Castles made of sand

Hunkered down inside their massive Baghdad fortress, U.S. officials have no idea why the Iraq occupation has turned into a nightmare.

Andrew Cockburn
April 9, 2004 1:26AM (UTC)

Nothing much changes in Iraq. Just before the Shiites rose in revolt against the occupation, a leading member of the occupation authority in Baghdad reported that "the bottom seems to have dropped out of the agitation and most of the leaders are only too anxious to let bygones be bygones."

No, that was not Paul Bremer on CNN, but the British Iraqi expert Gertrude Bell, writing to the local military commander in May 1920. Almost immediately afterwards, most of Iraq erupted in a bloody revolt that inflicted thousands of casualties on the occupation forces. The uprising was enthusiastically supported by both Shiite and Sunni, who held joint prayer services in each other's mosques in support of the rebellion.


There is no sign that anyone in the vast fortress that is Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters in the heart of Baghdad, isolated from Iraq and Iraqis by concrete ramparts and triple canopy razor wire, has any knowledge of or interest in awkward precedents like the great 1920 revolt. Nor is there any sign that any of the 3,000 officials (even excluding the high percentage of Republican Party hacks) allegedly governing Iraq understands quite why the occupation is collapsing in blood and flames.

Some in the U.S. military do have a better understanding of their enemy, certainly as compared with the empty bluster of Bush, Rumsfeld or Bremer. "It's a loose network of the willing," a Marine colonel lately returned from Baghdad told me Wednesday. "We are a hierarchy, so we look for other hierarchies to fight. But it's clear that what we are facing in Iraq is network-based. There's no one leader or leadership -- just like the first Palestinian intifada against the Israelis. That was a network of local groups who were able to give the appearance of a national movement. You can deal with that, but it takes maybe 10 years. We can't even plan for the next two months."

Farther down the U.S. military chain of command, there are also others who understand the general disenchantment. "I really don't care for the Iraqi people, I don't care about helping them get back on their feet," an Army captain stationed in the Sunni triangle wrote home to his family last year. "However, I don't condone stealing from them, hurting them unnecessarily or threatening them with violence if it is not needed. We will never win hearts and minds here, but what these guys are doing is wrong."


The young officer was referring to his neighboring unit, who, as he related, had been robbing Iraqis during house raids and other security operations -- a phenomenon widely reported by Iraqis the length and breadth of the country, though for the most part discreetly unmentioned in the U.S. press. Yet it represents merely the bottom-most and crudest layer of an occupation that Iraqis have come to regard as both cruel and corrupt.

Even if they escape casual robbery at roadblocks, Iraqis know that, despite the billions allegedly disbursed by the U.S. for reconstruction, the electricity is still off for most of the day, hospitals are short of the most basic medicines, and the chances of finding a job are slim -- especially for their wives and daughters, who in any case must brave rape or kidnap whenever they venture out the door. They also know about the rich pickings enjoyed by those Iraqis favored by the occupiers, such as members of the handpicked Governing Council pushing their way through the traffic in their convoys of white U.S.-supplied SUVs -- and the even richer pickings garnered by those at the top of the corruption pyramid, such as Halliburton.

These conditions have an impact all over Iraq. In Sunni areas, of course, consequent resentment among the population has been augmented from the beginning by the evident contrast with conditions enjoyed under the Baathist regime. For the Shiites, on the other hand, life under Saddam was harsh indeed. Hence their slightly warmer reaction to the invasion, their eager anticipation of the freedom and democracy promised by the U.S., and their embittered reaction upon realizing that the occupiers have apparently little interest in allowing them democratic freedoms, not to mention improved living standards any time soon.


For example, from early last summer the Ayatollah Sistani has been urging the occupation authorities to hold an election. The consistent response of the occupation authorities has been either to ignore Sistani's request for a democratic process, or else to craft ways of postponing an election while endeavoring to create "facts on the ground" -- such as long-term reconstruction contracts for U.S. corporations -- that cannot be undone by any democratically elected Iraqi government. Thus, as Sistani's pacific entreaties have yielded little result, the Shiite masses have developed not only a sense of disenfranchisement, but sympathy with the more robust agenda of boy-cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Iraqis familiar with al-Sadr and his group suggest that he has been needlessly antagonized. "Why can't the Americans understand," lamented a Shiite with powerful religious connections to me on the phone Wednesday. "The Sadr movement was created by Muqtada's father, who mobilized all the poor, the unemployed, the uneducated. The Americans appoint members of the Governing Council who have maybe 30 followers in all of Iraq. Yet they never even tried to give any responsibility to anyone from the al-Sadr movement. Now, with what they are doing, any other Shiite leader, like Sistani, who advocates a different approach, can be painted by Muqtada as an ally of the Americans. Already Muqtada is arresting people in Najaf who do not follow him."


Back in the days when the Ottomans ruled Iraq, their governor in Baghdad lived in splendor, but also feared that a successor might at any time appear from Istanbul with orders for his execution by beheading, which Iraqis called "the turban falling." The most cheerful caller I have had in the past few days was from a militantly nationalist Iraqi friend, exulting in the uprising and warning me happily that "many turbans will fall in the next few months -- and the Americans will soon be gone."

Andrew Cockburn

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington Editor of Harper's magazine and the author of many articles and books on national security, including the New York Times Editor's Choice Rumsfeld and The Threat, which destroyed the myth of Soviet military superiority underpinning the Cold War. He is a regular opinion contributor to the Los Angeles Times and has written for, among others, the New York Times, National Geographic and the London Review of Books.

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