Get-out policy in Iraq

The US-led coalition has conjured up a phantom Iraqi government behind which it can hide its embarrassment.

Josie Appleton

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Yesterday Paul Bremer, the chief administrator of Iraq for the past 14 months, signed over political control of the country to the interim Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi, and then quietly slipped away on a plane. Only six people participated in the secret handover, which occurred two days before the much-trumpeted date of 30 June.

The coalition billed the handover as Iraqis ‘taking control’. ‘You are ready now for sovereignty and we think it’s an important part of our obligation as temporary custodians to hand it over’, said Bremer in the ceremony (1). Tony Blair’s spokesman said: ‘what’s important now is that the Iraqi people, for the first time, can see Iraqi leaders representing them taking charge in Baghdad.’ (2)

Critics have seen the new leaders as a mere ‘puppet government’, giving a veneer of respectability to America’s ‘ongoing imperialist project’ in Iraq (3). Anti-globalisation activist Naomi Klein described it as an ‘underhand’ rather than a ‘handover’, providing cover for the US ‘corporate feeding frenzy’ (4).

The new Iraqi regime isn’t an independent authority, grounded in the will of the Iraqi people. But nor is it a puppet government, with the might of US power behind it. Instead, it would be better described as a phantom government, conjured up by the US-led coalition for it to hide behind. For a coalition that would rather not take political responsibility for what happens in Iraq, Allawi’s imaginary regime provides something of a smokescreen.

Of course, it should come as no surprise if the coalition’s propaganda about Iraqis taking control falls on deaf ears. None of Ayad Allawi’s administration was elected, and the leaders are hardly the most popular people in the country. Allawi’s regime has won no more popular votes than Saddam Hussein. Indeed, they have to go around under armed guard to protect them from assassination, and the handover ceremony occurred with snipers stationed on nearby rooftops and army helicopters buzzing overhead.

Although the UN Security Council resolution on the handover describes Allawi’s government as one of ‘full sovereignty’, it is actually barred from making long-term policy decisions and has no real control over the 160,000 foreign troops stationed in its country (5). The new government will also be limited to working within specified guidelines, including the drafting of a new constitution and the holding of full elections in 2005. In theory, the government could ask troops to leave, but it may find this right revoked should it try to exercise it.

Iraqis are talked about as children who are being taught to walk, rather than as a sovereign and independent nation (US president George W Bush made this explicit with his earlier comment that Iraq would soon be ready to ‘take the training wheels off’). The new administration was told that the country had progressed enough and was ‘ready now for sovereignty’. ‘We feel we are capable’, said Allawi, learning the lingo (6). The new administration is more about helping Iraqis to feel that they are in control – with the hope that they’ll stop having all those tantrums with AK-47s – rather than them actually being in control.

But the regime isn’t just a puppet for America – in fact, America has made a great show out of cutting its ties to Iraq’s interim rulers. Bush denies that he backed Allawi: ‘I had no role. I mean, occasionally somebody said “This person may be interested, or that person”, but I had no role in picking. Zero.’ Coalition propaganda presented both the choice of Allawi, and the timing for the handover, as a victory for the interim government over America’s better judgement. America claims that its might isn’t behind the officials in the new government – and indeed, the fact that one president of the Iraqi Governing Council was killed queuing to get through an American checkpoint seems to substantiate this.

Before he left, Bremer gave Allawi a letter from Bush asking for diplomatic ties with the regime, as if this new sovereign nation had just sprung up entirely of its own accord (7). It was almost as if the war had never happened, American troops had never marched into Baghdad, and Bush had never encountered Allawi before. Although America created the current situation in Iraq, it seems to prefer the fiction that it’s only there because the new administration asked it to be. ‘Oh sure, we’ll help out – we happen to have some troops in the region.’

It certainly isn’t normal for an occupying power to ask for diplomatic ties with a regime it created – but this gesture wasn’t just for show. Instead, it gives a glimpse of the strange nature of the US occupation, which Brendan O’Neill has described as an ‘occupation in denial’ (8). The USA has a vast military presence in Iraq, but it has continually distanced itself from taking political authority for what goes on in the country. Far from building an empire in Iraq, the coalition actually left in spirit long ago.

The trouble for the new phantom Iraqi regime is that it doesn’t have anybody behind it. It hasn’t come out of the Iraqi people organising among themselves, to decide how their country is run; nor is it backed up with the might and will of America, in order to defend American interests. This means that all the trappings of the new state – the official titles, ministries and institutions – are just paper fictions, in danger of vanishing at any moment.

You can see this most clearly in relation to the difficulties with building a new police force. Police recruits have failed to turn up for work, and have refused to fight insurgents. These failures have been blamed variously on America’s bad training, or on Iraqis’ lack of responsibility.

A more likely explanation is that these young men realise that they are part of a nothing institution. The uniform on their back is just a bit of cloth – it isn’t backed up with any kind of political authority – so they just take it off whenever the going gets tough. When America keeps denying that it is in control, it’s not surprising that there are no hardy bands of collaborators eager to curry favour.

Who’d want to be part of the phantom regime in the new Iraq?

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

End of the Empire myth, by Brendan O’Neill

Coalition withdrawal symptoms, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) ‘US transfers political authority in Iraq’, Washington Post, 28 June 2004

(2) Quoted in Blair: Iraq taking control of destiny, Guardian, 28 June 2004

(3) Not Really a Puppet Government?, Counterpunch, 12 June 2004

(4) The multibillion robbery the US calls reconstruction, Guardian, 26 June 2004

(5) ‘US hands over power in Iraq’, Guardian, 28 June 2004

(6) ‘US transfers political authority in Iraq’, Washington Post, 28 June 2004

(7) ‘US transfers political authority in Iraq’, Washington Post, 28 June 2004

(8) A new kind of private war, by Brendan O’Neill

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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