Return to Iraq

Yahia Said Mary Kaldor
27 May 2004

The Green Zone – a large area of Baghdad where the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is based – has an air of unreality. Grass and palm trees, fountains and pools, palaces and rose gardens offer a calm environment for coalition staff, who are beavering away trying to introduce “off the shelf” models of democracy in Iraq. There are signs everywhere saying “What have you done for Iraq today?”

We met consultants running training courses on “how to be a civil servant” with flip charts and facilitated session techniques. As the instructors explained to us their approach, they kept stumbling over the name of the country, confusing it with the various places where they had done the same thing – Croatia, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Afghanistan…

Read Yahia Said reporting to openDemocracy over the phone from Baghdad while he was there doing research.

Coalition staff are rarely allowed to leave the Green Zone. Many sleep and eat in trailers. Some have not been outside for six months. Their Iraqi counterparts, although free to travel in and out, are also becoming more and more isolated – some of them are creating their own green zones, carving out large city blocks and requisitioning former government buildings and palaces, and travelling only with armed guards.

Outside the Green Zone is what is known as the Red Zone, where the real new Iraq is emerging. The Red Zone is full of economic and social activity, political debate and self-organisation, but also crime, violence and extremism.

The shops are full – Karrada street was overflowing with refrigerators and air conditioners in anticipation of the long hot summer. Iraqi businessmen wielding mobile phones negotiate deals in cafes and on street corners. Many people are rushing to and from meetings to discuss Iraq’s future. But there are also frequent checkpoints and searches manned by nervous American soldiers, widespread kidnappings, highway robberies and unpredictable explosions.

The most striking change since we were last in Iraq in November 2003 is the total loss of trust in the coalition. Nearly everyone we met, except those working in or with the coalition (and even some of them) expressed fury and frustration with the Americans; indeed there is a tendency to blame the Americans for everything from terrorist attacks and rampant crime to the slow pace of economic change and lack of jobs.

Whereas in November, many people, even those who opposed the war, believed that the presence of coalition troops was necessary to contain the violence, now everyone, including those who supported the war, see them as part of the problem, contributing to insecurity.

We published reports from Mary Kaldor and Yahia Said after their research trip to Iraq in November 2003.

Much of this change of heart is based on everyday realities – in particular, the lack of security, excessive use of force and the large numbers of detainees. The pictures of torture at Abu Ghraib were published while we were there but they made much less impact in Iraq since reports of torture and abuse were already widespread.

Fallujah was much more of a turning-point, confirming what people felt to be their own experience of houses being broken into, arbitrary firing on civilians and the frequent arrest of young men. It is not possible to be in Iraq without experiencing at firsthand the checkpoints and searches. Our car was stopped and searched because of a tip-off that someone in a black Opel was about to blow up the Sheraton hotel.

At every checkpoint, ominous signs warn in English and Arabic that troops are “authorised to use live fire”. In addition, of course, people are afraid of the presence of coalition forces because they are targets for terrorist attacks and because of their habit of shooting indiscriminately when attacked.

A key moment in the reaction of Iraqis to the coalition forces was the assault upon Fallujah. We published the first eyewitness account by Jo Wilding.

There is a profound sense of double standards and hypocrisy. There is much talk of democracy, rule of law, norms and values. At the same time, coalition rule appears to be characterised by cronyism and corruption. Unqualified Iraqi expatriates and political appointees are privileged in the allocation of government jobs – we met one “policy planner” who had been a halal butcher in London. Stories about pay-offs in the allocation of contracts are widespread. The de-Ba’athification process did not distinguish between criminals and those who worked for the former regime in order to survive.

At the same time, no progress has been made on the prosecution of criminals of the former regime with the result that the current regime’s victims are concerned about the return of those criminals to power. The attacks against the al-Jazeera and Arabiya satellite channels and the closure of Muqtada al-Sadr’s newspaper is seen as a violation of free speech, inflammatory though these outlets may be. Another sign of the changing mood is that Iraqis were much less critical of the coverage of the Arab satellite channels this time around than they were six months ago.

Some of the grievances we heard from Iraqis sound exaggerated, but in an atmosphere where trust is breaking down the boundaries between perceptions and realities become ever more blurred, creating a fertile soil for conspiracy theories. In our view, the gap between the Green Zone and the Red Zone is at the point of becoming unbridgeable. People in the Green Zone insist on denying this change of mood. This has profound consequences for the security situation. It creates space in which the insurgents have the opportunity to present themselves as protectors and not terrorists.

The social conditions of violence

“America and Arabia after Saddam”, Fred Halliday discusses the nature and logic of violence.

We went to Iraq to discuss the problem of violence with a range of different groups and we held a series of meetings around the topic with academics, journalists, and women’s groups. Everyone agrees that apart from isolated terrorist acts the violence is a reaction to the occupation but there are differing views about the extent to which the prevailing social conditions as well as the legacies of the past thirty years shape the violent nature of the reaction. Among the various factors that different people pointed out were:

  • The brutalisation of society. Iraq was heavily militarised and has gone through three wars as well as widespread repression. Many men were killed either in war or by the regime so that people have got used to war and death. Some women also pointed to the influence of family violence.

  • Mixed feelings of complicity and victimhood towards the former regime. As in all totalitarian regimes everyone who lived through the period experienced the double life of being a victim and an accomplice. Several people told us that they felt guilty even if they had left government service, simply for surviving inside Iraq.

    One dissident architect had found himself designing the huge mosque built in celebration of the “mother of all battles” where we visited the Sunni clerics. It is a huge cavernous construction with minarets designed to look like rockets, built around water in the shape of the Arab world, and we could imagine it as a luxury hotel or filled with small cafes and shops. Despite himself he could not help feeling proud of the edifice. These feelings make it difficult to escape the apathy of the previous period and to avoid going along with the predominant passions in society.

  • The isolation of society and the sudden impact of opening up. Experience of debate and discussion as well as knowledge of the outside world has been distorted by the isolation of Iraq. We met the “frozen intellectuals” of the former official think-tank Beit al-Hikma (house of wisdom) – people who had been educated in the west long ago and were still touting the theories of that period. “Did you know?” one said to us “that Popper had a brilliant theory – a hypothesis is only scientific if it can be refuted.” Others talked solemnly about the relevance of Baudrillard and Lyotard to the current situation.

  • A sense of powerlessness and frustration. Particularly among young people and educated older people, there is an enormous sense of frustration and indeed humiliation that only the expatriate Iraqis close to the CPA are being listened to. Among young men, particularly, this sense of powerlessness may be one of the most important factors propelling them towards the resistance where they find a role for themselves.

  • A preconceived idea of power as abusive. The last thirty years have left a huge distrust of authority, which is a part of what affects the negative attitude towards the occupation. Many people were sure, for example, that the elections could not possibly be fair and that there would never be a serious handover of power to Iraqis and, of course, conspiracy theories abound.

  • Economic factors. Many people mentioned unemployment as a factor stimulating young men to join the resistance. What is happening today in Iraq is a vicious circle in which violence inhibits economic development and the lack of economic development contributes to violence. In fact, a lot of reconstruction, mainly small-scale, has taken place often using Iraqi contractors and there has been economic growth. Oil exports are ahead of schedule. Nevertheless, unemployment is at more than 40% according to CPA estimates.
Most of these tendencies do contribute to violence, but there are more hopeful developments as well. Most striking is the emergence of an active civil society. What we noticed was a thirst for debate and discussion. Everyone has something to say even if it reflects the distorted experience of the previous regime.

For an analysis of the internal nature of Iraqi society see Sami Zubaida and Laura Sandys.

Another hopeful development is the strong sense of Iraqi solidarity in the face of occupation, with growing links between Sunni and Shi’a. In fact, the council of Muslim clerics told us that these links had existed before the war and that this solidarity first developed in response to the previous regime. In their view, the regime was dead after 1999 and they told us how they had pursued a joint strategy of strangulation together with the Shi’a spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. They had come to the conclusion that coups always fail and that, instead, the way to defeat the regime was to strangle it and expand their own religious space. Indeed, they argued that it was precisely because this strategy was so successful that the Americans had invaded – to prevent an Islamic state.

Two futures

There are two possible scenarios. The first is the catastrophic scenario, in which the Americans are determined to win a military victory and step up the tactics they have used up to now. The consequence would be to solidify the various opposition groups and a long “new war” in which the various parties acquire vested interests in the continuation of war, with fearful consequences for the region and the world. Even if mounting casualties led to eventual American withdrawal, the penetration of violence throughout the society could leave Iraq as a “black hole” characterised by terrorism and sectarian violence.

The other scenario is that, despite the loss of faith in the coalition, the political process initiated by Brahimi is seen as legitimate, leading to elections in 2005 and Iraqi self-determination. Most of the Iraqis we met are willing to give that process six months. For that to happen, three things are needed:

  • The political process must be broadened so that as many people as possible feel involved. The caretaker Interim government which will take power on 1 July has to be trusted and to be quite clearly distinguishable from the discredited Governing Council and there has to be continuous wide ranging consultations at all levels of Iraqi society. The Lakhdar Brahimi consultations, the broadest to take place in Iraq so far, were still limited by security concerns.

    But Unifem has set a good example, with an Iraqi staff member who has travelled widely and consulted with many different women’s groups. What is really needed is teams of people who go all over the country and ask people for their views about the future of Iraqi democracy. Not only will this lead to model of democracy more likely to satisfy different groups but also it could help to mitigate the frustration and powerlessness felt by so many Iraqis.

  • Even assuming that an ongoing, inclusive and transparent process is maintained, the interim Iraqi government will still lack the legitimacy and power of a freely elected government. Its legal status will still be ambiguous not least due to the uncertainties surrounding the Transitional Administrative Law which was meant to govern its actions. It is therefore important that the relation between the interim Iraqi government and the coalition is supervised by a UN special representative who can act as the final arbiter on significant political, economic and military decision.

  • The status of coalition troops according to the most recent proposals will be governed by a new UN mandate limited to one year pending approval by the elected transition government which should assume power in January 2005. Given the way most Iraqis feel about coalition troops today it is highly unlikely that any elected Iraqi government will agree to extend the stay of coalition troops beyond this mandate.

    It is therefore important to work under the assumption that coalition troops will be out of Iraq within a year and prepare a schedule for their gradual withdrawal as new Iraqi security forces and law and order institutions are put in place. In practical terms, coalition troops should minimise points of friction with Iraqis and withdraw from urban areas. There should be no security detainees. As Brahimi recommended, anyone arrested in Iraq should be either charged or released. The aim should ultimately be to marginalise the insurgents by the political process rather than defeat them militarily.

These three things are possible but do require a change of heart in the US administration. But this is the only way to avoid a catastrophic scenario.

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