Uprising? No, thanks!
On the sixth day of the conflict with Iraq, news of an uprising in Basra finally arrived. Richard Gaisford, a British ITN journalist embedded with coalition troops near Basra, seemed to be the sole reporter in the area. It was Gaisford’s voice that broke the news on most major networks that day. After hearing Gaisford’s breathless account of an uprising in the town against Saddam Hussein’s Fedayeen militia, the CNN anchor said, “So this is what the coalition forces have been hoping all along?” Firmly replied the Brit, “Indeed, Judy!”
Indeed, Judy? Well, actually, no. In recent months, the U.S. war planners have been discouraging the Iraqi population from any uprising and trying the keep the Iraqi opposition forces off the battlefield. At a summit in Ankara earlier this month, Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush’s special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, firmly declared Washington’s “no uprisings” strategy to the Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni Iraqi opposition leaders. “The lesson Tommy Franks got from the Afghan campaign last year is that it is risky to work with indigenous groups. He does not want to do that again,” one insider told me. As the thinking goes, uprisings across the country would not just “complicate” the military planning, but turn off potential allies inside the regime by stressing the exiled Iraqi opposition’s role. That, in turn, might alienate both alienate the Sunni elite in Baghdad and Iraq’s military commanders who might switch sides as the operation unfolds.
So the United States is set to liberate Iraq without the participation of Iraqis? Precisely, it seems.
“We were told that the coalition forces do not want to see any uprisings in major cities,” said a leading member of the exiled opposition group Iraqi National Congress who took part in the meetings in Ankara. INC has a vast network of informants in the southern areas of Iraq and in and around Baghdad, but its leadership, now based in northern Iraq, had no formal contact with CENTCOM until the fifth day of the war, when a CENTCOM liaison officer finally arrived at the group’s headquarters in the northern city of Suleimaniye. Throughout this period, INC was in touch with the residents of Basra via the satellite phone its agents smuggled there, the same official told me. The group also reports of sporadic and spontaneous demonstrations in Saddam City, a suburb of Baghdad and Najaf, which, they say, have evaded the attention of the U.S. forces advancing on these towns.
“We talk to Americans regularly but they believe it’s better for people in the south to stay at home and not take part in any activity against the regime,” said Hamid Bayati, the London representative of the fundamentalist Shiite group Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Millions of pamphlets have been distributed in the south instructing residents to stay at home, Bayati said. An uprising led by this Iranian-backed fundamentalist group would not be desirable as a basis for a secular democracy in the post-Saddam Iraq. SCIRI’s leader lives in Iran and the group envisions a far more religious state than many urban Iraqis would like. But SCIRI, like the INC and other opposition groups, has underground networks, armed men, and informants inside the country, which they say the allied forces are not tapping into at the moment. “I don’t know why. They are probably betting on a coup from the military. They might want the leadership to be replaced by Sunnis. But overall, they don’t want the opposition in the picture,” Bayati told me over the phone.
“We certainly want greater cooperation with the coalition forces,” said U.S.-trained INC leader Ahmad Chalabi from his base in the north. He is a friend to Pentagon’s hawkish civilian leaders and a longtime foe to the State Department and the CIA. “People in towns are disempowered, their spirit dampened by allied broadcasts telling them to stay at home. The Fedayeen are killing people to suppress dissent and we are told to stay put.”
Chalabi’s desire for a greater role for the opposition in both the military phase and the post-Saddam power-sharing arrangement is a controversial topic in Washington, where some in the administration are skeptical of the opposition’s ability to deliver Saddam’s downfall. There have always been two schools of thought on how to do away with his regime: a clean and bloodless coup or a popular uprising by the opposition forces. At the moment there is also an overwhelming fixation at the State Department and Pentagon with preserving Iraq’s institutions, “using the institutions that are there” as Secretary Powell said in a recent congressional hearing. Washington does not want to see a situation where Iraqis violently dismantle tools of the regime through uprisings — something that could make Iraq ungovernable. The current policy of de-Baathification envisions keeping the regular army intact while gently dismantling the regime’s foundations. Too gently, some say, however.
The opposition groups were instrumental in the 1991 Shiite and Kurdish uprisings that swept the northern and southern parts of Iraq at the end of the Gulf War and seriously rattled the many apparatchiks of repression which constitute Saddam’s hold on power. The legend has it that the event started in Basra when one army officer turned his tank away from the people and fired at the massive Hussein portrait in a nearby building in Saad Square. The rest, by all accounts, was chaotic, messy, and bloody. As the rebellion swept across the south, townspeople would rush to execute their longtime torturers — the hated Baath party leaders and the secret police — and were often joined by conscripts from Iraq’s army. “People were hanging from lampposts and being dragged behind cars. It was ugly,” said one former official who worked at the National Security Council at the time.
The administration being as sensitive as it is to the hostile world public opinion, blood-spattered rebellions sweeping across Iraq would certainly not be the best spectacle for the imbedded press corps to beam around the world. But a larger consideration behind the no-uprising policy seems to be a desire to avoid a situation similar to what happened in Afghanistan. During the first two weeks of the war against Taliban there, the U.S.-led alliance went at great lengths to limit the role of the opposition forces, the Northern Alliance, in the actual battlefield. When the advance on the Taliban seemed sluggish, the Northern Alliance, with all its warlords and ethnic divisions, emerged as a closer partner in the war effort. Once the Taliban fell, the group therefore was well-positioned to grasp a significant share of power in the post-Taliban government — reducing the influence of the country’s Pashtun majority and the U.S-backed leader Hamid Karzai.
Could a similar change in policy towards working with the local forces be under war now? “Not” according to a series of opposition figures inside and outside the country interviewed over the phone. Administration officials and Secretary of Donald H. Rumsfeld have urged Iraqi civilians to stay indoors and refrain from rebellions. “I am very careful about encouraging people to rise up,” Rumsfeld said yesterday.
The one place where a policy of no uprisings makes sense is the city of Kirkuk, adjacent to the Kurdish safe-haven in the north of Iraq. The Kurds have been living outside Saddam’s rule and running their own affairs since the Gulf War. But Kurdish leaders say that after Saddam’s fall, they want to include the oil town of Kirkuk, currently under Baghdad’s control, in the Kurdish region. The Kurdish claims in the city, however, are strongly contested by the Turcoman minority of Iraq, ethnic Turks, who make up 50 percent of the population there and regard Kirkuk as an ancestral homeland. To complicate the matters, the neighboring Turkey considers a Kurdish capture of the city “casus belli” and a reason to enter northern Iraq. During the Ankara meeting last month, the two Kurdish parties in the Iraqi opposition were warned by U.S. officials that the United States does not support an uprising in Kirkuk and the city’s multi-ethnic structure should be preserved. So far, no one seems to argue with the U.S. position that the best way to avoid Turkish-Kurdish conflict in the region might just be for the 101st Airborne to run Kirkuk. At least for a while.
But for the south, with stiff resistance hampering U.S. advance on Baghdad, those advocating Iraqi involvement in the campaign might have a stronger hand now. “Iraqis must take part in Iraq’s liberation,” one Iraqi friend tells me. He might be right after all. The argument goes that Iraqis and information pouring from Iraqi networks inside cities would be useful in countering the stiff resistance from Iraqi militia, which continue to terrorize towns and menace the outer flanks of the allied forces. It would also be a way to let Iraqis know that once the war is over the United States intends to share power with local forces in that country — not do it alone.
“No one will dance for Americans liberating their cities. They will dance for Iraqis,” Chalabi says cynically. “They are making their lives more difficult by not taking advantage of a population on their side. They want a clear U.S. victory by keeping Iraqis out. But people are ready to do it. If they [allies] want, there can be an uprising in all of Iraq against Saddam.” At least he now has a CENTCOM officer next to him to vent to.
— Asla Aydintasbas, a writer for the Turkish daily Sabah, is an adjunct fellow at the Western Policy Center in Washington, D.C. She has just returned from northern Iraq.