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LIBERAL DEMOCRATS

 

BACKGROUND PAPER ON IRAQ , 24/01/07

 

THE TIME HAS COME:  PULL BRITISH TROOPS OUT OF IRAQ

 

The Liberal Democrats' record on Iraq has been one of timely good judgement at each stage since 2002. Unfortunately, governments on both sides of the Atlantic have failed to listen. 

 

Not only did they proceed with invading Iraq without the support of the United Nations or the underpinning of international law, they also failed to plan properly for the aftermath.  This has led directly to the situation now faced in Iraq , where, despite their professionalism and dedication, British troops are often seen as part of the problem, not the solution.

 

The British and American governments have had many opportunities to change the strategy in Iraq .  The latest came with the publication of the report of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) in December 2006, which urged the Bush administration to change course, in particular to begin the phased withdrawal of coalition troops and draw Iraq ’s neighbours, including Iran and Syria , into an international consensus on the way forward.

 

President Bush has rejected the ISG recommendations and instead will be increasing troop levels and adopting a more robust approach. The Labour Government has shown itself unable or unwilling to influence the Bush administration or to formulate a British strategy for Iraq .

 

The Liberal Democrats have no confidence that President Bush’s new strategy can improve the situation.  The fact that the Bush administration has decided against adopting the advice of the ISG shuts off the last prospect of our ongoing presence having a positive effect

 

Iraq is now on the verge of civil war. The new strategy will accelerate the descent into civil war and heighten sectarian differences.

 

With both US and British governments seemingly determined to reject a new strategy, the Liberal Democrats believe the time has come to withdraw British troops from Iraq .

 

The announcement of withdrawing British troops should be made immediately. The relevant Iraqi authorities need to be informed and the logistics properly prepared.  The first British troops would be coming home from the start of May and the British military part of the multinational division would leave Iraq by the end of October

 

 

THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS & IRAQ: BACKGROUND

 

All now agree that there were no WMD in Iraq in 2003.  The rationale for the March 2003 invasion was flawed and the invasion illegal.  The Labour Government’s frequent argument since then that the invasion was justified by the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime contradicts its repeated statements before the invasion that it was the issue of WMD, not the character of the regime, that justified intervention.  Nor does the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein bestow any legality on the invasion of Iraq .

 

Once Parliament had voted for the intervention, against the unanimous opposition of Liberal Democrat MPs, we supported our troops in a battle that they had been instructed by the Labour Government to undertake. 

 

However, the lack of control of looting, and the subsequent poor decision making by the appointees of the Bush administration in the immediate aftermath have undermined any good will that ordinary Iraqis may have felt towards coalition troops for removing Saddam.

 

The Liberal Democrats argued that the UN should be given the lead in the post invasion period, and criticised the Coalition Provisional Authority's (CPA) approach led by the Pentagon.  Subsequent evidence has shown that our concerns were shared by UK officials who were able to exert no influence on the Bremer regime.  The CPA period was a lost opportunity for reconstruction, and economic and political development.

 

The Liberal Democrats welcomed the constitutional process, but expressed concerns over the provisions which seemed to encourage partition and sectarian tensions.  The continuing heavy handed approach by US forces, in particular in Abu Graib and Fallujah, did much to make the security situation worse. Corrupt use of reconstruction funds further worsened the situation.

 

As the numbers of Iraqis being killed, and also the numbers fleeing the country, mounted through 2005 and 2006, the Liberal Democrats argued for internationalising the situation and bringing in all the neighbouring states to help stabilise the situation. By the end of 2006, the US Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group came to the same conclusion.  The ISG report received a tentative welcome by the UK government.  Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said “we get the impression that their thinking was broadly in line with our own but obviously we need to read and digest their formal recommendations and the Prime Minister will of course have an opportunity to discuss the report with President Bush in Washington tomorrow.”  Tony Blair himself was careful not to endorse fully any particular recommendations until President Bush decided on the next course of action. 

 

Tony Blair refuses to release the transcript of his own evidence to the Iraq Study Group, so it is difficult to measure how far the report was in line with British thinking, however it is clear that the strategy they recommended was compatible with British interests in the region and in line with comments from senior military officers, such as General Richard Dannatt, that withdrawal should happen sooner rather than later.

 

In January 2007, President Bush announced that he would not be adopting this strategy, but would be increasing US troop levels, focusing on security in Anbar province and Baghdad , and using a more robust approach.

 

 

A BRITISH STRATEGY FOR WITHDRAWAL

 

The Liberal Democrats have no confidence that President Bush’s new strategy to reinforce his previous failures, can improve the situation. 

 

Iraq is now on the verge of civil war. The new strategy is likely to accelerate the descent into civil war and heighten sectarian differences.

 

After four years of occupation, coalition forces have become more a focus for resentment than a force for containing internal conflict. US forces, under President Bush’s proposals, will be targeting Sunni insurgents in Anbar, and may conduct hot pursuit operations into Syria . They will be targeting Shias in Sadr City . They have already taken action against Iranian officials in the Kurdish north. The Bush Administration has rejected engaging with Iran and Syria . Indeed there are worrying signs that the US may be moving towards preparing for hostilities against Iran . The UK can expect to have no influence on the US strategy, but may suffer from any Shia backlash in the South.

 

This combination of circumstances brings us to the conclusion that it is now no longer in the UK national interest to maintain a military presence in Iraq . Given the lack of UK influence over strategy in Iraq , the deepening sectarian conflict, and the increasing antipathy of the Iraqi people to the coalition forces, the time has come to plan a controlled exit for British forces. This must be done in such a way as to minimise risks to other coalition forces, and also avoid exacerbating the violence.

 

There is, however, a continuing moral obligation on the UK (following our 2003 intervention) not to take action that will significantly worsen the situation in Iraq . This calls for a difficult judgment on the relative effects of staying or leaving. UK forces have had more success in the South of Iraq than others have had elsewhere. This is partially because of tactics, but also because it is a Shia area with less sectarian violence. Senior military commanders have warned of the dangers where the assisting forces over time become seen as the oppressors, and become themselves targets. The point at which UK forces are doing more harm than good is difficult to judge, but after 4 years we judge this point is close.  If the US , under its new strategy, targets Shia strongholds, this may cause increased animosity towards MND forces in the South.  A clear timetable for withdrawal might reduce such tension.

 

The UK also has a responsibility to its allies in Iraq . It must not take precipitate action which would endanger MND forces. Consultation would be required with other allies in MND (SE) currently under UK command ( Australia , Czech Republic , Denmark , Italy , Japan , Lithuania , Portugal and Romania ). It would also be necessary to negotiate with the US forces a handover of control of security of the supply routes through MND (SE) to Kuwait . The drawdown of the air component, some of which operates beyond the UK sector, would also need to be co-ordinated with the US forces.

 

Finally, the UK must discharge its wider international responsibility to promoting peace in Iraq . As we have said before, this needs to be led through the auspices of the UN. We need to continue to argue for regional engagement through the UN. We also need to ensure that we continue to make contributions to reconstruction needs through the UN and other bodies. This would include contributing to the training of Iraqi soldiers and police through NATO and the EU.

 

We should also examine how we might more fairly meet our obligations to refugees from the violence in Iraq . While there might be attractions to engaging in bilateral discussions with Iran and Kuwait , as the neighbouring states to our area of responsibility, this would run the risk of confusing further the overall strategy for Iraq . If US policy does not allow the UN to take a lead in regional discussions, then we should look to the EU to take a lead. We must continue to argue for urgent action on the peace process for Israel and Palestine .

 

 

THE DRAWDOWN PLAN

 

The withdrawal of UK forces should be to a strict timetable, so that all concerned can make firm plans. The fourth anniversary of the formal end of the combat phase of the invasion will be on 1 May 2007 , and reductions could begin from that date and be completed within 6 months. Such a timetable will give up to three months for negotiations with the Iraqi government, allies in the coalition forces, and neighbouring states, to ensure the optimum drawdown arrangements. It is likely that three out of the four UK provinces will already be handed over to Iraqi forces by then, leaving Basrah. The city would be handed over between May and July. Tornado GR4 in Qatar would also be removed from coalition air forces during this period. The logistic supply route to Kuwait would then be handed over between August and September, and final withdrawal of remaining training, logistic and air support assets completed in October.

 

We should review, and if necessary increase, our aid to Iraq , and ensure that our contribution is made through the UN.

 

Such a withdrawal plan would have to be handled sensitively with the Iraqi government, the local Basra authorities and the United States . It is however clear that we are unable to sustain operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq given the sustained over commitment of British forces. A drawdown is necessary if we are to be able to sustain our presence in Afghanistan , and given our belief that we are no longer improving the situation in Iraq .

 

 
 
 

 
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