The lessons that Washington has still to learn
Posted: Wednesday, April 2, 2003
02 April 2003, Independent UK, by Patrick Cockburn
America does not understand Saddam's government, which is not a typical military regime in which the army holds power
The US soldier, surrounded by Kurdish militiamen on a green plain in the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan, was a worried man. Since the Kurds are the one community in Iraq unanimously in favour of the Anglo-American invasion, he could not have been in a safer place. But the soldier refused to give his name, eyed a plate of kebab suspiciously before rejecting it, and pleaded with us to give no clue to his identity "in case terrorists should find out where my wife lives in Georgia and do something to her".
It would be easy to sneer at the soldier's ill-directed fears. But his general timidity and uncertainty about all things Iraqi was surely more sensible than the extraordinary arrogance of those who planned the invasion in the belief that Saddam Hussein would go down like a pack of cards, with little involvement of the Iraqi people during the war or in a post-war settlement.
Iraqis I spoke to a few days after the start of the invasion were much quicker than the outside world to notice its slow pace and inability to crack President Saddam's real levers of power. Indeed, the whole US attack plan has played straight into the Iraqi leader's hands.
There is a curious symmetry between the Pentagon's plans and those of President Saddam. The US intention was to avoid the cities and head for Baghdad. President Saddam's plan, which was more or less public knowledge, was to retreat into the cities where the US could not use airpower and wouldn't know the terrain as well as the defenders.
President Saddam and Washington were also at one on another important issue. He was always frightened of internal uprisings among the Kurds and the Shia Muslims, who together make up three-quarters of the population. The great rebellions of 1991 had almost brought him down. Over the years he has taken minute precautions to make sure it would not happen again by sending an army Baath party members and security men into every village, town and city district.
In fact Washington was against any uprising, as it had been in 1991. It was frightened that a rebellion by the Kurds in Kirkuk and Mosul provinces would provoke Turkish intervention. In the south, the US was against an uprising among the Shia because it might benefit Iran, the supporter of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is the most powerful Shia organisation in the country. The US also felt that to allow Iraqi political organisations to share in the expected easy victory would compel Washington to give them a share in power after the war. "It would have interfered with their plans to remake Iraq after their own vision," said one opposition leader.
There also seems to have been a misunderstanding about the nature of President Saddam's government. Though his ruling Baath party came to power through a military coup in 1968, it was never a classic military regime where the army holds power. President Saddam, despite his military uniforms, had no formal military training. He has always depended on his security services, the Baath party and a complex network of clan and tribal alliances to keep him in power.
These were the sinews of his rule, and by deliberately not capturing cities at the beginning of the invasion, the US and Britain ensured that he remained in control of the vast majority of the Iraqi population. The failure to take a city like Basra early in the campaign also meant, as one Kurdish commander put it, there were "no visible coalition gains to show the Iraqi people".
This does not mean that President Saddam is going to win. His regime was always deeply unpopular among Iraqis. His political strengths are also his military weaknesses. The Fedayeen Saddam may be able to stop deserters by shooting them in the head, but it has failed to make the Iraqi regular army fight. American and British casualties have been very low. Effective guerrillas like the Chechens or Kurdish peshmerga would have chopped the long Allied supply columns to pieces. Sniping by Baath militia is more of an irritation.
President Saddam has always been an expert in keeping political control, but his military record is more dubious. He only just came out ahead in the Iran-Iraq war, despite being supported by the US and much of the rest of the world. His Republican Guards have never been tested against a superior adversary.
But the mistakes made in planning the invasion are important because they point to a hubris and an ignorance among the civilian leadership of the US Defence Department that have already spilled over into their plans for the post-war construction of Iraq. The Pentagon has reportedly rejected a list of State Department officials to run Iraq ministries and has instead produced its own list of luminaries such as James Woolsey, the former head of the CIA, to run the Iraqi Information Ministry.
It was only three years after the British captured Baghdad in 1917 that the great Iraqi rebellion erupted in 1920, which was bloodily repressed. If the US tries to impose a neo-imperial regime like the one planned, an uprising will come even sooner.
There is a bizarre and dangerous flippancy about Washington's approach to the consequences of its invasion in Iraq and the region. The refusal of Turkey to allow the use of its bases, thus lopping off the northern pincer of the invasion, should have been a warning of how far the US occupation of Iraq will be resented and fought.
Yet in the last few days Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, has warned Syria and Iran not to interfere in Iraq. "If this was serious, then he should have done something to really frighten them," a Kurdish leader told me. "Instead they think it is empty bluster and will interfere all the more."
It is all very different from 1991. That Gulf war was very much a conservative war. Its aim was purely to reverse the invasion of Kuwait and restore the status quo. President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Mr Rumsfeld never seem to have grasped the sheer radicalism of what they are doing. Their plans for the future of Iraq are not only radical but approach fantasy. There are few more complicated societies in the world. Not all its problems are the result of President Saddam or the Baath party. The idea of Mr Woolsey somehow heading a Ministry of Information – or any other former US official – in a country whose language he does not understand is laughable.
Admittedly such fantasies have been encouraged by some members of the Iraqi opposition, who were happy to tell the US that American troops would be welcomed by cheering crowds hurling flower petals. A few may even have believed this, but most would have considered it as an obvious ploy to get Washington to overthrow President Saddam.
By exercising its military might the US should be able to overthrow the government in Baghdad. Its small victories over the last two weeks have largely been the result of American miscalculations. The US army's most senior ground commander, Lt-Gen William Wallace, annoyed the White House last week by saying: "The enemy we're fighting is not the enemy we war-gamed against." It could also be said that the Iraq the US and Britain invaded is not the country they thought it was.
The writer is co-author, with Andrew Cockburn, of 'Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession'
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