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HARD TO ESCAPE FROM IRAQ

Back in September, when Jacques Chirac, had urged a speedy handover of power to the Iraqis as the best way to clear the mess in Iraq, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser of the United States of America, was scathing. “The French plan, which would transfer sovereignty to an unelected group of people, just isn’t workable,” she said. But that was two months and many American soldiers’ deaths ago.

Now it’s just what’s needed to get US troops out of the line of fire before George W. Bush faces American voters less than a year from now. In Bush’s emergency talks on Wednesday with the US occupation chief, L. Paul Bremer, it was agreed that “Iraqization” will go into high gear. Legal control will be handed over promptly to a bunch of unelected but pro-American Iraqis, then they’ll hold an election sooner or later, and we’ll worry about a constitution much later.

But what might have worked two months ago will be a lot harder to pull off now. Why should the Iraqis accept the rule of the Pentagon protégé, Ahmed Chalabi, a convicted embezzler with a 22-year jail sentence awaiting him in Jordan, who has spent practically his whole life abroad' And even if Washington were willing to give control of the transition to the United Nations (which it still isn’t), what countries would send troops to Iraq to replace American soldiers — even under UN auspices — after what happened to the Italian troops in Nasiriyah'

Power struggle

The Bush administration can hand over “power” in Iraq to anyone it likes, but the armed resistance won’t stop and the major local players will pay little attention. Already, their main preoccupation is manoeuvring for position in the scramble for power that would follow a US pull-out — a scramble that could easily end in a civil war.

Imagine the scenario four months from now: March, 2004. There is an Iraqi government of sorts, with “President” Chalabi or some dignified nonentity at its head, but several of its ministers have been killed by the resistance. There is an Iraqi police force and the beginnings of an army, but both are heavily infiltrated by the resistance and their training and morale are so poor that they need US military back-up whenever anything serious happens. And every day, something serious happens: a roadside bomb, a suicide attack, mortar rounds hitting some American base.

The US is still losing several soldiers each day, but the Bush administration can’t pull the American troops out of Iraq unless it is willing to see its puppet government massacred and the bodies dragged through the streets of Baghdad on live television before the November election. A strong anti-war candidate has emerged from the Democratic pack — Howard Dean or Wesley Clark — and is leading Bush in the polls. What would the Bush administration do then'

Syria next

I think it would do absolutely anything to turn the situation around — and the obvious thing is to drop all the recent nonsense about bringing democracy to the Arab world and get back to the earlier nonsense about Iraq being part of the “war on terrorism”.

If the resistance is really just coming from a combination of Saddam loyalists and “foreign terrorists” (as most official American sources still insist), then obviously the solution is to stop the foreign terrorists from infiltrating into Iraq. Where do they come from' According to the sources, mostly Syria and Iran. We have to “root them out” in their lairs in Syria and Iran. Since Iran is a big, mountainous country whose government has popular support, and Syria a much smaller, mostly flat country with an unpopular government, the choice makes itself. Also, if the target is Syria, then Israel (at least, under Ariel Sharon) would be glad to help.

This is obviously crazy stuff — invading a country just to rally popular support during an election campaign — and its long-term consequences would be calamitous for west Asia, the US and international rule of law. Sadly, that does not mean that it’s impossible. In fact, it’s getting likelier by the week.

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