Sat, 15 May 2004

Would exit be more chaotic?

Jonathan Steele Guardian News Service London

Can the American occupation of Iraq be sustained any longer? In the wake of the prison horrors revealed at Abu Ghraib, has the time not come for a serious debate on the immediate withdrawal, not just of British forces, but of the 150,000 U.S. forces as well?

The worldwide shockwaves from the torture pictures are political as well as moral. Outrage is prompting calls for radical change, which Donald Rumsfeld's sudden trip to Baghdad no doubt is intended to block. In the U.S., Richard Holbrooke, a strong contender to run the state department in a Kerry presidency, calls the scandal "the most serious setback for the American military since Vietnam". Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander who ran in the Democratic party primaries, puts the prospect of pressure leading to an early end to the U.S. mission as "better than 50-50".

In Iraq, according to Ahmed Fawzi, spokesman for the UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is currently helping to select an Iraqi government: "Everyone we have spoken to has raised the issue. They feel humiliated."

For many Iraqis the pictures show something even worse than torture. They reveal pornographic sadism. "I knew prison abuse was happening," says Fateena Hamdi, a Baghdad university professor I rang the other day. "But I couldn't imagine it was being done for amusement."

It was clear from the earliest days of the occupation, as the late UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello argued, that sovereignty is the key to security in Iraq, and the occupation itself is the major source of instability. Even among Iraqis who welcomed the invasion, the presence of foreign forces quickly created resentment and suspicion. As long as there was no date for the troops to leave, Iraqis feared the U.S. only wanted long-term military bases, and their oil. Many saw no choice but to resist the U.S., if necessary by force.

U.S. troops also became a magnet for every kind of radical Islamist group, Iraqi and foreign. "We thank the Americans for two things," a Wahhabi sheikh told me with a smile in Baghdad last month. "They liberated us from Saddam so we can operate freely. They also created the conditions for us to resist them in our own country instead of having to go abroad."

Late last year Washington got part of the point, and the current timetable was set for appointing an Iraqi government and transferring sovereignty on June 30. But the plan was flawed since the U.S. insisted on keeping its forces in Iraq even after June. As the date approached, more and more Iraqis grew angry over the limits to the sovereignty being transferred, since the U.S. intends to keep control of security and even have the right to command the re-emerging Iraqi forces.

Then came the appalling use of excessive force in Falluja, which highlighted a developing mountain of evidence that the way U.S. troops behave in Iraq creates more enemies than it eliminates. Their skills as peacekeepers are minimal. In more benign postwar environments such as Bosnia and Kosovo they have functioned reasonably, but at the slightest hint of hostilities they over-react and over-kill.

One solution canvassed by several commentators has been for the UN and the new Iraqi government to have oversight over U.S. forces, or else to reduce their numbers significantly by bringing in Arab League or European troops. Holbrooke now shares that line, according to the New York Times, which says he believes the Bush administration must concede the U.S. presence in Iraq is illegitimate and illegal in the eyes of the Arab world, and turn affairs over to the UN.

Iraqi and Arab reaction to the prison abuse horrors suggests that even this position may have become untenable. The time has come for Americans and their allies to ask the most searching question: what would happen if they left? The standard answer, even among countries like France which opposed the invasion, is that there would be "chaos".

That can no longer be taken for granted. We need to define that term and ask whether it would necessarily be worse than the chaos caused on a daily basis by the occupation forces' behavior. Vague talk of instability is no substitute for a proper assessment of the threats Iraq faces.

Externally, there are none. Its neighbors have no claims on Iraqi territory; nor is there a sign that any might intervene by force, except perhaps Turkey in the case of an irredentist future Kurdistan.

Iraq's threats are internal. But are they demonstrably more acute than those facing other Arab states, none of which - with the exception of Lebanon - harbors foreign forces with a mandate to maintain internal security. Why should Iraq be unique in needing outside forces?

The existence of political militias in Iraq is a serious problem, and the occupation forces' failure to disband them in the first weeks after reaching Baghdad is another mark against Washington. They are not yet as powerful as the regional warlords' armies which the U.S. and its allies have equally failed to disarm in Afghanistan, but they could start clashing with each other. Since last year new militias such as Moqtada al- Sadr's Mehdi army have been allowed to emerge.

The best way to deal with them is not by military force, as the U.S. is trying in Najaf and Sadr City, but by incorporating the best of their cadres into the new Iraqi security structures and finding political avenues for their bosses' rivalries. That means the promised early elections. Restoring the leadership of the former Iraqi army (minus proven torturers and war criminals) would be another step which could restore national pride, reduce Iraqi resentment, and deny legitimacy to the militias, if it is done before June 30.

Sectarian clashes between Sunnis and Shias are often mentioned as a lurking menace, but Iraq's modern history has no such record - the leaders of both communities have been scrupulous in mobilizing community support against them. Ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds are a greater danger, since attitudes in the disputed cities of Kirkuk and Mosul can easily be roused at both the popular and the elite levels.

There might be a case for a temporary deployment of foreign forces in these areas, though not from Turkey or any Arab state, since they would not be seen as impartial. The Iraqi national army might be one-sided, unless (another urgent priority) Kurdish officers are soon given high-command posts.

These scenarios need to be fleshed out. But as the miseries of Iraqis under occupation multiply, the burden of proof is increasingly on those who claim that pulling foreign troops out of Iraq would be worse than keeping them there. Playing on the bogeymen of "chaos" and "a security vacuum" can no longer go unchallenged.