Will Iraqi Hopes be Dashed? Reflections on a Visit

Tasneem Jamal

Bill Janzen

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2003 Volume 24 Issue 4

Bill Janzen is the director of the Ottawa Office of Mennonite Central Committee Canada and a member of the Project Ploughshares board. He visited Iraq in 1994, 1999, and in September of 2003.

As I read the daily reports about the bombings and the growing resistance in Iraq, I find it hard to believe that what so impressed me in my September visit were the images of hope.

Images of hope

  • Two men who had left the country during Saddam Hussein’s reign had returned and started a daily newspaper, one of over 150 new papers in the country. They talked about the desire of people to express themselves and about their hope for an atmosphere in which a broad range of issues could be debated.
  • A member of the Interim Governing Council talked about how his grandfather had started a political party in the 1930s, how his father had been politically active in the 1950s, and how he hoped to now revive the tradition and contribute to an open and democratic political life.
  • A woman, also a returnee, had set up a non-governmental organization and talked about working at the village level to promote health care and water development, as well as education on human rights and the rule of law, etc.
  • A Shia leader (65 per cent of the people are Shia Muslims) said that even though they were oppressed and persecuted by Saddam Hussein, they would not want to use their majority status to now marginalize and oppress other groups. They wanted a society in which all groups could live freely and in mutual respect.
  • Several church leaders (4 per cent of Iraq’s 25 million people are Christian) said that now they can receive visitors from abroad without having a government official present in every conversation. They hoped for more interaction.
  • A University psychologist spoke of his hope that people would be able to deal with the violence, aggression, and mistrust that they had internalized during the years of dictatorial rule, although he felt it would take years.
  • An elderly woman, to whom I was able to bring a gift from her son in Canada, said, “We Iraqis have known so much war in the last twenty-five years; every family has experienced losses; I hope and pray that we will not have war anymore.”

Problems facing the people

Alongside these hopes there were real fears. Almost everyone talked about the kidnappings, car-jackings, thefts, and other acts of violence and how the resulting atmosphere of fear hindered many aspects of daily life – sending children to school, starting a business. They also talked about shortages in medicines, water, and electricity, and about high unemployment.

They criticized the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which currently is the government, for not doing nearly enough on these problems; for not making more use of the many well trained, competent, and willing Iraqis; for not adequately communicating with the people about their activities and plans including the allocation of the vast sums from Iraq’s oil wealth; and, especially in the case of US soldiers, for showing too little respect for Iraqi people.

They worried about the deadly bombings of the resistance groups. Will more and more Iraqis side with those groups, for reasons of fear, loyalty, or disillusionment with the CPA? Will they then refuse to cooperate with the CPA and thereby hinder the development of the country? And might the competition among the resistance groups, and the conflict between them and those who cooperate with the CPA, bring on a civil war?

They were anxious about whether they would be able to find agreement on a constitutional framework that would have an adequate place for all the different groups (Sunis, Shia, Kurds, Turkmans, Christians, and others) and, at the same time, establish a common Iraqi identity and support a governing structure capable of serving the country as a whole.

They were not sure about the Americans. Will they develop the economy in a way that serves the Iraqi people? Will there be assistance for the poor who earlier depended on the state? Will the US forces either stay too long, and thereby encourage the resistance groups, or leave too soon, before a governing structure based on the rule of law can be set up? Might the US abandon them as it did in 1991 after first encouraging them to rise up against Saddam Hussein?

The Pentagon’s foreign policy

If these worries and fears are now crowding out the hopes, what are the reasons for this turn of events? Were the problems inevitable? Could some have been prevented and others addressed in better ways? At one level a major reason for the failures is that most of the American preparatory work was done by the Pentagon while the State Department, with its background in diplomatic work, was frozen out, as was the CIA.

The story of the Pentagon’s dominance has been slow in coming out but it is told by David Rieff in The New York Times Magazine of November 2. He recounts how by the mid-1990s one prominent Iraqi exile, Ahmad Chalabi, had become friends with Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney and how they were even then pressing for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Their plan gained strength after the 9/11 attacks when it was presented as part of the “war on terrorism.” Rumsfeld, as Defense Secretary, then set up “The Office of Special Plans” in his department for the purpose of assessing the Iraq situation, independently of the State Department and the CIA, and for planning a military response.

After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, late in 2001, more officials began to look at Iraq. Early in 2002 the State Department began “the Future of Iraq Project.” They involved a large number of Iraqi exiles, including monarchists and communists, and set up working groups on a range of issues such as the constitution, the security needs, the justice system, the economy, rebuilding the infrastructure, and shaping democratic structures. Eventually, they produced 13 volumes of detailed reports while also discovering, to their delight, that they, as people with divergent views, could work together. Incredibly, the Pentagon refused to look at this work or to use the people involved with it.

The consequences of this Pentagon stance became evident immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein when the looting began. People in “the Future of Iraq Project” had predicted this but the Pentagon had relied on Mr. Chalabi’s more optimistic forecasts, sending US forces only to protect the oil industry buildings. In fact, the looting did more damage than the bombing. Many public buildings were ransacked, countless records lost, administrative systems destroyed, and ancient artifacts stolen from museums. That American forces did so little to stop the looting was a major blow to the Iraqi people’s confidence in the US.

The inadequacy of the Pentagon approach was evident also in the small contingent that it sent to govern the country. There were fewer than a thousand people – and very few of them spoke Arabic. Particularly misguided was the decision to disband the 400,000-member Iraqi military and to dismiss an estimated 50,000 civil servants who had been members of the Ba’th party. Presumably, the US feared that leaving these people in place could lead to problems, but many of them had no love for Saddam Hussein. Later one US official said, “That was the week we made 450,000 enemies on the ground in Iraq.”

The decision had serious consequences. Sending such a large number of additional people onto the streets, in a time of high unemployment, and soon after Saddam Hussein’s last-minute decision to open all the prison doors, made increased violence much more likely. Also, by removing so many senior civil servants, the CPA was hindered in its work of delivering basic services and running the country. And by depriving 450,000 people of their wages, some 2,700,000 people, or 10 per cent of the Iraqi population, may have been affected, since the average Iraqi family has six members.

Some time later, the CPA did reinstate payments for many of the people so dismissed, at least for a while, and recently it has begun to plan for the recall of several units of the former army so as to better deal with the resistance, but much goodwill has been lost. Some have argued that the reason for the decision to disband the Iraqi army was that the US could then rebuild it, but on a much smaller scale, and thereby make Iraq permanently dependent on American military forces for its own protection. This would justify having American military bases in that strategically located country for the long term. It would also indicate a primacy of US interests and of military means for pursuing them.

Broader perspectives

Some US administrators in Iraq are diligent and well-intentioned but the record is mixed. They’ve created a new police force but the public respect it receives is uneven. They’ve gotten public works programs going, thereby giving employment to thousands, but cleaning streets and taking away garbage do not go far in building an economy. Some schools are running and there is economic activity but for many people the social and economic situation remains far worse than it was before the war. Still, most are grateful that Saddam Hussein’s rule has ended. Some have challenged western NGOs who in the 1990s criticized western governments for the sanctions against Iraq while being virtually silent about the Iraqi government’s brutal violation of their basic rights. Here we see the kernel of a principle: that while we might oppose war and sanctions, we must also hold governments accountable for humane governance.

Tragically, in the Middle East many forces, both internal and external, have long worked against this idea of holding governments accountable. During the generations when Arab people longed for independence, first from Ottoman rule and, after World War I, from European rule, they saw the US as their friend. Many of the schools and colleges started by western missionaries were hotbeds for the independence movements and Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination stood in their favour. Around the time of World War II, most countries got their independence but soon the West’s desire to prevent Soviet expansionism, ensure access to oil, and protect the state of Israel led it to pressure governments to favour these ends even at the expense of being accountable to their people. Weapons sales and defence agreements helped such governments to suppress dissent and, in some cases, to become corrupt and brutal.

Internally, the pan-Arabist movement championed by Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser, an exceptional orator, inspired grand visions of Arab unity, strength, independence, and social justice, but its record was mixed and in the 1967 war with Israel it suffered a major defeat. Later Saddam Hussein, with Iraq’s Ba’th party, wanted to pick up the mantle but the Arab world, especially its governments, were always ambivalent towards him. Meanwhile movements of political Islam gained ground, sometimes with good critiques of governmental corruption and valuable social services but the record in Iran, their intolerance of outside ideas, and the violent tendencies of some, have turned many people away. In recent years a group of Arab intellectuals has analysed the region’s problems and called for a much more self-critical stance, for a separation of the mosque from the state, for using money on education rather than on weapons, for greater openness to outsiders, for the rule of law and governmental accountability, and for basic rights and freedoms. These, they argue, would lead to social and economic flourishing in many areas.

This critique helps to explain the hopefulness I saw in September. There is a deep longing for change, in Iraq and in the Arab world generally. President Bush has had some good words about establishing democracy in Iraq but the belief that the US can make this happen by sending in its military and deposing a tyrant without seriously attending to a range of other factors is at best naive. Also, the US’s interest in oil and strategic military bases and its continuing support for Israel, with little regard for the Palestinians, are sending a different message, one that will be resisted. Iraq may need an outside force for a time to give the different groups that make up the society a chance to formulate a constitutional arrangement for living together and for creating a government that can run the country. But that force will be better accepted if it is international, if it seeks the protection of the Iraqi people and their resources as international law requires of an occupying power, and if it is transparently committed to the well-being of those people. If the US were to acknowledge its error and the international community were to become more involved both in Iraq and in neighbouring countries, all parties could build support for peace. Establishing peace will require courage, including the courage of humility, as well as understanding, imagination, and faith – faith that people from the East and the West, Christians and Muslims, Arabs and Kurds, Sunis and Shia can live together in freedom, dignity, and respect. 

Spread the Word