even though Bush has denounced the Quds Brigade as terrorists orchestrating attacks on US forces. When Ahmedinejad came to Baghdad earlier this year his visit was announced in advance and his convoy drove unhindered through the streets. When Bush comes to Baghdad it is kept a secret until the last moment; he travels only by helicopter and has never ventured outside the Green Zone.

If Barack Obama wins the election, and if Bush’s agreement can be reversed, the US could withdraw its forces over the following 18 months without provoking an explosion of violence: but only if it comes to an agreement with Iran and Syria. An increase in Iranian influence has been inevitable since 2003: the beneficiaries of Saddam’s overthrow were always going to be the Shia religious parties, because they represent the majority of Iraqis, and they would always be supported by Iran. Many of America’s problems over the last five years are a consequence of Washington’s belief that it could prevent or dilute the triumph of Iran and the Shia. ‘The Iranians are very good at creating crises in Iraq and then solving them,’ a Kurdish leader told me. Iran wants a weak Iraq allied to Iran and incapable of posing a threat to it. It wants a Shia government in power in Baghdad and the Americans out. ‘The three great powers of the Gulf historically are Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia,’ the Kurdish leader said. ‘If Iran and Iraq act together they will dominate the Gulf.’

It may not be as easy as that. The Iraqis don’t like the Iranians any more than they like the Americans. Al-Sadr, who is calling for an American withdrawal, is an Iraqi nationalist as suspicious of Iran as of the US. Oddly, the Shia governing parties in Baghdad, Dawa and the ISCI, have traditionally had closer links with Iran than with the Sadrists. The ISCI was founded by the Iranians in Tehran in 1982 to be their puppet if they succeeded in defeating Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war. It is still heavily influenced by Iran, but neither the ISCI nor the Sadrists want Iraq to be under foreign control.

Everybody in Iraq overplays their hand at one time or another. The US position has improved over the last year, but barely. By trying to impose a security pact that would turn Iraq into a client state, Washington is fuelling a fresh insurgency. It is discrediting the Iraqi government, which will once again be seen as a pawn of a foreign power. If McCain wins the presidential election and tries to put the security agreement into operation then neither the occupation nor the resistance to it will end.

6 June

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