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The Wasteland

What I saw when I went home.

I have just returned from southern Iraq. It was the first time I had set foot in that part of my country since 1966. Back then, I used to accompany my father, dean of the School of Architecture in the University of Baghdad’s College of Engineering, while he led groups of his students on tours to study the architecture of the south. Two years later, a coup brought the Baath Party to power, eventually leading to the rule of Saddam Hussein.

I was both elated to be back and heartbroken at what I saw this time in the wake of the tyrant’s downfall. What I remembered so vividly as an alluring, fertile, and irrigated landscape is now a war-ravaged, endless stretch of desert. Children begged me for water bottles wherever I stopped on the six-lane stretch of highway built to carry Saddam’s tanks during the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam persecuted the Marsh Arabs, residents of the south, relentlessly and, through upstream damming and downstream drainage, dried up the area that biblical scholars consider the site of the Garden of Eden. I knew these things in theory during my exile. But I could not fully understand the wasteland Saddam had created until I felt desert winds whip sand across my face.

Yet, there was another sense in which the landscape was deeply familiar. In a surreal way, the Beltway has transported its bureaucratic wrangling halfway around the world. I came to Iraq last week to attend a conference at Ur, near Nasiriya, of 80 Iraqis to discuss the postwar political situation. The meeting, held in the supposed birthplace of Abraham, yielded a broad consensus among the Iraqi participants: In the immediate term, we need law and order, humanitarian assistance, and an all-Iraqi, secular political authority. Yet many, if not most, of the decisions necessary for implementation of these goals remain deferred, victims of what is known in Washington as the “interagency process.” Competing agencies—the State Department, the CIA, the military’s Central Command (CENTCOM), and the Pentagon—have different agendas for postwar Iraq, and, therefore, different Iraqis whom they seek to promote. These warring agendas have stalled the distribution of aid and the promotion of security and have led to what every Iraqi I have spoken with considers his or her deepest fear: anarchy.

In Iraq, the world’s most powerful military has crushed the hated rule of a despot. When U.S. Marines reached Baghdad, Iraqis cheered. Barely two weeks later, however, what Iraqis see before them is a foreign army that has de facto control over their country but has not facilitated the reconstitution of basic order. There is a nave belief stalking some corridors of power in Washington today that, since the United States has liberated Iraq, it can now stand aside and let 100 flowers bloom. This, supposedly, is democracy. Iraqis have no idea what to make of this bizarre conception. And, as confusion and disorder grow, creating a power vacuum, some of the most dangerous and illiberal groups in Iraq are amassing power.

THE SEVERITY OF the problem hit me when I entered Iraq last Monday. Along with some colleagues from the Iraqi National Congress (INC), I was riding with a convoy from Kuwait and transporting supplies to the 700 fighters of the Free Iraqi Forces (FIF) based outside of Nasiriya, supervised by Ahmed Chalabi of the INC. No sooner had we crossed the border than we were besieged by hordes of children. They were desperate for water and food, standing in the road so we couldn’t drive past without heeding their pleas. Never have I felt so conflicted. I soon found myself in an exchange with one young boy who had to be convinced I was a fellow Iraqi. I had been gone for more years than he could comprehend. I found myself telling him about the schools I had attended, the family I came from, the books I had written. One of his friends started pointing at the military supplies we were hauling and musing aloud about what he’d like to have. The crux of the problem was that, in the absence of my ability to help them (I could not empty the vehicle of supplies), they grew suspicious, and then hostile. How, after all, can someone powerful enough to drive in a convoy be powerless to provide food or water? This, I realized, is how they see the United States.

Hours later, we made it to the FIF camp—”camp” being a squalid warehouse with no water or electricity among a veritable junkyard of rusty, blown-up military vehicles. The FIF are yet another case study in how the logjam in Washington has hindered security inside southern Iraqi towns. The 1998 Iraq Liberation Act provided money to train resistance fighters for a battle against Saddam. But years of State Department resistance to the idea prevented such training until late last year, when the administration began courting Iraqis in exile for basic training in Hungary. While the Iraq Liberation Act provided for the training of thousands of Iraqis, in the end only about 100 went through the breakneck Hungary course. As a result, Chalabi, upon his return to Iraq in January 2003, began recruiting an Iraqi militia—the FIF—that he knew would be needed once the war began. Because of the campaign against him by both State and the CIA, however, CENTCOM, which has now taken command of Chalabi’s recruits, has not authorized an expansion of this woefully small force.

The forces, limited though they may be, provide a unique asset to the U.S. effort—native Iraqis who better understand local culture and can effectively communicate with their countrymen about how to root out Baathist paramilitary fighters, such as the Fedayeen Saddam. Already, the FIF played a role in apprehending one of Saddam’s main aides, Mohammed Hamza Zubaidi, who helped oversee the suppression of the 1991 uprising. As the war has turned into a police effort, the need for Iraqis to assist the United States has increased. General Tommy Franks recognized this when he saw the vulnerability of his forces to fedayeen attacks in southern cities. It was only when Franks requested assistance that U.S. warplanes ferried 700 FIF, provided by the INC, from the INC’s base in Salahuddin on April 4.

Press accounts of the airlift suggested that the Pentagon was sending Chalabi, its favored Iraqi puppet, into southern Iraq as a way of anointing him the successor to Saddam. Yet the decision to send in the FIF was a military one, made by Franks. When Franks identified his military need, only the INC was prepared to supply him with fighters. And the FIF reflect their impromptu conscription: Less than half of them have any recent military training, and they have been less than abundantly equipped. If this force is meant to establish political facts on the ground, it is hardly in a strong position to do so, at least at the moment.

The FIF, however, is an example of what needs to be done on a much larger scale. Currently, no means of providing law and order in Iraq’s cities exist—a small but critical step on the road to a democratic Iraq. CENTCOM has repeatedly said that its ongoing combat requirements supercede any police function it might possibly provide. As a result, looting has happened under the noses of American fighters, prompting confusion among Iraqis who want order and do not understand why heavily armed Americans cannot provide it.

The lack of civil authority has been accompanied by a remarkable mistake by CENTCOM: It has allowed the eastern border of Iraq to remain open. As a result, thousands of people have been trucked into Iraq from Iran in recent weeks, mainly to provide support for hard-line Shia clerics who have stepped into the power vacuum and are rallying shocked Iraqis around them. As a result, new radical Muslim groups are developing local support, surpassing in power the older, long-standing fundamentalist group Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). If American forces, helped by Iraqis, had shut the eastern border, policed Baghdad and southern cities, and helped restore law and order, this could have been avoided. Even now, there is still time: If the United States moves to close the border with Iran and checks entrances to Baghdad and other cities, they can reverse this dangerous influx. But time is short.

The absence of civil authority has also had an effect on American forces. In the south, I encountered few checkpoints, and people were free to go as they pleased. Consequently, soldiers appeared nervous, constantly fingering their weapons because they feared some of the Iraqis moving around might want to hurt them. In an unfamiliar country, unable to speak the language, confronted by occasional outbursts of anger, they are poorly equipped to distinguish friend from foe and are wary of becoming targets.

IN MEETINGS WITH senior administration officials in Washington on the eve of the war, I was astonished at the lack of planning for the postwar situation. The Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) was created in January and did not move into the region until the shooting had begun, leaving retired General Jay Garner, head of ORHA, and his staff to arrive and acclimate even as coalition forces liberated towns and cities in the south—areas they are now responsible for. Interagency gridlock between the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon left the composition of Garner’s staff uncertain until this month. A few days before I left for Iraq, I read in The New York Times a quote attributed to an unnamed senior Defense Department official about postwar policing that seemed to sum up the administration’s attitude toward the entire project of rebuilding Iraq: “The military piece will be in place from Day One, and the other pieces will fall in behind.”

Not only are all the “other pieces” not falling in behind, they have yet to be told exactly where and how they should fall. The different humanitarian aid agencies have yet to begin operations outside of a few southern areas because CENTCOM does not believe the majority of the country is safe enough to begin distributing food, water, or medicine. Although Garner visited Baghdad and the north this week, ORHA is still operating from Kuwait. With all the confusion over how to stabilize Iraq, in some areas—Karbala and Najaf, for example—the military appears content to allow self-selecting city councils to maintain order. But the military is not coordinating with these councils to ensure that police forces are not merely the tools of clerics or other local leaders. If the military does not take a more proactive stance to allow liberal Iraqis to take control of the security situation, a vicious circle will be created wherein the resumption of basic social services cannot occur, prompting frustrated and hungry Iraqis to turn to violence, further diminishing security and stymieing aid efforts. Ultimately, the way out of the circle is to move quickly to an interim political arrangement in which Iraqis take control of their own country, providing law and order and coordinating with the coalition for aid and reconstruction. And the quest for such an arrangement is what brought me last week to the birthplace of Abraham.

I CONFESS, I had my doubts about the conference. For one thing, I felt it should have happened weeks ago, as soon as Nasiriya was liberated. The State Department, the Pentagon, CENTCOM, and ORHA had vigorous arguments about the structure, place, and attendees of the conference, delaying the gathering until after Baghdad fell. Fine, then, I thought, we should move it to Baghdad, for symbolism. But Nasiriya had been discussed for a long time as the site for the conference, so Nasiriya it was. Worse, the military wanted to use the nearby Tallil Air Base to host the meeting, which would have sent a terrible message about all of us being American lackeys. Luckily, someone thought better of it, and so the conference was moved to Ur, and a large tent was pitched inside the old city, near the ancient ziggurat, the central monument.

The location of the conference was not the only subject of internecine Beltway strife. One of the main worries about the conference was the attendance, and promotion, of leaders, either tribal leaders, the “internals”—what the CIA and State think of as the genuine Iraqis who remained in the country during Saddam’s rule—or the often-vilified leaders of various exile groups. Eventually, these tribal leaders will have to be dealt with. Their existence is a fact. But they do not have the depth of historical support that some in the administration think: In recent years, they were essentially bought by Saddam, making them more powerful in the 1990s than ever before in Iraqi history but also compromising them in the minds of many Iraqis. But the fact that many tribal leaders are being promoted by the CIA as being more legitimate than exiles is a point that, for now, the Bush administration prefers not to face. For example, in February, in the northern city of Salahuddin, the various opposition groups elected a six-man leadership committee, comprising Chalabi, former Foreign Minister Adnan Pachachi, Ayad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord (INA), Muhammed Bakr Al Hakim of SCIRI, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s Massoud Barzani. It was a major achievement, binding together a fractious opposition. We had been told by State for nearly a year that we needed to unite to play a role in postwar Iraq, and we delivered. Yet elements in the U.S. administration chose not to deal with this reality on the eve of the war, pretending the committee didn’t exist.

Some 80 Iraqis assembled at Ur on Tuesday morning. The late arrival of several coalition delegations kept us from starting on schedule, and so we were entertained with food flown in from Kuwait. The coalition delegates delivered gracious opening speeches before proceeding with the meeting’s two speakers: Hatem Mukhlis from Tikrit, followed by myself. Mukhlis is a member of the Iraqi National Movement, a group largely comprising former army officers from Saddam’s regime, and he is beloved by the State Department.

Once the meeting got underway, it became clear there was much cause for optimism. There were absolutely no divisions between the so-called internals and the so-called exiles. The incommensurability of these two sets of Iraqis has been an article of faith inside the State Department and the CIA, and it was wonderfully reassuring to find the prediction fall on its face. To be sure, the problem may arise in the future. But I believe that those of us who have spent significant chunks of our lives abroad must realize that, in public life at least, we have important but temporary roles to play in Iraqi politics. We exiles have lived outside Iraq, have gotten experience in democracies, and have been able to reflect on the destruction of politics within Iraq. We have a duty to bring this experience and viewpoint to the table. But we must do so with humility and, in the short term, with the recognition that those who have lived in Iraq must eventually gain the experience they need to emerge politically.

All of us agreed that the most important task at hand is the maintenance of law and order by an all-Iraqi interim authority. The unity held when we voted on a more potentially contentious item: the need for de-Baathification and the course it should take. I advocated a de-Baathification program based on a legal process, much like a truth-and-reconciliation commission, where levels of complicity in the criminal regime are assessed and treated accordingly. The motion passed with only two dissenters—Mukhlis and another CIA favorite, Nouri Badran of the INA. To see both tribal sheiks and Londoners agreeing on de-Baathification was a victory.

Another cause for optimism was Garner. Though he was hosting the meeting, Garner chose not to speak until we Iraqis had finished our debates. When he finally did address us, he spoke without notes, telling us directly and plainly that he needs us to take the leading role in rebuilding Iraq and reaffirming his commitment to leave when we no longer feel a need for his assistance. “He really means it,” a businessman from Mosul said to me after the meeting ended. “This man is the genuine article.”

Indeed he is, but he is only one component of a very complex and inertia- riddled decision-making process. For the sake of Iraqi democracy and U.S. security, Washington needs to immediately stop putting off the difficult decisions about Iraqi political authority. The difficult choice the United States has to make is between effectiveness and representativeness. If it wants to create an effective peace in Iraq that can pave the way for a liberal constitution and elections, it needs to allow a liberal Iraqi leadership to emerge, stay involved in Iraq (rather than moving troops out), close the border with Iran, and promote a group of Iraqis—both exiles and internals—who can serve as a police force and eliminate the security vacuum that exists today and benefits the Islamists. If it favors instant representativeness—the appearance of allowing all Iraqis, no matter how incapable and illiberal, to quickly have a role in politics—if it reduces its troop presence, if it does not foster law and order, it will leave the country in a chaos that breeds the worst kind of intolerant politics. I did not return home for that.

This article originally ran in the March 5, 2003 issue of the magazine.