After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

Iraq's summer war

The U.S. rulers of Baghdad are still banking on military muscle rather than on administrative talent or political persuasion in Iraq. On those terms, they run a higher risk of losing the most important battle.

Over the past week thousands of U.S. troops have swept through towns and villages north and west of Baghdad, arresting suspected Baathists. Hundreds were detained on suspicion of being involved in armed resistance, including one top aide to Saddam Hussein. In the end most were released, but at least 11 Iraqis were killed. Two more were shot dead by U.S. troops during a demonstration by former Iraqi solders on Wednesday.

This is a dangerous time. The United States and Britain will have to work much more quickly - and with more than sheer force of arms - if they are to keep the Iraqis on their side. The coalition has barely begun to address the Iraqis' most basic needs - personal safety, steady electricity, clean water, health care, a modicum of job security and the prompt payment of salaries. As the blistering summer heat sets in, there is a real risk of widespread and serious trouble.

The collapse of the hated regime of Saddam Hussein has of course brought positive changes and new freedoms to Iraq - including the right to object and protest, and the rudimentary beginnings of an electoral process. But there is a grave risk that US military actions and the relative invisibility of reconstruction efforts by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) are pushing Iraqis to extremes that will make the task all the more difficult.

The coalition's failure even to try to stop the robberies, rapes and murders following the collapse of the regime on 9 April quickly began the erosion of support for the U.S. military action to oust Saddam. Almost three months on, electricity, clean water, cooking gas, and fuel for cars and machinery are still in terribly short supply. Security remains precarious at best. Because of this, many Iraqis are coming to the conclusion that their liberators are not interested in helping them - beyond the removal of the regime.

The Authority has done little to correct this perception. Ensconced in one of Saddam Hussein's vast palaces in Baghdad, Authority officials are not allowed to leave the palace grounds without military escort. They venture out infrequently and know little of Iraq and Iraqis. In turn, Iraqis have no venue, such as walk-in centres, where they can go to air problems, register complaints or hear first-hand from Authority officials. Internal and external phone links are poor or non-existent.

Communication problems have been compounded by delays in restoring broadcasting facilities. Instead, the Authority's summary edicts are communicated through the profusion of new newspapers and via radio (which is unreliable because of the electricity problem). These orders are often embellished and distorted as they spread mostly through word of mouth, and have been received with a mixture of outrage, resignation, puzzlement and a profound sense of disempowerment.

The first such edict, delivered on 16 May, proclaimed the 'disestablishment' of the Baath Party - the political organ of the Saddam regime. While this was applauded in some circles, it was much more widely criticised as being too sweeping and disregarded due process.

There are three distinct kinds of Baathists - those who were loyal to Saddam, those who joined the party out of expediency, and those who joined early out of ideological conviction. Among the second two categories are the vast majority of civil servants, police, judges, engineers and others who were happy to see the back of the regime and have the skills to make the country run again.

By banning all of them without distinction, the Authority has ostracised a vital group - and may even end up uniting opposition to the occupation rather than alienating the Saddam loyalists. The Authority should seriously reconsider this order and return qualified senior managers to their positions if they do not have a proven record of corruption or abuse. A vetting mechanism should also be introduced to methodically screen the upper echelons of ministries and national institutions.

A more recent order disbanding the military and other security forces has been received with even greater anger. This edict has put hundreds of thousands of young men on the streets without serious prospects of work or compensation. It is feared that many will join the gangs of thieves who roam the streets, or form the core of future armed resistance to the occupation. Some of these men were on the streets last week - demonstrating against the US and demanding a fairer deal. Shooting at them - as the US forces did - is not the answer to these mens' problems.

There is also growing resentment among Iraqis who aspire to political power. Even those who came from overseas feel that they are being offered far less than the Iraqi-run interim government that they thought the United States had agreed to before the war. The closest they are likely to get in the short to medium term is an interim council of 25 to 30 appointed by L. Paul Bremer, the chief US administrator in Iraq, without serious decision-making powers.

Low-level elections have taken place in some professional associations and municipal authorities, but nation-wide elections are not expected to begin for a year - a long time for people who are already questioning the legitimacy of their current rulers.

Washington and London are now scrambling to bring tangible improvements in the situation. They could do worse than enable the UN to play a more meaningful role. The UN's exclusion from anything but a humanitarian and advisory role has set the Iraq crisis apart from virtually all previous internationally managed transitions, including the Balkans, Afghanistan, East Timor and Central Africa.

Prior to the war the U.N. had a full-scale presence in Iraq - not only sanctions monitors and weapons inspectors but also its various humanitarian agencies, including UNICEF, UNDP and WHO. These bodies have expertise that is desperately needed now. Neither the U.S. nor the Iraqis are likely to accept a UN-led interim administration. But the UN does have regional political credibility and experience and can play a helpful part in accelerating the process that will turn power over to the Iraqi people.

What is puzzling is that so little advance preparation appears to have been made for dealing with the problems that have arisen in Baghdad. Many if not most of them should have been anticipated based on years of experience with post-conflict transitions elsewhere.

The Iraqis' faith in their new rulers is being undermined by ad hoc decision making, lack of cultural sensitivity and apparent neglect of the problems that rile them most. Urgent and focused action is needed if this discontent is not to be transformed into widespread and active opposition in the coming months.


Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
Former Director of Media and Information

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