The only hope now is to divide Iraq into three

Simon Jenkins in th Times

Dec 3 2003

Those who try to do the undoable must also think the unthinkable. American strategists in Iraq are contemplating what they have always denied, the search for a "strong man with a moustache" to stop the present rot. If the result is not democracy, so be it. If the result is the dismemberment of Iraq, so be it. Iraq has become a mess. There is only one priority, to "get out with dignity".

This strategy is now being rammed down the throat of the Pentagon proconsul in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, by George Bush's new "realist" Deputy National Security Adviser, Bob Blackwill. He answers to Condoleezza Rice, not Donald Rumsfeld, and is the new boss of Iraq. The Pentagon, Mr Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, architects of the old "idealist" strategy, are in retreat. The Iraqi Governing Council, which Mr Bremer reluctantly created, will be disbanded. Washington must find someone with whom it can do business, someone who can deliver order in return for power. That search is Mr Blackwill's job.

In a nutshell, Washington has bought the old British Middle East strategy, that you deal with local leaders and leave them to it. The fantasies of Mr Rumsfeld and of George Bush's recent "world democracy" speech are at an end. There must be no second Vietnam in Iraq. Necessity has become the mother of humiliating invention.

We shall never know if Mr Rumsfeld's adventure could have turned out otherwise. As his weapons of mass destruction vanished in the desert air, so has his belief in a "new democratic beacon in the Middle East". That collapsed from the minute he peremptorily tore up the State Department's Future of Iraq Project shortly before the invasion and ostracised its staff. His faith in corrupt expatriates was crazy. His post-invasion demolition of Saddam Hussein's state apparatus removed the institutions and disciplines on which any government depends.

The May 16 order disbanding the Iraqi Army created 400,000 enemies overnight and gave the Saddamists what they most needed, a sea of Sunni resentment in which to swim. The wild shooting habits and hearts-and-minds ineptitude of the 82nd Airborne and 4th Infantry did the rest. They supplied a stream of blood-feud assassins. For Iraqis this inept occupation has brought to life the Arab proverb, "Better 40 years of oppression than one day of anarchy."

What is amazing is the speed with which Washington recognises its mistakes. The dubiousness of "victory in Iraq" was vividly illustrated last week when George Bush had to visit the country in secret and dared not leave his airbase. Saddam loyalists are operating virtually at will, now even in the south. The White House got the message. Washington sacked its first governor, Jay Garner, within a month of the invasion. It is now effectively abandoning its second within six months. Baghdad has seen three regime changes within a year.

The plan Washington forced on Mr Bremer last month abandoned the Pentagon's policy of steady progress towards democracy through an elected assembly. The new plan was more urgent, a "transfer of power" to a provisional government next spring, with the hope of elections thereafter. This government would be selected from the three provinces on a local "show of hands". It would run the New Iraqi Army and police force and enjoy some patronage over oil revenue and $19 billion of aid.

Now this plan appears also to be in disarray. After witnessing the present governing council, the White House has understandably lost faith in Iraqi assemblies, however chosen. The CIA assessments are clear. Evidence of economic recovery means nothing when Iraqis associate American occupation with fear and lawlessness. They see Saddam loyalists getting away with murder and looters getting away with their property. Something new is needed.

Iraq has only ever been held together by brute force. Washington is grudgingly accepting the view that this is unlikely to change. A new leader is needed to prevent the place becoming a global magnet for what the Arabist historian, Bernard Lewis, calls "new causes for anger, new dreams of fulfilment, new tools of attack". This was, after all, the view that Washington took in the 1980s when it decided to support a certain Saddam Hussein.

The 60 per cent Shia majority, long oppressed by Saddam and his Sunnis, see its hour as come. Its primary allegiance is to ayatollahs who, however moderate, require government to be based on Islamic law. Like all Iraqi politicians, these men are playing slow at present. They are watching the chaotic mood swings in the Republican Palace fortress in Baghdad - and biding their time.

These men include Aziz al-Hakim, chairman of the Sciri group on the governing council, Muqtadah al-Sadr, heir to the heroic Ayatollah al-Sadr whose face has replaced Saddam's in a million picture frames, and the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. They are not so close to their one-time Iranian hosts as to scare their fellow Iraqis. They eschew the word fundamentalist and have for the moment (mostly) stood down their militias. Mr Blackwill's game plan must be to find his strong man from this group. He must let the Shias decide which of them should be boss and hand Iraq over to that person. Such a regime would at first embrace the minority Sunnis and the oil-rich Kurds.

However, it is idle to pretend that this embrace would be stable. Mr Bremer has turned the Sunnis into a mass resistance movement, armed and desperate. They have no jobs or oil and increasingly see Saddam as their champion against Shia domination. Their underground Baath party is a lethal saboteur of any new regime. Baghdad, once majority Shia but now heavily Sunni, could become another divided city, a place of nightly horror.

As for the Kurds in the North, they will allow no loss of the sovereignty they enjoyed under the "no-fly zone". Their current leader, Jalal Talabani, would support a Shia regime for a while. But any Shia decision, say on oil, with which the Kurds disagreed would be opposed. Many Kurds have dreamt of an independence which has never seemed closer than now. Sceptics are already talking of "Kurdistan" becoming "America's second Israel".

For the Americans to try policing such a confederation is politically inconceivable. To hold the Sunnis in subjugation to the Shias, to deter the Turks from oppressing the Kurds, to reassure the Saudis over an Iranian-backed Baghdad, would all require hundreds of thousands of troops in perpetual battle mode. It is not on.

The yearning for national unity and dignity may be palpable in Baghdad. It was hoped that, after Saddam, the Americans might deliver it. The Ottomans had ruled Iraq as separate provinces. The British fashioned a nation under a Hashemite king with armed force. Saddam continued this ruthlessly through the Baath party. He rebuilt Babylon and made Baghdad a shrine to pan-Arab nationhood.

Such unity is not remotely in sight. Possibly if the Americans had purged and redeployed the Baath party it might have stood a chance. They did not. Instead they are turning to the ayatollahs. But they, or their civilian frontmen, would face intense Sunni resistence. The odds would be on the Sunnis eventually demanding similar autonomy to that enjoyed by the Kurds, perhaps with help from their neighbouring co-religionists, the Syrians. Small wonder Iraq's six adjacent states are in a state of suspended horror. They see Mr Rumsfeld's "cradle of stability" turning into anything but.

The strong man solution cannot hold. Iraq seems ever more likely to split three ways. Fragmentation has become the default mode of Western intervention. It was so in Yugoslavia. It is so in Afghanistan. It will be so in the coming conflicts in the Caucasus. America and Britain apparently cannot tolerate the power centres needed to keep disparate nations in order. We may no longer divide and rule, but we happily divide and debilitate.

If this was the Pentagon's strategy all along, it has been implemented in a funny way. But since realpolitik has overtaken idealism as Washington's ruling ethos, at least an orderly break-up of Iraq should be planned, not denied. In 20 years of meddling, America and Britain have made a mess of this nation. They owe it the least blood-spattered path they can fashion to whatever the future has in store.