Global Policy Forum

US Struggles in Quicksand of Iraq


By Alissa J. Rubin

Los Angeles Times
May 5, 2003

Nearly a month after Baghdad fell to U.S. forces, the reconstruction effort is struggling to gain visibility and credibility, crime is a continuing problem, Iraqis desperate for jobs and security are becoming angry and the transition to democracy promised by President Bush seems rife with risk. The continuing disorder in a country accustomed to the repressive but absolute stability provided by Saddam Hussein is fueling at least a deep skepticism about U.S. intentions and at worst a dangerous anti-Americanism. As competing religious, tribal and territorial political forces move to fill the void, they threaten to divide the country rather than unite it.

Interviews with political analysts, exile figures and ordinary Iraqis throughout the country, coupled with developments on the ground, indicate that the United States' power to control Iraq and shape its future is increasingly threatened by the pervasive uncertainty. On many fronts, U.S. officials appear to have been unprepared for what awaited them in Iraq, from mundane concerns such as how to cope with the lack of telephones to philosophical questions such as how to respond to the desire of many Iraqis for an Islamic state. "The Americans and the British became obsessed with getting rid of Saddam; they thought he was responsible for all the catastrophes in Iraq," said Wamid Nadmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "But they have opened a Pandora's box."

U.S. officials say they are aware that time is of the essence. "We're moving as fast as we can," said Lewis Lucke, reconstruction chief for retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the interim administrator. "I don't ever think it's fast enough." U.S. officials point out that electricity is on again in much of the country; oil is being pumped in the southern fields; and many police, fire and emergency workers have been given a $20 stipend and are returning to their jobs. There have been numerous local success stories as well, with individual U.S. military commanders helping to reopen schools and protecting public facilities from looters. But often, U.S. officials seem stymied by the competing imperatives to get the country running while not appearing to be a dictatorial occupying force. Efforts to restore security, revive services, begin reconstruction and set up a new government are encountering difficulty.

For instance:

• The looting that began the day after Hussein's regime fell has yet to end. On Sunday, a crowd stormed into one of the palaces recently left unprotected by U.S. soldiers. Without a true police force in place, the wide-scale stealing has spawned a culture of lawlessness. Gun markets flourish on Baghdad's back streets, and armed robberies and carjackings have become common.

• Garner's Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, responsible for running the country, has yet to make its presence felt. With mass media in the capital limited to two radio stations, the office hasn't figured out how to communicate with the Iraqi people. There is no U.S. government office accessible to ordinary Iraqis.

• Many key contracts for rebuilding Iraq were not awarded until after the war started, and many contractors are waiting in hotels in Kuwait for the green light from the U.S. military that it is safe to enter the country.

• As the U.S. tries to help set up a new Iraqi government, the exile groups that many U.S. officials hoped Iraqis would rally around have won little popular support. Meanwhile, the organizations that are showing political strength — including some Shiite Muslim groups backed by Iran — are potentially hostile to U.S. aims.

Although the reconstruction effort is only weeks old, the Bush administration is already stressing that it would like to shift to an Iraqi-led government as soon as possible. At the same time, the lack of a visible American presence has sown doubts about U.S. intentions and frustrated ordinary Iraqis. Few if any people here have even heard of Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, who has kept such a low profile as to be almost invisible. Last week he issued a proclamation saying he was the lead authority and forbidding looting, reprisals and criminal activity. But it was never widely distributed, and few people even know about it. As for Garner and his staff, they are just beginning to communicate with the public. Their few reconstruction steps — including giving out money to returning workers — have yet to be applied evenly throughout Iraq.

In Nasiriyah on Sunday, teachers demanded to be paid, and the newly constituted city council threatened to quit unless salaries were distributed to all government workers. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell predicted Sunday that progress would accelerate. "As stability is gained throughout the country and security is obtained, and as the various ministries come back up online, more and more other sorts of organizations will come in," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "U.N. organizations, nongovernmental organizations, lots of our friends and allies will be sending in peacekeeping forces.... So there is a transition taking place." But Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed frustration Sunday over reconstruction in general and reports of infighting between the State Department and the Pentagon over rebuilding plans. "This has had to proceed perhaps sort of on the run, but long ago in our committee we asked for people to give us some idea of how the organization might proceed, and the ideas were fairly sketchy," Lugar said on CNN's "Late Edition." "They are far too sketchy now." More than anywhere, it is on the political front that the U.S. faces problems. The country is a barely intact jigsaw puzzle of competing groups divided by religion, tribal affiliation and ethnicity. Washington's main entry to Iraq was via the exile groups it had sponsored in Britain and the United States. While those groups are organized and speak in the American idiom of democracy and governance, they have little support among the Iraqi public.

"They are the worst gamble the Americans could make," said Maher Abdullah, an anchor for the Al Jazeera satellite television channel who has followed Iraq for years. "Everybody's image here is that they are CIA agents. Whether that's true or false, it's what people believe. Secondly, most of these guys have been away for years. They don't know anything about the country, about people's day-to-day priorities." That skepticism was on display at Friday prayers in the heavily Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Baghdad formerly known as Saddam City. As more than 20,000 men prepared their prayer mats for services, Gaylan Tayr, a writer, stood with several friends and rattled off the names of the exile political groups supported by U.S. officials. "These parties are all new, and we don't know anything about them. They may be set up by the Americans, so how can we trust them? How can we vote for them?" he said.

As exile groups have sought to create power bases, some have sent signals that they make their own law. They have been traveling with heavily armed bodyguards and in some cases have appropriated homes and buildings for their own use. A recent meeting of five exile leaders at a downtown Baghdad hotel looked like a scene out of "The Godfather, Part II." Snipers leaned out windows, and the pavement outside was lined with bodyguards who bristled with automatic weapons. A small group of U.S. troops, who escorted the heavily armed exiles to the hotel, was also on hand. While U.S. officials have spoken repeatedly about the importance of indigenous Iraqi leaders, those who have broad recognition are primarily religious figures who, to varying degrees, support an Islamic government for Iraq. One of the first arrests made by U.S. forces in Baghdad was that of Sheik Mohammed Fartusi, a rising religious figure who is backed by the powerful Al Hawza movement, a Shiite Muslim group. It was unclear why he was detained.

Although the troops let him go within a few hours, the incident appalled many Shiites and raised Fartusi's profile. With the U.S. giving limited attention to any indigenous figures, exiles are increasingly confident that they will dominate the next phase of government in Iraq. "The Americans have realized that the much-talked-about Iraqi leadership who was to emerge from within is largely mythical," said Zaab Sethna, a spokesman for Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, an exile group that has strong backing among some Pentagon officials and has received funding from the State Department. "That's led them back to the Iraqi opposition, and they do see the Iraqi opposition as the nucleus for a new transitional government." The Kurdish political parties, who have ruled northern Iraq as a de facto independent area outside of Hussein's control since the early 1990s, also see little role for indigenous leaders. They have proposed that half the delegates at the National Assembly scheduled for the end of May to choose a transitional government be from exile organizations. While U.S. attention is focused on this kind of political maneuvering, other groups with little if any allegiance to Washington are quietly gaining ground in Baghdad's slums, the Shiite Muslim south of the country and Sunni Muslim tribal areas.

Rather than attempting to form political parties, these groups have made the strategic political decision to make themselves indispensable to their people. Within 10 days of Baghdad's fall, for instance, mosques began providing crucial services — including water distribution, garbage collection and security guards — that Americans have been unable to organize. Religious leaders are asserting control over an increasing number of institutions. Walk into any clinic in the former Saddam City and someone will quickly introduce himself as an emissary from the Al Hawza movement. The Shiite Muslim organization, based in the holy city of Najaf, encompasses an array of well-funded charitable organizations. A number of Iraqis believe the group is funded in part by Iran. The group also has connections to a number of Muslim leaders, some with political ambitions.

So far, U.S. officials appear to have had little contact with Shiite groups inside Iraq. An exile Shiite group was added only recently to the inner circle of organizations with which the Americans are working. Without involving Shiites, it is unlikely that the U.S. will be able to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis, analysts say. Although Shiites are hardly monolithic in their views, they make up roughly 60% of the country. "One day, the Americans will have to hold elections, and it's clear the Shiites will sweep the polls," said Nadmi, the political scientist. "Americans are selective about the democracy they want. They want democracy that suits their interests and values." The only potential countervailing force, analysts say, are the supporters of Hussein's Baath Party who used to run the country. They know how to organize people, they have a political base and they have concrete administrative knowledge.

For the U.S., an alliance with the Baathists would be a double-edged sword. Without them, it would be hard to get the country running, but working with them would thrust the Americans right into the arms of the people they just ousted from power. It also would feed distrust among Iraqis at large about government agencies. For the moment, U.S. officials are trying to have it both ways with the Baathists. To get the country's electrical network, telephone system and ministries running again, U.S. officials are working with middle managers from the party. The Americans say that these bureaucrats are apolitical and that only the top Iraqi ministers were tainted by their links to Hussein. Others, however, say the situation is not so clear-cut.

"We've made it very clear to Garner and the U.S. government that it's a bad mistake to bring Baathists back into a position of power. That's the fastest way to spawn anti-Americanism," said Sethna, the Iraqi National Congress spokesman. "The U.S. can't tell the bad guys from the good guys, and there are many, many people who are tainted by the former regime and who were corrupt. And I don't think the U.S. is even looking at that." Compounding the problem is the fact that many contractors hired by the U.S. have yet to arrive in Iraq or are just setting up their operations. North Carolina-based Research Triangle Institute was hired April 11 by the U.S. Agency for International Development to help create 180 local and provincial governments in Iraq. Under a contract worth as much as $167 million, one of RTI's immediate tasks is to help identify "appropriate, legitimate" Iraqis to assume key government posts in villages and towns. But the nonprofit group's first representatives arrived in Baghdad only Wednesday. In their absence, people ranging from former Baathists to pro-Iranian spiritual leaders have assumed government positions.

In another case, DynCorp, a subsidiary of El Segundo-based Computer Sciences Corp., won a $150-million contract to train a new Iraqi police force. But the contract was awarded just two weeks ago, and the firm has yet to be allowed into the country because the U.S. military considers Iraq too dangerous for DynCorp staff to set up shop. In the meantime, crime is rife and many businesses are afraid to open. The country feels stalled, and Americans are being blamed. Many Iraqis predict it will be difficult for Americans to improve things and break the cycle of dysfunction, let alone win popular support. "The Americans promised us jobs, security and safety and none of those have materialized," said Abid Ali Kubaisi, a silk merchant in the Euphrates River town of Fallouja, who shut down his business for fear it would be pillaged. "People who have no jobs are going to fight, they are going loot, and everyone here has their own weapons," he said.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.