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The Occupation


It was late April, and the pink roses in Chemical Ali’s garden were in fragrant bloom. The new, self-anointed governor of this region had requisitioned the riverside villa for his headquarters. I asked him if he knew the whereabouts of its owner, a cousin of Saddam Hussein best remembered for gassing the Kurds. My host frowned thoughtfully.

Chemical Ali, no,” he said. “But I do know where others are hiding. Why don’t I tell the Americans? Because I am a son of Iraq and my children will be raised here. Perhaps in future I would be judged a traitor.”

He paused, pushing away an empty coffee cup. “Look, fugitives from the old regime are being sheltered by tribes that owe them favors. It is not simply a matter of honor, or fear of retribution. The real problem is that the Americans won’t say what they plan to do with their ‘pack of cards.’ Will they send them to GuantĂĄnamo? Will they just let them go? If we knew that these bloody criminals would be tried here by an Iraqi court, it would be a different story.”

We left the villa after sunset. Our driver, who had spent the afternoon drinking tea at the gatehouse, told us that the governor’s guards had revealed something interesting. Late the previous night, a car had come to the villa. A stooped, thin, balding man was released from the trunk of the car, spent several hours with the governor, and departed at dawn in the same manner. The midnight guest, they swore, was none other than Ezzat Ibrahim, the king of clubs in the Pentagon’s Most Wanted deck, a former ice merchant who had served as Saddam Hussein’s most loyal deputy since the 1968 coup that brought his party to power.

The governor who was helping to harbor this man had spent many years in exile, hounded by Saddam’s agents. His joy at the toppling of the Baath Party was apparent. He gushed about the debt of gratitude which he said all Iraqis should feel toward America. He professed deep respect for the local American commanding officer, a man he met with regularly. But did he trust the Americans? No.

A hundred days after Iraq’s liberation, many questions persist. The occupying power has still not revealed what it plans to do with wanted Baathists, although it has posted an almost comically large reward, $25 million, for the biggest fish. America has still not explained, to general Iraqi satisfaction, what the goals of its occupation are. It has not set a time limit for its presence. Nor has it restored public services to the meagre standard Iraqis have long had to suffer, let alone improved them. The world’s most powerful military machine has not even provided basic security.

For the coalition forces themselves, security is in many ways worse than it was during the war. Then, at least, the enemy was fairly recognizable, and if a few civilians got in the way of returning fire, that was excusable. How things have changed. The coalition troops killed since the end of major combat do not represent a large number, among an occupying force of 160,000: more troops have died in accidents (although for each person killed there have been several wounded). It is also a fact that most attacks have occurred in what has become known as the Sunni Triangle, a region stretching north and west of the capital along the Tigris and Euphrates valleys that was specially privileged under Saddam’s rule. The Kurdish north and the Shiite deep south, which between them contain most of Iraq’s people and land, have been relatively subdued.

But low casualties and a limited fighting “box” belie the growing boldness and frequency of armed attacks. These were running at a dozen a day by early July, including assaults by mortar, sniper fire, hand grenades, land mines, RPGs, and, most chillingly, close-range shots to the back of the head in the midst of the noonday crowds in central Baghdad. Moreover, reports from Iraq suggest that the pool of “resistance” recruits and sympathizers is growing larger. Coalition troops now face not just renegade fedayeen, but tribesmen bent on vengeance, disgruntled ex-officials and soldiers, Islamist mujahideen, and simple criminals.

The inescapable impression is that the occupation is confronting a rising insurgency that is likely to drag on for months. Not only does the daily menace tie down and demoralize troops, it exacerbates frictions with ordinary Iraqis, who are subject to intensified searches and roadblocks as well as the unpredictable risk of wandering into crossfire. Acts of sabotage, meanwhile, continue to delay reconstruction, and so perpetuate Iraqi frustrations.

The potential for a protracted, low-intensity conflict was always inherent in America’s Iraq gamble. Some in the Bush administration have asserted that the very speed of the American advance, with its leapfrogging of pockets of resistance in order to secure greater strategic prizes, allowed die-hard Baathists to survive to fight another day. Others say that Saddam’s inner circle had long planned to fight a rearguard war of attrition and sabotage. Hence the plundering of bank vaults, the secreting of arms across the country, and the persistence of subtle, vicious, and surprisingly effective whispering against America that hints at an organized propaganda campaign.

America has not yet lost the peace. Slowly but steadily, Iraqi grievances are beginning to be addressed. The repair of infrastructure in Baghdad itself has lagged, but progressed elsewhere. In mid-July, Paul Bremer, the American proconsul who heads the Coalition Provisional Authority, initialed a half-year budget that doubles the expenditure level of Saddam’s government. A rush of new goods and fresh opinions has begun to give Iraqis a taste of the potential rewards of freedom.

Still, the fact remains that America’s first one hundred days have been far from glorious. The path so far has been marked by multiple failures, many of them avoidable. Failure to articulate coherent goals, both before and after the war, for example. Failure to invest in and build on initial Iraqi goodwill. Failure to understand the nature of Iraqi suffering, or to recognize the part America itself has played in it. Failure to apply appropriate instruments and adequate resources to the problems at hand. Failure to appreciate the gravity of needs for things like justice, self-respect, and compassion. Failure to encourage and embrace outside help.

Much of this litany describes intangible things, the kinds of things that are difficult for a large army and hastily assembled bureaucracy, approaching out of a starkly alien culture, to deliver. Yet it is a fair bet to say that the present simmering guerrilla war would never have reached its current heat if some of these things had been properly considered. Iraq may still be “turned around,” but the squandering of its people’s trust has made the whole process slower, more painful, and far costlier than it need have been.

In Iraq today there are plenty of scenes to warm American hearts: Marines graciously losing soccer games or performing magic tricks for delighted street kids; civilians being treated with skill and kindness in American field hospitals. For most Iraqis, however, the experience of contact with the occupiers is one of small humiliations.

They smash ours and then we have to watch them chatting away on their own,” muttered a Baghdad matron within my hearing, seeing a foreign reporter laughing into his sat phone on a street corner in the upscale Mansour district. A friend “embedded” with US troops west of Baghdad was appalled to witness an officer tossing MREs to children: if you don’t know how to use their flameless heat packets, it’s easy to get scalded. In Mosul, I saw a worried father with his young son, trying to explain to an impatient American foot patrol that there was an unexploded bomb in his garden. “We’re not authorized to leave the patrol route,” was the answer I had to translate for the man. He would have to go to US headquarters in Mosul’s fortified municipality building, stand behind coils of concertina wire with the daily heaving mob of citizens hoping for jobs or information, and shout for the unlikely attention of the blank-faced soldiers inside.

Sadly, many Iraqis have by now concluded that the reason for their postwar misadventures is American ill will. Contrasting their own condition with the scale of the coalition’s military effort—the convoys of huge new vehicles rumbling through streets, the multiple choppers rattling overhead, the costly equipment and endless bottles of mineral water supplied to every soldier—it is easy to understand why.

Obviously, the impression is wrong. There is little American ill will toward Iraq, except perhaps the grudge felt by increasingly bored and frightened soldiers. The messiness is more a result of prewar misconceptions, wartime miscalculations, and postwar misrule.

Much ink has flowed concerning the willful swaying of intelligence regarding Iraq’s purportedly vast arsenal of poison weapons and the Baathists’ alleged complicity with Osama bin Laden.1 Less has been said about the wishful thinking that pervaded pre-war assessments of Iraqi society. One source of this was the rosy picture painted by well-placed Iraqi exiles, such as Ahmed Chalabi and Kanan Makiya. Many of these people had not seen Baghdad for decades; in the case of Chalabi, not since 1958, when he was thirteen years old. Yet their repeated assertion was that Iraq was largely modern, educated, urbanized, and middle-class. Moreover, its people would greet their liberators with open arms.

Ideology provided another source of misconception. Having spent a decade defending the sanctions regime imposed by the UN Security Council following the 1991 Gulf War, US officials appear to have resisted acknowledging the deep distress and misery inflicted by it. Accounts of rising child mortality, malnutrition, and disease were routinely dismissed as exaggerations.2 The wiping out of Iraq’s middle class, with many reduced to hawking their possessions on street corners, was assumed to be a passing phase, redressed after 1996 by the launch of the UN’s Oil-for-Food program. Reports of civilian deaths from sporadic bombing, in “defense” of the No-Fly Zones imposed in 1992, were described as fabrications. Besides, Saddam himself was to blame, not us.

Inside Iraq, Saddam was indeed loathed for causing the initial mess, as well as for cruelty, corruption, and other evils. But as one distinguished exile warned me shortly before the war, “Lurking one centimeter below Iraqi hatred for Saddam is hatred for America.” Small wonder. However justified the 1991 war, American bombing killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilians. It destroyed an estimated $170 billion worth of infra-structure: bridges, power plants, communications networks, water treatment and distribution systems: the works. Subsequent sanctions, however milked for propaganda and spoils by Saddam’s regime, effectively hindered repairs. The denial of even a small cash component in the Oil-for-Food program meant that when goods were delivered, there was often no money to pay for the nuts or bolts or workers needed to install them. During the five-year life of the program, Iraqis each received something like $200 a year worth of food rations, yet for most families this accounted for most of their income.

  1. 1

    For example, this double whammy from The Washington Post of December 12, 2002: “US Suspects Al Qaeda Got Nerve Agent from Iraqis,” by Barton Gellman.

  2. 2

    The very lowest of many estimates of child deaths between 1990 and 2000, caused by the rise in mortality rates from pre–Gulf War levels, is 100,000. See “Iraq Sanctions: Humanitarian Implications and Options for the Future,” Global Policy Forum, New York, August 6, 2002. According to UNICEF, during the decade of the 1990s mortality rates for infants and children under five doubled, while the ratio of children not attending school and the rate of maternal mortality tripled. See “The Situation of Children in Iraq,” UNICEF, Baghdad, February 2002.

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