January 19 2005
The pious hope plan has been tested to destruction. Anarchy reigns in IraqSimon Jenkins
DON’T LET them distract you. There is only one election that matters at present and it has nothing to do with Labour and Tories. It takes place next week in a place you may have forgotten, Iraq. Prime ministers may sun themselves in Egypt and chancellors kiss babies in Kenya. But there is still a war on, our war. Next week is supposed to be the beginning of its end. For once on this subject I agree with the British and American governments. The election must take place. Postponement, as advocated by Sunnis and sceptics, would be disastrous, a blatant surrender to terror. It would undermine the Shia moderates and leave Iraq politics in limbo.
Hundreds of Iraqis and dozens of British and American troops will die staging this election. Deaths are now running higher than at any time since the start of the occupation. Yet any way out of the present anarchy requires some political momentum. The one cause that the West can champion among Middle Eastern rulers is that people like voting. Even at the parody of a democratic election in Afghanistan, among opium warlords and a resurgent Taleban, people voted.
The Iraqi election will be conducted under foreign guns, with closed borders, a curfew and no secure inspection. Voters are being asked to choose parties for a 275-seat constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution. This must happen. The last legal justification for the 2003 invasion, Iraq’s threat to the West, evaporated last week with the disbanding of the weapons survey group. Next week’s election is the only excuse Britain has for remaining on Iraqi soil.
When it is over we should get out fast. Sound policy should be based not on pious hope but on realistic analysis. The Government has been piously hoping for 18 months. It has hoped that Iraqis would find a government with sufficient authority to restore security. It now hopes that the catharsis of democracy will lead 250,000 “terrorists” — the latest CIA estimate — to lay down their arms. It hopes against hope that Iraqi forces will regain control of towns and villages from bandits and militias. Nor is this just a hope, it is a plan. Indeed it is the coalition’s only plan.
The pious hope plan has been tested to destruction and is clearly failing. We know that there is no point in training Iraqis to fight as long as they appear to be fighting for Americans. As for governing, there have already been two “handovers”, first to the provisional governing council and then last summer to the government of Iyad Allawi. Neither has staved off the rise of insurgency or stemmed the counterproductive decisions of American commanders. This election is unlikely to make much difference.
Authority depends on security and that has drastically worsened the longer the occupation has continued. Even Tony Blair no longer dismisses the insurgents as mostly foreign. He abuses them as Baathists, Saddamists and “murderous and barbaric terrorists”. But this is “killing Kruger with his mouth”. They are unmoved by such adjectival onslaughts. The fact is that in Baghdad last month Mr Blair dared not put one foot outside the palace compound for fear of his life. Saddam had the same problem.
Familiarity is blinding Britons to the obscenity of the “pious hope” policy. The destruction of Fallujah, largely from the air, was an atrocity. A ghost city has been left as monument to Western inhumanity while the guerrillas merely migrated to Mosul. That Britain should have been party to a re-enactment of Guernica beggars belief. Now 500lb bombs are being dropped on civilian houses. Setting aside the impact this must have on bodies, hearts and minds, it must be against the rules of war. What say the law officers of the Crown? Nothing.
It was reported at the weekend that this “God-guided” invasion has driven a quarter of Iraq’s Christian population, some 300,000 people, into exile. This is worse than anything they suffered under Saddam. Why are we not protecting these Christians, whose leaders admitted yesterday to making regular ransom payments just to survive? Why are we not protecting the ruins of Babylon, now an American military base? Was British policy ever so spineless?
Ransom is now virtually a supertax on Baghdad’s medical and academic staff. In the centre and south of Iraq, main roads are wholly unsafe. The airport is all but inaccessible to civilians. Women are having to veil themselves. Barbers, bookshops and entertainments are closing. The mullahs are taking charge of schools. Public services remain unrestored.
This is all the result of the pious hope policy. Such peace as reigns in Iraq, mostly in rural areas, is not thanks to Baghdad but to local sheikhs and gunmen who have taken power into their own hands. I saw this alarming form of devolution a year ago in the marshes. Today the Allawi Government’s writ barely runs beyond its Baghdad compound. The oft-heard claim that Britain and America cannot leave Iraq because it would mean “anarchy and chaos” is nonsensical. We brought anarchy and chaos to Iraq. They will clearly stay until we leave.
Next week’s elections may grant Dr Allawi a modicum of legitimacy in Shia Iraq, though at the cost of deepening resentment among the Sunnis. It will not bring peace. That must await the departure of Western troops and then a resolution of tribal forces. The Americans’ reckless use of Kurdish and Shia troops against Sunnis has brought civil war to the streets of Baghdad and Mosul, and yesterday as far south as Basra. The alienation of Iraq’s Sunnis after the invasion was as stupid as policy could get. As for the battle for oil-rich Kirkuk, partly occupied by Arabs but claimed by Kurds, that has barely begun.
The best-trained and best-equipped armies in the world have proved that they cannot establish law and order in Iraq. This is not Germany or Vietnam or Afghanistan or any other parallel operation. It is Iraq, a nation steadily degenerating into civil war. It will almost certainly partition itself, de facto if not de jure. I would rather not be there when this happens. It may be partly Britain’s fault but it is no longer something that Britain has the power to stop.
The best argument for the coming election is therefore cynical, that it offers ideological cover for an early Western withdrawal. We can say we have liberated the Iraqis from Saddam and given them an election. The rest is up to them. By staying we only postpone the eventual resolution.
There will be a mess. We can argue that after Saddam there was always going to be a mess. There will be more bloodshed and terror. We can argue this, too, was always likely. Israel may feel more threatened, the Palestinians more resentful, Saudi Arabia more paranoid, Iran more gleeful, everyone less stable. We can argue that we knew this all along. It was predicted from the moment we went to war with Saddam. The argument may not be edifying but from the moment Mr Blair tied himself to George Bush’s coat-tails it was the best we could do.
Britain has one escape route to redemption. This week we are told that the White House wants to move on to Iran. The neocon faction believes that by sabre-rattling sanctions and leaking plans to bomb nuclear installations it will encourage dissident Iranians to rise up and topple the mullahs.
Even Downing Street is likely to find this a lunacy too far. Many ministers and officials are fed up with having spent two years acting as America’s poodle. They yearn for a cause to distance themselves from Washington and to realign Britain with the rest of Europe. They want to be their own masters again. White House belligerence towards Iran that would win an Oscar for idiocy would suit them just fine.
What a comedown for Anglo-American relations. What a thorough mess. This is what happens when clear thinking is sacrificed to machismo and military glory. Politicians find themselves where they never meant to be, and from which they know of no escape. Lots of people die.