TOPICS : Belfast to Baghdad: What have we learned?

At first glance, recent developments in Northern Ireland offer signs of hope for mending Iraq. But the deepening peace in Belfast has taken four decades to craft, a sobering thought for those who want to see analogues with Baghdad. The lessons that can be drawn from Britain’s longest-ever military occupation are many, but the element of time is the most brutal. The warring parties were all Christians, spoke the same language, were racially indistinguishable, and were all part of the same great Western “civilisation.” Thus, even if peace takes hold, it can take a very long time.

When British troops were first sent to Northern Ireland in 1969, they embroiled themselves in a sectarian conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Initially, Catholics in Belfast welcomed the soldiers with expectations that they would be able to divide the warring sides and provide security. After witnessing British operations, which seemed to unilaterally focus on Catholics, however, this attitude changed. As a result, the Provisional IRA emerged as the key insurgent force opposing British occupation and Protestant political domination.

Patience was key. The British could take steps to alter the political landscape, but it was not until the Protestants and Catholics became exhausted by decades of violence and moved toward peace themselves that a solution was found. While the sectarian blood ran hot, the British could do little but to hold the line and absorb casualties. The British were politically constrained in Northern Ireland. Brutality can shorten the length of some insurgencies, but when a democracy is involved, usually the insurgents can stomach more of it than the state.

In analogous fashion, US forces in Baghdad were welcomed as liberators in 2003. However, within a year, the US was faced with a full-blown insurgency, primarily led by Sunni militants who perceived the US as siding with the Shiites. As occurred in Belfast, the new Iraqi military and national police forces were seen as being partial to one side. Baghdad’s Sunnis feared the Shiite death squads operated by the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (whose Mahdi Army also attacked Americans), but they equally feared the Shiite dominated national police. As a result of a sharp upswing in sectarian killing in the capital, Baghdad became the centre of gravity in American strategy, resulting in the “surge” of forces this spring.

Northern Ireland was a tough and thorny situation, but in terms of relative complexity, it was a game of checkers compared with the three-dimensional chess board that Iraq has become. Like the British in Ireland, the US has morally constrained itself from simply choosing one side and repressing or killing everyone else, but as a result the only “middle ground” in Iraq is the ground American combat forces now occupy. It took 38 years in Northern Ireland for the British to bring the warring sides to the middle ground, to make peace, and to withdraw. Anyone who claims the US can resolve the situation in Iraq more quickly is sadly

mistaken. — The Christian Science Monitor