‘Our soldiers call them the League of Frightened Gentlemen,” said an American officer pointing derisively towards the buildings in the so-called green zone in Baghdad, housing the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority which has ruled Iraq for over a year.
It is a miserable record. Isolated behind the concrete walls of the green zone, Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA, presided over a sort of Washington-on-Tigris, visibly out of touch with the political realities of Iraq and absorbed in its own bureaucratic civil wars.
The ease of the American victory in the war last year led to a rush of blood to the head. “They were drunk with victory,” a Kurdish ally of the US told me. Saddam Hussein lost the war so swiftly because he had almost no base in Iraq. Mr Bremer behaved as if the Iraqi leader had a host of loyal followers. The CPA disbanded the Iraqi army and persecuted former members of the Baath Party. Several million Iraqis had a reason for supporting the armed resistance.
Iraqi politics revolve around relations between the three main communities in the country: the Shia Arabs (about 60 per cent of the population), Sunni Arabs (20 per cent) and Kurds (20 per cent). The CPA began by alienating the Sunni, the main support for Saddam Hussein’s regime, and by this spring had infuriated the Shiites, the majority of Iraqis, who want an election so they can, at last, take power.
In just over a week, the CPA will disappear, supposedly handing over power to an interim Iraqi government. Few will regret its passing. After 30 June, Iraq will once again have a sovereign government with Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni businessman and tribal leader from northern Iraq, as the President, and Iyad Allawi, a former Baath party member, Shiite and long- term exile as the Prime Minister.
Most of the changes will be cosmetic. The new Iraqi government will have only limited power. The chances that it will succeed are very limited. In a situation dominated by security, or rather the lack of it, the interim government does not have an effective armed force. It will have to rely on the 138,000 American troops, and soldiers from a few assorted foreign allies such as Britain, Poland and Ukraine. It must also depend largely on the US for money, because Iraqi oil exports have been hit by sabotage.
The priority of the White House in the run-up up to the US presidential elections in November is to stop bad news from Iraq leading the nightly television news or dominating the front pages of the newspapers. The main instrument to achieve this is to pretend that an independent Iraq is being created which can fight its own wars.
The problem is that this picture simply is not true. The base of the new government is very small. Its leading figures are former exiles. They have not been elected. They do not have the legitimacy necessary to establish security forces capable of re-establishing order.
Mr Allawi will certainly try. He wants to rebuild an Iraqi army and security force by persuading senior officers from Saddam Hussein’s army to reconstitute their units. He says he will centralise control of the armed forces so they are no longer auxiliaries for the US army, and direct them against the insurgents. On paper, the plan sounds convincing. Iraqis, in general, are desperate for more security which they see deteriorating every day. But, in contrast with a year ago, Iraqis these days see the US army as part of the problem rather than the solution. The CPA’s own poll shows that 55 per cent of Iraqis want US troops to leave immediately. A similar number say that the behaviour of US prison guards at Abu Ghraib prison is typical of American soldiers in the rest of the country.
The interim government will have popular Iraqi support to the extent that it opposes the US. It won some points when it demanded the return of Saddam Hussein’s old Republican Palace which is to be used by the new American embassy and its 1,000 employees. Even Muqtada Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, says he will support the new government if it tries to end the occupation. But Mr Allawi’s government cannot ride two horses heading in different directions for long. At the end of the day, he relies on the US for soldiers and money and must do what Washington wants.
The new government has a few cards in its hands. Part of the Sunni Arab community may support it if it starts to rebuild the army. Arab states like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are more sympathetic than they were to the Iraqi Governing Council. So, too, are the vastly influential Arab satellite channels.
But the resistance to the occupation is also getting stronger. During the uprisings in April, the US found its political position in Iraq was so weak it dare not use its undoubted military strength for fear of provoking a general rebellion. The insurgents now have their own capital in Fallujah just 30 miles from Baghdad. Even the road to the airport is unsafe with almost daily ambushes. Americans can only appear in the streets of Baghdad inside armoured convoys.
The task for Mr Allawi’s government will surely prove too great. “The policy of the US government is one of retreat, and a retreat under fire is notoriously difficult to conduct,” said one Iraqi minister. The White House wants to win the presidential election by showing that it has Iraq under control, but its many enemies here in Iraq intend to prove the opposite. A bloody summer is likely to be followed by an even bloodier autumn.