Back to website

Friday 24th September 2004  "The Times"

Quit Iraq, and quit fast. It’s that simple

by Simon Jenkins

 TONY BLAIR has declared that Britain is now fighting a “new war” in Iraq. He did so on the anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem, an inauspicious precursor. Arnhem was a notorious “bridge too far”, a politico-military decision that led to defeat and the needless loss of British lives. But at Arnhem Britain knew what it was about. When Mr Blair calls on all “sensible and decent people” to support him in this new Iraq conflict we can only ask, to what end?

When I was in Baghdad last winter I could travel freely anywhere albeit in conditions of extreme insecurity. That is now out of the question. No soldier, journalist, aid worker, United Nations official, contractor, even middle-class Iraqi thought to be worth a ransom dares to move. Iraq may enjoy some liberties but they are near worthless in a state of anarchy. For Mr Blair to boast his invasion as leading to 18 months of progress is nonsense. Utilities are chaotic, aid cannot be distributed, guns are everywhere, electoral registers are non-existent. Most regional cities are beyond government control. Last week Baghdad’s central thoroughfare, Haifa Street, was said to be “in rebel hands”.

Such civil breakdown recalls Beirut in the 1980s and Mogadishu in 1993. Iraq’s nightmare can no longer be put down to Saddam Hussein or the neo-cons’ ubiquitous scapegoat of “al-Qaeda and world terrorism”. It emanates from the utter incompetence of the most lavish political and military establishment of all time, the Pentagon, with Britain as accomplice. That is the reality.

It is clear that nothing short of retirement will ever drive Mr Blair to admit that he has been party to one of the great errors of modern statesmanship. His dwindling band of admirers have retreated into mental dysfunction. Things are getting better, they burble, or rather they must get better. “Failure is not an option,” they chant, as if saying made it so. It is all a matter of will, of troops, of votes, of money, or of . . . any old rubbish will do. Just keep shooting and admit nothing.

The latest Big Lie is that the invasion of Iraq was a noble idea but the Americans screwed it up. The disclosure at the weekend of London’s doubts before the invasion suggests otherwise. Britain might indeed have even stayed aloof but for Mr Blair himself. It was he who subscribed to the neo-con “invasion-lite” option. He cannot escape blame, nor can those who bolstered him with polluted intelligence.

Either way, the claim that the goal of removing Saddam Hussein justified any means and any consequence is intellectually absurd. However many people died? However much Muslim hatred is provoked? However much terrorism is engendered round the world? The ending of communism would not have justified the nuclear bombing of Moscow, nor would the downfall of Castro have justified the carpet-bombing of Havana. I thought never to hear again the Vietnam slogan: “We must destroy the village to save the village.” Yet what else explains the nightly bombing of Fallujah, supported by Britain?

Yet Mr Blair’s declaration is helpful. It clears the decks. Weapons of mass destruction, mendacious dossiers and self-delusion can be left for the time being to history. We can face the present, such as 300 dead Iraqis last week and uncontrolled hostage-taking. Mr Blair’s new war looks like a civil war, sounds like a civil war and bombs like a civil war. That is what it is. Iraq is a nation grimly girding itself for a conflict to come, not one past. Baghdad is a battle zone. Not an iota of intelligence suggests that lawlessness is on the wane, quite the opposite.

Mr Blair will say that he is fighting for ordinary Iraqis. But all they can want of him now is security, which he cannot deliver. As long as British and American troops are in Iraq and the Allawi regime depends on them, Iraq is a magnet for every militia and suicide bomber in the Middle East. If Iraq is, as Mr Blair claims, a “crucible of world terror” the flame is the West’s military presence. Not for more than a decade has a Baghdad ruler bombed his own cities to suppress dissent. That is what Mr Allawi is now doing.

Mr Blair’s “new” war strategy is apparently clear. It is to re-establish central power in preparation forelections. It means building on Ayatollah al-Sistani’s authority in the south, relying on Kurdish good behaviour in the north, pacifying the Sunni triangle and “reducing” rebel enclaves in and round Baghdad. This is somehow to be achieved in part by air power, to limit American casualties and because Iraqi troops will not fight.

After pacification United Nations and local officials will be able to fan out across the country to draw up electoral registers and police the polling booths. Then, with a properly elected authority in Baghdad, no Iraqi will feel obliged to attack soldiers or policemen. Western troops can withdraw to barracks. It will not be like last July’s phoney “handover”. It will be real, and achieved in just four months.

This strategy simply beggars belief. It must rank in British Army history with Balaclava, Gallipoli and Arnhem. Yet it is the only strategy in sight. Such short-termism may be needed for Mr Blair’s domestic politics, but it is killing thousands of Iraqis without - we are assured - in any way diminishing the terrorist threat to Western capitals. This is not a new strategy at all.

Britain must get out of Iraq and fast. Its presence with America endangers everyone working to rebuild that country. It is an open secret that British soldiers and officials disagree with American tactics. The fact is that no plausible scenario for peace in Iraq can involve Western troops, however much the regime’s placemen fear their departure.

Dignity may require British forces to remain in Basra to January, hoping that some rudimentary face-saving vote can be engineered. Some interim policing deals may be struck with whichever warlord, sheikh or clerical militia holds sway in each settlement, as was done briefly in Fallujah, Najaf and Nasariya. This will not be a seemly colonial withdrawal, as from Ghana or Kenya. It will be a Vietnam, a Somalia or a Lebanon.

Mr Blair’s first Iraq war may have been a mistake, but that is not for now. It is his second war that matters. He should approach it with greater humility. Whatever freedom Britain has expensively granted Iraq has been granted. Whatever justice is claimed to have been done is done. The British have learnt that there is another patch of Earth which they cannot conquer and rule in peace.

The January elections may yet prove a festival of horror, as Iraq becomes a Mecca for every terrorist eager to give George Bush and Tony Blair a bloody nose, the blood being someone else’s. But the fall of Saddam was never going to be followed by democracy, only by civil war and probable partition. The British presence will only postpone that denouement and probably make it the more nasty. The Allawi regime may mean well but it is already imitating many of Saddam’s tactics, bombing hostile towns and imprisoning its enemies without trial. It is surely the taste of Iraq to come.

This new war can only be one of extraction, of discreet withdrawal. It is an exercise somehow to save Mr Blair’s premiership. It is a War of Blair’s Bacon. The attempt to portray it as a crusade against global terror is dishonest, contemptible for those who die as a result. Its shambolic outcome was always certain. The brave recourse now is to realism, to admit that a war which cannot be won should soonest be abandoned. Britain should leave Iraq in January, whatever a new American President decides.