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Iraq as the 51st state

"He was a patron of terrorism ... He had long-established ties with al-Qaeda." - Vice President Dick Cheney on Saddam Hussein, June 14

"I have not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the connection." - Secretary of State Colin Powell, June 10

"We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." - 9-11 Commission, June 16

ANN ARBOR, Michigan - Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, has positioned himself as a virtually indispensable voice in the Iraq debate. His Internet weblog, Informed Comment, offers a stark contrast to the cacophony of uninformed armchair punditry on Iraq, not to mention talk-show hosts babbling about "wacky Iraqis". Professor Cole lived in Lucknow, India, and also in Beirut. He's a fluent Arab speaker. The blog is uploaded daily, by himself (no staffers), and also offers extensive quotes from the Arab press. He gets as many as 200,000 fresh hits a week. Cole received this Asia Times Online correspondent in his fourth-floor office at the university's International Institute in Ann Arbor.

ATol: Let's start with the credibility of the Iraqi caretaker government vis-a-vis the Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds, more than vis-a-vis the US and the UN. Virtually everyone in the Sunni triangle and also in the Shi'ite south used to refer to the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) as "the imported government". Will the same happen again to this American face of an Iraqi government?

Juan Cole: Everybody knows it's an appointed government. It doesn't spring from the rule of the Iraqi people. Grand Ayatollah [Ali al-]Sistani has issued a fatwa recently in which he openly said that. His view in this matter will be widely shared. It's unfortunate that the Iraqi prime minister should have been a known CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] asset. I don't think that it changes anything. The IGC, as you said, was seen as a puppet council by many people. There's much more continuity between the IGC and this government than most people seem to realize. It's pretty much the same cast of characters - either with regard to people who actually sat at the council and persons who represent factions who had a seat in that council.

ATol: What are the implications of what you're saying for the Iraqi street?

JC: That nothing really has changed. These people are not getting anything like full sovereignty. I think it is a publicity stunt - without substance. The real question for a lot of Iraqis is not so much if it's credible or not, but if it can accomplish anything for them. Since the Americans dissolved the Iraqi army, since it's not entirely clear how do you get an Iraqi army back, one can be pessimistic ...

Army down, racism up
On the dissolution of the army: Do you think this was a blunder by proconsul Paul Bremer or was it carried out on purpose?

JC: On purpose in the sense of trying to make the Iraqis dependent on the Americans? Well, what Jay Garner said to the BBC [British Broadcasting Corp], I saw it with my own eyes, is that he believed one of the reasons the army was dissolved was that the Bremer team has as one of their primary goals in Iraq the imposition of Polish-style shock therapy. They wanted to transform Iraq into a capitalist state, as quickly as possible. This was part of the general plan to make Iraq a kind of model for the region.

ATol: This was the original neo-con plan?

JC: Yes, but the primacy of the economic policy is something that I don't think is generally recognized. One of the reasons for getting rid of the Ba'ath army, according to Garner, was that they were afraid that the survival of any large Ba'ath institution like that might be an obstacle to the extreme liberalization of the economy. You can just imagine a situation in which the Americans wanted to denationalize Iraqi companies. If you had kept the Ba'ath army, they would come to the coalition and say, "No, you can't sell off these companies, my cousin helps to run them"... They [the Americans] thought that the army would remain a power center able to intervene in policy debates, on the side of state control of the economy. So they dissolved it not based on security purposes, but to remove a potential obstacle to Polish-style shock therapy. They brought Polish economic advisers - that's the reason for the Polish military involvement in Iraq. They tried to replicate the Polish experience. I don't believe that the neo-cons at the Defense Department wanted to use the US military to supplant the Iraqi army. In fact, [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz had told Congress that it's likely the US would be back to having only one division in Iraq by October 2003. They thought they could dissolve the army and just use the police to maintain order, and then they could do whatever they wanted to do with the economy: sell it off, bring in the big companies, open Iraq to Western investment. They hoped that the Iraqi bourgeoisie would emerge, there would be productivity gains, the country would be rich, and everybody else - the Iranians, the Syrians - would want to follow them.

ATol: Was that a mix of arrogance and incompetence, plus lack of knowledge of society and culture in Iraqi and the Middle East?

JC: Certainly the plan was born out of enormous ignorance of the Middle East. Remember, people with training in economics and political science very frequently stay away from knowing details. They have a set of principles, they think they are physicists, so the people planning this out, most of them knew no Arabic or anything really about the history and culture and society of the Arab world. Except for Wolfowitz, who had some knowledge of Indonesia when he was there as an ambassador ...

ATol: But Islam in Indonesia and Southeast Asia has very little to do with Islam in the Middle East.

JC: I would say it's very substantially different. And Indonesia is not a sufficient background for planning out how to run Iraq ... And moreover Wolfowitz was the only one amongst them who had this kind of knowledge. So it's clear to me that first of all they were very ignorant, also extremely arrogant because they were playing with people's destinies. Some of the neo-cons of course are very close to the Likud Party in Israel, and I think that many of them have imbibed this kind of Israeli racism towards Arabs, that Arabs only respect force, that you can get them to inform on each other because of all the internal clan feuds ... People like Douglas Feith and Richard Perle have thought along these lines for a long time. Frankly, Israeli racism towards the Arabs is not a good guide to dealing with a society like Iraq, or with any society. Unlike the Palestinians, Iraq is a society that has not been dominated by a foreign power since 1932.

ATol: And the Iraqis expelled the British.

JC: The British were expelled and very decisively, in 1958. And there were many rebellions before that. This generation of young Iraqis grew up in Ba'ath schools, learning about nationalism, learning about anti-colonialism. What their identity really is about is asserting themselves vis-a-vis the West. The idea that they would be supine before a Western occupation was always crazy, and any of us who knew anything about the region predicted there would be a lot of trouble. Iraq was a modern, industrial society, with relatively high rates of literacy, run down in the 1990s very substantially but still not a society easy for foreigners to come and dominate.

Roads to hell
Assuming that the neo-con dream - the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad - is now in tatters, would it be the case that now the road through Baghdad leads back to Crawford, Texas?

JC: There's some question of whether that could cost [President George W] Bush the election. A year ago, it didn't seem likely to me that Iraq would be able to affect an election. But the steady drumbeat of violence, the mounting toll of dead and wounded, the miscalculations regarding the siege of Fallujah, provoking the uprising of Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, and then the Abu Ghraib scandal, the cumulative factor of all these events, according to opinion polls, really have taken a toll on Bush's standing. If he were to be re-elected it would be historic: no one has been re-elected with these kinds of poll numbers. I think Iraq has become an albatross for the Bush administration. This so-called turnover of sovereignty - they're hoping that the US press stops covering Iraq like it is doing now, very intensively, as though it is the 51st state, which essentially is being run by the American government. Everyone will have noticed that when Hamid Karzai was elected by the Loya Jirga, the very next day Afghanistan fell off the front page and went to page 17.

ATol: And now it has fallen off the papers entirely.

JC: Now you can have several American servicemen killed and they are not even reported. I discern an unwritten rule among American journalists, that the American public is not interested in places which have their own government. The real significance of the so-called handover of sovereignty is that the Bush administration and its political advisers are hoping that the American press will take this moment as a cue to turn to reporting about Laci Peterson and other nonsense stories, local murder mysteries.

ATol: Do you think this might work? With Fox News maybe, but what about the Washington Post and the New York Times?

JC: Actually, it might. It might push Iraq off the front page. I don't agree with you that it would work most of all with Fox News. Because of its militarism and its attempt to get viewers from the American right, Fox pays more attention to Iraq than most of the other networks do.

ATol: In terms of sensational images.

JC: Sensational images, but it's just inevitable that if the US military very largely votes Republican, and you want those people watching Fox programming, they're interested in what's going on in Iraq. I think capitalism in a way swings Fox towards doing more Iraq reporting than some of the other networks. If there's a firefight in Baqubah, it seems that Fox is more likely to report it than the other networks.

ATol: But they report only the Pentagon side of the story.

JC: I agree that Fox is very slanted, but the way mass media work can often be ironic. Although Fox thinks it is reporting news of interest to its right-wing viewers, reporting this firefight in Baqubah and the way the US is putting down those insurgents, anybody who actually watches this will come out with a double message: one is the Fox message, and the other message is "Jesus, a lot of trouble in Iraq".

ATol: We have learned from the resistance, from some former Saddam Hussein generals, that the resistance will actually increase after June 30, that the postwar had been planned for years, and that everyone associated in some form or another with the Americans and the new caretaker government will be a target. So there will be even more bloodshed. How will this bloodshed rebound on the US? And what about the media: will they report it?

JC: This is the problem: it's difficult for the insurgency to target the Americans. They can get some RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] against an American base, they do this every day, it usually results in some casualties, relatively light. They've mainly turned to soft targets, Iraqis, so they blow up a market in Baghdad, or police stations. They are attempting to just foment a feeling in the country that the Americans are not actually in control. That will continue and may as well increase. I read a lot about these incidents in the Arabic press - they never get reported in the Western press.

ATol: But the important point is that these incidents are reported on alJazeera and al-Arabiya and watched every night by millions in the Arab world.

JC: AlJazeera is excellent on Iraq news, and it reports all of these incidents where there are casualties. But as far as the American public is concerned, I think that it may well be that casualties among US servicemen in Iraq, that's going to be on page 17. But if you did have an increase in the number of incidents, it's possible that it would get more coverage. It's up to the journalists now. Are they going to take this bait, are they going to be manipulated in this way as they have been manipulated all along?

ATol: Maybe it's the case that everybody has been manipulated: the American press, and now also the United Nations, forced to approve a new Iraq resolution. For millions of Iraqis, the UN is synonymous with sanctions.

JC: This is different from the rest of the Arab world, where they associate the UN with peacekeeping and a more even-handed policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the UN itself is not unaware of this, and they don't want to get heavily involved in Iraq. The problem for the world community is that the US has presented them with a fait accompli. It's not in anybody's interest in Europe, for instance, for Iraq to descend into chaos. Europe is heavily dependent on Persian Gulf petroleum, it could be deindustrialized if things get too bad. So when the Americans come and say, "If you pass a resolution of this sort, we'll set the process back to order," who's going to argue with them?

The Muqtada factor
- Let's examine the move against Muqtada al-Sadr. Was it another blunder by the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority)?

JC: These things are not transparent. It's amazing to me, we supposedly live in a democracy in the United States. And yet, once the election has occurred, the public gives up a lot of right to know. And so the CPA has been run in a very untransparent way, we never know why they do anything, they never say, and they are constantly putting out those kinds of propagandistic statements, they're always trying to find demons to blame everything on, Saddam, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and then Muqtada al-Sadr. My own impression is that the Americans provoked this uprising by Muqtada, that he had not done anything in particular that might suggest he was a military threat. He had given strict orders to his militia not to fire on Americans. When the Americans came after Muqtada, he launched this uprising. I think the Shi'ite clerics made a decision to stay out of it, retreat from their positions and have the Mahdi Army have Najaf and Karbala. The Mahdi Army was not strong in those two places. I still think that it's plausible that it was Muqtada's reaction to the assassination of Sheikh [Ahmed] Yassin that caused the CPA to go after him. We must remember that the CPA is dominated by neo-conservatives, that twentysomething people like [neo-con pundit] Michael Ledeen's daughter [Simone Ledeen] have been running the Iraqi economy. Decision-making would be coming from people who are very close to the Likud Party and who were extremely alarmed when Muqtada al-Sadr said he was like the right arm of Hamas and would avenge the death of Sheikh Yassin.

ATol: Have you read any similar analysis in any of the Arab papers at the time?

JC: No. I haven't. But it's possible. I know Hezbollah called for revenge for the murder, and also did call for Iraqi solidarity about this. But this analysis, I have never seen it in the Arabic press.

ATol: You were arguably one of the few, if not the only one, in the West who wrote that the Shi'ites would never forgive America for the bombing of Karbala, and you also cared to explain why.

JC: Most Americans and Westerners don't understand what Karbala means. During the Iranian revolution there was a slogan that "every day is Ashura". Karbala is what an anthropologist called a paradigm in people's lives. The idea of American GIs firing tank missiles anywhere near the shrine of Imam Hussein in major battle with Shi'ites is unbearable, even considering that the Mahdi Army and Muqtada al-Sadr are not liked around Karbala, they are considered lower-class thugs. I compare them to gangster rappers. So I'm not saying they were popular. I'm saying that the Shi'ites look at them as their own problem. And if there is a choice between them and the Americans, symbolically at least, regardless of what they actually do, they could never make that choice for the Americans. People are very upset all over the Shi'ite world that there was this desecration of the shrine cities. The amount of rage among the Shi'ites towards the Americans now is greater than I've seen since the Iranian revolution. It's a cost of these kinds of frankly stupid policies the Bush administration has been pursuing in Iraq. I don't believe the general American public is even aware of this. They keep asking things like "Why do they hate us?" ...

ATol: What about the role of Iran in this new Iraqi configuration?

JC: They have been behind Ayatollah Sistani. But the Iranians are badly split - between the hardliners and the reformists. For the reformists, Sistani is a godsend. He rejects the theory of clerical rule, the velayat-e-faqih. And in Iran it is illegal to reject it. Ayatollah [Hossein Ali] Montazeri was put under house arrest for rejecting it. From that point of view, Sistani is much more like the reformists. He's not a Khomeinist. There have been reports of some of the reformists actually declaring themselves as followers of Sistani - because you can choose, in Shi'ite Islam, which ayatollah to follow. So I think this is a problem for [Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and the hardliners if Iraq becomes an alternative center of religious authority and undermines their position. From this point of view, they're nervous about Sistani. On the other hand, he is part of the club, he's got excellent credentials, training, he speaks their language. What he wants for Iraq is something they can live with; he wants a parliamentary government, which would be Shi'ite-dominated, in which the Shi'ite clergy could intervene to shape legislation by their fatwas, by appealing to the consciousness of the Shi'ite legislators. I'd compare this vision of Sistani's for Iraq with 1950s Ireland and the position of the Catholic Church there. There was a secular, elected parliament. If the parliament took up any issue like divorce, the bishops would state their position and put enormous pressure on the representatives to vote their way.

ATol: So it would be nothing like a Khomeinist system.

JC: Nothing like that. On the other hand, from the point of view of the hardline Iranians, it would not be a terrible system either. It would be a Shi'ite-dominated state, it would be friendly to Tehran inevitably, the Shi'ite clergy would have a great deal of influence. And you probably could not get Khomeinism in Iraq because of the 40% of the population which is Sunni. So actually Sistani's vision is the best Iran can hope for. It would be much better than, say, a return of the Ba'ath. Moreover, Sistani wants to eliminate the presence of American troops, and this also pleases the Iranians. These are status quo people: they don't like a lot of trouble. Although the Americans keep depicting Iran as a source of trouble in the world, they haven't gone around beating their neighbors. They've been a much less turbulent revolutionary country than one might have expected, or that Saddam was. What I'm saying about them being status quo is that Muqtada makes them nervous. He's clearly a revolutionary of some sort. He's clearly got in mind to cause a lot of trouble.

The al-Qaeda factor
Wildly disparate estimates of the presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq range from 600 to 7,000. Do you discern any pattern, any strategy of al-Qaeda in Iraq? And do you buy the myth of al-Qaeda as this major SPECTRE-like, all-enveloping evil organization?

JC: First of all you have to begin with the definition of what al-Qaeda is. There's a technical definition of al-Qaeda: fighters who gave their loyalty to Osama bin Laden. Those are very few: a few hundred, maybe a few thousand. Then you could say people oriented towards bin Laden's way of thinking who have been Arab-Afghans, who had fought in Afghanistan: this is a much larger group, like 5,000. I've seen an estimate of 15,000, when you include groups such as the one responsible for the attacks in Casablanca. Relatively few of those had any links with Osama bin Laden - they were local, radical salafi groups. If we're talking about radical, violent salafis, they might reach 15,000. But then again there are 1,2 billion people in the Muslim world. These are small local networks, you cannot talk of an organization. Bin Laden has a general policy of not putting resources into situations that are already in turmoil. He's never done anything in the West Bank. He'd be much more interested in getting something going on in Indonesia or Malaysia. My information is that bin Laden is not interested in Iraq. I don't think there are even 600 al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq. There are foreign fighters but they are not technically al-Qaeda: rather Muslim Brotherhood types. The vast majority of the resistance is composed by Iraqis: not only ex-Ba'athists, but Sunni nationalists, salafis ... I suspect there are 25,000 or so insurgents in Iraq, doing something at least occasionally. Even if there were 400 or 500 foreign fighters, they would be a drop in the bucket.

ATol: How could the neo-cons engineer a victory next November, by using this period of illusion of the next four months in Iraq? Supposing it goes terribly wrong, as it might, how could they still get Bush re-elected?

JC: I know they are upset and depressed by Ahmad Chalabi being sidelined. And there is pressure from the Republican Party: it wasn't a wise thing to drag the president into another war that would then spill over into the election year. However you look at this thing it is a political disaster: even if Bush survives it. Some of the neo-cons at the Pentagon are now thinking of putting the Sunnis and the Kurds together and playing them off against the Shi'ites - as if the Kurds would cooperate with ex-Ba'ath Sunnis ... There is going to be a Shi'ite-dominated Iraq. The neo-cons assumed that the Sh'ites in Iraq might not be so sympathetic towards the Palestinians. Looking at your question, what they may try to do is this: they have managed to get Iyad Allawi as prime minister - although he wasn't the United States' first choice. These last few weeks Bremer has reversed the de-Ba'athification policy, there are a number of ex-Ba'athists in this new government. And they may attempt in some way to bring back the Ba'ath army, as a security instrument for the government to establish control.

ATol: But most of these generals are part of the resistance. They would never work for the Americans.

JC: If you gave them their jobs back to work for Allawi they might not be part of the resistance anymore. Allawi for the past 15 years has been organizing ex-Ba'ath generals. If anybody could handle them, it could be him. I'm not, by the way, saying this would be a bad thing. I think the extreme de-Ba'athification program, pursued apparently at the insistence of the Chalabi clique, was itself a mistake. It wasn't what the US military had planned on doing.

ATol: In sum, another total blunder by the CPA - a Pentagon decision implemented by Bremer.

JC: Yes, I think it was a decision by the Pentagon. I think it was done for many reasons. Initially the Pentagon planned on turning Iraq over to the Chalabi clique. For Allawi to reverse it somewhat, and to succeed in getting back some semblance of a military, three divisions, 60,000 men, this could be a good thing, it could contribute to order. The danger, of course, is that the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq [SCIRI], the Da'wa party, the Shi'ite forces which have spent the last 35 years fighting the Ba'ath, they're not going to like this. It could even cause more trouble.

ATol: So is there a risk of civil war in Iraq?

JC: No, not civil war. I lived in Beirut during the early years of the civil war there, and you had these militias which set pitched battles and so forth - I don't think that can happen in Iraq because the Americans are still powerful enough through their air force to stop it. What the Americans wouldn't be very good at stopping would be if you had mass urban turmoil. If you had Sunni-Shi'ite riots between Adhamiya and Kazamiya for instance, in Baghdad. You can't send attack helicopters to stop that. Or Kirkuk, which seems to me to be a tinderbox. If there is urban turmoil in the country, this is something I think the United States cannot deal with. That seems to me to be the real nightmare scenario.

Iraq as Bush's nightmare
There's a more realistic scenario of the resistance increasing in the next few months.

JC: It will, but the Americans are hard targets. I don't expect the insurgency to be able to hit the Americans and make a difference. Whether Iraq has a big impact on the election will depend very much on what's going on in Iraq in September and October, because people have short memories in elections. I think the Bush administration will be very careful not to provoke another Fallujah this fall. You could have a low-level guerrilla [war] going on, not terribly well reported in America, Iraq could well fall off the front page, it might not be a big issue in the election, so Bush may get away with it. But if he's re-elected, it's still going to be there. You simply cannot have a big, important oil producer at the head of the Persian Gulf in a state of turmoil. In a way, if Bush is re-elected, it would be poetic justice that he continues to spend a lot of energy [on] putting Iraq back together. If [Democratic presidential candidate John] Kerry were elected, he would have the same problem. Kerry being elected is not a solution.

ATol: Do you detect any Iraq policy at all from the Kerry side?

JC: Well, he says he wants to internationalize, and the real question is whether it's not too late. If Kerry is elected in November and he goes back to France and Germany and says, "OK, it's a new ball game, won't you come in with me?" are the French and German governments really going to be eager to send their troops? By then also, as the Sistani fatwa makes clear, all traces of the occupation should have been erased. There may be a building demand from the Iraqi side that foreigners just get out of their country. So Kerry's internationalization will not even be welcomed in Iraq by that point. The question is: has Bush ruined the situation beyond repair so that Kerry's policy is difficult to implement?

ATol: What would you say?

JC: I think it is very difficult for Kerry to have his policy implemented.

ATol: Finally: Will Osama be captured next October?

JC: If the Bush administration knew how to capture Osama, he would have been captured. If they could do it now, they would do it. It would become a campaign slogan. They don't have good intelligence, and even the Pakistanis don't have good intelligence. So I don't think there will be an October surprise.

Also in this series:
The Spirit of Detroit (Jun 16, '04)
Bush against Bush (Apr 30, '04)
Kerry, the Yankee muchacho (May 7, '04)
You have the right to be misinformed (May 8, '04)
An American tragedy (May 11, '04)
In the heart of Bushland (May 12, '04)
The war of the snuff videos (May 13  '04)
The Iraq gold rush (May 14, '04)
The new beat generation (May 15, '04)
Taliban in Texas: Big Oil hankers for old pals
 (May 18, '04)
Life is a beach. Or is it?
(May 19, '04)
Cuba libre
 (May 21, '04)
Miami vice and virtue (May 22, '04)
Georgia on his mind 
(May 27, '04)
Free at last? (May 28, '04)
Highway 61 revisited  (May 29, '04) 
Now gimme those heartland votes
  (Jun 3, '04)
Nerves of steel  (Jun 4, '04)
A Warhol moment (Jun 5, '04)
Saint Ronnie (Jun 8, '04)

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