Gary Younge

George W. Bush and Tony Blair will blame anyone but themselves for the consequences of their disastrous war even its victims.

"IN THE endgame," said one of the world's best-ever chess players, Jose Raul Capablanca, "don't think in terms of moves but in terms of plans." The situation in Iraq is now turning into the bloodiest endgame imaginable. Popular and official support for the war in the countries that ordered the invasion is already at a low and will only get lower.

The Iraqis are no longer able to live under occupation as they have been doing. According to a U.N. report released last week, 3,709 Iraqi civilians died in October. And the cycle of religious and ethnic violence has escalated over the past week. The living flee. Every day up to 2,000 Iraqis go to Syria and another 1,000 to Jordan, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Since the bombing of Samarra's Shia shrine in February more than 1,000 Iraqis a day have been internally displaced, a recent report by the U.N.-affiliated International Organisation for Migration found last month.

Those in the West who fear that withdrawal will lead to civil war are too late it is already here.

Any individual moves announced from now on summits, reports, benchmarks, speeches will be ignored unless they help to provide the basis for the plan towards withdrawal. Occupation got us here; it cannot get us out. Neither Tony Blair nor George W. Bush is in control of events anymore. Both domestically and internationally, events are controlling them. So long as they remain in office they can determine the moves; but they have neither the power nor the credibility to shape what happens next.

Important issue

So the crucial issue is no longer whether the troops leave in defeat and leave the country in disarray they will but the timing of their departure and the political rationale that underpins it. For, those who lied their way into this war are now trying to lie their way out of it. Franco-German diplomatic obstruction, Arab indifference, media bias, U.N. weakness, Syrian and Iranian meddling, women in niqabs and old men with placards all have been or surely will be blamed for the coalition's defeat. As one American columnist pointed out last week, we wait for Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair to conduct an interview with Fox News entitled "If we did it," in which they spell out how they would have bungled this war if, indeed, they had done so.

So, just as Britain allegedly invaded for the good of the Iraqis, the timing of their departure will be conducted with them in mind. The fact that according to Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett it will coincide with Mr. Blair leaving office in spring is entirely fortuitous.

It is absurd to suggest that the Iraqis who have been invaded, whose country is currently occupied, who have had their police and army disbanded, and their entire civil service fired could possibly be in a position to take responsibility for their future and are simply not doing so.

For a start, it implies that the occupation is a potential solution when it is in fact the problem. This seems to be one of the few things on which Sunni and Shia leaders agree. Withdrawal, when it happens, will be welcome. But its nature and the rationale given for it are not simply issues of political point-scoring. They will lay the groundwork for what comes next for two main reasons.

First, because, while withdrawal is a prerequisite for any lasting improvement in Iraq, it will not by itself solve the nation's considerable problems. Iraq has suffered decades of colonial rule, 30 years of dictatorship and three years of military occupation. Most recently, it has been trashed by a foreign invader. The troops must go. But the West has to leave enough resources behind to pay for what it broke. For that to happen, the anti-war movement in the West must shift the focus of our arguments to the terms of withdrawal while explaining why this invasion failed and our responsibilities to the Iraqi people that arise as a result of that failure.

Secondly, because unless we understand what happened in Iraq we are doomed to continue repeating these mistakes elsewhere. Ten days ago, during a visit to Hanoi, Mr. Bush was asked whether Vietnam offered any lessons. He said: "We tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while ... We'll succeed unless we quit."

In other words, the problem with Vietnam was not that the U.S. invaded a sovereign country, bombed it to shreds, committed innumerable atrocities, murdered more than 500,000 Vietnamese more than half of whom were civilians, and lost about 58,000 American servicemen. The problem with Vietnam was that they lost. They lost because it takes a while to complete such a tricky job, and the American public got bored.

"You learn more from a game you lose than a game you win," argued the chess great Capablanca. True, but only if you heed the lessons and then act on them.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006