EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in a 6-part series on Iraq after Saddam Hussein. Part 1 was published Tuesday, subsequent sections of the series will move over the next five weekdays. The next installment will be on the shifting saga of the Iraqi armed forces, plus a look at the country’s Kurdish community.
With the successful U.S., British and Australian invasion of Iraq, a new era in American-Iraqi and American-Arab relations is at hand, one that can change the face of the entire region, as well as launch a new, yet unpredictable, phase in Iraq’s political history.
Many observers expect the United States to dominate postwar Iraq, creating serious long-term consequences throughout Arab nations and the entire Muslim world. Most predict guerrilla-like terrorist reaction in Iraq, other Arab countries and Israel, plus the United States and its interests worldwide.
Some Iraqi analysts do not rule out an armed Iraqi national resistance that would confront allied occupation forces in Iraq and sooner or later inflict such heavy losses that Washington would withdraw from the “Iraqi swamps,” as it did 30 years ago from Vietnam. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, apparently believing in such a scenario, told a visiting Vietnamese delegation shortly before the war that his country was unable to stop an American attack but could and would survive. It is to be hoped the swamps of failure will stay drained, postwar, as well.
These analysts have reminded Washington of what happened when British forces invaded the territory that became Iraq early in the 20th century. Hundreds of their troops died during an armed revolt in June 1920, resulting in British withdrawal and eventual recognition of an independent and sovereign Iraq.
Al Thawra, the leader among Iraq’s government-controlled media, wrote several months ago that the “Americans and British are trying, more than 80 years after the revolution, to impose a mandate on the Iraqi people under illusionary and foolish pretexts.” Stating the two nations “falsely believe that the Iraqi people, who revolted against them in 1920, would succumb today,” referring to the rebellion that resulted in 2,300 British killed and wounded versus approximately 8,000 Iraqis.
Recently, however, several Iraqi intellectuals, including Islamists and leftists, have gone the other way and refrained from prejudging U.S. intentions following their country post-Saddam. They have opted not to jump to conclusions, particularly following President George W. Bush’s strong assurances of Washington’s commitment to help the Iraqi people rid themselves of the ruling Baath-party dictatorship and create a pluralistic and democratic regime that guarantees freedoms and maintains control over Iraq’s natural resources.
Most intellectuals, however, remain skeptical of Washington and accept the notion that U.S. interests lie in protecting and expanding American strategic interests by controlling Iraq’s oil resources. They said they doubted Washington was as concerned with protecting the victims of Saddam Hussein and expressed suspicion the United States would retract its promises to the Iraqis following Saddam’s removal.
A number of pragmatic intellectuals believe the Iraqis should pay the “necessary price” and grant oil concessions, in order to be rid of the current regime. As one prominent Iraqi writer wrote last month in London-based Al Quds al Arabi, the Saddam regime has “treated the Iraqi people worse than a foreign occupying power.”
Bush’s recent statements that changing the Iraqi regime would pave the way to positive changes in the entire region and that one “dictator will not be replaced by another dictator” have consolidated this trend of thought. Moreover, several analysts have also received negatively, yet pragmatically, his promises that Iraq’s unity and territorial integrity would be maintained and that the Iraqis alone would chose their next government.
The commandant of the British force that occupied Baghdad in March 1917, Gen. Stanley Maude, spoke similarly to the Iraqi people on entering the Iraqi capital, “I am designated to invite you, through your representatives, to participate in administering your interests; and to assist the British political representatives accompanying the army to support you, north and south, east and west, in achieving your national aspirations.”
Maude said the British aim, in opposing German territorial ambitions was to “liberate the people with final and total freedom, and establish governments and national administrations chosen by the national residents.”
After recognizing Iraq’s nominal independence, Britain sent 150,000 troops to the country, leaving the natives no choice other than armed rebellion to be rid of their British “liberators.” Ultimately, Iraq did not effectively achieve independence until the 1958 military overthrow of King Faisal.
Through most of this time, the U.S. image, importantly based on the principles expressed in the 1776 Declaration of Independence, had shone brightly among the Arab elite, until the CIA-backed coup in Iran, overthrowing the government of Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1952.
Concerns over American intentions deepened after the first Baathist coup in 1963, in which an estimated 5,000 Leftist and democratic Iraqis perished. American intelligence services’ role was well-known, prompting the secretary general of the Baath party, Ali Saleh al-Saadi, to say years later that, “We came to power on an American train.”
Until Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the Arab image of the United States was political and negative, particularly regarding the Palestinian issue and the perceived American bias toward Israel to the detriment of the Palestinians and Arabs. This, combined with Washington’s strong economic interest in secure sources of oil, prompted the famous criticism of the United States’ “double standard” regarding democracy.
Arab — leaders and peasants alike — came to doubt American sincerity, as, despite regular calls for democracy in the Arab countries, the United States allied itself with autocratic Arab regimes from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, in its quest for reliable sources of petroleum. Thus, the Bush administration’s commitment to create a pluralistic and democratic postwar Iraq rings hollow in may quarters. This has been offset to a degree by U.S. support of the divided Iraqi opposition, which has seen that it is unable to topple Saddam without direct American assistance.
The poet Saadi Yousef, widely respected for the power of his poetry as well as his commitment to fighting for the democratization and modernization of Iraq, recently said, “Washington should benefit from its unprecedented influence, to push for finding a democratic alternative, with ethnic and sectarian variety, to Saddam in Iraq.” He warned, however, of what he saw as the Bush administration’s desire to give former and current Baathist generals “another train to Baghdad,” noting the CIA had spent most of the last 10 years financing generals whom Yousef called “neo-fascists.” The writer added that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, “there is a more complicated battle facing the entire United States, which is the right of Muslim nations to liberate themselves from the religious darkness and corrupt regimes.”
The challenge confronting the “Coalition of the willing” in victory is to assure peaceful selection of a reasonably democratic, secular, and stable successor Iraqi government. Moreover, it is imperative to refrain from actual or perceived control of the undoubtedly difficult process.
— Hussain Hindawi is a native Iraqi historian, humanitarian and journalist who currently serves as editor of United Press International’s Arabic News Service. John R. Thomson has been involved in the Middle East since 1966 as businessman, diplomat, and journalist. He has lived in Beirut, Cairo and Riyadh, and reported extensively during and after the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1990-91 Gulf War. From their differing backgrounds and perspectives, the authors assess the enormous risks and opportunities facing those who would set Iraq and by extension, the Middle East on a positive and peaceful course. This series was written for UPI and is reprinted with permission.