Only British troops can sort out America's mess

Simon Jenkins

So is it all a ghastly mistake? After a week in Iraq, do I still see the American-British invasion as a misguided venture that should never have been undertaken?

I have seen a country liberated from a tyrant and a start to repairing the damage of 12 years of failed aggression against Saddam Hussein. Security in Iraq is not worsening: for most Iraqis it is getting better, despite the media's concentration on body counts. Foreign troops are being killed in increasing numbers, but that is a different matter. So surely it was worth the effort? Does it not deserve the benefit of the doubt?

Not yet, and less so with each passing day. I took two folders of cuttings to Iraq. One was marked "Iraq Then", the other "Iraq Now". "Then" was crammed with Saddam's atrocities, weapons of mass destruction and cheering crowds welcoming American troops. Within days of arriving I tossed it aside as irrelevant. Iraq now was what mattered. Then is no more than history.

That history cannot be set aside. Iraqis have vivid memories. America's present predicament is the culmination of 20 years, not 20 weeks, of policy failure. Washington backed Saddam for a decade in the 1980s. When he responded by invading Kuwait, America atoned by ejecting him. Next came a second mistake. Kurds and Shias were urged to rise against him, but America did not support the rising with troops. Saddam took terrible vengeance. As a result the rebel city of Basra is today a vast, impoverished slum.

The Americans atoned with a third mistake. They and the entire United Nations bombed and sanctioned Iraq for a decade. These "feel-good" sanctions did more damage to Iraq than anything during and after the recent invasion. They cemented Saddam in power, as they did Castro, Gaddafi and the Iranian ayatollahs, and they utterly destituted the Iraqi poor. As a result a new atonement might have been called for. Shortly after 9/11 I wrote that Saddam had become so monstrous that the case for the outside world to oust him was strong - and nothing to do with some fantasy "threat to Britain". But such an ousting had to be emphatic, accepted regionally and crafted so as to yield a lasting stability.

The March invasion did not meet these criteria. It was illegal, lacking both international and regional support. It failed to capture Saddam who, for all we know, is now orchestrating a devastating guerrilla campaign. The invasion was opposed by almost every Arabist expert in Washington and London, not to mention the Middle East. It was in effect a private war, a latter-day Jameson Raid, by Donald Rumsfeld and his Pentagon Office of Special Plans under Paul Wolfowitz, reckless and ill-conceived.

Iraqis fear that America is about to make yet another mistake: precipitate withdrawal. They read of panic policy reviews in Washington. They see the appalling resumption of aerial bombardment of civilian targets. They know their ruler, Paul Bremer, is searching for a provisional government, anything that will not send the Shias racing back to the clerical militias or the Sunnis back to the Baathists. Iraqis have satellite dishes. They can see the overseas impact of the daily body count. The American electorate, that ever-potent monarch, is already wagging its finger and shaking its head.

Last month George Bush made a speech I thought was of great significance. It was billed as reinforcing his determination to hold fast in Iraq, but went much further than that. Mr Bush said that "60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe . . . In the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty." The policy espoused by his father, to leave people like Saddam in place, had to be rewritten: "A free Iraq will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."

This was sensational news from a country that had supported Galtieri, Pinochet and the Contras and tolerated dictatorships from Saudi Arabia to Uzbekistan. When running for office Mr Bush had declared that "America is not in the nation-building business" and did not want to see "the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to school". Now he was into nation-building with a vengeance. The very same 82nd Airborne is camped in the schools, usually seeking protection from the children's parents. Non-interventionists might shudder. But in recognising past failure and championing true democracy, Mr Bush deserves applause.

So what is wrong in Iraq? What is wrong is that any such championship has been vitiated by its implementation. We need have no quarrel with Mr Bremer's efforts to get reconstruction going, nor with Washington's sudden desire to transfer power fast to a provisional authority. But there have been too many U-turns. Mr Bremer first wanted nothing to do with Iraqi politics until reconstruction was under way. Then he reluctantly installed former exiles as puppets on his Iraqi Governing Council. Then he criticised them. Now he needs them more than he dare say.

The daily body count beats nervous time to this hesitant progress towards the "global democratic watershed". The manner of the invasion, the bombing and the looting, not only drove Saddam underground but ensured that, as in Afghanistan, anti-American guerrillas have been able to rely on growing local support. It is the behaviour of American troops as much as their presence that is turning Iraqis against them. Iraq is becoming a magnet for every terrorist, drug lord and gangster in the region, doubtless soon to be financed by drugs, as in Afghanistan.

Opponents of the invasion must now tread warily. Each stage in the Iraq saga has taken the form of a mistake followed by an atonement. The mistake of invasion is to be atoned by reconstruction. But this reconstruction, like the emergence of democracy, is vulnerable to the perception (if not the reality) of security. While the streets may be safer, there is no framework for order. Judges and mayors are being shot daily. Last week I saw crowds ripping wiring from pylons. Even traffic lights do not work.

The only authority derives from the American and British presence. This cannot be withdrawn in a matter of months. Every analyst in Baghdad predicts that would mean awful bloodletting, between and within the Shia militias, the Sunni parties in the centre and the Kurdish Peshmergas. When Mr Bush claims that the Iraqis "wish us to stay", he is right. But the wish is for an umbrella against an impending hurricane.

The Arab press this week has been full of helpful hints on how America might extricate itself from this mess. They range from vague invocations of the UN and the Arab League to pleas for a swift return of Saddam's army and Baathist apparat, with America continuing to pay the bills. Everyone would like to be democratic, but just now they would prefer to be safe, the classic preamble to renewed dictatorship. Instead, they hear Colin Powell talking on Wednesday of needing to transfer power to Iraqis - currently code for chaos - to be "accelerated". To many Iraqis it sounds as if Washington wants to compress ten years of Vietnam into ten months of Iraq.

The conclusion can only be that, laudable though Mr Bush's goals may be, his executive arm just cannot deliver them. America is not good at peacekeeping or nation-building. Its soldiering is rule-based and insensitive. Its troops hate getting hurt, not because they are cowards but because their political masters - the voters - hate it even more. They rely on warlords in Afghanistan and burgeoning "force protection " mercenaries in Iraq. It is as if America had delegated winning the Arabs over to democracy to the good offices of Al Capone and Global Risk Strategies Inc.

What on earth is to be done? I hesitate to say the British do these things better, but that is the topic of all security talk in Iraq. British patrol techniques, intelligence gathering and local training are all regarded as better than America's. Sending British troops north to the Sunni triangle might be hard for the US Army to swallow, but that army is getting beat. A force redeployment would cost British casualties but it might buy marginally more time for a provisional government to take root.

America-in-Iraq needs that time desperately. Higher casualties there will be. But they are the price of rectifying the error of March. The alternative is in nobody's interest, another round of Middle East mayhem.