Reluctantly, some American officials recently began to use a new word when talking about our presence in Iraq: occupation. Even though the Bush administration worked hard to keep this word out of our national vocabulary before and during the war, it has nonetheless started to appear in press briefings and news reports.

We may not have noticed it at the time, but our style of talking about the new Iraq was forever changed by an institution not normally associated with trends in American lingo: the UN Security Council. Seeking to ease the export of Iraqi oil, Bush asked the UN to lift the sanctions in May. Their response stated that it was willing to lift sanctions because Iraq was now under the control of a foreign military power, namely the US and the UK. But the message contained more than Bush may have expected. It also stipulated that the foreign occupying power is now legally responsible for the governance of the occupied country.

So, what can we expect from an occupation? As Americans, we can turn to our own experiences for some answers. In the many military interventions we have embarked on over the last few decades-from Vietnam to Somalia to Afghanistan-the task of governing other societies with our military has often been more difficult than battlefield victory. Whether we call these interventions imperialist or humanitarian, each has been forced to confront some tough facts associated with occupation: a disproportionate ratio of civilian to combatant casualties; chaos about our authority and effectiveness as military governors, especially when we fail to win hearts and minds; and the social and health-related problems, from prostitution to drug use, that often attend the recreation of large armies.

Ah!-cry the hawks-you forget that we were forced to go into Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from using his WMDs, and to destroy the Iraqi terrorist networks linked to al-Qaeda. But, as evidence grows that such allegations were based on dubious intelligence reports, these claims appear laughable. And, as violence and chaos reign in US occupied Iraq, the other big claim, that we went to liberate Iraqis from tyranny, has likewise unraveled.

Thousands of Iraqi civilians have already been killed by US bombs and bullets, mostly during the war. And as Iraqi frustrations with the current situation flare, there will no doubt be more clashes involving US soldiers, and more civilian deaths. Moreover, while US troops take precautions to avoid civilian casualties, one of the strategies of the outgoing Baathist regime has been to confuse our soldiers into killing Iraqi civilians and committing atrocities. We should not expect tomorrow’s insurgents to abandon this effective, if repugnant strategy. With each civilian death, Iraqi hearts and minds turn further from the publicized humanitarian aims of the US occupation. Meanwhile, each week a few more US soldiers are killed and wounded. At the current rate, in a number of weeks the number of peacetime US casualties will eclipse those of the war.

Now in this context consider also the governmental responsibilities we have just taken on as an occupying power, such as providing essential services like food, water, health and security. Some of us who opposed the war doubted whether the US public was financially prepared for taking on these new responsibilities, especially when our own communities are suffering historic budget cuts. “No problem,” some replied. Iraqi oil will fund the projects we undertake in that country. But as petroleum economists point out, the revenues from Iraqi oil will not be able to cover the expenses of the invasion, let alone a prolonged occupation.

Who but us, American taxpayers, will be paying the tab? If in the coming months you begin to notice cutbacks in your children’s schools, your libraries, your public transportation, remember this: our leaders decided to fund military occupation there rather than vital services here. And what’s worse: if we fail to provide services in Iraq-services that will be expensive-we should expect nothing but chaos and violence from the occupation.

Those who steered us into this occupation have much to answer for, especially since most Americans were not, and are not, prepared to pay the real costs of becoming a long-term occupying power. But, whatever the intentions of those who pushed for the war, we need to wake up and see the new American Iraq for what it is: an occupation that will not only be expensive, but also quite hazardous.

How to cite this article:

Elliott Colla "Occupational Hazards," Middle East Report Online, June 01, 2003.

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