19 May 2004
Soon after United States occupation officials took over Saddam Hussein's palace complex in central Baghdad as their headquarters last year there was an alarming development. The lavatories in the palaces all became blocked and began to overflow. Mobile toilets were rapidly shipped into the country and installed in the palace gardens.
It turned out that American officials, often bright young things with good connections with the Bush administration in Washington, did not know that lavatories are used in a slightly different way in the Middle East compared to back home. In particular water fulfills the function largely performed by paper in the West. The water pipes in Saddam's palaces were not designed to deal with big quantities of paper and became clogged, with spectacularly unsavoury results.
It was the first of many mistakes made by the Coalition Provisional Authority, which has now ruled Iraq for a year-based on inadequate local knowledge. It has been one of the most spectacularly incompetent regimes in history. If Paul Bremer, the US viceroy in Iraq, decided important issues by flipping a coin he would surely have had better results.
At moments Mr Bremer has the manic activity and self-confidence of Inspector Clouseau as he bounces from crisis to crisis, many of his troubles of his own creation. In April he managed to turn the insurgents in Fallujah, previously regarded by most Iraqis as dangerous hillbillies, into nationalist heroes. At the same time he went after Muqtada Sadr, the Shia cleric, whose popular base was always small, and allowed him to pose as a martyr. The main feature of American policy-making in Iraq is division. Nowhere in the world is it more necessary for military and political strategy to be united than Iraq. But Mr Bremer and the uniformed army hardly seem to communicate. The civilians in the Pentagon and the Neo-Cons have their own policy as do the State Department and the CIA. The White House is mainly concerned that, whatever is really happening on the ground in Iraq, it can be presented in a way which will not lose Mr Bush the presidential election in November.
Out of this mélange of rivalries it would be surprising if any sensible policy emerged and there is, indeed, no sign of one doing so. Downing Street and the White House are now both talking up the handover of sovereignty to Iraqis on 30 June and the creation of new Iraqi security forces to, in time, replace the 135,000 US and 7,500 British soldiers.
This is less a policy than a cynical public relations gimmick. The allies have been trying to build up the Iraqi security forces for over a year. But when the uprisings began last month, 40 per cent of the US-trained forces promptly deserted while 10 per cent mutinied and changed sides, according to the US army. The reality, as Dr Mahmoud Othman an independent member of the Iraqi Governing Council says, is that Iraqis will not fight other Iraqis on behalf of a foreign power.
Of course the purpose of the exaggerated significance now being given to the handover of sovereignty to an interim government in six weeks' time is to pretend that now there will be a legitimate authority in Iraq. Over the past year, the CPA has repeatedly said it will delegate power to Iraqis. It has never happened and is unlikely to happen now. The US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council found that it was expected to give an Iraqi flavour to decisions taken by Americans. They were told they would be consulted on important security decisions only to wake up one morning to find US marines besieging Fallujah. They were seen by more and more Iraqis as collaborators with an increasingly detested occupation.
The council is now to be replaced by a government of technocrats supposedly more acceptable to Iraqis than their predecessors. It will be chosen in part by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy, and is to pave the way for elections in Iraq next January.
Again the most striking aspect of this plan is gimmickry. There was a moment straight after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein when the UN might have played a role in Iraq. But at that point, as one Iraqi leader put it, the US was drunk with victory and determined to keep the UN out. Since then the UN headquarters in Baghdad has been reduced to heap of ruins and many of its staff killed.
It is unlikely that many countries belonging to the UN would at this stage want to risk any of its officials or soldiers in Iraq. Mr Brahimi, supposedly a key player in creating a new Iraqi administration, hardly dared set foot outside the heavily defended green zone, where the Coalition has its headquarters, during his recent visit. The UN also has a shrewd suspicion that all it is being asked to do is to take a share in responsibility for a crisis over which it will have no influence.
After 30 June the US army will retain control over the Iraqi security forces in Iraq. It is unclear if Iraq will even be able to spend its own oil revenues. Nobody knows who will be in the new government. It does not even have a building from which it will function because the Coalition shows no sign of leaving Saddam's palaces. The degree to which important decisions about the handover of sovereignty have been left to the last minute underlines that, at the end of next month, real power will not change hands.
British officials who admit this say that the really important date will come in seven months' time when there is an election in Iraq. Here they are on slightly firmer ground. The occupiers should have organised an election as soon as possible after the invasion. They would then have been able to deal with elected Iraqi leaders with some claim to legitimacy.
But there were no elections before because the Americans feared Shia parties beyond American control would win. So US officials cancelled local elections. Mr Bremer certainly did not want the elections over the summer because he feared they would be won by Islamic parties, even though British and American military commanders confirmed privately that a poll could be organised.
In Najaf, the Shia shrine city, the occupying forces even managed to appoint a Sunni governor, which was a bit like giving Rev Ian Paisley a position of responsibility overseeing the Vatican. Fortunately the governor did not last long in that role. He was arrested for kidnapping and is now in jail.
The important point about the Iraqi elections is the timing. They will not take place before the US presidential elections in November. This allows Mr Bush to say that Iraq is on track towards democracy.
There will be a price to pay for allowing Iraq policy to be determined by Mr Bush's electoral needs. It is a price which will be paid in blood. I have met no Iraqis who think anything is going to change at the end of next month. More and more they believe that the only way to end the occupation is by armed resistance. If the British Government believes that 3,000 extra soldiers will really do anything to restore order then they have once again underestimated the gravity of the crisis.