By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 21/03/07):
We are bid to celebrate the fourth birthday of a lie. In 2003, they lied about Iraq’s weapons arsenal. They lied about Saddam Hussein’s “imminent threat” to Britain. Some of them lied that he was involved in 9/11. Today, steeped in the psychology of denial, they lie that things are really fine, are getting better, are better than before, are on the turn. There might have been mistakes, but there was no Great Mistake.
What of those who pretended not to lie, who slunk to the back of the room, said it was not their department, “trusted Tony”, did what they were told, kept their heads down? This was the Downing Street set that covered their lies by jeering at critics and boasting they were so clever they could “write their own narrative”. They hired Hutton and Butler to “handle the truth”, which they carefully “did not kill but did not strive, officiously to keep alive”.
Britons should not celebrate the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Celebration is for those lucky Iraqis entitled to feel genuinely better for four years of freedom from Saddam, the salutary boon to the otherwise calamitous affliction visited on their country. The important anniversary is not that of the past but of the future. Can March 2008 see five years of western intervention finally reversed and a silver lining appear on the black cloud of Mesopotamia?
The “surge” programme initiated last month by General Petraeus in Baghdad is the first intelligent thing the Americans have done in four years. By swamping neighbourhoods, monitoring entry, patrolling streets and giving personal protection to residents and tradesmen, troops are able to restore some order to portions of the city. Petraeus is replacing vigilantes, militias and corrupt police with his own soldiers. He cannot reverse the ethnic cleansing that is fast partitioning Baghdad into Sunni and Shia quarters, but he can stabilise what has occurred. He can fortify the ghettos.
After four years of disorder there can be little hope that such security might last. On Day 1 it might have reassured and stabilised Baghdad. On Day 1,460 it is too late. Iraq is gripped by the most rudimentary street-based gang warfare, in which security lies not in soldiers but in families, guns, walls, streets, barricades and only faces you can recognise. To call this a “civil war” is pointless, a misnomer. It is Guelphs and Ghibellines out of the Corleone mafia.
The Americans cannot possibly find tens of thousands of troops needed to police every block in Baghdad for months, let alone years. That Petraeus had to bring Kurdish peshmergas down from the north to support his surge speaks volumes of the uselessness of the Iraqi army and police. Embedded journalists visiting bases in Sadr City and elsewhere report that militias are simply waiting for the Americans to leave. It makes a change for Americans to be protecting Iraqis, after two years of pretending to train the Iraqi army. But the most the surge can do is give some Iraqi neighbourhoods a breathing space and Washington a few nice pictures. The Iraq police, that fine flower of Pentagon nation-building, is beyond parody as a plausible force of law and order.
Turning the armed gangs into some sort of disciplined corps over the next year holds the key to civil security in Iraq. For the 2 million Iraqis in internal and external exile to return to active economic life requires them to feel safe in their homes and streets. Foreigners cannot guarantee that, nor can any national army or police. They are not trusted. The coming year must see parleys between local commanders, sheikhs and religious leaders, neighbourhood alliances, deals and treaties. Such crude life-and-death negotiations will be the only shreds of civil autonomy left to the Iraqis after four years of occupation, all that is left to them with which to rebuild their civic institutions.
The greatest fallacy of the coming year is that America or Britain might have any role to play in making March 2008 happier than 2007. While American search-and-destroy patrols roam Anbar province, al-Qaida cells will continue to recruit insurgents from abroad and foment sectarian hatred. While American tanks crash down streets and shoot up villages, they brutalise all they touch. The arrogance that only by staying can we ensure that “things get better” or that “civil war is averted” is now beyond obscenity. There may be an embassy to protect or an airport to defend. But the presence of foreign troops on Iraq’s streets and Iraq’s soil is a humiliation and a provocation alike. They are in occupation but not in power.
Whether or not Iraq is now progressively “partitioned” is largely a matter of terms. It has not been a unitary state for 10 years and is certainly not so today. It is a nation of a thousand neighbourhoods, each with degrees of anarchic sovereignty. The 2005 constitution, recently refashioned, divided up Iraq’s oil wealth on reasonably fair terms.
Different legal codes are likely to be introduced for Kurdish, Sunni and Shia regions, with women repressed in the south. But even then some vague confederacy may survive the Iraqi craving for nationhood.
Economies recover, the more quickly the sooner they are left in peace. The hoodlums and gangsters now rich on American aid will harness the oil exports and eventually find a vested interest in protecting infrastructure and utilities. Religious segregation will enable the ghettos to feel more secure. Business will emerge from the bottom up, and doctors, teachers and merchants will start to move back from Amman and Damascus, once they hear that their old homes are safe and the Mahdists and Badrists are confined to barracks. Economic activity will return to the streets, as it has done to Beirut.
The one thing that would speed this day is for everyone just to leave Iraq alone. Last week, the opposite happened. A nightmare convocation of 13 nations, including Americans, Britons, Russians, French, Syrians, Iranians, Chinese, Saudis, Jordanians and Egyptians, piled into Baghdad to congratulate each other on their courage in descending amid the carnage and declare their eagerness to help Iraq. They talked trade, security, borders, aid, oil, refugees and working groups galore. They patted each other on the back and went home. Poor Iraq, I thought. First the lies and now, even worse, they must suffer more help.