Philip Stephens: The need to end terror in Iraq

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The impulse might have been to blame it on Tony Blair. An unspoken fear in 10 Downing Street in the aftermath of the London bombings was that the atrocity would be linked instantly in the public mind to the war in Iraq. In the event, the nation’s reaction steadied political nerves. Resilience and stoicism have elbowed aside recriminations. So far.

For a moment on Thursday morning, Mr Blair was visibly shaken. It was only a moment. We have witnessed since the extraordinary political intuition which that has so often seen him capture and articulate the national mood. Prime ministerial empathy and resolve have held up a mirror to a nation that feels bloodied but unbowed.

There has been dissent. George Galloway, the former Labour MP who now leads Respect, the anti-war party, surprised no one with an ugly assertion in the House of Commons that the victims of the atrocity had “paid the price” for Mr Blair’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Others have bitten their lips. Anger about Iraq runs wide across the political spectrum. Scarcely a week seems to go by without Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, calling for Mr Blair to resign for embroiling Britain in an illegal war. London’s liberal intelligentsia will never forgive the prime minister for backing George W. Bush. Parts of the BBC are still obsessed with proving that Mr Blair misled the nation into war.

Such anti-war voices have thus far had little resonance. They must have been sorely disappointed in the first response to the attacks of Ken Livingstone, the London mayor and a staunch opponent of the war. Mr Livingstone made the important point that responsibility for the carnage lies solely with the perpetrators. There are no ifs or buts.

For his part, Mr Blair has pointed out that the roots of al-Qaeda run far deeper than regime change in Baghdad. The Americans came under attack throughout the 1990s; and September 11 2001 was the spur to Mr Bush’s decision to invade Iraq rather than the reverse.

The prime minister might have looked back further to the support of the CIA and other western intelligence agencies for the jihadist insurgency against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He could have recalled also the west’s backing for a regime in Saudi Arabia that which for decades exported its Islamist extremism. This latter point, though, would risk embarrassment. Britain, albeit in plentiful company, turned a blind eye in pursuit of Saudi arms contracts. Mr Blair was in Saudi Arabia only 10 days ago giving political backing to British defence contractors. There is something badly wrong here.

Linking last week’s attacks to Iraq misunderstands the guiding purpose of al-Qaeda. For the jihadis, ridding the Middle East of foreign troops is but a small step on the long march to an Islamist hegemony in which all vestiges of western culture, democracy and religious faiths are eradicated. These are people who planned a second atrocity in Spain after a new government in Madrid had withdrawn its troops from Iraq.

That said, Britain’s mood may not indefinitely be so rational and forgiving. The uncomfortable truth is that the ambitions and capabilities of the jihadis cannot be divorced entirely from the bloodshed in Iraq. The toppling of Saddam Hussein did not cause Islamist extremism but the present insurgency serves both as recruiting agent and training ground for al-Qaeda’s war against the west.

Whatever one thinks of the original decision to remove Mr Hussein, the hubris that preceded the invasion and the negligence that has followed it have given strength and succour to the Islamists. Culpability here lies largely with the US Pentagon but Mr Blair carries guilt by association.

The answer is not, as those who opposed the war now argue, unilateral withdrawal. To leave Iraq to certain civil war would be to multiply past mistakes and to invite further terrorist blackmail. To suggest that appeasement would make London safer is a grotesque fantasy.

Yet doing nothing is not an option. What is needed now is a ferocious international effort to demonstrate that the west’s interest in the Middle East lies in promoting the freedom and security of Muslim nations. That, in turn, demands of the global community – not just of the US and Britain – a redoubling of efforts to help Iraqis defeat the insurgency and reclaim their destiny with a new constitution and elections. It requires, simultaneously, an intense focus to ensure that Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza next month is the beginning of a process that leads to Palestinian statehood.

As Mr Blair has said more than once since last Thursday, the best answer to terrorism is to show that politics works.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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