Financial Times Editorial - Iraq is no success for UK as pull-out starts
Published: February 22 2007 02:00 | Last updated: February 22 2007 02:00
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
The announcement by Tony Blair that Britain will shortly withdraw some 1,600 troops from its now 7,100-strong expeditionary force in Iraq starts the beginning of the end to a damaging and discredited enterprise - the result of political misjudgment more than military misadventure.
The official narrative of the government says this first drawdown of British soldiers was made possible by the growing self-reliance of Iraqi forces in southern Iraq. That is misleading.
For a start, the predominantly Shia south was and is easier to manage than central and west Iraq, home to a virulent insurgency by the unreconciled Sunni supremacist minority the US-led invasion dispossessed, and host to the al-Qaeda front it created in Iraq. The Shia majority has largely acquiesced in the occupation as a stage on the road to consolidating its political power. The political geography of Iraq meant British troops were always likely to compare favourably with their American counterparts - even if they did take risks to engage the local population.
Yet, this engagement included co-opting local militias. Four years on, "self-reliance" in large part means leaving swaths of the south under the control of Shia paramilitaries and an assortment of local clans and bandits - even if they are wearing crisp new Iraqi uniforms. The south can not be considered apart from a country mired in sectarian bloodletting. To misrepresent this as success is, at best, disingenuous.
If Mr Blair is trying to rescue his legacy, one way is to take a cold look at the destructive policies in the Middle East of his friend George W. Bush. Who knows? There may still be time to make an impact, a chance to influence Hamas and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and avert conflict with Iran by confronting Tehran with negotiations.
The US insists the new government of national unity being set up by Hamas and Fatah, the party of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, should fully recognise Israel now, rather than merely acknowledge past agreements with the Jewish state. But full recognition and cessation of all violence should only be the final destination of negotiations to secure Israel's security and a Palestinian state - unless the purpose is to ensure there will be no negotiations. Britain's European partners as well as Russia and the United Nations - the other Middle East mediators - are tilting in that direction and Mr Blair should join them as the best way to influence Washington.
Similarly, there is little prospect of changing Iran's nuclear ambitions and behaviour unless Washington is prepared to discuss mutual security with Tehran. Recent progress with another rogue state, North Korea - the result of talks between Pyongyang and Washington with a strong mediator, Beijing, in the middle - offers a model. Britain alone cannot be that mediator on Iran but, by joining with like-minded powers, it might be able to help create one.