The worst in Iraq is still to come
By Simon Tisdall
Guardian" -- -- In its external aspects, Iraq
remains a live, occasionally explosive issue in the US and
Britain, as last week's row over General Sir Richard Dannatt's
thoughts on a British withdrawal showed. But the deepening chaos
inside the country attracts less and less attention. Like
sailors long missing at sea, the fate of ordinary Iraqis three
years after the country was driven on to the rocks grows
increasingly remote from those who precipitated the disaster.
In the US, Iraq is now primarily an electoral rather than a
nation-building, humanitarian or counter-terrorism issue. With
the Republicans fighting to retain control of Congress in next
month's midterm polls, George Bush's Middle East freedom mission
has become a hard-nosed numbers game.
The Lancet's politically damaging report that more than 650,000
Iraqis have died since 2003 was swiftly dismissed by the White
House. But the fact that October is proving the cruellest month
for American soldiers, with an average 3.5 deaths a day so far,
is deadlier domestic ammunition for the Democrats.
On related fronts, both American conservatives and Arab
reformers worry that, burned by its Iraq experience, the Bush
administration is reverting to old thinking - containment,
deterrence, and maintenance of the Middle East status quo. And
in Britain as in the US, Iraq is now a handy tool in the nuclear
proliferation debate. Tony Blair is derided for seeing weapons
in Baghdad when, actually, they were in North Korea all along.
So who, his opponents ask, can trust him on Iran?
Such political and strategic games reflect a changed state of
mind. Although the troops are still there, much of European and
US opinion now seems to feel it has entered the "post-Iraq"
period. The world has moved on to other issues, it is argued.
Relatively soon, both Mr Bush and Mr Blair will be gone. And
media interest has diminished, partly because of the evident
dangers to reporters but also because the "story" has grown
But inside Iraq, the picture appears very different to those who
still care to look. As daily sectarian bloodshed, militia
anarchy and political incompetence reach unprecedented levels,
it seems likely that the worst is yet to come.
One sign came last week when the Shia parliamentary majority
rejected Sunni opposition and passed a law allowing partition
into autonomous federal regions. It is but a small step from
there to national disintegration.
Another grim omen was the indefinite postponement at the weekend
of a long-awaited "national reconciliation conference", an
initiative central to the prime minister Nuri al-Maliki's
efforts for a new start. Almost simultaneously, Sunni
insurgents, including al-Qaida, announced the formation of an
Iraqi Islamic state.
Policymakers agree the US approach has to change. The argument
is about how, and to what end. The focus of the former secretary
of state James Baker's Iraq Study Group, currently examining the
issue at Mr Bush's behest, is not how to make Iraq a glowing
success but how to prevent it becoming a permanent failure
endangering US interests. Options under discussion include
asking Iran and Syria for help and containment via a phased
withdrawal to friendly neighbouring countries.
"The starting point is to recognise that Iraq is not going to be
a democratic, unified country that serves as a model for the
region," Dennis Ross, the
Clinton administration's Middle East negotiator, told the
Washington Post. Whatever happened, the US
should set a withdrawal timetable, he said. That sounds very
much like Gen Dannatt's "lowered ambitions".
In a report for the Centre for Strategic and International
Studies, Anthony Cordesman takes a more holistic approach
reflecting Washington's responsibilities as well as its
self-interest. He discusses a wide range of measures, including
international military and economic incentives to facilitate
Iraqi reconciliation. And he warns that new remedies are
"Iraq is already in a state of serious civil war and current
efforts at political compromise and improving security at best
are buying time," he says. "There is a critical risk that Iraq
will drift into a major civil conflict over the coming months
... The US cannot simply 'stay the course' and rely on existing
actions and strategy. It needs new options."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
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