Oliver Miles: Arab and Muslim forces are needed for Iraq

The longer the occupation continues, the less likely that we can achieve our political objective
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The Independent Online

Is there a way to break the vicious circle of occupation and resistance in Iraq? The situation is grim, as the warnings from Kofi Annan and the International Red Cross make clear. One way forward is the greater involvement of Arab and Muslim forces, to supplement and perhaps replace the present coalition. Tony Blair has said that he would welcome more help from the Islamic world in stabilising Iraq, but that there is no formal proposal from the Arab side.

Is there a way to break the vicious circle of occupation and resistance in Iraq? The situation is grim, as the warnings from Kofi Annan and the International Red Cross make clear. One way forward is the greater involvement of Arab and Muslim forces, to supplement and perhaps replace the present coalition. Tony Blair has said that he would welcome more help from the Islamic world in stabilising Iraq, but that there is no formal proposal from the Arab side.

There is in fact a proposal, but it has been made to Washington only, not to London. The Saudi ambassador in London confirmed in an interview on 28 October that a Saudi plan for a multinational Arab and Muslim security force put forward at the end of July is still on the table. "I think it has not been taken up because of the election," he said.

Scarcely anyone advocates immediate withdrawal of the allied forces, which would leave chaos in Iraq and possible chaos in the region. But they have failed to provide security for the population of Iraq. There are scores of attacks on allied forces each day. Attacks on Iraqis have reached an appalling level. The allies' objective is elections in January, to create an Iraqi assembly which will draw up a constitution, with a further election in a year's time leading to an established Iraqi government. It is doubtful whether this can be achieved given that these Iraqi institutions depend for their security on US forces. They risk facing the worst of all worlds, enjoying neither security nor legitimacy.

Many commentators ask whether the elections should be postponed. But to ask that question implies that the occupying forces, given more time, can improve the situation. The reverse is the case; the longer the occupation continues, the less likely it is that we can achieve our political objective.

Following the American storming of Fallujah, leading Sunni representatives are talking of boycotting the elections, as are some Turkoman and Christian groups. Their non-participation would be a major blow to the credibility of any election. They need reassurance. One possibility is a solemn declaration by the Iraqi government that Iraq's oil resources (located in the Kurdish and Shia regions) belong to Iraq as a whole. But the Arab/Muslim forces concept would also reduce their sense of isolation.

Opposition to the occupation, as Sir Jeremy Greenstock recently explained in a BBC interview, is of three main kinds: Iraqis loyal to the old regime, non-Iraqis who are part of what he called the "al Qa'ida franchise", and Iraqis alienated by the occupation who have turned to violence. US tactics have forged these elements into a united opposition. As Daniel Benjamin, formerly Director for Counter-Terrorism at the National Security Council, put it in a recent article, "al-Qa'ida has a Leninist streak: that is, they seek to maximise the tensions between the revolutionary force and the existing power structure."

Colin Powell initially welcomed the proposal for an all-Muslim security force, but the eventual American response was a fudge, with several reasons, or rather pretexts, given - troops would be under UN not US command, troops from neighbouring states might be unwilling or unwelcome, the decision lay with the Iraqi government and they said no. No doubt the US election was the real reason for inaction.

While no proposal guarantees success, this offers something to everyone: an honourable exit strategy for the allied powers, and an opportunity for the Iraq government to free itself from the stigma of association with the invaders. Iraqis now fighting the Americans as occupiers would not have the same reason to fight Muslim troops whose presence would be seen to be temporary. The non-Iraqi al-Qa'ida resistance would lose the local support which now gives it water to swim in.

Where would the forces come from? If neighbouring states are problematic, possibilities include Arab states like Egypt or Morocco and others such as Nigeria, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and the Russian Federation. All of these would no doubt require a quid pro quo, but many of them have peacekeeping expertise.

We are in a hole in Iraq. As everybody knows, the first rule is to stop digging - or does everybody know? From Fallujah, the Americans are going on to a series of other towns - Samarra, Jabala and others - to apply military force to the political problem of Sunni resistance, while we - if we are to believe Geoff Hoon - respond to US requests for help on the military level, apparently with no joint assessment of policy.

The second rule is to look for a way out. Here is one that has not been properly considered. A US/UK taskforce of military and foreign policy experts could produce a plan which would offer a way forward at acceptable cost, greatly increasing the chance of conducting elections successfully in January and going on from the elections to build a better future for Iraq.

The author is a former ambassador to Libya, and organised the letter signed by 52 former British ambassadors criticising Bush and Blair's Middle East policy

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