At the Gates of Hell

The American-British invasion and occupation of Iraq has put the clock back eighty years and inaugurated a hellish prospect for both baffled occupiers and benighted inhabitants. The argument about whether the Iraqis will at some unspecified future date and after who knows what suffering be better off without Saddam Hussein, or whether the corrupt and violent order he imposed should have been allowed to continue until Iraqis could oust him themselves, is one that more concerns Western intellectuals than the bombed, battered, powerless, sweltering, diseased, thirsty, dirty, hopeless masses who are a majority of Iraq’s 26m. citizens.

After the assassination of the country’s most powerful Shi’ite leader, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, at the holy shrine of Najaf, an editorialist in a Jordanian daily wrote, “the gates of Iraq have now opened to hell.”

Even the most optimistic and moderate Iraqis fear the very real prospect of civil war if the majority Shi’ite population break loose and turn on their Sunni Muslim brethren, elements of whom are being held responsible for the bombings, or themselves fracture into warring factions. Or both.

As the death toll of Iraqis and Allied soldiers continues, the question is: how can the occupiers and occupied work to close those gates to hell and prevent the sundering of Iraq into warring regions or areas at war with themselves? There are already signs that if this happens among the Arabs of Iraq the relatively stable Kurdish region in the north would break away, exacerbating the collapse of the nation and over-exciting the Kurds’ watchful and nervous Turkish neighbours.

The prospect is awesome. The bulk of Iraq’s majority Shi’ite population and their leadership, under Ayatollah Baqer al-Hakim’s guidance, had with reservations decided to co-operate with the occupation forces, and stayed calm, though they resented the Americans’ ineptness: the lack of security, the failure, as ever, of the occupying forces to listen to let alone heed advice, and their refusal to hand over as much security as possible to the Iraqi Shi’ites and their militias.

Whoever blew up the ayatollah may well have exploded this consensual and co-operative approach, intentionally.

Whether among the Sunni Muslims, in whose strongest areas around and west of Baghdad the most persistent resistance to occupation exists; or among the Shi’ite Muslims, whose ranks include the firebrand Moqtada Sadr, a popular young religious leader with his own little army, who believes in an Iranian-model clerically ruled state in Iraq; or between Sunni and Shi’ite factions, the ingredients for civil strife are plentiful.

The American occupation was misconceived and misapplied: too few of the wrong sort of troops, combat regiments with little or no peacekeeping experience; therefore there followed crude or slack security and policing; little known and unpopular exiled Iraqis were parachuted into positions of nascent power—they are for the large part seen in Iraq as collaborators, CIA stooges and exploiters; the failure to reconnect power and clean water; the strong indications that Iraq’s resources were up for American industrial grabs; the deep Iraqi mistrust of and resentment towards a superpower that seems preternaturally suspicious of Muslims, even of Islam itself, and which persists in virtually uncritical support of Israel and its brutal tactics in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Of all the United States’ conceptual blunders in the Middle East, this failure to understand how deeply the Palestinian tragedy is engraved in the Arab psyche, and how it has become the starkest model of how the US grades the peoples of the Middle East (Israelis good, Arabs and Moslems bad), has been the greatest of them. It is even greater than the expectation that with Saddam Hussein’s regime toppled the Iraqis would crawl out of their rubble, bereavement and misery and stand to, smiling and cheering, to join enthusiastically and without delay the American plan for free-market democracy (including Iraq’s recognition of Israel).

It is from this mire of ignorance and self-deception that the United States (with Britain) has to extricate itself. It may well not be possible. The chances must remain great that the Americans will tire of the extraordinary expense of occupation—tens of billions of dollars a year as L.Paul Bremer, their proconsul, chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority, put it (I estimate $56bn a year, including military costs); of the deaths; of the concomitant prejudice to George W. Bush’s chances of re-election next year; and that the United States will spin the perceived aim of the exercise as a successful military operation to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and give a knock to “terror”, then cut and run.

This is tempting for Bush and his disappointed but presumably wiser neo-conservative advisers, but will be difficult to pull off. There are signs, therefore, that the Americans are groping hopefully for ways of sharing the burden if not the power more effectively with other nations, through the United Nations or even Nato, and handing responsibility more quickly back to the Iraqis. The US Administration is still obsessed with running the whole show, and should this remain a sine qua non the chances of a successful shift from occupation to liberation are sharply reduced.

How could it work?

Security comes first. The prime need is for a new United Nations Security Council resolution setting out a UN Mandate for Iraq, with a clear timetable for a constitution, a census, national elections within two years and speedy return to full Iraqi rule and Iraqi-administered security. An essential part of this initially will be a much larger international military force, with representations from nations that publicly opposed the invasion, including contributors from Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Turkey and Jordan, and from other non-European countries such as India; Nato could play an important role here; the existing coalition force, primarily American, would have to remain the core of this force, for the time being, but its (inevitably) American chief could double as UN commander; a UN blue-helmet force could protect particular United Nations agencies and institutions.

A priority for the UN force must be the re-creation as soon as possible of the Iraqi Army (its disbandment was one of the Americans’ crasser actions) and Iraqi local police forces, and tolerance of and co-operation with the main Shi’ite militia in predominantly Shi’ite areas south of and even in Baghdad, always assuming this opportunity was not blown away in the Najaf horror.

Intelligence is the key to good security. This comes from Iraqis, not outsiders. Most of us would prefer our police to be fellow citizens than foreigners, especially aliens who do not speak our language. Iraqis are no different, and it is condescending to think otherwise. However, it is going to be difficult to find reliable Iraqis to help publicly what still, even under United Nations aegis, looks like an American enterprise in disguise.

As all this-if it can—takes effect, Iraq’s public institutions and ministries must be reconstituted and given back to Iraqis. Under Saddam Hussein there was, below the upper echelons in which his suborned apparatchiks operated, a perfectly respectable and efficient executive class of civil servants and technocrats who delivered services to Iraqis—such as the food ration, electricity, water and education—as well as anyone could have given the near-13 years of privations and depredations brought by war and Western-applied economic sanctions. Iraq’s civil society, lawyers, teachers, doctors, administrators, lecturers—for there was one—must be resurrected. One of the worst canards the British have been bandying about is that Iraq has suffered thirty years of neglect. Whitehall knows better. Even in 1990, after eight years’ war with Iran, Iraq was still one of the most advanced, best educated and healthiest nations in the Middle East.

The idea that Iraq is some primitive society that needs the wisdom of the West to bring it to civilised fruition bears no close examination. There also persist among our leaders misleading emphases: on the Ba’ath Party, as if Ba’athism itself rather than Saddam’s twisted and personalised version of it was responsible for Iraq’s plight; and on “Saddam loyalists”, as if to resent or resist foreign occupation one has to be a creature of Saddam Hussein. To have been in the Ba’ath Party does not automatically criminalise a civil servant or lecturer and to shoot an American it is not necessary to be a supporter of Saddam Hussein.

There are indications that this thinking might be changing, at least among some Americans on the ground and in certain corridors of the State Department. These are trying to speed the political development of the Iraq governing council, and though it is seen by most Iraqis as a creature of Washington it does contain a minority of respected Iraqis: Adnan Pachachi, for example, a patrician Sunni former Foreign Minister; Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party; the Shi’ite cleric, Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, though he suspended his membership after the Najaf tragedy. This body has now appointed a cabinet, belatedly, though early comment indicates that some of these ministers, many of them exiles or creatures of the exiles, are seen as place-men in an American hegemony. What is needed is an early prospect of elections and a provisional government that brings Iraqis into governance. This can only happen effectively under the guidance and supervision of the United Nations. However, the killing of the UN Secretary-General’s special representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello, on August 19 sends an ominous message to UN agencies and prospective UN personnel.

It is vital that Iraq produce political leaders that are home grown, that many of the exiles fade away. Few of them have much support inside Iraq—“they’re little more than carpetbaggers”, one Iraqi professor told me. Again, though, how can national figures emerge without the taint of association with the American Occupation? The UN has to be visibly in charge. Neither must the Americans horde Iraq’s economic resources to themselves—nations that risk troops and civilian aides and experts in Iraq must share any rewards as well: they will have earned them.

It is hard to be optimistic.

This intervention in Iraq was for the wrong reasons by the wrong coalition, a former and an existing colonial power . The United States needed a scalp after September 11, Saddam Hussein fitted the bill, it seemed, a saleable idea in the US at any rate, and the now-muffled hawks in the Pentagon seized the day to try out their fantasies of spreading American-fashioned democracy throughout the Middle East, with Iraq as the model and launching pad, and with Israeli domination of the region a bonus.

How to disguise such a prospectus?

My fear is that the Iraqi people are stuck with the consequences of an occupation that can neither be deftly ended nor easily change its nature. Even if the Americans make genuine efforts to redistribute power, the anger and dissidence among the people may still deny them success, and ordinary Iraqis could well either support insurrection or be sufficiently apathetic not to resist it.

Reducing the US profile and content of this enterprise and making real the prospect of an Iraq run by and for Iraqis is the only hope; it is a forlorn one.

TIM LLEWELLYN is a former BBC Middle East Correspondent.