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Iraq's future: Dreams and nightmares

By Herbert Docena

United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was not alone as he went around Baghdad, just as the uprising against the coalition forces began some weeks ago. Robert Blackwill, Condoleezza Rice's deputy for Iraq at the National Security Council, was always by his side.

Tasked to come up with a proposal for Iraq's political transition, Brahimi is now suggesting that come June 30, the United States should transfer power to a government headed by a prime minister, a president, and two vice presidents - all chosen by the United Nations, in consultation with the US and the US-hand-picked Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). No one was surprised when US President George W Bush - Blackwill's boss - later hailed Brahimi's proposal as "broadly acceptable to the Iraqi people" and among the people the UN will be "consulting" about Iraq's future leaders.

Alongside the efforts to neutralize anti-occupation forces now rather than later, the Brahimi plan is the latest twist in the US's constantly evolving strategy to establish its permanent interests in Iraq. The original strategy was to stay on as direct occupying power for "as long as is necessary and not a day longer". That was eventually scrapped in favor of transferring "power" to a sovereign government by June 30, while remaining in control for as long as is necessary. Just before the outbreak of the uprising at the start of April, that plan had also become untenable. All that the US needs, for now, is to ensure that it can stay just one day more - in order to stay on for as long as is necessary.

Plan A: There should be no illusions
When the invading armies first set foot at Saddam Hussein's palace last April, they had no immediate plans to move out. In February, a month before the war, US State Under Secretary Marc Grossman said: "The United States is committed to stay as long as is necessary, but not a day more." In response to questions about when they intended to transfer power to an Iraqi government, US officials could only give evasive answers and motherhood statements.

Holding democratic elections to replace Saddam was not high in the priority list and, indeed, Secretary of State Colin Powell had earlier ridiculed the Iraqis' capacity for Jeffersonian democracy. "There is this sort of romantic notion that if Saddam Hussein got hit by a bus tomorrow, some Jeffersonian democrat is waiting in the wings to hold popular election [laughter]," Powell had said in the aftermath of the first Gulf War of 1991. "There should be no illusion about the nature of that country or its society."

Going by its current foreign policy strategy around the world, the US was expected to implement its tried and tested "democracy promotion" program in Iraq, applying elements from its related experience of installing its brand of "democracy" in the Philippines, Nicaragua, Chile and Haiti, to name a few. But during the first months of the occupation, it was still unclear as to how exactly they would be pursuing such a project.

By July, two months into the occupation, then press secretary Ari Fleischer was still saying: "We will stay as long as is necessary to get the job done and done well and done right, and not a day longer." On July 13, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) established the 25-member IGC, an interim Iraqi authority with limited powers and an indefinite life-span. Plans for any transfer of power, elections, or the writing of a constitution, remained vague and non-committal.

By October, the biggest problems hobbling the US in Iraq had crystallized. First, it had become obvious that the violent and non-violent resistance to the occupation was growing stronger instead of dying. Coalition forces continued to be subjected to as many as 15 to 20 attacks daily. A leaked Central Intelligence Agency report indicated that more and more people were supporting the resistance. Second, the lack of international legitimacy for the occupation was hindering foreign governments from footing the human and financial costs of the occupation. One by one, requests for more troops were turned down, and attacks on coalition soldiers tested the willingness of the willing.

Whatever we want to call ourselves
By then, these mounting and inter-acting problems were threatening the viability of the occupation. If more GI blood were spilled, especially during the run-up to the US elections, then Bush's chances at a second presidency would be gravely imperiled. There would be little reason to have the troops fight tooth and nail to stay in the palace if they can't even claw their way into staying at the White House. With oil exports raking in less than expected revenues and without the necessary cover for foreign governments to give more grants or loans to Iraq, the money needed to finance the reconstruction bonanza would soon dry up. Moreover, despite the promise to turn Iraq's domestic market into a "capitalist dream" for multinational corporations, many were having nightmares about the possibility of their investments being expropriated by a subsequent government.

On October 13, the US reluctantly tabled before the UN Security Council a new proposal requiring the IGC to present a plan for elections and a constitution before December 15. Despite this reassuring step, there was no certainty that the plan would automatically be adopted for it would still have to be approved by the US.

A series of developments, however, would eventually push the US into a corner. In late October, a donors' conference held in Madrid to raise funds for Iraq's reconstruction turned out to be a massive flop, with much less in pledges than expected. The World Bank and the United Nations had estimated that up to US$56 billion would be required, but only $13 billion was raised. Then, on November 2, guerrillas shot down a helicopter, killing 16 soldiers in the deadliest single attack since the invasion. By then, more body bags had been sent home during the occupation than during the invasion itself.

The establishment of the IGC was supposed to address some of these problems, but while expectations were not particularly high at the outset, by then, they had proven to be a big disappointment. They were supposed to be the Iraqis in front; and yet the Iraqis themselves could see who was calling the shots behind the scenes. A Gallup poll released in November reported that the majority of Iraqis recognized that the council was little more than an instrument of the occupying powers, with little power to defy the occupation authorities.

Some council members accepted to sit on the council as a tactic in a double-game they were playing - one foot to tangle with the occupation authorities inside the council, another foot to fight them outside. More galling perhaps to those who put them in power was that some members had become increasingly public in their criticism of the very ideas closest to the Bush administration's heart.

In the best of all possible occupations, the US would have wanted to stay on as the direct occupying power until it had enough time to establish the conditions in which it could transfer some power to a sovereign Iraqi government, while entrenching enough power for itself. Indeed, this was Plan A all along. But as one administration official had conceded by November: "The Iraqis won't tolerate us staying in power for that long. Whatever we want to call ourselves, we are an occupying army, and we just cannot stay in power for that long." Wracked by the unyielding resistance, troubled by dwindling finances and troop commitments, unable to calm the nerves of prospective investors, and worst, facing the prospect of electoral defeat at home, Plan B had to be formulated.

In the second week of November, L Paul Bremer, chief administrator of the CPA, took an unscheduled flight from Baghdad to Washington for crisis talks in the White House. That was when the US's strategy was rewritten and a new one charted.

Plan B: Levers of power
The objectives of any alternative to staying on as direct occupying power were clear enough: to steal the thunder from the insurgents and the anti-occupation political forces, get international recognition to protect and finance the continuing occupation, and reassure the corporations that they would recoup their investments. For any of this to be attained, however, the US would have to give up a certain degree of control - a risk and a compromise they would not have taken unless they were pushed against the wall. Giving up partial control, however, was preferable to losing total control.

Bremer flew back to Baghdad with the revised strategy. Shortly after his return, he convened the IGC and hammered out what would eventually be referred to as the "November 15 agreement", a step-by-step plan which the US claimed would effectively end the occupation. Sovereignty, Bremer said, would be bestowed on the Iraqis by June 30, 2004.

If the plan fell into place, then Bush would have a fighting chance to extricate himself from his problems. To American voters, he would be able to vindicate his war by showcasing a newly independent Iraq. As IGC member and Pentagon charge Ahmed Chalabi explained: "The whole thing was set up so President Bush could come to the airport in October for a ceremony to congratulate the new Iraqi government. When you work backwards from that, you understand the dates the Americans were insisting on."

To the international community, Bush would be able to parade a newly sovereign country, and in the process, get the international recognition that would legitimize the occupation and give them more leverage for demanding more money and troops. In addition, Bush would be able to cast off the label of Iraq as a colony and of the US as an empire.

A successful "transition" would also allow the new government to be embraced as full members - and not just observers - of international organizations such as the Arab League and the World Trade Organization. More importantly, the installation of an internally recognized "sovereign government" is what investors bidding for Iraq's soon-to-be privatized state-owned enterprises - with dirt-cheap prices set by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor BearingPoint - needed for their peace of mind.

To Iraqis, Bush would be able to argue that he had liberated them and therefore sweep the rug from under the insurgents who doubted his motives. As a Pentagon official said: "The transfer of sovereignty clearly will have an impact on security because you rid yourself of the 'occupation' label. That is one of the claims that these so-called insurgents make; that they are under American occupation. So you remove that political claim from the ideological battle."

Here lies the essential component of Plan B. While the label would be removed, the reality stays the same: it would still be an occupation. Tucked under the text of the November 15 agreements were enough safeguards to lock in US power over the subsequent transitional government and ensure that even after June 30, the US would - for all intents and purposes - still be calling the shots. As one senior White House official told the New York Times then: "We'll have more levers than you think, and maybe more than the Iraqis think."

The voice of the people?
Handing over power to any government that the Iraqis themselves chose was out of the question at the outset. There was obdurate aversion to the idea of holding general direct elections under the pretext that it was impossible given the situation. And yet the Ministry of Planning's Census Bureau chief attested in a report that an election would be possible as early as September 2004. The report was rejected by the Americans and, for some reason, did not get into the hands of the IGC members.

Tom Carothers, director of the Democracy Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explains why the occupation forces were horrified at the idea: "Beneath the new interest of the United States in bringing democracy to the Middle East is the central dilemma that the most powerful, popular movements are the ones that we are deeply uncomfortable with."

Bremer himself revealed his discomfort at elections, saying: "I'm not opposed to it but I want to do it in a way that takes care of our concerns ... Elections that are held too early can be too destructive ... In a situation like this, if you start holding elections, the people who are rejectionists tend to win." A senior official of the CPA was more to the point when asked why elections couldn't be held soon enough: "There's not enough time for the moderates to organize." On the one hand, the US had seen the wisdom in Thomas Friedman's advice of having "more Americans out back and more Iraqis out front". But the US also needs to ensure that the Iraqis out front are the kind of Iraqis they want.

What the US had in mind for taking care of its "concerns" and for giving enough time for the "moderates" to organize was the selection of Iraqis through caucuses in local councils whose members had been chosen and vetted by the military, assisted by USAID contractor Research Triangle Institute (RTI). Among the first contractors to arrive in Iraq after the war, RTI now has 215 expatriate and 1,400 local employees deployed all over Iraq to organize the non-rejectionists in fulfillment of its contract to "identify the most appropriate 'legitimate' and functional leaders." (The quotes around "legitimate" appear in the original text.)

Looking for these "legitimate" leaders, RTI employees have been going around the country presiding over local council meetings and organizing "democracy training workshops" in which they exhort their fellow Iraqis to tell their neighbors to trust the occupation forces and to support their plans for them. In one such workshop, a participant asked: "What's the use of the elections? Everyone knows that the US will be appointing our leaders anyway." The RTI staff replied: "You must talk with people in your neighborhood and tell them this is not true. The new elections will be honest, democratic and free." She then addressed the participants, saying: "You must tell your neighbors to be patient. We were patient for 35 years. What is another one-and-a-half years, even if the situation now is very bad?"

Complementing USAID and RTI efforts to build up the "moderates" and the non-rejectionists is the controversial National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a quasi-governmental agency that supports and funds political parties around the world. It can be safely assumed that the types of parties that the NED supports are the kind that the US would want to win the elections in Iraq. The NED has awarded grants to the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, and both organizations are now compiling a comprehensive database of political parties, establishing party offices, and conducting capacity-building workshops to jump-start party formations in the country and make sure they would be a force to reckon with come election time.

Bases of insecurity
The planned political transition will not give the over 100,000 soldiers stationed in Iraq some respite. They are not going to be transferred to the beaches of Diego Garcia just yet, but to 14 permanent military bases that the US is constructing all over Iraq. General Ricardo Sanchez, the US commander in Iraq, said unequivocally that the troops would remain in Iraq for at least "a couple more years". General Richard Myers, chair of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, was even more non-committal when pressed, saying: "I really do believe it's unknowable."

Bremer's predecessor, General Jay Garner, has even expressed his hopes that the military presence should last for a century. Citing how the naval bases in the Philippines in the 1900s ensured "great presence in the Pacific" through to the 1990s, Garner said: "To me that's what Iraq is for, for the next few decades. We ought to have something there ... that gives us great presence in the Middle East. I think that's going to be necessary."

To justify this arrangement legally, the November 15 agreement demanded the signing of a Status of Forces Agreement with the IGC by March 31, 2004. Presented as the Iraqis' formal "invitation" for the US military to stay on in Iraq beyond June 30, the agreement is similar to those made by the US with many countries hosting US military bases and other forms of military presence. But while these treaties are normally negotiated with sovereign governments, in Iraq, as a top military official quoted by the Associated Press said: "At this point, we'd be negotiating with ourselves because we are the government."

A crucial requirement for the US military to recede into the background is for Iraqi security forces to replace them at the frontlines. "They will take over the fight as we move back into the shadow, out of the cities," a Pentagon official explained. Over the months, the US has been busy training local security forces which will be placed under the command of an Iraqi Defense Ministry to be staffed by people personally handpicked by Bremer. The ministry would also still be under the control of the US military command. Putting the US military under Iraqi control would be laughed off by the US because as, Edward Walker, a former US ambassador to Egypt and Israel and president of Middle East Institute, said: "I don't see how we could expose our troops to decisions that are not in our control."

The continuing presence of the US military and the establishment of an Iraqi security force under US command will severely constrain the choices and actions of any subsequent Iraqi government. As Richard Murphy, a Council on Foreign Relations analyst and former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, put it: "We have fenced off one of the primary responsibilities of a sovereign government." Since neighboring countries' relationships with Iraq will inevitably be affected by the US's military presence in the country, Iraq's future foreign policy, for instance, may as well be set in stone. If a state is to be the only institution in a territory with the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, then the notion of an Iraqi state will remain illusory even after June 30.

The presence of military bases planted all over the country, staffed by tens of thousands of soldiers, would be like having a gun constantly pointed at any future Iraqi government's forehead, thereby preventing it from doing anything that would provoke the US into pulling the trigger. Lieutenant-Colonel Brennan Byrne, explaining their actions in Fallujah recently, summed it up best: "Diplomacy is just talk unless you have a credible force to back it up. People will bend to our will if they are afraid of us." As the cases of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba, Iran, Grenada, etc show, the US has not shied from launching military interventions against governments that threaten its geo-economic interests in the form of invasion or covert operations. In Iraq, the soldiers will just have to march out of the bases.

Shades of Nicaragua
Finally, the US had hoped to secure its interests and lock in its power over the next government by putting in place the legal and institutional scaffolding for erecting its desired economic and political structure for Iraq. An army of bureaucrats and contractors has been toiling silently in the background to assemble the kind of bureaucracy that would implement the laws and policies that the US itself has been drafting and to establish the kind of "civil society" that would actively support or passively accept them.

USAID, along with the State Department and the Pentagon, has been disbursing a portion of the United States' $18 billion budget to private contractors reconstructing Iraq's political and economic systems along lines favorable to US interests. BearingPoint, for example, has been contracted to create a pro-market neo-liberal government in Iraq. According to its contract, BearingPoint will "support those public and private institutions that shape and implement economic and financial policy, regulatory and legal reforms". It will also "recommend the best available options for economic growth in Iraq". As the contract makes it clear, the "best available options" could only be the neo-liberal policies of privatization, deregulation and liberalization applied in their most radical and uninhibited versions.

BearingPoint has been drafting and enacting economic laws and regulations, building the capacity of relevant ministries, setting up "macroeconomic analysis" units in these ministries' offices, establishing a stock market, funding research institutes and universities, training and building a network of pro-market economists, and forming a "civil society" that would advocate neo-liberal policies by founding and supporting NGOs, professional associations, chambers of commerce, etc.

Dozens of other contractors are doing similar work transforming various dimensions of Iraq's nascent (or remnant?) government, such as its educational, health, agricultural, and other policies. Many of these policies, as well as the work of these contractors, will be carried through even after the transition. That they still need time to finish their work is another important reason why there's no rush towards letting go.

The levers of power will be operated from out of an embassy with, in the words of a ranking official, "the world's largest diplomatic mission with a significant amount of political weight". It will be headed by one very experienced man: John Negroponte, the controversial US ambassador to Honduras during the 1980s who played a key role in assisting the Contras' attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Also working out of that embassy complex will be the largest Central Intelligence Agency station in the world, the biggest since the one in Saigon during the Vietnam War. As the ranking official said: "We're still here. We'll be paying a lot of attention and we'll have a lot of influence."

The unraveling
Despite frantic efforts to see the November 15 agreement through, however, by the end of March, Plan B was in shambles. Virtually all the steps of the November 15 agreement had been derailed.

The agreement began unraveling as soon as it was born. From the beginning, it did not have the full backing of the US-installed IGC. Though it was eventually presented as having the IGC's approval, the US was actually forced to overrule a mutinous 24-0 vote within the council in favor of direct general elections. More decisive in foiling the US plans was the uncompromising opposition of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - Iraq's most influential political personality and the Shi'ite majority's de facto leader - to many of the agreement's provisions, as well as his uncompromising insistence on elections. On January 19, Sistani succeeded in mobilizing over 100,000 to march in Baghdad calling for free elections - the biggest protest in Iraq since the beginning of the occupation.

The US was eventually forced to scrap the plan for the caucuses, but no concrete replacement was announced. By the end of March, with less than 100 days to go before the scheduled bequeathal ceremonies, the US still had no idea as to whom it would turn over power and how they would be selected.

The Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), or the interim constitution that was intended to be the basic legal framework that would govern the political transition, was also in tatters. It did not help that portions of it were written by American lawyers. Despite its ratification on March 8, key political forces held deep reservations about its provisions, and many refused to accept it as a binding document. Sistani practically spat on the document, saying that in no way should it be seen as Iraq's basic law. He even refused to meet with Brahimi unless he explicitly agreed that the TAL would not be the starting point for any discussions on the political process. The document, which stipulates that all of the laws enacted by the occupation authorities would remain binding on the interim government and which places Iraq's security under military US command, would have legally justified the United States' continuing control over the country after the transfer. By the end of March, it had also been torn to pieces.

And finally, the March 31 deadline for signing a Status of Forces-type agreement lapsed. The IGC - in a little-noticed but very significant act of defiance - had earlier refused to enter into any agreement, saying they did not have popular mandate. "We are not 100 percent accepted by the Iraqi people. We have not been elected. We do not want to draft an agreement that a new government would come in and change anyway," explained Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, an IGC member.

A failed plan
Just as the November 15 plan was crumbling, the situation it sought to address was deteriorating. There was simmering anger among Iraqis, even among the Shi'ite majority, as genuine relief at Saddam's ousting was gradually replaced by seething frustration and disappointment. The planned political transition, instead of defusing the pressure, served to further fan the suspicions of those who saw through the machinations. Patience was wearing thin. As Asaam al-Jarah, principal of Khadimiyah High School, said: "We lost faith in the Americans. Everybody was waiting for the transition, waiting and waiting. Then we saw the law was rubbish."

A full year after the invasion, there was still no let-up in insurgent attacks against the coalition forces. On the contrary, tension seemed to be rising in certain areas that used to be quiet. In a distressing development for the US, the newly elected government of Spain had announced that it would soon be withdrawing its troops if command did not pass to the UN, and this was followed by similar hints from Poland and the Netherlands. Spanish troops have since left. Closer to home, the burning and mutilation of the bodies of four private security contractors in Fallujah caused an outrage in the US, further sapping domestic support for Bush and the occupation.

With all the key components of Plan B subverted, the objectives of the revised US strategy could not be met. Without a selection process that would give the US a hand in determining the outcome, the US-favored "non-rejectionists" and "moderates" would have no way of assuming power. Without a constitution widely accepted as legitimate by key Iraqi constituencies, there would be no legal cover for keeping the US-enacted laws and policies in place and for justifying the US-imposed post-transition political structure. Without the Status of Forces agreement, there would be nothing to justify keeping the GIs in Iraq after the transfer of power.

In other words, without a successful political transition - measured according to how well they served the United States' goals - the armed and unarmed resistance would keep growing and international support in the form of troops and finances would continue to be withheld. Without first resolving the problems that Plan B sought to address, the US would not be able to finally move on with its plans for securing what it went to war for in the first place.

Ultimately, the political process hatched last November 15 collapsed because it failed to gain the express or tacit support of key sections of Iraqi society. The last thing that the US wants on June 30 is another IGC, another Iraqi authority without popular support, and therefore incapable of fronting for the US and carrying out its plans. As US Senator Carl Levin realized: "It is also true that if we restore sovereignty to an entity created by the United States that doesn't have the support of the Iraqi people and the international community, there could be even greater violence against our forces, including the possibility of civil war."

Without removing the "occupation" label, the GIs would be fighting the same recurring battles. As one military officer said: "We can beat these guys and we're proving our resolve. But unless the political side keeps up, we'll have to do it again and again after July 1, and maybe in September and again next year and again and again."

The US needs to install a governing body which will be perceived as sufficiently "sovereign" and "independent" to calm the Iraqis and satisfy the international community. The US has concluded that the only way left to secure the very interests its soldiers are dying and killing for - oil, markets and military bases in a strategic region - is to install a friendly government, structured to be independent in everything but the things that matter most to the US.

However, the one vital ingredient for this plan to succeed - a certain degree of legitimacy of the US occupation - was the one thing that could not be clinched. Without it, the entire Plan B collapsed.

The show must go on
The outlines of Plan C are only now emerging, but it appears to consist of the following components.

First, the show must go on. As expected, the US will not abandon its plans to organize some form of handover ceremonies on June 30. Many Iraqis collaborating with the US hinge their cooperation on the promise that something will indeed be transferred on that date. To renege on that is to turn them into potential recruits for the resistance. As Bush himself acknowledged: "Were the coalition to step back from the June 30 pledge, many Iraqis would question our intention and feel their hopes betrayed, and those in Iraq who trade in hatred and conspiracy theories would find a larger audience and gain an upper hand." Moreover, the pressure of US domestic electoral politics demands another lavish media opportunity akin to landing on a battleship in a flight suit, with the banner "Mission Accomplished" as the triumphant background.

Second, having failed to secure adequate support from Iraqis for its designs, the US now hopes that a UN stamp of approval will be enough to eventually persuade them - and the international community - to accept the post-June 30 order. This explains the importance of Brahimi. It accounts for the decision of the US to toss its plans for the political process to the UN, saying that the UN will now take over the process. The US recognizes that it now depends, albeit reluctantly, on the UN for its plans to survive.

This does not mean that Brahimi will be calling the shots. Brahimi's plan for the UN, the US and the IGC to handpick the members of the interim government provides the US more freedom for maneuvering and is arguably more undemocratic and nontransparent than the original US plan for local caucuses. It is certainly a very poor alternative to general direct elections. Though the final say on the selection will nominally rest with the UN - in a process that still has to be resolved - the US is expected to play a strong hand. It can be safely assumed that the US will move heaven and earth to prevent the appointment of any Iraqi who could potentially block its medium-term and long-term plans for Iraq. Too much is at stake for Bush's man Blackwill just to sit back and observe Brahimi.

It is also significant that, from available information, there is no sign that the UN will force the US to abandon the arrangements it is now putting in place in Iraq as "levers" for wielding power. Even if an interim government formed by the UN and the US proves to be totally independent, it would be powerless surrounded by 14 military bases and 130,000 US troops and imprisoned by a US-imposed legal, political and economic infrastructure.

Right mistake at the right time
Finally, if the armed resistance and the organized political opposition to US plans still refuse to accord the political transition the legitimacy it requires, then they will just have to be neutralized - now rather than later. If they can't be co-opted, then they'd have to be destroyed. It now appears that this is precisely what the US was hoping to achieve by cornering Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers and, in the process, triggering an uprising it is now finding hard to contain.

Rather than yet another tactical blunder, the decision to provoke a confrontation may have been a deliberate and well thought-out strategy that should be seen not just in terms of day-to-day military tactics, but in terms of larger political objectives. If it were a mistake, then it was the right mistake at the right time.

For one, the order to clamp down on Muqtada came all the way from the top - odd if the target was to be subsequently belittled as fringe and marginal. There were no policy fissures or a break in the chain of command. The decision, confirms the Washington Post, had the blessings of the National Security Council (NSC) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). It also had the full backing of senior Bush administration officials.

That clamping down on Muqtada at this time would definitely set off a backlash was not lost on those who gave the green light. "Every time we talked with Baghdad about taking any action against [Muqtada] Sadr, we always talked about the need to have proper preparations in place to deal with a violent reaction," an official privy to discussions at the NSC and the JCS revealed. The chair of the JCS, General Richard Myers, admitted that the US was aware of the consequences of attacking Muqtada in a press briefing on April 7: "What contributed to this was our offensive action. We shut down his newspaper. We went after one of his lieutenants ... And it was not unanticipated or unexpected that we would see some resistance to that." However, the US could not have foreseen the broader consequences of what is now widely seen as a series of intentional provocations.

If Muqtada and his militia were just a "band of thugs", as Bush described them, then why did the NSC consider him such a threat that they were compelled to tighten the noose around him? If the occupation authorities were fully apprised of the possible consequences of their actions, why would they risk provoking a full-scale confrontation? If the US really wanted to douse the backlash, then why did it proceed, even as the situation was worsening, to inflame passions further by threatening to arrest Muqtada? If the US really intended to restore calm, then why did it go on, even as the violence escalated, to launch full-blown operations against Fallujah and risk a two-front uprising? Having bombed a mosque and having killed over 600 Fallujah residents and scores of others in various cities; were they really expecting Iraqis to sit back and applaud?

The last thing the US presumably needs would be an outbreak of violence when, with less than 100 days before the transfer of power and just a few more months before US elections, the image they would want to project is that of calm and stability. But the alternative to not doing anything in response to the circumstances seemed more dangerous. "What is the risk of not acting? What is the risk of turning our head and just ignoring the trouble," CPA spokesperson Dan Senor agonized. If the anti-occupation forces are left alone then they could grow stronger and more defiant and the US could end up really losing control.

Drawing the lines
Bush himself has said that cracking down on Muqtada was a necessary step towards the June 30 handover. As Senor explained: "We are focusing on confronting those distinct and, I would suggest, isolated elements that seek to derail the political process through the use of violence to advance their parochial interests. We're confronting that, and we want to return the process and give the process back to the Iraqi people, those Iraqi people who favor dialogue over force."

It appears that the mission is to weed out all those forces antagonistic to the US now before they cause trouble later, to make them fight now while they're unprepared rather than later when they've had enough time to organize and strengthen their ranks. Muqtada's side, for instance, has said that they were at first unwilling to shoot back. "We didn't choose the time for the uprising. The occupation forces did," said Fuad Tarfi, a leading Muqtada follower.

Indeed, while anti-occupation sentiment runs deep, the Iraqis are in general unprepared for another long war. They neither have the resources to jump into a long-running confrontation with the world's only superpower; a widely accepted political leadership to lead it; nor the organizational structures to sustain it. This does not mean they won't, especially if the US keeps pushing. But the act of resistance itself will be carrying with it its own dynamic. Having emerged from three decades of repression and fragmentation, it has not been and will still not be easy building consensus among the various disconnected political forces fighting the US. Despite this, efforts to build a united front and a political leadership are expected to intensify. But still, as one former colonel who took part in an uprising against Saddam in the 1990s and who is now spearheading efforts to build a broad coalition pushing for a political process independent from the US: "We want to fight the US at a time of our choosing."

That is precisely what the US wants to forestall. The idea is to catch them while they're not ready, to make them use their bullets now, throw their grenades, and fire their mortars now so that they will have nothing later. "If we do not address these elements and these individuals and these organizations now," explained Senor, "we will rue the day because these organizations, these militia will rise up again another day and it is better to deal with them now than after June 30."

The aim is to draw the lines. The current uprising is now forcing Iraqi political forces to choose sides before the day of reckoning comes. On the one hand, they may be unwilling to take on the might of the US. But on the other, they wouldn't also want to totally lose legitimacy later if the resistance prevails. Unfortunately for the US, as the strength, spread and spontaneity of the resistance suggest, many Iraqis are taking a gamble on history and supporting the resistance.

A revolution?
"What the Americans and the Iraqi Governing Council can't understand is that this is a revolution," said Sheik Anwar Hamed, a Shi'ite from Sadr City, but who is not a follower of Muqtada, in an interview. "Everyone is involved. Those who can't fight will give money. Those who can't give money will give medicine. Those who can't give medicine will give food. Those who can't give food will give blood," he explained, adding that this is not just about Muqtada now. The resistance, he says, has no chain of command, has no organizational structure, and has no recruitment process because everyone can join just by fighting back.

"We are on a war footing now," conceded a senior military official in Baghdad. Indeed, the US is now confronting the most serious challenge yet to the occupation. This, says the Los Angeles Times, could well be the second war on Iraq - the only way to hang on for a day longer, in order to stay as long as is necessary. The first war, against Saddam, was a war of choice, an easy one because the former dictator had no popular support. Now, it is a war of necessity, and it could prove to be more difficult because, this time, it is a war against the Iraqi people. For Iraqis, it also seems like this could well be the war of liberation which the United States had always promised them.

Herbert Docena is an analyst with Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based policy research institute. He was in Baghdad when the uprising broke out as researcher for the Iraq International Occupation Watch Center. He can be reached at herbert@focusweb.org.

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Apr 30, 2004



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(Apr 29, '04)

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(Apr 27 '04)

Bush's 'transfer of power' gambit
(Apr 23'04)

 

 
   
         
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