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Our soldiers will be caught between Sunni rebels and Shia rulers

Matthew Parris

I WILL never forget my short ride through the Baghdad streets in March in an American Humvee. Captain Magnulet, the US officer who arranged the trip, called it a security patrol but it was nothing of the sort. The only security that mattered was that of his own men, for we were running the gauntlet through hostile territory to show – if possible – that we could. The aim was to get back alive. My uniformed companions were too busy watching their own backs to give much thought to “policing” anybody. Flak-jacketed so heavily that it was hard to walk, and with guns pointing in all directions, our crew were on the lookout not for Iraqis targeting other Iraqis, but for Iraqis targeting us.

We are becoming Aunt Sallys in Iraq. “Catch-me-if-you-can”, our aim is increasingly just to demonstrate from behind sandbags that we can be there without being killed. In April it was the Sunnis in Fallujah; in the summer it was Shia rebels in Najaf; now in Fallujah and elsewhere it is the Sunni insurgency again.

Coalition troops are part of the security problem, not the solution in Iraq, and soon we may face a choice between backing one side against another, or enraging both. Instead of underwriting public order we are the target, the provocation and the recruiting sergeant for insurgents. The Americans claim this week to have “killed hundreds” in Fallujah, as if counterinsurgency were a kind of disinfection process; as if insurgents were those evil little invading bugs you have to zap in a computer game — 101 down, 899 to go and then you win.

What thought has the Pentagon given to the anger in future Arab breasts which images of the flattening of mud-built houses by overwhelming firepower will inspire? What thought to tomorrow’s insurgents, spawned in the slaughter of today’s? Do we really suppose that within (let alone beyond) the borders of a country of some twenty million of whom millions are unemployed young men, a few hundred dead rebels will not sow dragon’s teeth for a thousand more?

Max Hastings, writing in The Sunday Telegraph last weekend, says a defeat for America now would be a defeat for us all. That is undoubtedly true, though perhaps not in the way his readers will have understood. America’s defeat will certainly damage the whole West. I remember using this catchy argument myself as a young student supporting the Vietnam War. I forgot to ask myself then, as Sir Max does not ask himself out loud today, whether the war in question was winnable.

I am not sure, however, that our humiliation will be as crude as many on my peacenik side of the argument suppose. There is a way out for us in Iraq and it is possible that we shall take it, saving face in the short term though losing heavily thereafter.

When I asked whether London and Washington realise that coalition forces are becoming an incitement in themselves, the question was not rhetorical. Many in London and Washington do realise this. Some of the ordinary soldiers I spoke to certainly realised it. “What the f*** are we doing here, putting ourselves up for every passing haji to take a pot-shot at?” gives you the drift of their thinking. Soon even the politicians may notice.

Only some ten weeks remain before the hoped-for elections in Iraq at the end of January. So overwhelming is US military might that it is hard to believe that the coalition cannot smash each Sunni insurgency for the next few months.

The quiescence of the Shia majority in Iraq — and, across the frontier, the silence of the Shia Iranian Government — is more interesting. I do not make the mistake of supposing that “the Shias” denotes a monolithic democratic grouping. There are various Shia movements and parties. Nor do I say that because Iran has a Shia Government (or because some Iraqi Shias have come from Iran and maintain links) that there is such a thing as a transnational Shia “cause ”. Few Iraqi Shia leaders take orders from Tehran or would invite Iranian interference.

But it remains true that, since the Najaf disturbances, Shia hotheads such as young Moqtada al-Sadr have piped down, or been slapped down, fast; and one has the impression of a growing Shia consensus that time — and a general election — is on their side. Tehran has said almost nothing but everyone knows that at its frontier with Iraq it calls the tune on who, or what, passes. Observers doubt that the Iranians want a Shia rebellion at present.

That impression that time is on the Shia side helps to explains the urgency of Sunni rage. Sunnis are a minority with no arguably delineable territory of their own (unlike the Kurds). Under Saddam they ruled the roost. After the elections the new assembly will set up machinery for the drafting of a constitution. Sunnis must decide whether to work hopefully to salvage some sort of protected minority status within this constitution, or to try to sabotage the whole process, starting with the elections. Rage seems to be gaining the ascendancy over hope. The largest Sunni party has now pulled out of the interim Government, and it seems that many Sunnis will ignore, obstruct or turn away from the elections. This can only increase the dominance of Shia parties in the elected assembly.

What then? We and the Americans want a constitution entrenching minority rights, but our power to enforce this on a democratically elected, Shia-dominated government will be limited. As argument about the constitution grows, it is likely that Sunni insurgency will continue. And now it will be a Shia-led government which coalition forces, it we stay, will have to underwrite.

Will we want to? Do we really plan to end up caught between Sunni and Shia? Would a Shia-dominated government wish its security to be underwritten by Washington and London at a time when it might be arguing fiercely with Washington and London about the shape of the constitution? The coalition forces are empowered by UN Security Council Resolution 1546 both to see the present interim Government through the elections in January, and to help the next government with security; but the resolution adds that our authority to do so may be “reviewed” whenever we or that government wishes, and must be by June. Mr Blair has made it clear we would not outstay our welcome.

If a period of comparative calm could be enforced in the months after January’s election, that would present the opportunity for coalition forces to slip away. There must be a chance that if George Bush and Tony Blair could get Iraq out of the news for a month or two, the advantages of doing so would impress themselves on both men. The spin is easy to draft: “democratic elections, popular government, work in progress on new constitution, mission accomplished, cut and run, quick! Get the hell out of here” — oops, sorry, “withdraw with dignity, having achieved much”.

This would leave a security vacuum, for Sunni wrath would not be assuaged, nor the Kurdish question answered. Perhaps the new Iraqi government could manage alone, the irritant of an infidel occupying army having been removed. If not, it might have to ask for a little help from its friends.

Yes, the more you think about it, the less mysterious appears the present silence of Tehran, the more explicable are the appeals for calm from Shia leaders within Iraq, and the more understandable is the blind rage of Sunni insurgents. The future is looking Shia. The new government might even give the departing coalition forces a decent send-off with a military band.

Mr Blair could save his skin. And half a century of Western efforts to keep from the orbit of Iran the second-largest oil reserves in the world — the reason we supported the appalling Saddam in the first place — would lie in total ruin.