Published on Sunday, January 16, 2005 by The Sunday Herald (Scotland) Coalition Admits on Eve of Election: ‘The Battle for Iraq May Never Be Won’
Run-up to vote sees mounting violence as US commanders finally concede they underestimated the resistance
by Trevor Royle
For Iyad Allawi, Iraq's interim prime minister it was a deeply ironic moment. Last week he cranked up his election campaign in Baghdad on behalf of his 233 member party known as the Iraqi List with a call to arms.
Speaking to reporters about the need to defeat the men of violence and to push ahead with the polls, come what may, his podium was decorated with an Iraqi flag and the defiant slogan: "Security and safety come first."
Outside in the streets of the increasingly troubled country the maxim had a hollow ring. For all that Iraqi politicians and senior commanders in the US-led coalition insist that the elections will not be derailed by violence, the assassinations and bombings continue unabated.
Not a day passes without Iraqi security personnel being routinely murdered or kidnapped. Yesterday, a policeman was killed and four others seriously wounded when gunmen opened fire on a checkpoint near Kirkuk. A US marine was also killed in action south of Baghdad, bringing the number of US soldiers killed to 1360 since March 2003 and there have been fresh attempts to foment civil unrest between rival Sunni and Shi'ite groups.
Last Wednesday, Sunni assassins gunned down Sheikh Mahmoud Finjan, a leading aide of the Shi'ite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as he returned from evening prayers in his home town of Salman Pak near Baghdad. Coming on top of other recent religiously motivated killings Finjan's murder was widely seen as an attempt to dissuade Shi'ites from supporting the election.
Following the attack, the perpetrators, Ansar al-Sunnah, posted a defiant message on their website: "We call on all brother citizens not to participate in the elections because we are going to attack voting centers."
The threat is being taken seriously by coalition commanders who have been given the thankless task of guarding polling centers. and ensuring the safety of voters. That is one reason for the deployment to Basra of the 1st Royal Highland Fusiliers to reinforce the British garrison. Difficult though their task will be, it is relatively straightforward compared with the problems facing the US forces in the Sunni triangle further north.
After months of arguing that they had the situation under control, senior US commanders have finally conceded that they are not facing a bunch of "dead-enders" and fanatics but a highly trained and motivated resistance movement of around a quarter of a million fighters who are capable of mounting "spectacular" attacks ahead in the fortnight before the election.
One high-ranking army officer was even moved to admit that the coalition is losing the fight and told the Sunday Herald that the battle might never be won.
"The truth is that we are containing the problem but we are in no condition to crack it," he said. "It's bound to be an imperfect exercise for the simple reason that in many parts of the country we have failed to impose our authority and failed to win the trust of the local people. Instead, they have turned to the insurgents as their best bet."
Following the transfer of power to the interim administration last June, hopes were high that the move would lance the boil of violence and that the insurgents would lose the will to continue. Instead, the opposite has happened. Not only has the violence continued but it has grown in intensity without much being done to damp it down. At the end of 2004 the town of Fallujah was attacked and razed to the ground but the only result was the dispersal of its 350,000 inhabitants, unknown numbers of whom were killed, without any appreciable gains in the war against the insurgents.
Frustrated by the lack of tangible success, the US has discussed the possibility of creating specialist "death-squads" to hunt down insurgents in what would be a dirty war similar to the one waged in Salvador. The idea met a cool reception but the Pentagon still insists that it remains an option.
In a more conventional request, commanders would like to increase the US garrison by 50,000 soldiers, but that is unlikely to happen in the short term. The army is stretched to breaking point and recruiting has taken a nosedive as a result of the high casualties - in addition to the dead an estimated 10,000 soldiers have been badly wounded or mutilated in combat.
Demonstrating an optimism which is not born out by what has been happening in Iraq, supporters of the elections insist that they will go ahead and that they will be decisive for the country's long-term future. Prime Minister Tony Blair claims that the battle now is not about ideologies but about the struggle between "democracy and terror" and US President George Bush steadfastly maintains that the elections are "an incredibly hopeful experience" and that any postponement would be suicidal.
Asked about their soldiers' ability to contain the violence, US commanders stick to the line that the elections will go ahead as planned and that they are confident of ensuring that they are "free and fair", but ranks are already being broken.
For all that Allawi remains confident, he admitted last week that not everyone would be able to vote and that despite the presence of coalition forces there will be parts of the country where intimidation and violence will prevent a fair vote. At least four of Iraq's 18 provinces are considered to be "no-go" areas: Nineveh, Anbar, Salahadin and Baghdad. Together they make up 25% of Iraq's population.
Inevitably the result of the elections will impinge on Bush's second term in office, which begins this week. A major part of his campaign was predicated on making sure that they took place and were seen to be democratic but he will also have to deal with the aftermath.
With many Sunnis promising to boycott the elections and with Shi'ites under threat of intimidation, the result can hardly reflect Iraqi popular opinion but Bush will have to live with the result. It is also clear the US will have to continue supporting those politicians who are elected and that will mean only one thing. Unless the resistance is defeated the coalition troops will be in Iraq for many years to come.