By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 15/12/06):
A rare joke was circulating among Iraqis shortly before their prime minister met George Bush in Amman recently. What would the US president be demanding? Answer: a timetable for Iraqis to withdraw from Iraq.It was a barbed reference to the huge number of Iraqis who have been forced to flee their homeland since the US invaded and presided over a catastrophic collapse in security. Up to 3,000 are leaving every day, according to the UN.
The joke also encapsulated the growing Iraqi feeling that the Americans are reaching the climax of a three-year exercise in shifting blame. Whatever has gone wrong in Iraq, it was always the Iraqis' fault. First they looted their own country in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's downfall. Then they let foreign jihadis and suicide bombers come in and attack the Americans. Now they are indulging in an orgy of sectarian violence and mindless revenge killings which are beyond the powers of the kind and well-meaning Americans to control. Could anyone have imagined that ingratitude for liberation would ever reach such depths? The only way to save Iraq is to remove every Iraqi. Messrs Perle, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz would then have an empty field on which to build their model Middle Eastern state.
The line that "it's all up to the Iraqis now" also runs through the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report, albeit in a subtle form. The report calls for Iraq's neighbours to play a constructive part in stabilising the country. It calls on the US military to accelerate the training of Iraqi troops and give them better equipment. But the central thrust is that Iraqis have to solve their own problems. They cannot expect the US to have an open-ended commitment to help.
The report has had a poor reception, partly because of the discordance between its various tones. The analysis is radical, while the recommendations are moderate. Its opening sentences - "the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating ... there is no path that can guarantee success" - have been highlighted excessively by the mainstream US media because they seem to be an attack on Bush's conduct of the war and his Panglossian state of denial about the horrors of life for Iraqis. That is one reason why Bush is delaying his own reaction until the New Year. He does not want to appear to agree with the diagnosis.
Baker-Hamilton contains some important warnings to policy makers. It points out that out of the 1,000 US embassy staff in Baghdad only six speak Arabic fluently. Fewer than 10 analysts in the Defence Intelligence Agency have more than two years' experience in charting the insurgency, so it is no surprise that they consistently misunderstand it.
The report says 61% of Iraqis approve of attacks on US and British forces. If one assumes crudely that Kurds (who form around 20% of the population) oppose such attacks, and Arab Sunnis (who also form about 20% of the population) support them, this means that two-thirds of Iraq's Shias also support them - a very high proportion among a population that suffered under Saddam and now dominates the government. Faced with such widespread hostility, is a US or British military presence sustainable?
Baker and Hamilton do not raise the question. They argue for continuing the occupation for years ahead - a point that media comment has tended to ignore. Their main military recommendation, a withdrawal of US combat units by the spring of 2008, is in line with the programme that the US commander in Iraq, General George Casey, has been pursuing for months. Their political recommendations, including the call for US talks with Iran, echo the policies being pushed by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador in Baghdad. He had been authorised to hold talks with Tehran this time last year, until the neocons got cold feet and persuaded Bush to stop him.
It may be precisely because Baker and Hamilton are so close to current US policy that their report has been attacked by Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, as well as by Shia leaders - including the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Baker and Hamilton have become the fall guys. It is hard for Talabani and Maliki to attack Bush frontally, so they go after the people who seem to speak in his name.
The report's central political tenet, like Khalilzad's, is that there has to be a tilt back towards the Sunnis and a restoration of a strong Iraqi state with guaranteed oil revenues in central hands. This is the only way to reduce the Sunni-led insurgency and avert the dangers of Iraq's fragmentation. The Kurds see this as a retreat from the new federal constitution they fought for. Shias worry about a transfer of power back to the Ba'athists.
The only two points of genuine radicalism in Baker-Hamilton are their call for dialogue with the nationalist Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, and an amnesty that "will be difficult for the United States to accept" - perhaps a hint that even those who killed Americans will have to be pardoned.
National reconciliation is the key, and Iraq's latest effort at that is due to get under way at a conference in Baghdad tomorrow. It has been postponed several times, and it is not yet clear how inclusive the guest list is. Nor does it seem likely that the Maliki government and his Kurdish allies want to make fundamental overtures to the Sunnis. Nevertheless, Iraq is at a moment of particular political ferment, which now also includes the secular former prime minister Ayad Allawi, who is advocating a national salvation front.
It may all fizzle out, just as Bush's policy announcements in the New Year may amount to a mouse rather than a mountain. But the essential point about the Iraq tragedy remains what it has been since April 2003. Bush and Blair bear the prime responsibility for the chaos their ill-conceived invasion unleashed. The problem of sectarian violence can only be solved by Iraqis. National reconciliation, if it happens, has to be Iraqi-led. But the US and Britain are not innocent bystanders, good Samaritans, or neutral guarantors against a civil war. There have been too many occasions already - from the so-called transfer of sovereignty in June 2004 to the inauguration of the first elected government in May this year - when they have said "it's up to the Iraqis now" while remaining in ultimate charge. Only when they leave Iraq will sovereignty truly revert.
Blair's posturing in the Middle East next week will be meaningless. He would have done more for his legacy if he had used his Washington visit last week to endorse Baker-Hamilton's bleak analysis, accept some of the blame, and tell Bush privately or publicly that the time has come for radical change.