Dear Prime Minister,
Among the letters I receive about Iraq a few are clearly written by demented people. Their paranoid style is easily recognizable. They use capital letters to distinguish the forces of darkness and the forces of light in Iraq. They have a simple-minded, conspiratorial explanation for the war. They are ignorant of well-substantiated facts about Iraq and the Middle East. They are openly contemptuous of critics who do not share their crystal-clear vision of events.
I was astonished, reading your speech on the Middle East delivered to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on August 1, to find all the traits of those insane letter writers. There is even the same mad person’s obsessive capitalization. In the complex crises in the Middle East and beyond you say you see primarily ‘a struggle between what I will call Reactionary Islam and Moderate, Mainstream Islam.’ Your vision is an apocalyptic one. You see ‘an elemental struggle about values’ and it turns out that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ‘were not just about changing regimes but changing value systems. The banner was not actually “regime change” it was “values change.”‘
Some of this is syrupy guff much along the lines that Private Eye’s fictional Tony Blair, the Vicar of St Albans, often utters. But if taken seriously it means that the US and Britain intervened in Afghanistan and Iraq to interfere with the Muslim religion and to support those Muslims who agree with Tony Blair’s interpretation of their faith. In other words the claim by the Islamic fighters in Iraq is that their religion is under attack by new crusaders from the west is, by your admission, entirely correct. A further deeply disturbing aspect of your speech is its ignorance. Sometimes this is even admitted. In years before 9/11 you say “We had barely heard of the Taliban.” But the Taliban, backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, had been taking control of Afghanistan for years. Surely you had more than barely heard of them.
As with so many paranoid single cause-explanations of the world your speech shows blindness to other, often fundamental, developments. In Iraq this means not only that the US and British governments have no idea what is going on but, because they can never admit error, they are unable to devise new policies to replace those that have failed. This has been the pattern of the last three years since the fall of Saddam Hussein. For instance you say that it is Muslim religious extremism alone which causes violence in the region and their actions have nothing to do with the US occupation. But all the evidence is to the contrary. A poll by the Ministry of Defence last year showed that 82 per cent of Iraqis want US and British forces to withdraw from the country.
I have been visiting Iraq since 1978 and have been spending half my time in the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein. It was evident from the summer of 2003 that the five million string Sunni community supported armed resistance. Whenever I went to where an American soldier had been killed or wounded local people were dancing with joy. It was this which gave strength to extreme Islamic groups. They had a friendly environment in which to operate. Al Qaeda had no base in Iraq before 2003; its few adherents’ only base was in the Kurdish mountains beyond the control of Baghdad. It was entirely the doing of George Bush and yourself that they have now established themselves in Iraq and grow stronger by the day. Instead you suggest that the real problem is that ‘Syria allowed Al-Qaeda operatives to cross the border.’
Reactionary Islam does not fear elections because it wins them. The victors in the last election in Iraq in December 2005 were the Shia and Sunni religious parties among the Arabs and the Kurdish parties. The main secular group under Iyad Allawi, despite strong support from the US and Britain, did poorly at the polls. Traditional Islam is growing stronger in Sunni Iraq because it has shown that it can fight the foreign invader in a way that secular nationalists, like Saddam Hussein, demonstrably failed. Among the Shia it is the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist cleric, who won 30 seats in the Iraqi parliament. The political success stories in Iraq are of those who combine Islam, nationalism and an ability to fight. The US, with Britain trotting along behind, may soon find it embroiled in a war with the 15-16 million strong Shia community in Iraq as well as with the Sunni.
Your speech is essentially a ‘neo-con’ view of Iraq. It is frighteningly unaware of reality on the ground. Your own departing ambassador William Patey wrote in a memo to you leaked last week that a civil war was more likely than a democracy. Some 3,000 civilians were killed in June. Gen John Abizaid, the top US commander in the Middle East, told a Senate Committee on Thursday that “I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I have seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that it not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war.”
In the eyes of most Iraqis the civil war started six months ago if not before. There are now two wars going on in Iraq: one is between Shia and Sunni and the second between insurgents and occupiers. Iraq is splitting apart. The country may survive as a geographical expression but not more. Twice in the last century British prime ministers claimed they had discovered the source of all evil in the Middle East. Lloyd George wanted to fight Ataturk and Turkey in 1922 and lost office immediately. Anthony Eden went to war to overthrow Nasser in 1956 with equally grim consequences for himself. Your intervention in Iraq has been even more disastrous from the British point of view.
I only hope al Qaeda, Hezbollah or Hamas do not translate your speech into Arabic since every paranoid paragraph confirms their claim that they are battling a western crusade against Islam.
PATRICK COCKBURN writes for the Independent of London and CounterPunch. He is the author of the Broken Boy.