Monday, March 20, 2006

Johann Hari: mea culpa

This is taken from Johann's web-site and there are some small differences with the print edition.

Independent March 20th 2006
After three years, after 150,000 dead, why I was wrong about Iraq
A melancholic mea culpa
A few weeks ago, a small moment – a little line of text – underlined for me how far life in Iraq has slumped. As I was reading a story, the ticker-tape on the BBC News website casually stated: ‘Car bomb in Baghdad; 50 dead.’ There were no accompanying details.

When these Iraqi suicide-massacres started to happen in Iraq, I would nervously call my friends out in Baghdad and Basra and Hilla to make sure they were okay. But I soon realised this was antagonising them, driving every bomb further into their skulls – should they store a standard text ‘No, not killed in suicide bomb today’ message and send it out three times a day? So I swallowed hard, waited, and the next day, I looked through all the newspapers for details. Nobody mentioned it. Suicide-slaughters the size of 7/7 are now so common they don’t even bleed into News in Brief.

So after three years and at least 150,000 Iraqi corpses, can those of us who supported the toppling of Saddam Hussein for the Iraqis’ sake still claim it was worth it? (I am assuming the people who bought the obviously fictitious arguments about WMD are already hanging their heads in shame).

George Packer, a recalcitrant Iraq-based journalist who tentatively supported the invasion, summarises the situation in the country today: “Most people aren’t free to speak their minds, belong to a certain group, wear what they want, or even walk down the street without risking their lives.” In many regions – including the British controlled South – power has been effectively ceded to fascist militias who “take over schools and hospitals, intimidate the staffs, assaulted unveiled women, set up kangaroo sharia courts that issue death sentences, repeatedly try to seize control of the holy shrines, run criminal gangs, firebomb liquor stores, and are often drunk themselves. Their tactics are those of fascist bullies.”

So when people ask if I think I was wrong, I think about the Iraqi friend – hiding, terrified, in his own house – who said to me this week, “Every day you delete another name from your mobile, because they’ve been killed. By the Americans or the jihadists or the militias – usually you never find out which.” I think of the people trapped in the siege of a civilian city, Fallujah, where amidst homes and schools the Americans indiscriminately used a banned chemical weapon – white phosphorous – that burns through skin and bone. (The Americans say they told civilians to leave the city, so anybody left behind was a suspected jihadi – an evacuation procedure so successful they later used it in New Orleans.). I think of the raw numbers: on the largest estimate – from the Human Rights Centre in Khadimiya – Saddam was killing 70,000 people a year. The occupation and the jihadists have topped that, and the violence is getting worse. And I think – yes, I was wrong. Terribly wrong.

The lamest defence I could offer – one used by many supporters of the war as they slam into reverse gear – is that I still support the principle of invasion, it’s just the Bush administration screwed it up. But as one anti-war friend snapped at me when I mooted this argument, “Yeah, who would ever have thought that supporting George Bush in the illegal invasion of an Arab country would go wrong?”

She’s right: the truth is that there was no pure Platonic ideal of The Perfect Invasion to support, no abstract idea we lent our names to. There was only Bush, with his cluster bombs, depleted uranium, IMF-ed up economic model, bogus rationale and unmistakable stench of petrol, offering his war, his way. (Expecting Tony Blair to use his influence was, it is now clear, a delusion, as he refuses to even frontally condemn the American torture camp at Guantanomo Bay).

The evidence should have been clear to me all along: the Bush administration would produce disaster. Let’s look at the major mistakes-cum-crimes. Who would have thought they would unleash widespread torture, with over 10,000 people disappearing without trial into Iraq’s secret prisons? Anybody who followed the record of the very same people – from Rumsfeld to Negroponte – in Central America in the 1980s. Who would have thought they would use chemical weapons? Anybody who looked up Bush’s stance on chemical weapons treaties (he uses them for toilet paper) or checked Rumsfeld’s record of flogging them to tyrants.

Who would have thought they would impose shock therapy mass privatisation on the Iraqi economy, sending unemployment soaring to 60 percent – a guarantee of ethnic strife? Anybody who followed the record of the US towards Russia, Argentina, and East Asia. Who could have known that they would cancel all reconstruction funds, when electricity and water supplies are still below even Saddam’s standards? Anybody who looked at their domestic policies.

The Bush administration was primarily motivated by a desire to secure strategic access to one of the world’s major sources of oil. The 9/11 massacres by Saudi hijackers had reminded them that their favourite client-state – the one run by the torturing House of Saud – was vulnerable to an internal Islamist revolution that would snatch the oil-wells from Haliburton hands. They needed an alternative source of Middle East oil, fast. I obviously found this rationale disgusting, but I deluded myself into thinking it was possible to ride this beast to a better Iraq. Reeling from a visit to Saddam’s Iraq, I knew that Iraqis didn’t care why their dictator was deposed, they just wanted it done, now.

As I thought of the ethnically cleansed [terrorized in print edition] Marsh Arabs I had met, reduced to living in a mud hut in the desert, I thought that whatever happens, however it occurs, it will be better. In that immediate rush, I – like most Iraqis – failed to see that the Bush administration’s warped motives would lead to a warped occupation. A war for oil would mean that as Baghdad was looted, troops would be sent to guard the oil ministry, not the hospitals – a bleak harbinger of things to come.

But it is easy for me to repent at leisure. Just as the opponents of the war would never have faced Saddam’s torture chambers, I am not hiding in my home, rocking and clutching a Kalashnikov. Millions of Iraqis are, and many thousands more did not live to see even that future because of the arguments of people like me.

And so, after the melancholic mea culpas from almost everyone but Blair and Bush, what? Iyaad Allawi – the man the Americans tried to impose as Prime Minister until a massive programme of peaceful civil disobedience spearheaded by the Ayatollah Sistani made elections unavoidable – says a low-level civil war has already begun. There has been a worrying trend among some right-wing commentators to blame the Iraqis: we though you guys would be a Czechoslovakia, but if you insist on being a Yugoslavia, fine. There have even been evil whispers that Iraq “needs a Saddam” to hold it together.

But this is not a grassroots civil war a la Rwanda or the Balkans, where neighbour hacks to pieces neighbour. It is a top-down civil war, fought by a minority of militias, all of whom (apart from the jihadi-Zarquawi crowd, who are a very small minority) claim to fight in the name of keeping Iraq together. Until 2003, over 20 percent of Iraqi marriages were across the Sunni-Shia divide – is husband now going to turn on wife, and mother on son?

It is very hard to see a solution, but I believe the threads of one are visible. The polls show that most of these violent militias draw their support from the fact that they oppose the foreign troops, not from the fact that they massacre fellow-Iraqis. So the best way to drain their support – and dampen the inertia towards civil war – is to withdraw the troops now.

Iraqis can see this very clearly: a poll recently conducted by the Ministry of Defence (hardly an anti-war source) found that 80 percent of Iraqis want out “immediately” so they can deal with the remaining jihadists and anti-democratic fundamentalists themselves. (In a revealing mirror-image, a Zogby poll of US troops in Iraq found that 72 percent believe the occupation should end within the year. This will soon be a surreal war where the unwilling occupy the unwilling.)

Yes, there is a danger that withdrawal will create a power vacuum exploited by militias, but that is the reality on the ground already. It is unquestionably time to leave Iraq – but will the Bush administration surrender Iraq’s oil, after spending $200bn to grab it, just because the Iraqi people and their own troops want them to?

POSTSCRIPT: There's been a collosal response to this article and I'm still picking through the e-mails. Over fifty from Iraqis, of which some mournfully agree, although this e-mail was more typical:"Your article in the Independent today, 20/3/2006, was really disappointing to all of your admirers. You let them down. You changed your mind and switched from pro-war to join the anti-war campaigners, means that you gave in bowed to the aggressors. So instead of blaming the terrorists for this mass killing in Iraq at the hand of the terrorists, you put the blame on Bush and Blair for liberating Iraqi people from the worst dictator in history. If your new stance is right, then it was wrong to stand up against Hitler in the WW II, because that war caused humanity 55 million casualties. So it was better not oppose the Axis sates. Is that fair? Is this is the justice that we are looking for? If the tyrants were left to do as they like because of the possible revenge from their followers, then our glob will be place for the tyrants only and the whole planet population will be living like sheep. Abdulkhaliq Hussein"
The Independent - 18/04/2006

The World Socialist Web Site picks up on this some time later in 'A mea culpa on Iraq by pro-war journalist Johann Hari' by Paul Bond (22 April 2006). They welcome his change of heart, but don't think he is exonerated from his direct political responsibility for the war (come on guys, he's only a columnist) and don't think much of his general method - only attacking imperialism when it goes wrong.


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