Iraq briefing for the Liberal Party

Iraq was created as a country in 1918 out of the post First World War settlement. Until then it had been three provinces - Mosul, Basra and Baghdad - of the Turkish Empire and was known as Mesopotamia. As part of a deal between the British and the French it became a British mandate, and was initially a constitutional monarchy. The British occupied Iraq from 1941-47 in order to sideline a pro-German government. Thereafter the monarchy continued until the left-wing coup of 1958. More murders brought the Ba'ath Socialist party to power in 1963, and Saddam Hussein to the Presidency in 1979. Saddam Hussein is only the most recent and probably the most violent of a series of Iraqi dictators. Certainly, sympathy for the Iraqis in the current crisis should not extend to Saddam Hussein.

Iraq has three distinct parts: the Kurds in the north, the ruling - and minority - Sunnis in the centre, and the Shi'as in the south. The relationships with the Kurds has been one of broken promises on autonomy and of armed strife, including the poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, and the destruction of more than 4,500 Kurdish villages in the "Anfal" operation. In 1991, following further violent struggles, the Iraqi central government withdrew its official administration from the Kurdish region, hoping that the region would collapse. Instead the Kurds organised elections in June 1992 and have had a relatively stable administration thereafter in what is, de facto, an independent Kurdish region. Iraqi Kurdistan forms some 18% of Iraqi territory and around 20% of the total population of approximately 24 million.

President Bush launched his diatribe against the regime of Saddam Hussein shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001. Although there are no links between Saddam's regime and Al Qu'aida, the deeply unpleasant and authoritarian Saddam Hussein was a convenient hate figure for an American administration and an American people not particularly concerned to differentiate between different Arab leaders and different brands of Islam. Thereafter it became exceptionally difficult to resile from the fear whipped up against Saddam Hussein. Arguably, but for 11 September there would have been none of the present apparently inexorable pressure towards war against Iraq. This has become very much the war of Bush's face. Surrounded by belligerent Cabinet colleagues, and having moved 200,000 American troops and vast amounts of hardware into the region, he has to go to war; to withdraw these forces, whilst leaving Saddam Hussein in office, is politically suicidal, particularly with a presidential election in 2004 fast approaching. The rhetoric has its own momentum. Because of this we now have the intellectual nonsense of Iraq being condemned both for destroying weapons and for not destroying those weapons that the USA asserts it has but which Iraq denies exist.

United States of America
The USA has a long record of supporting and funding regimes that by no stretch of the imagination can be described as democratic or progressive. When the USA has wished to undermine one country it has often supported a third country to assist it to do so. Consequently, given its antipathy to Iran, the USA backed Iraq when the Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1981, selling a great deal of weaponry to Saddam Hussein's regime. The UK was also involved in covert arms trading with Iraq, as was exposed in 1992 by Judge Scott in his official report. It is highly hypocritical now to use the alleged and probable holding of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by Iraq as a casus belli when that country has been armed by the countries threatening war - and particularly as the USA itself holds such WMDs. Nor does the illogicality ever seem to occur to the USA and UK of surrounding Iraq with 250,000 soldiers and the most sophisticated lethal weaponry known to man, and then to demand that Iraq shall expose and destroy the weapons on which it depends for its defence. No doubt the imminent threat of attack encourages Saddam Hussein to conform to the demands of the UN via the UN weapons inspectors, but it is also arguable that a credible promise of no military intervention would encourage a more open response.

The USA's case for being entitled to decide whom it will attack depends on its self-assessment as being a benign modern progressive civilised democracy. It may well possess some of these attributes but it is naive in the extreme to believe that it is seen as such by its target countries and their supporters. They see a country which occupied its territory by conquest, killing two million native Americans to achieve it; which backs and bankrolls Israel in its Middle East tyranny against the Palestinians; which resorts to military force, rather than argument and persuasion, to police the world - plus expending billions of dollars to buy its allies; and whose President could not even win the support of a majority of American voters in a pathetically low poll, but who still preaches democracy to the rest of the world. Paradoxically, a dependence on the threat of overwhelming military force to achieve one's will is a sign of abject weakness; strength comes from the power of argument, of persuasion, of philosophy, of moral purpose, and of diplomacy.

An associated US hypocrisy relates to the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region. This is partially overflown by the allies in order to inhibit Saddam Hussein from harassing the Kurds but, apart from this, virtually no aid is provided to the Kurds for the administration and the support of its de facto independent and relatively democratic regime. One would have thought that those dedicated to regime change in Baghdad would have ensured that the fifth of Iraq not under its rule would receive huge support. Not so, alas, probably because the Turkish Government has more leverage with the Americans, thanks to the cruciality of its Incerlik and Djarbakir air bases which are needed in order to facilitate its attacks on Iraq from the west. Turkey has continually discriminated against and oppressed its Kurdish minority and is totally opposed to strengthening the Kurdish regime in northern Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds, who largely support military action against Saddam Hussein, are, nevertheless, extremely fearful that it will enable Turkey to occupy Iraqi Kurdistan in order to further its own political aims. Turkey is currently exacting a huge price in aid - $19 billion is being quoted - for the use of its territory by the American forces. The USA does not possess an empire in the nineteenth century sense, but it has satellites which are its by purchase.

It is not possible to regard Iraq in isolation from other potential American targets. North Korea is arguably a more dangerous threat to world security. Whereas Iraq at worst is only a short way along the line of production of nuclear weapons, North Korea may well possess them. It has chosen the most opportune moment to flex its muscles and is visibly testing the Americans' capability of attacking on two fronts at once.

The Iraqi threat
The Saddam Hussein regime is undoubtedly a tyranny to the Iraqi people as a whole. The artificial nature of the country makes this inevitable if, as now, the minority Sunni Muslim community is to maintain its hegemony over the more numerous Kurdish and Sh'ia majority communities. If voting patterns follow communal affiliations the Ba'athist regime cannot rule via the ballot box but only by oppression. It illustrates yet again the nonsense of the concept of sovereignty and the artificiality of the nation state. This artificiality also ensures the fragmentation of the expatriate Iraqi opposition. There is no single co-ordinated group able to form an acceptable interim government post-Saddam, hence the USA administration's stated intention of installing its own military administration - a view which has met with a massive outcry from much of the Iraqi opposition. The aftermath of any military conflict will require a long and expensive programme of civil society development and democratic support.

Since the bloody nose it suffered in its 1991 invasion of Kuwait, and the price of the attrition of the eight years of war with Iran, the Iraqi regime is effectively contained within its own boundaries. As long as it is permanently overflown, inspected and threatened, it is not a threat to its neighbours.

Iraq poses no direct threat to Europe nor to North America and no-one has claimed that it does. It is argued that it may be disposed to pass WMD to terrorists who would thus be able to pose a more formidable threat to its western targets. It is arguable that this is much more likely if the USA and its allies attack Iraq, with Iraq ultimately having no remaining ability to inflict harm directly on its attackers. The religious fundamentalists who run Al Qua'ida regard the secular Iraqi regime as infidels and no evidence of organic links between them has been produced, despite massive intelligence efforts. Al Qua'ida is, however, happy to exploit the simplistic "attack on Islam" line, to unite Muslims against the USA and the UK and to recruit militants.

There is a need for those in the west, and particularly Liberals, to invest at least a measure of their intellectual activity into understanding the nature of fundamentalism - of all types - and to restate the importance of the secular state as the only means of safeguarding rights and, paradoxically, enhancing religion.

The United Nations
The attempted intimidation of the UN by the USA has been one of the most objectionable and untenable aspects of this whole campaign. It is another aspect of the USA's apparent belief that "peace" is defined by the USA, plus its oft-stated mantra that the independence, legitimacy and effectiveness of the UN Security Council will be fatally undermined if it does not vote for US promoted resolutions. Such attempted blackmail is being opposed by what US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld foolishly defined as "old Europe", ie France and Germany, supported by Russia, China and other Council members. In contradistinction to the US view, the UN's legitimacy can only be sustained and enhanced if it follows an independent and rigorously argued position. It would also be strengthened if the USA was as keen to enforce all Security Council resolutions, including those on Israel, as it is with those it likes.

The regular references to the League of Nations are also hypocritical. The League was enfeebled from its inception by the refusal of the USA to join, despite the wishes of the then president, Woodrow Wilson. Most neutral nations also refused to join and it never possessed the powers, nor the enforcement capacity, of the UN. Here we have the USA eighty years later, condemning the very organisation that it crippled by its non-participation.

Many are the historical parallels cited by those wishing to take refuge in the past. Suez in 1956, Abyssinia in 1938, the Rhineland in 1936, Czechoslovakia in 1938 and even the Boer War of 1900 have been prayed in aid, but the tendency to fight the last war rather than avoiding the next one is exceptionally dangerous. The world community, at San Francisco in 1945, formed the UN on a different basis to the League precisely because of the experiences of the 1930s. To equate opposition to war against Iraq with 1930s' appeasement of Germany is an act of intellectual desperation. Unlike prewar Germany, Iraq is a small landlocked country which is permanently contained, overflown, and threatened and which has failed to accomplish any of its military aims.

The Security Council, and the power of veto in the hands of each of its permanent members, were innovations. At the time and since they were, and are, a necessary political compromise and have been regularly criticised as undemocratic. Each permanent member has, however, used its veto and it ill behoves the USA and the UK now to talk about the legitimacy of over-riding action in the name of the UN if a Security Council vote is subject to an "unreasonable" veto. By definition every use of the veto is "unreasonable" in that it is only used to countermand a vote of the majority of Council members. It should also be pointed out that the USA and the UK have used their vetoes 76 and 32 times respectively, whereas France has used it on only 18 occasions.

For the USA and the UK to talk of forming "a coalition of the willing" to prosecute a war without UN support would be a self-righteous and arrogant move which would run counter to international law and to the mass of public opinion, even in the countries in question. To attempt to equate the "failure" and the "weakness" of the UN with a refusal to agree with the USA and the UK is a huge non sequitur. Any weakness and diminution of the UN's status and influence would more surely result from the Security Council being driven under duress by the two hawks rather than forming its own independent and shrewd opinions, based in large part on the reports and conclusions of its own inspection teams, who are bearing the heat and burden of the day with admirable determination.

Those favouring war have struggled to produce convincing arguments for the use of force. Accusations there are in plenty, but evidence is in short supply. The Iraqi regime may well possess WMD - it would, after all, be consonant with its style and its record - but to insist that it proves that it does not possess them is an intellectually unsound demand. What evidence we have from former insiders is that its WMD were destroyed after the 1991 war as a consequence of the work and threatened work of the earlier UNSCOM inspection mission.

It is entirely possible that the USA and the UK possess more intelligence information than they are releasing but, given their frustration with the international community and with public opinion, it is surprising that more convincing evidence of the urgent threat of the Saddam Hussein regime has not been produced. The British Government's efforts to disseminate convincing material as if it originated from the intelligence services descended into farce when it was revealed that a substantial part of the published briefing emanated from a graduate student's six year old thesis which dealt with the situation at the time of the Gulf War twelve years before that.

Still more difficult to sustain is the proffered view that an attack on Iraq would be imbued with moral authority, particularly when, with either consummate timing or by remarkable coincidence, Tony Blair's claiming of the moral high ground was followed swiftly by a joint statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster stating the opposite.

War aims
War aims have been the subject of much vacillation, swinging particularly between the destruction of WMD and regime change, or both. On the former, it seems exceptionally weak to argue for killing many thousands of military and civilian personnel, for destabilising the region, for harming still further a settlement of the Israel/Palestinian scandal, and for enhancing the recruitment of terrorists - to act particularly against the USA and the UK - in the search for elusive WMD, as opposed to continuing the policy of containment and inspection, whilst working with Arab and other regional groups to develop civil society and democracy.

Still more difficult to sustain is the case for a pre-emptive strike based, as it perforce has to be, on assumptions, predictions and assertions. Certainly the evidence of a tyrannical and authoritative internal regime exists, but Saddam Hussein is far from being the sole or arguably the worse such leader and, however beneficial their removal would be, one cannot have countries roaming the world picking off dictators of their choice. As in all politics, decisions are not taken in a vacuum. Newton's Third Law of Dynamics applies to the political sphere: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Its application in the current situation is examined in section 9 below.

Much of the strategic thinking of the pro-war leaders seems to be based on a belief that there will be mass desertions from the Iraqi army as soon as there is any sign of on the spot fighting. This may well be true, particularly as much of the army consists of ill-equipped and unhappy conscripts, but reaching an actual situation at which it is feasible for Iraqi soldiers to desert could be difficult. Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard is another matter entirely and it may well be that it will be used in ways which will by fear and intimidation inhibit the regular army from deserting. Iraq is not Afghanistan.

The scale of public protest in the UK has been formidable and impressive. It would seem that a continuance of the pro-war policy alongside George Bush will severely damage Tony Blair, particularly if he and George Bush pre-empt or ignore a negative UN Security Council vote. Given Blair's position as leader of the Labour Party and as the Prime Minister at the head of a Labour government, this will rub off detrimentally on the Labour Party and damage its chances at future elections. Historically the public has swung solidly behind the government of the day when military action is underway, but it is not even sure that this will be the case in relation to Iraq. A whole host of imponderables have to turn out right for Bush and Blair and the chances of one or more of them going wrong must be high. See section 9 below.

The situation within Tony Blair's own parliamentary party has also entered uncharted waters. The decision of 122 Labour MPs to defy a three line whip on the most important topic imaginable is unique. Furthermore, it does not appear that is one of those traditional "putting down a marker" rebellions beloved of a certain class of Labour MP. Instead the signs are that, if anything, the number of "rebels" could well grow.

It is not only Labour that is split on the issue. Conservative worthies of the stature of John Major, Douglas Hurd and Kenneth Clarke have spoken against going to war against Iraq with considerable passion and with knowledge borne of experience in the highest offices of state. Similarly there are those recently retired from Ambassadorial and from military service in the region who have been trenchant in their criticisms of the Bush/Blair policy. In the US Congress veteran Senator Robert Byrd made a particularly forthright speech on 13 February. His comments can be found through his website: (click on "newsroom").

The level of desperation in the Bush/Blair camp is seen in its attempt to frighten off public opposition by arguing that it gives aid and comfort to Saddam Hussein. Of course, President Saddam will misuse the demonstrations and the parliamentary votes as propaganda for his cause, but he and his ministers can themselves be in no doubt of the opinions of those protesting and voting. Not a single speech or comment by demonstrators and MPs has failed to denounce the authoritarian and violent Iraqi regime, nor to express the hope that it will change at the earliest possible moment. But to suggest that public opposition to military action must always go unexpressed and unpublicised lest it be misrepresented by a potential enemy is to hand all powers of military decision making in every case to a Prime Minister thus beyond criticism, without challenge, and, even, no accountability. Ironically, in such a scenario our democracy would be embarking on the slippery path towards emulating the democratic failings it points out in its opponents.

Finally, it needs to be noted that, unlike 1991, President Bush's "coalition of the willing" does not include a coalition of Arab states. Indeed, there have been those, such as the Saudis, who were crucial supporters of the Gulf War twelve years ago but who are now - most unusually - voicing their deep concerns at the proposed military action.

First and foremost a war against Iraq will bring many deaths, particularly of Iraqi civilians. It is not possible to launch the most formidable firepower ever developed by the world's most powerful military force on a relatively small country - half of whose population is aged fifteen and below - without there being a considerable number of civilian deaths. Robert Fisk, one of the most experienced reporters of the region's affairs, has written powerfully on the human cost of the last Gulf War, and of the media sanitisation of the deaths and mutilations resulting from war, in the "Independent on Sunday" (26 January 2003).

The potential destabilisation of the region is immense. To take one example, the Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country are largely in favour of military action against Saddam Hussein. Their long struggle to survive in the face of horrendous criminal actions from Baghdad, and the bravery of their Peshmurga guerillas, encourage them to look for support to end the Saddam Hussein regime at the earliest opportunity. However, they are deeply concerned at the prospect of Turkish forces occupying Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey has the largest Kurdish minority and has repressed it harshly over many decades. In recent years Turkey has not respected the border between itself and northern Iraq and it would no doubt welcome the opportunity vis à vis the Kurds to extend its malign influence across the region.

There is a curious received view that there are no democracies amongst Muslim countries or in Arab countries. This is not the case. There are a number of such democracies, some better than others, but there is certainly nothing incompatible between Islam and democracy, or between democracy and the Arab personality and style. The largest and the second largest democracies in the world, in terms of votes cast, have the two largest Muslim populations: India and Indonesia. In and around Iraq there are also countries that have made progress towards democratic elections and the development of civil society. Iraqi Kurdistan held elections under a party list system in May 1992 and those elected formed a working parliament and an executive. Jordan held elections in November 1997, Lebanon in August 2000, Yemen in 1992 and 1997, and the Palestine National authority in January 1996. In Iran President Khatami was re-elected with a substantial majority in February 2000 and he walks a careful progressive line in extending democracy, often against the wishes of the Mullahs - perhaps too carefully if the recent local election results are an indication. All this could easily be threatened if the region is destabilised by war and the aftermath of war. It is also somewhat in contrast with the flawed election of President Bush, who did not even secure a majority of the votes cast in a very low electoral turnout.

War against Iraq is likely to damage still further the already fraught situation in Israel and Palestine. As was seen in the last Gulf War, faced with Israel actively involved on the side of America, the Palestinians were drawn into tacit support of Saddam Hussein. This time, without the coalition of Arab states able to exercise a restraining influence on them, and with the appalling and ever increasing despair of having to exist in a giant concentration camp, the likelihood of the Palestinians backing Saddam Hussein is much greater, with potentially disastrous consequences for any subsequent attempts to resolve the Middle East conflict. The polarisation of allegiances across the region will make other Middle East states even less likely to make peace with Israel.

From an American and British point of view, the most serious and dangerous consequence of USA and UK belligerence against Iraq is the massive encouragement it will give to the recruitment of terrorists wishing to act against the USA and the UK. In the words of Douglas Hurd, "it will turn the middle East into .... a fertile and almost inexhaustible recruiting ground for further terrorists for whom Britain is a main target", (current issue, the journal of the Royal United Services Journal). Even if one accepted the argument that the casualties from pre-emptive action now would be worthwhile as a prevention of more casualties later, the likelihood of an expansion of lethal terrorism undermines the whole case for action.

The most crucial and immediate security task we can undertake is to remove the causes of terrorism and, in the meantime, to take preventive action. The struggle against terrorism is the most difficult, pressing and crucial priority for the Government. No strategy is likely to succeed if a war against Iraq is launched. The ability of Al Qua'ida and of other terrorist organisations to highlight it as the West launching a crusade against Islam and against the whole Arab world will be sufficiently attractive to increase greatly the terrorist threat. We have already had tanks and the armed forces at Heathrow Airport; one likely outcome of military action against Iraq led by the USA and by the UK is that such scenes and worse will become the norm. Just as in the microcosm of Northern Ireland, Bloody Sunday helped the IRA to recruit, so will war against Saddam Hussein aid the recruitment of Islamic fundamentalists into terrorist groups. The parallel is interesting, particularly as both the Major and Blair governments came to realise that it was not possible to secure peace in the province by bellicose actions, and nor was it possible to disarm the terrorists by force. Why then does Tony Blair believe that it would work in the Gulf and in the Middle East? Perhaps his recent comment that it is now too late to avoid provoking the recruitment of terrorists, as the damage has been done - a strange argument in itself for going to war - indicates that he is aware of the contradiction.

Those who, legitimately, demand what alternatives are put forward by those who oppose military action should read the excellent report Building Democracy in Iraq, (published by the Minority Rights Group, in January 2003). It should be realised that, in recent years, some of the most appalling dictators have been overthrown by their own people. Marcos in the Philippines, Ceaucescu in Romania, and a number of African leaders, were despatched by their own citizens. In Iran, the fall of the autocratic Shah was followed by the autocratic reign of Ayatollah Khomeini, but, as a result of entirely internal developments, a measure of democracy was instituted which, under the shrewd leadership of President Khatami, is being enhanced bit by bit. The power of even the most oppressed citizenry should not be underestimated and, as in each of the countries mentioned, "sincere friends of freedom" worldwide need to be on hand to assist and support them.

Democracy as an institution is a tender plant which needs careful fostering everywhere. It is not narrowly definable but includes the whole range of civil society organisations. Elections are the result of democracy, rather than the cause of it. That is to say that, without a democratic culture - with independent voluntary organisations, pluralism and diversity, political parties based more or less on philosophy, a professional civil service and state-supporting security forces - the possibility of guaranteed human rights and of alternance in government, whatever the electoral process, is severely reduced. Consequently, there is a huge need to aid and assist broadly based pro-democracy programmes in all the countries of the region, and particularly in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region. A more visible thriving democracy in this area of Iraq will be a powerful example of what is possible, and the enhancement of the health of democracy in surrounding countries will be an encouragement to the people and a threat to those in autocratic power, including in Iraq.

The plight of the Palestinians is not the sole grievance of Arabs in the region but it is the daily flashpoint and the permanent running sore on which much of the bitterness against the west is focussed and concentrated. An agreed two state solution, with all that that implies for settlements, security and Jerusalem, is crucial and urgent. The USA in particular has the financial and political leverage with Israel to ensure that it happens. If the Bush administration appears reluctant to act, it will encourage the view that it is only interested in oil and domination.

The case for pro-active, pre-emptive military intervention against the Saddam Hussein regime is not proven. It would be against international law and would undermine the United Nations. Its consequences cannot be calculated but could produce dangerous instability in the whole region. It would increase terrorism and make it more difficult to deal with the causes and effects of terrorism. At the very least, and at the most basic level of human arithmetic, it would cause more deaths than it would save. There are alternatives which have not been tried and which have good chances of medium and long term success in transforming the situation in Iraq and in the region. Liberals should continue to oppose a war and should use every campaigning opportunity to make its opposition effective.