Who’s sabotaging Iraq?

Why attacks on oil and water supplies have struck fear into the heart of the coalition.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘Iraq’s day of insanity’, said yesterday’s UK Sun, as Iraqi saboteurs allegedly blew up an oil export pipeline in Kirkuk in northern Iraq, and forced Baghdad’s water supplies to be cut off after blowing a massive hole in a water main (1). According to one report, the apparently ‘well-organised’ saboteurs created ‘24 hours of mayhem’, and threaten to undermine the coalition’s reconstruction efforts in Iraq (2).

Is Iraq really under siege from sophisticated sabs, hell-bent on disrupting oil and water flows? There are certainly opponents of the coalition in postwar Iraq, who have certainly caused disruption-by-sabotage in recent weeks. Yet for all the reports about guerrilla groups holding Iraq to ransom, there is still much confusion over who’s doing the disrupting, how centrally organised they are, and whether their sporadic attacks are having much of an impact.

Rather, many in the coalition appear to be projecting their concerns about the continuing instability in Iraq on to a bunch of saboteurs. As postwar Iraq remains unstable and vacuous – following a war that chased out a weak and failing regime, with little sense of what might take its place – some officials and commentators see their worst fears realised in the sabs’ seemingly senseless attacks. The focus on the saboteurs’ apparent threat to stability and prosperity reveals as much about the West’s own fear and uncertainty over postwar Iraq, as it does about who’s blowing holes in the infrastructure.

According to Paul Bremer, America’s chief administrator in Iraq, the saboteurs are ‘thwarting’ reconstruction. He claims that those blowing up oil pipelines and water mains and attacking the electricity grid – ‘probably people left over from the old regime’ – are costing Iraq billions of dollars (3). ‘The irony is that Iraq is a rich country that is temporarily poor’, says Bremer. ‘An event such as the explosion on the Kirkuk oil pipeline costs the Iraqi people $7million a day and hurts the process of reconstruction.’ (4)

So Iraq is ‘temporarily’ poor because of the dastardly saboteurs – rather than as a result of the UN sanctions that restricted Iraq’s selling of oil over the past 10 years, and the coalition’s invasion and occupation that disrupted those parts of the Iraqi economy that managed to survive the sanctions? Bremer seems to have changed his tune. In June, when the sabotage of oil and water supplies first started, he dismissed it as the work of irritated Iraqis rather than an all-out assault on the coalition’s occupation.

On Friday 13 June, the day after the US-led administration awarded a raft of contracts to international oil companies to export crude oil from Iraq, two explosions damaged a major pipeline in northern Iraq. Bremer challenged the notion that such sabotage was the work of a ‘classical guerrilla-type campaign’, instead claiming that, ‘What we are fighting here are a bunch of bitter-enders from the old regime. We see no sign of any central control over them at this point’ (5).

Back in June, a leading US energy correspondent said the pipeline attacks must be ‘put into perspective’. ‘The bombings of oil and natural gas pipelines in Iraq won’t do much to undermine the rebuilding of Iraq’s shattered economy, since they were largely ineffective and a lot more than oil is involved in such a mammoth undertaking’, he claimed. The correspondent described the rising pipeline attacks as ‘relatively small in scale and easy to repair’ (6).

Yet now, similar attacks are said to ‘spell disaster’ for Iraq, to ‘threaten the economy’, to ‘thwart the coalition’s reconstruction efforts’. A cynic might think that coalition leaders are citing the sabotage as a convenient cover for their own failure to ‘reconstruct’ Iraq.

Three months after the war officially ended, Iraq remains a mess: small armed groups are seeking to fill the void left by the war; water and electricity supplies have been severely disrupted; on 17 August, US forces shot dead a cameraman after mistaking his camera for a grenade launcher, capturing the confusion that reigns in postwar Iraq. Yet now, some are attempting to lay responsibility for this sorry state of affairs at the feet of elusive saboteurs and ‘wreckers’.

Consider the widespread claims that the recent electricity blackouts are largely the result of sabotage. There have been big problems with Iraq’s electricity grid since the war ended in early May. In July, the UK Telegraph reported on Baghdad’s ‘erratic electricity’, after the ‘crucial Baghdad West transmission lines collapsed during the war and have yet to be repaired’. ‘More than $1billion is needed to restore the electricity network’, reported the Telegraph. ‘Only $185million has been allocated this year.’ (7) Before the saboteurs started hogging the headlines, another report pointed out that it was the postwar ‘weakness of [Iraq’s] electrical grid’ that was ‘thwarting efforts to put the system back together’ (8).

For all the claims about saboteurs bringing Iraq to its knees, it was the coalition’s war that devastated Iraq. As the war was coming to an end in late April, the International Committee of the Red Cross claimed that: ‘This country has collapsed. Nothing works – no phones, no electricity, no schools, no proper medical care, no transportation.’ (9) Towards the end of the war, 32 out of Baghdad’s 35 hospitals were forced to close, while the war’s impact on electricity meant that ‘pumping plants are often shut down, cutting off water for hours at a time’ (10). Yet according to yesterday’s Glasgow Herald, it is a ‘wave of sabotage’ that has ‘pour[ed] misery on Iraq’ (11).

Who are these elusive sabs, apparently pouring misery on Iraq? Here, again, there is much uncertainty. Some reports claim that they are ‘bitter Ba’athists’, former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Others claim that a ‘growing number of foreign fighters’ have entered Iraq, from around the Arab world. According to some US officials, the Kurdish Islamic group Ansar al-Islam is behind much of the sabotage in northern Iraq and may be ‘preparing further attacks against US targets’. Is that the same Ansar al-Islam that US officials claim to have pretty much destroyed during the war in April 2003?

It was only a matter of time before someone somewhere mentioned al-Qaeda, and the possibility that it is behind the sabotage and disruption. ‘In Iraq, US sees influence of al-Qaeda’, said a headline on 11 August, claiming that ‘US forces may soon face a more sophisticated and unpredictable enemy than they have encountered so far’ (12). What is the evidence to suggest that Iraq’s saboteurs are al-Qaeda types? According to Mudhar Showkat, head of the American-funded Iraqi National Congress, ‘If they are committing terrorist acts, they must be al-Qaeda or must be linked to al-Qaeda – but I cannot tell you that with confidence….’ (13).

These clashing claims over who is sabotaging Iraq’s infrastructure point to a certain sense of fear and loathing on the part of coalition forces. From the old regime coming back to haunt postwar Iraq, to foreign fighters pouring across Iraq’s porous borders, to the spectre of bin Laden and his wicked men moving in to exact revenge…in the discussions about the postwar sabotage, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction – and fact from fear.

The sabotage against Iraq’s infrastructure, whoever is executing it, is a deadly consequence of the coalition’s war. America and Britain’s invasion of Iraq destabilised its internal structures, creating the space for the rise of opportunistic armed groups; and it internationalised Iraq’s local tensions, allowing the movement of outside forces, from different parts of the Arab world, into Iraq. The destruction of the old regime triggered scrappy battles for power and influence, as armed groups moved into the vacuum left by the war, while the transformation of Iraq into an international issue heightened outside and external influences.

This double impact of the coalition’s intervention creates fertile ground for instability. As today’s apparent suicide bomb attack on the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad indicates, postwar Iraq, like Afghanistan before it and other parts of the Middle East, has become dangerous territory, where Western intervention has exacerbated tensions while removing the traditional outlets for the expression of such tensions. Such intervention increases violence on the fringes of society; in the absence of traditional political frameworks, and with nothing new to take their place, armed groups are reduced to lashing out against the drift of events.

Yet there is something more to the saboteurs’ rapid rise from apparently not posing a great threat to dominating the front pages of the world media. The widespread sense among politicians and commentators that Iraq is overrun by sabs, who threaten the postwar state’s stability, economy and future, is a projection of Western fears – not only about the postwar mess, but more broadly about the action taken in Iraq and its potential consequences. In the saboteurs’ acts, coalition forces see their own uncertainty writ large.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) ‘Iraq’s day of insanity’, Sun, 18 August 2003

(2) ‘Iraq’s day of insanity’, Sun, 18 August 2003

(3) US steps up protection of oil pipelines, Scotsman, 19 August 2003

(4) US steps up protection of oil pipelines, Scotsman, 19 August 2003

(5) Acts of sabotage declining, US administrator says, USA Today, 17 July 2003

(6) Analysis: Iraq oil sabotage in context, Washington Times, 23 June 2003

(7) Iraq: the first 100 days, Telegraph, 18 July 2003

(8) Q&A: Daily life in postwar Baghdad, Christian Science Monitor, 1 July 2003

(9) Stay away from oil, US warned, Telegraph (Calcutta), 19 April 2003

(10) Iraq: the first 100 days, Telegraph, 18 July 2003

(11) ‘Wave of sabotage pours misery on Iraq’, Herald, 18 August 2003

(12) In Iraq, US sees influence of al-Qaeda, Christian Science Monitor, 11 August 2003

(13) In Iraq, US sees influence of al-Qaeda, Christian Science Monitor, 11 August 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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