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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 May, 2004, 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK
Iraq abuse portends hard times

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The events of a disastrous week for the US-led coalition in Iraq have left senior officials profoundly depressed about the prospects over the next few months.

A hooded and wired Iraqi prisoner is seen at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, Iraq in this undated photo. (AP Photo/Courtesy of The New Yorker)
The world's outrage over the photos has shaken the Bush administration (AP/Courtesy The New Yorker)
One British source even said: "I still don't despair that we can create a society which is better than that of Saddam Hussein" - a stunningly unambitious target compared to what was envisaged.

That comment might have been born of the despair of the moment - when images of Iraqis being abused were being published across the world and when even US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was being forced to make a public apology.

But it also expresses the underlying fear that the US and Britain are now reduced to muddling through and that sooner or later, even those Iraqis who want the foreign forces to stay, will conclude that an exit strategy is required.

Yugoslav scenario?

In the worst-case scenario, the troops would leave Iraq in chaos and the country might then split up.

Donald Rumsfeld
To those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of the US armed forces, I offer my deepest apology
Donald Rumsfeld

One senior former American diplomat who helped split up the former Yugoslavia has already suggested doing the same with Iraq.

At this stage, the plan is that the troops will stay indefinitely, by agreement.

There are three upcoming Iraqi governments which could change that.

In theory, one senior British official said, the interim government, which takes over on 30 June, could ask the foreign troops to leave. It is unlikely to do so because it will depend on those troops for its authority.

But such a request, even from a caretaker body with virtually no power, could simply not be refused.

'More to come'

Next January, a "transitional" government selected by an elected assembly takes over and this will have clear legal powers to deal with the issue.

If things have not got better by then, the question of the troops' departure is bound to be debated.

By the beginning of 2006, a directly elected government should be in power. And such a government will have its own views.

One British official said: "I think it increasingly unlikely that a future Iraqi government will be able to go to an Arab League meeting and justify the presence of foreign troops. You have to remember that Iraq has always played a leading role in Arab nationalism and we must expect it to do so again."

The unhinging of the coalition position has been hastened of course by the impact of the photos and by its inability to exert security control.

And, as Mr Rumsfeld said in his testimony, there are more photos and indeed videos which could come out.

The Americans hope that, by adopting a mea culpa position, they can reduce the harmful effects of the photos. That remains to be seen.

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