Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Four More Years?

George Bush has called for “patience” with US policy on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraqi War. The President’s speech was directed primarily at the Democrats who are pushing a war spending bill in the House which would require US troops to leave Iraq by 1 September 2008. Bush has promised to veto the bill because it contains a timeline.

Such a move is unlikely to be required as the bill has little chance of passing the Senate. Bush is trying to stop the bill in the House to avoid the embarrassment of a conflicting message coming from a US legislature and what message that might send to the world. The White House said the bill "would place freedom and democracy in Iraq at grave risk" and "embolden our enemies." The vote is for a $124 billion spending bill, $95.5 billion of which is targeted for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The remaining $29.5 billion are an effort to lure votes with lawmakers' pet projects which range from the reconstruction of New Orleans levees to the building of peanut storehouses in Georgia.

The extra cash is a bribe for Republicans to promote agriculture and drought relief, children's health care and Gulf Coast hurricane recovery. Meanwhile the activist group MoveOn.org have thrown their weight behind the bill and claimed that 85% of its 3 million members back the bill. This is a boost for Democrats worried that the liberal wing of the party were unhappy about supporting the 2008 date and wanted to see a full withdrawal this year.

But the US will have to contemplate exit from Iraq sooner or later. The Bush strategy has always been to castigate his opponents for their “cut and run” tactics. According to this argument, the Democrats are incapable of fighting the so-called “War on Terror” and that any early withdrawal will be a victory for terrorism in Iraq. Bush backs this up by his quotation from the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate which posits the notion that if would-be terrorists are seen to be successful in Iraq, it will inspire more fighters to continue elsewhere.

But this remains an untested and controversial notion. In Iraq, people have grown tired of the occupation and its accompanying hassles. Four years on, a growing percentage of the Iraqi people are annoyed at US failure to provide stability or basics like electricity and water. They also hate the constant litany of explosions, gunfire and warfare. There are also the smaller daily annoyances: waiting hours in traffic due to checkpoints and road closures, searches and having weapons pointed at them by suspicious soldiers.

Meanwhile the body count continues to rise. According to Iraq Body Count the war has so far claimed the lives of somewhere between 59,000 and 65,000 Iraqis. Some 3,200 members of the US military have been killed since the war began, 2,600 of those in combat. The estimate of US wounded is somewhere between 23,000 and 100,000. 257 troops have died from the other Coalition countries.

The controversial 2006 study by the esteemed British medical magazine Lancet claimed the Iraqi figures were grossly underestimated and had reached 655,000 deaths by October 2006. According to their data, 56% of these deaths were from gunshot wounds, with a further 13% from car bomb injuries and 14% the result of other explosions. Lancet editor Richard Horton said the new study "corroborates the impression that Iraq is descending into bloodthirsty chaos".

Out of that chaos has come the biggest threat to US rule: the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Mahdi army of a few thousand existed during Saddam’s reign but have gained new power and kudos among the Shiites since resuming the fight against the American-led coalition. They gained access to unguarded Iraqi ammunition dumps in the immediate fall of the Hussein regime from which they acquired light weapons, submachine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Al-Sadr's militias control much of Baghdad including Sadr City. They have now heavily infiltrated the Iraqi police and army units that have been trained and armed by the US. 1st Lt. Dan Quinn, a platoon leader in the Army's 1st Infantry Division has pointed out the problem "Half of them are [Mahdi]” he said. “They'll wave at us during the day and shoot at us during the night”.

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