Escape From Iraq

7 April 2004

Escape From Iraq

By Gwynne Dyer

It is still possible for US President George W. Bush to escape from Iraq before it destroys his re-election bid. It is also still possible for Iraq to emerge from all this as a more or less democratic and united country, though that will be trickier. Both things depend on the same man: Mr Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, has to break the stranglehold of the neo-cons who surround the president and persuade him that to save his presidency he must ditch their policy.

There is no sign of it happening yet, and time is running out. US casualties are mounting, and so is Iraqi anger. To Arab eyes, the US Marine assault on the city of Falluja looks eerily like the Israeli army smashing its way into one of the West Bank cities, complete with gunships firing rockets into houses and mosques.

Meanwhile the fighting spreads across the Shia-majority parts of Iraq, as Brigadier General Mark Kimmit, deputy director of operations, declares that “We will attack to destroy the al-Mahdi army (of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr). Those attacks will be deliberate, they will be precise, they will be powerful, and they will be successful.” The Pentagon says al-Sadr only has 600 militiamen, but that was before the shooting started: he now commands many thousands of angry young Shias.

The Bush administration has been promoting the spectre of an Iraqi civil war for months because that provided an excuse for US forces to stay in Iraq, but what is happening is not a civil war at all. It is an uprising against the occupation forces: many Iraqis are openly using the word ‘intifada’. And there is no hope that senior Shia clergy like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani will somehow get al-Sadr under control: they resent the young upstart’s attempt to steal their influence in the Shia community by out-radicalising them, but they also fear his growing influence and dare not take an open stand against him.

Moreover, they share with all the Shia a deep anger about the way that the US has moved to deny them the dominant position that their numbers would give them in a democratic Iraq. They reject US plans for a ‘hand-over of sovereignty’ to its appointees on 30 June, and they will not pull Mr Bush’s chestnuts out of the fire for him.

Behind all the nonsense about America’s duty to bring democracy to the Iraqi people, the neo-conservatives who dominate defence and foreign policy in the Bush administration are still determined to maintain the US position in Iraq. The attack on Iraq was the launch vehicle for their project to establish US global hegemony by demonstrating what happens to countries that defy the United States — that’s why they put it on the agenda after 9/11, even though Saddam Hussein had no links with terrorists and Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. If they pulled out of Iraq now, their project would die too, so US troops must stay.

But if US troops stay and the uprising grows, Mr Bush probably goes down in November, and it is Karl Rove’s job to ensure that this doesn’t happen. The president’s alliance with the neo-cons was a marriage of convenience: if they threaten to drag him down, Rove’s advice will be to cut loose from them. But can Mr. Bush actually do that without Iraq blowing up in everybody’s faces?

He could do it if he could persuade other countries to send their troops in to hold the ring as US and ‘coalition’ troops leave. The countries that refused to be implicated in Mr Bush’s invasion of Iraq — every major power except Britain, every Muslim country, and most other places, too — will go on refusing to send troops so long as they would be operating under US control, and facing all the resentment that the US occupation of Iraq has generated. But it would be different if the US really handed control over to the UN and pulled out of Iraq.

It should be obvious by now that the biggest security problem in Iraq IS the American presence. Iraq is divided by language, religion and tribe, and the various contending groups (all of which have armed militias) would have a hard time putting a civilised and democratic compromise together even if they were free to shape the outcome. Knowing that those decisions will stay in Washington’s hands removes any incentive to show restraint and bargain responsibly.

On the other hand, if you make it clear that their own actions will determine their future, and that they will have to live with the consequences for a very long time, they may surprise you by behaving responsibly. There’s no guarantee, but there are no better options left in Iraq anyway.

A genuine American withdrawal, rotating US troops out on a fast-paced schedule as UN troops (mostly from Muslim countries) come in, could win Iraqis enough time to agree on a constitution, hold elections, and build an impartial army. It might also end in tears. But it offers a better chance of success than the present mess, and it would let Mr Bush go into the November election with the troops all home and the final outcome in Iraq still open. That’s probably what Karl Rove is telling him right now.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Moreover…stay”)