Iraq, November 2006

[Note: this is adapted from a speech I gave to my toastmasters club a few weeks back. What I say in the first paragraphs has held true, and the situation has changed yet again since I wrote this. Events have a way of getting ahead of everyone in this conflict. But most of this still stands – particularly the bad news.]

Recently, I set myself a task: to try and find out what exactly is happening in Iraq. To work through the conflicting reports, through the smoke and the spin to try and figure out what exactly is going on, on the ground.

This is a hard thing to do, because every time I sat down to write it, the situation was different. Every few weeks, it’s a different situation. In fact it’s changed since I first wrote this a fortnight ago.

So what is going on in November of 2006?

First, the good news.

That brutal dictator Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. And after months of wrangling, the country has a elected government. Apparently ninety percent of the country are calm and relatively safe. Particularly the northern Kurdish area, which have been effectively self governing since the end of the first gulf war.

In some areas, reconstruction is taking place, albeit slowly. When it’s not fighting, the US army has been doing the job, since they have the engineers and the machinery, and the ability to defend themselves.

And that’s it by way of good news. I looked long and hard for more, but that was it, that was all I could find.

So, onto the bad news.

Every week, on average, the US is shipping home fifteen flagged draped coffins. The military death toll will hit three thousand sometime this year. This is as nothing compared to the civilian death toll, which, depending on who you ask is between 50,000 and 600,000.

The number of car bombings in Baghdad has reached a frenetic level, which seems to no longer be news. It’s not news any more that every week there are over twenty bombs detonated. These have become more and more targeted, hitting the mosques of the opposing Islamic factions and the like. And anyone even remotely associated with the Americans – army recruiting posts are a particularly favoured target. And apparently the most dangerous road in the country is the highway from the airport to Baghdad.

The US has started talking about keeping force levels in the country at their current levels through to 2010. While at the same time the English military is looking for a way to withdraw, saying that the presence of foreign forces is actually making the place more dangerous. Strangely, they don’t like having their country occupied. And US is now talking about getting Syria and Iran involved in stabilizing the place, which rings of desperation.

The fledgling Iraq security forces certainly aren’t up to the task. The new police force has had four thousand members killed in the last two years, and the new Iraqi army can occasionally field just one combat ready battalion (compared to the fifteen the Americans have in the country.)

The new Iraqi government took so long resolving its infighting, which started after the elections late last year, that it might be too late. The power vacuum that has existed for the last three years has been filled by gangs, militias, foreign fighters and fundamentalist organizations. The government having a hard time exerting any influence at all.

All of the top level US intelligence agencies now describe the Iraq as the breeding ground for generations of terrorists, much as Afghanistan in the 80’s spawned Al Qaeda. So much for making the world a safer place.

And the phrase which is being used more and more to describe the situation is “Civil War”. Religious based groups are routinely attacking each other, the ethnic cleansing has begun, with hundreds of people killed and then dumped their bodies, simply for their religious affiliation. The place is starting to sound like Somalia or Rwanda or Yugoslavia in the 90’s.

I could easily go on. Frankly, it couldn’t be much worse.

So is there a winner in all of this? Yes, actually there is, and it may surprise you who it is.

The winner out of the events of the last couple of years is… Iran.

I’ll tell you why. Its two main regional rivals were Saddam’s regime and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Both have been conveniently removed. Plus, the new Iraqi government, such as it is, is dominated by the same Islamic branch which runs Iran, indeed there have been many high level trips by its leaders to Tehran. And Iran’s main international rival, the US, is so overstretched they can’t now credibly threaten them. Hence the recent nuclear posturing by the hard-line Iranian president.

Despite everything, the Iraqi people are a wily and resourceful bunch. They’re also a young nation – 40% of the population are under 14. Left to themselves, under less violent circumstances, they’d be well able to create a functioning and successful state. They have abundant oil, and a well educated population – although those that can are leaving. But the country and the region has been plunged into a kind of chaos which might take decades to sort out.

We helped make this mess. All of us, even people like myself who marched and protested against this war. We sent our fighter jets and our people, when we might have waited Saddam out the way we did with Quaddafi in Libya. We helped make this mess, and it is incumbent on us to somehow try and help sort it out.