DAMASCUS // As Washington seeks today to open a new chapter in its involvement in Iraq, insurgents have dismissed announcements of a "new dawn" and say they will fight on until the last American soldier has left the country. Operation Iraqi Freedom, launched by the US president George W Bush seven-and-a-half years ago, will be formally ended by his successor, Barack Obama, today. With it the US says its combat role in Iraq has come to an end.
At a change-of-command ceremony in Baghdad overseen by the vice president, Joe Biden, the mission will be renamed Operation New Dawn, with a reduced force of about 50,000 soldiers now off front-line duties and instead working to train, advise and build up Iraq's own security services. "After more than seven years, the United States of America will end its combat mission in Iraq and take an important step forward in responsibly ending the Iraq war," Mr Obama said in a radio address before an Oval Office address he was due to make late last night. "The bottom line is this: the war is ending."
But while the transition from one operational title to another may represent a significant shift to Washington planners - with their eye on mid-term elections - Iraqi insurgent groups said it was business as usual. "Nothing has changed at all, they can say combat is over but there has been no ceasefire from the resistance and there will be no ceasefire while there is even a single American soldier in Iraq," said a senior official in the Iraqi Baath party, which remains heavily involved the insurgency.
He said that US claims to have ceased offensive military operations were a "lie", pointing to the continued role of US Special Forces units and intelligence assets. US soldiers also continue to patrol the so called trigger-line territories - areas disputed between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs. "I think 50,000 soldiers is a lot of men to have left behind if you are saying you have completed a withdrawal," the official said. "Fifty thousand is an occupation force, it might just be a new style of occupation."
The Baath party, led by the deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein until his execution in December 2006, has played a key role in the insurgency. The party is now headed by Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, a key Saddam aide. Iraqi and American officials accuse the Baathists of allying with al Qa'eda and carrying out deadly attacks against civilians. It is a link the Baathists deny, saying their nationalist insurgency targets only US forces and, if necessary in self defence, the Iraqi security services.
The Baath party regards the post-2003 political process as illegitimate because the country has been under foreign military occupation. According to the Baathist official, even if US troops were to leave, the Iraqi government and Iraqi constitution are American proxies that must be discarded. "We are the party of resistance and our party is leading the strongest resistance groups," he said. "We will never participate in the political process as long as there are American soldiers in Iraq, and an American constitution in Iraq. The constitution is an element of the occupation."
Unrest has spread in the months following elections in March, with Iraqi political parties failing to agree on a new government. The US military had hoped a new administration would be in place by the time Operation New Dawn began. Instead, with little sign that a government deal is close, there has been a recent increase in violence. A series of attacks - including co-ordinated assaults on more than a dozen cities last week that left at least 60 people dead - have defied US claims of the war being wound down. American involvement may be reduced, but the conflict is continuing, US officials acknowledge.
In August, according to statistics compiled from media reports, at least 444 people have been killed, including one US soldier. Most of the dead are Iraqi security personnel and civilians. Violence is, however, lower than it was in 2006 and 2007 when thousands were killed monthly - something the US military alone was unable to prevent. Abu al Moheeb, a spokesman for the breakaway Mohammad Yunis al Ahmed faction of the Baath party, which has split from the Izzat al Douri wing, also vowed that the insurgency would continue. The al Ahmed group has been blamed for a series of attacks in Iraq and openly admits to planning and carrying out insurgent strikes. Abu al Moheeb compared the Baathists' fight to that of George Washington, a figure revered in the US for leading America's uprising against the British in the Revolutionary War, before becoming the first president of the United States. "We have the right to resist foreign occupation," he said. "If George Washington were alive today he would support us in our right to resist, he led a national liberation movement."
Attacking US forces in Iraq would remain the primary goal of the insurgents, Abu al Moheeb said, although he admitted that with US troops spending more time on heavily fortified bases instead of out patrolling, that would be difficult. He also described the Baathist insurgent forces as "weaker today" than had once been the case, saying they now lacked vital foreign support. "The first target is the American soldiers," he explained. "They are occupation forces. It's not beacuase they are Americans, we respect America and its people. But any American who dresses in a military uniform and comes to invade our country is a legitimate target for us - that goes for any occupation forces, American, British, anyone." Baathists and other pro-insurgency Iraqis insist that the US troop drawdowns, and Mr Obama's promise to pull out entirely by the end of next year, have been forced on Washington by the strength of opposition it faced. "It is the resistance that has pushed the Americans to leave," Abu al Moheeb said. "If we had not fought them they would stay for ever. When the Americans invaded they did not expect this resistance, they thought there would be a welcome of flowers. "These 5,000 soldiers they have had killed according to their own figures, they didn't expect to lose such a large number. What did these men die for? Nothing." The US military says 4,419 troops have lost their lives in Iraq with another 32,000 wounded, while billions of dollars have been spent on the conflict. At the height of the war it was costing the US government between $10 billion and $12 billion (Dh36.7bn and Dh44bn) a month. Mr Obama, who as a presidential candidate opposed the Iraq war, has said US sacrifices were not in vain. "I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to all the men and women who have served in Iraq and who are currently serving in Iraq," he said. "Your dedication, your bravery, your courage, has made America safer and has helped stand up democracy in Iraq." firstname.lastname@example.org