Two months after the welcome demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime, it has become customary to say that the US won the war and is losing the peace in Iraq. This formulation, coined to describe US neglect of Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban, gives the Bush administration too much credit. There were never any serious plans to “win the peace” in Iraq, as is obvious from the chaotic aftermath of the large-scale combat.
There were no plans to keep the Iraqi economy running with minimal interruption — US troops watched as looters pillaged ministries, laboratories, factories and other places of employment, leaving thousands of Iraqis without work. New US viceroy L. Paul Bremer’s decommissioning of the Iraqi army and overzealous de-Ba‘thification have added to the ranks of the unemployed. Though fear of nuclear proliferation was a major justification cited for George W. Bush’s preemptive strike, US forces did not guard the nuclear facility at Tuwaitha, and components of possible radiological weapons have vanished. Despite much puffery in Washington about the “patrimony of the Iraqi people,” US troops stood by while thieves relieved the National Museum of priceless artifacts. Even some of the supposedly secured oilfields in the south were looted of key equipment, helping to explain why today Iraq is pumping only half the oil (between 600,000 to 700,000 barrels per day) that it was pumping in the last days before the war.
Unable so far to find weapons of mass destruction, the White House is retroactively selling the war as a “humanitarian intervention.” But there is little sign to date of serious efforts to bring Iraqi war criminals to justice. US troops loitered in the vicinity while locals excavated a mass grave near Hilla with a hydraulic backhoe, imperiling crucial forensic evidence of massacres after the 1991 uprising. On May 18, US forces released a major suspect in these very massacres, Muhammad Jawad al-Naifus, because the interrogating officer was unaware of the charges against him. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein remains as elusive as the presumed illicit arsenal in whose name Iraq was invaded.
Washington’s only serious plans for post-war Iraq have nothing to do with “humanitarian intervention,” and everything to do with centralizing the levers of power in its own hands. After intense US campaigning, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1483 lifting economic sanctions on Iraq and placing the country’s oil revenues under the aegis of an “Occupying Authority” composed of the US and Britain. Though it stamps a seal of approval upon an occupation of indefinite duration, with scant UN involvement and no timetable for the transition to indigenous Iraqi government, UNSC 1483 does bind the US to the legal obligations of an occupying power — a label Washington had previously shunned for fear of losing Iraqi “hearts and minds.” The resolution thus creates standards of accountability which the US may come to regret as it polices the cities and hands out reconstruction contracts. The General Accounting Office will be monitoring a range of occupation and reconstruction policies on behalf of Congress.
Belatedly, media attention may hold Bush administration figures accountable for force-feeding the public a diet of hype about the “mortal threat” posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. In the long term, Iraqis will care more to hold the US accountable for the high-flown rhetoric promising that their “liberators” will bequeath to them a free, democratic and prosperous Iraq.
The pre-war fantasies, conjured by the Iraq hawks, that Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress and other returning exiles could rapidly build Camelot on the Euphrates have evaporated. Bremer freely refers to the US presence as an “occupation,” and has sidelined the seven-member “leadership council” (of which Chalabi is a member) appointed by his predecessor as viceroy. At press time, this body was vowing to proceed with plans to convene a “national congress” to name an interim Iraqi government, despite Bremer’s intention to appoint his own set of Iraqi advisors. Two months into the US occupation of Iraq, Washington appears no more successful than other Middle Eastern occupiers in its attempts to manipulate indigenous politics to its own advantage. This issue of Middle East Report examines some of the real-world obstacles blocking realization of the war party’s expansive vision for Iraq and the region.