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“Democracy in Iraq will take up to 30 years”

Arnold Hottinger remains sceptical about US hopes to democratise Iraq. SF DRS

The United States has neither the will nor the ability to bring democracy to Iraq, according to Middle East specialist Arnold Hottinger.

And he warns that if the war is a bloody and protracted one, unrest could spread to neighbouring countries.

Hottinger is a Swiss journalist, acknowledged as one of the country’s foremost experts on Middle East affairs.

He has travelled extensively around the region, making his name as a correspondent for the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” and Swiss radio.

He told swissinfo that the war in Iraq could be over very quickly – within a week at the earliest. But he added it could drag out for as long as a month.

swissinfo: How long do you think the war in Iraq will last?

Arnold Hottinger: It depends on the response of the Iraqi troops. If Saddam loses his authority over them early on and lines of contact are broken, they may well surrender because they will not fear being punished.

If Saddam can keep them under control for a while, the war might last longer. The big question is whether he can concentrate his forces in Baghdad and gain time by having a bloody battle in the capital.

If there were protracted fighting in Baghdad what impact would there be on neighbouring countries?

It would be potentially dangerous for many governments in the Middle East, where one has to differentiate between the thinking of the general population and the regimes.

The population is already upset at what is happening in Iraq and if they see pictures of dead and wounded in Baghdad it could spur them to violent street protests.

In Egypt or Jordan, for example, there could even be attempts to overthrow the government. But that is the worst-case scenario.

Is the idea of “nation building” and installing democracy in Iraq to serve as a model for the rest of the Middle East really possible?

It would be possible if America were willing to invest time – about 20 or 30 years – and do it tactfully.

I don’t think either of those things will happen. The Americans will not have much tact and the most they will want to invest is two years.

Was Afghanistan a “testing ground” for the Americans in this notion of nation building?

No, the idea is older. We know the assistant secretary of defence, Paul Wolfowitz, suggested an attack on Iraq immediately before the one launched on Afghanistan.

The idea of “nation building” has been in the minds of the neo-conservatives who are now ruling in Washington for some time.

But after the September 11 attacks in the United States, Colin Powell and the realists in the government imposed their will to attack Afghanistan and to fight the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.

But at the same time as the attack on Afghanistan was ordered, it was clear that Iraq would be next and the US army was instructed to prepare itself for a future attack on Iraq.

So the current war is much more ideological and neo-imperialist than the revenge action against the terrorists was in Afghanistan.

What impact will the war in Iraq have on relations between the US and Saudi Arabia?

Again it’s a question of how long the war will last and how bloody it will be, and whether the post-war regime will be a success.

All those issues will influence the attitude of the Saudi people even though the regime will try to keep them quiet. But the regime is in a very difficult position nowadays.

There is a dynastic change impending and the country has financial problems. The regime is very shaky – much more so than it used to be.

How far then are securing access to oil supplies and influencing the surrounding countries’ attitude towards Israel driving forces in this war?

You have to look at who is formulating the aims of the war.

If you look at the neo-conservatives, people like Donald Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, I think ideological motives are at the forefront.

But there are also a few more realistic people who are focusing on the oil.

The ideologues think about the US position in the world – a position that has to be secured in the Middle East.

So you’re saying the motive behind the war is a combination of the ideological and the pragmatic one? But does it stop with Iraq? Who is to say Iran won’t be next?

That’s the thinking of the ideologues who believe there are many more “criminal” countries that have to be brought into line and this is the moment to do it because the US is the one superpower in the world.

For the ideologues in Washington, a pro-American Middle East would also be a pro-Israeli Middle East. For them, Middle East countries have to change, and that change can be brought about by bombing them.

But surely this can’t be done without the authority of the international community – and doesn’t getting that authority depend on what happens now and in the future in Iraq?

War in Iraq was declared without that authority. The neo-conservatives don’t care much about the UN.

I think what will happen is that reality will force them to see that it is not as easy as they imagined. The Middle East cannot be changed by force.

Their aims cannot be realised – and Iraq will show them that within the next two years. Then they will have to ask the international community for help. But at the moment they believe they can do everything without the UN.

What impact will the conflict in Iraq have on the War against Terrorism?

On the one hand, it will increase the motive for terrorism in the whole Islamic world.

That is quite clear and visible already, and around two per cent of them would be willing to resort to violence.

On the other hand, US attention to terrorism has decreased because the whole government is focused on the war.

There isn’t much mention of Afghanistan at the moment even though the situation there is not clear. Terrorists are still around and Osama bin Laden hasn’t been found.

Can peace in general in the Middle East really be achieved without the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel being resolved first?

An armistice can be achieved but not real peace. Arabs differentiate between “Solh” and “Salam”.

Solh is an armistice and that can be can be accomplished. Salam, real peace, is only possible if you solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

It can be solved because the Palestinians are now ready to accept a small state in the Occupied Territories, but the Israelis are not ready to give it to them.

swissinfo-interview: Jonathan Summerton

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR