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We came, we saw, we ruined Iraq – to stay will wound it more

Simon Jenkins

Two great cities, New Orleans and Baghdad, were last week plunged in horror. They both cried out for sympathy. One will get it, the other will not.
The thousands who have died in Louisiana and the 1,000 more who died during the Baghdad stampede show how even modern cities hover on the brink of disaster. People have always congregated in them for security. The levees of 19th-century New Orleans and the oil-rich oases of the Tigris invited people’s labour and offered protection in return. But protection requires order. Remove order and the old Muslim saying holds true. An hour of anarchy is worse than 100 years of tyranny.

It is ironic that both cities at their moment of crisis relied on federal Washington for support. New Orleans was bought from the French in 1803 and depends for its survival on the US Army Corps of Engineers. Last week’s inundation from Hurricane Katrina was beyond realistic prevention, although it was not beyond prediction. If looters and reporters could roam the streets at will it was a mystery that law officers and relief supplies could not.

Seeing looters filmed on the streets of New Orleans reminded me of an American official outside Baghdad’s National Museum 18 months ago. He explained that its looting was nothing to do with the Americans since “it was the Iraqis who did the looting”. I pointed out that all authority in the city had collapsed as a direct result of American policy. He shrugged.

I sensed the same shrug in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It is odd that America, a land so proud of its cities, should be unable to understand them or cope with their distress.

Baghdad is a different matter. Here security has been usurped and then guaranteed for more than two years by the Pentagon. The disaster on al-Aima bridge was an accident but one that arose from a collapse of civic order. That a million Shi’ites should so crave normality as to converge on the al-Kadhimiya shrine was impressive. Yet dissidents were able casually to lob mortars among them and terrorise them with threats of bombs. Normality in Baghdad is a hair’s breadth from chaos.

The way forward for New Orleans is clear. Once the shock is over, it will recover its bravura and confidence. There will be massive aid for its rebuilding. It merits our sympathy but it will survive.

For Baghdad the way forward is only gloom and fear. I have not been to the city for 18 months, but talking to friends and reading reports tells me that its yearning for order is even more desperate.

Any city, however abused by an occupying power, needs security. Nothing is more important. Citizens may go to market, walk by the river, read newspapers and even visit an art gallery. But Baghdad’s streets are barricaded, armed and patrolled by vigilantes. Women must wear veils for their security and do not venture out at night. Kidnap-prone doctors and academics flee to Jordan. Everyone says it “must” get better, there “must” be hope, but Iraqis are always optimists. Others owe it to them to be realists.

More than two years of chaos, killing and fraud have seen the American reconstruction of Baghdad hardly begin. It is too unsafe. The city has yet to recover from the unbelievable mistake of the Americans and British bombing all the government infrastructure so as to cause “shock and awe”, and then disbanding the police and the army and stopping their pensions.

It must have been the first time since the Middle Ages that instilling anarchy has been the deliberate policy of an occupying power. Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, and Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, were told by the neocons that freedom would blossom spontaneously from the ashes. They were fooled. Baghdad is a memorial to this idiocy.

I have not read a single coherent account of the current strategy for Iraq that is founded on anything but wishful thinking. Those on the ground know the truth, occasionally breaking surface with a leaked army report or evidence to Congress. This paper’s Review section today reports Andrew Krepinevich’s plan of action for Iraq in response to two years of Pentagon boasts, reassurances and promises.

Every one has been wrong. Optimism is a noble quality in war, but wanting something does not make it so. In Iraq, President George W Bush sees democracy as he once saw weapons of mass destruction: as a mirage.

What of Britain in this? Kenneth Clarke rightly reminded his spineless Conservative party on Thursday that Britain is party to this cruel war. Its justification was that the world might be better if a particular ruler were not running Iraq, other things being equal.

They never are equal. The war was sold to the British public by one of the most grotesque deceptions in modern government: Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell’s dodgy dossiers. People were deceived, but it is hard to believe that Downing Street deceived itself. All warnings, from the Foreign Office, Arab countries, the US State Department, even US army chiefs, warned Bush and Blair that Saddam Hussein’s secular, centralist regime was all that held Iraq together, and then only just. Topple it and strong authority must instantly replace it. Even then, the autonomy granted by the West to the Kurds would probably see a bid for autonomy from the oil-rich Shi’ite south. That for sure would mean a Sunni revolt.

All this was disregarded by the small group in the Pentagon who, as Bob Woodward and others have reported, waged this campaign from the start. They did so with Blair’s compliance. He and the Americans handed power to anyone filling the vacuum they had created: sheikhs, warlords and the Iran-backed private militias, now rich on filched American aid. It is hard to see how this was an ideal test bed for a new democracy.

I never saw Iraq as an American colony, although the Pentagon certainly hoped for a military ally. But how the government’s post- invasion strategy tallied with any sensible objective is a mystery. January’s much-lauded election, dominated by admittedly brave expatriates, was a foretaste of last week’s constitutional fiasco. Its collapse was as sad as it was inevitable. It ended with the absurdity of frantic American officials pleading with Sunnis to accept sharia clauses in the constitution so as to close a deal with the Shi’ite clerics. Whatever else the Pentagon wants in Baghdad it is not female emancipation.

Baghdad now faces a ghastly choice. It is between the continued anarchy of the American-British presence and the anarchy that would follow its withdrawal, as Sunnis and Muslim militias carve up central Iraq in a de facto partition. This would be no more separatist than what the Americans have already conceded to the Kurds in the north. Since the second option is likely to happen anyway, the only grim virtue lies in getting it over with.

Security within 100 miles of Baghdad is getting worse, not better. “Staying the course” is not working. It is a catchphrase, not a policy. It simply involves killing people and getting them killed in return. A planned and co-ordinated coalition withdrawal is now simply the least worst option.

America can at least show reasons for attacking Iraq, an extension of its retaliatory rage after 9/11. Britain had none. Blair’s support for Bush was unnecessary and his failure to exert any leverage over his policy is baffling, even to his aides. He is where no general should ever be: in a fight whose conduct, course and outcome he cannot control. His soldiers must stand by and watch as American-induced lawlessness spreads south into British-controlled territory.

Blair hopes soon to withdraw troops from Basra under cover of deploying them to Afghanistan, for reasons that are obscure. He cannot do so if he also thinks, in line with Washington, that “the corner is about to turn in Iraq”. Were that true, extra troops should surely be sent to boost security. The fact is that Blair is in a political Guantanamo. In the wrong place at the wrong time, he finds himself a prisoner without trial at the Pentagon’s whim.

Since 1815 and the battle of New Orleans, Louisiana has not been Britain’s concern. Baghdad is. We are party to the destruction of a city and the dismembering of its country amid growing insecurity. The greatest arrogance of all is that we can somehow do more good than harm by staying.