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The new Iraq

July 16th, 2004

Although there’s plenty of news coverage of inquiries into the “intelligence” that justified the Iraq war, coverage of events in Iraq itself seems to have declined sharply since the formal handover of sovereignty and the shutdown of the Coalition Provisional Administration. There seems to be a general media consensus that things have gone quiet, with the result that, when the usual news of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations is reported, it’s always prefaced with something like Suicide Blast Shatters a Calm (NYT 15 July) or after a week of relative calm (Seattle Times 7 July).

Regardless of the calmness or otherwise of the situation, the installation of Allawi as PM has certainly produced a new dynamic. Allawi has moved quickly to establish himself as a strongman, resolving by default the questions left unanswered in the “handover”. His announcements of emergency powers and the establishment of a security service/secret police have been criticised, but they amount to little more than the assumption of powers previously exercised by the CPA with no legal basis of any kind. The big question before the handover was whether any new military operations would be under the control of the interim government or of the American military. Allawi has moved pretty quickly to ensure that he will give the orders here, putting the onus on the American military to come to his aid if his forces run into serious resistance.

Allawi has also moved to split the insurgency, distinguishing between “legitimate” resistance forces (essentially those whose attacks were directed at the occupying forces) and terrorists (Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda offshoot, and the remaining supporters of Saddam). The big beneficiary of this is Moktada al-Sadr whom Bremer tried to suppress in his last weeks, but who is now more popular and powerful than ever[1]. In a fairly standard move in situations of this kind, Sadr has switched from overt resistance activities to vigilante work, directed both at the Al Qaeda, Wahhabist and Saddamist insurgents and at “prostitutes, pimps, pornography sellers, gamblers – and those who sell alcohol.”[2] Naturally enough, other Shiite leaders are alarmed at this and are trying to find a way to isolate al-Sadr (as always, Juan Cole has the story covered). But, having fought the Americans and lived to tell the tale, al-Sadr is pretty much untouchable now.

At this stage, there are three plausible outcomes for Iraq over the next year or so. The first is that Allawi will succeed in crushing the insurgency where Bremer failed, and will also manage to divide and rule the Shiite majority. The likely outcome in this case is a strongman government, comparable to the Mubarak regime in Egypt, and broadly sympathetic to the US. The second is that elections will produce a Shi-ite majority government, including al_Sadr. Such a government would be overtly hostile to the US, and would almost certainly demand early withdrawal of the occupying forces. The third is that the insurgents will succeed in reducing the country to chaos. My money is on the second. It seems clear now that it would have been far better to have held elections in 2003, when the dominant Shiite voice was the relatively quietist Sistani and before disasters like those in Fallujah and Najaf.

Update In the comments thread, Jack Strocchi points to the startling allegation that Allawi personally executed prisoners in a Baghdad police station and implies, correctly I think, that Putin, rather than Mubarak. may be the best analogy. Tim Dunlop has more and links to the rightwing response. Unsurprisingly, this is one of acceptance of the need for an authoritarian strongman.

fn1. Amazingly, the US military is touting the campaign against al-Sadr as a textbook success in counterinsurgency

fn2. Very similar things are being done in Sunni “no-go zones” like Fallujah. The days of “Democracy, Whiskey, Sexy” are a long way behind us now.

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  1. July 17th, 2004 at 00:40 | #1

    It seems that Steve Sailer agrees with Pr Q on the political option menu for Iraq, but disagrees on the one most likely to occur, plumping for option 1: the Iraqi Strongman.

    Our hope for Allawi, our new head boy in Baghdad, is that he turns out to be a Putin: a spook turned tough, hardworking ruler.

    Now, it’s not that hard to see how Allawi could calm the insurgency: all he has to do is to nominally incorporate the insurgents into his regime and let them have local autonomy, on the model of what the U.S. did in Fallujah and Najaf. (The harder issues are down the road in terms of divvying up the oil.)

    But let’s say Allawi actually succeeds on the ground in the next six months in his two toughest challenges — staying alive and building an army that will actually fight for him. Do you think he’ll then hold elections and graciously retire to tend his roses when the democratically-elected President arrives?

    Sure, he will. He’ll say, “I’ve been dodging bombs for a half year just so I can hand my army over to some new guy!” Yeah, right…

    So, our best hope for Iraq is basically that Allawi proves to be a tough dictator on the model of Saddam. This was what the war was for?

    Whoever wins Iraq, it will not be the moderate pro-US Shiite democracy on which the wars planners pinned their strategic hopes.
    I have to confess that I was initially pleased to see Sadr’s Mahdi army in Najaf getting knocked about by the US army. The guy is a murderous thug and a sectarian fundamentalist. However that does not make it prudent to use military means against him.
    Sadr’s military set-back in Najaf means he is no longer welcome in there but he has been able to regroup his forces and revive his fortunes elswhere.
    The evidence now indicates that Sadr enjoys renewed popularity in Sadr city (his municipal power base), and has garnered the support of the crucial provincial tribes, on whom Hussein’s power rested.
    I was wrong again, it appears.

  2. July 17th, 2004 at 08:44 | #2

    Alllawi just made the front page of the smh for cold-bloodedly executing six insurgent PoWs in broad-daylight.
    He is a “made man” now.
    This is the kind of thing that wins you the respect and support of the Iraqi Street.
    Looks like the Iraqi-strongman theory has the front-running. A guy like that seems an unlikely prospect for sharing power with weaker folk. But you just never know with the Middle East – as they say in the mob: “Things Change”.

  3. Mark Bahnisch
    July 17th, 2004 at 13:38 | #3

    Jack, as argued over at Tim Dunlop’s place, if as the report indicates, Allawi did this under the occupation, it’s murder according to the Geneva Convention.

  4. James Farrell
    July 17th, 2004 at 19:32 | #4

    I think there are intermediates between your three scenarios, John. As long as Allawi avoids assassination, he will have hardware supplied by the Americans. On the other hand, the new official Iraqi miltary has neither the commitment nor the training to suppress either the insurgents or al-Sadr’s forces. So I think Allawi will gradually develop a covert and well-equipped militia that operates by the same rules as the other groups. The three militias might control their various stongholds and coexist in a fairly stable equilibrium for a decade or more. Maybe this is what you meant by chaos, but I don’t think so. Its’s not nice, but it’s not quite chaos.

  5. Noname
    July 17th, 2004 at 21:35 | #5

    If the reports that Alawi murdered 6 dissidents are correct, John Howard is duty bound to invade Iraq. This is the current reason being put forward for the original invasion (Saddam was a bad man, and the world is better off with him no longer in power), so for the sake of consistency, he must again send Australia to war.

    I was never in favour of the invasion of Iraq because the west has a poor track record of imposing real difference on countries that don’t have a history of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and other conditions we take for granted. If the reports are true, Iraq has traded one thug for another, and the loss of lives and money has been for nought.

  6. Noname
    July 17th, 2004 at 21:35 | #6

    If the reports that Alawi murdered 6 dissidents are correct, John Howard is duty bound to invade Iraq. This is the current reason being put forward for the original invasion (Saddam was a bad man, and the world is better off with him no longer in power), so for the sake of consistency, he must again send Australia to war.

    I was never in favour of the invasion of Iraq because the west has a poor track record of imposing real difference on countries that don’t have a history of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and other conditions we take for granted. If the reports are true, Iraq has traded one thug for another, and the loss of lives and money has been for nought.

  7. brian McKinlay
    July 18th, 2004 at 01:45 | #7

    When one reads Michael Ware’s illuminating comments in Time magazine,in addition to his interesting comments on ABC Lateline,it sometimes seems that sections of the media ,the “breaks the calm ” school,are quite removed from reality. Ware,and several other journalists have recently painted a picture of a Iraq in which large tracts of the country,and many cities ,like Falluja,are in the hands of the insurgents.As for Allawi,his writ probably only runs in those parts of Baghdad controlled by his US protectors,and the insurgents will probably target him fairly soon.In Washington,they certainly don’t want to hear people like Prof. Cole or Michael Ware,as it spoils the picture they want to paint in the pre-election period. Actually it’s strikingly like the way Richard Nixon papered over the cracks in South Vietnam ,prior to the final Vietcon victory.The people who really have along-term problem are the Israelis ,for whom,I’m sure the war was at least partly fought.A US defeat will increase the pressure on them,and as Sharon has caused a collapse in their support in Europe ,they have to hope that their supporters in the US maintain that position,or the whole Zionist project may yet be imperilled!

  8. Jack Strocchi
    July 18th, 2004 at 03:40 | #8

    Mark Bahnisch et al are gung ho to charge Allawi with murder for allegedly executing jihadist terrorists. Given what I now know about the political culture of Iraq, my reaction to Ozblogistani pleas for liberal civil norms to be applied in that law-forsaken place is on par with Cpt. Willards reaction to Gen. Corman’s legalistic solution to the problem of Col. Kurz’s “unsound methods”:

    charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500.

  9. July 18th, 2004 at 04:22 | #9

    I think its more an observation than a plea, isn’t it?

    I personally think, safely in Australia and with no practical experience of Iraq, that the worst outcome of all would be a Shiite theocracy because it does maximum damage to a secular, imaginative, educated middle class.

    Allawi is better than that. Whether it is actually possible to shoot and terrorise your way to running Iraq with US support and Sunni complicity, given that the genie is now completely out of the bag and insurgents run bits of the country, is a moot point.

    Will it be attempted with a lot of bloodshed? Will the US army stay out of it? Will the US army be able to go home? Certainly the Americans will notice they are installing a Saddam substitute who is less experienced and possibly crazier, and it will not play well with the public. Or with an already underpaid and overworked US army.

    James’ suggestion sounds too much like warlordism for me. Frighteningly like Afghanistan with oil.

  10. July 18th, 2004 at 23:09 | #10

    Allawi is a murderous thug of course,him and negroponte will hit it off straight away.
    Does allawi’s past history of CIA terrorist bombings in Iraq in the nineties disqualify him as a terrorist-no of course not,he is OUR terrorist!
    Go you good thing!

  11. RoD
    July 19th, 2004 at 10:44 | #11

    A pro-US Sunni dictator who kills people willy-nilly… now who does that remind me of?

    Allawi murdered for Saddam when he was a Baathist, then went over to the INC/INA and whilst on a CIA payroll was involved in a market bombing in Baghdad that killed over 200 and the bombing of a schoolbus full of kids.

    This is the guy notionally in charge of our troops. What were we fighting for again??

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