Can we please stop calling it a quagmire? The United States isn’t mired in a bog or a marsh in Iraq (quagmire’s literal meaning); it is free-falling off a cliff. The only question now is: Who will follow the Bush clan off this precipice, and who will refuse to jump?
More and more are, thankfully, choosing the second option. The last month of inflammatory US aggression in Iraq has inspired what can only be described as a mutiny: Waves of soldiers, workers and politicians under the command of the US occupation authority are suddenly refusing to follow orders and abandoning their posts. First Spain announced it would withdraw its troops, then Honduras, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Kazakhstan. South Korean and Bulgarian troops were pulled back to their bases, while New Zealand is withdrawing its engineers. El Salvador, Norway, the Netherlands and Thailand will likely be next.
And then there are the mutinous members of the US-controlled Iraqi army. Since the latest wave of fighting began, they’ve been donating their weapons to resistance fighters in the South and refusing to fight in Falluja, saying that they didn’t join the army to kill other Iraqis. By late April, Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division, was reporting that “about 40 percent [of Iraqi security officers] walked off the job because of intimidation. And about 10 percent actually worked against us.”
And it’s not just Iraq’s soldiers who have been deserting the occupation. Four ministers of the Iraqi Governing Council have resigned their posts in protest. Half the Iraqis with jobs in the secured “green zone”–as translators, drivers, cleaners–are not showing up for work. And that’s better than a couple of weeks ago, when 75 percent of Iraqis employed by the US occupation authority stayed home (that staggering figure comes from Adm. David Nash, who oversees the awarding of reconstruction contracts).
Minor mutinous signs are emerging even within the ranks of the US military: Privates Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey have applied for refugee status in Canada as conscientious objectors and Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia is facing court martial after he refused to return to Iraq on the grounds that he no longer knew what the war was about [see Christian Parenti, “A Deserter Speaks,” at www.thenation.com].
Rebelling against the US authority in Iraq is not treachery, nor is it giving “false comfort to terrorists,” as George W. Bush recently cautioned Spain’s new prime minister. It is an entirely rational and principled response to policies that have put everyone living and working under US command in grave and unacceptable danger. This is a view shared by fifty-two former British diplomats, who recently sent a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair stating that although they endorsed his attempts to influence US Middle East policy, “there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure.”
And one year in, the US occupation of Iraq does appear doomed on all fronts: political, economic and military. On the political front, the idea that the United States could bring genuine democracy to Iraq is now irredeemably discredited: Too many relatives of Iraqi Governing Council members have landed plum jobs and rigged contracts, too many groups demanding direct elections have been suppressed, too many newspapers have been closed down and too many Arab journalists have been murdered while trying to do their job. The most recent casualties were two employees of Al Iraqiya television, shot dead by US soldiers while filming a checkpoint in Samarra. Ironically, Al Iraqiya is the US-controlled propaganda network that was supposed to weaken the power of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, both of which have also lost reporters to US guns and rockets over the past year.
White House plans to turn Iraq into a model free-market economy are in equally rough shape, plagued by corruption scandals and the rage of Iraqis who have seen few benefits–either in services or jobs–from the reconstruction. Corporate trade shows have been canceled across Iraq, investors are relocating to Amman and Iraq’s housing minister estimates that more than 1,500 foreign contractors have fled the country. Bechtel, meanwhile, admits that it can no longer operate “in the hot spots” (there are precious few cold ones), truck drivers are afraid to travel the roads with valuable goods and General Electric has suspended work on key power stations. The timing couldn’t be worse: Summer heat is coming and demand for electricity is about to soar.
As this predictable (and predicted) disaster unfolds, many are turning to the United Nations for help: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on the UN to support his demand for direct elections back in January. More recently, he has called on the UN to refuse to ratify the despised interim constitution, which most Iraqis see as a US attempt to continue to control Iraq’s future long after the June 30 “handover” by, among other measures, giving sweeping veto powers to the Kurds–the only remaining US ally. Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, before pulling out his troops, asked the UN to take over the mission from the United States. Even Muqtada al-Sadr, the “outlaw” Shiite cleric, is calling on the UN to prevent a bloodbath in Najaf. On April 18, Sadr’s spokesman, Qais al-Khazaali, told Bulgarian television it is “in the interest of the whole world to send peacekeeping forces under the UN flag.”
And what has been the UN’s response? Worse than silence, it has sided with Washington on all of these critical questions, dashing hopes that it could provide a genuine alternative to the lawlessness and brutality of the US occupation. First it refused to back the call for direct elections, citing security concerns. In retrospect, supporting the call back then might have avoided much of the violence now engulfing the country. After all, the UN’s response weakened the more moderate Sistani and strengthened Muqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters continued demanding direct elections and launched a vocal campaign against the US transition plan and the interim constitution. This is what prompted US chief envoy Paul Bremer to decide to take Sadr out, the provocation that sparked the Shiite uprising.
The UN has proved equally deaf to calls to replace the US military occupation with a peacekeeping operation. On the contrary, it has made it clear that it will only re-enter Iraq if it is the United States that guarantees the safety of its staff–seemingly oblivious to the fact that being surrounded by American bodyguards is the best way to make sure that the UN will be targeted. “We have an obligation since [the attack on UN headquarters] last summer to insist on clarity and on what is being asked of us,” Edward Mortimer, a senior aide to Secretary General Kofi Annan, told the New York Times. “What are the risks? What kind of guarantees can you give us that we are not going to be blown up? And is the job important enough to justify the risk?”
Even in light of that horrific bombing, this is a stunning series of questions coming from a UN official. Do Iraqis have guarantees that they won’t be blown up when they go to the market in Sadr City, when their children get on the school bus in Basra, when they send their injured to a hospital in Falluja? Is there a more important job for the future of global security than peacemaking in Iraq?
The UN’s greatest betrayal of all comes in the way it is re-entering Iraq: not as an independent broker but as a glorified US subcontractor, the political arm of the continued US occupation. The post-June 30 caretaker government being set up by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will be subject to all the restraints on Iraqi sovereignty that sparked the current uprising in the first place. The United States will maintain full control over “security” in Iraq, including over Iraq’s army. It will keep control over the reconstruction funds. And, worst of all, the caretaker government will be subject to the laws laid out in the interim constitution, including the clause that states that it must enforce the orders written by the US occupiers. The UN should be defending Iraq against this illegal attempt to undermine its independence. Instead it is disgracefully helping Washington to convince the world that a country under continued military occupation by a foreign power is actually sovereign.
Iraq badly needs the UN as a clear, independent voice in the region. The people are calling out for it, begging the international body to live up to its mandate as peacemaker and truth teller. And yet just when it is needed most, the UN is at its most compromised and cowardly.
There is a way that the UN can redeem itself in Iraq. It could choose to join the mutiny, further isolating the United States. This would help force Washington to hand over real power–ultimately to Iraqis but first to a multilateral coalition that did not participate in the invasion and occupation and would have the credibility to oversee direct elections. This could work, but only through a process that fiercely protects Iraq’s sovereignty. That means:
Ditch the Interim Constitution. The interim constitution is so widely hated in Iraq that any governing body bound by its rules will immediately be seen as illegitimate. Some argue that Iraq needs the interim constitution to prevent open elections from delivering the country to religious extremists. Yet according to a February 2004 poll by Oxford Research International, Iraqis have no desire to see their country turned into another Iran. Asked to rate their favored political system and actors, 48.5 percent of Iraqis ranked a “democracy” as most important, while an “Islamic state” received 20.5 percent support. Asked what type of politician they favored, 55.3 percent chose “democrats,” while only 13.7 percent chose religious politicians. If Iraqis are given the chance to vote their will, there is every reason to expect that the results will reflect a balance between their faith and their secular aspirations.
There are also ways to protect women and minority rights without forcing Iraq to accept a sweeping constitution written under foreign occupation. The simplest solution would be to revive passages in Iraq’s 1970 Provisional Constitution, which, according to Human Rights Watch, “formally guaranteed equal rights to women and…specifically ensured their right to vote, attend school, run for political office, and own property.” Elsewhere, the constitution enshrined religious freedom, civil liberties and the right to form unions. These clauses can easily be salvaged, while striking the parts of the document designed to entrench Baathist rule.
Put the Money in Trust. A crucial plank of managing Iraq’s transition to sovereignty is safeguarding its national assets: its oil revenue and the remaining oil-for-food program money (currently administered by the United States with no oversight), as well as what’s left of the $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds. Right now the United States is planning to keep control of this money long after June 30; the UN should insist that it be put in trust, to be spent by an elected Iraqi government.
De-Chalabify Iraq. The United States has so far been unable to install Ahmad Chalabi as the next leader of Iraq–his history of corruption and lack of a political base have seen to that. Yet members of the Chalabi family have quietly been given control in every area of political, economic and judicial life. It was a two-stage process. First, as head of the De-Baathification Commission, Chalabi purged his rivals from power. Then, as director of the Governing Council’s Economic and Finance Committee, he installed his friends and allies in the key posts of Oil Minister, Finance Minister, Trade Minister, Governor of the Central Bank and so on. Now Chalabi’s nephew, Salem Chalabi, has been appointed by the United States to head the court trying Saddam Hussein. And a company with close ties to Chalabi landed the contract to guard Iraq’s oil infrastructure–essentially a license to build a private army.
It’s not enough to keep Chalabi out of the interim government. The UN must dismantle Chalabi’s shadow state by launching a de-Chalabification process on a par with the now abandoned de-Baathification process.
Demand the Withdrawal of US Troops. In asking the United States to serve as its bodyguard as a condition of re-entering Iraq, the UN has it exactly backwards: It should only go in if the United States pulls out. Troops who participated in the invasion and occupation should be replaced with peacekeepers–preferably from neighboring Arab states–working under the extremely limited mandate of securing the country for general elections. With the United States out, there is a solid chance that countries that opposed the war would step forward for the job.
On April 25 the New York Times editorial board called for the opposite approach, arguing that only a major infusion of American troops and “a real long-term increase in the force in Iraq” could bring security. But these troops, if they arrive, will provide security to no one–not to the Iraqis, not to their fellow soldiers, not to the UN. American soldiers have become a direct provocation to more violence, not only because of the brutality of the occupation in Iraq but also because of US support for Israel’s deadly occupation of Palestinian territory. In the minds of many Iraqis, the two occupations have blended into a single anti-Arab outrage, with Israeli and US soldiers viewed as interchangeable and Iraqis openly identifying with Palestinians.
Without US troops, the major incitement to violence would be removed, allowing the country to be stabilized with far fewer soldiers and far less force. Iraq would still face security challenges–there would still be extremists willing to die to impose Islamic law as well as attempts by Saddam loyalists to regain power. On the other hand, with Sunnis and Shiites now so united against the occupation, it’s the best possible moment for an honest broker to negotiate an equitable power-sharing agreement.
Some will argue that the United States is too strong to be forced out of Iraq. But from the start Bush needed multilateral cover for this war–that’s why he formed the “coalition of the willing,” and it’s why he is going to the UN now. Imagine what could happen if countries keep pulling out of the coalition, if France and Germany refuse to recognize an occupied Iraq as a sovereign nation. Imagine if the UN decided not to ride to Washington’s rescue. It would become an occupation of one.
The invasion of Iraq began with a call to mutiny–a call made by the United States. In the weeks leading up to last year’s invasion, US Central Command bombarded Iraqi military and political officials with phone calls and e-mails urging them to defect from Saddam’s ranks. Fighter planes dropped 8 million leaflets urging Iraqi soldiers to abandon their posts and assuring that no harm would come to them.
Of course, these soldiers were promptly fired when Paul Bremer took over and are now being frantically rehired as part of the reversal of the de-Baathification policy. It’s just one more example of lethal incompetence that should lead all remaining supporters of US policy in Iraq to one inescapable conclusion: It’s time for a mutiny.