a leaving as morally bankrupt as the coming

bergens tidende, 6 december 2006

t was quite a coup for the Arab TV channel Al-Jazeera. On the day that it launched its much delayed international channel, Tony Blair dropped in for a chat with interviewer David Frost. And what a chat it was. So far, Frost suggested to Blair, Iraq has been 'pretty much a disaster'. 'It has', Blair responded, finally admitting in public what he has refused to acknowledge in the past three years.

In fact the war in Iraq is now viewed as so much of a disaster, in both London and Washington, that there now seems to be an indecent haste to be shot of the problem. Four days after Blair gave his Al-Jazeera interview, Britain's foreign secretary Margaret Beckett told parliament that British forces would start withdrawing from Iraq in the spring and that half the of the British contingent should be home by the middle of next year - coincidentally the probable time of Tony Blair's departure as Prime Minister.

Meanwhile former US Secretary of State James Baker has been talking to Iranian and Syrian officials about the possibility of their countries filling the void when Britain and America pull out. Baker is co-chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group which is examining strategic options in Iraq. 'What would it take for Syria to help on Iraq?', Baker is reported to have asked Syria's foreign minister, Walid Muallem.

Nothing has exposed the true nature of the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq than the manner of the leaving. The rush to withdraw Western troops has nothing to do with 'handing Iraq back to the Iraqis' but is simply a case of cutting and running at a time that Iraq seems to be descending ever deeper into a sectarian conflict, the Allies have lost control and the political cost of staying in has become too great. The day after Margaret Becket told parliament that Iraq was stable enough to be left to its own devices, five simultaneous car bombs in Baghdad killed more than 200 people. According to a UN report released last week 3709 Iraqi civilians died in October - the highest number since the war. And the UN high commissioner for refugees estimates that every day up 2000 Iraqis flee to Syria and another 1000 to Jordan. This is not a nation on the way to stability and democracy, but one whose very life is draining away.

The attempt to involve Iran and Syria reveals the gutter politics that now guide Anglo-American policy towards Iraq. Iran remains part of George Bush's axis of evil, blamed for supporting insurgents in Iraq and under threat of international sanctions (or worse) for its pursuit of nuclear technology. Syria was forced out of Lebanon for its alleged role in the murder in 2005 of former prime minister Rafik Hariri and for its fomenting of sectarian divisions. But both countries have become indispensable to any exit strategy from Iraq. 'Take this mess off our hands - and quick', seems to be the message.

From the start of the war in Iraq, politicians in both London and Washington attempt to seize the moral high ground. 'Don't you want to get rid of Saddam?', they kept asking critics of the war. 'Don't you want democracy for the people of Iraq?' I certainly did - and still do. I also recognized, however, that democracy could not be imposed through shock and awe.

'Freedom', the black American novelist James Baldwin once wrote, 'is not something anyone can be given; freedom is something people take.' The process of liberation is not just one of freeing people from the constraints of their regime. It is also about the people deciding how they want to rule themselves, and how they want to organise and govern their society. It is in fighting for freedom that people gain a sense of what they want freedom to look like.

The Iraqi people, however, found themselves washed up in a liberated nation they had played no part in liberating. Lacking a sense of a common struggle, and excluded from the decision making process, they came to see the Coalition forces as invaders and other Iraqis as enemies. The result has been an explosion of insurgency, on the one hand, and factionalism and division on the other. The proposed involvement of Syria and Iran can only deepen sectional conflicts, as different sides in Iraq ally themselves with different regional powers.

Part of the West's exit strategy seems to be to rewrite history and to blame Iraqis for their own troubles. Iraqis 'have no future' if they continue fighting each other, American Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice pronounced last week. Steny Hpyer, the newly elected Democratic majority leader in Congress, suggested that the Americans had to pull out because Iraqis were too disorganized and self-obsessed. Many neocons suggest that Iraqis do not deserve democracy or American help. Tony Blair, meanwhile, points the finger at Al-Qaeda for fomenting divisions in Iraq.

The truth is that the current crisis in Iraq is the direct product of the invasion and subsequent governance of Iraq by the Anglo-American coalition. And, tragically, the exit strategy appears to be as morally bankrupt as was the invasion in the first place.