The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Who's that in the picture'

During a meeting in early June between a senior American official in Baghdad and some 150 Sheikhs representing different Iraqi tribal groups, one leader rose and asked the question on everyone’s mind. He wondered whether the coalition was a “liberation” force as President George W. Bush proclaimed or rather an “occupation” force. My then-colleague hemmed and hawed, finally conceding the presence was an occupation. Uproar followed. A senior Iraqi civil servant told me later, with considerable understatement, that this was “not a very clever reply”.

The answer fanned the Sheikhs’ worst fears about coalition intentions and sparked a nationalist response questioning the legitimacy of what is, in international law, an “occupation”. The key issue in Iraq today is this: how long can this massive foreign presence, whatever its intentions, continue and persuade enough Iraqis to transform this ancient land into a 21st century pole of modern economic and political attraction for west Asia' Can the coalition convince Iraqis that it is in their interest to work together to achieve this important goal'

So far, we have not done a good job of addressing most Iraqis’ concerns. The coalition has been clumsy and played into the hands of its opponents who include die-hard Saddam Hussein loyalists as well as Islamists with their own agendas. The recent appointment of a governing council is an important step in recognizing the need for partnership with Iraqis. However, to be successful, the council must overcome deep-seated Iraqi concerns by both having real power and being seen to have real power.

The powerful anti-coalition feelings are rooted in Muslim rage at what they perceive to be uncritical American support for Israel. This anger has translated into suspicion of American intentions towards the Muslim world and fear that the United States of America seeks to undermine Islam through a combination of direct military action, cultural imperialism and Christian proselytizing. As a result, some Shiite Muslim leaders demanded the departure of US troops as soon as the regime had been overthrown.

The extent to which this Islamic dynamic plays into the strategy of Hussein loyalists is unclear, but worrisome. Do Shiite Muslims tolerate Saddam Hussein’s continuing successful evasion because they oppose the presence of foreign troops' Do they believe that if the coalition forces were to leave, Iraqis could achieve what they failed to for more than 35 years and put an end to Saddam Hussein'

The armed anti-coalition opposition itself has clearly taken heart from Saddam Hussein’s escape. By early July, a broad, though fairly small-scale, armed opposition to the coalition led some pundits to wonder if a coherent resistance was coalescing. Military analysts, hearing reports of the clandestine organization called “The Return” (of Saddam Hussein) are suggesting that the movement has increasing command and control capabilities. The US central command and senior defence department officials continue to caution against leaping to such conclusions, but the longer Hussein remains at large, the greater the possibility that his supporters could inspire a controlled and disciplined resistance. Saddam Hussein’s death or capture would eliminate much of this potential.

Some suggest that the coalition will soon find itself in a Vietnam-style guerrilla war. In late March, the British journalist and author, William Shawcross (Evening Standard, March 25) anticipated these fears. He argued, however, that two vital elements of the Vietnam situation are absent in Iraq. First, Iraq’s opposition cannot count on external support. Iraq has neither a reliable rear area such as the one that Beijing provided for Hanoi, nor a major financial backer like the Soviet Union. Second, Shawcross argued that Iraq lacks a nationalist and sufficiently popular indigenous authority that would oppose coalition forces. He noted that Saddam Hussein ruled by fear and people may still be intimidated by the Hussein loyalists.

However, not all Iraqis see the coalition as saviours. Recent history drives Shiite doubts about American staying power. These doubts exacerbated by the inevitable cultural insensitivity and tactical clumsiness of a foreign occupying force could coalesce into passive resistance at a minimum and active armed struggle as the worst case scenario. Armed opposition might initially benefit from widespread frustration with a coalition that has not delivered security and basic services such as water, electricity, communications and waste disposal. If average Iraqis also feel alienated from the political and economic process, they might ally themselves with any group promising to drive out the occupiers.

To forestall such a resistance, the coalition must implement a three-pronged strategy in partnership with a broad spectrum of Iraqis. First, coalition forces must enforce security but must refrain from overreacting to military provocations. Overreaction could unite what is a politically fragmented Shiite Muslim community to the detriment of the goal of creating a secular 21st century Iraq. A secular Iraq can use its diversity and plurality to advance towards broad prosperity and thus serve as a model in the region.

To establish security without alienating important elements, the coalition must internationalize non-military operations. Iraq needs more local police trained to maintain civil order and investigate civilian crimes. The coalition must accelerate the formation of an Iraqi police force and an Iraqi army. These organizations require equipment and advisors. The bomb attack that killed seven at a police graduation ceremony in early July suggests that Hussein loyalists recognize the threat posed by an independent Iraqi police force and army.

Second, the coalition must quickly place authority into Iraqi hands. The creation of the governing council is a positive step in this direction. However, it is vital that this council visibly bear an important share of responsibility for developing Iraq’s economic and political policies. Thus, the council must have not only a major role in budgetary planning, but also specific control over resources essential to rebuilding. Only such action can counter arguments that the coalition is a mere occupation force.

Third, the coalition’s relatively anaemic media effort needs to be expanded and enhanced. As initially conceived, the coalition’s Iraqi Media Network had too narrow a vision. Daring talk of transforming “Comical Ali’s” information ministry into a national public broadcasting service along the lines of the US National Public Radio or the BBC must be realized. L. Paul Bremer’s vision of a prosperous, modern Iraq with a representative political structure needs a broad audience across the nation, on radio, on television and in print.

These three elements require coalition personnel able to work cooperatively with Iraqis. The international press is full of reports illustrating who can work in Iraq and who cannot. The American officer who backed his troops away from a major Shiite shrine and ordered them onto one knee with their rifle muzzles on the ground to calm angry crowds deserves the same medal as the British officer who instructed his men, on entering Iraq, that no coalition flags would be planted. Against these fine examples are stories of coalition soldiers who are barely civil to Iraq police trainees and who clearly fear any interaction with the populace. The coalition and its public servants must never forget that Iraq belongs to Iraqis and that its citizens deserve our respect.

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