Friday, January 9, 2009

Iraq Has Changed for the Better - Al Hayat

John Hutton Al-Hayat
Earlier this month I attended the Regional Security Summit in Bahrain. The Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq , Dr Barham Saleh, was among the speakers. He spoke well. He talked about how an Iraq, growing in confidence, is looking to engage with its neighbours as a positive force in the region. To use his words an Iraq "at peace with itself and its neighbours".

I could not help thinking of this when reading Sir Cyril Townsend's recent piece for Dar Al Hayat in which it is suggested that the British mission in Iraq has failed. That analysis is simply wrong. Saddam Hussein's regime, which we and our coalition allies overthrew, not only suppressed and murdered the people of Iraq .

It presented a threat to the whole region - a region crucial to British interests. Its definition of engaging with its neighbours was to intimidate, bully, even invade them. It was not interested in being part of the international community. It sought confrontation not cooperation.

The decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein's regime was one I supported at the time and will continue to defend. The region is a safer place for the removal of Saddam. We should be proud of the part our forces have played in achieving this, and in helping to get the Iraqis to a stage where they are nearly ready to take on full responsibility for their own security in southern Iraq without our help.

As the Prime Minister announced yesterday, our Mission in Iraq will change next year to one focused on specialist training in a few areas. That will allow our forces to reduce from 4100 to around 400 by the end of July. As we reach this point it is not surprising that commentators are analyzing what our forces have achieved over the past six years. They have achieved much, as I saw for myself when I was able to walk around Three Mile Market in Basra with Iraqi forces and our soldiers who are training them a few weeks ago.

The reason we are redeploying our forces is simple: because our mission is on the verge of completion. By the time our troops withdraw, our job will, without question, be done. And if it was not, we wouldn't be going. Iraq today is a nation that has been changed for the better because the coalition wide plans for transition have worked. Plans which over a period of time placed the Iraqis in the lead in ensuring their own security.

The scale of the challenge in Basra has been daunting. We never claimed that we alone could solve the problems of a city neglected for decades by Saddam. But by helping the Iraqis find Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems, our Forces have achieved their aims. The Iraqis are now close to the point where they will no longer need our help apart from in a few niche areas like helping the Iraqi Navy.

As Dr Saleh put it, "Today Iraqi soldiers and police are initiating and leading operations across Iraq and are gaining the trust and support of the population." That was always where we were trying to get to. We have never abandoned the Iraqis or barricaded ourselves in our bases. We have been there alongside them offering support and advice.

During Operation Charge of the Knights, when Iraqi forces confronted and comprehensively defeated the militias in Basra last April, we were with them providing air support, artillery, medical treatment, logistics and a lot more. Basra is not perfect. Thirty per cent of Basrawis still do not have access to piped water. But compare that to the situation we discovered on coming into Basra in 2003.

Then, 77 per cent of the population faced that situation. There have also been huge improvements in power supply, hospitals and medical care, nutrition, school attendance and, of course, democracy. It is because we - working in partnership with the Iraqis we have mentored and our US and other allies- have been so successful in turning around the security situation over the past six years, that attention is now focussed on problems like water and electricity supply, litter in the streets and traffic congestion.

Security now ranks fifteenth is people's list of concerns. A place where people are thinking about such everyday matters is a place where people are not living in fear of being blown up - or, for that matter, being persecuted by their own government. It is because of the long-term peace secured by those who have fought and died in Iraq that we are now seeing the sort of continuing development that will improve the standard of living of all Iraqis: building infrastructure, supporting businesses, developing key industries such as agriculture and energy, and growing the economy.

As the military mission ends, the challenge now is to ensure that the business and reconstruction mission is every bit as successful. There are great opportunities for British investment and I hope we take them. For the first time in living memory, Iraqi people can now start to benefit collectively from their country's wealth and resources, rather than see the revenue creamed off and squandered by a corrupt regime. If that is not an achievement, then I do not know what is.

See the article on Al Hayat click here

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