Iraq: into the unknown.

Position:Current Affairs

President George Bush is insistent that the situation in Iraq is improving and the freedom promised to Iraqi citizens will finally be delivered with the holding of democratic elections later this month. All the evidence however, is to the contrary, the situation in Iraq is not improving; the country is in chaos and teetering on the brink of civil war. Without peace in Iraq there can never be stability in the region. In this special report The Middle East examines the prospects for an end to the conflict.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH'S MID-NOVEMBER Vietnam War style attack--with air raids, sophisticated rockets and mortars as well as armour and infantry charges--on the rebel Sunni city of Fallujah in theory routed insurgents made up of Sunni Arab elements of the fallen Baath regime of Saddam Hussein, and hundreds--possibly as many as 3,000-foreign fighters.

American and Iraqi public diplomacy went into a high-spin, trying to sell an increasingly sceptical world opinion the idea of supporting an Iraqi general election scheduled for 30 january, the first of its kind in 50 years, But the relative calm that engulfed the Iraqi capital and elsewhere following the Fallujah operation was shattered by an unprecedented weekend of violence starting 3 December when a mosque and a police station came under attack in Baghdad, with the death toll among Iraqis reaching at least 68 plus four American soldiers.

A wave of attacks that included car bombings in Baghdad and Mosul left 40 people dead, prompting Lakhdar Brahimi, a special advisor to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and until recently his top envoy in Iraq, to cast doubt on whether the landmark 30 January vote could take place, due to lack of security. Suddenly, the American dream of a happy and peaceful new year was shattered.

The US has been forced to increase the number of troops in Iraq to 150,000 from 138,000, by early January, the highest number since it declared an end to major combat, in a bid to ensure the election process runs smoothly.

On 5 December, a suicide car bomber rammed a convoy of Kurdish officials and militia travelling through the Karama neighbourhood of Mosul, killing 17 and injuring more than 40. Earlier in Baghdad, four policemen were killed and 49 others wounded in a double car bombing outside their station.

Next day, insurgents killed 21 Iraqis in a series of attacks across the country. Some 17 civilians working for the US military died and 13 were injured when gunmen opened fire on a bus taking them to a base in Saddam's home town of Tikrit.

Four members of the Iraq security forces were killed in the towns of Beiji and Samarra.

It was evident that insurgents who had been routed in Fallujah quickly regrouped casting doubt on Washington's and the Interim Iraqi government's ability to claim that the election, if held on 30 January, was legitimately representative.

America's top commander in Iraq, General John Abizaid, cast serious doubt on the Iraqi forces ability to cope without US help. On 4 December, he told a regional conference on Gulf security in Bahrain that Iraqi troops did not have the training or experience to do the job without continuing US help. He was, he said, disappointed the Iraqi army was still developing too slowly to cope with the security situation.

"It is very important for everybody to realise that the stability of Iraq is as dependent on its neighbours as it is on the people inside Iraq," said General Abizaid, adding that former regime members had the money and motivation to help insurgents. "We have asked the Syrian government to put a stop to that."

Last month in Damascus, British journalists came across Islamists--Syrian and other nationalities--who confirmed intelligence reports that the road from Aleppo to Rabia on the borders with Iraq was littered with 'Mujahedeen' mosques where local sheikhs recruit Muslims to fight the Americans in Iraq. Each recruit's family receives $3,000 a month--a fortune considering the average graduate's monthly salary in Syria is $40. Funds are believed to be provided by Iraqi Baathists who took refuge in the wealthy Mezzeh district in Damascus. They have their own Baath party headquarters proclaiming in painted slogans "Long Live Arab Baath Socialism." Among their number are sons of the former industry minister Mohammed Al Douri, on whose farm Saddam Hussein was eventually captured. Saddam's men bought swathes of Damascene property which they now rent out to subsidise their plundered Iraqi money. Among them is Omar Sibawi Ibrahim, a son of Saddam's half brother Sibawi who once headed Iraqi secret intelligence and was also interior minister.

The Syrians turn a blind eye to these activities for two reasons. Firstly, they are happy to let angry Islamists--who are historically hostile to the secular Baath rule--vent their anger on the Americans, rather than elsewhere. Secondly, anything that helps keep the Americans bogged down in Iraq is considered good news in Damascus, where many believe the US President will turn his attentions once he has finished with Iraq.

The Bush administration sees elections in Iraq, and getting more international support--such as achieved in the Sharm El Sheikh conference, with the participation of Iraq's neighbours, regional and international organisations including the Organisation of Islamic Conference, the Arab League and the UN--for the 30 January election as a start of an exit strategy from Iraq. However coalition troops, American military sources say, cannot pull out before the number of competent Iraqi security forces exceed the number of insurgents.

In November, dozens of mainly Sunni parties endorsed a call by Sunni Ulama (clerics) to boycott the election. In response, representatives from 17 Iraqi parties, including the two main Kurdish parties which are key US allies, met on 25 November at the Baghdad home of Adnan Pachachi, an influential member of the now-disbanded Governing Council and the head of the Sunni party Independent Democratic Movement. Among the participants were Christians, Socialists, a tribal group and a women's group. Their final communique called...

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