There is freedom – and there is ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’

Iraq is a mess because Iraqis played no part in their 'liberation'.

Josie Appleton

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Throughout ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ President George W Bush and prime minister Tony Blair have issued pledges to the Iraqi people, promising that their day of liberation was imminent.

In Bush’s message to the Iraqi people on 10 April he said: ‘In the new era that is coming to Iraq, your country will no longer be held captive to the will of a cruel dictator.’ Bush assured Iraqis that as a ‘good and gifted people’ they deserved this freedom: ‘You deserve better than tyranny and corruption and torture chambers. You deserve to live as free people. And I assure every citizen of Iraq: your nation will soon be free.’ (1)

The images of jubilant crowds attacking images of Saddam were beamed around the world. ‘The statue of liberty’, proclaimed a number of newspaper headlines. ‘Freedom, freedom. Thank you Bush. Thank you Bush’, Iraqi men chanted, kissing soldiers and Western journalists (2). One commentator proclaimed the events in Iraq to be a continuation of ‘[t]he battle for liberty [that] had been the core of US history from the beginning’ (3).

But what we have seen in Iraq is liberation as farce. Liberty, freedom and democracy for Iraq could only come about through the struggles of the Iraqi people themselves. The process of liberation is not just one of freeing people from the constraints of their regime; it is about them deciding how they want to rule themselves, how they want to organise and govern their society. It is in fighting for freedom that people gain a sense of what they want freedom to look like.

The Iraqi people have found themselves washed up in a post-war landscape that they played no part in creating. The war occurred as if it had nothing to do with them. Until troops arrived in Baghdad, Iraqis were reported as carrying on as if nothing was happening, with an ‘everyday nonchalance’. When the troops arrived, most people either holed themselves up and waited to see who would win, or grabbed their belongings and fled.

The fact that Iraqis failed to rise up on cue and play their allotted role in the process of their liberation was explained away with speculation about the ‘deep fears’ they had of the regime, or the fact that they had been betrayed in 1991 when Bush allowed Saddam to massacre uprising Kurds and Shias. ‘This time we will not let you down’, pledged Bush (4). ‘We promise that the events of 1991 will not happen again’, said Blair in a printed leaflet: ‘We have pledged to remove Saddam. And we will deliver.’ (5)

When Baghdad was taken, the coalition finally got its liberation photos of crowds attacking Saddam’s statue in Paradise Square. But those who watched the event live on TV commented on the hollowness of the event, less an act of genuine liberation than a photo opportunity for the coalition.

‘A crowd of fewer than 200 Iraqi civilians were unable to bring the statue down and eventually the American military intervened with a specialised armoured vehicle’, wrote one commentator reflecting on the TV coverage of the event. ‘At the key moment, the camera’s focus narrowed from the tiny crowd in the huge square to make the shot the world had been waiting for.’ (6)

The Iraqi elite, too, washed its hands of the war. After all the rhetoric about fighting to the last gasp, the elite simply disappeared – it carried out a self-evacuation programme, leaving deserted ministries, offices and palaces. When coalition forces arrived in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, none of the Tikriti loyalists – supposedly bound to Saddam with blood and patronage – could be found. ‘All the big people they left’, said one 21-year-old Tikriti: ‘It is only us students and youth left.’ (7)

There was no attempt at a coup d’état from within the Republican Guard, as there had been on occasions during the 1990s. Such a move would have meant that some Iraqis had played a part in Saddam’s downfall; and some Iraqis would have been left standing on the post-war political stage. Instead, most of the Republican Guard seemed to melt away, abandoning their weapons and uniforms and heading back to their villages. If the new Iraq was indeed coming, few people in Iraq seemed to want a piece of it.

The contrast between the scenes in Iraq and events in the past described as a ‘liberation’ is striking. The French Revolution in 1789 gave the term ‘liberty’ its modern meaning. Before the Sans Culottes took to the streets and laid down their demands for a new France, liberty had a merely legal significance, meaning something like the opposite of slavery. After the French masses played their part in bringing down the aristocracy, liberty became political – it meant not just the legal status of an individual, but the self-determination of a people (8).

It is difficult to think of an example of regime change that involved so little participation from citizens of that country. Even by the standards of less-than-radical liberations of the past, Iraq was remarkable.

The downfall of Eastern European regimes in 1989 was mainly driven by the reform of the elites, rather than the much-photographed crowds who took to the streets. Most mass demonstrations occurred after the process of reform had begun – and many members of the old elite simply reappeared in new parties and new clothes (9). But the pressure of mass protest played at least some role in the transition; and the country’s elite had at least made certain decisions about how to reform itself.

The Iraqi non-participation in the downfall of Saddam has left a post-war political vacuum, which we have seen expressed in the outbreak of looting and the scrapping of various groups for political control. It has been every man for himself. Each is out to grab what he can – museum relics, hospital generators, whatever – and destroy what he cannot. The senseless burning of ancient Arabic texts was a dramatic symbol of Iraq’s descent into barbarism. This happened not because – as some would have it – Iraqis are inherently barbaric, but because they have no sense of ownership of the ‘new Iraq’. How could they, when its birth has absolutely nothing to do with them?

Moments of genuine liberation have always been humane and creative affairs, as people explored the pleasures and possibilities of self-rule. The Hungarians had a reputation for being a nation of thieves: after the 1956 Hungarian revolution people left their doors unlocked. After the 1917 Russian revolution, there was a blossoming of artistic movements and cultural experimentation. The ‘New Man’ of the revolution, said Leon Trotsky, must develop a ‘new lyric poetry’ (10).

And George Orwell’s description of Barcelona under Republican control during the Spanish Civil War shows how, almost overnight, people began to relate to each other in a new way. ‘Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said “Señor” or “Don” or even “Usted”; everyone called everyone else “Comrade” or “Thou”, and said “Salud!” instead of “Buenos dias”.’ There was a dignity and self-possession that had not been there before. ‘Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.’ (11)

By contrast, Iraqis spent the first few days of their freedom barricaded in their homes, too afraid of other Iraqis to step outside. When they did come together, it was to set up roadblocks to catch looters – and on some occasions to attack those caught.

And while the anarchists of Barcelona were brimming with plans and programmes, busily collectivising shops and factories, Iraqis seem to be having difficulty knowing what to do with themselves. As British Major-General Tim Cross commented: ‘for the first three or four days [the Iraqis] kept asking the soldiers what they were meant to do, and the soldiers said it is up to you, it is your decision.’ (12)

Some Iraqis have ended up in a dependent relationship with the coalition soldiers, demanding that liberation be delivered to them as soon as possible. ‘Where is freedom?’ one demonstrator asked – ‘There is no water, no electricity’ (13). Tim Cross discussed Iraqi citizens as if they were recovering from a long illness: ‘We are not teaching them what to do, or how to do it, but we are enabling them to do the things themselves.’

Another feature of genuine liberation is that it is frowned upon by the powers that be – it threatens established interests. The French Revolution sent a shockwave through the elites of Europe, and in vain they sent their armies to defeat the uprising. The masses pushed the revolution much farther than the French bourgeoisie wanted, demanding democratic rights and guarantees that resources would be fairly distributed.

The West supported the changes in Eastern Europe in 1989 only so long as demonstrations remained ritualised and benign. Whenever people tried to take things into their own hands – breaking into the offices of the secret police, or taking revenge upon former leaders – this was viewed with suspicion.

The Americans did not back the uprising of the Kurds and the Shias after the 1991 Gulf War because they feared the disintegration of the Iraqi state. When they encouraged an uprising, what they had in mind was a sedate coup d’état from within the armed forces, that maintained Iraqi territory and stability (14). Kurdish self-government was not on the cards then – as indeed, it is not today.

The fact that the White House has called its webpage on Iraq ‘Towards Liberation’ is the starkest indication that this is nothing of the sort. Any liberation of Iraq with an ounce of substance would find few friends in the Bush administration.

The US-UK war of non-liberation has made ‘the Iraqi people’ into a strange phantom that hovers over every event, without really expressing itself. When America warned Syria to cooperate, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: ‘Syria needs to think about its responsibilities to the Iraqi people when it comes to their behaviour.’ (15) Out of respect for the Iraqi people, to show them that this was really their liberation, coalition soldiers refrained from raising their flags when they won important victories. Tony Blair’s victory speech to the House of Commons expressed ‘no elation’ or ‘triumphalism’, but only a ‘heavy responsibility’.

One group of marines took one of Saddam’s palaces and began washing their socks and having baths in his bathroom. But their Major felt guilty and decided to abandon the palace: ‘ We were setting up here and then we said, hey, this isn’t right, this belongs to the Iraqi people’, he said (16).

But it is unclear what the Iraqi people themselves really think or want. Their pulse is tested from time to time – are they happy, are they sad? Because they played no real part in the downfall of Saddam, they are finding it difficult to play a part in the aftermath. Because they didn’t fight for their freedom, they have few real ideas about what freedom might look like. ‘This is the problem’, one Iraqi doctor told The Times: ‘In the past we had only one party, the Baath party. So there’s no one really who we want to be our president.’ (17)

And when Iraqis do say what they want, this threatens to upset the orderly process of their liberation. The biggest gatherings so far occurred on 15 April, when thousands marched through the streets of Nasiriya shouting ‘No to America, no to Saddam’ (18). The Americans holed themselves up until the danger had passed. When they asked the Iraqis what they wanted for their country, they didn’t have this in mind at all. Don’t they realise that there is a schedule in place: military control, interim authority, then popular elections?

As Iraqis begin to react to the power vacuum that is their country, ‘liberation’ may start looking a bit more complicated.

Read on:

Regime changing, by Mark al Dulaimi

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) President’s Message to the Iraqi People White House website, White House website, 10 April 2003

(2) Daily Mirror, 10 April 2003

(3) ‘The liberation of Iraq started on July 4, 1776’, by William Rees-Mogg, The Times (London), 14 April 2003

(4) ‘Liberation’ is not freedom, Observer, 30 March 2003

(5) Blair leaflet pledges early self-rule, Guardian, 5 April 2003

(6) James Heartfield, ‘The Week’, 13 April 2003

(7) The Times (London), 15 April 2003

(8) The Age of Revolution, Eric Hobsbawm

(9) ‘Who rules behind the wall?’, Frank Richards, Living Marxism, March 1990

(10) Art and Revolution: writings on literature, politics and culture, Leon Trotsky

(11) Barcelona, 1936, from Homage to Catatonia, by George Orwell

(12) The Times (London), 16 April 2003

(13) The Times (London), 15 April 2003

(14) ‘Iraq’, in the Times Guide to the Middle East, Times Books, Peter Sluglett and Marion Farouk-Slugglet, 1996

(15) The Times (London), 15 April 2003

(16) The Times (London), 15 April 2003

(17) The Times (London), 15 April 2003

(18) Guardian, 16 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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