Malcolm Rifkind: A bloody mess. Our bloody mess

A leading Iraq war sceptic now says US and British forces should remain until peace prevails

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Recently, a message in Arabic was scrolled across the screen on Iraqi TV. It said: "The Ministry of Defence requests that civilians do not comply with the orders of the army or police on nightly patrols unless they are accompanied by coalition forces working in that area."

This request goes to the heart of the void in American and British strategy. That strategy has assumed that the United States and Britain can gradually hand over responsibility to the new Iraqi Army and police, then get our boys home. That assumption is no longer valid. The Iraqi Army and police may be as much part of the problem as part of the solution. Even the Iraqi Ministry of Defence appears to be uncertain who their army and police are working for.

What this means is that the Coalition's present exit strategy is not only wrong but very dangerous. Yet again the White House and Downing Street are failing to understand the Iraqi reality. While the debate about the justification for the war has raged, there has been, until now, a reasonable consensus on strategy. The objective was to create stability and a more democratic society in Iraq. That has required the defeat of the insurgents, which would be achieved at first by the coalition forces, but, in due course, by the new Iraqi Army, police and security forces. They would enable US and British troops to withdraw, a process intended to begin this year.

The strategy was based on the assumption that the insurgents were simply a mixture of unreconstructed Saddamites, Islamic jihadists, foreign terrorists, and nationalists, who were driven by hostility to the US and the West and who were opposed to the new Iraqi government as mere puppets of Washington.

There are conflicts, such as those in Nepal or Afghanistan, where the struggle is between a ruling regime and insurgents claiming to represent the interests of an oppressed public. Vietnam was another. In such circumstances, there is a battle for hearts and minds. Both the government and the rebels seek the support of the people who might, over a period, support either the government or the insurgents. In such a situation a strong national army and effective police can offer the prospect of peace and stability to a war-weary people. The army, as in Turkey or Pakistan, is seen as a symbol of national unity which can help cure the body politic. But Iraq is, daily, becoming more a civil war. Civil wars between communities, each vying for power, are different from insurgencies based on ideology or class. As Stephen Biddle has pointed out in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, communal civil wars are "about group survival, not about... one side's ability to deliver better governance".

Iraq's agony is now similar to that of the Rwandan Tutsis and the Kosovo Albanians. Communities are descending into sectarian warfare to determine who will exercise effective power in the new Iraq. Eighty-five per cent of all insurgent attacks in Iraq are in the four (out of 18) provinces that make up the Sunni heartland. This is not because of nostalgia for Saddam Hussein but because the balance of power has radically altered. From 1920 until three years ago, the Sunnis ruled Iraq. They made up the majority of the officer corps of the forces. They provided the political leadership of the Baath Party.

Since the invasion, they have lost that power. Democracy offers them no route back because they constitute only 20 per cent of the population. That might not matter if Iraqis were voting on ideological or policy grounds but they are not. Overwhelmingly, Shias, Sunnis and Kurds have voted for their own sectarian parties and for their own sectarian leaders. The Sunnis will be like the Bosnian Serbs, a permanent minority where once they ruled.

Against this background the American and British strategy of handing over power to the new Iraqi Army and police risks adding considerable fuel to the fire. The army and the police are not seen as national non-sectarian forces by the Sunnis. The evidence indicates the Army and the police are manned and led by mainly Shias and Kurds. Even worse, they are heavily infiltrated by Shia militia, especially the police, and have been held responsible for many of the worst atrocities against the Sunni population.

What should be Coalition strategy? The only prospect for peace in Iraq is through genuine power-sharing between Shias and Sunnis that will make the latter feel they will not be permanently excluded from power. That will need far more than a few appointments for Sunni leaders as announced by the new Iraqi Prime Minister. It will require genuine provincial autonomy in a federal Iraq; Sunni access to the oil revenues, and a permanent coalition in Baghdad.

Neither the Shia leadership nor the Kurds are willing, at present, to contemplate that degree of power-sharing. The Americans must use the only serious leverage they have to insist on such reform. The leverage is the presence of 140,000 US troops. The handover to the Iraqi Army and police should be stopped until political concessions have been made and until there is hard evidence that power-sharing will apply not just within the government but within the security forces. Mr Bush and Mr Blair will have to accept that our troops will have to stay for several more years if Iraq is not going to collapse into sectarian strife and communal civil war.

Iraq, like Kosovo and Bosnia, is not just about good guys and bad guys. It is about communities struggling for power and survival. American and British politicians destroyed the previous status quo and created a power vacuum. Until that vacuum has been filled in a stable, just way we have no right to abandon the Iraqis to the mess we helped create. If we get our exit strategy wrong we will not only end up with Iraq as a disintegrating failed state: we will also have an impotent Iraq next to a nuclear-armed Iran. That would be quite a triumph for George Bush and Tony Blair.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Foreign Secretary from 1995-97

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