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Iyad Allawi takes over: A milestone in the Iraq disaster


Today marks a milestone in the Iraqi conflict. The US controlled interim government ended, not with a bang, but a whimper. Iraqi PM Iyad Allawi decided to hold a modest changing of the guard, two days early, to forestall any planned terror attacks. Coalition administrator Paul Bremer left Iraq not as a conquering hero, but rather like a man in a hurry to escape. The new independent (more or less) government is also an interim government, which is supposed to pave the way for elections to be held by January, 2005. That date looks increasingly shaky.

The news from Iraq is mostly bad, and some of it is worse. There is every indication that it will be worse soon. Almost daily terror attacks have crippled the Iraqi economy and attempts at reconstruction. A series of attacks in a single day, June 24, killed a hundred people throughout Iraq. In most cities there is a sort of controlled chaos, and in some places it is worse. Iraq is not another Vietnam. In Vietnam, the enemy could be identified, they had a name. In Iraq, the enemy is everyone and nobody: Al-Qaeda, Baathists, Shi'a fanatics under Moqtada Sadr, "just folks" who are sore about behavior of US soldiers. Explosions just happen, like acts of God in normal places. Fallujah is apparently ruled by militia who terrorize the population. The spin doctors are in charging of turning this into a victory. Both US and Iraq forces are powerless there.

Iraqi government officials make glib excuses about why they do not impose martial law. The real reason they don't do it is that they cannot. They don't have the troops to enforce it. The "bad guys" would ignore any such regulations, and they would only be a hardship on innocent civilians. Newly trained and recruited Iraqi troops and police who are supposed to keep order often desert in droves, or go over to the enemy. Nobody knows how many spies and fifth-columnists have infiltrated the Iraqi security forces, or who they work for. Ahmed Chalabi, confidant of the US military, turned out to be an agent of the Iranian government. There are probably more such surprises in store.

There is a tiny silver lining. US troops, who are there to keep order and protect Iraqis, have instead excelled in protecting themselves. The result is that terrorists aim to kill other Iraqis, who make easier targets. In recent days the government and responsible religious leaders have begun decrying the violence against Iraqis, hoping to turn popular sentiment against these "heros of the resistance."

The new Iraqi Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, is a cipher. Thirty years ago he was a member of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party. After a long exile, he has returned as a supposedly reincarnated democrat. In fact, he was reportedly chosen by the interim governing council in order to avoid giving up political power to a technocratic government that would be appointed by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. He is a Shi'ite but also an ex-member of the Sunni-dominated Baath party, so we can at least hope that he will work for unity. However, he has ominously warned that democracy in Iraq and in the Middle East doesn't mean the same thing as it does in the West. Let's hope that "democracy" in Allawi's lexicon doesn't mean dissolving opposition candidates in vats of acid and one party rule as it did under Saddam.

What is the most frightening thing about the Iraq mess? It is hard to say. Perhaps the most frightening thing about Iraq is that US officials do not seem to see any problems looming at any stage, and do not take any actions to avert disaster. At each stage in the unfolding Iraq disaster, top US officials like Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell tell us that they are surprised. They explain that they underestimated the difficulties, they didn't know there would be looting, they didn't know there would be bombings, they didn't know about Moqtada Sadr and they don't know about the next fanatic with a private army who is waiting to surprise them. They didn't think that ragtag underpaid unmotivated security forces, superficially trained by private security forces who don't know their business would desert. Surprise, surprise! When will they stop being surprised?

For Americans, perhaps the most frightening thing about the Iraq mess is that it is a proving ground for terror groups and a demonstration of US incompetence. The US is clueless in the Middle East. They don't speak the language. They cannot tell friend from foe. "Operators" like Chalabi can sell them bridges over the Euphrates (if not the Brooklyn Bridge) every day. Wasn't Iyad Allawi the fellow who told the US that Saddam could deploy WMD in 45 minutes?. As US performance in Iraq has demonstrated, the US lacks knowledge needed for day to day security control, and it lacks the means to get that knowledge. Beyond that, it lacks basic country knowledge - understanding of how Middle Eastern countries and societies "work." and government officials have no place to get that knowledge except personal experience in the field. US Middle East academics all have information about the Middle East - knowledge of language, etiquette, places and persons. They do not agree however, about what it all means, and their differences cause a division into two equally distorted views, bridged only by polemics. The view that is probably held by the majority is that all Muslims and Arabs are victims of US and British malfeasance as well as "Zionism." According to this view, Jihadists will evolve to be democrats when the time is ripe. All the US need do is concede to all the demands of the Muslim extremists, arrive at an accommodation with the various regimes, and the just wrath of the Muslims will be appeased. The opposing view, bred on books such as Raphael Patai's "Arab Mind," is that Islam is fundamentally antidemocratic, and that all Arabs are social misfits unfit to function in modern society. There is little middle ground between these "black hat" and "white hat" views, neither of which is very sophisticated or very useful as a background for making real-world decisions.

For inhabitants of the Middle East, the debacle in Iraq has another frightening aspect. Imagine that a rich and powerful, but slightly retarded Martian and his family have moved in to a mansion next door. On the first day, you see that all the precious paintings and art objects there are destroyed. As he and his family move about clumsily, Ming vases and delicate sculptures get smashed. Strange noises and explosions are heard there every day. Ambulances come to cart off family members. Thieves rob the family jewels and your Martian neighbors are powerless to stop them. Appliances burn out because they don't know how to use them, and they are surprised. Now this neighbor decides to come and give you expert advice about how to run your house. He is rich and powerful, so you had better listen. If you were an Israeli or an Egyptian, would you want the "benefit" of US "expert advice" on the Middle East?

The US can no longer succeed in Iraq. The rehabilitation and reconstruction of Iraq are a failure in this phase. In the long run, things may improve, but there will be a bitter aftertaste for many years. The only question is if it will be a graceful failure for the US, or an unmitigated disaster that results in more or less permanent chaos or tyranny in a vital part of the Middle East. By now, the US should have constructed for itself a realistic set of goals and non-goals that can be achieved given the pitiful state of US ability to control the situation, but that doesn't appear to be the case. If US officials or the Iraqi government have a recipe for averting the worst, or if they are even capable of imagining or recognizing the worst case scenarios, they haven't been telling anyone about it.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000273.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 1 Comment

You did not mention in your comments that, according to NPR news reports, Alawi has for many years been associated with the CIA, presumably on their payroll. What the significance of this is I don't know. Perhaps he will turn out like Chalabi.

Posted by Shimon Gottschalk, Tallahassee, FL @ 06/29/2004 01:09 AM CST

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