TOPICS : Time for Blair to quit Iraq

Jonathan Steele

Tony Blair insists British troops cannot leave Iraq until Iraq’s own police and army can guarantee security. It is, of course, the same argument that George Bush uses to justify keeping close on 150,000 US soldiers in the country.

Never mind the fact that pulling foreign troops out would almost certainly improve Iraq’s security, since much of the violence is directed against the occupation. Without the occupation, the insurgency would decline dramatically. Let us take Blair’s position at face value. Has he not noticed that in Basra and the other two south-eastern provinces where British forces are based the insurgency barely exists?

The reasons are varied, the main one being that the Shia political groups which control Basra are taking the long view. They form the backbone of Iraq’s new government in Baghdad and have no particular complaint with the current drift of Iraqi politics nationally. Although they are Islamists, the conservative stamp they have put on the city has not been opposed by the British.

The radical Shias around the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who strongly denounce the occupation and have taken up arms against it are not as active in Basra as they are in Baghdad and the holy city of Najaf, which is closer to the capital.

So, although there are special factors which explain it, the bottom line is that Iraq’s south-east has no real insurgency to speak of. Why then are British troops needed? What is the threat they are allegedly deterring, and that Iraqis cannot handle on their own? There is none. British troops could pull out immediately, and neither the people of Iraq’s south-east nor the people of Britain would regret it.

Bush would not be pleased, but the American president has had to accept that other allies have cha-nged their minds and withdrawn their forces. Spain, the Netherlands and Poland have seen the light, under pressure from their electorates.

Now Blair should do the same. Ten days before the general election an NOP poll showed that 60% of Britons wanted British troops out by the end of this year. By accepting that most British people want out of Iraq, and telling Bush we cannot remain there purely out of solidarity with the Americans, Blair could go a long way towards restoring the public trust he has lost during the past two and a half years. It would not completely erase the effect of Iraq on his premiership (nothing will), but it would at least be a sign that he understands his unpopularity.

Blair will never admit he was wrong on Iraq, let alone that he lied. But by bringing his policies into line with the majority of British people, some of the taint of arrogance would be wiped away.

Iraq has been a kind of slow-motion Suez for Blair. But Blair’s circumstances are different. There was no majority for the war before it started, and apart from a few weeks while the invasion was under way, there has been no such support since. Ultimately, it is a matter of courage. Has Blair the guts to tell Bush that he cannot stand beside him any longer on a war which is unpopular in Britain? —The Guardian