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Last Updated: Monday, 17 October 2005, 12:19 GMT 13:19 UK
No easy answers to Iraq's troubles
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor

I used to think the essence of good reporting lay in showing people that subjects they had always thought were too complicated to understand could in fact be explained simply and easily.

Young girl watches ballots change hands in polling office
All eyes are on how Iraq's Sunnis stomach the constitution

Now, though, I have changed my mind. Everyone, from the man beside you at the bar to the writers of newspaper editorials, seems to think there is an easy answer to everything.

I have come to realise that good reporting should show people that the big issues of the day are usually complicated, and require real thought; that simple, off-the-cuff answers - bring the troops home, smash the insurgents now, DO something - are often just the result of impatience and ignorance, not of understanding.

Take Saturday's referendum in Iraq.

In the old days in Iraq, the ludicrous results which Saddam Hussein routinely used to get for his referendums and elections were genuine enough in one sense: it was so dangerous to cast a vote against Saddam that almost everyone did exactly as they were told in the voting-booth.

And so, back in January, some Iraqi friends of mine wept with the sheer pleasure of being able to vote freely, for the first time in their entire lives. It was wonderful to see.

Unedifying wrangling

Yet if you look at the aftermath of the January election, and at the likely outcome of Saturday's constitutional referendum, it is clear they have made the fierce divisions within Iraq much deeper and more bitter than ever.

It is partly a numbers game. The Sunni minority, who always dominated Iraq, have been the embittered losers after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Armed guard at polling station
Ballots were cast on Saturday under the shadow of the gun

Iraq's Shia majority, having been kept down by successive governments ever since the British arrived in 1920, are celebrating their new power in all sorts of ways.

Some Shia politicians want the introduction of full Islamic law - others, the right to withhold their oil income from the central areas of the country, where the Sunni Arabs predominate.

So when the British and US governments praise the courage of Iraqis for braving the threats of the extremists in order to vote, they are right.

But the business of forcing through an entire constitutional process in a matter of a couple of years, as though Iraq was a normal country with long democratic experience, has made everything far worse.

Sometimes, it seems, the least admired and respected figure in post-Saddam Iraq is L Paul Bremer, the US administrator who masterminded the constitutional process.

The constitution itself, the result of some often quite unedifying wrangling between Iraqi politicians, is disturbingly vague about several crucial questions.

One section says blandly that revenues will be shared between the federal government in Baghdad and the various provincial governments - how they will be shared is a matter for later discussion.

Everything, now as in January's election, depends on how many Sunni Arabs are prepared to support the new system. Back in January it was clear that very few were. And now? Well, we will see over the next few days.

Tough choices

One of the shrewdest and best-informed commentators on Iraq is Professor Juan Cole of Michigan University.

He believes a rejection of the constitution by Sunni Arabs en masse would seem to be "a guarantee of ongoing guerrilla warfare against the new order, and possibly a partition of the country".

US soldiers on patrol in Mosul
The US' continued presence risks further inflaming Iraqi opinion

Maybe the results this week will show they have not rejected it en masse. But this vote certainly will not be enough to put an end to the insurgency, and could actually turn out to make the divisions within Iraq worse and more bitter.

So let's not pretend there are nice, easy answers to a complicated problem like Iraq. If the coalition troops were pulled out quickly, the guerrilla warfare and the possible partition of the country which Professor Cole talks about would get much worse.

And if the coalition troops stay, then the kind of lasting anger caused by US operations in places like Falluja, and the recent British actions in Basra, will also get worse.

Politics is rarely about doing the one obvious right thing instead of the wrong one. It is usually a choice between various deeply unappetising alternatives.

No easy answers

Last week in this column I wrote about the problems of dealing with Iran, and suggested that the only effective way was to use firm, quiet pressure on its government.

That annoyed all sorts of people who believed that "something should be done". But what? No one ever quite says.

Invade Iran? Hardly. The US and British armies are the two best in the world, yet they have so far proved unable to hold back, let alone stop, an insurgency of between 30,000 and 50,000 mostly untrained civilians.

Bomb Iran? After the international difficulties the British and Americans have experienced after the invasion of Iraq, no one is even going to suggest that.

So what are we left with? Firm, quiet pressure is just about it. You might not find your taxi-driver suggesting it, or the man standing beside you in the pub, or all of the people who write in to the BBC News website.

But let's not pretend that difficult problems always have nice, easy answers. They do not.

Use the form below to e-mail your comments on John Simpson's piece.

Part of the problem is so many people expect pain-free instant gratification and are taking advantage of the struggle of the Iraqi people for their own petty domestic agenda. Iraq's post-Saddam experience has not been out of line with other similar national transition stories.
How much hardship did it take post-war Germany and Japan, or post-revolution Russia (after 1919) to remerge as a new nation? Not to mention experiences in African wars. How many years and how much sacrifices did it take to win the Cold War? Instead of providing support and goodwill, the Iraq issues are used to prop up countless egos and demigods in Western media and politics. Do they realise their petty games actually do harm to the real Iraqis especially if it derails coalition efforts thereby throwing the Iraqis to the wolves?
Kangda Ren, London, UK

Regarding Iran, all I hear is bullying the country all the time. Why not try gaining their trust; they simply don't trust the west. As an Iranian living in the west I don't trust many of the policies that exist within the west especially many regarding foreign policy, but the Iranians in general have all sorts of reasons why they don't trust the west. From getting rid of Mossadeq and bringing back the Shah, to the 8 years of war with Iraq, the west were always against the Iranian people and government. So why not try to talk properly with the Iranians and build trust?
All I could see from the European proposal was nonsense, as the Iranian negotiator said the offer was like offering lollipops as an incentive. Be realistic people, stop being biased and be just when it comes to deciding who's doing the right or wrong and for God sake stop this entire bomb Iran, invade Iran malarkey, just look at the number of lives lost in Iraq, are we not supposed to learn from our mistakes?Mohammad N, London, UK

The truth is that Iraq is an artificial country devised after the 1st world war. It naturally divides into 3 areas (Kurdish, Sunni, Shia) and it's spiralling into it's natural state as fast it can. We should pull troops out and let it reach its stable position, even if that's 3 "countries" federated in only the loosest way.
Andy, UK

I am an optimistic person, however I believe Iraq's faith is sealed. Over the next few years we are going to witness a disintegration of the country into to total chaos. US and UK troops will pull out just as the Russians did from Afghanistan and the vacuum will be filled by war lords and local factions fighting each other, the result will be years of blood shed and loss of innocent Iraqi lives. Another Bin Laden like figure will emerge from all this chaos terrorising the world. Thank you Mr Bush and Blair making the world safer for all of us, your war against terror has really worked well.
Cyrus Azad, London, UK

John Simpson speaks great sense as usual. The issues which face the world are now so grave that it is time we all took responsibility for educating ourselves about them as best we can. And the quiet steady approach has a lot to recommend it.
Jim W., London, UK

It gives me no pleasure to say this; it's also unfortunate and difficult to imagine, but I see Iraq going in the same direction as Somalia. Contrary to what John said, I don't believe any dose of quiet diplomacy will persuade Iran to abandon its aim of achieving a permanent influence in Iraq or its utter contempt to dealing with the West peacefully. Sooner or later, the cost of maintaining a military presence in Iraq is going to be very expensive to the coalition and it is a matter of time before they withdraw. The prospect of civil war in Iraq should leave us with no doubt as to its devastating effect to the entire region, including Iran.
Moses Marcos, London, UK

I think international politics based on power has failed enormously. The strongest is not anymore free to do whatever to serve national interest. It is time to devise a new system to lay on international politics. In this regards, the strongest has a leading role to play but not to dictate. Otherwise, conflicts, destruction, killings, etc will go on and on.
M Mohamadiyeh, Amman, Jordan

I agree with John Simpson's comments. Since there are no easy answers, and outcomes are unpredictable, why do we allow our elected politicians - particularly in the UK and US - get us into this quagmire in the first place, and why we re-elect them, they having mislead us and continuing to insist there is an answer. Is it possible that our current 10-second news culture in tabloids and TV is reinforcing the public's belief that all they have to do is spend 10 seconds on a subject?
Karl Maenz, Bogis-Bossey, Switzerland

I don't think anyone is suggesting that the Iraqi constitution is a tidy solution or that it will somehow end the "insurgency". And now that it appears to be doing quite well, we see the desperately uninformed pundits resorting instead to ridiculous accusations of voter fraud. Can we not simply welcome progress when we see it?
Howard Telford, Chicago, USA

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