We had to topple Saddam – now let’s go back to Iraq to rescue democracy


The fall of Mosul has left our leaders silent, while others mutter about Bush and Blair. But at Iraq’s hour of greatest need we cannot stand by. –

 John McTernan – The Guardian, Thursday 12 June –  ‘If we do not act now, we will surely act later. We cannot abandon the Kurds or leave them to the protection of Iran.’

The Kurds like to tell a story about the discussions at the end of the Iraq war. As details of the new republic were being finalised, there was a row between the United States representatives and the Kurds of northern Iraq. Under no circumstances, the Americans insisted, would the Kurds be allowed to have an army now that the whole of Iraq was free and the no-fly zone was no longer needed. There was deadlock. At the 11th hour, the Kurds made a concession. All right, they said, we will have no army but we want to keep our “peshmerga”. Fine, fine, the Americans agreed, and flew back to Baghdad from Erbil. It was only when they landed that they thought to ask what the meaning of the Kurdish word peshmerga actually was – “the guards of the Kurdish region” or, more simply, army.

These troops have protected Kurds from the type of lethal terrorism that has killed so many in the rest of Iraq. And it is to their protection that thousands of inhabitants of Mosul are fleeing now that their city has fallen to Islamist terrorists Isis. It is worth remembering that the one unequivocally and universally acknowledged good and lasting result of the fall of Saddam Hussein was the continuation of over 20 years of democracy in the Kurdish region. This is a beacon of hope not just to those fleeing Mosul but to the whole of Iraq, showing that unity of purpose, together with a confident and capable security force, can beat the terrorists. So what has gone wrong?

There has been an immediate bout of recriminations within Iraq. Government sources accuse the allies, primarily the US and the UK, of leaving them in a mess. British and American sources observe that the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, told them to leave back in 2011. Indeed, one would have been forgiven for believing that al-Maliki thought Iraq well shot of British forces after Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army was cleared from Basra. Arguing past each other, the danger is that a fatal paralysis sets in.

The truth is that the US and UK left Iraq before it was ready, and they left for their own selfish, domestic political reasons. The ordinary Iraqis left behind have never abandoned hope – the turnout at the recent election was greater than the gridlocked Iraqi political class perhaps deserves, and showed a thirst for freedom. Supporting the Middle East’s second full democracy after Israel is still the noble cause it was when I was in No 10 working for Tony Blair, and when I worked in the prime minister’s office in Baghdad. Complex conflicts need strategic patience – the kind that won the cold war. It will take as least as long to rebuild Iraq as it took Saddam Hussein to destroy it.

The true scandal is the studious, indeed shameful, silence in Westminster. It is an appalling reflection on the House of Commons that MPs – a majority of whom voted for the Iraq war – chose not to ask a single question about the fall of Mosul at prime minister’s questions.

For all the studied outrage about the non-publication of the Chilcot report, the Iraq war is the Mrs Rochester of modern British politics. It is a faint blessing that Ed Miliband’s leadership prevented the UK joining a military intervention in Syria – otherwise you’d be seeing Cameron and Hague in contortions as they faced two ways on Isis, depending on which regime they were attacking.

Our government is transfixed and immobilised by Tony Blair. First we get out of Iraq because it is the opposite of what he would do. Then we want to go into Syria because it is precisely what he would have done. Finally our leaders go silent because they have no idea what they think should actually be done.

Blair was denounced for his recent speech on Islamism but it stands out in retrospect for two things: the clarity of its analysis and the prescience of its title, “Why the Middle East matters”. As he put it: “What is presently happening there still represents the biggest threat to global security of the early 21st century. The region … is in turmoil with no end in sight to the upheaval and any number of potential outcomes from the mildly optimistic to catastrophe.”

There is no way that the UK can stand aside at Iraq’s moment of greatest need. We have a responsibility to those whose democracy we created. Those who are not utterly silent are sullen, muttering that Blair and Bush caused all this, that there was no al-Qaida in Iraq before 2003. Let’s be clear what that statement really is – bloodless, amoral pragmatism of the type Henry Kissinger excelled in. You might as well say: “Saddam may have been a fascist who inflicted genocide on the Kurds, but at least that kept Iran and the jihadists at bay.” That remark would have the merit of being honest.

The truth is that if we do not act now, we will surely act later. Having protected the freedom and autonomy of the Kurds since the Kuwait war, we cannot abandon them now, or leave them dependent on protection from Iran. We have to go back to Iraq to rescue democracy. After all, as Margaret Thatcher said at the time of the Falklands, why else do we have armed forces? http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/12/toppling-saddam-was-right-go-back-to-iraq-democracy