Getting out of Iraq

Today's bombings don't affect the logic of withdrawal

It's a funny old world, isn't it? Despite having been the undisputed centre of global attention for the past six years, these days, Iraq, not Afghanistan, seems to be the forgotten war, with politicians and the press fretting over casualties in Kandahar rather than Kirkuk. It's been a month since US troops pulled back from cities and handed over security to Iraqi soldiers. Critics of the occupation hailed the move and Iraqis danced in the streets.

But supporters of the occupation might point to today's horrific bomb attacks in Mosul and Baghdadl as evidence that Iraq needs foreign troops to guarantee its internal security. From the BBC:

"At least four bombs have exploded in Iraq, killing about 40 people and wounding more than 200.

Two truck bombs exploded in a Shia village near the northern city of Mosul, killing at least 23 people and injuring around 130.

Meanwhile, two bombs went off near construction sites in Baghdad, with 16 people killed and more than 80 wounded."

Such bombings are depressing and tragic and remind us all that Iraq's violence is not going to come to a shuddering halt overnight. AP has a long list of bloody incidents that have occurred since the start of the year. But to use the ongoing violence as a cover for maintaining a foreign military presence in the country is disingenuous - and ignores the overall decline in violence and killings since the US troops withdrew from Iraq's cities. As Time's Tim McGirk points out, in a piece entitled "The Case for Leaving Iraq - Now":

"Although every day in Iraq repeats the endless spiral of bombs in crowded bazaars and mosques -- each fueling demands for retribution -- things are slowly getting better. Last month, the number of violent deaths in Iraq fell to 275, down from 437 in June. And that's a good sign for the security prospects following the redeployment of U.S. forces out of Iraq's urban areas. In Baghdad, the violence has ebbed to the point that the Iraqi government, whose forces are now responsible for security, this week announced that over the next 40 days, it will tear down the razor-wire-topped blast walls that had for years divided the capital into a collection of fortified, warring Sunni and Shi'ite fiefdoms."

McGirk draws attention to senior US soldiers, as well as liberal anti-war activists, who are urging the Obama administration to declare victory and bring all the troops home. He concludes:

"There's no denying that the 2003 U.S. invasion unleashed chaos in Iraq, as sectarian hatreds, Iranian influence and ancient feuds over land and the oil beneath it, produced a storm of bloodletting. But last month, once the U.S. troops began to shrink back to their giant bases, which are like sand-blown, little American cities with pizza and burger chains, they ceased to be the dominant player in Iraq. And if the U.S. can no longer influence events in Iraq, what's the point of lingering around eating gritty pizza?"

What's the point, indeed?

 

 

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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