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

Share

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

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
David Cameron was openly emotional at the prospect of Scotland leaving the union before the referendum  

General election 2015: Remember when David Cameron almost cried over Scotland because he loved it so much?

Matthew Norman
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence