SPAIN TO PULL OUT OF IRAQ: MUST MOSCOW REJOICE?

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MOSCOW. (Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute for Strategic Assessment - RIA Novosti). -- Spain's new premier Jose Rodriguez Zapatero, a Socialist, has made a sufficiently unexpected statement. He ordered a quick and safe return of the Spanish contingent from Iraq back home, without waiting for June 30, the date set for handing all administration to Iraqis and command of the remaining troops to the UN. Spain does not believe in the feasibility of this plan and refuses to participate in the US-led illegitimate operation. This is the will of the Spanish electorate, and the new government is only fulfilling it.

Following terrorist attacks in Madrid the position of the Spanish leadership looks justified. Besides, the Spanish premier's words should be sweet music to many Russian politicians. After all, we warned the US about the trap it may find itself in. The Russian opinion was not heeded. And now the US defence secretary, with disarming candour, says that a year ago his perspective of the current developments in Iraq was different. But those are American problems. Yet what should Russia's reaction be - to rejoice, feel gloomy, or take no notice? We have enough of our own problems, and that one is of no concern to us.

Unfortunately, it does concern us and in a very immediate fashion. Let us begin with the fact that for all the substance and logic of the Spanish leadership's moves, they are the exact fulfilment of the demands set by Usama bin Laden in his recent message. He suggested that European countries should desist from supporting the US, ending their interference in the affairs of the Islamic world and, most important of all, should withdraw their military contingents from Iraq. In exchange he pledged to end terrorist attacks against European countries that would carry out these requirements. Yes, Spain is not the main US partner in Iraq, but pullout of Spain is a big victory for international terrorism, even if bin Laden's address and the Spanish withdrawal are a mere coincidence. No doubt it is not the point that for terrorist No.1 there is an absolute evil - the US and Israel, with which no compromise is possible - and "genuinely misled Europeans" who can still be returned to the path of truth. Leaders of world terrorism would like to separate Europe from the US, but only with one ulterior motive - to kill off one's enemies one by one is simpler and more convenient. This also applies to Russia, incidentally.

But what must Russia's stand be in the emerging situation? After all, we repeated in the past and repeat now that the decision to carry out a military operation in Iraq was a mistake. And now we have far more arguments confirming that our assessment was correct.

At the start of the military action in Iraq, the US vainly tried to persuade the world that it was a natural continuation of the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan. But it was perfectly evident that Saddam Hussein's regime - brutal, bloody and inhumane - was not linked with world terrorist networks. Hussein himself was afraid of Islamic radicals and, when they tried to protest, drowned such protests in blood with rare cruelty, using chemical weapons against his own people. Such was the case during a Shiite demonstration in southern Iraq. And quite recently Yuri Fedotov, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, expressed concern that "Iraq has turned into a springboard of terrorist menace, and a breeding ground of terrorism".

Now, to formulate its position on Iraq, Russia needs to clearly evaluate the changes that have taken place in that country since the US and Britain launched their military operation there. At the moment troops were introduced into Iraq, the coalition's powers had one opponent - Saddam Hussein's army. Now the United States is facing at least three military foes. First, it is international terrorism which poured into Iraq across open borders. The American army, drawn out from protected home bases to Iraqi sands and into Iraqi towns, is too dainty a morsel for practically daily blood-lettings staged by international terrorists. The second opponent is various formations of Iraqi Shiites. They comprise not only 3,000 militants of the "Mehdi army", subordinated to Sheikh Moqtada Sadr, an ambitious young leader fighting for influence in the Shiite community and dreaming of building an Islamic state in Iraq, but also more numerous formations of Shiite militants who had military training in Iran. Finally, the US is confronted by Sunni formations set up in all probability from former officers of the Iraqi army who are not needed by the new authorities. So it appears Washington has succeeded in resolving an almost impossible problem - that of bringing together Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs in the struggle against its presence.

By removing the Saddam Hussein regime, the Americans have broken the "loop" of fear and blood by means of which the dictator kept the country from falling apart, so different ethnically and confessionally. Now this task will have to be accomplished by the United States with the help of other tools. It was believed that the role of binding elements to fasten the state construction would be carried out by democratic institutions and the main one of them - free and democratic elections. Today it is absolutely clear that this plan has collapsed. There will be no real transfer of power in Iraq on June 30, as there will be no pullout of foreign troops, although the coalition ranks may thin out appreciably. If free democratic elections had been held today, the most radical Shiite groupings would have come to power simply because Shiites are an overwhelming majority in the country. If foreign military contingents present there are now removed from the country, the most likely result of that step would be the beginning of a civil war, the breakup of the state and a tremendous strengthening of the positions of international terrorism, which would assume control of one of the richest countries in a strategically important area of the world.

In his Little Prince Antoin de Saint Exupery wrote: "We are responsible for those we have trained". The US has failed to "train" Iraq, but it bears full responsibility for the deadlock in which the Iraqi situation finds itself. So it cannot afford to "move freely" in an "I-don't-care" attitude. The situation in Iraq is consequence of ill-considered American actions, but it is already a reality. In these conditions Russia would do well to ponder how to minimise the damage. Iraq cannot be permitted to turn into a state of Islamic radicals. Baghdad cannot be allowed to become the capital of international terrorism, and the country with its colossal reserves a springboard for terrorists all over the world. It is important to prevent a civil war in Iraq, which would inevitably envelop the neighbouring countries and destabilise the situation in the whole of the Middle East. Russia cannot get involved in the military operation in Iraq, in order to replace the Spanish contingent with a bigger Russian one. Finally, it should be realised that troops will have to be pulled out of Iraq, and power handed back to the Iraqis. Russia should use political means to promote an early Iraqi statehood.

But Russia does not seem to have a detailed plan for achieving these aims, to judge by everything. Meanwhile we are quietly rejoicing that these are America's problems, not ours. Of course, we need not assume responsibility for the American errors, but neither should we sit out, which is not sensible either. Sooner nor later, we will have to determine our position.

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