Iraq: A partial withdrawal from lines drawn on maps

18558-as-soldier-takes-down-the-vehicle-numbers1.jpgAfter the Allied victory of 1918…the victors divided up the lands of their former enemies. In the space of just seventeen months, they created the borders of…and most of the Middle East. And I have spent my entire career…watching the people within those borders burn”.
This is part of a condemnatory quote from Robert Fisk’s 2005 book, “The Great War for Civilisation”. Robert Fisk, an avowed pacifist, is Middle East correspondent for The Independent newspaper and in a leading article for that journal on Friday 03 September 2010, claimed that former Prime Minister Tony Blair “should take responsibility for Iraq” in a damning criticism of both the man and his responses given in an interview for the BBC by Andrew Marr.

Sarcastically referring to Mr Blair as “Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara”, a city in present-day Iraq and a reference to Britain’s terrible defeat in 1915 at the hands of a Turkish army, Mr Fisk proceeded to pour scorn on the former PM’s justification for Britain joining the Second Gulf War. However, by doing so in such a manner, Mr Fisk really exaggerated Britain’s role in the conflict, as possibly many will think Mr Blair himself has done in his own book!
Is it fair to place the blame on Mr Blair’s shoulders for the totally unexpected consequences of the war, after the fall of Saddam Hussein? The casualties on both sides were relatively minor up to this point and no-one foresaw the scale of the chaos and destruction, of life and property, that Iraq would descend into.

Startling to all, in the coalition army and governments at least, was the magnitude and savagery of the devastation perpetrated, more often than not by Muslim against fellow Muslim. The conflict brought to light the enmity felt between Shia and Sunni in the starkest of manners. Apparently ex-President Bush wasn’t aware that such a problem existed in Iraq until shortly before commencement of hostilities! Added to this were outside, non-coalition forces entering the country, like al-Qa’ida and its disciples.

Writing earlier in The Independent on 20 August 2010, Mr Fisk made a much stronger argument in his article “US troops say goodbye to Iraq”, outlining some of the failures of the whole mission to date and the problems left behind for the Iraqis to contend with. His first point was that 50,000 American troops are staying, albeit in an auxiliary and training role, including some 4,500 Special Forces which will, in effect, remain on front-line duties.

Amongst problems that Mr Fisk highlights is that “only the poorest of the poor” are willing to join the new Iraqi army, not an encouraging sign, especially given that it has been widely reported in the media that the army’s commander was against the American departure. He does not believe that his army will be a strong and effective force until 2020, not a misprint, that is a decade away.

Confidence is little improved when one learns that the Americans will also train “the gunmen and militiamen”, who will presumably remain loyal to the democratically elected government, currently in a state of paralysis. Coalition government didn’t come easily or naturally to Britain’s Conservative and Liberal Parties which took three days to form a new administration, so six months and counting in a country which has never known democracy isn’t bad considering the parties in Iraq are still talking and have not resorted to the gun.

Life for the Iraqis is made no easier when added to this brew are heavily armed groups of several thousand “armed and indisciplined mercenaries, western and eastern, who are shooting their way around Iraq to safeguard our precious western diplomats and businessmen”. Such mercenaries have been extensively used by the coalition forces but little publicized.

The really awful irony in the whole matter is when Mr Fisk explains: “And because the Shias would invariably rule in this new ‘democracy’, the American soldiers gave Iran the victory it had sought so vainly in the terrible 1980-1988 war against Saddam. Indeed, men who attacked the US embassy in Kuwait…men who were allies of the suicide bombers who blew up the Marine base in Beirut in 1983 – now help to run Iraq. The Dawa were ‘terrorists’ in those days. Now they are ‘democrats’. Funny how we have forgotten the 241 US servicemen who died in the Lebanon…”

No, I think Mr Fisk has it wrong there, the servicemen who died have not been forgotten and especially not by servicemen and armed forces families in say, NATO countries, old enough to be familiar with the event. It is though, a damning indictment of the US Government and their apparent inablility to analyse in depth, other peoples and their history, culture and background. It is a common fault of very long standing and of several administrations and has cost the United States dearly.

Mr Fisk is though weakest in his argument when he says of the United States: “…They brought the disease of civil war. They injected Iraq with corruption on a grand scale. They sectarianised a country that, for all its Saddamite brutality and corruption, had hitherto held its Sunnis and Shias together”

I must have read a quite different history of Iraq since say, the Ba’ath Party came to power through a violent coup in February 1963 overthrowing Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim (who had himself violently overthrown the monarchy, killing King Faisal II and several members of the Iraqi royal family).

The Ba’ath Party effectively remained in power until the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 putting down its rivals without mercy, carrying out sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing against Iraqi minorities such as the Mandeans, Assyrians, Shabaks, Iraqi Persians and most famously, the Kurds and Marsh Arabs. Several revolts have taken place and untold thousands killed, their remains periodically coming to light in mass graves. A rather selective interpretation of recent Iraqi history I fear, Mr Fisk.

At a cost to the American taxpayer of $750 billion by July 2010, 4,421 service personnel dead and a further 32,000 injured, President Obama announced his substantial yet by no means total troop withdrawal. Was the timing more to do with the up-and-coming mid-term elections? Probably. Was it the right time to make such a withdrawal? Doubtfully. Can the straight lines on the map that define Iraq, with their hints of past colonial spheres of influence, keep its varied people bound in one nation? With an autonomous Kurdish government in the north already in place, it’s hard to see the Iraq we presently know surviving. Having gone in uninvited and however loathsome the regime, the Americans in particular have a duty of care to see that whatever country or new nation(s) emerge, the people of the region will at the very least have a secure future.