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Has anyone in U.S. read history of Iraq?
Dubai | By Neena Gopal | 12/04/2003

If there are lessons that the U.S. administration must learn, they are the lessons of Iraq's history, replete with storied tales of bloody uprisings, brutal repression and deceit. There is no need to turn the pages too far.

Pre-Baathist, so called free Iraq, saw some half a dozen governments come and go in the space of 40 years, marked by the particularly horrific regicide of the youthful King Faisal II, who was dismembered and dragged through the streets of Baghdad. He was seen, as was his father, as a British puppet, and therefore unacceptable.

Certainly, Saddam Hussain's acceptance by the Iraqi people in the early years stemmed from his systematic suppression of all opposition, but it was also partly because Saddam was the first Iraqi leader who was seen as having come up the ranks, and partly because the socialist ideology of the Baathists that he initially espoused held out the promise of an equitable distribution of Iraq's oil wealth.

"From the seventies onwards, Baghdad had expressways, free education and health care, Iraqis had a higher standard of living than anyone in the Arab world," says Ahmed Samarrai, a young Iraqi economist who lives in the UAE, and a strong critic of U.S. intervention in his homeland.

By the time the ordinary Iraqi had realised that the Baathist ideology had given way to an essentially fascist regime that ruled on the two premises of fear and greed, there was little anyone could do.

Iraqis who served in the Baathist regime and have since left, believe strongly that if the people of Baghdad had found Saddam alive on that historic day when U.S. tanks rolled into the heart of the city, his fate would have been no different from that of his many statues and his portraits. Or that of his hapless predecessors.

As Iraqis' fears fall away, and U.S. troops earn plaudits for their lightning military tactics, with one city after another falling like nine-pins to the coalition forces' superior firepower, it is worthwhile reminding the men who have driven this war from Washington that while the U.S. and UK have won the war militarily, there is a far more difficult political battle that lies ahead. That battle for legitimacy in a secure Iraq is not easily won.

Already, a leading Shiite cleric who returned from exile has been knifed to death in the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf by rivals. There are reports too, that as the Kurdish forces swept into Kirkuk on Thursday, they headed for a registry office, in a bid, the nervous Turks say, to remove all Turkoman names from the list.

The Turks are plainly worried - at what is being seen as the U.S. turning a blind eye to the formation of a Kurdish enclave. This could, with Kirkuk's enormous oil wealth, be placed at the hands of the oppressed Kurds in Turkey towards the creation of a greater Kurdistan in the north. It would inevitably be the thorn in the underbelly of neighbouring Turkey.

Removing Turkoman names, the Turks say, is the precursor to ethnic cleansing by the Kurds, the start of the kind of internecine blood-letting and revenge killings that many have predicted as symbols of government fall away; as true in the north as in the rest of Iraq.

As in Afghanistan, where Northern Alliance fighters were the military instrument used to topple the Taliban and take over the capital Kabul, the U.S. has used an ethnic group to secure their northern front.

The quid pro quo in Afghanistan was a powerful say for Northern Alliance, essentially Tajik figures, in a post Taliban government, with Hamid Karzai, the nominal face of the majority Pashtun.

The question of whether the U.S., thwarted by Turkey from using their facilities for a northern front, has offered a deal to the Kurds must be asked.

And the corollary, what is the deal? The dismemberment of Iraq and an independent Kurdistan , or turning the northern no-fly zone into a separate enclave in a U.S. -run Iraq divided into three provinces - a Shiite south, a Kurdish north and a central Iraq?

Iraqi exiles who live here and watched with trepidation as the U.S. fought off fierce rearguard action by Republican Guards and Saddam's Fidayeen and suicide squads, are at pains to explain that they have known all along that on their own, they were powerless to dislodge Saddam Hussein from power.

Many admit there was no other way and that "we are hoping and praying that the U.S. have ended Saddam's rule forever, and that there will be no more opposition to the U.S. troops."

But as an Iraqi exile who served in Saddam's army says, the intense opposition to U.S. troops in Basra and Um Qasr and again in Nassiriya and Najaf as well as Karbala, while hailed by many in the Arab world, and understood as a David versus Goliath battle in an essentially asymmetric war, stemmed largely from a hatred of the U.S. over its anti-Arab and pro-Israel policies in the region.

When that short-lived Iraqi fight-back melted away, as the Republican Guard and allied nationalist elements were worn away in the war of attrition, a people freed from Saddam's oppression were able to freely express their feelings.

However, as young people like Samarrai warn that euphoria is likely to be short-lived, if not fleeting. While "a distinction must be made between love of my country and love of Saddam", the U.S. has no right to change Iraq's government or worse, impose their man as a ruler while claiming to do the very opposite, he says echoing many young Iraqis, who have grown up in a sanctions imposed Iraq.

While the first part of that argument has become purely academic, now that Saddam has been deposed, the issue of what lies ahead takes on an added urgency as a nervous world watches the U.S. attempt to remake Iraq in its image. U.S. experts who are fashioning Iraq's future government therefore, must not foregt the factor in the enormous ill-will that is certain to mark the imposition of anyone the Iraqis see as having U.S. blessing.

It may also have to live with a virulent hatred whipped up by the killing of civilians over this 21-day war, and the 12 years of deprivation under U.S.-led UN sanctions that have gone before.

The key danger however is as former Iraqi foreign minister Adnan Pachachi has warned of the U.S. looking at Iraq through an ethnic prism. Iraqis are justifiably proud of their secular heritage, and their society has been marked by little overt persecution on religious or ethnic lines.

That Saddam Hussein perpetuated the predominant role in society of the minority Sunnis is more historic than planned, his subjugation of Kurds and the Shias a manifestation of a power struggle rather than ethnic rivalry. And as many Sunni Iraqis will tell you, Saddam's munificence extended only to his clan and extended family of townspeople, and rarely included all Sunnis.

With the powerful unifying glue of a Saddam Hussein removed, the various and diverse ethnic groups, with their inclusive political agendas are certain to clash. Washington's backing of certain Iraqi opposition groups, imposing their version of a democratic Iraq, while propping up discredited elements of the Iraqi opposition has created deep unease in the region.

Sending out the wrong signals too is the U.S. blatantly ignoring wiser counsel to set up a conference under the UN aegis that pulls in all Iraqi leaders, both inside and outside Iraq as a first step towards free elections and a parliament.

The U.S. attempts in trying to limit the role of the UN in rebuilding post war Iraq as the country descends into anarchy and lawlessness is also an issue. While the UN has shown itself as particularly inept at peace-keeping, it's healing touch is necessary to bring some semblance of a civilian structure to a bewildered and battered people.

The U.S. must pause to reflect on whether it would be more prudent to tackle the pressing issues of restoring peace and order, and supplies of clean water, electricity, food and medicine rather than rush to impose a government, that would be seen anyway, as tainted by Washington's long shadow.
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