Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 -16 April 2003
Issue No. 633
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Time for action

We may not have been able to stop the war, but we still can deprive the invasion of legitimacy, Ibrahim Nafie writes

Ibrahim Nafie Suddenly, and without any warning, the Iraqi regime, both as a central government and a security apparatus, has disappeared from Baghdad. Devoid of official control of any kind, the Iraqi capital was engulfed in chaos, as looting and acts of sabotage pervaded the city, highlighting in a tragic way a state of collapse that could only sadden Arabs everywhere, regardless of the extent of our opposition to the regime or support for the people. These events were shocking in light of the fact that they occurred at a time when British and American sources insisted the battle in Baghdad had not yet begun and Iraqi sources spoke of the "invaders' suicide".

The fall of Baghdad has undoubtedly given rise to sadness and pain throughout the Arab world: to have seen foreign forces invading, and taking over a dear Arab capital so easily is no small matter. Nor is the frustration of those who realise they had failed to prevent the war or halt its inexorable march. It is true that a chance to have done so existed before to the military campaign began, but the absence of an objective perspective with which to deal with international developments or accurately read the map of the present world order, as well as the customary tendency of some Arab officials to engage in rhetorical contests, all served to bring about this deplorable end to the Iraqi crisis.

From the outset of the standoff, it was clear that the current US administration wanted war. When we went to Washington to find out more about the official US viewpoint and to tell US officials of the perils ahead, we were hit with a stream of vitriol. Domestic and regional concerns, and even our professionalism were questioned in a totally inappropriate manner.

Those Arabs who failed to act were generous with lip service. Several Arab leaders preferred posturing to real action. They did not allow a consensus to develop, and they refrained from giving the Iraqis timely advice. Our position was that Washington had taken a decision to go to war that was irreversible unless the Iraqi leadership made a dramatic gesture.

Many Arab leaders, however, opted for face-saving measures, for empty rhetoric. They expressed solidarity with Iraq and invoked the Joint Defence Treaty, but took no practical steps to prevent the war. True, the onus of war lies primarily with the US and UK, for both had closed the window of diplomatic opportunity and decided to wage war without authorisation from the UN Security Council. But the Arabs are also to blame for they did not shoulder their responsibilities at a time of great peril.

We failed to prevent the war. We even abandoned the eleventh-hour attempt that the formation of the Arab summit committee presented. And before that, the Arabs took forever to respond to President Hosni Mubarak's call for an emergency summit. When that gathering was finally held, some Arab countries failed to act decisively, eventually undermining the work of the committee set up by the summit.

We should learn from our mistakes in handling the Iraqi crisis, from our failure to stop the war. We must find a strong, clear, and collective Arab voice -- one with which to tackle the new realities created by the war. It's my opinion that there is still a chance for the Arabs to engage in collective work focussing on limiting damage. We should try to preserve Iraq as a nation, and we should seek a solution to other long-standing problems in the region.

We, Arabs, have not yet mastered the art of dealing with crises. We are still unable to weigh gains against losses, as all other nations and states do. The war against Iraq is not the end of the road. The damage done there is not confined to material and human losses. Unless we make every effort to limit the damage, we may lose Iraq completely.

The Arab inability to deal with the Iraqi crisis would tempt countries that opted for war -- Israel included -- to seek more gains at the expense of the Arabs. Unless Arab countries take the initiative, then, and assume a strong and effective stand concerning the events in Iraq, the havoc the war is inflicting on Arabs and Iraqis would pale in comparison with what lies ahead.

For example, the parties that have been scheming over Iraq's future will try to divide Iraq, occupy it, and install a regime that would distance the country from the concerns of the Arab world, evoking memories of the Baghdad Pact in the 1950s.

First, we should emphasise the illegitimacy of the US-UK campaign. What we are witnessing in Iraq is a naked aggression that seems to be resulting in the occupation of an independent country and a UN member state. This is a serious precedent in international relations. Our reaction should be clear and unambiguous.

Because the invasion itself is illegitimate, all measures taken by the US or UK as occupiers are illegitimate and hence unworthy of recognition. The only acts worthy of recognition are those taken by an Iraqi government chosen by the Iraqi people through free elections.

I call on Arab countries and the Arab League to not recognise any government set up by occupation forces in Iraq.

Secondly, Arab countries and the Arab League, acting in tandem with forces for peace throughout the world, should insist on the departure of occupation forces and on the UN and the Arab League taking charge of the transitional period in Iraq. The UN and the league should administer the interim phase and prepare for free and democratic elections in the country. More specifically, the Iraqi issue should once again become the responsibility of the UN Security Council. Arab countries, acting in cooperation with the major powers that opposed the war, should seek a new resolution from the UN Security Council granting general amnesty to all Iraqi officials, because the US intention to try these officials would have serious repercussions.

In addition, the Iraqi people should have complete protection in line with international law. The US's acts of vengeance against Iraqi civilians -- occasioned by the presumed need to hunt down Saddam's fedayeen and troops posing as civilians -- can only fuel hatred towards the United States in the Arab world. Ordinary Arabs do not condone the humiliation of Iraqis, the scenes of which are shown daily on television, and would blame the Americans in general, not just US officials, for such acts. The Arabs already have a grudge against the United States due to its bias towards Israel. But now the Arabs have ample reason to blame the Americans directly.

What American troops are doing in Iraq eerily evokes Israeli action towards the Palestinians. Ultimately, this could only boost the fortunes of those forces trying to imbue the war against Iraq with a cultural, even religious tinge. Success in this respect could only spell further trouble for the region. President Mubarak has repeatedly warned that the destruction of Iraq's infrastructure and the accompanying acts of vengeance would only create dozens of Bin Ladens.

Arab countries should make it clear that any delay in resolving the Palestinian issue would heighten the causes of tension in the region and provide additional proof that Washington is applying a double standard. The Arabs should bring up the matter of Israel's weapons of mass destruction and call on the United Nations and other major countries waging war on Iraq to do something about Israel's arsenal.

Arab countries face a major challenge, and they need a fresh way of thinking to confront it. We may have failed to prevent the war against Iraq, but there are still opportunities to keep the country united and within the Arab fold. We must believe in ourselves and in our ability to act collectively and effectively. The scenes from Iraq may have been distressful but -- unless we do something -- things will only get worse.

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