As it bleeds into its fifth year, the Iraq war is excelling only in savagery and surrealism. We now have an American President publicly citing the similarities to Vietnam as a reason why the US must not withdraw - and he is merrily quoting Graham Greene's anti-war masterpiece The Quiet American in his defence. Far from thinking anything has gone wrong, he declares: "The Iraqi people owe the American people a great debt of gratitude. That's the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq."
Meanwhile, the Iraqi psyche is so wrecked by the 7/7 blasting on to their streets 24/7 that my Iraqi friends report mass hysteria gnawing into the survivors. After a small string of attacks by badgers - you know, the little furry creatures - in Basra, so many people were convinced this was a new weapon of war that UK military spokesman Major Mike Shearer had to announce publicly: "We can categorically state that we have not released man-eating badgers into the area."
The last excuse the remaining defenders of the war can scrape together is - yes, but it'll be even worse if we leave. As David Petraeus, the commander of US forces, says: "If you don't like Darfur, you're going to hate Baghdad [after a US withdrawal]."
But buried in all the self-serving propaganda about staying the course, there is a dilemma for those of us genuinely worried about the Iraqi people. What if a genocide begins to unfold in a broken Iraq after the withdrawal of international troops? There are harbingers of it already. The jihadi suicide-massacres of the Yezidis in Northern Iraq last week is only one signal. I have been startled by how viciously even my democratic, liberal Iraqi friends now talk about the other side in sweeping, annihilatory language. Almost every institution of the Iraqi state - the police, army, even the hospitals - are now divided into Shia and Sunni wings which detest each other. There is a real and hefty risk that this will metastasise into an attempt to physically eliminate each other.
Just as dark is the risk of the neighbouring countries invading Iraq after a simple US withdrawal, with the Saudis marching in to defend the Sunnis, the Iranians invading to protect the Shias, and the Turks invading to prevent the creation of a separate Kurdistan in the North. This would create a Congo-on-the-Tigris.
But is this a case for keeping the US forces there? A recent, much-discussed-in-DC article in The New York Times by Brookings Institution scholars Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack said so. They argued that "the surge" of 21,000 troops into Iraq is finally working, and creating momentum away from sectarian violence.
If this were true, it would be important - but their own institution's figures show it is the opposite of the truth. It makes no sense to compare statistics on violence in Iraq month-to-month, because the violence fluctuates seasonally (as it does in most cities in the world). For reliable figures, you have to compare this July to last July.
And what do you find in the Brookings statistics? The number of Iraqi military personnel and police killed are up 23 per cent. People dying in multiple-fatality bombings is up 19 per cent. US troop fatalities are up 80 per cent. The size of the insurgency is up 250 per cent. Attacks on oil and gas pipelines are up 75 per cent. Hours of electricity available per day are down 14 per cent. Far from creating the space for political compromise among Iraqis, this has led to Sunnis and secularists marching angrily out of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. This is success? This is momentum?
The US troops cannot be an agent of anything positive in Iraq, after using chemical weapons in cities, after using torture routinely, after overseeing the deaths of 650,000 Iraqis. Today, 78 per cent of Iraqis say the US presence "is doing more harm than good" and that they should leave. This is hardly surprising: Jeff Englehart, formerly a US soldier in Iraq, said recently: "The general attitude was: a dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi."
But how do they get out without leaving behind something even more hellish? To grope for a solution, we must first be honest and clear about the Bush administration's motives.
It is currently trying to force the Iraqi parliament, as its top priority, to pass an oil law that would hand two-thirds of Iraq's oil fields to their friends and paymasters in Big Oil. Ordinary Iraqis see this new plan as crude looting of their wealth, with 63 per cent appalled in a recent poll. Yet the US is suppressing resistance: they leaned on the Ministry of the Interior to use Saddam-era laws to ban the oil worker's trade unions, which have been democratically, peacefully fighting the law.
Only massive public pressure will change this course. So what should we demand they do? Former presidential candidate George McGovern, who fought heroically against the Vietnam War, has worked on a detailed way to leave Iraq that doesn't also leave behind a holocaust. It is mapped out in his book Out of Iraq.
McGovern's plan begins with a simple, stark apology from the US, Britain and other invaders for the catastrophe we have wrought - the opposite of Bush's deranged demands for thanks. There must then be a commitment to dismantle all permanent US bases on Iraqi soil, and to allow Iraqis to own their country's oil - with royalties paid equally to every citizen, in a regular cheque, like they do in Alaska.
The US then needs to convene a regional conference, at which it pledges to pay full-whack for an international stabilisation force to police Iraq, manned exclusively by Muslim countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan. These countries will need all sorts of financial inducements to send troops. Tough. Pay them. McGovern calculates that even at top-rate, this would cost $5.5bn - just 3 per cent of keeping the US forces there for the next two years. Once the police are fellow-Muslims, the often-murderous insurgents will be much more isolated. Al-Qa'ida's tiny presence (estimated by US generals to be fewer than 500 fighters, rendering Bush's claims they will take over the country absurd) will be even more despised. Only troops like this could have the legitimacy needed to stop a genocide.
It's not a perfect plan. People will still die in the fall-out. But it is less lethal than any other option I can see. The present course is too horrific to maintain. In Baghdad today, people have stopped eating fish from the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The reason? So many dead bodies are being dumped there every day - and being munched by the fish - that Iraqis began to fear they would contract diseases associated with cannibalism. That's the score-card so far: to reduce Iraqis from the horror of Saddamism to physically consuming themselves. Now what was the President saying about gratitude?
© 2007 The Independent