Skip to content Skip to navigation

Time for a Radical Departure

By Peter Lems

One year after President Bush's announcement of "mission accomplished" in Iraq, we find ourselves in a deeper hole than ever. The much-promised transfer of power is less and less certain, security is nonexistent, basic services remain unmet, and the exercise of unilateral U.S. power threatens to foil much-needed international involvement.

Simple truths have been lost. War will not bring peace, and military occupation will not foster democracy. The International Crisis Group, an independent, nonprofit, multinational organization, working to prevent and resolve deadly conflict, best describes the urgency of the situation in Iraq today:

The history of post-Saddam Iraq is one of successive, short-lived attempts by the U.S. to mold a political reality to its liking. With each false start and failed plan, realistic options for a successful and stable political transition have become narrower and less attractive. Getting it right this time is urgent and vital. There may not be many-or any-opportunities left.

With each missed opportunity, Iraqis justifiably question U.S. intentions. Iraq has become so dangerous that AFSC - along with most international nongovernmental organizations- has relocated its Baghdad staff to Amman, Jordan, until a measure of security returns. Military sieges of towns and mass arrests, in addition to kidnappings and bombings from non-state actors, have created an atmosphere of unprecedented violence. For many Iraqis this violence has been a part of their lives for the past year.

This presents a fork in the road. Will we embrace the absolutes of military power - spreading fear and instability, or will we embrace the power of nonviolence and a policy that is undergirded by meeting the basic needs of people?

Iraqis have the ability and the need to build a sovereign nation. AFSC works with partners in Iraq that are progressive, forward-looking, and secular. Their voices need to be supported. Iraqi civil society needs the space to create and implement their programs. Physical safety and security is critical in the pursuit of economic and social rights in an independent Iraq.

After one year, we have precious little understanding of how Iraqi society functions or what our obligation under international law mandates as an occupation power. Time is running out, and we need a dramatic change of policy. The first step must be commitment to Iraqi sovereignty and removal of the violence of occupation.

There is no role for the U.S. military occupation in Iraq. A credible and impartial multilateral peacekeeping presence for security purposes is needed until Iraqi defense and police forces are able to take its place. Further U.S. troop presence will only make the situation worse.

We have long-term obligations to the people of Iraq for the damages of sanctions and occupation. Those obligations need to be carried out under a new vision that relies on U.S. political and financial support for peacekeeping.

True and lasting peace and reconciliation will only be achieved by the Iraqi people. That can only come about with an immediate handover of power and self-governance and scheduling free and fair elections under international auspices, not U.S. control.

"Limited sovereignty," as now proposed by Sec. of State Colin Powell, would continue to give the U.S. military free rein in Iraq.

With 130,000 U.S. troops occupying its land, Iraq is not sovereign. Partial sovereignty has never worked for occupied people. It removes the concept of ownership - a critical ingredient for participation and legitimacy.

Iraqis need full control over their own affairs. Even the head of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council has stated that the "army of liberation has become an army of occupation," challenging the assertion by President Bush during a prime-time press conference that we are "not a colonizer but a liberator"

Here at home, we need accountability and transparency in Congress and the administration. How and when will troops be withdrawn? When will real sovereignty return to Iraq ? What is the role of the United Nations beyond providing an international fig leaf for the U.S. occupation? These and many other questions demand immediate answers.

The Coalition is collapsing. The war continues. The United States will pay a heavy price if we do not recognize the mess we are in and take a radical departure from our own bankrupt policies.


In the year since President Bush declared victory in Iraq, the situation has unraveled:

  • The United Nations pulled its staff out of the country.
  • At least 574 U.S. soldiers have died.
  • 19 civilian press employees have been killed.
  • Untold thousands of Iraqis have been killed - 1,500 in April 2004 alone.
  • Spain, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic have withdrawn their troops, and other nations threaten to follow suit.

Peter Lems is head of the Iraq Program of the Middle East Team of the Peacebuilding Unit of the American Friends Service Committee. He has traveled in Iraq on several occasions.

Compassion in Action Matching Gift Challenge

Your gift will be matched from now until Nov. 18.
Give to the Compassion in Action Matching Gift Challenge from now until Nov. 18 to double your impact.

Give Now →