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Hoping and cutting and running in Baghdad

Simon Jenkins

GOOD NEWS. We are cutting and running from Baghdad.

On Monday the Magnificent Two, George W.Bush and Tony Blair, stole out of town at dead of night, leaving bandits roaming the streets and citizens cowering in their homes. They had promised to stay “until the job is done”. It is not done, but they are going. The coalition boss, Paul Bremer, dared not leave with head high, banners flying, populace cheering. He dared not even leave by road. Very likely he would have been shot.

The coalition skulks out of Iraq as the Americans did out of Vietnam, in armoured helicopters, while another three-hour power cut leaves Baghdad sweltering and fearful. Pentagon apologists have jeered: “Why not celebrate the good things in free and stable Iraq?” The answer is now clear. If Iraq were free and stable, nothing would have kept a certain president and a certain prime minister from flying down from Istanbul today to say so. They did not dare.

The coalition’s final decision, to get out early, was probably its shrewdest. Security in Iraq was worsening and nothing but corpses were to be gained by staying. True, 160,000 troops remain but they are increasingly confined to base. With the US presidential election approaching, the bodybags are talking. The loss of 40 Marines in the May retreat from Fallujah was the last straw. A land which a conqueror cannot hold, said Clausewitz, has not been conquered. Discretion is indeed the better part of valour.

Towns such as Najaf, Karbala, Ramadi and Fallujah, and Sadr City in Baghdad are now in the hands of gangsters and militias. The Kurdish region is beyond Baghdad’s aegis. More important, so are the transport network, the highways and airports. Contractors have recently had to stop most infrastructure work, leading to a return of power cuts and oil losses. The stuffing has gone out of this intervention. Everyone, not just the Iraqis, wants “foreign troops out”.

The security of a state is not a detail. In the eyes of its citizens it is the first obligation of power, be it democratic, oligarchic or authoritarian. Westerners who take order for granted are not entitled to claim that it matters less to Iraqis than “the vote” or “toppling Saddam”. In his final interview, Mr Bremer said that his occupation was vindicated by the graves of Saddam’s victims. He is wrong. While some might consider the invasion lasyt year so vindicated, the occupation is vindicated only by Mr Bremer’s rule.

This rule ranks among the most inept in the history of the West’s global interventions. Mr Bremer leaves with some 10,000 Iraqis and 900 Westerners dead inside a year, a smashed administration and an economy wrecked by his “ground zero” economics. Oil and electricity production are still below what Saddam achieved under sanctions. Mr Bremer honestly thought that bombing and strafing residential areas was the way to establish consent and security. Obsessed with his own “force protection”, he failed to train, equip and motivate a new police and security service after disbanding the old ones. Unprotected police still sit at roadsides while armoured convoys race past to keep the American occupiers supplied.

Coalition spokesmen boast of “elected councils” in every town. They exist. But they have no authority because they have no protection. Without troops to enforce their decisions, they are mere conduits for American money to the mafias that now perforce run Iraq. As for free speech, try driving about with a banner saying “Down with Moqtada al-Sadr”. Mr Blair claims preposterously that Iraqi women under the present mullahs are “more free” than under secular Saddam. Women do not walk safe in Iraq’s streets, certainly not in Western dress.

This week’s transfer of power to appointed ministers is probably more real than sceptics admit. The Americans are understandably keen to shift responsibility for chaos to Iraqis. Witness the impending trial of Saddam himself. The transfer should have happened a year ago, when conditions were more stable and the handover might have happened in public. But the coalition then expected to stay until democracy was established. Jack Straw yesterday suggested absurdly that the early transfer was a sign of the confidence and success of the coalition. I suppose he would have said the same of Dunkirk.

I have never subscribed to the Left’s view that the Iraq invasion was an act of US imperialism or commercial conquest. Washington’s new war-memoir industry depicts it rather as an extension of Afghanistan in revenge for 9/11, with added neocon twirly bits such as de-Baathification. If Iraq had been about oil or democracy, Mr Bush would not have left it to Mr Rumsfeld. If it had been about toppling dictators, he would not be courting the odious Colonel Gaddafi or funding the tyrant of Uzbekistan. Liberating Iraq was meant to be a short-term, self-financing populist gesture. As in Afghanistan, America would soon cut and run, with Britain trotting behind. At this point, the grammar of the Iraq debate goes haywire. Verbs slide from present and future to past exonerative and future aspirational. We are told that yes, everyone knows mistakes were made . . . (mistakes are always intransitive). We should set aside the past . . . what Baghdad now needs is . . . what all good people must hope is . . .

We can all do hope. It is dead easy. I can hope that that nice, tough Iyad Allawi gains swift control of his country. I can hope his police assert control over the gangsters now ruling his streets. I can hope the Kurds accept rule from suspect Baghdad. I can hope peaceful elections take place next year “as planned”. I can even hope that Dr Allawi one day dies safe in his bed.

For cutting and running now read hoping and running. It leaves no trace. The law of inverse consequence claims that the departure of the coalition should restore the stability which its arrival upset. That is unlikely. Since Mr Bremer arrived, Iraqis have had to guard their neighbourhoods with ex-Baathist mobsters, Shia militias or teenage killers. The first charge on anyone’s domestic budget is a gun.

With the roads unsafe and foreign troops mostly confined to barracks, the new civil defence and police force must strike deals with local militias or die. Iraq south of the Kurdish region is not dividing into two, as yet, but into a desert dotted with urban statelets. Even if Dr Allawi has recourse to special forces of Saddamist ruthlessness, he will find it hard to reassert Baghdad’s authority. If he calls on the former coalition’s tanks, gunships and bombers he is a dead man.

Dr Allawi is at least an Iraqi. He may exert some control through dispensing money. Nobody in Iraq expects to see Congress’s $18.4 billion, supposedly set aside for reconstruction, of which only $3.2billion has been spent, mostly on fees, insurance, security and middlemen. But enough money should be left to give ministers some patronage, if security can be in some degree restored.

That is mere aspiration. Even if Baghdad and disputed Kirkuk do not descend into Beirut-style civil war, this crippled state will take years to recover its nationhood. In the past Iraqi nationhood was achieved only through strong, often brutal, central rule. With power dumped on unelected technocrats and foreign troops in retreat, it insults the daily experience of Iraqis to call their anarchy freedom and their insecurity democracy.

But then Mr Bush and Mr Blair have made soundbites the enemy of reality. Yesterday reality came back to haunt them. In Istanbul they had to listen to the last man they condemned to freedom, Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan. He was pleading frantically for 10,000 Western troops to prop up his tottering authority, largely confined to Kabul. Like the billions of dollars he was promised for reconstruction, these troops never arrived. Now it is Dr Allawi’s turn. Small wonder that Mr Bush and Blair declined to fly just two hours south to congratulate him on his new job. It might have looked like another goodbye.