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Last Updated: Monday, 3 May, 2004, 19:15 GMT 20:15 UK
Analysis: Withdrawal on the cards?

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

Events in Iraq have been spinning out of control - and out of control of the spinners - so fast on so many fronts that the W word - withdrawal - is now being mentioned.

British soldier in Basra
Coalition troops have found themselves targeted throughout Iraq
Charles Heyman, senior defence analyst for Jane's Consultancy Group, wrote in the London Times on Monday:

"It begins to look as though there is going to be a rather messy political solution to the whole affair, possibly brokered by the United Nations.

"Expect to see an agreement where both sides can claim some sort of a victory, followed by a rather hasty withdrawal of coalition troops at some stage in the next six months."

It is certainly true that on three fronts the coalition is not doing too well:

  • On the military, the insurgency has clearly spread from the few "former regime elements" and "foreign fighters" whom coalition spokesmen regularly blame.

    Will the interim government be able to command the loyalty of Iraqis to a sufficient degree to bring the insurgency under control?
    And the ability of the coalition to impose its own solutions has slipped away.

    The bizarre situation in Falluja is a prime example of this.

    The sight of former Republican Guard General Jasim Saleh appearing on the scene in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes and his old uniform to negotiate a security role for himself could hardly have contradicted the coalition's original aim of driving out the fighters from Falluja more vividly.

    And what has happened to Moqtada Sadr, the fiery young Muslim leader, who, we were told, was going to be brought to justice on a murder charge? Not much, it seems.

  • The propaganda war could not have gone worse with the publication of the photos of prisoner abuse.

    Whatever the origin of some of these photos, the damage has been done on the street.

    The pictures highlight the problem that the coalition, having failed to make the case for going to war over the elusive weapons issue, is now failing to make its second case - the moral argument that it can bring the rule of law to a land without law.

  • The third problem is political.

    Daily Mirror picture
    Images of alleged mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners have damaged the coalition
    There is now only May and June to go before the handover of "sovereignty" to an interim government.

    Yet this government will have no power. It will be able to make no new laws or change any law previously decreed by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

    It will also have very limited powers over the occupation troops, to be renamed the multi-national force.

    So will it be able to command the loyalty of Iraqis to a sufficient degree to bring the insurgency under control?

Tug of war

Against the gloomy predictions, one has to say that the will of the soon-to-be-appointed Iraqi Interim Government and that of the United States and the UK to see this through should not be underestimated.

Iraqi Maj Gen Jassim Mohammed Saleh, a veteran of the army and the Republican Guard, in Falluja
Saddam Hussein's generals re-emerging as an alternative
And there is always a risk that the herd instinct of journalists and commentators often predicts one thing while events produce another.

Christopher Hitchens, the gadfly journalist who has been one of the war's great supporters, writes acerbically of his fellow hacks in Slate magazine:

"It's now fairly obvious that those who cover Iraq have placed their bets on a fiasco or 'quagmire'."

He is still hoping for an eventual settlement in Iraq, which might go democracy's way:

"There are vast numbers of Iraqis - as we know from the leaflets distributed in Najaf, and the blogs from Baghdad, and from the hundreds of thousands who are exercising their right of return to the country - who do not wish to live under the rule of demented mullahs. The pulse and heart rate of the society have barely had a chance to register."

The problem is that a year after the invasion, there are still no plans for an election before the end of this year and therefore the "chance to register" for all those moderates is still not available.

The whole idea was based on the belief that, as in Germany and Japan after the war, resistance would collapse and that the task of building institutions could therefore be given time.

It is instructive, for example, that even at this stage in Iraq, the drawing up of voting lists is only just being examined.

Time, as it turned out, has not been on the coalition's side and the race between chaos and stability is still on.

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