Johann Hari: Need Iraq suffer more if we pull out?

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As it bleeds into its fifth year, the Iraq war is excelling only in savagery and surrealism. We now have an American President publicly citing the similarities to Vietnam as a reason why the US must not[ital] withdraw - and he is merrily quoting Graham Greene's anti-war masterpiece 'The Quiet American' in his defence. Far from thinking anything has gone wrong, he declares: "I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a great debt of gratitude. That's the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq."

Meanwhile, the Iraqi psyche is so wrecked by the 7/7 blasting onto their streets 24/7 that my Iraqi friends report mass hysteria gnawing into the survivors. After a small string of attacks by badgers - you know, the little furry creatures - in Basra, so many people were convinced this was a new weapon of war that UK military spokesman Major Mike Shearer had to announce publicly: "We can categorically state that we have not released man-eating badgers into the area."

The last excuse the remaining defenders of the war can scrape together is - yes, but it'll be even worse if we leave. As David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Iraq, recently said: "If you don't like Darfur, you're going to hate Baghdad [after a US withdrawal]."

Bush's argument-by-analogy that the US was wrong to leave Vietnam because of the ensuing holocaust perpetrated by Pol Pot next door in Cambodia is so historically illiterate it's hard to know how to answer it. By the time the war ended in 1975, the US invasion had caused the deaths of 3.3 million Vietnamese people, according to Robert McNamara, who was US Secretary of Defence for much of the slaughter. The Vietnamese countryside was collapsing under the weight of the chemicals and explosives dropped on it. The only way 'forward' - as Richard Nixon's old henchman G. Gordon Liddy told me in an interview - was to "bomb the Red River dykes. It would have drowned half the country and starved the other half. There would have been no way the Viet Cong could have operated if we had the will-power to do that." This would have been even worse than the communist tyranny that eventually consumed Vietnam.

As for the catastrophe in Cambodia, there is near-consensus among historians that the psychopathic Khmer Rouge was a tiny, irrelevant fringe in Cambodia - until the US started fire-bombing the country as an extension of the Vietnam war. Only then did the terrorized Cambodian people became more receptive to extreme solutions. US actions in Vietnam didn't prevent the Khmer Rouge; it enabled their rise. After 1979, the Us - including Bush's father - supported the Khmer Rouge with arms and slatherings of cash too.

But buried in all the incoherent self-serving propaganda pumped out by Bush, there is a serious dilemma for people genuinely worried about the Iraqi people. What if a genocide begins to unfold in Iraq after the withdrawal of international troops? There are harbingers of it already. The jihadi suicide-massacres of the Yezhidis - a harmless, tiny religious sect - in Northern Iraq last week is only one signal. The Iraqi writer Nir Rosen warns: "There are no non-sectarian Iraqis left, no non-sectarian militia, and no physical space for those rejecting sectarianism. Even secular Sunnis and Shia are embracing sectarian militias because nobody else will protect them."

I have been startled by how viciously even my democratic, liberal Iraqi friends now talk about The Other Side in sweeping, annihilatory language. Almost every institution of the Iraqi state - the police, army, even the hospitals - are now bisected into Shia and Sunni wings who detest each other. What we are seeing in Iraq today is, in slower motion, what happened in India and Pakistan sixty years ago: the hellish ethnic cleansing of mixed areas, until everyone is trapped in homogenous blocks. There is a real and hefty risk that this will metastasize into an attempt to physically eliminate one of the groups. There is also a risk of the neighbouring countries invading, turning it into a Congo-on-the-Tigris, with the Saudis marching into defend the Sunnis, the Iranians invading to protect the Shia, and the Turks invading to prevent the creation of a mini-Kurdistan in the North.

But is this a case for keeping the US forces there? A recent, much-discussed-in-DC article in the New York Times by Brookings Institute scholars Michael O'Hanlan and Kenneth Pollack said so. They argued that 'the surge' of 21,000 troops into Iraq is finally working, and creating momentum away from sectarian violence.

If this was true, it would be important - but their own Institute's figures show it is the opposite of the truth. It makes no sense to compare statistics on violence in Iraq month-to-month, because the violence fluctuates seasonally (as it does in most cities in the world). For reliable figures, you have to compare this July to last July. And what do you find in Brookings' statistics? Iraqi military and police killed are up 23 percent. The number of people killed in multiple fatality bombings is up 19 percent. US troop fatalities are up 80 percent. The size of the insurgency is up 250 percent. Attacks on oil and gas pipelines are up 75 percent. The refugee outflow has doubled. Hours of electricity available per day are down 14 percent. Far from creating the space for political compromise among Iraqis, the Sunnis and secularists have marched angrily out of the Maliki government. This is success? This is momentum?

The US troops cannot be an agent of anything positive in Iraq, after using chemical weapons in civilian cities, after using torture routinely, after overseeing the death of 650,000 Iraqis. Today, 78 percent of Iraqis say the US presence "is doing more harm than good" and should leave. This is hardly surprising: the former US soldier in Iraq Jeff Englehart said recently: "The general attitude was, a dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi." The current US strategy - of building up a 'national' army and police force that consists essentially of violent Shia militias - may actually be unwittingly preparing the forces for a genocide.

Nor can the US keep demanding Iraqi politicians "sort it out" and build an army capable of taking over the country at once. It took a decade to build something resembling a national army in Bosnia, and that was after a comprehensive peace agreement. The US is demanding the Iraqi politicians build one in just a few years, in the middle of a civil war, and put it to work on behalf of an unpopular occupying power. It is an impossible task.

So how do they get out without leaving behind something even more hellish? This question isn't just a propaganda ploy by the Bushies to justify staying longer (though it is certainly that too); it is a genuine moral problem.

To grope for a solution, we must first need to be honest and clear about the Bush administration's motives. They are currently trying to force the Iraqi parliament, as its top priority, to pass an oil law that would hand two-thirds of Iraq's oil fields to their friends and paymasters in Big Oil. This fits with what they have been saying is their real motive in Iraq for decades. In 1977, Paul Wolfowitz wrote: "We... have a vital and growing stake in the Persian Gulf Region because of our need for Persian Gulf oil and because events in the Persian Gulf affect the Arab-Israel conflict." In 1990, Dick Cheney - then Defence Secretary - said of Iraq and Kuwait: "We're there because the fact of the matter is, that part of the world controls the world supply of oil."

The claim that the likes of Shell and Haliburton have to be brought in because only they have the know-how to excavate this oil is simply untrue. In 1972, Iraqi oil shifted from the control of the same foreign corporations to the Iraqi state. Output didn't fall, as Big Oil menacingly warned. It trebled. Ordinary Iraqis see this plan as looting of their wealth, with 63 percent appalled in a local poll. Yet the US is suppressing resistance: they leaned on the Ministry of the Interior to use old Saddam-era laws to ban the oil worker's trade unions who have been democratically, peacefully fighting the law. It demonstrates what former Republican Senator Mike DeWine said recently: "We're not in Iraq primarily for the Iraqis, we're in Iraq for us."

Only massive public pressure will change this Bush course. So what should we demand they do? An immediate withdrawal with no replacement forces could indeed leave a genocidal vacuum. That's why former Senator George McGovern, who heroically fought against the Vietnam War, has worked out a detailed way out of Iraq that doesn't leave behind a holocaust. It is mapped out in his book 'Out of Iraq' - and it begins with a simple apology from the US, Britain and other invaders for the catastrophe we have wrought - the opposite of Bush's deranged demands for thanks. There must then be a commitment to dismantle all permanent US bases on Iraqi soil, and to allow the full nationalisation of Iraqi oil - with the profits divided equally between every Iraqi citizen and paid out as a regular cheque, like they do in Alaska.

The US then needs to convene a regional conference, at which they pledge to pay full-whack for an international stabilization force to police Iraq, manned exclusively by Muslim countries like Morrocco, Tuinisia, Egypt, and Jordan. These countries will need all sorts of financial inducements to send troops. Tough. Pay them. McGovern calculates that even at top-rate, this would cost $5.5bn - just 3 percent of keeping the US forces there for the next two years. Once the police are fellow-Muslims, the often-murderous insurgents will be much more isolated. Al Qaeda's tiny presence (estimated by US generals to be fewer than 500 fighters) will be even more despised. Only troops like this could have the legitimacy needed to stop a genocide.

It's not a perfect plan. People will still die - losing the only life they have - in the fallout. But it is better than any other option I can see. In Baghdad today, people have stopped eating fish from the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The reason? So many dead bodies are being dumped there every day - and being munched by the fish - that Iraqis began to fear they would contract the diseases associated with cannibalism. We have reduced Iraqis to consuming themselves. Now what was the President saying about gratitude again?