In my last summary article on Iraq (Solidarity 3/117, 13/09/07) I wrote that the Bush "administration now seems to have no strategy but to bash on and hope it can keep things relatively under control until it hands over the mess to another US presidency in January 2009".
And I suggest that it might achieve that limited objective. "The tighter division of Arab Iraq into Shia-only or Sunni-only neighbourhoods - now separated off, in Baghdad, by high concrete walls and checkpoints - should tend to reduce the number of killings".
It has done so. The rate of killings remained high through to September, but two heavyweight US reports published in December - the Pentagon's Measuring Security and Stability in Iraq, and the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index - detail a drop in violent deaths in October-December down to about the same level as before the Samarra mosque bombing of February 2006 set off slow-burning sectarian civil war.
The lower level is still horrifying: about 600 deaths a month according to the Pentagon, which almost certainly underestimates. The Brookings report tells us, for example, that 79% of people in Baghdad have had a family member or friend murdered or kidnapped; and that Iraq now has less than half the number of doctors it had before 2003, 17,000 having fled the country and 2,000 having been murdered.
Conditions are nightmarish; but it is a quieter patch in the nightmare.
What does this mean socially? The Pentagon report, which no-one can suspect of painting the situation worse than it is, says bluntly that there have been only "minimal advances in the delivery of essential services to the people of Iraq" like electricity and water, and that a major limiting factor is endemic sectarianism in the Iraqi government.
The Pentagon report ventures no guess about whether unemployment - generally reckoned around 50% - is decreasing, and Brookings reports it unchanged.
And what does it mean politically? Both the Pentagon nor the Brookings report see little or no advance in the Iraqi government's ability to build a broad political base or to provide efficient civil administration. Their evidence is in line with the summary judgement of Joos Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group think-tank.
"What Petraeus [the current US military commander] has accomplished is a lull that is sustainable through the American elections [in November 2008]. It's not indefinitely sustainable without political accommodation at the top".
The failure of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to build a governing alliance of any strength has been highlighted in events of the last few days. Powerful Shia politicians are seeking to get parliamentary immunity removed from Adnan Dulaimi, a leader of the Iraqi Accord Front, so that criminal charges can brought against him for organising a murder gang with "mortar shells, grenade launchers and other weapons" stored in a house next to his home and allegedly used by his guards. Dulaimi denies responsibility for the house.
The Accord Front is a "soft"-Islamist bloc including the Iraqi offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood which, of all the Sunni Arab political forces, has on the whole been the most willing to cooperate with the political structures set up by the USA since the 2003 invasion.
The USA's goal with its military "surge", from early 2007, was to damp down Iraq's conflicts enough that the US-friendly Iraqi government could acquire political solidity and do some real social reconstruction.
That hasn't happened. As the Financial Times (07/01/08) summarises it: "The retreat of the armed movements does not appear to have been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the authority and legitimacy of the Iraqi state. General Petraeus has said that as al-Qaeda activity lessens in Sunni areas, 'mafia-like' criminal organisations... expand to fill the gap".
In short, Iraq is quieter because it is more tightly and tidily controlled by local mafias. The Pentagon report has 64% of Iraqis saying they feel safe within their own neighbourhoods, but only 34% thinking they can travel safely outside the neighbourhood.
The relative quiet may not hold through to January 2009, as Bush hopes. In April it will become constitutionally possible to set up a new autonomous "region" in the South on the model of the Kurdish region in the north. Some Shia-Islamist groups strongly support a "region" covering a very large Shia-majority territory; others want a smaller "region" including only Basra and two other provinces; yet others oppose any "region". The clash could turn violent.
Even more explosively, a decision on the status of the northern oil centre of Kirkuk, claimed by both Kurds and Arabs, has been delayed from a previous deadline of 31 December 2007, but only for some months.
But the relative quiet may hold. In particular, the sharp drop in recent months in US military casualties - which ran very high in summer 2007 - probably makes "bashing on" sustainable for Bush.
In the longer term, even relative quiet should enable even an incompetent and corrupt government to increase electricity and water supplies, to create a few more jobs, and to make the Iraqi army more solid. It may open up what American politicians have hinted at as their preferred way out: a military coup, setting up a "soft" military dictatorship, which the USA could keep sufficient distance from to deplore but to support.
A move which may symbolise Iraq's militia-based political forces shifting to "softer", longer-term strategies is the recent decision of Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Shia-Islamist Mahdi Army, to take time out to study to win higher clerical rank. But at present all substantive political stabilisation is speculation for the future.
Even a limited dampening-down of sectarian civil war should be good for the Iraqi labour movement. The teachers' union staged protests in December to demand pay rises and better security in schools. (The latest figures I can find, for April 2007, indicate that on average 70% of Iraqi students stay away from school because they or their parents reckon it is not safe to attend). Generally, the labour movement still seems very harassed and on the defensive. If the relative quiet takes the form of a tightening of control by local militias - mostly sectarian and political-Islamist - over their respective areas, it may actually make things worse for the labour movement than the previous chaos.
Solidarity with the Iraqi labour movement against both the US/UK occupation and the sectarian militias remains the indicated policy for socialists internationally.
In the winter 2007-8 issue of Survival, the journal of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, US academic Christopher Fettweis has published an article arguing that the consequences of the US "scuttling" from Iraq would not be "catastrophic".
It is an important article for us to study. The brutality, arrogance, desire to use Iraq as a test-ground for "neo-conservative" follies, and downright corruption of the US/UK occupation has shaped the horrors of the last four and a half years in Iraq. We have denounced that, step by step, in Solidarity.
But we have also argued for denunciation of the sectarian militias, and opposed slogans like "troops out now" which suggest that an unrestrained battle for power by the sectarian militias would be some sort of "self-determination" and a lesser evil than the status quo. On the contrary: a lurch into full-scale civil war would be even more destructive of the labour movement, of elements of democratic life, and of possibilities of self-determination, than the current slower horrors.
Does Fettweis prove that estimate wrong? His article, as far as I know, is the first reasoned effort to argue the issue. As he comments, mostly "those who support an immediate pull-out do not doubt catastrophe, but instead seem to be willing to live with the inevitable dire consequences".
Much of Fettweis's argument proceeds by refuting the most extravagant predictions of catastrophe by US right-wingers - "step back from Iraq, and al Qaeda will throng the streets of the USA's cities", that sort of thing.
His argument is shaky in parts, because it depends heavily on the idea that "the unprecedented is unlikely". Governments in the Arab world have mostly been very stable for decades now, and "power vacuums in Arab societies tend to be filled rather quickly". But the state of affairs in Iraq today is already unprecedented in the history of the region. Unprecedented things are already happening, so further unprecedented things can't be that unlikely.
He may well be right, though, in his essential thesis, which is - though he does not word it thus - that scuttling from Iraq would not be catastrophic for US imperialism. US world power would take a blow with the scuttling, but not one it could not recover from, and arguably less damaging than the cumulative drain of blood, treasure, and prestige through an occupation that not even the ardent "neo-conservatives" now believe likely to yield any positively happy outcome.
But what about the prospects for the peoples and the working class of Iraq? "Temporary chaos in the wake of a US pull-out is quite likely", writes Fettweis, cheerily. But that is not too bad. "A government - perhaps three - will soon emerge... possibly in the wake of civil war". (Notice that he does not suggest that the existing Iraqi government could survive). "The new government(s) might resemble Iraqi precedents" - i.e., be like Saddam Hussein's tyranny - "more than Washington would like" - more than Iraq's people "would like", too! - but there will be "stability".
"It is not hard to imagine Iraq descending into the kind of chaos that engulfed Algeria in the 1990s, where tens of thousands died during a particularly vicious civil war". There will "mostly likely" be "ethnic cleansing until the various sides are able to come to an agreement, increased short-term regional tension and uncertainty, and bitter domestic discord for a generation".
But "in the long run" there will be either "political accommodation or a civil war that eventually someone wins".
In short, Fettweis claims only that there will not be a complete political implosion of the region, or unending full-scale civil war in Iraq. And he is probably right about that. But the "non-catastrophe" he expects would still be a catastrophe for the new Iraqi labour movement and for the elements of democracy in secularism in Iraqi society; and also, probably, for any prospects of democratic self-determination for the peoples of Iraq, rather than their country being bloodily torn apart.
The prospect of the Iraqi labour movement asserting itself politically against both the occupation and the sectarian militias, uniting broad sections of the population around it on issues like privatisation, food supplies, housing, and jobs, and shaping at least a limited democratic and secular self-determination for the country, is a difficult one. But it still not time to give up on it and opt instead for Fettweis's "stability of the grave"!