Mo Mowlam: We are in a mess both at home and abroad

Alastair Campbell has an extraordinary ability to make an obvious truth sound wrong

27 June 2003

As members of Tony Blair's inner circle are being questioned by MPs about how Britain found itself at war with Iraq, British soldiers are still dying there trying to impose a peace. It seems there is a mess both at home and abroad.

Watching Alastair Campbell trying to justify his actions to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, I was reminded of his skill in using one argument, such as attacking the BBC, to avoid another, such as the real evidence of the Iraqi threat. I was also reminded of his extraordinary ability to make an obvious truth sound wrong. During the time I was in government, and the unattributable briefings against me were running hard, I was phoned by an angry Alastair saying I was making the situation worse by denying the stories.

First, it was not my fault these stories were being run, secondly I was not denying them. The truth, however, was irrelevant. Alastair had a line, and this was to be driven home regardless of its truth or even sense. This would appear to be the approach to the dodgy dossiers, and the even dodgier decision to go to war. It is a shame that Tony Blair relies on Alastair so much, and to the exclusion of other people. This is particularly sad when we look at what is now happening in Iraq.

The situation in Iraq is one of devastation. The liberation from Saddam is fading in peoples' minds. Occupation by the US and Britain is the new reality. It is only a matter of weeks before really hot weather arrives, and this will only add to the chaos. As the tension worsens, it will become even more difficult for any political accommodation to take place and to hold.

This state of affairs has been dramatically described in the recent International Crisis Group report. "If the initial neglect can be ascribed to a lapse in war planning, the subsequent failure to impose order can only be considered reckless abdication of the occupying powers' obligation to protect the population."

There are still practical matters that have to be handled. Water and electricity must be available to all, and regularly supplied. We have to see the US military move out of their heavily defended compounds and start mixing with the people. Both sides need to understand each other more, otherwise the political resentments of the Iraqis are going to continue to grow.

It is too early to say what is going to happen in Iraq. The speed of the regime's collapse and the near-total power vacuum that followed brought some positive changes. Iraqis are beginning to express themselves without fear. They have started using their new freedom to protest in the streets for their rights, and have started to demand that they be allowed make their own decisions about their future leaders.

Yet despite all this, the International Crisis Group's June report found Baghdad to be a city in chaos, ferment and fear. The lack of much advance preparation for a post-war Iraq is shown daily, a situation admitted by senior Americans there.

Although trust needs to be established with the Iraqi people, this can only be achieved through specific, incremental actions, many of which have been known to be urgent for some time, but are still not being achieved.

Some things must be done urgently. Public order must be restored. There must be clearer protection of public places, with American and British troops being helped by a newly trained police force. Any corruption or criminality in the Iraqi police must be rooted out quickly.

People know what is going on. A crucial aspect of this is the problems being experienced in the provision of basic services. Electricity, water and a proper sewage system must be restored, and the local gasoline shortage overcome.

The interim authority ought to reconsider their sweeping away of the Baath party in the Bremer edict of May 2003. This was too sudden. As an NGO activist has stated: "The governing structure has collapsed in a way far worse than anyone thought would happen. Decapitation of the institutions has meant severe dysfunction."

Those within the Baath party with a record of corruption should have been removed, but many were members for practical, not political reasons. They could undoubtedly be useful in the rebuilding of Iraq. The sudden dismantling of the Iraqi military has had the same effect, creating a large group of often armed Iraqis resentful of the occupying powers. These people have to be engaged with. Day-to-day administration in many cases could be given to the people

The ICG report concludes with a quote from a senior UN official in Iraq: "Iraqis feel that there future is being imposed on them by foreigners. This is the last phase of the honeymoon. There is widespread gratitude to the Americans for toppling the regime, but as the summer sets in, tempers will rise, along with the temperature.''

It is a dangerous situation.