As U.S. and British forces occupy Iraq’s major cities, it seems that most Americans and Iraqis are relieved that the invasion of Iraq is drawing a close. Whatever their opinions about the war, most wanted it to end quickly, in order to prevent further casualties on both sides. It is an understandable human reaction to want the carnage and suffering to end as quickly as possible, and to begin the process of reconstructing a country ravaged by Saddam, sanctions and “surgical” strikes.
Yet a different and ironic reality is fast emerging. Although the relatively easy U.S.-British conquest may result in less armed conflict over the short term, it may actually increase conflict and pain over the long term. The quicker the victory, the harder the peace.
As Saddam and his Ba’ath Party are quickly eliminated, the new occupying powers will also be dismantling their main rationale for occupation. They will not only be erasing their main propaganda points from the media’s blackboard, but with the invaders’ main job done, Iraqi civilians and neighboring Muslim states may quickly start asking them to leave Iraq. By gloating in an easy victory, and humiliating Iraqis with a blatant foreign occupation, the U.S. and U.K. will also be enhancing the risk of global terrorism.
Thumbs-up to Thumbs-down
First, most Iraqis (particularly the Shi’ites and Kurds) are joyously welcoming the elimination of Saddam and his regime. And that’s precisely the problem for the Coalition occupation forces. Iraqis will see that the invasion’s central goal has been met, and assume that the invaders can leave. Thank you for tearing down the portraits and statues of our hated dictator; you can go home now. Here’s your helmet, there’s the door; we can rule ourselves. If Saddam had stayed alive and free as long as Osama bin Laden, some Iraqis would tolerate a foreign presence. But absent the dictator, they will assume the job is finished.
And it is amazing how quickly “thumbs-up” can be switched to “thumbs-down.” Iraqis held angry demonstrations when U.S. troops raised the Stars-and-Stripes in a temporary show of force over Umm Qasr and Baghdad, before their officers took the flags down. After the fall of the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, U.S. troops freely advanced through the streets, until they got too close to the Imam Ali Shrine. The Shi’ite residents suddenly turned hostile, and a crowd blocked the soldiers until they backed off. Iraqis have a long tradition of dancing in the streets one day, and fighting in the streets the following day. Only a few days after dancing crowds greeted British troops liberating Baghdad from the Ottoman Turks in 1917, they started turning on the British, who eventually had to leave in 1932 aftera dozen frustrating years of battling Arab and Kurdish rebels.
Second, without Saddam Hussein to kick around anymore, the Coalition has lost its most effective propaganda touchstone. It can no longer point to Saddam’s atrocities as a rationale to stay in the country, particularly if it comes up empty-handed of biochemical weapons. The enthusiasm that U.S. and U.K. troops showed when toppling Saddam statues will not be as evident when they are pulling police duty to keep ethnic and religious groups apart. The claim that foreign troops need to prevent instability and civil war will ring hollow when their provocative presence becomes a reason for instability. Did any Americans argue in 1861 that British troops should reoccupy us to prevent our own Civil War?
Iraq is not an economic basket case like Afghanistan, but an educated, technically trained society. Professional and independent Iraqi civil servants, who were never ideologically selected by the Ba’ath Party, are perfectly capable of running the country without foreign guidance. They will resent interference by foreign “administrators” who know little or nothing about Iraq’s rich history and cultures. If it is difficult to imagine Texans and Virginians in charge of ancient Mesopotamian cities, try to imagine an administrator from Baghdad or Mosul running an American city as complex as New York or even Milwaukee. We have never experienced the humiliation of foreign occupation, and do not understand that even the most virulently anti-Saddam Iraqi will not appreciate being patronized.
Third, the poor Shi’ite majority in southern Iraq and Baghdad is clearly jubilant about the fall of Saddam, and is expecting that its second-class economic status should soon end. The Bush Administration, however, has different ideas, by enhancing the role of unpopular exiles from Iraq’s elite, who dominated the country before the 1958 revolution toppled the monarchy. U.S. planes flew the Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi back into Iraq after a 47-year exile. Shi’ite clerics and other dissidents were furious that the elite Shi’ite banker was being groomed for a major role in the occupation, and threatened to lead a revolt. A Shi’ite cleric opposing Saddam in Basra similarly told the New York Times, “We regard nationalists in the army as defending Iraqi land against invasion and the exploitation of Iraqi wealth. They are defending Iraq, not the regime.” But a young Shi’ite man put it most eloquently to an ABC News reporter covering the chaotic distribution of food aid in Umm Qasr: “You have humiliated us more than our enemies.”
In the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, the Ayatollah Sistani issued a fatwa (religious ruling) when the war began that Iraqis should resist the Coalition. As U.S. forces moved into Najaf, they claimed that the Ayatollah had reversed the fatwa. The American media gushed with praise for the Ayatollah–who is based in the same city where Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini had lived in exile in 1965-78. Al Jazeera later reported that Sistani denied the reversal, but the incident was perhaps the central political turning point in the Iraq War.
It is apparent that the “Coalition” government occupiers eventually plan to form an Iraqi coalition government including exiles such as Chalabi, but also Sunni royalists, selected Shi’ite clerics, and Kurdish peshmerga fighters. By hand-picking the elites of each ethnic-religious group, the U.S. will be trying to solidify its influence, but it will also not be disappointed if the “Iraqi Interim Administration” falls into bickering or violent strife. By setting up the postwar government to fail, or by highlighting tensions within such a government, the U.S. can justify a permanent military bases presence to “safeguard stability.” Withdrawal will not be an option.
Fourth, the relatively easy victory in Iraq is going to heighten fears and resentment of the U.S. in neighboring Middle Eastern states, particularly Syria, Iran and Lebanon. Iraqis lost at least ten times as many civilians as the Coalition lost in the war–not even counting Iraqi military deaths. Even strongly anti-Saddam Arabs had been hoping the U.S. would have a tougher time conquering Iraq, if only to prevent further American overconfidence and recklessness. They fear a new version of the domino theory, in which the U.S. attacks nuclear sites in Iran, camps in Syria and Lebanon, and then on to topple governments in North Korea, Venezuela, and points in between.
The Pentagon is already overextending its reach to countries such as Colombia and the Philippines, where it will eventually run into tough rebel resistance (as it surprisingly did for a few days in southern Iraq) in mixed guerrilla-civilian zones where there is no clear military to bomb. Recent U.S. wars have been directed against countries with identifiable and nasty dictators. Without Saddam and Bin Laden as its main foes, Washington will have to search for another enemy to justify the bloated military budget and civil liberties crackdowns.
Terrorism more likely
Finally, the relatively easy U.S. victory in Iraq increases, rather than decreases, the threat of 9/11-style terrorist attacks. We should not have a faslse sense of security that the “threat” would pass with the war’s end. As Fedayeen irregular forces were unexpectedly tying down Coalition troops around Nasiriyah and Basra, the threat of terrorism may have actually diminished. Islamist radicals, though they strongly opposed the “infidel” Saddam’s secular rule, were glad to see the U.S. and British get a small dose of humiliation. Many Arab nationalists and even pro-Western officials felt much the same. Had the war lasted longer, and the fighting grown tougher, they may have been satisfied that Arab pride had remained intact. But with the hubris of the Coalition victory, certain groups such as Al Qaeda may conclude that America needs a new humiliation to match Iraq’s humiliation.
This threat will only grow with the U.S.-U.K. occupation. The new American civil governor of Iraq, retired General Jay Garner, has been a strong advocate of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, so is precisely the wrong guy for the job. As the U.S. military presence becomes more permanent, and the military bases and airfields it recently seized are reinforced and expanded, the threat will also increase. It was not the 1991 Gulf War that led Osama bin Laden to launch Al Qaeda’s first attacks five years later, but the fact that U.S. forces stayed behind his Saudi holy land despite promises to leave after the conflict. Today, the Coalition similarly claims that its “forces will not stay in Iraq a day longer than is necessary.” Finally getting wise, the Saudis are asking the Americans to leave after the conquest of Iraq is completed. How long will it take Iraqi nationalists to ask Americans to leave the Shi’ite holy land? And what will they do when Washington ignores them?
Let Iraqis Rule Themselves
It is obviously desirable from a human perspective that the war is drawing to a close and fewer people are expected to die in the next few weeks than died in the past few weeks. But the gloating of victors and the humiliation of the losers is the best way to guarantee future instability and war in Iraq. And history shows that the best guarantee of a U.S. military intervention is a previous history of U.S. military interventions.
Both pro-war and anti-war Americans tend to view civilians as passive victims of the violence in Iraq– victims of either Saddam or smart bombs, or both. But Iraqi civilians, particularly from oppressed ethnic and religious groups, have always been independent agents in shaping their own destinies.
We have tended to look at Iraq (as we have previously viewed Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Central America or Vietnam) as an arena where our different visions of America and its foreign policy are played out. But geographers understand that Iraq is a place, with a deep history and immense complexities. Iraq is not an empty slate on which Americans can etch their messages of war or peace, but a treasured home to the people who live there.
We can now defend the sovereignty of the Iraqi people without being accused of defending Saddam’s regime. True Iraqi self-determination could even lead to the ejection of foreign troops and bases, and the nationalization of the country’s oil wealth for the benefit of its people. The goal of the peace movement needs to shift from “War is Not the Answer” to “Let Iraqis Rule Themselves.”
Zoltan Grossman is an Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. His peace writings can be seen at http://www.uwec.edu/grossmzc/peace.html and he can be reached at email@example.com