Meet the New Iraqi Strongman

Paul Bremer’s taste in clothes symbolises “the new Iraq” very well. He wears a business suit and combat boots. As the proconsul of Iraq, you might have thought he’d have more taste. But he is a famous “anti-terrorism” expert who is supposed to be rebuilding the country with a vast army of international companies-most of them American, of course-and creating the first democracy in the Arab world. Since he seems to be a total failure at the “anti-terrorist” game-50 American soldiers killed in Iraq since President George Bush declared the war over is not exactly a blazing success-it is only fair to record that he is making a mess of the “reconstruction” bit as well.

In theory, the news is all great. Oil production is up to one million barrels a day; Baghdad airport is preparing to re-open; every university in Iraq is functioning again ; the health services are recovering rapidly; and mobile phones have made their first appearance in Baghdad. There’s an Iraqi Interim Council up and hobbling.

But there’s a kind of looking-glass fantasy to all these announcements from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the weasel-worded title with which the American-led occupation powers cloak their decidedly undemocratic and right-wing credentials. Take the oil production figures. Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, the US commander in Iraq, even chose to use these statistics in his “great day for Iraq” press conference last week, the one in which he triumphantly announced that 200 soldiers in Mosul had killed the sons of Saddam rather than take them prisoner. But Lt-Gen Sanchez was talking rubbish. Although oil production was indeed standing at 900,000 barrels per day in June (albeit 100,000bpd less than the Sanchez version), it fell this month to 750,000. The drop was caused by power cuts–which are going to continue for much of the year-and export smuggling. The result? Iraq, with the world’s second-highest reserves of oil, is now importing fuel from other oil producing countries to meet domestic demands. Then comes Baghdad airport. Sure, it’s going to re-open. But it just happens that the airport, with its huge American military base and brutal US prison camp, comes under nightly grenade and mortar attack. No major airline would dream of flying its aircraft into the facility in these circumstances. So, weird things are happening. The Iraqis are told, for example, that the first flights will be run by “Transcontinental Airlines” (a name oddly similar to the CIA’s transport airline in Vietnam), which is reported to be a subsidiary of “US Airlines” and the only flight will be between Baghdad and-wait for it-the old East Berlin airport of Schonefeld. A British outfit calling itself “Mayhill Aviation” has printed advertisements in the Iraqi press saying that it intends to fly a Boeing 747 once a week from Gatwick to Basra, a route which suggests that it is going to be British military personnel and their families who end up using the plane.

Open universities are good news. And few would blame Bremer for summarily firing the 436 professors who were members of the Baath party. In the same vein, the CPA annulled the academic system whereby student party members would automatically receive higher grades. This is real de-Baathification. But then it turned out that there wouldn’t be enough qualified professors to go round. Quite a number of the 436 were party men in name only and received their degrees at foreign universities. So, at Mustansiriyah University, for example, the very same purged professors were re-hired after filling out forms routinely denouncing the Baath party. Bremer seems to have a habit of reversing his own decisions; having triumphantly announced that he’d sacked the entire Iraqi army, he was humiliatingly forced to put them back on rations in case they all decided to attack US soldiers in Iraq.

Health services? Well, yes, the new Iraqi health service is being encouraged to rehabilitate the country’s hospitals and clinics. But a mysterious American company called Abt Associates has turned up in Baghdad to give “Ministry of Health Technical Assistance” support to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and “rapid response grants to address health needs in-country”. It has decreed that all medical equipment must accord with US technical standards and modifications-which means that all new hospital equipment must come from America, not from Europe. And then there’s the mobile phones. Just over a week ago, my roaming Lebanese cellular pinged into life at midnight and, after a few hours of scrambled voice communication, picked up mobile companies in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain (depending on where you happened to be in Baghdad). Less than a week later, however, the Americans ordered the system shut down because the Bahrain operating company, by opening its service so early, was supposedly not giving other bidders a fair chance at the contract. Those other companies are largely American.

Of course, Iraqis protest at much of this. They protest in the streets, especially against the aggressive American military raids, and they protest in the press. Much good does it do them. When ex-Iraqi soldiers demonstrated outside Bremer’s office at the former Presidential Palace, US troops shot two of them dead. When Falujah residents staged a protest as long ago as April, the American military shot 16 dead. Another 11 were later gunned down in Mosul. During two demonstrations against the presence of US troops near the shrine of Imam Hussein at Karbala last weekend, US soldiers shot dead another three. “What a wonderful thing it is to speak your own minds,” Lt-Gen Sanchez said of the demonstrations in Iraq last week. Maybe he was exhibiting a black sense of humour.

All this might be incomprehensible if one forgot that the whole illegal Iraqi invasion had been hatched up by a bunch of right-wing and pro-Israeli ideologues in Washington, and that Bremer- though not a member of their group–fits squarely into the same bracket. Hence Paul Wolfowitz, one of the prime instigators of this war-he was among the loudest to beat the drum over the weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist-is now trying to deflect attention from his disastrous advice to the US administration by attacking the media, in particular that pesky, uncontrollable channel, Al-Jazeera. Its reports, he now meretriciously claims, amount to “incitement to violence”-knowing full well, of course, that Bremer has officially made “incitement to violence” an excuse to close down any newspaper or TV station he doesn’t like.

Indeed, newspapers that have offended the Americans have been raided by US troops in the same way that the Americans have conducted raids on the offices of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose leader, Ayatollah Mohammed al-Hakim, is a member of the famous Interim Council-not exactly a bright way to keep a prominent Shia cleric on board.

But the Council itself is already the subject of much humour in Baghdad, not least because its first acts included the purchase of cars for all its members; a decision to work out of a former presidential palace; and-this the lunatic brainchild of the Pentagon-supported and convicted fraudster Ahmed Chalabi-the declaring of a national holiday every 9 April to honour Iraq’s ‘liberation” from Saddam.

This sounds fine in America and Britain. What could be more natural than celebrating the end of the Beast of Baghdad? But Iraqis, a proud people who have resisted centuries of invasions, realised that their new public holiday would mark the first day of their country’s foreign occupation. “From its very first decision,” an Iraqi journalist told me with contempt, “the Interim Council de-legitimised itself.” And so there has begun to grow the faint but sinister shadow of a different kind of “democracy” for Iraq, one in which a new ruler will have to use a paternalistic rule-moderation mixed with autocracy. a la Ataturk -to govern Iraq and allow the Americans to go home. Inevitably, it has been one of the American commentators from the same failed lunatic right as Wolfowitz-Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum think tank, which promotes American interests in the region-to express this in its most chilling form. He now argues that ”democratic-minded autocrats can guide [Iraq] to full democracy better than snap elections”. What Iraq needs, he says, is “a democratically-minded [sic] strongman who has real authority”, who would be “politically moderate” but “operationally tough” (sic again).

Of course, it’s difficult to resist a cynical smile at such double standards, although their meaning is frightening enough. What does “operationally tough” mean, other than secret policemen, interrogation rooms and torturers to keep the people in order- which is exactly what Saddam set up when he took power, supported as he was at the time by the US and Britain? What does “strongman” mean other than a total reversal of the promise of “democracy” which Bush and Tony Blair made to the Iraqi people?

Democracies are not led by autocrats, and autocrats are not led by anyone but themselves. The Pipes version of the strongman democracy, by the way, involves the withdrawal of American troops to ‘`military bases away from population centres” where they “serve as the military partner of the new government [sic] guaranteeing its ultimate security…” In other words, US forces would hide in the desert to avoid further casualties unless it was necessary to storm back to Baghdad to get rid of the “strongman” if he failed to obey American orders.

But today Bremer is the strongman, and under his rule US troops are losing hearts and minds by the bucketful with each new, blundering and often useless raid against the civilians of Iraq. Still obsessed with capturing-or, rather, killing-Saddam, they are destroying any residual affection for them among the population. On a recent operation in the town of Dhuluaya, for example, two innocent men were killed and the Americans’ Iraqi informer-originally paraded before those he was to betray in a hood to keep his identity secret-was executed by his own father. The enterprising newspaper Iraq Today found that the “intelligence” officers of the 4th Infantry Division even left behind mug shots, aerial reconnaissance photographs and secret operational documents-complete with target houses and briefing notes-at the scene. The paper, in the true tradition of journalism, gleefully published the lot, including the comment of the father of Sabah Salem Kerbul, the young informer who worked for the Americans during “Operation Peninsula Strike”. He shot his son first in the foot and then in the head. “I have killed him,” he said. “But he is still a part of my heart.”

Indeed, anarchic violence is now being embedded in Iraqi society in a way it never was under the genocidal Saddam. Scarcely a day goes by when I do not encounter the evidence of this in my daily reporting work in Baghdad. Visiting the Yarrnouk hospital in Baghdad on Monday to seek the identity of civilians killed by American troops in Mansur the previous day, I came across four bodies Iying out in the yard beside the building in the 50C heat.

All had been shot. No one knew their identities. They were all young, save one who might have been a middle-aged man, with a hole in his sock. Three days earlier, on a visit to a local supermarket, I noticed that the woman cashier was wearing black. Yes, she said, because her brother had been murdered a week earlier. No one knew why.

In a conversation with my driver’s father–who runs a photocopying shop near Bremer’s palace headquarters–a young man suddenly launched into praise for Saddam Hussein. When I asked him why, he said that his father’s new car had just been stolen by armed men. Trying to contact an ex-prisoner illegally held by the Americans at his home in a slum suburb of Baghdad, I drove to the mukhtar’s house to find the correct address. The mukhtar is the local mayor. But I was greeted by a group of long-faced relatives who told me that I could not speak to the mukhtar–because he had been assassinated the previous night.

So, if this is my experience in just the past four days, how many murders and thefts are occurring across Baghdad–or, indeed, across Iraq? Only two days ago, for example, five men accused of selling alcohol were reportedly murdered in Basra. Again, there was no publicity, no official statement, no death toll from the CPA. Only a few days ago, I sat in the conference hall that the occupation authorities use for their daily press briefings, follies that are used to condemn “irresponsible reporting”, but which record only a fraction of the violence of the previous 24 hours- violence which, of course, is well known to the authorities.

And there was a disturbing moment when Charles Heatley, the British spokesman from the Foreign Office, appointed by Tony Blair at the behest of Alastair Campbell, talked about the reports of abduction and rape in Iraq. He acknowledged that there had been some cases, but then-I enjoyed the beautiful way in which he tried to destroy any journalistic interest in this terrible subject -talked about the number of “rumours” that turned out to be untrue when checked out. But this is not the experience of The Independent, which in just one day recently discovered the identity of one young woman who had been kidnapped, raped and then freed–only to attempt suicide three times at her home. Another family gave the paper a photograph of their abducted daughter in the hope that it might be printed in the Iraqi press.

Why don’t the occupation authorities realise that Iraq cannot be “spun”? This country is living a tragedy of epic proportions, and now-after its descent into hell under Saddam-we are doomed to suffer its contagion. By our hubris and by our lies and by our fantasies-including the fantasies of Tony Blair-we are descending into the pit.

For the people of Iraq, the next stage in their long suffering is under way. For us, a new colonial humiliation, the like of which may well end the careers of George Bush and Tony Blair, is coming. Of far more consequence is that it is likely to end many innocent lives as well.

ROBERT FISK is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to Cockburn and St. Clair’s forthcoming book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.


Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.