The price of US arrogance in Iraq is growing - and we are paying our share

05 September 2003

The dilemma faced by the Americans in Iraq - and in which the British are powerlessly trapped - is growing acute. The occupying powers need to win Iraqi hearts and minds so that the process of handing the country over to an Iraqi administration has the confidence of the people. To do that, they need to supply electricity and civil order. But these things require human resources, both to impose law and order for its own sake and to discourage sabotage of basic services. Not to mention the sabotage of oil pipelines that are supposed to be providing the revenue for the reconstruction of Iraq.

The obvious source of recruits for this policing function is the Iraqi people themselves. But, while the Iraqis may be pleased that Saddam Hussein is gone, they do not trust the Americans sufficiently to make this an easy option in the short run. Which brings the Bush administration, and above all the Pentagon, round in a wide circle after four months to square one.

In a way, it is encouraging that Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, sees this so clearly, in his assessment leaked yesterday: "Lack of political progress in solving the linked problems of security, infrastructure and the political process are undermining the consent of the Iraqi people to the coalition presence and providing fertile ground for extremists and terrorists."

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, who visited Baghdad yesterday, persists in blaming everyone but his own department - which has jealously guarded its rule in Iraq - for this predicament. He complained that anti-American forces from Iran and Syria are infiltrating the country to carry out acts of terrorism. That may be true but it is (a) predictable and (b) not the main point, which is that he has failed to ensure the co-operation of most Iraqis.

Which is why other parts of the Bush administration - namely the State Department under Colin Powell - have made some headway by looking for a way out of the impasse. The logic of the situation has pushed George Bush towards the United Nations as a way of trying to persuade other countries to fill the gap.

Mr Powell knows that countries such as Pakistan and India are reluctant to supply troops if they will be seen as subordinate to the US army of occupation. Yet the UN option offers no easy way out either. Unless the US is prepared to concede overall authority in Iraq to the UN, the reluctance of other countries, most of whose populations were opposed to the war, to help out will remain. And the US is not so desperate yet that it would grant the UN such power over its own troops.

Thus the logic of the dilemma is that the security situation in Iraq will take longer to stabilise than anyone hoped and certainly much longer than the Pentagon planned. And the main burden will fall on the US and its junior partner, Britain. The implication of Mr Straw's assessment is that more British troops will be needed and that the wind-down of numbers since the end of the conflict will have to be reversed. The second implication is that our continuing role in Iraq will cost more money than the Treasury must have expected.

These burdens, in personnel and money, will fall even more heavily on the US. But at least the Americans are deciding their own policy, divided, misguided and stubborn as they may be. Because we cannot simply abandon our responsibilities having played our part in the war, we have no choice but to tag along with whatever President Bush's fractious subordinates decide.