Eight weeks after victoriously entering Baghdad, American forces are in a race against the clock. If they are unable to restore both personal security and public services and establish a better rapport with Iraqis before the blistering heat of summer sets in, there is a genuine risk that serious trouble will break out. That would make it difficult for genuine political reforms to take hold, and the political liberation from the Saddam Hussein dictatorship would then become for a majority of the country’s citizens a true foreign occupation. With all eyes in the Middle East focused on Iraq, the coming weeks and months will be critical for shaping regional perceptions of the U.S. as well.
Ordinary Iraqis, political activists, international aid workers and U.S. officials alike expressed concern to ICG that as temperatures rise during the summer as high as 60º C (140º F), so, too, will the tempers of Baghdadis who have been much tested by the hardships and uncertainty that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s hated regime, and whose cooperation is essential to an orderly political transition in Iraq. Two months into the new era, however, the U.S. and associated forces have dealt poorly with the issues that affect Baghdadis most immediately. They must quickly give people a feeling of greater safety in streets and homes and of improving services. They need also to move more out of their isolated headquarters in order to get in touch with average Iraqis and explain better policies on sensitive issues that are causing considerable resentment. These include the disposition of Saddam’s Baathist Party, demobilisation of security forces, and delay in the turn over of meaningful political power.
It is too early to reach a conclusion on post-conflict Iraq. The speed of the regime’s collapse, the near-total power vacuum that ensued and sharp international divisions regarding the decision to go to war have all complicated the task facing the new rulers, but Saddam’s fall has already brought some immensely positive changes. For the first time in a generation, Iraqis can express themselves without fear. Not surprisingly, they have begun exercising their newly gained liberties, including via protest marches against some of the policies of the very forces that made such manifestations of discontent possible in the first place. They have started to elect, or select, new leaderships in ministries, national institutions, municipal councils and professional associations. These are rudimentary forms of participatory democracy that, if sustained, hold promise of yielding a new legitimate national leadership and laying the foundation for a vibrant open society.
Yet ICG found Baghdad a city in distress, chaos and ferment. It is on issues that concern its citizens the most that the occupying forces have done least, and anger is palpable on the ground. While keenly aware of these realities, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was only starting to make a tangible difference in the lives of ordinary Iraqis eight weeks into the occupation. Electricity, for example, has only just begun to be available for longer periods, and its supply is still unreliable. Time-consuming queues at gasoline stations and a pervasive sense of insecurity remain particularly aggravating for a population that has seen its government buildings and national institutions stripped bare, vandalised and in some cases destroyed in a frenzy involving a combination of looters and (apparently) saboteurs. Not safe even in their own homes from the crime wave unleashed by the sudden power vacuum in the capital after 9 April, Baghdadis move about gingerly when they can or, more likely, stay home waiting for a degree of normalcy to return, all the while complaining about their situation or exchanging horror stories about the latest killings, rapes, carjacks and robberies that may or may not have taken place in their neighbourhood.
Even senior American civilians in Baghdad express consternation at the near-total absence of advance preparations for dealing with post-war needs. They are among the first to acknowledge that they are virtually cut off from the society they have been charged with helping back to its feet. Concerned about their personal safety, permitted to move about the city only with a military escort, preoccupied with turf battles, and largely unknowing of Iraq and Iraqis, they venture from the grounds of the former Saddam Hussein palace that is their main headquarters only infrequently and have minimal interaction with the population. This disconnect is compounded by the delay in restoring broadcasting facilities that has deprived the administration of the ability to communicate its plans and even its achievements to ordinary Iraqis.
The CPA’s summary edicts are communicated through Iraqi newspapers that are more numerous but also unaffordable to most and via radio. These accounts, which are embellished and distorted as they spread through word of mouth, are received with a mixture of outrage, resignation, puzzlement, and profound disempowerment. The proclamation of 16 May on “disestablishment” of the Baath Party, for example, was applauded by some as an essential first step for rebuilding political life but was more widely criticised as disregarding due process and too sweeping. It has the potential to unify opposition to the U.S. among three distinct categories of Baathists – those who were loyal to Saddam; those who joined out of expediency, and those who joined early out of ideological conviction – when the goal ought to have been to marginalise the first by co-opting the latter two.
The more recent order disbanding the military and other security forces has been received with even greater anger, as it threatens to put hundreds of thousands of mostly young men on the streets without serious prospect of work or, thus far, promise of a pension. Many, it is feared, will join the gangs of thieves who roam the streets virtually unchecked or form the nuclei for future armed resistance to what is referred to as the American occupation.
Resentment is also mounting among Iraqis who aspire to political power, both those who are slowly emerging from the shadows of the old regime and those who came from abroad and today feel betrayed by the U.S. endorsement of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1483 that offers them considerably less than the Iraqi-run and sovereign interim government for which they had clamoured.
The absence of security, failure to restore collapsed basic services quickly and misfiring of the political process are intimately interwoven. Insecurity keeps Iraqis off the streets and away from jobs. It is futile to repair key infrastructure if it is unguarded and so likely to be looted anew. The removal of top management in ministries because of Baath Party membership has led to confusion, deprived the CPA of technocratic help and further delayed resumption of normal activity. Inequities in payment of salaries (caused by pervasive Iraqi corruption) lead to slow-downs at power plants and other facilities, and so complete the vicious cycle by providing further incentives for desperate individuals to resort to crime.
This cycle, and the hopelessness it engenders for the vast majority of the population, is the challenge the U.S. administration in Iraq must address most urgently. Facing a serious credibility gap and hobbled by frequent staff rotations and reorganisations of its rapidly growing bureaucracy, it is banking on the prowess of its military forces, the talents of its hard-working staff and a bit of luck to turn the situation around in the few weeks left before the full summer heat descends. If the gamble fails, U.S. legitimacy for many Iraqis may suffer a defeat that could prove difficult to reverse and deal a serious, if not fatal, blow to the political transition that today still holds out the prospect of significant material change in the lives of all Iraqis.
Time is running short. To win this race against the clock, the CPA will need to implement the following urgent measures, discussed in the subsequent sections of this briefing:
Restore public order. This requires immediately placing armed guards around the clock in front of all public institutions and key infrastructure (power plants, oil refineries, water and sewage treatment stations, hospitals); a more extensive U.S. military presence; and getting more Iraqi police on the street by speeding up training of credible, vetted elements of the old force, giving Iraqi officers greater latitude to work, albeit under the ultimate supervision of the CPA, and re-appointing senior officers untainted by corruption and regime-related criminality. The CPA should fund and dispatch an experienced international constabulary force trained for civilian policing duties to conduct joint patrols with Iraqi counterparts. And, using existing police files, the CPA should implement a procedure by which, after a careful review by qualified Iraqi judges, many criminals amnestied by the previous regime can be identified and rearrested.
Repair basic infrastructure and restore essential services. While the priority in this respect is to move forward with a regular and reliable supply of electricity and gasoline, an effort also should be made to speed up the payment of salaries.
Improve the CPA's broadcasting capabilities and public profile. The CPA should use the full range of media to communicate its progress and plans to the Iraqi people and organise public discussions in these media so that issues and concerns can be aired. It should, in the same spirit, establish walk-in centres at the neighbourhood level (providing the minimum necessary security), where Iraqis can both receive and convey information and lodge complaints. And the CPA should improve communications with non-governmental organisations and U.N. agencies, including via weekly briefings convened by the directors of its various branches.
Reconsider the sweeping de-Baathification edict. The CPA should retain in, or return to, their positions qualified senior managers who do not have a proven record of corruption and abuse, even if they were members of the Baath Party, and especially if they were not senior members. At the same time, it should set up a vetting mechanism consisting of independent Iraqis and legally-trained non-Iraqis to screen methodically the upper echelons of ministries and national institutions for elements suspected of committing crimes under the previous regime, irrespective of Baath Party membership and in keeping with principles of due process. And, for those Iraqis who are dismissed or demobilised, the CPA should hold out the possibility of re-recruitment, pension benefits or other forms of compensation.
Empower Iraqis. This should be done by handing over as much as possible of the administration, day-to-day policy-making and planning powers at the various ministries. The CPA also should accelerate the holding of elections at the local and institutional level, ensuring that they are as transparent and widely publicised as possible in order to maximise popular support and participation. Above all, it is imperative that Iraqis feel that they have a stake in the CPA's success and that they cease holding it responsible for every problem they face. This can only be achieved by ensuring that they have an important role in running their country so that Saddam's ouster is not perceived as the substitution of one alien authority for another but rather as the Iraqi people's chance, finally, to govern themselves.