Politics & Policy

“Betrayal”

Iraqis are hesitant to trust the U.S.

“We love Bush” reads the graffiti scrawled on the bombed-out remains of the former Baathist security compound in the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriyah. U.S. precision bombing destroyed the hated symbol of the former regime in the first days of the war. The site of a major battle during the march to Baghdad, residents of Nasiriyah nevertheless embraced Coalition occupation, albeit with the frustration over the slow pace of reconstruction projects. Rather than embrace Iranian infiltrators and Muqtada al-Sadr’s brownshirts, local officials have sought to capture and transfer them to American or Italian forces. Locals complain not about the presence of the Coalition military, but rather that the U.S. treats saboteurs and infiltrators too leniently. “Don’t worry about being liked,” one local cleric advised when I first visited the town in July, “Worry about being respected.” In Nasiriyah, the Coalition is respected. Soon after the November 12, 2003, car-bomb attack against the Italian military-police headquarters, locals hung banners proclaiming, “Yes, yes to peace; no, no to terrorism,” from mosques, walls, and windows in the overwhelmingly Shii city. Following the most recent outbreak of violence, Wael al-Rukadi, vice secretary general of the Council of Iraqi Tribes and a prominent Shii leader, told an Italian journalist, “Any withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq at this time before a transition of power, elections, and return to stability would only lead to chaos and all-out civil war in Iraq.”

While Iraqis remain grateful for their liberation, there is great suspicion of U.S. intentions, not because al-Jazeera commentators suggest we came for oil, but rather because they doubt Washington’s commitment to democracy. Speaking before the National Endowment for Democracy on November 6, Bush declared that U.S. commitment to democracy in the Middle East would be “a focus of American policy for decades to come.” But, in recent days, Iraqi democrats and liberals complain that State Department and National Security Council officials charged with implementing Bush’s vision work not to enforce it, but rather to undermine it.

Iraqis are obsessed with American betrayal. When explaining why they are hesitant to trust American political leaders, Iraqi Kurds cite 1975, the year Secretary of State Henry Kissinger brokered the Algiers Accords between Tehran and Baghdad. As part of the agreement which addressed border disputes between the two countries left unresolved since the 1847 Treaty of Erzurum, Washington and Tehran agreed to withdrawal their support from Iraqi Kurdish rebels. The Kurdish uprising, led by Masud Barzani’s father Mullah Mustafa, collapsed in a blood bath, sending tens of thousands of refugees into Iranian Kurdistan.

Iraqi Arabs and Kurds both point to March 1991 as evidence that American rhetoric is insincere. On February 15, 1991, speaking to a crowd of workers on the floor of a U.S. munitions factory, President George H. W. Bush declared, “…The Iraqi military and the Iraqi people [should] take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside.” Iraqis rose to the president’s challenge, quickly seizing 14 of Iraq’s 18 governorates. The president, counseled by his national-security adviser and then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, stood by as Saddam’s Baathist regime and its senior military officers massacred tens of thousands of civilians. “It wasn’t so much that you didn’t help,” one Kurdish political leader told me in 2000, “but rather that you helped Saddam. Why else would you release the Republican Guard prisoners just in time for them to rearm and regroup.” Heading into an election year, White House strategists decided to let politics trump principle.

And so, from an Iraqi perspective, history repeats itself. Iraqis today say they face another betrayal. While many Americans know U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi only as the facilitator of the Afghanistan Loya Jirga process, Iraqis have greater experience with the former Algerian foreign minister. A staunch Nasserist, they say Brahimi is much more interested in rehabilitating former senior Baathist officers than in promoting democracy. Brahimi has demonstrated disdain not only for Iraq’s Kurdish minority, but also for Iraq’s Shia majority. As undersecretary of the Arab League between 1984 and 1991, Brahimi stood silent as Saddam massacred more than 100,000 Iraqi Kurds, and then perhaps 400,000 Iraqi Shia. As Iraqis discover and excavate new mass graves every week, there are constant reminders of Brahimi’s silence. Visiting Baghdad on U.N. business in 1997, Brahimi added insult to injury, as Iraqi television showed Brahimi embracing Saddam’s Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, a man whom Iraqis hope to try for crimes against humanity.

A U.N. affiliation may lend Brahimi legitimacy on the streets of Washington and London, but it does not in Basra, Baghdad, or Erbil. After more than three decades of strict censorship, Iraqis now enjoy free speech. They publish more than 170 newspapers. Children hawk tabloids and broadsheets at intersections across Baghdad. Like taxi drivers in New York, newspaper vendors in Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul readily opine on local political trends based on which papers sell on which days.

Al-Mada has become the center of much discussion, not just among Iraqis but also among Western correspondents. Al-Mada has gained a reputation for cutting-edge investigative reporting after publishing a series of oil-ministry documents–now authenticated–which show the complicity and corruption of senior U.N. officials involved in the Oil-for-Food program. The greed and graft of U.N. workers is legend in Baghdad and across Iraq. Iraqis are furious that, despite rhetoric about encouraging Iraqi self-government, in recent weeks Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer has moved to derail, de-fund, and administratively block the Governing Council’s investigation into U.N. corruption. Holding the United Nations accountable for its crimes in Iraq might interfere with the National Security Council and State Department plan to devolve responsibility to a bureaucracy unaccountable to any electorate.

The sense of Iraqi betrayal extends beyond the fact of U.N. involvement to the substance of the Brahimi plan. Kurdish and Shia leaders say privately that the Brahimi plan is dead-on-arrival. Brahimi’s call for a national conference duplicates the Bremer plan already dismissed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Bremer’s April 14 claim that Brahimi’s recommendation was based on “broad consultations with hundreds of Iraqis from across the country” rings hollow, and reinforces the Iraqi perception of Bremer as insincere and arrogant. The 70-year-old Brahimi was in Baghdad for slightly more than a week, during which time he did not travel widely because of security concerns. Even if Brahimi neither ate nor slept, he would have had little time to speak with “hundreds” of Iraqis. Sources say that Brahimi had drawn up his plans well in advance of any consultations. Iraqis get upset when U.S. diplomats and U.N. insult their intelligence. In reality, Brahimi caucused mostly with Adnan Pachachi, an octogenarian former foreign minister remembered most for his regime’s brutal suppression of both Shia and Kurds, and for his impassioned attacks on Kuwait’s right to exist. President George W. Bush’s recognition of Pachachi by name in this year’s State of the Union address was popular in Foggy Bottom, but it backfired on the streets of Baghdad. While Iraqis will respect Pachachi as an elder, many say he sacrificed any claim for leadership when he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidy from the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and when he subordinated himself and kissed the hand of UAE President Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan al-Nahyan on al-Arabiya television.

In the Middle East–as in Washington–perception is more important than reality. Iraqis say that Brahimi has an agenda, but do not believe it involves democracy. Brahimi used his April 14 press conference to defend top-tier Baathist collaborators. “It is difficult to understand that thousands upon thousands of teachers, university professors, medical doctors, and hospital staff, engineers, and other professionals who are sorely needed, have been dismissed within the de-Baathification process,” Brahimi said. What Brahimi did not say, but what many Iraqis know, is that Iraqi ministers have hired thousands upon thousands of teachers, professors, medical doctors, and hospital staff who had refused to collaborate with Saddam’s regime. Upon liberation, Iraq had a glut of unemployed schoolteachers, many of whom had never compromised themselves morally.

I became convinced of the need for de-Baathification when I accompanied an Iraqi friend into a repository of Baathist-party documents hidden under the shrine of Michel Aflaq, the man who, inspired by European fascism and national socialism, founded the Baath party in 1944. Amid musty books and scattered documents, an Iraqi scholar showed me a ledger containing the names of every secondary-school child, notes about his ethnic and sectarian background, and political details regarding their extended family. Marks next to names indicated that that child would be blacklisted upon graduation. Baathist schoolteachers, at least those in the upper-four levels of the hierarchical party, were not benign opportunists as Brahimi alleges, but rather the enforcers of one of the world’s most evil regimes.

Iraqis also object to Brahimi’s facile claim that Iraq is full of underutilized technocrats, dismissed in post-liberation purges. Under Saddam Hussein, employees won promotion not on technocratic ability, but rather for political loyalty. The previous Iraqi regime systematically discriminated against Shia and Kurds many of whom now seek positions on their individual merit for the first time. It is a betrayal of liberty, democracy, and freedom to abandon them now.

Glossed over by Foggy Bottom, but seized upon by many Iraqis was Brahimi’s statement, “The issue of former military personnel also needs attention.” Alarm bells in Iraq are also ringing over the redeployment of Major-General David Petraeus, a critic of de-Baathification, to train and screen the new Iraqi military and security forces. Speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on April 7, 2004, Petraeus argued that the Coalition should encourage reconciliation and reintegrate former Baathist officials into leadership positions. While Petraeus, who seldom misses an opportunity for a media interview, says that his reconciliation policy in Mosul proved successful, facts on the ground fail to support his assertion. Mosul today contains the most organized anti-democratic resistance. Petraeus’s empowerment of radical Islamists may very well have cost American lives. On several occasions, Iraqis handed me lists of dozens of top-tier Baathists protected by Petraeus. “How can I go to the police, when the police chief tortured my brother in [Saddam’s] prison,” one Kurd asked me.

Speaking at the National Endowment for Democracy, President Bush said, “The progress of liberty is a powerful trend. Yet, we also know that liberty, if not defended, can be lost… The sacrifices of Americans have not always been recognized or appreciated, yet they have been worthwhile.” We promised Iraqis democracy, and we should deliver. Many career diplomats seek to cut-and-run by transferring authority to the U.N. To do so would not only betray Iraqis, but it will cost American lives as we cast aside the goodwill of Iraq’s Shia majority, Kurdish minority, and a good portion of its Arab Sunni population as well. Iraqis respect Bush for standing up for democracy and universal principles. He should not sell his legacy for short-term expediency. The credibility of America depends upon fulfillment of our promises.

Michael Rubin is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

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