Paul Rogers / Open Democracy – 2005-05-30 22:41:25
(May 26, 2005) — The first three weeks of May was one of the worst periods for violence since the Iraq war began over two years ago; and the pattern has continued into the fourth week. By 25 May, sixty United States soldiers had been killed — higher than any of the monthly losses from February to April, even though (as earlier columns in this series have outlined) US troops are less involved in patrols these days and more involved in training Iraqi security forces.
US military injuries have been particularly high — in the six-week period to 17 May, nearly 850 were injured, 244 of them serious. Iraqi casualties have been much higher, in the many hundreds; they include fifty people killed on 23 May alone. The fledgling Iraqi police and army are still the main targets.
Despite the evidence of these figures, there are still claims that the insurgency is being brought under control. George W Bush this week repeated his claim that the recent upsurge in violence in Iraq is simply a measure of the desperation of the insurgents as they fail to make progress. In this strange “inside-out” world, defeats for the Iraqi security forces become victories and the fact that United States military operations stir up a vigorous insurgent response is a measure of insurgent weakness not strength.
The arguments for such optimism include reports that the Jordanian militant and al-Qaida associate, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was wounded in combat. Whatever the truth of this claim, there are four indicators in Iraq suggesting disturbing trends that neither support the extraordinary perspective of George W Bush nor figure prominently in the western media.
No Shortage of Recruits in Iraq
The first, briefly mentioned in the news media, is the assassination of Major General Wael Rubaye, a senior Iraqi security official. The background to this incident was remarkable. In its efforts to control the insurgency, Iraq’s ministry of national security recently decided to establish a special operations room to coordinate the counter-insurgency campaign across the country. General Rubaye was commander-in-chief of this core operation, and his personal security was clearly paramount: yet within days it was breached and he was assassinated.
The second indicator is the rapid response of Britain’s ministry of defence (MoD) to an urgent operational requirement (UOR) from regional commanders in Iraq for higher levels of protection for British troops serving in southeast Iraq, around Basra. The additional equipment includes 3,300 sets of improved body armour, helmets and impact protection goggles. According to Defense News (16 May 2005):
“Commanders of Operation Telic, Britain’s mission in Iraq, told the MoD at the end of 2004 that drivers and troops providing top cover while travelling in vehicles are increasingly at risk of attack while on patrol in the south east sector of Iraq, and requested a package of protection improvements.”
The key phrase here is “increasingly at risk of attack”. The southeast of Iraq has been widely represented as being second only to the Kurdish northeast in terms of improving security; yet evidently, whatever has been said in public, the reality is an urgent need for increased troop security in a supposedly peaceful region.
The third indicator is the continuing problem of securing oil exports. The problems facing the northern export pipeline are just one example. This 480-kilometre pipeline runs from Kirkuk to the Ceyhan oil terminal in neighbouring Turkey. It used to have a capacity of 800,000 barrels of oil a day (around a quarter of Iraq’s total export potential).
Today, a 1,500-strong Iraqi security force is dedicated solely to ensuring the integrity of this one pipeline, but it has simply been unable to do so. In April, a bomb killed twelve guards, including the head of the protection team; on 13 May the main pumping station was attacked. Continual assaults have reduced oil transport to no more than 100,000 barrels a day, from one of the key oil export routes for the entire Iraqi oil industry. (IWPR, Iraq Crisis Report 126, 24 May 2005).
The fourth indicator, of which this pipeline problem forms just one part, is the slow pace of reconstruction caused largely by the unremitting insurgency. For the third year running, electricity supplies in the coming hot season will be wholly inadequate to meet the needs of ordinary Iraqis. Much of the $21 billion currently allocated to the programme is being diverted into security in the face of persistent attacks on contractors. Theresa Shope of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office estimates that 295 security contractors have been killed on US projects alone (“Violence in Iraq Cripples $21-Bln Rebuilding Effort”, Reuters, 21 May 2005).
A recent example is the attempt to transport a large turbine and 400 tonnes of equipment to Kirkuk in order to improve generating capacity before the summer heat, which was postponed until September as the route has been declared unsafe. It is significant that Iraqi government officials are not even prepared to allow foreign journalists to visit projects that have been successfully completed, since these are likely to be attacked by insurgents as soon as they are publicised.
No Plans to Leave Iraq
A new report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) – Strategic Survey 2004-05 — draws a conclusion that echoes recent columns in this series: that Iraq is becoming a magnet for paramilitaries from across the region:
“From al-Qaida’s point of view, Bush’s Iraq policies have arguably produced a confluence of propitious circumstances: a strategically bogged down America, hated by much of the Islamic world, and regarded warily even by its allies”.
The IISS survey says that it will take at least five years before Iraqi forces can impose law and order on their own. This implies that there might then be a United States military withdrawal from the country, a suggestion thrown into doubt by further evidence that permanent US bases across Iraq are being planned (see Michael Howard, “US military to build four giant new bases in Iraq,” Guardian, 23 May 2005). These confirm reports dating back to the immediate post-Saddam period (see “Permanent occupation?”, 24 April 2003) that the United States was planning to have four major bases in the country.
The first of these will be close to Baghdad, but the other sites confirm the importance of Iraq’s oil resources to the US military posture; the second will be in the oil-rich Kurdish north, the third at Tallil near the even larger southern oilfields, and the fourth is expected to be at al-Asad in the west, where huge, untapped new oil reserves are believed to lie.
In early April 2003, two weeks after the start of the Iraq war, a column in this series made the ostensibly rash prediction that this was the start of a conflict lasting potentially three decades (“A thirty-year war”, 4 April 2003). Since the US forces were then closing in on Baghdad and the Saddam Hussein regime was nearing collapse, it seemed an outrageous conclusion; but even then, the war was revealing two unexpected trends: a level of irregular opposition that was causing US forces significant problems, and the lack of any great welcome for the presumed liberators.
That article concluded:
“Gulf oil will be the dominant energy source for the world for upwards of thirty years. If the US neo-conservatives establish a paradigm of clear-cut western control of the region, with Iraq at its centre, then the stage is set for a conflict that lasts just as long . Whether this occurs depends in turn on a key variable: the endurance and success of the Bush administration’s conception of international security, the essential requirement for a New American Century. If this conception does succeed, a thirty-year war is in prospect. If, by contrast, a saner approach to international security develops, the beginnings of a peaceful order could be shaped. What happens in Iraq in the next few months may determine which route is taken.”
Over two years later, it is evident which route has been taken. United States forces have lost over 1,600 killed and 11,000 seriously injured; the Iraqis have lost close to 30,000 killed and tens of thousands injured; yet the war goes on, and on. At particular times there may appear to be short-term gains for one side or the other, but the reality is that this is a deeply embedded and long-term conflict.
Beyond the immediate sequences of events, it has to be remembered that the Iraq war forms just one part of a much bigger picture: control of the world’s key energy resource. Until there is a fundamental rethink about the security of Gulf oil supplies, that war will continue. The re-election of George W Bush in November 2004 means that such a rethink is highly unlikely. The world faces the grim prospect of endless war in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
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