Diplomatic solution on Iraq must be pursued

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2007, 12:00am

When the US-led military operation dubbed 'Shock and Awe' stormed into Iraq to overthrow dictator Saddam Hussein on March 20, 2003, there was no reason to suggest it would be anything but: this was, after all, the world's most powerful fighting force by far. As the conflict enters a fifth year with no end in sight, the obvious lesson is that brute force alone is no substitute for diplomacy.

US President George W. Bush, who prematurely declared victory within six weeks, has learned the lesson the hard way. He has now changed tack, taking on board the advice of consultants, and decided to engage all involved parties - including long-time enemies Iran and Syria - in finding a solution.

This is the only way ahead, but one that must be accompanied by the US and its allies remaining militarily involved to provide security until Iraqi forces can be adequately trained to replace them. As objectionable as the war was to begin with without United Nations approval, the US has a moral obligation to stay the course until Iraqis can provide peace and stability for themselves.

Sadly, that may take several more years or even longer. Iraq is a complex nation, created artificially by Britain after the first world war and in the intervening period, wracked by conflict, ethnic unrest, coups and assassinations. It is now clear that Hussein's rein of fear and brutality was largely the reason the country stayed together.

Hussein was captured, put on trial and, in December, executed. Three of his cronies have since also been hanged - his former vice-president was executed yesterday. But the brutality has not gone with their passing. Civil unrest between rival Muslim sects and attacks by supporters of the terrorist group al-Qaeda have made the nation even more dangerous.

The statistics tell much - up to 150,000 Iraqis killed since the invasion, 1,440 in January alone, according to the Iraqi government; almost 3,500 foreign soldiers dead, more than 3,200 of them American; and 2 million Iraqis made refugees, a further 1.8 million of them homeless within their own country. But figures alone do not tell the grim reality of what Iraqis face. They venture onto the streets for the necessities of life in constant fear of being caught up in the insurgency bordering on civil war that is tearing their nation apart. Many live in poverty, most are unemployed, and electricity and water supplies are erratic.

Iraqis have the democracy that Mr Bush promised, but it is fragile; discord among the majority Shiite Muslims, a lack of co-operation with the formerly ruling Sunni Muslims, and ethnic Kurds caught in the middle make for an incohesive government. The oil industry, the mainstay of the nation's economy, is operating well below capacity, denying Iraqis much-needed revenue. Unrest has stunted investment and development.

Mr Bush has seen the immediate way ahead as filling the security gap created by the lack of sufficiently trained Iraqi police, soldiers and security forces. He has sent more troops to bolster the coalition forces - but this alone is not the solution. That lies in a comprehensive approach aimed primarily at a diplomatic solution brokered through Iraq's ethnic and religious groups, neighbouring countries and regional and international organisations.

A multinational conference in Baghdad on March 11 was the beginning of such a process and it must continue through higher-level gatherings and the work of committees. Although the US did not directly hold talks with long-time adversaries Iran and Syria, its diplomats at future talks must set history aside in the name of working towards bringing stability to Iraq. The Bush administration has made a welcome policy shift. Its efforts to find a diplomatic solution rather than a military one must continue.

Mr Bush has made promises to Iraqis and he is morally obligated to do his utmost to deliver them. How this is to be achieved may, for now, not seem straight-forward, but his goal is clear: handing Iraq back to Iraqis as soon as is feasible.