From Northern Ireland to Iraq, you have to talk to the bad guysby Derek Coombs / September 25, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
The violence by Sunni insurgents in Iraq seems unstoppable. US troops frequently cannot distinguish friends from enemies and sometimes overreact. According to the Iraqi health ministry, up to twice as many civilians have been killed by US military action than by terrorist bombs. This breeds recruits for the insurgency at a faster rate than they can be killed.
The country is verging on civil war and the coalition needs to take a step back and consider other alternatives.
When I was in parliament in 1972, I was asked by Willie Whitelaw, then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, to maintain contact with militant republicans, including some elements of the IRA. My cover was that of a journalist and my job was to see if there was any chance of a peaceful solution to what seemed like an intractable problem. (These efforts led indirectly to the Sunningdale agreement, which was, however, rejected by the unionist parties.)
The US is, similarly, said to be keeping channels open with spokesmen for the insurgents. But clearly new thinking is needed, and even ideas which may not be attractive to the Bush administration will have to be considered.
The Sunni Arabs represent about 20 per cent of the Iraqi population. They were the main beneficiaries of the Saddam regime and many were members of the ruling party. A significant minority now believe that they will be squeezed out in a Shia and Kurd-dominated democratic Iraq and feel that they have nothing to lose by continuing the violence.
If the US military cannot defeat them and the new Iraqi army is not capable of controlling the country, the Americans have the choice of either increasing troop numbers—which they will not do with the war declining in popularity at home and mid-term congressional elections due in 2006—or doing some sort of deal.
I learned from my experience that the man with the gun usually feels that he has right on his side too. So a new initiative which offers something to all sides—the coalition forces, the democratic forces in Iraq and the insurgents—is the best way ahead.
The insurgents’ aim is withdrawal of US troops. The aim of the coalition and Iraqi democrats is to stop the violence. So a possible deal might look something like the following. If the insurgents undertake to stop the violence and acknowledge the legitimacy of Iraq’s new democracy, the coalition in return will grant an amnesty for their misdeeds and promise that its troops will be withdrawn at the end of a 12-month trial period.
Even in the likely event of this proposal being rejected by the men of violence it would be a propaganda victory for democratic Iraq and further proof of the fanaticism of the insurgents.
We must not scuttle away, as some reports suggest the Americans are planning to do by the middle of next year. If we do that, the insurgents will have a free hand to slaughter barely trained Iraqi soldiers and policemen, and then we will have a real civil war rather than a suppressed one.
We are at a crossroads—the war cannot be won. Eventually the American people will tire of Iraq and demand a withdrawal, as in Vietnam. We must act before it is too late.