The gaping hole in Iraq

Occupation has brought social collapse, Bloody Sunday shootings and the waking of a Shi'ite giant

Jonathan Freedland
Wednesday April 30, 2003

The Guardian

There are three ways you know the war in Iraq is meant to be over. First, George Bush is due to declare combat operations formally at an end this week. Second, Tony Blair has started talking about public services - domestic bread-and-butter - again. Third, Toyah's eating ants on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! Would they dare engage in such frivolity if British troops were still in action?

So the conflict must be over. Surely we are now in the "aftermath", that less spectacular phase of war confined to the inside pages and worthy foreign policy seminars. The rest of us can doubtless tune out, unwind after a stressful few months and get ready for summer.

Not so fast. President Bush may want to rush out his victory declaration, but there is still plenty of unfinished business from this war. For one thing, there is the irritating matter of the war's official cause: Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Until they turn up, the nagging doubt will remain that both Bush and Blair talked up a threat to justify an unnecessary conflict. The damage Operation Iraqi Freedom has wrought to the US relationship with Europe goes on, too: just yesterday, the anti-war quartet of France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg announced a new European security and defence union, separate from Nato and pointedly excluding pro-war countries such as Britain. And the strategic reverberations of the second Gulf war are just beginning to be felt: now we learn that the US is to shift the bulk of its Gulf forces from Saudi Arabia to tiny Qatar. It surely can't be long before it decides the ideal location is newly won Iraq.

But you don't have to search so far into the future for evidence that this story is far from over. For its next and, in some ways, most dramatic chapter is being played out right now. It is the American occupation of Iraq that could prove even more fraught with danger than the war itself.

Officially, it's all plain sailing. "Every day, life in Iraq improves," a sunny Bush told a cheering Arab-American crowd in Michigan on Monday. But the reality on the ground is not quite so rosy.

While Bush was at his podium, US troops were firing into a crowd of demonstrators in the Iraqi town of Falluja, killing 13 of them. The Pentagon says the Americans were fired on first, but eyewitnesses insist the protesters were unarmed. Apparently they were trying to reclaim a local school that US forces had taken over.

Falluja is now at least the third Bloody Sunday-style incident in Iraq in as many weeks: twice at Mosul Americans also killed demonstrators said to be unarmed. Of course, there will be no Bloody Sunday-style outcry - after all, the victims were not US citizens - but this latest episode does suggest an alarming pattern. To put it at its mildest, America is shaping up to be a pretty inept occupier.

It's not just the military's knack for inflaming a tense situation into a deadly one. Nor is it the bumbling rhetorical efforts of pro-consul Jay Garner, who's good enough at serving up treacly, sub-Clinton platitudes - "let's do this for the children of Iraq" - but who has failed to get a basic grip on the country he is meant to run. Electricity is still out for most of the day, there is no police force to speak of, workers remain unpaid and disorder is widespread. The leitmotif of all this is, inevitably, Iraq's ransacked museums: a trove of antiquities denuded in what one archaeologist calls the greatest cultural disaster of the last 500 years.

The common thread is not malignancy, so much as unpreparedness. How could the US have been surprised either by the museum looting - which happened during the 1991 war, too - or by the wider anarchy? It should have been obvious that the toppling of Saddam would leave a power vacuum. This was not the fall of communism, despite the frequent invocations of 1989. In eastern Europe, the top layer of leadership was removed, but the governing apparatus remained intact: the ship of state could stay afloat. But here the entire machine was the target for elimination, making lawlessness inevitable. Now the coalition faces a lose-lose choice: either they impose order and police the streets of Baghdad themselves, or they bring back the men of the old regime to do it for them.

But politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, so other forces are beginning to fill it. Chief among them is Shia Islam, which can claim the allegiance of 60% of the Iraqi population. Where order exists, it is the Shi'ites who are providing it: the mosques have even sent out volunteers to act as traffic cops. Once again, this should have been easily predicted. Oppressive regimes in Islamic countries leave only one place where people can assemble and organise: the mosque. That's what happened in 1970s Iran under the Shah and that's what's happening now.

And Iran is a key player in this new drama. Iraqi-born clerics exiled in Iran have been crossing the border, determined to make Najaf once again the Shia spiritual centre (perhaps as a moderate alternative to Iran's Khomeinist hub of Qom). The Iranian television station, al-Alam, has become must-see TV in those Iraqi homes lucky enough to have power, while the coalition's own TV channel - beamed via military plane - is said to be poor, with fuzzy reception, showing nothing worth seeing.

In other words, the US and Britain have ripped a big hole in Iraq and it is Shia Islam, backed in part by Iran, which is stepping through it. General Garner may demand that there be no "out of country" influence on the new Iraq - apparently forgetting that he and his fellow Americans are hardly native-born Baghdadis - but this is the fast-emerging reality.

The US response is to plead for patience. Sit tight, they say, a transitional government is on the way: a national conference should convene to pick it in a month's time. That could be tricky, with some Shia leaders still boycotting the process. And what about after the transition? If Iraqis have a simple, winner-takes-all election, then Shi'ites could remain in permanent power, freezing out Sunnis and Kurds. Fair elections might bring victory to an Islamist party. (Wouldn't that be an irony, US-liberated Iraq home to the new Taliban?) Donald Rumsfeld was reported as saying that's "not going to happen" at the weekend. But if Iraq is going to be a democracy, as London and Washington insist, it's hard to see how that can be ruled out. No wonder Geoff Hoon was squirming last week, when asked if Iraq's future elections would be of the one-person, one-vote variety. The system would be "representative," was all Hoon would promise. In other words, Iraqis are to have a Henry Ford election: they can have whatever colour they want so long as it's black.

No, this war is far from over. Indeed, when you consider the combustible elements now in play - a blundering, tactless foreign occupier confronting a nation surging with Islamic fervour - this battle may be just beginning.