Iraq: the new "forgotten" war?

More death, more bloodshed, more chaos

The war in Iraq is the war that never goes away. Over the past six and a half years, it has dominated the headlines -- but always for all the wrong reasons. In the wake of yesterday'sco-ordinated suicide bomb attacks in Baghdad that killed more than 150 people and wounded more than 500, it is a theme picked up by Sami Ramadani, the Iraqi-born, British-based academic, in the Guardian:

It is tragic that Iraq hits the headlines only if there is a major explosion with hundreds killed and injured. Yesterday's carnage in Baghdad is the second of its kind in two months, and yet another horrific reminder that the Iraqi people are still paying with their blood for the US-led invasion and occupation of their country.

Though inevitable, there is something morally questionable in the way Afghanistan has replaced Iraq in the news headlines. As the number of casualties suffered by US forces went down in Iraq and as the equivalent numbers of US and British casualties in Afghanistan started to climb, the latter has gradually displaced Iraq in the news schedules. This has given the impression that the situation in Iraq has improved markedly and that the country is making progress on all fronts. Back in June, amid much fanfare, the US forces were "withdrawn" from the Iraqi cities to various US bases around the country.

There is no doubt that the situation has improved for US forces, while British troops were airlifted from the fires of Iraq to be thrown into the flames of Afghanistan. The US plan for Iraq has so far succeeded in reducing its own casualties by pushing more of the Iraqi forces into the battle against the "insurgency" -- better known in Iraq as the "honourable patriotic resistance" to distinguish it from the hated al-Qaida-style terrorist attacks.

But try to tell Iraqis who are not part of the ruling circles that their situation has improved since the occupation and they will remind you not only of the countless dead and injured but also of the million-plus orphans and widows, the two million who fled the country, and the two million internal refugees, most of whom live in dreadful squalor.

So what does the future hold for Iraq? Peace and stability (in the long if not short run), or more war, more terror and more occupation? There is talk in Iraq of delaying January's parliamentary elections -- which may, according to the Times, put President Obama's pledge to withdraw US troops from Iraq and end combat operations there by September 2010 under threat:

The prospect was causing the US serious concern, said General Odierno. "I worry that it calls into question the Iraqi commitment to this form of government. If the parliament doesn't pass the election law and they delay the elections, that violates their own constitution, which says they have to have elections in January."

A postponement would almost certainly affect the US president's pledge to end combat operations in Iraq by August 31 next year and to withdraw all US troops by the end of 2011.

General Odierno said he had hoped to send as many as 70,000 soldiers home between March and August, but would keep troop strengths at current levels until 30 to 60 days after elections to ensure a safe transfer of power.

Yet there is no reason to believe that the mere presence of US troops can bring security or stability to a country that those troops did so much to wreck in the first place -- and, having been handed the baton of chaos, violence and destruction by the Saddam regime, that took some doing! As the Independent's Patrick Cockburn, one of the most astute and insightful commentators on Iraq, points out in his piece today:

There is no need to imagine that the slaughter in Haifa Street yesterday was because American troops withdrew from the cities of Iraq three months ago. With or without US troops, the bombers have been able to get through in Baghdad ever since they destroyed the UN headquarters in 2003.

Suicide car bombings, even when the driver is not planning to detonate his deadly cargo personally, are extremely difficult to stop. Remember the success the Provisional IRA had in the 1990s in targeting much smaller areas in the City of London and Canary Wharf.

But neither can we afford for Iraq, plagued by terror, bloodshed and sectarian strife, to be forgotten, ignored or displaced by Afghanistan. The Iraqi people are still, in the words of Ramadani, "paying with their blood" for Bush and Blair's illegal and disastrous "war of choice", and there are no signs that anything is going to change for the better in the foreseeable future. On the contrary, things could get worse.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.