Oliver Miles: Questions to ask before you vote on Thursday

How do we interpret our international obligations? How do we leave Iraq?


With local elections on Thursday, it is time to ask some new questions about the Iraq war, including the big one: have we got a plan? There is a purist view that local elections should be about local issues. So they should, but politics at the local, national and international level are dominated by national parties, and we have few enough opportunities to hold them to account. Even at general election time, Labour opponents of the war told each other to hold their noses and vote Blair.

In between, we rely on the media to hold government to account, Parliament and the Labour Party having tried and failed. But the media are bored with Iraq. You don't sell newspapers by reporting four months of wrangling in the bazaar between people with forgettable names and incomprehensible allegiances over the failure to form a new government. Wake us up when somebody British gets killed or kidnapped.

The politicians, Labour and Conservative, are not so much bored as mesmerised. Michael Ancram is not the first and will not be the last to accept that yesterday's positions cannot be sustained today. For Tony Blair, the less said the better. But the likely antagonists in the next general election, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, have everything to win or lose by getting the timing right. Step forward the man who will lead us out of the mess we are in. Meanwhile, they sit on the fence.

So here are some questions I ask any Labour or Conservative canvasser brave enough to knock on my door. I should dearly like to hear our national champions - John Humphrys, James Naughtie, Jeremy Paxman - asking Gordon and David.

Long-term objectives. There has from the start been uncertainty whether or not the Americans intend to retain military bases permanently in Iraq. Has this been discussed and agreed between the coalition forces, or do we leave it to the Americans?

Tactics. It is clear in retrospect that the move of the Black Watch to the Baghdad area at the end of 2004 was in support of the disastrous assault on Falluja. Had we discussed that operation and similar operations which followed it with the US government? Do we agree that such operations are desirable?

Weapons. British military doctrine is about hearts and minds. Jack Straw was asked on the BBC Today programme on 7 January whether the number of US air strikes, which rose to 120 in November and perhaps 150 in December, was to be the pattern in the future. He replied "I can't comment on that." But we need to know if the RAF Tornado squadron committed to Iraq has carried out such air strikes. If so, why has no announcement been made? If not, is this because we do not agree with the American use of overwhelming force?

Casualties. The Prime Minister gives the impression he doesn't care how many people, other than members of the coalition forces, have been killed. How do we interpret our international obligations, for example Article 17 of the First Geneva Convention with its requirements about identification, reporting and honourable interment?

Terrorism. Does anyone doubt the assessment in the leaked letter of 18 May 2004 by Sir Michael Jay, the Head of the Diplomatic Service, that foreign policy in the Middle East is a "key driver" for recruitment to extremist Islamist groups, "especially in the context of the Middle East peace process and Iraq"?

And finally, the big one. How are we going to leave Iraq? The standard reply is "when the job is done" and, when pressed, "when the new Iraqi government is confident enough it can handle its own problems, and asks us to leave". The snag is any Iraqi government (there isn't one at present) formed under foreign occupation will be the creature of the occupation, or will be perceived as such by other Iraqis. So waiting for "our" Iraqi leaders to take the initiative is like waiting for a man to ask you to saw off the branch he is sitting on.

That doesn't mean nothing can be done. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Carter, has proposed a four-stage plan: Washington quietly asks Iraqi leaders publicly to ask the US to leave, the two governments fix a date to end the occupation, the Iraqi government calls a conference of Muslim states to help consolidate internal stability, and the US, as it leaves, convenes a donors' conference.

The plan is a flimsy one. But it should be the priority of both government and opposition to insist that we mobilise all our diplomatic, intelligence and military resources to produce a plan which will work. If we don't, the situation is likely to slip ever further out of our control, into civil war, the breakup of Iraq, or regional war.


The writer is a former British Ambassador to Libya

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