Iraq burns as Bush fiddles

It has been a terrible week in Iraq. Supporters of the radical Shi'a cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, are fighting against coalition forces in Baghdad and towns across southern Iraq, while US forces are engaged in a pitched battle against Sunni forces in Falluja. Foreign workers are being taken hostage and country after country is advising its nationals to leave the country. The number two American General has called for 10,000 extra troops, and two members of the Iraqi Governing Council have resigned.

Worse still, there seems to be no strategy other than "more of the same" on the part of the occupying forces. Indeed, President Bush seems determined to exacerbate the situation. His televised press conference last Tuesday explicitly posed the conflict as between the Christian west and the Islamic east, which is hardly calculated to encourage moderate Muslims to stand up against the extremists and fundamentalists.

The Americans are pinning everything on some magical transformation of the scene following the transfer of authority to the Iraqi Governing Council on 30 June. Personally, I would be surprised if it made much difference, given the powers retained by the occupation forces and the somewhat sullied reputations of some key members of the IGC. Those taking up arms and those carrying out terrorist activities have specific agendas, either to seize power before democratic forces mobilise, or to impose an Islamicist identity on the country. Such ambitions are unlikely to be inhibited by the halfway house that will arrive with the IGC at the end of June.

The only strategic change which has a chance of succeeding is a symbolic transfer of authority for the transition to pass to the United Nations. There is a recent precedent: the UN took on the same responsibility in Cambodia in 1991, following the Vietnamese invasion which removed the Khmer Rouge regime. The Cambodians were delighted to get rid of Pol Pot, just as the Iraqis were to have Saddam removed, but they were as opposed to a Vietnamese occupation as the Iraqis are to the American presence. Elections were held a year later under UN auspices and since then Cambodia has slowly but surely established a democratic regime and has overcome much of the horror of the past. I was there in 1997 and 1998 and was deeply impressed by the Cambodian people's commitment to democracy.

Under the UN's blue berets there can be substantial contingents of Muslim troops from many Islamic countries. Bangladesh, for instance, has a very honourable record of supplying its soldiers to UN peace making and peace keeping missions. At the same time as the presence of UN troops becomes visible around Iraq, active preparations for elections under UN auspices can be begin, and be seen to begin. To get the UN show on the road would require a unanimous, or at least a nem con, vote in the Security Council, plus a commitment to the huge costs involved.

The huge stumbling block to such a transfer of authority in Iraq to the UN is the complete political impossibility for the coalition, and particularly the Americans, to admit any mistake in its initial action and any impotence as to its future capacity. With President Bush's re-election in November this year on the line, he knows that it would be electoral suicide even to hint at any such admission. So the unfortunate Iraqis will continue to be caught in the crossfire between their own extremists and the occupying forces.

At the heart of the current deterioration in the situation in Iraq is the apparent misconception as to the nature of Iraq, and the misjudgement of the reaction of Iraqis to the fall of Saddam Hussain. The coalition forces, knowing - correctly - how deeply the Iraqis hated the vicious regime of Saddam, believed that the population would greet American and British tanks with flowers, kisses and flag waving. They failed to understand the pride of Muslims in their Islamic identity and their sense of solidarity and identity against an occupation by liberators from countries which they saw as morally corrupt and colonialist. Naively many Iraqis believed that the invaders would overthrow Saddam for them and then depart, leaving the Iraqi people to rebuild their country themselves.

Even the coalition's awareness of the region and its people is flawed or cynical. For instance, the permanent talk of Iraqi sovereignty and nationhood flies in the face of its relatively shallow history and the recent establishment of the state of Iraq. There is even no agreement amongst scholars on the origin of the word "Iraq", which was not used in that form before the nineteenth century, with the term "Iraqis" only being used from the creation of the artificial state of Iraq in 1918. The Kurdish fifth of Iraq actually got rid of Saddam in 1991, held democratic elections in 1992 - at which I was present - and has preserved its autonomy ever since. The Kurds are not Arabs and do not speak Arabic! Many, if not most Iraqis identify with their ethnic and religious brothers and sisters across the region, and the Iraq border is both artificial and very porous.

The concept of national sovereignty is flawed in essence. No country has boundaries that represent a single identifiable people, and never will have. Hardly any countries have had the same borders since the colonisers drew the world map in the 1880s and thereafter. And yet we defend national borders and the flawed concept of sovereignty as if it had some mystical force. Iraq is simply the most vivid current example of this dangerous fallacy.

15 April 2004