More attention needs to be paid to the political and psychological situation of our campaign in Iraq. If we don’t bring in the Iraqi opposition factor to assist us on the ground, we could soon be facing increasing difficulties.
The campaign in Iraq has two components — military and political. And while I trust Central Command in its assessment of military matters on the ground, I am very concerned with the political development in Iraq, in the region, and worldwide. The main challenge, politically, is to acquire popular legitimacy. As I monitor al Jazeera and other Arab media, I continually find that the main thrust in the Baathist and jihadist propaganda strategies is to demonstrate to the Arabs and the world that “the Americans and British are not welcomed as liberators but as occupiers.”
This single equation will make or break America’s ultimate success in Iraq. Coalition forces may be able to destroy enemy armies, but popular perceptions could still feed terrorism and radical uprising against the U.S. presence — and therefore make it possible for international pressure to work against Washington.
So far, without a visible Iraqi opposition, al Jazeera and its sisters are projecting the image of an “Iraqi national resistance to the U.S. occupation.” They are manufacturing it piece by piece — rushing from one cleric to another, from one Baathist cadre to another. And as most experts would tell you, U.S. official briefings are no match for this. The political war is being lost even as I write.
What to do about it, then?
First, we must proceed as fast as possible to establish an interim Iraqi government for the “liberated areas.” Regardless of whether this authority will later be the government, it is badly needed, in the eyes of Iraqis and Arabs who support the campaign. Without such a political entity, the campaign will be doomed. The leaders and the manpower exist. Indeed, I’m sure the Saddam regime and its allies are wondering why we haven’t even considered it yet. They are banking on its absence. I fully endorse the analysis of Brandeis University professor Kanan Makiya a few days ago. Iraqis must be part of the liberation campaign.
Second, even as we are working on such interim government, we must not waste time. Free Iraqi cadres must be “embedded” in Coalition units in all areas possible. A “Free Iraq Committee” (FIC), which should dispatch delegates to all fronts and areas, must become a Nongovernmental Organization. This NGO wouldn’t be the Iraqis’ interim government, but would have as its mission the goal of providing “true information about the Iraqi people.” Some suggestions for its main tasks:
1) When the U.S. military holds press conferences (including in Qatar), representatives of this “civil society NGO” should be standing next to our spokespersons. Every time a question addresses the “situation of civilians or their feelings about the war,” the microphone should be handed over to an Iraqi from the FIC. That person would answer in English, and when al Jazeera or its sisters is asking the question, the answer will be provided in Arabic. You can imagine the immense positive consequences. The FIC personnel should be present at briefings both in Washington and in the region.
2) The Free Iraqi NGO should also be embedded with Coalition forces as they advance and administer areas. FIC-NGO should be the cadre assigned to talk to Iraqi civilians. The Iraqi people need to see Iraqi faces, and hear the Arabic language spoken with an Iraqi accent. At most barricades where civilians are to cross, Free Iraqis must be present.
3) Those among the Free Iraqis who have military experience must be deployed alongside the most advanced Coalition troops, not solely for fighting — which could have been ideal — but also to serve as a psychological weapon against Saddam’s unconventional tactics. There are several ways Free Iraqi personnel could undermine the Saddam Fedayeen and so-called “suicide bombers.” They may not stop them, but they can morally undermine the enemy.
4) The FIC must be granted immediately broadcasting capabilities inside Iraq, even if only from small FM radio stations the U.S. can install quickly. Basra, Nasiriyah, and most Shiite cities (including Karbala and el-Najaf) must be able to hear Arab programming by Free Iraqis at once. A TV station would be an even more powerful tool — it should have been in place since day one. The population must know that Free Iraqis are outside these cities. Iraqi military must know they have the option of defecting to join other Iraqis, not just of surrendering to Coalition forces. I would even argue that Iraqi units must be allowed some form of disengaging from their command and “joining” the Free Iraq command without having to “surrender.” New Free Iraqi officers can be dispatched. Technical details can be worked out. The mere sight of Iraqi units “defecting” to other Iraqis, rather than surrendering to “alien forces,” will trigger the awaited uprising.
Iraqis who are oppressed need an Iraqi face, voice, and address to make their liberation possible. As the French saw an alternative in the “Free French Forces,” and the Afghanis saw an alternative with the “Northern Alliance,” so Iraqis must see an alternative as well. The process can start immediately with the embedding of a Free Iraqi Committee, even as the establishment of an interim government is still being worked out. The whole process can be set in motion in just hours by simply appointing an Iraqi Free spokesperson in Qatar. When he or she appears for the first time, you will see a wave of Free Iraqis converging.
Remember that, while it is absolutely true that U.S. and allied forces are in Iraq to rout out Saddam’s armies, only Free Iraqis can uproot his image and truly erase his shadow from Iraqi and Arab minds. Then, and only then, the Iraqi people will stand up with their liberators.
— Walid Phares is professor of Middle East Studies at Florida Atlantic University and an MSNBC analyst.