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When the hurly-burly?s done

Even before the first American tanks stationed themselves over the Tigris in the middle of Baghdad, one Indian commentator had begun to advise the Govt to stop advocating the handing over of post-war reconstruction to the UN.

india Updated: Apr 11, 2003 14:31 IST
Prem Shankar Jha
Prem Shankar Jha

Even before the first American tanks stationed themselves athwart a bridge over the Tigris river in the middle of Baghdad, at least one Indian commentator had begun to advise the government to stop advocating the handing over of post-war reconstruction to the UN.

Instead, he advised Delhi to reach out to Washington and the Iraqi opposition leaders waiting in the wings to form a new government. TV footage of a band of Iraqis pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein, and of Shias in Saddam City celebrating his downfall, reinforces the persuasiveness of this advice.

There is political realism and plain common sense behind this proposition. No matter what Bush and Blair might say to mollify world opinion, there is not the faintest chance that the US will simply pull out and leave Iraq in the uncertain hands of an undermanned and diffusely administered UN authority. Doing so would almost certainly let the pro-Saddam elements in Iraq off the hook and defeat the purpose of the war, which is to restructure Iraq and the rest of West Asia so completely that the region never again becomes host to the likes of Al-Qaeda.

That is why the Bush administration has already created an entire shadow administration for Iraq. That is also why it is leaking unascribed stories to the media not only detailing a variety of supposed ‘war crimes’ committed by senior members of the Saddam Hussein government but also making it clear that they will be tried by American and British judges.

The restructuring may therefore prove messy but it will take place, and it will do so under a US-led — or guided — administration. Since, in the long run, denying bases to global terrorists working under the banner of fundamentalist Islam can hardly be against the interests of India, Delhi’s best course of action would be to grit its teeth, swallow its moral qualms and side unambiguously with Washington in the reconstruction process.

Despite the plausibility of this thesis, India would do well to hasten slowly in accepting it. For it is based upon presuppositions which have yet to be tested. Some have already been proved false. Others are, to put it mildly, revolutionary.

The most important presupposition was that the people of non-Sunni Iraq would welcome the removal of Saddam Hussein and the creation of a new government in Iraq. That would have meant easy entrance into most cities, and large-scale surrenders by the Iraqi army. It would also have meant relatively little fighting in urban areas and few civilian casualties. And that would have enabled the Iraqis to accept the coalition forces as liberators and not invaders. The installation of a military government followed by, or in tandem with, a government of Iraqi dissidents would then have been relatively easy.

This has not exactly happened even in Basra, let alone Najaf, Karbala, Nasiriyah and Baghdad. In all of these cities the coalition forces have had little difficulty in crushing the regular Iraqi army units, but have faced determined resistance from lightly armed militiamen in civilian clothes. Armed with nothing more than Kalashnikovs and an occasional rocket launcher, they have thrown themselves against tanks and armoured personnel carriers in what any but a brainwashed international media person would have recognised as singular acts of heroism. This has forced the coalition to call in artillery and air attacks on built-up areas filled with civilians. The mounting civilian death toll and the fact that the agonised faces of the bereaved have been seen in every Arab home has already destroyed the US’s and Britain’s pretension to being Iraq’s liberators.

This leads one to the startling presupposition that whatever may be motivating the civilian fighters in Iraq, it is not nationalism. This word has not appeared even once in the millions of words that have been spoken by Bush, Blair, their spokesmen and the talking heads on BBC and CNN. According to Bush and Blair, the Iraqi militia have been Ba’ath party zealots, or last-minute conscripts driven onto the bayonets of the allies by Saddam’s terrorist slave drivers. Neither seem to know that the Ba’athist ideology lost whatever motivational power it had, at least two decades ago.

And neither has dared to entertain the possibility that those who are prepared to take on tanks with rifles might be driven by a simple thirst for independence. For that thirst is a now patented western virtue. In the rest of the world, all you need to do to gain the allegiance of the common people is restore the water supply that your bombing cut off; replace the wheat that you yourself destroyed and hand out sweets to small children. It is the breathtaking arrogance that underlies this belief, the sheer contempt for history and the confidence that its march can be arrested and even reversed, that is truly mind-boggling.

In Iraq, nationalism is fractured by religious and ethnic divisions, but remains a potent force in all parts of the country. It could, therefore, create problems for the US and its Iraqi collaborators that they have no solutions for. Washington’s belief that, after virtually creating a separate Kurdish state in the north, it can persuade its leaders to accept the suzerainty of a weak, puppet regime in Baghdad is likely to take a very hard knock in the coming days. If Saddam’s fall leads to turmoil in Baghdad, the Kurds will almost certainly seize the opportunity to declare independence. This could immediately lead to an invasion by Turkey. The US will then have to choose between its oldest ally in the region and its newest. Whichever way it goes, it will emerge the loser.

To the extent that the Shias of the south consider themselves a separate nation from the Sunnis of the central region, they too will ask themselves why, if they have to choose a suzerain, they shouldn’t choose Teheran over Baghdad? Keeping southern Iraq from drifting eastwards will then require precisely the kind of regime in Baghdad that the US is now destroying.

These problems can be surmounted if there is peace and a unity of purpose in Baghdad. That will make it possible for the US to re-establish the ascendancy of Baghdad, and quickly create a federal democracy with a high degree of autonomy for the constituent regions. But a precondition for doing that is the rapid pacification of Baghdad and the central region. What is most likely to follow the downfall of Saddam Hussein is a civil war in which Iraqi ‘collaborators’ and American advisers become prime targets of a never-ending stream of recruits to ‘terrorism’.

The pattern of conflict in Baghdad so far suggests that the easier the Americans find it to ‘enclose’ the city, the more difficult they may find it to govern afterwards. On the one hand, the Iraqi army is leaving huge stores of artillery, rockets and other weapons and simply melting away. But it has so far not surrendered either. This suggests not so much disloyalty to Saddam as an awareness among the soldiers that they cannot take on American armour, aircraft and precision guided weapons in pitched battles armed only with much less sophisticated weapons and virtually no communication facilities.

On the other hand, there is the high level of motivation shown by the irregulars. Post-Saddam Iraq will be filled with thousands of deeply resentful, nationalistic men trained in the use of arms, many of whom will have to be forcibly subjugated first. As we know from Punjab and Kashmir, and as the Serbians found out in Kosovo when they tried to subjugate the KLA, the pacification process itself swells the ranks of the terrorists.

At this stage it’s impossible to tell how long the US will take to bring Iraq under control, and how high the cost will be. It is not even certain that it will succeed. New Delhi would do well to keep out of Iraq till the contours of the post-Saddam State become more clearly visible.

First Published: Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST