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Political analysis and other daily rants on the state of the nation

Tuesday | April 08, 2003

After Saddam: an Arab Congo?

CIA pushed Iraqi opposition out of southern town

WASHINGTON, April 8 (Reuters) - A local militia opposed to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein took control of the southeastern city of Amara on Sunday but a CIA officer told them to withdrew under threat of bombing, opposition officials said on Tuesday.

The militia of several thousand armed men, led by a man by the name of Abu Hatem Mohammed Ali, captured the headquarters of the governorate, 230 miles (365 km) southeast of Baghdad, without support from U.S. forces, opposition leader Kanan Makiya told the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

He described Abu Hatem as a well-known guerrilla leader, a longtime contact of the opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC) and a man known to the Pentagon.

"He was then told by a CIA officer whose name I do not know but who spoke perfect Arabic that he had to vacate that city ... He was threatened with bombing and strafing of the building, the compound he took over, so he decided it would be better to be wise and he did withdraw in fact," he added.

Makiya said the lesson of the incident was that U.S. forces should cooperate with local opposition forces instead of trying to do everything alone. "I bring it as a cautionary tale of where we can go wrong," he added

So how long is it before the CIA has to make good on that threat? A week, a month?

Let me explain my thinking here.

I have worried less about winning than what happens after we win. This is the most political war Americans have ever fought, and victory will never be judged in military terms alone.

I've written about the war because I understood the concepts well and the reporting in the major press was ridiculous. But, privately, my real concern has always been the nakedly political nature of the war. Not that we wouldn't blow the Iraqi Army away, but that we couldn't control the outcome of the war.

Iraq is a place where outcomes matter. In 1920, two years after WW I, a nationwide rebellion erupted, and when asked, they're still mad at the British for invading and staying. In 1991, the minute Saddam looked on the ropes, the knives came out. Now, we've created a black hole of a power vacuum. There is no one close to running the country. The Army is gone, the Baathists dying by the bucketload, the various factions are waiting to claim their stake.

Yet, I'm reading articles crowing about how well the war went. The problem is that deposing Saddam is like dumping the Czar in 1917. Just because you establish a democratic government, doesn't mean Kerensky is going to stay in power. If you had said in 1916 that the US would be in Russia until 1920, fighting communists, you would have been deemed a madman.

Just because Saddam was an evil bastard, doesn't mean his methods were ineffective. He kept control of a country with millions of guns and two active factions not dedicated to the territorial integrity of the country. He killed a lot of people to remain in power. The US does not have this option. The war alone has ruined the credibility of the US in the Arab World. Saddam's methods are not available.

The US war against Saddam may soon be over, but that may only be the start of the Iraq war. There are millions of guns, rockets and mortars, billions of rounds of ammo, scattered across the country. No one knows who controls them or what they have planned. The Shia want control of their destiny, as do the Kurds, and the Sunnis may not be happy to lose power.

Let's say we fully control Baghdad in the next week or so and the rest of the cities in the next month. What Iraqi government official surrenders? Who runs things? Do we just slide from Saddam rule to American rule?

We have set up clear political goals, remove Saddam, establish democracy, but the problem is that we have no power base to work with.

Kamiya and his fellow liberals in the INC have no power. They say nice things, but they are largely strangers in Iraq. Saddam killed anyone who could be considered opposition, except for the hardest of the hard core clerics and guerrillas. The tribal leaders have been courted, bribed, threatened and have limited power. The Baathists, tainted by their connection to Saddam, still control the levers of government.

Tom Friedman suggested that Iraq was either an Arab Switzerland or an Arab Yugoslavia. I would suggest a third alternative: an Arab Congo.

An enemdically corrupt country barely held together by the most brutal means imaginable. When the levers of power are removed, various factions then turn on each other in bloody combat.

What is amazing is that the US has no clear supporters. No oligarchs, no Catholic refugees. Anyone we arm in Iraq today could kill Americans tomorrow. There is no one group which has any reason to align with the US.

The Shia:

They hate the Americans. First, our proxy war with Iran didn't win any friends, nor did our actions in Lebanon. But even when given the chance, the US has done nothing but issue threats to their leaders. Plans for the Southern oil fields could rob the Shia of both power and money.

Even if you discount all that, letting Saddam slaughter them in 1991 was the final straw. Greatful to have their Pharoah Saddam removed by the US, they are far from eager to do anything to hasten his end. Of course, the US didn't want the SCIRI to send the Badr Brigade into Iraq. Well, it's not like they can control that now.

The Sunni Tribes

They took millions from the US and did nothing. Their money is sitting in Abu Dhabi or Switzerland collecting interest as US soldiers and Marines get killed in street fights around Iraq. If they had done that to Saddam, a few of their sons would be missing various body parts. Instead, they see the US as a mark, who will pay lavishly for nothing. The odds of them being inclined to take the word of a US viceroy is low.

The Kurds

So, these are our allies, right? They seem so eager to attack the remaining Iraqi forces. Wait.... you mean they don't? Well, no, because they're scooping up ammo and waiting for war which will determine their survival, the war against the Turks. What war against the Turks? Well, the minute the Barzanis pop up in Kirkuk is the minute the Turkish Army rolls south. The Turks have made it clear that they do not want, nor will tolerate, an independent Kurdish state and given the anarchy about to erupt in the South, they might be right.

The ultimate flaw in the US policy and we can see it on TV, live, is the inability to impose even a minimal amount of order. The British in Basra are permitting looting and god knows what else in the streets. The kind of anarchy which can explode or mutate at any moment.

One day it's looting, the next, its "British go home". Without a reliable police force, and people with no incentive to ensure a successful occupation, the mobs could get ugly quickly and unlike Belfast, could one day show up armed en masse.

We claim to be relying on Iraqis to reform the army, maintain services and the like. Sure, they may do that once Saddam is in a cage or dead, if the mobs let them. The mobs may want their clerics or their tribal leaders to run things. And you can bet the Syrians, Turks and Iranians certainly have an interest in creating the most difficult occupation imaginable.

While the British are standing impotently, watching looting pass by their vehicles, Iranian agents clearly are ciruclating, reporting what they see and hear and whom to back. Crowds are stealing aid and tossing rocks at the British. They have 8,000 men to police a city of 1.5 million people. Their tanks and APC's become useless when faced with angry crowds. The problem is that you have to rely on the professionalism of teenagers. One kid gets a dear john letter from home, has a bad day and decides to open up on a crowd, and you have a problem.

What could be even worse is if the crowds are being goosed into violence. The agitators, from whereever, start to hand out cash to start taunting the British. It could be a contest between the Al Qaeda agents and the Iranians to see whom can create more disorder first. Rumsfeld has made it a national security imperative that the Iranians make a US occupation of Iraq as difficult, violent and unpopular as possible.

The nightmare is that the Iraqis could drag this out. Small force engagements, hit and run raids, sabotage, assassinations. We could have troops all over Baghdad and other cities and still not control them. We could be hunting down guerrilla bands months from now.

What is even worse is that our tactics could be sending a dual message: that we can be played for fools (Sunni tribes) and do not have the will to impose order (Shia). What happens when we start getting pressed. Today it's rocks, tomorrow it's armed mobs. What do we do when 5,000 men march with weapons demanding we leave? The British are in no position to impose even rudimentary local order.

The alternative, as people have suggested, is warlordism. We let warlords take control of regions to establish peace. That's hardly democracy. There is a real question if there is a structure for us to work with. We have very few prisoners, few generals, none of note, no Baath leaders.

Armed gangs in Najaf undermine peace plans
By Charles Clover in Najaf, Iraq

The people of Hay al-Ansar, a district on the outskirts of Najaf, were glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party rule when the city was seized by US forces last week.

But they appear to be just as terrified, if not more so, of their new rulers - a little known Iraqi militia backed by the US special forces and headquartered in a compound nearby.

The Iraqi Coalition of National Unity (ICNU), which appeared in the city last week riding on US special forces vehicles, has taken to looting and terrorising the people with impunity, according to most residents.

"They steal and steal" said Abu Zeinab, a man living near the Medresa al Tayif school. . "They threaten us, saying 'we are with the Americans, you can do nothing to us.'"

Sa'ida al-Hamed, another resident, says she has witnessed looting by the ICNU and other armed gangs in the city, which lost its police force when the government fled last week. One man told a US army translator on Monday that he was taken out of his house and beaten by ICNU forces when he refused to give them his car. They took it anyway, he said

Ayatollah Sistani has so far refused to meet representatives of US forces, according to associates, and has made no public pronouncements on co-operating with the US military. Associates say he is "waiting for the situation to become clearer".

"We only follow Ayatollah Sistani, and so far he has said nothing," said Abu Zeinab.

What we could have is something worse than Saddam, barely controlled anarchy. The British excuses for not controlling Basra will not last for long. This is where Shinseki risks being proved right. While the PNAC cabal was focused on the crushing of the Iraqi Army, Shinseki was focused on crushing the Iraqis and providing security. If the British can't provide order, the Shia clerics and their guerrillas can. Because the odds of them tolerating this kind of naked abuse are between low and none.

This is where relying on treason falls down. The Army is somewhere, but no place to ensure domestic stability. The local officials are untrustworthy. The Coalition unable to provide even ruidmentary security with their troops and anyone they arm may turn on them.

That's the problem with nation building. Once you assume there are simple solutions, they suddenly get complicated.

Steve Gilliard

Posted April 08, 2003 04:20 PM | Comments (122)


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