Iraq: Is there a way out of this mess?

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The Independent Online

Withdraw the 8,000 British troops in Iraq as soon as logistically possible, handing responsibility for law and order to Iraqi authorities.

Pros: The end of the occupation will signal the end of the home-grown insurgency and isolate the foreign fighters of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, who will be left to seek another battlefield on which to fight the West. British withdrawal will mobilise American public opinion to seek the same for US troops. A nightmare that began 917 days ago on 20 March will be at an end.

Cons: The more likely outcome of troop withdrawal would be a power vacuum and civil war between Sunnis, Shia and Kurds. For Tony Blair, immediate withdrawal would be a declaration of total failure and a prelude to resignation. US troops would stay in Iraq come what may. And, as is commonly acknowledged in Whitehall, the Iraqi military and police are nowhere near ready to go it alone.

In favour

The Stop the War Coalition and Iraqi insurgents

Will it happen?


Option 2: Phased pull-out

British troops stay, but leave gradually after the referendum on the constitution. As troops leave, Iraqi military and police assume control.

Pros: Seen as the least-bad option by most of the liberal left. The insurgency would be expected to lose steam as occupying forces became less visible. British troops could be out of southern Iraq by the summer. The sight of departing troops would lance the boil of mainstream Iraqi resentment, but the Iraqi authorities would not be left to sink or swim alone.

Cons: The more radical insurgent groups, particularly on the Sunni side, have shown little interest in political negotiation and compromise. There is also the possibility that insurgents would step up activity further to force the pace of withdrawal, so the violence would become even worse. The Iraqi authorities may not be ready to accept their growing responsibilities.

In favour

Most Liberal Democrats, and many Labour MPs

Will it happen?

Unlikely. Blair believes we cannot give in to terrorists

Option 3: Fight, then quit

Given the worsening security situation, pour more British troops into Iraq, for a limited period, to crush the insurgency once and for all.

Pros: The events of the past week suggest that 8,000 British troops are not sufficient to maintain law and order. As the referendum on the constitution approaches, an increase in violence is likely from those groups which are determined to undermine the process. A show of force over the next few months could ensure real progress and pave the way for a quicker withdrawal.

Cons: Sound military strategy can also be bad and dangerous politics. More troops would, in all likelihood, give the wrong signal at the wrong time. Britain would confirm itself to be an occupier and aggressive reinforcement would almost certainly ensure an aggressive response. How many troops do you need to stop that cycle? 50,000?

In favour

Some military experts

Will it happen?

New troops may rotate into Iraq, but Blair will not sanction big increases

Option 4: Stay for long haul

British troops stay until the insurgency, in all its forms, is defeated. No timetable set for withdrawal.

Pros: For Tony Blair, the satisfaction of proving to the world that he is not a quitter. For the Iraqi Kurds, the reassurance that the autonomy and prosperity promised by a post-Saddam era will not be rolled back by the Sunni insurgency. Ditto for the moderate Shia. In the words of Colonel Tim Collins: "If you break it, you fix it."

Cons: Comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam become irresistible. Britain is embroiled indefinitely in an unwinnable war against insurgents who gain strength and support through the very presence of the "invader" on Iraqi soil. Apparent "breakthroughs" such as a new constitution and further elections are emptied of significance by the continuing occupation.

In favour

President Bush and Tony Blair, who see no alternative. The Kurds

Will it happen?

Very probably