Welcome a Thousand Points of View
Welcome a Thousand Points of View

Welcome a Thousand Points of View

With the fall of the Baathist regime, the first challenge facing U.S. and British forces will be how to deal with a social and political vacuum. That will be the easy part. The hard part will be dealing with the long-repressed forces that will quickly rush into that space.

This must be handled deftly if the end of the war is not to become the beginning of an allied quagmire, if liberation today is to be seen as anything other than occupation tomorrow. Some may believe that 30 years of repression has erased political forces in Iraq. That is a dangerous illusion. The day after is not Day One, and Iraq is not an empty canvas on which international actors can create a new reality by transposing new institutions.

The end of Saddam Hussein means the onset of competition for political and economic spoils. Tribal sheiks, religious leaders, remnants of the ancien régime's technostructure and politicians returning from exile are about to engage in the sort of fierce political jockeying that Iraq has not known for decades, but will now experience with a vengeance.

The Baath Party's influence ran deep into Iraqi civil society. Though many Iraqis were brutalized by the regime, many others played important parts in its administrative and economic apparatus. Hussein's power hardly ever resided in formal structures but rather in the shadows, within hidden familial, clan and tribal links. Loyal kinship groups and cronies, including selected Shiite and Kurdish families, were awarded lavish contracts and import-export licenses. In exchange for their support, the regime turned a blind eye to those who capitalized on sanctions through illicit trade and kickbacks. These actors cannot be expected to simply disappear. Rather, they await their fate, ready to support new arrangements if they benefit from them and to undermine them if they do not.

At the same time, Iraqis who suffered under Hussein's rule are now impatient for swift progress. The lower ranks of civil servants endured economic mismanagement and sanctions. They are victims of the past regime, but without rapid material improvement, their vengeance will be directed at the present order. Then there are the unemployed and semi-employed, former POWs from the Iran-Iraq war and members of the urban poor who have grown accustomed to shifting from criminality to semi-legitimate occupation and back again. Meanwhile, Iraqis under the age of 35 have known nothing but war, ruin and poverty. Lacking any political or ideological direction, this generation could resort to spontaneous violence .

Nor will domestic actors be on their own. On the heels of the allies' victory, Iraqi exiles are returning, eager to try out their visions of a new Iraq and to stake their claims. Regional players -- including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey -- each have networks of influence, favorites in the Iraqi political arena, and reason to manipulate both.

Unchecked, this pluralism could degenerate into score settling and chaos. The best way to channel it? Strengthen civil society -- businesses, trade unions, professional associations, social clubs, religious institutions, non-governmental organizations, media, even tribes.

Hussein's reign of terror was built, in part, on the fear that pluralism would imperil Iraq's internal stability and territorial integrity. And the violence of recent days is a reminder of the danger rival groups can pose to normal politics. But if channeled into a political process, the plethora of competing actors and interests in postwar Iraq may well be both the country's best guarantee against a resurgence of authoritarianism and the foundation for those who seek to establish a new Iraqi polity.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.