Iraq’s future: the present course and the alternatives


 ”There are some who feel like that if they attack us that we may decide to leave prematurely. They don’t understand what they’re talking about, if that’s the case. My answer is, bring them on. We’ve got the force necessary to deal with the security situation.” George W. Bush — 2 July 2003

“George W. Bush, you have asked us to ‘bring it on.’ And so help me, [we will] like you never expected. Do you have another challenge?” Iraqi resistance propaganda video — 2004

Just after the fall of Baghdad two years ago President Bush, in an ostentatious propaganda set-piece reminiscent of a Roman triumph, landed a jet on the runway of the USS Abraham Lincoln and disembarked in front of a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” Iraq, we were told, was gazing upwards at the bright new dawn of freedom. Now in 2005, mired in a brutal counter-insurgency war, it finds itself instead staring deep into the abyss. What are the prospects for its future?

Recently, on his indispensable Middle East blog “Informed Comment,” Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, took a “step back from the daily train wreck news” to assess the chances of a solution being reached. The picture he painted was a bleak one.

In summary, Cole’s view is that “Given the basic facts, of capable, trained and numerous guerrillas, public support for them from Sunnis, access to funding and munitions, increasing civil turmoil, and a relatively small and culturally poorly equipped US military force opposing them, led by a poorly informed and strategically clueless commander-in-chief who has made himself internationally unpopular, there is no near-term solution [to Iraq's problems].”

“The US military cannot defeat the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement any time soon. The guerrillas have widespread popular support in the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq. Guerrilla movements can succeed if more than 40 percent of the local population supports them. [The insurgents] probably have 80 percent support in their region. The guerrillas are mainly Iraqi Sunnis with an intelligence or military background, who know where secret weapons depots are and who know how to use military strategy and tactics to good effect. They are [also] well-funded. The Americans have lost effective control everywhere in the Sunni Arab areas.”

“There are too few US troops to fight the guerrillas….70,000 US fighting troops [and] only 10,000 US troops for all of Anbar province, a center of the guerrilla movement. There are [an estimated] 40,000 active guerrillas and another 80,000 close supporters of them. The US military has been consistently underestimating their numbers and abilities. [Furthermore,] there is no prospect of increasing the number of US troops in Iraq.”

The insurgents also have the advantage of local knowledge, speaking the language and generally being sympathetic figures for the regional populations. In contrast, “US troops in Iraq are mostly clueless about what is going on around them, and do not have the knowledge base or skills to conduct effective counter-insurgency.” More importantly, the US tactic of suppressing opposition with massive force has served to alienate the population further. For example, “Fallujah was initially quiet, until the US military fired on a local demonstration against the stationing of US troops at a school.” After repeated US counter-insurgency assaults the city is now a wasteland. (Its worth mentioning that when British commanders attempted to persuade the US of the principle of minimal force, which they believe they had applied successfully in Northern Ireland, the Americans “just laughed.”) And Cole does not take an optimistic view of the new Iraqi military being able to take over the failing counter-insurgency effort anytime soon, not least since it is “heavily infiltrated with sympathizers of the guerrillas.”

Furthermore, “The quality of leadership in Washington is extremely bad. George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and outgoing Department of Defense officials Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, have turned in an astonishingly poor performance in Iraq.” Iraq has certainly been a masterclass in how to screw up an occupation. Even Nazis didn’t face problems such as these as a colonial power in Europe. Nor did the US in Japan or the Allies in Germany make such an awful mess of running someone else’s country.

Cole’s view is that “The guerrilla tactic of fomenting civil war among Iraq’s ethnic communities, which met resistance for the first two years, is now bearing fruit.” He also mentions other factors contributing to sectarian strife. “The political process in Iraq has been a huge disaster for the country. The Americans emphasized ethnicity in their appointments and set a precedent for ethnic politics that has deepened over time. Deep debaathification [summary sacking of the former administrative and governing class] has led to thousands of Sunnis being fired from their jobs for simply having belonged to the Baath Party, regardless of whether they had ever done anything wrong. They so far have no reason to hope for a fair shake in the new Iraq.”

The ideal solution in Cole’s opinion would be that “the United States would relinquish Iraq to a United Nations military command, and the world would pony up the troops needed to establish order in the country.” However, “George W. Bush is a stubborn man and Iraq is his project, and he is not going to give up on it. And, by now the rest of the world knows what would await its troops in Iraq, and political leaders are not so stupid as to send their troops into a meat grinder.”

I don’t agree with Cole on this point. Firstly, whether the US gives up control of Iraq depends to a large extent on the US population. They face many obstacles, but theirs is still a largely free and democratic country. The immorality of colonising Iraq is plain, as is the fact of its failure. The task for the US electorate is therefore clear. The British, as America’s principal ally, also have a role to play in this respect.

Secondly, we should ask ourselves if it is true that the international community, by replacing US forces in Iraq, would be sending troops into a “meat grinder.” The answer depends on one’s impression of the resistance, something that is hard to formulate with any level of certainty given the shortage of information. Cole appears to view the insurgency as largely Ba’athist, but augmented by “foreign jihadi fighters, [numbering] probably only a few hundred.. but disproportionately willing to undertake very dangerous attacks, and to volunteer as suicide bombers.” However, there is another school of thought, which views the resistance as comprising a broader mixture of disaffected Iraqis, many if not most of whom are unconnected with Al Qaeda or the old regime, which may be lesser elements in a broad and fragmented religious/nationalist uprising.

Asia Times Online recently reported that “Recent meetings of the so-called Higher Committee for National Forces (a grouping of Iraqi resistance bodies) and the 16th Arab National Congress held in Algiers played a pivotal role in building consensus among various Iraqi communist, Islamic, Ba’athist and nationalist groups on several issues, such as the right of Iraqis to defend themselves against foreign aggression and imperialism, and the right of Iraq to demand a political process untainted by occupation and which reflects the uninhibited will of the Iraqi people for a pluralistic and democratic Iraq. The groups also condemned the continued occupation of Iraq and the establishment of any permanent US bases in the country, the privatization of the Iraqi economy and foreign corporations’ unrestricted access to Iraq’s resources.”

The mention of “a pluralistic Iraq” is certainly at odds with Cole’s view of “[a] guerrilla tactic of fomenting civil war.” Its worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of insurgent attacks are not on civilians but on military targets (contrasting sharply with the activity of US forces, who continue to terrorise the population with indiscriminate attacks, e.g. colossal aerial bombardment of civilian areas). It appears that sectarian insurgent attacks that target civilians are in fact the work of an extremist minority within the broader resistance. If this is true, would it not be possible to isolate and then neutralise such groups if wider, popular grievances were addressed? (And conversely, is it not likely that a failure to resolve the conflict and its causes will strengthen and encourage extremist elements and methods within the insurgency, and indeed within the counter-insurgency as well? The recent wave of car bombings and reported US resort to local death squads may well be evidence of this.)

Cole says at “In the long run, say 15 years, the Iraqi Sunnis will probably do as the Lebanese Maronites did, and finally admit that they just cannot remain in control of the country and will have to compromise.” But there is much evidence to suggest that the resistance is for the most part not owned by former regime loyalists or religious fanatics driven by a desire to (re)gain control of Iraq, but is rooted in popular anger at the occupation amongst ordinary Iraqis, of which there is no shortage.

If this is indeed an accurate picture, then a demonstrably independent UN force could, with an enormous effort to persuade Iraqis of its goodwill, deflate the insurgency simply by replacing the US troops. If the conflict in Iraq is not for the most part a civil war, a nihilistic Al Qaeda killing spree or a power-grab by Ba’athists, but instead a conflict between US troops and an array of resisting forces rooted in the population, then the removal of one side from the battlefield would surely go some significant way to ending the bloodshed. If, as Cole argues, the resistance relies on a deep reservoir of popular support, and that support is fed by animosity to the US forces, does it not follow that the removal of the US would help to drain that reservoir?

A Muslim peacekeeping force under the command of the UN (something which has already been proposed) comprising Sunni and Shia troops and answering to the General Assembly, not the Security Council, could maximise the beneficial effect a US withdrawal would have for internal security. Such a force would be far more acceptable to the population, leaving any remaining belligerent forces isolated and easier to deal with. Its clear that many Iraqis are attacking Americans, not because Muslim Arabs are pathologically violent, but because they are enraged at being occupied by the country that backed Saddam, killed half a million of their children with sanctions and is now in the process of wrecking their homeland. After a US withdrawal, Iraq would still have a serious security problem, but one that would have been downgraded from a full scale guerrilla war to a terrorist threat from an isolated minority. UN troops would therefore not be entering a “meat grinder.”

Iraqis could then spend some of their efforts looking to the future. After fresh elections, this time held under UN observation, a new government could move to create the prosperity within which a stable democratic society can thrive. To do this it would need the profits of oil sales to improve infrastructure and living standards. National debt would therefore have to be cancelled and US imposed privatisation schemes abandoned. In addition, natural justice demands that substantial reparations be paid by the nations that backed Saddam and that devastated the country with sanctions and bombing. Bringing these elements together would mean that Iraq could face the future with a degree of confidence.

Is this scenario realistic? Will powerful elites and nation states allow such a solution to be taken forward? In light of the catastrophe that is the US occupation its not hard to foresee in the short term the withdrawal of what elite support remains for the adventure. A solution similar to that described above may come to be seen as the only realistic one for arresting Iraq’s descent into hell, something the global economy can ill afford. But western populations should not sit around hoping that elites will do the right thing, or that whatever suits elite interests might one day happily coincide with what is the right thing to do. To effect these solutions the measure taken to bring down Apartheid, free India, win the vote, end segregation, secure labour rights and score countless other victories should be repeated on an enormous scale, forcing governments to act. The US is already all but defeated in Iraq. With assistance from western populations that defeat could be turned into a victory for the Iraq people, and for the world as a whole. If that victory is to be won, then it is for us to take the action required in order to achieve it.

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