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US occupation through Iraqi eyes
By Pan Hu

Rumored to be Iraq's next ambassador to the United States, Dr Kanan Makiya, a formerly exiled Iraqi intellectual best known as the author of Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq, was one of the strongest proponents of ousting Saddam Hussein through invasion and still feels removing Saddam's tyrannical regime was clearly the right thing to do. But while his critics cite his close links to neo-conservatives in the George W Bush administration as the reasoning behind these sentiments, Makiya is by no means adverse to dishing out some of his own criticism of the US's handling of postwar Iraq.

Last Monday, at a lecture hosted by the World Affairs Council of Washington, DC, in Maryland, Makiya acknowledged the precarious security situation in Iraq and the insurgency's stubborn resilience. But he asserted that the insurgency's threat is significantly limited by the fact that it offers no political alternative to Iraqi citizens. Fueled primarily by economic hardship and anger at the foreign occupation, the insurgency cannot win the support of Iraqis who wish to fight for something, not merely against something.

While Makiya is confident that as material conditions slowly but steadily improve for ordinary Iraqis, and as the American occupation's profile diminishes, the insurgency will collapse from its lack of a constructive program, even if it takes several years, he still insists that stabilizing Iraq is an Iraqi matter, and it was a mistake on Washington's part to not grant sovereignty to Iraqi leaders in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. By establishing a formal occupation authority, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), to dominate Iraqi affairs, the US gave an unmistakable impression of naked self-interest that would color Iraqi perceptions of its policies. Moreover, by bungling an entire year's effort to establish indigenous security forces, the CPA set the stage for the sharp escalation of guerilla violence that engulfed Iraq last spring.

But Makiya's CPA bashing, given his close links to Bush administration neo-cons, is viewed by some as a means to deflect blame from the hawks, whose plan of handing sovereignty to Iraqis was essentially to install Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress (INC) to lead the country. More realistic postwar planning, critics allege, was deliberately tossed aside by the vehemently anti-Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), anti-State Department neo-cons led by Vice President Dick Cheney and top Pentagon civilians, Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith. But while the INC was indeed a centerpiece of the hawks' vision for the new Iraq, it is overly simplistic to lay the blame for the postwar troubles squarely at its feet.

In a lengthy interview with PBS Frontline in October 2003, Makiya drew attention to the fact that owing largely to the State Department's tepid support for liberal democracy in Iraq and the CIA's cynicism, Iraqi exiles were not given a major role in liberating the country. In fact, so strongly did he feel about this that less than two weeks into the invasion itself, Makiya had published an article in the Washington Post decrying the lack of Iraqi opposition involvement in the war.

What plagued both the invasion and occupation from the beginning was the lack of coordination between the neo-con and "realist" camps: neither could accomplish much in isolation from the other, yet the two had sharply contrasting priorities in their planning. With the strategy for occupation stovepiped high up, US commanders on the ground were compelled to improvise in a fashion that typically could not be tailored to boost Iraqis' responsibility for their own security. As time passed, alienation between US troops and Iraqi civilians rose, leading many previously grateful Iraqis to view Americans as occupiers.

Thus, as checkered as Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's four-month interim authority has been, it still represents the first small step toward empowering Iraqis to take charge of their own destiny. And whether or not one supported the decision to invade Iraq, making the best of present realities should be of infinitely greater concern.

In discussing the greatest challenges to the new Iraq, Makiya singled out the rise of sectarian identity and its potentially divisive role in politics. The invasion, he stresses, opened a Pandora's box of possibilities, the most unsettling of which is the fragmentation of Iraq along its ethnic and religious lines. A member of Iraq's Shi'ite Arab majority, Makiya recognizes that a viable democratic state will depend heavily on reassuring minorities, particularly the once-dominant Sunni Arabs, that their rights will be respected. Even if sectarian tensions do not lead to civil war, they can greatly damage Iraq's national integrity. A particularly disturbing scenario cited by Makiya is that of Iraq's oil-rich southern provinces demanding the lion's share of the petro-dollars earned from their land: given that these very provinces have already floated the idea of forming an autonomous region modeled on that of the Kurds, the concern is well-founded.

Only time will vindicate Makiya's cautious optimism that the various extremist elements in Iraq will ultimately be tamed. Success depends on three factors. First, Iraqi security forces must assume ever-greater duties in containing the insurgency. Second, active support for the rebels must remain on the fringes beyond the handful of flashpoint cities in the Sunni triangle. Third, deals must be struck with moderate resistance factions to co-opt them into joining the political process, thereby robbing the more implacable insurgents of a wider base of support.

Nowhere is the tightrope that the interim regime now walks clearer than in the epicenter of the Sunni insurgency, Fallujah. When asked what should be done about Fallujah, Makiya bluntly replied that it was a huge mistake to allow the city to fester as a haven for violent religious fanatics. He blasted the decision to form the Fallujah brigade headed by former Ba'ath officers, a move which most now see as a desperate stopgap measure that created more problems than it solved. While insisting that the Fallujah rebels must be dealt with very firmly, Makiya realizes that negotiation must also figure prominently in resolving the crisis. Asked about the openly pro-insurgent Association of Muslim Scholars, he stated that it should be allowed to express its views in a legitimate manner and flatly denied the suggestion that the organization serves as a political front for the rebels. This is consistent with Allawi's ongoing engagement of nationalist insurgents driven primarily by anger at the US occupation - most US bombings of Fallujah have instead targeted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's heavily foreign fundamentalist network - but the big question is whether or not the deals that may be reached with homegrown rebels will be acceptable to Washington. On no other issue is the potential clash between Iraqi pragmatism and American prestige so acute.

Makiya admits that the successful democratization of Iraq is not assured. He does, however, offer an undogmatic defense of the neo-conservative position on the war. For all the blunders and disastrously wishful thinking that have characterized the last 19 months, he says few would argue that either Iraq or the world at large would be better off with Saddam still in power, and that Iraq's long-term prospects are not so bleak.

The Iraqi experiment may yet fail, but a compelling argument can nonetheless be made for any nation grappling with the combined promise and peril of democratization: freedom in itself may mean little, but without it a society simply cannot achieve its potential. Regardless of success or failure, nations need the liberty to try.

Pan Hu is an information-technology analyst living in northern Virginia.

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Oct 30, 2004
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