Failing Iraq

Marking the one year anniversary of the US-led war in Iraq, this week has seen increased violence and anger against the coalition forces. According to reporter Graham Usher, this reaction has been predictable from the offset, for "while the US and Britain knew how to conquer Iraq, they have no idea how to run it." Religious sectarianism, ethnic violence, weakening police power, and corruption all threaten to tear the fragile state apart. If the coalition had concentrated on "national reconciliation" rather than "nation-building", argues Usher, these problems could have been dealt with easily. Most Iraqis seemed to welcome the fall of Saddam. Less are certain about the benefits of the coalition occupation. Usher proposes three critical mistakes made by the US, which – had they been done differently – could have lessened the current instability. First of all, the US should have established "a provisional government from the outset with the sole remit of preparing for elections." Secondly, Washington should not have dissolved the Iraqi army and police forces "in the name of de-Ba'thification." Finally, the decision "to set up the IGC on a sectarian rather than Iraqi national basis" was a critical mistake, contributing to greater internal division and tension. Of course, it is now impossible to know if solving these problems would have led to a more peaceful year. – YaleGlobal

Failing Iraq

One year on most Iraqis agree the US occupation of Iraq has been a failure
Graham Usher
Friday, March 19, 2004

One year after the first bombs fell Baghdad still lives between explosions. Some are controlled, emanating from the "Green Zone", the vast sequestered colony in the heart of Baghdad that now hosts the Anglo- American rulers. Some are real, ripping through police stations, mosques and hotels, leaving scores dead, hundreds maimed, all traumatised.

When they come people stop, look up, check their watches and resume what they were doing -- shopping, working, seeking normality in a city that has forgotten what that is. The atmosphere is of a war unfinished, of a conquest on the brink of implosion.

Most fear the war, above all between themselves. Some resist the conquest. All fear implosion. Some still see light at the end of the tunnel, though even they admit the tunnel is longer and darker than they imagined. "If the road is a 100 miles long, we have moved half a mile," says Zaed Safar, a doctor, who welcomed the regime's fall and believes the worst thing now would be for the occupation to leave.

Perhaps the only thing on which Iraqis agree is that one year on the Americans have made a hash of the occupation -- that while the US and Britain knew how to conquer Iraq, they have no idea how to run it.

For many analysts and leaders of the opposition the occupation has made three cardinal mistakes. The first was not to establish a provisional government from the outset with the sole remit of preparing for elections. This had been the idea of the various opposition conferences that took place in London, Salah Al-Din, Nasseriya and Baghdad both before and after the war.

Disagreements between the opposition parties over the nature of the transition and the Pentagon's belief that the task in Iraq was less national reconciliation than "nation building" scuttled those plans. In the view of Iraqi political analyst, Ghailan Ramis, this created "a logic of occupation rather than of liberation", and "a crisis of national legitimacy" from which the US and its appointed Governing Council never recovered.

"Iraqis needed a national symbol from day one. This would have created a sense of political and social discipline. Instead the sense was of collapse. Iraq was a very centralised state, so when people saw the ministries being looted the perception was of a society being destroyed, with American connivance."

The second mistake was the wholly ideological decision to dissolve the Iraqi army and police forces in the name of de-Ba'thification. This not only opened Iraqi streets to the armed gangs that emerged after the regime's collapse, causing the sense of insecurity that is still the Iraqis' most pressing concern, "it deprived thousands of army and police officers and their families of material well-being, creating fertile ground on which any national resistance could draw," says analyst Wameed Nadhmi.

The third error was the decision to set up the IGC on a sectarian rather than Iraqi national basis. It illustrated the undue influence of the old Iraqi opposition in the new Iraq, a political culture the main forces of which are sectarian, ethnic and military rather than national in constituency and ambition.

The consequences have been threefold: to deepen the rift between "outside" and "inside" Iraqis; to alienate secular, nationalist and leftist forces and to license a dynamic in which people turned to ethnic, confessional and tribal leaders as sources of authority. This explains the phenomenon of Al-Sistani, says Ramis: an Iranian Shia cleric who speaks on behalf of the Iraqi nation but who can never be a legitimate representative of large parts of the nation.

Is there any way out? Ramis sees hope in the elections scheduled for the provisional government at the end of the year. Others see elections as reinforcing divisions. They point to the Kurdish and Shia fractures that opened up over the issue of federalism in Iraq's interim constitution. The Kurds claimed a veto on any Iraqi constitution that would harm their national rights while Shia parties countered that any "minority" veto contradicts the "will of the Iraqi people".

For some Iraqis the problem is not so much the differences between various communities but the "military culture of politics" -- common to the old regime and opposition alike -- through which they try to solve these differences.

"We still have an authoritarian mindset. It's not just the Baathists -- it's all of us," says Ahmed Mukhtar, an Iraqi journalist. "Every party sees power not as influence within an agreed national consensus but as control of the state. I am a Shia but when I visit the Ministry of Telecommunications [now under the control of the Islamist religious Dawa Party] I am appalled. It is no longer a national ministry, it is a shrine to religious leaders."

Was this the American design? For Arab nationalists like Nadhmi the answer is unequivocal: "I have always said the US aim was to weaken Iraq -- to divide it on sectarian and ethnic lines while keeping it geographically intact." Others, like Safar, insist Iraq's sectarian and ethnic divisions preceded the US-led occupation, simultaneously fostered and held in check by the Baathist dictatorship. Still others believe that the contradictions that plague the new Iraq are the same ones that have dogged it since its birth. The most dangerous thing now, as then, is the belief they can be forced into one mould.

"There are people in the US administration intent on pursuing the fantasy of what they believe Iraq should be rather than accepting the reality of what Iraq is," says a former US diplomat. "If you look at all the issues that divide Iraqis today -- the notion of Kurdish autonomy, the position of the Shias -- they are the same ones that have made Iraq a failed state for the last 80 years. For them to be solved requires all the constituencies in Iraq to give up long-held beliefs -- and that is not going to happen. What can happen are practical arrangements for co-existence. Very few Iraqi Arabs like the idea of a de jure Kurdish autonomy in the north of Iraq. Even fewer feel any compulsion to re-conquer the Kurdish areas in the name of Iraqi unity. Iraqis and Kurds for now can live with temporary, interim arrangements. What neither will accept are imposed, coerced solutions."

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved. Reprinted from 18 - 24 March 2004 Issue No. 682.