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The Great Sorting Out
Iraq has been reborn; how shall it grow up?


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David Pryce-Jones

Violence is latent in Iraq, but with forethought and goodwill retired general Jay Garner and the several hundred other American officials of the newly formed Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance should be able to contain and defang it. The initial outburst of looting in Iraqi cities has struck some as an unwelcome surprise. But looting happens in war, and even more in the vacuum created by the collapse of a totalitarian regime.

Everyone was looting in Germany in 1945, including from art collections and museums. In Yeltsin’s Russia, everyone knew Communism had stolen so much from them that they felt impelled to take back anything they could, by whatever means. Saddam Hussein stole the whole of Iraq, and the looters are also only trying to lay hands on a little of their own. Why, as a war correspondent in the Six Day War of 1967, I took from a Syrian trench a copy of Balzac’s Père Goriot in Russian, presumably abandoned by a Soviet adviser.

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Looting in Iraq is also low-level ethnic protest, though it has the potential to explode into revenge killings on a large scale. Almost to a man, Saddam and his Baath party loyalists were Sunni Muslims. Comprising only about a fifth of the population, the Sunnis are traditionally accustomed to rule — which has meant the exercise of unquestioned supremacy over everyone else. Iraqi Kurds, who are Muslims but not Arabs, are approximately equivalent in numbers to the Sunni. Shia Muslims, however, form a majority of the population, maybe as much as two-thirds. Among Kurds and Shia there are tribal chiefs and grandees, but in general terms they have been controlled by the Sunnis by means of enforced poverty, imprisonment, and torture. The shoe is now on the other foot. The looters and expropriators are Shia and Kurds; those being looted and expropriated are Sunnis. Some blameless Sunnis are therefore having to pay for other criminal Sunnis. Gen. Garner and his officials are going to have to sort out those who would like to perpetuate the old tyranny from those innocent Sunnis genuinely protesting against new anarchy.

Sunni supremacy dates from the days when Iraq was merely three provinces within the Ottoman Empire, itself Sunni Muslim. After the First World War, the British conquered these three provinces and invented a nation-state out of them. In the belief that they were respecting custom, they then set up a Sunni king to rule it, and a parliament supposedly representing the religious and ethnic communities. The British civil administrator, Sir Arnold Wilson, and several prominent Shia leaders, warned that this arrangement was sure to provoke the Shia to rebel. And so it did. The British suppressed the rebellion, but soon admitted that they could not devise a way of ruling the country, declared it independent, and went home. Sunni military dictators, each more murderous than the last, duly overwhelmed the monarchy, the anemic parliament, and the standing of Kurds, Shia, and all.

Like the British before them, President Bush and senior members of his administration emphasize that they are bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq. How to translate that aspiration into policy? The difficulties which faced Sir Arnold Wilson over 80 years ago persist. The eventual government of Iraq will have to be as genuinely representative as possible, not an exclusive Sunni or Shia or Kurd benefit system. Far from thinking this through and establishing a government-in-waiting, the State Department and the Pentagon are openly engaged in a wrestling match over their respective Iraqi candidates for office.
The State Department hopes to rescue from retirement Adnan Pachachi, an 80-year-old former foreign minister. His career was based on Arab nationalism and hatred of Israel. But he is a Sunni, and so his backers are set to repeat the British mistake of promoting someone from that minority without sufficient concern for everyone else.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of it, democracy is based on pluralities. This puts the Shia in a strong position. Many of their most capable spokesmen long ago fled into exile. The most articulate and forceful of them is Ahmad Chalabi, a member of a prominent family and secular in outlook, with a degree from MIT. Consistently supported by the Pentagon, he founded and now leads the Iraqi National Congress, an embryo political party as well as a movement of national liberation. But every time he takes a step forward, the State Department pushes him back. The CIA has long maintained that Chalabi has no popular support. A few days after the ground assault began, the CIA went so far as to issue a report to the effect that Chalabi should not replace Saddam. In reality he is very much his own man, but the only serious argument his detractors can offer is that he might be perceived as an American puppet. As the war progressed, he flew in from Iraqi Kurdistan to newly liberated Nasiriya, with some hundreds of para-military supporters. Nearby in the small and dusty town of Shatra he set up headquarters in a disused warehouse. According to some sources, people have never heard of him, asking “Ahmad who?” According to other sources, he is cheered in the streets.

A political vacuum is a surefire recipe for disorder. In Basra, for instance, the British military could not cope with the looting. Marvelously true to ingrained colonial experience, they tried to set up in authority a local tribal sheikh by the name of Muzahim Mustafa Kanan Tamimi. They were not to know that several Tamimis were among Saddam’s supporters, and this sheikh was compromised too. A spontaneous riot erupted.

Something similar happened in Najaf, a city famous for its Shia shrines and madrassahs. The 75-year-old Ayatollah Ali Muhammad Sistani is the most authoritative of Iraq’s Shia ayatollahs. Since 1988, he has been under house arrest in Najaf. As coalition forces approached the city, he called on the population not to resist. Unknown people then issued an ultimatum requiring him to leave the country within 48 hours; he stayed put. Returning to Najaf from exile in London, another ayatollah, Abdul Majid al-Khoie, went to meet yet a third ayatollah; both seem to have had guns and in a mysterious brawl both were killed. Nobody knows whether political or personal antagonisms were behind these deaths. Enlightened and competent as Gen. Garner and his staff may be, they are outsiders unfitted to know the inner lives of the Tamimis and other tribes, or to pass sound judgments on the conduct of ayatollahs. Defecting Baathists, would-be collaborators, and turncoats and opportunists will easily talk them into making mistakes great and small.

There is an instructive precedent. In 1982 the Israelis entered Beirut, another Arab capital. Their purpose was to free Lebanon from the grip of the Palestine Liberation Organization then terrorizing the country and attacking Israel; and beyond that, to remake the social order by installing as president Bashir Gemayel, a Maronite Christian, and a supposed ally. Shias constitute about half the population of Lebanon, and as Israeli columns entered their villages Shias threw flowers at them, rejoicing in their liberation from the PLO. But as soon as they expelled the PLO overseas to Tunis, the Israelis found themselves entangled in local and regional power politics.

Perceiving Israel as a threat to his own ambitions in Lebanon, Hafez Assad, then president of Syria, set about frustrating any idea of remaking the social order. He arranged for a bomb to kill Bashir Gemayel in his office. Maronites took their revenge in the notorious Sabra and Shatila massacres, and the religious and ethnic communities broke into free-for-all fighting. When the United States sent in troops to keep the peace, another suicide bomber, probably Iranian, exploded his vehicle in their barracks, killing 241 Marines. Committing one of his rare mistakes, President Reagan recalled the troops. The Osama bin Ladens of the world concluded that terror paid off. A single bomb was evidently stronger than the United States.

The Israeli experience in Lebanon indicates that the United States can liberate Iraq and even keep a garrison in the background in case of emergency — especially with neighbors like Iran and Syria — but Iraqis are going to have to remake their country for themselves. Fortunately they are capable people, and will not long be needing the services of Gen. Garner. It hardly matters who is right about the qualifications or otherwise of Ahmad Chalabi. He’s the only candidate in sight for the task ahead. Let him get on with his plan of summoning a convention of all interested parties to establish a democratic constitution. And should elections after that throw up someone who can do a better job than he, then that will be proof of freedom too.



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