Monday, December 31, 2007 

The year of the Madeleine.

You can't really say that 2007 was anything but eventful. At long last, we were freed from the tyranny of Blair and Blairism, only for it to be replaced by revolutionary Brownism - indistinguishable and just as incompetent. He started so well that even I was encouraged to begin with; then it all came crashing down. One party politics though has in actuality remained the defining ideology. Neither the Tories or the Liberal Democrats offer anything approaching a genuine alternative, let alone even an illusion of change. If anything, the Conservatives have shifted further to the right - emboldened by the inheritance tax cut pledge. The side is only held up by their opposition to the extension of detention without charge for "terrorist suspects", which provides the party with liberal credentials that it doesn't deserve. With Nick Clegg replacing the dignified but doomed Ming Campbell, the lack of difference is all too enveloping.

Little in reality has changed. We enter a new year with a Brown government that has been reacting, not leading to the various catastrophes, from the losing of the child benefit discs, Northern Rock, David Abrahams' donations, to the continuing prison overcrowding and refusal to compromise over ID cards or extended detention limits. In Iraq, the troops numbers may have come down slightly, but their continuing presence has no rhyme or reason behind it, while we leave the translators we owe a debt to to the mercies of the militias and bureaucrats deciding whether they potentially live or die. Afghanistan remains as intractable as before, with the Tories denouncing any attempt whatsoever to talk to the Taliban and bring the lunacy that there's a military solution to an end. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, however flawed she was, has plunged the region into further turmoil. The one silver lining is that the tension over Iran's nuclear programme has been alleviated thanks to the National Intelligence Estimate. There is no way now that Bush can lead an attack prior to his leaving office.

Iraq itself has been becalmed to an extent, but at what cost and for how long are questions without answers. The fall in violence has not been down to the surge, but to the
salvation council model which has spread across the country. Former Sunni militants have turned decisively away from the takfirists of the Islamic State of Iraq, isolating both them and the foreign recruits which overwhelmingly made up their numbers. Of real concern however is whether the fragile accord between the Sunni and Shia groups holds where it exists, as is whether the former insurgents now being armed by the US on the councils eventually turn their guns on the occupiers. Despite the fall in violence, the numbers of American dead, just short of 1,000, are the highest to date. At least 18,000 Iraqis have died in violence this year, and you'd imagine that is most certainly a fraction of the real number.

Back home, we faced the most inept terror attacks since Kate Nash took to a microphone. The laughable attempt to blow first a nightclub then Glasgow airport up using patio gas canisters with nails packed around them was mostly responded to in the manner it warranted: contempt. Only the Sun went overboard, unable to come up with an original or distinct way to respond,
resorting to facile flag-waving. Middle England was flooded, while northern working class England, similarly underwater previously, got ignored.

We'd be deluding ourselves if we thought that any of the above was the real story of the year. There was only one, and that occurred when Madeleine McCann vanished from the family apartment in Praia Da Luz back in May. That is the one indisputable fact that's been established, even 7 months later. Everything else has been pure conjecture. Where she went, whether she was murdered or abducted, and who was involved has been open to the public ever since. The coverage has never managed to strike the right note from the very beginning: first it was
vapid emotional pornography, faux concern and caring from journalists only interested in extracting the necessary pound of flesh for their masters. It couldn't have been exemplified more than by how Robert Murat was at first implicated by a Sunday Mirror journalist. When that got stale, the Portuguese investigation itself was turned on for its "incompetence", or in other words, failing to find Madeleine for the poor, devastated and distressed McCanns, brimming with casual xenophobia and prejudice. It's hard now looking back to see it as anything other than a reaction to how the police weren't providing the media with any solid information because of the Portuguese legal system. The third act, the announcement that the McCanns themselves were being made arguidos, and their subsequent flight back to the UK, with the media unable to decide whether they were guilty as hell or the victims of the most unbearably hurtful slur, was capped by their decision to hire an ex-journalist as their spin doctor/spokesman. Their stomach-churningly bad decision to make a tape at Christmas addressed to Madeleine was the icing on the cake for a couple that have never understood the very basics of how the media work. That's not their fault, but even they must be amazed at how 7 months later their daughter's disappearance is still front page news. If the Diana inquest hadn't resumed that beaten and battered dead horse, then she could be described as the new one.

2008 stretches only slightly less bleakly than 2007 did. Still, musn't grumble, right?

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007 


There are times when apologies are not enough. In the Japanese manga and film Ichi the Killer, the yakuza Kakihara slices his tongue in half and offers it to his fellow gang-leaders in their syndicate to make restitution for torturing another yakuza, under the mistaken belief that he was responsible for the disappearance of his own boss.

While I can't quite advocate those responsible for the Iraq war carrying out a similar act of contrition and penance, it'd be nice to think that if they're not going to properly apologise and instead continue to only make more than clear why they fell into such a hideous mistake in the first place that they'd just shut up.

Take the interview in today's Grauniad with Geoff Hoon. Not only does he not tell us anything that even the most bone-idle political commentator could have worked out for himself, but he talks with such a self-regard and haughty attitude that you wonder why he even bothered taking part in a discussion where he was going to asked about Iraq. Instead, he just comes across as unutterably ignorant:

"Sometimes ... Tony had made his point with the president, and I'd made my point with Don [Rumsfeld] and Jack [Straw] had made his point with Colin [Powell] and the decision actually came out of a completely different place. And you think: what did we miss? I think we missed Cheney."

Well, at least we know that he and Rumsfeld were on first name terms, although why you'd want to be is a mystery in itself. After 4 years then, Hoon's conclusion is that they missed the vice-president, long regarded as being the real power behind the commander in chief. To give him a slight amount of credit, this may be more out of defending the special relationship than anything else, as the whole Iraq debacle and almost everything since then has only made one thing clear: we have absolutely no influence in Washington whatsoever. Blair was taken for a ride because he either couldn't see the real reasons behind the inexorable march to war, or he indeed did and was fully behind them, only for his "liberal intervention" to go horribly wrong.

Giving the most frank assessment of the postwar planning, Mr Hoon, admits that "we didn't plan for the right sort of aftermath".

Or rather, as we know, they didn't do any planning for any sort of aftermath. The State Department drew up a full plan for post-Saddam Iraq only for Rumsfeld to throw it out the window and leave Paul Bremer to install his shock therapy, both economically and socially.

"Maybe we were too optimistic about the idea of the streets being lined with cheering people. Although I have reconciled it in my own mind, we perhaps didn't do enough to see it through the Sunni perspective. Perhaps we should have done more to understand their position."

Oh, that's all right then. Geoff's came to terms with himself everyone! This is the type of vapid navel-gazing after the fact that you expect from a teenager, not a politician. Perhaps, maybe, should, it's all a little bit late.

Of the summary dismissal of Iraq's 350,000-strong army and police forces, Mr Hoon said the Americans were uncompromising: "We certainly argued against [the US]. I recall having discussions with Donald Rumsfeld, but I recognised that it was one of those judgment calls. I would have called it the other way. His argument was that the Iraqi army was so heavily politicised that we couldn't be sure that we would not retain within it large elements of Saddam's people."

The dismantling of several ministries and removal from office of all state employees with Ba'ath party membership was also an error, Mr Hoon says.

The decision is widely seen to have paralysed the country's infrastructure. "I think we probably saw it in a different way [to the US]. I think we felt that a lot of the Ba'ath people were first and foremost local government people, and first and foremost civil servants - they weren't fanatical supporters of Saddam."

The other huge error which isn't mentioned here is the reliance of the US on the Iraqi exiles who had both their own agendas, as well as some of them not having been in Iraq for decades. Their faulty information was at the forefront both of the intelligence which was dead wrong, and at the decisions which were then subsequently made. The imposition of the puppet Coalition Provisional Authority, over the head of any interim Iraqi authority which could have advised and helped avoid these monumental errors was of much the same problem: the complete failure of the British government to have almost any influence whatsoever.

Mr Hoon also expressed regret over the government's claim in the run-up to war that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, which, he now accepts, turned out to be false. He said he had "gradually come to the acceptance" the weapons did not exist. But he insisted the government had acted in good faith.

He still does not understand why the intelligence proved to be false. "I've been present at a number of meetings where the intelligence community was fixed, and looked in the eye and asked are you absolutely sure about this? And the answer came back 'Yes, absolutely sure'."

Mr Hoon added: "I saw intelligence from the first time I came into office, in May 1999 - week in, week out - that said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction ... I have real difficulty in understanding why it was, over such a long period of time, we were told this and, moreover, why we acted upon it."

We know through various memos that Sir Richard Dearlove had indicated that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" and that Blair would not budge "from his support for regime change". We know that the dossiers were sexed-up. As for Hoon's memories of the intelligence he say week in, week out, Robin Cook, who doubtless saw the exact same intelligence, made clear in his resignation speech that "Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term - namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target." As it turned out, even Cook's mentioning that Iraq probably had biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions was wrong.

On the question of an apology, he says: "That's the whole thing about apologising, and saying we were wrong. - it's quite hard. You can say "it did not turn out as we expected" and "we made some bad calls", but at the end of the day I defy anyone to to go through what we went through and come to a different conclusion".

2 million on the streets of London came to a different conclusion, a majority on the UN security council came to a different conclusion, even the Liberal Democrats came to a different conclusion, and that was without 4 years of hindsight. If even now the ministers responsible for this catastrophe cannot think of any different outcome, then maybe they really do deserve having their tongues ripped out.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007 

Iraq: four years on.

A mother and child walk past the body of an alleged failed suicide bomber.

It somehow doesn't seem possible that it's four years on from the beginning of the Iraq war. Or, indeed, that the war itself has probably claimed casualties every day since March the 20th 2003. Even those of us opposed to the invasion didn't even in our worst nightmares come close to predicting the hell that has engulfed the country since then. I thought that a quick war, followed by the US quickly putting into position some minor figure from the Ba'ath party as a puppet president, or one of its favoured exiles, while elections were planned was the most likely outcome, with some groups possibly continuing to fight the Americans until they left. Instead, a quick victory was followed by unfathomable incompetence at every turn, mass corruption, gross human rights abuses by both the coalition, jihadists and the new Iraqi government, and the slow but steady eruption of an internal conflict that looks very much like a civil war, even if some Iraqis reject that description.

To sort of answer Tim's question about what you were doing on that day, I, being a puffed-up idiotic 18-year-old who was big on daft political gestures, bunked off from sixth-form and err, did nothing. I don't remember whether I used the internet that day - I might well have done, although I also went through a period during 2003 of trying to keep off it, but I do recall watching the more brave members of my age group perform sit-in protests in the road across from the Houses of Parliament, occasionally being lifted away by the police, who were struggling to deal with something that the clearly hadn't bargained on happening. I wish I'd had the guts to do something like that.

Where are we then, four years into this war without apparent end? Our leaders themselves remain in office, despite all the justifications for the war being destroyed one by one. True, some of the most egregious of the warmongers have either resigned, moved on or been sacked, but Blair still occupies 10 Downing Street and George Bush was re-elected, only for his ratings to plummet and for the Democrats to at last win back both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Here, despite endless debate, we still have to put up with the utterly shameless activities of some in the Labour party, like Ann Clywd, who on Monday appeared on Newsnight to again triumph how wonderful everything in Iraq was, or at least in Kurdistan, which had been semi-autonomous for years before the invasion and had already had its own army and security force which wasn't disbanded in the aftermath by the idiots put in charge of the Transitional Authority. Even then, there are regularly attacks in the main cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, which Ms Clywd, having given up her previous status as a sometime member of the awkward squad to support Blair's war would rather you didn't know about.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Labour continues to dismiss any links between the Iraq war and the growing terrorist threat not just Britain, but to the entire world. 7/7 did not occur in a vacuum, whether those who took part were genuinely radicalised by the war or not. Those soldiers who went out to fight the war have returned to find themselves scorned and forgotten by the government that did so much to make sure that their completely unnecessary addition to the US "coalition" took place. The army itself sees the reality on the ground in Iraq, that the presence of British troops in Basra is only making the situation worse rather than helping improve the security situation and that it's time to get out, but the government would rather ignore this astute analysis and instead draw down the number of troops slowly in deference to their ultimate masters in Washington.

For the Iraqis themselves, after suffering almost incomparably since Saddam launched the war against Iran in 1980, (with Western backing) many did indeed welcome the overthrow of the hated dictator, but their gratitude for their "liberation" was soured by the years of sanctions that had resulted in the deaths of at least 500,000 children (PDF), infamously referred to by Madeline Albright as being "worth it", and by the humiliation of not personally being responsible for their leader's downfall. The first signs that some of the Iraqi people were becoming restive were suppressed by the Americans with lethal force; 17 protesters in Fallujah were shot dead on April the 28th of 2003, with two more killed in another protest two days later. This can now be seen four years on as the catalyst for the beginning of the insurgency, which resulted in the tribes north of Baghdad aligning themselves with the emerging jihadist groups.

The death toll, from the occupation, the indiscriminate tactics of the insurgents and the sectarian conflict sparked by the destruction of the Al-Askari
mosque in February of 2006 is impossible to know for certain. At the very, very least, 100,000 have died since March 2003. The Lancet study of last year estimated that the most likely figure was 655,000, although the margin of error was between 350,000 and 900,000, and as that study is now six months old, the total would now again be even higher. The everyday horror of life, especially in Baghdad and Anbar province, although despite claims to the contrary there are attacks throughout the country almost daily, is also close to being impossible to imagine. For the last year or so dozens of bodies, many showing signs of torture, others with heads either missing or separated from their bodies, have been dumped on the streets in the dead of night. Photographs routinely show men, women and children walking past dead bodies as if they weren't there, or rather wishing they weren't there. A blogger on McClatchy's Baghdad Bureau site describes in excruciating detail how a friend's brother was kidnapped, with them eventually having to search the morgues for his body after he wasn't released despite a ransom being paid. The burying of unidentified bodies is contracted out, with the contractor taking photographs of every body before burial in case the family does eventually come looking. In this case, he had a photograph of the friend's brother, his body bruised and with a hole drilled in his forehead, but when they went to where he was meant to have been buried, his grave was nowhere to be found.

With all this in mind, the results of the BBC polling of 2,000 Iraqis (PDF) were nowhere near as pessimistic as you might imagine. While 2 million have been displaced inside Iraq itself, and a similar amount have fled to surrounding countries, 42% at least believe that their children will have a better life, with 37% thinking the opposite, and 58% still believe the country should remain unified, with 43% supporting democracy. While 35% believe that the coalition forces should leave immediately, 69% think the presence of the US forces is making the security situation worse. Support for attacks on coalition forces is almost split right down the middle: 51% deeming them acceptable with 49% against.

There are also some developments that are worth being cautiously optimistic about. There does finally appear to be a schism opening between the jihadists and the Sunni tribes in Anbar; Sheikh Abdul Sattar has turned against the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq, and according to this Channel 4 News report, has succeeded where the Americans have failed in arresting and flushing out some of the mujahadeen. The surge, after six weeks, has succeeded in bringing down sectarian violence and the number of deaths, although this may simply be a repeat of what happened in Fallujah, with the insurgents and others getting out only to return later once the troops have left. The ISI, which incidentally on its press release blog never claims responsibility for attacks on civilians which its affiliated groups are almost certainly behind, has become more desperate in its tactics in response to this, using chlorine alongside the more conventional explosives in its truck/car suicide bombings. Another report, unconfirmed, was that two children were used in a car bombing at the weekend as decoys.

For if Iraq is going to emerge from this disaster inflicted by the West, the solution is within its own borders. There is little more that we or anyone else can do. It would be naive to think that our immediate withdrawal would result in the violence ending, but it would also be daft to imagine that the sectarian violence would spiral out of control, or that the insurgents would quickly overthrow the government. If anything, the current al-Maliki coalition is weak because it has to justify itself more to Washington than it does to the Iraqi people. As Simon Jenkins argued yesterday, Iraq has had to put up with over a decade of interference from outside. It has to be hoped that in another four years Iraq will be standing on its own, foreign troops long gone, a still unified country gaining in confidence. If this is to happen, we have to get out, and if not right now, very soon.


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