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Iraq will never be sorted out until Mr Blair and President Bush admit their mistakes

by : Robin cook
Wednesday April 14, 2004 - 21:15

Independent

Robin Cook

The coalition needs to find a model of reconstruction that gives priority to jobs in Iraq over profits in Texas.

IT is almost exactly a year since a triumphalist President Bush in combat fatigues swooped on to the deck of an aircraft carrier to announce that "major combat operations" were over in Iraq. Yet for the past week television bulletins have been carrying violent images from Iraq that look suspiciously like major combat operations. Conquering Iraq might have proved easy but governing it as an occupied country is a much tougher challenge.

Not that those who created the problem are yet willing to admit to miscalculation. The rhetoric of the President and all his generals over recent days has been the language of denial. The repeated variations on the theme of resolve "to stay the course" is intended to pre-empt attempts at asking whether the escalating confrontation does not demonstrate they are on the wrong course. It is hard to muster any confidence in the present coalition leadership finding a solution when they appear incapable of admitting they have a problem. The very first law of holes is not to stop digging, but to recognise that you are in a hole.

Thanks to our ex-Ambassador to Washington we now know that Tony Blair and George Bush first discussed invading Iraq within a fortnight of 11 September, a whole year and a half before the actual invasion. It is remarkable, and wilfully negligent, that the intervening period was used to plan a military operation in meticulous detail, but not a second thought was spared for the predictable and awesome problems of reconstructing from scratch all the apparatus of civil government.

It is hard to come up with a programme for stability after a full year studded with epic blunders, such as the precipitate dismissal of the entire Iraqi army with no jobs to go to but with their weapons to take with them. However let us rise to the repeated demand to "move on" and offer the coalition powers a ladder out of the hole into which they leapt.

The first step is for the US to stop making the security situation worse by trying to crush any resistance with overwhelming force. Shelling crowded slum townships from Apache gunships simply convinces the bulk of their populations that the Americans regard them all as the enemy. It is a vicious irony that, having promised that victory in Iraq would bring a road map to peace in the Middle East, the Bush Administration has in practice brought to Baghdad Sharon’s military tactics against the Palestinians with precisely the same result in consolidating local opposition. The very codenames for the US offensives - Operation Iron Hammer or Operation Vigilant Resolve - are eloquent of a mindset that is deluded by the mirage of a military solution and blind to the necessity of winning hearts and minds.

The second step should be to medi-vac Paul Bremer for a period of compulsory rest and recuperation in case he really is daft enough to storm a mosque and carry out his threat to arrest Muqtada Sadr. His ham-fisted actions, starting with the suppression of a fringe newspaper, have within a couple of weeks converted a minor cleric into a central figurehead of resistance.

The third priority should be to end the neo-colonial approach to the Iraqi economy. There are a number of companies, almost all American, doing nicely out of the reconstruction of Iraq. Notoriously, Vice President Cheney’s former shareholders at Halliburton have seen their balance sheet move from loss to profit directly as a result of a massive contract in Iraq, awarded with no competitive tendering. Meanwhile the great majority of Iraqi young men remain unemployed. The coalition needs to find a model of reconstruction that gives priority to jobs in Iraq over profits in Texas.

The fourth necessity is to secure legitimacy among the Iraqi people for the government of their country. It would be a mistake to defer the political transition planned for 30 June. It would be equally wrong to exaggerate its significance. There has been no representative process to produce the new Interim Government, which is going to look very much the same as the old Governing Council hand-picked by the Pentagon. Nobody knows what powers will actually be transferred to the Interim Government as, incredibly, with only a couple of months to go, its functions have still to be agreed. It is known though that the Iraqi army will operate "under unified command", ie a four-star US General, which gives a whole new twist to the claims of transferring national sovereignty.

The truth is that 30 June is not a watershed but a modest step in a protracted process, in which real power is intended to stay with the US for a long time to come. If we are serious about increasing the legitimacy of the Baghdad government in the eyes of Iraqis, then we need to move much more determinedly to make it more representative, to transfer real power and to write ourselves out of the script faster than envisaged by the Pentagon.

The final step out of the hole is firmly the responsibility of the Pentagon and nobody else. They need to produce an exit strategy that will get US forces out of Iraq. There was no such exit strategy at the time of the invasion for the straightforward reason that the Pentagon did not imagine they would ever have to leave. Revealingly, the first act of Donald Rumsfeld after the war was to visit Saudi Arabia to close the bases there which were no longer required by the US in the wake of their invasion of Iraq.

Even now I would not be surprised if hopes are being nursed in the Pentagon that a puppet Interim Government will invite US forces to stay on a permanent basis. How else do we explain the contracts they are currently placing for 14 "enduring bases" in Iraq? Yet much of the resentment among Iraqis is not that the US occupied their country as part of the process of getting rid of Saddam, but that they have no clear intention to end that occupation. The US needs to commit itself to a realistic timetable for withdrawal and must convince Iraqi young men that US troops will leave willingly as a result of agreement rather than under duress as a result of violence.

Would such a programme restore stability to Iraq? I fear we may never find out as I have low confidence that the Bush Administration would readily take these steps. The political problem for the White House is that the change of approach necessary to halt the situation in Iraq sliding further into anarchy would be tantamount to admitting they made a mistake in the facile assumptions with which they justified invading Iraq.

Tony Blair’s private justification for joining in the invasion of Iraq was that it would enable Britain to retain influence over the Bush Administration. His visit to Washington next week gives him an opportunity to put to the test whether he has indeed real influence in the White House. If the subsequent press conference in the Rose Garden unveils a change of direction in Iraq, he can credibly claim to have shifted President Bush. If it only produces another photo op of President and Prime Minister looking resolute and claiming success for their policy in Iraq, we will know that he has changed nothing.

Robin Cook, former minister of foreign affairs in the U.K.



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