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Sunday, 14 December 2008

Six years of carnage for what, exactly?

THERE WILL be no victory parades, I think. Next March, fully six years after they arrived, the last of Britain's troops will begin to leave Basra. By June, reportedly, only a token few hundred of the 4100 remnant of a 46,000-strong force will remain to train Iraqis and assist the new American tenants at the city's airport. The British are packing up their tents, their tanks, and their pretensions.

The withdrawal - "Operation Archive" - could yet go wrong, of course. There are regional elections planned for Iraq on January 31. Yet more sectarian blood-letting has not been ruled out in a divided, dysfunctional, shattered country. After six years, nevertheless, we still propose to declare peace, of sorts.

Meanwhile, another battle, a legal one, has been taking place in London. The government has been waging war on its own freedom of information legislation. It has been fighting to prevent the disclosure of Cabinet minutes recording what was said, and by whom, when the decision was being taken to invade. Six years on, in the government's view, that is still not for us to know.

We can ask, nevertheless. What has it all been for? In one sense, it has been "for" £8 billion, officially, though the actual cost has undoubtedly been higher. It has been "for" the loss of 177 Britons killed, thousands maimed or mentally scarred and countless - the armies still refuse to count - Iraqis dead.

The other reasons why, mutating with every phase of the disaster, are familiar now, perhaps too familiar. First, non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Next, Saddam's non-existent sponsorship of al Qaeda. Next, the duty to follow Washington's lead without question, and maintain that old special relationship. Next, the moral obligation to enforce regime change - "rid the world of a dictator" - that Tony Blair had rejected, explicitly, in the Commons, when he was still talking up WMD.

Next, the need to defeat the insurgency nobody in government foresaw when they were fixated with happy natives dancing in the streets. Next, the need to take on al Qaeda, again, or warn off the Iranians, or deal with multifarious misunderstood groups of zealots, jihadis and innocents. Finally, after the failed attempt to impose western values with bombs, the duty to ensure "stability", reconstruction and peace. If the last task is not complete, however, that will shortly be Iraq's problem.

Six years: the duration of the fight against Hitler. The Iraq campaign was not a national effort, of course, and precious few save the Blairite diehards still pretend that it was a good or honourable war. If anything, it has become the forgotten conflict. Yet you could argue that as Britain prepares to depart, Iraq is approaching the moment of maximum danger. The frail structures erected by the Americans and the British are about to be tested. Then we can truly ask: what have we done?

Take the most recent of those numerous brave mission statements, the one about peace, stability and the rebuilding of the country we help to level. The UN mandate for occupation, acquired retrospectively, expires on December 31. The Bush administration does not intend to have it renewed. Instead, perhaps as a little gift for president-elect Obama, the White House has extracted a "status of forces agreement" from Iraq's government and parliament.

This means, first, that any British personnel still around on New Year's Day will be in the country - no arguments, this time - illegally. But it also means that the US occupiers will lack the sanction of their own Congress. Having imposed the rule of law on Iraq, we go on flouting the principle. And just because a rickety Baghdad administration has been bullied into granting America licence to remain until 2011, we expect Iraqis not to notice.

Still, peace and stability? Call it less murderous and merely anarchic. The violence is certainly less catastrophic than it was a couple of years ago. The myth of the US "surge" and the withdrawal of most western media cannot conceal the fact that "only" 500 Iraqis are dying because of bombings and assassinations each month. Which definitions of peace and stability are we employing?

Sunnis kill Shias, Shias kill Sunnis. Arabs kill Kurds and Kurds kill Arabs. None of this has ceased. Religious and ethnic tensions, tribal loyalties and demagogues, rank poverty amid oil wealth, three main groups (and several minor) jostling over territory and power, insurgents of every stripe: this is the husk of a country that we mean to quit. This is the country from which president-elect Obama intends - or says he intends - to withdraw America's troops. But a country on the road to democracy?

We should quit: that's the irony. We should never have gone in, and we should have got out long ago, but what was once irrational is now beyond inexcusable. The point would be to admit that we did no good and can do no lasting good. Once (if) they have done fighting over gods and oil, the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds will partition Iraq.

London and Washington will then fret while Turkey fulminates against Kurdistan, while Israel threatens, while Iran and Syria seek their opportunities. But nothing will be done by the West. Return to Iraq? Ever? It will count, just to labour the point, as another reason why the occupation and the lies should never have been contemplated. Impotence, even in diplomacy, will be our memorial.

"So," comes the habitual question of the armchair moralist, "you would have preferred to see the bloody dictator Saddam remain in power?" I have been asked that often enough in six years. I tend to say, first, that there are many things I would not prefer. But I answer as follows: counting the cost - the cost predicted by so many of us - yes. Of course. Not only did the war fail in its lofty, self-regarding aims, it actually made matters worse. And to pretend that we are quitting now because "the job is done" is just another lie, perhaps the worst.

There would be a fragment of comfort in the thought of lessons learned, but even that is not available. Britain will not recall all of the last 4100 from Iraq to Afghanistan, or not immediately. The army is exhausted, "overstretched". But perhaps a brigade, and certainly helicopters and drones, are already earmarked for the Afghan province of Helmand. Anticipating Obama's desires - his devoted supporters failed to grasp this detail - America, too, is readying many more troops of its own. And in 2009, Afghanistan will prove that not a thing has been learned from Iraq.

The second "theatre" is liable to provide a more bloody show than the first. And what is it all about this time? Peace, of course, and democracy, reconstruction and stability. And slaughtering villagers with US air strikes called in by cute English princes.

Because the Taliban are obnoxious bigots with no regard for human rights? Because we are still pretending to hunt Osama bin Laden? Because Afghanistan is party central for global terrorism?

Actually, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have better claims to that title. Are they on the list? Or have the wars now become self-perpetuating, endless, driven by rhetoric, lies and demeaning political imperatives? I would say so. I just wish they would stop mentioning western values in the midst of it all. Contemplating the sorry history of almost six years, I struggle to imagine what western values could possibly mean to the average Iraqi. The words probably translate as "duck" and "run".

Still, there is nothing better calculated to take people's minds off economic catastrophe than a good war, or even a bad war. Equally, nothing distracts people from disreputable wars better than financial hardships at home. And if the wars will never be won, so much the better. Pity about the parades, though.