Can we please stop calling it a quagmire? The United States isn’t mired in a bog in Iraq, or a marsh; it is free-falling off a cliff. The only question now is: who will follow the Bush clan off this precipice, and who will refuse to jump?
More and more are, thankfully, choosing the second option. The last month of US aggression in Iraq has inspired what can only be described as a mutiny: waves of soldiers, workers and politicians under the command of the US occupation authority suddenly refusing to follow orders and abandoning their posts. First Spain announced that it would withdraw its troops, then Honduras, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Kazakhstan. South Korean and Bulgarian troops were pulled back to their bases, while New Zealand is withdrawing its engineers. El Salvador, Norway, the Netherlands and Thailand will likely be next.
And then there’s the US-controlled Iraqi army. Since the latest wave of fighting, its soldiers have been donating their weapons to resistance fighters in the south and refusing to fight in Falluja. By late April, Major General Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armoured Division, was reporting that “about 40% walked off the job because of intimidation. And about 10% actually worked against us”.
And it’s not just Iraq’s soldiers who have been deserting the occupation. Four ministers of the Iraqi governing council have resigned in protest; and half the Iraqis with jobs in the secured “green zone” – as translators, drivers, cleaners – are not showing up for work. Minor mutinous signs are emerging even within the ranks of the US military: privates Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey have applied for refugee status in Canada as conscientious objectors, and Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia is facing court martial after he refused to return to Iraq on the grounds that he no longer knew what the war was about.
Rebelling against the US authority in Iraq is not treachery, nor is it giving “false comfort to terrorists”, as George Bush recently cautioned Spain’s new prime minister. It is an entirely rational and principled response to policies that have put everyone living and working under US command in grave and unacceptable danger. This view is shared by the 52 former British diplomats who, in their letter to Tony Blair, stated that although they endorsed his attempts to influence US policy on the Middle East, “there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure”.
And one year in, the US occupation does appear doomed on all fronts: political, economic and military. On the political front, the idea that the US could bring genuine democracy to Iraq is now irredeemably discredited: too many relatives of Iraqi governing council members have landed plum jobs and rigged contracts, too many groups demanding direct elections have been suppressed, too many newspapers have been closed down and too many Arab journalists have been killed. The most recent casualties were two employees of al-Iraqiya television, shot dead by American soldiers while filming a checkpoint in Samarra. Al-Iraqiya is the US-controlled propaganda network that was supposed to weaken al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, both of which have also lost reporters to US guns and rockets over the past year.
White House plans to turn Iraq into a model free-market economy are in equally rough shape, plagued by corruption scandals and the rage of Iraqis who have seen few benefits – either in services or jobs – from the reconstruction. Corporate trade shows have been cancelled across Iraq, investors are relocating to Amman and Iraq’s housing minister estimates that more than 1,500 foreign contractors have fled the country. Bechtel, meanwhile, admits that it can no longer operate “in the hot spots” (there are precious few cold ones), truck drivers are afraid to travel the roads with valuable goods and General Electric has suspended work on key power stations. The timing couldn’t be worse: summer heat is coming and demand for electricity is about to soar.
As this predictable (and predicted) disaster unfolds, many are turning to the United Nations for help. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on the UN to support his demand for direct elections back in January. More recently, he called on the UN to refuse to ratify the despised interim constitution, which most Iraqis see as a US attempt to continue to control Iraq’s future long after the June 30 “handover” by, among other measures, giving sweeping veto powers to the Kurds – the only remaining US ally. Before pulling out his troops, JosÃ© Luis RodrÃguez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister, asked the UN to take over the mission from the United States. Even Moqtada al-Sadr, the “outlaw” Shia cleric, is calling on the UN to prevent a bloodbath in Najaf.
And what has been the UN’s response? Worse than silence, it has sided with Washington on all these critical questions, dashing hopes that it could provide a genuine alternative to the lawlessness and brutality of the American occupation. First, it refused to back the call for direct elections, citing security concerns – a response that weakened the more moderate Sistani and strengthened al-Sadr, whose supporters continued to demand direct elections. This is what prompted Paul Bremer’s decision to take out al-Sadr, which in turn led to the provocation that sparked the Shia uprising.
The UN has proven equally deaf to calls to replace the US military occupation with a peacekeeping operation. On the contrary, it has made it clear that it will only re-enter Iraq if it is the United States that guarantees the safety of its staff – seemingly oblivious to the fact that being surrounded by American bodyguards is the best way to make sure that the UN will be targeted.
The UN’s greatest betrayal of all comes in the way it is re-entering Iraq: not as an independent broker but as a glorified US subcontractor, the political arm of the continued US occupation. The post-June 30 caretaker government being set up by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will be subject to all the restraints on Iraqi sovereignty that sparked the current uprising. The US will maintain full control over “security”. It will keep control of the reconstruction funds.
And, worst of all, the caretaker government will be subject to the laws laid out in the interim constitution, including the clause that states that it must enforce the orders written by the US occupiers. The UN should be defending Iraq against this illegal attempt to undermine its independence. Instead, it is disgracefully helping Washington to convince the world that a country under continued military occupation by a foreign power is actually sovereign.
There is a way that the UN can redeem itself in Iraq: it could choose to join the mutiny, further isolating the United States. This would help to force Washington to hand over real power – ultimately to Iraqis, but first to a multilateral coalition that did not participate in the invasion and occupation and would have the credibility to oversee direct elections. This could work, but only through a process that fiercely protects Iraq’s sovereignty. That means:
· Ditch the interim constitution: It is so widely hated that any governing body bound by its rules will be seen as illegitimate. Some argue that Iraq needs the interim constitution to prevent open elections from delivering the country to religious extremists. Yet according to a recent poll by Oxford Research International, Iraqis have no desire to see their country turned into another Iran.
There are also ways to protect women and minority rights without forcing Iraq to accept a sweeping constitution written under foreign occupation. The simplest solution would be to revive passages in Iraq’s 1970 provisional constitution, which, according to Human Rights Watch, “formally guaranteed equal rights to women and specifically ensured their right to vote, attend school, run for political office, and own property”. Elsewhere, the constitution enshrined religious freedom, civil liberties and the right to form unions. These clauses can easily be salvaged, and those parts of the document designed to entrench Ba’athist rule struck out.
· Put the money in trust: A crucial plank of managing Iraq’s transition to sovereignty is safeguarding its assets: its oil revenues, the remaining oil-for-food programme money and what’s left of the $18.4bn in reconstruction funds. Right now the US is planning to keep control of this money long after June 30; the UN should insist that it be put in trust, to be spent by an elected Iraqi government.
· De-Chalabify Iraq: The United States has so far been unable to install Ahmed Chalabi as the next leader of Iraq – his history of corruption and lack of a political base have seen to that. Yet members of the Chalabi family have quietly been given control in every area of political, economic and judicial life.
It was a two-stage process. First, as head of the de-Ba’athification commission, Chalabi purged his rivals. Then, as director of the governing council’s economic and finance committee, he installed his friends and allies in the key posts of oil minister, finance minister, trade minister, governor of the central bank and so on. Now Chalabi’s nephew, Salem Chalabi, has been appointed by the US to head the court trying Saddam Hussein. And a company with close ties to Chalabi landed the contract to guard Iraq’s oil infrastructure – essentially a licence to build a private army. It’s not enough to keep Chalabi out of the interim government. The UN must dismantle Chalabi’s shadow state by launching a de-Chalabification process on a par with the now abandoned de-Ba’athification process.
· Demand the withdrawal of US troops: In asking the US to serve as its bodyguard as a condition of re-entering Iraq, the UN has it exactly backwards – it should go in only if the US pulls out. Troops who participated in the invasion and occupation should be replaced with peacekeepers from neighbouring Arab states charged with making the country secure for general elections.
On April 25, the New York Times editorial board called for the opposite approach, arguing that only a major infusion of American troops and “a real long-term increase in the force in Iraq” could bring security. But these troops, if they arrive, will provide security to no one – not to the Iraqis, not to their fellow soldiers, not to the UN. American soldiers have become a direct provocation of violence, not only because of the brutality of the occupation in Iraq but also because of US support for Israel’s deadly occupation of Palestinian territory. In the minds of many Iraqis, the two occupations have blended into a single anti-Arab outrage.
Without US troops, the major incitement to violence would be removed, allowing the country to be stabilised with far fewer soldiers and far less force. Iraq would still face security challenges – there would still be extremists willing to die to impose Islamic law, and attempts by Saddam loyalists to regain power. On the other hand, with Sunnis and Shias now so united against the occupation, it’s the best possible moment for an honest broker to negotiate an equitable power-sharing agreement.
Some will argue that the US is too strong to be forced out of Iraq. But from the start Bush needed multilateral cover for this war – that’s why he formed the “coalition of the willing”, and it’s why he is going to the UN now. Imagine what could happen if countries keep pulling out of the coalition, if France and Germany refuse to recognise an occupied Iraq as a sovereign nation. Imagine if the UN decided not to ride to Washington’s rescue. It would become a coalition of one.
The invasion of Iraq began with a call to mutiny – a call made by the US. In the weeks leading up to last year’s invasion, US Central Command bombarded Iraqi military and political officials with phone calls and emails, urging them to defect from Saddam’s ranks. Planes dropped 8m leaflets, urging Iraqi soldiers to abandon their posts and promising that no harm would come to them.
Of course, these soldiers were promptly fired when Paul Bremer took over, only now they are being frantically rehired as part of the reversal of the de-Ba’athification policy. It’s just one more example of lethal incompetence that should lead all remaining supporters of US policy in Iraq to one inescapable conclusion: it’s time for a mutiny.