Abandoning Iraq would be morally despicable

Stephen Glover

Last updated at 17:17 28 April 2004

On Sunday evening in Sadr City, a suburb of Baghdad, the earth shook with explosions and tank and machinegun fire. American gunship helicopters thundered overhead. Below, the streets were lined with armed Iraqi militiamen dressed in black.

Almost at the same time in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, Spanish and other Western soldiers fought with gunmen.

The insurgents, many of whom were also wearing black, were supporters of a young radical Shia cleric called Muqtada al Sadr, who has a private army.

Yesterday, the revolt continued in Baghdad. In a move that may escalate the fighting, the Americans issued a warrant for the arrest of Mr al Sadr, and promised a crackdown against the rebels.

At least 35 people have died in less than two days, seven of them coalition soldiers. Even by the standards of Iraq, this is a heavy death toll. What makes it even more alarming is that this is the first time that Western troops have fought organised Shia militia.

Coalition forces in Iraq are now facing a war on two fronts. They already faced opposition in the Sunni Muslim community from former supporters of Saddam Hussein, as well as from Al Qaeda operatives who have also infiltrated Iraq since the war ended last April. Now they are also at odds with extremist elements in the Shia community.

Shia Muslims account for 60 per cent of the population of Iraq.

Sunday's riots were triggered by the decision of Paul Bremer, America's proconsul in Iraq, to close down a small-circulation weekly newspaper in Baghdad run by Mr al Sadr for 'inciting violence against coalition forces', and by the arrest of one of Mr al Sadr's henchmen.

Since the paper sold only 10,000 copies, it was perhaps unlikely to have caused much trouble, but Mr Bremer, who had been criticised by the newspaper, nonetheless decided to close it. The proconsul, who is plainly way out of his depth, cannot have counted on such a violent reaction.

Is it not clear that things are going from bad to worse in Iraq?

It is as though America and Britain have created their very own Palestine in the Middle East. The difference is that the state of Israel, once it was set up, was bound to attract the enmity of Arabs.

America and Britain did not have to invade Iraq. As an article in the American magazine Vanity Fair confirms, President George W. Bush determined, with a criminal lack of foresight, to invade Iraq after the destruction of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. Tony Blair followed.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq is a disaster for that country. Iraq was carved out as a British mandate after World War I. Comprising as it does so many disparate ethnic and religious elements, it makes no sense as a unified state and has only been held together by tyrants. It seems inconceivable that one democratically elected government could rule over these warring factions.

And the invasion and occupation of Iraq is also a disaster for us. I am not only thinking of the 9,000- odd British soldiers concentrated in and around the Shia-dominated city of Basra, which was yesterday the scene of disturbances and may become a new trouble spot.

I also mean the citizens of this country and the West, for whom the prospect of a terrorist attack is horrifyingly real.

Even the most bone-headed supporter of the war against Iraq must surely concede that it has increased, not diminished, the likelihood of such attacks.

For extremist, fanatical Muslims, Iraq serves as symbol of Western perfidy and as a rallying point for future action.

Would Spain, a supporter of the war, have been singled out by Islamic extremists for their deadly bombing in Madrid if its government had not enthusiastically linked up with Britain and America? I very much doubt it.

This war was conceived by Mr Bush, a foreign policy ignoramus who could not even name the prime minister of Pakistan during his campaign for President, and by neo-conservative ideologues who were equally ignorant of the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics.

It was supported by a British Prime Minister whose knowledge of history is in inverse proportion to his desire to shape it, and a British Foreign Minister who was appointed without ever having demonstrated the slightest aptitude for his great office.

The justification for war - that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction - has been shown to be bogus. Even Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, conceded over the weekend that the case he presented to the United Nations that Iraq had mobile laboratories for making biological weapons may well have been wrong. What an admission!

Tony Blair wanted these weapons to exist to justify the otherwise unjustifiable. He did not even bother to find out whether his intelligence chiefs believed the alleged WMD could be fired across continents or, as was in fact the case, merely a few miles.

This is one of the most illconceived and botched wars fought in modern times, and those who prosecuted it will surely be made to pay. Though the American people are only beginning to wake up to the magnitude of the con-trick that has been played on them, Mr Bush is already suffering in the opinion polls, and faces a tough battle in November's presidential elections.

As for Mr Blair, one cannot imagine that the British people will ever trust him again, particularly in view of his many other failures and broken promises. The idea of his seizing on the issue of immigration, and miraculously solving it after all others in the Government have failed, is ludicrous.

Can anything be done about Iraq? It is very difficult to believe so. The tough American response to the Shia rebellion may make matters worse. The British find themselves under the control of American policymakers who made few plans for the future of Iraq before the war and whose immediate instinct is to fight force with even greater force.

For the first time there is a prospect of Shia fundamentalists, of the sort who have ruled so destructively in neighbouring Iran, emerging as a strong anti-Western force in Iraq.

The idea that power can be handed over to a handpicked Iraqi government by June 30 is madly unrealistic. Such a government will have to depend on coalition forces for its survival, and that will make it deeply unpopular to some.

If it was not so morally despicable - for we have caused all this - we should pull out of Iraq, as Spain intends to do.

Don't imagine that if we stay we will do any good. All we face by remaining there will be billions of pounds of further expenditure, the hatred of many Iraqis, and the opprobrium of Islamic extremists, as they are able plausibly to blame us for the killings and mayhem that lie ahead.

This is the new Palestine our leaders have created - the neoconservative ideologues in America, and, above all, George Bush and Tony Blair.

The British Prime Minister could not have prevented the American President from fighting this war, but he did not have to involve this country in so discreditable and disastrous an enterprise. One day, and one day soon, he will surely be made to pay for this colossal misjudgment.

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