Iraq’s hall of mirrors

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 07/08/07):

Iraq’s politics, as opposed to Iraq’s grim daily ground-floor reality, increasingly resembles a game of illusions which those involved conspire to maintain or prolong. It is an Alice in Wonderland world – except there are no white rabbits disappearing down holes, let alone being pulled from hats.

In Washington, or at least in the White House, the official illusion, stoutly maintained, is that things are moving (if not surging) forward, that a process of achieving stability and benchmarks is in place, and that a military progress report – nothing more dramatic or cathartic – will be delivered to Congress next month.

A similar hall-of-mirrors stance has been adopted by Britain’s Gordon Brown government, not so different after all from its Blairite predecessors. Britain is, in fact, slowly edging towards the exit, come what may. But officially, the talk is of a calm, orderly and complete handover of southern provinces, including Basra, to Iraqi control some time this autumn.

In both cases – the US and Britain – the unvarnished truth, vaguely perceived through mists of doublespeak, is somewhat less comfortable. US commander General David Petraeus, guardian of the Baghdad security plan, was asked to do the impossible – and no surprise (or disgrace), has found it impossible to do.

Nineteen coalition troops have died in the first week of August, a sign of strengthening insurgent opposition. Showcase city Tal Afar, described as a success story for US forces, was blown up again on Monday; 28 people, including 19 children, were killed. Too often, improved security lasts as long as it takes for the Humvee to disappear round the corner.

Back home, in Congress, Democrats and a growing number of ever more panicky Republicans, will return to Washington from their home states in September with a clear message from constituents ringing in their ears: time to quit. Petraeus’s report is not a phase or a stage; it’s a trigger, and the gun is pointed at George Bush’s head.

In Britain, too, when illusions and press releases are stripped away, what remains is a military convinced, from top to bottom, that it is no longer doing anything useful in Basra and the south – and might as well let the Iraqis get on with it.

The army and the politicians know Afghanistan is, and always was, the more crucial post-9/11 challenge. They want to concentrate effort there. The public are mostly just fed up with being treated like fools.

One sobering consideration underlies collapsing British illusions: London does not want the blame when the “who lost Iraq?” question is posed. It will tread slowly towards the Iraq door, if only to avoid being fingered when the post mortem begins in the US. When it hits full swing, the hunt for scapegoats for the Iraq war will be ruthless and fierce.

In Baghdad, the illusionary, or delusionary, state of the political game grows ever more miasmic. Iraq’s national unity government, as of yesterday, contains no Sunni parties – a debilitating gap that leaves Nouri al-Maliki’s administration neither united, nor national.

Iraq’s parliament, the much-trumpeted achievement of George Bush’s “forward march of freedom”, has mostly kept marching right out of Baghdad this summer, to Amman, Cairo, Dubai or London – a month-long holiday break that was the only thing on which the MPs could actually agree.

More pressing matters – local elections, oil-sharing, reconciliation, constitutional reform – are on hold. Nor is there any credible prospect of progress when the MPs, sun-tanned and rested, return next month.

Mr Maliki went to Turkey today for a state visit designed, in part, to persuade Ankara not to invade his country. His next stop, on Wednesday, is Tehran. Yet all the red carpets and honour guards in the world cannot wholly conceal the biggest illusion of all: Mr Maliki has no state to represent. Iraq was a British colonial invention and is now an American imperial idea – an aspiration unlikely to be fulfilled.

Iraq existed, unsteadily, warts and all, under Saddam Hussein. But now it is disintegrating before our eyes. It may reconstitute itself in time. But the old construct is dead, destroyed by shock and awe and four years of mind-boggling Bushian incompetence.

To see the Iraq of the future, you might as well follow Alice through the looking glass. At least there will be no illusions.