Commentary

Few Friends in Iraq

This article was published by The Straits Times, April 16, 2004.

The siege of Sunni-dominated Fallujah and popular uprisings in several Shi’ite cities may have finally destroyed the Bush administration’s Iraqi fantasy. Washington’s dream of a Western-oriented, liberal democratic order friendly to America and its allies has dissipated in a hail of gunfire and bomb explosions. The United States can win any set-piece battle against any opposing force. However, Washington found that it has no friends in Iraq.

The critical clue, as in the Sherlock Holmes short story “Silver Blaze,” is the dog that didn’t bark. When the US needed support from the Iraqis on whose behalf American soldiers were dying, there was none. The metaphorical dogs didn’t bark.

For instance, a joint press conference, showcasing occupation head Paul Bremer alongside the 25 Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) members, would have demonstrated a mutual commitment to Washington’s path to democracy. There was none.

The IGC formally denounced militant cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, but also called for “an immediate ceasefire and the reliance on political solutions in all areas of the country.” Most members said nothing.

A few councilmen sharply criticised the US. For instance, Mr Adnan Pachachi, a Washington favourite, called America’s response “unacceptable and illegal.” He added: “A lot of us here in Baghdad and elsewhere were appalled by the loss of life and destruction because there was too much force used.”

Several IGC members resigned or suspended their participation. The panel’s only active intervention was to suggest a deal through which Sadr, accused of murder, would not be arrested.

Sadr is a minor figure with a limited following, reportedly disliked by more moderate clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. Yet Ayatollah Al-Sistani and Grand Ayatollah Kazem Al-Husseini Al-Hairi treated him and the occupation authority as moral equivalents, counseling moderation on both sides.

While Ayatollah Sistani denounced public disturbances, he also “condemned the methods used by occupation forces.” The sons of three grand ayatollahs met Sadr and expressed their opposition to any US military strike against him.

Some tribal leaders helped to peacefully end the takeover of the city of Kut by Sadr’s forces, but others brought letters of support to Sadr’s Mehdi Army. A number of them publicly praised the cleric and denounced American military action.

Also noteworthy for abandoning America were the Iraqi security forces trained by the US. Up to one-fourth of the police, Iraqi Civil Defence Corps (ICDC) members and military personnel quit, refused to fight or changed sides.

In fact, local ICDC guards may have led the four Blackwater USA contractors into a trap in Fallujah; the cops and ICDC forces sat behind barrack walls as the Americans were slaughtered and their bodies burnt. In some cities police joined the mobs.

A new army battalion refused to go into combat in Fallujah. Major-General Paul Eaton called it “a command failure‘ “rather than a “mutiny.”

A handful of intellectuals courageously endorsed allied action. But where were the mass of Iraqis? Most did not join the uprising. Some undoubtedly are genuinely committed to a liberal, democratic future.

However, those who actually acted, Sunni and Shi’ite alike, almost all joined in attacking coalition forces. The diverse mix of terrorists, insurgents, militiamen and rioters may remain small in number, but the number is growing.

The Iraq of today is not the same as the Iraq of even a couple of weeks ago. As one unnamed State Department official told The New York Times: “Six months of work is completely gone.”

Unfortunately, the events in April are likely the beginning, not the end. Insurgents now will roam in Shi’ite as well as Sunni areas. No foreigner, and especially no American, can feel safe anywhere in Iraq. Nor can genuinely liberal Iraqis dedicated to the kind of society which the allies want to build.

Some occupation enthusiasts suggest responding with greater repression. Just impose the Constitution and leaders favoured by Washington and kill anyone who objects — that’s one strategy.

But, for good reason, America and its allies don’t have the stomach for such a brutal approach. And even if they did, it likely would not bring nationalistic Iraqis to heel. It would merely ensure a longer and more intense guerilla campaign.

We should all hope that Iraq eventually makes its way towards liberal democracy. But we should have no illusions about imposing that model upon a people who are growing increasingly restive under a foreign occupation. Instead of attempting to live out its unrealistic democratic dream, the administration must begin planning a full withdrawal of US forces alongside turning sovereignty over to Iraq.

Doug Bandow, a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.