The Road Paved with Good Intentions

The Occupation     by Patrick Cockburn

War and Resistance in Iraq

229 pp.,Verso publishers 2006  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


      Now at the end of 2006 the entire world is painfully aware that something has gone terribly wrong with the US intervention in Iraq. Weapons of mass destruction were an illusion, while the reality was murderous sectarian hatred between Shi'a and Sunni populations, both sharing hostility towards America. How did it happen? Was it inevitable?

    Patrick Cockburn is a veteran British journalist familiar with Iraq, and his slim book is by far the most intelligent and insightful report on the war to reach this reader. Wisely he stayed away from the US authorities, both civilian and military, cultivating instead contacts with Iraqis of diverse backgrounds. In seeking such information it helps to be nimble--know when one's favorite restaurant is no longer safe, when it helps to be out of a hotel before it is bombed, also when it is prudent to retreat to the relative peace of Kurdish provinces and track the news from there. One time Cockburn arranged a meeting in a mosque, but just to be safe, sent a translator ahead to check. The translator came back and advised to stay away, it looked too much like a kidnapping set-up. Some time later an Italian journalist stepped into the trap and was indeed kidnapped; she was only released after a hefty ransom was paid.

    What has gone wrong? According to Cockburn, almost everything. Quite apart from the charge of "weapons of mass destruction"--based either on shoddy intelligence or on valid intelligence overridden by politicians (pick your choice)--the US president apparently felt that Saddam was ripe for an overthrow and that the Iraqi people would welcome an invasion. A fair number of Iraqi expatriates promoted this line, and they might have been the ones who convinced George W. Bush.

    The Bush administration apparently failed to recognize how badly Iraqi society was divided, that even among expatriates bitter divisions prevailed. Furthermore, these represented a westernized, educated superstructure, very different from the majority of Iraqis, many of whom had only superficial education and were (especially among the Shi'a, 60% of the population) religious fundamentalists. The Iranians were Shi'ites too, but as Cockburn noted, a huge difference existed: Iran, though ruled by religious extremists, had a long tradition of secular culture and education; Iraq's Shi'a on the other hand were largely devout and fundamentalist, with just a thin educated veneer on top.

    The US was right in feeling that Saddam's rule was increasingly shaky, but it was not just because a Sunni minority ruled a Shi'ite majority. It was also destabilized by the large number of arms held by the population; Saddam ruled, more and more, by holding the balance between well-armed tribes, which he never successfully disarmed. And it was economically weak: the international sanctions, imposed after the Gulf war, did not bring down Saddam, but they did increase general poverty. The American invasion may have hastened the regime's demise, but the invaders did not realize how unstable the country already was, and how little it would take to plunge it into chaos.

    Indeed, military victory was far easier than expected. The US commanders did not realize how little most Iraqi soldiers cared to fight--most low ranks were Shi'a conscripts, who preferred to desert, whereas most officers were Sunni. The Americans interpreted their easy victory to mean that the country would welcome new rulers, and decided to run it with minimal Iraqi participation. Contracts to manage the rebuilding of Iraq were advertised and given to (mostly) US companies, a very bad policy--much too slow, too expensive (much of the funding disappeared unaccountably) and rather demeaning to Iraqis.

    Life in Iraq therefore grew harder, not easier. In 1991 the US bombed power stations, oil refineries, bridges and other key installations, intent on beating back Iraq's attack and using any means it had. Nevertheless, within months the power network operated again. In 2003, the US deliberately avoided bombing that network: yet for years afterwards, power was limited to certain hours per day, and even now, full service is not restored. Cockburn makes an interesting comparison with the occupation of Berlin in WW-II. There, even before all the fighting ended, a Russian general summoned all Germans responsible for public services--or if not available, their highest ranking deputies--and worked out a provisional plan for restoring such services.

    Nothing like that occurred in Baghdad. The US appointed as proconsul Paul Bremer, former US ambassador to the Netherlands, and until he was removed a year later, the situation continued to deteriorate. Stress was given to "restoring democracy," to organizing elections, even devising a new flag for the nation, something viewed with disdain by the Iraqis, who saw it as a sign of how much the occupation was out of touch with reality. What Washington failed to realize was that while people by and large esteem freedom and might even recognize democracy as a good way towards it, personal security and stable livelihood come first--especially in an impoverished country, where what we take for marginal living may be the baseline from which you start. More than personal freedom, what mattered was the failure to provide security and stability.

    The result, of course, was a growing resistance to the occupation, one which eroded any achievements of military victory. Was it inevitable? Cockburn feels it could have been avoided if the US paid more attention. When Saddam fell, he estimated (excluding probably the Kurdish area, which was largely self-governing, and still is), about half the population welcomed the change, while the other half sat on the sidelines, watching to see what followed. The balance shifted gradually, as the new government displayed its ineptness. It was a missed opportunity.

    There is much more in the book--it merits slow reading, perhaps more than once. It is a convincing portrayal--so unlike the official Baker-Lee report, whose recommendations remind one of the folk tale of a council of mice, deciding what to do about the predatory cat: "hang a bell around the cat's neck, so that we mice can hear it approaching."

    In truth, the situation has been allowed to deteriorate so far that it is hard to come up with a quick solution. The war has caused enormous damage to the US, and even greater damage to Iraq. One can only hope that by now Iraqis of all factions resent the violence so much--any violence--to be willing to call a truce, even if it means dividing up Iraq. But unless some inspired leadership emerges, that too is a long shot.

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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 31 December 2006