By Seumas Milne (20 June 2003, The Guardian)
It would have been hard to predict in advance that the US and British occupation of Iraq could go so spectacularly wrong so quickly. The words of the historian Tacitus about the Roman invasion of Scotland in the first century AD might just as well have been written about our latter-day Romes latest imperial adventure: They create a wasteland and they call it peace.
More than two months after the collapse of Saddam Husseins regime, Iraq is sinking deeper into chaos and insecurity, as US forces lash out at the Iraqi resistance, which is now killing an average of one American soldier a day. Another was shot dead in Baghdad yesterday, while US troops killed more protesters as they have repeatedly done since the massacres of demonstrators in Mosul and Falluja in April. The British minister in charge of reconstruction in occupied Iraq, Baroness Amos, had to admit yesterday that she is unable to visit the country because of the risk of guerilla attack, while the British commander, Maj. General Freddie Viggers, conceded that British troops may now be in Iraq for up to four years because of the growing insurgency.
In Britain, the unravelling of what US Deputy Secretary Of Defence Paul Wolfowitz called the bureaucratic pretext for war the supposed threat from Iraqi chemical and biological weapons has created the most serious political crisis for Tony Blairs government in six years and removed the last vestige of possible legality from the aggression. With no sign of any such weapons on the ground in Iraq, intelligence leaks and the withering accounts of former Cabinet ministers Clare Short and Robin Cook have stripped bare the ultimate New Labour spin operation. Polls show most British people are now convinced the government deliberately exaggerated the evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction to bounce public and Parliament into war. Not surprisingly, attitudes to the conflict itself are also beginning to turn.
In Iraq, the mounting social and human cost of the invasion and occupation has become ever clearer. The countrys first Burger King may have opened at Baghdad airport and the Queen Elizabths birthday may once again be celebrated on the banks of the Tigris, but the impact of war and regime collapse on essential services and infrastructure, on top of the havoc wreaked by the first Gulf War and 13 years of grinding sanctions, has been devastating.
Add to that the rampant lawlessness, insecurity, looting of all public institutions, destruction of national treasures, epidemic of murder and robbery, and it is little wonder that most Iraqis appear to find it hard to see themselves as having been liberated. And far from being lower than expected, the number of Iraqi civilians killed is now estimated on the basis of hospital, mortuary and media records to have been between 5,500 and 7,200, while Iraqi military deaths are thought to run into tens of thousands.
Amidst all this misery, there have also been positive changes. The fall of the dictatorship has meant an end to the torture and execution of political prisoners, replaced by more spasmodic beatings and killings of innocents by coalition soldiers. Political parties can now organize and independent newspapers circulate. The discovery of mass graves has been a reminder of the cruelty of Saddams rule, though ironically the largest were filled with victims of the 1991 uprising, incited and then betrayed by George Bush senior.
But the anti-democratic and flagrantly colonial nature of the new power in Iraq is undisguised. While Iraqi political parties are pressing for a broadly-based conference to elect a transitional government, the new US proconsul, Paul Bremer, is only prepared to tolerate a hand-picked Iraqi advisory council, while his occupation authority plows ahead with shaping the free market, pro-Western order the US plans to impose on the ruins of an independent Iraq.
The senior coalition adviser to the Iraqi industry ministry, Tim Carney, declared this month that the occupation authorities will press ahead with the privatization of dozens of state-owned companies within a year, pre-empting the decision of any future elected Iraqi government. And the Bush administration, fresh from handing out contracts to White House corporate cronies, has let it be known it aims to reverse the historic nationalization of Iraqi oil before its finished with reconstruction.
What freedoms have been allowed are now being reined in, with censorship of press and television. Bremer has even issued a decree outlawing any gatherings, pronouncements or publications that call for opposition to the US occupation. All of which is a clear sign that the US administration is far from confident it can control the direction of Iraqi politics.
It also helps to explain the scale of civil and armed resistance, which is concentrated in the Sunni triangle to the north and west of Baghdad. Around 50 US soldiers have been killed by Iraqi fighters since the war was declared won getting on for half the number killed in the war itself. A series of punitive counterinsurgency operations by US troops in the past week has led to the capture and deaths of hundreds of Iraqis sweeping up many innocents in the process but appears to have had no impact on the level of attacks. US commanders have branded the guerillas subversives and even terrorists, or tried to dismiss them as remnants of the regime. The evidence suggests that while Baathists form part of the resistance, that is far from being the whole picture.
But what they cannot by any sensible reckoning be called are terrorists nor does the US have any right to try guerillas who attack occupation troops as criminals, which Bremer announced it plans to do this week. It is an almost universally accepted principle that a people occupied by a foreign power has the right to use armed force to resist though whether force will be the best tactic is another matter. It was the crudest self-delusion on the part of the invading states to imagine that because most Iraqis wanted an end to the Saddam regime they would accept the imposition of a foreign occupation to replace it.
The situation seems bound to get worse, as the resistance fights a war of attrition and the occupation forces win new recruits for the guerillas with brutal and misdirected counterattacks. Armed resistance has yet to spread to the south, where British troops are based and rival Shiite Islamist groups are busy building their political strength. The longer the occupation continues, however, the more that is likely to change, with the further risk of drawing Iran into the maelstrom. Last week the pro-Iranian Shiite leader Ayatollah Hakim predicted that armed resistance would grow.
Meanwhile, anti-occupation protests have been multiplying across the south. In Basra on Sunday, and again on Tuesday, thousands demonstrated outside British headquarters chanting slogans against Blair and Bush and demanding the right to rule themselves. As things stand, British troops are one fatwa short of the treatment being meted out to the Americans further north, while the occupation is achieving nothing for Iraqis they could not more effectively achieve for themselves. The sooner political pressure builds to end it and negotiate an orderly withdrawal, the better for all of us.
© Copyright 2003 The Guardian