Deja vu as UK heads back to Iraq | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 26.09.2014
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Deja vu as UK heads back to Iraq

The UK Parliament has voted in favor of joining the military action against the "Islamic State" in Iraq. But for many the decision creates uncomfortable parallels with the mistakes of the 2003 invasion.

Parliament approved airstrikes against "Islamic State" extremists in Iraq on Friday, a move that was approved by a vote of 524 in favor to 43 against.

The decision makes the UK the latest country to join the anti-"IS" coalition. As well as the Arab states taking part in the US-led military campaign against the terrorist militia "Islamic State," France has already bombed targets in northern Iraq. Denmark too announced on Friday that it was sending seven F-16 planes to join the campaign, while Belgium and the Netherlands have also sent combat aircraft.

There is some quibbling about whether or not to drop bombs inside civil war-ridden Syria, something Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he would regard as an act of aggression, but the fact that the Iraqi government has asked for military support clears away the legal obstacles. The consensus is broad around Europe for action in Iraq.

On Friday, the British Parliament was recalled especially to debate and vote on Prime Minister David Cameron's proposal that Britain should join the fray. Britain already has six Tornado fighters within striking distance of northern Iraq, and they could make their first raids within hours of the vote in the House of Commons.

Tony Blair Sondergesandter des Nahost-Quartetts

Tony Blair's popularity was decimated by the Iraq war

Direct threat

"Is there a threat to the British people? The answer is yes," Cameron told Parliament, before admitting that any military operation could last years, rather than months. It seems that the West is now irrevocably set on another bloody adventure in the Middle East, less than three years after US troops were finally withdrawn from Iraq following a nine-year war.

That war is now widely seen as a mistake in the UK - former Prime Minister Tony Blair's fall from popularity was largely down to his support for it - and Cameron on Friday was eager to suppress the obvious comparisons. "This is not 2003," he told parliament, "but we must not use past mistakes as an excuse for indifference or inaction."

One key fear for most Britons - as for most Americans - is whether attacking "IS" in Iraq reduces or increases the threat of a terrorist attack at home. Though leaving the self-proclaimed caliphate to expand clearly brings its own dangers, a study published in April this year by UK-based think tank the Royal United Services Institute found that "there is no longer any serious disagreement" that Britain's participation in the 2003 Iraq war contributed to the radicalization of many young Muslims in Britain.

Comparisons

But Malcolm Chalmers, an RUSI researcher who co-wrote that study, said he thinks there is an important difference: "In contrast to 2003, when the overthrow of Saddam Hussein unleashed a civil war in Iraq, the current intervention responds to a war that has already been under way for three years," he told DW. In other words, this time the international community is coming to end a war, not start one. Hopefully.

Chalmers also believes that the threat to Britain from "IS" is real. "What is clear is that this threat will remain significant for some time to come, whatever the UK does militarily," he said. "'IS' and other radical terrorist groups are recruiting from across Europe, and there seems to be no linkage to those involved in Iraq in the recent past. Indeed, one of the biggest number of recruits is from Belgium."

Sense of responsibility

Irak Schwerter von Kadesia Triumphbogen 2012

The West has only just left Iraq

Patricia Lewis, a research director of international security at the Chatham House think tank, also thinks the 2003 invasion was fundamentally different to what is happening now. For one thing, the fact that other Arab states are taking part in the bombing is more like the Gulf War of 1991.

"That was very much about regime change - this is about supporting Iraq, this is regime support if you like," she told DW. "It's about protecting people who can't protect themselves. It's a completely different situation."

Lewis also points out that the 2003 war plays into this Commons vote in a different way - since the UK helped to make that mess, some feel it has a duty to clear it up. "There is a sense of responsibility for the UK's role in Iraq," she said. "There are others, of course, who say, 'Look we made such a mess, why are we making it worse?' They think unless we've got a really well thought through plan, going there and doing bombing on the side - is it really going to make a difference?"

But in the end, as Lewis pointed out, the military campaign, with or without ground troops, can only have a limited effect. "A bit of bombing is not going to solve it," she said. Without a much broader diplomatic engagement: with the Arab countries - particularly Egypt - with Israel, and ultimately with Iran and Russia. Like last year's engagement on removing chemical weapons from Syria, the fight against "IS" is another area where old enemies could work together.

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