Hazards of occupation

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a news conference in Moscow. - SERFEI KARPUKHIN/REUTERS

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a news conference in Moscow. - SERFEI KARPUKHIN/REUTERS

As the euphoria over the rapid advance on Baghdad subsides, President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair begin to realise that illusory successes in war cannot fill in for wrongheaded policies.

DONNING an aviator's suit and taking the co-pilot's seat in a small refuelling jet, U.S. President George Bush landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1 to a tumultuous welcome. Hollywood's most jingoistic artist could not have matched the drama of the presidential swoop onto the flight deck from where a number of the recent air sorties over Iraq were launched. Bush evidently believes that it is never too late to partake vicariously in the "shock and awe" of the bombing runs that had laid waste to Iraq. If in the bargain he managed to shock and awe some of his prospective challengers in the 2004 presidential race that was an undoubted bonus.

"I do miss flying, I can tell you that," he told mediapersons who had been ferried to the carrier to witness the presidential spectacle. Most commentators were unimpressed, and not merely because the euphoria over the rapid military advance on Baghdad had subsided. Bush will figure out the hard way that illusory successes in war cannot fill in for a completely wrongheaded set of peacetime policies. The relentless climb in unemployment under his watch has observers wondering whether Bush is soon going to win infamy as the greatest destroyer of jobs since Herbert Hoover presided over the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

Typifying the public scepticism was the widespread comment in the media on Bush's own military service. It was recalled, for instance, that he had used every available political connection to avoid combat duty in Vietnam and secure a relatively hazard-free stint in the Texas Air National Guard. And he had then been absent without leave through most part of his mandatory three-year service. All major combat operations in Iraq had been concluded, said Bush from the flight deck of USS Abraham Lincoln. Almost simultaneously in Kabul, a world removed from the California coast, U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai by his side, declaring all major combat activity in Afghanistan closed. Two pivotal moments in the war against terrorism, two major triumphs of the power of make-believe over reality.

Almost as Bush spoke, a U.S. Army camp in the Iraqi town of Fallujah, 50 km north of Baghdad, was attacked with hand grenades. Seven soldiers of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division were injured in the retaliatory attack for two successive incidents of firing by U.S. soldiers on unarmed gatherings. The first incident occurred on April 28 - the deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's birthday. Demonstrators marching through the main thoroughfare in the town confronted a U.S. Army picket with slogans and angry denunciations. A spokesman for the occupying forces later said that elements from within the crowd had opened fire on U.S. personnel, compelling them to counter-attack "carefully".

This account was contested by the town's Mayor, who insisted that there had been no gunfire from the side of the demonstrators. The 16 people killed ranged in age from six to 23, according to reports collated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The number of injured persons was 65. The Mayor of Fallujah was firm in demanding that the U.S. Army conclude its inquiries at the earliest and provide necessary compensation. Two days later, a protest demonstration was taken out to press these demands, but the demonstration was shot at by a passing U.S. armed convoy. Two people were killed and 16 were injured in this incident. Then came the grenade attack.

An activist with the international volunteer group Voices in the Wilderness, which has for long been campaigning against the sanctions imposed on Iraq, visited Fallujah shortly afterwards. She found an elderly citizen prepared to give her a fairly representative opinion about the U.S. presence: "They are sick. They are deeply, deeply sick. Tell the Americans we don't believe in this freedom. Why, why do they insist on continuing to massacre our people - how much more blood do they want?"

In a May 1 bulletin, the ICRC, which has been coordinating between the occupying forces and local officials to restore basic services in Iraq, noted that "lack of security is still a major concern in Baghdad, with no tangible improvement over the past few days". In effect this meant that there had been little change since the April 19 bulletin, when the ICRC had observed that Iraq was "at a crucial stage, where decisions must be taken swiftly to re-establish and maintain safety and public order". Most civil servants, it had then said, "were committed to resuming their work", but "they remain unclear about their situation in the absence of guidance from a civil administration". Two weeks later, chaos and disorder continued to be manifest in "heavy shooting during the night" about which information, despite all the inquiries of the ICRC, was "unclear".

CENTRAL authority in Baghdad remains inchoate, providing ample room for adventurers of various stripes to project themselves into the power vacuum. A mysterious figure claiming to be an Iraqi exile, Mohammad Mohsenal-Zubaydi, materialised on the Baghdad landscape, proclaiming that he had the key to the country's political and constitutional future. He was shouted down at every public gathering he forced himself into, but soon managed, through a judicious deployment of dollar power, to win a few adherents. Unamused by the charade, the U.S. occupying forces had him taken into custody. Local administrators appointed by the U.S.-U.K. axis in the pivotal cities of Basra and Mosul have had their status questioned.

The most influential voices that have been urging a return to order in the midst of the anarchy are those of the clerics. And this has set off alarm bells in the ranks of the invading forces. When asked about the resurgence in the influence of the clerics and the possibility that they could constitute the backbone of the new order, Rumsfeld was short with his answer: "That isn't going to happen." Nobody questioned Rumsfeld on the basis of his apparent conviction, partly because the media has learnt that it is hazardous to inconvenience the highly toxic U.S. Defence Secretary with awkward questions.

But shortly after his triumphal tour of the front line states in the recent war, Rumsfeld found himself enmeshed in a different kind of skirmish. Reports had surfaced that the U.S. government intended to appoint a civilian - former Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III - to supersede retired U.S. Army General Jay Garner in overseeing the administration of Iraq. As Rumsfeld's handpicked choice for the job, Garner had been in Iraq for just over a fortnight and had evidently walked into a situation of far greater complexity than he could have imagined. His public appearances have been largely confined to the northern provinces of the country, where long-time Kurd allies have ensured a hospitable reception. But after his one broadcast to the Iraqi people promising the early resumption of basic services, his performance has done little to advance the fiction of U.S. commitment to the "reconstruction" of Iraq.

The man slated to supersede Garner as head of reconstruction efforts has credentials that are even more impressively dubious. As an observer said on hearing the speculation about Bremer's appointment, "all that he knows about Iraq would not fill a thimble." Ambassador to the Netherlands under the Reagan administration, Bremer is known to have been involved with the sponsorship of Afghan jehadi groups in the 1980s. His claims to the job are believed to arise essentially from his stewardship of the U.S. State Department's counter-terrorism efforts and his intimacy with the neo-conservative cabal that was the driving force for the war in Iraq. He will certainly need much more than the skills endowed by these experiences to deal with the boiling over of popular rage in Iraq.

In Baghdad, Mosul, Najaf and Karbala, Friday prayers following the military action brought forth unequivocal messages for the invaders. Whatever the stated purposes, the invasion was finally about maintaining the regional hegemony of Israel. The U.S. and the U.K. could stay no longer than it took to restore order and arrange for appropriate reparations. They should then leave the Iraqi people to determine their future. Late-April in Baghdad, Mosul and Najaf, angry demonstrators took to the streets after prayers, confronting the occupying forces on several occasions. Panicky U.S. soldiers, in most instances, responded in a threatening manner. And in Mosul, the occupying forces opened fire on demonstrators on two occasions, killing at least 17 Iraqis. The events were repeated in Mosul on April 28, when a large crowd firing in the air in celebration of Saddam Hussein's birthday was attacked by a U.S. armed contingent, killing up to nine persons. Very soon, placards and posters were being held aloft across the country. A typical one reading: "Sooner or later, U.S. killers, we will kick you out."

By late-April, a letter purportedly written by Saddam Hussein found its way to the London offices of the Arabic newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabiya. Analysts familiar with the deposed Iraqi leader's locutions and handwriting, pronounced it to be authentic. A few days later, Associated Press Television News obtained a video recording of Saddam addressing the Iraqi people. According to an employee of the official Iraqi outfit charged with filming and distributing Saddam's broadcasts, the recording was made on April 9, as the U.S. forces were enacting the televised theatre of toppling a statue of the Iraqi leader off its pedestal. In their content the video recording and the letter are roughly congruent. "It is not a victory (for the invaders) as long as your resistance lasts," he says in his letter. "God willing, the day of liberation and victory will come to us, the nation and Islam before anything else. Right will triumph this time, like it does every time, and the coming days are going to be more beautiful. Protect your possessions, districts and schools. Boycott the occupier; boycott him because this is the duty of Islam, religion and the homeland." Saddam concludes his missive with the cry that has been his trademark for over 12 years: "Long live the great Iraq and its people. Long live Palestine, free and Arab, from the River to the Sea."

THE U.S. administration pronounced itself unconvinced about the authenticity of the letter and the video recording. But the U.S.' client organisation, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), insists that Saddam Hussein is alive and still in Iraq. Ahmad Chalabi, the shadowy businessman and political operative who heads the INC, claims to have received reliable inputs from informers to this effect. Tariq Aziz, Deputy Prime Minister in the deposed regime, meanwhile, gave himself up to the occupying forces. An associate of Saddam's for over four decades, Aziz was an important catch because of his high profile in crisis diplomacy. Taken away to an undisclosed location, Aziz was, according to U.S. military sources, proving rather "talkative" in his interrogations. Little is known about what he has disclosed, except for an explicit confirmation that he saw Saddam alive after April 7, when over three tonnes of explosives was dumped in one location in the Al Mansour neighbourhood of Baghdad in an attempt to kill him. Hosting Australian Prime Minister John Howard at his Texas ranch, Bush was soon, all trademark smirk and derision, delivering a rather different assessment of Aziz's attitude. "Tariq Aziz has not learnt to speak the truth," he said. "He did not know how to when in power. He still does not know it."

The context of these remarks was not immediately apparent, but they do suggest a growing sense of frustration in the U.S. and the U.K. over the failure to uncover Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that were the ostensible justification for the war. The chief U.N. weapons inspectors, Hans Blix, meanwhile, had delivered a retrospect on his mission in Iraq that suggested a late dawning of wisdom. The disarmament process was designed to fail, said Blix, since the U.S. was inflexibly focussed on war. It would not be appropriate for the inspectors to go back now without a duly defined mandate from the U.N. Certainly there was no question of returning to Iraq to mop up after the U.S. invasion, since the U.N. inspectors were not "dogs on a leash". In the following days, Blix went public with a more specific indictment of U.S. conduct. Much of the intelligence on which the case against Iraq was built, he said, had been "shaky". And he was surprised that the intelligence agencies in the U.S. and the U.K, which should have known better, failed to identify the obvious forgeries on which the case was built. "Is it not disturbing that the intelligence agencies that should have all the technical means at their disposal did not discover that this was falsified?"

Media reports, meanwhile, indicated that intelligence agencies in the U.S. and the U.K. were furious that their inputs had been wilfully twisted and subverted by politicians eager to go to war. Members in Parliament in the U.K., however, chose to grasp the other end of the stick. Was it true, Opposition members demanded to know, that intelligence agencies had supplied false information to the government prior to the war to make a case for waging war? Rejecting the demand for an inquiry into this matter, the U.K. government has held out the likelihood that the hunt for Iraq's WMD stocks could take much longer. Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing criticism from his Labour Party over the retrospective collapse of legitimacy for the war. Even some members of the normally quiescent U.S. Congress have written to Bush demanding an explanation for the concocted intelligence inputs that they were fed.

After laying out a trail of forgery and plagiarism to prepare world opinion for the war, the U.S. and the U.K. today are facing the unpleasant prospect of a world that does not easily forget. Special task forces - military personnel numbering in the thousands - have been flown in to track down Iraq's WMD. But every supposed find is quickly proven hollow. Three of the top scientific personnel suspected of involvement in the WMDs are now in U.S. custody. Jaffar Dhia Jaffar, Amer Hammoud al-Saadi and Emad Husayn al-Ani, believed to be key figures respectively in the nuclear, chemical and biological programmes, have stuck to the story that Iraq has no WMD.

It is a tall order that the axis faces. If definite confirmation were to emerge that the war was waged on the basis of a lie, international recognition for the post-bellum dispensation will be difficult to secure. That would only compound the profound crisis of legitimacy that the U.S. faces today within Iraq. The continuing crisis in basic services does the U.S.' illegitimate cause little good. After a brief absence, the Iraqi police, civil servants and technicians were beginning to trickle back to their places of work. In most cases, the ICRC was mediating between the invading forces and the Iraqis, to ensure that personnel manning essential services got back to work. As they reported back to their devastated workplaces, they confessed to a profound sense of defeat stemming from the havoc of the war.

According to estimates made on April 19 by the ICRC, Basra had just 60 per cent of the pre-war supply of water and electricity. And the quality of water was a major concern. Baghdad's health and emergency services had been devastated. Of the 1,500 beds available in four hospitals then surveyed by the ICRC, fewer than 300 were functional. Another three hospitals examined were disabled, unable to discharge anything other than the most essential emergency functions. By May 1, the ICRC reported that there had been no significant improvement. Repairs were commenced in Baghdad's hospitals, but abandoned in many cases because of the unsettled situation. Emergency supplies had been made to a few hospitals. But unexploded ordnance continued to pose a significant risk.

In all other parts of Iraq, the assessment of damage to the health infrastructure and basic services was still under way. The ICRC had little to report by way of an improvement on any count. End-April, Blair flew to Moscow for a summit conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He had planned the meeting with care. Though associated with the anti-war coalition led by France and Germany, Russia's leader was believed to share a strong personal affinity with Blair. And with its interests being somewhat different from those of France and Germany, Russia was believed to be more amenable to a post-war reconciliation with the U.S. and the U.K. What actually happened was a diplomatic fiasco.

At a joint press conference, Blair spelt out his vision of a world united under one "polar power", led by an encompassing "strategic partnership between Europe and America and other countries too - Russia, China - where we are trying to develop a common global agenda". Responding rather brusquely, Putin effectively told Blair that his perspective was askew. In any event, decision-making needed to be democratic, said Putin, and "if decisions are being made by just one member of the international community and all the others are required to support them, that is something we could not find acceptable".

What this means in immediate terms is that Russia will oppose the lifting of sanctions on Iraq, thwarting U.S. designs on its oil wealth. And to Blair's evident disbelief, Putin then rounded on him in scarcely concealed ridicule. "Where is Saddam?" asked Putin. "Where are those arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, if indeed they ever existed? Perhaps Saddam is still hiding somewhere in a bunker underground, sitting on cases of weapons of mass destruction and is preparing to blow the whole thing up and bring down the lives of thousands of Iraqi people."

Public insults are a hazard that Blair has often had to face since he took up the job of chief diplomat for the U.S.' global domination project. But Putin's outburst was something new and a fairly accurate reflection of the poison coursing through international relations today. After a brief upsurge in bellicosity towards Syria, fuelled in no small part by dramatic images of the fall of Baghdad, the U.S. in the following days resorted to a more restrained tone. On May 3, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell concluded discussions with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa. In a subsequent media briefing he announced that Syria was willing to conform to the "new dynamics" of the region and restrain anti-Israel groups operating in Lebanon and on its own soil. In the 1996 blueprint prepared by a group of U.S. ultra-hawks, "regime change" in Baghdad, quite aside from its intrinsic virtues, would have other salutary benefits for the future of Israel. It would chasten Syria, sunder its links to the heartland of the Arab world and endanger its territorial integrity. And it would remove or weaken one of the principal props of the Hezbollah militia, which had been a major challenge on Israel's northern frontier since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Aware of the growing scepticism over U.S. goals, Blair had - prior to signing up for war - pleaded that the "road map" to peace in Palestine should be published soon after the goals in Iraq were attained. Bush granted him his wish. But from the offhand manner in which it was conceded, the promise on the road map resembled a bone thrown to a restive poodle more than a sincere commitment to justice for the Palestinians. Recent events have vindicated that belief. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon brushed aside recently a direct appeal from the White House and sanctioned a large-scale move by Israeli settlers into a Palestinian quarter of Jerusalem.

Even as the "road map" was finally published, elements from the Sharon government who have been advocating the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories were flying to the U.S. to lobby the more extreme members of Congress. These efforts were soon rewarded. Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, denounced the road map as an "attempt by State Department officials and overseas governments to work against U.S. policies". And Tom DeLay, leader of the Republican Party in the House, called the road map "a confluence of deluded thinking between European elites, elements within the State Department bureaucracy and a significant segment of the American intellectual community". Sharon of course made his opinions clear by launching another massive incursion into the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza. Aggressive Israeli actions in Gaza have been a daily occurrence over the last month or so. Now joined by the U.S. in the crime of occupation of an Arab nation, Sharon undoubtedly will soon be mentor, holding out valuable lessons to the superpower in the techniques of sustaining and administering an occupation.

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