Robert Fisk: Iraq isn't working
Iraq isn't working
There is a veneer of normality about life in the new Iraq. But America's
failure to deliver on its promises has triggered a spiral of murderous
anarchy that threatens to become an epic tragedy
By Robert Fisk
31 July 2003
Paul Bremer's taste in clothes symbolises "the new Iraq" very well. He wears
a business suit and combat boots. As the proconsul of Iraq, you might have
thought he'd have more taste. But he is a famous "antiterrorism" expert who
is supposed to be rebuilding the country with a vast army of international
companies - most of them American, of course - and creating the first
democracy in the Arab world. Since he seems to be a total failure at the
"antiterrorist" game - 50 American soldiers killed in Iraq since President
George Bush declared the war over is not exactly a blazing success - it is
only fair to record that he is making a mess of the "reconstruction" bit as
In theory, the news is all great. Oil production is up to one million
barrels a day; Baghdad airport is preparing to re-open; every university in
Iraq is functioning again; the health services are recovering rapidly; and
mobile phones have made their first appearance in Baghdad. There's an Iraqi
Interim Council up and hobbling.
But there's a kind of looking-glass fantasy to all these announcements from
the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the weasel-worded title with
which the American-led occupation powers cloak their decidedly undemocratic
and right-wing credentials. Take the oil production figures.
Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, the US commander in Iraq, even chose to
use these statistics in his "great day for Iraq" press conference last week,
the one in which he triumphantly announced that 200 soldiers in Mosul had
killed the sons of Saddam rather than take them prisoner. But Lt-Gen Sanchez
was talking rubbish. Although oil production was indeed standing at 900,000
barrels per day in June (albeit 100,000bpd less than the Sanchez version),
it fell this month to 750,000. The drop was caused by power cuts - which are
going to continue for much of the year - and export smuggling. The result?
Iraq, with the world's second-highest reserves of oil, is now importing fuel
from other oil-producing countries to meet domestic demands.
Then comes Baghdad airport. Sure, it's going to re-open. But it just happens
that the airport, with its huge American military base and brutal US prison
camp, comes under nightly grenade and mortar attack. No major airline would
dream of flying its aircraft into the facility in these circumstances. So
weird things are happening. The Iraqis are told, for example, that the first
flights will be run by "Transcontinental Airlines" (a name oddly similar to
the CIA's transport airline in Vietnam), which is reported to be a
subsidiary of "US Airlines" and the only flight will be between Baghdad and
- wait for it - the old East Berlin airport of Schönefeld. A British outfit
calling itself "Mayhill Aviation" has printed advertisements in the Iraqi
press saying that it intends to fly a Boeing 747 once a week from Gatwick to
Basra, a route which suggests that it is going to be British military
personnel and their families who end up using the plane.
Open universities are good news. And few would blame Bremer for summarily
firing the 436 professors who were members of the Baath party. In the same
vein, the CPA annulled the academic system whereby student party members
would automatically receive higher grades. This is real de-Baathification.
But then it turned out that there wouldn't be enough qualified professors to
go round. Quite a number of the 436 were party men in name only and received
their degrees at foreign universities. So at Mustansiriyah University, for
example, the very same purged professors were re-hired after filling out
forms routinely denouncing the Baath party. Bremer seems to have a habit of
reversing his own decisions; having triumphantly announced that he'd sacked
the entire Iraqi army, he was humiliatingly forced to put them back on
rations in case they all decided to attack US soldiers in Iraq.
Health services? Well, yes, the new Iraqi health service is being encouraged
to rehabilitate the country's hospitals and clinics. But a mysterious
American company called Abt Associates has turned up in Baghdad to give
"Ministry of Health Technical Assistance" support to the US Agency for
International Development (USAid) and "rapid response grants to address
health needs in-country". It has decreed that all medical equipment must
accord with US technical standards and modifications - which means that all
new hospital equipment must come from America, not from Europe.
And then there's the mobile phones. Just over a week ago, my roaming
Lebanese cellular pinged into life at midnight and, after a few hours of
scrambled voice communication, picked up mobile companies in Kuwait, Qatar
and Bahrain (depending on where you happened to be in Baghdad). Less than a
week later, however, the Americans ordered the system shut down because the
Bahrain operating company, by opening its service so early, was supposedly
not giving other bidders a fair chance at the contract. Those other
companies are largely American.
Of course, Iraqis protest at much of this. They protest in the streets,
especially against the aggressive American military raids, and they protest
in the press. Much good does it do them. When ex-Iraqi soldiers demonstrated
outside Bremer's office at the former Presidential Palace, US troops shot
two of them dead. When Falujah residents staged a protest as long ago as
April, the American military shot 16 dead. Another 11 were later gunned down
in Mosul. During two demonstrations against the presence of US troops near
the shrine of Imam Hussein at Karbala last weekend, US soldiers shot dead
another three. "What a wonderful thing it is to speak your own minds,"
Lt-Gen Sanchez said of the demonstrations in Iraq last week. Maybe he was
exhibiting a black sense of humour.
All this might be incomprehensible if one forgot that the whole illegal
Iraqi invasion had been hatched up by a bunch of right-wing and pro-Israeli
ideologues in Washington, and that Bremer - though not a member of their
group - fits squarely into the same bracket. Hence Paul Wolfowitz, one of
the prime instigators of this war - he was among the loudest to beat the
drum over the weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist - is now trying
to deflect attention from his disastrous advice to the US administration by
attacking the media, in particular that pesky, uncontrollable channel,
Al-Jazeera. Its reports, he now meretriciously claims, amount to "incitement
to violence" - knowing full well, of course, that Bremer has officially made
"incitement to violence" an excuse to close down any newspaper or TV station
he doesn't like.
Indeed, newspapers that have offended the Americans have been raided by US
troops in the same way that the Americans have conducted raids on the
offices of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose
leader, Ayatollah Mohammed al-Hakim, is a member of the famous Interim
Council - not exactly a bright way to keep a prominent Shia cleric on board.
But the council itself is already the subject of much humour in Baghdad, not
least because its first acts included the purchase of cars for all its
members; a decision to work out of a former presidential palace; and - this
the lunatic brainchild of the Pentagon-supported and convicted fraudster
Ahmed Chalabi - the declaring of a national holiday every 9 April to honour
Iraq's "liberation" from Saddam.
This sounds fine in America and Britain. What could be more natural than
celebrating the end of the Beast of Baghdad? But Iraqis, a proud people who
have resisted centuries of invasions, realised that their new public holiday
would mark the first day of their country's foreign occupation.
"From its very first decision," an Iraqi journalist told me with contempt,
"the Interim Council de-legitimised itself." And so there has begun to grow
the faint but sinister shadow of a different kind of "democracy" for Iraq,
one in which a new ruler will have to use a paternalistic rule - moderation
mixed with autocracy, à la Ataturk - to govern Iraq and allow the Americans
to go home. Inevitably, it has been one of the American commentators from
the same failed lunatic right as Wolfowitz - Daniel Pipes of the Middle East
Forum think tank, which promotes American interests in the region - to
express this in its most chilling form. He now argues that
"democratic-minded autocrats can guide [Iraq] to full democracy better than
snap elections". What Iraq needs, he says, is "a democratically-minded [sic]
strongman who has real authority", who would be "politically moderate" but
"operationally tough" (sic again).
Of course, it's difficult to resist a cynical smile at such double
standards, although their meaning is frightening enough. What does
"operationally tough" mean, other than secret policemen, interrogation rooms
and torturers to keep the people in order - which is exactly what Saddam set
up when he took power, supported as he was at the time by the US and
Britain? What does "strongman" mean other than a total reversal of the
promise of "democracy" which Bush and Tony Blair made to the Iraqi people?
Democracies are not led by autocrats, and autocrats are not led by anyone
but themselves. The Pipes version of the strongman democracy, by the way,
involves the withdrawal of American troops to "military bases away from
population centres" where they "serve as the military partner of the new
government [sic], guaranteeing its ultimate security..." In other words, US
forces would hide in the desert to avoid further casualties unless it was
necessary to storm back to Baghdad to get rid of the "strongman" if he
failed to obey American orders.
But today Bremer is the strongman, and under his rule US troops are losing
hearts and minds by the bucketful with each new, blundering and often
useless raid against the civilians of Iraq. Still obsessed with capturing -
or, rather, killing - Saddam, they are destroying any residual affection for
them among the population. On a recent operation in the town of Dhuluaya,
for example, two innocent men were killed and the Americans' Iraqi informer
- originally paraded before those he was to betray in a hood to keep his
identity secret - was executed by his own father. The enterprising newspaper
Iraq Today found that the "intelligence" officers of the 4th Infantry
Division even left behind mug shots, aerial reconnaissance photographs and
secret operational documents - complete with target houses and briefing
notes - at the scene. The paper, in the true tradition of journalism,
gleefully published the lot, including the comment of the father of Sabah
Salem Kerbul, the young informer who worked for the Americans during
"Operation Peninsula Strike". He shot his son first in the foot and then in
the head. "I have killed him," he said. "But he is still a part of my
Indeed, anarchic violence is now being embedded in Iraqi society in a way it
never was under the genocidal Saddam. Scarcely a day goes by when I do not
encounter the evidence of this in my daily reporting work in Baghdad.
Visiting the Yarmouk hospital in Baghdad on Monday to seek the identity of
civilians killed by American troops in Mansur the previous day, I came
across four bodies lying out in the yard beside the building in the 50C
heat. All had been shot. No one knew their identities. They were all young,
save one who might have been a middle-aged man, with a hole in his sock.
Three days earlier, on a visit to a local supermarket, I noticed that the
woman cashier was wearing black. Yes, she said, because her brother had been
murdered a week earlier. No one knew why.
In a conversation with my driver's father - who runs a photocopying shop
near Bremer's palace headquarters - a young man suddenly launched into
praise for Saddam Hussein. When I asked him why, he said that his father's
new car had just been stolen by armed men. Trying to contact an ex-prisoner
illegally held by the Americans at his home in a slum suburb of Baghdad, I
drove to the mukhtar's house to find the correct address. The mukhtar is the
local mayor. But I was greeted by a group of long-faced relatives who told
me that I could not speak to the mukhtar - because he had been assassinated
the previous night.
So if this is my experience in just the past four days, how many murders and
thefts are occurring across Baghdad - or, indeed, across Iraq? Only two days
ago, for example, five men accused of selling alcohol were reportedly
murdered in Basra. Again, there was no publicity, no official statement, no
death toll from the CPA. Only a few days ago, I sat in the conference hall
that the occupation authorities use for their daily press briefings, follies
that are used to condemn "irresponsible reporting", but which record only a
fraction of the violence of the previous 24 hours - violence which, of
course, is well known to the authorities.
And there was a disturbing moment when Charles Heatley, the British
spokesman from the Foreign Office, appointed by Tony Blair at the behest of
Alastair Campbell, talked about the reports of abduction and rape in Iraq.
He acknowledged that there had been some cases, but then - I enjoyed the
beautiful way in which he tried to destroy any journalistic interest in this
terrible subject - talked about the number of "rumours" that turned out to
be untrue when checked out. But this is not the experience of The
Independent, which in just one day recently discovered the identity of one
young woman who had been kidnapped, raped and then freed - only to attempt
suicide three times at her home. Another family gave the paper a photograph
of their abducted daughter in the hope that it might be printed in the Iraqi
Why don't the occupation authorities realise that Iraq cannot be "spun"?
This country is living a tragedy of epic proportions, and now - after its
descent into hell under Saddam - we are doomed to suffer its contagion. By
our hubris and by our lies and by our fantasies - including the fantasies of
Tony Blair - we are descending into the pit.
For the people of Iraq, the next stage in their long suffering is under way.
For us, a new colonial humiliation, the like of which may well end the
careers of George Bush and Tony Blair, is coming. Of far more consequence is
that it is likely to end many innocent lives as well.