The Americans should be getting out of Iraq, not flying in - only then might the country's pride be healed and the violence end, writes Jonathan Steele.
July 30, 2004
By Jonathan Steele
Colin Powell's trip to Baghdad could hardly have come at a more disappointing time for his government and his Iraqi allies. With John Kerry newly energised for the upcoming election battle against George Bush, the secretary of state visits a beleaguered Iraqi capital where the US administration's policies are in ruins.
Security is as bad now as it was when Washington handed limited sovereignty to Iraqis a month ago. Hopes that the advent of an Iraqi government would lead to a reduction in resistance have been dashed.
A national convention that was due to choose an interim legislature with the right to endorse a budget and veto government decisions has been postponed. Finally, Mr Powell's plan to get Islamic nations to join the US-led forces in Iraq, giving them a fig-leaf of respectability, has met a cool response.
Security is the biggest issue, and there is no sign of the chaos improving. This week saw the deadliest car bombing for several months, with 68 people killed in the town of Baquba. At least seven foreign hostages are being held by kidnappers, near Baghdad. In Ramadi, gunmen seized three sons of the governor, who is known for his support of US forces, in an operation in which their own bodyguards switched sides.
If Mr Powell thought he had won a glimmer of hope from Saudi Arabia when its foreign minister suggested the kingdom might bankroll an Islamic force to go to Iraq, it was shortlived. There has been no rush to take up the offer. Malaysia, which was mentioned as a possible contributor and which chairs the 57-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference, quickly rejected the idea of sending troops.
Iraqis are suspicious of their neighbours, and many feel some of the problems they currently face are caused by infiltrators from across the border, whether Iran, Syria, or Kuwait. In deference to this view, the US-Saudi plan would not include troops from neighbouring countries.
That leaves Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan, Tunisia and Yemen as potential US allies in Iraq. None has yet given clear support to the plan. Without fierce arm-twisting, the US will find it hard to get agreement from these countries, especially when the latter see how insecurity and frustration are driving other US allies to withdraw. Philippines, Spain, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras have all pulled out, and Ukraine is about to cut its troop numbers.
Why should Islamic countries fill the gap? Most of them disapproved of the US invasion last year and sided with the UN members, a majority, who wanted to give the weapons inspectors more time in Iraq. Public opinion in most Islamic countries is strongly against the US occupation, and any decision by their governments to send forces would only create new tensions.
Even if the plan got off the ground, it is not clear it would make any difference. The kidnappers in Iraq have shown no qualms about taking Muslims hostage. Egyptians, Jordanians and a Somali have all been held. Two Pakistanis were beheaded this week. One militant Islamic group was quick to post an internet warning that threatens any Islamic or Arab nation that contributes troops to the proposed Muslim force for Iraq.
As long as the US supplies the bulk of the multinational contingent, it will continue to be seen as an occupier. Islamic troops would be junior partners in a venture that is widely unpopular. A senior Arab League official, Ali Hamid, put his finger on the issue when he said in London that only a specific timetable for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq could improve the security climate. To be acceptable, any Islamic force would have to be ordered by the UN security council and linked to the US pull-out, he said. This would make the Islamic troops a genuine replacement force, and not just a cover for a continued US presence on Iraqi soil.
Similar sentiments underlie the problems the US is having with Iraq's now-postponed national convention. Several key political parties are refusing to take part, on the grounds that the convention is another symbol of the flawed set of unelected institutions the US has put in place. They include the Iraqi Islamic party, the largest Sunni party, as well as supporters of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr.
They say they want to wait for the elections due in January. Only then will Iraq have a parliament and a government that Iraqis, rather than the Americans, will have chosen.
Whether that would necessarily end the violence can only be guessed, but the message from most Iraqis is one of national pride. They want to be left to solve their own problems with their own forces. Relying on foreigners, whether they be Americans, Arabs or other Muslims, is not the answer.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004