The new Liberal Democrat ‘public policy’ on Iraq is a significant political step. There has been some bleating on this policy from the British Conservatives and one can expect possibly heated criticism from Britain’s Pro-Bush Labour Government leadership. The Liberal Democrats have switched to an apparently more concrete position of calling for full and timetabled UK troop withdrawal, to be undertaken during the period May 2007 to October 2007, although they have not given detailed reasons for the specificity of this timetable.
Official UK policy is for a limited withdrawal during 2007, anyway. This policy has emerged in somewhat more specific and emphatic terms in Washington DC, than it has in London’s political and media community. Congressional debates and public discussion have consistently referred to a UK reduction of at least 2000 troops during 2007, and the British in Washington have not, it seems, objected. The 2000 figure can now fairly be taken as official UK policy. (Many expert commentators believe that the 2000 troop withdrawal figure is a compromise reached between Downing Street and UK armed forces chiefs). This UK withdrawal has been used by Democrats in Congress to draw contrast with, and criticise, the current planned US troop increase by 21,000 troops, now allegedly under implementation.
Internationally, it has been assumed that this more precise anti-war Liberal Democrat policy in the UK has been formalised following public statements from senior British military figures, and some widely rumoured private comments from UK military sources. UK armed forces’ preferences for a faster and fuller withdrawal have been an open secret for months now – some say much longer. In UK military circles this has not been regarded as anything like a mutiny, and one can now reasonably expect official UK policy to ‘evolve’ quickly towards something akin to ‘almost complete’ withdrawal during 2007. Given the customary pattern of advice and advisers around Liberal Democrat party leader Sir Menzies Campbell, it is inconceivable that the party would go public in the British Parliament with such a policy without first ensuring that significant senior parts of the UK military were at least ‘not objecting’.
Notwithstanding that fact, it is nevertheless a bold political step by the UK’s third largest political party. A marker has been put down, and the position of the Liberal Democrats will be strengthened as official UK policy eventually swings behind it in all but name. Developments in the UK over the next couple of months will be watched very closely indeed by anti-war US Democrats and Republicans, and the various emerging White House factions.
A UK policy of full or near-full withdrawal of course is incomplete. Indeed it might not even be the most notable feature of a potential new UK Iraq policy adopted by UK Liberal Democrats, the UK Labour Government, or the main opposition UK Conservatives. It must be accompanied by policies concerned with post-withdrawal relations with Iraqi authorities, the mechanisms for influence and cooperation (eg security training, protection for oil installations, intelligence support, diplomatic activity in respect of Southern Iraq’s neighbour), changed relationships with Iran, Syria and the Saudis - and so on.
The nature of these associated policies and the options for these, depend almost wholly on assumptions about the consequences of the ‘total withdrawal’ policy, and on the consequences of the withdrawal itself.
This is worth considering more generally. Both sides of the ‘what happens after we withdraw’ argument are probably wrong. At one end of the argument are those that say civil war and mass killing or ethnic genocide will result. At the other end are those who claim that withdrawal will spur Iraqis to ‘sort out their own problems and take responsibility’. Both are based on wrong assumptions.
Southern Iraq is run by three militias. They are ‘needled’ by the remnants of the Ba’athist security apparatus, and disrupted by incoming financing from unofficial Saudi governmental sources and elsewhere. These three militias gained their power during 2003 and 2004, and were spawned by the need for the general public to be protected street-by-street from criminals, lawless tribal groups, and vengeful Ba’athist forces.
This was hardly surprising. Poor citizen protection from ‘Coalition Forces’ and appalling absence of funds in provincial and municipal governments, assured this ! The Mahdi Army and the Fudullah in particular focused on protecting the very poor and providing some social services. In Southern Iraq the very poor are the majority of the population, and ironically they were not particularly religious or even always ethnically Arab. By the time the major effort was underway to form the police and the army, any able-bodied man (and some women) were already engaged with the militias. The ‘new police’ policy was quickly abandoned and reduced to a less ambitious policy of ‘renaming and re-uniforming’ the existing militias. So today it is hard to say who is acting as a militia member and who as a member of the police or army. In most cases it is the former – but the wearing of uniforms is not much of a guide as to which is which !
The idea of a bloodbath after withdrawal is just absurd. First, there is already a bloodbath. The hundreds of bodies reportedly found each week, murdered, are almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg. Second, the bloodbath argument assumes that the British and Americans in the South are currently engaged in preventing a bloodbath – and being successful. This is laughable. Not only does this imply much more influence & control than they have, it implies that preventing a bloodbath is one of their aims. It is not.
The argument that withdrawal will force the Iraqis to ‘properly take care of their own affairs’ is also somewhat risible. Coalition troops and officials have never stood in their way. The institutions have been in place, although the money has not, in practice. But the timeframe within with ‘normal’ institutions and power structures can establish themselves has long passed. The militias will not give up their power, and indeed the Coalition forces and officials have not provided ANY meaningful incentives for them to do so – political, social, financial or otherwise. What will change however is the intensification of the battle for control of Southern oil resources – but Coalition forces plan to remain to protect oil installations. !
What of the arguments about Iranian influence ? There are many inaccuracies peddled from the USA about Iranian involvement. The dominant issue is not Iranian influence over Southern Iraq, but Southern Iraqi influence over South Western Iran. It should be remembered that across the border from Iraq, Iranians are Arabs not Persians. This was a major issue in the Iran-Iraq war. The war deepened suspicion and dislike between Iraqi Arabs and Iranian Persians. A well funded oil-rich Southern Iraq however is likely to increase its influence in SW Iran, even to the extent that the fragmentation of Iran is envisaged by many. A new Southern Iraqi and South Western Iranian sate is not so far-fetched, should Iraq break up into 3 countries.
There is thus probably only one set of policies that can constructively accompany withdrawal from Southern Iraq. First, it will be necessary to support the unity of the Iraqi nation-state. This can ONLY be done through a negotiated significant decentralisation of power to the three regions and to the provinces (governorates) – a new constitutional settlement. Second, the economic aspects of this decentralisation need to be agreed. This is a better option than trying to agree ‘a more equitable distribution of central oil income’. Third, the control-freakery of the US officials in Baghdad needs to be stepped back from, to allow much faster economic and infrastructural development in the South. Fourth, closer economic integration with Southwestern Iran and with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia is well overdue – especially in electricity, transport, water systems and telecoms. Iran’s fears (somewhat covert) over an ‘independent’ Southern Iraq, and the economic boom that will follow, are incentives enough to ensure reasonable cooperation. None of this is easy but it is better than the current death rate. It is better than (in effect) forcing political groups to over-use Islam as a path to power and influence – a trend which is unpopular in Southern Iraq.
No-one can undo the horrors of this terrible, illegal war. But it might also be remembered that Basra as the capital of Southern Iraq, is a multi-ethnic, surprisingly secular city of great history and character. It possesses districts of extraordinary beauty including a Venice-like canal district with ornate bridges and intricate Ottoman, Arab and Persian architecture. An astute post-withdrawal strategy needs to envisage a lively tourist trade, as an ultimate measure of success.
Prof Paul E M Reynolds
Jan 24 2007