Spectator 30 December 2006.
Lets start 2007 with some good news from Iraq. Its boom time, in the
nicest sense of the word, in Baghdad and Basra. Newsweek has just
described this growth as " the mother of all surprises". The invasion
unleashed not only a vast market in the free media, which persists, but
also a massive amount of economic activity which the sectarian bloodshed
has not crushed. According to Iraq the Model, one of the best
unofficial blogsites in Iraq, there were just 8,000 officially registered
companies in Iraq under Saddam. Now there are over 34,000 and another 286
were created in November alone - despite the rising violence in that month.
Despite the ceaseless terrorist attacks on the country's infrastructure and
particularly its crucial oil industry, the value of the Iraqi dinar has
continued to rise - in November, from D1410 to the dollar to D1480. That
is obviously good for the vast majority of people whose pay comes in
dinars. And civil servants' pay has just been raised.
Unemployment is still one of the country's worst problems - 30-50 % in some
places and the unemployed can be seduced into joining militias. But the
much mocked government is beginning to liberalise the centralized economy
of Saddam. In the last two years mobile phone subscribers have increased
from 1.4 million to 7.1 million and Iraqna, the leading phone company, is
expected to have revenues of some $520 million this year - more than a
third higher than last year. House prices and other real estate are
soaring, in both poor areas and rich. . Construction is doing well. So are
retail and trade. All of which suggests, as Newsweek says, "that Iraqis
are more optimistic about the future than most Americans are".
The killing campaigns in Iraq, both Sunni and Shia are designed above all
to reduce western optimism further. They have been so successful that the
main question being asked of Iraq at the beginning of 2007 is Will we stay
or Will we go ? Will domestic political pressures, here and in the United
States, force such a cut back in our commitments to Iraq that the place
dissolves into such awful civil war as to make today's sectarian killings
seem like a honeymoon ?
In Washington the long awaited Baker-Hamilton Study Group on Iraq produced
one of the most useless pieces of "bipartisan consensus" ever. Filled
with tired orthodoxies and wishful platitudes, it was a disgrace. But it
did Bush and Blair a back hand service. Baker's pieties - "Syria, should,
Iran should, Israel must" - would have shamed King Canute, but they proved
that no one else in Washington was any wiser than Bush.
There is now talk that far from cutting forces along the Baker lines, Bush
may instead "surge" combat troops into Baghdad to impose security there.
And at the same time he may well announce far greater emphasis on US
training of Iraqi officers and men. This is absurdly late already. There
should be thousands more US soldiers embedded with the Iraqi army. The
same goes, on a smaller scale, for the British. We run "the Sandhurst of
the Desert", the Al Rustimayah school for Iraqi officers in Baghdad. It's
a marvelous facility but we have not given it enough resources - and its
absurd that we have only trained a handful of Iraqi officers in Britain.
There should be thousands training here all the time. The fact that they
are not here, now, suggests, alas, that the Ministry of Defence is not
committed to success in Iraq, but is thinking instead of what officials now
call "accelerated transition".
The worst service that the Baker clique performed was not in Washington but
in Iraq itself. There the report was reported as the perceived wisdom of
the American political class and the signal that America was definitely on
the way out - by early 2008, according to Baker's petulantly repeated
demand. It was seen as proof of Osama bin Laden's description of America as
"a weak horse" on which no one should depend.
Amir Taheri, one of the most seasoned commentators on the entire middle
east, agrees. He has just returned from Basra, the centre of British
control. This Shiite slum on the Gulf, deliberately neglected for decades
by Saddam, is beginning to prosper at last, he says. As in Baghdad, the
shops are full of televisions and other consumer goods, many of them
imported from China. Gucci shoes apparently move fast.
Taheri insists that what is happening in Iraq is not sectarian warfare but
"war of the sectarians" intended to drive the coalition away. They kill
people to have an effect on public opinion 10,000 miles away so that each
can pursue their separate ambitions to re impose dictatorship on Iraq.
The best hope for Iraq now is that despite all the bloody militia efforts,
the parties can still win out and create a workable federalism. For that to
work, the federators still need more time - particularly to agree on an oil
revenue sharing legislation and they need the insurance that the coalition
still offers. American officials in Baghdad find that different factions
often use them as a broker. In Basra, says Amir Taheri, the same applies to
the British, who are often called "Abu Naji" or "Father of Safety" .
People see them as arbiters who guarantee the balance of power between the
three principal Shi-ite factions which have divided Basra between
The third alternative - partition - would almost certainly lead to
invasions by greedy or nervous neighbours. Iran's power in Iraq is already
too great and the Saudis are now making noises about arming the Iraqi Sunni
as a counterweight to Iranian backed Shia. Each will increase its brutal
assaults on the others if the coalition leaves too soon.
If we have to set a timetable for running down our troop presence, it
should be linked to the end of the next round of national elections, due
to be held in January 2009. The 2005 elections ans referendum were the
freest ever held in the Arab world and were a triumph for the Iraqi people
(as well as for the organisers). I suppose that these first elections
could be dismissed as an imposed aberration - a third election four years
on would establish a pattern which will be a huge boost not only for Iraq
but also for the region, which still needcs helping out of despotism. Tony
Blair was absolutely right to say on his recent trip to the Middle East.
"We have to wake up. These forces of extrremism based on a warped and
wrong-headed interpretation of Islam arent fighting a conventional war, but
they are fighting one against us."
Blair has been phenomenally brave over Iraq. He is about to go. It is not
clear what the attitude of Gordon Brown will be. But if the Conservative
Party is wise it will see that continued commitment to Iraq means a
commitment to the region. It is a conservative policy in the best sense of
the word. It shows that, despite everything, we are "the strong horse" that
can be relied upon. The alternative, to cut and run or walk, will be