President George Bush is about to embark on one of the toughest campaigns of his second term. Tomorrow, with the third anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq looming, he will make the first of a series of speeches to convince the American public, a sceptical world - and perhaps even himself - that things are going the right way in Iraq.
Signalling the start of this public relations offensive, Mr Bush said on Friday that Iraq had stepped back from "the abyss" of civil war. That is debatable - in the eyes of many Iraqis, civil war has already begun - but it shows how far expectations have sunk since the invasion was launched with such swaggering confidence 36 months ago.
Far from creating a stable, democratic and prosperous Iraq, whose benign influence would spread to the rest of the Middle East, the United States and its faithful ally, Britain, have created what Foreign Office minister Kim Howells yesterday called "a mess". Iraq could no longer attack its neighbours or develop nuclear weapons, he said, adding: "So yes, it's a mess, but it's starting to look like the sort of mess that most of us live in."
To appreciate how ludicrous this statement would appear to the average Iraqi, it is necessary only to point out that Mr Howells was visiting Iraq to examine the oil industry. In December and January, daily oil production was around 1.1 million barrels a day, the lowest since May 2003, when President Bush declared major combat operations at an end. Before 2003, oil output was 2.5 million barrels a day. Ironically, revenue has risen to about $2.5bn a month, because world oil prices have shot up, at least partly because of the situation in Iraq.
But for all the efforts of the political establishments in the US and Britain to play down the problems, reality persists in breaking through. The latest example of this for Mr Bush, whose handling of Iraq is now supported by fewer than 40 per cent of Americans, is the death of a US hostage, Tom Fox, one of four kidnapped Christian peace activists who include the 74-year-old Briton Norman Kember. Rather than being the kind of bad news that masks quiet progress, it illuminates the daily threat to Iraqis.
Iraq is the most dangerous country in the world. And in many important ways, things are getting worse. Iraq Body Count, which has sought to do what the Pentagon and the Iraqi health ministry refuse to do - keep a tally of Iraqi civilians who die violently - estimates that even before the third year of occupation has ended, the toll is higher than in either of the previous two years.
According to IBC, which compiles figures for civilian deaths reported by at least two media outlets, 6,331 were killed between 1 May 2003 and the first anniversary of the invasion, and 11,312 in the second year of occupation. The toll for the period from the second anniversary of the invasion to the beginning of March, it says, was 12,617 - and that did not include most of the deaths in the upsurge of sectarian violence which followed the destruction of a major Shia shrine in Samarra last month.
Average violent deaths per day, IBC adds, went from 20 in year one of the occupation to 31 in year two and 36 in year three. When Iraqis are asked about the biggest change in their life since 2003, nearly all point to the danger of violent death. But IBC admits that with the increasing inability of journalists to move around and report freely, its method of monitoring civilian deaths is becoming increasingly inaccurate.
What evidence has emerged indicates that a widely ridiculed study published in The Lancet in autumn 2004, estimating that at least 100,000 civilians had died violently since the war began, might not be so inaccurate.
Apart from sectarian killings or the risk from trigger-happy coalition troops, ordinary Iraqis have most to fear from crime, which is why everyone is armed. Kidnapping is an industry, with children a frequent target, leading most well-off Iraqis to flee: hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have left for Jordan, Syria and Egypt. One banker who stayed was kidnapped when his seven bodyguards were murdered.
Many Iraqis supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein because they wanted a return to a normal life. Sitting on some of the world's largest oil reserves, they did not see why they should not enjoy the same standard of living as Kuwaitis and Saudis. But if Saddam had led them to ruin and defeat, Iraqis have found that in many ways their lives have got worse without him. In the first year of occupation, some Iraqis comforted themselves with the thought that "the US cannot afford to fail". But the more time has passed, the greater the extent of the failure has become obvious. For all the billions of dollars in reconstruction money, there is not a single crane on the skyline in Baghdad, except a few rusting examples left over from Saddam's grandiose projects to build giant mosques. There are more cars in Baghdad, but there is also a permanent traffic jam because so many streets are blocked for security reasons.
Optimists can point to some improvements. Teachers now get $200 a month, compared to $2 three years ago, and many have returned to the profession. Some Iraqis have benefited from the influx of dollars. For the first time there are mobile phones and satellite TV, but the cost of living has soared and there is very high unemployment, perhaps 50 per cent. Most people survive on a state-subsidised ration, just as they did under Saddam. The most glaring failure is that the supply of drinking water and sewage disposal are both below pre-invasion levels, according to the US Government Accounting Office. Electricity output has just begun to exceed the Saddam-era figure of 4,600 megawatts. Overall, Iraqis have power only for 12 hours in 24.
People might have tolerated such difficulties if they were convinced the country was heading towards greater stability and self-government. Instead they are having to live with the consequences of the occupation authorities' early mistakes, born of ignorance and overconfidence. The best-known is the precipitate decision to disband the entire Iraqi army and sack every member of Saddam's Baath party, no matter how lowly. This not only fuelled an insurgency whose causes the US military have apparently only just begun to grasp, but gave Iran, Saddam's former enemy and the greatest threat to international peace, according to the Bush administration, undreamt-of influence in Iraq.
The US view of the insurgency as part of its "war on terror" led to more errors. First it insisted resistance came only from "foreign fighters" loyal to al-Qa'ida and its leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Later it was conceded that most insurgents might be Iraqis, though they were dismissed as disgruntled former army officers and Baathist "dead enders". Even more belatedly, US commanders have admitted to themselves that their attempt to suppress the insurgency has created more recruits for the resistance, most of whom are inspired by communal pride and lack of economic opportunities.
As for training an indigenous army to deal with this situation, the Iraqi military has been reconstituted on highly sectarian lines. It is badly equipped, because the US did not want to give it heavy weapons, and the procurement budget in 2003-2004 was largely stolen. But the main concern must be whether the army would stay together in the event of civil war. The Ministry of the Interior has 110,000 men under arms, mostly police, who are increasingly controlled by Shia militias; the paramilitary police commandos are seen by the Sunni community as death squads controlled by the main Shia militia.
Nearly three months after the Shia alliance won the election on 15 December, no government has been formed: the divisions between Shia, Sunni and the Kurds have proved too great. If a unity government is formed, it is likely to be too divided to take decisions.
President Bush is imprisoned by his own rhetoric on Iraq. Rather than the grand aims he proclaimed in his first term, he will be lucky if he can extricate himself without being seen as responsible for the worst US foreign policy disaster since Vietnam. It will be interesting to see what his speechwriters can make of this unpromising material.
PERSONAL FREEDOM AND SECURITY
Iraqis have gained freedom of speech, with many new newspapers and TV channels, but the secular middle classes increasingly fear Islamist militias. Hundreds of thousands of the better-off have fled the country.
"The future of Iraq belongs to the Iraqi people. After years of dictatorship, Iraq will soon be liberated. For the first time in decades, Iraqis will soon choose their own representative government. Coalition military operations are progressing and will succeed. We will eliminate the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, deliver humanitarian aid, and secure the freedom of the Iraqi people. We will create an environment where Iraqis can determine their own fate democratically and peacefully."
Joint statement by George Bush and Tony Blair, 8 April 2003
"Not only has the Iraqi government failed to provide minimal protection for its citizens, it has pursued a policy of rounding up and torturing innocent men and women. Its failure to punish those who have committed torture has added to the breakdown of the rule of law."
Amnesty International, 9 March 2006
14,000 prisoners still being held in Iraq by coalition forces at the end of November 2005.
It seemed a reasonable assumption that Iraq's oil industry, crippled by sanctions, could swiftly be revived after the invasion, but the insurgency has wrecked those hopes. Incompetence in the Coalition Provisional Authority and lack of security have also ruined reconstruction, with basic services almost all in a worse state than before the war, despite billions of dollars in investment.
"We reaffirm our commitment to protect Iraq's natural resources, as the patrimony of the people of Iraq, which should be used only for their benefit."
Blair and Bush, 8 April 2003
"Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, is a rather wealthy country. Iraq has tremendous resources that belong to the Iraqi people. And so there are a variety of means that Iraq has to be able to shoulder much of the burden for their own reconstruction."
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, 18 February 2003
"The US never intended to completely rebuild Iraq. This was just supposed to be a jump-start."
Brigadier General William McCoy, Army Corps of Engineers commander, January 2006
$9bn of US taxpayers' money unaccounted for in Iraq.
Fears of civil war are increasing as Iraqi politicians wrangle over the formation of a government nearly three months after the election. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, detested by Sunni politicians because of his links to Shia militias, refuses to stand aside so that a unity government can be formed.
"Having liberated Iraq as promised, we will help that country to found a just and representative government, as promised. Our goal is a swift transition to Iraqi control of their own affairs. People of Iraq will be secure, and the people of Iraq will run their own country."
George Bush, 1 July 2003
"The Prime Minister and I have made our choice: Iraq will be free; Iraq will be independent; Iraq will be a peaceful nation; and we will not waver in the face of fear and intimidation."
Joint Bush and Blair statement, 16 April 2004
"Almost three years after the invasion, it is still not certain whether, or in what sense, Iraq is a nation. And after two elections and a referendum on the constitution, Iraq barely has a government."
Conservative US columnist George Will, March 2006
86 days since the Iraqi people voted on 15 December 2005, without a government being formed.
The coalition authorities admit that much of the insurgency is fuelled by a lack of economic opportunity. While the occupation has brought more money to some, mainly in Baghdad, life has been made more difficult for most by shortages of water and power, sky-high prices - and the ever-present danger of violent death.
"Our progress has been uneven but progress is being made. We are improving roads and schools and health clinics and working to improve basic services like sanitation, electricity and water. And together with our allies, we will help the new Iraqi government deliver a better life for its citizens."
George Bush, 27 June 2005
"The Iraqi people are suffering from a desperate lack of jobs, housing, health care and electricity ... If you compare this to the situation in the 1980s, you will see a major deterioration of the situation."
Barham Saleh (planning minister) in 'Living conditions in Iraq 2004', a survey by Iraqi authorities and UN
"Although a large percentage in Iraq is connected to water, electricity and sewage networks, the supply is too unstable to make a difference to their lives."
Staffan de Mistura, UNDP representative, May 2005
5.2 average number of hours of electricity in Baghdad homes
ARMY AND POLICE REFORM
The new Iraqi army and police force is one of the most controversial and secretive aspects of the occupation. Apart from doubts about the loyalty and effectiveness of troops trained by the coalition, there are fears that police and paramilitaries are functioning as death squads.
"As the Iraqi security forces stand up, the confidence of the Iraqi people is growing - and Iraqis are providing the vital intelligence needed to track down the terrorists."
Bush at US naval academy, 30 November 2005
"Many cases of torture and ill-treatment of detainees held in facilities controlled by the Iraqi authorities have been reported since the handover of power in June 2004. Among other methods, victims have been subjected to electric shocks or have been beaten with plastic cable. The picture that is emerging is one in which the Iraqi authorities are systematically violating the rights of detainees in breach of guarantees contained both in Iraqi legislation and in international law and standards."
Amnesty International, March 2006
60 battalions in the reconstituted Iraqi army are Shia, outnumbering the 45 Sunni and three Kurdish battalions.
THE DEATH TOLL
37,589 maximum number of civilian deaths since the Iraq invasion in 2003, according to Iraq Body Count, which bases its estimates on media reports. The minimum figure it gives for the same period is 33,489
100,000 the estimate of civilian deaths since the invasion, published in 'The Lancet' in the autumn of 2004, based on statistical analysis
2,306 US military deaths since the invasion
16,653 US military personnel wounded in action since the invasion
103 British military deaths since the invasion. Figures for British wounded are not available
103 other coalition military deaths since the invasion
1,110 highest monthly total of bodies brought into Baghdad mortuary during the past 12 months. The lowest figure was 780
100,000 estimate of civilian deaths since the invasion, published in the Lancet in the autumn of 2004, Based on statistical analysis
TODAY'S NEWS FROM IRAQ
Raids nets eight terror suspects
Eight people suspected of kidnapping, manufacturing car bombs and financing terrorists were detained in raids by US and Iraqi forces in western Baghdad, including four at a mosque identified by the US military as a possible safe haven for al-Qa'ida.
A dozen others were captured in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, the military said. They were believed to be part of a cell responsible for killing dozens of people after the destruction of one of Iraq's holiest Shia shrines on 22 February.
THIS DAY ONE YEAR AGO
Police killed in funeral shooting
Three policemen were shot dead by rebel forces at a funeral procession in Iraq. A third was wounded as mourners gathered in Mosul to mark the death of three bomb victims, while north of Baghdad rebels blew up a main oil pipeline.
THIS DAY TWO YEARS AGO
British firm wins big Iraq contract
Britain won its first big Iraqi rebuilding contract as a $500m project to help restore power supplies was handed to a joint venture 49 per cent owned by the engineering group Amec. Shares in the group rose 14.5p to 290.5p after the Pentagon said that it had handed the contract to FluorAmec. The British government had been lobbying Washington to give UK companies a fair share of the contracts, and the rules for the award of projects were changed.
THIS DAY THREE YEARS AGO
'UK troops will join invasion'
Tony Blair took the political gamble of his life when he signalled that British forces would join an imminent US-led invasion to disarm Saddam Hussein, even if a majority of the UN Security Council fails to endorse such action in a second resolution.
He stressed that there was sufficient justification for war in UN resolution 1441, which was passed last November.Mr Blair made his decision to fight, even though it could prompt a wave of resignations from his Government.
Failure to win Security Council votes will leave Downing Street endorsing a war without solid Labour or public backing.
If the resolution is rejected, the US could invade Iraq as early as next week. If it goes through, an invasion would be delayed to give President Saddam time to comply.
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited