This is the beginning of the endgame in Iraq

If you doubt how far Washington has moved in recent weeks, just look at Ahmed Chalabi
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The strains are beginning to show among the occupiers of Iraq. No, not Tuesday's apparent differences between Tony Blair and Colin Powell over Iraqi control of our troops after 30 June. Much though his critics might desire it, the last thing Tony Blair is going to do at this time is to allow clear blue water to develop between himself and Washington. It would make a mockery of everything he has done in the last two years.

The strains are beginning to show among the occupiers of Iraq. No, not Tuesday's apparent differences between Tony Blair and Colin Powell over Iraqi control of our troops after 30 June. Much though his critics might desire it, the last thing Tony Blair is going to do at this time is to allow clear blue water to develop between himself and Washington. It would make a mockery of everything he has done in the last two years.

No, that difference, if there is a difference, is in style, not substance. Give the Prime Minister an audience, particularly an audience of the media, and he will become passionate in his desire to convince them of a point. He did it over Weapons of Mass Destruction, when, as he spoke, you could well believe that Iraq was ready to destroy the world at a moment's notice.

This time the story is how real the transfer of sovereignty will be on 30 June. The Iraqis will "really" be in charge. People "have" to believe that if the French and others are going to accept the new resolution before the UN Security Council and if the Arab world is going to support it.

The reality, as the Prime Minister was quick to rephrase it all at Question Time yesterday, is, yes, the new Iraqi government will be consulted on strategic questions like going into Fallujah; but, no, the Americans will remain in charge of their tactical operations and the British, as part of a coalition led by the US, will go along with their orders.

But the mere fact that Tony Blair feels the need to sell the sovereignty story with such emphasis is a measure of how fast the situation is changing in Iraq. If you had discussed these matters only a month ago, the Government would have said that security would remain in the hands of the coalition. Now the talk is of the Iraqis having ultimate authority for security and the occupation forces being ready to leave if the Baghdad government asked them.

This is more than a matter of words oiled for use in the UN - although that plays its part. This is the beginning of the endgame for the alliance that so blithely invaded Iraq 14 months ago. Call it "a policy of disengagement" if the phrase "exit strategy" is too bitter a mouthful. But it amounts to the same thing. We are on our way out, sooner or later - and it will probably be sooner.

Just look at the way ministers now speculate on how long our troops may be in there. Once it was five years, or whatever it took. Then it went down to three years. Now it is one or two years. And if you listen to the most recent comment of Iraqi politicians, it may be less than that. The Iraqi defence minister was in London talking of "months". Adnan Pachachi, the leading candidate to become president in the interim government, as spoken of "a year at most".

Oh well, say the British briefers, that's just for public consumption. In private they're desperate to stay. Well, maybe. But if that is what they feel they have to say to keep their public happy, then it behoves democratic politicians in the West to take note.

If you doubt how far Washington has moved in recent weeks, just look at what has happened to the Pentagon's protegé, Ahmed Chalabi. Once Washington's candidate to take over in Iraq, he has now been discarded and discredited with a ruthlessness that would have done credit to Stalin and Beria. With the silky explanation that Paul Bremer, the head of the occupying administration, had nothing to do with what was purely an Iraqi police matter, Chalabi was turned over in the most public and humiliating way possible in order to clear the way for a new set of Iraqis chosen by the UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi.

The trouble is, of course, that there is no guarantee that the UN can effect such an easy transition, or that international recognition will bring the multinational forces and infrastructural assistance Iraq needs. The Americans and British are in a bind, and they know it. On the one hand, their presence acts as a constant irritation to the Iraqis. On the other, the country is not in a fit state to run its own security and reconstruction without outside help. To carry on regardless, on the basis that you are there to see the job finished, is to court escalating violence. To reinforce failure by increasing troop levels could simply make a bad situation worse.

There is a way out of this, but it involves a degree of honesty which, judging from their remarks this week, neither President Bush nor Tony Blair are yet ready to countenance. It is to announce a terminal date. The important moment, after all, is not 30 June. That has been pumped up for electoral reasons in the US and to help Blair out of his current problems in Britain.

The real date is not the US presidential but the Iraqi general elections due by January. These should be brought forward to before the end of this year, and both the US and Britain should announce their intention to withdraw their troops immediately after. It would put a clear end date for our stay and thus make it infinitely easier for us to operate in the meantime. It would also force the rest of the world, and Iraq's region, to start becoming involved themselves.

"Declare victory and withdraw", was the advice given by one US Senator for Vietnam. It's not a bad call for Iraq.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

Comments