When the war in Iraq first began, many expected it to last no more than two or three days. The cheerleaders of U.S. military might immediately declared that Saddam Hussein’s regime had crumbled. The only question left was how many hours it would take coalition forces to reach Baghdad. When the allied advance stalled a few days later, Russian patriotic publications joyously predicted that the Iraqi brass — trained in Soviet military academies — would crush the hated “Yankees.” Then the situation changed again, and the attacking armies began occupying Iraq’s cities with unexpected ease. When they entered Baghdad, U.S. forces found no serious defensive installations in place, and no evidence of preparations for an extended conflict. The bridges and buildings were not mined. No permanent weapon emplacements were discovered.
Television reports showed a couple of hundred people pulling down a statue of Hussein on a half-empty square in the city center. To call them “exultant crowds” would have required a very active imagination. While the victors patrolled the city in disbelief, Baghdad’s residents stayed put in their homes. The streets belonged to looters — the third force in this conflict, and its only real winner. At the same time, tens of thousands of Republican Guards simply disappeared along with the regular army, the security services and civil servants. Thousands of foreign volunteers also vanished somehow, though you’d have thought they might find it hard to hide in a strange city. Hundreds of tanks and other vehicles seemed to sink into the sand. Had they really been destroyed or abandoned, the Baghdad suburbs would have been littered with mangled machinery and reporters would have documented the fact. Iraqi troops also disappeared from Basra, though it was surrounded by British forces. Worst of all, the Iraqi leadership seemed to evaporate. The allies couldn’t catch any of them, even “Chemical Ali,” who was reported to be in the south of Iraq, and then suddenly turned up in the north.
Military analysts have had trouble making sense of the conflict because it is proceeding by a different set of rules –those of politics and the information war. Had Hussein’s regime collapsed on its own, we would have seen the process of disintegration unfold over a number of days or even weeks. The disappearance of Iraq’s entire military and political establishment is evidence of the opposite. The ruling elite is in full control of the situation, and is acting according to plan. What does it hope to achieve?
Optimists in the Russian military assumed that Hussein was luring the enemy into the capital, as Prince Mikhail Kutuzov did before driving Napoleon’s army from Russia in 1812. More cynical commentators suggested that the coalition had simply struck a deal with the Iraqis. When they entered Basra, British troops found total chaos, possibly instigated in part by Hussein’s secret police. Following several weeks of anarchy, it will become clear that Iraq cannot be governed without the “proven personnel” of the old regime. At that point, the Republican Guard and its generals will emerge once more from their homes, now in league with the Americans. Hussein and his sons, if they are still alive, will continue to call the shots from behind the scenes.
We will soon know how closely this prediction corresponds to reality. One thing is already clear, however: The events in Iraq are not over; they’re just getting started. In forcing Hussein’s regime out of Baghdad, the allies have rendered Iraq ungovernable. The democratic alternative for Iraq that they talk about at press conferences was never more than propaganda. As a result, Washington and London don’t have much of a choice about how to proceed. They can run the country as an occupying regime, risking increasing guerrilla activity in the cities, civil war and resistance from Hussein’s clan, which has far from lost its political and military capabilities. Or they can make a deal with Hussein’s people.
In any case, Hussein has acted sensibly. By surrendering Iraq’s cities more or less without a fight, he avoided untold casualties. And now Hussein has been transformed from a real dictator into a virtual leader. In this capacity he will prove all the more useful to his people — or rather, less harmful. He will no longer issue idiotic decrees, execute his own generals, or put people in prison. Instead, he could become the symbol of an invincible and invulnerable resistance. Hiding out in safe apartments, Hussein is fully capable of inflicting disgrace upon the mighty United States.
BORIS KAGARLITSKY is Director of the Institute of Globalisation Studies (IPROG) in Moscow, Russia. He can be reached at” firstname.lastname@example.org