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Iraq's liberators should be proud

The Australian, Edition 1 - All-round Country
Friday 8 October, 2004

by William Shawcross

Absence of WMDs doesn't undermine John Howard's honourable war role, says
William Shawcross

JOHN Howard has been getting a bum rap on Iraq. Saddam Hussein's ambitions to possess weapons of mass destruction were a real threat and the new Iraq will work, despite all the news to the contrary. Those are not the headlines -- they are the bottom lines, the important ones.

In recent years Australians have been remarkably clear-sighted in realising that in the post-9/11 world we can no longer tolerate terrorists and proliferators abusing weak and failing states.

The headlines from yesterday's 1400-page report by Charles Duelfer, leader of the Iraq Survey Group, are all ``No WMD''. It does indeed show that Saddam did not have the stockpiles of weapons that we believed him to have when we went to war. Just why and how the world's intelligence agencies got it so wrong is clearly vital to understand.

But Duelfer also shows that the dictator was determined to reconstitute his weapons. His fascinating report delves into the dark mind of Saddam and reveals that the UN's oil-for-food program provided him with a bonanza of illegal funding to corrupt UN Security Council members and to diminish the impact of sanctions on his illegal weapons procurement.

I have known Duelfer since the mid-1990s, when he was a senior member of the UN weapons inspection team. He is an excellent and scrupulous investigator. Last month in Baghdad he and one of his colleagues made clear to me that Saddam had never abandoned his WMD ambitions.

Duelfer's report demonstrates that the UN had failed to control Saddam and that once sanctions had been lifted -- as his co-conspirators, particularly France and Russia were demanding -- Saddam would have been off to the races. And that was the real alternative to the invasion, though critics of the war, in Australia and elsewhere, refuse to recognise the fact.

But stopping Saddam is not enough. History will condemn those of us who supported the invasion unless we are now able to help Iraqis create a much better society for themselves.

Today it is often hard to believe that that is possible. Day after day, television news bombards us with images of brutal beheadings and of suicide car bombers queuing up to murder with bleak and relentless brutality.

But this war is winnable -- and it is essential. To abandon Iraq now, as Spain and the Philippines have done under pressure from terrorism, would be catastrophic. For Iraqis at once, for the world very soon thereafter.

The insurgents are an unholy alliance of former Saddamites determined to reinstate their ghastly rule, Islamic terrorists who would install something equally horrible, and common criminals. If we cannot stop them, we will have helped create another failed state in which terrorism will flourish unchecked.

In Baghdad last month, General David Petraeus, the US commander in charge of training Iraqi troops, told me: ``Iraq seems like a roller-coaster which goes up and down, but it's still climbing.'' There are already about 96,000 new Iraqi troops and there should be 145,000 by January, when elections are scheduled. The key to them is their morale, says Petraeus. ``Are they stayers or not?'' The answer is, predictably, that some are better than others and all need more equipment.

Among the serious mistakes of the coalition is that Washington's generous promise of $US18 billion ($25 billion) in reconstruction money has been disbursed much too slowly. More and more people (particularly young men) have grown impatient with the slow progress and have taken up arms.

But most of the country is not being car-bombed every day. Away from the cameras and away from the terrorist horrors, large parts of Iraq have made steady, unseen progress in the past year. Kurdistan in the north has created a functioning society. There has been a lot of rebuilding, much of it by US army commanders, of local schools, water treatment plants and so on. Oil production is up. So is electricity production. Marsh Arabs have returned to their rivers.

The terrorist attacks of recent years show that you cannot buy a hiding place from Islamic terrorism. If Australia abandoned Iraq, that would not make Australians safer anywhere. But it would contribute to the belief that Western democracies do not have the stomach for this new international war. It would dishearten all those millions of Iraqis who are desperate for continued help in building a better future.

Since September 11, 2001, Australia has played a full and proud role in the war that Osama bin Laden began. The ADF was integral to the removal of the Taliban and Australian special forces acquitted themselves well during the 2003 war.

Since then, Australian troops have sustained operations at Baghdad airport and have contributed an important naval and air force presence. Australians are training Iraqi troops -- very well. Australia has certainly demonstrated during the past three years that it understands the magnitude of the task with which the world is faced.

It is not for me to comment on the Australian election. But I am convinced that, under Howard, Australia has placed itself firmly on the right side in this horrible new war that we have been forced to join.

Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist, visited Iraq last year. He described the ``various sects and movements bent on provoking the Apocalypse in order to prevent Iraq from soon becoming a free and modern country, a perspective that rightfully terrifies and drives insane the gangs of murderers and torturers of the Mukhabarat and the Fedayeen of Saddam Hussein along with the fundamentalist commandos from al-Qa'ida ... All of them know that if Iraq becomes a modern democracy, their days are numbered.''

If we stay the course in Iraq, a far more decent society than Iraqis have ever enjoyed can be created there. And that will redound to the credit of all those countries that helped do it, Australia prominent among them.