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This war is wrong, but unstoppable. So we must fight for the peace

The Independent

Sunday March 23, 2003--Muharram 18, 1424 A.H.

The never-ending television news coverage of the war against Iraq conveys a misleading impression of clarity, as if we can see for ourselves or through the eyes of experts what is really happening. In reality, a lot of the airtime is filled with speculation and mistily disturbing pictures of war. All we know for sure is that some soldiers and Iraqi civilians are dying and that parts of Baghdad are burning. The smoke has not yet cleared sufficiently to reveal the full effects of America's terrifying display of aerial firepower. While we wait for a fuller picture we can only pose questions. Are the air attacks on Baghdad aimed at intimidating Saddam Hussein and his regime into an early surrender? Or are they part of a sinister, wider purpose, warning other "rogue" states, and perhaps other states too, that this is what they can expect if they trouble the world's only superpower? The second question illustrates how little we know about the broader intentions of President Bush and his divided administration and therefore how unwise it was of Tony Blair to become its unswerving ally. There are some close to the US president who are already urging him, without a moment's pause, to move on to Iran. What would Mr Blair do then?

What remains clear is that this war is wrong. The fact that it has started and taken on its own unstoppable momentum is not enough to abandon principled and reasoned objections to waging it in the first place. It is fashionable to accuse those who oppose the war of being unpatriotic, and to argue that now the conflict has started we should rally around "our boys". But we have never been in dispute with the troops who are courageously carrying out orders. Our concerns are with the political leaders who have sent them to the Gulf in the first place. The Liberal Democrats' leader, Charles Kennedy, has foolishly sidelined himself from the wider debate on the grounds that Parliament has given its verdict and the troops are in action. There is no logic to Mr Kennedy's weak posturing. He has rightly been ridiculed for his half-hearted opportunism, which manages to both oppose and support the war. The hundreds of thousands protesting around the world this weekend have a more consistent integrity. Like us, they hope for minimum military casualties on both sides. We hope also that the number of innocent Iraqis who have already suffered more than enough killed by the bombs is kept to an absolute minimum.

What we cannot do is share the wish of some protesters that the war is suddenly stopped without a resolution of any sort, an absurdly unrealistic and therefore meaningless aspiration. It is more constructive to focus on the conduct of the war. Most immediately, it is important that Iraqi prisoners of war are treated humanely and that political leaders mean what they say when they insist that the military campaign is carefully targeted. Once the conflict is over, we should turn our attention, in its aftermath, to reconstruction. We welcome Mr Blair's apparent determination to ensure that the UN and the European Union are fully involved in the political and economic reconstruction of Iraq. Whether the US will accept such a proposition remains to be seen. There is little evidence that George Bush and his colleagues have given much thought to what happens afterwards, beyond handing out contracts to their friends in the private sector. The aftermath of war might provide an opportunity for the fractured international community to reunite. More broadly, Mr Blair must repair relations with some of his partners in the EU. This will not be easy after the ministerial onslaught against France but, as the EU Commissioner Chris Patten observed last week, the European project is doomed if Britain and France cannot work together. The Prime Minister should also reflect on the wisdom of his alliance with a divided US administration that, on the one hand, has left the moderate Colin Powell isolated and, on the other, is clearly so diplomatically inept.

Let us hope that this conflict is short, for the sake of the troops and the Iraqi civilians. Let us hope also that the aftermath is handled with much greater skill and sensitivity than the clumsy and confused build- up to an unnecessary war.