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Forward or Backward Progress? - The Status of Iraq Today
s SOMA readers are well aware, Iraq heaved again last month under the weight of further fresh developments...

27 September   |   2007   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

A... After four years of liberation / occupation (tick your appropriate box), most news programmes across the world - from Al-Jazeera to BBC World - still carry at least one piece about Iraq every day. This is impressive in its own right, not least because it shows the geopolitical centrality of Iraq to the whole region, and also proves that the decibels of violence have remained so high they have sustained the continuing focus of the world media. Of all those developments, though, I would like to refer pithily to four that I believe are not only critical for the future of Iraq but also interpretative of its present debacles.

  • The first one that could impact seriously the future of Iraq was the appointment of Steffan de Mistura as the new top UN envoy in Iraq. This Italian-Swedish veteran diplomat replaced Ashraf Qazi who was assigned to head UN operations in southern Sudan. His appointment correlated with the Security Council vote that expanded the UN political role in Iraq to include reconciliation between rival factions and dialogue with neighbouring countries.
  • However, as the UN was being cajoled to tone up its activities in Iraq, a poll of 23,000 people in 22 countries published by the BBC World Service revealed that more than two thirds of people world-wide believed American-led forces should pull out of the country within a year.
  • Perhaps even more ominous in terms of the future, Hassan Dureid, spokesman for the local southern Iraqi NGO Iraqi Brothers Relief, re-affirmed that militias were conducting a campaign to exterminate over 4000 members of the Ba’ath party, and that hundreds had already been forced to flee their homes as a result of those assassinations.
  • According to the latest report of the World Health Organisation (WHO), at least 2116 people have contracted cholera since last August, with the vast majority still in the north. Given that cholera pathogens are mostly transmitted through contaminated water and food, one wonders about the direction this oil-rich country is taking when even its basic resources are compromised so seriously.

Although those four developments could affect the course of future events in Iraq one way or another, I believe many readers would agree with me that the “gripping” development par excellence that drew so much speculation was the report delivered to the US Congress by General David Petraeus. Succinctly put, the General affirmed that the military surge was helping the US win the war against a motley collection of different foes, and announced at the same time the eventual withdrawal of 4,000 US troops, whilst dangling the prospect of additional withdrawals later.

Strangely enough, his optimistic assessments did not tally with those of the US Government Accountability Office (GAO, the audit, evaluation, and investigative arm of the United States Congress). This body stated that the Iraqi government had not met 11 of 18 benchmarks set by Congress, and that violence levels to date remain high. Moreover, a commission of retired senior military officers determined that the Iraqi army will be unable to take over responsibility for internal security in the next 12 to 18 months - namely four years beyond the timeframe that the Pentagon had predicted in 2004.

So are there any exit and strategy plans for Iraq today, or as the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it in her inimitable style, is the US Administration clueless about the realities of Iraq beyond the Green Zone? Could it be that PM Nuri Al-Maliki’s government has run out of steam, or that the neo-conservatives in the US - weakened but not neutralised - continue to wreak havoc with the world in the name of liberty and democracy?

In my opinion, no amount of political spin could obfuscate the fact that the US Administration has no strategy for ending this draining war or for containing the chaos. Instead of coming clean with the American people, President Bush still persists in offering the same divisive policies - most recently re-packaged with the Orwellian slogan of ‘return on success’.

Not only is it a fact that the surge becomes unsustainable beyond mid-2008, in which case any draw-down becomes necessary anyway, Iraq’s brutal reality has also debunked the claims of political and military success that General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker made to Congress. The assassination of the Anbar tribal leader Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha, from the Anbar Salvation Council who had recently allied himself with the Americans, when coupled with the targeted killing of police chiefs across provinces, shows that the surge might be working temporarily in putting the lid on more violence, but it is doing nothing to tackle its root causes. In other words, it is likely that in the absence of a real Iraqi authority and conciliation among Iraqis themselves, violence would return at the end of the “surge”.

Instead of talking up any notions of victory and democracy that are redolent of nothing more than a pax americana, President Bush could do well to listen to the top military brass here in the UK, to the Qatari speaker at the UN earlier this week, or to the myriad commentators and analysts who have repeated time and again that the insistence to stay the course following an ill-advised initial invasion in 2003 becomes even more frightening today. Holding onto this course until the 2009 presidential elections and then “passing the buck” to whoever becomes president is a huge disservice to the American people and its intrepid army who are bravely fighting a war that is at the very least morally reprehensible.

But talk is easy and cheap, isn’t it? I can sit in my office here in England and comment on the action of others whilst real men and women are dying, getting wounded and suffering dreadful traumas every single day! So apart from feeling humbled, what is my solution out of this horrible mess? I must admit that I too do not have any clear ideas to share with my SOMA readers. But what I would like to suggest are three pointers that might help mitigate the conditions in which we find ourselves today by making this mess slightly less frightening and therefore perhaps slightly more manageable.

  • The first suggestion is that staying the course would only make Iraq bloodier. With so many eminent US politicians having tried and failed, the question is how to convey to the President (and to his vice) that he is leading the world - and our legitimate global war against terror - astray with this persistence to see through his invasion.
  • The second is that the US Administration should stop chasing bogeymen in the Middle East as scapegoats for its own failures. Rather, it should use its considerable diplomatic resources and leverage to draw into the negotiating arena countries such as Syria and Iran that it now considers beyond the pale. Doing politics with one’s enemy - no matter how vile or loathsome - is not a sign of weakness but one of leadership. The late President Reagan, no lily-livered dove himself, understood the benefits of dialogue with the USSR prior to the collapse of the communist regime. In the same way, President Bush could test the value of dialogue with the neighbours of Iraq instead of vilifying them at every turn and threatening them with military action. In order to prevent further bloodshed, or even stanch the flow of men and weapons into Iraq, a process of dialogue with the “enemy” seems imperative.
  • The third is the need to review the refugee policy of the West that affects 3.7 million Iraqi refugees in neighbouring countries (especially Syria and Jordan) and those internally displaced as a result of the war or concomitant sectarian tensions. The USA, in particular, has been extremely slow in absorbing refugees - even those who risked life and limb by working for its services. Granted, it set up a refugee task force last February, only to be disbanded and replaced by two refugee tsars earlier this month. But it is ridiculous that the projected intake of 20,000 Iraqi asylum-seekers by a small EU country like Sweden would in terms of population numbers correspond to the taking in of 500,000 refugees by the USA. Yet, the USA - despite repeated assertions of a more robust approach to its refugee policies - has demonstrated political velleity to date and taken in less than 1700 Iraqis.

I cannot conclude this article without referring to the Defense Authorisation Act (H.R. 1585) in the US Senate. This week, an amendment by Senator Joseph Biden on the floor of the US Senate to divide Iraq into three federal regions along confessional or sectarian lines - Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’is - was approved by 75 votes against 23. This amendment to the Defense Bill would give the central Iraqi government control over its borders and oil revenues, but devolve most other matters to the three regions. It is a non-binding report, but I believe that it would be exceedingly dangerous to divide Iraq into smaller statelets for its three main communities. Iraq is not a homogeneous country, so are different sects meant to be shunted from one fiefdom into another in order to constitute those three statelets? Besides, what happens to the myriad other minorities in the country - from the beleaguered Christians to the Yazidis, Sabean Mandaeans and others?  What about Kurdish-Turkish tensions: is the EU expected to mop up the political debris?

I believe that this policy - perhaps well-intentioned and coming from a genuine desire to withdraw American troops from Iraq - could not only spell more disasters for Iraq itself, it could also create politically-explosive black holes and contribute toward more implosions in the whole Middle East. Those implosions would in turn cause explosions in the larger world. The lure of such autonomy might be appealing to many people now, not least the Kurds in the northern regions, but it is important to stand back and examine its long-term ramifications before jumping into another hot cauldron!

Are we witnessing any forward progress in Iraq? Or are we actually going backward in the name of progress?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2007   |   27 September


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