Edition 12 Volume 2 - March 25, 2024

Iraq one year later

Still waiting for the second coming - a conversation with  Mouin Rabbani

Iraq is, in a way, Lebanon writ large. Very large.

Iraq through Bush's eyes - by  Steven E. Miller

The Iraq war was in part about the credibility and utility of American power.

Two steps forward, one step back - by  Mustafa Kibaroglu

The third of Turkey's red lines is indeed going to be crossed.

Democracy is everywhere in Iraq--except where you’d expect it to be - by  Hassan Fattah

Far too often, Iraqis feel they are preached to.

Still waiting for the second coming
a conversation with Mouin Rabbani

BI: How would you summarize the situation in Iraq today?

Rabbani: Somewhere between disaster and catastrophe. I think probably the best way to assess the current state of Iraq is to measure it against all the expectations raised by those who launched this war. We have to remember that [Iraq after the war] was going to turn into a model of democratic prosperity for the Arab world, resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, put paid to Al Qaida and lead to the second coming.

Quite clearly, the people who launched this war were entirely out of their depth. It is fashionable among opponents of the war to present President Bush and Prime Minister Blair and the rest as having launched a war based on mendacity. While there was certainly one fabrication after the other, I think a persuasive case can be made that these people genuinely believed what they were saying, in what they were doing, and that they would achieve the results they set out for themselves. That to me is the really scary part.

We have to remember that this was an ideological enterprise to reorder, not just a state, but an entire region, without any regard for the region itself. Let me put it another way--Iraq was supposed to be the model for the "new Middle East." I have yet to meet a single Arab who is ready to exchange his or her reality, as difficult as that reality may be, for the reality that is today's Iraq.

BI: The toll in life and property has been increasingly devastating. Is there a change in who is carrying out the insurgency?

Rabbani: First of all--remember--we were promised that there wouldn't be an insurgency; the only violence would be delirious mobs pelting victorious coalition troops with rice and flowers.

But I think that one of the reasons that it is difficult to define the insurgency is that it seems to be made of a range of elements: local forces and sectarian forces, national forces and foreign forces, which apparently have minimal overlap and coordination. We are not dealing with an Algeria or a Vietnam, where you have a truly national force leading the insurgency. Nor do you have a situation as in Palestine where a group of independent organizations collectively enjoy widespread popular allegiance, even if they are pursuing different and contradictory strategies.

I think what you have in Iraq is, primarily, a whole bunch of quite small and localized forces. However, as time goes on, that is something that is beginning to change. My impression is that irrespective of how people have benefited from the overthrow of the former regime, the occupation and what it has entailed is not something that they are prepared to tolerate for anything more than what they believe is the minimum necessary period of time.

BI: What are the dangers of the constitutional path that has been chosen?

Rabbani: The question is, what is the danger in the whole setup? My impression is that the people who are governing Iraq--primarily the Americans and their protégées--know next to nothing about it and are trying to govern the country on the basis of ideology and preconceptions, rather than on the basis of reality. What you are getting in Iraq now is basically the formalization of sectarianism.

As for the constitution, it is not clear to me why we should take this document--more or less drafted in secrecy--seriously. The Middle East is full of wonderful constitutions, none of which have been implemented in practice. So far I haven't seen any evidence that [this constitution] will be taken any more seriously, except perhaps as a source of heightened sectarianism.

BI: How far might the sectarian strife go?

Rabbani: So far, you don't have a sectarian civil war, pitting Kurds against Sunni Arabs, against Shiite Arabs, against Turkmen and so on. But I think that the way that Iraq is being reordered is conducive to that. You could develop a situation of civil war, and even a situation where the viability of Iraq as a state is called into question.

That gets back to the first question you asked: people in the Middle East today are not talking about the Europeanization of the Arab world. The dominant theme is the Lebanonization or Balkanization of Iraq.

BI: Now that we are at this point, what can be done to prevent civil war?

Rabbani: The key is to have a genuine referendum on the future of Iraq, and preferably democratic elections. If free and fair and transparent elections are impossible, then there must be some similar formula.

The striking thing to me is that, apparently, since April 9, 2024, no preparations whatsoever have been made for holding any kind of democratic referendum in Iraq. This again puts the lie to the idea that this is the first tranche of some kind of regional democratic revolution.

The real fear now is that you have, on the one hand, the institutionalization of sectarianism, and on the other hand, a growing demand within Iraq for some kind of democratic referendum. What people should be worried about is that these two forces could collide, that democracy--rather than strengthening national unity--will further entrench sectarianism, which will ultimately be the responsibility of the policies of the past year.

The other obvious priority is to terminate foreign occupation and replace it with genuine national sovereignty. The problem here is that this will require the United Nations, to ensure a successful transition. On the one hand Bush and Blair have totally emasculated the UN, and on the other the latter appears less than keen to clean up the mess that has been created.

BI: How is the rest of the Arab world and specifically Jordan, which now has Iraq on one side and Palestine on the other, absorbing these changes?

Rabbani: The Arab world is looking on with increasing horror, not because you have kings and emirs and presidents terrified that they are going to be the next ones overthrown by a democratic revolution, but because the people of the region are looking at this with the same trepidation with which they looked at the unfolding drama of Lebanon in the 1970s and 80s. Iraq is, in a way, Lebanon writ large. Very large.

Jordan, as an integral part of this region, sees things no differently. It is in some respects in a unique position, with Palestine to the west and Iraq to the east. This can only challenge its stability further. What it was promised was that once the Iraq war was over, [the United States] would resolve the Arab-Israel conflict in a jiffy because the road to Jerusalem apparently begins in Baghdad. At the same time, Iraq was to become a democratic and economic paradise for Jordan as the western gateway to Iraq.

Neither of those things has happened, nor will they. This was an ideological war launched not by a gang of liars but by a gang of true believers and that is the really scary part.-Published 25/3/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Mouin Rabbani, a Middle East analyst based in Jordan, is a contributing editor for Middle East Report published in Washington, DC.

Iraq through Bush's eyes
by Steven E. Miller

After one year, the costs and disappointments associated with the Bush administration’s Iraq policy are plain to see. Though the war itself was brief and mercifully free of large setbacks or disasters for American and allied forces, the pre-war diplomacy was quite painful for Washington, including damaging collisions with close allies and, in the end, a humiliating debacle at the United Nations. This represented at least a temporary setback for the United States, and the aggregate diplomatic costs of Iraq still accumulate--as the US shoulders enormous burdens with little international sympathy and with reluctant, unenthusiastic support even from those who are willing to be involved.

Meanwhile, post-war Iraq has confounded most of the Bush administration’s fondest hopes. Instead, it has produced a set of large disappointments. These include the ongoing violence against both Americans and Iraqi citizens; the breakdown of public order; the rampant criminalization of life in many parts of Iraq; the rise of the Islamic clerics as the most effective social and political forces in Iraq; the unpopularity of pro-American Iraqi exiles; and the enormous difficulties in restoring Iraq’s oil sector and its vulnerability to disruption by terrorist attacks. This is not the smooth, flower-strewn transition to a pro-American democracy that the Bush administration desired--and perhaps even expected.

Opponents of the war (and I was one) have plenty of negatives to heap into their net assessments of the Iraq war. Critics can readily conclude (as do I) that on balance the war in Iraq was not advantageous to US interests (though much good has come of it in the removal of Saddam Hussein and the more hopeful prospects for the Iraqi people). But to understand American policy and to assess the prospects for future US behavior, the crucial issue is not what the critics think but how the war looks through Bush’s eyes. And in my opinion, for President Bush and his supporters the balance sheet on Iraq is without question positive; much of high value has been accomplished. No doubt, they would have preferred an easier and happier experience in Iraq over past months. But to a large extent, the Iraq war was not only, perhaps even not primarily, about Iraq; it was related to some large aims that do not depend centrally on the ultimate outcome in Iraq.

For the Bush administration, what was at stake and what has been achieved?

First, the Iraq war was in part about the credibility and utility of American power. Many of the most ardent supporters of the Iraq war, within and outside the administration, believed that the reputation of the United States had been undermined by the weak policies of President Bush’s predecessors. In this view, it was imperative to restore the reputation of American power and to communicate the reality of American power by displaying a determination to use force and by demonstrating the effective use of force. This, it was strongly believed, would both bring beneficial consequences on a global scale and confirm the validity of a more assertive use of American primacy. In Bush’s eyes, the swift and stunning defeat of Saddam’s regime achieved this objective.

Second, for Bush and supporters of his Iraq policy, the war was not a thing apart but an integral component of the global war against terrorism. The wellspring of this policy was not concern about human rights or a drive to spread democracy (desirable though these ends are). This was first and foremost a war to eliminate a large perceived threat to US (and global) security. For the Bush administration, the war on terrorism involves a struggle against hostile extremist elements of Islam. If Osama bin Laden is the sub-state incarnation of that threat, Saddam Hussein and his bloody Baathist regime were public enemy number one among the state actors that fell within the defined threat. Saddam was regarded as a large and intolerable menace with an insatiable appetite for weapons of mass destruction--a menace that might well cooperate with and facilitate the terrorist enemies whose attack on the US launched this war. In Bush’s eyes, with the destruction of Saddam’s regime, a great danger to American security has been permanently removed from the scene.

Third, the war in Iraq was to some considerable extent the Bush administration’s nonproliferation policy in action. The president has stated on many occasions in bold and unambiguous language that the United States simply will not tolerate or allow proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (especially nuclear weapons) to hostile powers. His administration, in a series of formal strategy documents, has openly articulated a coercion-based strategy of dissuasion that threatens hostile proliferators with forceful action if they proceed down the proliferation path. The war in Iraq, justified in no small measure by Iraq’s presumed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs, showed in no uncertain terms that the so-called Bush doctrine was not mere rhetoric. The war was explicitly intended to send a worldwide message that it is very dangerous to pursue WMD, that doing so puts you on Washington’s target list, and that this can in fact lead to the use of decisive force against you.

In Bush’s eyes, this policy has been extremely successful, with Libya abandoning its WMD programs (and indeed, handing the equipment over to the United States!), Iran caving in and accepting the additional inspection protocol demanded by the IAEA, North Korea actively negotiating to trade away its nuclear program, and of course Iraq’s WMD programs completely eliminated from the picture.

Fourth, the war in Iraq has altered the military geography of the Near East. The United States has already commenced discussions with the transitional Iraqi authority about a status of forces agreement that would provide the basis for a long-term US military presence in the country. This puts the US in a better position to police and to pressure two of the states high on its enemies list, Syria and Iran. It has also provided flexibility to remove US forces from bases in Saudi Arabia, where they have increasingly been a source of friction and a magnet for terrorist activity. The war in Iraq (especially considered in tandem with the earlier campaign in Afghanistan) has redistributed American military power through Central Asia and the Near East in desirable and advantageous ways. In Bush’s eyes, this was probably not a high aim of the war, but it is a welcome and valued benefit.

There is no reason to doubt that President Bush and his team would prefer a peaceful and democratic outcome in Iraq. There is every reason to believe that they still hope this outcome will be achieved, despite the grim news that still issues from Iraq on a daily basis. But in Bush’s eyes, much has been accomplished by this war no matter what the outcome within Iraq. Success in Iraq will be a great bonus. Some of the wider aims of US policy have, in Bush’s eyes, already been achieved.-Published 25/3/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Steven E. Miller is director of the International Security Program in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and is editor-in-chief of the quarterly International Security.

Two steps forward, one step back
by Mustafa Kibaroglu

When looked at from Turkey’s perspective, a number of significant developments have taken place since the United States launched a limited military campaign against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. Some of these developments are rather favorable while some are not. Prior to the war in Iraq, Turkey’s ruling elite, both civilian and military, voiced serious concerns about the possible outcomes of the war. These were presented as Turkey's “red lines” with regard to the territorial and political integrity of Iraq. Turks were concerned with the possibility of the declaration of an independent Kurdish state; the status of the oil rich districts of Mosul and Kirkuk; and the safety and security of the Turkmen population.

Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed significant autonomy since the end of the first Gulf war in 1991. That war paved the way for the creation of no-fly zones above the 36th and below the 32nd parallels, which were eventually turned into safe havens for the opponents of the Saddam regime. Due to the close air support of the US Air Force, using the Incirlik base in southern Turkey, Kurds in northern Iraq consolidated their self-rule with a parliament, a local government, a central bank and money in circulation. Such developments prior to the war were closely watched from Turkey throughout the 1990s. But due to the repeated guarantees issued by American politicians stating that the creation of an independent Kurdish state would by no means be tolerated and that Iraq’s political as well as territorial integrity would be preserved, this issue did not cause much trouble in Turkish-US bilateral relations.

However, the mood changed when Turkey said "no" to the US demand to base troops on its soil. Many in Turkey then believed that this decision by Turkish parliamentarians had the effect of elevating the Kurds to strategic partner status in the eyes of the US in its fight against Saddam, and that the Kurds would soon exploit this privileged status to the utmost by claiming independence.

Over the past year the Kurds have indeed strengthened their position within the new Iraq by making Kurdish one of the two official languages, the other being Arabic, as stated in the Transitional Administration Law signed on March 8. Moreover, the Law grants the Kurds a de facto veto power regarding strategic decisions about the future of Iraq. Yet none of these developments is comparable to independence. Hence it is safe to say that Turkey’s first red line has not been crossed.

The same can be argued with respect to the status of Mosul and Kirkuk, the former Ottoman provinces that were lost to the British by decision of the League of Nations back in 1925. Turkey has always been against the Kurdification of these cities, which numbered hundreds of thousands of Turkmen, the remnants of Turkish families who lived in the region under Ottoman rule for centuries. Turkey feared that the Kurds would attempt to cleanse these cities of their Turkmen population during or after the war with the objective of controlling these oil rich territories. The Transitional Administration Law, which can be seen as a significant achievement for Iraq after decades of tyranny and suppression, does not determine the ultimate status of either Mosul or Kirkuk. How the wealth of Iraq emanating from oil and natural gas resources will be shared among Iraqis is yet to be decided--during future deliberations on the permanent constitution. There is little likelihood that Kurds, who constitute not more than 20 percent of the population in Iraq, will seize ultimate control of these cities. Therefore it would not be wrong to argue that Turkey’s second red line has not yet been trespassed either.

Turkey was keen to ensure that the Turkmen population in Iraq becomes one of the principal constituents of the Iraqi state alongside the Arabs and the Kurds. When the previous US administration engaged in organizing the Kurdish groups in northern Iraq through the “Washington process” under the patronage of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Turkey embarked upon hasty attempts to attach Turkmen community leaders to the process. Neither the Kurds nor the Americans welcomed Turkey’s challenge, but still admitted, albeit reluctantly, Turkmen representatives to the consultation meetings among the Iraqi opposition groups.

In this regard the failure of Turkey to grant the US the right to base troops on its soil on March 1, 2024 also jeopardized the role the Turkmen population could play in the future restructuring of Iraqi society. Regardless of warnings issued by the Turkish government, the present US administration seems to have turned a blind eye to the neglect of millions of Turkmen citizens of Iraq by the drafters of the Transitional Administration Law, which will soon be made into a constitution with more or less the same terms. As such, one may argue that the third of Turkey's red lines is indeed going to be crossed.-Published 25/3/2004© bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Mustafa Kibaroglu teaches courses on arms control and disarmament in the Department of International Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara.

Democracy is everywhere in Iraq--except where you’d expect it to be
by Hassan Fattah

For the past year, the US-led coalition has lost hundreds of American lives, thousands of Iraqi lives, and billions of dollars in the seemingly single-minded drive to build democracy in Iraq as a foothold in the region. So far, the results have been institutions that are called democratic, but for all intents and purposes are more like country clubs for a chosen few. Whether it’s the Governing Council, which drafted and pushed through an Interim Basic Law (often confused as a “constitution”) behind closed doors or the local councils, which are dominated by religious and tribal leaders, much of the supposed democracy continues to occur out of sight of Iraqi eyes and far from the TV cameras.

Indeed, there are few institutions put in place that can support a democracy in its truest sense. The freewheeling press is still in its infancy and may not be able to take on the upcoming government on June 30, when sovereignty is handed over. Despite the best intentions of many, there are few institutions save for religious ones that will be able to stand up to the pressures of a sovereign Iraqi government that will likely be built out of the remains of the current Governing Council.

That doesn’t mean, however, that democracy is out of reach. Indeed democracy is springing up everywhere in Iraq, just not where you’d expect to find it. In no small irony, even as the institutions put in place by the Coalition risk failing their democratic promise, countless other institutions are proving bulwarks for democratic leadership to come. These institutions--media organizations, student unions, debating societies, women’s groups and more--emphasize time and again that the answer to Iraq's democratic riddle is the stake Iraqis have in the process.

I learned that when almost six months from the day we launched Iraq Today, the country's sole English-language newspaper, I had to tell everyone an obvious fact: we were about to fold.

"Guys," I said, "We're in trouble." Our British backers were losing interest, I explained, and we weren't able to cover our costs. Since our first edition in mid-July 2024, just months after the regime fell to Coalition forces, we'd been publishing every Monday with our circulation mainly focused on the major cities in Iraq. Now there was talk of dropping the print edition for a website and it was unclear how much longer we had to turn things around. But to my surprise, the group breathed a sigh of relief. This was the moment most of them had been waiting for, when they would be asked to get directly involved in the business and when they would be given real responsibilities. I opened the floor for suggestions on how we could improve things and soon I was deluged with good ideas.

In the beginning, we rode in on a wave of excitement and optimism, with visions of one day becoming a major paper in a country that had only known state-sponsored media. We were all Iraqis, and we aimed for authenticity. We lived in homes with our families, not in hotels like most western reporters. We faced all the daily challenges of living in Iraq and understood what made it so difficult. We saw the good news and the bad, and we sought to tell a story that was nuanced and clear. Detention? We had relatives detained. Killings and robberies? We saw them happen down the street. We all knew the feeling of what it’s like when the power goes out for no reason and your washing is still inside the washing machine. Those are the daily nuances the western press doesn’t catch.

We weren't alone as a newspaper, of course. Within weeks of the collapse of the regime, as many as 150 newspapers began circulating in Baghdad alone. The 100 or so printing presses throughout the country rumbled with news, views and reviews on everything from the political situation, to Saddam's darkest secrets to, of course, the latest gossip. The pages blared with Saddam sightings and testimonies by the people his people had tortured. Not surprisingly, most of the newspapers were one-print wonders, many backed by political parties or special interests, some pushed by the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and still others put out by Islamic groups.

These days, a dozen or so regular newspapers have survived the initial shakeout and continue to print, including ours. Iraq Today, however, eventually became the sole English-language paper in town. Others didn’t catch on, didn’t sell or simply didn’t have enough money to survive.

All of my reporters faced trials and tragedies; all had seen war, and all dealt with their experiences differently. The team is made up of Sunnis, Shiites and Christians, but the sectarianism that often characterizes Iraqi political discourse doesn't exist in the newsroom. We typically speak a mix of Arabic and English to help the reporters improve their English, and I insist that the reporters be able to defend their arguments and think through their ideas. In the process of grueling weeks, we have managed to build a team spirit and a sense that we're all in it together.

But in Iraq, telling the truth is the hardest job. Surrounded by agendas, secrets and security concerns, we found that getting answers to the most basic questions was a daunting task, getting a newspaper into people's hands proved fraught with risk, too, and getting advertising was a very hard sell.

As I ran through our books last December, the numbers became ever more untenable. It seemed as if breaking even, much less profitability, was getting further out of reach. It made no sense that the sole English language paper in Iraq could not survive. Then the team showed me why. As they sat round that December morning, they reminded me of the fundamental flaw in our strategy. We had attempted to do all the work ourselves rather than involve them in the decision-making in running the business. For months, they had watched us trip and make mistakes as they remained silent, feeling sidelined. But when I opened up the floor, the ideas began flowing.

Maher Mashhadani, a business reporter, outlined better ways of distributing the paper. Firas Yasseen, the designer, suggested ways of getting closer to advertising firms. Ikhlas Sidi, the office manager, began pushing subscriptions. And soon we had a plan--their plan. We slashed advertising rates. We slashed the newsstand price. We turned the company from a Euro-centric one into an Iraqi-centric one. We invited people into our offices to see who we were and what we were doing and began building relationships with the community.

Soon Iraqis, not just the foreign press, began singing our praises. And in time, business began to roll in as our circulation inched upward each week. And as the team took more ownership of the paper, their journalism improved.

Iraq Today continues to struggle for its financial existence. But in the process, the team members have discovered a lot about each other and now view themselves as exactly that--a team. They all understand what can be accomplished when they work together. Countless other Iraqis are discovering the same. The lessons we've learned managing a new Iraqi newspaper offer lessons for the occupation. When given a roadmap, the Iraqis I have worked with have proven their ability to band together and deliver an outcome as a team. When given a voice and responsibility, they have used it cautiously and in the broader interests of the paper. And when handed a challenge and a leader, they are able to forget their differences to work for the common good.

  • For the coalition, the first lesson is to ensure that Iraqis are included in the process. Far too often, Iraqis feel they are preached to, excluded from decision making and served with platitudes. The plan for rebuilding the country and handing back sovereignty should not be American, much less one defined by Iraqi emigres in the governing council with limited legitimacy. It should be Iraqi.

    Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in reiterating his call for elections of the interim council in January underscored the fact; only Iraqis can determine their fate. By last week, the Governing Council was still wrangling over the terms of the final structure of an interim government that would take hold after June 30, when the coalition would hand over sovereignty. Even after they signed an Interim Basic Law, now increasingly being termed a constitution, the controversy and wrangling over the country’s future has continued. In typical fashion the process was muddled and confused, full of intrigue and self-interest.

  • The second lesson is to assign responsibilities. Once Iraqi leaders have clear lines of authority and accountability, they will be able to act accordingly and perhaps more efficiently. With accountability they can be taken to task and even sacked for a poor job or corrupt practices. The coalition's real job should be oversight, making sure people do their jobs right rather than doing it for them. Without that accountability, many are floundering or running amuck.

  • The third lesson is to understand that Iraq, at the end of the process, must still be Iraq, not another country. Instead of attempting to fashion the nation into an image of the United States, American policy makers must refashion the country into a better Iraq. The goal, after all, is to bring about much needed reforms, not wipe the slate clean.

  • And finally, the coalition must quash the divisive talk of sectarianism. Growing talk of civil war is bewildering to most Iraqis who feel no real animosity to Sunnis, Shiites or Kurds. Even in the diversity of our newsroom, ethnic tensions have never been a point of discussion amongst the staffs. The reporters treat each other not as Sunni or Shiite, but as colleagues. Iraqis, in turn, must be allowed to treat each other as compatriots. Only then can hopes for democracy be delivered.-Published 25/3/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

    Hassan Fattah is editor of Iraq Today and a regular contributor to Time and The New Republic Magazine.

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