Clare Short: A 'war' fought on half-truths and deceptions

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The Independent Online

Christmas could give us time to reflect on, and the New Year the opportunity to determine, how we might move forward in Iraq and the Middle East and correct the terrible mistakes of 2003.

Saddam Hussein has been found in a hole in the ground. And Colonel Gaddafi's six-year journey to respectability has reached its culmination. This may have brought temporary comfort to George Bush and Tony Blair. But any pretence that this means that the tactics of their so-called "war on terror" are succeeding is sadly false. Obviously the news about Gaddafi is welcome, but it has been a long process, and suggestions that events in Libya are linked to the war in Iraq are unfounded. Gaddafi started six years ago by breaking off his contacts with the IRA. He then paid compensation for the death of WPC Yvonne Fletcher and moved on to make arrangements for the Lockerbie trial and the offer of compensation for the victims' families.

The co-ordination of the Blair-Bush press conferences on Friday night claiming a big success in the "war on terror" has a pathetic tone that reflects the Prime Minister's desperation and the two men's continuing belief that they can prosecute their "war" with half-truths and deceptions.

The state in which Saddam was found demonstrates very clearly that he was not organising the resistance. The challenge now is to bring him to trial for all the evil he has done. This should include the war on Iran, which would expose the support he received from the US and the UK as well as the monstrous cruelty inflicted on his people. Already, there is doubt that the trial will be properly handled. The Coalition Provisional Authority - which does not take big decisions without US guidance - has decided that the crimes of the Saddam years should be handled by an Iraqi court without international engagement. This is surely a mistake. Getting the trial right will be crucial for the future of Iraq. All the injustice must be exposed and the perpetrators held to account. In Bosnia and Rwanda, we have seen how important it is for people to see the evidence of former dictators being held accountable for their crimes. The best available model is surely that of Sierra Leone, which means a court established under UN authority, with international support but established within the country in which the atrocities were committed.

It is also unlikely that the capture of Saddam will end the resistance. Iraqis are a proud and nationalistic people. Those who worked for the UN Oil for Food Programme understood that. It is clear that the core of the resistance came from the Sunni heartlands, the group that did well under Saddam and from which much of the leadership of the army and security services was drawn. They are joined by a growing number of Iraqis who feel humiliated or are seeking revenge for the suffering of their families. On top of this, we now have foreign fighters. There was no link between Iraq and al-Qa'ida before the war. There is now - the suicide bombs are evidence of this. The Middle East is crowded with angry young people who believe the US has propped up dictatorships, misused the region's oil and supported Israel in its constant breaches of international law, and therefore carries major responsibility for the oppression and suffering of the Palestinian people.

Most of these young people would not support the rhetoric of Osama bin Laden. But they may well be willing to link with the loose network that is al-Qa'ida to join in the resistance to American occupation.

The Shia people of Iraq, who suffered terribly under Saddam Hussein, have held back in joining the resistance. Their leadership is clear about how much they have to gain from democracy. But the question here is does the US (accompanied by the UK as the faithful poodle) really want democracy in Iraq? This would almost certainly mean an anti-American, anti-Israeli government with half the world's oil reserves. The US wants an exit strategy, but it also wants a pro-American government in Iraq.

Both may not be possible. A sustainable exit strategy requires a US president who understands that he is unlikely to be able to exit from Iraq or reunite the world in opposition to al-Qa'ida without a settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This could bring benefits to all because a just settlement of Israel/Palestine could lead to agreement that all WMD - including Israel's considerable nuclear capacity - should be removed from the region. Such a settlement would provide a real opportunity for democracy and development to spread across the region.

The question is, how will we get to this beneficial solution? I am afraid that the consequences of the errors made by Blair in his handling of the Iraq crisis mean that, as long as he is there, we will have little influence and he will continue to be taken for granted by the US and written off by Europe. But the forces of history won't be stopped, indeed, will probably grow. Thus Iraq is likely to continue to cost American lives and an even larger number of terrible injuries and mental breakdowns - the numbers of which are being kept very quiet. If the Shia join the resistance, the situation will become very much more difficult in the south, and for our own soldiers. And if all of this goes on, the costs will cause further resentment in the US; the $87bn (£54bn), which recently caused trouble with Congress, covered the costs of less than one year in Iraq. Equally, UK expenditure in Iraq, while our public finances are under pressure, could see our public and parliament begin to chafe at the growing costs to our own treasury.

The best scenario would be for Howard Dean to be elected president in 2004 with Wesley Clark as vice-president. The American people would have voted for the fastest possible exit from Iraq and a reversal of the tax cuts to fund a comprehensive health-care system. By then - if the resistance persists - the only way out will be to settle Palestine and to internationalise Iraq.

This means giving the UN the authority it should have been given at the end of the war. A special representative of the Secretary-General should be appointed to consult the Iraqis about the best possible way of selecting an interim government and a procedure to draw up a constitution and get to elections. US and UK troops would be withdrawn and international - probably blue-helmeted - troops deployed while urgent action is taken to help Iraq to build its own army and police force. The IMF, World Bank, Asian Development Bank and UN system would then provide support to the interim Iraqi government in carrying forward economic and social reform. In these circumstances, Pakistan, Jordan and other Arab and Muslim countries would be likely to offer forces to help the Iraqis stabilise their country, and coalition forces could leave.

The less optimistic scenario for 2004 is that Bush is elected and Blair limps on. In this case, I fear the resistance will grow; al-Qa'ida will strengthen; bitterness and suffering will deepen and the multilateral system remainweak. But I cannot see how the present strategy can work, and therefore I hope and pray that either through the ballot box or an intelligent understanding of their self-interest, US policy will change and the world move forward in 2004.

Clare Short was International Development Secretary, 1997-2003. Alan Watkins is away