Why Iraq now needs the help of its neighbours

For the sake of Iraqi self-respect, the American forces need to get out as soon as possible
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The battle of predictions is now moving from the war to the peace, and along the same lines. The supporters of invasion declare nation building is firmly under way and accuse those who gainsay it of making the same mistake they did during the war – of expecting the worst. The opponents of war are equally firm in the prediction that, while the war may have gone well, the peace is going extremely badly and will end in chaos and anti-Americanism.

The battle of predictions is now moving from the war to the peace, and along the same lines. The supporters of invasion declare nation building is firmly under way and accuse those who gainsay it of making the same mistake they did during the war – of expecting the worst. The opponents of war are equally firm in the prediction that, while the war may have gone well, the peace is going extremely badly and will end in chaos and anti-Americanism.

It is an unseemly dispute. The only position for anyone who cares for Iraq and its people must be that the peace goes well and that the country moves rapidly to democracy and prosperity, whether this increases the smirk on Donald Rumsfeld's face or not. If I were an Iraqi I'd want to hit the next Western leader who patted me on the head and told me what a sophisticated, clever people we were, just ripe for democracy

There is a fundamental problem about nation building in Iraq after this invasion, however, which neither commentators nor the participants are being honest about. It isn't that regime change was forced by the Americans, or the British. It is that the Iraqis didn't do it for themselves.

This is not an accusation. In 1991 two-thirds of Iraq's provinces did rise up and went unsupported by the Allies. For ten years after that, the West simply ignored the plight of the people while imposing a sanctions regime that may have kept Saddam "rattling the bars in his cage" (as Tony Blair put it at the time) but also, by the same token, left his people too enfeebled to even consider revolt.

One effect of not overthrowing a government yourself is nonetheless that there is no natural leadership to take over. In Eastern Europe the crowds took to the street, leaders emerged (some of them already well-known after decades of struggle) and the countries could emerge with the pride of a people who had forged a future for themselves. In Afghanistan, it was the forces of the local warlords that marched into the cities to free them. In Kosovo, the Kosovan Liberation Army was already well organised for power

You have to go back to the North Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to remove the Khmer Rouge in 1978 (not a parallel that Washington would welcome, nor one that suggests an easy solution in bringing back exiles to head the government) and the Second World War to examine cases of regime change brought about by an invasion of foreign troops. Japan, often cited as the precedent of benign rule, is hardly a parallel as Douglas MacArthur decided to keep the Emperor and most of the top echelons of government in place. Even then, military rule lasted six years. The occupation of Germany is nearer to Iraqi circumstances but there, reconstitution of West Germany was accelerated by the Cold War.

It doesn't mean that Iraq today cannot develop a positive national pride or achieve democracy. But it is going to make it a lot more difficult. The years of Baathist suppression have left few opposition figures worth general credibility. The Kurds would claim some battle honours, but the rush to Kirkuk and Mosul owed far more to the rivalry of Massoud Barzani's KDP with Jalal Talabani's PUK than to the will to take on Saddam.

Ahmed Chalabi's attempts to foment a revolution from the north in the mid-Nineties were paid for and equipped by the CIA and the Pentagon and proved futile. The Shia in the south have offered some resistance through the Da'wa party and the raids by Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim's guerrilla forces. But the Shia remain bitterly divided between sects while Ayatollah Hakim is too close to Iran, where he lived in exile for 20 years, to be acceptable to the Americans.

Which may prove another factor militating against the re-emergence of Iraq. Ideally, what Iraq now needs far more than American help – or even the United Nations – is the support of its neighbours. Far better the Red Crescent than the Red Cross. The most secure route to the future would be a regional conference that would bring to the new country Gulf oil funds and the alliance of its immediate neighbours. Unfortunately, that is the last thing that Washington – which sees a democratic Iraq as a means of undermining Opec and putting pressure for regime change in Syria, Iran and the Gulf – would seem to want at the moment. For the sake of Iraqi self-respect, the US forces need to get out as soon as possible. For the sake of security and stability, they may have to stay for years.

This week, the Bush administration announced that the cost of the war, in direct military expenditure, amounted to $20bn (£12.7bn) so far, against a possible full cost for the war and reconstruction of $79bn. If the object of the exercise was a humanitarian one, think what even half this sum would do to alleviate a world suffering from Aids, famine and war. If Iraq was considered the first priority, we could surely have achieved a more peaceful and effective result by taking the money, standing at the border and offering $2,000 to every man, woman and child in the country to desert Saddam.

Of all the casualties of this war, the most corrupting may be the way we have slipped into accepting that force is the primary means of change rather than the last resort.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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