The true, terrible state of Iraq and the London link

It seemed horribly likely that some young Muslims would turn their attention to Britain

Patrick Cockburn

The Independent

Published: 20 July 2005

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?

When the storm has ended shall we find

How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power

By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

Their lives cannot repay us - their death could not undo -

The shame that they have laid upon our race.

But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,

Shall we leave it unabated in its place?

Rudyard Kipling's poem Mesopotamia denouncing those responsible for Britain's disastrous expedition in the First World War to what became Iraq, was written in 1917. By the time the war ended at least 31,000 British and Indians were buried somewhere in the country.

The difference between Britain's disastrous foray into Iraq then and the results of the invasion 88 years later is that those responsible have no need "to sidle back to power". They never lost it either in Britain or the US. It is nevertheless extraordinary to see Donald Rumsfeld, author of so many American failures here in Iraq, still holding his job as Secretary of Defence.

But there is a price to be paid in blood for keeping in power those responsible for past disastrous decisions in Iraq. It makes it much more difficult to seek a way out of the savage war that is now engulfing that country.

This is because past policies have to be portrayed as successful when they were dismal failures. The true terrible state of Iraq is glossed over. Just before the presidential election last year the White House imported Iyad Allawi, the Iraqi interim Prime Minister, to stand beside President Bush and say that only three or four out of 18 Iraqi provinces were dangerous. I ran this comforting thought past a group of Iraqi lorry drivers, none of them shrinking violets, who laughed sourly and said that the real figures were the exact opposite. Only the three Kurdish provinces in the far north were safe.

A current slogan of the powers-that-be in Washington and London is that we should "stay the course in Iraq". Perhaps one needs to live in Baghdad to know that there is no course. "The Americans are making it up from day to day," a senior Iraqi official told me. "They make a mistake and then try to correct it by making a bigger mistake."

The only real continuity in US policy in Iraq over the past two years has been the need to present what is happening here as a success to the American voter. After the invasion in 2003 there was an attempt at full occupation under the Coalition Provisional Authority. This imperial takeover provoked armed resistance by the five million Sunni Arabs. At this time the US did not want elections as demanded by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shia religious leader. It was only when it became clear that the US could not withstand a Shia uprising that elections turned out to have been an immediate American goal all along.

Zigzags in policy have been interspersed with spurious "turning points". In December 2003 there was the capture of Saddam Hussein. The guerrilla war continued to escalate. Six months later there was the much-trumpeted handover of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government. This had equally little effect. This January, there was the election, sold as the moment the tide would turn. Half a year later, Baghdad has turned into a slaughterhouse.

The need to produce a rosy and quite false picture of Iraq makes it difficult for the US - with Britain trotting along behind - to produce effective policies. Washington has never admitted to itself that since the summer of 2003 Sunni and Shia Iraqis have both loathed the US occupation. The much-resented presence of US troops in Iraq has helped fuel the insurgency and tainted Iraqi governments as puppets of the US. In the short term it should be a priority to get American soldiers out of the cities and towns in order to reduce daily friction.

The London bombings are already making it more difficult to have a sane discussion about what course to pursue in Iraq. President Bush is able to deflect criticism of his catastrophic misjudgements by suggesting his critics are soft on terrorism. Now the same thing is happening in Britain with Tony Blair and Jack Straw denouncing Chatham House for suggesting that events in Iraq boosted terrorism.

It obviously has. Immediately around my hotel, eight suicide bombers, probably non-Iraqis, have blown themselves up in the past 18 months. It always seemed to me horribly likely that some, at least, of these pious and fanatical young Muslims radicalised by events in Iraq would, instead of perpetrating atrocities here, turn their attention to Britain.