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June 11 2004

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,174-1141520,00.html

The coalition bids goodbye and good riddance to Iraq

Simon Jenkins

GOODBYE Iraq. Farewell from the front pages. You have infuriated, exhilarated and exasperated us for 18 months, but this is the moment for parting. For the second time in a year, George Bush and Tony Blair have declared “mission accomplished” and a “victory for the Iraqi people”. Another group of local people has been told to pretend to run the place. Whether this is triumph or cut-and-run, who cares? One of the briefest and bloodiest chapters of modern Western hegemony is clearly coming to an end.
Relief and euphoria continue to emanate from coalition leaders at the G8 on Sea Island, Georgia. To secure Tuesday’s UN resolution on the new Baghdad deal, American negotiators conceded to all sides. The new Iraqi government has a “right of veto” over coalition activities. It has everyone’s blessing and the usual promises of aid and affection.

Was anything so astonishing? Law and order is collapsing across Iraq south of the Kurdish border. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) offices are having to move into military bases before closing at the end of the month. American troops are retreating to barracks. Small wonder Washington has lost the will to argue. If Iraq’s new rulers want America out, then America will go, gladly in the view of its soldiers. I would be surprised if any foreign troops are actively engaged in Iraq a year from now.

The truth of this week’s G8 joy is not that peace has broken out in Iraq but that it has broken out among the G8. Allies are friends again. Washington made a desperate bid to send Nato on a suicide mission to Baghdad, but France wisely vetoed it. Mr Blair was fobbed off with the usual promise on Israel. Mr Bush tried to boost the morale of his neocons with a mad plan for a “Greater Middle East”. This was Blairised as a “Broader Middle East Initiative” and rendered meaningless. Am I growing old or has 21st-century diplomacy dumbed down?

This was all just smoke. Through it we can see the word “Iraq” overstamped with a giant “exit”. Everyone is saluting. Everyone from Mr Bush to the Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, is singing from the same sheet. They all want to “internationalise” Iraq as a means of escape. They know it is too late. The UN has no more authority in the streets of Baghdad than does anyone else. Any rubbish will do when you want out.

There is now a total mismatch between Iraq Abroad and Iraq Real. Were the coalition serious about promoting democracy among the Iraqis, the last thing it would do at present is withdraw from Iraq’s towns and cities. The mission to pacify both Sunni and Shia regions is not only incomplete, it is farther from completion than ever. Nothing is normal. Highways linking Baghdad, Basra and Mosul are unsafe even in armoured vehicles. Deaths and bombings occur daily. There is no proactive police force, and no sign of one. Local order is in the hands of vigilantes.

What has changed in the past two months is that coalition forces have recognised the inevitable. The “loss” of Fallujah in April was critical. Even the so-called Fallujah Brigade of former Saddamists, to whom the US Marines ceded power, has itself capitulated to local warlords. This pattern is spreading. In Shia territory, Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr’s cells are cutting deals with other Islamist groups, most recently in Najaf where Spanish troops were useless and their US replacements murderous. The Italians round Nasariya refuse to move from camp, unable to see why they should die to keep Silvio Berlusconi in Washington’s good books.

To members of the UN the issue may be whether the new government will be able to stop coalition operations. On the ground, the issue is whether the government can order them. There is no point in any election if the resulting authority is unenforcible. This needs troops ready to face fire. No Iraqi army or police force in sight will do this, only American and British soldiers, undeniably brave.

Mr Blair, safe in his luxury Sea Island villa, boasted on Wednesday that “the people of Iraq know that they have the international community on their side”. Stalin would cry, how many divisions has the international community? It has none in Sadr City, Fallujah, Tikrit, Najaf or Nasariya. If Mr Blair is on the side of Iraqis, why are he and Mr Bush withdrawing from the CPA at least relatively competent administrators and handing power to extremist mullahs and gangsters? Why does he support contracts being awarded only to American companies, wrecking the Iraqi economy? Why is he dithering over despatching the Marines to Najaf, a reckless decision but talisman of coalition policing on the ground?

The answer is that Mr Blair will follow Mr Bush out of Iraq as he followed him in. Anyone who has met the new rulers can only pity them.Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, was for 20 years a Surrey doctor. Most of his colleagues are expatriates and technocrats with no political base. They may be accepted by café society on the banks of the Tigris. I would not sell them a penny of life insurance.

All hope of these people leading their country to stable elections in January requires a guarantee that Iraq’s violent and corrupt political underworld would be curbed. US operations in Fallujah and Najaf wrecked any such guarantee, by their failure as much as by their brutality. Mobsters such as Hojatoleslam al-Sadr are rampant, terrorising even the tribal shiekhs who offered some stability in a post-Saddam settlement. Hojatoleslam al-Sadr is operating as far south as Basra.

The coalition clearly cannot uphold central authority. It has thus initiated the break-up of Iraq into self-ruling cantonments. This week the two Kurdish factions reinforced this break-up by threatening to boycott the new government altogether for not entrenching Kurdish autonomy in the constitution. Such autonomy was denied them on direct orders of the Shias’ Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, jealous of Kurdish oil. For the new constitution to leave unresolved this central pillar of Iraq unity was extraordinary.

Any hope of a new Iraqi force strong enough to reinstate national authority was probably destroyed when the Pentagon disbanded the old army and police force last year. It stopped pay and pensions and drove thousands of well-armed fighters into the back streets, there to re-enact a dozen mini-Stalingrads.

Freedom demands more than security. It demands security in defence of freedom. Sharia (Islamic law) is now operating de facto across much of southern Iraq. Whatever Mr Blair may claim, women in these areas do not enjoy the liberty they had under Saddam’s secular rule. The closing this month of CPA offices will leave another vacuum for the fundamentalist warlords to fill. In one area a desperate CPA even appointed a militia leader, of the Badr Brigade, as local chief of police. He resigned after a death threat from another, from the local al-Sadr cell. It was like Al Capone refusing the job of Chicago police chief after a black spot from Bugsy Moran. This is the reality of modern Iraq.

Had the Pentagon handled the occupation differently, there might have been a case for retaining Western troops “as long as it took” (to quote Mr Blair). But that depended on troops being able to do the job. The Pentagon’s poisoning of Iraqi hearts and minds has rendered this impossible. Military effort in Iraq is overwhelmingly concerned with self-protection.

The best spin to put on the Bush-Blair euphoria is that it is cover for the earliest troop withdrawal, first to barracks and then from Iraq altogether. Iraq is to be handed over not to democracy but to whatever comes next. There will be friendly faces for a time in Baghdad. But like those other laboratories of Western intervention in the region, Lebanon and Afghanistan, Iraq seems doomed to return to political ground zero, to anarchy, before finding its own path to salvation. I wonder what odds I would get on another Saddam.

When that happens, I know what Mr Blair and the neo-cons will say. We gave Iraq a chance. We gave them the option of democracy and they failed to take it. Nothing to do with us, they will cry, just typical Arabs. So goodbye, Iraq. You are on your own and it’s all your fault.