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Last Updated: Friday, 17 March 2006, 04:11 GMT
Iraq three years on: A bleak tale
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs Correspondent, BBC News website

An Iraqi policeman holding a gun
Insurgency continues across Iraq
The third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq prompts some melancholy thoughts about how it was supposed to be - and how it has turned out.

By now, according to the plan, Iraq should have emerged into a peaceful, stable representative democracy, an example to dictatorships and authoritarian regimes across the Middle East.

The invasion would have been a memory.

Parts of the plan have worked. There is a constitution, there has been a general election. In the north, the Kurds are generally left alone. In the south, the Shias are happy to have thrown off the Saddam shackles.

But overall, especially in the centre of the country, it has not.

There is no proper and effective government (even though the original aim had been to have one by the end of 2005).

There is a strong insurgency, which has moved into the realm of conflict between the communities. Foreign troops have stayed on.

Blood oozing out of the earth is a good metaphor for Iraq nowadays
Juan Cole, University of Michigan

Thousands of people have died. The true number of Iraqi deaths is not known and even the Iraqi Body Count figure -- compiled largely from news reports -- of somewhere in the mid 30,000s is criticised as a possible underestimate and admitted by IBC to be a baseline. The British medical journal The Lancet suggested a figure of about 100,000 back in October 2004.

Daily life has not developed into the normality (24-hour a day electricity, for example) that had been promised.

'Media failure'

The optimists argue that all will be well. An article along those lines is currently doing the rounds. It was written by a former US army officer, Ralph Peters, in the blog Real Clear Politics. This is part of what he said:

"During a recent visit to Baghdad, I saw an enormous failure. On the part of our media. The reality in the streets, day after day, bore little resemblance to the sensational claims of civil war and disaster in the headlines.

US and Iraqi soldiers at the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad on 9 March
US troops are working with the Iraqi security forces

"No-one with first-hand experience of Iraq would claim the country's in rosy condition, but the situation on the ground is considerably more promising than the American public has been led to believe. Lurid exaggerations and instant myths obscure real, if difficult, progress."

Peters speaks of a US patrol being welcomed as it went by, of ground lost by the al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and concludes: "The real story of the civil-war-that-wasn't is one of the dog that didn't bark.

"Iraqis resisted the summons to retributive violence. Mundane life prevailed. After a day and a half of squabbling, the political factions returned to the negotiating table.

"Iraqis increasingly take responsibility for their own security, easing the burden on US forces. And the people of Iraq want peace, not a reign of terror. But the foreign media have become a destructive factor, extrapolating daily crises from minor incidents." Peters speaks quite highly of the Iraqi army.

'Blood oozing'

The pessimists, on the other hand, argue that all will not be well. Here, one of the leading lights is Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, whose daily internet column Informed Comment has consistently taken a dim view of events in Iraq since the invasion.

Here he comments on one of the massacres that seem to take place daily: "Some 80 bodies have been found in Baghdad and environs since Monday. On Tuesday alone, police discovered 46 bodies around the capital. They appear mostly to have been Sunni Arabs targeted by enraged Shias attacked by the guerrillas during the past three weeks.

Two men carry a wooden coffin
The casualties mount as sectarian violence goes on

"Some were in the back of a minibus. Some were in a mass grave in Shia east Baghdad. The latter were discovered when passers-by saw blood oozing out of the earth. Blood oozing out of the earth is a good metaphor for Iraq nowadays."

Cole talks of a reported recent plot to place Sunni insurgents who have infiltrated the army into positions to rush the government's Green Zone and take foreign diplomats as hostages.

"Apparently the US and the new government barely dodged this bullet," he says. "It would have been horrible. But you do have the sense that with the siege of Baghdad going on, the Green Zone is becoming vulnerable and could ultimately fall."

'Unbelievable mess'

Looking back three years, it is now becoming clearer how difficult things were from the start. The US and British governments of course tended to stress the positive.

The UK Prime Minister Tony Blair paid a visit to Basra in May that year and spoke rather glowingly of Iraqi prospects. This is what he told British troops:

"I would like to think that in maybe a year or two years time, it's going to be possible for some of you to come back here and see the changes in this country that have arisen from what you've done today."

Some of the soldiers have indeed probably been back, where they now face even greater dangers from sophisticated roadside bombs. But underneath, it was rather different, as newly leaked memos from the senior British official in Iraq at the time have revealed.

The reality in the streets, day after day, bore little resemblance to the sensational claims of civil war and disaster in the headlines
Ralph Peters, former US army officer

They have been printed in a new book about Iraq called Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by a New York Times correspondent, Michael Gordon, and a retired US Marine officer, General Bernard Trainor.

The official was John Sawers, a Foreign Office high-flyer who is currently the political director. He met Mr Blair on that trip in May and one memo headed "Iraq: what's going wrong?" dates from the same month.

He wrote about the US administration in Baghdad led by retired US General Jay Garner: "No leadership, no strategy, no coordination, no structure and inaccessible to ordinary Iraqis... Garner and his team of 60-year-old retired generals are well-meaning but out of their depth."

He criticised just about everything, calling it an "unbelievable mess".

His current views on Iraq are not publicly known. Mr Sawers is a discreet diplomat and is anyway now grappling with another problem which is proving intractable - Iran's nuclear programme.

His memos show how early problems developed which are still evident today.


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