With a regime changed in Baghdad, it was an ancient civilisation’s turn to be a war victim. That was not, however, how it was planned. With the initial hiccups of unexpected resistance out of the way and jubilant Iraqis welcoming the self-described ‘liberators’, a seamless transition from despotic rule to dependable democracy was supposed to have been on the cards.
Instead, there has been mindless anarchy. Once the juggernaut of war starts rolling, even those behind the wheel lose control over the brakes of law and order. The American forces who had watched and helped topple remnants of Saddam Hussein’s past — whether it be in the spontaneous pulling down of the dictator’s statues or hunting out Ba’ath party apparatchiki — have now been left watching a very different spectacle: Iraqis ransacking Iraq.
The most devastating display of the sacking of Baghdad by its own people has been the looting of priceless artefacts — most of them more than 7,000 years old — from the National Museum. This has to rank with the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan as a mind-numbing example of wanton destruction. The job of the American forces was to defeat the ‘enemy’ — not to police a lawless State where a political vacuum has suddenly ushered in anarchy. It’s clear that the possibility of such a scenario never crossed the minds of the ‘We’re-against-Saddam’s-regime-not-against-Iraqis’ brigade in Washington. And even if it did, with the ‘job in hand’ accomplished and Donald Rumsfeld beaming, it is unlikely that the Americans would be having sleepless nights over Iraqis pillaging ‘their own’ city and history.
The cries of anger and desperation are already being heard in Iraq. It is one thing to be grateful to a force that has overthrown a despotic rule, and quite another to helplessly watch it play the fiddle while Baghdad burns. The artificial stability of Iraq has been undone because of the frightening political vacuum there. It is the US’s job — more so as ‘liberator’ than as ‘aggressor’ — to see to it that the nation does not enter a downward spiral of chaos. Shia-Sunni animosities have already raised their ugly head, driven home most chillingly in the murder of Shia leader Abdul Majid al-Khoei by an armed mob in Najaf. Reprisals, communal attacks and general crime are already being bred in post-war Iraq. Saddam Hussein once told American officials: “You treat the Third World the way an Iraqi peasant treats his new bride. Three days of honeymoon, and then it is off to the fields.” One hopes, for the sake of both the Iraqis and the Americans, that the dictator is proved wrong.