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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 March, 2005, 15:10 GMT 16:10 UK
No 'Vietnam' but much to be done

By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor

Insurgents in Falluja [archive photo]
Insecurity is the main obstacle hindering Iraq's reconstruction
In the first of his weekly columns for the BBC News website, John Simpson assesses the difficulties of achieving unity in post-Saddam Iraq.

It is a pretty much unbroken rule: wars never turn out as the people who plan them expect they will.

If you look back at the things which supporters of the invasion of Iraq said in March 2003, you will not find they predicted any of the following:

  • that after two years, coalition soldiers would be dying at the rate of almost two a day, and Iraqi civilians at around 20 a day

  • that the road between Baghdad and the airport would be probably the most dangerous stretch of ground in the world

  • that in one of the world's great oil-producing countries, most Iraqis would have to buy their fuel on the black market because of shortages at the pumps

  • that in some areas of the country, women would be forced to wear Islamic dress by gangs of religious extremists

  • that a major international report would suggest that Iraq could see "the biggest corruption scandal in history".

Yet the invasion's opponents did not necessarily get it right either.

There were forecasts of huge numbers of civilian deaths, of outright defeat for the coalition, of the creation of a Vietnam in which the Americans would eventually be driven out of Iraq altogether.

None of these things has happened.

No Vietnam

The situation in Iraq is nothing like the Vietnam War, and it will not be.

Iraq is not splitting up, and does not seem to be heading that way.

The numbers are too small, for one thing: 200,000 insurgents, 150,000 US troops, a total of 1,500 incidents since the campaign of resistance began.

According to one senior American officer recently: "We can live with the kind of casualty levels we're getting.

"It's not the kind of thing that creates big campaigns back home."

Even the cost to the US tax-payer - $4.7bn a month - is something the American economy can easily absorb.

When the Iraqi elections took place earlier this year, there was a widespread feeling in Britain and the US that the problem of Iraq had been sorted out.

Sunni issue

The governments of George W Bush and Tony Blair believed the undoubted success of the elections justified the invasion of 2003.

Ibrahim Jaafari, who may become PM, and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani
Fears that Iraq would disintegrate have not been realised
All the emphasis was placed on the fact that the two main sections of the population which had been repressed under Saddam Hussein - the Shia Muslims and the Kurds - had voted in huge numbers, and had effectively taken control of the country.

Far less attention was paid to the Sunni Muslim minority, which feared it had lost power and would now be victimised.

The resistance to the coalition and its Iraqi allies is rooted in the Sunni community, and certainly has not declined.

Weeks later, the country is still waiting for a government.

The negotiations between the political groups are still going on, and it is not yet clear when they might produce a result.

Yet although there is certainly a feeling in Iraq that the country is rudderless at present, the political process itself has not been discredited and probably will not be.

The delay cannot be blamed on the Iraqi politicians, anyway: it is the direct result of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) which was agreed last year by hand-picked Iraqi politicians under the strong guidance of the Americans and British.

The TAL insists that two-thirds of the members of Iraq's new National Assembly should agree the new leadership. And since the main winners in the election, the mostly Shia United Iraqi Alliance, won only 51% of the seats, they are in heavy negotiation to get the remaining 16% they need. Hence the long delay.

There are a lot of things that are really worrying, two years after the invasion of Iraq.

The coalition has not yet shown that it has a serious answer to the uprising against them.

Shrinking coalition

The US commander in Iraq, Gen George Casey, said recently that "a combination of the political, the military, the economic, and the communications" would ultimately defeat the insurgency.

But of those, only the political aspect is even moderately positive for the coalition in Iraq today.

And in the meantime the coalition itself is shrinking, as ally after ally finds that supporting the American line is too unpopular back home.

Not everything is a disaster. The most serious anxiety at the time of the invasion was that the delicate balance between Iraq's population groups would be damaged, and that the Kurds and Shia would head for some kind of unilateral independence.

But Iraq is not splitting up, and does not seem to be heading that way. When a government is finally agreed, it should cement the union further.

Yet the basic problem remains: the Sunni population is as angry, resentful and resistance-minded as ever.

As the supporters of the invasion are finding two years on, you cannot step in, change the structure of a nation fundamentally and make everyone happy. There is a ferocious price to be paid, and on average two coalition soldiers and 20 Iraqi civilians pay it daily.


Your comments:

Imagine what $4.7 billion a month could do to alleviate poverty in Africa
Olusola Ayandele, Nigeria
"Even the cost to the US tax-payer - $4.7bn a month - is something the American economy can easily absorb". Imagine what $4.7 billion a month could do to alleviate poverty in Africa, get cures and care for HIV/Aids patients, prevent the growth of the terrorist network in the world. What a misplaced priority.
Olusola Ayandele, Ibadan, Nigeria

I do not think it is fair to judge the war in Iraq by simply considering the situation in Iraq itself. This war has had much further reaching consequences throughout the world. Look at Libya for instance.
Francois Beaufrere, Singapore

I don't believe the article goes into enough depth. How can you say it is not another Vietnam? The war is in its infancy, with the USA further alienating Iraqi civilians, the insurgency is forever growing. We can assess the situation in 5 years time. Also, 1,500 US deaths are manageable? What would be unmanageable 10,000? 15,000 maybe? You cannot put figures on life
Adam James Chowdhury, Leeds, England

This is an excellent example of a left-wing journalist trying his best to be objective. However, what no useful analysis of Iraq can leave out is a consideration of just what another 20 or 30 years of UN sanctions and brutal dictatorship under Saddam and his sons might have done to the country, the region, and the world. The fact that we will never know is something opponents of the war will forever have in their favour.
Sean Smith, Lemoore, California

Has the chance of a terrorist attack using WMD increased or not?
James, London
While summarising the pros and cons of the war in Iraq in isolation makes for easily digestible reading, to truly evaluate its effects we need to step back and look at the bigger picture and question if the world will be safer in the long term as a result of the war. In short, has the chance of a terrorist attack using WMD increased or not? I'm not sure.
James, London

I just would like to say that Mr Simpson has most of his report based on 'political facts' that are moderated version of raw facts, the actual information is hidden beneath the clever edited work, some say he is unbiased I disagree, the true reason of war in Iraq is not discussed. Power, greed, and imposing of western will are some of the core reasons.
John Adams, Leeds, UK

I just feel sorry for the 20 Iraqis dying daily. I wonder how many Iraqis a day were dying under Saddam. How can anyone claim that since the Iraq war began there has been any success? I wonder what those who watch and support the conflict would say about the success of it were the war fought on their own home land?
Rod, Australia

John Simpson hits the nail on the head. This is a strange limbo situation. I believe that although this is not Vietnam, the coalition is in a situation where 40% of the population (who are largely Sunni) feel disenfranchised. Shades of Northern Ireland. This is far too big a percentage to allow stability.
Niall Kiernan, Dublin

the US will have to address the issue of reparation to Iraq if it wants to avoid pariah nation status
Andrew Milner, Yokohama, Japan
The invasion of Iraq by the US and others, most notably Britain, was foreign policy conducted on the basis of prejudice towards a regime disapproved of. You simply can't use this as a premise for conducting foreign policy. Presumably Bush will now add Iceland to his "countries of tyranny" list following Iceland's offer of citizenship to Bobby Fischer. Back to Iraq: No WMD, no links to al Qaeda, no hand in 9/11; remind me, what was the justification again? Before long the US will have to address the issue of reparation to Iraq if it wants to avoid pariah nation status.
Andrew Milner, Yokohama, Japan

There are so many issues with the Iraqi War, but we now need to focus on the future. The formation of a government, whose first task is to establish a constitution and a separate judiciary, is vital. The occupying force needs to publish its plans regarding reconstruction of infrastructure. One aspect Mr Simpson's article avoids is the role that Western multinational corporations are playing in Iraq: how can we justify profiting from the chaos we've created?
Kuhan Tharmananthar, London, UK

Knowing that I know far less than Simpson about what's going on, I find it a relief to read that he doesn't feel the whole thing is the utter fiasco that it appears to me. Granted, we seem to have pulled off a successful election - if a strong enough, accountable enough, responsible and popular enough state can become established. But I can't help feeling that our greater interests and long-term reputation in the region and beyond are being indelibly tainted by every drop of blood. Personally I never believed the 9/11 link although I know Saddam still wanted WMD, and was hateful enough to use them, but that's irrelevant. The world thinks we are wrong.
Adam Goodfellow, Cirencester, UK

Your article touches where most big correspondents consider a taboo. The pro war's aim was to conquer the oil reserves and its routes under any cost so as to hold the world in tight reigns. The anti war group were all the time preaching that the invasion will only increase insecurity and make Iraq a save haven for a new breed of terrorism. As far as the reality on the ground is concerned I believe an updated version of Vietnam is in the making. The number of civilians killed in this war is in excess of 1,000,000 if the ten years of the strangulation regime is to be considered on top of the 150,000 directly killed by the smart bombs of the US.
Abdikarim Buh, London, UK

There were many points in this article one could argue with, so here's one. "America can afford $4.7 billion a month". Rubbish, America pay's for this war by removing assistance from the poorest in the community. Mr Simpson if you think paying for a war by robbing the poor is affordable; then I suggest you get somebody to explain economics to you.
Nick Rowney, Wellington, New Zealand

There has been a general election, multi-party involvement and defeat of a dictator, also cheap reliable predictable supply of oil is flowing to west. The oil revenues go to Iraqi people rather than to insurgents.
Jabbar Saleh, UK

As an American soldier who has been to Iraq I can say that things are getting better
Jason Scaife, North Haverhill, NH
Wonderful article by Mr Simpson, I wish we had his type of unbiased, well thought out reporting here in the States. I do wish he would have stated that the premise for the invasion was wholly false though. Other then that, excellent article, and I applaud Mr Simpson and the BBC. As an American soldier who has been to Iraq I can say that things are getting better, slowly, but still better.
Jason Scaife, North Haverhill, NH

Besides the original reason for this war - the WMD - John Simpson left out two other important issues. This is firstly the lack of credibility of the USA and its intelligence services resulting in a divided "western world" and secondly the military and economic recourses that are bound in Iraq. I would not consider a billion dollars per week as insignificant and the US currency traders do not either. As a result of both, nuclear weapons are being further spread in Iran and North Korea without any strategy of the USA and Europe, which should be of much higher priority as this criminal but insignificant gang around Saddam Hussein.
Richard Vonach, Vienna, Austria

The true, inclusive cost of Iraq to the US economy far exceeds Mr Simpson's narrowly defined $5bn/month. It's not easily borne by average Americans. The Bush administration may welcome the cost since it includes contracts for supporters and provides an excuse to cut domestic social and science programs.
Jay, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

Excellent work John. I always enjoy your excellent reports. In the 21st century, one country decides just to invade another country. The state, the government, the army are just abolished. After two years, is the life of ordinary Iraqis better? Do they have hope that the situation will be better? Is the region a better place to live? Are there now more suicide bombings in Iraq and in the region? I read a report saying that 160,000 people were killed in Sudan. Has any action been taken?
Muhammad Hadi, Sydney, Australia

I'm really tired of people who endlessly insist a stable autocracy was/is preferable to a troubled democracy. Iraq has severe problems, but there are the financial and political will to address them. This is more than can be said for many countries in the world.
John Allen, NYC, US

Well this report, like many others in the past few years, just goes to strengthen the belief that journalists are, even after years of training, like most other human beings, with poor analytic skills. I wonder when journalism will become objective and truly unbiased. Or may be I am totally wrong: perhaps they are paid for subtly skewed analysis that only few can appreciate. Perhaps, the system picks the crafty and abandons the honest.
Mohamed T Ansari, Hong Kong

I don't believe that all Americans are happy that their hard earn pay is used to pay taxes for this cause
Mac, Malaysia
Even the cost to the US tax-payer - $4.7bn a month - is something the American economy can easily absorb. Wow Mr Simpson, it's easy for you to say since it's not you who are paying the taxes to support this war. I don't believe that all Americans are happy that their hard earn pay is used to pay taxes for this cause. Furthermore, you sound so optimistic amount the progress in Iraq. I believe it looks that way since there are no more dead UK soldiers - for now and no pity is cast upon Iraqi civilians.
Mac, Malaysia

I struggle to believe we went into Iraq to give its people freedom and democracy. At over a billion dollars a week, wouldn't that make this the most expensive human rights mission in history? There are situations all over the world that given those kinds of resources could genuinely improve people's lives without thousands of casualties, improve the alliances' global image and reduce the threat of terrorism. Instead, America continues to fail to reach its past pledges on foreign aid and insists most of what it does give returns to the fold through American contractors. Of course, helping people in Africa wouldn't give us military bases and a compliant regime at the centre of the world's greatest prize.
Stew, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I believe that John Simpson's balanced and objective article is journalism of great integrity. On a day when the BBC has announced massive job cuts, it is reports such these which remind us of the importance of the BBC in an increasingly commercialized world.
Garry Smith, Aberdeen, UK

Well done BBC and congratulations John Simpson! I look forward to his next columns. We need him to try and make sense of the middle east conflicts and their global repercussions
Errol David, Queretaro, Mexico

Mr Simpson's analysis sounds like comments on a stock market move - loss here, gain there and the balance is not too bad at the end. But war is always a moral issue. Thousands of dead and would-be dead on both sides are not commodities and demand moral justification. Is this war just, Mr Simpson?
Alexander Kouzmenko, Tokyo, Japan

This is a wonderful article that none of us will ever get to read in the US media
Desiree, New Jersey, USA
This is a wonderful article that none of us will ever get to read in the US media. Those who blindly follow the biased US media will never go out of their way to receive information from another source. They will only read and listen to what they want to hear. There were numerous times when I had arguments with supporters who denied every piece of fact and information about the war. Even if I would point this article out to them, I have a strong feeling that they will deny everything and claim that a "foreign country" knows nothing about the war in Iraq. They feel so strongly about them being right that they'll never accept anything else. Even solid facts that can never be made up.
Desiree, New Jersey, USA

The Bush administration's new-found propaganda plank of 'democratising' Iraq, and for that matter the Middle East, will have a hollow ring round it unless autocratic regimes/allies like Saudi Arabia ,Qatar are first 'leaned upon' by the administration. To further test the administration's sincerity, democratisation and rule of law should first start from Guantanamo Bay!
NA Okine, Accra, Ghana

An objective and impartial review of the current situation, refreshingly free of hype or bias. An insightful piece, but still thought provoking in itself. Regardless of the outcome, the events Iraq will have a significant place in history.
John Smithen, Glasgow, Scotland

It's amazing how cheap Arab lives are in the eyes of the West...Simpson says that not a huge number of "civilian deaths" has occurred, yet estimates of the amount of civilians who have died from the war range between 20,000-100,000. Even the lowest estimate is a huge number! If we lost 20,000 civilians in the UK, wouldn't we consider that huge? America went to war because it lost 3,000 civilians - that's at least 6 times less than the amount of Iraqi civilians who have died! Simpson's statement epitomises the West's view of the Arab world - they aren't white, they aren't Christian, their lives are not worth as much as ours. All that seems to matter is that western soldiers are not killed - The innocent Iraqi civilians that Simpson and the Americans liberated are a secondary issue. That's a disgraceful statement.
Karim Mardam-Bey, Amman, Jordan

The Vietnam war lasted 12 years, not two
Hanif, Newcastle, Northumbria, UK
Mr Simpson fails to take into account the fact that the Vietnam war lasted 12 years, not two. Where will we be in two or three year's time? And is 100,000 civilian deaths not a huge number?
Hanif, Newcastle, UK

John Simpson neglects to mention that without the war, Iraqi civilians would still be dying in large numbers under Saddam Hussein's appalling regime. Saddam also had a track record of using chemical weapons on civilians and could not be trusted not to develop even deadlier weapons. The war has successfully removed a regime that was perpetrating daily torture and murder and replaced it with a nascent democracy.
John Cram, Brussels, Belgium

Mr Simpson says that the huge numbers of civilian deaths predicted by many before the war have not materialised. How, exactly, does one quantify a "huge number"? As far as I am aware, no precise figures are available, yet I have frequently heard estimates that there have been in excess of 100,000 civilian deaths. That certainly strikes me as a fairly huge number. In fact, "just" 10,000 deaths would strike me as a huge number. Robert Fisk's reports on the ground have repeatedly shown that hospitals and morgues are filled to overflowing with dead civilians. I think this wholesale, almost casual remark by Mr Simpson - whose reporting I generally admire - is dangerously lazy and misleading journalism.
Fabian Muir, Munich, Germany

The BBC is un-biased 90% of the time, and this article or Mr Simpson is un-biased. However, we must not forget that America and her allies will never leave Iraq at least for the next 10 years. As they have a strong presence in Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, then they will remain to oversee Israel's security, which is the ultimate foreign policy goal. America and here allies' glee when they see Muslim disunity, and the further divided Iraq is, the further upheavals that happen, the better for America. Maybe Simpson should look at the neighbours perspective more strongly, and convey it to the world.
Ahmad Ebrahim, Manama, Bahrain

Not only was the invasion itself utterly wrong, but no groundwork was done beforehand to try to create a post-Saddam civil society
Christian Wolmar, London, UK
John Simpson quite understandably dodges the key question - where will we be in two years time? The answer, I suspect, is that there will still not be a stable situation. The problem is that not only was the invasion itself utterly wrong, but no groundwork was done beforehand to try to create a post-Saddam civil society. And from what one gathers, still not enough work is being done in that respect and, until it is, the current chaos will remain.
Christian Wolmar, London, UK

It's amazing that a report like this would show up on the BBC and not on CNN or another American media outlet. As the lead nation in this conflict, you would think we would be the ones doing the heavy analyzing instead of waving our flag at every opportunity we get. Well done Mr. Simpson and BBC!
Tim, New Jersey

John Simpson says that the invasion's opponents were wrong in predicting "huge numbers of civilian deaths". Isn't (at least) 100,000 civilian deaths (The Lancet) not huge? As for the "outright defeat for the coalition" and the "creation of a Vietnam" we will have to wait and see. It is not over yet.
Martin Arundell, Brighton, UK

The United States media should take their cue from John Simpson
Charles Harris, San Diego, California
John Simpson's article on Iraq was superb, showing how a true unbiased journalist should approach and write their stories regardless of the subject matter. The United States media should take their cue from John Simpson and not let politics dictate their slant on the news. Keep up the great work John!
Charles Harris, San Diego, California

What Mr Simpson fails to mention is that the entire premise of this war was false. There were no WMDs and no Iraqi links to Al Qaeda and the September 11 attacks. Without addressing the crucial issues of why the US really instigated this invasion, the context of the present conditions in Iraq can't really be understood. His next article should address the truth behind this war.
Paul Lynch, Kobe, Japan

Who would have thought a few months ago that there would be such a positive outcome to the war. It's clear that the Iraqi people are fighting for and winning their freedom. Hardly the quagmire we were told to expect by so much of the world press.
Mel Parnes, Milford, NJ, USA

Thoughtful and balanced report from John Simpson. I question one point though; we don't actually know how many civilians have been killed. Estimates vary widely, and the coalition leaders seem reluctant to obtain accurate figures.
Stan Evans, Leeds, UK

John Simpson manages to offer a very easily understood and balanced view
A Baily, London, UK
With a vast amount of continued coverage, it's difficult to know what to believe about the Iraq situation at the moment. Despite this, John Simpson manages to offer a very easily understood and balanced view. This still can't alter the sense of unease one feels at the quote from the Senior American Officer saying they can "live with" the current casualty figures.
A Baily, London, UK

Dear Mr Simpson, Have been a devoted 'follower' of yours for many years, so it's a delight to see your words on the site, which I read every day. As usual, you have it exactly right!
Simon Bretherton, Orange, California, USA

An interesting article but it doesn't go far enough - the war in Iraq was wrong and until people admit that, we will struggle to get everyone to focus on the very real and frightening challenges the Iraqi people face now.
Brian Burke, UK

History will be the best judge
Stuart Hepworth, Portsmouth, Hampshire
Is the policy in Iraq failing? The polarity of haves and have-nots has been reversed - and that's created resentment, with radical and destructive interests jumping on this bandwagon. The perception of fairness and provision of non-partisan laws will be the best antidote - and this all takes time. History will be the best judge. It's too soon to make that appraisal - but the one thing that everyone should agree is that to have done nothing would have been the biggest failure.
Stuart Hepworth, Portsmouth, Hampshire

There's no dance around facts necessary, this war has been/is/will be an American failure of catastrophic status. It has done not one thing to enhance US security. Indeed, it no doubt jeopardises it by the enormous waste of resources.
Bill Spensley, Cape Cod, MA, US

John Simpson - a correspondent whose reports I actively go out of my way to read. Very balanced and with so much humility and experience, I don't find myself questioning his authority on any subject he chooses to speak about. Looking forward to more reports.
Paul Howard, Hong Kong

A splendid and insightful article on the real problems facing Iraq, which are no longer finding their way into the main headlines. It is reporting such as this that make the BBC (and John Simpson) great!
James Holden, Oxford




JOHN SIMPSON'S COLUMN

Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad is pulled down True predictions
Three years Saddam Hussein's regime fell, what has gone wrong in Iraq?

MORE FROM SIMPSON'S VIEW

 



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