At 3 a.m. on January 11 2007 a fleet of American helicopters made a sudden swoop on the long-established Iranian liaison office in the city of Arbil in northern Iraq. Their mission was to capture two senior Iranian security officials, Mohammed Jafari, the deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the head of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. What made the American raid so extraordinary is that both men were in Iraq at the official invitation of the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani who held talks with them at his lakeside headquarters at Dokan in eastern Kurdistan. The Iranians had then asked to see Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, in the Kurdish capital Arbil. There was nothing covert about the meeting which was featured on Kurdish television.
In the event the US attack failed. It was only able to net five junior Iranian officials at the liaison office that had existed in Arbil for years issuing travel documents, and which was being upgraded to a consular office by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry in Baghdad. The Kurdish leaders were understandably furious asking why, without a word to them, their close allies the Americans had tried to abduct two important foreign officials who were in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi president. Kurdish troops had almost opened fire on the American troops. At the very least the raid showed a contempt for Iraqi sovereignty which the US was supposedly defending. It was three months before officials in Washington admitted that they had tried and failed to capture Jafari and General Frouzanda. The US state department and Iraqi government argued for the release of the five officials as relative minnows, but Vice-President Cheney's office insisted fiercely that they should be held.
If Iran had undertaken a similar venture by, for example, trying to kidnap the deputy head of the CIA when he was on an official visit to Pakistan or Afghanistan then Washington might have considered the attempt a reason for going to war. In this instance the US assault on Arbil attracted bemused attention inside and outside Iraq for only a few days before it was buried by news of the torrent of violence in the rest of the country. The US understandably did not reveal the seniority of its real targets — or that they had escaped.
The Arbil raid is important because it was the first visible sign of a string of highly significant American policy decisions announced by President George W. Bush in an address to the nation broadcast in the US a few hours earlier on January 10. There have been so many spurious turning points in the war — such as the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the hand over of sovereignty to an Iraqi government in 2004 or the elections of 2005 — that truly critical moments are obscured or underrated. The true importance of Bush's words took time to sink in. In the months prior to his speech the US seemed to be feeling its way towards an end to the war. The Republicans had lost control of both houses of Congress in the November 2006 elections, an unexpectedly heavy defeat blamed on the Iraq war. Soon afterwards the bipartisan Iraqi Study Group of senior Republicans and Democrats, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, spelled out the extent of American failure thus far, arguing for a reduced US military commitment and suggesting negotiations with Iran and Syria.
President Bush did the exact opposite of what the Baker-Hamilton report had proposed. He identified Iran and Syria as America's prime enemies in Iraq, stating that `These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq.' Instead of reducing the American commitment, Bush pledged to send 20,000 extra troops to Iraq to try to secure Baghdad. In other words the US was going to respond to its lack of success in the conflict by escalating both the war in Iraq and America's confrontation with Iran in the Middle East as a whole. The invasion of 2003 had destabilized the whole region; now Bush was about to deepen that instability.
The raid on Arbil showed that the new policies were not just rhetoric. Iraqis were quicker than the rest of the world to pick up on what was happening. `People are saying that Bush's speech means that the occupation is going to go on a long time,' the Iraqi political scientist Ghassan Attiyah told me soon after the president had stopped speaking. Although the new US security plan for Baghdad, which began on February 14, was sold as a temporary `surge' in US troop numbers it was evident that the reinforcements were there to stay. In April the Pentagon announced it was increasing US army tours in Iraq from twelve to fifteen months. Without anybody paying much attention, American officials stopped talking about training Iraqi army troops as a main priority. This was an important shift in emphasis. Training and equipping Iraqi troops to replace American soldiers so they could be withdrawn from Iraq had been the cornerstone of US military planning since 2005. Now the policy was being quietly downgraded, though not abandoned altogether.
Could the new US strategy succeed? It seemed very unlikely. The US had failed to pacify Iraq between 2003 and 2007. Now, with much of the US public openly disillusioned with the war, Bush was to try for victory once again. Common sense suggested that he needed to reduce the number of America's enemies inside and outside Iraq. But his new strategy was only going to increase them. The US army was to go on fighting the 5 million-strong Sunni community as it had been doing since the capture of Baghdad. The Sunni demand for a timetable for US withdrawal was not being met. At the same time the US was going to deal more aggressively with the 17 million Shias in Iraq. It would contest the control over much of Baghdad and southern Iraq of the Mehdi Army, the powerful Shia militia led by the nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is regarded with cult-like devotion by many Shia Iraqis. Not content with this, Washington was also more openly going to confront Iran, the most powerful of Iraq's neighbours.
As with so many US policies under Bush the new strategy made sense in terms of American domestic politics, but in Iraq seemed a recipe for disaster. Iran was easy to demonize in the US, just as Saddam Hussein had been blamed four years earlier for everything that was wrong in Iraq and the Middle East. The New York Times, which had once uncritically repeated White House claims that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, now ran articles on its front page saying that Iran was exporting sophisticated roadside bombs to Iraq that were killing American soldiers. There was no reference to the embarrassing discoveries of workshops making just such bombs in Baghdad and Basra. Above all the Bush administration was determined to put off the day, at least until after the Presidential election in 2008, when it had to admit that the US had failed in Iraq.
I was in Baghdad soon after Bush had spoken. I had never known it so bad. My driver had to take a serpentine route from the airport, driving along the main highway and then suddenly doing a U-turn to dart down an alleyway. He was trying to avoid checkpoints that might be manned by Police Commandos in their mottled uniforms who often acted as Shia death squads. The journey to the al-Hamra Hotel in Jadriyah, a district built in a loop of the Tigris river, took three times as long as normal. In the following days I could see Mehdi Army checkpoints, civilians with guns and a car slewed across the road, operating almost within sight of the heavily guarded 14 July Bridge that leads to the Green Zone.
Excerpted from The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq with permission from Verso Books. Copyright © by Patrick Cockburn.