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4 July 2004
So This is What They Call the New, 'Free' Iraq
Americans hold Saddam Hussein. Americans ran the court in
which he appeared. Americans
censored the tapes of the hearing. Who do you think is
running the country?
In his last hours as US proconsul in Baghdad, Paul Bremer decided to
tighten up some of the laws that his occupation authority had placed
across the land of Iraq.
He drafted a new piece of legislation forbidding Iraqi motorists to
drive with only one hand on the wheel. Another document solemnly announced
that it would henceforth be a crime for Iraqis to sound their car horns
except in an emergency. That same day, three American soldiers were torn
apart by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad, one of more than 60 attacks on
US forces over the weekend. And all the while, Mr Bremer was worrying
about the standards of Iraqi driving.
It would be difficult to find a more preposterous - and chilling -
symbol of Mr Bremer's failures, his hopeless inability to understand the
nature of the débâcle that he and his hopeless occupation authority have
brought about. It's not that the old "Coalition Provisional Authority" -
now transmogrified into the 3,000-strong US embassy - was out of touch. It
didn't even live on Planet Earth. Mr Bremer's last starring moment came
when he departed Baghdad on a US military aircraft, with two US-paid
mercenaries - rifles pointed menacingly at camera crews and walking
backwards - protecting him until the cabin door closed. And Mr Bremer,
remember, was appointed to his job because he was an "anti-terrorist"
Most of the American CPA men who have cleared out of Baghdad are doing
what we always suspected they would do when they had finished trying to
put a US ideological brand name on "new" Iraq; they have headed off to
Washington to work for the Bush election campaign. But those left behind
in the "international zone" - those we have to pretend are no longer an
occupation authority - make no secret of their despair. "The ideology is
gone. The ambitions are gone. We've no aims left," one of them said last
week. "We're living from one day to the next. All we're trying to do now -
our only goal - is to keep the lid on until January 2005 [when the first
Iraqi elections are supposed to be held]. That's our only aim - get past
the elections - and then get the hell out."
The production of Saddam Hussein in a Baghdad "court" last week - he
was actually sitting in one of his former palaces - was therefore the
occupiers' last card. After this, there is going to be no more "good news"
in Iraq, no more devices, no more tricks, no more captures to brighten our
eyes before the November elections in the US. Yet even the court melodrama
was symptomatic of how little power the West is prepared to cede to an
Iraq to which it last week falsely claimed to be handing "full
Americans continue to hold Saddam - in Qatar, not in Iraq - and
Americans ran the court in which Saddam appeared. American soldiers in
plain clothes were the "civilians" in the court. American officials
censored the tapes of the hearing, lied about the judge's wish to record
the sound of the trial, and marked the videotapes "cleared by US
military"; three US officers later confiscated all the original tapes of
the trial. "The last time that happened to me," one of the reporters
involved said afterwards, "was when the Iraqi government took my tapes in
Basra during the 1991 Gulf War."
But it's not just the crude handling of the start of Saddam's show
trial - where he had, of course, no defence counsel. For if he is ever to
be given a fair trial in the future, the "muting" of the tapes last week
will have set an important precedent. For he can now be "silenced" again -
if, for example, he deviates from the script and starts telling the court
about his close association with the US rather than his non-existent
contacts with al-Qa'ida.
But America's occupation continues in many other ways. Its 146,000
soldiers are still all too much in evidence in Iraq, its tanks guarding
the walls of the US "embassy", its armour littered throughout Baghdad, its
convoys humming - and sometimes exploding - along the highways outside the
city. The "new" and "sovereign" government cannot order it to leave. Mr
Bremer's raft of reconstruction contracts to US companies ensures that
American firms continue to cream off Iraq's money, described quite
accurately by Naomi Klein in The Nation as "multibillion robbery". And Mr
Bremer managed to institute a set of laws that the "new" and "sovereign"
government is not permitted to change.
One of the most insidious was the re-introduction of Saddam's 1984 law
banning all strikes. This piece of folly was intended to muzzle the
so-called Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions. Yet the trade unions are among
the few secular groups in Iraq opposing religious orthodoxy and
fundamentalism. A strong trade union movement could provide a vital base
of political and democratic power in a new Iraq. But no, Mr Bremer
preferred to protect big business.
And all the while, the power of the mercenaries has been growing.
Blackwater's thugs with guns now push and punch Iraqis who get in their
way: Kurdish journalists twice walked out of a Bremer press conference
because of their mistreatment by these men. Baghdad is alive with
mysterious Westerners draped with hardware, shouting and abusing Iraqis in
the street, drinking heavily in the city's poorly defended hotels. They
have become, for ordinary Iraqis, the image of everything that is wrong
with the West. We like to call them "contractors", but there is a
disturbing increase in reports that mercenaries are shooting down innocent
Iraqis with total impunity. US military and diplomatic officials have now
set an 80/20 ration target for "security" details - 80 Iraqi mercenaries
for every 20 Western mercenaries.
And even if President Bush can forget it, the Abu Ghraib scandal burns
on in a country where the filth and nudity and humiliation inflicted by US
soldiers will take a generation to erase from the memory. One leftist
group in Baghdad now claims that several women, allegedly raped by Iraqi
policemen at the jail while Americans watched, have been murdered by their
families for their "dishonour".
Large areas of the country are now effectively outside any government
control - even America's. Fallujah is a virtual people's republic and
lynch law is occurring even in Baghdad. The so-called "Mehdi Army" of
Muqtada al-Sadr publicly executed a 20-year-old man in the slums of
Baghdad's Sadr City last month for "collaboration" with the Americans.
Understandably, few journalists dare to travel outside Baghdad - much to
the pleasure of the US military. "They killed all those poor people at the
wedding party near the Syrian border and our military sources told us
there'd been a fuck-up," an American correspondent complained last week.
"Then [Brigadier General Mark] Kimmitt says that all the dead were
terrorists and he knows we can't go and prove he's wrong."
Iyad Allawi, the new Prime Minister, we must recall, was a CIA man, an
MI6 man and a former Baathist. Indeed, he boasted to journalists that he
had taken money from 14 intelligence agencies while he was in exile.
However "free" Mr Allawi thinks Iraq is, he will not turn against his
American protectors - nor against the glowering figure of John Negroponte,
the new US ambassador of Honduras fame.
Ironically, the only real hope for the new government would be to do
what a majority of its people say they want: to tell the Americans to
leave. This, of course, Mr Allawi cannot do. His "sovereign" government
needs those American troops to protect it from the people who don't want
the American troops in Iraq.
And so we boil our way on to those January 2005 elections, the lid
dangerously lifting from time to time to horrify us with little glimpses
of the future. Many Iraqis believe that there will be a new dictator, a
"democratically minded strongman" in the creepy expression of American
neo-conservative Daniel Pipes, to bring about the security that we have
failed to give them.
For after the elections, if indeed they are held, we shall
self-righteously claim we can no longer be blamed for anything that goes
wrong in Iraq. We liberated the Iraqis from Saddam, we shall say. We gave
them "democracy" - and look what a mess they made of it.