The enigma of the Iraq 'liberation'

Something happened in Baghdad this week, but what exactly? What we know is that somewhere in Saddam Hussein’s sprawling former cantonment on the banks of the Tigris, behind silver miles of new razor wire, behind high concrete barriers stronger than medieval fortifications, behind sandbags, five security checks, United States armoured vehicles, US armoured soldiers, special forces of various countries and private security guards, behind secrecy and a fear of killing so intense that only a handful of people knew it had happened until it was over, an American bureaucrat handed a piece of paper to an Iraqi judge, jumped on a helicopter, and left the country.

Paul Bremer’s departure and the handover of limited sovereignty to an unelected Iraqi government was to be the end of military occupation and the beginning of independence.

From London and Washington it may look that way. But the man who waved from the steps of his departing C-130 didn’t only leave sovereignty, in the form of a terse two-paragraph letter, with the Iraqis. He left 160 000 foreign troops, a broken economy and a land beset by ruthless, reckless armed bands.

The first thing reporters saw as they left the auditorium where the newly sworn-in Iraqi government hailed the new era was two US Apache helicopter gunships, pirouetting low in the sky.

The journey out of the fortified cantonment, now renamed the International Zone, still winds through ramparts and fortifications, past jumpy US soldiers threatening to confiscate mobile phones.

In the streets beyond, menacing signs in English and Arabic still hang beneath US watchtowers. “Keep Away, Deadly Force Authorised.’’ “Tactical Military Vehicles ONLY.’’ “Do Not Enter Or You Will Be Shot.’‘

The handover was held in a single-storey former Saddam-era guesthouse in the zone which has been given to the new Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi. Fear of the bombers gave the occasion all the pomp of an office leaving do. It lasted only 20 minutes.

Allawi’s residence, and that of the new Iraqi President, Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawir, look out on pleasant lawned gardens, studded with pools and orange trees.

It is a delightful setting from which to reinvent an independent Iraq, except Allawi and al-Yawir are sandwiched by the enormous weight of American enthusiasm.

On one side, the huge new US embassy; on the other, Hussein’s lavish principal former palace or, as it has been known since Monday, the annex to the US embassy.

Al-Yawir had hoped to wake up in that palace on Tuesday but was told the Americans needed it too badly; in that sense, as in so many others, it was just another day in the zone.

The first many people knew of Monday’s events was an Iraqi flag billowing in the hot breeze from the zone’s tallest building. Inside, logos of the now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority disappeared.

There was a curious ceremony in the zone’s convention centre intended to mark the handover. A column of US cavalrymen, dressed in the blue shirts, kerchiefs, gauntlets and black broad-brimmed hats of the Custer era, marched out across the industrial carpeting, bearing their departing standards.

It was as if they were leaving. But they weren’t, any more than Bremer’s departure was America leaving.

It was hard to get away from the reality of the beleaguered, hunkered-down US military behemoth.

Before the ceremony a pleasant, Virginian woman, a Pentagon civilian just arrived for a six-month tour, began to chat. They hadn’t given her a gun, and she was worried about being under attack and unable to help her comrades. She lives next to the US military cemetery in Arlington, West Virginia. “They’re doing 26 funerals a day,’’ she said.

On Thursday it was reported that at least seven were killed and seven were wounded in the first major US military strike “since the occupation ended”.

There were other, more transient visitors, including Gregg Andrew, a Pentagon contractor hired to choreograph the handover to look decent on TV.

“There is a pageantry involved,’’ he said of the ceremonies.

There wasn’t. The principals sat on the auditorium stage, which was adorned by nothing more than 18 Iraqi flags, and swore oaths to Iraq, democracy and the people with their hands on a big red Quran. The advent of the supposed opposite of dictatorship looked suitably modest.

Just before the swearing-in began the Iraqi leadership waved to the people watching. They looked like middle-aged people at the start of an extreme funfair ride.

They know that in trying to invent a new narrative for Iraq they are doing what their Arab and Kurd predecessors did under the Ottomans and the British, likewise times of violence, revolt, occupation and compromise.

We must await Bremer’s memoirs to know what he thought. Yet between the disastrous looting that began the US occupation, the disbanding of the army and police that enabled crime to flourish, the failure to rebuild the country, the continued presence of a vast US force and the uncertainty surrounding future elections, the creation of a transitional government seems a very thin achievement.

This is particularly true of a regime showing worrying authoritarian tendencies, which will be plagued by questions of legitimacy and independence from US influence. — Â

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