From Baghdad: What
Went Wrong In Iraq
By Mark Juergensmeyer
15 June, 2004
new interim government has no time to lose. Though it was welcome news
when the new Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, announced that the militias
of nine major political parties would disband and join the governments
security forces by January 2005, this is only one of the monumental
tasks and formidable obstacles that the new government faces. As I discovered
in a recent visit to Baghdad, Iraq is in dire need of reconstruction
-- not only from the miseries of Saddam Husseins long dictatorship,
but also from the failed policies of the one-year occupation by Americas
Coalition administration, which has left demoralization, humiliation,
and a weak security and economic infrastructure in its wake.
The Iraqi hatred
of US occupation has reached a seething point. This was illustrated
by the curious response to the recent Abu Ghraib prison pictures. I
was in Baghdad in May shortly after the news broke, and although I saw
the pictures recycled endlessly on al Jazeera television I was puzzled
to find that the images did not surprise most Iraqis Although they were
disgusted at what was portrayed, rumors of these prison atrocities have
been circulating around Baghdad for months, and most Iraqis with whom
I spoke expected such behavior of what many of them regarded as a brutal
This absence of
surprise spoke volumes about the way Iraqis have come to look at the
US military -- a year ago liberators, and now occupiers. Some Iraqis
described the US as a continuation of the kind of oppression they had
experienced under Saddam. A few thought it was even worse.
and punished us physically, one middle class Iraqi said in quite
articulate English. But he did not try to humiliate us.
A member of the
Council of Sunni Clergy that has been formed since the uprising in Fallouja
in April put it more forcefully: America has become the terrorists,
he told me. We spoke to him and three other clergy in Saddams
Mother of All Battles Mosque, which was recently the site of anti-US
occupation demonstration attended by two hundred thousand Iraqis.
Why is the US occupation
so despised by Iraqis? The disdain is almost universal.
Far from being limited
to a few disgruntled Baath party members, I heard this seething
anti-American hostility expressed by Sunni clergy, Shiite politicians,
and middle-class educated secular city folk. It was a hatred of American
occupation that seemed deeply personal. Within a year of the fall of
Saddam, the Iraqis hatred towards the former dictator seems to
be redirected towards the US. The reason for this is, I think, partly
due to three disastrous sets of policy mistakes during this past year.
The US occupation
has failed to provide security with an Iraqi face. Baghdad looks like
an armed camp -- an American armed camp. As soon as one arrives at the
airport one is confronted with the sight of the ubiquitous tanks and
humvees that have come to symbolize the US military presence. It is
a feature of modern Iraqi life that increases the closer one comes to
the epicenter of American power in Baghdad: the green zone.
Our group was staying in a small hotel outside the heavily-fortified
zone where most American and other Coalition officials live and work,
but on one occasion we had arranged to meet with officials related to
the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Governing Council and had
reason to work our way inside
Americans and other
foreigners who work in the green zone seldom venture outside, and when
we tried to enter we had to pass through several gauntlets of military
checkpoints. All were manned by US troops. On our way to the zone we
were stopped in the street by convoys of US soldiers looking for insurgents
who were said to have been driving a car that look much like one of
ours, and more American soldiers were standing at the entrance to the
green zone to check our passports and gear. As the young soldiers checked
our cameras and had us delete pictures from our digital cameras that
showed scenes of the checkpoint itself, we talked about what conditions
were like for them.
The soldiers --
from Seattle and Riverside, California -- were due to return home the
month before we talked with them but their term was suddenly extended,
a fact they bitterly resented. Moreover they were aware that they were
vulnerable targets, standing at the outskirts of the green zone at checkpoints
that are frequently targeted by both mortar fire and car bombs. Only
the day before there had been a huge explosion at a gate adjacent to
the green zone, a suicide car bomb attack that killed six Iraqis including
the driver. On this occasion, however, no American soldiers perished.
But the soldiers knew how vulnerable they were. They said they could
feel the hate from the eyes of Iraqis who looked at their
convoys as the soldiers drove their humvees down the center of Baghdads
streets, their fingers on the triggers of machine guns. They felt as
if they had bulls-eyes painted on their backs.
The reason why young
American soldiers are patrolling the streets is that there are no authorized
Iraqi forces to do it. One of the first mistakes was the US policy of
dissolving the former Iraq army and refusing to utilize it in the new
security forces that were being created to replace it. Although low-level
soldiers in non-elite forces were allowed to re-apply for the new army
and civil defense forces only a fraction of Saddams 400,000 troops
have been re-integrated into them and even these soldiers are required
to be retrained. Needless to say, it takes a long time to find capable
applicants and to hire and train a new army and civil defense corps,
and after a year the task has only begun. We talked with the Minister
of Defense, who claimed that perhaps 20-30,000 soldiers in a new civil
defense corps would be trained by the end of the year, but even that
optimistic assessment seemed insufficient. And it did not deal with
the problem of private militias.
This anti-Iraq army
policy has had two dire consequences: the ubiquitous presence of US
military on the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, and the emergence
of private security forces -- often manned by the unemployed former
Iraqi army personnel. Some of them have joined the independent militia
retained by political parties, businesses, and private citizens. Saddams
old army was not only well trained but remarkably diverse -- it integrated
various Sunni, Shii and Kurdish groups. But these troops were
passed over in the attempt to create new armed forces from scratch,
and in the meantime the Coalition authority has had to rely on American
troops to maintain the countrys security.
Another set of mistakes
fostered by Coalition policies in Iraq was similar to the security ones,
in that the US took over the role of government administration as well
as military defense. These policies had the effect of undercutting the
status of many members of the middle class and excluding them from a
role in the reconstruction of Iraq. The most problematic of these policies
was the decision soon after Paul Bremers assignment as chief administrator
in Iraq not to employ any members of Saddams old Baath Party
-- even lower echelon functionaries -- in the new government offices.
A related and equally problematic policy has been the heavy reliance
on outside contractors to train Iraqis and mold a new governmental structure
consistent with an American concept of governmental organization.
In the Green Zone
we met with several Americans, a man and a woman who had been in the
military and were now working as contractors with Military Professional
Resources International. They were busily training newly-recruited administrators
to work in the Ministry of Defense, which was being rebuilt from the
ground up. Their classroom was a bright, well-lit temporary building
with gleaming tile floors, white walls, and metal tables arranged in
a U-shape facing a wall of white magic-marker boards and flip charts.
It also included a screen for the computer-projected images of the power
point displays they used in the instruction seminars.
Sue and Ron felt
confident that they had a surefire product in these training sessions
since they had given it in many countries before -- including Bosnia,
Columbia, Romania, Angola, and Afghanistan. We described the courses
as Ministry of Defense in a box. Sue and Ron accepted the
term in good humor, admitting that their training course was somewhat
like a kit, but one that they thought was universally applicable. There
was no need, they said, to adapt it to difference circumstances. That
could be done later by the trainees themselves. At a couple of points
in the conversation Sue inadvertently referred to Iraq as Iran,
and she seemed to have difficulty in identifying the neighboring countries.
Though we appreciated
the enthusiasm with which Sue and Ron approached their task, we regarded
their training sessions as symptomatic of what was wrong with the US
led Coalitions efforts to rebuild Iraqs administrative infrastructure.
In deliberately avoiding what was there before, the Coalition administrators
saddled themselves with the task of maintaining the system during the
transition period. They also missed the opportunities of retaining valuable
aspects of the previous organization, and most important the management
abilities of thousands of administrative workers who after the fall
of Saddam were suddenly deprived of their jobs and their careers. In
many cases these were middle-management workers who might have been
affiliated with the Baath party but had no use for Saddam. They
were prevented, however, from being part of the new Iraq. These were
the very people who should have been the allies of the new government,
but who were humiliated and excluded from it.
was a problem with the American model that many Iraqis felt was being
forced on them. Though it might be true that there are some universal
truths to all administrative organizations, the way that these truths
have been presented seem to imply that Americas way of doing things
is best. Iraqis understandably felt that they had something to contribute
conceptually to the rebuilding of their institutions. A modern, well
dressed professor at Baghdad University put it this way, in eloquent
English: the US led Coalition policies were forcing American values
on Iraqis that did not allow them to treasure and enjoy
their own values.
economy of the country appears to be booming. Shops are open, and with
the ending of the embargo, consumer goods abound in the stores. The
streets are crowded with automobiles, many of them fairly recent models.
Air conditioners were a big ticket item. It seemed as if stores could
not keep them on their shelves. US Agency of International Development
officials with whom our group spoke were concerned about the energy
consequences of so many new air conditioners being turned on during
peak energy periods in the hot summer months. They just assume
that when they flick the switch the machines will work, one of
them said, shaking his head in wonder as to whether this would actually
be the case.
At the same time
there are signs of stagnation on the large-scale reconstruction efforts.
Everywhere in Baghdad are the bombed-out shells and burned and looted
remains of former government buildings. Iraqis are bitter that the broken
infrastructure has not been repaired. They blame the US occupation,
since it is often American companies that have received the huge contracts
to repair the bombed and looted infrastructure. The situation is complicated
by security concerns -- the cost of private security for the American
experts brought in to work on the Iraq reconstruction projects can amount
to a third of the cost of the project itself.
Stories abound in
Baghdad about the inefficiency of many of these American contract companies.
According to one account that we heard, an US company received a fifteen
million dollar contract to rebuild a hospital looted after the fall
of the regime. The company was unable to follow through on the project,
however, due to security concerns. An Iraqi company was then granted
the reconstruction project which they were able to do in a few months
at a cost of only eighty thousand dollars. But in general very little
reconstruction has been completed, and the insult of having to lived
in a war-ravaged country is compounded with the injury of not being
allowed to fully participate in its reconstruction.
On the other hand,
daily life in Baghdad can be quite comfortable for those Iraqis who
are in league with the US contractors, and for those Iraqi political
and religious leaders who publicly support the occupation. We were invited
to the home of Sheik Ayad Jamaluddin, an expatriate Shii religious
leader who had been living in Dubai since 1979 who was flown back to
Baghdad after the war. He is outspokenly pro-American and a great fan
of the neo-conservative political ideology of Paul Wolfowitz and Donald
Rumsfeld. Although he does not seem to have much of a following in Iraq
society, he has been allowed to take up residence in one of the former
palaces of Saddams Vice President, an opulent mansion on the banks
of the Tigris River where the Sheik amused himself by dynamiting the
river to kill fish.
It is said that
Saddam ruled through a combination of fear and patronage. The constant
roadblocks, bombings, and security patrols extend the climate of fear
from the old regime. In the case of Sheik Jamaluddin, as in many other
cases that are widely reported around the country, we saw the reemergence
of the pattern of privilege granted to the sycophants of those in power.
Sadly, under US-led coalition occupation, Saddams pattern of fear
and patronage persists.
What Lies Ahead
The defusion of
the April crisis in Fallouja is a model for what might be done in the
country as a whole. The redeployment of old military commanders and
local leaders could reduce the need for an intrusive US military presence.
The leaders of the interim government, Iyad Allawi and Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar,
both have given vocal support for these kinds of developments. The recently-announced
integration of political parties militia into the national security
forces is a good step forward.
I found a great
deal of healthy nationalism and optimism about the upcoming elections.
Leaders of political parties -- including the Shia Daawa
Party and the Sunni Iraq Islamic Party -- indicated that Iraqi loyalties
were as great or greater than specific religious and ethnic political
affiliations. They expressed a willingness to work across the alleged
Shia-Sunni divide. They decried the myth of the Shia-Sunni-Kurd
differences and alleged that there were many examples of inter-religious
and inter-ethnic cooperation in Iraq society, including inter-religious
marriages, the integration of troops in the old Iraq army, the inclusion
of some fifteen percent Sunni supporters in the Shii Daawa
Party, and the existence of a plethora of political parties and civil
associations that had no specific religious or ethnic identity. The
tribe of the designated president of Iraqs interim government,
Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, is both Sunni and Shia.
One of the Sunni
intellectuals with whom we spoke said that Saddam was a great equalizer
of the Iraqi people in that under him all groups suffered equally.
The intellectual pointed out that the American occupation of Iraq had
the same unintentional result. Whether or not that was the case, it
was clear that the spirit of Iraqi nationalism is today alive and well,
and continues to be a powerful antidote to particular religious, ethnic,
and tribal allegiances and affiliations.
So there is some
light at the end of Iraqs currently chaotic tunnel.
There is, unfortunately,
another possible scenario for Iraqs immediate political future,
a more dismal one. This is the specter of Fallouja in April. It is the
prospect that the center will not hold, and that the country will unravel.
A variety of things could precipitate this downward spiral -- a political
assassination, allegations of rigged elections, a military incursion,
or a power play by one faction or another. Or it could simply be a sad
degeneration of public authority and civic identity, a morose shifting
from public demoralization to widespread personal despair. The result
might be a Somalia-like contestation of warlords in a battlefield of
The role of the
US-led coalition forces can affect these possibilities. The issue is
whether US leaders can abandon the fantasy of creating an Iraq in Americas
image. Baghdad is not New York, a well-dressed Iraqi professor
told me. Her appearance and articulate English, however, would appear
to make her quite at home in any American city. In a peculiar way, US
policies in Iraq have been resented most by those who might otherwise
have been sympathetic to a Western point of view.
What is happening
in Iraq is a litmus test for the new foreign policy trajectory of the
Bush administration. The war on terror approach to global
conflict and the preemptive strike policy of military engagement
both signal a kind of imperial vision of what Americas role should
be in the post-Cold War globalized world. Iraq is a test of the flexibility
of that vision.
Iraq may indeed
emerge, awkwardly and tentatively, as a proudly independent democratic
society. But it will not necessarily be pro-American. The legacies of
disastrous US security, administrative, and economic policies during
the first year of the US-led Coalition occupation will continue to be
obstacles to the effectiveness of any new Iraqi government for some
time to come. Moreover, the disdain engendered by Iraqis against America
by the attitudes conveyed through that occupation will also persist,
at least for a time. When global war is ones way of thinking,
this template has the ability to make enemies out of a whole society,
at least some of whom should have been ones friends.
is the author of numerous books, including "Terror in the Mind
of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence," judged the Best
Nonfiction Book by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post in
2000. Juergensmeyer was part of a study group in Baghdad May 5-10 2004
organized by Prof. Mary Kaldor and Yahia Said of the Center for Global
Governance, London School of Economics. The purpose was to assess the
causes of religious violence in Iraq and the role of humanitarian organizations
in the countrys reconstruction. The group also included Hanaa
Edwards and Shirouk al-Abayaji of the Iraqi al Amal human rights organization,
and Will Thomas, research assistant and videographer.