Paul Anderson,Tribune column, May 14 2004

First things first: the pictures of American troops humiliating Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison — which the US administration admits are not isolated incidents of abuse even though it denies there was a policy of torture — are utterly disgusting and shaming. And the substantiated reports that British troops also systematically mistreated prisoners, though not generally as badly, are a disgrace. There can be no excuse for such brutality. It is irrelevant that Saddam Hussein presided over much more and much worse torture, or indeed that most of the Arab regimes that have expressed horror at the Abu Ghraib pictures are hypocrites. Torture is wrong, full stop.

And it is not enough that George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair and Geoff Hoon have apologised, or that the US soldiers caught committing vile acts on camera are in the process of being court-martialled, or that the British authorities in Iraq apparently stopped hooding prisoners last year after the Red Cross complained. It is essential that the extent of official encouragement of and acquiescence in ill-treatment of prisoners is investigated, exposed and righted. The process must take in training programmes as well as orders on the ground in Abu Ghraib. It must encompass prison regimes in Guantanamo Bay and the US itself as well as in Iraq. And it must hold to account not only those who actually did the torture but everyone who knew about it and did nothing — both in the armed forces and among politicians.

It does not follow, however, as many on the Left have argued, including Tribune, that coalition troops should be withdrawn at once from Iraq. Yes, the past fortnight’s disgusting revelations have done massive damage to the credibility of the claim that the occupation is bringing democracy and human rights to Iraq. Yes, Iraqi opnion appears to have turned against the occupation (though the hard evidence is a single opinion poll). Yes, that in itself makes it more likely that the US and its allies will withdraw their troops in the not-too-distant future.

But getting out right now would only make matters worse.

The presence of the coalition troops remains essential, for a few more months at least, if the current mess in Iraq is not to become a total disaster. If there is to be any chance of implementing the coalition plan for setting up an interim Iraqi government at the end of June and then holding elections, Iraq first of all needs security. And at present, like it or not, the coalition troops are the only available means of providing it.

The idea of replacing them with a United Nations force is fine in principle, but such a force could not be organised overnight, not least because the UN has no experience of running the sort of security operation that the situation in Iraq currently demands. For now, the only alternative to keeping the coalition troops in place is to let Iraq sink into bloody chaos. And that is the worst of all possible scenarios, regardless of whether you think the war to topple Saddam was right or wrong.

Which is not to say that the occupation can continue as it has done for the past year. The scandal of Abu Ghraib makes it essential that the coalition cleans up its act at once and is seen to do so. Most obviously, as well as justice being done and being seen to be done over past ill-treatment of prisoners, all use of coercive interrogation techniques must now stop, prisons must be opened up to independent international inspection and private security contractors must be reined in.

But it will not be enough for the coalition to address only the way it treats prisoners, essential as that is. It also needs to demonstrate to Iraqis that it is serious about handing over real power to them. That means making a concerted effort to get the democratic process off the ground — not just by ensuring that the UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, is given every assistance in getting an interim government installed on schedule on June 30, but also by bringing forward the date for the elections, currently pencilled in for January next year, to early autumn, and by announcing a date for withdrawal of troops (say 12 or 24 months from now).

This would not guarantee a successful transition to democracy in Iraq, but it might just work — and there is precious little else that holds out any hope. Nothing other than elections can give a new Iraqi regime legitimacy; and nothing other than commitments to holding elections as soon as possible and getting the occupation over as soon as security is guaranteed can now legitimise continued occupation.

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