Clueless in Baghdad

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

The unremitting resistance of the local population and donor reluctance to share the burden of occupation and reconstruction have heightened the quandary of the United States in Iraq.

TWO weeks after the United Nations offices in Baghdad were devastated in a suicide attack, United States President George W. Bush authorised his Secretary of State Colin Powell to begin negotiations for a multinational force for Iraq. Bush's basic constituency of neo-conservative hawks remains implacably opposed to any dilution of U.S. control in Iraq. And this unsubtle design of sharing the burden but not the power, has been gently rebuffed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. It is not beyond the realms of possibility, said Annan shortly after the Baghdad blast, that the U.N. Security Council may transform the Iraq operation into a "U.N.-mandated, multinational force operating on the ground, with other governments coming in". But if this was seen as "burden-sharing" without a proportionate sharing of "decisions and responsibility", he warned, it would be "very difficult to get a second resolution (of the Security Council) that would satisfy everybody".

The idea of a fresh mandate for the U.N. to step into the Iraq quagmire was tossed about rather indifferently in the days since the Baghdad blast. France and Germany, both potential donors, publicly welcomed the U.S.' newly accommodative stance towards the U.N., but insisted that they had very specific requirements in terms of authority and influence. In this interval, the U.S. also came up frontally against donor resistance to funding a part of Iraq's reconstruction. With security being an area of concern, few governments were inclined to gamble away their aid budgets in underwriting the U.S.' visibly fraying imperial order. By early-September, expectations from a donor conference scheduled for Madrid the following month had begun to wane. And after months spent in evasion, the U.S. was beginning to grapple with the enormity of the job it had on hand.

With a round of cursory budgetary arithmetic completed, the Bush administration resolved to ask U.S. Congress for between $2 billion and $3 billion in the fiscal year 2004, beginning October 1. This would be in addition to the $3.5 billion that has been sanctioned in the current year for reconstruction. The annual cost of the occupation, estimated at $50 billion, would be accounted for separately. Even if the requests were to be granted and the embarrassing questions waived, the funds available would be, according to an internal document of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, inadequate for restoring basic services to any level of satisfaction. Iraq's oil exports, which were budgeted at $3.5 billion over a full year, will, in fact, yield little more than $2 billion in the current year. The outlook for the future remains clouded by the unremitting resistance of the Iraqi population, the absence of a credible central authority, and the advanced state of deterioration of the industry's assets.

A fresh source of disquiet arose with a study commissioned by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) at the request of Senator Robert Byrd a consistent critic of Bush's military adventurism in Iraq. Striking a contrary note to the refrain that has of late been adopted by the war lobby, the CBO has warned that the U.S., under current policies, has the capacity to maintain no more than 38,000 to 64,000 soldiers in Iraq over the long term. In other words, the current deployment of 150,000 troops is unsustainable given the U.S.' other military commitments and budget constraints.

With all these compulsions pressing in, the Bush administration has managed no better response than infinite waffle. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage spoke vaguely of inducting military forces in strength from other countries while maintaining the overall command authority of the U.S. army. A few days later, John Negroponte, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., said that the administration was yet to decide whether it would seek a fresh Security Council authorisation on these terms. Still later came the decision by the U.S. President to open formally negotiations with the membership of the Security Council, on undetermined terms.

Meanwhile, a crude attempt at saving face has been set under way as reality continues relentlessly to overwhelm and reduce to absurdity the rosy prognoses of the U.S. prior to the war. A ringing declaration on the official website of the White House, about the end of military objectives, was transformed to the less definitive proclamation that "major" combat had ceased. The pretence that the U.S. had accomplished its mission in Iraq was blown by end-August, with U.S. casualties since the putative end of combat operations nudging ahead of the total dead and injured in actual warfare.

Deaf to world opinion, a cabal of neo-conservatives dominated by U.S. citizens with an unabashed dual loyalty to the state of Israel, drummed up the war hysteria with the claim that Iraq was a country just waiting for the gentle ministrations of the Western civilising mission. All that the U.S. needed was to ride a cavalcade of armour into Baghdad after softening up the city with a devastating display of airpower, and hand over power to a chosen group of tutored persons.

Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard recently featured an exhortation to stay the course by two leading lights of the neo-conservative cabal. William Kristol and Robert Kagan, who wrote the confident prognosis of the war in Iraq months before the actual outbreak of hostilities, were compelled though to ask two agonising questions: where are the troops and where is the money? With a laudatory reference to a recent speech by Condoleezza Rice, Bush's National Security Adviser, Kristol and Kagan urged the U.S. to make a "generational commitment" to political and economic reform in the "Middle-East". This compact with the region better known as West Asia was to be closely modelled on the U.S. role in Europe in the years after the Second World War.

THE effort to dredge up the Marshall Plan from the debris of history is rather laboured, for the simple reason that the war ideologues in the U.S. were until a few weeks ago talking about a "self-supporting" plan for reconstruction in Iraq and the entire West Asian region. And it omits the hard reality that the U.S. then was the world's largest creditor nation, with the capacity to fund reconstruction in Europe. Today, it is the world's debtor nation, saddled with a government that is intent on aggravating the situation through a sequence of reckless tax concessions to the rich.

If the pattern of recent U.N. resolutions on Iraq is sustained, there is a possibility that the thorny issues of control- and burden-sharing will be worked out, symbolically rather than substantively. As was the case with every other resolution over the last decade, the U.S. would then consider itself at liberty to use the resources and the personnel of the U.N. to pursue its own agenda. In other words, the next phase of the debate on Iraq, could determine whether the U.N. walks into a terminal crisis of credibility in Iraq.

Shortly after the bomb blasts that destroyed the Baghdad headquarters of the U.N. Denis Halliday, a former Under Secretary-General of the world body, warned that any "further collaboration" between the U.N. and the U.S. occupation in Iraq "would be a disaster". Halliday had overseen the U.N.'s Iraq programme through a part of the decade of sanctions and quit in disgust in 1998 at the many impediments he had to face. Today, he recalls the frustrations of that time and warns the U.N. that it has to overcome a massive legacy of betrayed trust in Iraq: "Thirteen years of sanctions made it impossible for Iraq to repair the damage (of the 1991 war). That is why we have such tremendous resentment and anger against the U.N. in Iraq. There is a sense that the U.N. humiliated the Iraqi people and society. I would use the term genocide to define the use of sanctions against Iraq." Hans von Sponeck, who succeeded Halliday in the Iraq programme and served 17 months before quitting for much the same reasons, spoke of a profound sense of sadness at the bombing of the U.N. headquarters. But he added an ominous qualification: "Anyone who is taken by surprise either doesn't know the Iraq situation or is simply willing to ignore the signs that are all pervasive... .'' To expect that a Security Council resolution will change the situation in Iraq for the better and ensure a welcome for forces that are seen as occupiers and oppressors, could be another in the series of delusional projections made by the Bush administration. And a singular dilemma that the U.N. could face in raising its profile in Iraq could be posed by the Governing Council that has been put in place by the U.S., which enjoys little legitimacy or credibility.

THE hazards of collaboration were painfully evident in the bomb explosion in the Islamic Shia pilgrim city of Najaf on August 29, which killed an estimated 80 people, including, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, one of Iraq's most senior clerics. Chief of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, al-Hakim had resisted U.S. overtures from his exile in Iran for much of the 1990s. He was persuaded to come on board the project of regime change in Iraq only when it became evident that nothing would deflect the U.S. from its war plans. Returning to Iraq in May, he called for unity against "imperialism" and urged that the bitterness of the past be left behind.

Al-Hakim was a pragmatist who did not make too fine a point about serving on the U.S.-sponsored Governing Council, though he continued to speak out in public against the occupation. Initial investigations into the blast that killed him speak of a telltale pattern of similarities with the attack on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. But just hours after the incident, an audio tape purporting to be in Saddam Hussein's voice, disclaimed all responsibility. Al-Hakim had been in exile since 1980, when an upsurge of Shia political agitation and militancy had brought forth a crushing response from the Saddam Hussein regime. Another senior cleric, Mohammad Sadr al-Bakr, was executed after a series of bomb attacks that were blamed on Shia militants.

Al-Hakim had mobilised his forces in Iran and participated in the short-lived uprising against Saddam's dictatorship after the 1991 Gulf War. He withdrew in disorder and confusion when it became apparent that the U.S. had no intention to back up its exhortation to revolt with actual material and military sustenance. Also involved in the uprising was Sayid Majid al-Khoei, the son of the man known among Shia Iraqis as the Marja or supreme pontiff. Al-Khoei returned to Iraq last April after over a decade in exile in London. He was murdered shortly afterwards in a brutal knife attack at his house in Najaf. More than the vengeance of the Saddam regime, that murder was attributed to a violent ferment that had seized the Shia community in the country. That turbulence obviously continues and has perhaps been aggravated in five months of U.S. occupation.

Al-Hakim's funeral on September 2 drew an estimated 400,000 mourners from diverse parts of the country. Delivering his funeral eulogy, Abdelaziz al-Hakim, the brother of the senior cleric and his putative successor, denounced the U.S. occupation as the single most grievous injury inflicted upon Iraq, from which all the other ills stemmed. "The occupation force is primarily responsible for the pure blood that was spilled in holy Najaf, the blood of al-Hakim and the faithful group that was present near the mosque," he said and added: "This force is primarily responsible for all this blood and the blood that is shed all over Iraq every day. ...Iraq must not remain occupied and the occupation force must leave so that we can build Iraq as God wants us to do."

Meanwhile, Ahmad Chalabi, the U.S.' most favoured Iraqi exile and neighbouring Jordan's most high-profile fugitive from the law, assumed the presidency of the Governing Council with a call for a vigorous security crackdown all across the country. His suggestions were a close echo of what the most extreme sections of the Washington establishment have been saying in recent times. But if the U.N. were to get involved in the new phase of the occupation, that would perhaps be its greatest tragedy, even by its tragically impoverished standards in Iraq.

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