A land cursed by despots and warlords

February 13, 2004

Saddam has gone but the threat of a return to tyranny and an increase in anarchy still haunts Iraq, says Charles Tripp

Until his capture in mid-December, the spectre of Saddam Hussein was a frightening one. It was unnerving for Iraqis and for the occupying authorities to hear his broadcasts urging Iraqis "to take heart, resist the occupier and remember, I am still among you". The effect was to discourage cooperation with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

Saddam's capture did much to disperse these fears - initially. The problem is that the resistance continues, and, despite various upbeat pronouncements by some US military commanders, there is little evidence that his capture has lessened the danger to Iraqis or to US and allied forces in Iraq.

What it has done, however, is to draw attention to two other spectres haunting Iraqi politics that are far more significant for the country's long-term future than the fate of its toppled dictator. The first of these is the fear of the return of the authoritarian centralised state. Many Iraqis have reason to be apprehensive given the record of the successive regimes in Iraq that have all, with varying success, run highly centralised, unrepresentative and oligarchic political systems. Not all have been as ferocious as that of Saddam. But it is clear that he had perfected, at terrible cost, a model that already existed and made sense to many in Iraq, much as they feared and hated its form.

Nevertheless, this is matched by a second, opposing fear, encouraged by the emergence of provincial and local powers jealous of their autonomy. This sees conservative forces - tribal sheikhs, Shia and Sunni clerics - dictating the agenda, raising the possibility of inter and intra-communal conflict and acting as an open invitation to outside powers to meddle in Iraqi affairs. Historically, it has been used by successive Iraqi leaders to persuade people to give their backing to sometimes ruthless central governments because this is the only thing preventing complete social breakdown.

These fears have not been confined to the Iraqis. They have also affected different branches of the US administration, contributing to the confused policy-making process that has characterised Paul Bremer's leadership of the CPA. Some have taken the view that everything must be done to prevent the return of the system that gave birth to Saddam's regime. This has led to thoughts of federalism and the privatisation of state assets, including the oil industry. Others, however, have argued that the greater danger at present is the loss of central control, the break-up of the country into warring regions based on ethnic and sectarian communal politics. The challenge has been to find a way ahead between the two unpalatable options of authoritarian centralism or provincial break-up.

The CPA's efforts to address this have been inconsistent - and sometimes inept. Three areas where the right hand does not always seem to know - or to sympathise with - what the left hand is doing particularly stand out.

Understandably, much effort is being devoted to rebuilding the central state institutions in Iraq, most obviously in the oil sector, but also in education, health and public works. Despite an Iraqi cabinet of ministers, the CPA directs the process, having the final word on any policy initiative. The same controlling impulse has been evident in its attempt to determine the nature of the Iraqi government that will take over in July.

As originally envisaged, this government will be appointed by people who are largely appointees of those who were themselves appointed by the US occupying authorities in 2003. Ayatollah Sistani's denunciation of the process and the slogan "Election, not selection" express the fear that power will go once more to an appointed oligarchy at the centre of the state.

While these attempts to rebuild the power of the central state have proceeded, local forms of power have also been encouraged to emerge, initially to restore some form of order in the vacuum created by the collapse of central government, but increasingly to prepare the way for the top-down process outlined above. Even in places such as Muthanna province, where elections have been held, there is a sense of foreboding that they are being prepared for eventual subordination by the forces of the centre.

In areas such as the so-called Sunni triangle, where opposition is fiercest, this prospect has helped to fuel the guerrilla war.

The CPA's answer has been in part to build up the security arms of the Iraqi state. Here again, two potentially opposing trends seem to have been encouraged. A "new" Iraqi police force of some 50,000 has been recruited in great haste over the past few months, incorporating many of the officers of the old force. At the same time, after a false start and a good deal of incompetence, a new Iraqi army is being formed, with a timetable of accelerated recruitment that is trying to get a force of at least 30,000 ready by the end of this year. While this is happening, various other security organs are being established - the Iraq Civil Defence Corps, the Border Force and the Facilities Protection Service - which will all become instruments of the central state.

Yet at the same time, a multitude of local militias have emerged. Formally deprecated by CPA officials as threatening "warlordism", they have in fact been tolerated, even encouraged, by an overstretched US military seeking local allies to help keep order. This includes the Kurdish peshmerga of the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Popular Union of Kurdistan and the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), despite early fears of its links with Iran. More surprisingly, perhaps, US forces have shied away from taking on the armed followers of the radical and contrary Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Meanwhile, the former exiled groups - the Iraqi National Congress and the Iraqi National Accord - have organised their own militias, pleading "self-defence", and, in the case of the INC, have infiltrated the force trained by a South African company to guard Iraq's oil installations. The CPA seemed to endorse this activity recently by recruiting members of these militias into a battalion designed to combat the insurgency of the Sunni triangle - a move likely to boost recruitment to nationalist and Islamist militias in the area.

Finally, there are the mixed messages concerning the nature of Iraq's ethnic, tribal and sectarian communities. On the one hand, there is the generally held liberal conviction within the US administration that democratic politics and neoliberal market economics will make these features of the "old Iraq" an irrelevance.

On the other hand, those responsible for administering Iraq have, from the outset, treated them as if they were the only framework for social and political order. Thus the members of the Iraqi Governing Council were appointed as much for their sectarian and/or ethnic identities as for any other quality. They in turn appointed an Iraqi Council of Ministers that exactly reflected the composition of the governing council. Meanwhile, in a gesture intended to reassure and involve the tribal sheikhs of Iraq, the CPA appointed a special assistant for tribal affairs and in December set up an advisory Council of Tribal Sheikhs.

These developments are not reassuring. It is not simply the inconsistency of the CPA's direction. It is also the fact that there is an impulse to recreate the old top-down, centralised state, dependent on a mixture of patronage, co-option and coercion. Certain Iraqi leaders, some self-selected, are enthusiastic, seeing it as an opportunity to gain power for themselves and the networks of their associates, using the promised control over the oil revenues of Iraq as the principal means of co-opting provincial notables.

But this prospect is troubling not simply because it appears to be reintroducing, albeit in milder form, the old model of a patrimonial authoritarian state. There is also the distinct possibility that any attempt to reimpose such a model will meet with formidable challenges. The question arises as to whether Kurdish leaders will be willing to play the game of elite division of the spoils in the future. Reactions from non-Kurdish leaders suggest a substantial gap between what the Kurds expect and what the others would grant them. Communally, there is the issue of contested leadership within communities. Among the Shia, the question of who is to represent the Shia at a national level looks set to develop into a lively and troubled one, with various contenders vying for the position - and the privileges. Equally, among the Sunni Arabs, there is already tension between such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Lajnat al-Ulama (Committee of Religious Scholars) over who should properly speak for the Islamist trend. Meanwhile, there is growing resentment of central government among many Shia and Sunnis. Furthermore, with the parlous state of the Iraqi economy and continuing unemployment, a class element may be injected into the potentially combustible mix.

Historically, Iraqi governing elites when confronted by social unrest or provincial resentment have all too often lost their nerve and responded forcefully, hoping that coercion will impose the order that has failed to emerge from consent. In the coming battleground of Iraqi politics, one can only hope that these very experiences will steer them away from a form of rule that has exacted such a terrible toll in Iraqi history.

Charles Tripp is a lecturer in the department of political studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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