Abdul al-Malaki lives opposite the gatehouse of the extravagant palace that Saddam Hussein built in his home town of Tikrit. Flanked by megalomaniac twin statues of the former Iraqi president riding a horse above four missiles, the palace arch was a daily affront to locals.
“The people of Tikrit are like the rest of Iraq. They hated Saddam Hussein. I want to kill him,” the 28-year-old cafe-owner spat out his words. But as lorry-loads of US Marines trundled through the arch, he switched focus: “This is an occupation. Nothing else. We will keep quiet for a year and if they have not gone we will kill them.”
The gratitude for removing Saddam Hussein on which Washington mistakenly expected to bank for years is almost exhausted. Those who warned the Bush administration against this war have been proved right. Only in the Kurdish areas of the north is there any satisfaction.
The Tikrit cafe-owner’s views are replicated throughout the largely Arab parts of Iraq. In Nassiriya, Shia protesters greeted the US proconsul General Jay Garner with shouts of “No to Saddam, no to occupation” last week. In Baghdad, tens of thousands of Sunni and Shia worshippers came out of Friday prayers and marched through the streets, calling on the US to leave.
In the Iraqi capital, where American troop strength is most visible, it is easy to understand why people complain of feeling humiliated. The soldiers’ presence is a reminder that Iraqis failed to topple the dictator themselves. Adding to their long list of complaints against him, Iraqis now blame Saddam Hussein for letting the Americans in.
Hassan Ali Hussein, a graduate of the Oil Institute, says he refused a job at the oil ministry because it meant joining the ruling Ba’ath party. Now this principled anti-Saddam man delights in the dictator’s overthrow and accuses him of failing to organise urban guerrilla warfare. “Saddam betrayed us. We think there was an agreement between Bush and Saddam for Baghdad not to resist,” he says.
The Pentagon’s failure to plan for the “day after” adds to the anger. Making the time-honoured mistake of re-fighting the last war, the only preparations they made were for food. Air-dropping humanitarian parcels or delivering food by road provides good propaganda images. In a country that had suffered from three years of drought like Afghanistan it also made sense.
Washington did not seem to know Iraq was different. The one thing people are not short of is food, thanks to the monthly rations of basics such as rice, sugar, cooking oil, tea and flour that every Iraqi receives, regardless of income. In a sanctions-damaged economy, 60% rely on the state-run programme and on the eve of war Saddam Hussein sensibly issued up to five months rations in one go.
Instead of concentrating on food aid, the US ought to have prepared teams of water and power engineers, as well as flown in extra troops to prevent the postwar looting that breaks out in every country when regimes collapse (there should have been no surprise here).
The immediate priority is to provide security and get the lights and telephones back on. But a far greater problem looms. Ten million Iraqis, who depend on the state sector for jobs, have not been paid for a month. Washington may parrot the mantra about turning Iraq into a free-market economy, but this is for the birds. The poverty that hundreds of millions of Russians and other eastern Europeans faced in the over-hasty dismantling of a state-run economy is as nothing to what is hitting Iraqis. Eastern Europe at least had a “transition”. In Iraq the budget and the government that ran it collapsed overnight.
Who is going to pay the doctors, teachers, bus-drivers, and other government employees now? Many Iraqis are looking to the UN oil-for-food programme, and suggesting additions. The UN should take over paying government salaries to the thousands of people who are currently working for nothing in the mood of postwar solidarity. Looting has had most of the international media attention but the enormous amount of work being done free in the country’s hospitals is equally important. When electricity returns and schools resume, no doubt most teachers will work for nothing too.
Another proposal is that every family that benefits from subsidised food rations and is listed at one of the scheme’s 45,000 well-run distribution points should be given a monthly cash handout of $10 per person. This would ease the threat of postwar poverty and pump-prime the local market.
Along with humiliation over defeat and anger at the postwar chaos, resentment over colonisation is on the rise. People point to the fact that the oil ministry was the only government office in Baghdad that the US did not bomb and protected from looters by planting a ring of troops around it on day one of “liberation”. Episodes like the massacre in Mosul when on two consecutive days last week US troops fired into crowds of protesters have classic imperial overtones and feel like the foretaste of greater repression to come.
In the vacuum of power the mosques are emerging as the main source of resistance. The good news is that far from confronting each other, Sunni and Shia clerics and worshippers are uniting behind a common agenda. Many are fundamentalists but Iraq’s progressive secular forces say this is not the primary issue at this stage. “What we’re faced with today is not a choice between secularism and religion. We’re facing an invasion and foreign rule. We have to work together to end it,” says Dr Wamid Omar Nadmi, a leading political scientist at Baghdad university.
Every aspect of today’s chaos and the danger of clashes between Iraqis and their occupiers highlight the need to get a UN presence into Iraq fast. The UN should expand the oil-for-food system to head off the poverty crisis. It should appoint a UN administrator to start brokering intra-Iraqi talks and forestall US efforts to create an Iraqi government of US placemen.
One of the Pentagon’s many failed predictions was that someone, if not Saddam Hussein, would surrender to US forces in the face of overwhelming US military might. Had that happened as in Japan and Nazi Germany, it could have given Washington the right of continuity which its failure to get UN backing before the attack had denied it. Instead, the postwar occupation runs counter to international law as much as the war itself. The UN has a moral obligation to take over and, hard though it will be to get it past Washington’s veto, the EU states and Russia should draft a security council resolution to authorise a strong UN role as soon as possible.