At an American military checkpoint on the road north of Kirkuk, two US soldiers are holding up placards, each of which has a message written in Kurdish. One says: “Drivers must get into one lane”, the other: “Carrying weapons is forbidden”.
The problem is that the soldiers, being unable to read Kurdish, have mixed up the placards so one is angrily waving his sign – forbidding weapons – in front of a car which has tried to jump the queue, while a hundred yards down the road a harassed-looking officer is asking drivers in English, which they do not speak, if they are armed and he is only receiving benign smiles and thumbs-up signs in return.
It is easy enough to mock ordinary American soldiers being baffled in trying to establish their authority in one of the most complicated societies in the world. But it is still extraordinary that the US should have spent so long planning a military campaign with so little thought about the likely political consequences inside Iraq.
The looting of cities should not have come as a great surprise. It is an Iraqi tradition in times of war. In the First World War the British and Turkish armies, fighting each other in the provinces which became Iraq, complained of the speed with which looters ransacked battlefields, sometimes pausing to slit the throats of the wounded, long before the shooting had stopped.
During the great Shia and Kurdish uprisings of 1991, government offices and museums were systematically sacked, as they were in 2003. Driving around northern Iraq over the past few weeks I always became nervous if I couldn’t see looters in battered pick-ups – because only something very dangerous could have deterred them.
The failure to stop the looting has damaged American prospects for restoring even temporary stability. So too has the slowness in restoring electricity, water and petrol supplies. The US only convened a meeting of the Iraqi official in charge of public utilities in Baghdad yesterday. In Berlin in 1945 Soviet generals had called together German officials in charge of electricity, water and sewage six days before the city’s fall.
The US could claim to be the victim of some horribly bad advice from Iraqi expatriates. Take the account of Professor Kanaan Makiya, a veteran opponent of Saddam Hussein, for example. Describing his meeting with George Bush at the start of the year, he was asked by the President: “What reaction do you expect from the Iraqis to the entry of US forces into their cities?” To this, Professor Makiya replied reassuringly: “The Iraqis will welcome US forces with flowers and sweets when they come in.”
Many of the current problems are temporary. Electricity and water supplies will have to be restored (electricity is vital in Iraq because the flatness of the Mesopotamian plain means that everything has to be pumped). Above all, an occupation authority will have to get round to paying salaries to government employees. The state is by far the biggest employer in Iraq and, scanty though these salaries are, they are vital for restoring the economy and the administration.
But if a US occupation develops long-term weaknesses this will not have a lot to do with looting, spectacular though it is, or the breakdown of the Iraqi administration. It will stem rather from whether or not Washington is, in effect, planning a classic colonial occupation, giving power only to Iraqis wholly dependent on the US.
The omens here are not very good. Asked about the visibly growing influence of the Shia clergy, a senior member of the US administration said: “We don’t want to allow Persian fundamentalism to gain any foothold. We want to find more moderate clerics and move them into positions of influence.”
Today, the US is convening a meeting in Baghdad of some 300 Iraqis to form the nucleus of an interim administration. Most are former exiles seen as carpetbaggers or American pawns by ordinary Iraqis. And looking at the names of some of the more dubious characters, it may be that the real looting of Iraq is still to come.
The US can probably control Iraq for the moment by garrisoning the main towns and getting the administration running again. But in the longer term it is very vulnerable. With the exception of Kuwait, none of Iraq’s neighbours ever wanted a long-term American occupation of Iraq to succeed.
In the 1920s, Britain solved the problem of how to rule Iraq by returning power to the Sunni Muslims who had traditionally ruled. The US might like to do this, but since the Sunni make up only 20 per cent of the population this would inevitably mean a dictatorship. On the other hand, free elections would see the long-awaited triumph of the Shia which the US, fearful of an increase in Iranian influence, is so eager to avoid.
In their current triumphant mood, George Bush and Tony Blair show no sign of appreciating the depth or extent of the morass they have entered. Six months ago an Iraqi friend told me he was all in favour of the US going to war to get rid of Saddam, but he added: “My only fear is that, before it starts, the US will realise that this war is much against its own best interests.”
The writer is co-author, with Andrew Cockburn, of ‘Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession’