Benign Imperium in Iraq?

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The occupation of a foreign land is always difficult. However, it can go well under two conditions. First, the people occupied must believe that they are responsible for their own occupation -- that they brought it upon themselves. Germans and Japanese felt this way after World War II, and they cooperated with the U.S. occupiers. Second, the people occupied must need protection, and thus they will cooperate with their protective occupiers. This was the case in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor.

Where the occupied people believe they are not responsible for their own occupation and don't need protection, occupation authorities invariably confront an explosive situation. Violent resistance will always break out against the occupiers, as it has in Kashmir, Aceh and Israel/Palestine. And this is the current situation in Iraq. A majority of Iraqis see U.S. occupation as undeservedly imposed and as protecting U.S., not Iraqi, interests. Increasingly, Iraqis see themselves as victims

Granted, the picture is complex. The Kurds in the north, about 15 percent of the Iraqi population, do not oppose the occupation, at least not so far. They are delighted that the Anglo-American forces got rid of Saddam Hussein's genocidal regime, and are counting on U.S. support for an autonomous province of Kurdistan within a federated Iraq. With heavy weapons seized from Hussein's retreating army, the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are prepared to sustain a largely self-governing Kurdistan. So far, the U.S. occupation authorities have not pressured the Kurds to accept a more unified Iraq or even tried to disarm them.

The Sunnis, over 20 percent of the population, are split on accepting the occupation. Most favor it and are allying with the pro-U.S. Kurds. These Sunnis want to regain their status as the ruling group and certainly don't want fundamentalist, pro-Iranian Shiites to rule the country. Other Sunnis, former Baathists, want to force out the U.S. occupiers.

Shiites (around 60 percent of the population) mostly hate the Americans. They have not forgotten 1991, when the first Bush administration encouraged the Shiites to rise up against Hussein -- and then intentionally abandoned them to be slaughtered in the tens of thousands by Hussein's thugs. They also know that viceroy Paul Bremer and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have ruled out majority Shiite rule. Shiites, themselves split into various factions, anticipate second-class political status once again. They also see Americans favoring puppet, secular, exiled Shiites, such as the Iraqi National Congress's Ahmad Chalabi, and pushing aside those Shiites who suffered under Hussein.

Finally, the Turkmen, perhaps 3 percent of the population, want to control Kirkuk, a city in which they at one time (and maybe today) have a majority.

Current indicators point to Iraqis of all stripes becoming hostile to occupation. Will the Americans really allow a fully autonomous Kurdistan or give the Turkmen Kirkuk? Clearly, the Sunnis will not regain power nor will the majority Shiites be allowed to vote in a Shiite government. And the common notion that America is primarily interested in controlling Iraqi oil further sours the pot.

The miserable record of U.S. occupation to date compounds the problem of Iraqi religious and ethnic divisions. The first viceroy, General Jay Garner, got off to a slow start, to say the least. He tarried in Kuwait almost two weeks after the fall of Baghdad. He failed to protect the ministries, power stations, telephone exchange and even some oil facilities. Water and electricity were not restored. Thousands of civilians died for lack of medical care. Murder, rape, looting and seizure of houses became rife. Iraqi males, including former soldiers, teachers, university students, bureaucrats and manual workers, found themselves unemployed, without money, demoralized and angry. "Better under Saddam," is now heard on the street.

After two miserable months of occupation, U.S. soldiers, ignorant of Iraqi and Arab culture, will be finding themselves under siege. More GIs will die.

Bremer may well be a superb administrator, but the deck is stacked against him. He will have to make decisions on who gets contracts, who gets political jobs in the interim authority, who has acceptable and unacceptable media voices, who gets punished for their association with the former Baathist regime, and what kind of government and power sharing will be established. Whatever his decisions, somebody and some group will lose out. Iraqi nationalism will be rubbed the wrong way. Bremer and Co. will become an alien force to increasing numbers of Iraqis. Already, questions are being raised about whether U.S. funds, even supplemented by Iraqi oil revenues, will be adequate for the reconstruction of Iraq. If the example of Afghanistan is any guide, they won't be.

American "benign imperium"? Mission impossible.

Nicholas Berry, director of, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.