Johann Hari: We must ask Iraqis whether they want the troops out - and now they probably do

I called my Iraqi friends and admitted it is increasingly hard to defend the invasion
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The Independent Online

For anybody who supported the war, the images of British forces fighting against the Iraqi police in Basra - two and a half years after the war was supposed to be over - forces difficult questions like needles: is Iraq today 100,000 deaths better off than under Saddam Hussein? Is the choice now between cut-and-run, or stay and cut-cut-cut into Iraqi flesh with a monthly Fallujah or Tal Afar?

Before the war, I believed the best route through the Bush-Baathism stand-off was to find out what Iraqis preferred. Would they rather face the looming horrors of an Anglo-American invasion, or the existing horrors of Saddam, his sons and sanctions? I thought the left should side with oppressed peoples, especially those bleeding under a fascist dictatorship, and amplify their voices.

And they were speaking - through their democratic government in northern Iraq which had been clawed back from Saddam in 1991, through the exiled spokesmen who represented a quarter of the Iraqi population, and through a limited number of secret polls conducted within the country. And their verdict? They thought the WMD arguments were obviously lies, they thought the US was in this for oil and Israel, they hated Bush - but they still preferred the invasion to living in an abattoir-state for another generation.

When the invasion ended, and opinion polls - using the same techniques that successfully predict elections across the world - found that most Iraqis had preferred the invasion, I felt, pretty smugly, that I had been right. Much of the left had lined up with Robin Cook, a man who said continuing with the sanctions that killed half a million Iraqi children was "the best option". Or, worse, they were cheering George Galloway, who is now busy saluting another Baathist dictator in Syria and telling the people how "lucky" they are to live under his tyranny. But I had lined up with the majority of Iraqi people.

Today, this confidence seems stupid - and when it comes to the worst things about the occupation, there is no get-out clause, no 'who could have predicted ...?' wriggle-room: they could be seen in outline before 2003. An administration that offers positions to thugs like John Negroponte and Henry Kissinger was clearly, systematically going to use torture.

(Just after the war, I wrote: "Although the looting is bad, at least nobody is being tortured in Iraq today." This was wrong: the US torture had already begun, and I should have known it.)

The Bush administration was always going to hand a bleeding Iraq to the IMF to use as a neoliberal plaything - with the glorious result that Iraqi unemployment has hit 70 per cent in Basra, and the insurgents have been handed an ocean of bored, angry young men to pick from.

I made a naive assumption that the juggernaut of US military power would overlap with the wishes of Iraqis for more than a fleeting, accidental moment. It wasn't so. In the most recent scientific poll of Iraqis - conducted by Gallup this summer - 52 per cent said that had viewed the troops as "liberators" at first, but now believed the US-British military action in Iraq could not be justified and should end immediately. Some 46 per cent said "the coalition invasion of Iraq has done more harm than good", and only 33 per cent disagreed.

This week, I called my Iraqi friends and admitted that it was becoming increasingly impossible to defend the invasion. They are living in a society trapped between the systematic violence of the occupiers and the crazed ideologies of the "resistance", trying desperately to carve out a space where they can be free. They had more important things to worry about than my bleating.

Yasser Alaskary described leading a training course in Baghdad about democratic government: "The people our age who came - it was weird. You knew they were risking their lives to be there. You knew if it got out they were considering standing for election, they could be killed by these jihadist forces."

He paused and said, "But you can't think we would be better off with Saddam and Uday and Qusay?" No, I said, but 100,000 corpses ... and what about the polls? He pointed out a tension in the Gallup poll - a tension that runs right through the heart of every Iraqi. Even as they said they despised Bush, Blair and the coalition troops, when they were asked the question, "Thinking about any hardships you might have suffered since the US/British invasion, do you personally think that ousting Saddam Hussein was worth it or not?", 61 per cent of Iraqis still say it was and 28 per cent say it wasn't. Only 4 per cent think the tyrant could have been toppled without an outside invasion. (The dead are not around to be polled, though, nor are the tens of thousands vanished into Iraq's new secret prisons.)

So is there still a justification here for 100,000 deaths and $200bn of spending, or am I clutching at bloody straws? Maybe I will be expelled from the columnists' trade union for saying this, but I don't know, and until we see what happens next in Iraq - a fightback by democrats against the jihadis, or a civil war - it is increasingly hard to form a judgement.

More importantly, does this tell us anything about where to go from here? We faced a bad set of options on the way into this conflict - Saddam or his old arms-dealer Rumsfeld - and we have to realise that on the way out, we face another lousy set of choices: stay and watch the jihadist insurgency grow like yeast until - what? - or go and abandon Iraqi democrats, trade unionists and feminists, those brave people Yasser is training, to a fascistic onslaught.

Yet in running through these options, it is disturbing to see everybody acting - yet again - as if Iraqis do not have voices to speak for themselves. Perhaps my logic has been hideously flawed all along and it was wrong to take the will of Iraqis as my sole moral compass. But if we take the idea of Iraqi democracy seriously, then the only people who can decide which of these bleak choices is best are the Iraqis.

Those of us who want to support them should be calling for a referendum - to be held at the same time as next month's ballot on the constitution - asking simply, "Would you like the foreign troops to remain for another year?" (The polls suggest they would tell them to go so Iraqis can fight the jihadis alone). If you go into a war siding with Iraqis, you have to go out siding with them: against Saddam, jihadism and endless occupation, and for real democracy.

Standing on a thousand of those bridges, ever-alert for a cry of "Bomber!", Iraqis have never needed our solidarity more than now.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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