The time has arrived for an exit strategy from Iraq

Our presence has now become an obstacle to security, not a means of achieving it

Adrian Hamilton

13 May 2004

It is time for the dreaded "e" word. We need an exit strategy for Iraq and we need to be honest about it. This is not in response to the latest outrage on film, the beheading of Nick Berg. The situation had already gone far too far before that picture or the humiliating Abu Ghraib snaps to indulge in the worn-out rhetoric of not "giving in to terror", "staying the course" and all the other empty phrases of "resolve".

The simple point is that we have passed the point at which the presence of American, and with them the British, troops were an occasionally resented but broadly accepted guarantee of security in Iraq. Instead we are now seen as an alien and oppressive foreign occupying power, and the Abu Ghraib images have only to served to stamp that message home.

That is not to say that all Iraqis want us out immediately, leaving a security hole that would be filled by local gangsters and extremists. It doesn't necessarily mean that we are regarded as all bad. An occupied population is bound to show ambivalence in their attitude to the security forces and to the "terrorists" among themselves. They want a peaceful life but they also resent the fact that they have to rely on foreign forces to give it to them. But it is becoming increasingly apparent from virtually every independent report on the ground that we have moved decisively in the past few months from the role of protector to the position of oppressor. And that has profound implications on security in the country. For a start it means that locally recruited police and security forces are unprepared to look as if they are in league with the occupiers. As the US has found in Fallujah, Iraqi soldiers will not fire on their own people.

The perception of westerners as part of an alien force also makes it far more difficult to recruit civilian staff to help with the programmes of reconstruction. The local population doesn't have to hate them, it just has to stand aside as rebel groups take hostages among outsiders and kill locals who help them. And so you get the vicious circle that you now see in Iraq where security and prosperity become more and more difficult to achieve and the population becomes more and more disabused with the occupation.

But we can't just up sticks and go, says London and Washington. It would leave the country open to civil war and mayhem. True. But the point is that our presence has now become an obstacle to security, not a means to achieving it. If others and not we were there, it would be more likely that the level of violence by groups against western forces would lessen and that local Iraqi forces could impose order.

The problem, of course, is how to get out leaving a reasonable security situation for the Iraqis and whoever they may find acceptable to help them. It's a problem made particularly difficult not just by the state of insecurity that we have allowed to develop but also by the difficulties our own leadership has in admitting its mistakes. President Bush, and Prime Minister Blair, cannot admit to an exit strategy without admitting to a failed policy.

Instead they look to a largely illusory date of 30 June for a nominal handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis and a willingness of the UN to step in to arrange that handover and prepare for elections by January next year. But the handover is meaningless so long as America remains in charge of security and controls the funds for reconstruction. The UN presence is only of the most tenuous nature so long as it has responsibility without power (it remains to be seen whether they will accept the role).

Far from seeking an exit strategy, Washington and London are planning to increase the number of their troops in an awful attempt to resolve a security situation which their own presence is making worse. Desperate to clear the decks for 30 June, US troops are attacking the tribal groups in Fallujah and Muqtada Sadr's Mehdi Army militia in Najaf. The object is logical enough. If you do want to start disengaging at some point you need to leave a clear field. But the practical effect is the opposite. The harder you hit locally based "terrorists", the more you make enemies among the local population. The same will happen with the promises to pursue the perpetrators of the atrocity against poor Nick Berg.

There is a way out of this mess. But it needs political courage and a willingness to own up to mistakes. The first step is to downplay, implicitly or explicitly, the 30 June deadline. Elections are what matter and that is what we, and the UN, should be working towards. There is no useful purpose in sending in more troops at the behest of Washington. London should say clearly that it is willing to increase its forces if, and only if, the Iraqi leadership asks them.

In the same way Mr Blair should state in the clearest possible public terms that it is Britain's intention to withdraw all its troops following an election, keeping only those forces which the new Baghdad government specifically requests. It's not a question of cutting and running, simply an acceptance of reality: we cannot stay where we are no longer wanted.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk