America was good at conquering Iraq, but is not good at governing it and may prove worse at shaping its future, so clueless it seems about Iraqi political aspirations. Four weeks after the capture of Baghdad, there are few signs of the restoration of law and order or essential services.
Hospitals are, in fact, in worse shape than during the war, says the Red Cross.
About the only security and social benefits available are being provided not by the 135,000 Anglo-American troops but by tribal leaders in the rural areas and clerics in the urban centres.
About the only humanitarian aid extended, beyond the first choreographed arrival of the British ship Sir Galahad, has come from Iran, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
The oft-cited reason for the American failure on the civilian front is that Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed quicker than expected. While true, it does not cover up the real reasons:
* There was no coherent post-war plan.
* The Bush administration, having worked mainly with Iraqi exile groups, totally misread post-Saddam Iraq, just as the Kennedy administration got misled by Cuban exiles over the Bay of Pigs.
* Washington has been distracted by two political battles: the Pentagon fighting the State Department on who controls Iraq, and both, together, resisting any useful role by the United Nations.
Given its vast experience in building post-war societies, the U.N. would arguably have done a better job by now than the U.S.
Petty and vindictive, George W. Bush is also freezing out France, Russia and Germany at a time when Iraq can use all the international assistance it can get.
Also, the Canadian offer of Mounties, police officers, transport planes and humanitarian aid is yet to be taken up.
The welcome toppling of Saddam has receded in Iraqi consciousness under the burden of the invasion itself, with its inevitable civilian deaths, injuries and dislocation; the weeks of chaos right under the noses of American and British troops; and the American preoccupation with finding pliant leaders.
Caught flat-footed with the assertiveness of the majority Shiites, especially their religiosity and nationalism, Washington has reacted by lashing out at “Iranian agents” and by speeding up the process of forming an indigenous government before unfriendly forces become too strong.
Four of five Iraqis named to a core group by U.S. administrator Jay Garner (where are the women, general?) are decidedly pro-American.
They are: Kurdish leaders Jalal Talebani and Massoud Barzani (well-deserved choices), Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and Iyad Alawi of the Iraqi National Accord, another exile group.
The latter two are secularist Shias, while most Iraqi Shiites are not. Three clerical factions are vying to represent the faithful. Yet only one, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has been included.
This may prove problematic. Shiite clerics have clearly shown themselves to have moral authority and a mass following. Many have filled the post-Saddam vacuum and now control several key institutions.
The candidate most liked by the Americans is the least liked by Iraqis. Chalabi, who left Iraq as a child in 1958, was flown back by the Pentagon which has assigned him a military liaison officer and helped train his 600-strong militia.
Granted, inventing a government out of the chaos of a fallen regime is not easy. Also, having taken control of a country — ignore the debate on the right or wrong of the invasion — America is not going to hand it over to forces inimical to it, or its regional ally, Israel. Still, whatever it does must be credible.
America dreads religious Muslim politicians. (Never mind Bush’s own religiosity in “fighting evil” and invoking God’s blessings over his warmongering).
But elbowing out religious Shiites is asking for trouble. Look at Algeria and Egypt, where the sidelining of moderate Islamists led to the rise of militants — and much murderous mayhem.
In fact, Iraqis, themselves, used to be the most secular of Arabs until Saddam persecuted them, particularly the Shiites, and they turned to religion. It would be ironic and tragic if they were to conclude that their liberators are squelching their aspirations.
Some clerics are calling for an Islamic state. Others are wary of the Iranian model. Still others want a Muslim democracy, like the Jewish democracy of Israel. The debate has just begun. Stifling it is the worst possible step.
About 350 delegates representing a cross-section of Iraq’s various ethnic and religious groups are to meet in a month. They would select an interim government that would arrange elections in a year or two under a new constitution.
The process ahead has to be transparently honest. If done right, this experiment in democracy can indeed set the example Bush claims to want for all Arabs. If done badly, it could come back to haunt America.
Haroon Siddiqui is The Star’s editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears Thursday and Sunday. firstname.lastname@example.org