That Occupation Feeling
U.S.-embassy behavior in Iraq makes for an awkward relationship with Iraqis.


Michael Rubin

Three times a week, the newly elected Iraqi national assembly sits. Committees meet in between sessions. The novelty for the press has worn off. Members drink tea and soft drinks, and hold sidebar conversations in the hallways, not much different from the way congressmen do in Washington.

The January 30, 2005, elections were real. Iraqis defied expectations and flocked to the polls. Pride is still palpable. Billboards dot Baghdad, in Sunni and Shia neighborhoods alike, showing old men and women showing off their purple-tipped fingers. If Iraqis did not like the billboards, they would have simply defaced them. Most Iraqis remain grateful for the liberation which made elections possible, but they resent the manner in which U.S.-Iraqi partnership degenerated into occupation. The issue is not the presence of American troops. Iraqis across the ethnic and sectarian spectrum recognize that members of the Coalition are putting their lives on the line for Iraq’s future. Rather, the issue is arrogance.

Almost three months after the elections, many Iraqi officials say they have seen no change in American behavior. Iraqi voters punished Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, not because he is secular, but rather because of corruption within his administration and because he was more attuned to American issues than Iraqi desires. Likewise, Adnan Pachachi, a State Department favorite who often dined with Secretary of State Colin Powell during his visits to Iraq, failed to win a single seat. His mansion in the Mansour district of Baghdad lies empty. Iraqis disparage their former statesman, who wanted the perks of position but, having lost, was unwilling to invest time in the country he hoped to lead.

Iraqi political leaders say the new State Department leadership made a diplomatic gaffe when Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick visited Baghdad accompanied by Laith Kubba who, despite his National Endowment for Democracy position, has had long personal involvement in Iraqi politics, most recently with Pachachi’s movement. That Kubba would accompany an official delegation may have been innocent, but the victorious candidates interpreted it as the State Department wanting to play favorites, rather than respecting the Iraqi electorate. Politicians and ordinary Iraqis alike resent the implicit suggestion that embassy officials know better than Iraqis who should lead them.

While some Iraqis increasingly whisper doubt about whether Dawa leader Ibrahim Jaafari can form a government before the time allotted to him by the Transitional Administrative Law expires, Iraq’s political life continues. Politicians’ houses fill up at night and committees hold deliberations by day. They debate a number of issues, not only constitutional issues, but also formation of the new government. On April 6, 2005, a committee forwarded a proposal to the national assembly, which voted unanimously to move the new national assembly from the convention center to the newly refurbished defense ministry.

The reasons were many. First and foremost is the issue of sovereignty. The building the Coalition Provisional Authority assigned to the defense ministry had been built as the seat of the Iraqi parliament, although the 1958 revolution and its volatile aftermath meant that the parliament had never met there. Transferring the seat of national sovereignty to the building would symbolize the rebirth of democracy, after a half century of dictatorship.

As important to the elected Iraqis is the fact that the defense ministry lies outside the Green Zone, renamed the International Zone by American officials, but still referred to by its old name on the Iraqi street. The fortified neighborhood has come to symbolize everything Iraqis resent. The U.S. embassy occupies one of Saddam’s palaces. Not only is the symbolism counterproductive, but the continued American presence in the palace is a reminder of the insincerity of American pledges. Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer had promised the governing council that the U.S. government would not retain the palace after the transfer of sovereignty.

Iraqis increasingly associate the Green Zone with corruption. U.S.-appointed Prime Minister Ayad Allawi appropriated the house of Saddam’s Vice President, Taha Yasin Ramadan. Despite the fact that his mandate was always less than a year, Allawi gave himself and his cabinet officials 25-year leases over their temporary Green Zone houses. Former President Ghazi al-Yawar, though now vice president, still occupies the presidential palace. Newly elected President Jalal Talabani lives in the same compound he has possessed for the last two years and, as Iraqis note with favor, outside the Green Zone.

The greatest insult to sovereignty relates to the convention center in which the national assembly now convenes. The U.S. military, which seized the building as Baghdad fell, has not donated, but rather rented the facilities to the Iraqi government. Some Iraqi officials have complained that American diplomats walk in and out of the building, and on occasion the meeting rooms, when the assembly is in session. The national assembly must share its facilities with more than two dozen American agencies and offices.

After the Iraqis voted to switch buildings, American diplomats intervened. They interceded with several Iraqi politicians, mostly high-level officials from Allawi’s ousted government, to resist the move. Respect for democracy requires that the U.S. embassy respect national-assembly votes, all the more so when unanimous. The embassy operates for its own purposes, though. To move outside the Green Zone would be inconvenient for the Americans. U.S. diplomats like to cover the national assembly’s proceedings, but State Department security regulations will not allow diplomats outside of the fortified zone without three days’ notice. Furthermore, U.S. political officers may not be outside the security zone after dark. Iraqi sovereignty is simply inconvenient for the foreign-service lifestyle.

The issues facing Iraq are vast. Iraqis debate the role of religion in their society. Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs debate the future of Kirkuk. Discussions relating to a Basra-centered southern Iraqi federal unit are picking up. An increasingly mature and independent Iraqi press is at the forefront of investigating corruption. The arguments Iraqis have are long and sometimes heated. But, as the January 30 turnout showed, Iraqis take great pride in their sovereignty. The White House does too. Unfortunately, no one has yet told the American embassy.

Michael Rubin, editor of The Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is currently in Baghdad, staying outside the U.S.-secured International Zone.