Militias, Vigilantes, Death Squads

Charles Tripp on the Grammar of Violence in Iraq

At a Downing Street meeting in November 2002 attended by Tony Blair, Jack Straw and six academics familiar with Iraq and the Middle East, two things became clear. The first was that Straw thought post-Saddam Iraq would be much like post-Soviet Russia and could thus be easily pigeonholed as that strange creature, a ‘transitional society’. Either he had been persuaded of this by the recycled Cold Warriors clustering round the Bush administration, or they had failed to inform their ‘key ally’ of their determination to dismantle Iraq’s state and security structures. More ominously, Blair seemed wholly uninterested in Iraq as a complex and puzzling political society, wanting confirmation merely that deposing Saddam Hussein would remove ‘evil’ from the country.

Quite apart from some of the inappropriate and frankly bizarre ideas that were driving the war train, the lack of interest in Iraq and its social order were symptomatic of the attitude of the US and its allies towards the country over the two previous decades. Whether as a result of moral unease or intellectual limitation, the political as opposed to the humanitarian effects of the punitive sanctions in force since 1990 had been wholly misunderstood. Rather than weakening Saddam Hussein’s regime, they had redoubled its power, deepening and reinforcing the networks of the ‘shadow state’ that lay behind Iraq’s vulnerable and degraded public institutions.

The economy of need that the sanctions brought about meant that connections with the privileged became key, thus giving vast power not only to the inner circle around the president, but also to the concentric circles of co-opted intermediaries, who spread into every community, and whose freedom of action was such that they had the power of life and death over those who looked to them for assistance. The sanctions thus bound swathes of Iraqi society into a system in which an outward show of conformity, often disguising fierce communal or local loyalties, guaranteed access to scarce resources. Secular Iraqi professionals, several generations removed from their rural forebears, found themselves swearing allegiance to the sheikh of ‘their’ tribe or submitting to the local imam in an attempt to find protection. Both winners and losers were systematically brutalised and humiliated in the process, fostering forms of behaviour that have been only too evident in the past three years, since the overarching control of the centre evaporated.

Blind to the existence of a shadow state behind the public state, the US and its ally, as they prepared to invade, seemed to focus exclusively on the removal of the obvious personnel and institutions of the Baathist regime as a means to ensure the ‘security’ of the state, the region and the population. From this perspective, the only relationship between the Iraqi state and the people was one of violence. Once the source of that violence was removed, so the thinking went, the benefits of peaceful, prosperous coexistence would be clear to all. That the British Department for International Development suddenly decided as late as the third week of March 2003 that it needed to commission a ‘literature review’ on the nature and working of government in Iraq suggests a growing suspicion that there might be more to the regime than the White House or Downing Street had led them to believe.

‘Security’, defined in military terms and suggesting a military solution, was used to justify the invasion and subsequent occupation, as it had been used to justify the UN sanctions. In 2002-3, continuing concerns about security in this sense, combined with the ambition to remove a vicious regime, were used to justify the build-up to war. ‘Freedom’ was the other term bandied about, but it was to be achieved by massive violence, as the codename for the invasion – ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ – made unequivocally clear. Of course, there were other notions driving the government in Washington that had more to do with the national security of the US itself. Yet more than three years later, and despite the overwhelming violence of the invasion and occupation, ‘security’ remains at the forefront of every discussion of the future of Iraq. At the same time, the ways in which the security problem has been viewed and handled have created a situation in which all the original concerns have been made more acute.

Last year, sponsors close to the Bush administration set up the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by James Baker, to try to work out the options – realistic rather than simply desirable – now facing the US and its allies. Securing Iraq was part of their brief, but ensuring the security of the US and its interests in the event of a future withdrawal of US forces was no less important. Inevitably, this meant redefining what the administration is trying to achieve, as well as redefining ‘security’ – or at least simply acknowledging what it has come to mean in the context of Iraqi politics. The resignation of Donald Rumsfeld in the wake of the mid-term elections, and his replacement as secretary of defense by Robert Gates, a member of Baker’s group, appears to testify to such a change.

‘Security’ in Iraq seems to have been reduced to its most basic meaning of safety from physical harm. Whether it’s a matter of Iraqi government personnel, of communities and neighbourhoods, of oil supplies and economic infrastructure, of US and allied forces, or of individuals across Iraq facing suicide bombs, criminal extortion, sectarian reprisal or trigger-happy foreign forces, preventing terrible violence has understandably become the constant preoccupation of the Iraqi and Kurdish governments and of their American and British protectors.

Other kinds of security, of equal, perhaps even greater concern to most of the population, are largely off the radar of those who dominate Iraqi politics, whether in power or in opposition. Economic security, the security of vulnerable individuals in oppressive domestic and local settings, or the attainment of the well-being of families: all of these go unseen, or are made to take second place while the ‘hard’ security situation is addressed by the authorities. On the one hand, public devotion to the cause of ‘security’ is used as a smokescreen behind which to steal vast amounts of money that might have made a difference to the lives of Iraqis, as Ed Harriman has documented in his three pieces in this paper.[*] On the other, the insecurity, the injury, the disillusionment and the fear that all this has bred, attended to by brave and under-resourced NGOs, could tell us something about the real, underlying ‘security problem’ in Iraq – and its consequences.

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[*] 7 July 2005, 26 January and 2 November 2006.

[†] Ahmed Hashim’s Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq (Hurst, 176 pp., £20, March 2006, 978 1 85065 795 8) provides a clear and authoritative account of the shifting world of these resistance organisations.