As Tony Blair, one of the architects of the Iraq war, prepares to leave office, it is clearer than ever that his ally's strategy of systematically crushing the Sunni insurgency is not working. In this special report from Baghdad, Patrick Cockburn shows why.
It will be a long war. The rumble of artillery, broken by the clatter of helicopters passing overhead, resounded across Baghdad late last week as US forces fought insurgents in their stronghold in the sprawling district of Dohra, in the south of the capital. Early yesterday, five US soldiers were killed and three are missing after an explosion in Mahmoudiyah, near Baghdad.
The three-month-old US plan to regain control of Baghdad is slow to show results, despite the arrival of four more US brigades. Security in the heart of the city may be a little better, but the US and the Iraqi government are nowhere near to dealing a knockout blow to the Sunni insurgency or Shia militias.
The Sunni guerrillas trying to isolate Baghdad from the rest of the country exploded truck bombs on three important bridges last week, killing 26 people. One blew up in a queue of cars on the old Diyala bridge, just south of Baghdad. Two minutes later a truck exploded on a newer bridge over the same river. North of Baghdad, at Taji, long a centre for insurgents, a third vehicle bomb made impassable a bridge linking Baghdad with northern Iraq.
This is the situation as Tony Blair, with President George Bush the chief architect and defender of the Iraq war, prepares to leave office. But as the fierce fighting continued, far to the south Mr Bush's Vice-President, Dick Cheney, was proclaiming defiance to Iran. "With two carrier strike groups in the Gulf, we're sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike," he told sailors assembled on one of the carriers. "We'll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region."
The US administration is not backing away from its confrontation with Iran, despite being nudged by the Iraqi government towards talks. Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, says that whether the Americans and the Iranians like it or not, they are both players in Iraq. In an interview with The Independent on Sunday in Baghdad, he laughed as he pointed out that Iran and the US both genuinely support the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki. The Iranian stance contrasts with that of Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah refuses to meet the Iraqi Prime Minister.
"Ironically," said Mr Zebari, "the Iranian statement on majority rule in Iraq [at the conference on Iraq at Sharm el-Sheikh 10 days ago] agrees entirely with what we and the Americans say."
The US may be more interested in cultivating Syria than Iran, but it is Syria that has the greater desire to see the Maliki government overthrown. When it comes to Syria, "we are assuming goodwill but we are not so dumb that we do not know what is going on", said Mr Zebari.
For the Iranians, Mr Cheney's message probably will make the most impression. "The American people will not support a policy of defeat," he said. "We want to complete the mission, we want to get it done right, and then we want to return home with honour."
His words are a recipe for a long conflict. As soon as the US and Britain overthrew Saddam Hussein, the detested enemy of Iran, in 2003, Iranian influence in Iraq and her power in the Gulf increased. When the Shia religious parties won the parliamentary elections in Iraq in 2005, Iranian influence grew again.
Iran has longstanding links with the Shia parties in Iraq, the powerful Shia religious hierarchy and the Kurdish leaders it supported during their wars with Saddam. Tehran also has more covert links to the Sunni insurgents. "The Iranians are supporting anybody who is against the Americans," says Dr Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish politician and member of parliament.
In Iraq, even supposed allies don't trust each other. Dr Othman, speaking before a truck bomb killed 16 people outside the Interior Ministry in the Kurdish capital, Arbil, last week, said Kurdish security had discovered an Ansar al-Sunna cell in the city of Sulaimaniyah, dedicated to planting bombs, whose members admitted to being trained in Iran.
The Americans also wonder what deals with Iran their Kurdish and Shia allies have. Dr Othman suspects the failed US raid to capture senior Iranian security officers on an official visit to Kurdistan on 11 January was motivated by suspicions of the Kurdish leaders.
"The attack showed the dissatisfaction of the Americans with [Iraqi President Jalal] Talabani and [Kurdish President Massoud] Barzani," said Dr Othman. "The Americans think that Talabani and Barzani are hiding things from them. It was a message to both."
The political and military position in Iraq is one of stalemate. The 28,000 US reinforcements, most of whom have already arrived, are having an impact in Baghdad, but not enough for the "surge" to be regarded as a success. A sign of this is that the two million Iraqis who fled the country are not coming home, and Baghdad remains divided into Shia and Sunni bastions.
Some Iraqi and Western officials buoy themselves up with hopes that the followers of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are divided, and that the Sunni tribes in Anbar province are turning against al-Qa'ida in Iraq.
Underestimating the Sadrist movement has been a repeated US and British mistake in Iraq since 2003. Another frequent error has been to believe that the Shia alliance, so powerful because the Shia are 60 per cent of the population, is always on the verge of collapse.
Peace, when it finally comes to Iraq, will inevitably be the result of a package deal of which a timetable for a US withdrawal is likely to be a central part.
The Sunni insurgency is not going out of business, or even showing signs of being seriously weakened, and the economy is in ruins. President Bush's strategy of confronting Iran and seeking to pacify Baghdad by sending US troop reinforcements is not working.
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited