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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 January, 2005, 08:03 GMT
Iraq 2004: What went wrong

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

In 2004, Iraq went badly wrong - except for supporters of the insurgency, in which case it went grimly well.

Posters advertising the elections
Optimists believe the elections scheduled for January will prove a milestone
2005 does not hold out much hope of an improvement, although there are still some optimists around who feel that the elections on 30 January will prove a milestone.

The problem in 2004 was that neither of the two main strands of American policy worked. Neither politics nor security took hold.

Power was formally handed over to an interim government at the end of June but this government failed to develop popular legitimacy, especially in the heartland of the insurgency, the Sunni areas of central Iraq.


On the security front, things went from bad in 2003 to worse in 2004. The insurgents, whether nationalist or Islamic, gained in strength and even took over the city of Falluja.

US troops and Iraqi National Guard patrol together
The Abu Ghraib scandal left many Iraqis still distrusting US troops
Iraqi security forces and police proved hopelessly inadequate.

Kidnappings and videotaped beheadings moved from nightmarish fears to reality.

Prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib provided lasting images of brutality.

This left the US occupation troops isolated. And they are too few and too distrusted to do the job.

The only bright spot was in the south where Shia unrest was quelled. The Shias are biding their time for the election in which they expect their majority to prevail.

The former British representative to the coalition authority, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who a year ago was talking about Iraq being dangerous but "do-able", is now sounding much more pessimistic.

He believes that while there has been political progress, the lack of security "has let everything down."

We are leaving political structures but Iraqis do not see the improvements that would have brought their support
Sir Jeremy Greenstock, former British representative to the ICA
"Mistakes were made and the insurgency was underestimated," he said.

"The biggest mistake was to allow a security vacuum to develop. It motivated insurgents and gave them opportunities to get weapons and get new people in.

"The security vacuum is irremediable at the moment. Foreign forces will not be able to eradicate the violence. The Iraqis themselves will have to do that. The insurgents at present can be chased out of one place only to emerge in another. They are ineradicable unless Iraqi society as a whole actively turns against them."

Credibility blow

His analysis is that the Iraqis would have had the patience to wait for the new political structures to work if they had seen improvements in their daily lives.

"We are leaving political structures but Iraqis do not see the improvements that would have brought their support," he said.

New Iraqi police officers parade during a graduation ceremony
Security forces are frequent targets for Iraqi insurgents
Sir Jeremy concluded that in 2004 the United States had "lost credibility in the eyes of Iraqis and the region".

"This year the worst thing has been the steady leak of that credibility. Abu Ghraib dealt an enormous blow," he said.

One reason for the failure on the security front was the inadequacy of Iraqi forces. 2004 was supposed to be the year in which they came into their own.

However, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington has tracked this issue throughout the year and, in December 2004, its analyst Anthony Cordesman concluded that the result was "to leave many Iraqi forces without anything approaching adequate organisation, training, equipment and facilities."

He said in his report that "for political and other reasons, the [Bush] Administration, the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] and US command emphasised quantity over quality to the point where unprepared Iraqis were sent out to die."

Bad planning

Mr Cordesman also came to wider conclusions: "The report documents a tragic US failure to develop a strategy during the first year of its occupation of Iraq. It is a failure to understand the strategic situation in Iraq and the realities of Iraqi politics. It is a failure at every level to prepare for a co-ordinated US effort at nation building."

A poster bearing the image of Ayatollah Sistani
Ayatollah Sistani may well be the man to watch in 2005
Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at another US think-tank, the Brookings Institution, was even more scathing. In an article for the Hoover Institution's Policy Review, he said: "One of the most brilliant invasion successes in modern military history was followed almost immediately by one of the most incompetently planned occupations."

So what of 2005?

A great deal is riding on the election. This is for a "transitional national assembly". It will select the government and prepare a constitution upon which further elections will be held at the end of the year.

In some quarters, the election is being portrayed like the roll of the dice that could solve all problems.

However, it is unlikely to be that simple.

Rosemary Hollis, of the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, says the risk is that those supporting the insurgency will either not vote or will be marginalised by the Shia majority.

"Elections might, therefore, not solve the problem of the insurgency," she said.

This fear is also shared by senior British officials, although they phrase it more delicately. One, just back from a visit to Iraq, said the priority in 2005 would be to "ensure that the views of all elements are reflected in the constitution. That cannot just depend on the outcome of the election."

'Brave decisions'

The official retained some hope from the attitude of the leading Shia cleric Ayatollah Sistani. The Ayatollah has called on the Shias to vote and has unified many of their factions. But he has also spoken of the need to respect other traditions. Ayatollah Sistani might well be the man to watch in 2005.

If, however, the election simply encourages the divisions of the country, then a break-up into its three parts -- Shia, Sunni and Kurd -- cannot be ruled out.

An optimistic note was struck by Jonathan Paris of St Antony's College, Oxford. He still believes in the so-called "J-curve" effect, in which things go downhill before they start climbing again.

"We are nearing the bottom of the curve. I stand by it. I am cautiously optimistic that if the election goes well, things will turn out all right," he said.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock said: "One has to be very realistic. Iraqis have to keep going and need to take brave decisions. They do not have any real political alternative. Only they can take on the violence in their communities. Having in place a government which they have elected themselves might help them make that decision.

"It depends on the Iraqis. We have lost the primary control."

He summed up the prospects: "The train is wobbly but it is still on the track."

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