After they go

The US invasion unleashed chaos in a fragile region; the withdrawal of troops could prove equally de

General David Petraeus clapped Sheik Abdul-Sattar al-Rishawi on the shoulder and talked enthusiastically about their new project. "It's men like this who are going to make Iraq work," he said, looking back towards my camera with the confidence of a king.

It was March last year. By September Rishawi, instigator of the "Anbar Awakening", was dead. What he had given to the Americans, however, was the vital Sunni co-operation that had been missing until then from their "surge" plans.

When President Bush adopted the "surge" strategy and appointed Petraeus as overall commander in Iraq, all that seemed important was to increase the number of US troops. Yet four things made up the "surge". Two were within US control - more troops, and more trained Iraqis in uniform deployed with those forces. The other two were less certain - Sunni co-operation in confronting al-Qaeda and Shia co-operation in not attacking everyone else.

After four years of fighting the US occupation, Sunni tribal leaders decided to change sides because al-Qaeda was imposing a harsher Islamic regime than they were prepared to stomach. They formed the "Awakening Councils" and signed 80,000 of their kinsmen on to the Pentagon's payroll to fight beside the US military. The Sunni fighters, together with an increase in Iraqi forces of around 110,000 over the past year, have helped to stem the violence and bloodshed.

Certainly the changes in the Baghdad neighbourhoods I visited while embedded with the US military in early 2007 were secured by enlisting local Sunnis into a home guard. Initially unarmed, these home guards were being trained by US marines by the end of last year. While the US geared up Sunni militias, Shia fighters sat tight. It could have been a recipe for civil war.

"[The] ceasefire has been helpful in reducing violence and has led to improved security in Iraq," noted Rear Admiral Greg Smith, a US spokesman, acknowledging that the success of the "surge" was down to its fourth and least certain constituent - the Mahdi army ceasefire declared by the anti-American Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr last August. To the relief of the US military, the ceasefire, which had reversed the statistics of violence, was renewed last month.

Five years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the issue is no longer the chaos unleashed by occupation, but the impact of the expected US withdrawal, both within Iraq and across the region. The UN Chapter 7 resolution that the US quotes as legitimising its 2003 invasion runs out at the end of June. By then, what remains of the coalition will have to negotiate a deal with a weak, fractured government. The Iraqis have to decide on the number of foreign troops they wish to remain in the country, and for how long.

Aware of the potential for renewed civil war as troop numbers fall, both the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, and Petraeus have talked of a "brief period of consolidation and evaluation". This means that as the US presidential race plays out through the summer and autumn, the commanders will take the opportunity to exercise "strategic patience". There will be a halt in troop repatriation, and gains made with the surge will be consolidated. By the time a new president has finally to grasp the nettle, the military and political balance may have stabilised, reducing the likelihood of Washington's greatest enemy, Iran, stepping into a vacuum of withdrawal.

The largely Shia government of Iraq talks to Iranian officials all the time; President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has just held historic, high-profile meetings in Baghdad. But a fourth round of talks between US and Iranian diplomats, due to be held in Baghdad, should have taken place on 5 March. They didn't happen, for reasons unrelated to Iraq. Because of American efforts to isolate Iran, the US embassy in Baghdad declared there had been no such arrangement.

Proxy war

Iran's influence in Iraq is most visible in the south of the country, where it permeates nearly every faction of Shia politics. A power-sharing agreement is being hammered out by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The initial part of that understanding was the al-Zahra Charter, which attempted to disarm the Shia militias, leaving use of force solely in the hands of the government. Iran has pushed hard for this, in an attempt to keep the Iraqi government beholden to the Islamic Republic.

Between the overt influence of Shia Iran and the depredations of fundamentalist groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, it is no wo nder Rishawi and other Sunni tribal leaders turned to the Americans. They realised they had to get what weapons and backing they could while it was possible. Only thus would they be in a position to defend themselves against Shia militias, the largely Shia government and its Iranian backers when the Americans withdrew.

There is also the fear that the US withdrawal could provoke Sunni nations bordering Iraq to support their fellow believers in a nasty war by proxy. Such a possibility, reinforced by the US's "isolate Iran" diplomacy, makes regional leaders nervous.

In a demonstration of how keen it is to isolate Iran, the US has been arming its authoritarian Arab allies in parallel with Israel. Israel is to receive military aid of £15bn a year over the next ten years, up 25 per cent from present levels. Egypt will receive £6.5bn, while the Saudis will get an arms package of satellite-guided weaponry and other hi-tech munitions worth £10.2bn.

When Bush visited the region in January he repeated often and publicly his theme that Sunni Arabs had to face down Iran "before it's too late". The cautious Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, played down the antagonism, insisting that "Iran is a neighbouring country, an important country in the region. Naturally we have nothing bad against Iran."

But he was not being entirely sincere. Reports suggest that Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt and Jordan, could be intending to demonstrate animosity to Iran's friends by sending only officials to this month's Arab League summit in Damascus. Arab leaders are critical of Syrian ties with Iran and Hezbollah, and of their meddling in Lebanon, putting them in what King Abdullah of Jordan has referred to as a new "crescent" of dominant Shia movements or governments - from Iran through Iraq, Syria and into Lebanon. Speaking to the Washington Post in 2004, the king warned: "If Iraq [becomes an] Islamic republic, then, yes, we've opened ourselves to a whole set of new problems that will not be limited to the borders of Iraq."

Maintaining the unity of Iraq has been a core US aim throughout the past five years, but the turbulence of a pullout could, in addition to aggravating antipathy between Sunnis and Shias, result in the Kurdish north declaring independence. After the First World War, the ethnic territory of the Kurds was split by the imperial powers between Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The consequent struggle for Kurdish independence is closest to fulfilment in northern Iraq. Unsurprisingly, the central government finds itself at odds with Erbil's regional government over who should control local oil revenues.

The issue of independence is focused, in Kurdish eyes, on control of Kirkuk. The decision as to whether Kirkuk remains Arab or becomes Kurdish is due to be made by the end of June; but the issue is so contentious and potentially explosive that it has already been shelved three times since the downfall of Saddam, and will probably be delayed again.

Meanwhile, Turkey fears that independence for Iraqi Kurds would encourage its own Kurdish separatists, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). In the past few weeks, Turkish forces have entered Iraq to attack PKK fighters operating from the Qandil Mountains. Despite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice making it clear that "no one should do anything that threatens to destabilise the north", US forces in northern Iraq have, over the past six months, helped to facilitate Turkish military operations at the border.

It is already a year since that hot afternoon when General Petraeus and Sheik al-Rishawi talked of their plans to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq. The success of the "surge" cannot be denied, but there are long-term implications for the balance of power in the region. The borders that resulted from the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, held so sacrosanct by today's governments and diplomats, may be about to change.

George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defence, planned the war, but not the peace. They should have paid attention to the known unknowns.

Tim Lambon is assistant foreign editor of Channel 4 News

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

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. 

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us