The Iraqi people have no voice. The Anglo-American forces who are killing them in their thousands are led by aliens in foreign capitals who know what is best for these 22m people and how to “liberate” them, as if we were back in 1917, or in that Vietnamese village it was necessary for the Americans to destroy to make free. Their own leadership has kept them stifled and terrorised for more than 30 years.
In Iraq recently—my fourth trip since the last war (which I covered from Baghdad)—I heard the prevailing mood expertly put by a professor of political studies who has struggled bravely and vainly to enlighten the regime: “The Iraqis see no interest anywhere in their human rights, not in Baghdad or the West. Nothing remains for these people but metaphysics. I saw people recently queueing in their scores at a local Shi’ite mosque for Holy Water. I thought, My God, has it come to thiséin the middle of Baghdad?”
What underlies these words is a feeling of abandonment and isolation among the Iraqis and a shift in their attitudes from the secular and the coherent in the early Nineties to despair and either cynicism or an uncharacteristic trust in God. “Pacifying” Iraq will not be a peaceful enterprise.
Twelve years ago it was different. As coalition forces routed Iraq from Kuwait our Iraqi minders and officials in Baghdad became noticeably freer and elated as the prospect grew of an end to Saddam Hussein. The dead hands of watchfulness and censorship lifted. Undisguised whispers, nods and winks hinted at confidence in imminent liberation. My colleagues and I reported that Saddam Hussein was almost history.
George Bush Senior and his propaganda machine exhorted the Iraqis—the Shi’a, the Kurds, the dissident Sunnis, north and south—to rise against Saddam. They did so, at different stages seizing 13 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Then, as Iraq’s destiny seemed on the verge of transformation, the Americans not only denied the rebels support but actively allowed Saddam and his security forces to reassert their primacy. The United States betrayed these Iraqis because it was afraid of the revolutions’s consequences and shy of being seen to be responsible for it.
Since that miscalculation, the Iraqis have suffered Saddam Hussein’s continued rule overlaid with a harsh and pointless regimen of economic sanctions. These enhanced his and his state’s dominance at the centre and enfeebled and demoralised a population that had, with spirit and bravery, almost unseated him. The Iraqis I have talked to inside and outside Iraq agree that the trade sanctions were vindictive and counterproductive. From the very first, the Americans, and later the British, made clear that however comprehensively Saddam Hussein disarmed—and he did disarm, quite extensively—and however diligently he might try to obey UN Security Council Resolutions, there would be no end to the embargo on oil sales, as spelled out in Resolution 687, and no end to Iraq’s misery, until he was gone.
Thus the West—the Americans and British—undermined the validity of their own case, destroyed any incentive for Saddam Hussein to co-operate and beggared the Iraqi people. The Iraqis’ hatred of Saddam is therefore overlain with blame for us, for their lost years and the destruction of their hopes and future.
The friends we had in 1991 are gone. The suitability and credibility of the US as a “liberating” force have evaporated. I have in the past 12 years, inside Iraq and the Middle East and outside the region, found few Iraqis who wish to be set free by the United States and its military machine. They know well the American predilection for overkill and how high is the value of an American life and how cheap anyone else’s. They are baffled by Britain—thought once to be canny in the ways of the Middle East—and its involvement in this folly.
A few members of the Iraqi opposition and other innocents abroad are sanguine about the horrors of war, if that is what it takes to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Not in the line of fire, they are prepared for mayhem before freedom. One senior Iraqi ex-politician completely misunderstood my concern about how Iraqis would withstand the coming conflict, seeing it only in terms of his own chances back home once the war was over.
Kurds apart, the opposition has little support inside Iraq and little connection with the realities there. One problem is that the people of Iraq have lost all sense of self and coherence. They have no organisation or capability, apart from the struggle to find work, food and education for their children. However, once the burden of Saddam Hussein is lifted the indigenous Iraqis will want to seize responsibility for themselves, not form a reception committee for outsiders of twenty, thirty years standing.
Iraqis of all strains do agree about any extended American suzerainty. Salah Shaikhly, a former Governor of Iraq’s Central Bank, whose brother was murdered by Saddam’s agents in the late 1970s and who barely escaped himself, says: “An American Governor is not desirable. Disastrous, in fact! Are we worse than Afghans? If they had an Afghan ruler from Day One, why not us? No, no Iraqi could serve under an occupying power.”
In Baghdad, a political acquaintance of mine who is critical of the outside opposition, but no admirer of Saddam, told me: “We Iraqis like foreigners, but not as rulers. We have a way with those outsiders who try to rule us.”
The professor of politics said: “When authority (i.e.Saddam) is removed you might get a resistance with a sense of pride—we Arabs tend to produce resistance when there is no real authority over us, as in South Lebanon and the Occupied Territories.” He is sure that any foreign body, US or UN, trying to rule Iraq in the murderously febrile state it will be in when the oppressive lid of nearly 45 years standing is finally lifted will be unable to wield the draconian powers available to a local leader. The result could be anarchy, spiced with revenge.
Eighty years after Britain assembled Iraq out of its unlikely component parts in the interests of Empire, we are at it again. The Iraqis have noticed. Still reeling from the consequences of British rule, these people now await an onslaught followed by a heavy-handed dose of the “American Way”.
It is not an encouraging prospect and the Iraqis will not make its course easy.
The Anglo-American forces risk having to confront Saddam’s fighters while separating warring Iraqis and keeping civil peace. Internecine battles threaten: political feuding, vengeance and score-settling. Saddamist apparatchiks and security thugs will be sought out ; many a debt unrelated to politics will be paid off in blood, as in 1991. Shi’ite fundamentalists will fight Shi’ite Ba’athists; pro-Iranian militants will combat anti-Iranian; religious will tackle the secular; Kurd will be against Turk or Turcoman, or even rival Kurd.
Even the one section of Iraq, Kurdestan, that has experienced some sort of peace and accountable rule since 1991, is again in peril.
How, in or after this maelstrom, can an effective humanitarian effort be mounted? How can we guard and feed the hundreds of thousands of expected prisoners of war? How can United Nations agencies and humanitarian organisations like Save The Children operate? What local forces can be trusted to help maintain order? How will the essential Iraqi food ration be distributed ( many Iraqis are already selling or bartering their food stocks to raise cash)? And when the fighting subsides, how will foreign generals and their troops share out power among the different power centres and rivals? Who will vet effectively the lower-level Ba’athists of the government systems and civil service that any new regime will have to employ (any position of consequence in Iraq depended on Ba’ath membership)?
Few Iraqis can have much confidence that the rulers the West will select and impose will have their interests or future at heart, any more than did Saddam Hussein. Iraq does not trust the West, especially those two main protagonists of it, the Anglo-Americans, who will be leading the military charge. My professor friend said to me: “I say to Mr. Blair, you say you want democracy for me, yet you have prevented me from eating or getting my medicine.”
If after the war the proconsular regime continues to exercise exclusively pro-Israeli sympathies let alone try to coax Iraq into some form of rapprochement with Israel, the whole of Iraq will revolt. The cause of Palestine runs much deeper in Iraq than most Americans can fathom. The tragedy of the one people is felt viscerally by the other. The likelihood that under cover of the Iraq campaign Israel will move pre-emptively to crush the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories with even greater brutality and a more ruthless ethnic cleansing than is already evident can only fuel Iraqi and regional resentment.
It is a recipe for terrorist reprisals.
The optimists who talk of “liberation” and rice and rose water receptions for the conquering forces have not spent much time in the Middle East. South Lebanon’s Shi’ite villagers gave such a welcome to the Israelis as they poured over the frontier in 1978, and again in 1982—flowers in answer to firepower. Eighteen years of occupation, slaughter and disaster followed in the gentle rolling landscape of a few hundred square miles of Lebanon.
That matter is still not settled.
Tim Llewellyn was the BBC’s Middle East Correspondent in the 1970s,80s and early 90s, covering the last Gulf War from Baghdad. He was the first reporter to break the news of the Sabra-Shatilla massacre. He is now a free-lance writer and broadcaster on the region’s politics. He contributed above article (first appeared in The Tablet, Britain’s International Catholic Weekly) to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from the United Kingdom.