The Iraq Disaster

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Review of 'The Occupation', Patrick Cockburn, Verso £15.99

Patrick Cockburn has been one of the most courageous and independent reporters of the Iraq war. In The Occupation he explains in detail and with the authority of experience why the occupation has failed.

Cockburn shows how the astonishing levels of US incompetence from day one of the occupation were a result of imperial arrogance. Believing they would be welcomed with open arms, the occupiers didn't pause to think that disbanding the 350,000-strong Iraqi security services would alienate the whole Sunni minority at one stroke. The resulting breakdown of law and order soon enraged most of the rest of the urban population.

Faced with growing chaos and pumped up with the colonialist confidence that only extremist minorities would oppose them, they turned to repression. Soon after the "liberation" in 2003 Cockburn himself was set upon by a US patrol because he was carrying a mobile phone. Mobile phones had just started to be used to detonate roadside bombs. Half a dozen soldiers pointed guns at him, shouting "Get down on your knees and put your hands in the air."

By late 2003 his closest Iraqi confidants were saying that unemployment, insecurity and violence had turned the majority against the occupiers. In 2004 US high command made things much worse by taking on the Sunni and Shia communities simultaneously.

The occupiers' political sense was equally dysfunctional. Opposition to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's calls for an early election were a disaster which stoked a Shia resistance movement. Backing politicians like Ayad Allawi with little base in Iraq made matters worse.

Cockburn is devastating about the colonialists' blunders. But at a time when even some neocons are blaming the failure in Iraq on wrong strategy it is important that Cockburn shows that apparent cockups are an inevitable outcome.

Occupiers want it both ways by definition - they need leaders with real weight who are nevertheless prepared to be puppets. As he says: "Even if the US had fielded an army twice the size of the 150,000-strong force in Iraq after the invasion the Sunni uprising would still have taken place... the insoluble problem for the US was always political not military."

Cockburn is oddly impatient with the important debates about the causes of the invasion. He says little about the British presence. What is more concerning is that he stresses the historical divisions in Iraq more than many other anti-war commentators, including Iraqis.

There were plenty of moments when these divisions began to be overcome. Cockburn himself describes the wave of solidarity with the defence of the town of Fallujah in March 2004 which led to mass desertions and mutinies in the Iraqi army, and insurrections involving Sunnis and Shias in towns and cities all the way from Fallujah to the Syrian border.

Despite all this The Occupation clearly exposes the gulf between the official version of events and what has really gone on.

Cockburn convincingly shows there can be no progress in Iraq until foreign troops leave, and he has a keen sense of the global consequences of the events he describes: "America's victorious war to throw Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991 was the start of its reign as sole superpower... and the occupation of Iraq in 2003 may have marked the beginning of its decline."