by Patrick Cockburn / The Independent (London) –
BAGHDAD (October 10, 2003) — Six months after US tanks roared triumphantly into the centre of Baghdad and the statue of Saddam Hussein was famously toppled, the US has turned military victory into political defeat in Iraq.
The US might have expected yesterday to be a day on which Iraqis would celebrate the overthrow of a despot. Instead it brought more bloodshed and death to foreigners and Iraqis allied to the US, including the assassination of a senior European intelligence agent.
The Roots of the US Failure in Iraq
Why has the US — with Britain tagging along behind — failed so dismally to win popular support in Iraq? Consensus is growing that the US has failed because it ignored Iraqis, allowed the state to dissolve and disbanded the army.
It should have been much easier. Iraqis never liked Saddam. His base of support was narrow. He started two disastrous wars, against Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, which ruined his country.The Iraqi army did not fight for him in the swift three-week war earlier this year.
America was sure that its soldiers would be greeted by cheering crowds… but if most Iraqis loathed Saddam it did not mean that they wanted to be occupied by a colonial regime. Many believed that their old leader had only survived in power through US support. They bitterly recalled their sufferings under international sanctions in the 1990s during which they lived in poverty while Saddam built grandiose palaces and mosques.
The first disaster for the US was not to stop the looting of every city and town in Iraq. Six months later Iraqis still repeatedly point out that “the only ministry they protected was the Ministry of Oil”. Many, if not most Iraqis, believe that oil is the reason the US is here.
Last Sunday I was in the oil refinery town of Baiji where local people, after expelling the US appointed police chief and his 300 men, were setting fire to Turkish trucks. They claimed that the Turks were smuggling cheap oil out of Iraq for sale to Israel.
In May, the Americans disbanded the 400,000-strong Iraqi army. Their wages were small, but with so many people barely getting enough to eat and in a country with 75 percent unemployment, it caused a furious reaction. Mr Bremer started paying wages — but it was too late, guerrilla war, mostly in the Sunni Muslim area north of Baghdad, was under way.
The most striking feature of the official US approach to the Iraqis is arrogance and ignorance. There were those in the state department who did know a lot about Iraq, but they were sidelined by the “neo-cons” and civilians in the Pentagon.
But the Americans were not alone in misunderstanding Iraqis. At the height of the summer six British Royal Military Police officers were killed in the southern town of Majar al-Kabir. British commanders had the bad idea of searching for arms in a place famous for its resistance to Saddam.
One local leader said: “Why do they want to take our guns away — something Saddam could not do — unless they are planning a long occupation?”
A Different Path Forward
In theory, there is a way forward for the US and Britain. They could give power to the Iraqis, first by delegating real authority to the Iraqi governing council, made up of exiles and opponents of Saddam.
It is not a perfect body, but at least its members speak Arabic. Mahmoud Othman, one of its most respected members, told The Independent earlier in the week that the council “does not have much power”. He pointed out that the US had invited 10,000 Turkish soldiers into Iraq without first consulting council members.
The US and Britain also need international legitimacy which could only come from the UN. Bringing in troops from El Salvador and Ukraine as part of what has been described as “the coalition of the bribed” will not be enough. But since its headquarters in Baghdad were blown up, the UN has less personnel in Iraq than at any time since 1991. And turning over real power to the UN would be too humiliating for Mr Bush.
The most amazing achievement of six months of American occupation has been that it has even provoked nostalgia in parts of Iraq for Saddam. In Baiji, protesters were holding up his picture and chanting: “With our blood and with our spirit we will die for you Saddam.” Who would have believed this when his statue was toppled just six months ago?