Although US and Iraqi officials talked up the successes of the new Baghdad security plan implemented in early February, events on the ground suggest little has changed. Speaking to the media, officials said that the numbers of deaths in the capital dropped by up to 80 percent in the first five days of the plan. The Iraqi government also announced a number of administrative and procedural measures designed to raise public confidence in the authorities, for example that people whose homes were raided would be given forms on which they could report any thefts of abuses by the soldiers. It quickly became clear, however, that the US and Iraqi forces have little more control or ability to ensure security than they did before. The latter part of February was marked by a series of bombings, killing hundreds of people, while an average of 30 bodies a day continued to be discovered, evidently the victims of random and sectarian killings. As ever, both Sunnis and Shi‘is have been among both the perpetrators and the victims; no community has an exclusive claim to victimhood.
However, both the US and Iraqi authorities -- officially, the security plan is being implemented by the Iraqi forces, supported by the US, although it is clear that the US is still very much in control -- have emphasised their targeting of Shi‘i sectarian militias, particularly those associated with Muqtada al-Sadr. This is only partly because in Baghdad, as in many other parts of the country, Shi‘i militias have become responsible for the greater part of the sectarian violence in recent months, even though Shi‘i sectarian violence was initially a response to provocations from Sunni groups. Another major factor is that the US has decided to target those Iraqi factions that they regard as most problematic for the government of prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. Maliki is regarded by the Americans as the most acceptable of Shi‘i political leaders, but faces a strong challenge for leadership of the Shi‘is from the Sadrists. Finally, it has also become clear that the US is using its problems in Iraq as part of a broader regional strategy of ratcheting up pressure on neighbouring Iran; it is significant not only that many of those being targeted have relations with Iran -- as most Shi‘i groups in Iraq do, including the Maliki government -- but that this is being used as an accusation against them, just as Iran is being accused of supporting sectarian groups in Iraq.
Part of the initial apparent success of the security plan may have been because Sadrist groups, particularly those with links to government institutions, deliberately wound down their activities in the expectation that they could resume them when the pressure was off. Muqtada al-Sadr initially announced his support for the security plan, provided it was led by the Iraqi government, even as he condemned the Americans for bringing more troops to the country; many of those he purports to represent are as concerned by the violence as any other Iraqis. However, as it became clear that Sadrist groups were being targeted, and that even pro-Sadrist members of the government were being arrested, such as Hakem al-Zamli, the deputy minister of health, he withdrew his support, saying -- rightly -- that the US and the government were pursuing a political war against his supporters in the name of security.
Another major flaw in the security plan is that, although it focuses on sectarian groups and violence, much of the instability in Iraq continues to come from resistance attacks on the US forces, from both Sunni and Shi‘i groups, as well as the Iraqi government, which Sunni resistance groups regard as collaborators. Adel Abdul Mehdi, one of Iraq’s two vice-presidents, was injured by a car bomb attack on the Ministry of Public Works on February 26. Again, the US chooses to blame such attacks on Iran, partly as part of its campaign against Iran, but also in order to obscure the fact that the vast majority of Iraqis -- of all communities -- oppose the continued occupation of their country. The reality is that the US has proven totally unable to protect its own forces, its local allies or the Iraqi people from such attacks, despite its status as the world’s sole superpower and possessor of the arguably the most powerful military force ever. Its focus on sectarian violence, and its attribution of the continuing fighting in Iraq to “external forces”, particular Iran, are devices by which the Bush administration hopes divert attention and blame from its own failure.
The political importance of the Baghdad security plan is shown by the fact that president George W. Bush chose its first day for his first press conference since the disastrous performance of the Republican Party in the mid-term elections last November. As usual he announced his confidence that the US is winning in Iraq, and that failure there would mean terrorism coming to the US. The reality of the US’s failure, however, is now widely recognised, even in the US, where Democratic representatives in Congress and the Senate are increasingly recognising public anger with the Bush administration, and sharpening their knives in preparation for the presidential polls next year.
Iraq has descended into chaos, thanks to the US invasion and to the failure of Iraqi groups, particularly Islamic movements, to maintain a united front against the common enemy, instead falling victim to the US’s divide-and-rule strategy and their own deep sectarian impulses. There are no easy solutions to the problems that Iraq now has, but what is clear is that no possible solution will include the US. Short-term fire-fighting strategies such as the Baghdad security plan cannot secure Baghdad, cannot save the Bush administration, and will not contribute anything to the resolution of Iraq’s problems. For all that Iraqis of all communities will have to look to themselves and each other, working together instead of against each other; unfortunately there is little sign of that happening in the foreseeable future.