Slippage of control in Iraq makes a mockery of power hand-over

TWO months ago, amid the kind of secrecy more normally associated with Saddam’s illicit arms deals, the US authorities in Baghdad formally handed over power to the fledgling Iraqi government.

The ceremony, amid the formidable security of the Green Zone, was done two days ahead of schedule in a bid to wrongfoot insurgents - for whom, it was claimed, it would provide the key rallying moment for a final, last-gasp offensive.

Today, with both Ayad Allawi's new government and its coalition backers losing control of the country, it is hard to imagine why anybody bothered with such constitutional conjuring.

No force ever attacks when its foes expect it to: instead, as yesterday’s carnage and that of recent weeks shows, the real post-hand-over violence is only truly under way now.

The fact remains that this is now the second time, after April’s initial insurrection, that Iraq has listed towards total anarchy. Indeed, a two-month-on, two-month-off pattern of violence was predicted by some coalition commanders long ago.

Back in July, I met Col Dana Pittard, one of the US Army’s more highly regarded leaders, whose men had just quelled a major attempt to take over the northern Iraqi town of Baquba.

He was proud of his soldiers’ efforts - in which they suffered fatalities - but under no illusions: "They’ll try it on again in a couple of months," he warned. "Just give them time to regroup."

Worse still, even with what now seem to be periodic lulls and highs, the scale of armed resistance seems to grow.

The fact that US troops regularly give the enemy an easy hiding - killing scores, sometimes hundreds at a time - is no comfort. It merely shows that no matter how high the casualty rates, there is a seemingly bottomless supply of newcomers coming in.

And all the time, as occupying armies have known for centuries, the resistance is learning from its mistakes.

To see how the situation has deteriorated one only needs to be reminded of the bullish confidence of coalition commanders in Iraq a year ago. Back then reporters were admonished if they talked of "no-go zones": the coalition presence, and with it the rule of law, extended to every corner of the country.

Nowadays, by comparison, even British troops in the relatively quiet southern sector have all but conceded certain hostile towns.

The prospect of a "super rogue state", as raised in recent days by Iraq’s new UN ambassador Samir Sum-aida'ie, is no longer a distant nightmare but an approaching possibility.

Alas, it is no use expecting "ordinary Iraqis" - the God-fearing, Saddam-hating, violence-abhorring majority to whom the coalition constantly appeals - to rally round to stop the worst-case scenarios unfolding.

As the falls of Fallujah, Najaf and Samarrah have shown, Iraqis’ popular support - explicit, tacit or otherwise - tends to go to whoever wields the biggest sticks in town.

For the first year after the fall of Saddam, that pretty much meant the United States Army.

Now, however, as the half-way point of year two approaches, it is a role that is increasingly up for grabs.


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