23 June 2005
The international conference on Iraq, held in Brussels yesterday, offered more symbolism than substance. This was not, as several participants were concerned to point out beforehand, a gathering convened to pledge aid - in part, at least, because the pledges made hitherto have been so little honoured. It was, rather, a gathering designed to convey messages: about Iraq, about the United Nations, about the US and about Europe-US relations. An aid conference will be held next month in Jordan.
From Iraq, the main message was that the elected assembly and the recently finalised government were competent to start planning the country's future. The foreign minister closed by saying that his team had presented its visions and priorities, and it was up to the delegates to decide how their countries could help. Here were Iraqi officials saying that they were responsible for their country's future and that the ultimate decisions rested with them. This was encouraging.
The second message, however, which risked obscuring the first, was that Iraq still needs an immense amount of help, not just in reconstruction but in creating viable political structures and making the country safe. That such basics still need to be tackled, a full two years after the official end of the war, is testimony to the abject preparation by the US and Britain for the aftermath of their conquest and the equally abject efforts to remedy the mismanagement since.
From the UN, the message was that it considers it still has a role in Iraq, if only as co-ordinator of assistance; it believes it is relevant and has a responsibility to remain involved. As for the US and the European Union, this conference spoke of a new co-operative approach to Iraq, largely on Europe's terms.
The Brussels venue signalled that those European countries that opposed the war - and still do - were ready to share a platform with the United States and are serious about assisting with reconstruction. The topics of discussion, it should be noted, were all civil in nature. Washington, it seems, has wisely abandoned any expectation that the European dissenters might change their mind about committing troops.
Above all, this meeting - like the recent flying visit to Baghdad by EU officials and the British Foreign Secretary - was a hatchet-burying exercise intended to inaugurate a fresh start. It was about laying new foundations on which reconstruction, a home-grown political process and law-making could be given another chance.
The need for a fresh start almost a year after sovereignty was officially handed back to Iraqis and six months after assembly elections, however, amounts to an admission of serial failure by the US and the British: the failure of the invasion to improve most Iraqis' lives; the failure of restored sovereignty to end the resistance to foreign troops, and the failure of the elections - because of the Sunni boycott - to produce a genuinely representative assembly. The precarious nature of the new Iraqi government and the continuing violence are also reasons why statements of good intentions may be as far as international assistance can realistically go.
There seems little prospect, not just in the short term but in the medium term as well, of newly trained Iraqis being able to enforce security. The conundrum observed a year ago - that the foreign troop presence was both a cause and an effect of the continuing violence - seems even less capable of resolution now because so much of the violence is now directed against Iraqis. Even a unilateral, timetabled withdrawal may be insufficient to bring peace to Iraq - and without peace, the promised, and very necessary, aid will not start to flow.