The news from Iraq is bad, but many of the recommendations coming from London and Washington are worse. Dividing Iraq would abet ethnic cleansing and break the country into morsels more easily digested by neighbouring states. Outreach to Iran and Syria is no panacea: Tehran and Damascus treat diplomatic commitment with disdain; Iran’s revolutionary guards seldom abide by the promises of Iranian diplomats.

Imposing a strong man to govern is easier said than done: while Iraqis support the concept, consensus quickly breaks down; Iraq is a country with 100 would-be generals for every private. There is no magical political formula. Compromise is undercut both by maximalist demands and a growing belief that violence leads to concession. Withdrawal is the worst option: it would enable terrorism to flourish not only in Iraq, but around the world.

Solutions in Iraq require precise treatment of the problems. One in six Iraqis fled the country under Saddam Hussein. Those who settled in the west had no cultural impediment to democracy. This suggests the problem in Iraq is not democracy, but rather rule of law. Any solution to the Iraq quagmire, therefore, requires improving security, not creating a vacuum. The greatest impediment to rule of law in Iraq is not the insurgency, still relatively localised, but the militias. These exist for one reason: to impose through force what citizens are unwilling to volunteer through the ballot box.

To improve security, the coalition must improve the police and eviscerate the militias. The problems are related. The interior ministry has become a refuge for militiamen and cover for death squads. As the coalition did with the reconstituted Iraqi army, the coalition troops must embed with the police at every level. There should not be any police checkpoint that does not include coalition soldiers, nor should there be any interior ministry raid conducted without a coalition supervisor outside. This requires resolving a catch-22: the coalition does not station its troops with the police because of inadequate security, but the driving forces of this insecurity are the police. If security is the goal, there is no shortcut.

A related lesson is that desire for short-term calm cannot trump the quest for long-term security. While it has become conventional wisdom that de-Baathification, the initial removal of Saddam’s party members from authority, sparked insurgency, the data show violence to be proportional to that policy’s subsequent reversal. In Mosul, US general David Petraeus spoke of reconciliation when he appointed senior Baathist General Mohammed Kheiri Barhawi to be that city’s police chief. He portrayed Mosul as a model of calm. But the peace was illusionary. Gen Barhawi was unreformed. He used his position to provide intelligence, equipment and arms to terrorists. In November 2004, he handed the keys of every police station in the city over to insurgents.

What Gen Petraeus did in the north, British commanders replicated in the south. While successive British commanders juxtaposed their non-confrontational strategy with more heavy-handed American tactics, the British approach sacrificed long-term stability for the sake of short-term calm. Rather than pacify southern Iraq, the British army enabled militias to entrench. Contrary to the belief of General Sir Richard Dannatt, the British army chief, occupation itself is not responsible for the deteriorating situation in Iraq, but rather the fact that militias have grown secure enough to believe themselves capable of defeating the British army.

Countering the militias need not require immediate confrontation, but rather more robust disruption of supply and operations. Both big Shia militias receive support from Iran. In 1992 the US forced down an Iranian aircraft ferrying men, money, and weapons to Bosnia. Such operations in Iraq lack only political will: US and British intelligence are well aware of Iranian supply lines.

It would be a mistake to abandon democracy. To do so would reaffirm the worst conspiracies about coalition intentions and drive Iraq into the arms of neighbouring states. Still, there is room for improvement in the election system.

The current system of proportional representation encourages populist rhetoric, empowers political parties that sponsor militias and encourages parties to form on ethnic and sectarian lines. The coalition should press the legislature to abandon party lists in favour of directly-elected constituencies. This would make Iraqi politicians more accountable to constituents than party leaders, but encourage them to discuss more the problems of security, electricity and school rather than spout corrosive rhetoric.

As violence spreads in Iraq, politicians are right to change course. But abandoning the Iraqis should not be an option. Rather, coalition strategy should address the rule of law directly, and remain cognisant that the war in Iraq has broader repercussions. While many in Britain and Europe believe war in Iraq to be illegal, they should not sacrifice ordinary Iraqis on the altar of anti-Americanism.

The writer, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly

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