Leave Iraq and Brace for a Bigger Bloodbath

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By Natan Sharansky
Sunday, July 8, 2007

Iraqis call Ali Hassan al-Majeed "Chemical Ali," and few wept when the notorious former general received five death sentences last month for ordering the use of nerve agents against his government's Kurdish citizens in the late 1980s. His trial came as a reckoning and a reminder -- summoning up the horrors of Saddam Hussein's rule even as it underscored the way today's heated Iraq debates in Washington have left the key issue of human rights on the sidelines. People of goodwill can certainly disagree over how to handle Iraq, but human rights should be part of any responsible calculus. Unfortunately, some leaders continue to play down the gross violations in Iraq under Hussein's republic of fear and ignore the potential for a human rights catastrophe should the United States withdraw.

As the hideous violence in Iraq continues, it has become increasingly common to hear people argue that the world was better off with Hussein in power and (even more remarkably) that Iraqis were better off under his fist. In his final interview as U.N. secretary general, Kofi Annan acknowledged that Iraq "had a dictator who was brutal" but said that Iraqis under the Baathist dictatorship "had their streets, they could go out, their kids could go to school."

This line of argument began soon after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. By early 2004, some prominent political and intellectual leaders were arguing that women's rights, gay rights, health care and much else had suffered in post-Hussein Iraq.

Following in the footsteps of George Bernard Shaw, Walter Duranty and other Western liberals who served as willing dupes for Joseph Stalin, some members of the human rights community are whitewashing totalitarianism. A textbook example came last year from John Pace, who recently left his post as U.N. human rights chief in Iraq. "Under Saddam," he said, according to the Associated Press, "if you agreed to forgo your basic freedom of expression and thought, you were physically more or less OK."

The truth is that in totalitarian regimes, there are no human rights. Period. The media do not criticize the government. Parliaments do not check executive power. Courts do not uphold due process. And human rights groups don't file reports.

For most people, life under totalitarianism is slavery with no possibility of escape. That is why despite the carnage in Iraq, Iraqis are consistently less pessimistic about the present and more optimistic about the future of their country than Americans are. In a face-to-face national poll of 5,019 people conducted this spring by Opinion Research Business, a British market-research firm, only 27 percent of Iraqis said they believed that "that their country is actually in a state of civil war," and by nearly 2 to 1 (49 percent to 26 percent), the Iraqis surveyed said they preferred life under their new government to life under the old tyranny. That is why, at a time when many Americans are abandoning the vision of a democratic Iraq, most Iraqis still cling to the hope of a better future. They know that under Hussein, there was no hope.

By consistently ignoring the fundamental moral divide that separates societies in which people are slaves from societies in which people are free, some human rights groups undermine the very cause they claim to champion. Consider one 2005 Amnesty International report on Iraq. It notes that in the lawless climate of the first months after Hussein's overthrow, reports of kidnappings, rapes and killings of women and girls by criminal gangs rose. Iraqi officers at a police station in Baghdad said in June 2003 that the number of reported rapes "was substantially higher than before the war."

The implication was that human rights may not really be improving in post-Hussein Iraq. But the organization ignored the possibility that reports of rape at police stations may have increased for the simple reason that under Hussein it was the regime -- which includes the police -- that was doing the raping. When Hussein's son Uday went on his legendary raping sprees, victims were not about to report the crime.

Of course, Hussein's removal has created a host of difficult strategic challenges, and numerous human rights atrocities have been committed since his ouster. But let us be under no illusion of what life under Hussein was like. He was a mass murderer who tortured children in front of their parents, gassed Kurds, slaughtered Shiites, started two wars with his neighbors and launched Scud missiles into downtown Riyadh and Tel Aviv. The price for the stability that Hussein supposedly brought to the region was mass graves, hundreds of thousands of dead in Iraq, and terrorism and war outside it. Difficult as the challenges are today -- with Iran and Syria trying to stymie democracy in Iraq, with al-Qaeda turning Iraq into the central battleground in its holy war of terrorism against the free world, and with sectarian militias bent on murder and mayhem -- there is still hope that tomorrow may be better.

No one can know for sure whether President Bush's "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq will succeed. But those who believe that human rights should play a central role in international affairs should be doing everything in their power to maximize the chances that it will. For one of the consequences of failure could well be catastrophe.

A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces could lead to a bloodbath that would make the current carnage pale by comparison. Without U.S. troops in place to quell some of the violence, Iranian-backed Shiite militias would dramatically increase their attacks on Sunnis; Sunni militias, backed by the Saudis or others, would retaliate in kind, drawing more and more of Iraq into a vicious cycle of violence. If Iraq descended into full-blown civil war, the chaos could trigger similar clashes throughout the region as Sunni-Shiite tensions spill across Iraq's borders. The death toll and the displacement of civilians could climb exponentially.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the political debate over Iraq is that many of Bush's critics, who accused his administration of going blindly to war without considering what would happen once Hussein's regime was toppled, now blindly support a policy of withdrawing from Iraq without considering what might follow.

In this respect, the debate over Iraq is beginning to look a lot like the debate about the Vietnam War in the 1960s and '70s. Then, too, the argument in the United States focused primarily on whether U.S. forces should pull out. But many who supported that withdrawal in the name of human rights did not foresee the calamity that followed, which included genocide in Cambodia, tens of thousands slaughtered in Vietnam by the North Vietnamese and the tragedy of hundreds of thousands of "boat people."

In the final analysis, U.S. leaders will pursue a course in Iraq that they believe best serves U.S. interests. My hope is that as they do, they will make the human rights dimension a central part of any decision. The consequences of not doing so might prove catastrophic to Iraqis, to regional peace and, ultimately, to U.S. security.

Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident who was imprisoned for nine years in the gulag, is chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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