Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Still the architects of Iraq's civil war hold heads high

Tony Blair
Tony Blair

On Monday, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki called on the people of Fallujah to rise up and drive out armed groups affiliated to al-Qaida. He didn't say how he expected them to do this.

News reports have told that Fallujah has "completely fallen" to the Islamist fighters. Photographs have appeared of heavily armed insurgents celebrating.

The Iraqi army was poised to retake the city, said Maliki. But people would be "spared" if they drove the terrorists out themselves. He asked Sunni tribes to help.

Sunni fighters had already taken to the streets, the BBC reported, not to help expel the Islamists, but to resist any assault by Maliki's forces.

For many of Fallujah's mainly Sunni residents, said BBC Arabic correspondent Ahmed Maher, the Iraqi army was not a national force striving to protect the people, but the sectarian army of a Shia-dominated government.

An outfit calling itself the Fallujah Military Council weighed in, saying it would "punish" anyone seen to support the government in the battle for control of the city.

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Jay Carney promised that the US was "accelerating our foreign military sales deliveries [to Maliki] and ... looking to provide an additional shipment of Hellfire missiles as early as this spring".

From any perspective, this is an appalling mess. For the 350,000 inhabitants of Fallujah, it is also an unmitigated disaster. Or, perhaps more accurately, the latest phase of a disaster which has been ongoing since the invasion in 2003.

One justification given for the invasion was that Saddam Hussein was harbouring al-Qaida terrorists and had to be toppled to prevent repeats of 9/11. George Bush and Tony Blair (above) had cited Saddam's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction as the main justification for the attack. But Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Blair personally offered the al-Qaida connection as an ancillary reason. Blair claimed the connection was "unquestionable".

There was as little truth in this as in the WMD allegation. What is unquestionably true, however, is that al-Qaida has become well-ensconced in the country since.

In Jerusalem on Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry described al-Qaida in Iraq as "the most dangerous players" in the region. But the US wouldn't be putting any of the 17,000-strong forces it retains in Iraq into the field to help: "This is Iraq's battle to fight."

It is possible that Maliki's forces will succeed in re-taking Fallujah over the next days. But that might prove too late. Political, mainly sectarian, violence now affects virtually every part of the country. Twenty people died in the latest car-bombing in Baghdad last weekend.

Last year, 7,818 civilians perished in the violence. In December alone, nearly 1,000 people were killed – the highest monthly total for years.

This situation cannot reasonably be characterised as a battle with terrorism – albeit there are actors on all sides who could be so described. Civil war would be a more apt description.

It would be stretching it to say that all this is entirely due to the 2003 invasion. But the invasion was certainly the detonator which set off the explosive material which existed in the region.

Yet the most enthusiastic advocates of invasion back then not only refuse to concede that they were wrong, but are to be found among the most vociferous supporters of more of the same now.

Tony Blair, who continues to argue the invasion of Iraq was a splendid idea, was calling for air strikes against Syria a few months ago and has decried suggestions the option of attacking Iran should be "taken off the table".

One of the most belligerent US advocates of invasion, Bush adviser and militant neo-con Richard Perle, asked on US National Public Radio last year whether he would admit now that the invasion was a mistake, replied: "That is not a reasonable question. What we did at the time was done in the belief that it was necessary to protect this nation. You can't a decade later go back and say, well, we shouldn't have done that."

Matter of fact, you can. And should, as should the media elements who championed the invasion, not so as to admit their position was wrong, but so there can be an assessment of the ways in which it was wrong and a discussion to ensure we don't fall for Blair/Perle war propaganda again.