U.S. must avoid appearing colonialist in Iraq

The most important challenge facing the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq has been to create an aura of legitimacy among Iraqis. For America’s latest “nation-building” project to have any hope of success, its occupation of Iraq cannot be perceived as a colonial presence. If that is the conclusion reached by most Iraqis, history provides little hope for anything other than a painful, violent and drawn-out fiasco.
The Bush administration’s failure to use American wealth and technical capabilities to ensure that ordinary Iraqis can get their daily needs is inexplicable. While the administration is spending an astonishing $3 billion per month to maintain our forces in Iraq, only a tiny fraction has been spent on public services and reconstruction.
After more than a decade of crippling sanctions, misrule by Baathist officials, destruction during the war and the predictable but massive vandalism and looting in its aftermath, the Iraqi civilian infrastructure has yet to receive the serious attention both political and humanitarian considerations demand. The administration’s almost apathetic approach to health care, energy, sanitation and education has cast doubt on its commitment to ordinary Iraqis and undermines rhetoric about “liberation.” Anger and confusion is mounting in Iraq about the failure to achieve minimal levels of services and public order that were available even under Saddam Hussein. This anger is not just directed toward administrators like de-facto Iraqi President L. Paul Bremer, but also ordinary American soldiers. In many parts of Iraq, small groups of American servicemen and women, many of them reservists, have been left acting as political and civil authorities–for which they have no training–in a country almost unknown to them. Because they have no access to senior administrators now ensconced in Hussein’s former palaces, and because American troops lack the resources and training to meet their basic needs, too many Iraqis are beginning to conclude that the occupation has little to offer them.
There is much talk about Iraq now being “free,” and of building “democracy,” but every plan to bring Iraqis into their own government has been canceled or postponed. All Iraqi political factions are now on record as expressing increasing frustration at this total exclusion. Even the resolutely apolitical Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the foremost religious authority of Iraq’s majority Shiite community, recently criticized the occupation after Bremer abruptly canceled planned elections in Najaf.
In addition, the control of Iraq’s oil industry, the country’s principal asset, by an exclusively American committee, has pointlessly exacerbated fears that the occupation is more about Iraq’s abundant oil than its somewhat less evident weapons of mass destruction.
All of these failings have contributed to a rapid collapse of whatever honeymoon the occupation might have enjoyed and created a situation which, whatever the intentions of the Bush administration, looks and feels increasingly colonial. This needs to be reversed as soon as possible because colonial rule invites resistance.
For many weeks now, American and British troops have continued to be killed in the region. It is no longer possible to hope or pretend that these are merely remnants of the Fedayeen Saddam. Last week, Bush administration officials admitted that the attacks are the result of a growing and organized resistance.
U.S. troops carry no non-lethal crowd-control equipment and are not trained in police work, which has already led to a number of tragic incidents involving the killing of unarmed demonstrators. American forces are hunting down opponents of the occupation and former government officials. The Washington Post reports that “more often than not” the targets “are innocent,” and quotes an American commander observing that it is “an ugly business, but it is the business we are in.”
Occupation is indeed ugly for the soldiers who perform it, and uglier still for those who live under it. If this occupation does not change course rapidly, there is every reason to fear that the security situation will only continue to deteriorate. The June killing of six British soldiers is particularly disturbing because it seems to have been the work of a mob infuriated by the shooting down of unarmed demonstrators. This kind of spontaneous violence, characteristic of colonial encounters, suggests that public fury is starting to get out of control already.
The most obvious step to quickly get out of this emerging mess is to bring the international community, especially the UN, as well as Arab states, into serious and meaningful roles in the nation-building effort. This would add instant legitimacy and reduce the specter of colonialism, ease tensions, reassure Iraqis that their future was not in the hands of a single foreign power and help relieve the American people and military of the massive burden that occupation entails.
Ali Abunimah is co-founder of ElectronicIraq.net. Hussein Ibish is communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

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