Chicago, April 18, 2003
Assuming that the war per se is already over, and that we’ve just begun week one of postwar Iraq, a lingering mystery needs to be solved which can be formulated as follows: Why did the south, which was assumed in the coalition plan to fall easily because it’s mostly Shi‘i, take more than two weeks to be controlled, while Baghdad was done with as soon the U.S. Marines got hold of the city’s airport (renamed Baghdad’s International Airport)? Understanding the modus operandi of the dividing lines between south and central Iraq—not to mention the mostly Kurdish north—can bring some light as to what the coalition forces (and possibly the U.N.) might have to endure in the future. In consequence, every new Iraqi government will also have to understand the dynamisms that separate north from south.
The first few days of the war brought something hitherto unsuspected into the picture—what has been hastily labeled as “the Iraqi resistance”—and which in effect was thought to have hampered the progress of the coalition forces. What was then perceived as “resistance” to an occupier has drawn angry remarks from journalists (particularly in The New Yorker and The New York Times) by the second week of Operation Iraqi Freedom, regarding Rumsfeld’s hastily prepared war plans, which allegedly forced the military to minimize troop deployments in Kuwait, by pushing their march towards Baghdad without much protection and backup, thinking that the southern cities will receive the coalition forces with flowers, while the 300-mile military line between the Kuwaiti border and Baghdad was left mostly unprotected and at the mercy of the newly discovered Iraqi “resistance.” By the third week, however, when Baghdad’s airport was quickly controlled, the Rumsfeldian doctrine of a rapid and thin deployment of troops from the Kuwaiti border up to Baghdad, has begun to show all its merits. The rapid fall of Baghdad, pace Iraq’s (mis-)information and postmodern minister, has then brought Rumsfeld back to all his glory, to the point that the Syrians have begun to wonder whether they’re “next” on the secretary of defense’s “short list.” (As it turned out, the Syrians are not worth Rumsfeld’s esteem, and he will thus leave them out for the moment, but that’s another story.) As in Afghanistan, the rapid success of the war was at a minimal cost in terms of British and U.S. lives, and also Iraqi civilian casualties (1,500 in most estimates), boosting the military’s morale while giving the Bush administration more credibility in its imperial wars.
The main question then remains as to why the southern (and mostly Shi‘i) city of Basra was “controlled” by the British only by the third week—at the same time that Baghdad fell under Marine control. Even the tiny city of Umm al-Qasr (“the mother of the castle”), which is crucial as the only port city, had “resisted” for a full week. The other major southern Shi‘i cities—Nasiriyya, Najaf and Karbala—also showed some stiff resistance. The other unexpected element was the excessive amount of looting and civil disorder in the capital, which left no hospital, supermarket, school, museum, and public building safe, while the looting that took place in the south was minimal—not to mention the north where mobs fell under the control of the Kurdish militias. In short, Rumsfeld and his advisors did win the war, but in a reverse order: they had initially planned for a protracted and bloody siege of Baghdad, which should have in principle followed an easy recapitulation of the south, only to find out that the capital was indeed the easy part.
Iraq’s population falls into three ethnicities: a 60% Shi‘i majority in the south, a 20% Kurdish (mostly Sunni) minority in the north, and a ruling Arab Sunni minority in central Iraq. When the British occupied Iraq in 1917-18, and suffered close to 100,000 casualties, they instinctively thought that the new rulers of that country should be exclusively among the Arab Sunni minority. Thus, even though the Kurds were promised a “state” of their own at the Sèvres conference, such plans for “autonomy” were rapidly shelved off by the early 1920s when the mandate powers effectively took control under the auspices of the League of Nations. Moreover, the Shi‘is were perceived as even more problematic than the Kurds since they had no experience of “government” in Arab lands. When the British realized that the leading Sunni families were too much internally divided as a result of four centuries of sporadic Ottoman rule, they opted for a prestigious Hashemite monarch who had just been ousted by the French from neighboring Syria. By opting for Sunni Islam as their ruling partner in the Fertile Crescent, the colonial powers thought that they would keep up with the “stability” of their Ottoman predecessors. Postcolonialism kept that Sunni heritage alive and radicalized it through Baathism and Naserism. That moribund political infrastructure survived thanks to the cold war era and the incessant militarization of politics and the state institutions.
In the case of Iraq, the militarized Baathist state has managed to keep most Shi‘is outside the institutions of the state, leaving the various populations of the south at the mercy of party officials, paramilitary groups, and a dysfunctional state. The Shi‘is thus gradually learned to “protect” themselves through their own internal institutions, which for the most part are organized along rival lines of clergymen and mullahs, all of which became favorite targets of the central regime in Baghdad. Yet, despite all the assassinations that Saddam Hussein had successfully ordered, those rival religious networks have grosso modo managed to survive either through an internal process of protection, or else through exile and the Iranian link. The assassination of two leading clergymen by a highly motivated mob in the shrine of imam ‘Ali in the wake of the liberation of Najaf, only shows the solid divisions of the “societies” of the south: one mullah had just come back from exile from London, while the other was a protégé of the ancien régime, and the two, we are told, were supposed to have been in a reconciliatory mission, with no other place than the Shi‘is’s holiest shrine.
The coalition forces, which were expecting a “subservient” south, unexpectedly found themselves in a nightmarish situation. At first, they thought of a pure and simple “resistance” against a foreign occupier. That “resistance,” however, turned so chaotic and sporadic that the Americans and British had a hard time figuring out who was fighting against whom, and for what specific reasons. We were then told that those populations were driven by fear and that the symbols of the ancien régime still pervaded them. But by the third week, when all the major cities were finally under control—except for the hard labor of looters—another reality begun to emerge. The south, which in decades of brutal rule, persevered only through its own self-regulated institutions, suddenly found itself in a situation of an internal civil war. In other words, the harshness of the Baathist regime did not manage to break most of the societal bonds that were kept through the religious networks or otherwise: it actually only succeeded in infiltrating to the “inside” by recruiting its own mullahs and placing them in key positions. When in the first week the regime fell apart, the internal divisions quickly resurfaced and the coalition forces were trapped right in the middle.
Such was not the case in Baghdad. In the capital city the regime successfully managed a full control of society by rendering it dysfunctional and symbolically controlling all aspects of social and political life. The excessive looting, which went beyond all notions of civility and honor, is an indication of the excessive fragmentation of the center. It is as if every individual, family, and neighborhood survives on its own, with only the various state symbols to “connect” them into a cohesive whole. If the population took such a pleasure in defacing public statutes, it is precisely because that is their general function: once they are there under normal circumstances, no one notices their austere presence; the state keeps multiplying their number ad infinitum, but they still go unnoticed; but once the regime is gone, they’re fun to desecrate—especially with an American flag.
Needless to say, the coalition forces have inherited a “society” that is so fragmented and did not go through the “disciplinary” techniques of the west, that it is no “civil society” at all. The big challenge will therefore be its transformation into such a cohesive unit—an unprecedented challenge for the Arab world.
copyright © 2003 zouhair ghazzal