Satisfied leaders in denial of truth

ON Wednesday, US President George W Bush received Iraqi president Jalal Talabani in the White House. Talabani’s remarks to Bush could have been written by Karl Rove.

In a never-ending flurry of ‘thank yous’ that made Barry McGuigan sound like a dour ingrate, he paid tribute to Bush for liberating Iraq and restoring democracy.

Ah, the heady days in March and April of 2003 when the US-led military onslaught over-ran an entire country in a few weeks. But even then there were signs that not everything was going according to the manicured plan that read: good guys oust evil dictator; then liberate the downtrodden masses, bringing freedom and democracy to the region’s only country with secular potential.

The velociraptors of the regime - Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle - imagined scenes reminiscent of the fall of Vichy France in 1945, ordinary people laying flowers for the liberators as the tanks rolled past. Not so. Not remotely so. Even in the south - with a strong Shi’ite majority and virulently anti-Saddam sentiments - the coalition forces faced unexpected resistance in the opening days of its headlong rush north to Baghdad. But the routing of the Ba’athist regime was so complete, few noticed the hairline cracks beginning to appear.

All those wonderful cause and effect theories propagated by the hawks in the Bush administration have turned out to be bunkum. Using 9/11 as a smokescreen, they invaded Iraq for reasons subsequently proved spurious - that the regime still had WMD; that it was actively pursuing a nuclear programme; that it was harbouring - and was being used as a base by - al-Qaida operatives.

But leaving aside the dodgy reasons for the invasion, the predictions of how events would pan out were also hopelessly, scandalously, misconceived.

There was no plan other than some mad notion that getting rid of Saddam would be enough in itself.

The arrogance of a regime to take on the mantle of a god is bad enough. But to persist in the delusion when all the evidence points to the exact opposite is scandalous and immoral. The mutual back-slapping on Wednesday was galling.

Especially so because earlier on that same Wednesday, suicide bombers had killed at least 167 people and wounded 600 during nine hours of horror in Baghdad. The co-ordinated series of at least a dozen bombs was one of the worst days of bloodshed since the invasion in March 2003. The strikes continued on Thursday and yesterday, when another 30 and 16 were killed.

Washington portrays most of the insurgents as “outsiders”, jihadists who have crept into Iraq via Syria and other neighbouring countries. That is partly true, and al-Qaida has established a strong base there. But despite American claims, it had no presence there before the invasion. Ironically, it was the war that created the monster.

The picture is much more complex and nuanced. Many Iraqis have been radicalised by the occupation. Resistance is expressed across every facet of society: and among those too who yearn for a democratic society. And this week, the situation was complicated by the call by Musab al-Zarqawi (the terrorist who reputedly heads al-Qaida in Iraq) for Sunnis to wage open war against the Shia Muslim majority whom he described as ‘apostates and collaborators’. The heartless and gruesome nature of the attacks defies humanity. But the prospect of a full-scale civil war (now a distinct reality) is hell to contemplate.

Bush’s ratings have taken a huge battering in recent weeks, over his administration’s inept handling of Katrina and of the continuing war in Iraq. Cindy Sheehan’s brave gesture of camping outside his ranch during his extended summer vacation has struck a chord with many Americans. And in recent months, for the first time, polls are showing that most Americans see the Iraq invasion as a mistake and want the US to withdraw as soon as possible.

The problem is that it may not be possible to do that in the short term. Yes, it was a mistake. Yes, it has been a failure. Yes, all the cocksure predictions were wrong. But even if you opposed the war, the consequences of an early withdrawal might be catastrophic, leading to an unmerciful bloodbath of a civil war. The consequences of one mistake have been horrible without exposing the Iraqi population to the consequences of a second.

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