gaping hole in Iraq
has brought social collapse, Bloody Sunday shootings and the waking of a Shi'ite
Wednesday April 30, 2003
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.