DAMASCUS - This author attended a conference this year on Iraq with leading
administrators, analysts and politicians from Iraq and the Middle East. One
question was put forward on how the new Iraqi leaders could bring security to
Iraq when nearly 1,500 people were dying per month from sectarian violence and
The Iraqi participants, all members of the post-Saddam Hussein regime, started
an intellectual debate on which security and anti-terrorism campaigns would
best fit war-torn Iraq. They were fine
men indeed, all groomed in the finest schools of Europe and the United States,
with honorable careers in opposing Saddam from the diaspora. Their ideas were
good for a television debate or an op-ed in a US newspaper, but very difficult
to implement when it came to Iraqi domestics.
Although it is difficult for Iraqis and Americans to admit, Iraq needs a
strongman to bring order and stability. In 1990, Indian prime minister Rajiv
Gandhi went to Iran to discuss problems in the Middle East with Iranian
president Ali Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani. Gandhi asked the president who would, should or could replace
Saddam as president of Iraq.
After pondering for a minute, Rafsanjani replied, "Saddam Hussein." Only
Saddam, he said, could rule a country so divided and sectarian as Iraq. That
statement is not entirely correct, but it carries a lot of truth in it. Iraq
today does not need a Saddam Hussein, but it does need a very strong and able
leader with talent, character and power, backed by a united and focused central
Only this kind of leader would be able to disarm the militias forcefully,
something that current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has failed to do because
of his alliance to the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. Further, the leader has
to be strong enough to distribute government posts based on merit rather than
confessional lines or the patron system that is popular in the Arab world.
When this was suggested at the conference, one participant furiously snapped
back, "If our Arab brothers like to be ruled by dictatorships, then this is
their business. We want to be free. We want to live in democracy!" So much for
democracy, I said to myself, where thousands are being condemned to death by
squads at night in the streets of Baghdad.
In July and August, a total of 6,599 Iraqis were killed. It is now clear, more
than ever, that what is happening in Iraq is not a democracy. It is pure
In 1998, Kanan Makiya wrote his groundbreaking book Republic of Fear about
the horror of the Saddam Hussein era. In every sense of the word, Iraq today -
very unfortunately - is once again "a republic of fear". Arab journalists and
analysts have said it. So have kings and presidents. Some Western journalists
and politicians have said it. I personally have heard it from many Iraqis.
And now a senior United Nations official and torture expert, Manfred Mowak, has
also said it, pointing out, "The situation as far as torture is concerned now
in Iraq is totally out of hand. The situation is so bad many people say it is
worse than it had been in the times of Saddam Hussein." A blow indeed to the
promises of US President George W Bush, who said this month that Iraq is now
safer than what it was under Saddam.
The National Intelligence Estimate
If Iraq is no better off than it was under Saddam, neither is the US with its
"war on terror".
The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), drawn from 16 US spy agencies,
bluntly says that the Iraq war has enflamed emotions in the Muslim world,
created a new generation of fanatics and, because of US atrocities and torture
of prisoners, led to more radicalization in Islamic terrorism against the
United States. Among other things, the NIE shows that because of the Iraqi war,
the Madrid bombings of March 2004 took place, as did the London Underground
bombings of July 2005.
It does not, however, call for a US withdrawal from Iraq. The report says that
defeating terrorists in Iraq (in other words, staying longer in Iraqi
territory) would help defeat the international Islamification threat. Senator
Edward Kennedy was quoted saying that the report "should put the final nail in
the coffin for President Bush's phony argument about the Iraq war".
On the day that the NIE was leaked, at least 20 people were killed and 41 were
injured in violence across Iraq. The following day, retired US Army
Major-General John Batiste, who had commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq
in 2004-05, said the war had made the US "arguably less safe now than it was on
September 11, 2001".
A few days later, a United Nations report on Iraq was released, saying that the
Iraq war had provided al-Qaeda with a fresh generation of jihadis and a
training center for terrorism. Al-Qaeda was leading the insurgency in Iraq, the
report added, and supporting the Taliban resistance in Afghanistan.
Adding to the Bush administration's worries was yet another report presented by
a think-tank affiliated with the British Ministry of Defense, which said Iraq
had become "a recruiting sergeant" for Islamic fanatics and terrorism. It said
Iraq "has served to radicalize already disillusioned youth and al-Qaeda has
given them the will, intent, purpose and ideology to act".
The University of Maryland conducted a poll suggesting that 71% of Iraqis
wanted their government to ask US troops to leave within a year. Seventy-seven
percent of those polled thought that this would not happen and that the US
intended to keep permanent bases in Iraq. The Iraqis used for the study were
1,000 random citizens from the 18 provinces of Iraq.
Another poll, conducted by the US State Department, found that nearly
three-quarters of respondents said they would feel safe if US troops left Iraq,
and 65% said they wanted an immediate pullout. This applied to all regions
except the pro-US Kurdish districts, said the 20-page State Department report.
A recent poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg showed that 55%
of Americans thought the situation in Iraq under Saddam was not worth going to
war over. Eleven percent said the insurgents were winning the war, rather than
the Americans, while 63% - very correctly - said neither side was winning.
If the US is determined to "stay the course", these are some of the issues it
will have to address in saving Iraq from this "republic of fear".