Unravelling Iraq

The coalition's war exposed a hole at the heart of the West, and left a hole in the heart of Iraq.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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UK prime minister Tony Blair’s visit to Iraq is a fitting symbol of the coalition’s campaign. Blair wants to thank British troops for their ‘humanitarian and reconstruction efforts’ in this ‘noble’ mission to rebuild a nation. Yet his visit will be of ‘lightning’ speed, because the new Iraq remains a volatile and unpredictable place where, according to one report, ‘few feel safe’ (1).

Postwar Iraq is unravelling. Coalition forces chased a weakened regime out of a weakened state, with little sense of what might take its place. The war has left a vacuum, which various armed and unrepresentative groups are trying to fill. It devastated Iraqi infrastructure: 32 out of 35 hospitals in Baghdad have shut down, as illnesses like cholera and diarrhoea have risen exponentially; in Um Qasr, the one remaining hospital has 12 beds to cater for 45,000 people (2).

Within the coalition too, things are unravelling. Britain and America’s shoulder-to-shoulder stance has given way to bickering: US soldiers accuse British commanders of war crimes, while British troops threaten legal action over American ‘friendly fire’. US and UK officials clash over which side is better at peacekeeping, while the no-show of Saddam’s illegal weapons has led to some seriously public buck-passing among the US elite (3).

For all Blair’s grand statements about ‘reconstructing Iraq’, the coalition’s intervention has devastated Iraq and shown up some tensions inside the coalition camp. An operation that was intended to give America and its allies a sense of mission on the international stage has only exposed a hole at the heart of the West, and left a hole in the heart of Iraq.

In the New Iraq, small armed groups vie for a piece of the postwar action. The destruction of the old regime has triggered scrappy battles for power and influence, as chancers, coalitions and militias move into the vacuum left by the war. In the southern town of Hay Al Ansar, a little-known group called the Iraqi Coalition of National Unity took control in April 2003 and, according to the Financial Times, also took ‘to looting and terrorising the neighbourhood with impunity’ (4).

Elsewhere, according to one report, ‘groups of men with guns’ have declared themselves the ‘local authority’, when ‘in truth, they are little more than criminal gangs’ (5). For all the handwringing about these ‘criminal gangs’ by Western politicians and the media, their rise is a by-product of the coalition’s war. There is no political group with the legitimacy or support to take the reins in postwar Iraq; instead, small groups tentatively move into the lawless territory left by the war.

The rise of the Shias – which has struck fear into the hearts of Western observers – is another consequence of the coalition’s campaign. Diverse groups of Shia Muslims, largely based in southern Iraq, have emerged as one of the most potent forces in postwar Iraq. Many of them are demanding an Islamic government and Sharia law, causing some in the West to fret about Iraq becoming another Iran.

Yet Shia clerics and leaders, like other groupings in Iraq, are filling a gap, moving into the space created by the routing of the old regime. The war laid to waste the Ba’ath Party institutions that dominated Iraq for the past 30 years, leaving the mosques as the only institutions with any semblance of authority, and certainly with any connection to the masses. Shia clerics seem to be in the ascendant more by postwar default than as a result of a brimming Iranian-style revolution from inside Iraq.

Having seen off the old rulers, coalition forces are now getting embroiled in clashes with the wannabe new rulers. US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld angered Shia clerics by insisting that ‘there could never be an Islamic theocracy’ in Iraq. In mid-May, Washington accused the anti-Saddam Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq of being a ‘tool of Tehran’, and, according to recent reports, has ‘moved towards disarming its 10,000-strong militia’ (6).

Also in May, US forces in Iraq ‘summarily dissolved’ the Free Iraqi Forces militia of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), who had been trained under Pentagon supervision in the run-up to the war. The INC leader is Ahmed Chalabi, a Washington stooge with next-to-no support in Iraq who has lived in the West for the past 45 years. Up until two months ago, Chalabi was Washington’s favourite to take the reins in Iraq – but when he was greeted with boos and death threats on returning to Iraq in April, US officials said he had outlived his usefulness. Some of Chalabi’s dissolved Free Iraqi Forces are now threatening to ‘go it alone’.

The USA has also committed itself to disarming the People’s Mujuhadeen, an anti-Iran group based in northern Iraq. US commanders signed a ceasefire with the People’s Mujuhadeen in early April, which allowed the group to keep its weapons as long as it did not provoke Iran during the war in Iraq. Yet now US officials argue that the People’s Mujuhadeen – like the Shia hardliners, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, and the Free Iraqi Forces – must be disarmed (7).

It was the coalition’s war that created the conditions for the rise of these armed groups, and their attempts to assume control over parts of the hollowed-out Iraq. Yet now US forces are trying to clamp down on what is effectively a problem of their own making. Their mission to disarm the militias is highly unlikely to herald anything like a new era of stability.

Alongside the postwar unravelling of Iraq, the fallout from the coalition’s campaign has exposed tensions within the coalition itself. For all Bush and Blair’s claims of standing shoulder-to-shoulder, their forces on the ground in Iraq can barely see eye-to-eye. Over the past month, American and British forces have clashed over what went wrong during the war, who is best suited to keep the peace, and where the coalition should invade next.

On 20 May 2003, Tim Collins – the shades-wearing, cigar-smoking British lieutenant whom the Sun described as ‘dashing and heroic’ when he gave his ‘liberators not conquerors’ speech on the eve of the Iraqi war – was accused of being a war criminal. Collins was said to have pistol-whipped an Iraqi civic leader, kicked PoWs, and to have ‘issued threats’ to Iraqi townspeople to get them to comply with his demands. Yet Collins’ accuser was no pistol-whipped Iraqi, but rather a US soldier called Re Biastre, who was apparently peeved at how Collins had talked to him during the war.

The Collins accusations were a fairly squalid affair, with an embittered US soldier trying to get revenge on his bossy British commander by using the provocative language of ‘war crime’. But this isn’t the only time that British/American tensions have come to the fore. During the conflict, a British soldier who survived a ‘friendly fire’ incident described the Americans as ‘cowboys’ with ‘no regard for human life’ (8). Now, some British troops are seeking legal advice on suing the US army over friendly fire. During the Basra stand-off, an anonymous US official wondered out loud whether the British army was perhaps ‘unfit for modern warfare’.

In postwar Iraq, British and American officials have clashed over which of their armies is best placed to keep the peace in Iraq. One US official has said that British forces should stay where they are in Basra, as Baghdad might be too much of a tough fight. Meanwhile, an anonymous British official told the Guardian in May that where British forces had apparently made a success of Basra, US forces were screwing up in Baghdad: ‘In the capital the US forces have not adopted the mingling profile with the populace that has been a success in other cities.’ (9)

In this climate of British/American bickering, even Donald Rumsfeld’s comment on 28 May – that the looting in Iraq isn’t so bad, it’s like ‘what happens at a soccer game in England’ – sounded like a sly dig (10).

So much for British and American unity over Iraq. It might be easy enough for Bush and Blair (and Spanish prime minister José Maria Aznar) to conjure up solidarity over Iraq on the island of Azores – but soldiers and commanders need action and direction in order to feel united. Troops on the ground need aims and goals, battles and missions, in order to build up wartime trust and solidarity – all things that were missing from the coalition’s confused war in Iraq. Now, as postwar Iraq becomes a mess, US and UK troops are reduced to squabbling like schoolchildren over which side screwed up worse.

Finally, the Iraqi fallout has further exposed and heightened tensions within the US elite. A war that was supposed to give America some purpose and mission in the post-9/11 world appears to have had the opposite effect. Far from submerging America’s domestic divisions under any kind of great and unifying mission, the war in Iraq brought them to the fore.

In the postwar period, American infighting has been most clear around the issue of weapons of mass destruction. US forces’ failure to find Saddam’s alleged illegal stockpile has led to much finger-pointing and blame-shifting in US political circles. The CIA, which is said to be ‘furious about the manipulation of [WMD] evidence by the Pentagon’, has launched an inquiry into why America’s evidence about Iraq’s weapons seems to have been so wide off the mark. CIA officials promise to leave no stone unturned in their search for the truth about the evidence. This is a remarkable state of affairs – where the US elite spends the postwar period looking for what it did wrong in the prewar period.

The coalition’s war wreaked physical havoc in Iraq and political havoc in the West. In the wake of this instability, what has been the response of the coalition’s critics? To demand further intervention – better, harder, more determined intervention. From the Spectator’s Peter Oborne, who charges America and Britain with ‘abandoning Afghanistan’, to former New Labour minister Clare Short, who called for a ‘massively bigger effort’ to pacify postwar Iraq, the demand has been the same: coalition forces now need to get a grip on Iraq and enforce some damn stability.

But more intervention is the last thing Iraq needs. It was Western intervention that unravelled Iraq in the first place, and which promises future instability.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Blair thanks UK troops in Iraq, BBC News, 29 May 2003

(2) ‘A strange kind of liberation’, David Edwards, New Statesman, 19 May 2003

(3) Unease grows in Washington over fruitless weapons search, Jim Lobe, IPS News, 27 May 2003

(4) US-backed militia terrorises town, Charles Clover, Financial Times, 9 April 2003

(5) ‘Clerics help exiled Shia return’, Newsday, 29 May 2003

(6) US, UK forces clear way to control Iraq oil sales, Patrick O’Neill, The Militant, New York, 9 June 2003

(7) US, UK forces clear way to control Iraq oil sales, Patrick O’Neill, The Militant, New York, 9 June 2003

(8) See Friendly ire, by Brendan O’Neill

(9) US blamed for Baghdad tension, Friendly ire, Guardian, 24 May 2003

(10) Rumsfeld compares looters to English football hooligans, Ananova, 28 May 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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