Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 30 October 2006

U-Turn in policy on Iraq

The turning point has been reached on Iraq.  As violence continues in that tragic country, the United States and British governments are coming to realize that their adventure is now a nightmare with no good solutions.  It seems they want to pull out soon, but want a face-saving and honourable exit which may be most difficult to find.


A turn-around in the United States’ policy on Iraq seems to be taking place. The result is that the US and Britain may pull their troops out sooner rather than later.  What will happen after that, no one knows.

Last week, the US President George Bush said he was unhappy with the progress of the war in Iraq and that the recent upsurge in violence was a serious concern.

It was the first time he had admitted publicly that something is wrong.  Before that, his messages about Iraq had been upbeat, and had insisted the US would stay in Iraq for as long as it takes.

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the face of public and party opposition, has been adamant that he did the right thing in helping the US invade and occupy Iraq and that Britain will “see the job through.”  

With signs that Bush is about to do a U-Turn, Blair must however be considering following his steps.

Recent events have led to this imminent policy turnaround. Violence in Iraq has intensified in the past few weeks, with dozens or even over a hundred Iraqis killed each day.

Worse for the Americans, the number of their soldiers killed is climbing faster than ever.  In a few months it will cross 3,000.

American public discontent has correspondingly grown, best reflected in the plunge in polls on Bush’s popularity.  

New authoritative voices have joined the critics to ask for drastic change.  An advance copy of a report mainly authored by James Baker, former Secretary of State, and requested for by Congress, stated that business as usual was not possible, the US should change its policy and plan to get the troops home as soon as possible.

In London, the country’s chief military officer called for British troops to be sent home “sooner”, and admitted their continued presence made the situation in Iraq worse. 

Bush and Blair had maintained that their troops would leave only after they can safely transfer power and responsibility to the local Iraqi government and its army.

The UK army transferred control of some towns in Southern Iraq to the Iraqi government.  But shortly after, hundreds of insurgents took over the town of Amarra. Though it has been “recaptured”, it is clear that the local forces are in no shape to take over the country.

In Baghdad itself, the combination of the foreign occupying forces and the local military and police are clearly unable to control the situation.

The United States and Britain are in a quagmire.  The invasion was launched in deceit, with the expressed aim of destroying weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.

The subsequent occupation was marked by lack of planning and big mistakes (for example, the dismantling of the local administration and military, leaving a vacuum to this day) and by atrocious human rights abuses and indiscriminate killings and detention of local civilians.

The insurgency against foreign occupation and against the local government grew, and so too did the war among local factions (mainly the Sunni and Shite Muslims). 

Iraq is in the midst of a nightmarish situation, with a mixture of insurgency against occupation, rebellion against the national government, and civil war characterized by bombings in public places and buildings. 

Caught in the turmoil they started but cannot control, the US and Britain want to pull out as fast as possible, but don’t want to admit total defeat.  Blair said last week that the British troops will withdraw only when Iraqi forces can handle security and “to do anything else would be a complete betrayal.”

But Iraq’s government and security forces are very weak and it is impossible to forsee when, if ever, they will be strong enough to enable a power transfer and honourable exit for the foreign occupying forces.

Time is not on the side of the foreigners, as the public in their own countries have become increasingly anti-war, impatient, and ready to boot out the leaders and parties that mismanaged the whole Iraq episode.

In the United States, the Republicans are badly hit, and the Democrats are expected to win back at least one House in elections next week.  In the United Kingdom, the Labour Party has fallen in popularity polls way behind the Conservatives.   

The foreign occupiers cannot control the situation on the ground in Iraq even if they send in many more troops while the Iraqi government is so weak that there is no likelihood they can take over security functions in the foreseeable future.

The pressure is thus building for the foreign troops to be withdrawn before the smooth “transfer of power” can take place. 

Indeed many critics of the occupation have argued that there cannot be an improvement of the security situation until the occupation ends. The longer the foreign troops stay, the more is fuel added to the fire.   

The original “dreams” of the architects of the Iraqi invasion – whether to save Iraq from tyranny, to introduce democracy to the Arab world, to have revenge over Saddam Hussein, or simply and more honestly to grab control of oil – are in tatters.

Their ambition has been reduced to how to exit without total loss of face and honour, and without having to take the blame for a hellish situation for Iraqis after the pull out.