From triumph has sprung murderous fiasco. Ignoring Iraqis comes with a terrible price

By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad (Independent, 10 October 2003)


Six months after US tanks roared triumphantly into the centre of Baghdad and the statue of Saddam Hussein was famously toppled, the US has turned military victory into political defeat in Iraq.

The US might have expected yesterday to be a day on which Iraqis would celebrate the overthrow of a despot. Instead it brought more bloodshed and death to foreigners and Iraqis allied to the US, including the assassination of a senior European intelligence agent.

Consensus is growing that the US has failed because it ignored Iraqis, allowed the state to dissolve and disbanded the army.

A defiant Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, put the best gloss on the work of the occupying powers over the last six months yesterday. He trumpeted the fact that the electricity supply is better than before the war and that the police force has gone from zero to 40,000.

"I am optimistic," he said. "We have made an enormous amount of progress in six months, more than I think anyone could have safely predicted."

But in fact the US has not given people a better life than the one they enjoyed under Saddam. An Iraqi businessman said acidly: "They claimed that we were smart enough to build weapons of mass destruction capable of threatening the world, but now they treat us like Red Indians on a reservation at the end of the 19th century.''

US missiles and Iraqi looters devastated Baghdad during and immediately after the war. But the main building work in the city today has nothing to do with helping Iraqis and everything to do with protecting the occupation forces. Enormous prefabricated concrete walls have gone up around the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), housed in Saddam's old Republican Palace, which supposedly rules Iraq. Iraqis frequently comment that Mr Bremer, the head of the CPA, lives in greater isolation than Saddam.

It is easy to see why the US and its allies are nervous. Yesterday was not a particularly violent day by the standards of present-day Iraq.

At 8.15am a white Oldsmobile with two men in it drove to the gate of a police station in al-Sadr City, the great Shia Muslim slum in west Baghdad. Policemen opened fire but the car exploded, killing 10 and injuring another 45 people.

A crowd assembled outside the wrecked police station chanting: "No, no, to America!'' A policeman was stabbed as he tried to keep order. No foreigner is very popular these days in Sadr City, whose impoverished people were deeply hostile to Saddam. Several journalists were also beaten up.

A few minutes earlier in another part of Baghdad, Jose Antonio Bernal Gomez, a Spanish military intelligence officer was shot dead at his home.

Mr Gomez was not the only foreigner to die in Iraq yesterday. North-east of the capital an American soldier was killed by guerrillas. He was the 92nd American soldier to die in Iraq since George Bush declared major combat over on 1 May.

These are just the known dead. The fate of others, killed in the Iraqi countryside, passes unnoticed. Early yesterday I visited a fruit-growing village called Dhuluaya 50 miles north of Baghdad where Ali Saleh, a farmer, had just buried his 10-year-old daughter Namara.

Last Friday mortar bombs - nobody knows who fired them - started raining down on his house. He and the rest of his family scrambled to safety but Namara was crippled by polio and could not get out of the way of a large chunk of concrete. It crushed her to death.

Why has the US - with Britain tagging along behind - failed so dismally to win popular support in Iraq?
It should have been much easier. Iraqis never liked Saddam. His base of support was narrow. This explains the extraordinary brutality of his regime. He started two disastrous wars, against Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, which ruined his country.

The Iraqi army did not fight for him in the swift three-week war earlier this year.

America was sure that its soldiers would be greeted by cheering crowds. Iraqi exiles in Washington had told them to expect no less, but if most Iraqis loathed Saddam it did not mean that they wanted to be occupied by a colonial regime. Many believed that their old leader had only survived in power through US support. They bitterly recalled their sufferings under international sanctions in the 1990s during which they lived in poverty while Saddam built grandiose palaces and mosques.

The first disaster for the US was not to stop the looting of every city and town in Iraq. Six months later Iraqis still repeatedly point out that "the only ministry they protected was the Ministry of Oil''. Many, if not most Iraqis, believe that oil is the reason the US is here.

Last Sunday I was in the oil refinery town of Baiji where local people, after expelling the US appointed police chief and his 300 men, were setting fire to Turkish trucks. They claimed that the Turks were smuggling cheap oil out of Iraq for sale to Israel.

In May the Americans disbanded the 400,000-strong Iraqi army. Their wages were small, but with so many people barely getting enough to eat and in a country with 75 per cent unemployment, it caused a furious reaction. Mr Bremer started paying wages - but it was too late, guerrilla war, mostly in the Sunni Muslim area north of Baghdad, was under way.

The most striking feature of the official US approach to the Iraqis is arrogance and ignorance. There were those in the state department who did know a lot about Iraq, but they were sidelined by the "neo-cons" and civilians in the Pentagon.

But the Americans were not alone in misunderstanding Iraqis. At the height of the summer six British Royal Military Police officers were killed in the southern town of Majar al-Kabir. British commanders had the bad idea of searching for arms in a place famous for its resistance to Saddam.

One local leader said: "Why do they want to take our guns away - something Saddam could not do - unless they are planning a long occupation?''

In theory there is a way forward for the US and Britain. They could give power to the Iraqis, first by delegating real authority to the Iraqi governing council, made up of exiles and opponents of Saddam.

It is not a perfect body, but at least its members speak Arabic. Mahmoud Othman, one of its most respected members, toldThe Independent earlier in the week that the council "does not have much power". He pointed out that the US had invited 10,000 Turkish soldiers into Iraq without first consulting council members.

The US and Britain also need international legitimacy which could only come from the UN. Bringing in troops from El Salvador and Ukraine as part of what has been described as "the coalition of the bribed" will not be enough. But since its headquarters in Baghdad were blown up, the UN has less personnel in Iraq than at any time since 1991. And turning over real power to the UN would be too humiliating for Mr Bush.

The most amazing achievement of six months of American occupation has been that it has even provoked nostalgia in parts of Iraq for Saddam. In Baiji, protesters were holding up his picture and chanting: "With our blood and with our spirit we will die for you Saddam.'' Who would have believed this when his statue was toppled just six months ago?

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