Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 April 2006
Issue No. 789
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Divorce American-style

Recent news emerging from Iraq and the US proves there is a growing disconnect between Americans and Iraqis, argues Firas Al-Atraqchi

In the summer of 2002, I argued against the United States pre-emptive strike in Iraq because all the pre- invasion initiatives released by military and civilian strategists were bursting with the usual US bravado and gung-ho rhetoric.

The talk of preparation for the invasion of Iraq was heavy on the self- congratulating, high-fiving kind of spiel one expects before a football game, not an invasion -- and eventual re-building -- of a sovereign nation. It was glaringly short on specifics, and particularly, contingency strategies. Iraq's oil reserves were to be the magic solution to every problem in the post-invasion scenario.

Iraq, the flower of democracy, Iraq the Model and other such cantankerous propositions that (for those who understood the region and domestic US policies) seemed out of touch with reality. Mere weeks after the invasion implanted itself into the Iraqi heart, mistakes became abundant, foremost of which was the disbanding of the Iraqi army, something pro-US Iraqi political veterans like UN ambassador Nizar Hamdoun had sternly warned against.

In the three years since the ill-fated invasion, several former Bush administration staffers as well as high-ranking military officials have lambasted the invasion and occupation as one botched affair that has made America's position in the world not safer, but far, far more precarious.

In response, the pro-war crowd pointed to the brilliant 21-day military operations which saw the US military sweep into Baghdad by 9 April, 2003. Such arguments, of course, are pedomorphic because war is not merely waged on the military front but on the socio-economic and diplomatic fronts as well. Winning the war, but losing the peace is hardly indicative of a sound venture.

The media in Iraq has recently highlighted how the US administration lost the peace in Iraq and on the failures of the so-called democratic option in the country.

Iraq's ruling factions -- unable to form a government -- are at each others' throats as sectarian strife continues on a daily basis and death squads roam the streets.

Utah Governor Jon Huntsman who just returned from Iraq says he is not sure an Iraqi unity government can be formed. Some 30,000 Iraqis have relocated to areas where they feel a sectarian contiguity and several thousands of others have left the country entirely.

Some Shia politicians have called for US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to be fired in response to US pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari to step down.

Reconstruction efforts have nearly stalled with monies having dried up after all the embezzlement, corruption and mismanagement of funds. A recent report revealed that one such effort to re-build Iraqi healthcare centres and hospitals has come to a grinding halt with only 20 of nearly 142 such sites likely to be completed. The rest will remain unfinished.

As such bad news grows with every bullet fired in Iraq, the Bush administration launched vitriol against the media, blaming the latter for failing to report the good stories from Iraq. The media, already taken for a ride by the White House press junkets since 2001, lashed back. It isn't surprising that Newsweek 's Michael Hirsh writes from Baghdad how US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Iraq earlier this week highlighted the growing divide -- that the Green Zone, where much positive talk about Iraq emanates from, has become a nation within a nation. He writes of the widening gap of understanding between US and Iraqi officials:

"A Western intelligence expert who recently sat in on briefings by US and Iraqi military officers in Baghdad described a disconnection between US occupation authorities and Iraqi officials that was just as wide as what lies between the Green Zone and the rest of Iraq. The American officers, he said, spent an hour triumphantly describing how they had finally gotten the better of the insurgency while the Iraqis present doodled on their pads, their eyes glazing over. Then the Iraqis got up and described their nation's growing sectarian conflict in urgent terms while the Americans barely paid attention. The two teams, nominally allies, were simply talking past each other, he said."

Hirsh may have touched on something that could soon come to haunt the US presence in Iraq. Last week, reports emerged indicating long-term projects undertaken by the US military to build expansive bases and compounds throughout Iraq. Embedded journalists who visited these compounds described swimming pools, CD and DVD stores, a Burger King and Pizza Hut outlet, a mini-mall for US military personnel as well as car dealerships. All these facilities are housed behind thousands of square metres of reinforced concrete, barbed wire and heavily protected by dozens of tanks and military gunships.

The Green Zone itself seems to be an oasis concealing itself from the burning violence which ordinary Iraqis must face in the rest of Baghdad. Such scenes as described above are reminiscent of the British presence in India (or the Japanese occupation of China, for that matter) -- obscured from the realties of the effects of imperialism, basking in the glory of the swimming pool and the local staff waiting hand and foot on the imperials. Except, here, even the help are not necessarily Iraqi.

Take your pick -- anything ranging from Turks, Albanians, Latin Americans, Fijians, Nepali, Sudanese and Filipino workers festoon the mess halls and Laundromats of this Coalition of the Willing.

The political dimension to the physical disconnection described by Hirsh is in of itself hardly an isolated or new development. In the summer of 2003, when Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head Paul Bremer appointed the Iraq Governing Council (IGC), Iraqi academics in the country warned that the selected divisions and appropriation of ministries in the IGC were a recipe for civil war.

But the US officials did not listen in their haste to paint a pretty picture. When Sunni politicians warned that elections could not come under the cover of violence in January 2005 and asked for a six-month extension, this was also rebuffed.

In August of 2005, the drafting of the constitution was also hurried (and harried) along with Iraqi politicians still squabbling over terminology and semantics. The US administration feared that delaying the draft would have delayed elections by another year (as stipulated in the tenets of the interim IGC government).

Everything was a maddening race to the finish line. Iraqi concerns were rebuffed, dismissed, and passed over as "experts" from numerous think tanks in the US were brought into Iraq to fill the void. Last week, Rice admitted that the US had made thousands of mistakes in Iraq, before somewhat recanting and declaring the mistakes of a tactical nature. Retired US General Anthony Zinni lashed back saying the mistakes were strategic, not tactical, and calling for senior officials to resign.

While phrases such as quagmire and Vietnamisation continue to receive prominence among the media's talking heads, we should really focus on the word "disconnect".

Disconnect between the Bush administration and the media; disconnect between the US military and political strategists, and more importantly, a growing disconnect between the US and its erstwhile Iraqi allies.

This is the word of 2006.

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