Labour must dare to speak for Britain - and Iraq
Holding Blair to account is not only right, it is in the party's own interests
Thursday September 23, 2004
The price paid by Britain for Tony Blair's decision to join the invasion of Iraq has until now been relatively low. British casualties have been proportionately fewer than those of the Americans. By occupying the Shia-dominated south, British troops were at least initially spared the scale of guerrilla attacks that greeted US forces from the first days. Few Britons had until this week been caught up in the kidnappings sweeping Iraq and, despite dire government warnings, Britain has so far been spared the kind of revenge attack suffered, for example, by Spain - which Blair was told to expect in intelligence briefings in the run-up to war.
Now all that is changing. Since the start of Moqtada al-Sadr's insurrection last April, resistance has mushroomed across the south. In recent weeks British forces have been under regular assault, caught up in bloody firefights and forced back to barracks by the increase in attacks in Basra, Amara and elsewhere. Evidence has been piling up of the killing and maltreatment of Iraqis in and out of custody by British troops, whose local reputation for brutality is a far cry from the benign paternalism often hailed in the British media. And now a British engineer working at a US military base faces the horrific fate meted out to his two fellow American kidnap victims, who were apparently decapitated in person by the Jordanian jihadist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said to be linked to al-Qaida.
Zarqawi and his tactics are opposed by much of the mainstream Iraqi national resistance, which now shows every sign of enjoying commanding popular support among Iraq's Arab population. But the attention he has attracted only serves to highlight the forces that have been unleashed by the Anglo-American war.
Until last year, the only group in Iraq linked to al-Qaida operated in the US- and British-patrolled Kurdish area, beyond Saddam Hussein's writ. Now every Afghan jihadist veteran who wants to can stage kidnappings and suicide attacks throughout Iraq: this is Tony Blair's "cockpit of international terrorism", conjured into being by his own government. And as the quisling prime minister Ayad Allawi - whose real authority can be measured by the US veto of any release of the Iraqi women prisoners demanded by Kenneth Bigley's kidnappers - declared at the weekend: "If Iraq is broken, London will be a target."
The kidnapping of Kenneth Bigley may yet bring home the Iraq war to Britain in a way that months of TV footage of mayhem and misery have failed to do. The focus on his plight has, of course, been in stark contrast to the utter disinterest in the circumstances in which 300 Iraqis have been killed - most by US forces, many of them civilians - in the past week. But there still remains a sense of unreality in public life about the enormity of what Britain has helped to create in Iraq: a "crisis of historic proportions", in the words of the US Democratic challenger, John Kerry.
By any normal reckoning, the events of the past few days should have triggered a political crisis in Britain. The conclusion of the Iraq Survey Group that there were no weapons of mass destruction at the time of the invasion, the leaked Whitehall documents confirming that Blair was warned in advance of the likelihood of post-war chaos and, crucially, the declaration by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, that the war launched by a British prime minister was illegal should be a lethal combination.
The implications, after all, could not be more damning. If Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction by the late 1990s, as is now almost universally accepted, Iraq was evidently not in material breach of UN resolutions. If the war was illegal, as is now believed by most global opinion, then the only people fighting legitimately in Iraq are the resistance groups defending their homeland - not the forces of states that committed an international crime by attacking a country without provocation. That is the war still being fought out on the streets of Baghdad, Basra, Falluja and Ramadi - a war now so discredited that Blair is desperate to redefine it as a "new conflict" against terror.
That these events have not yet led to a decisive crisis of Blair's leadership is above all a function of the fact that Britain was the only one of the original invading coalition to have a centre-left government - and which has therefore been supported over the fundamentals of the war ever since by the main opposition party. But the underlying damage to both the Labour party and the government by their continuing association with such a catastrophic adventure is likely to have fatal political consequences in its impact on public trust and support. The issue of the Iraq war must obviously transcend the bread-and-butter domestic concerns of British politics. That is not only because of the tens of thousands of innocents who have been killed, but because of the hugely dangerous precedent it has set in international relations and the threat it has created to the security of British citizens.
F ortunately for the Labour party, a change of policy on Iraq - and the holding of the leadership that launched the war to account - is not only right in principle, but also in Labour's own interests. Next week, the party's annual conference in Brighton could start that process by voting for an early withdrawal of British troops. It is likely to be the party's last chance before the election - short of a change of leader - to begin to undo the damage to itself and lay the ground for change in Iraq. The omens for a withdrawal vote were yesterday not looking that good. The party machine can deploy all manner of tricks to avoid an embarrassing defeat - and so moribund is much of Labour's grassroots organisation that constituency delegates may not be representative of Labour opinion - let alone the 71% of the public who want a date for the withdrawal of British troops.
Some will genuinely believe that, even if the invasion was wrong, withdrawal now would only lead to worse chaos or civil war. That is of course the traditional colonial alibi used to justify occupations, but in the case of Iraq - where most of its people say they want foreign troops to leave now - the argument is more than usually unconvincing. Violence and insecurity are already rampant and significant areas of the country have slipped out of the occupiers' control. Only Iraqis can create a stable future for themselves and it is now clear that there will be no security in Iraq while US and British forces remain. Any elections held under the auspices of the occupier - as are planned for January - will lack the legitimacy to calm the resistance. But what they could do is provide a face-saving context for a negotiated British withdrawal - which could in turn help shift US opinion about the value of its own occupation. What is needed next week is for Labour's conference to speak for Britain - and Iraq.