Johann Hari: I was wrong, terribly wrong - and the evidence should have been clear all along

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A few weeks ago, a small moment - a little line of text on the BBC news website- underlined for me how far life in Iraq has slumped. As I was reading a story, the website's ticker-tape casually stated: "Car bomb in Baghdad; 50 dead." There were no accompanying details.

When suicide-massacres started to happen in Iraq, I would nervously call my friends in Baghdad, Basra and Hilla to make sure they were OK. But I soon realised that this was antagonising them, driving every bomb further into their skulls - should they store a standard text "No, not killed in suicide bomb today" message and send it out three times a day? So I waited, and the next day, I looked through the newspapers for details. Nobody mentioned it. Suicide-slaughters the size of 7/7 are now so common in Iraq they don't even bleed into News in Brief.

So after three years and at least 150,000 Iraqi corpses, can those of us who supported the toppling of Saddam Hussein for the Iraqis' sake still claim it was worth it? (I am assuming the people who bought the obviously fictitious arguments about WMD are already hanging their heads in shame.)

George Packer, a recalcitrant Iraq-based journalist who tentatively supported the invasion, summarises the situation: "Most people aren't free to speak their minds, belong to a certain group, wear what they want, or even walk down the street without risking their lives." Power has been effectively ceded to anti-democratic militias who "take over schools and hospitals, intimidate the staffs, assault unveiled women, set up kangaroo sharia courts that issue death sentences, run criminal gangs, firebomb liquor stores. Their tactics are those of fascist bullies."

When people ask if I think I was wrong, I think about the Iraqi friend, hiding, terrified, in his own house, who said to me: "Every day you delete another name from your mobile, because they've been killed. By the Americans or the jihadists or the militias - usually you never find out which." And I think - yes, I was wrong. Terribly wrong.

The lamest defence I could offer - one used by many supporters of the war as they slam into reverse gear - is that I still support the principle of invasion, it's just the Bush administration screwed it up. But as one anti-war friend snapped at me when I mooted this argument, "Yeah, who would ever have thought that supporting George Bush in the illegal invasion of an Arab country would go wrong?"

She's right: the truth is that there was no pure Platonic ideal of The Perfect Invasion to support, no abstract idea we lent our names to. There was only Bush, with his cluster bombs, IMF-ed up economic model, bogus rationale and unmistakable stench of petrol, offering his war, his way. (Expecting Tony Blair to use his influence was, it is now clear, a delusion, as he refuses even to frontally condemn the American torture camp at Guantanamo Bay).

The evidence should have been clear to me all along: the Bush administration would produce disaster. Who would have thought that they would unleash widespread torture, with over 10,000 people disappearing without trial into Iraq's secret prisons? Anybody who followed the record of the very same people - from Rumsfeld to Negroponte - in Central America in the 1980s, actually. Who would have thought they would use chemical weapons in a civilian city, Fallujah? Anybody who looked up Bush's stance on chemical weapons treaties or Rumsfeld's record of flogging them to tyrants.

Who would have thought they would impose shock-therapy mass privatisation on the Iraqi economy, sending unemployment to 60 per cent - a guarantee of ethnic strife? Anybody who followed the record of the US towards Russia, Argentina, and East Asia. Who could have known that they would cancel all reconstruction funds, when electricity and water supplies are still below even Saddam's standards? Anybody who looked at their domestic disinvestment from the public sector.

Yes, I always knew the Bush administration was primarily motivated by a desire to secure strategic access to one of the world's major sources of oil. While I obviously found this rationale disgusting, I deluded myself into thinking it was possible to ride this beast to a better Iraq. Reeling from a visit to Saddam's Iraq, I knew Iraqis didn't care why their dictator was deposed - they just wanted it done, now.

As I thought of the terrorised Marsh Arabs I'd met, I thought, with one eye on the Balkans, that whatever happens it will be better. I, like most Iraqis, failed to see that the Bush administration's warped motives would lead to a warped occupation. A war for oil would mean that, as Baghdad was looted, troops would be sent to guard the oil ministry, not the hospitals - a bleak harbinger of things to come.

But it is easy for me to repent at leisure. Just as the opponents of the war would never have faced Saddam's torture chambers, I am not hiding in my home, rocking and clutching a Kalashnikov. Millions of Iraqis are, and many thousands more did not live to see even that cruel future because of the arguments of people like me.

And so, after the melancholic mea culpas from almost everyone but Blair and Bush, what? Iyad Allawi - the man the Americans tried to impose as Prime Minister until a massive programme of civil disobedience spearheaded by Ayatollah Sistani made elections unavoidable - says civil war has already begun. There has been a worrying trend among some right-wing commentators to blame the Iraqis: we thought you guys would be a Czechoslovakia, but if you insist on being a Yugoslavia, fine. There have even been evil whispers that Iraq "needs a Saddam" to hold it together.

But this is not a grassroots civil war à la Rwanda or the Balkans, where neighbour hacks to pieces neighbour. It is a top-down civil war, fought by a minority of militias, all of whom (apart from the jihadi-Zarquawi crowd, who are a small minority) claim to fight in the name of keeping Iraq together. Until 2003, over 20 per cent of Iraqi marriages were across the Sunni-Shia divide. Is husband now going to turn on wife, and mother on son?

It is very hard to see a solution, but I believe the threads of one are visible. The polls show that most of these violent militias draw their support from the fact that they oppose the foreign troops, not from the fact that they massacre fellow-Iraqis. So the best way to drain their support - and dampen the inertia towards civil war - is to withdraw the troops now.

Iraqis can see this very clearly: a poll recently conducted by the Ministry of Defence found that 80 per cent of Iraqis want troops out "immediately" so they can deal with the remaining jihadists and anti-democratic fundamentalists themselves. (In a revealing mirror-image, a Zogby poll of US troops in Iraq found that 72 per cent believe the occupation should end within the year. This will soon be a surreal war where the unwilling occupy the unwilling.)

Yes, there is a danger that withdrawal will create a power vacuum exploited by militias, but that is the reality on the ground already. It is time to leave Iraq - but the haunting question now is: will the Bush administration really surrender Iraq's oil after spending $200bn to grab it, just because the Iraqi people and their own boys and girls in uniform want them to?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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