Writing in the Washington Post in late August, following a spate of horrific bomb attacks in Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi, the founder of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and a member of the country’s governing council, rightly observed: “It is only by involving Iraqis as true partners that the United States will be able to salvage the situation.”
Chalabi, in explaining the cause for deteriorating security conditions in Iraq, limited his diagnosis to an over-simplified notion that ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was the main culprit. Chillingly, he recommended that Anglo-American forces adopt collective punishment measures to improve security, such as arresting the brothers, sons, nephews and cousins of Baathists and former officials, as well as male residents between 15 and 50 if illegal weapons were found in their homes.
Chalabi’s recommendations, if heeded, would herald a sectarian upheaval in Iraq. Notwithstanding the ideological affinity between Chalabi and some US officials, the Bush administration needs to scrutinize Chalabi’s policies and motives.
As someone who supported the removal of Saddam, I commend Chalabi for his indefatigable drive to rid Iraq of a brutal dictator. But this has been compromised by self-serving positions that have spelled catastrophe for US reconstruction efforts. During the run-up to the war, Chalabi and his supporters worked to foist on the Bush administration political views that conflicted with political and social realities in Iraq. They discounted religion as a political force, over-emphasized the secularism of Iraqi society, overplayed the welcome that would greet US soldiers and constantly attempted to discredit or marginalize competing political forces and views.
Chalabi projected himself as a Charles de Gaulle-like figure, supported by an extensive network that would welcome him back to Iraq as the caretaker and builder of a new democratic state.
Not even a week into the war, the INC began mobilizing for a de-Baathification campaign, which included dismantling the country’s pre-war institutions, especially the army. In doing this, the INC brushed aside warnings by Iraqi political groups about the problems de-Baathification would engender. Writing in the US newsmagazine The New Republic, Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi intellectual and INC strategist, endorsed the creation of a new Iraqi Army with INC fighters as its nucleus.
After much INC campaigning, last May US civilian administrator Paul Bremer reversed earlier decisions by US authorities and issued summary edicts “disestablishing” the Baath Party and dismantling such Iraqi institutions as the army and police. These edicts were not only ill-advised, they were also a coup-de-grace to US reconstruction efforts. Although de-Baathification was designed to get rid of Saddam loyalists, it effectively became an indictment of Iraqis considered guilty by association with the regime, rather than guilty because of their past conduct.
In examining thousands of official Iraqi documents captured during the March 1991 uprising, I realized how thoroughly the Baath regime had coordinated and supervised a system designed to turn the maximum number of Iraqis into its accomplices. Saddam employed numerous procedures of oppression to rule Iraq and to penetrate and atomize its society, including its nucleus, the family. Through a comprehensive and methodical system, the regime strove to deepen the population’s dependence on the state for services and employment. Employment and services for Iraqis were conditional on their “cooperating” with the regime by providing information on (in the Baath lexicon), “everything that might negatively affect the public welfare,” including delicate information on their own families.
Many Iraqis joined the Baath for reasons of expediency or necessity, including coercion. Consequently, Bremer’s blanket edicts put on the streets hundreds of thousands of possibly innocent public employees, including police and soldiers. At a time when coalition forces needed an “Iraqi face” to secure the country, the Iraqi Army was dismantled. Significantly, the army, unlike the security apparatus, was not a bastion of Saddam loyalists and did not fight for his survival. At a time when coalition forces needed to rehabilitate Iraq’s vital institutions and restore basic services, managers and employees of Iraq’s public sector were jobless.
All this has had a significant impact on the Sunni community, which has been concerned about its political, economic and social status vis-a-vis other communities. Besides seeing the edicts as an attempt by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to strip them of their privileges, Sunnis have been increasingly concerned that the CPA has been ignoring them in the reconstruction of Iraq, considering them sympathetic to the former dictator.
Even Laith Kubba, a prominent Shiite intellectual, has questioned why the CPA has not approached prominent Sunnis, including religious scholars. This has engendered a rise in Islamist militancy and an anti-American environment that has served to bring disparate nationalist, leftist, Baathist, and Islamist (both foreign and local) forces together. It is, therefore, imprudent to depict the attacks on coalition forces and the recent bombings as the sole work of remnants of the former regime.
Chalabi is right in insisting that Iraqis must be the true partners of coalition forces. But this partnership should not be based on misguided policies promoting the interest of one group at the expense of all others. The INC has made significant mistakes, entailing dire consequences for the US and Iraqis. The US must not pay the political price for the failure of the INC to emerge as a rallying point for Iraqis, or for its inability to match its political ambitions with its capacity to influence events.
Robert Rabil was project manager of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project in Washington. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Israel, Syria and Lebanon. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR