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 Guantánamo? 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.

Iraqis still have a glazed, resentful expression when they talk about “the siege.” Every schoolchild knows what Madeleine Albright told an audience in Ohio in 1996: “We think the price is worth it.” In the Shiite south, the resentment turns to anger when they recall that the No-Fly Zone, resulting in a trickle of dead, was always described as having been established to protect civilians from the regime. This was despite the fact that it was imposed after the regime had finished slaughtering tens of thousands of them, crushing the 1991 uprising while the first President Bush abandoned the Shiites to their fate.

It did not require great intelligence to understand the impact of all this. In 1999, a panel charged by the UN Security Council itself reported disturbing trends such as an

increase in juvenile delinquency, begging and prostitution, anxiety about the future and a lack of motivation, a rising sense of isolation bred by absence of contact with the outside world, the development of a parallel economy replete with profiteering and criminality, cultural and scientific impoverishment, and disruption of family life.3

As recently as last November, the US Department of Agriculture estimated that Iraq’s farm output had fallen by half since 1990. Other reports told of the collapse of industries, the creaky infrastructure, the disintegration of institutions such as hospitals and universities, and the 50 percent unemployment rate. There was no shortage of observers on the ground to note the shabby, squalid look of Iraq’s streets, the growth of fetid slums, or the spread of petty corruption and thievery.

Before the war, virtually every foreign policy think tank warned of the difficulty of reconstruction.4 Congressional panels were told bluntly that planning was inadequate. Yet despite the fact that the State Department had, of its own accord, spent months conducting working groups on different reconstruction tasks, it was not until late January that any executive authority was established to carry them out, and this was in the Defense Department. All the previous work of the State Department was discarded. Even so, the new Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance did not begin to deploy to Kuwait until two days before the war. Its chief, Jay Garner, did not reach Baghdad until two weeks after the city’s fall. Little more than three weeks later, he was removed.

Then there was the war itself. There is no denying the efficiency of America’s invasion or the totality of Iraq’s defeat. It was an unequal match. Coalition casualties were extremely light.

Even so, some wartime decisions entailed heavy costs in its aftermath. Often, the scale of force applied was not appropriate to the level of resistance. For example, the bombing campaign has been held up as an example of “clean” warfare. Of the 30,000 bombs dropped on Iraq between March 19 and April 18, two thirds were guided munitions. Sixty percent were counted as “servicing” their targets.5 From the ground in Iraq, it was clear that most had indeed been efficiently dropped. Approach roads to Baghdad are littered with incinerated Iraqi equipment that is often adjacent to untouched trees, bridges, lampposts, and the like.

Yet the choice of targets is more questionable. While power plants were not generally struck, transmission lines across the country were downed, a fact that has hampered efforts at repair. Silencing Iraqi propaganda may have seemed a legitimate goal, but when we consider that US forces were already close to capturing the capital when Iraq’s broadcasting facilities were totally destroyed, it seems to have been unnecessary. It has certainly reduced the ability of the occupiers to communicate with the Iraqi public. For weeks after the war, the only TV channel available to most Iraqis was al-Alam, a slick, Arabic-language news service beamed from Iran that spews out slander against the occupation forces.

The destruction of the telephone system, which also happened well into the war, has proved even more disastrous. It has not simply frustrated Iraqis who are unable to check on relatives and friends—an urgent need in the ongoing chaos. It has severely crippled the reconstruction effort. How, for example, do you inform a provincial switching station that you are about to send thousands of watts surging down a fixed power line? How can an official of the Coalition Provisional Authority, sitting in the Republican Palace in Baghdad, arrange to meet with an Iraqi counterpart?

The choice of munitions was also occasionally odd. At least 1,200 cluster bombs were dropped from the air, and many thousands more lobbed by artillery. (The effect of this was particularly devastating at Baghdad’s airport, where US troops feinted, withdrew, and then crushed six battalions of counterattacking Iraqis.) Each of the aerial bombs contained 200–300 bomblets, of which, on average, some 5 percent failed to explode. The dud rate for artillery-fired munitions was triple that figure. In other words, an absolute minimum of 15,000 such deadly objects are now scattered across Iraq, not to mention all the other forms of lethal discarded ordnance.

The number of Iraqi soldiers killed will probably never be known. Accounting for the civilian dead is not easy, either. Scant record-keeping, the Muslim tradition of speedy burial, and the fact that many Iraqi fighters were not in uniform add to the difficulty. According to Reuters, one NGO, relying on a mix of news reports and spot surveys, recently put the likely tally at 5,000–7,000.6 Even assuming the number is half the lower figure, this represents ten times the human toll of September 11, relative to Iraq’s population.

One much-voiced criticism of the US military is that troop strength has been too low. More pertinent, perhaps, is the question of appropriate equipment and training. In numerous situations, Iraqi civilians have been killed either because American soldiers were unable to communicate such simple instructions as Stop, or because troops answered perceived threats with lethal gunfire rather than crowd control measures. Giant tanks, massive self-propelled artillery, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, with their 25-millimeter chain guns firing up to five hundred rounds a minute, are not much good for peacekeeping. On the other hand, thin-skinned Humvees offer little protection from the self-propelled grenades that are ubiquitous in Iraq. Until the occupation army is more appropriately equipped, casualties on both sides will continue to be higher than necessary.


Immediately after the war, Iraqis frequently expressed wonder at their occupiers’ counterintuitive behavior. “Its like they don’t know how to take over a country,” said a bemused lawyer, sitting on the sidelines of one of the sweaty, chaotic early gatherings at Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel, where exhilarated Iraqis struggled, unsuccessfully, to make sense of the new order. “What you do is impose an immediate curfew. You protect all public buildings. You shoot looters on sight. You issue edicts to reassure people. You set up credible tribunals to air grievances and punish Saddam’s thugs.”

Following the initial, catastrophic period of looting, the perplexity deepened. The occupation force was clearly big and powerful, but it seemed more intent on protecting itself than on providing general security. Reports from the provinces were replete with tales of undermanned units, with few or no resources at their disposal other than guns, struggling to field a barrage of demands for aid, many of which they could not understand for lack of translators. And this despite the extraordinary American outlay on maintaining its troops: $1 billion a week, or $25,000 a month per soldier, a sum easily equal to the annual income of ten Iraqi families.

In Baghdad, American civilian administrators were nowhere to be seen. The few who had arrived were closeted inside the vast Republican Palace compound (where the choice of personnel, many of whom appeared to have been selected for ideological reasons, gave the name new meaning).7 Security rules allowed them to leave the premises only in armed convoys. Poor cooperation from the military meant that trips were often delayed or canceled. Unable to communicate with each other even by telephone, Iraq’s new rulers made virtually no effort to address the Iraqi public.

With the arrival of Paul Bremer in mid-May, the sense of dither and drift abated. The head of the newly named Coalition Provisional Authority seemed determined. Yet the desire to appear decisive appears to have taken precedence over the need to weigh decisions carefully. Sweeping proclamations announced the disbanding of the entire 400,000-man army, the barring of all senior-ranking Baath Party members from administrative functions, the banning of firearms, and the postponement of the Iraqi opposition’s plans to hold a congress to hash out their future political role, to select ministers, and to convene a broader group to draft a constitution. Local polls in some fully pacified provincial cities were abruptly called off.

There were sound reasons for each of these decisions, but they happened to go against the advice not only of many Iraqis but of informed Americans, too. For example, back in November 2002, a workshop of seventy Iraq experts at the National Defense University warned against demobilizing the army too rapidly. Such a move would swell the ranks of the unemployed, and create an armed and trained pool of resentful people. It would also reinforce the impression that America was seeking to perpetuate its rule, for how could Iraq now defend itself without American troops stationed here for years to come?

Plenty of Iraqis welcomed the firing of some 30,000 higher-ranking Baathists. Yet even among those who had suffered most from the party’s rule, the firing smacked of collective punishment. What of those who had joined the party solely for the purpose of advancement, many of them highly competent and untainted by any crime? What of the thousands of former POWs from the 1980–1989 Iran–Iraq war who were granted senior party rank in com-pensation for the years they spent in desert prison camps? Following the original decision, it was quickly realized that a more selective vetting process was needed, but the damage was done.

The banning of guns proved to be more farce than tragedy. First the edict had to be weakened to allow Iraqis to keep Kalashnikov assault rifles, the Model T of self-defense in a country as gun-crazed as the United States. The three-week national amnesty that followed, when citizens were meant to turn in heavier weapons, netted a mighty total of 499 pieces. Considering that the price of many of these on the open market was less than $100, it would have been more effective to offer cash in exchange, and then furnish the equipment to a reconstituted Iraqi army.

The decision to stall on democratization was a more delicate matter. The move initially infuriated the former exiles in the opposition, who had long been promised a greater role, and rightfully believed this was their moment to exert lasting influence. From Bremer’s perspective, however, it was clear that the core group of parties (Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, Iyad Alawi’s Iraqi National Accord, Adnan Pachachi’s Democratic Alliance, the two main Shiite Islamist parties, and two Kurdish ones) were not fully representative. Giving them a measure of authority now, before other forces took coherent shape (such as Sunni Arab groups that would fill the void of the Baath Party, and secular Shiites who would challenge the Islamists), risked associating American power with a possibly tainted process. He may also have judged that the moment was not ripe for the airing of difficult questions, such as the future constitutional relation between religion and the state, or the boundaries and responsibilities of future federal regions—such as Iraqi Kurdistan.

But the undercutting of these American allies was unnecessarily clumsy. The Kurds received scant assurance that they would receive continued funding after the end of the Oil-for-Food program that has kept their fragile economy afloat. Shiites were left wondering whether the Americans intended to evade the political implications of the fact that they represent a 60 percent majority. Iraqis outside the immediate political maneuvering saw the promise of democracy, and with it the reclaiming of national pride, slip away. Bremer argued, reasonably, that elections were premature, given the lack of a census, the absence of districting, and other technical obstacles. Yet a very public effort to address such matters would have cost little and gone far to assuage the Iraqi public.

Not surprisingly, Bremer has once again been obliged to modify his initial impulse. Pressure has come not only from the deteriorating security situation, which many Iraqis see as a result of frustration at their sense of disenfranchisement. In late June, the most revered and authoritative Shiite spiritual leader in Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani, ended months of haughty disengagement from politics with a stunning rebuke to Bremer (whom he has refused to meet, even while cordially receiving Sergio de Mello, the United Nations’ special representative in Iraq). Sistani’s fatwa described as “fundamentally unacceptable” the idea that the Americans might appoint a constitution-drafting committee and called for national elections to choose delegates to a constitutional congress. Given the 15 million Shiites’ cautious acquiescence to American rule so far, despite calls from radicals for active “resistance,” the ayatollah’s expression of impatience represented a serious challenge.

It is to Bremer’s credit that he responded gracefully. In early June, he announced the intention to appoint a council of Iraqis to advise the occupation authority. By early July, this body was being described as having a governing, not merely an advisory, role. Its first meeting in mid-July was not entirely smooth, as members bickered over whether to term America “liberator” or “occupier.” Yet at least it gave the impression of momentum for change. Meanwhile, some of the more unsavory early American appointees to figurehead governorships were removed. District and municipal elections were held in several cities, including Baghdad. At every level, newly installed Iraqi officials were beginning to be more visible.

The reforms have come amid other signs of a more enlightened approach. American officials now say it would be a good idea to consider trying members of the former regime before Iraqi courts. Donald Rumsfeld himself has called openly for drawing on the expertise of other countries, including even the dreaded French.8 Diplomatic pressure is being exerted on US allies, especially in the region, to contribute peacekeeping troops. Of course, such changes will ultimately dilute America’s “ownership” of Iraq. That could be a good thing.

—July 16, 2003

  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.

  3. 3

    UN Document S/1999/356, Annex II.

  4. 4

    Here is a partial listing: Iraq at the Crossroads: State and Society in the Shadow of Regime Change, edited by Toby Dodge and Steven Simon (Oxford University Press/International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2003); Karen Guttieri, “Post-War Iraq: Prospects and Problems,” Center for Contemporary Conflict, February 2003; “A Wiser Peace: An Action Strategy for a Post-Conflict Iraq,” edited by Frederick Barton and Bathsheba Crocker, Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 2003; “Winning the Peace: Managing a Successful Transition in Iraq,” joint policy paper, American University/Atlantic Council, January 2003.

  5. 5

    Operation Iraqi Freedom—by the Numbers,” US Central Air Forces Assessment and Analysis Division, April 30, 2003 (unclassified).

  6. 6

    Iraq War Civilian Death Toll Past 6,000-Group,” Reuters, July 9, 2003.

  7. 7

    For example, see Michael Massing, “Appoint the Best to Iraq, Not the Best-Connected,” The Washington Post, July 6, 2003. “For a Town Council in Iraq, Many Queries, Few Answers,” by Amy Waldman, The New York Times, July 5, 2003, describes the pro-American mayor of a large town who has yet to meet a single American official.

  8. 8

    The French firm Alcatel, for example, installed much of Iraq’s phone system, and knows best how to fix it. Yet its initial approaches to help in reconstruction were rebuffed.