Colonising Iraq

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

British Prime Minister Tony Blair with (left) Gen. Peter Wall and the U.S.' civilian administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer in Basra on May 29. - CHRIS FLETCHER/AP

British Prime Minister Tony Blair with (left) Gen. Peter Wall and the U.S.' civilian administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer in Basra on May 29. - CHRIS FLETCHER/AP

While making a symbolic concession to the will of the international community, the Security Council Resolution lifting sanctions on Iraq leaves no ambiguity about who will decide the country's destiny.

WINNING world opinion over to the cause of war was for the United States considerably more difficult than establishing the lethal efficacy of its armed forces in Iraq. Once Baghdad fell to its infantry and heavy armour, the U.S. has found that winning the peace in an occupied country is quite another proposition. In partial mitigation, though, for the battering of the U.S.' imperial ambitions on the streets of Baghdad, the international community has shown a willingness to accept its blueprint for post-war Iraq without serious demur.

A string of outspoken comments about the need to preserve the pre-eminence of the United Nations in post-war Iraq fostered a widespread belief that the U.S. was far from winning international endorsement of its designs. But after a few rounds of discussions in the U.N. Security Council and some token changes in the draft resolution jointly sponsored by the U.S. and the United Kingdom, the main hold-outs - France, Germany and Russia - gave in quickly. On May 22, the Security Council adopted the joint U.S.-U.K. resolution by 14 votes to none. Showing a certain degree of nervous indecisiveness, Syria chose to absent itself rather than abstain or vote against the resolution. Voting in favour would have meant bestowing post facto legitimacy on the aggression against an Arab country. Abstention would have meant being isolated as a singular source of resistance to the U.S. diplomatic juggernaut. Its confidence obviously shaken by the threats hurled its way by the U.S. after the fall of Baghdad, Syria chose the course of prudence. The rationale offered in public for its absence was an inadequacy of time to study the implications of the resolution.

Immediately after the vote was recorded, John Negroponte, the U.S. envoy to the U.N., declared that the "liberation of Iraq (had) cleared the path" for the action just taken. He went on to condemn the deposed Iraqi regime for its unwillingness to "adequately feed its people", its inattention to "crucial infrastructure projects", its obsession with "luxurious palaces" and its cruel repression of "free political expression". Absent from the U.S. Ambassador's locutions was any mention of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the ostensible trigger for the war.

The French, German and Russian representatives all expressed their reservations, but suggested that the resolution was an acceptable compromise, which would accord the U.N. a role while holding the occupying powers to their responsibilities. In more detailed remarks, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, just after conferring with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, denied that the resolution legitimised the war. He said: "France has remained true to its principles. This text opens a path to the peace we shall have to build together. The uncertainty and confusion on the ground call for urgent measures. We have made a choice in favour of unity and international responsibility."

When all the rhetoric is stripped aside, Security Council Resolution 1483 makes little more than a symbolic concession to the will of the international community. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to name a "Special Representative" for Iraq, who will, in turn, be mandated to coordinate the activities of all the U.N. agencies on the ground and report periodically to the Security Council. Beyond these ritual functions, the role of the Special Representative is couched in such anodyne terms as "facilitating", "promoting" and "encouraging" various outcomes. Resolution1483 leaves little ambiguity about where true power will lie: the preambular language designates the U.S. and the U.K., the "occupying powers under unified command", as "the Authority" that will control the destiny of Iraq. Other U.N. member-states are enjoined to "contribute to stability and security in Iraq" by providing "personnel, equipment and other resources", though necessarily under the control of "the Authority".

It stretches credulity, for the European powers that opposed the war to interpret this unequivocal formulation as recognition of a U.N. role. As one cuts through the verbal thicket of big power diplomacy, the intent behind the easy acquiescence of the European powers would become evident. The underlying principle, which would be unexceptionable were it not for the human suffering in Iraq, is that the countries that created the mess bear the singular responsibility to clean it up. Resolution 1483 recognises the fact that the occupying powers enjoy "specific authorities" under "applicable international law", but also insists on the fulfilment of their "responsibilities and obligations". And after making "appeals" to all U.N. member-states to contribute to the mission, the resolution in its operative paragraphs "calls upon" the occupying powers to "promote the welfare of the Iraqi people through the effective administration of the territory, including (through) the creation of conditions in which the Iraqi people can freely determine their own political future".

On the formation of an interim authority, the resolution expresses its support for the people of Iraq, who would be expected to seek the "help" of "the Authority" and "work with" the Special Representative of the U.N. This, again, suggests an asymmetric allocation of powers in post-war Iraq. But "the Authority" is soon likely to discover that the corresponding asymmetry in the assignment of responsibilities is rather too irksome, even considering its formidable military resources.

A FEW days after the vote, Kofi Annan nominated Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, as his Special Representative for Iraq. A Brazilian national, de Mello was recently involved in U.N.-led "nation-building" projects in Kosovo and East Timor. The U.S. actively lobbied for his appointment. It remains to be seen how far he would want to remain in his new assignment and be tainted by association with the rapid collapse of U.S. hegemonic dreams in Iraq.

Resolution 1483 establishes a "Development Fund for Iraq", which will be held by the Central Bank of Iraq and audited by independent accountants to be appointed by an advisory body comprising the chiefs of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development. All revenues from the export of Iraq's oil would be held under the Development Fund and all disbursements would be made at the "direction of the Authority". Until December 31, 2007, all of Iraq's export earnings shall be immune to attachment or recovery proceedings on the basis of prior commercial claims. This indemnity for a period of some four years is expected to provide the space to restructure Iraq's debt as part of a more durable solution to the country's "sovereign debt problem".

The U.N. Secretary-General has been "requested" to report to the Council "at regular intervals" on the work of the Special Representative. The occupying powers, again, have contrived a different standard for themselves, being only "encouraged" to inform the Council "of their efforts" under Resolution 1483. In terms of reviewing the implementation of the resolution by "the Authority", the U.N. Security Council has effectively decided to ask no questions for a whole year.

Informed observers believe that a year constitutes an ample time-frame for the U.S. to be cured of its imperial delusions. Evidence is accumulating by the day. Four days after the U.N. vote, the top British military commander in Iraq, Major-General Tim Cross, admitted that force deployments in the country were far from adequate. Responding to comments by the head of the international charity group Oxfam - that there were not enough people "on the ground" to "restore people's sense of a civil framework" - Cross conceded the basic accuracy of the judgment.

A day later, the U.S. made the strategic decision to heighten its profile on the streets of Iraq's main cities, including the capital. But with the security situation remaining unsettled, field commanders thought it prudent to take out an additional insurance of low-flying air support in the densely settled urban areas. Meanwhile, top British military officials informed Prime Minister Tony Blair of their gathering worries. The heavy-handed U.S. approach, said the legatees to generations of colonial military management, had considerably aggravated resentments among the people in the occupied country. Wary of being sucked into a quagmire, the top brass of the British military were gently nudging their Prime Minister - whose breathless advocacy of the case for war was an embarrassment for most of his constituency - to turn down a request to reinforce the beleaguered U.S. garrison in Baghdad.

Roughly at the same time, the U.S. media began to pull in the loose strands and organise the information received from various quarters of the occupied country into some semblance of a coordinated whole. And the picture that emerged was mortifying. Since the Commander-in-Chief, President George W. Bush, had declared major combat operations in Iraq closed, U.S. forces had been suffering an average of one fatality a day. Their pretence of a painless war blown apart, U.S. Defence Department officials were quick to offer a clarification - the casualty rate registered in Iraq was customary even in peace-time training exercises. The explanation was tailored to the domestic audience in the U.S., which does not much care for the casualties inflicted on other people by U.S. military action. But global observers thought it rather germane that the number of Iraqi deaths from violent crime in Baghdad was conservatively put at 240 since the occupation began - over ten times higher than the loss of U.S. lives. In the absence of any central node where crime statistics are collated, this could well be an underestimate. But from their well-guarded enclaves, Western journalists have been reporting that with sundown in Baghdad, the crackle of gunfire becomes the background to every transaction. And with sunrise, ill-tempered residents of Baghdad clog the streets, unable to secure any of the conveniences or supplies that they were accustomed to even under the straitened circumstances of the sanctions they suffered for 12 years.

Crime statistics do not bring on board all the consequences of a generalised collapse of civic order. Serious outbreaks of cholera, hepatitis and typhoid have been reported from several Iraqi cities, though the number of lives lost is not yet clear. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have seen their repair and salvage efforts destroyed in little time. Public disorder and the cascading effects of Iraq's wrecked infrastructure essentially mean that little of enduring value or benefit for the people of the country can be achieved under U.S. diktat.

Information on the humanitarian situation in Iraq is unlikely to be collected with quite the same diligence that the global media devote to that regarding U.S. servicemen who suffer the vicissitudes of occupation in an alien nation, culture and environment. The current reality is that the U.S. managed, through the 12 years that it sustained economic sanctions against Iraq, to evade accountability for its criminal policy of collective punishment against a people. But merely by way of illustration of the consequences of its current military adventure, the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned in mid-May that 300,000 children under five were in imminent danger of death from malnutrition in Iraq.

Until late in May, there was some basis for the pretence that U.S. military casualties in Iraq were a consequence of human error or accidents. And then the occupying forces suffered four fatalities - and numerous injuries - in a matter of two days from hostile action. The incidents included a landmine blast, a grenade attack and a fire-fight that pitted a diehard group of Iraqi militia against elements of the U.S. 3rd Armoured Cavalry. The U.S. responded with threat and bluster. Military spokespersons accused the Iraqi forces of violating the conventions of war by using mosques and other protected locations to launch hostile actions. With Iraq's wrecked infrastructure bearing vivid testimony to their own violations of humanitarian law, there was a certain bitter irony about this reference to lawful conduct by the U.S. occupation forces. Elsewhere, Donald Rumsfeld, the highly toxic U.S. Defence Secretary, rounded on Iran. Fresh from a debate in neo-conservative circles about the optimal technique of destabilisation to be employed against the Iranian regime, Rumsfeld warned the country to keep out of Iraq's internal affairs.

HOW does the U.S. propose to repair the ruptured fabric of state and civil society in Iraq? Few indications are now available, except that the mineral wealth of Iraq has, expectedly enough, been designated as the resource that will fuel the regeneration of the country destroyed by U.S. aggression. The global audience is expected to accept the pretence that the U.S. oil lobby - in which Bush is but a subsidiary player controlled by Vice-President Dick Cheney - has nothing to do with the project to conquer Iraq. Many of the early contracts have gone to two companies with a long lineage of Republican Party functionaries in their top echelons - Bechtel and Halliburton. Neither was put to the inconvenience of submitting competitive contract bids. And in perhaps the most scandalous award of all, the bankrupt company, WorldCom - which in 2002 was caught in the act of perpetrating the greatest accounting scandal in U.S. corporate history - has been awarded a substantial contract to establish a land-line and cellular telephone network in Baghdad.

With the significant exception of weapons and armaments, Resolution 1483 lifts all sanctions on commercial transactions by Iraq. Where at one time the slightest crack in the punishing regime of sanctions was greeted with raucous celebrations on the streets, the response in Iraq this time has been indifferent. Few Iraqis have the slightest doubt that this U.N. decision is part of a systematic U.S. effort to take over the country's oil wealth.

In the sale of Iraq's oil, Resolution 1483 enjoins the adoption of "prevailing international market best practices". Current estimates show that the revenue that could potentially be earned from Iraqi oil would fall far short of the budget required for reconstruction. Faced with this conundrum, John Caroll, the Royal Dutch Shell executive who has been appointed the overseer of the Iraqi Oil Ministry, has suggested that the best course would be for Iraq to withdraw from the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Unfettered by any multilaterally agreed quota, Iraq would then be free to raise its oil output in accordance with its needs. Of course, this calculation does not factor in the potential havoc that a rapid increase in Iraq's oil exports could cause in international markets, or the vulnerability of such large exporters as Venezuela, Russia and Nigeria to a collapse in oil price.

L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator for Iraq, recently decreed that the Iraqi Army would no longer exist and that 30,000 members of the erstwhile ruling party, the Arab Baath Socialist Party, would be ineligible for any positions of responsibility in the new order. The top U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq warned that these sweeping changes could only compound a situation of growing civic disorder. Ramiro Lopes da Silva, a Portuguese national, warned that the demobilisation of 400,000 military personnel without any assurance of alternative means of livelihood could generate a "low-intensity conflict" in the country. Conceding that he could not bring himself to agree with much of what the U.S. administrators in Iraq had decided, da Silva cautioned against an excessively ideological approach that was unmindful of the underlying social realities. He said: "The reconstruction of minds is important. We cannot force through an ideological process too much." With the occupation of Iraq being as much a matter of ideology - as of military hegemony - there is little chance that such relatively astute counsel will be heard by protagonists of the "new American century".

LANDING in Basra on May 29, Blair could not have been a happy man. In typical offhand fashion - born of the relative lack of accountability that he enjoys - Rumsfeld had queered the pitch with an admission to a foreign affairs club in New York that Iraq probably had destroyed all its WMD "prior to the conflict". Six weeks of frenetic search through a number of suspect sites in Iraq had come up empty, and questions were being raised about the assertions made by Blair and various U.S. spokespersons prior to the war that Iraq not merely possessed the lethal weaponry, but also intended to use them in a conflict situation.

Media leaks from the British intelligence community seemed to suggest that an intelligence dossier prepared in October 2002 had been doctored on orders from the Prime Minister's Office to assert definitively that the Iraqi regime could potentially deploy and use its WMDs at "45 minutes' notice". Robin Cook, who quit as Leader of the House of Commons to protest against Blair's ardour for war, was ruthless in his excoriation. He pointed out that 45 days had passed since the war was won and the invading forces were yet to find any evidence of WMD. Cook added that "it is plain and profoundly important" that Iraq posed no threat to either the U.K. or its neighbours. "This war could have been avoided," he said.

Tony Benn, a leader of the left wing in the Labour Party, put it candidly if rather indelicately for a man who has served many terms in Parliament: "I believe the Prime Minister lied to us and lied to us." Another prominent left wing Member of Parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, said that the war on Iraq had been "based on deception". With parliamentary privileges being considered an important issue in the U.K., a committee of the House of Commons is soon likely to take up the case of the October dossier to determine Blair's complicity in the propagation of falsehood.

Looking increasingly beleaguered and desperate, Blair merely insisted that Iraq's WMD would be found. Offering some cold comfort was U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who argued that WMD was only one among many reasons for going to war. The singular focus on this issue in the discussions preceding the war was merely an effort to build on an existing global consensus. Wolfowitz could conceivably get away with this excuse in the U.S. But Blair is running out of escape avenues. It seems just a matter of time before he is called to account by his party and banished into well-deserved oblivion.

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