Claims of a turning point in Iraq are just wishful thinking

It would be easy to assume from the reaction to Gordon Brown's announcement this week of planned Basra troop reductions that Britain's involvement in Iraq was as good as over. "Iraq: the end" was the Daily Mirror's take, and the response from the Arabic press was pretty similar. "Brown has decided to jump the US ship as it sinks in Iraq", declared the pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi. That is certainly the impression Brown wanted to create, as he struggles to repair the damage done to the government both at home and abroad by what Ming Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, called the "catastrophe" of Iraq.

But in reality the British occupation goes on. By next spring, five years after - in the words of General Richard Dannatt, head of the British army - "we kicked the door in" of a sovereign state in defiance of the will of the UN, there will still be 2,500 British troops in Iraq's second city "on overwatch", protecting US convoys and patrolling the Iranian border. And even that level will depend on "conditions on the ground".

Senior military officials have meanwhile let it be known that all British troops could be out of Iraq by the end of 2008. But the odds must be against that. The prime minister has already made it clear he is not prepared to make the popular break with US policy that would be necessary to call time on the British occupation. So long as US forces and their trigger-happy mercenary surrogates continue to roam the streets of Iraq's devastated cities - and there's no sign that occupation is going to be brought to an end any time soon - the pressure on Brown to provide continuing political cover for the White House with at least a token presence will be intense.

What does, however, seem to be taking place is a redrawing of the division of labour between the US and Britain in their war on terror. As the British force in Basra is drawn down, its counterpart fighting another lost war in Afghanistan is being expanded. At the same time, George Bush has used last month's upbeat report by General Petraeus to announce a gradual reduction in US forces to their pre-surge level and create the sense of a momentum towards withdrawal that isn't in fact taking place.

Most Iraqis believe that security has deteriorated during the six-month US military surge, according to opinion polls. But the impression of success given by Petraeus has helped blunt the political pressure for early withdrawal on Capitol Hill. It has also fed a renewed spirit of triumphalism among a few brave outriders of the discredited neocon project who now claim the Iraq war is turning into a success after all. The Times, for example, this week declared that "Iraq is moving irrevocably in the right direction" and argued against any "premature British departure" because it might undermine "real internal political progress" allegedly taking place.

Now the foreign editor of the well-connected Prospect magazine has gone one step further, reviving Bush's much ridiculed slogan of "mission accomplished" and declaring the Iraq war all but won. The Sunni Arabs are begging for a deal with the US, he claims, now the "insurgents have recognised there is little point fighting" such a powerful enemy, and the country has embraced democracy; what violence remains is largely local and criminal.

The evidence offered for this miraculous turnaround includes a recent drop in attacks on US and British forces, new local alliances between some Sunni tribal leaders, ex-resistance fighters and the US military against al-Qaida, and the participation of the popular anti-occupation Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr in the US-sponsored political process. But the argument is wishful thinking on a grand scale.

It's true that the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq last month, at 66, was well down on this year's peak, but higher than the figure for August last year. Attacks on British troops fell much more sharply last month, but that followed the British withdrawal from Basra city and a prisoner release deal with Sadr's Mahdi army, which is in any case now on a six-month national ceasefire.

No doubt the ability of resistance groups to operate freely has been hampered by the flood of US troops and the carve-up of their cities with Israeli-style walls and checkpoints. Just as serious have been the divisions on both sides of the sectarian divide, fostered by the US since the surge began as it tilts this way and that in a classic divide-and-rule strategy. In the Sunni camp, that has been achieved mainly through US arming and financing the "tribal awakening" movement against al-Qaida, which has spread from Anbar province and drawn in some on the fringes of the resistance who now regard Iran rather than the US as the main enemy. It's the principal reason why the launch of an alliance bringing together all the main Sunni-based resistance groups has been delayed.

'We don't want to have a clash with those who have become involved in the awakening campaign," a spokesman for the 1920 Revolution Brigades, one of the largest guerrilla organisations fighting the US occupation, said yesterday. "We will give time to people who have been harmed by al-Qaida and its violence. We are now fighting the Americans more outside the cities." But he dismissed as disinformation a claim in last week's Economist that members of the Brigades now "accompany the Americans as guides on patrols", pointing to a video of a successful attack by the group in the past week on a US humvee just broadcast on al-Jazeera as his answer. "Resistance will continue until the occupation forces leave our country."

That is surely the case - including in the British-occupied south. Supporters of the Iraq war have consistently underestimated the resistance campaign, which has in the words of a Brigades statement this week demonstrated that a "self-sufficient movement" can "destabilise the most powerful opponents". It's hardly surprising that more US troops and better tactics would have at least a temporary impact on the resistance. But the idea that it's about to fall into an American embrace because of an occupation-sponsored vigilante movement is as preposterous as the pretence that a prime minister who says he cannot "move a single company without coalition approval" is in charge of an independent democratic government. The tragedy is that the price being paid to win Iraq's independence is so horrifically high.

Seumas Milne