Anarchy in Baghdad

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Iraqis cart away looted furniture in Baghdad's al-Rashid street

Regime-change inevitably involves an interlude of morbid anarchy — the old regime has been smashed; no new authority has emerged in its place to enforce order. But managing that interlude in post-Saddam Iraq is fast emerging as the toughest challenge yet of "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

Their military control of Baghdad gives U.S. forces responsibility under the Geneva Convention for maintaining basic public order. But there are not that many soldiers there, and they still have a war to fight against the remnants of Saddam's regime. From a military point of view, Baghdad remains, as one U.S. officer put it, "an ugly place." Some of the city's residents are on the streets celebrating Saddam's demise; others are simply taking the opportunity to steal whatever they can carry from government buildings, hospitals and stores; and still others are moving under cover of civil chaos to kill American troops.

Firefights continue in different parts of the city, and on Thursday a suicide bomber wounded four Marines at a checkpoint. A second such attack was thwarted Friday. To cope with the mounting lawlessness — which threatens to turn into a free-for-all for armed gangs, and an orgy of retributive violence against those associated with the regime — and the humanitarian crisis that threatens the city's medical services, the U.S. has called for the Iraqi bureaucrats who previously policed the city and ran its basic services to come forward and help restore order. Soldiers have been ordered to stop looting where possible, but their primary focus remains securing the city from hostile combatants.

Policing the city is a tough call for U.S. soldiers who remain under fire from Iraqi fighters sheltering among the civilian population. Eyewitness reports by Western journalists suggest a number of Iraqi civilians were killed or wounded Thursday by Marines firing in response to attacks from Iraqi irregulars. "Their soldiers aren't wearing uniforms," one Marine corporal told the Financial Times. "You try to pick out where it is coming from and all you see is civilians."

The precipitous collapse of Saddam's regime may have interfered with the original U.S. plan to rely extensively on existing police forces and bureaucracy to maintain order and basic services. In Basra, the British have turned to a local tribal leader to fill the vacuum, but that's not an option in Baghdad — and observers warn that most tribal leaders have a history of working with the regime, and their democratic credentials may be no greater than those of the Baathists. Restoring the role of even the least political of Iraq's existing bureaucrats and gendarmes is unacceptable to at least some of those jockeying for post-Saddam power. Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial exiled leader of the Iraqi National Congress flown in to Nasiriyah by the U.S. military this week has demanded both that the coalition forces turn over immediate political authority to Iraqis, and that it follow a principle of "de-Baathification." In practice, though, excluding everyone tainted by any association with the Baath party that ruled Iraq for more than three decades would tip the playing field in favor of exiles like Chalabi himself, who left the country 45 years ago. That, of course, is a major reason the State Department and CIA echo the skepticism of other Iraqi exiles over the extent of support in Iraq for Chalabi's group, despite his strong backing by the Pentagon and his daily appearances on CNN.

Other Iraqi exile figures are beginning to emerge to challenge for leadership roles, among them former foreign minister Adnan Pachachi, exile leader Iyad Allawi and some former generals such as Nizar Khazraji. The Bush administration remains divided, with the Pentagon backing Chalabi while State and CIA are inclined to support some of his rivals. The U.S. plans to convene a meeting as early as Saturday in southern Iraq to begin the process of forming an interim Iraqi authority.

A major question mark hangs over the role, if any, that will be played by the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which claims considerable popular support among Iraqi Shiites. Although the Bush administration drew SCIRI representatives into prewar discussions among Iraqi opposition forces, it is reluctant to see the Iran-backed group playing a major role. Two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld warned SCIRI to keep its al-Badr brigade, 10,000 guerrilla fighters armed and trained by Iran's revolutionary guards, on the Iranian side of the border. But Thursday's stabbing of a prominent pro-U.S. Shiite cleric in the sect's holiest shrine at An Najaf was a reminder that the struggle for influence within Iraq's largest ethnic group could quickly turn violent. SCIRI has warned that it will called for an armed uprising against U.S. forces if they try to occupy Iraq in the wake of Saddam's ouster.

At the same time as securing Baghdad and managing the power struggle among rival Iraqi groups, coalition forces also face the challenge of keeping the peace between the Kurds and Turkey. Mosul on Friday saw an orgy of looting as Kurdish "peshmerga" fighters seized the city following a surrender by Saddam's garrison. The previous day the "peshmerga" had had stormed into Tikrit, sidestepping U.S. orders to stay out. That prompted threats from Turkey to invade, which led the U.S. to send its own troops into the city and secure an agreement from the "peshmerga" to withdraw. Turkey is sending military observers to make sure the Kurdish fighters actually leave. Keeping the peace in the coming weeks, however, will require U.S. forces to manage the competing claims to the city.

Although the U.S. has resisted the idea of occupying Iraq for any length of time, the manner of the regime's collapse and the violently fractured society it has left in its wake are increasingly pointing to a long-term commitment of U.S. troops, in numbers considerably larger than those currently in the country. That may, in military terms, simply be the "least-worst" option — after all, one point on which Iraqi factions across the political spectrum appear, right now, to agree on, is that they don't want an occupation. But unless they can establish agreement among themselves that leads in short order to stability, they may have no option.

When challenged a panicky began questioning the prudence of the war plan after a week of fighting, the generals gently reminded us that no war plan ever survives contact with the enemy. What they may be running into now, however, is a related reality — even the best-laid peace plans don't always survive a war.