I foresee that man will resign himself each day to more atrocious undertakings; soon there will be no one but soldiers and bandits.
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’
John Bagot Glubb, a young lieutenant bearing wounds from the war in France, arrived in Mesopotamia in 1920. His assignment was to command armed patrols through the desert of what would become, under its first Western occupier, Iraq. The British bureaucracy, he observed, had yet to decide what to do about bedouin raiding. The desert tribes derived a part of their revenue from brigandage against other tribes, pilgrims and travellers. While there was general agreement that the tribes ought to be discouraged from attacking non-bedouin innocents in the desert, Glubb noted, a few officials ‘adopted a more sporting standpoint. Raiding, they said, was the bedouin national sport, like league football or county cricket.’ (Donald Rumsfeld appears to have taken a similarly sporting attitude to recent looting in Baghdad, although his tolerance would presumably not encompass looting by the poor of presidential palaces and museums in, say, Washington DC.) The British as occupying power duly published Rules for Raiders, a booklet with regulations for ‘every foreseeable situation’. A section in which the bedouin were to record the dates of raids, number of raiders and goods seized, rather like a weekend shooting log, was to be returned to British police posts for inspection. Glubb, who later commanded Jordan’s Arab Legion and earned the title pasha, wrote in Arabian Adventures: Ten Years of Joyful Service that ‘large numbers of the booklet were printed in Arabic and the RAF was asked to fly all over the desert and drop bundles of the leaflets on every nomad camp … Alas! The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. The Ministry had overlooked one point, namely, that no bedouin could read.’
Glubb’s soldiers nonetheless had a go at enforcing written orders on illiterate nomads, increasing the friction between the new governors and their unwelcoming subjects. There was already a rebellion against British rule underway in most of the country, the suppression of which required the RAF to drop more than leaflets (98 tons of explosives, to be precise). The attempt to organise tribal raiding in the same way as county cricket soon faltered. ‘Rules for Raiders was withdrawn,’ Glubb lamented, ‘authorised raiding was pronounced a failure and soon the fiat was to go forth – “tribal raiding must cease.”’ Before long the British troops withdrew from the desert and ‘the district subsided once more into anarchy.’ That is, the tribes resumed the regulation of their own affairs, leaving the British to concentrate on the cities, towns, ports, borders and, most important, oil. This seemed to suit everyone, except possibly the 90 per cent of Iraqis who were not bedouin.
Before the British fabricated Iraq from the Ottoman governorates of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, they created an Iraqi Army. The Army was to be the backbone of the new state, and its primary function would be to assist Britain’s integration of the three provinces into a new country for which its inhabitants evinced no enthusiasm. The United States, self-proclaimed heir to dominion over the Arab world, is now finding its way through the imperial morass. American Armed Forces secured the oil, the pipelines, the oil ministry, the airbases and the ports. They left the museums, the palaces, the hospitals and the libraries to looters, just as the British left the desert to brigands. Like its British progenitor, the American imperium on the Euphrates seeks to give enough power to local levies to spare US soldiers from permanent police duty in Iraq, but not enough for them to challenge America’s regional hegemon, Israel, on the battlefield. America seeks an elusive balance with the Iraqi Armed Forces it is creating: too little power and Iraq will fall to its Shiite majority; too much and Israel will bash it down to size.
The American interim administration is playing with the idea of allowing certain Iraqis to enforce the new rules. Most are wary of co-operating with an American regime that has no popular base. Even Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress leader who flew from Northern to Southern Iraq on an American military flight and receives American military protection, recognises the electoral advantages of running a campaign against occupation rather than standing as its local incarnation. This is why he refuses to take a seat in any interim administration of native notables. He has also allowed one of his deputies to proclaim himself Mayor of Baghdad without American approval. US proposals to build an oil pipeline to Israel across Jordan and to retain permanent control of four Iraqi airfields have made supporting the occupation almost impossible, even for Chalabi. Throw in the arrival of Southern Baptist evangelisers dispensing chocolates and Bibles in an attempt to convert Iraqis from what they call the satanic cult of Islam, and it is not difficult to gauge the Bush Administration’s degree of sensitivity to indigenous beliefs. Washington did not ask the Iraqis whether they wanted to be invaded, so why wait for an indigenous government to decide how to dispose of Iraq’s oil and military resources? Why not use the opportunity to proselytise among the heathen? This is the time to award contracts, to repay favours and to discover which of the natives are loyal and which should be banished.
The private contractors in Jay Garner’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance are devising schemes to govern Iraq’s bedouin tribes, Shiite townsmen, urban Sunnis and mountain Kurds, and may take into account the smaller minorities of Turcomen, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Yazidis. Garner, who retired from the US Army in 1997 as a three-star general and then worked for L-3 Communications, an armaments company, is the man sent by President Bush to run postwar Iraq. His mission, if successful, should serve as the model for American governance in those yet-to-be-chosen portions of the world requiring a similar American invasion to change their leaders. Garner has at his disposal diplomacy, money and, when these do not suffice, force. One of his models for Iraq, he told the New York Times, was Vietnam. ‘Start with Vietnam and the strategic hamlet concept,’ he said. That programme, for which Garner worked in 1971 and 1972, involved displacing hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese peasants, burning their villages and placing them in collective villages like those in which Saddam Hussein corralled the Kurds in the 1980s. It worked for Saddam, until he invaded Kuwait in 1990 and forfeited American support.
In the first half of the 20th century the US turned locals into soldiers in Haiti and Nicaragua. At the dawn of the 21st, it is preparing to do the same in Iraq. Indigenous mechanisms of coercion served America’s leaders designate, Papa Doc Duvalier and Anastasio Somoza, when the US withdrew. They became models of a kind for other republics in America’s first sphere of influence: that is, among the Latinos and former slaves of its south-facing backyard. By the 1970s, devolving military responsibility like this had become known as ‘Vietnamisation’ after the war Garner thinks the US would have won if Bush Junior had been President. (The occupations of Haiti and Nicaragua may be more apt comparisons with Iraq than those of Japan and Germany at the end of the Second World War. Nicaragua and Haiti had not attacked the US and were former European colonies.)
Where will the new Iraqi Army, the country’s backbone implant, come from? Garner has two obvious options: to de-Baathify the civil and military infrastructure, as the Allies did in Germany after 1945; or to rely on the old structure. Both courses leave the occupation and whatever order it imposes vulnerable to attack from within. Iraq’s new army, like that of its predecessor under the British, will be designed to police the natives and buy surplus American military equipment from companies like L-3 Communications. Its mission statement will exclude supporting the Palestinians, invading Kuwait (Iran, as before, may be permitted) and sponsoring any union of the Arab states.
The American coalition’s Central Command (Centcom) in Qatar has already designated one small group of natives as a legal armed force. Recruited by Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, the new army calls itself the Free Iraqi Forces (FIF). There are a thousand or more soldiers, about half of them volunteers who rallied to Chalabi’s colours while he languished in Northern Iraq between January and April. The rest are Iraqi exiles trained as policemen and interpreters by the US in Hungary. Some, with US Army escorts, have turned up in Baghdad to serve the occupation. On 6 April, United States Air Force cargo planes delivered about seven hundred of them from the Harir airbase in Iraqi Kurdistan to Tallil airbase near Nasiriya in the Shiite South. On arrival, Iraq’s finest were loaded onto trucks and dumped in what was, until the same US Air Force bombed it to rubble in 1991, an Iraqi air defence base known to locals as ‘French radar’. (You can guess why.) The Free Iraqis carried their own green-blue-orange-beige battle flags and wore American-style uniforms with FIF shoulder patches. What they did not have were weapons, boots, communications, transport, electricity, beds, food and water. The US did not permit them to fight against the regime that had murdered many of their families.
I flew down from Iraqi Kurdistan with the FIF, and was dumped with them in the sand where we were left by the US military without so much as a bottle of drinking water. The rubble in which we camped was so extensive that the Iraqi Army had not bothered to restore the base after its 1991 destruction. By late afternoon of day one, there were threats of mutiny. Boy soldiers approached me with empty bottles to beg for water that I did not have. They shouted at one another in the heat. A few days later, there were knife fights in the ranks. Food arrived late on the first night, in the form of Humanitarian Relief Rations – small boxes of dry food that were, hard as it was to imagine, even less palatable than the tasteless Meals Ready to Eat of the Special Forces nearby.
Shortly after the FIF’s unheralded arrival in the South, someone from the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced in Washington that it would form the nucleus of a new Iraqi Army. As with so much else in this war, what in Vietnam Americans called the ‘credibility gap’ was spreading as wide as the ocean. The FIF is a small unit, barely trained, whose weapons arrived four days after its men. Their captured Iraqi AK-47 rifles remained in wooden boxes for weeks, because the US Special Forces assigned to watch them did not trust them with live ammunition. If they are the nucleus, how will the US treat the reserves? When Baghdad succumbed, the FIF were waiting at ‘French radar’ for weapons, training and deployment. Chalabi was denied the symbolic, de Gaulle-like march into Baghdad at the head of his forces. American officers said the FIF might be utilised as paramilitary police or assigned to places Americans might choose to avoid for political reasons. Later, they were spotted guarding the gates to the Shiite holy city of Karbala.
Almost everything that could have gone wrong did. On Monday 7 April, at dawn, an INC supporter called Karim Mahmoud Muhammadawi raided the Baath Party headquarters in the town of Amara and expelled its officials. This operation took place with the knowledge of Centcom in Qatar. A few hours later, a Kuwaiti interpreter (Kuwaitis are the new imperial dragomen here) told Muhammadawi that he would have to abandon the building within an hour or be shot. He left reluctantly and cursed the United States.
At noon Chalabi, who had absorbed the news from Amara, was scheduled to attend a banquet in his honour with a tribal sheikh whose father and grandfather had been friends of his father and grandfather. He had already received a few tribals – no one has ever governed Iraq without them – in the misery of his base in the dusty remnants of a warehouse in the middle of ‘French radar’. After donning a wool suit that he could have worn in London and a turban he reserved for Southern Iraq, Chalabi received a call telling him to delay his departure. The Special Forces team attached to the FIF had not co-ordinated the journey with the Marines manning checkpoints on the road. (The Marines have become notorious for shooting people, including one American soldier and a whole family of Arabs, at checkpoints. A suicide bomber killed four Marines, and after that they took no risks.) To avoid the possibility of Marines killing America’s only Iraqi ally in the South, they had to be told he was coming. However, the Special Forces could not communicate directly with the Marines. They had to speak to their people in Kuwait, who spoke to the Marines’ people in Kuwait, so Chalabi could do lunch with Sheikh Ali near Nasiriya. Time passed. Two hours late, the convoy set out on a thirty-minute drive through the desert to the sheikh’s tent. Along the entire route, there was not a single Marine checkpoint. It became clear to most of the INC and the FIF that the American military wanted to confine Chalabi to the base, far from madding crowds.
When Chalabi reached Sheikh Ali’s black tent, an armed CIA team in a big Humvee was already there taking pictures. The CIA reputedly hates Chalabi, a sentiment he reputedly reciprocates. A lunch of boiled mutton with rice was served on old carpets. The CIA men left. Chalabi remained to play Iraqi politics: exchanging pleasantries, remembering history, sipping tea and promising more meetings. Tribesmen thrust written appeals into Chalabi’s hand – requests for electricity to be restored or for the release of kin taken into custody by the Americans. The families of the tribal chiefs who have been meeting Chalabi once entertained the British, the Iraqi King and the Baathists. Their loyalty, by tradition and political necessity, is to power.
That night, sitting outside in the darkness of the FIF’s desolate base, we watched flares light up the horizon. One bright flame after another shot up and floated down on parachutes to give a view of the ground below. Some Air Force sentries at Tallil airbase told me the next day that ‘infiltrators’ had tripped an alert, sending up the first flares. The armed Iraqis failed to penetrate the airbase, and the Americans failed to catch them. The infiltrators fired weapons, as did Air Force personnel on the ground. Luckily, one of the young Americans said, nobody hit anything. (He was more sympathetic than the Special Forces sergeant who told me of his regret about the conflict in Iraq: he hadn’t shot anyone. In Afghanistan, his preferred battlefield, he had, he said, ‘popped 26 guys’.)
The Americans, however, did shoot some Iraqis in a village called Souq ash-Shu’ukh (Sheikhs’ Market) near Nasiriya. An INC supporter and tribal leader from Souq ash-Shu’ukh, Sheikh Sayid Hamza al-Musawi, was visiting Chalabi and his troops in the dark of ‘French radar’ while the flares lit the desert sky. That day, he had organised the expulsion of the Baath Party and the irregulars of Fedayeen Saddam from his village. The Baath already knew Sheikh Hamza from his attempted assassination in 1996 of Saddam Hussein’s older son, Uday. Many of Hamza’s accomplices, together with their families, had been executed for that transgression. He was in hiding in Iran until three months ago. After disposing of the Baathist remnants in Souq ash-Shu’ukh, Hamza organised a welcome for the Americans. When the Marines rolled into town, however, they noticed that some of the crowd were armed and opened fire. About fifty people were wounded. Sheikh Hamza was not aware of the incident when he left ‘French radar’ to return home. On arrival, he, too, was fired on by the Marines. He came back and showed us the bullet holes in his car. Chalabi then mediated between the tribesmen and the Americans, but his diplomacy did not prevent a carload of FIF personnel from being shot by Marines in front of a bank in Baghdad.
The Marines are not the only ones firing weapons in the new Iraq. Colleagues have told me about Shiite gangs in the South murdering moderate clerics and of Iranian support for religious elements willing to fight the US. American network television apparently has little interest in this story, any more than it did in similar events in Israeli-occupied South Lebanon during the early 1980s. Israeli reprisals and assassinations of Shiite leaders were ignored then, and the American voter is being left out of the loop now. The fight in the South may, as in Lebanon, determine the outcome of the struggle for Iraq between the US and Iran. The connections between the two regions are extensive: Shiites in Iraq and South Lebanon have ancient family and scholarly ties. The leader of Lebanon’s Hizbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, was born in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf. The mother of Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, is from the South Lebanese town of Binti Jbeil. Hizbollah drove the Israelis out of Binti Jbeil in 2001, and its colleagues will seek a similar success against the Americans in the villages of Southern Iraq.
America’s old enemies appear to be receiving better treatment than its new friends. At the As Sa’iq electricity plant outside Nasiriya the morning after the Souq ash-Shu’ukh incident, Marines conferred with a (now former) Baathist official. His shiny suit and gold Rolex attested to his Party origins. He was there to help the Marines understand who was who and what was what in the new Iraq. Many Baathists speak English and understand how to manipulate whatever system prevails. Some American officials prefer them to the Shiite clergymen, who represent larger numbers of Iraqis than either the INC or the Baath. There are fears that the new Iraq may end up looking much like the old Iraq, achieving what one INC advisor called Saddamism without Saddam. The nomenklatura of the Soviet Empire survived to become the tyrants and spivs of the succeeding capitalist order; clever Baathists may do the same in Iraq. In Baghdad, the Baathist police are back on the streets. Trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity look as if they will be restricted to the 55 people depicted on the three-joker deck of cards carried by American officers. As for the thousands of others who practised torture and mass murder under Saddam, they may be permitted to make General Garner’s civil administration a model for the future.