Patrick Cockburn has been reporting from Iraq since 1978. His latest book is The Occupation: War, Resistance and Daily Life in Iraq (Verso, 2006).

As if the Iraqis lived on a different planet

In March 2003 George Bush and Tony Blair invaded Iraq declaring that they would overthrow Saddam Hussein and establish freedom. From the beginning "freedom" turned out to be very limited. The Iraqi state was effectively abolished. The army – the symbol of independence – was dissolved. The US took control of Iraq's oil revenues. It was a thoroughgoing colonial regime.

Whatever "freedom" meant it was not freedom from foreign control. If the US as a political and military power was as strong as Washington supposed then it might have been able to rule Iraq while ignoring the wishes of Iraqis. But it had grossly exaggerated its own power and precipitated a vicious guerrilla war within months of taking over. If Osama Bin Laden had stood at Bush's right hand he could hardly have proffered advice more likely to foster the growth of extreme Islam than the measures actually taken by the White House and the Pentagon.

At first they did not seem willing to cede any power to Iraqis – even the Kurds who had ruled their own semi-independent state in northern Iraq since 1991. I remember Hoshyar Zebari, now Iraq's foreign minister, saying to me at the time: "Let them try to rule Iraq without us for a few months and when they fail they'll have to come back and beg us to join them."

Some Iraqis took US promises seriously. Opinion polls in Baghdad just after the invasion showed that half of the people thought they had been occupied and half thought they had been liberated. In some surviving institutions like hospitals there were elections for every job from director to ward matron.

In reality the US was only prepared for "Iraqi freedom" if it produced Iraqi leaders who wholly endorsed US actions and policies. "They want clients not allies," said one disappointed Iraqi dissident who had spent years trying to persuade the US to overthrow Saddam. In July 2003 the US chose the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council and then blithely continued to rule Iraq as if it did not exist. In June 2004 sovereignty was supposedly returned to an Iraqi prime minister but again the transfer of power was largely a mirage.

The US faced a dilemma from the beginning of the invasion up to the present day. As long ago as 1991 Washington had debated the pros and cons of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. The problem was that if he was overthrown then elections would, at some point, have to be held. These would inevitably be won by the Shia religious
parties who were, or had been, linked to Iran. But a main objective of US policy in the Middle East since the fall of the Shah by Ayatollah Khomeini was to reduce not expand Iranian influence. Most of the problems in the US in Iraq over the last four years stem from this dilemma.

I had followed Iraqi politics closely after 1990 and had often visited the country before. I knew many of the opposition leaders. It is fashionable now to denounce these exiles as carpetbaggers but this was never true of many of them. They were in exile because Saddam had killed their families and forced them to run for their lives. The real carpetbaggers were Iraqi businessmen, usually very corrupt, who signed up with the US regime just after the invasion.

Almost without exception I thought the exiles underestimated the strength of Iraqi nationalism. They did not see the dangers of being too closely associated with the US and Britain. They could observe that Saddam's version of Iraqi nationalism, trumpeted daily by the Iraqi media, was discredited in the eyes of Iraqis. They did not foresee how any Iraqi arriving on the back of an American tank was also going to be suspected as a collaborator.

This was true of the Shia as well as the Sunni. The armed revolt was by the five-million-strong Sunni community. The 16 million Shia had decided to co-operate with the US and force the Americans to hold elections. These the Shia duly won in 2005. But they also found that the US wanted to keep a grip on real power. It remained in covert control of Iraqi intelligence and the defence ministry. Not surprising this labelled the Iraqi government as US pawns in the eyes of many Iraqis. The strength of Iraqi nationalism was masked because Shia and Sunni had different versions of it. This meant that each might be hostile to the US but also hostile to each other.

The Iraqis were never really offered "freedom" at any level. When it was presented it was so diluted and conditional on supporting the US that it had little legitimacy. It was also accompanied by total insecurity and economic collapse. The Iraqi government and the US embassy in the Green Zone lived as if they were on another planet, separate and distinct from Iraq.

Iraqi intellectuals never really grappled with the dilemmas facing their country. They were horrified by the fanatical and bigoted Islamic revival. On the other hand they allowed secularism to be tainted by association with the occupying power. They had not foreseen that the Iran-Iraq war, the defeat in Kuwait and, above all, the thirteen years of UN sanctions, in reality a tight economic siege, had shattered Iraqi society. It had ruined the millions of Iraqis who worked for the government and, after 1990, found that their pay was worthless. Iraq to this day is filled with millions of bitter and angry young men who only know how to fight.

Whatever freedoms were promised in 2003 few have been delivered. There is obviously no freedom from fear or want. There is only nominal political freedom under an occupying power. The impotence of the state means that Iraqis seek refuge within their own communities. Iraq is fast becoming a geographical expression.



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