The Turkish government piously claims that its army is in pursuit of PKK Turkish Kurd guerrillas, but it is unlikely to inflict serious damage on them as they hide in long-prepared bunkers and deep ravines of the Kurdish mountains. What the Turkish incursion is doing is weakening the Kurdistan Regional Government, the autonomous Kurdish zone, the creation of which is one of the few concrete achievements of the US and British invasion of Iraq five years ago.
One of the most extraordinary developments in the Iraqi war has been the success with which the White House has been able to persuade so much of the political and media establishment in the US that, by means of ’the Surge’, an extra 30,000 US troops, it is on the verge of political and military success in Iraq. All that is needed now, US generals argue, is political reconciliation between the Iraqi communities.
Few demands could be more hypocritical. American success in reducing the level of violence over the last year has happened precisely because Iraqis are so divided. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq were the heart of the rebellion against the American occupation since 2003. In fighting the US forces they were highly successful.
But in 2006, after the bombing of the Shia shrine at Samarra, Baghdad and central Iraq was wracked by a savage civil war between Shia and Sunni. In some months the bodies of 3,000 civilians were found and many others lie buried in the desert or disappeared into the river. I do not know an Iraqi family that did not lose a relative and usually more than one.
The Shia won this civil war. By the end of 2006 they held three quarters of Baghdad. The Sunni rebels, fighting the Mehdi Army Shia militia and the Shia-dominated Iraqi army and police, and also under pressure from al Qa’ida, decided to end their war with US forces. They formed al-Sahwa, the Awakening movement, which is now allied to and paid for by the US.
In effect Iraq now has an 80,000 strong Sunni militia which does not hide its contempt for the Iraqi government which it claims is dominated by Iranian controlled militias. The former anti-American guerrillas have largely joined al-Sahwa. The Shia majority, for its part, is determined not to let the Sunni win back their old control of the Iraqi state. Power in Iraq is more fragmented than ever.
This all may sound like good news for America. For the moment its casualties are down. Fewer Iraqi civilians are being slaughtered. But the Sunni have not fallen in love with the occupation. The fundamental weakness of the US position in Iraq remains its lack of reliable allies outside Kurdistan.
At one moment British officers used to lecture their American counterparts, much to their irritation, about the British Army’s rich experience of successful counter-insurgency warfare in Malaya and Northern Ireland. "That showed a fundamental misunderstanding of Iraq on our part," a former British officer in Basra told me in exasperation. "In Malaya the guerrillas all came from the minority Chinese community and in Northern Ireland from the minority Roman Catholics. Basra was exactly the opposite. The majority supported our enemies. We had no friends there."
This lack of allies may not be so immediately obvious in Baghdad and central Iraq because both Shia and Sunni are willing and at times eager to make tactical alliances with US forces. But in the long term neither Sunni nor Shia Arab want the Americans to stay in Iraq. Hitherto the only reliable American allies have been the Kurds who are now discovering that Washington is not going to protect them against Turkey.
Very little is holding Iraq together. The government is marooned in the Green Zone. Having declared the Surge a great success the US military commanders need just as many troops to maintain a semblance of control now as they did before the Surge. The mainly Shia police force regards al-Sahwa as anti-government guerrillas wearing new uniforms.
The Turkish invasion should have given the government in Baghdad a chance to defend Iraq’s territorial integrity and burnish its patriotic credentials. Instead the prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has chosen this moment to have his regular medical check up in London, a visit which his colleagues say is simply an excuse to escape Baghdad. Behind him he has left a country which is visibly falling apart.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of ’The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq’, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His forthcoming book ’Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq’ is published by Scribner in April.