from Baghdad: How the U.S. Occupation Went Wrong
Iraq’s new interim government has no time to lose.
Though it was welcome news when the new Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, announced
that the militias of nine major political parties would disband and join the
government’s security forces by January 2005, this is only one of the
monumental tasks and formidable obstacles that the new government faces. As
I discovered in a recent visit to Baghdad, Iraq is in dire need of reconstruction
-- not only from the miseries of Saddam Hussein’s long dictatorship,
but also from the failed policies of the one-year occupation by America’s
Coalition administration, which has left demoralization, humiliation, and
a weak security and economic infrastructure in its wake.
The Iraqi hatred of US occupation has reached a seething
point. This was illustrated by the curious response to the recent Abu Ghraib
prison pictures. I was in Baghdad in May shortly after the news broke, and
although I saw the pictures recycled endlessly on al Jazeera television I
was puzzled to find that the images did not surprise most Iraqis Although
they were disgusted at what was portrayed, rumors of these prison atrocities
have been circulating around Baghdad for months, and most Iraqis with whom
I spoke expected such behavior of what many of them regarded as a brutal occupying
This absence of surprise spoke volumes about the way
Iraqis have come to look at the US military -- a year ago liberators, and
now occupiers. Some Iraqis described the US as a continuation of the kind
of oppression they had experienced under Saddam. A few thought it was even
“Saddam tortured and punished us physically,”
one middle class Iraqi said in quite articulate English. “But he did
not try to humiliate us.”
A member of the Council of Sunni Clergy that has been
formed since the uprising in Fallouja in April put it more forcefully: “America
has become the terrorists,” he told me. We spoke to him and three other
clergy in Saddam’s Mother of All Battles Mosque, which was recently
the site of anti-US occupation demonstration attended by two hundred thousand
Why is the US occupation so despised by Iraqis? The
disdain is almost universal.
Far from being limited to a few disgruntled Ba’ath
party members, I heard this seething anti-American hostility expressed by
Sunni clergy, Shi’ite politicians, and middle-class educated secular
city folk. It was a hatred of American occupation that seemed deeply personal.
Within a year of the fall of Saddam, the Iraqi’s hatred towards the
former dictator seems to be redirected towards the US. The reason for this
is, I think, partly due to three disastrous sets of policy mistakes during
this past year.
The US occupation has failed to provide security with
an Iraqi face. Baghdad looks like an armed camp -- an American armed camp.
As soon as one arrives at the airport one is confronted with the sight of
the ubiquitous tanks and humvees that have come to symbolize the US military
presence. It is a feature of modern Iraqi life that increases the closer one
comes to the epicenter of American power in Baghdad: the “green zone.”
Our group was staying in a small hotel outside the heavily-fortified zone
where most American and other Coalition officials live and work, but on one
occasion we had arranged to meet with officials related to the Coalition Provisional
Authority and the Governing Council and had reason to work our way inside
Americans and other foreigners who work in the green
zone seldom venture outside, and when we tried to enter we had to pass through
several gauntlets of military checkpoints. All were manned by US troops. On
our way to the zone we were stopped in the street by convoys of US soldiers
looking for insurgents who were said to have been driving a car that look
much like one of ours, and more American soldiers were standing at the entrance
to the green zone to check our passports and gear. As the young soldiers checked
our cameras and had us delete pictures from our digital cameras that showed
scenes of the checkpoint itself, we talked about what conditions were like
The soldiers -- from Seattle and Riverside, California
-- were due to return home the month before we talked with them but their
term was suddenly extended, a fact they bitterly resented. Moreover they were
aware that they were vulnerable targets, standing at the outskirts of the
green zone at checkpoints that are frequently targeted by both mortar fire
and car bombs. Only the day before there had been a huge explosion at a gate
adjacent to the green zone, a suicide car bomb attack that killed six Iraqis
including the driver. On this occasion, however, no American soldiers perished.
But the soldiers knew how vulnerable they were. They said they could “feel
the hate” from the eyes of Iraqis who looked at their convoys as the
soldiers drove their humvees down the center of Baghdad’s streets, their
fingers on the triggers of machine guns. They felt as if they had bull’s-eyes
painted on their backs.
The reason why young American soldiers are patrolling
the streets is that there are no authorized Iraqi forces to do it. One of
the first mistakes was the US policy of dissolving the former Iraq army and
refusing to utilize it in the new security forces that were being created
to replace it. Although low-level soldiers in non-elite forces were allowed
to re-apply for the new army and civil defense forces only a fraction of Saddam’s
400,000 troops have been re-integrated into them and even these soldiers are
required to be retrained. Needless to say, it takes a long time to find capable
applicants and to hire and train a new army and civil defense corps, and after
a year the task has only begun. We talked with the Minister of Defense, who
claimed that perhaps 20-30,000 soldiers in a new civil defense corps would
be trained by the end of the year, but even that optimistic assessment seemed
insufficient. And it did not deal with the problem of private militias.
This anti-Iraq army policy has had two dire consequences:
the ubiquitous presence of US military on the streets of Baghdad and other
Iraqi cities, and the emergence of private security forces -- often manned
by the unemployed former Iraqi army personnel. Some of them have joined the
independent militia retained by political parties, businesses, and private
citizens. Saddam’s old army was not only well trained but remarkably
diverse -- it integrated various Sunni, Shi’i and Kurdish groups. But
these troops were passed over in the attempt to create new armed forces from
scratch, and in the meantime the Coalition authority has had to rely on American
troops to maintain the country’s security.
Another set of mistakes fostered by Coalition policies
in Iraq was similar to the security ones, in that the US took over the role
of government administration as well as military defense. These policies had
the effect of undercutting the status of many members of the middle class
and excluding them from a role in the reconstruction of Iraq. The most problematic
of these policies was the decision soon after Paul Bremer’s assignment
as chief administrator in Iraq not to employ any members of Saddam’s
old Ba’ath Party -- even lower echelon functionaries -- in the new government
offices. A related and equally problematic policy has been the heavy reliance
on outside contractors to train Iraqis and mold a new governmental structure
consistent with an American concept of governmental organization.
In the Green Zone we met with several Americans, a man
and a woman who had been in the military and were now working as contractors
with Military Professional Resources International. They were busily training
newly-recruited administrators to work in the Ministry of Defense, which was
being rebuilt from the ground up. Their classroom was a bright, well-lit temporary
building with gleaming tile floors, white walls, and metal tables arranged
in a U-shape facing a wall of white magic-marker boards and flip charts. It
also included a screen for the computer-projected images of the power point
displays they used in the instruction seminars.
Sue and Ron felt confident that they had a surefire
product in these training sessions since they had given it in many countries
before -- including Bosnia, Columbia, Romania, Angola, and Afghanistan. We
described the courses as “Ministry of Defense in a box.” Sue and
Ron accepted the term in good humor, admitting that their training course
was somewhat like a kit, but one that they thought was universally applicable.
There was no need, they said, to adapt it to difference circumstances. That
could be done later by the trainees themselves. At a couple of points in the
conversation Sue inadvertently referred to Iraq as “Iran,” and
she seemed to have difficulty in identifying the neighboring countries.
Though we appreciated the enthusiasm with which Sue
and Ron approached their task, we regarded their training sessions as symptomatic
of what was wrong with the US led Coalition’s efforts to rebuild Iraq’s
administrative infrastructure. In deliberately avoiding what was there before,
the Coalition administrators saddled themselves with the task of maintaining
the system during the transition period. They also missed the opportunities
of retaining valuable aspects of the previous organization, and most important
the management abilities of thousands of administrative workers who after
the fall of Saddam were suddenly deprived of their jobs and their careers.
In many cases these were middle-management workers who might have been affiliated
with the Ba’ath party but had no use for Saddam. They were prevented,
however, from being part of the new Iraq. These were the very people who should
have been the allies of the new government, but who were humiliated and excluded
Moreover, there was a problem with the American model
that many Iraqis felt was being forced on them. Though it might be true that
there are some universal truths to all administrative organizations, the way
that these truths have been presented seem to imply that America’s way
of doing things is best. Iraqis understandably felt that they had something
to contribute conceptually to the rebuilding of their institutions. A modern,
well dressed professor at Baghdad University put it this way, in eloquent
English: the US led Coalition policies were “forcing American values
on Iraqis” that did not allow them to “treasure and enjoy”
their own values.
Superficially, the economy of the country appears to
be booming. Shops are open, and with the ending of the embargo, consumer goods
abound in the stores. The streets are crowded with automobiles, many of them
fairly recent models. Air conditioners were a big ticket item. It seemed as
if stores could not keep them on their shelves. US Agency of International
Development officials with whom our group spoke were concerned about the energy
consequences of so many new air conditioners being turned on during peak energy
periods in the hot summer months. “They just assume that when they flick
the switch the machines will work,” one of them said, shaking his head
in wonder as to whether this would actually be the case.
At the same time there are signs of stagnation on the
large-scale reconstruction efforts. Everywhere in Baghdad are the bombed-out
shells and burned and looted remains of former government buildings. Iraqis
are bitter that the broken infrastructure has not been repaired. They blame
the US occupation, since it is often American companies that have received
the huge contracts to repair the bombed and looted infrastructure. The situation
is complicated by security concerns -- the cost of private security for the
American experts brought in to work on the Iraq reconstruction projects can
amount to a third of the cost of the project itself.
Stories abound in Baghdad about the inefficiency of
many of these American contract companies. According to one account that we
heard, an US company received a fifteen million dollar contract to rebuild
a hospital looted after the fall of the regime. The company was unable to
follow through on the project, however, due to security concerns. An Iraqi
company was then granted the reconstruction project which they were able to
do in a few months at a cost of only eighty thousand dollars. But in general
very little reconstruction has been completed, and the insult of having to
lived in a war-ravaged country is compounded with the injury of not being
allowed to fully participate in its reconstruction.
On the other hand, daily life in Baghdad can be quite
comfortable for those Iraqis who are in league with the US contractors, and
for those Iraqi political and religious leaders who publicly support the occupation.
We were invited to the home of Sheik Ayad Jamaluddin, an expatriate Shi’i
religious leader who had been living in Dubai since 1979 who was flown back
to Baghdad after the war. He is outspokenly pro-American and a great fan of
the neo-conservative political ideology of Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld.
Although he does not seem to have much of a following in Iraq society, he
has been allowed to take up residence in one of the former palaces of Saddam’s
Vice President, an opulent mansion on the banks of the Tigris River where
the Sheik amused himself by dynamiting the river to kill fish.
It is said that Saddam ruled through a combination of
fear and patronage. The constant roadblocks, bombings, and security patrols
extend the climate of fear from the old regime. In the case of Sheik Jamaluddin,
as in many other cases that are widely reported around the country, we saw
the reemergence of the pattern of privilege granted to the sycophants of those
in power. Sadly, under US-led coalition occupation, Saddam’s pattern
of fear and patronage persists.
What Lies Ahead
The defusion of the April crisis in Fallouja is a model
for what might be done in the country as a whole. The redeployment of old
military commanders and local leaders could reduce the need for an intrusive
US military presence. The leaders of the interim government, Iyad Allawi and
Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, both have given vocal support for these kinds of developments.
The recently-announced integration of political parties’ militia into
the national security forces is a good step forward.
I found a great deal of healthy nationalism and optimism
about the upcoming elections. Leaders of political parties -- including the
Shi’a Da’awa Party and the Sunni Iraq Islamic Party -- indicated
that Iraqi loyalties were as great or greater than specific religious and
ethnic political affiliations. They expressed a willingness to work across
the alleged Shi’a-Sunni divide. They decried the “myth”
of the Shi’a-Sunni-Kurd differences and alleged that there were many
examples of inter-religious and inter-ethnic cooperation in Iraq society,
including inter-religious marriages, the integration of troops in the old
Iraq army, the inclusion of some fifteen percent Sunni supporters in the Shi’i
Da’awa Party, and the existence of a plethora of political parties and
civil associations that had no specific religious or ethnic identity. The
tribe of the designated president of Iraq’s interim government, Sheik
Ghazi al-Yawar, is both Sunni and Shi’a.
One of the Sunni intellectuals with whom we spoke said
that Saddam was a great equalizer of the Iraqi people in that “under
him all groups suffered equally.” The intellectual pointed out that
the American occupation of Iraq had the same unintentional result. Whether
or not that was the case, it was clear that the spirit of Iraqi nationalism
is today alive and well, and continues to be a powerful antidote to particular
religious, ethnic, and tribal allegiances and affiliations.
So there is some light at the end of Iraq’s currently
There is, unfortunately, another possible scenario for
Iraq’s immediate political future, a more dismal one. This is the specter
of Fallouja in April. It is the prospect that the center will not hold, and
that the country will unravel. A variety of things could precipitate this
downward spiral -- a political assassination, allegations of rigged elections,
a military incursion, or a power play by one faction or another. Or it could
simply be a sad degeneration of public authority and civic identity, a morose
shifting from public demoralization to widespread personal despair. The result
might be a Somalia-like contestation of warlords in a battlefield of civic
The role of the US-led coalition forces can affect these
possibilities. The issue is whether US leaders can abandon the fantasy of
creating an Iraq in America’s image. “Baghdad is not New York,”
a well-dressed Iraqi professor told me. Her appearance and articulate English,
however, would appear to make her quite at home in any American city. In a
peculiar way, US policies in Iraq have been resented most by those who might
otherwise have been sympathetic to a Western point of view.
What is happening in Iraq is a litmus test for the new
foreign policy trajectory of the Bush administration. The “war on terror”
approach to global conflict and the “preemptive strike” policy
of military engagement both signal a kind of imperial vision of what America’s
role should be in the post-Cold War globalized world. Iraq is a test of the
flexibility of that vision.
Iraq may indeed emerge, awkwardly and tentatively, as
a proudly independent democratic society. But it will not necessarily be pro-American.
The legacies of disastrous US security, administrative, and economic policies
during the first year of the US-led Coalition occupation will continue to
be obstacles to the effectiveness of any new Iraqi government for some time
to come. Moreover, the disdain engendered by Iraqis against America by the
attitudes conveyed through that occupation will also persist, at least for
a time. When global war is one’s way of thinking, this template has
the ability to make enemies out of a whole society, at least some of whom
should have been one’s friends.
Mark Juergensmeyer is the author of numerous books,
including "Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence,"
judged the Best Nonfiction Book by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington
Post in 2000. Juergensmeyer was part of a study group in Baghdad May 5-10
2004 organized by Prof. Mary Kaldor and Yahia Said of the Center for Global
Governance, London School of Economics. The purpose was to assess the causes
of religious violence in Iraq and the role of humanitarian organizations in
the country’s reconstruction. The group also included Hanaa Edwards
and Shirouk al-Abayaji of the Iraqi al Amal human rights organization, and
Will Thomas, research assistant and videographer.
to go home