The sorry state of Iraq

A corrosive war makes for a messy peace.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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How quickly the mood changes. On 10 April, excitable newspaper headlines said ‘Statue of liberty’, ‘The toppling of Saddam’ and ‘New era for Iraq’, as Baghdad fell to coalition forces. On 11 April, the celebratory headlines were replaced with images of looting, shooting and chaos, as instability spread across Iraq.

Most Iraqis are no doubt delighted to see the back of Saddam, but the notion of a positive ‘new era’ for Iraq is likely to be shortlived. Coalition forces have chased a weak and failing regime out of a weak and failing state, with little sense of what might take its place. The war has left a vacuum, creating the potential for scrappy battles for power; and it has internationalised Iraq’s local conflicts, promising further instability. Iraq looks set to unravel, as surely as its regime did.

Iraq is descending into general chaos. The ‘birth of the new’ has been greeted by widespread looting of the old, in Baghdad, Basra and other towns and cities. In Baghdad, amid surreal scenes of US marines watching Baghdadis loot old Ba’ath Party buildings, one resident said to a Reuters correspondent: ‘Please tell me what is going on. Where is our government? To whom do we belong now…?’ (1)

Abdul Majid al-Khoei, an Islamic cleric and ‘friend of Tony Blair’ who returned to Iraq from London last week, has been hacked to death in a mosque in the south. Al-Khoei was meeting with a rival cleric in the city of Najaf to symbolise Iraq’s ‘process of reconciliation’ – in a mosque that US forces had agreed to keep their distance from for fear of upsetting religious sensibilities – when he was set upon by an angry crowd (2).

As a consequence of America and Britain’s intervention, Iraq is spinning out of control, its tensions and divisions rising to the fore. The routing of the old regime has already triggered battles for power, as small, armed and opportunistic groups move into the vacuum left by the war.

A little-known Iraqi militia called the Iraqi Coalition of National Unity (ICNU) has apparently taken over the town of Hay Al Ansar in southern Iraq, with the backing of US special forces. According to the Financial Times, the people of Hay Al Ansar were happy ‘to be rid of the Ba’ath party government…but they appear to be just as terrified, if not more so, of their new rulers’. The FT says the ICNU ‘has taken to looting and terrorising the neighbourhood with impunity’ (3).

Elsewhere, groups have attempted to take over towns without the backing of US special forces. Reuters reports that an anti-Saddam militia seized the south-eastern town of Amara earlier this week, until a ‘CIA officer told them to withdraw under threat of bombing’ (4). Having seen off the old rulers, US forces now risk being drawn into spats with the wannabe new rulers. In other parts of southern Iraq, criminal gangs are apparently ‘exploiting the absence of law and order’ by setting up roadblocks and ‘declaring themselves to be in charge’.

This instability is the by-product of an intervention that destroyed central authority, when there was nothing else to take over. No political group in Iraq has the legitimacy, or a strong-enough base of support, to take the reins in postwar Iraq. The Iraqi people are largely removed from politics, as evidenced by the absence of the much-expected political uprisings in the early days of the coalition’s war. Instead, small groups tentatively move into the abandoned and lawless territory left by the war.

Now, the Bush administration imagines that it can restore order by sending in Iraqi exiles to take control of the country. The Pentagon wants to send Ahmed Chalabi, who has lived in Washington and London for the past 45 years, to serve as an interim leader. But the CIA claims that ‘every time you mention Chalabi’s name to an Iraqi, they want to puke’, and would rather the USA sent some other Iraqi exile to take over (5).

Yet these Iraqi exiles, whether preferred by the Pentagon or the CIA, are political nobodies, who have nothing remotely resembling grassroots support or a political movement inside Iraq. They are no more representative of the Iraqi people than the chancers who were threatened with bombs for taking over Amara or the criminal gangs setting up roadblocks in the south. You cannot parachute in some goons and expect that they will ‘restore order’. One commentator describes the exile option as a ‘temporary, band-aid solution’ – and you can’t collapse a state and then put it back together with a band-aid.

The coalition’s war has also internationalised Iraq’s local conflicts, with the effect of exacerbating and heightening tensions. By turning Iraq into an international issue, America and Britain have paved the way for broader power struggles in the region, and for potential carve-ups.

Already, simmering tensions between Turkish forces and Iraq’s Kurdish population have come to the fore. Kurds have moved into the northern Iraqi towns Kirkuk and Mosul, which they consider to be part of their ancient Kurdish homeland, provoking Turkish threats to invade Iraq and keep Kurds in order. Reuters claims that ‘separatist Kurds want to use Turkey’s rift with the USA over war in Iraq to win US acceptance of their cause’ (6). Western intervention in Iraq has turned northern Iraq’s local problems – muted conflict between different Kurdish groups, and between Kurds and Turks – into an international issue. Whatever stability existed in northern Iraq as a United Nations ‘safe haven’ will likely have been shattered by the war.

In southern Iraq, Iran is seeking to consolidate its influence among Iraq’s Shia Muslim population, so that it too will have a hand in postwar Iraq. Some Iranian officials are apparently floating the idea of encouraging Shias to assert their interests against those of the Sunni Muslim element in Iraq (Saddam’s regime was made up largely of Sunni Muslims) – a move that could only cause further fragmentation and division inside Iraq.

The Bush administration has always been more interested in Iraq as a platform for itself, than as a state with problems that need resolving. For Bush officials, Iraq was useful as a focal point for Washington’s post-9/11 attempts to reassert a sense of mission on the world stage. They weren’t interested in Iraq as a nation state with its own tensions and divisions. Consider US officials’ lack of intelligence and general lack of interest in all things Iraqi in the run-up to the war.

According to one report: ‘The US government has begun putting together plans to rebuild the Iraqi economy. The trouble is, Washington doesn’t know exactly what it’s trying to rebuild.’ (7) One commentator pointed out that, as the war started, the Bush administration started to do postwar reconstruction planning and information gathering, when ‘surely information gathering should have come first’ – and ‘much earlier?’.

In early March 2003, the Bush administration set up an Iraqi reconstruction office in Washington, which became know as the ‘Iraqshack’ – where, according to one report, officials discovered that much of America’s intelligence on the Iraqi economy was ‘too old to be useful’ (8). Yet now, Bush officials talk about creating an interim authority, then a legitimate Iraqi government and then getting out again, all in the space of six months. If the Bush administration thinks it can go from an Iraqshack in Washington to a stable Iraq in Iraq in half a year, it may be in for a shock.

Inside postwar Iraq, the main aim of the nervous US troops seems to be to save themselves, rather than Iraqis. US forces have set up panicky roadblocks to keep potential suicide bombers at bay, at which many civilians, including families fleeing towns and villages, have been gunned down. Meanwhile, American ‘civil affairs troops’ have taken a ‘light policing’ approach to civil unrest, which seems to involve, not so much bringing chaotic situations under control, but rather standing by, keeping an eye, and hoping that the chaos resolves itself. According US General Vincent Brooks, ‘much of the unrest [will] die down naturally’: ‘We believe that this will settle down in due time.’ (9)

Many Iraqis already want coalition forces to get out of Iraq – which isn’t surprising, considering that the Bush administration has staked its reputation in Iraq on leaving as quickly as possible. President Bush says: ‘I hear a lot of talk here about how we’re going to impose this leader or that leader. Forget it. From day one, we have said the Iraqi people are capable of running their own country.’ (10) Having destabilised a state, the Bush administration now hopes the problem will just go away, happily taken over by some Washington-educated Iraqi.

In the wake of the instability that has swept Iraq, the response of many of the anti-war critics of the coalition is: ‘We need to get even more involved.’ Clare Short, the UK secretary of state for international development who infamously dithered over whether to support the war, now calls on Western forces inside Iraq to make ‘a massively bigger effort’ to end the looting and chaos (11). Other anti-war commentators demand that American forces shouldn’t leave too soon, while some call for UN intervention to help resolve some of the postwar problems. When the best that the coalition’s critics can come up with is effectively a demand for old-style, harder colonial tactics, coalition leaders are unlikely to lose much sleep.

Further intervention would be like fighting fire with petrol. It was Western intervention that unravelled and destabilised Iraq – and the last thing the people of Iraq need is more of the same. The coalition’s hollow war has left Iraq a hollow, and unstable, state.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Iraqis ask ‘Who’s in charge of Baghdad?’, Reuters, 9 April 2003

(2) Iraqi Shi’ite leader Al-Khoei assassinated in Najaf, Reuters, 10 April 2003

(3) US-backed militia terrorises town, Financial Times, 9 April 2003

(4) CIA pushed Iraqi opposition out of southern town, Reuters, 8 April 2003

(5) CIA report slams Pentagon’s favourite Iraqi, United Press International, 8 April 2003

(6) Kurds take control of Mosul – Reuters eyewitness, Reuters, 11 April 2003

(7) Once an economic dynamo, Iraq is now a financial riddle, Associated Press, 9 April 2003

(8) Once an economic dynamo, Iraq is now a financial riddle, Associated Press, 9 April 2003

(9) Baghdad is hit by arson and looting; US troops are ordered to stop the plunder, San Francisco Chronicle, 10 April 2003

(10) The postwar paradox, Slate, 8 April 2003

(11) No 10 calls for ‘reality check’ on Iraq looting, Guardian, 11 April 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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