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Report from Baghdad: How the U.S. Occupation Went Wrong

by Mark Juergensmeyer

6/29/04

Upside Down World

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 force.

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 worse.

“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 Iraqis.

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.

Security mistakes

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 for them.

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.

Administrative Mistakes

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 from it.

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.

Economic Mistakes

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 chaotic tunnel.

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 anarchy.

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.

Author info:

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.

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"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" ---Eduardo Galeano