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The Iraqi Quagmire


At a US military checkpoint on the road north of Kirkuk last week two American soldiers were holding up cardboard placards on each of which was a message written in Kurdish. One said ‘Drivers must get into one lane’ and the other read ‘carrying weapons is forbidden.”

The problem was that the soldiers, not being able to read Kurdish, had mixed up the placards and one of them was angrily waving the one forbidding weapons in front of a car which had tried to jump the queue. A hundred yards further down the road a harassed-looking American officer was asking drivers in English, which they did not speak, if they were armed and was receiving benign smiles and thumbs-up signs.

Not that anybody carrying a gun was likely to be much inconvenienced by this lonely American checkpoint. Dozens of alternative roads and dirt tracks, all unguarded, lead to Kirkuk. Iraqis have centuries of experience in evading and frustrating efforts by governments to tell them what to do.

It is easy enough to mock at the bafflement of ordinary American soldiers trying to establish their authority in one of the most complicated societies in the world. But it is still extraordinary that the US should have spent so many months planning a military campaign with so little thought about the likely political consequences inside Iraq.

The mass looting of every Iraqi city should not have come as a great surprise. It is an old Iraqi tradition in times of war. In the First World War the British and Turkish armies, fighting each other in the provinces which became Iraq, both complained of the speed with which looters ransacked battlefields, sometimes pausing to slit the throats of the wounded, long before the shooting had stopped.

During the great Shia and Kurdish uprisings of 1991 government offices and museums were systematically sacked as they were in 2003. When one Kurdish party captured the city of Arbil from another in 1996 looters immediately stole 5,000 cars. Driving around northern Iraq over the last few weeks I always got very nervous if I could not see any looters in their battered pick-ups because only something very dangerous could have deterred them.

The failure to stop the looting has damaged American prospects for restoring even temporary stability to Iraq. So too has the slowness in restoring electricity, water and petrol supplies. Clearly Washington under-estimated the devastating consequences of the power vacuum which followed the sudden collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The US also seems to have imagined that the fact that Iraqis were anti-Saddam meant that they would be pro-US.

Here the US was the victim of some horribly bad advice from the exiled Iraqi expatriates. According to the account of Prof Kanaan Makiya, veteran opponent of Saddam Hussein, describing his meeting with George Bush at the start of the year, the President asked him: “What reaction do you expect from the Iraqis to the entry of US forces into their cities?” To this Prof Makiya replied reassuringly: “The Iraqis will welcome the US forces with flowers and sweets when they come in.”

But not all the news for the US has been bad. There has not been a wave of revenge killings of Baath party members and security men. This could easily have happened given the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed, tortured or have simply disappeared over the last thirty five years.

Many of the current problems are temporary. Electricity and water supplies will ultimately be restored (electricity is more vital in Iraq than most countries because the flatness of the Mesopotamian plain means that everything has to be pumped). Above all an occupation authority needs to pay salaries to government employees. The state is by far the biggest employer in Iraq and, exiguous though these salaries are, they are vital for restoring the economy and the administration.

Food rations under the UN’s oil-for-food programme were distributed in advance by Saddam’s government before the war. But 60 per cent of Iraqis are wholly dependent for survival on this elaborate and efficient rationing system. Without it they will starve. The US will face mass riots if, over the coming months, rations are not supplied.

The long term weaknesses of a US occupation may not have a lot to do with the looting, spectacular though it is, or even the current breakdown of the Iraqi administration. It will stem rather from whether or not Washington is in effect planning a classic colonial occupation, giving power only to Iraqis wholly dependent on the US.

The omens here are not very good. Asked about the visibly growing influence of the Shia clergy a senior member of the US administration was quoted as saying: “We don’t want to allow Persian fundamentalism to gain any foothold. We want to find more moderate clerics and move them into positions of influence.”

It is not an effort likely to succeed. Saddam spent decades unsuccessfully trying to coerce or co-opt the Shiah clergy through the noose, torture chamber or assassination squad.

The Anglo-American invasion has destabilised the relations between the three great communities to which almost all Iraqis belong. The Kurds have come out winners, second best allies of the US after the Turkish parliament refused to allow a US army to use Turkish bases to invade northern Iraq. The Kurds have taken back the lands in Mosul and Kirkuk provinces from which they were driven by Saddam. But they cannot hold what they have gained without US support.

The Sunni Muslims, the traditional rulers of Iraq for centuries and the backbone of Saddam’s regime, are clear losers. The Shia, some 60 per cent of the Iraqi population, feel that their day has come, but this deeply religious community is a very unlikely ally of the US, particularly if Washington thinks it can now do in Iran what it has just done in Iraq.

For the moment the US can probably control Iraq by main force, by garrisoning the main towns and getting the Iraqi administration running again. But in the longer term it is very vulnerable. With the exception of Kuwait none of Iraq’s neighbours wanted the war or like its outcome. For the moment they are frightened by the large US land army on their door steps. But as US forces are reduced and fear dissipates they have every reason to make sure that the US occupation fails.

If the US is very careful and sensitive to the needs of Iraqis the occupation might stabilise for a few years. But with such an ideological and divided administration in Washington this is about the last thing to expect. Will it, for instance, be able to keep its hands off Iraqi oil? If there is one act of Saddam Hussein which remains popular it is his nationalisation of the oil industry in 1972. Iraqi nationalism may be an uncertain quantity, but all Iraqis are deeply hostile to any threat to their control of the oilfields.

In the 1920s Britain solved the problem of how to rule Iraq by handing power to the Sunni Muslims. The US might like to do this, but since the Sunni are only 20 per cent of the population this would inevitably mean a dictatorship. On the other hand free elections would mean the long-awaited triumph of the Shiah which the US is so eager to avoid because it would increase Iranian influence.

In their present triumphant mood there is no sign that George Bush or Tony Blair appreciate the depth or extent of the morass which they have now entered. Six months ago an Iraqi friend told me that he was all in favour of the US going to war to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but he added: “My only fear is that before it starts, the US will realise that this war is much against its own best interests.”

PATRICK COCKBURN is co-author with Andrew Cockburn of ‘Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession.’


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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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