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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 April, 2005, 09:34 GMT 10:34 UK
Iraq two years on: Endgame or unending war?
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs Correspondent, BBC News website

Two years after the fall of Baghdad, it is an open question as to whether an endgame to the insurgency is under way or whether Iraq faces a war that will drag on for years.

Iraqi police on Baghdad street
Much depends on the ability of Iraqi security forces

The optimists hope that a combination of the elections in January and the growth of indigenous security forces will eventually prevail over a rebellion which lacks fundamental popular support.

This view was summed up by US President George W Bush with the words: ''The Iraqi people are taking charge of their own destiny."

Pessimists on the other hand argue the insurgents can still mount major attacks and that the political institutions are still far too weak to provide effective leadership.

For many Iraqis, this argument goes, the "gates of hell" are still open, as predicted before the war by the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa.

As so often, the real position is probably somewhere in-between.

Assessment

The former British representative to the Coalition Authority, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who had said in December that the insurgency was ineradicable unless Iraqi society turned against the fighters, is now a bit more upbeat.

"The January elections remain a huge turning point. It showed that Iraqis wanted to take their state forward. The insurgents, whether foreign terrorists or locals, present no poltical alternative. Iraqis now think they can do it, though it may be painful," he said.

The agreement on a new president, which should be followed fairly quickly by the formation of a transitional government, shows that politics is moving forward and this might provide a better rallying point for Iraqis who want to roll back the rebellion.

Mixed figures

The figures relating to violence are mixed.

The number of US troops killed in hostile incidents per month has fallen from 125 last November to 57 in December to 53 in January to 41 in February to 19 in March.

Casualties from mass suicide bombing are still high. Deaths in December are put at 398, in January at 282, in February at 401 and in March at 220.

The unofficial Iraqi Body Count index shows that the number of civilian deaths rose from 328 in November to 543 in February.

The most notable figure is a reduction in the US casualty rate and this has probably been achieved by the tactic of reducing the US role and increasing the Iraqi role

The figures for deaths among Iraqi security forces are not fully available, but the figures for early February alone are put at 106.

All these figures are from the index compiled by the Brookings Institution in Washington, which tracks a number of indicators about the conflict.

One factor the figures do not bring out is that over recent weeks, the Americans and Iraqis have killed or captured a number of leading bomb makers, with the result that recent bombs have not been as sophisticated as before.

On the mend?

Some commentators have concentrated on the before-and after-the-election figures to draw the conclusion that things are on the mend.

In testimony to the US Senate Armed Services Committee on 17 March, the director of the US Defence Intelligence Agency Vice-Admiral Lowell Jacoby took a longer view.

"The insurgency in Iraq has grown in size and complexity over the last year. Attacks numbered approximately 25 per day one year ago. Attacks on Iraq's election day reached approximately 300. Since the 30 January election, attacks have averaged around 60 per day."

It depends therefore on what time period you select. Compared to a year ago, the strike rate is double. Since the election, there are signs of progress.

The veteran New York Times correspondent John Burns lent some support to the optimists. He reported in March that Iraqi forces had done well in controlling Haifa Street in Baghdad where insurgents had once "outmanoeuvered the Americans".

"If Haifa Street is brought under control, it will be a major step toward restoring order in this city of five million, and will send a wider message - that the insurgents can be matched, and beaten back," he concluded.

Increasing Iraqi role

The most notable figure is a reduction in the US casualty rate and this has probably been achieved by the tactic of reducing the US role and increasing the Iraqi role.

Ali al-Faisal, a member of the mainly Shia United Iraqi Alliance, said of the insurgents: "In the past they were targeting the American forces because they were in charge of security. After the new Iraqi army and police were established and succeeded in maintaining security and began annihilating them, the insurgents shifted their attacks."

It is worth noting however that Adm Jacoby also said in March: "Coalition forces continue to be the primary targets."

And the former Nato commander Gen Wesley Clark told some Iraq experts this week: "There is no basis for the administration to crow that the guerrilla war is winding down."

A great deal now rests on the shoulders of the Iraqi security forces. In the past, these have been impressive in their numbers but unimpressive in their performance. And in turn, much depends on whether the Sunni population gives its allegiance to these forces.

The latest numbers show that there are 151,000 "combat-equipped" Iraqis against a stated goal of 272,000.

However, the quality of these forces is in doubt and only a few units have shown combat capability.

The number of insurgents remains uncertain with estimates putting them at about 20,000 active fighters. And they remain capable of mounting mass attacks as the assault on the Abu Ghraib prison recently demonstrated.

It is therefore not over yet.

The issue is whether it might be over in due course.

Sunni call

Certainly the elections appear to have had a beneficial effect. Even some leading Sunni

Muslim leaders have recently called on Iraqis to join the security forces. This call came after the Sunni boycott of the elections in which the Shia and Kurds dominated. Now there may be second thoughts.

"The security of this nation is every Iraqi's responsibility," the statement said.

So it is possible that slowly if not surely, the rebels might be worn down.

But for this to happen, the political process must take hold and the Iraq forces must take charge.

The politics are moving forward but very tentatively. And even when a new government is formed it will still only be a transitional one.

Its key task will be the writing of a new constitution by August, to be followed by a referendum and full elections in December.

Only then will it be possible to say for sure whether democracy has taken hold.




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